My head turned away from the raindrop-streaked reflection in the cracked window. A young woman in a striped dress with a shiny pin labeled 'Janet' stood in the doorway. Her ponytail was flawless. She reminded me of the cheerleaders back in college.
“Can I let her in?” Janet asked. She seemed just as surprised as I was.
I gave her a silent, almost imperceptible nod. The woman beckoned to someone outside, and I heard some feet shuffling closer to the door. At first, it seemed like no one was there, but then I lowered my eyes and noticed the young child standing beside her. She took a few ginger steps into the room as if she was a porcelain doll that would shatter from one misstep. Janet muttered something about "managing the reception desk" and left, her blond hair nearly getting caught as the door closed behind her.
The girl's almond eyes surveyed the room and landed on me. I shifted slightly, my joints complaining loudly from decades of inactivity. She dragged a chair towards me, but she was so small she had to climb into the seat.
“Where are your parents?” I blurted, wondering what a child, of all people, was doing in an underfunded treatment center for colored folk.
“They’re dead,” she said flatly.
“Oh,” I said quietly, and suddenly without warning, my eyes started to water. I blinked back the tears, surprised at the empathy I was feeling. I placed a hand gently on the child's arm and she looked up, startled. "I've also lost someone I loved," I admitted.
The girl's expression softened. "Do you remember who?"
It took me a moment to attach a person with the memory of grief. “It was my… husband.” The word tasted strange on my lips. I had been widowed for decades now.
“Did you love him?” the girl asked with unexpected interest.
I thought back to my first meeting with Hiro, so long ago but yet so much clearer than today. He had been kind, tall, and handsome whereas I was short, brash, and 4 years his senior. There was something in his smile that fluttered my heart every time I walked by him, that filled me with hope a mixed girl could end up with a Jap.
I looked at the scratched golden band on my ring finger, by now permanently glued to my skin. "Yes," I answered simply.
The girl nodded as if she could read the thoughts stretching beyond my words. "How did he die?" she asked.
This time the answer came quickly. “He fought in the War. They couldn't recover his body but apparently he had saved another soldier's life.”
“Something Smith. Matt, no Mark...Max” I snapped my fingers. “Ah yes, it was Maximus Smith.”
“They must've been super close,” the girl remarked.
I snorted. “Ha! Close? Smith was the biggest racist I knew. He'd call Hiro - my husband - a traitor or spy even though you had to be a natural-born citizen to fight if you were Japanese." I gave an insincere laugh. "But I reckon he fancied me. Must’ve thought I was white.”
"What'd the others think? Did they believe him?" the girl said, worry creeping into her voice.
"Most of them didn't, and Hiro was pretty likable. But the commander, or my father I guess -"
"Father?" the girl interrupted.
I rubbed my temples. "If you want to put it technically, yes, but he was never a true father. He left my mother, a pregnant Black woman, out on the streets, forced her to raise and provide for two children, and then returned two decades later. At that time, I had finished law school, but the firms didn't want someone like me. So I lived with my mother as I looked for other opportunities, and one day, a man arrived at our door. He was white and slightly bent-over with sandy brown hair. He told us that he was my father, and had come to seek 'amends'."
I paused to let an old wave of red-hot emotions wash over me, but it still hadn't evaporated by the time I continued speaking.
"As much as I didn't want to believe it, Ma confirmed his words. He offered me a post in the AirCorps, which by then was as embroiled in the war effort as the rest of the US. So I agreed. I had no other choice. By that time, it was either the Aircorps or…”
“Nothing,” I added hastily. The girl looked at me suspiciously, but she didn't press further.
“How was your father like?”
I pursed my lips into a thin grimace. “Racist all the time. Clueless when he was sober, but when he was drunk-” I rubbed the joints in my wrinkled fingers. “-it made glad he had missed so much of my life. At least he didn't tell them the truth.”
I remembered how I incorrectly filled in the application form that declared I was white. How I would cake on layers of foundation and powder every day to make my skin a little paler, a little whiter, a little bit more acceptable. I smiled slightly, remembering that despite my best attempts, Hiro had known who I was all along.
"Nothing could change the way I feel about you," he had said to me in the mess hall one midnight, "I love you. Will you marry-"
"Hello?" called the girl faintly, interrupting my train of thought. I snapped back to the present.
"Sorry, what did you say?"
“I thought Ms. Janet said you had Alzheimer’s. How do you remember all these specific details?” she burst out in one breath. She looked towards the ground. “Sorry,” she muttered.
I smiled warmly. “Don’t apologize. Diseases are tricky. Sometimes when you lose the present, all you have left is the past." I sighed. "I don't even know what's going on outside of these walls. What are the headlines like?"
A million thoughts seemed to pass through the girl's mind.
“King is leading a march today,” she finally answered
“To D.C. It’s streaming live on cable.” The girl looked around the sparsely decorated room. "Though...I guess you can't really watch it anyway."
I shrugged. “But he was a great man that Dr. King," I said approvingly. "Ma knew his parents. They grew up in the same neighborhood. King Sr. even helped her get a job when she was pregnant with me, and I think the Missus would take care of Lewis when ma was busy.”
For the first time in the conversation, the girl smiled slightly. She opened her mouth to say something, but then the grandfather clock clang several times behind her.
She jumped to her feet. "I have to go..."
I clumsily rolled my wheelchair towards her, stopping her words in their tracks. “Who did you say you were again?” I asked, forgetting if she or Janet had ever provided a name.
The girl only looked at me sadly and pulled out a letter. I unfolded it and looked at the loopy handwriting on her birth certificate reading: 'Kathryn Shima'.
Several moments passed before I regained my voice. “I should’ve known," I mumbled.
"Yes," said Kathryn. “I’m your granddaughter, Eloise Shima.”