The Negotiation of Space, DeMisty D. Bellinger

DeMisty D. Bellinger

Originally published in Driftless Review (2014


A tree was floating in the lake. Ira watched it as it bobbed on the waves, forward towards them, and back to the breakwaters. The lake was colored slate blue, and ashy waters crashed together beneath an overcast sky. When they had started their day, the clouds began sparse and small, but now the clouds were fat globs of foreboding. “They’re bringing on a storm,” Dana said. She sat on a park bench and watched the waters. Her face, along with the lake, changed colors as the day grew longer.

“Dana, you don’t look so good.”

“It’s funny, Ira, but I think I got seasick while on shore. Silly, right?”

Ira looked out at the lake again. The tree was treading water westward now, moving towards The Home. He pictured it on the lawn, waiting for them when they returned. He imagined, too, a few rocks smoothed from years in the water—decades—smooth like something newly birthed, on the steps leading up to the home. “The problem is, Dana, is that everything here is curly like the waves. The rocks, that tree, everything looks to be moving. How can you stay still in that? Let’s walk, honey, along the shore. Let’s go get the van.”

“Ira, we missed the van fifteen minutes ago. I told you. I told you to get a move on or we’ll have to take the bus.”

“There is nothing wrong with the bus.”

Ira and Dana were old people. Dana had always been pale, veins prominent across the flat plane of her forehead, on the bridge of her nose near her eyes, on the back of her hands, and on the inside of her wrists. Her fair skin reminded Ira that she was both alive and constantly dying. Seeing Dana there, in front of Lake Michigan teeming with some unknown anger at some unknown thing, her skin changing from her usual high ecru tone to a sickness-induced coral color, Ira couldn’t help but think of Monet contemplating the hues of his wife’s skin as she died.

“Oh,” Dana said, sitting further back on the bench. She was a big woman: broad shoulders and hips, hefty thighs and strong legs. Ira feared having to carry her along the beach, looking for a bus stop then waiting for the bus to come, helping her on the bus. He could call for a taxi, but that would be too dear for them. He looked at her as she placed her head between her legs, the classic pose for nausea. She made a noise as if pushing something heavy, or lifting it up.

“Dana,” Ira said, taking position slightly beside her and slightly behind her. He held her hair, pressing her curls loosely against her skin, getting the hair out of her way. “Will you be okay?”

She groaned again, this time a long, rumbling sound. Ira felt frustrated in helplessness; he could do nothing further than holding her hair out of her face should she throw up. He straightened slightly and looked around. The others from the retirement home were gone, so Dana was right: the van had left. 

“The van should be around again in another fifteen minutes or so,” he said. “Didn’t they say that? We don’t have to take a bus.”

“Half an hour,” Dana whispered. “The van’ll be back in half an hour.”

“Should I call someone?”

Dana shook her head once. “Be okay,” she said.

Ira was glad because he didn’t think he had his phone. He straightened again and saw a young woman walking towards them. Broad hips and determined walk, she looked confident in her abilities. “Ma’am,” Ira called out, “are you a nurse?” 

The woman slowed and looked at him and Dana. “Excuse me?”

“A nurse?” Ira said. He had begun to see his mistake. “We need a nurse. We need help.”

“Ira,” Dana said.

“Is it because I’m a black woman you think I’m a nurse?” She stopped completely and stood on the sidewalk facing Ira and Dana. She had one hand, folded into a fist, on her hip and the other held a purse and a couple of shopping bags.

Was it because she was black? Most of his nurses were either black, or what he assumed was Mexican. There was probably some truth in her question, but not entirely. “I don’t think that’s it,” Ira said. “You move—” he started, but he heard what he was going to say in his mind and decided against finishing.

“What you need?” the woman asked. She seemed bothered, but not unfriendly.

“You’re wearing white,” he said.

“It’s June.”

“Your name?”

“No, I mean it’s the month of June. I’m celebrating the first day of the month by wearing white.”

Ira looked at her. She wore a demi-cardigan and close-fitting pants. Her thighs pushed against the fabric of her pants and Ira could see the cellulite pocketed there. She looked like a nurse wearing a uniform.

Slower and louder, “What you need?” the young woman said again. 

“My wife, Dana, she’s not doing too good. We were walking along the shore here—there was a group of us, but many of us left on the first van back—and Dana and me—Dana’s my wife. Did I tell you she’s named Dana?”

The woman puckered her lips out at him, as if pouting in anger. Or as if she had better things to do.

“Ira, leave her,” Dana said.

