SHANTAY UNLOCKED THE FRONT DOOR OF HER MOTHER’S HOUSE, THE WEIGHT of her 9mm Luger pressed against her hip. Before she pushed the door open, she glanced over her shoulder, scanning the block, which was moonlit and chilly on that spring night. Inside, she untied her work boots before walking through the foyer and noticing the pictures of her holding her son Efrem on his first birthday. Her mother Marguerite’s homemade pasta sauce, a tart blend of rosemary, tomatoes, and red wine, rested on the air. As she stepped into the living room in socked feet, she remembered her mother’s words: “Removing one’s shoes keeps the shit at bay.”
After spending two hours at the gun range on what used to be her busiest day at the bar she owned, Shantay was surprised by how good she felt when she unclenched her jaw. Since the burglary happened almost seven months ago, Thirsty Thursdays were now filled with self-care and self-defense activities everyone had an opinion about.
“More women should carry guns and show these scumbags what’s what,” Marguerite said when Shantay got her gun license. Marguerite believed that her daughter was unstoppable because she had already done the hardest thing a woman could do. “My grandbaby wasn’t no small thing. When they give you hell in these streets, just call on your womanly powers. They won’t fuck with you then.”
Shantay knew by the murmur traveling through the living room wall that Marguerite had fallen asleep on the sofa watching Sports Center. She fiddled with the gun, trying to untangle it from her shirt and waistband. Just when she thought she wouldn’t have to talk about the day’s events, Marguerite woke up. “Still having trouble with your holster?” She stretched and yawned, dropping the mittens she’d been knitting.
“A little,” Shantay said. She regretted that at 35 years old, she did not have a place of her own. “My trainer said it took him a year to unclip with confidence.”
“And how was your little shrink session?”
“It was fine.” Shantay spit out the closest thing to the truth without acknowledging her mother’s sarcasm. She focused her gaze on her training duffel as she thought about the homework Dr. Morris assigned. Practice talking to your mom the way you’d like her to talk to you. Dr. Morris explained that communicating with intention and compassion could help her overcome feeling vulnerable all the time. “My therapist suggested that some time away would help me figure out why carrying a gun is so important to me.”
“Are you sure that’s what a trained professional would recommend to someone with a business and a kid? It’s not like your problems will be gone when you get back,” she said. She twisted her mouth to one side when she said “trained professional.”
“Carrying a gun only feels right when I think about the burglary and what I could’ve done to stop it. I don’t know any armed Black women in New York City who aren’t in law enforcement. Maybe I’m overreacting.”
“You need to leave the country to figure that out?”
According to the description on Trip Tea, the health and wellness company she followed on Instagram, a yoga retreat with a semi-famous yogi sounded exactly like the escape she needed. She liked that it seemed welcoming to novices, and as far as expenses went, she had enough saved from working 60 hours a week to get there and back.
“Well, I’m leaving day after tomorrow,” Shantay said as she loosened her braids from the elastic band keeping them together. Her shoulders, boxy and regal, rose to her ears.
Marguerite shook her head.
“What is it?” Shantay sighed and rested her hand on the stairwell bannister.
“Nothing, you grown,” she said. “But when it all goes wrong, I’m the one who has to listen to the aftermath.”
Shantay started to say something, but instead, bid her mother good night and walked upstairs to her bedroom.
THE NEXT EVENING AT the dining room table, Efrem told Shantay that he had a nightmare.
“Why are you up so late?” She arrived home around 11, an hour after his bedtime.
“I dreamt that you died in a plane crash,” he said.
“OK, one thing at a time.” She rubbed her throat, sore after a night of yelling at bachelorettes to quit dancing on the bar top.
“I was hungry,” he said as he shoveled rice into his mouth with one hand and scrolled his phone screen with the other.
Once she let the plastic-covered chair cushion flatten beneath her weary hips, she promised Efrem that dreams were not to be read literally. He resisted her coddling, saying that he couldn’t rid his mind of the images of her placid face appearing just before her plane sank to the bottom of the ocean.
“You were looking for something while your eyes were being taken away,” he said, wiping gravy from his chin.
“Taken away?” She threw her son a puzzled look.
“You weren’t fighting it.” He looked at her, squinting, as if he were trying to make sense of it. Then he stood up and walked into the kitchen, his legs longer than she remembered.
