Names were supposed to mean something, weren't they? A stamp on a person. An identity to be claimed and molded. Words spoken from another's lips. A name is a legacy. A name is a shield. But, what was left to protect?
It had been months since Adonis' fight with Pretty Ricky Conlan, and his head was still spinning. Amongst the spilled blood, the blaring lights of the stadium, Donnie felt…strange. The crowd roared. They cheered his name. Creed. Creed. Creed. But that name was never his. It was nothing but a hollow mask didn't even fit right. His father was Apollo Creed, the greatest boxer in history. But…what more than that? And what less?
Rocky had given strict orders for Adonis to rest, over exertion would only lead to more problems, and even with Donnie's promise to take it easy, he still found himself inside the gym, feeling the weight of a punch bag against his knuckles.
Everyone knew Apollo Creed. But no one knew who he was. Who he really was. Westerners only believe what they want to believe.
"I haven't forgotten you, Baba," Donnie whispered as the sandbag swayed through the air like an apparition. It beckoned him. Called to him. Laughed at him. No matter how hard Adonis punched, its taunt would never fully be wiped from his mind. It was a stain on his bones.
They'd never believe that Apollo Creed, the man who stole America's heart, and climbed his way to the top of the boxing world, was not American at all. Western exceptionalism was always the greatest myth, especially here in the United States. Americans loved to believe that they were great because they were chosen to be. But really, that was just a lie. Apollo Creed, was Wakandan. The isolated nation that not even Tony Stark, with all of his assets, charm, and western privilege, could gain access to. Apollo was of Wakandan blood, and so was his son, N'Jadaka. But N'Jadaka was gone and now, the world knew him by a different name.
"Adonis, I thought I told you to rest." Uncle Rocky had found him.
"Sorry Unc." Adonis grabbed the sand bag, and steadied its swing. His ears were still ringing, and if he were going to get chewed out by his Uncle Rocky, he'd want to hear it once, and not have it be repeated. "I just couldn't concentrate, is all. Too much on my mind, ya'know?" It wasn't a lie.
Rocky rubbed his chin, and tilted his bowler hat to the side, for a second, he looked like he had hopped out of The Godfather. Rocky was a man of experience, and Adonis always forgot that. Despite Rocky's upbringing, his career as a fighter, and whatever else the old man had been through, he still had a clearer vision than anyone Adonis had met…in the West, at least. Whenever Adonis tried to hide the truth, Rocky could see through it instantly.
"Come on kid," Rocky said, "Let's go get some breakfast."
It would be hours before Adriane's Restaurant opened to the public. Sometimes, Rocky would come here in the early hours of the morning just to find something he felt he had lost. Adonis never asked him why, he felt like it wasn't his place.
"What's your poison, kid? You know I make a mean omelet." Rocky reached into the kitchen cabinets and pulled out a frying pan.
"An omelet sounds nice." Adonis walked over to the refrigerator, "But, I've gotta watch my intake. I'm still in training, remember?"
"No," Rocky said, "You're in recovery. That eye a' yours still ain't completely healed." That was true, though Adonis was beginning to get vision back in his left eye, the fight with Conlan still had him dazed. Some nights, he was afraid his eye would never reopen. But he couldn't think about that now.
Rocky walked over to the fridge and pulled out a carton of brown eggs, and a gallon of milk. "Sit down." Rocky pointed to the couple of empty chairs that leaned against the walls. Rocky wasn't the type of guy to slouch around when there was work to be done, but ever since he began the chemotherapy, he's had to slow down more and more.
Adonis did as he was told, and watched Rocky work. The man was rugged, and aged. Despite the years on Rocky's face, his body still remembered how to move like a boxer. He was light on his toes, dancing, almost, across the floor as he cracked eggs, and poured milk. It was like watching a boxing match. With one swipe, Rocky was in the left corner. A quick blink, and he was by the fridge pulling out peppers and sausage.
