Excerpt from my second novel in progress…untitled:
It was my birthday. I was meeting Vangey at Tulip so we could go to dinner since I didn’t have any dates offering up services. Plus Vangey is fun and motherly a bit. But when you go to Tulip, you don’t just meet your one friend. You meet everyone associated with you plus your friends. So Vangey is sitting there with her man of the year (she changes every year—not unusual), Sampson (don’t laugh), who’s a—shit, what did Sampson do?—he works at the MTA, a nonartist. That’s fine. I didn’t know he’d be coming but I wasn’t surprised. But then Gayl shows up, which is great because I thought she had to work, only she comes with her new boyfriend, the editor-in-chief one (damn, they’ve been together a minute!) named Coltrane. And then Derby shows up with his girl at the time, Heidi, the Hunter College student. I didn’t know it was going to be all about couples and just when I feel that way since we’re all crowded around two café tables and talking at the same time and it’s all confusing, three more people show up. Sasha, this painter who is really good friends with Coltrane, shows up with her friend who’s name I can’t remember since I really never ever see him again. And El. El is a poet who comes to Tulip some nights and his voice is like a midnight DJ. Here’s what I know about him: he’s young, he goes to school, he makes my vagina tingle when he talks, his eyes are small but somehow they know how to furrow deep into mine very quickly, and I never even knew he was somebody I’d get to know. I thought he was a safe distant crush.
Everyone has kissed me and wished me happy birthday and I no longer feel like the spinster special needs victim who would be up in her room watching reruns of “The Twilight Zone” rather than actually have friends. We’re all sort of moving toward the door but not before Derby and Vangey’s ’s friend Harrison, who is an amazing and actually successful actor and sometimes does these poetry performances that sometimes feel like “guest appearance,” comes in and gives me a yellow store bought cupcake and sings some jazzy version of “Happy Birthday.” I’m blushing.
“He’s from the Midwest, girl. He knows how to act when there’s a lady around,” Vangey shouts from the other end of the café table, despite Sampson’s lips being attached to her temple. He’s affectionate. Harrison’s gesture is appreciated by all of the women and this remarkably feels like another of his “guest appearances” since he’s gone as quick it took to blow out the candle.
We all sort of shuffle down the street to our favorite diner in Brooklyn. It took a lot to get that title. It’s all open all night and the food doesn’t make us ill the next day. Very discriminate, we are. They actually have a table that fits all of us. Somehow, El has ended up next to me, which is fine since it seems everyone is kind of coupled off anyway. I’m dense at this point. I still don’t know that he is interested in me. I still think he’s just this cute boy who makes my vagina tingle by opening his mouth and speaking. He asks me questions about some of the dishes.
“Have you had diner Salmon before?” He asks me.
“Um, no, I usually stick with the turkey burger with cheese,” I say. What about it, Ndjobe? Ha!
“But today’s a special occasion,” he says. “We should get something different.”
“Special for me or special for you?” I can flirt. I should be able to since I have a mouth and I can be sarcastic as hell and I claim to know how to write. I should be versed in flirting. Normally it doesn’t get me anywhere though.
“For me. I don’t normally get to celebrate your birthday whereas you get to do it all the time.” Damn, he’s quick. And his eyes are burning through me. “So, if you don’t mind, I’d actually like to pay for your dinner since this is a treat for me.” Ummmm….
“Vangey!” I kind of scream down the table. She looks at me, as if we’re kind of not here for me or maybe like she forgot that I was here, it doesn’t really matter actually because the looks are one and the same with her. “El wants to pay for my dinner.” I should’ve just worn a t-shirt that said it since it’s more like an excited shout whisper and I realize how tactless it is in hindsight but not then because it was pure excitement since the last time somebody paid for my meal was I think the banker who wore the gold tooth at night so he could feel cool. He and I had NOTHING in common.
“Good,” Vangey says, not sure why I’m screaming down the table or why that bit of news would excite me so since I don’t think she’s ever had a dating dry spell, or if she did, it NEVER bothered her. Gayl catches it though. Gayl looks down at me like, “What is going on?” but smiling because she’s hung out with El before and she thinks he’s cool. Derby? Oblivious. Too busy cracking jokes with Vangey and the boys. It’s just me and El at the end of this table.
“I wish I knew it was your birthday this morning. I would’ve called you.”
“You don’t have my number,” I said. And he pulled out this little black book. Yes, a little black book. The look on my face must’ve told it all. Motherfucka, who has a little black book in the 90s??
