I never asked you for her name.
She tapped red heels under the red hem of a white habesha
kemis[i] while you shrugged cap and gown over T-shirt and
jeans and my mother said on the phone if we’d made it
to America it would have been the same, have you seen
what your brother wears even if I’m dressed to the nines.
Not ten minutes after we sat down to full plates
your mother approached with the dishes from the table,
dealing fresh servings, expression unswerving mirroring
my grandmother at every meal; I asked the friend beside me
for the Amharic phrase I’ve had enough food and he told me
there wasn’t one as your mother leaned in. Your eyes
in her face, amber spiced with kohl, the spoon heaped
with kitfo, added to everything already on my plate,
and I spoke the one word I’d rehearsed well enough to say,
and watched her light up. I cleaned my plate
in the absolute absence of language to tell her
I enjoyed the food; the friend beside me whispered
you passed with flying colors.
The gown I chose for graduation wrapped me from knuckles to toes, gold trim
on black polyester expensive enough to mimic silk, upsetting my mother
who still believed me too little to wear black.
Crossing the stage, diploma in hand, sole flapping loose from the plastic heels
my mother shipped to me for thirty dollars more than what they cost,
lipstickless mouth unmasked for the livestream
my parents were watching nine thousand miles away,
I met the eyes of your kinswomen in the crowd,
learning for the first time how to speak my name.
When we left that night you bid each relative goodbye;
I waved to them from across the room.
But your mother took me by the arms and I wanted to believe
she saw then what my mother would have seen,
her eyes warm like the Ceylon cinnamon
my mother sent for you across the oceans
as I said amasegenalehu, desperately, amasegenalehu,
because it was all I had to give, because I had no words to say
the man you raised saved my life, but he will never meet my mother.
You passed me a Target bag as your uncle drove us home,
saying inflectionless my mother gave me this to give to you.
Inside, a netela[iii], white patterned with red,
lighter than battlefield gauze, fleeting like Ras Dashen mist,
scented like sunlight and spice markets.
I packed it into my carry-on wrapped in the hoodie
you once gave me with even less explanation.
My mother says if we’d been there
I would have brought gifts for your friends too.
The night your mother drove into town
we were sitting on the football field six feet away
from a trampled carton of nachos. The crowd rushed the stage
and you were hyperalert and drowsing by turns and didn’t ask me
to stay or leave, so I stayed; I watched your profile
for as long as I dared
every time you shut your eyes.
Then your mother insisted she was stopping by
and I walked you home for the first and last time,
gritting my teeth to keep from grasping your elbow
as you stumbled into potholes.
You said you know I live four minutes from you
and I said don’t make me tell a woman whose name I don’t know
you were run over while crossing the road
because I let you walk home alone.
I left you in the fluorescent glow
of your porch and walked home through the park I haunted
when it hadn’t been long enough between visits to call you;
the traffic lights were red at the corner
but I crossed over anyway.
[i] Traditional Ethiopian formal garment.
[ii] Thank you.
[iii] Traditional Ethiopian shawl.
Lalini Shanela Ranaraja is a multi-genre creative from Kandy, Sri Lanka. She holds a BA in Anthropology and Creative Writing from Augustana College in Illinois, USA. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Entropy, Off Assignment, Random Sample, Sky Island Journal, Transition, Uncanny Magazine, and elsewhere. Discover more of her work at https://www.shanelaranaraja.com/