A Short Story from Alexia Arthurs's Upcoming Collection, 'How to Love a Jamaican'
A local murder haunts a woman.
All photographs by Miranda Barnes
This story appears in VICE magazine's 11th annual Fiction Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.
For Shao Tong
Tiffany can’t sleep when she hears that police found Jia Yi, the missing international student, dead in the trunk of her car, and that the man she’d been spending her time with had already flown back to China. While the news anchor called the male companion “a person of interest,” it was only known for certain that someone had stuffed Jia Yi in the trunk of her car as though she was less than a person. Consumed with thinking of her, mourning this woman she’d never known, Tiffany has come to be haunted by Jia’s ghost. When she eventually falls asleep in the early hours of the morning, she dreams that Jia whispers her killer’s name in her ears. And isn’t this what Tiffany’s mother prayed against? She worried that she would lose her daughter tragically in America, a place that, according to the television and newspapers, took daughters and later spit out their bones. Tiffany had ignored her mother, even laughed at her because she believed her mother to be too country, too afraid of the world. But if it happened to someone else’s daughter, who’s to say that it couldn’t happen to her?
† † †
Your first time to America, Iowa isn’t where you expect to end up. Midwestern towns are at times charming, and stretches of farmland have been thought to be beautiful, but Iowa isn’t the kind of place Jamaicans talk about when they talk about America. Before Tiffany came here, whenever she told people back home that she was moving to Iowa because a school offered her a track scholarship, they screwed up their faces because they’d only heard of the well-known places in the States. So she started to tell people that she was going to a place near Chicago because Chicago might have been a place they’d heard of before. Sometimes, when things were really bad, she said, “Near where Oprah used to live.”
Tiffany started running for the reasons all children run: the ground fleshy under her feet, a day thick with possibility, and how else to keep up? And then she discovered running a second time because it was a way to beat and impress her brother. When they were children, Timothy’s favorite game was to tease his sister, like calling her “coconut head” because her hair was short. Whenever he played in the yard with the boys who lived in the house next door, he refused to include Tiffany. She sat on the steps in front of the house to watch them play football or marbles, and sometimes she was bold enough to ask if she could join them. While the other boys wouldn’t have minded, her brother always told her to leave them alone. She didn’t know why he disliked her so much. It wasn’t until she was older that she could look back to see that he resented her for taking up all the attention when she was born premature. Their parents were so relieved that she lived that their gratitude looked like favoritism.
At first, when Tiffany realized that she couldn’t gain the affection of her brother, she carried her complaints to her parents, who made Timothy play with her. But this never really worked; it just made her brother resent her even more. So she started returning his resentment with her own. When he called her “coconut head,” she called him “fat head.” And when he looked at her as though he would have stepped on her if she were a cockroach, she laughed in his face. But underneath her laughter, she still yearned for her brother’s love.
Early one evening, Tiffany’s mother sent her to call Timothy from behind the school where he was playing with his friends because it was almost dinnertime. The school was a short distance from their house, so Tiffany ran all the way there. Those days, if Tiffany could run somewhere, even when it was preferable that she walked because she was, for example, wearing church shoes, she ran. That day, once she got to the back of the school, a large grassy area where students took recess, she expected Timothy and his friends to be playing cricket, but instead she saw that they were about to race. Their bodies were bent in the starting position she’d seen people on the television take. One of her brother’s friends was a distance away from the rest, so she assumed that he was the person who would say “On your mark, set, go!” As she walked across to where her brother and his friends were crouched, they started running, and without thinking about it, she joined the race. When she beat all of them, Timothy and his friends looked at her as though although they’d known her for a long time, they’d only just thought to really look at her. One of them asked Timothy, “Mek yuh neva tell mi seh yuh likkle sistah can run?” After that, Timothy often called upon Tiffany to race his friends and classmates in order to prove that he wasn’t lying when he said that his little sister could beat anybody.