“It’s not a real little black book. It happens to be little so I can carry it. It’s black because I am too. And it’s a book because everybody needs one. See?” He flips through it. There are actually real people’s numbers. Like guys and girls. No stars. No rating system. It doesn’t seem like he’s Sam from “Cheers.” I add my name and number to the L’s.
“If you don’t use it, I get it back,” I say. Dude, I’m tired of giving my number out to the abyss of no response. Either you take it to use it or you don’t ask for it. I’m not afraid to ask for it back either. I’ve done it before. You can see why I date a lot—NOT.
The rest of the night, everyone is perfectly fine for walking like seventy-five feet ahead of us. El is particularly interested in everything I say. I don’t think I’ve had this much attention since I came out of the womb. He’s even walking with my arm in his. What is he doing to me? The whole evening I’m giving myself this speech:
“Don’t get so excited. Enjoy it for what it is. There’s a large chance that you may never ever see him again like this. Boys change in phone booths sometimes. You’re not always privy to the mind change. Like, ‘hello, I’m a boy and I change my mind.’ So enjoy the smell—I think it’s Opium oil or something manly like that. Enjoy the touch—he has nice skin. Enjoy the conversation—wow, he’s said at least two words you’ll have to look up later and he can explain Faulkner to you. Enjoy the taste—please God let him kiss me. I can enjoy this evening and then let it go. I can. I will. I promise. I will enjoy right now. And that’s it. Not tomorrow. Just now. Great.”
The speech works well. We all are on the train and El has to get off at some obscure stop because he lives in Queens. When we get to his transfer stop, he stands me up and hugs me, his lips brushing my ear. He speaks right into my earlobe: “Happy birthday, lady.” Are. You. Serious. I think I just had an orgasm.
When he is off the train, it feels empty and I really hate myself for saying that because I’m supposed to be this great womanist who is self-sufficient and should be able to enjoy without becoming too connected. But then, isn’t the point of life to be connected? This is my young mind trying rationalize the irrational. The passion. The lust. The chemical that makes you love the way somebody smells even if they might not be good for you. Foreshadow! Back to this moment where it feels like I’m standing in an empty subway car, the smell of cold dampness under my nose and my body shivering from some draft I can name. But in actuality, there is Gayl, Coltrane, Vangey, Sampson and a few other stragglers we picked up along the way. It doesn’t change how I feel as we pull out of the station and I watch El, tall and slightly hunched over, like he’s a boy wearing his man suit, standing and waiting for his train on the other side of the platform. Just like I grew up wanting to be a note that Miles Davis played or a laugh my father would belt out or my mother’s eyes, I wanted to be this moment, watching him with my heart so open that I am bound to be hurt by something at some point heading in this direction.
“Lar, you okay?” Gayl is standing in front of me at the concert. Like so close I smell her gross beer breath and a bit of pizza. Behind her, Vangey is standing on top of her drummer’s drums and clapping her hands along with the wave of people around us. In typical Vangey fashion, she has moved on from a moment that has rendered me speechless.
“Yeah, I just didn’t know it would still…hurt.” I decide this is a good moment to go the bathroom. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
“You want me to come with you?” Gayl asks. I shake my head and head up the stairs to the exit. Behind me, Vangey is singing a course to her poem “Rainbow Daggers”:
“Yes, I’m pretty, mothafucka
My pink is tight
My purple blows your mind
My yellow can’t be bought
My blue is too much for you
I’m a Rainbow DAGGER!”
At this point you might be thinking that Vangey sure likes colors a lot and you’re absolutely right. She’s like the 70s art scene in one body. All those feathers and whatnot that Ntozake used to write about have given birth to that exhibitionist on stage. Only the problem is that she promised not to do that poem about me ever again. She’s an artist and we lie. I know better. I am watching the girls, some of them in some very obvious lesbian click (I’m saying that because some of them look like men on purpose and some of them look like women to the extent that they want and some of them just look regular but ALL of them have dark lipstick and cut up Vangey shirts—they came together…Vangey is big with some lesbians and I think it’s because she uses the word “Goddess” so much and, well, we all need to feel kindred to some word or another). They are screaming in joy and have memorized all of Vangey’s poems. The men in the audience are transfixed by Vangey’s sexuality and rugged tomboy ness that seem to exist at the same time.
“Why can’t they all be fine like her?” I hear one of them say. Those are the kinds of sentences that make me think of El. Not because he would say that but because I know that even if we all were like Vangey, there would be something else wrong with us.
