SLIPPING THROUGH THE CRACKS
It was a sultry summer evening along the Potomac River--the kind of evening that makes your skin sticky with a shroud of moisture. I walked the banks alone listening to the deep rumble of planes flying out of Dulles. I felt a strange but elating sense of freedom when a jumbo jet roared through the starless sky--it was as if I was there in a window seat gazing out at the dwarfing lights below—going somewhere.
I fantasized daily about my escape from Laurel Maryland, fleeing the stifling beltway that barged alongside my studio apartment like a manic rototiller uprooting the soil. The evening breeze carried me through images of my native Ghana—the sound of my father’s dunun drum, the women, dressed in kente cloth fetching water; I could taste my mother’s spicy shito bubbling up from the dinner meal. I was homesick for the mumbled chatter and spontaneous laughter of the old women in my village. The melodic chanting of African voices and the sizzle of fresh goat over an open fire were sounds I longed for.
I had been here almost two years—staying with my Auntie in D.C. before finding my own place nine months ago. The thrill of a new country had worn thin like a used pillow that once had verve and fluff. I loved my adopted country but yearned still for my home. My village now consisted of those who came to my classes. People interested in learning the native dances and songs--those musical vignettes of Ghanaian life. It was Sunday—and the muggy summer air was a replica of the first night—one year ago, that I met Damiano, an Italian from Portovenere.
Javier, my closest friend, had noticed Damiano’s steady gaze in the park where a group of us gathered to drum and barbeque on Saturdays. These were regular affairs on the Potomac when the heat of the day retreated to the sand and the river relinquished her sensual breezes. Our gatherings were ritualistic just as some folks don Sunday dresses and herd to church lifting their voices to God. The Saturday drum circles were sacred.
The rules were simple--bring what you could—a dish of rice, beans, vegetables or just a cheap bag of chips. Our Saturday soirées sizzled with earthy rhythms; a sundry of drums mingled with the chekere, a gourd covered in seed net that slapped swish like beats. These Saturday get togethers curbed my need for community—but tonight, I felt alone as if I were living among strangers.
As I strolled beside the water I perused last night’s details—I had been chanting my favorite songs, those I sang with my mother and aunts. As usual I was the first to arrive. Javier trailed behind dragging his drums and a six pack of Blue Moon.
“Javier! Come dance.” I shouted and sauntered over with my hips levitating right and left.
“Cece—hey baby--I canno dhanse you know dhat.” Javier said setting his drums and beer down on the soft grass. “I’m a Latin lahver no dhanser.”
Javier was a brown skinned twenty year old from Peru. He stuck to the mantra of having “two left feet” but I said it was not possible that a person couldn’t dance. I paid strict homage to the Zimbabwe proverb: “If you can talk you can sing if you can walk you can dance.”
“Come follow me,” I twirled Javier behind and wrapped his hands around my waist.
“Repeat...da da dat dat da. Right step left step bend your knees, roll your arms—again!” Fumbling over one another, we laughed like kids running through sprinklers on a hot summer day
The provocative pounding of drums began to ignite the evening as others parked their car and carried in their contributions. Movement and melody filled the ensuing darkness like a painter dabbing a palette of color on a blank canvas.
“Cava Cece—e who’s the dude?” Musette, a Parisian and one of my first friends when I came to America, inquired tossing her head towards the dark skinned man with long black hair plummeting around his shoulders.
“I don’t know—go ask him to join us—he’s cute.”
“Non Cece! You can’t do that ici America!”
“How can you say that—you’re French—so you can do anything.”
“Oui—perhaps.” Musette mumbled sashaying off for a glass of wine.
Alcohol was forbidden in particular picnic areas along the Potomac—but Musette subscribed to the belief that wine was not considered alcohol—it was water and quipped that even Jesus supported her stance.
In the background sirens from ambulances and police cars were muffled by the slurping sounds of the tide slapping the Potomac’s sandy banks. The man standing by as if he were an actor waiting for his cue, bent down and rested his back against the hovering maple --a black silhouette etched in the gray shades of the night. He drew his knees up under his chin and lit a cigarette--smoke swirled upwards between the giant leaves like fog lifting from the dew.
“Bella,” he murmured to the night air.
“Ah excuse me do you want to join us?” I asked my arms spiraling like a windmill.
I had decided not to follow Musette’s advice. It bothered me that he had been here before-- alone—it reminded me of my village in Ghana where there were no strangers. “They may be an angel in disguise,” the elders would wag a finger in warning and “you don’t want an angel to dance alone.” I smiled thinking of, Addae, my mother—her name meant “morning sun” and she did indeed have the ability to lighten darkness. Her contagious laugh would resonate like an echo ricocheting through a canyon and could make the most devout cynic chuckle.
