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LaToya Watkins

I always knowed I had some of my momma in me. All that hell. All that hardness. The kind that want to make people suffer. And I’m sitting here feeling the same regret she should of done felt all her life. Ain’t let that man see all my love for him.

I can smell myself. I don’t stink the kind of stink from working all night at the bread company. That’s a sweet funk that Archie loved. I stink of woman and sex and throw up and death. Momma back in my room, trying to get my bed together for I can lay down. I wonder if the kids gone get sick when my sister Cynthie Ann get them back to the house from school, and I tell them they daddy done gone and died. That I found him stretched out on the carpet, like he was playing possum.

I had just dropped them off at school when I found him. When I screamed and called 911. When my hands started shaking, like I’d run into a lost lover. And every time I think about it, I want to throw up. We was just now being all right again. When I found out about the little bastard girl, Archie threw my favorite coffee cup at me. That was last year. I never did tell Momma or Cynthie Ann or nobody. Momma would’ve came over and shot him and cussed me out about being with him in the first place. Now, my cup all cracked and glued back together and sitting on the table.

I sit in the dark kitchen and twirl the cup around the table with my thumb. Kitchen always been the darkest place in our little duplex, but the deep-burgundy plush chairs and drapes covering the window add to the darkness. I always told Archie that a dark kitchen make sense. I ain’t tell him Cynthie Ann the one what taught me that. She was the one what learned to cook when we was growing up cause she try anything to please Momma. Anything to get on her good side. Chicken was her best thing, but she ain’t never get to make the kitchen how she said it needed to be to fry chicken comfortable. When me and Archie moved into our duplex, she come out here and helped me decorate. Walked in the kitchen and smiled. Turned and looked at me with her curls all big and perfect and said, “Get to frying up a bird and popping grease all around, whole place turn hot enough to kill you. Drape the kitchen in darkness. Keep the whole place cool.” I smiled back at her and gave her charge of that.

“Opal Jean,” Momma call to me from down the hallway. “I’ll have these sheets changed in just minute. Get you on in here and let you lay down a little bit. Might help your stomach.” And it feel funny to think that she in my room, going through my things. In my space, where me and my man she hated so much shared.

The cup ain’t been the same since Archie threw it at me. I glued it back together with the same glue that hold the bathroom shower faucet in place. But I guess the cup shattered into too many pieces cause when I try to fill it with something to drink, it leak through the glued-together cracks. I know he wasn’t really trying to hurt me when he threw it. He was a right man. He raised my oldest girl until this morning. She ain’t never know he wasn’t her real daddy. Seem awful to want to keep that kind of rightness all to myself. Seem like something I ought to let the world remember him for.

Momma come in the kitchen. She wearing a wig and her fluffy fur coat. Ain’t took the coat off since she got here. She got to be sweating. Coat look real heavy. But I don’t blame her none for not taking it off. She in a place that’s new to her. A place she got to know in her heart she ain’t welcome to. I can see her trying to fix her eyes to the darkness and find me. I see good in the dark.

“Can’t sit here in the dark. Come on now. Get cleaned up. Them girls can’t see you like this.” And I want to ask her why she here. How she come to be a mother all of a sudden. How she come to bring herself to me and Archie place. The one she ain’t never stepped a foot in fore now. But I hold my tongue.

My words ain’t been coming out.

I’m full of tears and bile. That’s all I got. She take a few slow, easy steps toward me and just stand there. She don’t touch me at all. “Come on, Opal Jean. Get on up.” Her words hard and rough. She move her body back and let me pass. I obey her about getting up out the kitchen cause I done always obeyed her. But I don’t want to wash Archie off my body. What I got left from him on me is all I got left from him in the world. I know I can’t obey her on that.

I let her lead me out the kitchen. She keep her distance. Don’t try to touch me or nothing. We step into the brightness of the living room. That’s where I found him. The first thing I saw when I walked in the front door from taking our babies to school. On the floor between the coffee table and the new burnt-orange couch he bought for my birthday last month. On his stomach with his hand stretched out toward our screaming baby girl. She was crawling to him. Trying be held and loved and rocked by him. But he was reaching and dying. Wasn’t wearing nothing but his pajama pants. Ain’t have on no shirt or nothing. All his twenty-seven years was stretched out right there, wrapped in ghost-white skin that wasn’t nowhere near the normal chocolate I was used to. Dying and dead and gone.

