“Kristin, I love you,” I blurted, sounding like I was trying to convince myself more than Kristin, even though I was sincere. I both wanted her and wanted her to know I wanted her. Nevertheless, like rotely instructing a client on how to fill out a 941, at the moment, I felt emotionally disengaged.
I snuggled closer. “Kristin…”
“David, you don’t have to say that to get me to do it. I know you love me.”
As I pressed close to her, all down my chest I felt her body stiffen. There was no smile on her face as my fingers traced the outline of her lips. She was distancing herself from me like I was the manager of a department where thirty grand was missing. I reached across her head and turned off the lamp on the night table. Almost as soon as the room was dark she spoke, “I’m not staying tonight. I’ve got an early meeting and I want to be prepared.”
I had been caressing the side of her face, down her neck and moving toward her breast when I stopped. Suddenly, I had the strangest sensation we were being watched. The light was out and we were alone, but it felt like Kristin’s conscience was standing by the side of the bed auditing us. I imagined an unemotional spectre with PDA in hand intently and efficiently noting the details of every movement of two overeager people who were gropping in the dark searching for the right words to say to each other, determinedly trying to discover the right touches to unlock passion in each other.
I wanted to say, Kristin, what’s the real reason you’re not staying? I wanted to say, Kristin, are you tired of sleeping with me? Maybe you want out of this relationship. Maybe you don’t know where this relationship is headed. God knows I don’t know.
She placed my hand over her breast, “Come on, hurry up. I want to leave before ten.”
I didn’t want to hurry up. I wanted to take it slow, like they say women prefer in those self-help, sex manuals Kristin furtively reads. I don’t know why people even read those books, the procedures never work like they say. Even the ones with pictures don’t work. It’s a case study of diminishing returns. You try all that stuff and afterwards, all you’ve managed to accomplish is you’ve “tried stuff.” The profit margin’s too thin when you only accrue an extra penny’s worth of pleasure for every dollar of time you invest in reaching the ultimate climax.
She reached down and touched my dick. “You’re not hard.” She gently tugged at it. “Oh, David…” An exasperated exclamation, and then suddenly she scooted beneath the thin sheet covering us, and I felt her take me in her mouth.
Please hurry up and get hard, I vainly instructed my dick.
After a minute or so, she gave up, pulled the covers back and sat up in bed. So instead of me asking her what’s wrong, she was checking on me, “Honey, what’s wrong?”
I could feel my dick limp against my thigh. “Nothing.”
“Nothing,” she softly repeated my lie like a proctor giving you a second chance to admit you cheated on a test. Then, with the adroitness of a prosecution lawyer waving a key piece of evidence before the jury, she reached under the covers and fingered my dick. “Yes, there is.”
I felt like I had been caught with a signed, blank company check in my wallet. Kristin had the uncanny ability to make me feel guilty about wanting to enjoy sex with her.
“Maybe, I’m just trying too hard.” Upon hearing my words, she immediately moved her hand.
“Oh David,” she said as she leaned over and kissed me. I didn’t respond to her kiss.
I wasn’t looking for pity and besides it wasn’t me taking the prufunctory approach. “I’m alright.”
I loved Kristin but I wasn’t fully comfortable in bed with her yet. She would do whatever I asked her to but I always had to ask. I could never get a sense of what, if anything, she really wanted. Our relationship was humming along like a chain of hardward stores, efficient, neat, well stocked, well managed and totally without excitement.
The lamp light blazed on. I turned my head into the pillow. The light physically hurt my eyes. After the metallic click of the lamp there was a long silence.
“Did you hear about the shooting?”
So that’s what it was that was bothering her. God, somebody was always getting shot.
“They,” she paused briefly to let the weight of the loaded, one syllable sink in, “shot this lady’s baby. My god, they shot a baby. None of us are safe.”
“What color was the baby?”
“What difference does it make?” She misunderstood me. That was precisely my point, color shouldn’t make a difference, but I knew that color was what she was really concerned about and not murder. “It was an innocent baby. Somebody has got to do something.”
“What color, Kristin?”
“They didn’t show the baby on television…”
“What was the child’s name?”
I turned my head away and looked at the wall. I knew what was coming next, the same old white/black issue. I didn’t feel like arguing about the color of a dead baby and whether color made a difference.
“David, why did you turn away while I was talking? You make me feel everything I say is so wrong.”
The words I didn’t dare let out of my mouth, played loud and clear in my head: Because if I turn around and tell you how racist you’re acting, we’ll end up arguing with each other and I don’t feel like fighting. The truth is you’re upset because the baby was white. If the baby had been black you might or might not have said anything but you certainly wouldn’t have felt threatened. You…
“I know you think I don’t like blacks but that’s not it. David, I’m scared.”
“I know. I’m scared too,” I agreed, except my fear wasn’t for my personal safety. My fear was that blacks and whites would never get beyond being black and white, separate, unequal, and distrustful of each other.
“If you’re scared, why did you move into this neighborhood? Something like fighting fire with fire?” I didn’t answer and Kristin chattered on barely pausing for a response to her rhetorical question. “Soon as the sun goes down the only people walking around outside are…”
I turned over slowly, lay on my back, and covered my eyes with my forearm. “Are what? Murderers? Muggers? Rapists? Thieves?”
“You said yourself that some of these people don’t even like the idea of you living in their neighborhood.”
“I’m really sorry to hear about that baby.” I uncovered my eyes and reached out my hand to touch her knee. She covered my hand with a firm grip.
“My brother says I should get a gun if I’m going to keep spending time with you.”
“I bet your brother Mike owns every Charles Bronsen video ever made and carries a long barrelled forty-four like he’s Dirty Harry, or is it David Duke?” my accusation hung in the air like a fart.
I could see her wanting to recoil but, like being trapped in one of those small interreogation rooms that IRS agents use for audits, there was no where to run and she had run out of documentation to prove her innocence. “Kristin, you don’t have to come here unless you want to.”
“I want to be with you.” Our eyes locked and searched each other until I turned my head and flung my forearm back across my face. Kristin started her well rehearsed sales pitch, “Besides, it’s senseless for me to come pick you up, take you to my place, then bring you back to your place, and then drive back to my place.”
“And you refuse to buy a car.”
“That’s right. My bike and the buses do me just fine.”
“So obviously if we’re going to be together I have to come see…”
“At least until yall get bus service out their in civilized Metairie.”
“David, I’m not complaining about coming to see you. I was just talking about the safety issue.”
“Has anything ever happened to you around here, or to me? Has anybody even so much as said something out of line?”
“David, it only has to happen once… and then… then you’re ruined for life.”
“You only die once.”
Why did I say that? I have to learn to control my mouth.
“Why did you say that? Mike says you have a death wish.”
“So your brother Mike has given up the family construction business to become a psycologist, huh?” She flinched at my parry but continued her offensive.
“I told you about Ann Sheridan didn’t I?”
“She’ll never be right again.”
We were about to get into a bad scene. This was one of those classic delimmas: you’re callous if you don’t sympathize with the victim and you’re a bleeding heart if you criticize the routine stereotyping. I felt like I was trying to talk to a client who was also a good friend and who was trying to get me to help them cheat on their taxes. I guess I could say, let’s not go there; it’s not healthy. Or I could sympathize, being raped is a terrible, terrible thing.
“She’s seeing a psychiatrist. She stays pumped full of drugs. And she can’t even stand to be in a room with a black man.” Clearly this was going to be one of those evenings when all of our time in bed would be spent talking about the major issues of the day rather than more productive and more pleasurable pursuits.
“Hey, you want a beer?” I bounded out of bed. Two hops and I was in the doorway, “Abita Amber.” I looked back, Kristin shook her head no.
When I got back from the kitchen Kristin was laying still with the covers pulled tightly around her. I stood looking down at the trim form shrouded in my ice blue sheet. I had been so smitten by her from the first time I saw her jogging in the 5K corporate run.
“Hi, my name is David, and I just got to tell you, I think you’re beautiful.”
“David, I’m Kristin. Your flattery is appreciated, but you said it so easily, I’m sure I’m not the only girl who’s heard that today.”
“Look, I’m not from here. How does one get to talk to a girl like you?”
“Do you want to talk to a girl like me, or do you want to talk to me?”
“Touche.” We walked in silence for a moment, catching our breath. Then we started talking, and we talked and talked, and talked some more. And now here we are several months later.
As the immediate past of our getting together jetted through my mind, I concentrated on Kristin’s hairline and on the upper half of her face which was the only part of her visible. Her eyes were closed but I knew she was awake.
“Suppose it happened to me?” she said, picking up the conversation where we had left off when I tried the let’s drink a beer evasion. Her voice was partially muffled by the sheet but the import of her question came through unimpeded.