† † †
When Tiffany wakes up, the ghost of Jia Yi is on the front and the back of her mind because when she had drawn near to whisper, she’d been close enough that Tiffany could have touched her. She wakes early, to the winter sun streaming through the window, and her roommate’s loud snoring that is a surprise to hear when compared to her petite frame. Sometime during the night, Tiffany became overheated, which is why her comforter is lying on the ground. She lifts it onto the bed, enclosing her body in a darker cave of morning, willing herself to fall back asleep to see if Jia Yi comes again to whisper her killer’s name. The name had felt on the tip of Tiffany’s tongue because it had been one of those dreams that touched the living world.
Jia does come back, though this time they are sitting across from each other in one of the Chinese restaurants in town. Jia is eating a dish that looks more traditional than the chicken and broccoli in front of Tiffany, which means that she must have ordered from the traditional menu. Jia is eating quickly, sometimes pausing to look at her phone, and she isn’t paying any mind to Tiffany. It isn’t until she picks up her bag and brings her tray to the garbage bin that Tiffany realizes that she was mistaken in thinking that they were eating together when in fact they were strangers sitting across from each other in a restaurant crowded during lunch hour. Jia’s hair is long and black, hanging to the middle of her back. Before she leaves the restaurant, she looks behind her in the direction of where she had been sitting, presumably to see if she left anything behind. Looking at her face, Tiffany remembers that the news anchor said that she was 20, but she could pass for 16.
Tiffany’s roommate, Taylor, is shaking her awake, asking if she plans to miss the 8 AM class they have together. Tiffany considers this: The introduction to psychology class allows one absence, which she hasn’t used as yet. “I’m tired,” she lies. “Take notes for me?” Taylor agrees easily, her heavily lined eyes appraising Tiffany because she’s never skipped class before. Taylor is a white girl from a small town in Iowa, and Tiffany suspects that besides Taylor’s boyfriend, she is the only other black person she’s had close contact with, and definitely the first foreigner she’s known with any kind of intimacy. Taylor is kind but annoying. She would take off her Victoria Secret sweatpants with the word pink on her ass to lend to Tiffany, but she’s chattier than Tiffany would prefer in a roommate. She teases Tiffany that she is a Jamaican who won’t smoke weed with her, and who won’t let her smoke in their dorm room. “I didn’t come to America to smoke weed,” Tiffany says, even though she knows that Taylor won’t understand what she means. She doesn’t add that she’s never smoked weed because she knows that Taylor is stupid enough to be shocked by this fact.
Taylor gets her weed from her boyfriend, Kevin, a tall, black guy from Chicago, who Tiffany thinks looks too sleepy-eyed to be a bio-chem major. Mostly he ignores Tiffany, and she ignores him, when she isn’t looking at him through the corner of her eyes. She’s decided that he’s almost handsome from the right angle. White men on campus look through and around her, so it hurt her to meet this black man who behaved as though she wasn’t anyone to get to know. This is how come Tiffany was surprised when, as usual, she came into the room to see that Taylor had gone to class and left Kevin on her computer, and when she grunted hello and closed the door, he was behind her, then he was pushing her against the door, and looking down at her as though it wasn’t anything, as though he didn’t have a girlfriend and Tiffany wasn’t his girlfriend’s roommate, and soon they were naked and tangled in Tiffany’s bed, and it was hot, and she had thought: So this is what they call fucking. She’d only ever been with another man, and sex with him was an affectionate, cautious introduction. Taylor came back to see that Kevin was still using her computer, and Tiffany was taking a shower. Later, Tiffany was surprised to remember that it had been her who initiated things, reaching up to kiss Kevin, wrapping her legs around him.
She lies in bed now, listening to Taylor bustle around the room, emerging out of the bathroom with glossy lips, reentering and then reemerging with her hair pulled into a ponytail. Tiffany realizes that the dream in the restaurant had felt as sharp as a memory. And couldn’t it have happened? Couldn’t she have sat across from Jia Yi and it wouldn’t have meant a thing? Tiffany would have barely looked at her, registering her as another Asian student on campus, forgettable, invisible, not like how she would take in the person sitting across from her, maybe even to speak to her, if it had been a black girl she didn’t know. America, the land of diversity, where people only talk to who they think it’s most useful to talk to.