She listened to him wash his plate and let the dream nag at her for a moment. Decoding it had to wait a while longer because she needed to eat.
Without shifting the milk carton or the eggs in the refrigerator, Shantay located a plastic-wrapped plate of roast beef, rice, and collard greens. Beside the plate was a tiny bowl filled with her mother’s special gravy, thick and brown with scallion ribbons floating on top. She warmed the plate in the microwave and then took Efrem’s seat at the kitchen table. It was set with crocheted placemats and sepia-colored plastic. The home-cooked meal was as delicious as she expected. The luxury of living with her mother was not lost on her.
On her last bite, she heard Efrem’s footsteps upstairs. As his door closed, her phone vibrated.
Can I stay with Dad this weekend?” E’s text message read.
Shantay tapped her finger on the dining table and her foot on the floor. It wasn’t a bad question, just an inconvenient one. What had her therapist said about relinquishing power?
I need to talk to your Dad first, she wrote.
Efrem sent a brown thumbs-up emoji and a red heart, his curated symbols of appreciation.
Why didn’t you ask me at the table?
He was about to be 14 and to her dismay, maturing rapidly in no small part due to his cellphone. It seemed like he relied on his phone for nearly everything, including permission from his peers to be opinionated, question authority, and claim carefree living as their own invention. She bristled at the idea that her son was learning about the world without her guidance.
Lights out in 30. Leave your phone at the top of the stairs. You can have it back in the morning.
She held onto her parental authority as best as she could, while selectively loosening the latch that she believed kept balance in their relationship.
SINCE APPLYING FOR HER license to carry a weapon, Shantay wrestled with the question of safety. Was it safe to have a gun and a child in the same house?
“You’ll probably kill me or Grandma,” Efrem said when she announced that she was getting a gun.
Shantay cringed at the thought of mishandling her weapon. And as much as it hurt to admit it, Efrem had a point. Living with a gun increased their chances of death by gunshot. It wasn’t like she was going to keep the gun in a shed. They lived in a three-bedroom house and she had already gotten used to storing it in the nightstand beside her bed.
“If you shoot anyone, you could get locked up,” Efrem said. “Do you want to go to prison, Mom?”
Shantay felt him watching her as she searched her hands for an answer. She couldn’t let him remember her that way, flustered and lost. “Do you trust me?” Shantay held her breath. She crossed her fingers and toes, hoping he’d say what she so desperately wanted to hear.
Efrem pouted and said, “Yeah.”
When she relayed the story to her mother, Marguerite scoffed, running her palm over the big onyx stone she wore on her middle finger.
“One day your child will hate you and the next day worship the ground you walk on.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“That’s how kids are,” she laughed. “Just get him something nice for his birthday, and he’ll forget that his mom packs a 9mm.”
She wished her mom was right. If only she could buy him a toy to eliminate his criticism of her choices. Or better yet, squeeze him tightly and promise that she’d be careful. If only she could call a truce.
THE NIGHT BEFORE SHANTAY’S trip, Marguerite ordered a pizza.
“I’m not having much. I’m meeting my gentleman friend in a bit.”
Shantay rolled her eyes and opened the cardboard box. She wanted her mother to be happy and enjoy the golden years of her life but hated that she never met the men her mother dated. If only she could meet the guy and assess whether or not he’d protect her mother when faced with danger and not run off like some coward, she’d feel a lot better.
They sat at the dining table, each holding a slice of greasy dough in their hands. After a few bites of the chewy cheese, Shantay announced the plans for her trip. She’d be traveling to Costa Rica for four days and returning in time for Efrem’s middle school graduation.
Marguerite pursed her lips. Efrem didn’t flinch. This brought tears to the rim of Shantay’s eyes, then laughter through her mouth.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“I thought you’d give me a hard time. I thought I’d have to convince you that I’m not going to die.”
Efrem wrinkled his narrow face, his brown eyes folded beneath the canopy of his forehead.
“Remember the dream about the plane crash?” she asked.
“Oh yeah! The one with your eyes gone.”
“Didn’t you say the plane burned to a crisp?”
Shantay watched her son tilt his head to the ceiling fan and search his mind as if those were inconsequential details. Within seconds, his face brightened, and he bit into his pizza. “What time is Dad coming to get me?” She both envied and resented how easy it was for him to move onto other concerns.