I put the beer bottle down on top of Ed McMann’s smiling face on the Publisher’s Clearinghouse envelope announcing that I had won $30 million dollars. At least the worthless envelope made a convenient temporary coaster. Usually that junk went straight from the mailbox into the front room trash can, but Kristin insisted that I ought to reply because “who knows, you can win a lot of money”—as soon as she leaves it’s trashville for that scam.
“Don’t think like that,” was my reply to her question as I leaned over and pulled the sheet down so that I could see her whole face.
“I can’t help it. I’m a woman. You’re a man. You just don’t know.”
I sat down facing the foot of the bed, one foot on the floor, my left leg drawn up next to Kristin.
“Every time I leave here after dark, it’s traumatic.” Ignoring the strain in her voice, I turned, leaned over, brushed back her auburn hair from the side of her face and lovingly surveyed her facial features. She was ravishing.
The subtle scent of an Italian perfume intoxicatingly waffed upward from the nape of her neck. The milk white orb of a perfect, polished pearl, stud earring highlighted her porcelin smooth, golden colored facial skin which was cosmetized with a deft finesse that made it almost impossible to tell what was flesh and what was foundation.
New Orleans women, the mixture of French, Italian, English, Indian, Black and, god knows, what else gave a new meaning to feminine pulchritude. She had a classic Romanesque nose and a pert mouth whose tips ended in a slight upturn which almost made it impossible for her to frown. The attractiveness of Kristin’s almond shaped, light brown eyes nearly hypnotized me and made it hard to respond to what was clearly some serious issues that she wanted to talk about.
“Sometimes, when I get home, I have nightmares thinking about whether somebody has broke in and…
“And what, shot and robbed me or something?”
“Is that why you always call in the morning.”
“I’ll be sure to phone you if something happens to me,” I tried to joke.
“David what are we going to do?”
“Try to keep on living. Try to love each other. Try to make this city a better place.”
“That all sounds so noble but I keep thinking about that baby and about Ann.”
“Don’t think about it.”
“That baby wasn’t thinking about it and now he’s dead. Before it happened to Ann, she never thought about it. I’m not an ostrich. I can’t just stick my head in the sand and forget about it.” I had to smile at that and hold my sarcasm in check. I had started to say that’s exactly what you’re doing by living in Metairie.
After a short pause, Kristin continued, “Why do they act like that. They have to live here too? Can’t they see that…”
“Kristin, sweetheart, we’re all in this together,” I whispered while running the back of my fingers up and down her forearm.
“No, we’re not. We’re the ones who have everything to l….,” her vehemence indicated a real feeling of being wronged.
It never seems to occur to many of us that black people suffer more from crime than we do. “You know the overwhelming majority of murder victims are black. You know most of the rape victims are blac…”
“I know about Etienne. I know Ann.”
“I bet Ann was crazy long before that guy raped her,” I said under my breath. Before she could ask me to repeat what I never should have uttered aloud in the first place, I tried to change the subject. “Come here,” I said as I slid beneath the covers and pulled her toward me. Outside somebody was passing with some bounce music turned up to 15. Bounce was that infectious, New Orleans variation on rap that featured chanted choruses over modern syncopated beats. I felt Kristin stiffen in my arms as the music invaded the atmosphere of my bedroom.
“I don’t know how you stand it,” she said into my chest.
“It’s just music,” I responded while rubbing my face into her hair.
“I’m not talking about the music.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, pulling back slightly so I could read her physical expressions.
“Not knowing when one of them…”
“Them. Them! Who is them? You mean a black person,” I questioned while disassembling our embrace and stretching my arms upward.
She propped up on one elbow and spoke down to me. “No, I mean one of those crazy young black guys, the kind who would shoot you for a swatch watch.”
I looked her directly in the eyes, “You mean the kind who listens to that music we just heard?”
Kristin didn’t answer. After a few seconds, I turned away briefly at the same time that Kristin reclined and twisted her head to stare up at the ceiling. I watched her and waited for her reply for about forty-five seconds. Although she didn’t say anything, something was clearly going through her mind. Her eyes were darting quickly back and forth like she was checking figures in a set of books against figures on an adding machine tape. I finally broke the silence with a dare, “Penny for your thoughts.”
She responded while still looking up at the ceiling, “Honest injun?” That was our playful code to inaugurate a series of questions and answers with no holds barred.
Now we were both looking at the plaster ceiling with the swirl design—I wish I could have seen how those plasterers did that. “Shoot your best shot,” I said, my eyes still following the interlocking set of circular patterns as I reached out to hold Kristin’s hand.
“Mike says you probably moved to Treme because you’ve got a black girl on the side,” she paused as the gravity of her words tugged at a question I knew was coming sooner or later. Her grip on my hand involuntarily tightened slightly, “Have you ever done it with a black girl?”
Her hand went limp and I heard her exhale sharply. I turned to look at her. She frowned, closed her eyes and spoke softly, barely moving her quivering lips. I wouldn’t let her hand go even though she was obviously a bit uncomfortable interreogating me and touching me at the same time.
“Five years ago, in college.”
She turned now and focused intently on my eyes, “That was the last time?”
“Do you… do you… I mean Mike says…”
“I’ll answer any questions you have Kristin, but I won’t answer Mike’s questions. I’m not in love with Mike.”
“You want me to compare doing it with you to doing it with a black girl, don’t you?” Her face tensed. She pulled her hand away.
There, it was out in the open. “If you want to know you have to ask.”
Silence. She rolled onto her side, faced me and used her cherry red, lacquered, finger tips to outline my short, manicured, strawberry blond beard. She started at my ear lobe and when she got to my chin, she hesitated, sighed, lay back squarely on her back, and tried to sound as casual as she could, “Did you ever have trouble getting it up with her?”
“No,” I replied quickly, almost as if I didn’t have to think about it, but, of course, I had already thought about it when I discerned the direction her questions were headed.
A terrifying hurt escaped Kristin’s throat, it sounded like she couldn’t breath and was fighting to keep from being crushed. “I can’t…” Kristin’s words peeled off into a grating whine. “David, why…”
“Why, what? Why did I do it with a black girl? Why did I have trouble getting it up a few minutes ago? Why did somebody shoot Etienne? All of the above? None of the above? What?”
“I’m going home.” She threw the covers back and started to climb cross me to get out of bed. I grabbed her waist and pulled her down on top of me. She tried to resist but she only weighted 112 pounds and was no match for my upper body strength.
“No, don’t run from it. Let’s face this. We can do this.” I held her in a bear hug. She vainly tried to push away.
“David, stop. Let me go!” she hissed, struggling to break free as I determinedly tightened my grip. “Let me go.”
Her small fists were pummeling my chest while I forcibly retained her in my embrace. She had been momentarily kneeling over me trying to scamper out of bed when I caught her in midmotion.
“David, you’re hurting me.” I used my left hand to grab her right wrist and yanked her right arm. As she lost her balance, I rolled over, pinning her to the mattress. “Stop! Stop!” She started pleading, “please stop. Let me go.”
“Kristin, listen to me.”
“No, let me go. Stop.” She was tossing her head back and forth, trying to avoid looking at me.
“Kristin, that was five years ago. Five damn years. If you didn’t want to know, why did you ask me?” We stared at each other. “Five years ago doesn’t have anything to do with us to…”
“It has everything to do with us. That’s why you can’t get it up with me, because I’m not black.”
I pushed her away, swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up.
“Did Mike tell you to say that?” I spat out the accusation over my shoulder.
After she didn’t answer, I pushed my fists into the mattress and started to get up. I heard Kristin crying.
“Why… how do you think it makes me feel? I come out here to be with you and… oh shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.”
I stopped midway in pushing myself up and allowed my full weight to sink back onto the bed. Now she was really bawling. I looked over at the Abita, grabbed the bottle and drained it. I sat focusing on the beer label and asking myself how did I let a couple of hours in bed degenerate into this mess.
I had drunk the remaining third of the beer too quickly. A gigantic belch was coming and I couldn’t stop it. For some strange reason I just felt it would be disrespectful to belch while Kristin was laying there sobbing, but I couldn’t help it.
The belch came out long and loud. “Excuse me,” I apologized. Afterwards, I looked over my shoulder at a heaving mass of flesh and hair—even after our tussel, her long luxurious hair flowed beautifully across her shoulders as though sculpted by an artist.
Her back was to me as she faced the wall silently crying and sniffling. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. “Kristin, it’s not…”
“Give me a cigarette, please,” she said without turning around while making a strenuous effort to stiffle the tears.
I had an unopened pack of cigarettes sitting on the night table. Neither one of us smoked that much anymore except after we made love, we liked to share a cigarette. I ripped the cellophane with my teeth, peeled the thin plastic from the box and nosily crumpled the crinklely protective covering. I started to ask, why do you want a cigarette and we hadn’t made love, but realized that would be a silly and insensitive question at this moment. I flipped the boxtop open and took out one cigarette. I pushed it back and forth between my fingers. As I lit the cigarette I felt a sudden urge to urinate but it seemed inappropriate for me to step away now. I didn’t want Kristin to think I was running from her, or didn’t want to talk, or whatever.