As soon as Taylor leaves, pulling the door shut behind her, Tiffany buries herself under the comforter. But sleep won’t come to her. Jia Yi won’t come back to her.
† † †
Tiffany was sure that God made her to run. Running made her feel as though the world carried her on its wings. Whenever she suffered some social atrocity, like the time the boys in her class made a list of the prettiest girls and hadn’t included her, she reminded herself that someday when she won a gold medal at the Olympics, Jamaicans would dance in the streets. So what if her first boyfriend left her for another girl in their grade? Left her even though he had held her hand and promised that the loss of her virginity to him would be a safe thing. So what if her father’s affair led to an outside child and the dissolution of her parent’s marriage? She could not look at either of her parents without feeling sorry for them. But she had running, so she would manage.
We make plans, and God laughs. That’s what people say. Maybe for the rest of her life she will be asking: If not running, what am I here for? But it could be that the answer doesn’t matter because no answer could ever compare. She never imagined that she wouldn’t be good enough. Four years in a row, she tried out for the island-wide youth competition, the same competition that the Olympians she looked up to had raced and won. Every year she had come last in her category, girls ages 14–18, tears running down her face when she crossed the finish line. People said she had potential. Two trainers offered to work with her to see how she would improve. She asked herself: What is the point if I’m not the best? It wasn’t that she was cocky, but it was a cleaner, more vibrant feeling. What she’d felt for all those years, how far she believed that her running would take her, is what people call faith.
Later, when the recruiters from American universities came to Jamaica, her mother pushed her to try out. Tiffany wasn’t surprised to hear that she was good enough for an athletic scholarship. And her family, especially her mother, had been so thrilled that running could take her so far, that it seemed her only option was to smile as though she too was proud.
† † †
Midday Tiffany wakes from a different dream. She had been leading in a race against Kevin, Taylor, and Jia Yi, but at the finish line, her teeth started to fall from her mouth into her hands. She leaves the dormitory for a frappe at one of the coffee shops downtown. She jogs past students to and from classes in a sweatshirt with the school’s athletic logo that is almost too warm for the sunny mid-March day. She figures that sugar, that cure-all, will calm her nerves. In the last few months, she’d become addicted to frappes because Taylor works as a barista and occasionally brings drinks home. Tiffany is looking into the window of the Taiwanese teashop, when Duane taps her on the shoulder, which causes her to flinch dramatically.
“Everything alright with you?” He looks her over carefully. She’d felt someone come up behind her. But she hadn’t seen anyone. She’d only felt the person bump into her, and then for some reason she was certain the person had entered the teashop, though she had no reason for thinking so. But she can’t tell Duane any of this, can she?
“Do you believe in ghosts?” she asks.
“Ghosts? Why are you asking me about ghosts?”
“I had a weird experience at home, and just now someone I didn’t see bumped my shoulder.”
He laughs. “Tiffany, yuh no memba when mi say yuh fi be’ave yuhself?” He’s referring to a recent time when he saw her and her fellow underage teammates downing shots at a bar.
“Mi nah play! Yuh believe in duppy?”
“My professor was saying that most of the universe is dark matter, which means that we really don’t know what’s out there,” he says, talking in his serious way that is adorable to Tiffany. “So if yuh saying that yuh being haunted by a duppy, it no matter wah mi believe.”
“It’s Jia Yi.
“Di Chinese girl dey find dead?! You knew her? I had a class with her.”
“You had a class wid her? What was she like? Mi nevah know her.”
“She was nice. One time we ha’ fi work together. She laughed nuff. She didn’t like The Invisible Man. Are you sure that the situation nah mess wid your head? Maybe the fact that everyone a talk ’bout her?” He was watching her carefully. He was the only person who knew about the pills the psychiatrist prescribed.
“Dat must be what’s happening.”
“Yuh sound doubtful. Listen, mi ha’ fi run. Let’s touch base later.”