In the bathroom, I slide my knees up to my chest and grab reams of tissue paper and shove them in my mouth so all the girls buzzing in and out of the stinky, nasty, junky auditorium bathroom can’t hear me crying. Not that they would be able to anyway. There’s a short questionably raced woman by the sink selling the customary random selection of lotion, deodorant, candy, cigarettes, perfume (I think I heard a girl get excited over J. Lo’s new one) and other homeless-like items that can only find themselves here, waiting for some girl’s attention. “Mama” as everyone seems to call the ringleader of the random items, is blasting some old school jams from her old red boom box she sits next to on the floor. And sometimes she is singing along with it. That makes me cry harder for some reason.
Once I cried tears of joy. And it was with El. We’d just had dinner and he had brought me back to my apartment. We hadn’t even had sex yet. He said he wanted to tuck me in. Like a teenager, I ran in the bathroom and put on my only silky-like pajamas and dabbed baby oil on my private parts, “just in case.” I shook my locs out so they looked, tousled and I brushed my teeth a little bit longer but then washed that taste out with water because I happen to think toothpaste breath is kind of gross. But not as gross as bad breath. I dabbed the oil on my face off with tissue. And then I was ready. I opened the door and he was standing in my hallway, in his uniform: long baggy beige sweater, slacks (he NEVER wore jeans—I mean NEVER—and guess what? I live in jeans. I mean, I exist in them. Without them, sometimes there is no me) and black dress shoes. How can you tell he’s not an old man, you ask? His baby smooth face and the sole small gold loop hanging from his right ear. He is grinning at me. I nervously turn in the direction of my room and he, suddenly, picks me up and carries me to bed. My phone rings. He picks it up.
“Larri is going to bed. She’ll have to call you later,” he says.
“Who WAS that?” I ask, giggling but I should be mad but I’m not because I like a man with balls.
“Gayl.” He is pulling the covers over my body and I’m trying to pull him down to my face. We play like puppies like this for awhile and then, at some point that misses our consciousness completely, we are playing like adults. I am pulling him down with my body, my strong intention, my will, my irrational lust and he is resisting slightly, but enough. When both of us are breathless and our mouths are sore from kissing, our bodies red from touching, he stops me.
“I want to be sure,” he says. “I just want to be sure.” Okay, so in this moment, I am endeared and my heart is warm. I think, ‘how sweet! Oh my god, I must have him!’ and later, like years later when I tell Derby the story, I realize that this is the REAL version of the gimmick. Derby told me that he tried the ‘I just want to be held’ joint all the time and it always worked. I don’t feel like this is a come on in this moment though. But, now while I’m standing on the toilet crying with spitty tissue in my mouth, it’s easier to believe that it was rather than believe that somebody could be that fucking and eventually be that fucking out.
That night, we don’t have sex actually. It is April and we close the window because it’s getting cold. He looks at me with tears in his eyes (dude, they were real! There were no eye drops as evidence left anywhere) and I cradle his head. We fall asleep like that, watching the sky. That morning, no lie, there was snow on the ground.
“Snow in April?” He says when we waked up. Under his breath, he sing the Prince song. I rush to the window and I cry tears of joy. I took it as an omen. That this whole thing was a miracle just like that snow. Here’s what I didn’t pay attention to: that snow shit was gone by that afternoon. BUT, in that moment, standing at the window that morning, crying tears of joy, having El’s arms around my body and his smile lighting up my room, I believed in miracles.
“You alright in there?” An old rickety voice asks me from underneath the stall. I make some kind of “uh huh” sound but, like she doesn’t believe me, I see an old face peer up underneath the door. Damn, Mama is gangster.
“You ain’t alright. Your man dump you?” I shake my head. “Your woman dump you?” I shake my head. “Well, I can’t think of nothing else that would happen so bad this time of night that’d you’d be perched up on a john, crying like you got evicted.” I don’t say anything. “You gonna open your door at least so you ain’t responsible for my crook neck?” I open the door.
Soon she has me sitting on the sink, smoking a cigarette, chewing some of that strawberry candy with the tart filling and constantly lotioning my hands with her good stash: her Nivea. Bam. That’s a person who’s got your back.
“Well now what happened to make this Central Park snow ride turn into shit on your shoe? If he was so damn perfect, how come you ain’t together? Maybe you’re crazy and you don’t see that side of yourself.” She is applying some dollar lipstick to her small thin lined lips and looking at me in the mirror.
“Mama, I ask myself all the time what happened. But seriously, how in the world can you say what moment it was? One minute I was in some cheese ass romantic novel and the next minute I was the star of a self-help book.” I like cigarettes though they make me dizzy. I kind of feel like we’re in the fifties and we’re in a slightly more glamorous “powder room.”
“Bullshit, is what I say. I been married five times. There is always three moments–” her accent is telling me she’s some kind of Caribbean because she says ‘tree’ instead of ‘three’—“tree moments in the glue between a man and a woman that starts to make it all loosen up. You mark my words, gal.”
