Growing up, I’m Daddy’s little girl. I love when I’m with him and he sings to me. The song I request most often is “Scarlet Ribbons.”
When he and Mommy separate, I only get to see him on weekends. Friday quickly becomes the best day of the week for me. Mommy has remarried a white man named Bob Blair. It’s the 60s and the civil rights movement is well underway. He lives with us in an all-Black neighborhood. This is not an easy time for a white man and a black woman in an interracial marriage. Mommy works nights and Bob Blair works days, so when I get home from school it’s just Bob Blair, me, and my younger siblings alone with him.
For years, Monday through Thursday, when Bob Blair touches me, I quickly press an imaginary button in my head and turn on “Scarlett Ribbons” so I can focus on the song and tune out his alcohol-ridden breath and the disgusting odor of his sweaty body hair. I squeeze my eyes and thighs tightly shut, while wishing my Daddy would pick me up bearing a handful of those beautiful scarlett ribbons.
But, reality reveals itself anyway. No matter how hard I try to close off my entrance, Bob Blair always manages to pry my legs apart to invade it. I try to hear Scarlet Ribbons again. I try to press the play button. But I can’t hear it anymore, not over his cruel words, delivered with stinking hot breath. “If you tell anyone,” he warns, “I am going to kill you Nigger! Then I am going to kill your mother and your father and make you an orphan.”
Years later, long after I’m out of the house and away from Bob Blair and his nasty ways, I’m still traumatized. Desperate to escape the lingering mental torture, I spend 21 years, from 1978-1999, smoking crack.
You can’t run from reality for that long without some serious consequences. By the end, my wardrobe consists of somebody’s stained trench coat, a Victoria’s Secret Teddy, some flip flops and a rag on my head. And, I think I look damn good.
I do nasty things with nasty people. I say “yes” when I want to say ‘no.” My own mother closes her door in my face, during one of the coldest winter nights ever, for fear that I’ll steal the heat. Eventually, I’m not Zoe anymore. I’m 99G0947, compliments of The Department Of Corrections.
During my mess, the only two people who love me unconditionally are my husband Bill and my best friend Quretta. No matter my condition, how bad I look or smell, they’re there for me. I get locked up for close to three years, but I won’t let anyone come visit me. I just write letters. I know I’m still sick in many ways, and I have already put my loved ones through enough.
On July 17th, 2001 I return to the world. When I get out, the only thing I’m certain of is that I do not want to get high ever again.
But when I return to the world, Bill is gone. While I was locked up, he’d been sentenced to ten years. There’s no time to say goodbye, to engage in a long kiss, or make love one last time. I immediately make the decision to do every day of Bill’s sentence with him.
During the time Bill is in jail, my legal status prevents me from ever visiting him, until the day he’s released. Our communication is limited to phone calls and letters. He instructs me to focus on myself, and that is exactly what I do. I work full-time while also attending school. I self-publish my first book entitled, “Poetic Recovery, Life Don’t Rhyme.” I carve out a career for myself and commit myself to recreating a new me for me.
When Bill is released, I’m ready for him. I get my husband back, and soon I’m offered a new job, complete with a decent salary and of course more responsibility. The job description says I will be responsible for providing eight teenage mothers with empowerment tools to help steer them towards self-sufficiency and independent living. It will require more information than I’m equipped with, and a how-to book will not suffice for this group. My area of expertise is that of a Substance Abuse Specialist.
This is when I become acquainted with Bottomless Closet, a dynamic organization, and take workshops in Personal Enrichment, Financial Development and Professional Development. During these workshops I receive handouts that I copy and reuse while facilitating similar workshops with my clients. I incorporate resume writing, creating a budget, proper attire in the workplace and etiquette. Each week I take what I learn at Bottomless Closet and teach others. I never run out of material. As a result, I’ve made myself more relevant in my position at work and have developed a strong desire to do more for the lives of the young teenage mothers I service.
Living a full life after adversity is a beautiful thing. Not only do I work doing what I love, I also have freedom. I can visit whom I wish. I can choose what I wish to wear and have much more than a trench coat and a teddy to choose from. I read my mail first, create my own menu and have keys to come and go as I please!
Bill and I have been together now for 38 years. We often reflect on the lives we’ve lived and survived. At the end of the day, before lying down for a good night’s rest, we make sure to make each other laugh before turning out the lights. We praise God daily for his grace and mercy because there were many close calls.
I’m no longer 99G0947. I am Zoe again. My name means life, and I am living it to the fullest.