An Excerpt from CARTIER CARTEL
by Nisa Santiago
1997 The Declaration
The loud rumbling in Cartier’s stomach kept her awake all night. Her mother, Trina, promised that she was stepping out with a male friend and would return shortly with an order from the Chinese restaurant. Cartier waited up, desperately, until she finally realized she would go to bed hungry, again. Cartier’s mother often put her own needs before the needs of her child. But leaving Cartier hungry was going too far.
Cartier didn’t wait for the alarm clock to ring before getting ready for school. She was already dressed and waiting on her best friend, Monya, to meet her so they could walk to school together.
Cartier sat on the windowsill of the quiet, messy apartment and looked at the street down below. Buses zoomed up and down the boulevard, while pedestrians made their way to work and school. Soon she spotted her mother walking down the block in a micro-mini skirt, waist-length leather jacket, and stilettos. It was deathly cold outside, but that didn’t stop her mother from dressing so scantily. Trina’s dyed blond hair against her dark chocolate skin grabbed everyone’s attention. And her walk—more like a bop—was priceless. Cartier often joked that even Stevie Wonder would recognize Trina’s walk.
At thirty-two, Trina still possessed the shape of her youth. She was petite up top with A-cup breasts, wide hips, a round ass, and thick thighs. Her stomach was washboard flat, showing no signs that she’d ever given birth. Trina was severely bowlegged, but instead of hobbling, she switched her hips hard, so hard it served her desired purpose—a distinctive strut that men loved and found sexy.
The closer Trina got to the apartment, the angrier Cartier became. She watched her mother casually stroll to the tenement building without a care in the world, although their refrigerator echoed from a lack of food and the cupboards were bare. Where is she coming from? Cartier wondered.
When Trina realized she was being watched, her eyes instinctively looked up to the window. Her smile quickly faded when she saw the glare in Cartier’s eyes. She knew she’d fucked up. She also knew she would have to hear her young daughter’s mouth about not coming home last night. After she climbed the two flights of steps to the apartment, she wasn’t in the mood to listen to Cartier’s foul mouth.
“Where were you?” Cartier screamed. “I waited and waited all night for you.”
Shaking her head, Trina began her explanation. “I told that motherfucker I needed to get home, but he wasn’t tryna let me go.”
“What do you mean he wouldn’t let you go? You’re grown!”
“You know how KP is.” Trina paused for emphasis and then began taking off her jacket. “I told him it was over and the next thing I knew we were having breakup sex.”
“That motherfucker was like, ‘Now take this . . . take my baby . . . now you’re gonna be with me forever.” Trina chuckled, reliving her night of sexual fun.
“You kept me in here starving so you could have sex? With a loser? If you get pregnant that’s one more mouth to feed and you can’t even feed the child you already got.” Cartier was furious at Trina’s immaturity and she also hated that her mother spoke to her as if they were friends.
“You know you’re my only baby. I love only you, and I ain’t having no more kids.”
“You’re not gonna keep rocking me to sleep every minute with your lies!” Cartier yelled. “I’m sick of living like this! I don’t have any clothes and there’s never any food! I’m sick of being poor!”
“See, now that’s where you’re wrong. You’re not gonna put all the baggage on my shoulders. It took two to make you, so you can go and lay some of that blame on your dead father! I done got you through the years that matter the most. It’s time you start doing for yourself around here. You’re fifteen years old. At fifteen, I was already out of my mother’s apartment, living with my man and keeping house—”
“I’m tired of hearing this same ole story,” Cartier interrupted. “It’s getting stale. And you weren’t keeping house. You were playing house and look where that got you.”
Trina was tired and her body was sore from an all-night fuck marathon. She was in no mood to argue a moot point with her daughter. In some ways, Trina was disappointed in Cartier. She felt her daughter lacked the independent nature that Trina had at her age. When Trina was young, if there wasn’t any food in the house, she didn’t wait around to be fed. She went out and got herself something to eat. Whether she walked into a grocery store and stole food or got some trick to buy her something, she made sure she ate.
All Cartier was good for was complaining.
Trina looked at her daughter intently. She was a combination of both her parents. Cartier had Trina’s dark complexion and body, but sadly, she had her father’s features. Cartier’s broad nose and full lips, reminiscent of an African sculpture, were traits inherited from her father. Yet when she smiled, her face softened. Just like her mother, her thick wavy hair was a trait of the Timmonses’, much like her fiery personality.
“If you don’t like living here you can get the fuck out!” Trina yelled. “This is my house and I pay the motherfucking bills up in this crib.”
“And you remind me every day!”
“You damn right I do. If you were smart you would have learned a thing or two from your momma.”
“If school was ever in session with you, maybe I could learn a thing or two from you. But it seems that you’re always out to lunch.”
Trina couldn’t figure out if that was a jab, but she knew it was some slick shit. She could tell by the tone of Cartier’s voice.
“Say something else smart and see if I don’t shove my fist down your throat.”
Cartier recoiled. She feared her mother’s violent nature.
“I need five dollars to buy a ham and cheese hero from the bodega,” Cartier demanded.
“Girl, don’t work my nerves. I don’t have five dollars . . . I might have three. You can buy the sandwich and you’ll have to drink tap water or bum something in school.”
“Jeez, you’re such a great teacher. I guess I’m supposed to learn how to go fuck a nigga all night and come back broke!”
“Cartier Timmons, I will slap you into next week! Keep it up!” Trina threatened. “Now fuck you! Eat your fucking fingers, bitch!”
Trina stormed into her bedroom, slamming her door. Cartier was so annoyed and frustrated by her mother’s actions that she wanted to cry, but she refused. She walked over to the empty refrigerator once more and stared hopelessly into it until she heard Monya knocking on the door. It was time to leave for school.
Cartier flung open the door and peered at her best friend. They had been best friends since they were born. Monya was just as poor as Cartier, they had so much in common, and their mothers were best friends too. The two connected on those levels.
“I heard y’all arguing from down the street,” Monya said as soon as Cartier opened the door.
“What else is new?”
“What happened now?”
“She left me in the house all night without anything to eat,” Cartier said and then grabbed her book-bag.
“Well, in a few days she’ll get her assistance check and then you’ll have food for at least a couple weeks.”
Cartier shook her head. “Nah, I’m gonna have food today!”
“You got money?”
“We won’t need money.”
That day was the first day that either girl stole anything. And neither felt an ounce of guilt behind their actions. Stealing was a survival mechanism. No longer would Cartier look to her mother to feed her. From this day forward she was feeding herself daily. She reveled in her newfound independence.