Fiction

Chapter 1-3: NaNoWriMo

In my absence from this blog, I’ve also been sketching out the very rough first draft on a new novel. It’s a family drama, and I’m posting the chapters on Tumblr as I finish them. If you’re interested, give them a read! I’ll be grateful. 🙂

I’ll also update this post with new links as they become available, so be sure to check back.

Links:

Chapter 1 (in two parts):  and 

Chapter 2:

Chapter 3: http://t.co/0iIpmAkX97

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Fiction

It’s Okay to Look: An Excerpt.

Note: I’ve been writing less in the blogosphere–here and in other places where I used to be a more frequent contributor–in part because I’ve started working on a novel. I haven’t tried a novel in several years now. In graduate school (which ended five years ago, next month[!]), I dealt mostly in long-form short stories. Then I wrote the pregnancy/motherhood memoir I began here (no word yet on that, except a bunch of rejections and one pending evaluation). So my fiction’s a bit rusty.

Even so, I found time to write a piece of flash fiction for a contest late last year and something about the characters haunted me. Typically, when that happens, they’re demanding to be fully realized. They want more of my attention. Sometimes, I ignore them in favor of other pursuits. Right now, I’m in the mood to entertain them.

The thing is: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Just a writer, no other supplemental career necessary. It’s what I do well. Everything else is a serious struggle. And so no matter how many projects I finish and polish, without anyone ever taking the chance to publish, I have to keep trying to write that project that cannot be denied. Maybe this one’s it. Maybe not, but I’m greatly enjoying the process.

This is an excerpt from the middle of the book. (I’m writing non-linearly, as bits of the plot and characters come to me.) Some context: it’s supposed to be in the voice of a precocious seven-year-old conjoined twin. Feel free to weigh in.

P.S. When I was trying to figure out a title for this, I found an article on the subject of intimate bonds, chronicling two conjoined sisters, with an interesting last line. I borrowed it.

*  *  *

In our bedroom, where all our secret things happen, under the cotton eaves of pink and rotating, stencil-shaped light, Mommy has tucked us in, read us three stories, and left us to find our own way in the night.

She never waits till we sleep, just up and goes when her own eyes grow heavy and her words come out in yawns.

The stars on the walls look nothing like the ones outside, with their perfect pointy sides and the sameness of their shapes. I watch the real ones every night, under the slip of our shades, when the sky is clear of clouds and rain and everyone, even Raydi, is gone.

Tonight, I catch Raydi before she goes.

— You think Mommy loves us?

She grunts, rolls us to the edge of our bed, reaches over the side. We always leave our Raggedy Anns sleeping under us. We tell them they’re in the bottom bunk; they’re too dumb to know they’re on the floor. She wakes them, yanks them up to us, smushes them together. She always, always tries to make them stick.

— How you know?

— She feed us yum-yums.

— Almost anybody’ll give a kid a treat if they ask nice.

Raydi makes a serious face as the dolls drop to the ground, separate, like they always do.

— Glue, she mumbles.

— I’m not gluing my doll to yours. You always ask that. I always say no.

She looks sad, pushes the bald side of her head to mine, starts to hum. She smells like stale cookies, yard-grass, Mama’s Queen Helene lotion. I guess I do, too.

I hate it when she’s sad. Feels too much like I’m sad. And then, before too long, I am. But my doll is nicer, cleaner. Its eyes are still where the should be, black and gleaming; in them, I can see small pieces of my face. Just mine, so that when I play with her, I don’t hear the schoolkids calling me TwoFace or the church kids calling me Legion.

Raydi’s Raggedy Ann really is raggedy. She plucked its eyes off first, said she liked the cool smooth feel of them in her mouth. When she swallowed the first one, I swore I felt it going down, winding through our bodies, lodging itself in our poop.

Mommy said it was just my overactive imagination.

— You’re seven, she said. When you’re seven, very little is real.

I know she’s wrong whenever I see the dolls, mine all factory-fresh, with chalky skin and a triangle nose of red thread, then Raydi’s with its Sharpie-blackened face and cotton gushing out of its side, where she used our safety scissors to stab it over and over.

— We do that, you and me? she said after, and I must’ve looked scared because she clapped her hand on my shoulder.

— Mommy says no.

— The hospital, it fix?

— Maybe, I whispered.

We weren’t supposed to know that hospitals fix. We thought they were where the stork dropped off babies, where grandpas go to die, where you get colored casts for the schoolkids to write on and then, if you’re lucky, they’ll like you.

But kids like us, people tell us things we shouldn’t know, say words we shouldn’t hear, show us quiet, wriggling things in the wet grass at the edge of the schoolyard, by the far fence, where the honeysuckle grows.