“Here.” As I reached the cigarette to her, she sat up and took it without really looking at me and without saying thanks or saying anything. She must have really been pissed because she seldom became so nonplussed that she forgot her equiette training.
I picked up the empty beer bottle and, at a loss for what to do next, I began reading the fine print on the beer label.
I felt movement in the bed. When I turned to see what she was doing, Kristin stepped to the floor, cigarette smoke trailing from the cigarette she held in her left hand behind her.
I felt like I was sitting for the CPA exam. Neither of us was saying anything, but I knew I had better come up with the right answers or this deal was off. I looked up as she stepped into the bathroom and partially closed the door behind her.
I saw the light go on in the bathroom. I heard her lower the toilet seat and then the loud splash in the bowl as she relieved herself. After she stopped urinating, I heard the flush of the toilet and then nothing. Maybe she was sitting there still crying.
I sat on the bed with an empty beer bottle in my hand. Damn, five years was a long time ago. Linda. I don’t think either one of us was really in love. We thought we were. I rubbed the cool beer bottle across my forehead as I remembered those crazy days in Boston. I think what was the most surprising was how unremarkable the sex was. I mean it was good but it just was. It was no big thing. No ceiling falling on us, the earth didn’t move. And there was no scene about it. We did it and enjoyed it and that was it. Not like… I didn’t want to go there. I looked at the vertical shaft of light paralleling the edge of the partially open bathroom door.
I think Linda caught more grief than I did. A lot of her friends stopped speaking to her. All my friends wanted to know was what it was like. Sex really doesn’t have to be all this. I remember how nervous I was the first time and how she just said, “look, I don’t know what you expect and I don’t care what you’ve heard. We’re just people. I’m not into anything kinky. You will use a condom and if I ever hear you talking any jungle fever shit, you’ll be swinging through the jungle all by your damn self.”
The thing I most remember is that she said thankyou the first time I ate her out and she reached a climax. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me but this seems like the only way I can get a climax.”
I had tried to cautiously ask her what she meant without being crude or rude.
“Head. Straight sex is ok but I can only reach a climax when I get some head.”
“Is that why you’re with me.”
“David, don’t believe that shit about brothers got dick and only white boys give head. And, for sure, don’t believe that you’re the only one willing to lick this pot.”
“No, I didn’t mean…ah, I didn’t mean to im…”
“Shut up! You talk too muc…”
“David, I’m sorry. I kinda stressed out because…” As I snapped back to the present, Kristin was standing over me. I hadn’t heard her return from the bathroom. I realized I had been sitting with my eyes closed, rolling the beer bottle over my face, thinking about Linda. “…well because I was afraid of losing you. I know you love me. And I think you know how much I love you.”
Yeah, enough to come over to the black side of town at night, is what I thought but, of course, I didn’t say anything.
“You don’t feel like talking do you?”
“No, I feel like it. I want to talk. Let’s talk,” I answered quickly. I opened my eyes and focused on her petite, immaculately pedicured feet. Her toenails were polished the same brilliant red as her fingernails. Her feet were close together and her toes were twitching nervously in the shag of my persian blue carpet. Kristin was standing so close to me that when I looked up, I was looking right at her muff.
I quickly placed the empty beer bottle on the night stand. I pulled her close to me, embraced her waist and kissed her navel. I felt her slender hands caressing my head. Where was the cigarette?
“I know I’m not very sexy…”
“Kri…” I tried to turn my head upward but she hugged my head hard to her stomach.
“No. Just listen. I’ve got to say this. I know sex is important to you and I’m willing to try whatever you want to make you happy. Anything. OK? Anything.”
“Hey babe, we’re going to be alright. You’ll see. We’re going to make it just fine.”
“Be careful who you love because love is mad,” was all my father ever told me about love. Nothing about sex. Nothing about understanding women. Just love is mad. We were sitting in the front room listening to his Ellington records. He played that Ivie Anderson song where she sings about love being like a cigarette. And he played a couple of other songs. And a concert recording of Ellington, employing his trademark suavity, telling the audience, “We love you madly.” I don’t know how many other Ellington fans there were in Normal, Illinois, but early in my life my father recruited me simply by playing records for hours as he sat in the twilight on those evenings when he wasn’t running up and down the road selling farm equipment.
I guess I just wanted to be around him. He was so seldom there for any length of time, when he was there I did what he did. I listened to jazz. Mostly Ellington, Basie, and Charlie Barnet playing “Cherokee.” I remember once Dad played Charlie Parker’s “KoKo.” Dad said Koko was based on Cherokee but I couldn’t hear any Cherokee anywhere. He laughed. “Yes, sometimes life can be complicated.” And then it was back to Ellington and all those gorgeous melodies. I still have the record Ellington signed for us backstage at the Elks dance many years ago. Well, not really signed because his signature wasn’t on there. Just a scrawled “love you madly.”
“I believe you when you say that,” Kristin intoned without missing a beat.
“That’s because I love you madly and mean it with all my heart.” It had become easier and easier to reveal that truth to Kristin.
“David, I just heard on the news that the casino is closing. What are we going to do?”
“Well, you’re going to hold on to your job with the tourist commission and I’m going to draw unemployment.”
“I guess now would be a good time for us to live together. I could move in with you—I mean if you want me to—and we could split the rent.”
“A couple of months ago you were scared to spend the night, now you’re talking about moving in with me.”
“Only if you want me to.” I detected a note of anxiety in her voice. Both of us were probably recalling that angry exchange we had when we first discussed living arrangements over dinner at Semolina’s: “David, all I pay is utilities and a yearly maintenance contract, it would be a lot cheaper for you to move in with me even if you took a cab to work everyday.”
That’s when I had unloaded, “I didn’t move down here to live in a white suburb twenty miles away from the center of town. I know your family finds it a lot more pratical, i.e. safer, to enjoy New Orleans from a distance, but if I’m going to live in New Orleans, I want to live in New Orleans. Besides, that’s one of the main reasons the city’s so crazy now.”
And then Kristin had exploded with a preprepared litany of rationalizations: “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be safe. I love New Orleans. I didn’t move to the suburbs to run away. I live in Metairie because it’s family property and…”
“Because you can’t live uptown anymore because your family sold their lovely, hundred year-old, historic Victorian house,” I had replied drily.
“David Squire, you’re just a starry-eyed idealist. You have no idea of how neat New Orleans used to be and how messed up it is now…”
“Now that Blacks run and overrun the city. Right? Now that they have messed it up and made it impossible for us nice white folks to have a really neat time?”
Kristen drew up sharply as if the bright faced college student who was our waiteress had put a plate of warm shit in front of Kristin instead of the shrimp fettuccini, which she hardly touched.
“David, let’s just change the subject, please,” Kristin had said in the icey tone she used when her mind was made up and, right or wrong, she was going to stick to her guns.
“Well just think about it, David. I’m not trying to push you or anything, it’s just that my half would help with the rent.” Hearing Kristin’s languid voice flow warmly through the receiver made me realize that I hadn’t responded to her question and that there had been several long seconds of dead air while she waited for my tardy reply.
“OK, I’ll think about it, Kristin. You know this whole job thing has happened so suddenly, I’m not sure what I want to do. So I’m going to just cool it for awhile and see how the chips fall.”
“God, David, you sound so cool to say you just lost your job.”
“Yeah, well, getting excited isn’t going to change anything. Besides, I can get another job. Good accountants are always in demand.”
“David, I’ve got to go, but I just wanted to call as soon as I heard on the news…”
“I love ya.”
“And I love you.” The worry vanished instantly when I reassured her that our relationship was not in jeopardy. Her tone brightened. “I’m on my way to the gym. I could swing by when I finish.”
“No, I’m alright,” I heard the disappointed silence like she was holding her breath and biting her bottom lip. Why was I being so difficult when all she was trying to do was reach out and touch? Besides I had come to really enjoy her perky company. “But, on second thought, babe, it would be great to be with you. Call me when you get back in.”
“I can come now. Skipping one day of gym won’t be the end of the world.”
“No, no, no, no, noooo. Go to the gym. Call me when you get back home.”
“I’ll call you from the gym.”
“S’cool.” I said slurring my signature sign off of “it’s cool.”
“It’ll be around 8:30.”
“S’cool. I think I’m going to walk down to Port Of Call and get a beer or something. Later gator.”
It was a near perfect November evening in New Orleans, what little breeze there was caressed your face with the fleeting sensation of a mischievous lover enticingly blowing cool breaths into your ear. It would have been a waste of seductive twilight to stay indoors. I grabbed my lightweight, green nylon windbreaker and ventured forth as though this evening had been created solely for my enjoyment. I didn’t have to go to work tomorrow. I would hook up with Kristin a little later. My rent was paid. I had twenty dollars in my pocket and a healthy stash in my savings account. I didn’t have a care in the world.