Do I like hearing that there were signs? No. Do I know there were signs? Yes. I tell her I have to go. She makes me use her Listerine first and then gives me more Nivea to get the cigarette smell off my fingers. She tries to make me try one of the perfumes but I say no. She makes me opt instead for a Febreeze shower. I smell like a dryer sheet by the time I get back to the seats.
“Damn! Did you fall in?” Derby says to me. “You smell like you did laundry. Is that what the girls’ bathroom smells like? The boys’ smells like piss.” He goes back to waving his hands in the air. Vangey and her guitar player are doing some sort of duet where they sound like each other back and forth. Only she’s using words. Gayl is two messaging with her boyfriend. She is always two messaging with him.
“Were you having withdrawal?” I ask, to deflect, honestly. I ask about her vice before she asks about mine. Ninja tactics, okay.
“Shut up. I miss him.” Gayl is unapologetic and I am slightly envious that her expression of love doesn’t get her tossed aside like I did. She pours her heart out to Coltrane and he takes it in and pours his right into her empty spot. I mean, seriously. What’s a girl gotta do to get a little love? I am narrowing my eyes at Vangey because I was literally fine until she did that poem. I had all of these other things to talk about in my head for my book. I was gonna talk about…and then there was that time when…fuck. They are all motherfucking gone now. All I can think about now is El times. I. Mean. Seriously.
Do you ever notice how when you don’t look for something you totally don’t find it but then when you start looking for it, whether you want to or not, you find it? Don’t scratch your head. Here’s what I mean. NOW, I look around and EVERYONE is coupled up. I mean everyone. I see hand holding and heads on shoulders and kissing and everything else everywhere I turn. Why now? Because Vangey is doing a love poem:
“Take my black wings under your smooth hands and make me whole again
Sometimes I feel like I fell down from the sky for you
In this night wind, somebody heard you whisper a prayer for someone to get you
And then I fell hard
Make no mistake, I’m a strong bird who can fly wherever and whenever she wants to
But wind can be lonely and its echo in your ears mid-flight even lonelier
So many things I can see from above ground
Lights and laughter and feasting and famine
I try to take water to those who are thirsty
Try to flag fruit to those who need to eat
Dry tears of those who are lost in their darkness
Wave sounds of laughter across neighborhoods where cop sirens and gunshots are loudest
I try all of these things because there is so much need in the world
Yet there is you who has the simplest need of all
The one need that renders my knees speechless
My heart breathless
My mind sweating
My body stuttering
My wings melted
Your one need is the only one that looks like my own need
You need me
I need you
I fell down to earth for you
I want you to fall up to the sky
I will be waiting.”
Lots of babies have been born to that poem. Especially when she does the strings in the background. It’s not the freaky sex poem. It’s the one poem that everybody understands because it is selfish and it is love. Maybe sometimes that is the problem that I have with poetry now, since I avoid the new stuff at all costs. Maybe I have problems with the words being like Pandora’s Box. There isn’t a word out there that hasn’t caused some kind of commotion in my mind or my life! Everything is about some word that some has said. This poem she does, this is the one I thought would be me and El’s happy ending.
After months and months and months of Indian dinners and movies and long walks, I had no idea what should happen next. And, okay, that’s maybe the downfall of some women, namely me. I like to know what’s next. And maybe also because we weren’t doing any of these things with any of our mutual friends. Now, I respect alone time as much as the next person. And I for one am sure down for not having the village up in your sex life because that can damn sure complicate things, especially in the incestuous village. But at some point, I did want us to be us around them. The first time I had a notion that it would never happen, it almost crushed me like that fat robot on top of Nipsey Russell in “The Wiz.” Remember? A teeeeeeeeeeee…A tteeeee…..
We were sitting in an Indian restaurant in the East Village. Right where there’s that row of Indian restaurants that all try to get you to come in and eat their food as opposed to their cousin’s down the street even though I think they all have the same cook because none of the food is THAT different. Eight dollar dinner special. Fine eating. Since we’d been seeing each other, I noticed there were a few different Els that might come out and meet me. There was the affectionate El that like to stare at me and was really good with the double entendre and tying maraschino cherry stems into knots with his tongue. There was the distracted El who would listen and nod and pretend interest in anything I was saying. There was the El who was flat out scared and mean. The one that would kick a kid’s sandcastle if there was one in front of him. By that I mean he undid any work the not so often seen Kind Gentle El would do. He would trap up my words and…fuck it…this is what I mean:
We are sitting at the table. We are drinking wine. He is staring at me as though he’s setting up the chess pieces of the bullshit game we’re going to play this evening in his mind. I am asking legitimate questions:
Me: How’s class?
