When did I get to be such a bitch? Cole get yourself together, try being sociable. What's the point? I'm not in the mood. At all. Sometimes I feel like I did the Wonder Woman spin one too many times. Tah dah.Super Bitch. Now I'm stuck and can't figure out how to undo the shit. Where's my by day, mild-mannered persona? Hell, why am I tripping like this? I've been called a bitch so many times that I answer to it like it's my name. Bitch. You rang?
It's not the word that bothers me. Most words don't bother me. Nigger, ho, slut, bulldagger, cunt, carpet muncher, dyke. I think that covers the usual repertoire along with the customary, run of the mill bitch. But it's damn hard to remember that they are only letters tacked together, words assigned meanings, that the one reason they hold so much power is because no one will utter them, much less discuss them. Maman says she isn't paying for academia to screw up my mind. But what she means is that she expects to be able to push my buttons and get some results for her efforts. All school is really showing me is that blossom and stem are joined but not inseparable; death is just an unfortunate consequence. It shouldn't have surprised me to find this tidbit out, because nights like these would serve as perfect anesthesia for such an amputation. What I haven't become accustomed to is the voice behind the words, bigoted isms suppurating each syllable. That's when I feel like shoving my hand down a person's throat, snatching out the word, saying, If you can't play with the word nicely, I won't let you use it at all. That was Maman's solution to everything. Play nicely, she would tell me. That is while the other kids had me pinned in the dirt, down on my back, gouging at my eyes. Cole, you be nice now.
He's your friend, be nice now, I think as Monte wends his way free of the teeming mass of animated bodies. Cole, he says, you're amazing, as he walks over to where I'm lolling on the sofa.
So what have I done now? Monte looks, first off his right shoulder, then his left, and back down at me slunk down amid the tattered, overstuffed cushions.
What's wrong with this picture? he says. At this, my eyes flit about the room, taking inventory of the situation: some tight freshman spilling his drink, wall-to-wall bodies perspiring, a faltering red light glowing from the den, fluorescents assaulting me from the kitchen, those Highland Downs wenches staring in my mouth. Nothing out of the ordinary, I think, It's the same-old, same-old Saturday night house party in dullsville. Without bothering to part my lips, I raise my eyebrows at a wily Monte and shrug.
He answers in a low sing-songish voice, One of these couches is not like the others. Three of these couches are kind of the same. He hums the rest of the melody, and shit, I don't have the faintest. Get your tired butt up, woman. Come dance with me. He stretches out a gracile hand. Give up the couch. People are doubled up on stools and in armchairs not to have to come over here and sit with you.
I shake my head, then say, Nope, reiterating my refusal. I ain't got shit to do with that. I didn't tell anyone they couldn't sit here. Not my problem.
So you're going to sit here. All night? Come on. This isn't like you. Let's go terrorize a few folks. He stands there for a moment or two, hoping for some rejoinder but getting none. You're really going sit here all night? he says, his normally emotionless voice tinctured with irritation.
Yep, sure am. Don't feel like much. And not in the mood for dancing.Sweetie. I try to reign myself back in because he's only going to take so much patronization from anyone, but he knows my moods. I don't need to say how my patience isn't holding up well tonight. I'm sure it's smeared all over my face. He decides to take the hint on one count, but ignores it on the other.
Since it's quite obvious you have no intention of volunteering the information. I saw what happened over there. Everything all right? You okay? I mean.
Same as always, I sigh, a feckless attempt to blink away the stinging. I nibble the inside on my cheek and release before attempting a morbid smile. I told Myra I couldn't see her anymore.
He frowns and closes his eyes before a deep groan escapes. He levels his parti-colored emerald gaze in my direction and says, Here? Damn, that shit was fucked up. You do know that, right? He puts a severe hand to his mouth, takes all the complexities in, stifles a laugh of disbelief, and I can see him wondering just how heartless one person can be. No wonder she didn't want to talk to me, he says flatly. Probably thought you sent me over as damage control. You got a hard road in front of you. I really think you could have saved that shit for, I don't know, tomorrow maybe.