This morning, after we had already loved each other in the bedroom, we brought it on in here. On the floor between the coffee table and the couch. I straddled him and we ain’t even worry about our babies walking in on us. It was so early in the morning. Seemed careless, but it was what we needed. Him on his back with his pants pulled halfway down and me on top of him holding my gown up against my breasts. Me owning him and riding him and trying to get back to loving him.

I turn my head and think about letting my body fall into my momma to keep from looking at the last place I saw Archie. I don’t want to remember him like that.

Momma turn her head away from me and say, “Come on. Get on in here and lay down. You be all right.”

We walk into me and Archie room. She done brought the little trash can from the bathroom and set it up beside the bed. I ain’t been able to hold nothing on my stomach. Not water. Not nothing. I can’t hold life in me with him gone like this.

She look around the room and rest her eyes on the mahogany dresser me and Archie found at a flea market when we first got married.

“That where you keep your clothes?” she ask. But she don’t wait for me to answer. She just walk over and pull the drawer open and start going through it. All I can wonder is why she here and not my sister. Why she allow this cold woman to be here when I need a comfort. Cynthie Ann usually ain’t got no choices when it come to Momma, but this here is different. She should of at least tried to fight for this.

And I usually feel sorry for Cynthie Ann. Always been me that comfort her when Alex leave her and them babies. When Momma beat her and talk down to her. She got six babies by one man, and he ain’t never really been hers. He ain’t no good to her. He ain’t no good to nobody. She ain’t never knowed what it feel like to live outside Momma’s back room. To provide for her babies without government help. To have a man waiting on her at home. To have a man hold her in the morning—make love to her fore the rooster tell the world to wake up. Now, I don’t feel sorry for her. Partly cause she ain’t here with me, partly cause she can’t lose what she don’t got—what she never had.

Bed hold one of the last real memories I got of a tender moment with Archie. I followed him to the living room and fucked him after all that tenderness, but what we did before the living room is something beautiful to hold on to.

I got in from the bread company at about five thirty this morning. He was sleep when I crawled under the covers, trespassed over to his side of the bed, and rubbed my naked breasts and hips up on him. He like my bread funk, so I ain’t bother to wash it off. Hadn’t done nothing like that in a long while. So I just put myself on him and he woke up and put hisself all over me. All in me. All through me.

When he thought I fell to sleep, he kissed me in the place between my neck and my shoulder and slid out the bed and put on his pajama pants. “Going to check on the baby and get my girls some breakfast fore school,” he say. “I’ll take them if you want me to, baby…” Then he sighed real loud. “I’ll do whatever you want,” he say. And I believed him.

I liked how we did things. How we ran the house. He was in debt to me, and I was gone make him pay fore I showed him how much I needed him.

“Nuh-uh, honey,” I say. “Give me a hour. I’ll be ready to take them at seven. Just like always, I’ll take them.”

I could barely see his face through the darkness, but the moon shine bright enough through our bedroom window, so I made out some pain, some worry in his eyes. He stared at me for a long while fore he bent over me, and I knew to open up and let him bury hisself in the soft of my neck. And he did, with his mouth full of my flesh, my skin.

I just smiled through the darkness and put my hand on the back of his neck, holding him to that place for as long as he needed to be there.

“What you do with the sheets?” I ask Momma, speaking for the first time since the hospital. “What you do with my sheets? Archie in them sheets. I need them sheets.” I feel my lips quivering and I’m gone cry. I can feel it.

Momma stop going through the dresser drawers and just stand there looking at me, like she lost. I shake my head and lift it up. I’m looking in her eyes and she looking in mine. It’s like we ain’t never really looked at each other fore now. Her eyes set hard, but she don’t look mad like she always do.

“What I’m gone do? What I do without him, Momma? Who I’m gone be without him?” I finally ask, but I don’t expect her to know.

Her lips start to move and she put her eyes on her feet. “That’s silly, Opal Jean. You gone always be you. Now, get yourself cleaned up,” she say. And I hear something vibrate in her voice.

“I can’t bathe,” I say. “I can’t wash him off me.” I sound strong to myself. Ain’t no tears in my mouth.

