photo by Alex Lear
THE ROSES ARE BEAUTIFUL,
BUT THE THORNS ARE
Blood didn’t know why he wanted to kiss her private lips. Didn’t know why the sharp energy of her smell made the large muscles on the inside of his thigh twitch. Didn’t smell like sex. Didn’t even smell human. Undomesticated, wild, maybe a pine-needle bed where a deer had rested. A fragrance born by the wind from whence only the wind knows where. Didn’t know why, but he liked the memory of his slow kiss-rub-lick-suck of the cleaved dark of her. And he liked that she liked it.
Theodore sucked the caramel colored coke through a straw, drawing out gurgling sounds as the last of the liquid, mixed with air, cascaded upward through the crushed ice. He shook the cup once, tore the plastic top off with the straw still in it and threw it into the litter receptacle; swirled the cup, tilted it upward shaking shards of ice into his mouth, sucked on the ice and thought of her moan as he nodded hello to a co-worker on his way back to his desk from his ten minute break.
I close my eyes. I am crazy. I open my eyes. I am crazy. I do my work and when I finish working, every time, I am crazy. Obsession. The need for every day to be night. I tape the evening news using the timer on my VCR and later look at her over and over. Her eyes. I know looks that the tv camera never sees. Sometimes I watch with the sound turned down. Read her body language. The motion of her jaw as she talks. Count how many times I see her tongue on screen. How often they show her hands. The feel of her nails on my neck. The rhythm of her voice reciting my three syllables: “The-o-dore” except she enunciates “Thee-I-ADORE.” “That’s the news. This is Ann Turner. See you tomorrow.” SEE YOU TONIGHT. BABY. TONIGHT!
The bronze point of her breast cutting a curvature in his consciousness. Why continue, he thought as he continued. A man shouldn’t be consumed by desire. His imagination saw the inside of her thigh flash quick as the picture of the contents of a darkened room momentarily lit by five milliseconds of lightening flashing during a summer night storm when you are standing near the window sipping something mildly intoxicating and a “Quiet Storm” format radio station unfurls aural ribbons.
He drank her features even when only his computer was in front of his eyes. Drank and drank, and was never quenched.
One day he refused to call her. The whole day. Concentrated on not calling her.
She doesn’t own my fingers. My feet are my feet. I have business. I wear a suit and tie. I drive a car — red, sleek. Here is my off-ramp. I like the feel of taking it at 40mph, leaning into the curve. It’s like when I ease into her. I’m gripping the wheel firmly but lightly like I do her breasts, and I brake a little, back off the clutch, let the engine slow us down, and hit the accelerator slightly at the top of the curve, pushing through faster now. Through the steering wheel I can feel the car’s power surging and responsive to my every expert move, like Ann.
I smoke cigarettes. I urinate at break time and wish, in the middle of the men’s room, Joey to the right of me, Harold on my left, Amos at the sink talking shit about what he made his bitches do, I urinate and as I shake myself, wish it were her fingers shaking me. I will not call. The boys see me zipping my pants. They don’t sense her. I look into the mirror at my reflection, scratch my jaw, dry my hands, and, leaning forward, balancing my weight between the sink ledge and the balls of my feet, careful to pretend I am examining my razor bumps, I search deep into my eyes: her profile.
“The roses are very nice.”
Thirty-eight dollars is more than very nice. Forty-one dollars, forty-two cents.
“But, I can’t accept them.”
I’ve bought corsages for proms. I’ve bought flowers on mother’s day. I’ve even given my aunt a plant for her anniversary. This is the first time, the first time I’ve ever bought roses. And they are only “very nice.”
What about when you kissed me? What about that great dinner we cooked together in your kitchen trading culinary tips, and ate in the after glow; I fed you desert. A fruit salad first from my fork, then the grapes from my hand, and that last strawberry we shared lip to lip as I kissed you with the succulent deep red meat poised between my teeth and letting it fall into your mouth as you sucked my lips and you slipped your fingers into the bowl and one by one inserted your fingers into my mouth and l sucked the juice off, cleaned each finger with the sweep of my tongue. And the night we spent the night drinking coffee in the French Quarter, walking around waiting on the sun, delirious, delicious and crazy in each other’s eyes? The first time. The second time. That Saturday evening in the thunder storm with all the lights out and a very good bottle of moderately expensive wine. My comforter on the carpeted floor, the sound of rain on the pane accompanied our rhythms. The third, fourth. Damn it, last Monday, two days ago. “My legs are wide open,” you said. I almost cried in your arms I felt so happy. I pick you up just about every day from work — every day you allow me to. We even sometimes make groceries together. That linen jacket, the pink one. The surprise manicure and facial treatment certificate. The health spa six month membership. “My legs are wide open.” That’s more than nice.