Him: Class is.
Him: Yes. It is. How are you coming helping Vangey with her play?
Me: It’s a bit hard. She’s so busy and I have no idea which storyline she wants to do.
Him: Yeah. But you’re brilliant so you should be able to carve something out.
Me: I’m not brilliant.
Him: Of course you are. Everyone thinks so. Everyone knows it actually. You’re a brilliant thinker, you are.
Me: Um, I think I just keep good company.
Him: Nonsense. If you were stuck on an island with a stick and some sand, you’d still be brilliant.
Me: I’d want you to be there.
Him: I’d never want to be stuck on an island. That’s insane.
Me: Even with me.
Him: Of course.
Me: Of course you would or wouldn’t?
Him: Just of course.
It might be just me but I remember being thoroughly perplexed. As if I was Alice in Wonderland talking to the Cheshire Cat. That’s exactly what it was like! Fuck, after all these years and there’s my metaphor. I told you I live the words. It’s kind of a little late. I mean, I could’ve used that in a damning letter or two. Anyway, if that conversation didn’t totally make me bang my head on the table, what happens next did. We are sitting in silence and see Vangey, Gayl and the gang walk past the window. I exclaim and almost go to stand and…this is hard…El hides. He hides. Under the table. I’m so in shock that I don’t even go after my friends. I sit there looking at the empty chair in front of me and listening to the mind numbing old man sitar player who is wedged in the window ledge and playing his tunes for our dinner enjoyment. I blink and El is back in his chair. And I hear him do a sigh of relief.
Me: Did you just hide from them?
Him: Um, yes. Yes, I did.
Him: Isn’t it obvious?
Me: Because you don’t want to be seen with me?
Him: No, of course not. Levels though. Everything has a level. I’m not the level where I want people privy to my evenings.
Me: They’re my evenings too sometimes.
Him: Indeed they are.
“How many poems has she done?” I lean over and ask Derby. It seems like she’s done forty seven thousand.
“Four. This is making me antsy. I hate to admit it but I miss the stage. I miss the mic. Damnit!” Derby rubs his face in thought as though I’m not there. Actually, as though he is not here. He is somewhere else like where he may have gone had he not done one or two things that led him here, I imagine.
“He wants me to cover this concert. I think that’s bullshit,” Gayl says, her face aglow from the light from her Sidekick. “He knows I can’t be objective with Vangey! We’ve shared underwear for crying out loud. We’ve been high with Dave Chappelle together! Coltrane”—is it odd that she says his whole name? Wouldn’t you have shortened it by now? Just wondering—“is smoking some shit. He’s mad at me for something. That’s the only time he asks the impossible.” She takes a swig of her beer that should now be warm and taste good and fucking disgusting.
“Why would he be mad at you?” She doesn’t answer me. I know she hears me. I’m screaming loud enough for my throat to feel like I poured glass down it. I give her the mama look. “Girl, you hear me talking to you.” She laughs at me. She opens her mouth to start and say something. False start. She just shakes her head. I keep staring at her.
“I might be pregnant,” she says. Casually, I might add, over Vangey and her group doing some rendition of a Janis Joplin song. Even Derby turns his head for this one. We both look at her beer. “It’s fake. It’s that non-alcoholic one. Coltrane didn’t want me to fly. And I said, ‘fuck you!’ because I do what I want, right? I mean, just because I might be pregnant doesn’t mean my life stops. And he thinks if I wanna be so indie and productive, then I should make it worth our while and cover this piece. He’s really just being manipulative.” She slides her Sidekick back together and throws it in her purse and stands up, doing a little old people two step dance. Like she didn’t say anything at all.
“HE’S being manipulative?” Derby says, not asks although it did sound like a question. Men get sensitive about this might be pregnant stuff and I’ll say how I know in a second but first I have to diffuse this situation. SWAT, going in.
“Yes, he is. I’m not one for lockdown. Nobody tells me what I should and shouldn’t do except for me. Been that way since I been on my own and why in the hell should it stop now?”
“Because you might be carrying his seed!” Derby has basically moved himself to be in her ear which means standing in front of me, like his shoulder bumping my nose. Ow. “Now, I ain’t saying dude should whip out some cuffs or something like that. But you can’t be walking around acting like you only dealing with you. I’m all for a woman’s right to choose, to whatever but if you ain’t gonna take that stance, then you need to act like you dealing with another person.” He’s grabbed her arm because she’s not looking at him. I’ve just slid over behind him.
