Tiles and Suits

In my other life I’m good at dominoes.

Image: UnknownNet Photography

I know a lot of folks who’re pretty good at dominoes, but my mom is probably the best. She spends ten, fifteen, twenty minutes leaning over the table. Then she’ll lift her tile, feinting towards one end, just to slap it like a fly or a buzzer on the other. If you’ve got anything resembling an advantage over her on the board, she’ll probably talk about your mother. If you’re really far ahead, she’ll talk about your mother’s mother, too. But, mostly, she just wins, upending everyone’s drinks in the process, and it doesn’t matter because in dominoes, all that counts is the W.

When I was young, my parents threw a ton of parties. We packed our kitchen in East Texas with our Not-White neighbors — all of the Jamaicans and Cubans and Filipinos crowding the block, sipping Red Stripe and chewing coco bread and gossiping around the obvious fact of our other-ness. Eventually, someone would wonder aloud if we had a stray folding table around, and maybe a pack of dominoes in the vicinity of said table; and, at that point, one of us kids was tasked with fishing it out of the attic. The group that had fit so cleanly into suburbia slipped back into the Patois and Spanglish of their youth.

They played for hours. They’d bet paychecks and win them back. One time, some Good Samaritans called the cops on our place, swearing they’d heard a mugging or some sort of brawl. These were my first encounters with the America inside of America, the America that is America, which wasn’t Captain Planet or Britney Spears or white boys saving their dogs. Everyone left their reticence at the door, reclaiming what they’d sacrificed for their day-jobs and their neighbors, because the game brought it out in them, all of it, at once, and it felt foreign and warm and wholly familiar.

I decided that I wanted that. Whatever it was. Everything else would make sense afterwards.

There are a few things you need to be successful at dominoes, but the game’s foremost requirement is balls. That is nonnegotiable. You cannot not have balls and be a successful dominoes player, the same way that you cannot not have balls and make it as a recent immigrant in this country. So when I asked my mom, a year or two ago, how she got so fucking good, she chalked it all up to her childhood in Jamaica.

At one point, for years, she worked in a market, singing and selling off wares for tourists. She made it to Tampa from the island, back in the day, paying for every little thing on her own.

We didn’t have anything, she told me, but we had a board. So I played.

And you mastered it, I said, and my mom shook her head.

I worked all day. We played whenever.

That’s it?

You need anything else?

I told her I just thought it’d be different. And she told me that it wasn’t. They had nothing, she said, but everyone owned a board. So they made something from it. That’s what being Jamaican was.

I asked if she thought I’d ever get to that point, and she told me that it was possible. That I very well might. But I’d never had nothing. I’d never tap danced in the market for tips. I hadn’t climbed trees to pick their fruit with my bare fucking hands. A bus ferried me to school, it wasn’t sporadically closed on the whims of the government, and the word ‘hunger’, for me, was an abstract, weekend-based thing. I hadn’t grown up on the island. And it just wasn’t the same. So, no, actually, I probably wouldn’t. I didn’t have that brashness. I didn’t upturn whole counters. There was a fire in the game that I couldn’t manifest, could not conjure out of the blue, and in my bubble it wasn’t an issue, but then I’d come home and my mom would just sigh.

I remember when I realized what it could do. I was stuck with my mom and one of her friends, another thirty-ish Jamaican stuck in Houston’s sprawl. This woman usually wore her dreads long, but now they were disheveled, like she’d rushed out in the middle of an appointment and hadn’t make it back. I now know that she’d been navigating a nasty divorce, one of those irremediable affairs that fucks you up for a half-life, but, to me, back then, she just looked tired. She’d sip from her mug full of wine and laugh.

My mom and her friend touched on everything but The Problem, and after another bottle, the woman pulled some dominoes out from under her sofa. They played slowly, methodically, exchanging words every few minutes. Halfway though, my mom’s friend began to cry. Softly, and then all at once. Shoulders shaking and everything. And my mom paused, briefly, shaking her head, but after what felt like a reasonable silence she set a tile on the board.