“Well at least I’ll get the house to myself and can finally invite my gentleman friend over,” Marguerite said, fixing the buttons on her waist-flattering blouse. It was blue satin with peekaboo cleavage. When she stood up from the table, her red stilettos tapped the wooden floor and sounded like dinner bells ringing. Marguerite flattened the front of her pencil skirt, which accentuated her curvy hips and plump bottom. She walked with confidence, not caution.
“My date will be here shortly. Will you need a ride to the airport tomorrow?” Marguerite dabbed perfume on her wrists and checked her purse for the essentials: lipstick, keys, pepper spray. Shantay watched her mother sashay toward the foyer mirror. Standing there with her chin raised, neck long, she looked like a woman who was used to getting what she wanted.
Shantay was disoriented by the conversational whiplash. “I’ll get there on my own.” She sighed and then cleared her plate.
THAT FIRST NIGHT IN Costa Rica, she was excited to break bread with the retreat leader, a yogi named Darwin she discovered on YouTube. She had been drawn to his sensitive way of speaking and his affirmations about the body doing what the elevated mind tells it. She visited his Instagram page nearly five times a day and purchased spandex pants from his website that had the words mind over matter emblazoned on the side. Almost a year after first meeting Darwin on the internet, there she was at an eco-lodge waiting for him to appear and greet her and the other 11 women who signed up to fully recharge.
In the morning, she felt refreshed and ready to practice the unique flow of poses that she expected Darwin to assemble for their class. When she arrived at the gazebo, she saw a few of the women lying on their backs on their mats. One woman read a book, and another let her feet dangle from the side of the wooden platform. She checked her watch to be sure of the time. It was 8:00 exactly but there was no sign of Darwin.
“You’d think he’d get here on time,” a woman with curly brown hair said. “We are paying over a thousand dollars for this experience.”
Shantay unrolled her mat. She sat with her legs crossed and let her hands graze her knees. She decided to meditate before class began. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine a candle burning in the center of her hollow chest. With every breath, the light expanded until it almost touched her rib cage. The deeper the breaths, the bigger the fire, so she slowed, then held the air inside until the back of her throat burned. When she finally let out the air, it felt like a small bomb bursting inside her chest.
“Hey!” The curly brunette tapped Shantay on her shoulder. “Class is canceled. Darwin has a sinus infection. We’re going to the beach to surf. You should come.”
“Nah, I’m going to stay here and practice handstands.”
As the woman walked away, Shantay got up from her seat and pulled her mat toward the center of the platform. She warmed up using one of the sequences she had seen on Darwin’s channel. The morning temperature had already risen enough that sweat covered her arms and legs. She resisted wiping herself down, pushing away the thoughts of discomfort that were taking her away from enjoying the fresh air and solitude she wanted to experience during her vacation.
Just as Darwin had instructed in his 20-minute handstand tutorial, Shantay focused her gaze on a spot on the mat and set her hands shoulder-width apart. With her butt lifted to the air, she bent one knee, bouncing off one foot to lift the other off the ground. She did it again with her hands still planted, and this time got both legs off the ground. Her body formed an imperfect L shape. On the last try, she managed to get her toes pointing to the sky, and it felt wonderful. There she was, upside down, not perfectly straight, but close, and she sensed power pulsing through her head and arms. As she inhaled, she wished that she could be seen. How cool would it be if someone witnessed her pressing all her weight into her hands?
She didn’t want the pose to end. She felt powerful and totally in control of her body and her mind. Though she tried her best to keep her thoughts in the present moment, she couldn’t hold back the memory of the night her bar had been robbed. Other than the police, she didn’t tell anyone, not even her therapist, that she witnessed the whole thing from her car. Everyone assumed that she’d been in the bar when it happened. No one knew how she gripped the steering wheel on that windy night and crouched by her seat while her heart felt like barbed wire was wrapped around it. She didn’t tell anyone that the streetlights made it easy to see the burglar through her car window, to see a man dressed in tan slacks and work boots trying to pick the door lock. She was down the street, near an empty dirt lot waiting to be developed into another motel. It was all happening so fast that the thought of honking to scare the burglar came and went like a shot of rum. Her hands shook as she fumbled with her phone. When the emergency operator asked for her location, she gasped because the burglar took a wooden bat to the door, then threw his hands in the air, as if he couldn’t believe there’d be a security siren. Glass poured like ice water onto his dirty boots, and she scrunched her toes as if she could feel the shards hit her. The operator told her to stay out of sight and on the phone until the police arrived. She would have followed those orders, but when the perpetrator ran out with the cash register cradled in his hands, she opened her window and threw her phone at his head. Shaken by all she’d seen, she still marveled at the way the burglar never turned his head to see which direction the hard object that hit him had come from.
