My Dictator

Tiphanie Yanique

I was lifting weights at the gym. On account of my loose joints, I’m always twisting and spraining. I was only lifting small three-pound dumbbells. Pink dumbbells, so you know that even the gym thinks they’re girlie. Which is fine, since I’m a girl. But still. Anyway, I couldn’t figure at first why they chose me. A girl lifting three-pound pink dumbbells doesn’t seem promising. Plus, I had that brace on my knee from volleyball practice. I was injured or at least I looked like I was. Wearing a brace on the team just meant that you played hard, played well, and you know, our team was up for island-wide championships. As always. But I digress. They didn’t really choose me. I was staring at him. So of course it would be me.

When the dictator came in, I knew what he was. He was short, dark skin. Heavy-framed black glasses. Old tight skin and a balding head. A green track suit with blinging red trim. Our school gym was open to public membership, since our school is the only school on island with a real campus. Like a stateside campus. The dictator could have gone to Gold’s Gym or to St. Thomas Work Out Center, but ours is up in the hills and has a view. It also offers yoga and massage therapy. Yoga is an elective for seniors. But I’m only a junior. The point is that the dictator could afford any gym he wanted on island but that ours was the nicest. Our campus is like a little oasis or something. A little paradise in the Virgin Islands.

So there he was sweating away on the elliptical machine. His bodyguards on either side cool and calm in CIA-style suits and ear pieces. I really wanted to talk to the dictator. Especially because I knew all about it. Dictatorship, I mean. From the Africa chapter in the history book. And also because the dictator was the only other brown person, I mean black person, in the gym. I mean his bodyguards were black, too, but you know bodyguards aren’t like there to be personable; not there to be people at all. So the dictator and I were the only ones of African descent in the whole gym. Though he was the only full-on African, so African that he was an African dictator. But not me.

My dad is black and my mom is white and I’ve never been to Africa. Still, I felt like I should go up to him. Small talk. Make the dictator feel comfortable. Though I was super popular, star of the volleyball team, better legs than any girl in 11th grade, I sometimes felt weird, even awful at the school. Like I was too tall or too something. Especially around the teachers, who treated me like an experiment. A social science experiment. Like, will the half-black, half-Virgin Islands girl be both black and a Virgin Islander? Worse, they treated my mom like she was a fragile martyr for like having sex with a local island man and for birthing me.

So I did go the dictator. Kinda. I just went up to the stair machine right next to the dictator who was on the elliptical and I started climbing. It wasn’t feeling so good on my knee but I still tried to smile at him. But his bodyguards were guarding and the dictator was so focused on gliding across like the snow of Alaska or something. I could hear a little bit of the music from his white ear buds and it sounded like the stuff my dad listened to when I visited him. Pan-African rhythms, my dad said. Was it Fela Kuti? I started climbing to the beat. One of the bodyguards looked over at me and smiled. Approval or something. I smiled back. He whispered something into his earpiece and the dictator looked over at him, then looked over at me.

The dictator’s face was stern. He looked at my knee and the stair machine. He shook his head like he disapproved. I slowed down. He kept staring at my face and then my knee until I slowed to a stop. Then he gave me like a softer face. Nodded and went back to the magazine he was looking at even as he kept gliding on. The Economist, I could tell because it’s what my mother reads. Plus, it made sense. You know, for a dictator. I went to the mats to stretch. And I was so glad that my teammates were all in yoga and so didn’t see the whole thing. Me getting almost scolded by an African dictator. So embarrassing.

It wasn’t until after I’d taken a shower and come out with my street clothes and went to wait outside for my mom that they made their move. They came out of the gym with a suitcase. The old-fashioned kind, like what my dad used when he left my mom. Big and leather and without wheels. It took the two bodyguards to carry it but when they saw me they put it right in my arms. It was heavier than three pounds for sure and awkward to carry. I thought about dropping it. Letting it go. My loose wrists. But then the African dictator appeared and he was clean and fresh from the showers and smelled like the bark of a tree. And he was wearing white and his skin looked so dark but not old any more. More like something expensive. Like he was worth something. A lot of something.

He stood beside me, me carrying this serious suitcase, and though it was wintertime it was still hot, we’re in the Caribbean after all, even if it’s still the U.S. Virgin Islands. I didn’t want anyone to come out and see me like this. With them. But then the dictator quietly and careful fastened a pair of sunglass covers over his glasses. And we all, the bodyguards, me holding the baggage, the dictator, stared out at the setting sun. Like it was a clock ticking. As soon as it dipped behind the mountains the dictator spoke. “Run,” he said. “Run.” And I knew what he meant because he was running and the bodyguards were running and so I ran too. Towards a black car, whose back door popped open and we all dived in. Suitcase and all. And there he was. My dad. Who I hadn’t seen in months, even though he lives on island. But on a different part, a very different part than me and mom.

I felt my wrist pop but still I reached over my dad’s suitcase and over the driver’s seat where he was, and put my hands on his chest. And I felt his heart beating like any human’s or animal’s. Then we sped away. And I’ve been on this side ever since.

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