Momma hold her lips together and nod her head like she understand, and it’s the first time I ever feel like she hear me. It’s not like that time when I was sixteen and Cynthie Ann was eighteen and Momma beat her with a bicycle inner tube in the middle of Colgate Street. Momma hated everybody, but she hated Cynthie Ann the most. Was jealous of her own daughter. Was jealous of all the men that she wanted for herself, but they couldn’t keep they eyes off her daughter. Cynthie Ann two little boys watched the whole thing with the rest of our neighbors. I had left home already, but Cynthie Ann was still living in the same back room we grew up in. Happy Jack called me and I made it in time to look Momma in her drunk eyes and plead with her—try to get her to stop, but she cussed me. Called me nappy headed and ugly. Told me it wasn’t my business. Told me to leave. That was the first time she put me out.

This time she say, “Okay, Opal Jean. Okay. Can we change your gown, at least? Put on a clean one? You want to be clean for your girls, don’t you?”

My babies, Punkin and Sugar, they be here soon. Punkin, my oldest, she gone have a hard time with this. She seven and smart. She gone understand Archie ain’t coming back. He been her favorite always. When I threw him out and tried to teach her to ride her bike, she told me she hated me. She fell, and I didn’t catch her in time. Told me I should of been the one to leave not him. I changed my work schedule after that. Stopped working the noon-to-nine shift and started working the nine-to-five-in-the-morning shift. I wanted to be there when my girls was at home. I wanted to be woke so they would know me, too. After that, we started doing better. They got to know me, but Archie was still Punkin favorite.

Sugar just fifteen months younger than Punkin, but she seem a lot younger in her mind. She little-girl curious and don’t care too much about the working of grown folks. I doubt she gone know what’s going on. She in the same boat as the baby, who ain’t even making sentences yet. She ain’t gone understand too much.

I hesitate at first cause I still can’t believe it’s her here with me through this. Can’t think of who idea this was. Why Cynthie Ann would leave her. But I finally nod my head and do what Momma say when she tell me to lift up my arms so she can pull the gown up over my head. I ain’t got on panties or nothing, but I ain’t worried about hiding myself. Everything in the world done stopped for me. It ought to stop for everybody.

And I kind of understand why Momma here and not gone to get my girls. That it’s something Cynthie Ann trying to do for me in her own little way. My momma hated Archie. Felt like I picked him up out the gutter. Never wanted to understand him. She like Punkin real daddy over Archie. A lying, cheating military man she let me marry when I was almost seventeen. He moved on without me in a year. He left west Texas for the real West, and I left for Dallas to get over him. Lived down there with my momma’s sister. That’s where I met Archie. He was fresh out of prison, living with the older man what raised him. Ain’t never really know his momma. She give him up to a stranger—a friend of the family—a few days after he was born. That man was the only love Archie knew before me.

I was barely pregnant with Punkin when I met Archie. All of us—me, Archie, Punkin, and the man he called Daddy—lived together like a real family until the old man died the same day our second girl was born. And then, chasing family, we moved to west Texas where I promised to share mine with Archie. But Momma hated him from the start. “Nigger ain’t no good. Gone hurt you with his tipping,” she told me in her sour whiskey voice. “That nigger can’t take care of you and no kids.” And the world knew what she thought of him. Even him—he knew what she thought of him.

I thank Cynthie Ann in my head cause now I ain’t got to worry about Momma with my girls. My momma ain’t got soft words that act like a pillow when you fall too hard. We was little kids when my daddy got cancer and his midsection swole up like a grapefruit in his pants, and she went out clubbing with her brother every night. When the ambulance man finally came to take my daddy to the hospital, she didn’t ride with him. She sat in the living room and finished her whiskey. When we cried for our daddy months later, she looked at me and my sister and brothers, straightened the wig on her head, and smoothed the wrinkles out her tight-fitting dancing dress fore turning her back to walk out the door. When she was walking out the house, she said, “Y’all won’t never see him no more. He gone. Dead. He over.”

“Momma,” Punkin calling me and standing right in my face. Her face wet, and her eyes look like she panicking. I sit up and look around, trying to wake up. Trying to come up out the dreamworld I’m still stuck in. The world where Archie breathing, and I finally let him know I done forgave him. Then, I place myself. Cynthie Ann sitting in the chair by the window, trying not to look at nobody, and Sugar standing behind Punkin, who standing right next to the bed, with no expression on her face at all.

