Danielle never knew when the spirits would arrive. Typically, they were her people from generations ago—her father’s Mexican ancestors passed down recipes of herbal medicines along with stories of the land they used to own before the Americans stole their deeds; her mother’s Black ancestors talked about their dreams of escape, the lives they wished they could’ve had had they not been locked in chains, pulling resources from a harsh Texas soil they never wanted to take from in the first place. Sometimes the spirits were her old elementary school teachers, giving her one last book recommendation before departing; or one time, a kid, who bullied her in middle school, offered last-minute apologies she didn’t want, or need. The one common thread between all the spirits was that seeing them meant someone she once knew was dead.
But this time was different. James wasn’t some person from her past. He was her best friend. The only one who supported her part-time DJ career, popping up at all her small house shows. The only one who believed her about the spirits that came to visit. The only one who she exchanged secrets with, like her weird rope fetish and his getting boners for boys after watching a movie with Michael B. Jordan in it. She was more surprised it took seeing Michael for James to realize he was bisexual; Danielle had known since the fourth grade.
The day of James’s funeral, Danielle packed her bags and drove to her parents’ house. After the service, calls from James’s mom and the boy he was dating flooded her phone. She didn’t want to answer, didn’t want to explain she wasn’t ready to see his twenty-eight-year-old Black body be lowered into the ground, much less witness his airy spirit wandering the halls of her apartment. The last rite of passage before heading wherever all the dead rested.
Her parents’ terra cotta casita remained tucked away on the outskirts of the Houston Heights. An area that wouldn’t be untouched by upscale coffee shops, exotic gyms, and fusion restaurants for much longer. For now, it still smelled of barbecue pits and fajitas. Taqueria food trucks were propped at every gas station; places the teens went when they smoked too much weed or drank too much tequila. It was a neighborhood for families, families like Danielle’s, and she hoped it would stay that way for a long time. Light rain drops pattered against the windshield as Danielle put her car in park.
The front door opened before Danielle could ring the doorbell. “Get inside baby,” her mother said with urgency, hair pulled up in a bonnet, body wrapped around with a fuzzy black robe.
Inside smelled of cloves and cinnamon. Following her mother into the lavender painted kitchen, Jesus hung on the cross above the dining room table—a reminder she couldn’t even sit down without being reminded that someone died for her, when she never asked Him to do that in the first place. A pound cake rested in the center of the kitchen table, white icing soaking into the yellow cake’s crevices.
“Can I have some water?” Danielle asked, feeling her body give way to the kitchen chair. Even standing was too much.
Cabinet doors creaked open as rain droplets pounded the kitchen silhouette window. “I heard you didn’t go to the funeral. Why, baby?”
Her mother placed the filled glass in front of Danielle, who took a big swig, feeling the water rush down her throat, hoping it would drown the lump forming along with it. “Can we talk about something else?” Danielle asked, eyes landing back on the plastic Jesus. “How’re you and the Sparrows?”
The chair creaked under her mother’s shifted weight. “Haven’t talked much lately. Been busy.”
The Sparrows was her mom’s church group—a funny bunch of Black women in the Baptist choir, including gossip-loving Gretta, always-grumpy Sheila, and Wendy, the cheery glue who held them together. Well, when she was still alive. The girls came over after every Sunday service when Danielle still lived with her parents, and they’d sit out on the porch, exchanging church gossip over sweet tea and homemade biscuits and apricot jam. For them to not be talking meant her ma might not be going to church, and if she wasn’t going to church, then what did that mean? Her mother never missed service, even forced the whole family to attend when they had a stomach bug. There was no forgetting how Danielle spent half of service bent over a toilet bowl, puking up stomach pile and a single gulp of Jesus’s cranberry juice blood.
“Too busy for church? That doesn’t sound like you. How is a retired woman so busy?”
Her mother stood up, walked over to the kitchen cabinets, and pulled out a paper plate. “You want a piece of cake?”
“I’m not hungry.” The sugary, lemony smell of cake made her stomach turn. How could someone eat when it felt like their heart ate their stomach? She was surprised at how calm her mother was, considering how much she loved James. Maybe the reality of the situation hadn’t hit her yet.
“Suit yourself,” she said as she cut a heaping portion of poundcake, plopping it on the plate like gravy in a school lunch line. “Church can be anywhere, honey. God lives inside us all. And I don’t move like I used to. It’s a full-time job tryna keep this house clean, especially cause your father is so messy.”