As I neared Rampart Street, just before crossing into the French Quarter, indistinct sounds of music mingled from many sources: car radios, bars, homes. No night in the old parts of New Orleans was complete without music.
This is where jazz began. My father the jazz fan had never been to New Orleans. Satchmo and Jellyroll walked these very streets. I looked up at the the thin slice of moon that hung in the sky, “Dad, I’m here.”
I knew he’d understand what I meant. He had been a farm boy who never really cared much about the land. What he liked was meeting different people. All kinds of people, but mostly people who weren’t living where we lived. Dad would have loved New Orleans and the plethora of street denizens of amazing variety who seemed to thrive in the moral hothouse of liscentious and sensual living which was the trademark of Big Easy existence.
Before I reached the corner a police car slow cruising down the street passed me. I looked over at the cops, one blond the other dark skinned, and waved. Their visibility was reassuring.
When I got back from Port Of Call it was fully dark. I should have taken my bike. Cycling was safer than walking. Moreover, walking through the quarter was more dangerous than walking through Treme which was flooded with police once the casino had opened in Armstrong Park.. Hummppp, I wondered if they would keep up the policing now that the casino was closed.
It was about twenty minutes to eight. I had casually checked my watch as I turned off Esplanade after crossing Rampart. When I got close to my place, I saw somebody had left a 40 oz. beer bottle on my stoop. I picked it up and routinely checked all around me to make sure nobody was trying to slip up on me as I unlocked my front door. The alarm beeped until I punched in the disarming code—that was my one concession to Kristin. No, I wasn’t going to buy a car, but yes I would get a security alarm system put in.
I locked the deadbolt and flipped on the front room lamp. I felt like some Dr. John. I put the empty bottle down, twirled my cd rack, pulled out Dr. John’s Gumbo, slid it in the cd player, turned the volume up to six and sang “Iko Iko” along with the good Dr. as I danced to the kitchen after turning off the floor lamp. I was using the empty forty oz. as a microphone and moving with a pigeon-toed shuffle step. I ended with a pirouette and a slam dunk of the forty into the thirty gallon kitchen trash can.
While pulling off my windbreaker and hanging it in the closet, I heard a faint knocking but I thought it was one of the neighborhood kids beating out a rhythm on the side of the house. The knocking persisted, only louder. Who could that be, nobody besides Kristin ever visits me. I jogged into the front room.
“Yeah, who is it?” I shouted out as I detoured to turn the music down.
“I’m Brother Cooper, man.”
“Who?” I shouted through the locked door.
“Bras Coupe,” came back the indistinct reply.
“I don’t want none.”
“I ain’t selling nothing. I just wanna ask you something.”
“Open the door, please, mister?” There was an urgency in his voice which I couldn’t deceipher. I peered out the window next to the door but the streetlights were to his back and most of his face was in shadows. I turned on my front flood light. I still didn’t recognize him. His left hand was empty, I couldn’t see his right hand.
“I ain’t goin’ do you nothing, man. I just want to ask you something.”
“I can hear you,” I shouted back through the solid wood, dead-lock-bolted door. I continued watching him through the window.
“Look, I’m just as scared as you, standing out here, knocking on a stranger’s door, enough for to get shot. I know you don’t know me, but I used to live here twenty-two years ago. I left town and I’m just passing through. My people done all gone and I just wanted to see the house I grew up in.”
This sounded like a first class line to me. He stepped back so that he was fully illuminated by the flood light. “Look, I couldn’t do you nothing even if I wanted to—I’m cripple.” He twirled around to show me the empty dangling right sleeve of his sweatshirt. He was probably too poor to procure prosthesis. “If you got a gun why don’t you get it and hold it on me, I just want to see the house.”
I was in a quandry. Suppose the gun thing was a trick to find out if I had a gun. Suppose he was planning to come back later and rob me. He didn’t look like anybody I had seen in the neighborhood before. And there was this tone in his voice—it wasn’t fear, it was something else. He pleaded with me, “I wouldn’t blame you for not letting me in, but it sure would mean a lot to me to see the house.”
“The house has been completely remolded, you wouldn’t recognize it now.”
“If you don’t want to let me in, just tell me to get lost. That’s your right. It’s your property now…” Renters don’t have property rights I thought as I weighed his appeal. “But, you ain’t got to handle me like I’m stupid. I know the house don’t look nothing like when I lived in it.”
I said nothing else. He backed down the steps and stood on the sidewalk. A car passed and he flinched like he thought the car was coming up on the sidewalk or like he feared somebody was after him.
“You white, ain’t you? And you afraid to let a one armed, black man in your house after dark. I understand your feelings. Can you understand mine?”
It pained me to realize I didn’t and, worse yet, possibly couldn’t understand his feelings. I had all kinds of black acquaintances that I knew and spoke to on a daily basis, but not one whom I was really close to. I had been here over a year and still didn’t have one real friend who was black and not middle class.
My mind ping ponged from point to point searching for an answer to his softly stated albeit deadly question. Could someone like me—someone white and economically secure—ever really understand the feelings of a poor, black man? Especially since I wanted honesty and refused to settle for the facade of sharing cultural positions simply because I exercised my option to live in the same physical space with those who had little choice in the matter.
My pride would not let me fake at being poor, walk around with artifically ripped jeans and headrags pretending I was down. Besides when you get really close to poverty you understand that poverty sucks big time. You see how being poor wears people out physically, emotionally and mentally.
These neighborhoods are like a prison without bars and a lot of these people are doing nothing but serving time until they can figure a way to get out, which most of them seldom do. Especially, the men. They just become more hardened, callous and emotionally distant. My stay was temporary. I was not sentenced by birth, but visiting, one step removed from sightseeing. Regardless of what I like to tell myself about commitment and sincerity, it was my choice to come here and I always have a choice to leave—a real choice backed up by marketable skills that would be accepted anywhere I may go. I know that most of the people in this neigborhood have no such choice.
As if to distract myself from the meaning of this moment of conflict, I looked at the disheveled man on my sidewalk and wondered had his father ever played him music and told him that “love was mad”? Obviously his father had not sent him to college. Could not have. But the conundrum for me had nothing to do with poverty in the abstract, or even with letting this man into the apartment. For me the deep issue was stark and cold: was I mad for trying to love the people who created jazz? If this man had appeared at my father’s door, would dad have let him in?
I overcame my fear and my better judgement, pulled out my key and unlocked the deadbolt. I started to throw the door open, but realized that there were no lights on in the front room and the hall door was wide open exposing the rest of the house. “Wait a minute,” I said firmly through the door.
I turned around, flicked on my black lacquered, floor lamp, turned the cd player off in the middle of Dr. John singing “Somebody Changed The Lock” and then closed the hall door. I quickly surveyed the room to make sure there was nothing lying round that… wait a minute, why was I worried about the possibility of a one armed man being a thief?
I returned to the door, peeked out the window—he was still standing there—and then released the lock on the doorknob. I cautiously opened the door. “I guess you can come in for a minute.” I felt my pulse pounding and struggled to remain calm.
He started up the steps slowly. His hair was the first thing I noticed as he stepped into the doorway. It was untrimmed, it wasn’t long, but it was uncombed. As I surveyed him, I instinctively stepped back from him and then I reached out my hand to shake, “My name is David Squire”—suddenly I was assaulted by a distinct but unidentifiable pungent odor that I had never smelled before. He reached out his left hand and covered my hand. I realized immediately that it was a faux pas to offer my right hand to a man without a right arm. He seemed to sense my embarassment.
“I’m Bras Coupe. Lots of people call me Brother Cooper.” His hand was rough and calloused. His skin felt leathery and unyielding. I looked down at his hand. His claw like fingernails were discolored and jagged. When I withdrew my hand and looked up at his face, he was examining the room. He said nothing more and just stood there looking around.
Finally, I stepped around him to close the door. The scent that I had caught a wiff of in the doorway, engulfed me now and wrestled with the oxygen in my nose. I had to open my mouth to breath. I was certain I had made a mistake letting him in, now the question was how to get him out.
“You want to sit down,” I asked in a weak voice?
He slowly sank to one knee right where he was. After swivleling around so that he was facing me, he locked into what was obviously for him a comfortable posture. He leaned his weight on his left arm which was braced against his upraised left leg. It was almost as if he was ready to jump up and run at a moment’s notice.
“You do not use the fireplace.” He raised his head slightly and audibly sniffed twice, his nostrils flaring with each intake of air. “No windows open.” He sniffed again. “You don’t cook.” He rose in a surprisingly swift motion. And then for the first time he stood up to his full height. He was huge.
I backed up.
“I’m not going to hurt you. If I wanted to, I could have killed you by now.”