"Baba used to move like that…" Adonis recalled. A long time ago, when time felt like was limitless, Adonis would watch his father work. Back then, names were simple. Adonis knew who he was…he was N'Jadaka. A Wakandan born and bred. His father, his Baba, was a simple man who knew many stories of far off places, and people with funny sounding names. Names like Joe, and Bart, and Sherry. Who would name their children this? There was no power behind those names, no depth to their pronunciation. Apollo Creed was the magic trick that wowed the world, but N'Jadaka's father was the mastermind who orchestrated the entire production. Apollo Creed was just a disguise. The real man moved gracefully through the kitchen as he prepared Sfenj for breakfast. The real father would smile at his son while stirring dough, and lick honey from his fingers, and tell stories of America.
"Are you hungry, N'Jadaka?" Those words were always so soft, and eased whatever imbalance had bubbled into the young boy's heart. N'Jadaka was young. Too young to have a complete grasp on what memory was meant to represent. And as Adonis grew older, he found himself remembering less and less of his father's true movements, and his father's true voice.
"I'm sorry Baba…" Adonis whispered, "I feel like I'm forgetting who you really where."
Rocky placed two plates on the table, "You say sumthin', kid?"
Adonis blinked, the thought of his father's honey stained fingers ripped from his memory. "Naw Unc," he said, "Just talkin' out loud."
"Eat," Rocky said as he slid the plate closer. The eggs steamed. Uncle Rocky had really outdone himself this time. The eggs were scrambled into a creamy hue and the milk was used as a softener to coax the sausage and seasonings into a rich balance.
"Wow," Adonis said.
Rocky just shrugged, "When you run a restaurant, ya' gotta learn how to cook, right?"
Adonis took his fork, and sawed the omelet in half. "Thanks Unc." He tried not to make eye contact, this wasn't something he wanted to be here for.
"You know, Donnie, your dad used to cook for me," Rocky said. "I never thought a guy like him would be into making food, but wow, was he great at it."
That was true. Back in Wakanda, all of the meals were made by his father. N'Jadaka's father was hardly around, and he never understood why. Baba was always gone, and often left his son with a family friend for long periods of time. But upon his return, there was always something special for his son to call his own. Perhaps a football made in America, or a boxing glove that had been torn in three places.
"I remember your Dad and I used ta' git into it all the time," Rocky said with a mouth full of egg.
That may have been Apollo Creed, but that was not N'Jadaka's Baba. Apollo was a showman, and Baba was a father. Apollo cracked his knuckles before a big fight, and Baba liked to smear sugar in his son's porridge. In Wakanda, life was so simple. N'Jadaka had one home. One country. One name. One father. But simplicity never lasts.
One cold night, N'Jadaka was ripped from the safety of his bed, and carried in his father's trembling arms. The midnight air was bitter against the tongue, and the lush greens of Wakanda swirled in an unrecognizable mush.
"We must hurry, my son," his father whispered, "Wakanda is no longer safe for us."
And just like that, N'Jadaka's world was changed forever.
Philly was nothing like LA. And LA was nothing like Wakanda. Sometimes, Adonis felt like it was your place in the world the defined who you were, and Adonis had moved from one place to the next with such a finality that he couldn't grasp who he was supposed to be. He could barely remember what Wakanda was like, and when his father dropped him off in an American foster care system that one night, all he could recall was the voice of a man he never knew existed within his Baba.
"Listen to me N'Jadaka," Baba said in hushed English, "I have to leave you here, it isn't safe to be near me. If other Wakandans discover you are my son, they'll hunt you down."
"Baba, I don't understand."
"You will, my son."
In Wakanda, he was N'Jadaka, but that boy was gone now, and in his place stood Adonis. Son of Apollo Creed, the progeny of a mask that was never meant to be permanent. Wakanda, now a distant memory, just like his Baba's real name. Something lost to them both forever.