A silence settled into the house. For once, Danielle missed the annoying yells from her father pumping his fists at his fútbol games. But alas, the one time she wanted his whoops and hollers, he was out of town, visiting the primos in Monterrey. The things she’d do to be in another country. Everything here reminded her of James. Was there any way to escape death?
“Speaking of, why didn’t you go with dad?”
“I’m glad I didn’t. Then I wouldn’t have been able to here for my baby.”
The distance between them at the dining room table kept growing. Was her mother really here, though? James was dead and Danielle was broken. Where were her mother’s tight bear hugs? The tears? The collective sadness she expected would embrace her when she walked through the door? It wasn’t like her mom to not know what Dani needed in every moment, especially when she was heartbroken. Growing up, it was like her mother could sniff out the hurt—a superpower she took for granted.
Something was off. The mother she knew would never miss church. Would never eat a huge piece of cake because of her high cholesterol. Would never let the kitchen sink fill to the brim with so many dirty dishes, and is that why she was using a paper plate? Would never let dust coat the wooden floors. Would never have bruised bananas rotting away in the basket on the kitchen counter, gnats crowding them as if they were bodies on a dance floor.
She observed her ma eat spoonful after spoonful of hefty cake bites. The storm outside matched her mother’s aura: dark, gloomy, and depressing. Hunched posture. Eyes that never met hers. Swollen, tired eyes. Bubbles of guilt gurgled in Dani’s stomach. She came here to be comforted, to be told all was going to be okay, but who was doing that for her mom?
The past year Danielle had been bad about visiting her parents. DJ’ing became a precedent in her life and gave her purpose, but it came right at the same time her ma lost Wendy. After Wendy’s funeral, the only reason she knew her mother didn’t go was cause the Sparrows called her.
Is Dorothy doing okay? We just want to check in on her since she isn’t answering our calls.
This isn’t something someone should process alone.
Tell her to give us a call, okay Dani? Tell her we love her.
When Dani called her mom, Dorothy answered on the first ring. Told her all was okay, that she even held a little church service for Wendy at the house to have an intimate moment alone, and she’d call the Sparrows tomorrow. Don’t worry, baby. I’m fine.
And Dani chose to believe her mother. Chose not to pick up on the signs that her mother might’ve lied. Chose to believe her so she didn’t have to spend time worrying, so she could focus on her DJ’ing and having fun with her friends. But it was all adding up now. It also explained why Dani felt awful for not attending James’s funeral. She assumed she could be strong like her mother, celebrate James in private, but now her phone was blowing up from all his friends and James’s family, demanding answers, asking if she was okay. It was so overwhelming.
“You sure you don’t want a slice?” Her mother asked, still chewing.
“How can I eat when James can’t anymore?”
Her mother sighed, put her fork down. “There’s nothing you can do, Dani. You can’t starve yourself over someone who isn’t coming back. It’s terrible what happened to James. A failed brake? Jesus. But he wouldn’t want this for you. He’d want you to eat.”
Every time Danielle closed her eyes, she kept picturing James’s face when he realized his brakes didn’t work. When he had to swerve off road to avoid oncoming traffic. Fast heartbeat. Blood pumping. Alone. Danielle shook her head, tried to focus on something else. “Ma, why didn’t you go to Wendy’s funeral?”
No more cake on her mother’s plate, just crumbs. Fingers tapping against the table, her mother’s eyes danced around the kitchen, never staying still, never landing anywhere for too long. “At the time, I just couldn’t. Couldn’t see her like that,” and then she added in a softer whisper, “If I could go back, I’d do things differently.”
The cracking in her mother’s voice broke a piece inside Danielle. The hurt felt like her hurt, but more aged, deeper like a growing black hole. Something inside her ma was turning her insides black, sucking up her soul, morphing her into someone she barely recognized. Maybe that was why her mother wasn’t present in the way Dani needed. And what about her ma? Who was there for her? Dani thought she made a smart decision not to go to James’s funeral, believed not seeing him in a coffin would be good for her. But there’s a reason they had funerals. What did it mean to say goodbye? She didn’t want to say goodbye; she wanted to keep James close, keep him alive. But she hadn’t called back his mom, felt too guilty about it all. Too embarrassed to be around his people, just like how ma didn’t talk to the Sparrows anymore. How could she keep James alive if she couldn’t show face around the people who loved him most?