No, I couldn't. I had to. Tonight. You don't know. This time I don't offer. It's none of his business. It's nobody's damn business but mine. But I grasp his hand automatically, before he walks away. Monte and I never fight, and I won't let Myra's trifling ass to be the cause of our first one. I pull him beside me on the sofa. Luckily he doesn't pursue the issue. Our friendship wouldn't survive if he did. Nothing can survive Myra. She is the one subject about which I will not budge. Not even if it's only a discussion of her. Myra, where even I realize I don't have a thimble full of common sense. I lean my head upon his shoulder, just for a moment, resting my eyes from all the smoke, hoping to bear up against it all.
For several minutes thereafter we comport ourselves, stitching together a semblance of calm. We pad the silence with the easing batting of our daily routine, simply existing aside one another without demands. And, as usual, he is the first to speak, tantamount to the apology that will never come. What's in the cup? he asks, his voice having assumed its usual rondure once more. He takes the almost empty cup from my hand, leaving my wrist to drop limp upon my thigh. My jaw clenches. The hurtling pain. Unaware, he raises the clear plastic rim to his nose. You and that damn tequila. You couldn't find a mixer? His heedless words bombard me as I imagine senior year, high school, saying the identical phrase and Gloria laughing. Loose black tendrils shook, framing a delicate contradiction for her haughty face. The way she said the words, Silly American, rolling the words on her alcohol-thick tongue. Mock disapproval played in the corner of her smile when I asked for ice, lime, water, salt, anything to cut the velvet, gold liquid. The same mischievous way she said, You Americans are sneaky, can't be trusted, when I had leaned to kiss her not an hour prior. We were toasting then, the first time I made love to her. To a woman.
Don't flake, I tell myself, not here. Got to get yourself together.
Nil, I finally say, and they don't have anything besides hunch punch.Nathalie's here tonight. Somewhere. She has a flask of black label in her trunk, if you can find her, and if you don't mind whiskey instead. I'm sure you could drum up a mixer, but don't let Nathalie know, she would just as soon cuss you as let you mix away her money. I watch as his eyes narrow, flensing the shadowy room, the kitchen and bar, from couple to couple, roving back to the middle of the floor, skimming the room for a budding circle of entranced listeners with a pixie-looking woman in the center, who, of course, would be my exuberant cousin Nathalie. Monte seems to give up the search, then motions toward the other side of the room with his chin. Who's that? he says. I raise my eyebrows, bored. If she's the new one, he says, not bad, but definitely ain't worth all the talk goin' `round.
Who? I can't tell who you're talking.oh, that one. I immediately recognize her as a South Georgian-the cloyingly sweet stance, the canted gold earrings dangling like doubloons. Transferred in this quarter, I say. Bernie, something with a cutesy with a B. She's okay, I guess. If you go for that Kewpie sort of thing.
Cute people and pretty women, what's the purpose? All they do is irritate the fuck out of me. They're domesticated animals. I have a Suzie. What kind is yours? their owners ask. And how I ended up with Myra after Coco, who the fuck knows. I don't even want to think about it, it's been absolute hell.
After people break up with one of them, they expect infantile conversations, baby talk, entertainment: Come on, beg for daddy, Suzie. They've created a market for themselves by being willing to do everything no self-respecting bitch would consider. Why fake the funk? There should be a rule book: #1-Bitches don't fake anything. Hey, that too, their egos will be okay. If I can't tell the truth, I keep my mouth shut and leave the other person to their own conclusions. Because the second I start pretending in order to please somebody else, undercutting what I think and feel, I'd just be adding cobbles to some gothic tower, a damsel-in- distress in the making. I refuse to go out like that. Myra was no exception, thinking I would placate all her whims all the time. Relationships are based upon contracts, spoken or unspoken, and I'd much rather take my chances opening my mouth on my behalf than relying upon the goodwill of others. From what I've seen, relationships, if one is bold enough to call voluntary serfdom that, reek of underhanded bargaining: who will assume what role; who will take care of the emotional work; what will the penalties be for infractions; who will sleep in the wet spot? You've got to lay that shit out straight, so there aren't those unfortunate misunderstandings: I thought you enjoyed making groceries, well the dry-cleaning is on your way, you mind cleaning out the car on Saturday mornings? Then I don't have to dump them when they say some off the wall shit like, But you've been meaning to shave for the last two weeks. I know that I could, but there's no reason to get rid of a person for something that inane. The end will come in time. It always does.