Adonis loved Philly. This city that prided itself in its own history. There was so much to marvel at. There was Liberty Hall. The Liberty Bell that used to ring every morning. Even the Rocky Statue that stood atop the museum steps. Tourists came there all the time. Philadelphia was a place of tradition. Wakanda was like that, at least, from what Adonis could remember of it. He was still very young when he and his father had to leave. Adonis never understood why he and his father had to leave. In his own naivety, he had fashioned a story. That his father was working for the Panther clan, and had to relocate to better serve the crown. Or perhaps it was something else entirely. Growing up in foster care, all Adonis knew for certain, was that his father was nowhere near him.
Adonis found himself in the back of Bianca's new rehearsal studio. She had found a new bar to perform at, and it was important to her to make sure everything was as tight as it could be. She wanted Adonis to hear her new sound.
"Bianca?" Adonis called through the empty chamber. The place had wooden floor boards, and concrete walls to keep other sounds out. Bianca believed in the purity of music, and would not allow her sound to be altered be something as stupid as Philly traffic.
"Hey D," Bianca said as she walked from the back studio. Her hair was coiled into tight braids that fell across her shoulders. Her lips were full and her eyes glistened with a dark umber. If Adonis didn't know any better, he would have believed her to be a goddess. And, perhaps she could be? Down in New York, there was a god of thunder named Thor who hailed from Asgard. Such things were not beyond the realm of possibility. Beauty such as Bianca's was far too exquisite to be of the mortal realm.
"Bianca." Adonis wrapped his hands around her shoulders, and kissed her cheek. "What's up showty?"
"I'm glad you came."
Adonis smiled, "I said I wanted to roll with ya', right? Well, let's roll." Adonis shrugged and tried to act as nonchalant as possible, but something about Bianca always made him nervous.
"Hold up, first let's get somethin' to eat. Maybe some cheesesteaks, or-"
"Cheesesteaks?" Adonis asked, "I thought you wanted me to hear your new tracks?"
"I do, but first I wanna go get sumthin' ta' eat." Bianca smiled her special smile, and rubbed his arm, "That cool with you?"
Adonis was beginning to feel like he had been set up. Perhaps his old Uncle Rocky was up to something…but he didn't have the energy to pursue the question further. He was rather hungry.
"A'right. Let's go."
It was the same old place that Bianca took him on the night they first met. Before meeting Bianca, Adonis had never tasted an authentic Philly cheesesteak. It did not have the tender warmth of his Baba's Sfenj, but it was something he learned to cherish just the same.
"Can you believe the times we livin' in?" Bianca asked. "I mean with Iron Man flying around, and The Avengers, and that alien invasion in New York."
Adonis still remembered hearing about it on the news. He was at work, trying to get the accounts for the firm settled when his mother called from home. She was hysterical. Who could blame her?
Adonis nodded his head, "Yeah, and that Thor guy too."
The world was certainly changing.
"And then there's you," Bianca said with a grin.
"Me?" Adonis asked, "I'm no superhero."
Bianca took a bite of her sandwich, "Are you kidding me? Adonis, long lost of son of the greatest athlete in history, coming out of nowhere to take on the boxing champ of the world? It's like something out of a Captain America movie!"
Well, he had to admit, there was a certain romance to Adonis' own story. But that did not mean he had forgotten Wakanda, or his name, or his true heritage. His father's real name had slipped from his memory, replaced with "Apollo Creed" and he refused to allow the same thing to happen to the rest of his identity.
Bianca stared at Adonis' swollen eye and shook her head, "I still don't understand why you wanna fight so badly."
Sometimes, Adonis wasn't sure of it himself. He was raised in foster care, bounced from one home to the next. Foster homes were never like his real home. Warm tradition was replaced with false smiles, and foreign customs that N'Jadaka—No, his name was Adonis now—couldn't understand. There where even times he didn't want to understand them. Why should he? He got into fights, kids made fun of his Wakandan accent, they said he spoke strangely. His tongue had to get used to the strange vowels of English. His ears had to respond to the name "Adonis" rather than "N'Jadaka". There was a strange indignity with being called something that you did not recognize. And it wasn't until he was adopted by Mrs. Creed, his father's American wife, that he began to understand his own position in this new world.
