Days before our annual New Year’s Eve Service, Pastor Robinson absently asked me to pen a poem and plan on reciting it some time after praise and worship and before his sermon. Because I had very little sense of self-preservation, I agreed.
I did not tell him that commissioned art requires ample notice.
I did not tell him that the rapid-fire performance pieces I recited didn’t spring from my head fully formed.
I did not tell him what I believed then—that I couldn’t write poems for church services without spending time praying and hand-wringing and lamenting, without asking God if the often scathing criticism I snuck in by rattling it off too quickly for listeners to immediately process was actually okay to repeat aloud.
I did not tell him that that settled, Yes, I do believe I’m free to write and recite this; No, I don’t need to further edit myself sensation—the one I was so sure then was the presence of God confirming the words He’d given me—simply could not be rushed.
I simply nodded and agreed, then spent the next four or so days panicking and envisioning myself in a room filled with hundreds of sequin-clad onlookers with absolutely nothing to say.
Somehow, I managed to get a poem written. I printed it out and spent the remaining day and a half before deadline desperately trying to commit the piece to memory. I was always terrified to stand in front of the church to share poems. Though all writing is nakedness, poetry is nakedness on a JumboTron; and I always found it comforting to have a page to hide behind. I’d approach the microphone, unable to hear any thought other than, Just get it over with. Just get it over with.
And yet, in recent months, I’d been working on memorization. The dim prospect of overcoming my timidity—even if only for the two minutes it took me to barrel through these things—shimmered, in the very back of my mind, with promise. I’d gone paperless for the last two or three poems I’d read and, though they’d started out as shakily and mumbled as all the others, I’d felt a pinprick of confidence creeping up as I gained momentum and an outright, I am one tough blackgirl crescendo swelling in my chest as I descended the pulpit.
I had just turned twenty-one, just months from college graduation, and I longed to know why I was here. If I was really “called to write,” then I’d need to get used to sharing my work. I hoped I was en route to destiny.
Maybe the church members who’d been telling me my poems were prophetic weren’t just hyping me up. Maybe the people who were calling poetry my “ministry” or my “purpose” were actually onto something. Maybe that settledness I felt upon finishing a piece for an upcoming church event was the breeze of angel who, having dispensed some divine inspiration, had unfurled its six-foot wings and left the room.
On New Year’s Eve, the church was at capacity. I knew from nervously glancing over my shoulder, from my second-row vantage, that it was standing-room only. I wasn’t confident that I had the poem entirely memorized, so the print-out I’d been clutching for days was folded and sitting on my seat. As the worship singers crooned songs welcoming the Holy Spirit to our service, I kept obsessing over snatching up the page for some desperate, hopeful, last-minute cramming. But I didn’t want anyone to think I was more interested in the poem than I was in praising God, so I left it behind me, ran the words over in my head as best I could, over the din, and waited until someone called me forward.
I can’t remember who introduced me, but my name was called long before I was ready to hear it. I sprang from my seat and rushed up the three steps leading to the pulpit. I’d left the page behind. I didn’t feel my normal Just get it over with! mantra banging against my eardrums and flushing my face. In fact, I felt oddly composed.
I leaned forward, smiled, glanced out at the crowd of around 400 spectators, parted my lips… and squeaked. The good thing about going through your teens at a mid-size church is that, whenever you have to speak in front the congregation, most of the faces you look out on are friendly, patient, and smiling in a way that makes it impossible to feel like you’ve failed. And if the Church Mothers and other Old Folks various and sundry have somehow deemed you a “nice young girl,” you might even get a loud “That’s okay, baby!” for your trouble.
Such was the case as I began the poem, wavered, paused, and began it again. And in that surreal, absurd second when my mind was crystalline and it was no longer possible to fool myself into thinking everything I’d forgotten would come back to me any second now, the entire congregation hooted and clapped and sent a smattering of Thank you, Jesuses and Help her, Lords wafting to the rafters as I stepped down the three stairs and jogged lightly back to my seat to retrieve the folded page of poetry I’d left there.
I don’t remember this poem at all and neither does the man who fell in love with me when he heard it. But over the next seven years, whenever he was asked to name the moment he became certain he would court me, he’d wax wistful about New Year’s Eve, 2000.
After the service, between fielding questions about whether or not I wanted to crawl under a chair in mortification and backhanded compliments like, “I don’t care if you didn’t manage to memorize, you did your thing!,” I saw the man approaching.
He was leonine. Thick, six-inch dreads writhed around his head like a mane. He had eyes the same brown as Grand Marnier and a gait that reminded me of nothing so much as choreography from The Lion King. He was the lost brother of Scar and Mufasa, walking toward me. His shoulders swayed almost imperceptibly as he moved; his swagger was regal. I’d been noticing him on the one Sunday a month that I’d come home from DC to hang out at my home church. He was new and I knew nothing about him. Six-foot-five and the color of cashew butter, he hovered over the chair where I sat waiting for the crowd to thin. And he smiled.
He had a way of holding eye contact until he’d made you uncomfortable. His hands looked large enough to crush boulders but unscarred enough to suggest that he was an artist. He offered me one of them, still staring into my eyes, and as I shook it, he said, “I really enjoyed your poem.”
It was a sparing statement, pregnant with genuineness. It was smooth, but clearly admiring.
“Thank you,” I answered, letting go of his hand.
And because neither of us could think of anything more to say, he walked away.
It would be months before I even knew his name.
This is the man I’ve been writing about. The Boyfriend who, after dating me less than six months, helped me and my mother move out of our foreclosed home from dusk to sunlight during the night before our eviction. The Lover with whom I defiled my mother’s sofa. The Selfish Cat who protested my grad school enrollment and subsequent move to New York, even as he drove me up there and helped me unload all my things into my new apartment.
I will skip our first date. I will spare you the minutiae of the seven years we spent together. I will tell you that, from that first day to the last, our relationship was like something out of a Zora Neale Hurston story, beautiful and glittering and rabid, leaving us gutted and glorious, not feeling cheap so much as spent. Like Janie returning to Eatonville after euthanizing the great love of her life.
Whenever the obviousness of our incompatibility smacked me (like Tea Cake did Janie), I retold myself the story of our first night together, in the sanctuary of our church on the eve of a new millennium, and I would not forget the secret part of the tale, the one I reserved only for he and I: the cinematic seconds we spent gazing into each other eyes sped along a timeline stretched taut with anger and confusion and tenacity.
That night, our eyes held their own caucus, clandestine and separate from the rest of our selves. They said, I am sculpting a graven image of you. I will worship it long after I discover you don’t resemble it at all. They said, We will nurse our relationship, even when it no longer breathes on its own. We will not bury it until it stinks.