“Momma,” she call me again. Her and Sugar climbing into the bed with me. Punkin trying to get me to say something. Anything.

Cynthie Ann nod her head toward the other room, softly put her fingers to her lips, and whisper real gentle, “Punkin, the baby in there sleep. Let—”

Punkin ignore her, like she ain’t said nothing. “Momma, wake up. She said my daddy gone,” she say, pointing at my momma. “Said don’t wake you up cause you sad and daddy—”

“I… I just wanted them to let you sleep. I didn’t know how to say it to them, Opal Jean. Ain’t no right way,” she say.

And it hit me. She done handled my kids the same way she handled us. She done told them they daddy over without giving them no hope for nothing else. “You had no right!” I scream at the doorway she just walked through. I feel one of my girls’ body jump on the bed a little, so I open my arms and let her fall in without really taking my eyes off my momma. I ain’t never raised my voice at her, so I don’t know what come next. The not knowing keep my mouth going and I get all my words out. “You had no right to tell them. They needed to hear it from love.”

Punkin sobbing out loud now. “Where my daddy?” she chanting over and over. But it’s like she ain’t even here. Ain’t nobody here but me and Momma.

“Love?” Momma say more than ask, like my child ain’t even asked no question. “Love? Really, Opal Jean? You think you loved that man? Think you know love?” She start laughing like she nervous or sad, and it make me mad. Ain’t nobody got no right to laugh today. None.

Momma look uncomfortable in her face, so she set her eyes on Cynthie Ann, but Cynthie Ann a coward. She look down at her lap. Momma look at me again. “You too much like me, Opal Jean,” she say, waving her finger at me. “You too strong to love. You ain’t loved him, girl.”

I can’t believe her words. Don’t want to believe them. Don’t even want to understand them, but I eat them. When I was old enough, I left running from Momma house and all the men that wanted to touch me and Cynthie Ann. Momma was always too drunk to notice, so I married too young. All that and I had the nerve to be sad for Archie when I learned his momma never wanted him at all. Made me feel lucky. My momma kept me. And I just want one more day with him.

One more day. I’d tell him I love him, and he should be happy. I’d allow him to do good by that girl, stead of telling him doing the thing he need to do mean losing me. I’d tell him to do what his heart tell him to do in order to be what he need to be.

I feel tears tickling at my eyes, but I ain’t crying out loud like I been doing. I put my face down and let the tears drop in Punkin hair and then I lean in close to kiss the top of her head.

Punkin hair smell like Pink Lotion, like freshness, like love. I take my time combing they hair and oiling they skin when I get them ready for school. I always want to make the world know somebody putting care in them at home. I make sure they have a good breakfast and snacks in they bags and they don’t never have to go to school wondering and worrying about nothing. Don’t never have to worry about leaving home early to find a man or anybody to love them. I don’t never want them to be scared of life, like Cynthie Ann, and I don’t never want them to be too hard for it, like me. And I want them to hug and be hugged by me and by they mens and by they children.

I feel Momma moving in close to us. She moving slow, like a ghost, like she floating in the air or something. I don’t move cause she ain’t moving angry. I’m thinking she gone let me get away with hollering at her.

I hear a new voice. One I ain’t never heard before. “Baby,” it say. And I lift up my head cause I ain’t never in my life heard her call me baby. Still, I can’t get myself to look at her mouth. I look at what she wearing and think maybe she ain’t even in her right mind. I look down at Punkin in my arms and Sugar curled around the back of my body. I shake my head and set my eyes on her again.

“Hell,” I begin. “It ain’t even cold outside. Ain’t even winter. Hell. That’s what you is. Hell. That’s what you ought to feel like.”

“I gave you all I had—all I knew how to give, Opal Jean,” she say real soft like a whisper and hard like the past. “I loved y’all the only way I knowed how.”

And them words that ain’t hers make me move my eyes to her mouth. Her lips dark like they ruined from smoke and liquor, and they trembling in a way I ain’t never seen them do. Even with the red cracks running through them, her eyes look more sad than the usual anger.