We need to talk, Cole, Myra says, dropping down beside me on the sofa. She, with sure fingers, touches her hand to my knee. She waggles my leg carefully, a tacit question proffered, as if we are good old boys conspiring, pulling me back from rambling thoughts, extant memories- contained but not controlled.
I'd thought you'd left, I say. I watch the people doing shooters at the shuttered bar, which looks out upon the kitchen. Many, though not all, watch us with unabashed curiosity.
On that note, Monte addresses me in the midst of his untimely egress, I think I'll go find that fine cousin of yours, and with that, he ambles off. In front of us, revelers bump past one another on their way to and from various conversations. Empty cups crunch underfoot as they, turgid with alcohol, venture toward the kitchen for yet another drink. I gaze ahead without meaning to, not yet ready to deal with Myra. I watch as Monte blends into the milling crowd, for whom, if I'm not careful, this conversation will soon be grist. I wait until I can no longer see his dreads. I look at the woman beside me, evaluate the tone of her eyes, the way she's holding her body, and believe I see sincerity. Maybe we can be different. She leans her shoulder against mine.
After sitting through an interminable pause, she says, I don't think you understood what I meant. I'm just saying I think you either are, or you're not. After all, Myra says with a chuckle, bi now, gay later. Gingerly, I shift my leg free of her grasp and cock my head in her direction.
Not amused. And what didn't I understand? I feel my head shake incredulously. I thought you knew who I was. I can't pretend to be something because it's convenient for you. I won't play some role you made up in your head. But.
Not even. I told you from the beginning, so we've nothing to discuss. There's nothing. The labor of producing the words requires all the energy I have. This is the end, and as an acrid hotness rises engulfing my throat, the blood drains from my fingertips, leaving them like brittle wings of glass.
I need you one way, or the other. She raises her voice to compensate the pulsating boom of the speakers. What I'm trying to say is that I want more clarity. About what I am to you.
What you want has nothing whatsoever to do with me and everything to do with paranoia about me leaving you for a man, or somebody white, or who the hell knows. I'm not going to manufacture some promise to ease your mind. No matter what I say, you won't ever believe me. No. That's not what I meant.
Yes, it is. You're telling me that if I left you for a Black woman. it would be okay.
You're lying to yourself, darlin'. What's the damn difference? I'd still be gone. You don't get that I'm leaving you because of you. I hasten to distance myself from her with hurried scoots moving impatiently toward the armrest to my right. I have to have more room, I think, and with a forgetful grimace snatch my knee upon the couch between us as an impromptu barrier before facing her. Because of you, I say. Not you being butch, but because of you and all your fucked up shit. Myra's cheeks are somber, sunken in over the bones. I am left with a superimposed image, a trembling outstretched palm, a thin liquid coating of vermilion, blood, my own, and shake with wild anger over the waste, but the waste of what? The imaginings I have of her? She inhales, closing weary eyes as she relents. A public breakup. Yes, this is the sum total of our reality.
She says, I'm sorry about the chair. But how many times are you going to make me apologize?
I'm not making you do shit. You think finding me a bandage was something. You only did that because if I went to the hospital, it would've ended up in the blotter.
You picked up the knife. It was a steak knife, I say. Her shoulders rise square and tense against this excoriation, as if she would try to snatch me if we were not in such a public place. She reads this thought in my mien and calmly says, in all seriousness:
It was a chair. I was mad. I wasn't trying to hit you with it.
What'd you expect to happen when you threw it at me? I wasn't supposed to do anything? I know you think I'm laid back, but that's stretching shit too far, don't you think?
Listen, hell. Twitching my nose sure as hell wasn't going to make a piece of flying furniture disappear. I feel my eyebrows stretch into one arcing question mark that reaches my cowlick. Without meaning to, I find myself leaning in, hoping, to salvage some degree of civility, her face imminent, less than a foot from my own. You could have let me leave. I wanted you to let me out. And I watch as her pupils constrict, the trenchant light from the kitchen creates a golden aura around the purling watery brims. Myra closes her eyes, broods as she is wont to do, and the fullness of her chest heaves upwards before she reclines her shoulders away from me. With a flash her eyelids click open, fixed, then narrow, accommodating the newly constructed distance, an unrecognizable aperture. All chance of intimacy dissolves.
I didn't mean to cut you. It just happened. I wanted to talk to you. That's all.