What happened next is one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen in my life: the other woman smiled. She wiped some tears from her face. Then she jumped from her cushion, stretching the length of the board, and slammed her tile behind my mom’s yelling BOOYAKA! BOOYAKA! Then she settled back onto the pillows. My mom laughed. Her friend laughed. For a moment, it looked like they’d come out the other side.

We drove out of the city, onto the 10, and through a long stretch of nothing before I asked my mom why she’d let her win. My mom only shrugged. She said it didn’t matter. When I asked her again, she told me to please shut up.

Another thing you need for dominoes is an intellectual curiosity. Whenever I tell Americans this, there are forty-four looks they give me simultaneously. None of them is agreement. These people are generally always white. Dominoes is leaving your country in the middle of the night, with no grasp of your new nation’s language whatsoever. It’s washing dishes, for decades, for basically no pay, to qualify for loans at astronomical rates. It’s trading every visible facet of your heritage for another, molding it into an over-commercialized variant, and slipping back only in the most familiar of company, in the safety of your home, over a game of dominoes, let’s say.

The finest game I’ve seen was between my mother and her father. I’d never met him before, and didn’t think much about the fact of his existence. We were on the island for the summer, way up in the mountains, having already driven for hours, before walking who knows how far, until we ended up in this village with run-down houses and open sewage, and kids running uphill on rocks, and limbs leaning from open windows, when my mom looked up mid-stroll and said “Hey dad.”

Dude was the oldest man I’d ever seen in my life. He sat around this table with other old men, nearly identical. My mom introduced us, her family, and we shook my grandfather’s hand, and he glazed over the four of us before he turned back to the group. Of course there were dominoes on the table. My mom didn’t ask to play. She just sat right across from him and started arranging tiles. She had this look on her face, one I’d never seen before, and I haven’t seen it since, on her face, or anyone else’s.

I thought something important would happen, like he’d explain his apparent absence, or they’d fall into some sort of story, or she’d berate him for staying away. But what happened was nothing. We stood watching them play. No one said a word, and the men around us tittered.

They didn’t finish their game. I took a picture of them afterwards. My mom’s sitting in her father’s lap, shaded under a cap, smiling. Looking at that photo, you’d never know unless you knew. I kept it on a flash drive, and I kept that on a key ring, and I never had it printed it but I liked having it around.

Nine years later, moving from one shitty apartment to another, I stopped at a rest-stop, and two hundred miles later I realized that flash drive was gone. I drove all the way back. I got on my knees in this fucking bathroom. I pulled at the tile for like an hour before the cashier came in and asked me what the hell I was doing.

Once, I asked my mom if I had it in me to be a real Jamaican. She didn’t even look up when she said, Who knows, anything’s possible.

After the presidential election, but before Fidel Castro’s death, I ended up back in Texas. I didn’t want to go. I had plenty of excuses. But I showed up anyways, and the house was full, and most of the faces were familiar, all of them varying in shades of black and brown. There was a new hush, sort of, like an underlying unsettledness, one I imagine had settled over the whole county, but then my mom, if only a little quieter, asked if anyone was up for a game, and someone else yelped yes, and a table was found, and we may as well have found ourselves in another country entirely.

I sat by my mom’s shoulder while she handled the board. I was a little drunk by then. It felt nice, and I may have said so. The players spoke in patois, which I understand, but can’t speak, and for the first time in weeks just existing didn’t feel like an effort. As the game came to a close, the table turned tense, and the talk became bolder. My mom asked me to help with her hand. She wondered what she should choose, the two or the four, and I told her the two, and she said the four felt heavy. The guy on her left told her the four. The one on the right told her the two. The lady sitting across from us asked if we weren’t just cheating.

My mother looked at all of them. And then she looked at me. And she stood slowly, raising her hand, and we inhaled as it wavered.

In My Other Life, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2016.