Tiffany turns to watch him go. His mother is a Jamaican Chinese woman who runs a small foodstuff store with his father, a black Jamaican. People on campus never believe that he’s Jamaican. Before she started hooking up with Kevin, they hung out almost romantically. Duane would cook curry chicken, they’d watch a movie, and inevitably the night would end with kissing. He’d been recruited to run too, but he had no passion for it, which Tiffany envied. It was merely a means to what he wanted, and it had worked, as he was off to medical school in Cuba in the fall. There was a girl back home he wanted to marry when he was old enough. He felt that too many Jamaicans were quick to forget their country, relocating to foreign economies. He wanted to earn his degrees and return home.
† † †
The last time Tiffany spoke to her mother, she told her that the team won the last meet though this was a lie. She also told her mother that she has decided to become a nurse, because this seems like an honorable enough profession, but really she can’t think of anything else to become. Before Tiffany decided on a major, her mother would say some variation of, “Tiffany I know yuh wan’ fi run, but yuh cyan guarantee dat.” In moments like those, to distract her mother, Tiffany would tell stories about Taylor’s family because her mother likes to hear stories about white people almost as much as Taylor likes to share them. There is the fact that Taylor’s sister and her husband are getting divorced because her sister was having an affair with a woman. There is also the fact that Taylor discovered a sex toy in her mother’s chest of drawers, which surprised her because her father is such a conservative man. Tiffany’s mother would ask some variation of, “Mi wonder if all white people mek it ah habit fi chat dem family business like dat?” Tiffany described the downtown area to her mother: a few streets crowded with bars and restaurants, clothing stores touting local brands, two banks, and several churches. She described the coffee shop where Taylor is a barista—by opening at 5:30 AM people have started to line up at the door. “Coo yah!” her mother said, surprised to learn about the caffeinated destiny of that treasured blue mountain coffee that Jamaica exported. The cold Tiffany could barely manage, but the snow, she told her mother, made everything quiet, which she liked.
But there is plenty Tiffany doesn’t tell her mother. She doesn’t tell her mother about her first few months here, when running couldn’t save her, when it couldn’t do a thing for her. The cold weather depressed her, the dark mornings kept her spirits low, and she craved a fulfilling plate of food. One restaurant in town served what the menu called a “jerk burger,” and Tiffany had been so excited by the idea of Jamaican food that she hadn’t considered that the menu’s definition of jerk could be different from what she anticipated. When the beef patty came covered in jerk sauce and mango salsa, she was so disappointed that she almost wanted to cry. She missed Champion, her overfed dog, who licked her feet when she sat on the veranda. And she missed the veranda, where she loved to sit idle, sometimes clipping and filing her nails, other times reading one of the romance books a friend loaned her, and she would call out to neighbors as they walked past. The daughter of two secondary school teachers, she had been raised on middle-class pride in a house her parents built from the ground up. But that upbringing where she was raised neither poor nor rich was no more, now that her father lived with the other woman, her brother moved to another parish, and her mother rented out the bedrooms so that she wouldn’t have to live alone.
In America, Tiffany yearns for someone who understands her. Duane tries, but inevitably they misunderstand each other. He doesn’t understand why she isn’t happier at the chance of an American education, and she doesn’t understand how he’s assimilated so quickly to American life. He has a friend, Jamal from Philadelphia, the other black guy on the team who translates things for him. Once, Tiffany heard Duane say to Jamal, “Tell me about African Americans.” Most of the other girls on the track and field team are white, plenty of them Iowan or from places that to Tiffany might as well be Iowa. There is another black girl, who had been recruited from Kenya, but she wants to forget where she came from. She pays Tiffany little attention, preferring to hang out with the white girls, and speaks as though she is trying to strip Nairobi from her voice.
Tiffany would have stopped going to practice if it didn’t mean that she would lose her scholarship, and she knew that she would be ashamed to return to Jamaica empty-handed. But her lack of interest showed, and the coach reprimanded her. He advised her to see a counselor and warned how easy it was to lose an athletic scholarship and be sent home. He was a man with a warm, open face and a receding hairline, and at first, he had seemed like an ally, but sitting in his office, Tiffany believed that he had the ability to send her home. When she went crying to Duane, he let her on to the unspoken expectation that international athletes were expected to carry the team—to train harder, to run and jump farther. Later, when Tiffany saw the school psychologist, she was referred to a psychiatrist, who wrote a prescription for pills that helped with the daily task of living.
