My father was the landlord of a small apartment building, so I had lots of neighbors growing up. My father was also a busy gambler, so some of my neighbors took care of me after school. Don’t ask about my mother. The building always had new tenants, people coming and trying and failing and going. I don’t remember most of my babysitters, their faces having blurred into an ambiguous mask of ageless brownish-skinned androgyny.
But there is one who I still think of, always returning to one moment with one particular neighbor. I’m not sure I ever knew her name, and if I did I certainly can’t recall it now. She was tall and not thin but not fat either. A strong-bodied woman who met me at the bus stop and walked me back to her apartment, where I sat and smelled the various lotions and creams she concocted in her kitchen. She let me help de-shell vanilla beans or pick rosemary from the pots on her windowsill. She was Black, and I loved to watch the different colored lotions get lost in her night sky skin as she tested them, streaking them onto her arms and rubbing them in like herbal-scented shooting stars.
But what captivated me most about my neighbor was the way she wore her hair: piled high on top of her head, completely covered and neatly wrapped in a different scarf every day. Flower-pattern, striped, leopard print, the silken knots always expertly tied and sitting just so, making her look so regal I thought she must secretly be rich. I longed to see what was under those scarves, to know what framed her face and warmed her neck when she was alone, to know the truth about her. I spent hours imagining what her hair might look like. Languid waves that flowed to the small of her back; thick, slick dreads that climbed down from her skull; a natural nest of afro that she somehow pinned and prodded into those scarves every morning. Just thinking about it kept me up at night.
And then one day we were standing at the stove, stirring a mixture of honey, lemons, and something else. She moved the wooden spoon while I held the pot. Suddenly she stopped stirring, handed me the spoon, and stepped away from the stove. I heard a sound, soft as feathers rubbing against each other, and turned to see her unraveling the scarf from her head. My heart stopped. She stood there, my royal neighbor, in the middle of her kitchen with the uneven floorboards and chipped paint job, water stains traversing the ceiling, and looked right into my eyes as she let the scarf fall to the floor.
I cried instantly. I couldn’t have dreamt of anything more perfect. The greatest gift of my life were those five or so seconds when she stood there and let me look at her, her form watery and awash with light she must have made herself, because the windows in my father’s building were made with the thickest of glass. I wanted to run to her, to nuzzle my face into her neck and put a lock of her hair in my mouth, to suck from it some essence that I didn’t have but was ravenous for.
Instead my neighbor raised her eyebrows and looked meaningfully over my shoulder. I had stopped stirring the pot and turned with a start, the spoon releasing something into the air that smelled like sunshine. When I turned back she already had the scarf back on and her fingers were deftly tying, sealing everything back up. The room was dark and dingy again but now I could see the dust floating in the air like magic.
I never saw that neighbor again. She must have moved out the next day. Someone else must have picked me up from the bus stop. Soon I was old enough to come home on my own, and then old enough to not come home ever again. Sometimes I look for my old neighbor, but I know I won’t find her until she wants me to. Until she figures out how badly I still need her.
Rachel Attias has a BA in English from Skidmore College. Please don’t ask her what she plans to do with it. Her work can be found elsewhere in Nailed Magazine and Cheap Pop.