Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha


Bad Behavior

The Pool continues Short Story Week with Alexia Arthurs' Bad Behavior

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By Alexia Arthurs on

Pam and Curtis brought Stacy to Jamaica because they didn’t know what else to do with her. They believed that her old- time granny would straighten her out. In Brooklyn, Stacy cut her classes often, and she was caught giving a boy a blowjob in an empty classroom. They looked at the sweet little face on the body of a woman, and they were terrified of her and for her. It seemed that her breasts and ass were getting bigger every day. Often Pam would pull down Stacy’s shirt to give her ass better coverage, and Stacy would groan and laugh, tucking her shirt back into her jeans. Pam wondered aloud to Curtis whether Stacy’s curvy body was because of all the chicken wings she enjoyed eating from the Chinese restaurant. In America, Pam argued, chickens were injected with hormones, which could explain all the little black girls with breasts and asses before their time. Stacy refused to eat breakfast because she was never hungry in the mornings, and because the school lunch was “nasty,” she was ravenous by the end of the school day. She would come home with a takeout box: pork fried rice and fried chicken wings. She ate while she did her homework— somehow, in the midst of teenage angst and man hunger, she remained a diligent student— and later she would refuse to eat dinner with her parents and little brother because she was still full. Recently, Curtis was driving on Rockaway Parkway when he saw Stacy walk out of the train station, just come from school. A man, not a boy, but a man in baggy jeans, just any old street thug, had called to his daughter, and she had actually turned around and walked back to him. They were still talking when Curtis showed up to escort Stacy home. Pam and Curtis were afraid of their fourteen- year- old daughter. Often they would tell each other that this was what America did to children. This blasted country that turned parents into children and children into parents! One need not look any further than the white people on television who asked their children what they wanted to eat for dinner. In Jamaica, children knew to respect adults, while it wasn’t unusual to hear an American child call an adult by her first name. It wasn’t that Jamaican children were perfect— it was that when they made mistakes, they knew to be ashamed. All children were selfish, but American ones had an easier time living for themselves.

They took their daughter to Jamaica on the pretense of a vacation. Before they left Brooklyn, when Pam checked Stacy’s suitcase, she found that her daughter had packed two nameplate necklaces that read bad bitch and flawless, and some thongs that Pam didn’t know she owned. Pam left the “flawless” necklace in the suitcase and hid the “bad bitch” necklace and thongs. Stacy didn’t seem to notice the missing items. On the beach, she wore sunglasses and the two- piece bathing suit she’d bought with her own money, revealing the belly button piercing her parents didn’t know she had. When a dreadlocked man saw her sitting on the beach by herself, he invited her to follow him to his house. She had looked into the man’s face and hissed her teeth without fear as though he and she were size. Every day, Stacy climbed the mango tree behind her grandma’s house and then she ate several mangoes in one sitting. In the afternoons, she walked down to the shop to buy banana chips, even though she had five un-opened packages sitting on the dresser, because she liked that the boy at the counter flirted with her and looked openly at her breasts.

On the fifth day, while Stacy slept, her parents and little brother left. A few hours later, her grandmother, Trudy, nudged her out of bed, asking, “Yuh goin’ sleep di whole day?” She was eating the saltfish and dumplings her grandmother made for breakfast when she thought to ask about her parents and brother. It wasn’t the first morning she’d awakened late to hear that they’d started the day without her. At first, Trudy ignored her, so Stacy asked again. “Yuh nah be’ave yuhself,” her grandmother told her, speaking quietly and carefully, “so dey lef’ yuh wid me until yuh can be’ave yuh-self.” Stacy behaved very badly, cussing up some bad words and throwing her breakfast on the floor, which surprised the old lady so much that all she could say was “Jesus Christ.” She hadn’t believed the girl was as bad as they said, and since she was lonely living in that house by herself, she’d gladly welcomed her. Stacy ran to the front of the house and looked down the road to see if they had only recently left. She knew this couldn’t be the case, but she looked anyway. Then she went to the back of the house, behind the old pit toilet, so that she could cry without anyone seeing her. She bawled for a long time. She punched her fist into the walls of the long- retired pit toilet, but the pain only made her cry harder. She felt someone watching, and when she looked down, Fatty, her grandmother’s mongrel dog, was looking up at her. She bent to rub Fatty’s belly, which was heavy with puppies, and the dog reached up to lick the tears from her face.

Over the first two weeks after her parents left, Stacy’s spirit softened. She was quieter, more inward. When she spoke to her parents on the phone, she promised that she would behave herself. But Curtis and Pam weren’t ready to let Stacy back into their home. There were times they missed her— she was, after all, a sweet girl when she wanted to be, and she was the firstborn, which meant they loved her in a different— not necessarily better— way than they loved their son, Curtis Jr., a chubby ten- year- old who was an easy child. They told her that after a year, if she improved, she could come home.


