My Aunt Dalilah had always desired to be a dancer. She knew how to align my spine into a perfect plié, and to lift my back leg into a beautiful arabesque. In her room, pictures of famous ballerinas lined her walls. She always wore her hair in a ballerina upsweep. When she spoke, her arms and hands punctuated her sentences with grace. I dreaded walking by her because she’d fix my posture. Even if I loved ballet, I didn’t think it possible for anyone that resembled me to be a dancer.
She encouraged me nonetheless and told me that my dark skin made me unique, and my chubbiness would soon disappear. I’d nod politely. However, my body was unlike the svelte body types taped on her wall. After ballet class, I regarded her advice as faulty, because my classmates jumped on point with little effort. Each day I lost hope. My aunt, the only one who believed in me, was paralyzed from her waist to her feet. She had been stricken with muscular dystrophy at five, which made her crawl to the bathroom like an alligator.
I had nocturnal parents. She was my caretaker while my parents worked and went to school. Aunt Dalilah was always there for me. She was my friend, my confidant, and my dance consultant. Because of her, I fell in love with ballet. We would always study ballets and mimic their movements. My aunt mirrored their actions with her arms and upper torso. She’d pirouette in her wheelchair as elegant as any grand diva. I never understood why a beauty such as herself would entertain men who didn’t deserve her. She could’ve snared any man with her bronze skin, brown eyes, aquiline nose, broad lips, and long black wavy hair.
One day when we went to a grocery store that was not wheelchair accessible then, we ran into a surprise. It was routine for me to heft my aunt from her chair. I had to lean her against the railing while I carried the chair to where she waited. For a ten-year-old, it was awkward. However, hauling a grown woman over my shoulders made me strong. But on that day, a tall, silver-haired man scooped my aunt into his arms and said, “Allow me, please.”
Aunt Dalilah smiled at him as if he were a prince rescuing a damsel in distress in one of her favorite ballets. But he was no prince at all. He was the school custodian, who often invaded our dance class. His probing blue eyes followed our every move. Usually, we’d find him sweeping, washing windows, painting, or cleaning our mirrors. He was always there, and our dance instructor never protested his presence. My friends and I dubbed him the Heebie-Jeebie man because he was so creepy.
So, naturally, my shoulders hiked up to my ears when I saw the Heebie Jeebie man in my kitchen. Outside the autumn air was calm and the sky was filled with sunshine, but my stomach roiled with anger like an erupting volcano. I fretted about going in there with them, but my hunger pangs urged me to enter the kitchen. My giggling aunt swayed in her chair as I took off my sweater and shoes. I feigned ease and grace when I invaded their love den, redolent with whiskey. Steeling myself, I could tell something venal about the custodian, even from watching the back of his head. He had the air of a man to whom corruption was familiar.
Sitting next to my aunt, he took a swig from a giant brown whiskey bottle. Too woo my aunt, he wore his Sunday’s best: a gray tweed jacket and white shirt and black slacks. His long stringy silver hair pulled into a slick ponytail. His shoes were polished ten times to cover a million scuffed up marks of a man who had a life full of irredeemable blues in the concrete jungle of the city.
I felt uneasy standing a few feet from him. His icy blue eyes peered deeply into me like pins into a pincushion. I squirmed in my sneakers and wanted to yell for help as he placed his lubricious arm around my aunt’s shoulders. My aunt, who I adore, simpered as she cuddled with the Heebie-Jeebie man.
"John, don't you know my niece?" Aunt Dalilah's glossy eyes glazed over the custodian's broad-pinkish face. "She's going to be the next Margot Fonteyn."
Rolling my eyes to the ceiling, I tiptoed to the cedarwood cupboard to search for the jars of peanut butter and jelly. "Oh, yes, she's quite good in class," he said with a raspy voice, ogling his eyes over me. "And she's so precious." "We didn't see you in class today, Mr…." I almost said Mr. Heebie-Jeebie.
The silver-haired and husky custodian—Mr. Clark—held up a glass full of liquor. "Took the day off." He winked and blew a kiss at my aunt.
"Now, why would you do such a thing like that, honey?" Aunt Dalilah said, slapping him on the shoulder. Her upsweep loosened into a lopsided cascade of curls. "I thought you worked all the time."