I wasn't going to wait around and find out if your talking involved throwing something else.
I'm sorry about the chair, I'm sorry about your leg. I'm sorry. How many times am I going to have to say it?
I point a finger in her face, Not another goddamn time. It swishes back and forth involuntarily as I pronounce each word emboldened by anger. But mildly aware to where this episode could escalate, I fold rigid arms like steel bands across my chest. I lean forward. You knew how I felt about.that. Tell me to leave, let me go, anything, but I'm not going through all that. Not again, with you or anydamnbody. My ire caves in upon itself, too immense a structure for the foundation. The box collapses, expelling a limp voice, a bleating weakness I don't dare recognize. I can't pretend, essays forth. Then a breathless, I won't.
I need to know that I wasn't.a.
A what? Say it. Go on, say it. A fluke? What? Some experiment? Say what you mean. You're pissed off that I won't tell you about the details of my past. That's all it is. I can't believe you tried to set me out like that, having Mami join in and help you. I shake my head wanting lucidity, a thread of thought to unravel. Aw come on, Cole, tell us, I mimic. How could you think that if I wouldn't tell you that I would spill for a whole table full of people? I am aware of the sensation of my head shaking again, and I want desperately for it to stop. A whole fuckin table full of people? Over dinner. Be still, my body says, but I don't how to make myself comply. I can't help it, I don't want to help it. My hands gesture recklessly. That's the proof you want. Proof I haven't been faking the last seven months. The specifics of who I've fucked and when. Why isn't my being with you enough?
I tilt at the waist, bring my face still closer to hers, intent on telling her what she needs, wants to hear, just once, before we're over. I prop one elbow on my thigh, sending white pain exploding to my mind, to get right up in her face. Seventh grade, I say, shit was raggedy, the girl was my best friend and considered herself practicing. Swearing a whole year never happened. Until her mother forced the issue. Said it was my doing. I didn't exist to her anymore. Nothing out of the ordinary. Your average everyday shit, right? Typical.
High school-raggedy. A friend came out to me junior year. I said I wasn't. He never got to know the truth. Scored some coke, too blue. Never got to tell him. Then senior year- raggedy, again. Slept with Gloria, confided in some close friends who didn't out me but, instead, elected to distance themselves from me. Later, Gloria's parents found out. And through a letter of mine no less. They kicked her out and cut off money for school until she could straighten out her life. She's married now, whipped out three kids in four years. I even slept with her once after she was married. I'm not sure how most affairs go, but I am sure that this one was quite pathetic. I don't keep in touch anymore.
I don't know what you've concocted, but there's nothing for me to romanticize. Nothing, save a lot of dating, men and women, and a lot of unnecessary loneliness. But I've managed to piece together something tolerable, you know, and I have no intention of continually going through bullshit about loyalties. I sleep both ways-not at the same time. I rest back upon the rear of the sofa, wanting to sink into it completely as Myra and I sit on opposite side of a leviathan silence, each alone, surrounded by a sea of gibbering drunkards, drowning underneath an onslaught of treble and bass.
All I'm saying is you have to understand my side. You have to see how this seems to me.
Fuck you! I jab my index finger against the fleshy part of her inner shoulder. I have to see your side? Who the hell's seeing mine? Not a goddamn person. I not straight enough, or gay enough, or black enough. I'm anything enough for you. You want me to choose sides like this is large-scale game of Red Rover-Red Rover.
You don't trust me.
You expect me to trust you while you keep fuckin me over?
Myra remains close-lipped, withstanding my tirade. She touches two aimless fingers to her lips, pulsing them against her yielding mouth. She studies me. Then she moves, reaching her arm across the rise of the couch and gently begins to pick at the fabric of my shirtsleeve. Pluck, release. Pluck, release. Staring at me. And stops.
I love you. Do you still?
I say what I am capable of, precisely, nothing. The music fades. Intruding upon my consciousness, bits of conversations overtake my ears as they resonate from within the intimate confines of the house. Her eyes take casual stock of people who could be listening: her friends, namely Mami who I know put her up to all this, the Highland Downs Crew, that new-cute girl, in one word, everyone.