“We sat, Dana and I, on the pier down east a little further, and watched the waves. You ever do that?”

“She feeling dizzy?”

Ira turned to his wife and asked, “Dana, honey, you’re dizzy?”

“I hear her, Ira. Of course, I’m feeling dizzy.”

“Well, you doing the right thing by holding your head down like that. Y’all got a phone?”

“We only really call each other. We left our phone back at the home.”

“Ira, I thought you grabbed it.” Dana sounded annoyed.

“I forgot it, honey. I was in a rush, I suppose.”

The woman sucked her teeth. She walked towards Ira and Dana and looked at them as if they were lacking in intelligence. She sat down on the bench. “I ain’t got no car, but I can call somebody. And I ain’t no nurse.”

The woman sat her bags on the bench between her and Dana. She opened her purse and dug through it for her phone. “I got things to do, but I’m a good woman,” she said. “A Christian.”

Her hair was braided in tight, little braids that she kept back with a headband. They were long braids and Ira doubted if it was all her hair. He may be old, but he knew women endowed what they already had. As the woman looked for her phone, Ira looked closer at her braids—one braid, really. She eventually landed on her phone and sat up with it in her hand. She caught Ira staring at her. She narrowed her eyes at him. “What do y’all want? Me to call someone to come get you two? An ambulance or one of y’all kids?”

“Dana and I never had any kids. We both worked hard, you know. We both were into each other. We still are.”

Dana stood up abruptly and went to the rough, craggy rocks along the waters. The woman and Ira watched Dana go, and then looked modestly away when she threw up. Ira waited a minute, then looked back and saw his wife’s back convulse with the force of her illness. It reminded him of pantomime because he could not hear her over the waters and traffic, but only see her.

“I have kids,” the woman said. “Two girls and a boy. Florida is the oldest one, then there’s Samantha and Jafaru, my baby boy. If y’all want, you can take one of mine! I’m kidding, of course. Where’s the retirement home?”

Ira told her the address and she nodded. “I’m sure she just seasick or something,” the woman said. “You watch the waters like that, it can give you the feeling of being out there without being out there. When I was little, I used to love that feeling. My grandmother would take us fishing out on the lagoon, and afterwards we’d walk down to the real lake and watch the waters. I’d wait until it get quiet, you know, for my brothers to wander off and my grandmother to stop humming. She’d sit there smoking her cigarettes and I let the quiet overtake me and watch the waters. I felt like I was moving. Look at the tree out there. Must’ve broke off from shore up a ways.”

Ira reached out and took one of the woman’s braids into his hands. He held the plait between his thumb and forefinger and felt the smooth, patterned bumps of hair that made it up. He studied the hair being woven in and out of itself. Where does her hair end, he wondered, and the other hair begins? The woman, surprised, jerked at first, but sat still and let the old man hold onto her braid.


This is what a prisoner looks like:

I. Suspicious of every movement, including your movements, though you are her guest.

II. Small even if she is huge. Her whole body made little by the large, empty rooms she wanders, her workwoman’s hands that could deftly wield both sledge hammers and rat tail combs are now helpless and useless. They hang from her wrists, which dangle from polyester cuffs.

III. The colors of her clothes—not prison-issued orange jumpsuits as you expected, but tee shirts and sweaters, painter’s pants and tennis shoes—are too primary. Nothing is branded, still you think Dickies.

IV. Though you can imagine nothing but time to sleep there, or time to rest, to think, to consider why you are there, she looks worn out. She looks older, though it’s only been weeks, not years.

V. Hungry and desperate like the want you see on downtown street corners. Without asking, she is asking you. With an affected dignity, like the veterans who sell the cheapest number two pencils and newspapers with news stories written by the homeless, she is asking you.

VI. You remember, when she was free, her hair was straightened weekly: blow dryer, flat iron, and if she wanted to look really good, pressing comb for the front edges. Product fragrance and the stink of singed hair melded with the odors of fried chicken with collard and mustard greens. You remember her hair when you first see her, carefully curled with a roller set and curling iron. When she was still free, people always were telling you your mother had movie star hair. It was soft then, and when you held her, your face in her hair, your chest against her chest, she filled you out.

VII. She is quieted by the noise around her, including the noises you make. You and she ask each other to repeat what was just said. You lean in close. She smells different, you note this. And sometimes, she is loud. She yells laughter. She looks embarrassed after laughing. She checks her lap.