“I done lost a husband, but I don’t know how you feel. I ain’t never gave no nigger myself like that. Always thought it was too much. Too soft. What I said before…” she let her words trail off, like she ain’t got none, and she fidgeting with her hands. “Love about taking everything a person be. Everything they do and moving forward. Letting them be something better,” she say, looking over at Cynthie Ann. Like always, Cynthie Ann drop her eyes. Momma add, “I ain’t never wanted to do that.”

I remember my daddy and his grapefruit and him dying and promising us she gone be better. She ain’t gone be clubbing and getting babies by other men after he gone, he promised. Won’t be no more not coming home and liquor and cussing, he promised. And I always thought he believed it, too. Thought if he said it enough, he could make her stay at home with us, like he always tried to do. That he could make her love us.

And then I think about Archie and what he was and what he did, and how I held him in place. How he couldn’t be better after he messed up. How I wouldn’t let him.

“Nuh-uh.” I shake my head. “You can’t go there. You ain’t earned no place to be no comfort to nobody. No wisdom to nobody.” I can feel myself spitting and gritting my teeth. “Archie gone.” I pat my chest. “But that’s mine to carry. I don’t need your help now.”

She tilt her head to the side and it look like her wig gone slide right off her head. Her face look confused for a second and then she just let it all go and that same face go blank. “Your man just died, baby,” she say. Ain’t no confusion in her voice. She sound like she got the nerve to feel sorry for me. Like I’m the pitiful one. “I’m here for you. I’m here for you.”

When I found out Archie was daddy to a child that wasn’t mine, I raised all kind of hell in our house. Put him out and everything. After he come back, we made a quiet deal about it and that made things all right. I ain’t want to be my momma and go out and make myself all right with liquor, rage, and strange men. That ain’t holy. She ain’t holy. I did right by my man and my babies and my marriage. We cut a deal. A good one. We was happy with it. We smiled at each other, and we made love, and we ain’t talk about what he done. Sometimes, I even looked at him and seen him before he was a cheater and I felt love and real happiness and we was all right. Nawh, I don’t need her pity on me.

“Where you was when I needed you all the rest of my life, Momma?” I ask fore I know it. “Where you was when all them drunk men you brought home was peeping through the keyhole? When we needed a comfort?” I say, sweeping my index finger from Cynthie Ann to myself.

Momma eyes get wide like she surprised, like I done told her something she don’t know, like she done ever cared. “I… I,” she say, shaking her head. “What you saying, Opal Jean?”

And her fake dumb piss me off. Make me want to draw a line of clarity like the line I drew in our bed to separate me and Archie. I drew it the very first night I let him come home. I called him over after I put the girls to bed. They had been missing him so till I ain’t know what else to do. When I opened the front door for him, we just stood there looking at each other. Him looking down at me, and me looking up at him. I guess he got it in his head that I needed his long, strong arms around me cause he reached out to grab me. I ain’t let him. I moved back a little bit. Just needed to let him know what he did wasn’t over. I just opened one arm into the house and told him to come on in. That’s when we cut our deal.

I remember his face when he asked. His eyes drooped down and his lips pouted, like he was gone cry. I felt scared, like he was gone make the decision and it was gone be bad for me. It seem like he didn’t talk for a really long time and then he looked deep in my eyes, like he was digging through all of me and asked, “You want me to just act like my child ain’t out there in the world?”

I studied his face. The frown across his lips and the disgust around his eyes made me feel something heavy, something like this ain’t right. I don’t know why it made me think about the day the old man that raised him died. Archie grieved that man out in the open and I was his only comfort. He laid his head across my lap and cried like I had just gave birth to him. We sat like that for hours before he said all stern, like a man that hadn’t never been broke down, “No matter what, Opal Jean, my kids gone have a father.” And I was thinking of that when I cleared the guilt out of my throat and said, “It’s the only way. You got to erase her in your mind,” I said, pointing my index finger at my own temple. “She can’t exist if we gone be. That’s the only way.”

And he nodded and accepted it. After that he tried to grab my hand and lead me to the bedroom, but I swatted him off and let him follow me there. I let him lay me down and touch me and make up with me, but when we was through I told him, “I’m not ready to be held by you. Touched by you. I need my own side of the bed. I need it to be mine. You over there, and me right here.”

So I drew the line and unless he was inside me, he stuck to it and I didn’t change my mind.