As I measured him from head to foot, I couldn’t hide my shock when I saw that he was barefoot.
“You wear your fear like a flag.” He nonchalantly watched me inspect him and laughed again when my eyes riveted on his bare feet. “Show me the rest of my house, David Squire.”
I was glued where I stood. I couldn’t move. I had never felt so helpless before. “Do you understand what you feel? You should see yourself. Tell me about yourself,” he commanded.
I stammered, “What wha… wha-what do you want to-to know?”
“I already know everything I want to know. It’s what you need to know about yourself that matters. Why are you here? What do you think is so cool about all of this mess?”
I couldn’t answer. Somehow to say “I came to New Orleans because I wanted to get to know the people who created jazz” seemed totally the wrong thing to do. He turned his back to me and looked at my stereo system. “Do you have any of my music?”
He stomped on the floor three times in rapid succession with his right foot, shouting “Dansez Badoum, Dansez Badoum, Dansez Dansez.” Then he spun in slow circles on his left foot while using his one hand to beat a complicated cross-rhythm on his chest and on his upraised left leg. Somehow, simultaneously with turning clockwise in a circle, he carved a counterclockwise circle in the air with his head. His agility was breathtaking. He dipped suddenly in a squat, slapped the floor and froze with his piercing eyes popped out in a transfixing stare. I felt a physical pressure push me backward.
“I thought you liked my music.” He looked away briefly and then returned his full and terrible attention to me. I was quaking in my Rockport walking boots. Neither of us said anything and a terrible silence followed.
“Talk to me, David Squire.”
“It’s, it’s about life.” I stammered quietly.
“Eh? What say you?”
“Black music. Your music. It’s about life. The beauty of life regardless of all the ugliness that surrounds… usss….” Instantly I wished I hadn’t said that. It was true but it sounded so much like a liberal line. Just like when Dad had introduced me to Mr. Ellington, I couldn’t think of anything right to say. So, I said the only truth on the tip of my tongue, “I love your music.”
“Am I supposed to feel good because you love my music? Why don’t you love your own music? Why don’t you make your own music?”
I had never thought about that. It didn’t seem right. There was no white man I could think of who could come close. Even Dr. John was at his best when he sounded like he was black. When I looked up, Brother Cooper had his eyes steeled onto me like an auditor who has found the place where the books had been doctored. My mouth hung open but I had no intentions of trying to answer that question.
“After you take our music, what’s left in this city?”
“I’m not from here.” Words came out of my mouth without thinking.
“You’re from the north.”
“I’m from Normal, Illinois.”
“Where did you go to school?”
“Where in Boston.”
“Sit down David Squire.” Still in a squatting position, he motioned toward my reading chair with his hand. “You look a bit peaked.”
In a swift crablike motion, he scurried quickly over to me without rising. He touched my knee. There was nothing soft in his touch. It was like I had bumped into a tree. “Harvard eh, your people must have a little money.”
“Most people think going to Harvard means you’re smart.” I blurted out without thinking. Putting my mouth in motion before engaging my brain was a bad habit I needed to loose.
“Smart doesn’t run this country. Does it?” He looked away.
I began sweating.
“Go relieve yourself,” Cooper said without looking at me.
As soon as he said that, I felt my bladder throbbing. I almost ran to the bathroom, locking the door behind me. I turned on the light, the heat lamp, the vent. I unzipped my pants, started to urinate and felt my bowels stir with an urgency that threatened to soil my drawers. I dropped my pants, hurriedly pulled down the toilet seat, plopped down and unloaded.
I wiped myself quickly. I washed my hands, quickly. I threw water on my face, quickly. And then I looked into the mirror. My face was pale with terror.
“David Squire, come, I must tell you something before I go.” At the sound of Cooper’s voice, my legs gave way momentarily and I fell against the wash basin. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. I couldn’t go back out there and I couldn’t not go.
“David Squire,” the powerful voice boomed again. “Open the door.”
My hand trembled as I flicked the latch and turned the knob. I pulled the door open and there he stood directly in front of the door. “Every future has it’s past. What starts in madness, will end in the same again. My name is Bras Coupe. Find out who I am and understand what made me be what I became. Know the beginning well and the end will not trouble you.” He looked through me as if I were a window pane. I couldn’t bear his stare, I closed my eyes.
“Look at me.”
When I opened my eyes I was in total darkness. I shivered. I felt cold and broke out sweating profusely again when I realized I was laying on my back on my bed. Now I was past scared. I was sure I was dead.
Then that voice sounded again, “You fainted.”
His words wrapped around me like a snake. I felt the mattress sag as if, as if he was climbing into my bed. All I could think of was that he was going to fuck me. All the muscles in my ass tightened as taut as the strings on my tennis racket. From somewhere I remembered the pain and humiliation of a rectal exam when I was young.
My mother was sitting on the other side of the room and the doctor made me lay on my stomach. The last thing I saw him do was put on rubber gloves. They squeeked when he put his hands in them. And they snapped loudly as he pulled them snugly on his wrist, tugged at the tops and let the upper ends pop with an omnious clack on his wrist. “This might hurt a little but it will be over in a minute.” And then he stuck his finger up my rectum.
It felt like his whole hand was going up in there. I looked over at my mother. She didn’t say anything, she just had this incredibly pained look on her plain face which always honestly reflected her emotions. “It will be alright, David. Yah, it will be alright,” she said, sounding the “y” of yes as though it were a soft “j”—her second generation Swedish background was generally all but gone from her speech except for the stubborn nub that stuck to her tongue when ever she was under duress.
What had I done? What did I have? The pain shot up from my anus and exited my mouth as a low pitched moan. I was watching my mother watch me. I resolved that I was going to be strong and I was going to withstand whatever this man was going to do to me.
The man with his whole hand up my butt wasn’t saying anything. He just kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing. I don’t remember him stopping. I don’t remember anything else except that despite my best efforts, I cried.
And now, here I lay in the dark awaiting another thrust up my ass. The anticipation was excruciating. My resolve to remain stoic completely crumbled and I started crying—but not loudly or anything. In fact there was no sound except the impercible splash of my huge tears flowing slowly down the sides of my face and falling shamlessly onto my purple comforter.
Suddenly the bright light from the table lamp illuminated my perdicament. He was standing next to the bed. I recoiled, rolling back from the sight of him. “Are you Ok?” he questioned me. “You look…” he stopped abruptly and cocked his head as if he heard something. After a few brief seconds he returned his attention to me. “They’re coming.” Without saying anything else, he turned and walked away toward the kitchen. A moment later, I too could hear a police siren.
And then it seemed like nothing happened. Just hours and hours of nothing. No sound from the kitchen. Nothing at all. My heart was pounding.
I tried to make myself sit up. It was like a dream. I couldn’t move. I told myself to get up. But I couldn’t move. I wanted to move. I wanted to run. But I couldn’t move.
Eventually I made myself stop crying. It took so much effort, I was almost exhausted. Suddenly there was a loud knocking at my front door. The rapping startled me. I involuntarily let out a brief whelp of fear, “Ah.”
Cooper appeared soundlessly at the foot of the bed. “Go.”
I jumped up.
I was in shock.
The knock was louder. I don’t know how I got to the front door, but when I got there, I didn’t say a word as the insistent tapping started again. It sounded like somebody beating on my door with a club. Suppose this was one of Cooper’s friends come to do me in.
I glanced over my shoulder at the back of the house. Cooper had turned the bedroom lamp off.
I glanced out the front window. Two policemen were outside. One on the stoop, one on the sidewalk. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Why were they knocking on my door?
“Yes,” I said meekly without opening the door.
“It’s the police, sir.”
I cracked the door—I had forgotten to lock it when I let Cooper in—”Is anything wrong, officer?”
“Yeah, I hate to tell you this, but there was a double homocide a couple blocks away and we have reason to believe the murderer is still in the neighborhood.” The officer spoke of two people murdered with the casualness only a New Oreans policeman could evidence when discussing the carnage that had now become some common. “Have you seen or heard anything?”
I could have stood there for ten hours and not been able to honestly answer that question. I didn’t really know what I had seen or not seen. At that moment I doubted my own sanity. Just then my phone rang.
“One minute, officer, that’s my phone.” The phone stopped in the middle of the second ring before I could answer the extension in the front room. It was too soon for the answering machine to pick up. No, couldn’t be—I instantly rejected the notion that Cooper had answered the phone.
I had left the door open and the policeman stuck his head in and made a quick annoucement. “Sir, we’re just advising everyone in the area to be careful and please call us immediately if you see or hear anything.”
I dashed back to the door as the officer was talking. He was a young, black guy, medium build, clean cut, and he spoke with an air of authority. I was about to say something to him when I heard Cooper call out to me from the bedroom, “that was Kristin, I told her you would call her right back.”