VIII. Skin: tight.

IX. Her eyes search everywhere around her, constant curiosity, constant checking.

 X. Her hair is French braided into neat little cornrows. It’s a masculine style, you think. It’s how you sometimes wear your hair. You imagine someone who looks just like your mother braiding your mother’s hair. They talk about their children (you are mentioned). They talk about who is new there and who is very old. They talk about who died there and who would die. You think again: rattail comb; she hasn’t said much, but she wants to say much more.

Look at her: she has so much to tell you. She cries without buildup. A loud and rude choking sound your mother makes, interrupting all the other prisoners, and their sons, daughters, mothers, husbands, lovers, friends. “Mama,” you say. She shakes her head. Her face covered now in tears and snot and saliva. “I am,” she said, “so tired.” She stutters. You reach out and a guard moves in closer. You close your eyes and you see your mother sitting on a metal bunk bed, mattress flat and insufficient. She is taking her hair down. The French braids leave thick, defined curls all over her head in neat little cornrows. Or cotton rows. Rows of black, course cotton.

You touch her hair. The guard begins to walk over.


The nurse lifted the baby up and looked at him. All babies were ugly at this point: heads smashed in and covered in goo. She didn’t know that yet. This was her first baby. This baby screamed at the audacity of being pulled into the world. She smiled at him. He pissed on her. She smiled wider and laughed. She would take his measurements, bathe him, and give him to his mother again to be held and to suckle. 

Later, as the mother slept, the nurse went to the baby and picked him up. Thick, fluffy hair covered his head in loose curls. She reached out and touched it. Felt no different than a white baby’s hair. How was it, she wondered, when they aged, their hair gets courser? Kinkier? What was it that made their hair different?

She stroked the baby’s hair, still called Boy Johnson because his mother was sure she was having a girl, and considered the word kinky. Was that still okay? Could she say black people had kinky hair? 


His beard, course and black, hung stiffly from his chin. I wanted to run my fingers through it, get tangled up in it, tangibly tangled up in him. I played stalker at work until he noticed me. “Wherever I turn,” he said, “you.” 

And here is desire based on pure aesthetics of the face: dark brows and lashes, strong nostrils, thick lips that pucker just so, and surprising dimples that come through when he talks. I couldn’t get enough of him. I joined committees to be near. “Where I turn,” he said, and I’d excuse myself. I’d justify my closeness. I contemplated sexual harassment charges.

His beard ended up on my phone as I surreptitiously took pictures of him during meetings, at the coffee shop downstairs as he sipped his Americano and me my cappuccino, as I fantasized our future, together, an entire family. “Sister,” he said as he walked by me and as I playacted typing in text to someone not here, “always there.” 

“Coincidences,” I said.

At a company-wide meeting on productivity and morale, I sat behind him. I listened to managers and employees babble on about better years ago and better years to come when my purse tumbled from my lap to the floor. Still sitting, I reached down to get it. I smelled him, took the tenor of his being in, and needed to touch him. I sat up slowly and noted the dread locks. I could touch one of those, I thought, and he would never know. He may feel me do it, sure, but he wouldn’t know that I did it purposely. When the convocation was over and we all stood, I reached up and touched one dread lock. He moved away, forward, to leave the auditorium. The lock pulled between us, and broke off where the hair had thinned from twisting. Of course he felt it.

When he turned, he saw me standing there with his hair in my hand, held like a stem of a flower without its bloom. “Wherever I turn. And what is that you have? My hair?”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Doing some voodoo on me or something?”

“No, nothing like that.”

He laughed at me. “I wasn’t serious. You act as if you know something about it.”

“Voodoo? I do. I have a friend.”

His face grew serious. “Really? Now that’s some black folklore I wouldn’t mind hearing about. Say, can I get my hair back?”

I handed him the lock. “I’m really sorry.”

“No worries. I knew it was coming off, just didn’t know when or where. It happens all the time. Not all the time or I would be bald.” 

He plucked the hair from my hand. I felt the wooliness of it as it slid through my fingers. I closed my eyes and thought of heroines in movies, kissed finally. Instead, he said, “You’re weird, you know, but next time we run into each other at the coffee shop, why don’t we share a table? I want to know about voodoo.”

I nodded at him, and said sure. “What is your name?” I asked.

“Winter,” he said, and left, taking his dead dread lock away with him.

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DeMisty D. Bellinger, a Pushcart nominated poet, teaches creative writing in Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in many places, including Blue Fifth Review, The Rumpus, The Coil, and Necessary Fiction. Her chapbook, Rubbing Elbows, is available through Finishing Line Press. She lives in Central Mass with her husband and twin daughters.

Find more of her writing at