Still suspended in the yoga pose, Shantay imagined a different outcome, one where she chased him down to retrieve the cash register. She’d flash her gun and he’d surrender, no question. She imagined the burglar throwing her to the ground as she tried to walk back to her bar, considered what it would have felt like if he stomped on her shoulders, back, and face. The image of her swollen, bloody jaw made her blink hard. Sweat fell off her face and onto the spot on the mat where she directed her concentration. When she looked away from that spot, her arms started to tremble, and her legs suddenly felt as heavy as bags of flour. She panicked, biting her lip and breathing the fire that got big in her chest. “Hold, hold,” she told herself, until she toppled and fell on her hip.
BACK IN NEW YORK, Shantay limped toward the taxi that waited for her outside the airport. She gave her address to the driver, and then she adjusted her body on the seat to relieve the pressure on her hip bone. She pulled her phone from her pocket to send messages to her family, alerting them that she’d be home soon. Efrem responded right away.
Can I stay with Dad another night?
I haven’t seen you since I left. And we need to get you together for tomorrow.
I’m good. Got my hair cut with Dad and he got me a new outfit.
Shantay closed her phone and let her head rest on the car window. She watched the city from the Throgs Neck Bridge, wishing she hadn’t ever left. Did it even matter if her son greeted her when she got home? What was so important about a middle school graduation anyway? She clenched her teeth as the taxi hit a bump in the road. Though the throbbing in her pelvis hit a seven on the pain scale, it felt like a pinch compared to the blow her ego had just taken.
As the taxi approached her house, she opened her phone and sent a thumbs-up emoji. If letting go was that easy, she wasn’t sure it truly made a difference. She dragged her suitcase up the front steps, annoyed that she hadn’t pondered the meaning of Efrem’s dream the whole time she was away.
In the living room, Marguerite greeted Shantay from the top of a ladder.
“You shouldn’t be doing that by yourself,” Shantay said, wincing as she walked toward her mom.
“Why not? The world doesn’t stop because you and Efrem are gone.”
“What if you fell? How would you have called for help?”
“I’m not going to fall,” Marguerite said as she fixed a crumpled pleat on the curtain rod.
“Get down, Mama,” Shantay said, shifting her weight onto her good hip.
Marguerite continued to fix the curtain with her body angled so that her knees pressed into the ladder’s frame. When she reached for the corner pleat, the ladder slightly lifted off the ground, making a screeching sound. Shantay screamed, “Mama, get down now!”
Marguerite stomped down the ladder steps, keeping her eyes on her feet. “Don’t you ever raise your voice like that again. You nearly scared me to my death.” She stood in a pile of curtains with one hand over her heart. “You can’t speak to me like that and expect me to be OK. You just can’t.”
Shantay groaned, hesitating to apologize. While Marguerite walked past her, she blurted out the question that had been heavy on her mind.
“Why aren’t you afraid about me carrying?”
“There’s nothing to be afraid about. You’re a grown woman.”
“What if I hurt myself, or worse, hurt someone else?”
“It’s not my job to be afraid for you.”
Marguerite made her way upstairs while Shantay stood in the middle of the living room with a pool of curtains around her feet. She wondered whose job it was to be afraid. Efrem was heading to high school and afraid for his mother, a gun holder, business owner, daughter, the center of his dreams. Her phone, pushed deep in her front pocket, pulsed against her good hip. She guessed it was Efrem, texting a list of items he forgot to pack and wanted her to bring to graduation. She sighed at the thought of having to search for anything as tired as she felt. Still, she reasoned that without those things, he might not feel ready. Without her, he wouldn’t feel safe.
Her phone buzzed again. As she reached for the sleek, silver thing, she remembered to breathe.