And so we saw it, the book with the pictures of babies like us, grown together at the head or the trunk of the body. Ms. Marjorie, the school librarian, pulled us aside weeks ago, after story hour, and showed it to us. It was a book about a black man with small, kind eyes. Mousy eyes, Raydi called them, beady but bright. He’s a doctor who became famous for splitting up twins like us. Sometimes they live, two bodies apart, and you can barely even notice they were ever followed around with cameras, gawked at in grocery stores, pitied in shows on TV.

But sometimes, something else happens. The second baby can’t live without the first. Once they come apart, the one steals all the air and blood from the other. The one is swaddled and carried home, the other dropped down in a casket.

When we asked Mommy about the man and the hospitals he works in, fixing, always fixing glued children like us, we took her the book as proof. I thought she wouldn’t believe us, that she couldn’t have known there was a man like this, that it was possible for me and Raydi to be split and normal and fine.

— Mommy, we said, there’s someone who could fix us!

We waited and waited, while she looked up and her eyes turned swirly and hard like marbles. We waited, while she scribbled stuff down in the book she always carries, till she took a sip of tea, pulled the purple ribbon into the fold of her pages and closed the cover, till she pushed the book onto the edge of the table.

She stood and loomed over us, a tree giving creepy, cold shade. Raydi beamed when she got her kiss, a blossom of lipstick pressed to her cheek. But when Mommy kissed me, I got goosebumps. Fear snuck up and took over, like just before Jason Tynes and his other fifth-grade friends, took up rocks and hurled them at us as we ran toward home.

— Sweeties, she said, not unkindly, you don’t need to be fixed.

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summerwriting

Tentative start date for first teen/adult summer sessions: Monday, June 11

Here is the vision: a circle. At its center, you. You are holding a notebook. The words on its pages are yours, lovingly, imaginatively crafted, full of surprising turns and ironies, full of carefully constructed sentences. There are lines; there are strike-throughs. Imperfections, bold choices, incalculable risks.

I ask you to read from that page: Read its nonfiction, its metaphors, its fictive phrasings, its poetry. Read it and feel emptied, feel absolved. Read it and find nimble listeners.

And you do. You lay the words bare, leave them on the floor to be read, to foretell your future.

The listeners wait, let them linger and breathe in a quiet air, let their full weight and bloom be underscored by silence.

And then we commend you, rush through breathless praise and tactful criticism, give you pages lined with hand-scrawled commentary. We compare your work to the others we’ve read by diverse and lovely writers within and without the literary canon, within and without the diaspora.

You leave feeling more confident in the timbre of your voice, in your command of the ideas borne out on the page.

I’m teaching writing this summer. Six-week courses. Join me.

Send your kids between summer camps. Or enroll yourself. You won’t regret it.

A more official, specific announcement is forthcoming. In the meantime, if you’re interested in enrollment, please email me at wingstowrite@gmail.com or post a comment below stating your interest.

Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Summer 2012 Writing Courses, Wings to Write Consulation & Coaching

Me. You. Summer Writing.

summerwriting

Tentative start date on first teen/adult sessions: Monday, June 11

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Fiction

My Body, Broken for You.

Note: I wrote this in December ’11 for a contest I didn’t win. It’s strange that fiction was my grad school discipline; all I’ve written since then has been creative nonfiction. I haven’t given up on fiction, but I think the work it takes to perfect it through revision is work I’m not always successful at seeing through to the end. Anyway, after a couple of rejections and no-response-to-submissions, I’ve just decided to post it here. Let me know if you think it has potential.

My Body, Broken For You

Once, just after their father left, I wished they would just slide out of me, like so many of the other eggs before them.

Perhaps that caused it.

They were fully split for a time, identical but separate, two girls already playing pranks, daring the ultrasound techs to tell them apart. One darted here then wriggled left, and the other followed so close behind we’d all have to wait a half-hour to distinguish one’s vitals from the other’s.

But three weeks after I squeezed my eyes shut and hoped to find them floating among my fifth forceful pee in an hour, they had fused, clinging to one another for the love I’d denied them, clinging so tightly they’d joined at their hips.

When they were tugged out of me one month early, I peered over the surgeon’s partition and spotted one wriggling thing, a tiny, too-wide, creature that looked for all the world like a Hindu talisman I’d passed in the window of a rug shop once. I didn’t know it then, but later, when I’d stopped fearing them, I would look up that Sanskrit idol and find that I was thinking of Kali: six-armed black goddess of change and of death.

That was my daughters.

They were covered with thin, furry pelts they would shed in the month that they would’ve been full-term. Viv didn’t cry for two full minutes. Nadia was born with a veil.

A resident gasped before he caught himself. An intern fled, retching, from the operating room. My obstetrician apologized, looking slightly green himself.

