His mother had actually named him Valmonde. This was not just some shit he made up. He was from Haiti, where people spoke French, ate croissants and pretended that they were white. They bequeathed all first-born sons with names very much like his own; appellations like Jean-Pierre and Jacques and François and probably even fucking Napoleon, for all I knew. Yes, Valmonde was from Haiti, where everyone was supposed to live in big mansions, go to fancy parties and be well versed in Prudhomme and Mistral.
I never understood why so many of these folks decided to forsake all that luxury to move to the United Sates. But they did. There was not a year of my childhood that I did not encounter swarms of them washing up on some beach in Miami, along with the candy wrappers and coke cans that defiled the shore, disfigured but not destroyed by the journey.
Maybe they wanted to slum it? Maybe they wanted to gain an understanding of the Jamals and Frankies of the world, the American blacks whom they often dismissed as ghetto and lower class – ‘los untouchables’ – people beyond reproach because no reproach could touch them? Maybe they aspired to rent apartments, no bigger or better than mine, so that they could truly appreciate their experiences at Versailles? Or maybe they just got sick of all that fucking voodoo and the real misery that had defined their existences in the Caribbean. I only had to read two books about the place to learn that it wasn’t all that. No better than here. But still this kid, Valmonde, walked the narrow streets of pushers and prostitutes, of drop-outs and bums too depressed to buy in, like he was some kind of king. He didn’t seem to understand that Liberty City was a land of peasants.
‘My name is Valmonde, and I am from good Haiti,’ he’d say every time he met someone new. He always felt the need to clarify that he was not American.
‘Who cares, Valmonde,’ most people would reply, irritated. ‘Who cares.’ No one did. I didn’t. In those days, people didn’t even expend the energy to care for themselves, let alone some skinny, long-limbed kid with a face like a roach and flesh so dark it sucked in sunlight like a vacuum, who strutted the streets like he was better than you.
That didn’t mean I wanted some thug to stab him in the chest, though. But that’s what happened. Early in the morning, when all life was especially lazy, hanging beneath a lusterless sky of homogenous grey. I saw it with my own eyes. I went to him and, collapsing on to the ground by his side, found myself hoisting his heavy head on to my knee. I took my fresh white shirt off and pressed it to the wound to try to stop the bleeding. I wanted to scream for help but knew there would be no one to hear me if I did. This morning wasn’t special. This kid was going to die. There was nothing I could do. His eyes were wet and foggy, as though he’d just come from the optometrist’s. His black pupils floated around, suspended in pools of pink, fighting to focus on mine. But they did, eventually. It was then that I saw that he wasn’t much older than I was then, sixteen and some months at the most.
‘My name is Valmonde,’ he choked. At first I didn’t respond. I didn’t know what to say. And then it came to me: my identity. In that moment of fear and confusion, I realized that it was all I had. It is all anyone does.
‘Valmonde?’ I called out, nervously, ‘I’m – I’m Jamal.’ I took his hand in mine and shook it, gently. I felt his body warm, and for a second, he looked like more than simply flesh and bones. A series of hard, abbreviated breaths pushed through his full purple lips, blowing hot air on to my face like a broken fan.
‘You know Jamal,’ he coughed, ‘that I was from good Haiti?’
‘I know brother,’ I said, ‘I know.’