“Can we just not talk about since you ain’t Coltrane and neither is she? I said MIGHT!” she shouts out into the audience, and not to our faces.
“What are you waiting for? The rabbit to die? They got these things out now called pregnancy tests. Fascinating. You pee on a stick,” I say. She rolls her eyes at me and keeps them on me. Did I say I was going to diffuse this situation? I couldn’t resist another moment to be sarcastic.
“I KNOW you ain’t talking…” she says. And that leads us to how I know men are sensitive about might be pregnant.
Back on the El and Larri roller coaster, about a year into the abyss of our relationship that really isn’t a “ship” or a “relation”, I get invited to visit El at school. I mean, this is big. I don’t know anybody who’s gotten that invite who wasn’t already doing a show up in the booniedocks where you still here roosters crow in the morning and it always smells like donuts because that’s all those college motherfucks up there eat. I get myself on a train with my bag. I manage to calm my butterflies and nerves by writing (uh, doodling, actually, like—shhh! Writing my name and his..SHHHHHHHH!—and maybe writing out the words to “All Cried Out” by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam—writing!) and daydreaming (undersexed—I was totally thinking about what it felt like to have him undress me) the whole three hours.
The fucked up part though is that part of me was afraid that I was going to meet Mean El at the train station. Like he was gonna pull some emotional Ike Turner shit and look at me like I was dirt and take my flowers I brought him (yes, I bought him flowers at Penn Station from a very short Latino man in a plaid shirt and a gold tooth—I pictured his poor family eating old oranges somewhere if I didn’t fork over my four dollars for this beautiful red daisy bouquet) and step on them. The important thing to notice is that I was slightly skittish. But I didn’t pay attention to that. I just wiped my sweaty palms on my scarf and added freesia smelling lotion to them in case my sweat smelled. At some point, I remember looking out of the window at the most beautiful urban body of water that is probably overlooked everyday of its life because it’s not in a calendar on Oprah since there’s a big chemical plant next to it. But that day I noticed the sun dancing off of the ripples and how it looked like it was connected to the sky. Beautiful dark black and cool looking. I thought I could almost smell how wet it was and how I would want to drink in its entirety of partial thirst of some kind and because nobody would ever think it was as beautiful as I did then.
And then I heard my stop and I freaked out and dropped all my shit everywhere and made it to the door just in time for it to open. I stepped out on the platform and there he was. Standing there. Waiting for me. Smiling. I could almost see his heart beating from inside his pea coat. Okay I couldn’t. But I imagined he was that happy to see me. When he hugged me, I felt like that dark body of water was hugging me. Is that crazy? Probably. Water can’t hug people. But it sure felt like it could, standing there in the cold afternoon.
“I’m glad you could make it,” his voice hummed in my neck. Motherfucker.
The memories come back quickly and in full force now because I know that the hardest, most fascinating thing in life is being at the mercy of something that you can’t control. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t control my feelings for El. I mean, I was a grown ass twenty-three year old woman! This was a twenty year old boy. What was I doing?
Well, on this weekend at his school, I was being introduced to adolescent friends who stared at me like I was Sade or something. I was being introduced to his boss at the Student Center. I was being escorted into a movie. I was being shown around a theater space. I drank wine in his dorm room (Dude got WINE! At twenty years old!). I was the reason the roommate got kicked out. I got candles. I got honey. I got sweet lips all over my body. I was biting into skin smooth like a blackberry and salty like those pickles I loved when I was kid. I danced around a room naked, not even concerned about my cellulite or my jiggly thighs. I was being looked at like I was a whole good woman. He sat and looked at me like I was real. I was feeling loved.
We slept, in his twin bed with the velour blanket (yes, VELOUR—young) close and unbothered. It was like there were no more walls to put up or games to play. I felt like I could speak in tongue and his sweet face wouldn’t mind one bit. It was as if somebody came in, in the middle of the night, and split us wide open and we both bled out all of these things that we couldn’t reveal before. Well, seemingly all these things. Because you can never say what the hell somebody is holding back. I mean you just can’t. Unless you’re a mom and it’s your kid but I don’t know that. Fuck, that goes back to why I started this. Kid. Pregnant. Coming back to it. Anyways, we lay there, on a twin bed, like snow angels.
I left that weekend as if somebody spun this cotton candy love cloud around me. I was invincible. We had to be a couple after this! Of course he’d come out to our friends about how he felt about me after this! No man walks you around his campus, holding your hand, and introduces you to the most random people unless he has intentions. Right? I felt certain, passing that black water on the way back on the train, chomping down on a college campus doughnut and rubbing my face where his kisses still pulsated, that I would never hear this conversation (that actually happened) again:
Waitress: Here are your drinks! You guys are so cute together. How long have you been going out?