“Ok.” I said, responding to both Cooper and the policeman. Before I could say anything else the policeman was backing away from my door. I turned quickly looking for Cooper but it was completely dark in the back and I couldn’t see anything. When I turned back to the front door, the police cruiser was pulling off from the curb. I closed the door, pulled out my key and made sure that I locked the deadbolt this time.
As I started toward the bedroom, I realized that I had locked myself in the house with Cooper. I froze in the hallway next to the bathroom.
I turned the hall light on. I started feeling afraid again. The bathroom door was partially open. I stood away from the bathroom door and pushed it fully open. Nothing.
I turned on the bathroom light. Nothing.
The front room light was on. The hall light was on. The bathroom light was on. There were only two more rooms: my bedroom and the kitchen just beyond it.
The bedroom was completely dark, as was the kitchen. “Cooper,” I called out in a subdued and shaky voice. Nothing.
I repeated the call a little louder, “Cooper.” Nothing.
I put my back to the wall and inched into the bedroom. Just inside the door way, I stood perfectly still, opened my mouth to balance the pressure in my ears and listened as keenly as I could. Nothing.
The table lamp was only about three feet away but everytime I went to reach for it, something kept me pinned to the wall. Was he in the dark waiting to waylay me?
I took a deep breath, pushed away from the wall, and jumped on the bed. I was safe. I hit the lamp switch. Light filled the room. Nothing.
All that was left was the kitchen.
Now that most of the lights were on it was less frightening. I stepped into the hallway and reached my hand around the doorway to turn on the light in the little combination kitchen-dining room. This apartment was shaped funny because it was really a large double carved up into three apartments.
There was nothing in the kitchen. I ran to the kitchen door which opened to the side alley. It was still locked with the deadbolt and I had the key in my trouser pocket.
Every room was lit. There was nobody in here.
I walked through every room growing bolder by the minute. I searched through each room three times. Nothing.
Opened closet doors. Nothing.
Pulled the shower curtain back and looked in the stall. Nothing.
Looked under the bed. Nothing.
I must have been hallucinating.
I turned off the kitchen light and haltingly inched my way back into the front room.
I turned off the front room lamp.
I turned off the hall light.
I turned off the bathroom light.
I sat down on the bed and turned off the lamp.
As soon as I felt the darkness envelop me, I flicked the switch back on. What was I doing? Where was Cooper? Was Cooper ever here? What the hell was going on?
Then I remembered Kristin.
I picked up the phone and dailed her. Her phone rang, and rang, and rang until the recorder came on. “Hi, I’m out at the moment, but I’ll be right back. Please leave your name and number at the tone and I’ll get right back to you. Thanks. Ciao.”
“David, get a hold of yourself. This is crazy,” I mumbled to myself as I sat on the side of the bed staring into space.
I got up again, went from room to room turning on all the lights. Tested the kitchen door. It was locked. Walked to the front of the house. Tested the front door. It was locked. Started at the front room and searched each room in the house again. Nothing.
I turned the lights off in every room except the bedroom. I sat down on the bed.
I got up and walked around.
I turned off the table lamp.
As soon as it was off, I switched the lamp back on.
I called Kristin again. No answer.
I went to the bathroom, splashed water on my face. Dried my face on the green towel hanging from the towel ring, turned off the bathroom light and went back in the bedroom.
I kicked off my shoes. Lay down on the bed. Turned off the light. Heard something in the room. Turned the light back on. Nothing.
I couldn’t go on like this. Afraid of my own apartment.
I called Kristin again. “I clearly remember Cooper saying that Kristin called,” I said out loud to myself. She still wasn’t home.
I turned the radio on. I turned the radio off.
I slipped back into my shoes and walked from the bedroom to the front room, turning on lights as I went.
I walked from the front room to the bedroom, turning off lights as I went.
When I got back in the bedroom I reached out to switch the lamp off, but I couldn’t. So I stood there and looked at my hand on the switch. Finally, my hand moved to the phone and I called Kristin one more time. No answer.
I lay down. I got up.
I got tired of standing.
I sat on the bed.
I stood up.
Then I thought I heard a knocking on the side of the house—Cooper was coming back. I walked through the house and turned all the other lights back on.
I was exhausted. I didn’t have the strength to leave the front room.
I looked out the front window reconnoitering the area in front my house. I couldn’t see anything.
I left the window and stood in the middle of the front room.
For the first time since I had come back from the Port Of Call, I thought to check the time. I looked at my watch. It was 9:05.
I started to walk to the back of the house, instead I turned around. I had to go outside. I pulled out my key, unlocked the deadbolt, and threw the door wide open. I didn’t think about setting the alarm, getting a jacket, or anything. I just stood in my open doorway and felt relatively safe now that I was halfway out the house. After a few minutes of deep breathing, I stepped completely out of the doorway and closed the door behind me.
I looked up and down the street. A young guy was walking down the street with his hands in his pocket. Miss Sukky was pacing back and forth, plying her wares at her usual spot down the corner at Esplanade Avenue. A dog came sauntering toward me sniffing at the ground between the street and the sidewalk. The street mutt paused when he saw me, snorted gruffly, backed up briefly, turned and trotted away. A couple of blocks down, a police car’s blue lights were flashing. It looked like every other night.
Pow. Pow. I heard two shots in the distance and I jumped as each one went off. This was just like any other night. I had gotten used to the gunfire. Or so I thought. Pow. A third shot.
I slumped down on the top step and before I knew better, I felt uncontrollable waves welling up inside me.
For the first time since I arrived over a year ago, I began to question whether living here was worth playing Russian roulette, betting your life that the next murder wouldn’t be your own.
The economy, such as it was, was disasterously close to imploding. The gaming industry was a bust. Crime was spiralling out of control. Everywhere you looked the neighborhoods were disenigrating. Abandoned buildings, vacant property and housing for sale dominated the landscape—even on exclusive, posh St. Charles Avenue. The whole city was up for grabs.
New Orleans wasn’t fun like I had expected it to be, like I had wanted it to be. I couldn’t go on pretending everything was cool. It wasn’t.
Madness again. That’s what Cooper had said: Madness. Again. What did he mean by again? Was it ever this mad? Was New Orleans ever like this before?
Kristin was always saying she admired my integrity. What would she think if she could see me now? I almost started crying again. I had to keep screwing up my face and rapidly blinking my eyes to fight back the tears—a crying man sitting on a stoop wouldn’t last long in this neighborhood—but I wasn’t totally successful and, everytime I wiped one away, another small tear droplet would form and sit at the edge of each of my eyes.
Why was I crying? I wasn’t hurt.
But I was in pain.
I wasn’t robbed.
But an essential part of my sanity was gone.
“Kristin, I’m sorry.” I had been so condescending toward her. I threw my head back and bumped it repeatedly against the front door. Harvard educated. Bump. Physically fit. Bump. And emotionally traumatized. Bump-bump. I head-knocked the door a couple of more times, partially dried my face with my shirt sleeve, reached into my pocket, pulled out my handkercheif and, in an almost pro forma attempt to clear my nasal passages, blew gobs of mucus into the white cotton. I sniffed once more, gave the tip of my nose another cursory brush and then dabbed hard at my moustache and down the sides of my mouth and over my beard. I folded the handkerchief and stuffed it back in my pocket. As I did so, my fingers touched my keys and I recoiled with a reflex action. I couldn’t go back in there. Not now. Not tonight.
I resigned myself to sitting on my steps all night. Or maybe I would walk over to the Exxon on Rampart and Esplanade and call for Kristin, and ask her… ask her what? To come get me. Ask her… somebody was standing in front of me.
I was almost afraid to look the youngster in the eye, he might interpret my gaze as a challenge or a putdown. I had seen him around a couple of times. He unblinkingly looked at me like he was trying to decide what to do with me. I just looked at him.
I could have gotten up and gone inside. I could have spoken to him. He could have spoken to me. But I just sat there and looked at him. He just stood there and looked at me. Neither one of us said anything.
Finally, he nonchalantly turned, walked to the corner and stood there with his back to me. He pulled out a cigarette, lit up, blew smoke up in the air, turned around and started walking away. When he reached the far corner, he turned and disappeared. I finally exhaled.
Leaning forward, my forearms resting heavily on my knees, I clasped my hands and dropped my head. “I don’t want to die. Please, God. I want to live. I’m trying God. I’m trying my best.” I couldn’t remember the last time I had prayed to God. Whenever it was, for sure I had never uttered a more sincere prayer in my life.
My hands were shaking. Literally shaking. I tried to keep them still. I could feel them shaking uncontrollably. I pushed them under my thighs momentarily, trying to sit on my hands to keep them still. It didn’t help.
I passed my hands through my hair, interlaced them behind my head and leaned back against the door. It didn’t help.
I leaned forward again, clenching and unclenching my fists. My hands were still shaking. I entwined my fingers and tightly clasped my hands. I had my eyes closed. I was afraid to look at my hands. Afraid to look at myself.