Tiffany was sure that she was meant to be famous. She was sure that the time would come when Jamaicans would memorize her first and last name when they watched her on their televisions representing Jamaica at the Olympics. Instead, she is in the middle of a country that isn’t home to her, a country where women like her are more memorable dead than alive. That’s the only way she’ll end up on anyone’s television. Her body would be flown back home, and her mother, who believes that America is where young girls come to die, would be quick to tell everyone that this is exactly what she expected to happen, all her fears realized.
† † †
Once, Tiffany and Kevin went on a date together. It was at the beginning of the semester in late January, when they’d first started sleeping together. Taylor was visiting family for the weekend, so they’d driven 30 minutes in a car Kevin borrowed from a friend to a bigger city, where they were to meet up with his cousin Wayne, who was visiting his child. Kevin kept the radio turned up, and at stoplights, he’d rub Tiffany’s thigh. They ate in a restaurant that served Chinese food on pizza crust. She was disappointed to discover that they had little to say to each other. He was quiet by nature, and she didn’t know how to open him up. They talked about classes, their birth order, and the weather, before she had the right idea of what to say when they returned to the car.
“Why didn’t you stay in Chicago for school?” she asked, buckling her seatbelt.
He looked at her. “Why didn’t you stay in Jamaica?”
“I wanted to, but here they were offering to pay my tuition.”
“Same with me. My mother said it was a waste not to come. But being around so many white people makes me nervous.”
“What about Taylor?”
“What about her?”
He laughed. “So I’ve observed.”
He put the key in the ignition, and they rode silently for a while. Tiffany wanted to discuss the nature of their relationship, but she didn’t know what to say. She thought it was sloppy how he pursued her in the very same room she shared with Taylor. It was almost as though he wanted to get caught. They were driving through the downtown area. It was larger, and more energetic than where they went to school. She’d been told that it was the capital of Iowa.
“Before I came to America, I never heard of Iowa,” she said.
“You heard of Chicago though right?”
“Yeah, Oprah used to live there, and that rapper who said that the president didn’t care about black people.”
“You mean Kanye.” He laughed. “That was a long time ago. I don’t know that Kanye cares about black people anymore.”
Wayne was waiting for them in front of an exhausted-looking apartment complex. He was a short, wide man in his late 20s wearing a T-shirt with Biggie’s face on it. In fact, he looked like Biggie himself. “What happened to the white girl?” he said, stooping to look into the car. Kevin laughed a response. He and Wayne went into the house together. A little while later, Kevin returned, smelling of marijuana. He asked Tiffany if she wanted to come inside.
The apartment was the very definition of disorder. It was as though no one ever thought to put anything in its place. The center table was covered with empty food cartons, a pee-soaked diaper, various body care and makeup tubes, a few packages of condoms, and a bowl of soggy cereal. A beautiful white woman sat on the couch holding a sleeping toddler, whose brown face was caked in something he had eaten. When Tiffany sat next to her, she responded with a soft, vacant “hi,” before returning to her phone.Across from them, Kevin and Wayne were sitting at the dining table having a heated conversation about a cousin, who was marrying a man they disliked. Twenty, then 30 minutes passed. Tiffany wanted to use the bathroom, but she was afraid of what would meet her there. The beautiful white woman left the sleeping toddler on the couch, picked up her purse and jacket, and slammed the front door behind her. She was wearing red leather pants, which made Tiffany think that she had someplace to be. Kevin and Wayne looked momentarily surprised, but then continued talking. “He called me a self-hating black man because my baby mother is white,” Wayne was saying. “I told him, ‘How you mean? Pussy is pussy.’” Kevin laughed. Wanye continued, “He said that black people in the Midwest date hick-minded white people. I said to Tracy, ‘Where you find this high and mighty nigga at?’ ‘The club,’ she said.” He and Kevin laughed. Tiffany stood. Wayne turned toward her. “My cousin says you run,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, waiting for whatever came next.