Him: We aren’t going out. We’re just going.
Me: (Eye rolling).
Waitress: Where are you going?
Him: What’s your name?
Him: Rebecca, thank you for your help.
Waitress: You better snatch her up before somebody else does!
Him: (Mumbling something).
Waitress: Oh my god! Well! (laughing)
Me: What? I missed that!
Me: What did he say, Rebecca?
Waitress: I-I, he should—
Him: Rebecca, can we get some bread?
Waitress: Sure, I’ll be back.
Me: What did you say? Did you say you love me and that you can’t breathe one other moment without me around you?
Him: Easy. Levels.
I would never hear “levels” again. Because I heard it at least 9389528470275807478520 times since that time. Not that I asked that many times. But he totally claimed that as his favorite word. Levels. Such a simple word that can convey so many complex situations. What did that word mean to me before? It meant all the shit was I wasn’t doing in my writing. There. It meant, ‘Larri, you’re about to graduate and you don’t have a fucking clue about what you’re about to do with your life. What level are you?’ And I couldn’t answer. And then El started using it. And then I couldn’t answer that one either. If I had a vote to remove words from the dictionary, I would vote with all of my appendages to have the word “levels” removed. The French do it. Wait, they add words. Well, this isn’t France. So we can take away.
Flash forward a few weeks. We’re in some healthy vegetarian like Asian food place where all of the waitpeople have tattoos and piercings in weird places that make me squirm. Nice as hell though. Sons of guns, those waitstaffers there who can barely give us water. We are only here because I was starving and there was nothing else around that sounded good. He met me wearing the Strange El outfit. The stern eyes that slice like those ginsu knives on television, the clenched jaw, the pierced lips, the hands in the pocket, the silence…all that made my stomach hurt. I was tired on this day. Tired of trying to anticipate what kind of attention I was going to get. Was I going to be ignored? Was I going to have to pretend to play hard to get so he could be invested? Was I going to have to wear my supergirl armor so that his comments wouldn’t cut through me and dismember my body like I was a video game victim. Ha. That image kind of made me laugh. And I did it at the table and he looked at me. Grrrr, he might as well said to me. Fun times. Tofu egg rolls and a side of fighting for love, thanks.
“So what if I told you that I didn’t like you as much as I used to?” This is his first sentence to me. Yes, I’m serious. No, I’m not joking. Yes, this really happened. What did I do? Well…
“I beg your pardon?” Classy, Larri. Nice, witty and classy. THAT’S how you come back? What an asshole.
“I’m not sure that I…see, it’s like this if you take…” the rest of it sounds like a ancient Derbyglyphic mathematical equation. As if KRS One was giving a history lesson without the slang. Um, what? “…these circles, no matter how much they dance around each other, just never seem to intercept—“
“All I know is that the ball has been in your court for quite some time,” I say, wondering a few things: 1) why doesn’t this janky place sell alcohol and 2) do I have enough money to pay my bill because this shit isn’t looking like it’s about to turn out well AT ALL and I think I only have $9.46 in my bank account. How much are tofu egg rolls? I think they were like five bucks or something. What am I drinking? Water! Phew!
“Well, I’m tired of holding the ball and I don’t think I’ll be passing back to you.” He is talking to me. Yes, he did say that. In the same midnight DJ voice as the sweet nothings he used to dish out. Right. I am unable to breathe completely. Am I wearing a corset? Is this the Victorian era? Maybe my insides are all disfigured from not breathing and squeezing my body into be sexy for him who is saying what to me again?
“Oh. Well. I thought. Um. You. Me. I just felt maybe. So. Yeah. Cause. All this time. Up at your dorm. And I.” I’m pretty sure that’s what I said. Just like that. Not smooth. Suddenly, the dishes sound louder and I can hear people chewing. And I am trying to make his dark eyes and deep chocolate skin across from, I’m trying to make that all a big huge blur which isn’t really that hard because I am FIGHTING tears. I mean this has been a year in the making. A year of ups and downs. A year of intense love and intense rejection. A year of the most perfect mornings waking up in his arms and a year of nights wondering why he wasn’t answering my pages. A year of telling my other friends, outside of our circle, about the phantom El and a year of him not even mentioning his friends other than calling them “The Fellas.” A year has come to this blurriness.