I took a deep breath.
“It’s not worth it. It’s not worth it,” I heard myself muttering a bottom line assessment I never thought I would be thinking, not to mention saying it out loud.
“David, what’s wrong? Why are you sitting out here?”
I looked up and there was Kristin, dashing out of her car and racing breathlessly toward me. I hadn’t even heard her drive up. Her trembling voice was full of anxiety as she sprinted across the sidewalk.
“Are you OK? I got here as fast as I could. Who was that on the phone?” her words gushed out in a torrent of concern and consternation.
At that moment all I could do was drop my head and tender my resignation. This business was a bust, it was time to move on while I still could, “Kristin, I’m scared. Please, take me to your place.”
An eye-opening report conducted by the Centers for Disease Control Prevention suggests that Black women have the highest homicide rates of any other women in the United States.
Looking at data from 18 states that included 10,018 female homicides committed between the years 2003 and 2014, CDC researchers found that Black women are killed at a rate of 4.4 per 100,000 people, indigenous women at a rate of 4.3 per 100,000; and other races (white, Latina and Asian) were between 1 and 2 per 100,000.
They also found that more than half are at the hands of their boyfriends or husbands. Latinas had the highest rates of deaths due to domestic violence with 61 percent, while domestic-violence-related deaths among Black women was 51.3 percent.
The new report also found the following:
Bustle points out that these findings shouldn’t be all that surprising given what past data has shown.
CDC’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that 22 percent of Black women and 26.9 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native women have been raped at some point in their life. Also our reported rates of rape, stalking, and/or physical violence is 30 to 50 percent higher than Latinas whites and Asian/Pacific Islander women.
But regardless of race the CDC stresses that intimate partner violence [IPV] is a public health crisis.
“What’s notable is that this is across all racial ethnic groups,” says Emiko Petrosky, a science officer at the CDC and an author of the report. “Intimate partner violence can affect anyone … it really just shows that [this] is a public health problem.“
But what does the CDC believe can be done to prevent the deaths?
“We found that approximately one in 10 victims of intimate partner violence-related homicide experienced some form of violence in the preceding month,” Petrosky says.
“And when we look at it for the non-intimate partner violence-related homicides, that was less than 2 percent. So this indicates that there could have been potentially an opportunity for intervention for those women.”
But it’s important to note that like sexual assault in our community, a large majority of homicides of Black women are committed by Black men. Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, tells Bustle that if we are serious about ending this epidemic in Black America, we have to address racism and inequality as well.
“If we want to end domestic violence and domestic homicide we must also end unconscious institutional racism and other barriers that impact survivors.”
She added: “Our organization envisions a world where no one experiences domestic terrorism in the home, and that survivors know that reaching out for help will not activate a disparate response by the justice system due to the race or ethnicity of the abusive partner.”
Hopefully we care enough about the lives of Black women and girls to actually do something about it.
There is a deep ache embedded in Black femaleness — one not often considered when examining the experiences of brown hued women and girls. A mix of passion, fear and determination grips you and jolts you awake, settling deep into your person as you transition from adolescence to womanhood. Amanda Lipitz’s outstanding debut documentary STEP captures all of those feelings, provoking tears and electrifying the viewer’s soul.
STEP opens in Baltimore during the fall of 2015. Just a few months after the horrifying murder of 25-year-old Freddie Gray— the city and the rest of the country remained on edge. On Franklin Street, the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is a haven for some of the city’s most vulnerable. STEP centers on three young women in their senior year —all members of the school’s inaugural class, chronicling their personal lives, their educational endeavors and following them into the gymnasium where they lose themselves in the stomping and bolstering beats of step dance routines.
Effervescent step captain Blessin Giraldo started the team in the sixth grade, but her frequent absences (she missed 53 days of school the year prior) and rocky home life causes friction in the classroom and in her relationships with her teammates. Cori Grainger, a quiet straight-A student, uses stepping to tap into her alter ego. It’s a side of her that stays hidden away at home with her mother, stepfather and six younger siblings. Cori seems most comfortable coding on her laptop and striving for an acceptance letter to the prestigious Johns Hopkins University. Then there’s Tayla Solomon — who proclaims that she’s a notch down from Beyoncé when it comes to her step skills — her ever-present corrections officer mother keeps the deadpan teen in check.
As the “Lethal Ladies of BLSYW” press forward in pursuit of the ultimate prize, placement in the Bowie State step competition they must learn to confront every obstacle thrown their way. Life can be callous to Black women, so for younger girls, the challenges that they encounter often seem insurmountable.
Lipitz’s STEP isn’t the downtrodden painful narrative that Hollywood likes to trot out when they do get around to depicting Black women. Instead, it is a spectacular embrace of Black sisterhood. As Blessin, Cori and Tayla move through their senior year (wavering at times, because that’s what teenagers do) it’s the Back women around them that remain steadfast in lifting them up. There is step coach Gari McIntyre (a newcomer to the team), whose tough love and relentless teachings on teamwork and perseverance that get them through practices. The school’s straight-shooting Principal Chevonne Hall and Director of College Curriculum, Paula Dofat treat every girl as if they were their own. These women act as shields and support systems for the girls who are about to step into the real world. At BLSYW, no girl is allowed to fade into the background.
For Blessin more than anyone, step is life. A magnetic young woman with boundless amounts of creativity, Blessin’s innate warmth is often stifled by a deeply impoverished home life and a mother who deals with chronic bouts of depression. The aspiring designer is often left to struggle through the muck of it on her own which causes her to retreat into herself and lash out at others. What Lipitz and Editor Penelope Falk get right in this swiftly paced 83-minute film is that they refuse to wallow in the often troubled circumstances of the young women’s’ lives. Compassion is one thing, but there is no room for pity here. The girls are too busy struggling to get to the next level, to elevate, educate and demand even more of themselves.
STEP gets the magic and pain of being a Black girl right. There are dates, awkward sex talks and conversations surrounding the anxiety of paying college tuition. However, the rhythm of step stands at the center. The “Lethal Ladies” powerful routines channel the emotions, energy and frustration that all Black girls feel especially when everywhere you turn the world is screaming that you aren’t enough.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami
Practicing for countless hours before we can be good at something seems burdensome and boring. Maybe that’s why we’re drawn to stories of instant achievement. The monk realizes satori (and Neo learns kung fu); the superhero acquires great power out of the blue; Robert Johnson trades for genius at the crossroads. At the same time, we teach childrenthey can’t master a skill without discipline and diligence. We repeat pop psych theories that specify the exact number hours required for excellence. The number may be arbitrary, but it comforts us to believe that practice might, eventually, make perfect. Because in truth we know there is no way around it. As Wynton Marsalis writes in “Wynton’s Twelve Ways to Practice: From Music to Schoolwork,” “practice is essential to learning music—and anything else, for that matter.”
For jazz musicians, the time spent learning theory and refining technique finds eloquent expression in the concept of woodshedding, a “humbling but necessary chore,” writes Paul Klemperer at Big Apple Jazz, “like chopping wood before you can start the fire.”
Yet retiring to the woodshed “means more than just practicing…. You have to dig deep into yourself, discipline yourself, become focused on the music and your instrument.” As beginners, we tend to look at practice only as a chore. The best jazz musicians know there’s also “something philosophical, almost religious” about it. John Coltrane, for example, practiced ceaselessly, consciously defining his music as a spiritual and contemplative discipline.
Marsalis also implies a religious aspect in his short article: “when you practice, it means you are willing to sacrifice to sound good… I like to say that the time spent practicing is the true sign of virtue in a musician.” Maybe this piety is intended to dispel the myth of quick and easy deals with infernal entities. But most of Marsalis’ “twelve ways to practice” are as pragmatic as they come, and “will work,” he promises “for almost every activity—from music to schoolwork to sports.” Find his abridged list below, and read his full commentary at “the trumpeter’s bible,” Arban’s Method.
You’ll note in even a cursory scan of Marsalis’ prescriptions that they begin with the imminently practical—the “chores” we can find tedious—and move further into the intangibles: developing creativity, humility, optimism, and, eventually, maybe, a gradual kind of enlightenment. You’ll notice on a closer read that the consciousness-raising and the mundane daily tasks go hand-in-hand.
While this may be all well and good for jazz musicians, students, athletes, or chess players, we may have reason for skepticism about success through practice more generally. Researchers at Princeton have found, for example, that the effectiveness of practice is “domain dependent.” In games, music, and sports, practice accounts for a good deal of improvement. In certain other “less stable” fields driven by celebrity and networking, for example, success can seem more dependent on personality or privileged access.