“I said, I can’t accept them. I… No, don’t come in. Please.”
Then I forced myself past the three-quarters-opened door. I didn’t mean to knock her down when I pushed my way inside. But she fell. And then something happened. Looking down at her I saw the shock on her face. “You see it doesn’t feel good getting pushed around, does it?” is what I thought to myself. “Now you know how I feel sometimes the way you treat me,” I continued thinking while silently observing her. The beginnings of a smirk unconsciously edging itself onto my face. It was as if I rose up above myself and was outside of my body watching myself stand there. I could see everything. I knew everything. I knew she was surprised by how hard I shoved the door. Even so, I could see she wasn’t hurt sprawled there on the floor. Embarrassed but not hurt. And afterwards when I left I knew when I slammed the door shut hard behind me, I knew the sound cut the silence. She didn’t know I had it in me. I knew. The way she looked up at me.
As she fell backward, slammed into the way and fell, he closed the door quickly. And then, as though she had misunderstood him the first time, he held out the roses to her again. She had one knee slightly up. Her straight, woolen, beige skirt with the deep split in the front had ridden up high on her legs, falling away from above her knees.
Anger and the beginnings of fear overpowered her perfume. She didn’t smell pleasant anymore.
The red, red roses swinging before her face.
“I am more than nice,” he thought to himself.
The phone rang.
She covered her face with both hands. Then lowered one hand to the floor. Began pushing up, to stand. Theodore stepped forward and planted himself, blocking what would have been her path of ascendancy. She stopped. He saw that she knew she would never make the phone. Let her machine answer the intruding call. Four rings and the noisy interruption stopped.
After the chirp of the phone stopped, he bent slightly and pushed the roses at her again.
She batted them away. She does not want to be distracted. He pushed them forward again.
Her hand moved slowly. She pushed gently, tried to move the flowers out of her face. Why was he insisting? Why were the flowers thrust at her like a gun?
He had unbuttoned his trousers. They slid down at his feet. He stepped out of them. “My legs are wide open,” she had said just two days ago. The goodness of his dick hadn’t changed any in the time between the last time and now. She wanted it then. She gave it up then. Now was then. In his mind. He eased his jockey briefs off. Now, he still had his shirt and tie on. And his jacket. And the roses in his hand.
That was her only real reaction. What?
Sometimes shit be happening to you and it be so far out the box you can’t believe it be happening.
Theodore was standing there with his penis erect. His jacket on the floor now behind his trousers. He knelt slowly. Placed the flowers down beside him. Pushed her skirt up. She closed her eyes. Her flesh was cool beneath the nylon of the panty hose. Then she moved, slightly. Her head shook slowly from side to side. She covered his hand with her left hand. A momentary halt.
She tried reasoning with an unreasonable man, “Are you going to use something? I’m ovulating now.”
Theodore ignored her. She saw him ignore her. Theodore began pulling at her panty hose.
“I’m not going to let you do this.”
She started to struggle silently. She surprised him with her strength as she tussled with him. The thrust of her arms rocked him backward. He admired that she didn’t hit like a girl. Now she was on one knee. He pushed her again. Harder. She sprawled backward. Her shoe slipped and her legs flew from beneath her. As she lay disheveled on the floor trying to decide whether to kick him or to try and run from him, he pushed the roses aside and knelt resolutely in front of her. He looked between her legs which were awkwardly gapped open. What was it “there” that had him crazed on the floor. The reddest rose. The petals of her vagina flower. The thorns of her refusal to receive him.
Then suddenly she pushed him harder than he had pushed her. He fell back on the flowers. The thorns bit deeply into the palm of his left hand.
He picked the flowers up and threw them at her. Hurled them into her face. Hard. A thorn cut her cheek. She felt a faint sting. When her hand came down from her jaw, a long bloody smear had creased the light hand side like a crimson life line burnt into her palm.
He expected her to cry. But she made no sound. Did not even whimper. But stared at him with an undisguised hatred. The force of her stare stunned him. He stood up. She bolted up without hesitation. Balled her fist and stood rigidly upright, silently daring him to touch her again. He backed off slowly. Retrieved his clothing. Dressed. Every time he glanced at her she was still glaring unblinking at him. Her blouse rose and fell as she took deep, soundless breathes. He turned and walked briskly out of the door, slamming it behind him. She stepped over the flowers and quickly locked the door behind him.