It was good that their father left me when he did. If he couldn’t bring himself to settle into co-parenting when the idea was purely conceptual and when we both thought I was carrying a single fetus we’d assumed would ripen into something more cherubic than grotesque, he did not have the constitution for this.

They were not fun, upbeat girls–and they can’t be faulted. They’d come home on more than one occasion, each year of grade school, with bloodied welts where some uglier, pretty-faced, one-headed child had stricken them with stones. Once, when they were nine, Viv veered toward a van where a man promised them fame and five hundred dollars, while Nadia, who knew better, asked him the name of his circus. Before they were seven, seven doctors begrudged them their hope for successful separation.

And they were saddled with me as their single mother.

The girls found it impossible to hold their heads high, because I couldn’t. Everyone seemed to blame me for their condition, especially them.

They wanted answers. Why had I carried them all those months, knowing the quality of life they would have? Why, when I saw Viv’s one listless eye, had I not seen fit to correct even that? Why was Nadia brilliant, when Viv could barely concentrate on a passage of literature long enough to grasp its basic meaning? Why did they feel so unworthy of more than anyone’s sidelong glance? How could they live, knowing they might spend many years, graying and shriveling with age, without ever knowing the full flush of romantic love?

There seemed no end to their injustices. And they wanted it known that they blamed me.

I could never bring myself to tell them the truth: I’d kept them because I thought they’d never be able to leave me. I’d kept them because their every infant embrace felt like a Ferris wheel and my heart missed the joy of a carnival.

It was their father who found them the doctor, long after they’d stopped hugging me, long after they’d vowed to move someplace remote and live like queens in a village who’d believe them to be deities.

I would not have given my consent to the surgery, had I not believed they’d kill me in my sleep if I didn’t.

Here in the waiting room, I have been sitting across from their father and his new West Indian wife. She is speaking patois to her own teenage daughter, who glances at me before sucking her teeth and snickering.

We have been here for twelve hours, pining for news of a successfully reconstructed pancreas, of the lengthening and shortening of intestines, of two fully functional diaphragms.

I try not to stare too long at the girls’ stepsister, as I imagine them strutting on either side of her through a mall. I force a smile at the pep in their gait, their chins buoyed by the confidence that no one there knows what they were. Their sister is, for once, at ease being seen with them.

They would’ve been seventeen soon, but often, I imagine them at forty, sharing a chair, still conjoined, ’round a campfire.

They have husbands and undamaged children.

They are telling ghost stories and their laughter swirls with the embers.

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Fiction

On: Exposition & Excerpts.

I excel at premises and exposition. It’s the plotting and pacing that trip me up. I can have an intimate knowledge of characters–what motivates them, where they live, how their experiences have converged to create the versions of themselves that we meet in my stories. But making them do something, in real-time, is a challenge. If I clear that hurdle, it’s even more difficult to make their doing reach some sort of resolution. Below is an example of the type of work I can trot out with ease. I texted these 1,100 words on my Blackberry Friday and yesterday. They poured right out of me. But now that it’s time to make the characters–the narrator and Uncle Sonny–do something, I’m stuck.

I’m posting this, in part, because it’s the first new fiction I’ve written in months. But also because this is where I post things I want people to encourage me to continue writing. This is where I look for readers to say, “There is something here. Keep going. We want to know what it is.”

*  *  *

“Mississippi ain’t what it was, but it still ain’t shit, if you wanna know the truth about it.”

Uncle Sonny flicked a long-nailed finger across his tongue, removing a flake of loose tobacco. He smoked unfiltereds so relentlessly that sometimes, along with the stink of stale cigs past, you could also smell the death hounds, held at bay, perhaps, by the prayers of great-aunts and Grandma, but gunning for him, all the same.

We spoke often, in my family, of the death hounds, and how, by and large, we’d dodged them. They felled Grandpa with angina back in ’96. He was nearly 90, a Baptist minister who bickered often with his wife and barely knew his sixteen children, least of all Uncle Sonny. He accepted love in the forms of fatback and collards, cornbread softened by buttermilk, and thick cut bacon far more white and red when raw. He gave love in the form of the strap, in hard words for his sons and few words for the daughters, in the sweat soaked through three shirts a day in fields and foundries.

Uncle Sonny’s position here, in the living room of the high-ceilinged rowhouse, with the stained glass in the parlor and the upright piano in the sitting room, was the direct result of Grandpa’s labor. But even as the intended beneficiary of the deed in the event of Grandma’s passing, Uncle Sonny would be hard-pressed to acknowledge that.