But it’s probably safe to assume that if you’re reading this post, you’re interested in mastering a skill, not cultivating a brand. Whether you want to play Carnegie Hall or “learn a language, cook good meals or get along well with people,” practice is essential, Marsalis argues, and practicing well is just as important as practicing often. For a look at how practice changes our brains, creating what we colloquially call “muscle memory,” see the TED-Ed video just above.
The 2017 reading period will open June 15, 2017, and run through Sept. 15, 2017.
WTAW Press publishes full-length books of prose (novels, memoirs, creative nonfiction, collections of stories and essays, etc.). Additionally, opening chapters, stories, or essays of full-length manuscripts that show promise may be selected for publication in the WTAW Press Features Chapbook Series. We welcome submissions from writers unpublished, extensively published, and in between. We don’t privilege one aesthetic over another: we want to publish books that show us more things on heaven and earth than we have dreamt of.
We do not publish how-to or self-help books, reference texts, or children’s literature. At this time we are not publishing poetry.
We will accept work only through our submission manager. There is a $28 fee. WTAW Press is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Fees support WTAW Press’s commitment to producing quality literary works, supporting authors, and doing all we can to bring our books to the attention of the readers they deserve.
All submissions will be read anonymously. Manuscripts containing identifying information will not be read and will be automatically disqualified.
Although the manuscript in its entirety must be previously unpublished, individual portions that have appeared in other venues should be credited as such. Simultaneous submissions are invited, but please notify us immediately if your work is accepted elsewhere. Writers may submit more than one manuscript, but a separate reading fee must accompany each manuscript.
Submit your full book-length manuscript as a Microsoft Word .doc or. docx file in standard manuscript format (12-point standard font, double spaced, at least 1 inch margins) with numbered pages. Do not submit a lone chapter, story, or essay; The WTAW Press Features Chapbook Series draws from full book-length manuscripts only.
Include a cover letter on the submission manager in the field where it’s requested with:
• Your contact information (address, phone, email)
• The work’s title and total word count
• List of credits for any previously published portions
• Indication if the manuscript is submitted simultaneously
• A brief biography
WTAW Press will respond by the end of December 2017. Please note: editors do not offer editorial comments on submissions. We consider ourselves to be readers only until we sign a contract with an author. At that point, we develop an editorial relationship with the author. We are committed to publishing the best work we can find and look forward to reading your manuscripts.
I Look But
What Is There To See?
you is like
on the track
staring at the space
by a slow train
what done long
around the bend
the whistle sound
in the air
and the ground’s
to your toes
—kalamu ya salaam
Kalamu ya Salaam – vocals
Stephan Richter – clarinet
Wolfi Schlick – reeds
Frank Bruckner – guitar
Mathis Mayer – cello
Georg Janker – bass
Michael Heilrath – bass
Roland HH Biswurm – drums
Recorded: June 14, 1998 – “ETA Theatre” Munich, Germany
Two black women lean against a retail counter and talk about girls. It’s the 90s, so they are wearing overalls, enormous silk shirts, chokers and chunky earrings. Both have neatly shaved heads. Tamara wants Cheryl to go out with her friend Yvette, and Cheryl demurs—she finds Yvette uptight. Soon their boss emerges from the back of the store, and tells them to get back to work.
This is the opening of Cheryl Dunye’s ambitious first film, 1996’s The Watermelon Woman, which has recently been remastered for the 20th anniversary of its U.S. release. The movie follows Cheryl, played by Dunye, as she attempts to make a documentary about Faye Richards, better known as the Watermelon Woman: a gay, black 1930s actress whose roles as mammies and housemaids did not do justice to her elusive and complex life. In the process, Cheryl works her day job at a video rental store, begins a relationship with a white woman, and learns more about black women’s history—in film, in the gay community, and in her native Philadelphia—than she ever anticipated.
Dunye made The Watermelon Woman on a shoestring budget of $300,000—about one tenth of which came from an NEA grant. The film received limited attention when it was originally released in the U.S., but that didn’t stop it from generating controversy when Michigan Republican Pieter Hoekstra cited it as inappropriate use of government funds. He tried unsuccessfully to get his colleagues in Congress to deduct Dunye’s $31,500 grant from the NEA budget, citing NEA funding for a series of gay and lesbian films that “most Americans would find offensive” and referring to The Watermelon Woman specifically as “patently offensive and possibly pornographic.” He seems to have objected to the film’s sex scene, an oblique, 20-second affair between Cheryl and her white love interest, Diana, that looks adorably tame by today’s standards. You can see the outline of Dunye’s stomach and part of a nipple; the whole thing is set to a soundtrack that sounds like Melissa Etheridge but isn’t.
This kind of reaction might exemplify why The Watermelon Woman is such a unique film. Black lesbians exist at the crossroads of three of America’s most persistent iniquities: they are black, and women, and gay. Dunye’s film is a monument to her own love of black film history, but it is also a look into the ways that we uncover the histories of marginalized people, people who were unable, because of access or because of taboo, to document themselves.
Cheryl first sees the Watermelon Woman as a beguiling actress in a 1930s blaxploitation film called Plantation Memories. She’s entranced by the woman’s performance, but can’t find her name: She is credited only as “The Watermelon Woman.” Cheryl eventually uncovers more of her films, most of them about race—she plays a number of mammies, housemaids, and other sour stereotypes, but also finds some more complex roles as dancers and gangsters. In one movie, she appears as the bereaved, darker-skinned sister of a light skinned woman who has chosen to live as white. “Why can’t I choose to live in their world?” the sister cries, and Richardson slaps her, loosening a puff of white powdered makeup from her face.
Cheryl does her research in secret, ordering the old videos under customers’ names at the store so that she can get them for free. Through interviews, archival work, and lots of time watching early black cinema, she eventually discovers that the Watermelon Woman was named Faith Richardson—Faye Richards to Hollywood—and that she’d begun her career as a performer in Philadelphia’s gay clubs, singing dressed in a top hat and white tuxedo. “She used to sing for all us stone butches,” a community elder tells her, and Cheryl is shocked.
Cheryl is delighted to learn that Richardson was a lesbian (“The Watermelon Woman was part of the family!”), but the story becomes more complicated the more that Richardson’s life starts to resemble her own. As Cheryl falls into a relationship with Diana, a well-meaning but politically oblivious white woman, she discovers that Richardson was lovers with Martha Page, the white lesbian director who made her race films. It becomes clear that both Martha and Diana exhibit the benign racism of white liberals, the kind whose ostentatious gestures of compassion toward black people are more about moral vanity than real respect. Cheryl’s black friends openly wonder if Diana “likes chocolate;” they notice that she lives in a fancy apartment but only works as a volunteer, at a charity that tutors black children. Meanwhile, Cheryl dives deeper into Martha Page’s oeuvre, and discovers that while the white director made countless films about the injustice of racism, she would only cast the Watermelon Woman, her most talented actress, in servant roles. Eventually Cheryl finds Richardson’s living ex-partner, the black woman who lived with her for decades after her separation from Martha, who is outraged to find that Cheryl’s documentary puts Martha at the center of Richardson’s life. “If you’re really the family,” she tells Cheryl, “you need to understand that we only have each other.” The message is that black lesbianism is something in need of defense, something uniquely imperiled and also uniquely precious.
The Watermelon Woman premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1996, and then went on to play at a slew of gay and lesbian film festivals worldwide. It gained something of a cult status in lesbian circles: Aside from being the first feature film ever directed by a black lesbian, The Watermelon Woman contained cameos from many lesbian and feminist luminaries of the 90s. The ACT UP activist Sarah Schulman plays a flustered archivist at C.L.I.T. (Center for Lesbian Information and Technology), the patchouli-scented women’s library that Dunye based on New York’s Lesbian Herstory Archives. Zoe Leonard, the artist behind “I Want a Dyke for President,”produced the faux-1930s photos and film reels that make up the evidence of the Watermelon Woman’s life. Even Camille Paglia makes an appearance, giving an interview as a parody version of herself as the narcissistic white film theorist, nonsensically trying to appropriate black culture for her own ends. “Watermelon has the colors of the Italian flag, you know,” she says. “Red, green, and white. So maybe I’m biased.” The film also lovingly makes fun of the sometimes embarrassing earnestness of lesbian culture. In one scene, the characters attend an open mic night at a women’s club where they are subjected to an abysmal all-lesbian folk band, complete with bongos.
It might be telling that Dunye came up with the story of the Watermelon Woman when she was in graduate school: She was travelling back and forth between the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York and the Library of Congress in D.C., trying to learn about black women in early cinema, only to find that many of the actors were credited by racist monikers or not at all. She began to feel frustrated by the lack of documentation, by the lost lives and unacknowledged gifts of actors and filmmakers whose stories she couldn’t access. In the film, the Watermelon Woman becomes a stand in for all these people, for the talent, humor, and courage that our culture misses out on when we determine that some people aren’t worth paying attention to. “Sometimes you have to create your own history,” the end credits say. “The Watermelon Woman is fiction.”