One day, while he explored the Creed mansion he came across something shook him to his core. On the front of a magazine cover, in Mary Anne Creed's den, was the face of his Baba. Grand, and warm, and glistening.
The print across the magazine read "Apollo Creed: Remembering a Legend."
Is this why he had left? To become a boxer here in America? If that were the case, then why couldn't N'Jadaka have come with him? Why was he left here alone?
It's not safe to be near me, my son.
But why? What had happened? What wasn't he being told? And the answers to those questions only laid with a man who was no longer alive. And N'Jadaka felt as if he had lost his father all over again.
"D? Can you hear me?"
Adonis looked onward, back to Bianca's face, "Y-yeah babe. I'm here." Adonis took Bianca's hand in his, her skin was so warm in his own. Bianca had asked why he wanted to be a fighter. "My pop was a fighter, so it kind of runs in blood, ya'know?"
But it was more than that. Adonis had learned that his father was Apollo, a man he had never met, a man whose name had been etched inside his skull, and replacing the true name of the one he called Baba. Xhosa replaced with English. Wakandan sky replaced with American concrete. His Baba boxed, so he too would box to understand his mind. For there is no son who does not wish to share some greatness his father once knew.
It wasn't until Adonis grew older that he realized the true reason behind his father's disappearance. Wakanda was an isolationist country, and looked down on anyone trying to betray it. The Wakandan crown had discovered treachery, someone was trying to gain Vibranium and used his father to do it. Both N'Jadaka, and his father were banished, but that wasn't enough. Some Wakandans wanted to find his father, hunt him down, and erase every part of him from existence. So Apollo, the man who was nothing more than a mask, took N'Jadaka to America, falsified his records, and disappeared. If the wrath of Wakanda were to rain down upon someone's head, it would not be the head of the father, and not the son.
It was the Panther clan who destroyed his father's name, and both Adonis, and N'Jadaka had decided that it would be the Panther clan who paid the price for it.
Boxing was merely a way to train himself. Western fighters were, of course, no match for Wakanda's, but they would need to do.
"I guess…" Adonis said, "I fight because I want to make my father proud."
After his date with Bianca, Adonis came back home. It was late. Adonis would have to make sure Rocky had gone to chemo today, and that he was following the doctor's orders to the letter. Rocky may have been in remission, but that did not stop Adonis from worrying. He had already lost one father, he refused to lose another.
Rocky laid sprawled across the couch, a newspaper in his lap, and a soft snore in his throat. He was asleep. Well, at least sleep was one thing that Rocky didn't have a problem getting.
Adonis gently plucked the newspaper from Rocky's lap, and replaced it with the blanket that huddled on the floor. Old ass G's like Rocky needed to be warm when they slept, right? Once making sure that his host was warm, Adonis made his way to the stairs. Why was it that no matter what moniker he had, N'Jadaka, Adonis, Donnie, Creed, it was still stained with the promise of loss? His father was lost to him twice now. Even old videos and interviews of Apollo Creed could not make up for the smooth Xhosa that used to flow from Baba's mouth like river water.
"I haven't forgotten you Baba, even if the rest of the world has." Adonis stripped his shirt from his body, and felt the falsehood of the world sink away into the carpet flooring "Igama lam ngu N'Jadaka." My name is N'Jadaka.
But some small part of himself feared that that was no longer true.
"I can tell you're upset, kid." Rocky said.
That morning, Rocky had decided that the two would go for a walk. Adonis might not have wanted to go, but he knew the doctors had insisted Rocky get out of the house more for the chemo, and this was a pretty good way to ensure that the Italian Stallion was following the doc's instructions. Philadelphia was cold today. Colder than either Wakanda or LA.