I make my eyes as hard and as tough as I did that night Archie come back. “You don’t get to play confused till you sorry about everything. Sorry for Cynthie Ann looking for love cause you ain’t never told her what it is. Sorry for how Daddy died without your attention. You don’t get to be no comfort. You do—”

“I gave you the best I knowed how,” she say, raising her voice and moving closer to the bed. Her face look angry and I see Cynthie Ann wringing her hands the way she do when she know Momma about to lose her mind. “I wasn’t born no goddamn mule with no goddamn book about how to be no wife and momma. I gave y’all what I had left in me,” she say, patting her chest like she tired. “I still needed something for myself,” she add in a quiet voice.

“Shit. Might of been wrong more than anybody want to admit they wrong, but I thought I was right about that boy. I thought he wasn’t no good. I could see him tipping out on you.” She almost whispering now cause Punkin cries done died out, and we talking like we know her and Sugar done dozed off on us.

She said that when I brought him to her house for the first time. Soon as he walked out the door she said, “Nigger ain’t no good.” Archie had been so nervous about meeting my family. He was a nervous sweater, so by the time we parked outside my momma house, his clothes was dripping. He just wanted my family to be his. He was perfect that day. When we walked into Momma house through the side door—through the part of the house that used to be the garage—she was sitting legs wide open on the edge of her velvet floral-patterned love seat with a clear plastic cup in her hand and a cigarette resting in the side of her mouth. She had on a dingy, white silk gown that showed everybody who cared just how saggy her old titties was. She ain’t try to adjust herself. Close her legs or nothing. She ain’t even speak to us when we walked in. Just sat there till I finally said, “Momma, this my husband, Archie.” Archie stepped around me and stuck his hand out to shake hers, but she looked up at him and chuckled.

“Humph. Don’t look like who I signed you over to.” She waved a lazy hand toward the couch that matched her love seat and said, “Sit down. Tell me about you.”

Archie let his hand fall against his pants and smiled like he was nervous. “Yes, ma’am,” he said and sat down to be grilled and mocked by her for over an hour.

When I had had enough of her, I told Archie I’d meet him and the girls in the car. And when I was sure he couldn’t hear me, I let her know that Archie and me could live in peace without her blessing. That’s when she cursed us. When she said, “Nigger ain’t no good. Gone hurt you with his tipping.”

She come so close to the bed that her knees touching the edge. I hold out two fingers, telling her to stop without using my mouth. She look down at her hands like she nervous or something. She sigh real deep and say, “I guess I was wrong, Opal Jean. Archie come in there that day, and I saw something ugly in him. But I guess I was wrong…” She let her words slide off into nothing.

But she wasn’t wrong. She wasn’t. She was right all along. Archie was a tipper—a cheater and a liar, and even with all that, I couldn’t walk away. I couldn’t be how she always tried to make me be. I stayed with him and made like I was hard when I wasn’t. And if what she say about love is right. Letting a person be theyself. Letting them mess up and move forward, grow from it and if still loving them through it is the right way to love, I’m the one been wrong all along.

I don't want her to be right about Archie. About me. If she right about us, then she might be right about doing the best she could when we was kids. And just that thought alone make me want to break apart and spill all over the floor. But I can’t. I need to be strong for my babies. I got three girls. One day I’m gone need to teach them about men—try to teach them, like Momma doing me.

So I don’t say nothing. I just start shuffling my babies around so they laying on the bed and not on me. Cynthie Ann stand up with her arms pinned to her side, but she don’t move from her corner. She just there like she always was. I slide out the bed and smell puke and sex on me, but I still move toward her.

I want to kick and punch her for every bullet she allowed to be shot in her house when we was little—for Cynthie Ann being scared of life—for me being too hard to live soft, like a woman. Cause she ain’t never give a damn about what she did to us. And I want her to be Archie, so I can tell him how he broke my heart—how all I needed was a little more time to be whole again. How he cheated all over again when he took my time this morning. I want to tell him that all I need is another day with him to be all right.

But all I got is her. Standing at the foot of my bed, looking like a damned fool. All I got is her. Her breathing heavy and her red eyes daring me to make a wrong move. I stand there looking at the eyes that watched me suffer my whole life and wonder how she still here. Still alive.


About the author

LaToya Watkins holds a PhD from the University of Texas, Dallas. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Sun, McSweeney’s, West Branch, and elsewhere. She is a 2018 A Public Space Fellow.

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