Hidden behind commercial bodies and their leaky umbrellas, someone blasts Love @ 1st Sight by Mary J. and Method Man. A young boy sits in front of me, tightly and awkwardly between two older women, who likely have wondered what I am wondering: where is his mother? He mouths the words. He repeats the words. The women smile. I smile. But he’s serious and sure and keeps his gaze on his lap. Like he’s comfortable. Or unwilling to share his knowledge. But definitely sure. So sure that if I had asked what you know about Mary J.? he might’ve swung the question right back at me, and I might’ve buckled upon realizing in all likelihood, he’s known this song his whole life. The song ends but the music keeps going. The boy still knows the all the words and meets every note with unhurried mimicry, but the songs are getting worse. In my opinion. After Mary J., it’s that hot shower song. Then it’s a version of a song without the Doja feature, that was damn sure better with the Doja feature. It’s also getting— louder? So is the boy. Five stops later, and we’re all rolling eyes at U and Dat (feat. T. Pain & Kandi Girl).
Back in New York, going uptown means the train gets emptier with each stop—and by emptier I mean all the white people start getting off. Things are different in this city, so once we hit North and Clybourn, I’m barricaded by armpits and wet ponytails. The boy is out of my view, but I’m sure he’s still in his seat, and I can still hear him singing with a breathiness that makes me wonder why he hasn’t stopped. A song with mad violin and an unjustified Luther sample pushes its way through the fragile, unbodied space that we as strangers fight to keep, and more heads turn and more heads point upwards out of books and nooks and cellphones, searching for the source. Let’s be clear: this breach in subway etiquette can be overlooked if you’re playin bops. Otherwise, everyone’s wondering where they headphones at?
We’re approaching Fullerton, and I feel myself growing less bothered, knowing that about fifteen people will pour out once the doors open. Bodies have shuffled, so the boy is in sight again, and I hope someone else will watch over him if I get off before he does. I gently bop my head to Need a Boss by Shareefa featuring Ludacris, a bona fide hood classic. It reminds me of 180 bangs and bamboo earrings, all the neighborhood girls I hated, all the neighborhood girls I loved.
The train stops, and so does the singing. Mom? he calls out. He looks up and pokes his head towards the music. Mom? he calls out, standing. The song goes on and travels closer, and the boy knows to get off the train. The sound begins to fade in the middle of Ciara’s best hook, period, and I know she’s gotten off, too.
On my walk down the stairs at Sheridan, I wonder if the boy started singing again, and if he’s still as sure, or more. I wonder about his mother’s voice —if it’s like his, full of words, full of song. And who she might trust next to beckon him back to her. And if that language was always theirs, evolving and not ever truly known: rising yet falling, fickle but never wrong.
Meghan B. Malachi is a consulting analyst and poet from the Bronx, NY. She is the author of the poetry chapbook The Autodidact (Ethel Zine & Micro Press, 2020). Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Milly Magazine, NECTAR Poetry, Pages Penned in Pandemic, giallo lit, and Writers With Attitude. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.