Let's go outside and talk. We shouldn't be talking in here. Her hand distends, grips mine, entwines, and I can't separate the inner quaking hostility from the rush of what I've know her touches to evoke. I can't drive a wedge between what I should feel from that of the way I feel the mornings she leaves me spent and exhausted, lorn, longing before her departure for her return. The indelible sliding of her hand along my shoulder blade as we part in the mornings has worn away a smooth groove like water against stone. She stands up, and I follow in thrall. Hearing our steps land in time, I tell myself, we're headed for the door. I see the black and white linoleum squares streak by me like highway dividers while the grey veils of smoke descend like fog. I follow her in tandem, careening through the mass of people, my gaze hitched up to the back of her as if she's a set of tail lights I must trail closely behind, or be lost. In front of me, the dim red lighting effuses around her form. I watch her wide hips undulate with their natural sway, hips that will never lose their tempo by the arduous birthing of children, hips that tensed and contracted as her thighs slid across my jaw before releasing. And this time, I can't let it go.
No, I say, pulling free of her, slamming everything in reverse. This causes her to turn and face me. I never hid our relationship. You did. You're the one who didn't want to take me around your friends. You're the one wouldn't let anything happen that whole first month. I step up to her side, graze my mouth against her ear. The whisper-hiss of words angle from my lips against her earlobe. I feel my head slowly bob back and forth on the end of my neck. For three months, nothing, you wouldn't let me touch you. Like my going down on you would've made you less, making you femme. You saw the bruises you left on my hips and thighs. Fuck you! You're the one always throwing men up in my face, the one embarrassed by me, because I'm not enough of what you think I should be. Don't you turn this shit back on me. Don't make this an issue of my not being able to deal with us. I, unlike you, can talk about this here.
Come on, I say, drawing back from her; I want to see the full effect, not part, the whole of her face. Let's talk, right now, and say what we both know. Tell me why you think I'm stepping out on you. Tell me. Why is it you think I'm cattin' around? We both know why. But you won't say it, will you?
Her aspect is that of taut lines, stretched to breaking, and her demeanor that of a glac‚, but her eyes glance hotly about the room. At length, with considerable effort, she finally says, You're right. I won't.
In her face, I see the meticulous weighing and balancing of the scales, see the fulcrum slide tipping the scale, but not in my favor. Myra seems to cast aside all emotions for me as she turns away; she manages several controlled steps before the words slip from my mouth.
Give Coco my regards, I say, loud enough for her to hear. Others look in our direction. Myra's back stiffens, pulls up straight as if on a marionette's string, but she does not pause. Sotto voce, I can't help mumbling, That cunt.
I will not stop her, not this time. As she leaves, I see her, the one I craved only minutes before. The one I thought I could forgive for the dental dams buried in her bottom drawer (that, one by one, kept disappearing) that she wasn't using with me. The one with the pale cut on her finger from helping me remove a bobby pin I'd put in too tightly. The one who laughs her high- strung chuckle as she oversees my cleanup of her bathroom mirror from where I've speckled the glass white with toothpaste. The way her voice, dry as powder, softer than down and as feathery, is a mesh of billowing air and the sound of a quill against paper. The way her throat catches on some invisible breath before drawling my name with a harsh k sound and follows it with a mellifluent lingering like saying kitty. The way she is familiar: the small sterling crucifix that dangles like a riffling current in the small of her russet-colored chest, the shape of her rib-cage through a fitted, cable-knit sweater, or, on fitful nights of slumber, the apple of my cheek being hugged against the solid rise of her stomach. But now I don't want to feel anything. Feeling, I'm learning, is too expensive. Too expensive when this woman I crave is not manna, but mammon.
I spin upon what is becoming an apathetic heel, returning to the couch for what remains of my drink, then manipulate the distance to the back deck, avoiding the querying stares by meeting them directly. I leave the ruckus of the party by way of the patio door. Taking a seat in a rickety, basket-slated lawn chair beneath the yellowing buzz of the outside lamppost, I regard the darkness. Freezing. I watch as the aluminum frame causes goose bumps to constrict around the fine follicles of hair like pelage on my forearm. I breathe in the dizzying air like salt against an open wound. The pain offers a clarity, the memento mori glimpsed just before death. I press against the coldness, tilting back the last drops of liquid from the bottom of the glass. I search the empty glass for more. I will the coldness away, trying to comfort myself with inadequacy: thought.