Eventually, Trudy brought up Stacy’s bad behavior back in New York: “Yuh such ah pretty girl fi do some ugly tings. Why yuh won’ be’ave yuhself?” And Stacy had smiled and looked embarrassed because she was shy for her grandmother to know certain things about her, and yet it was a compliment to hear that she was pretty. She’d been afraid when she put her mouth on the boy’s penis. Patrick was one of the most desired boys in school, and of all the other girls, he had pulled Stacy into an empty classroom, putting her hand down his pants so that she could touch his penis. This happened a few times, them kissing in empty classrooms, and one day he pushed his fingers down her jeans, and eventually she climaxed, and it was surprising and gratifying because she had never masturbated before and hadn’t known that a boy’s fingers could do that to her. She told one of her friends and the friend had been surprised to hear that Stacy hadn’t reciprocated, and this made Stacy feel as though she’d done something wrong. She was sure that Patrick would never pull her into a classroom again, and when he did, she wanted to make it so that he wouldn’t be disappointed. The first and only time, she was caught. Her parents had been furious, and they had said all kinds of things, but they hadn’t asked why.

Every morning, Trudy woke her granddaughter so that she could help with the breakfast, and she would help with the other meals as well. Stacy learned to fry dumplings that were almost as good as her grandmother’s, to make a nice chicken foot soup, and to bake sweet potato pudding. In New York, Pam had done all the cooking. When Stacy started at the all- girls high school, she learned to wash her uniform by hand even though Trudy had a washing machine, because her grandmother claimed that it was the only way to ensure that a white shirt was really clean. She was distracted from boys because the relationships with her classmates were so intricate and consuming, all of them interested in befriending the foreign girl.

The mother Trudy had been was another woman. When Pam was sixteen, Trudy, acting on a tip from a neighbor, had found a love letter in one of her daughter’s schoolbooks and had punched her, even slapped her face. It wasn’t until Pam had become a woman with a husband and children that she could almost forgive her mother. Not all mothers could afford to be kind. When Pam had first come to America, she cleaned for a white family, and one afternoon, standing at her employer’s bedroom door, she overheard the woman and her teenage daughter debate the daughter’s decision to lose her virginity to her boyfriend. Pam marveled that this was a thing that could happen. She had vowed to become a better mother than Trudy. But then, without realizing until it was too late, without knowing why or how, she had failed her daughter. She had had to send her daughter to her mother, and she hoped that the old woman would be tough. Maybe, she thought, maybe the formula so many Caribbean mothers use on their daughters wasn’t the worst thing. Maybe, she thought, it was sacrilege for daughters to discuss their sex lives with their mothers, and what a daughter needed was not a confidante but a woman who loved her enough to show her some of the harshness that the world was ready and able to give her.

For a long time after Pam came to America, it seemed that she was eternally in school. At first, for years, she studied on a part- time basis for her bachelor’s degree. After all, she hadn’t come to America to clean and cook for white people and take care of their children. After marrying Curtis, she went to school to become a registered nurse. It had taken longer than necessary because she had to attend part- time. She needed an income, so she was still cleaning for white people and taking care of their children. When Stacy was growing up, Pam was always working overtime so that they could buy a house. And when she and Curtis bought a house, she worked overtime so that they could pay the mortgage, the water bill, the electric bill, and all the other bills that came with owning a house. She’d married a man who wasn’t as ambitious as she was. For years, she nagged Curtis to go to school, and for years he said that he would look about it soon but soon never came. He was a simple man when she’d met him, and she believed that he would be good to her, so she married him for something that wasn’t quite love and because she was tired of struggling in America without a green card. When she met him, he made his money by cleaning for the church he attended, and though it wasn’t plenty of money, he seemed contented. Now he was one of the janitors at an elementary school. If it had been up to Curtis, she and the children would have stayed in that tiny two- bedroom on Sterling Street and he wouldn’t have minded. Curtis, unlike Pam, hadn’t come to America for a better life. He’d left Jamaica because his mother had filed for him, and he figured that it seemed like a reasonable opportunity. Pam worked hard because she had to— what choice did she have with a husband like Curtis? If she didn’t put a pot on the stove, the thought would never have occurred to him. Before she had children, she had hoped that she would see her daughter as more than a daughter, as a person with desires and her own set of truths, but it turned out that all she saw was a child who needed from her. She determined that what a daughter needed was to be fed, clothed, baptized, and protected from men. When her daughter put her mouth on that boy’s penis, the question hadn’t been why, but the answer had been no.

The following year, Pam, Curtis, and Curtis Jr. return to Jamaica. Pam leaves Curtis and Curtis Jr. to bring the suitcases into the house, while she goes looking for her daughter. The house is empty, so she ventures to the back, where Stacy is squatting under the mango tree, scaling a pan of fish. Pam watches her. Every time Stacy guts a fish, she throws the insides to Fatty. In New York, her daughter had certainly never cleaned fish. Of course, Pam thinks, of course my mother set her right. Unbeknownst to her, Trudy talks to her grand- daughter, reasons with her. Once, they’d walked down to the shop together and because Trudy noticed that the shop- keeper’s son was looking at her granddaughter as though he had plans for her, she said to him, “Tek yuh eye off mi gran’pickney. Ah no yuh get Grace pickney pregnant?” Stacy had laughed in agreement. Now she looks up, and in her excitement to greet her mother, she knocks over the pan of fish, but Fatty, who is pregnant again, is quicker than she is, grabbing a fish in her mouth and ambling off before anyonecan stop her.

Bad Behaviour appears in How To Love A Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs, published by Picador


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Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha
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