Before Quinn had become Mrs. Strinner, she’d been a number of things. None quite as important as the role of becoming a wife, but nonetheless she had been something, she’s left her microscopic fingerprint somewhere within this world’s perimeters.
At sixteen, she’d been a cashier at the Quickie Mart across the street from her Great Aunt Maxine’s condo. She remembered working tirelessly, scanning the sides of colorful soup cans and bagging wilted vegetables in crisp paper bags. It was at this first job that Quinn became a woman, surrendering her virginity behind a shelf of discounted bread to the divorced father of one of her closest friends.
At seventeen, she’d become a redhead. Her normally prudish brown hair drowned in a multitude of fiery hoes. It was her red hair that emboldened her. She soon started to try new things: river dancing, crochet, writing haikus in a slanted Asian Sanskrit. By this time Quinn had had many lovers. Her hair left her feeling impatient and abnormally sensual. Each man was a different experience. She sampled them like she would nibble at different international entrees; a bit of Bengali here, a Thai dish there, a simmering Panamanian dessert there. Her mother, a simplistically unintelligent woman, once told her that she was on the fast track to hell. Quinn had laughed and batted her eyelashes. Well it least I won’t go to heaven too old and fat to keep a husband.
At twenty, Quinn had been a student. She double majored in sociology and anthropology. She was mildly curious about extinct societies. She studied the ancient Mayans and Incans. She researched the inner workings of the Guanches, a society of tall redheaded Cro-Magnon men. She’d hoped that she could travel the world. She had been a free-spirited and wildly curious creature. At twenty, she had met the man who would become her husband, Sylus Strinner. He was handsome, but in a way that most women would find mildly repulsive. His hair was long and wooly, and he kept it behind his neck with a woman’s yellow banana clip. He was shorter than Quinn by more than a few inches, but he didn’t mind it. In fact, he told her he preferred her Amazonian height. His face was smooth and hairless, his chin doubled and fleshy, while his body was small and slightly emaciated. On their first date they shared sugarless coffee and a bowl of colorless nuts. He told her how people told him that he resembled Jesus. He told her how he hated that. He told her he didn’t believe in Jesus, that all religion was rooted in man’s compulsive need for absolute control and power. Years later, Sylus will have forgotten this belief. He will have become a devout Christian, worshipping the very being that he once vehemently absconded.
At twenty-two, Quinn became a mother. This happened quite by accident. She remembered the feeling of disgust she had for her growing body, the frustration from the never-ending symptoms, sleepless nights, incessant vomiting, and a need for chocolate that she had never felt before. Sylus, for his part, loved her even more than before. He rubbed her stomach in the middle of the night. He caressed her feet in the afternoon. He boiled chocolate sauce for her to spread over copious amounts of food. Soon after she found out about the baby, Sylus got them an apartment for off-campus, a one-bedroom, two-bath place complete with coconut colored walls. After the first ultrasound, Sylus brought a border for the bedroom, a kid’s border with pictures of fat, happy ducks and sweet frolicking sheep. Quinn hated it. She hated the way Sylus looked at her. She hated the way Sylus treated her like some type of swollen goddess. Her water broke on a Tuesday, outside the door of her World Lit class. She stayed in labor for thirty-two hours, until finally, the doctor sliced her stomach in two and wriggled her son through her soft grey intestines.
Quinn didn’t become a wife until the age of twenty-five. Her wedding was a small event, twenty people attended, including Quinn’s mother and Sylus’s three aunts and six cousins. Quinn’s son Caleb toddled down the aisle, releasing fistfuls of rice onto people’s feet.
At the age of thirty-two, Quinn had established a routine in her life. At six o’clock in the morning she woke up. Without fanfare or preparation she would get dressed. Most mornings were quiet and between the hours of six and seven, Quinn could afford to brew a cup of coffee, nibble on granola, or gobble down a spare piece of fruit. At seven, Sylus would wake up and from seven until eight o’clock, Quinn was busy ironing clothes, fixing cold lunches, and setting out breakfast plates. By eight-thirty, Sylus would be gone. He’d leave in a huff, and with a twist of the knob Quinn’d be left all alone. At this point in her life, Quinn hated silence. To her, it was like a deadly and suffocating plague, from which she couldn’t soon escape. A year ago, she had welcomed the silence. Her mornings, much like her afternoons, had been cloaked in fervent chaos. Caleb, a sullen nine-year old, had commanded most of her attention. She’d split her time between school plays, parent luncheons, lacrosse practices, and swim meets. Quinn had prepared his meals days in advance, foregoing sugary confections for carefully sliced chunks of cucumber and sweet, brown hummus. Caleb, like most nine-year-old boys, had despised her for her efforts. This had surprised Quinn, because it had only been three years earlier that Caleb had been her inseparable companion. Being a whimsical sort of child, Caleb had embraced Quinn’s role in his life wholeheartedly. During Caleb’s toddler years, before Sylus’s arrival home from work, Quinn and Caleb would play house. Quinn would don Sylus’s steel-toed work boots and Caleb would slip into one of Quinn’s old dresses. Caleb would cook for Quinn, banging plastic pots and pans, scraping tin forks across multi-colored plates, while Quinn leaned back against Sylus’s coffee colored armchair.
