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Broken Rainbows

“Ooh, take a picture of me.”

Jasmine stopped, slapped my arm three times, and then jumped from the curb and squatted next to a ground rainbow. She smiled bigger than I’ve ever seen and changed poses eight or nine times before getting up and staring at the ground. The smile was gone. Jasmine seemed to be too. 

“Jazz,” a minute or so passed before I said something, “Girl, we need to get back to the dorm before that rain starts again.”

She stepped back onto the sidewalk, hooked her arm in mine, and started walking like none of that just happened. We’d been waiting the storm out in Valentino’s Pizzeria after taking a break from studying for finals. The rain stopped, the sun returned, we refilled our water cups with lemonade and began heading back.

It felt good to be outside after 48 hours of rain. It felt good to be free from ECON and STATS and whatever Jazz was studying this week. She changed her major four times since she arrived on campus. She’s gone from pre-med to drama to psychology to, I don’t even know what it is now. It’s almost like she doesn’t want to graduate like she wants to just stay here.

We were on the edge of campus when Jazz’s grip on my left arm tightened.  Her face looked like it did after she finished with the ground rainbow. Except there were tears forming in her eyes. She couldn’t hide that something was bothering her, which was the opposite of the way she handled, well, everything.

“What’s wrong, Jazz?”

She simply shook her head but stopped moving. She wouldn’t meet my eyes but wasn’t exactly looking away either.  The few people who walked past us tried not to stare. Even Michelle stopped to make sure she was okay, but Jasmine didn’t reply.

We stood in that spot for almost two minutes until a loud crack of thunder seemingly snapped her out of her trance. She gave me a half-smile and started walking.

“We need to get in before those storms come.”

She sped up and I nearly had to run to keep up. Jazz is 5’11, a former track star that stays in shape and I’m 5’3 in heels with a fondness for extra slices of sweet potato pie. If everyone wasn’t scurrying through the courtyard, we would’ve looked odd, but we fit right in the with the graying skies. The skies opened just as we approached Stonier Hall, so we ducked into their lounge, I’m sure she could hear my heavy breathing over the thunder.

I couldn’t have made the run to our dorm, Campbell, plus the getting sick in the middle of exams wasn’t in my plans. It seems like a lot of others had the same plan, because the lobby was filled with people ranging from dry to drenched. None of this mattered to Jasmine as she held my hand and pushed through the crowd until she found an unoccupied corner.

“My daddy.”

She stopped as suddenly as she started. She looked around to make sure no one was listening. Or trying to read her lips. 

“My daddy used to call them broken rainbows.”

I didn’t follow and my face must have said so.

“Ground rainbows. Whenever we saw one when the sun came out after a storm, he would say, ‘Look, a broken rainbow for the kids in the hood’ and then tell me to make a wish.”

She went somewhere in her head, somewhere in her past. I felt like she wanted me to go with her but never held out her hand to take me.

“He said the ones we saw in the sky seemed too far from where we lived, so pieces broke off so we could see something beautiful every once in a while. Escape our hurt. I didn’t know what he was talking about then.”

Her smile looked more like a grimace. She was quiet for a long time. More people shuffled in and out of the lounge. Some said the rain died down, others said it was picking up. We didn’t move. Well, she didn’t move. I shifted constantly because I was uncomfortable sitting on the hard floor.

“He used to pick me up from elementary school every day. The bell would ring, and I would run out to him with my friends, hug his waist and then tell them bye. We really only lived around the corner from my school, but he loved walking me home from school.”

That faraway look returned to her eyes.

“He was there at 2:35 every day. If it rained, he had an umbrella. If it was cold, he brought extra earmuffs and gloves in case I forgot mine that morning. If it was hot, there was a cold drink or sometimes a freeze pop. “

She smiled at the memory. Then her face clouded with another thought.

“He worked nights, so he was usually sleeping when I left for school. My mother would wake me up, get me dressed, and leave out of the house at the same time. But she never took me to school.”

In the almost six semesters we’ve roomed together, Jasmine had spent plenty of nights listening to my stories about my parents, met them numerous times, and even came home with me a few times, but this was the first time she ever talked about hers. I figured there was a story but never asked.

“She always said she would be late to work if she took me because of all the traffic around my school. So, she just made sure I got dressed, ate breakfast and left the house. One morning I woke up early and got dressed fast, thinking she would take me because it was snowing, but my dad woke up and walked with me.”

She put her head down, seemingly ashamed by a mother I never knew. When she lifted her face, I could see the tears. I looked around and no one was looking in our sacred corner. I rubbed at her face with the cuff of my left sleeve.

“One day, I asked my daddy if my mother loved me and he picked me up so I could look into his eyes and said, ‘Of course she loves you, she just has a hard time showing you. And me.’ I didn’t know what he meant, but I knew she was mean to both of us the same way. Except on Friday nights.”

Now she smiled. I knew Friday nights must’ve been special in her house.

“My dad was off on Fridays, so when she got home from work, she would have subs under one arm and movies from Redbox in the other hand. We would eat, laugh, watch movies and then I would have to go to sleep early. I figured out what that meant as I got older.”

She looked at me and gave me a sly grin that erased itself.

“When I was in fifth grade, my mother stopped waking me up for school, so I had to get up and make my own breakfast. She would usually come out once she heard me washing my bowl from the cereal I ate or the beep from the microwave. She would kiss me, tell me to have a great day, and then start getting herself ready. One day she didn’t come out of the room, so I looked in and she and daddy were still sleeping. So, I...”

Her voice trailed off. The tears returned. She didn’t look around. Neither did I.

“That day Daddy wasn’t outside waiting for me either. My pop pop was there. With two white men and a Black woman that looked like she was in pain. I didn’t know what was going on. Where was my daddy?”

The tears streamed down her cheeks and her breaths quickened.

“That woman was a social worker. She told me that my daddy went to sleep that night and never woke up because my mother killed him. She killed herself too. The white men were police and they wanted to ask me questions, but my pop pop and Ms. Anderson wouldn’t let them. The next few days I can barely remember, but Ms. Anderson was around a lot. My grandmother didn’t stop crying for a week. I don’t remember seeing Pop Pop cry until after my daddy’s funeral.”

She took a deep breath. Then another. One more. Then closed her eyes. I held her hand a little tighter, caught her tears, and took deep breaths with her. That corner, our corner, was transported away from thunderstorms and finals, trauma and loss, secrets and silence, to a place where she could be free, begin to heal.

We opened our eyes.

There were three or four people in the lounge area, it felt like everyone evaporated. The sky was black and thick with humidity. I held my best friend close to me and we took short steps back to our dorm.  Her tears were gone, her shoulders settled, and she wore the slightest of smiles. 

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