They were in a movie and he cheered when the hero smacked the actress portraying the wife. Ann froze, intuitively knew for sure that Theodore Roosevelt Stevens, III was wrong for her. All the little signs she had ignored because she was tired of searching for someone with whom to share her life and had settled for someone with whom to have a little fun. After applauding the hero’s response to his wife’s cinematic betrayal with a short clap — actually Theodore was celebrating the hero’s refusal to be suckered more than applauding the guy for hitting the woman, it’s much harder to see through how a woman is using you than it is to smack her once you figure out that you’ve been used, and Theodore admired anyone with insight into the feminine species — his right hand had pawed the air seeking Ann’s hand to hold again, but her arms were folded.
“What you mean?”
He caught the tone, the cut, the coldness. The sharp point contained within all her soft curves. Theodore knew this was fire he could not walk through with his bare feet.
She bit her bottom lip but not to keep from talking, the biting was just a habit of preparation when she had to fight a battle which she did not choose, but which she would wage without quarter.
Walking up the aisle after the movie’s over, “Let’s go for a drink; we need to talk.”
“Anywhere.” Clipped tone. The claws were still showing.
Anywhere was near by, but the silence riding over was long. “What’s up?”
“This is the last, I mean I don’t think…” She swung her head quickly. They were at a stop light. Right before the turn onto Causeway Blvd. He looked over during the pause for the light. Her unblinking eyes focused directly on him. She read him the news — that’s how it felt, all the emotion was calculated although unforced and rendered in well modulated tones, “I thought about your question about us living together, and the answer is no. And I think we ought to break this off.”
The light was green. Theodore pulled through the moment. Said nothing. While moving through the traffic. He said nothing. Circled onto the expressway. She hates games. He heard her. Into the expressway traffic. Then he pulled over to the side. Slowed. Emergency lights flashing. He looked over at her as the car coasted to an easy stop. He turned the tape deck off. He turned the key. The engine stopped. The stick shift loose in neutral, rocked back and forth beneath the easy side to side push of his hand. Then he pulled the emergency brake handle. She has not stopped looking at him. This was Tuesday.
Wednesday morning into the third mile her breathing is even and her stride is smooth. She will kick the fourth mile. She is ready. Suddenly she stops. A crow caws, breaking the silence of the morning cool. Two cars pass along the generally deserted stretch of road. The light is soft. Her face is soft. Her eyes are hard. She begins walking and in a few seconds builds up to a trot and then is running again.
Thursday he will bring roses and apologize.
Everybody thinks it’s easy to be me. To be the model of charm and poise on the weekday evening news. A face recognized. Gwendolyn Ann Turner. Actually, Gwendolyn Ann Turner is me, and most of the world — I shouldn’t exaggerate, most of the city — knows: “This is Ann Turner, your evening anchor, sharing the news of New Orleans with you.” Most of the world knows so small a part of my real persona and yet people think because they see a small part of me so frequently, they think they know “me.”
I was so fat as a child, so “Gwenie.” Overweight, intelligent, gifted with a lean, hard mind — too hard. Up to the middle of college I was always the “brain,” never the beauty and even when my birthright beauty began to exert itself in college — it’s like it’s hard to judge just how beautiful the flower will be when all you see is the beginning bud. I had to run in P.E. and found myself liking the loneliness and the challenge of the long runs, figuring out how to run without wearing myself out, how to swing my arms, how to set my pace, how to breath, how to use my body, yes, how to use “my body” and I pushed it and enjoyed pushing it. The more I ran, the more the physical side of me came out, but it was all because I enjoyed the meditation part of running. At the same time I was trying to figure out how to meet the physical challenges rather than because I wanted to become “fine” or “thin” or something, but the more I ran and enjoyed running, the more I found beauty came within my reach and required just a little work to enhance it. But the thorn on the flower was that becoming attractive just made being me more difficult, more demanding. I split in two. It became so easy to be pretty, to be wined and dined because my body shape was what it had become, or more accurately was what I had made it become, my skin color was what it was, my voice, my hair, my eyes, my slender fingers, my beige bottom firm, round and protruding.
The thought stopped her: “I hated being fat and I’ll never be fat again.” She stopped at the road side, put her hands atop her head, fingers interlaced, breathed deeply, looked up into the dawning sky and summoned strength — she was beginning to resent the deference given to her for all the wrong reasons. Well not so much “wrong reasons,” for all the “Ann Turner reasons” and none of the Gwendolyn Ann Turner reasons.