A year ago, silence had been considered a thing of beauty, now it wrapped around Quinn’s head like a vice, syphoning her very thoughts, eliciting well-hidden emotions. Quinn shuffled around her pint-sized kitchen. They had moved a month ago, placing half of their belongings in crisp cardboard boxes, the other half, Sylus hurriedly dragged to the city dump. Because Quinn couldn’t bear to get rid of Caleb’s things, Sylus had stuffed bags of his clothes into a tiny hallway closet in the new house and Quinn kept his books beneath her bed in an old toy chest. Sometimes at night, Quinn would pull the old books from beneath the bed. She would stick her nose between the cover and smell the wrinkled pages, the remnants of year old chocolate and she would swear Caleb’s scent was still intermingled throughout the lines.
Caleb had died on a Thursday in May. He had been on his way home from school. When Quinn had woken up that morning, she hadn’t felt any differently. She’d prepared Caleb’s breakfast, chastised him about his hair and set out his homework from the night before. He’d left in his usual way, shoulders hunched, black sweatshirt pulled low over his puffy eyes. She hadn’t known that he’d gone to the river on the way home from school and that he and his friend Scully would hop across slicked, mossy rocks, daring each other to make it to the other side. She remembered claiming his body, the morgue attendant, a small mouse of a woman staring at her from behind a curtain of cream colored hair. She’d put her cheek to his bloated body, moving her hands first over his knee then down to the heels of his feet. Sylus had cried bitterly, but Quinn hadn’t. She’d simply sat for days on the side of Caleb’s bed, no one, not even her mother, had been able to get her to move.
Quinn pulled out a cucumber for the salad. Slowing rotating the vegetable. She began to chop at a steady pace. When she finished the cucumber she pulled out a bag of kale. Click. Click. Click. The same rhythm continued. Then she added onions, yellowed and sweet. After that, radishes. Then finally, crisp white cheese that oozed from a tube. Quinn set the salad aside and pulled a thin fish fillet from her refrigerator shelf. She retrieved a small slip of paper from pocket, a recipe from a student. At Sylus’ insistence she’d taken a job at a local technical center as an English as second language instructor. Her classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays and her students varied greatly in both age and ethnicity.
Her first day she’d been nervous. She’d stayed up the night before structuring lessons and planning activities, but when she got there and looked at the wary faces, each of them a reminder of a world she’d never gotten to see, she’d stuffed her folder into her desk and decided against any sort of tedious lessons. She’d talked with her students, six of them in total: a Bengali boy, a Ghanaian girl, a Vietnamese husband and wife, and a set of Panamanian twins.
“Who are you?” she had asked. “Where do you come from?”
“ I a woman,” Qui, the woman from Vietnam had told her.
“Good, good. You are a woman,” Quinn had said.
Encouraged, Qui continued.
“I mother. I have son.”
Quinn had faltered, her eyelashes blinking rapidly against her powdered cheeks.
“What? Not right?” Qui had asked, her voice nothing but a raspy, grating whisper.
Quinn had shaken her head quickly.
“No. No, you’re correct. You are mother.”
Quinn quickly filleted the fish, then carefully chopped the sides into tiny cubes, the way her Bengali student, Mahaj, had instructed her to do. She put a pot on the stove and filled it with fresh ginger, bay leaves, salt, and sugar. She tasted it with her finger and decided that it was missing something. She emptied a cup of Greek yogurt into the boiling red stew. She browned the fish on the stove, waiting until the fish flaked under the pressure of her fork, then she placed a lid on the simmering pot. After that was finished, she sat down on the couch to wait. Quinn picked up the remote and started to flip through the channels. T.V. had never interested her much, but after Caleb’s death she’d come to rely on the constant buzz that flew from the set when she clicked through various channels. As she was moving through the channels, a bright flash of red caught Quinn’s eye. News Channel 9 was covering a riot in Baltimore and fire licked out from the screen, bright and messy, speaking in tongues to Quinn, as if it were a great cardinal colored snake.
“Chaos,” the reporter, a young woman with copper colored hair, said into the microphone. “Absolute chaos.”
She moved back and the camera moved with her, like a magnet drawn to a charge.
“Here’s one of the locals,” she said eyeing a young man with a blue bandana tied around half of his face.
His face, still babyish and fat, was smudged with smoke, and his gleamed at the camera.
“Would you like to say something to our viewers Mr...?”
The reporter paused.
“J-Easy,” The boy spit into the microphone.
The reporter blinked her eyes, her lips stretching. She gave him a tiny smile.
“Mr. J-Easy, do you have anything to say to the people at home?”
The boy grabbed the microphone from the reporter’s hand.
“Yeah. This right here. This here is for Freddie Gray. We ain’t stoppin’ ‘til we get what we deserve. We need to be heard.”
Of course Quinn had heard of the death of the black man Freddie Grey. She’d heard the controversy, the alleged assault carried out by the Baltimore police. It had been ruled a homicide by medical examiner assigned to the case. At first, the boy’s death had been swept under the rug, apt to be easily forgotten.
Quinn thought about Caleb, how the local news had ran a tribute in his honor a week after his death, his pictures flashing across the screen in a slow, but steady procession. Quinn watched as the reporter took back the microphone. J-Easy, now an unidentifiable shadow, easily melted into the background. The camera spanned the flames, zooming in on one building in particular, a tiny grocery named Nat’s Stop and Shop, the last of a small chain of stores, the only one that was still standing. The flames licked at its front door. A sharp beeping from the fire alarm jarred Quinn back to reality. She ran into the kitchen. Quinn’s pot of red stew, overheated and agitated, had boiled over. Smoking and hissing, the liquid had congealed together and ran rampantly in heaps over the edge of the stove.
Nashae Jones has had her work appear in Blackberry, American Athenaeum, and Bicycle Review magazines, among others. Her work has been nominated for several awards, including the Pushcart Prize. She currently lives in Virginia with her husband and two kids.