Liquor dribbled at the corners of his mouth before spurting, "To gussy up for you, my darling."
I cringed. While glowering at my beautiful aunt, who looked like a helpless doll, I decided to save her.
“Auntie, my parents said you're not supposed to have company." "Who are you to tell me what I should or should not do?" Aunt Dalilah said, arms akimbo.
My heart quaked along with my legs. I found the jars of peanut butter and jelly in the far corner of the cabinet. I snatched the jars and slammed them hard to the counter. And then I let myself shrink into my usual insignificant self. I pretended to be a dutiful niece, the good quiet daughter, who acquiesced everything that went wrong in the house: my aunt’s low esteem and my absentee parents. I smeared the peanut butter and jelly onto the bread with a butter knife.
I leaped two to three stairs at a time to my refuge: my bedroom—a safe place where I dare to dream. I locked my door and turned on the television in time to watch Bugs Bunny’s “Little Red Riding Rabbit.” As I laughed at the goofy wolf in a Scrooge nightgown, my door creaked open.
The Heebie-Jeebie man poked his head into my room. I sat up like a pop tart ejecting from a toaster. His silver-gray hair disheveled, and his blue eyes darkened on me. I wondered how he managed to open my locked door.
"The bathroom is downstairs, Mister," I blurted. My heart pounded when he ignored my directions. He closed the door behind him as he inched his way toward me. I moved to the corner of my wall, praying for a miracle, but miracles never happen in my hood. He sneered and swayed in a drunken stupor. It was as if all the air in my room filled with his stench. From the cartoon, a snicker, a klaxon horn, and a xylophone trilled about the walls.
I told him, “Get away from me, you creep!” He tried to touch me, but I dipped away from his grasp. I was a losing contender until I saw the most beautiful sight behind us. A woman with wings hovered at my door. Her purplish-green and orange tinted wings sparkled in the sun as they beat with furious speed. I leaned to my right to see more of the winged creature, and the silver-haired man turned around to see what had snatched my attention. As soon as he faced the door, the creature used her enormous wings to knock him on his back. He crashed to the carpet, making the dust billow into the air.
She pinned the Heebie Jeebie man’s arms to the floor with her claws, crushed his groin, and growled through her sharp teeth. “If you touch a hair on my niece’s head, I will kill you!”
The creature glanced at me, and without saying a word, she dragged the Heebie Jeebie man by the collar and threw him out of my room. His body landed at the top of the stairs. The custodian was so wobbly that he tumbled down the stairs’ flight when he tried to stand. His body slammed against the living room’s coffee table.
I dashed out of my room and gawked from the top stair. The Heebie Jeebie man was unconscious when Aunt Dalilah winged down to check his pulse. The creature sighed in relief when she realized he still had one. Hovering over him, she whispered, “When you awaken, you will remember nothing. And whenever you think about sexually assaulting little girls, you will become itchy, so itchy you will need lots of medicine to soothe your inflamed skin. And may you be forever lost!”
Clutching the banister, I was too afraid to go downstairs until the custodian looked puzzled and limped out into the autumn wind and closed the door behind him. After a few moments staring at the closed door, I felt safe to walk down to the living room, where the creature transformed back into the woman I know—my aunt. Her shark-like teeth shrunk, and her purplish-green and orange-tinted wings morphed into arms.
When the doorbell rung, I hesitated to open the door. The custodian leaned against the door said, “I have absolutely no idea why I’m here.”
"May I help you with something?" my aunt asked. "No, I'm a little confused," he said. "Sorry to bother you." Then he hobbled away into a windstorm.
Once the door closed, I ran to my auntie.
“You can fly!” “I hardly ever get this way.” “Can you teach me to do that?" "Teach you to do what?” "To cast spells and fly!” "I can’t teach it.” "Your wings are so beautiful." I knelt to her, lying on the floor. "Listen, I'm glad you're safe." When she propped herself up on her forearms, I ran to get her wheelchair. "I wouldn't allow anyone to hurt you. You understand me?"
I nodded and helped her into her wheelchair. Looking at her, now I really saw a queen. I managed to convince her that she no longer had to settle for anyone who gave her attention. She was exceptional and she had to believe it because—if she promised me that—I told her then I could believe in myself. Ever since, we’ve promised each other to believe in our abilities.