Here I am 28 years old, sexually active, so far away from any kind of serious relationship that it doesn’t even hurt anymore. I’m never alone unless I want to be and I’ve never met anyone with whom I always want to be. Being so popular as a media personality just makes being alone as a private person inevitable.
Ann took a deep breath. She had volunteered the decision to drop “Gwendolyn” because Ann is so much easier to articulate cleanly into a lapel microphone or an overhead boom, no consonant blend obstacles to negotiate.
If I hate being beautiful, why do I run everyday, stick to my diet, groom myself immaculately? Wear complementary colors. Procures pedicures. Manicures. Facials. Ann runs everyday and Gwen waits. Waits for what?
Gwen waits in a desk drawer, in a diary, in five completed stories, 79 completed poems, and 34 incomplete sketches, outlines and ideas for stories. And in the drawing pad. The monthly self portraits drawn with soft lead pencil while looking into the dressing table mirror. That had started in college. During the first week of every month Gwen sketched Ann, and afterwards Ann would stare at the drawing, looking for Gwen. Gwendolyn had gone to college certain that writing was her destiny but the motion of circumstances had sidetracked her. The path from Gwen to Ann had started not from her own volition but rather began because of her physical presence and personality; the transfiguration wasn’t the result of will, but rather it was physiological and sociological chance.
As the new Gwen started to blossom, Gwen “hated” the attention even though some small part of her loved it, fed off it and grew more confident, stronger week after week. That’s how she had eased into broadcasting. In college journalism even those who only wanted to write were “counseled” into taking at least two broadcast courses “in order to be well rounded,” and, of course, even though she never sought the behind the mike position, of course once she was there, once people saw how effective she was (even if she was a little overweight), then her instructors steered her that way: “the camera loves you / your voice soothes and exudes sincerity / I know you want to write but I think it’s apparent your future is in announcing.” Meanwhile, Gwen the writer patiently waited for release. Now, years later, a professional broadcasting career confidently established, writing as a career option is not possible, not to mention being economically unfeasible. Gwen rarely spoke but when she did…
“Ann you do television because it’s easy for you. There’s no challenge staying in shape. Reading news copy is so easy. We always liked to read. Ann, you like to read, and I have to read; that’s one of the only ways I can even exist. All other times I’m shoved deep into the background.”
These two people in me. Gwen wants to be a writer, a deep thinker, and Ann, well, Ann pays all the bills and acquires all the frills. Or something. What does Ann want? Ann is not a want, Ann is a thing, a procurer. Ann’s ultimate job really ought to be to create a space for Gwen.
She begins walking and in a few seconds builds up to a trot and then is running again.
I was already in the shower. Theodore was behind me at the toilet, urinating and the “morning deep yellow” of his streaming urine refracting early daylight made it easy for me to see the splashes flying out of the bowl. I hate it. I hate the sloppiness of the way men piss. I hate it. I step out of the shower.
He swung his head, tremendously pleased with himself. Happy about his manliness. His sexiness and skill as a lover. His good fortune: he was fucking Ann Turner and she was liking it. Everything was in order. At the office his commissions were bounding upward. When a client saw him, they were impressed by the smooth, articulate, fastidiously groomed, intelligent, business savvy, young Black man fashionably attired in tastefully muted burgundy suspenders over ice blue crisply starched dress shirt with a white collar — these days Theodore was always impressive, so impressive that clients flocked to him the way those chickens used to do at his grandmother’s farm in the summertimes when he was sent to spend a few weeks and would wake early, jump out of bed, get dress quickly and run into the back yard with a cap full of feed, throwing the kernels on the ground and calling out in his young baritone (he remembered that even as a teen-ager he had a heavy voice): “cluck-cluck cluckity-cluck, come here chickens, yall in luck, cluck-cluck cluckity cluck.” Because he was looking at himself, his external eyes focused on the stream of piss, the splash of water, the diffuse light from the skylight as well as the rainbow shimmering in the toilet bowl cast there by the prismed light of the cut glass mobile hanging from the skylight latch, in his head the beauty of her big round booty moved beneath the knead of his firm hands, because of all of that he neither saw the seriousness in her eyes nor heard the coldness in her voice as he perfunctorily answered, “What?”
“I realize this might sound a bit strange to you but I’ve got a thing about hygiene. When you use the toilet, please sit.”
“Put the seat down and sit. Urinate sitting down. When you stand, your urine splashes, and it’s unhygenic.”
Much head as she gives, she’s worried about a little urine on the toilet seat. She swallows. She loves it. She licks me clean. And she’s worried about me standing up pissing.
Theodore stood there, naked, his member held nimbly in his left hand. He was just about to shake the drops off the tip with a vigorous motion. How would he shake it if he were sitting on the toilet seat? This was a trip.
