Front Porchhttps://i1.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/ac04.jpg?fit=1080%2C1319&ssl=110801319Taylor ByasTaylor Byashttps://i1.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Taylor-Byas.jpg?fit=96%2C96&ssl=1
Tiana and her father had few things in common, and for this, they blamed her mother’s selfishness. When Tiana was only 4, her parents stood over her one night after she’d fallen asleep, her stuffed snake twined around her neck. As her mother pulled her blanket up over her body, her father whispered his deepest fear into the dim of her bedroom’s green night light.
“She looks nothing like me.”
And he was right. Besides the small dimpling of her chin and the full-blown cleft of his, Tiana had taken mostly after her mother. As she barreled towards her teen years, the lack of resemblance would only become clearer as Tiana simply filled the mold her mother had given her, right down to the petite nose, the thick eyebrows, the widow’s peak.
That night, when Tiana’s father breathed those words so he wouldn’t wake her, her mother said nothing in return. She made no joke, offered nothing in the form of her usual laughter. Tiana’s father, who was well versed in his wife’s body language, noticed instead how she nearly flinched at his statement, how in the air between them it had taken the shape of something much more dangerous than doubt.
Tiana would never hear of this night, nor the argument that finally boiled to the surface nearly a month later—her mother pleading with her father to keep your voice down, she’s upstairs asleep. Her father never had the heart to take the paternity test, could never bring himself to rule out the possibility of his blood running through her veins.
But one of the few things Tiana and her father did share was their observant nature, and as Tiana got older, she pieced the truth together from the rare snippets she harvested from her parents’ late night bouts down the hall. When she had gotten herself into trouble, her parents would discuss her punishments before bed, her father often tiring from her mother’s suggestions before saying “She’s your daughter after all.” Then her mother’s shame-filled silence, because there was no rebuttal for what he refused to forgive. Hours after the argument was over, Tiana’s father would still be staring into the darkness of the room, trying to decide if he could ever make peace with her betrayal.
Once Tiana caught, she started to resent her mother for the distance between her and her father, how he was there but just out of reach. On paper, he was ideal. He was at all of her basketball games, had countless photographs of her gripping the bases of different trophies throughout the years in his phone. When she asked for it, he transferred money into her bank account or handed her a few bills from his wallet for the mall without question. He grilled her first boyfriend beneath the weak heat of the living room lamp before letting them go to the movies. But Tiana and her father never talked, had never really connected. Their bonding consisted mostly of watching NBA games together, talking at the screen instead of each other. Some days, Tiana’s father found it hard to look at her and see none of himself. Some days, Tiana noticed and felt deep shame for not being what he wanted her to be.
One night when she 16, Tiana walked out to the front porch to find her father rocking in his wooden chair after midnight, a lit cigarette pinched between his thumb and index finger. The house was quiet save for the throaty chorus of the crickets out in the yard. Hearing her soft footsteps, her father looked in her direction and raised the cigarette to his lips, the orange tip eating its way towards his fingers.
“Can’t sleep?” Tiana asked. She wasn’t sure what made her ask, what made her take the other rocking chair next to her father and stare out into the moon-bleached grass. Her father tipped his head back, blew a perfect smoke ring into the air. She watched it dissolve into a ghost before the wind carried its remains out to the street.
“Never easy for me to sleep,” he said. He tapped his cigarette’s ash onto the deck’s wood and kicked it without much conviction. “What you still doin’ up?”
“Same reason, I guess.” Tiana watched the fiery ash die out on the porch like a firefly losing its light. “Lot on my mind.” Her father’s responding laugh was one syllable, an abbreviated chuckle loud enough to unsettle a few birds in the yard’s trees.
“You too young to have a lot on your mind, girl,” he smirked, and Tiana found herself smiling at one of his old phrases, a saying he used to smooth out her worried brow when she was younger—once, when she’d lost a fourth grade spelling bee and frowned the whole way home, another time, when she was just beginning to fret about where babies came from, and he’d mumbled the phrase before loudly calling for her mother. He turned towards her smile, drawn to the bright of her teeth like a mosquito to a flame. “You gon tell me about it?”
Tiana knew that this was the only way he knew how to ask, that he would never be the type to say that he wanted to know flat out. Her father was the king of cavalier, taking another slow drag of his cigarette while internally willing his daughter to let him in. Neither one dared to make eye contact.
“I don’t know,” she said. It would be too much to unload years of questions and hurt right now. She wasn’t sure that she’d even formed the right words yet, if she was even ready for the answers to her own questions. So she opted for taking it slow. “I don’t know, but this is nice. Being out here.”
Her father knew that there was a with you hanging between them, and he let it sit, heavy as late August heat. It was nice, to know that she wanted to talk, to know the door was now open. He huffed another laugh. “Yeah. Sure is nice.”
When Tiana turned to finally look in her father’s direction, he was already looking back at her, smoke tumbling from his nostrils and covering the soft smile on his lips. The smoke ghosted its way to her face, and its gentle lick on her cheeks was almost like her father’s hand reaching out to touch her. She closed her eyes, leaned into it.
Taylor Byas is a Black Chicago native currently living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is now a second year PhD student and Yates scholar at the University of Cincinnati, and an Assistant Features Editor for The Rumpus. She was the 1st place winner of both the Poetry Super Highway and the Frontier Poetry Award for New Poets Contests, and a finalist for the Frontier OPEN Prize. Her chapbook, Bloodwarm, is forthcoming from Variant Lit this summer. You can find her on Twitter @TaylorByas3, or at https://www.taylorbyas.com/. She is represented by Rena Rossner of the Deborah Harris Agency.