At first when I call Camille, there is joy, mostly because I've just told her that today her daughter will deliver. There is a quick conversation about logistics, about how to get Camille from Chicago to the hospital in Wilmington. But it goes sour as soon as I tell her that she will have to stay out of the birthing room. Camille is a hard woman with a soft exterior. Her style is curt and polite. So she does not explode on the phone—she simply tells me that she'll speak to Kenyatta when she gets here. I hang up, unsure and ill at ease. When I turn to Kenyatta, she is only half-lucid and approaching an ugly contraction: I don't know what to do with your mother. I tried to tell her, but she said she wanted to talk to you. Kenyatta looks past me, hyperventilating and squinting her brow. When the contraction subsides, she looks over at me, and now the steel is all in her. Her voice is low and impolite: Ta-Nehisi, I can't deal with this right now. You have to handle it.
After setting me straight, she leans her head to the side, half-burying it in a pillow, searching for some relief. Every so often a nurse walks into the room, asks Kenyatta if she needs more painkillers, and then checks her dilation. The thick drapes in the room are drawn tight, and between the darkness and the air-conditioning, I start to lose track of time. Kenyatta is only fully aware at the moment when a contraction peaks and punches its way through her trunk.
I met Kenyatta while we were students at Howard University. I was a romantic back then, with a preternatural ability to fall for girls I hadn't exchanged two words with. Lucky for me, when I finally did exchange words with Kenyatta we had a lot in common. We both considered ourselves intellectuals, and loved nothing more than to get drunk, get high, and then argue over some obscure point about debt peonage or feudalism. This is how I knew I'd found my match.