I knew he wouldn’t understand.
Theodore didn’t understand what was going on.
Ann turned back into the shower, almost regretting that she had brought it up. Almost. Gwen had decided long ago that Theodore was just a momentary thing, even before he overestimated himself and made the major faux pas of popping the question about living together.
Ann was slower to decide. There was a lot she liked about Theodore. The lovemaking for one. And, well, the lovemaking for two. His humor, he was sort of witty. No, really he was convenient. Although right for a fling, he definitely was not living together material. And unhygenic and far too possessive.
“Theodore, I don’t need you to pick me up after work. Yes, I know it’s late when I get off, and I know I could save the cab fare, but it’s easier. I have two cab drivers who are regulars. I call when I’m close to ready and they’re outside the door waiting for me. I get in, we come straight here, they wait until I’m inside and everything is safe. Theo, I know you don’t mind but you don’t have to wait around for me.
“I’m staying late. … No. I’m not sure exactly what time I’ll be finished. … I’ll just catch a cab. No, Theo, I won’t call you. I’ll catch a cab, and I’ll talk to you in the morning. … You’ll be sleeping when I get in. I’ll call you in the morning. … Theodore don’t call me at one a.m. … What do you mean where will I be? … What do you mean what do I mean? I mean I can take care of myself. … Obviously, you don’t know it.
Gwen had peeped all of that weeks ago. The shower door opened. Theodore stepped in.
“You mean when I urinate, you want me to sit down like when I uh, defecate?”
“When I saw you bleeding, I knew I had messed up real bad. I don’t know what got into me. I mean you know me, I’m not really like that. I mean, I was crazy or something. Ann? I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You want me to beg? You want me to crawl? What? I’ve sent you letters, I’ve called every day. This hurts me too. I don’t know what else to say. I mean I know I did something really, really wrong. And I know it will be hard for you to ever trust me again, but I love you. I really love you. I mean I’m serious. You make me feel like a man…”
Ann didn’t even listen to the whole tape. He talked to her machine for twenty, sometimes thirty minutes or more, sometimes. Sometimes he just said, “I’m gon keep calling until you talk to me.” This went on for over two weeks.
Fortunately, the erase mechanism was fast.
This is about a year and a half later. Theodore is married (yes, he sent Ann an invitation—she didn’t go; he wasn’t surprised).
When Ann got the invitation she felt sad for Theodore’s intended. He had wanted a wife but he wasn’t prepared to deal with a woman. She left the invitation in the hallway, on the table, the table that held the telephone / answering machine, beneath the mirror. The invitation pushed half way back into the envelope. Ann did not even wonder why it had been sent. Gwen didn’t care. A casual toss and the invitation landed with a slight rustle atop a small stack of junk mail. Ann didn’t mean Theodore’s invitation was junk mail, but she knew she wasn’t going.
Later that day she sat sketching herself. Clarity. In the mirror was Gwendolyn Ann Turner, a thirty-year old, unmarried Black woman. Ann didn’t frown. Ann didn’t cry. She knew, she knew she would never marry. And she could live with that, was content to live with that. But Gwen smiled, she smiled because she appreciated that Ann Turner was becoming increasingly less interested in Ann Turner and more interested in developing Gwendolyn Ann Turner.
Never marry. God, what a thought. But not really. Even though she had been raised to marry. Even though it seemed like the whole world was wondering when she would marry. And have children. In a flash both Ann and Gwen realized — neither one of them had every really wanted to be married–not once they were mature enough to honestly face themselves. Ann just didn’t want to be alone. Although sharing board was just about out of the question, Ann could and would always find someone with whom to share bed. Ann accepted the cost. She could pay the bills. No problem. An inconvenience sometimes, but no problem. And Gwen. Gwen was happy, she gave thanks to be alive and thriving. And writing — her new novel was almost finished.
A spray of roses sat elangantly arranged in a bright black vase. “Our vase” — Gwen had found it while wondering through the French Quarter. She was drawn to the pear-shaped container without even knowing why or how she would use it. As she walked along with the trendy shopping bag which held the vase swaddled in newspaper, she passed a florist. Roses were on sale: $9.99 a dozen, and thus began the floral addition to the sketching ritual. The fragrance of the flowers would radiate through the room while the young woman deftly drew her monthly self portrait. And as was usually the case within the last few months, Gwen would be smiling a generous smile. To her beautiful self. Clearer than she had ever been and glad that she understood the necessity of thorns on roses–everything beautiful must protect itself.
—kalamu ya salaam