He and I walked down West Fourth Street and I was FASCINATED with the other side of the street so my tears could fall and I wouldn’t let him see them. I couldn’t even tell you what I looked at. And he was still talking. About normal things. About a movie showing down the street. About some kid’s Puma’s who just walked past us. About the salty smell coming from the burnt pretzel stand on the corner. About the crazy lady talking to her cat on the steps of the brownstone. Like this weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. I almost think I hear him talking about the motherfucking weather.
“It’s unseasonable warm now, you think?” he says. All I hear is my heart beating fast. After about forty million years, or what seems like it’s that long, we are at Sixth Avenue and the train station is to our right. Just as I’m turning to go down the stairs, we run into some folks from Tulip. How appropriate. I let El talk to them. I just look and smile for a second. One second. And then go back to the empty basketball court next to the station. They each talk about gigs at Nuyorican Poets Café down the street. El’s never had a gig that I’ve known of. He’s always been the literature Pony Boy type that never has real shows in front of the Tulip crowd. Only at school. And before me. He only talked about the ideas he had for poems.
“I had this image once of this thing you said,” he said a few times. No poems followed. All this to say: “Fuck you for talking to them about gigs you never have when you just stepped on my heart like it was a cigarette stub.” There. They finally leave and he turned to me. I dodged my face and was going to leave but he grabbed me, hugged me, and that was that. We both disappeared into the little train slot platforms that we all fall into: Brooklyn, Uptown, Queens and Hell, where I hoped he was going.
I’m being very much stronger in my head now than I was then. Fuck, then I was about to walk around like a crying zombie. I would cry and walk into walks, sliding down them and just giving into the floor. My hands would shake making tea. My body shivered. My bed starting hurting my ass. My whole motherfucking body cried. If I could’ve wrung myself dry after my daily baths in the clawfoot tub, I would have. But I couldn’t even manage to dry myself off. I was too afraid and scared to call anybody, specifically Gayl or Vangey who would be flippant. I knew they would. They didn’t think so much of El. Nice guy. But not for me. I fought them too. Who did that leave? I rode on the train huddled next to a window, my sweater sleeve pulled tight over my hand and pressed against my cheek. I let myself cry the silent tears that hurt more, in my opinion, because you can’t heave and sigh and spit while you cry. You have to do it softly because you’re probably alone in a place where there are millions of people whom you don’t want to look at you.
At home that night, I poured some Orange Juice in an old amusement park big gulp cup I had. It came to maybe a fifth of the cup. The rest was some gin I’d had that had to be two years old. And I drank it. In my bed. Staring at those little glow in the dark stars I’d put on my ceiling that El loved so much. I got under my covers and I cried. And when I couldn’t cry anymore, I took a deep breath, and I cried again. Sometime during the night, I paged Derby. He was the only one I could think of who wouldn’t judge, who’s caring wouldn’t make me cry harder, who wouldn’t call me dumb or El dumb…he would just be himself. Derby called me back in fifteen minutes.
“Larri? What’s the matter? I’m at the train station because the phone at home doesn’t work.” I heard the trains in the background. I looked at my clock. Two in the morning. That’s love.
I don’t know what I said to Derby. I cried a lot. He put lots of change in the phone. He listened. I wiped drool from my pillow. Derby talked to me in that nice calming loving way that men can be when they are not on the spot themselves. My fists were balled up with covers shoved in them. I really did think I was going to die of a broken heart. I’m not just saying that because it’s cute and romantic to be all tragic and what not. I couldn’t motherfucking breathe. I smelled like the worst drink in the world. My eyeballs were sore. The corners of my eyes hurt. I wanted to throw up not from gin but from pain. All the fluids from inside me were coming out of my eyes and out of my mouth. I was fucked up.
“Larri, this shit will sound fucking crazy to you right now,” Derby said, sounding like a lost radio DJ from long ago, “but this tragedy is probably the must beautiful thing that will ever happen to you. You are the more beautiful now than you ever have been. I love you. Vangey loves you. We all love you. You have a lot of love.”
He was right. But the love I wanted is the one I didn’t have. Derby said he hung out with El a few times and liked him well enough but never enough to date his sister. He thought El was too young to date somebody wonderful, despite his big man voice and his tall lanky NBA body and his conservative way of dressing. He thought El was a baby boy.
“Of course you’d fall for a Baby Boy,” Derby laughed. I laughed a little. I was getting sleepy. It was four in the morning. I let Derby go back home. A small part of me, the one that would be HUGE in normal situations, felt bad for needing to talk to him like that. But I did. And he saved me that night. Because I would’ve been way worse off had I not had his jovial soft tone in my ear. Isn’t it funny how that sounds like an ending but there really is no such thing as an ending?
And here’s where the pregnancy part comes in: A few weeks later, I don’t get my period.Tweet
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