“What’s your nationality?” he said, studying her carefully.
“She’s Jamaican,” Kevin said brightly, as though it was something he was proud of.
“Whaa gwan,” Wayne said, laughing, but no one else joined him. He became serious. “Why are Jamaicans such fast runners?”
“Because it’s a small island,” Kevin said.
Wayne looked to him. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“It’s a limited gene pool.”
“Interesting. I hadn’t thought of that.” He turned back to Tiffany. “What do you think? What’s your name again?”
“I wish I knew,” she said. She was annoyed, but she didn’t know why. “Where is the bathroom?”
Behind her, she could hear Wayne asking, “Did I say something to offend your girl?”
Later, when Tiffany and Kevin returned to campus, at the desolate corner where they would part ways, she asked, “What do you and Taylor talk about?” She’d observed that they mostly lay in bed together watching Netflix. Apparently, they both loved to laugh. Kevin looked at her for a long moment. He was surprised. Perhaps, she would later consider, that right then he was deciding never to ask her out again. Perhaps, he was thinking, that if he only slept with her, it would be better for everyone involved. “Everything,” he said, but he seemed unsure.
† † †
The news anchor said that the man identified as Jia Yi’s boyfriend confided in a friend that he was displeased because she was seeing other men. Jia Yi’s alleged desires presented on the television and the newspapers for public digestion, and Tiffany is wondering what if it had been her in that trunk. Everyone would know that she had carried on with another woman’s man. People would hear about her and believe that murder was the kind of thing to happen to a promiscuous girl. This is what Tiffany is thinking as Kevin pulls off her panties.
They don’t talk. Kevin grunts, she moans, and sometimes he says dirty things to her. He looks at her lustfully, and though she is flattered, she knows that to him she is a piece of ass. Still, he could be possessive. In the beginning, he’d asked if she was sleeping with anyone else, and when Tiffany said that she wasn’t, he’d nodded appreciatively. When he found out through the black student grapevine that she’d been hanging out with Duane, he texted her, “My friend says that you’re a hoe. Is that true?” Later when she was upset, he apologized, claiming that he had been drinking, but it was obvious that for him their relationship didn’t have room for anyone else.
During sex, Tiffany tries not to make extended eye contact because something deep and disastrous is forming for him for these moments when his hands are on her breasts and then on her ass and then on her breasts again, and she’s wondering if he smiles like this when he’s with Taylor, if his hands are as busy for a white girl with small breasts and an ass that barely separates from her back. Taylor’s father hadn’t been pleased to hear that she was dating a black man. When Kevin heard about it, he broke up with her first, but later they reconciled. As far as Taylor’s father knows, she’d broken up with Kevin the previous semester. But Tiffany sees Kevin holding Taylor’s hand on campus, which means that in this threesome of a relationship, she’s the biggest fool. Tiffany doesn’t want to believe this, so she shakes her head because she doesn’t want to be a fool, shakes her head because this is already complicated enough without adding feelings to the equation, shakes her head because she isn’t the kind of girl to be along with another girl’s man. But Kevin mistakes it as a symptom of the sex being good, so he grabs her hair to keep her steady, and she reaches for his other hand, holding it gently, lovingly. She isn’t the first, and she won’t be the last woman to baptize her sorrows into the arms of a man. When she is with Kevin, it’s easy to forget that America is a lonely place.