"What makes you think that, Unc?"
"'Cuz you're doing that thing you do when you're upset." Rocky smiled, and pointed towards Adonis' lip. "You're little goatee starts to shake and your eyes narrow." Rocky shoved his hands into his coat pockets, "You're dad used to do the same thing."
Rocky smiled, "Yeah, really." The two past the wired fences that surrounded the park. Kids played to the north of here. The flower shops were just beginning to open up, and people from all over stopped to pat Rocky on the back, or greet Adonis with a hearty, "Morning, Creed!"
Creed. Another name that was never his. In college, Adonis used to go by the name Erik Killmonger. A joke one of his fraternity buddies had come up with. They said that when he fought (and he fought often) he had a look of a tiger, ready for the kill. Another name Adonis didn't even know what to do with.
"So what's on your mind, kid? I can't help if you don't let me."
"It's nuthin' Unc."
"Bullshit, it's nothing."
And there it was again. Uncle Rocky knowing just what to say and how to say it. "Lemme guess, you're having trouble with that whole name thing, right?"
That was putting it simply. Half the time, Adonis wasn't even sure who he was. Was N'Jadaka, lost resident of Wakanda? Was he Adonis, lost son of Apollo Creed? Was he Erik Killmonger, the man who vowed to return his father's name to glory? Why were things as small as names, such haunting aspects of himself?
The duo walked through the whole neighborhood, and stopped at the edge of the museum stairs. The very same ones Rocky climbed to prepare for his bout with Apollo.
"Come on," Rocky said, "We'll take it slow."
And they did. One stone step by one stone step. Adonis held Rocky's hand, listened to him breath, felt the old man's face ease into a graceful countenance. "Remember what I said when we were training last month?" Rocky asked.
"One step at a time," Adonis chanted, "One punch at a time, one round at a time."
"That's right, kid. That's exactly right." Rocky said, "And what I keep noticing about you is that you're always so quick to ty and find the next round that you completely lose sight of the one you're already fighting."
That was true, but it always felt as though, no matter what name he took, he was always running out of time. His father never had enough time either. He didn't have a lot of time to escape Wakanda, he didn't have enough time to live. He didn't have enough time to spend with his son. Honey soaked fingers ripped away from a young mouth. N'Jadaka replaced with Adonis. Xhosa ripped from his throat and sewn with broken English. Time was needed to create an identity, but Adonis never had that luxury.
They came to the top of the stairs, and gazed out at the splendor that was Philly. Old buildings, and older souls gracing every inch of the stone streets.
"Donnie, your name is your own. You know that, I know that, and anyone who says any different is a damn moron."
"I know that Unc. I know that."
"And I don't want you to forget that, you got me?" Rocky said. "The name doesn't matter, it's the man who holds it. Your dad knew that better than anyone."
Apollo Creed was a man of multiplicity, and so was his son. A Wakandan who wore American trunks. A father who spoke in pure Xhosa and falsified English. A boxer who prided himself in the stories he told. Stories were life in Wakanda. So, what was the story Adonis was telling now? "I know that Unc."
"You know," Rocky said as he looked out at the top of the steps. "They say you can see your whole life from the top of these steps."
Adonis smiled. "So I've heard."
Rocky rested his arm around Adonis' shoulder, "What's it look like so far, kid?"
The life of a son searching for his father. Trying to make something of himself in a world where he was never meant to exist. Names and worlds spiraling from one reality to the next. N'Jadaka who knew of Wakanda. Adonis who jetted from LA to Philly to find the shadows of his father, left behind in a boxing ring. Erik Killmonger, a name he had yet to fully embrace. He was still young. The world was still open, and for a short while, he felt as if time was not slipping through his grasp.
"It doesn't look too bad."
His father's memory would never be erased from his mind. There was something deeper than names inside of him now. Something stronger than blood and sacrifice.
I love you father.