Thick spit traveled down her throat with each swallow. Her mind kept flitting back to her cozy apartment, back to the familiar presence she knew was there. She couldn’t run forever, and how could she in the first place, knowing so many people don’t get the chance? She didn’t want to end up like her ma. It wasn’t too late.
“I just realized I didn’t leave any food for Murphy,” Danielle said quickly, standing up from the kitchen table, legs wobbly. She embraced her mother in a tight hug, hoping the warmth would return her old mother—the woman who loved a tidy house, sang gospel songs while she washed the dishes, cooked healthier versions of their favorite Cajun and Mexican dishes. Dani whispered in her mother’s ear: “When I get back, maybe we can talk about visiting Wendy’s gravesite. Talk about your favorite memories. I’d love to do that with you."
And before her mother could utter a word of protest, to try to pretend everything was all sugar no spice, Danielle was out the door, letting the rain plunge into her skin, cold sky water pelted her over and over and over again, soaking into her clothes, messing up her hair, drenching her cotton socks.
She let herself feel the weight of it all.
Danielle heard the music before the lock twisted to let her in the apartment. It was the new set she was working on, a chaotic track to represent her mixed roots—everything from Selena to Bun B to Tupac to Bad Bunny to Beyonce to Marc Anthony. It was a mix for all her selves to share space, share a track, share a vibe, and even though it wasn’t easy to get the order timed just right, she pulled it off in time for her next show. The one James was the first to RSVP to. For weeks she kept thinking about that dance floor, all the bumping and grinding and fist pumping from diverse bodies, laughing, hollering, having the time of their lives.
But this dance floor was her untidy living room, and in the middle of the wooden floor surrounded by her monstera plants and favorite record albums plastered to the walls was James. Not a scratch on his translucent figure which shined gloriously underneath the disco ball’s lights. The disco ball he and his boyfriend at the time helped her set up, and she, in exchange for their services, paid them with a bottle of chardonnay and a pack of condoms for laughs.
He was swaying side to side, wearing a gorgeous black corset with jade green trousers and towering black boots with heels. He’d described this outfit to her after a night of clubbing when they were stuffing their faces with lemon pepper wings. An outfit he wished he could’ve worn to prom had he known he could wear fits like this. And man, did he know the vision. He was beautiful and he was smiling and he was signaling with his finger, motioning for her to join. She felt in a trance as she got closer to him, inches away from his glittery face. Not a scratch on him.
Danielle wrapped her arms around James, even though she knew she’d go right through him. She didn’t care. She pictured his woody scent, the way his voice hummed in his throat when he laughed, and how he’d kissed her forehead when he was drunk and expressing how much he loved her. Ghost arms, James’s ghost arms, wrapped around her, and for a moment it felt like he was really there and nothing had changed.
Mid-embrace the track morphed into Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida.” At the sound of the horns and the soulful voice—
Voy a reír, voy a bailar
vivir mi vida, la, la, la, la
James pulled back and started doing the steps Danielle taught him at a Latin club downtown a few years back. Left foot forward, then back, to the left, swaying his hips side to side, smile cheesing harder than she’d ever seen. Eyes lit up like fire, looking at her, daring her to dance with him. And even though the lump was rising in her throat and the tears swelled behind her eyes, the beat of the horns and Anthony’s voice and James’s smile pushed her forward. The movements came naturally, and their feet were in sync: James’s right foot forward; hers taking a step back. Even though she couldn’t feel the heat from his body or smell his signature amber and sandalwood cologne, she could feel his joy stretch across his face as she raised her left arm and he twirled under hers, the disco lights dancing around them like glittery fairy lights.
Y para qué llorar, ¿Pa' qué?
Si duele una pena, se olvida
Their synchronicity united them in a way that didn’t require words. Danielle was thankful for the closeness; should she have to speak, she already knew the tears would flow and she would cry ugly howling sobs into the night. She didn’t want her last moments with him to be her crying. She wanted to savor this. James deserved to have this night; this queer prom with his best friend. For him and for her, she would brace the storm, stare into his eyes, feel the weight of each song, of each beat, of each step they took. She would be present, not run or pretend or hide. Her last memory wasn’t going to be of his mom calling her with the news. It was going to be of the two of them having this moment—sweating, laughing, and groove dancing to her set all night long. Then tomorrow, she’d be there for her ma, and after that, well, they would figure out the rest together.