Tiffany’s about to climax—it’s coming any moment now—when the ghost of Jia Yi looks through her window. Tiffany screams and sits up abruptly, pushing Kevin off her. He looks around, terrified, certain that Taylor has walked into the room. When he sees that his girlfriend isn’t there, he asks, “What is it?” But Tiffany doesn’t look at him. She’s looking through the window to confirm that there isn’t a tree or a fire escape or any other way for someone to climb to the third floor. After the Taiwanese teashop, Jia Yi stayed away for three days, which gave Tiffany the opportunity to rationalize the haunting as evidence of her imagination. Now, she is quickly picking her clothes off the floor and dressing, and then she picks up Kevin’s clothes and throws them at him. He looks at her with the slow realization that this thing they have is over. He asks the question of a man humbled by disappointment, “What happened?” But Tiffany doesn’t answer him. How can she explain that her sins had been reflected on the face of a dead girl? She goes into the bathroom, where she peels off her clothes once again and takes a shower, soaping her body and rinsing, and repeating this process twice more, all the while crying and wondering if she is going crazy.
She isn’t even sure that she believes in ghosts. When she was a child, Miss Palmer—the woman next door, who her mother fell out with—died before they could make up back. Tiffany overheard her mother telling her father that some funny things had been happening in the house. Her mother said that several times while she had been cooking pork, she turned around for a moment, and somehow the fire under the pots had been put out. Miss Palmer had believed that eating pork was sinful. One time when her mother was taking a midday nap, she felt someone push their hand through the open window to put their hand on her head, combing their fingers through her hair. She jumped out of her sleep and looked out the window, but no one was there. Miss Palmer had been notorious for putting her hand in people’s hair. Later, Tiffany’s mother would have the church pastor come to pray over the house, and after that, she never brought up Miss Palmer again.
† † †
A week later, Tiffany attends Jia Yi’s memorial service. She’s come directly from training, so she’s wearing sneakers and sweaty athletic clothes under her coat, but even if she had come in proper clothes, she would have still held back, standing a distance from the service, leaning against a tree. There are a little more than 200 people, most of them Asian, circled around a table with lit candles and a photograph of Jia Yi. The director of the international studies program is speaking, saying obvious things, the only things to say: Jia Yi was kind, intelligent, her death a loss because what a future and the things that could have been. When the candles are blown out, and everyone is dispersing, Tiffany looks up at the sky, remembering a conversation she’d had with her father.
She’d gone home for winter break and when she visited her father, the woman he’d chosen over her mother was conveniently visiting her own mother with their love child. Tiffany and her father sat at the dining table eating the simple dinner of saltfish and green bananas he had prepared.
“So wah yuh think Tiffany? Jamaica too small fi yuh?”
“You know, you and I always alike. We nevah content. I remember when you was likkle and I went to Panama and brought back a doll for you. You looked at me and asked, ‘Wha’ else?’” He laughed.
“Is that why you lef’ mommy? Because yuh can nevah content?”
“I respect your mother. She gave me two children. I met your mother when I was a young man.”
There was a long pause.
“You know I fret over you,” he said, and it was obvious that he was deliberately changing the subject.
“Fret over me why?”
“Yuh tek everything so serious. I don’t want America fi swallow my one girl pickney. The otha day I couldn’t sleep. I was looking at the sky and thinking it’s the same sky you see in Iowa. I prayed for you. Yuh know how long since mi pray?”
That night, Tiffany dreams that she catches a fish. In the dream, she is fishing in the river where her father taught her to swim, but then the river becomes the university’s aquatic center. She stands on the bank of the pool holding the fish in her arms like it is a baby. Its face is almost human. She returns it to the water.
† † †
Eventually, the ghost of Jia Yi stopped visiting her. Once, Tiffany saw her running on the treadmill at the gym, her long black hair tied up in a ponytail, and another time when Tiffany turned a corner in the library, Jia looked up from a table scattered with papers and textbooks, lifting a hot beverage from a local coffee shop to her lips. Slowly she disappeared from Tiffany’s dreams, her reality, and never again did she whisper her killer’s name.
Six months later, what happened to Jia Yi is still unresolved. If there is heaven, perhaps there is a support group for women whose deaths don’t have the dignity of closure for those who loved and knew them, and maybe this is where Jia Yi has gone. Only occasionally does Tiffany remember her. And when she does remember Jia Yi, it’s with regret for all of the times she failed to notice her.
A short story from Alexia Arthurs's upcoming collection, How to Love a Jamaican, out July 24, 2018, from Ballantine. © Alexia Arthurs