My mother and I taught at an orphanage in the Ghana bush—a few months out of the year. We had no papers or books only song, dance and storytelling to pass on knowledge of the outside world. When I came to America, I taught at a home for foster children—there were books and paper, but still I preferred song and storytelling.
I felt a curious attraction to this Roman looking man that spoke little English.
“No—I don’t know Italian. Do you speak English?”
“Solo un poco—justa liddle.”
“Come.” I reached my hand out and the man grabbed it and pulled me towards him. I stifled a shriek as a flash of fear pierced through me. His smile and the dark pool of his black eyes relieved my trepidation--his skin was soft almost slippery with the humid night air.
“Mi, he made drumming motions on the tree trunk, batteria—drums.”
“You drum—come!” I said and led him over to the circle of friends that were in between sessions.
“What is your name--?” I slapped my chest and repeated my name. “Cece,Cece.”
“Oh si, Damiano.”
“Damiano, that is beautiful.”
I introduced him to everyone explaining that he was a drummer from Italy—and didn’t speak much English.
I motioned for him to seat down behind one of the djembe’s that no one was playing. I chanted while tapping the chekere gently against my hips swaying to the earthy beats. Antonio, Seth, Jason, and Musette meandered back to their drums and the night exploded into exotic rhythms—the sounds falling into one another like reunited lovers.
Damiano, shifted his eyes, one drummer at a time, then brought his hands down on the djembe—juicy rhythms sparked in surround sound leaping off of the drum in unison with the others. He became entranced as each drummer slowly retreated like surfers drifting back to shore—allowing the Italian master to shine center stage.
The night went on longer than usual, Damiano had lured me into a place that was familiar but wild and intimidating—like crossing an exotic border where new colors and smells leap out and catch you off guard. From the moment Damiano drew me close there was a magnetic pull drawing us together. When he kissed me good night I gave him my number. The next morning—I was still in bed and he phoned—it was not yet nine in the morning.
We spent a year together—he spoke to me in his melodic Italian “ Si mi amore” and I would respond “Yes my love.” Our language lessons was where we learned about each other—we laughed at our pronunciations then made love as if we could climb into the other’s world like a safe haven from the chaos. After four months, Damiano moved into my one bedroom apartment—with the rooter tiller erupting at will. But with each other a softness prevailed and we felt protected from the brewing war outside on the streets.
On our one year anniversary we celebrated with Javier, Musette, Caleb, Sena and the other regulars at the drum circle. It was a night not unlike the one tonight. The summer air was tangible and we gathered as always to play our drums along the river. There had been rumors of immigration raids going on in the Northeast regions of D.C. but all of us had visa’s—either working or student—and no one felt frightened or endangered of being plucked into a van and escorted to the authorities.
Damiano had family who were native Americans—they lived in Philadelphia in the Bella Vista neighborhood—near the Italian market. He had stayed with them for a few months but had moved to D.C. after applying as a busboy at a restaurant near George Washington University. Dreaming of a degree in Multicultural Music, he had researched that G.W. was the College for that. Shoveling dishes forty hours a week, he played his music, and studied English with the veracity of a ship wrecked victim seeking a way home. He loved America for its diversity and spoke of wanting to make his familia proud.
I wanted to move to California—Berkley and begged him to apply to the College there. From what I had read it was the place to be if you wanted a taste of the world—and African dance flourished there. We had our plan—one more year and we’d have enough saved to move.
We did not hear the van or the whistle of sirens that evening—Damiano had been studying for an English exam and we had clasped in slumber sometime after four that morning. I still jump remembering the banging as the door jarred open and men spilled in yelling. At First we thought we were being robbed and Damiano leapt up out of a dead sleep—wearing only a pair of boxers and fists in the air. But there was nothing to resist for they came armed with guns and cuffs and dragged him out without explanation or reasons. He spoke to them in English but it did not matter at this point—they shouted accusations of being an alien of not belonging—there was mention of going away for a long time—to a prison or cell and I clutched a man’s blue uniform crying and screaming—but my words fell silent like a nightmare where you can’t run or breath.
It has been a year that I have clawed through paper work and empty promises of finding Damiano. His family baffled and without funds to afford an investigation waits as I do for a hint of news or sign that like sailor a drift in the sea he has found his land.
Causes Karen Devaney Supports
Eve Ensler and any organization that deals with issues supporting women and children and the advancement of their education.