“Most of these niggas round here came up from North Carolina…”

I grinned to myself at the musicality of his pronunciation: Cuh-LIE-nuh. He was beautiful, Uncle Sonny, and by far, my favorite uncle. At 70, only his language belied the grimier bits of his past, bits to which I’d only become privy in the last year, when the aunts began raising their hushed tones till they were just loud enough to overhear.

You had to be at least 25 before this happened, in my family. I was 31 and still learning.

“The NAACP buried the N-word a few years ago, Uncle Sonny.”

“Can’t bury nothin’ you ain’t got the power to kill, baby.”

He crushed the burnt remains of a cigarette in an overflowing ashtray made of sterling, then sipped from a mug of coffee he’d made, so bitter it tasted as though it’d been brewed from the grounds of that very tray.

In solidarity, I sipped from the serving he’d given me, presented in a teacup with two sugar cubes on the saucer. Forcing a grin, I resisted the urge to check the recorder I’d started–or thought I’d started–just after we sat. There was a strong chance Uncle Sonny had forgotten it was there. Calling attention to it would be counterproductive.

“Like I was sayin’, most of these niggas here came up from North Carolina. That’s why they always skinnin’ and grinnin’ for these peckerwoods.”

Peckerwoods? It wasn’t the first time I’d heard Uncle Sonny use this particular white-folks-pejorative, but it was one of the few for which I hadn’t researched the etymology. I typed it into a Blackberry memo and set my phone back down on the coffee table.

“What you over there writin’?” It was a question he never ceased to ask with suspicion. Ever since I’d started writing poetry in high school and gave Grandma that pretentious 80th birthday poem with the tiny font and the five-dollar rhyming words, I’d become known as the next writer in the family and, for us, it wasn’t a role of honor.

The last writer in the family, Aunt Edie, had penned a memoir about being the eldest of sixteen, born to ex-slaves from Mississippi. It was compelling work, filled with the brutal accounts of flogging and selling and sit-ins you’d expect of such a piece. It was also, the whole of it, a lie. Grandpa and Grandma were born in 1908 and 1911. Even their parents had been born free, all except Grandpa’s father, perhaps, who bequeathed him his deep brown skin but didn’t stick around to provide him much else. Grandpa couldn’t have told you his father’s middle name, much less whether or not he’d ever been owned.

Before Aunt Edie, there was Cousin Vuretta, who’d penned a very convincing letter to the school principal, accusing Sylvester Dotson, another of our distant cousins, of a rather ghastly assault, after they’d been caught in a consensual indiscretion in the lunch room, after hours. Sly got sent to a home for wayward boys, where he learned the fine arts of hardened crime, and within a few months of his disappearance, Vuretta recanted her story.

Then, there was Elester Pitts, whose writing was limited to love letters, discovered in the various homes he’d broken by pilfering the affections of other men’s wives.

Baltimore may be a major metropolis to some, but for us, it’s a just a big town with a long memory. Grandpa and Grandma moved up here when Uncle Sonny was just seven years old. He was second-born. They’d come up as a family of six—my Ganny was the baby then, soon to be displaced by Uncle Wally. I supposed, since then, we’d developed quite the reputation, “country” as we once were, “hood” as we are now.

I know very little about it. Somehow, I’d been insulated. My mama, Denise, was what the rest of our kin referred to, under their breath, as a Jesus freak. By and large, we were a family of Baptists. Mama was a devout neo-Charismatic, which is as far left of my family’s church experience as James Cleveland is from Jimi Hendrix.

I was already a zygote when she gave her life to the Lord in that open space below the raised pulpit that’s often called the altar.

She hadn’t told anyone about her pregnancy, being eighteen, college-enrolled, and unwed. But she raced home to tell my Ganny and her sisters, engaged in a heated game of bid whist, that she’d gotten saved. Perhaps she thought, naïvely, that it’d soften the blow when, months later, they noticed how big I’d gotten under my mother’s silk blouse.

Aunt Xenobia raised her glass of gin, making the ice cubes tinkle in congratulation.

Aunt Imogene just pursed her lips and cut her eyes, which are generally her sole contributions to any conversation.

Aunt Edie humphed. Ever since she’d been called a liar to her face by every living family member–and, to hear Uncle Sonny tell it, even some dead who’d taken to stalking her dreams–Edie thought it prudent, on most occasions, to keep her mouth shut.

Ganny was the most vocal: “‘Saved,’ huh? You could’ve ‘saved’ the gesture. You already baptized. I made sure of that.”

Mother needlessly gathered the fabric of her sweater around her still-flat stomach and slunk up to her room.

“That gal ain’t got the sense God gave a tick,” Aunt Addie Mae could be heard quipping behind her.

“You need to hush,” Ganny scolded, by obligation, before snickering.

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Fiction

A Revolution Like Vinyl, Part 2.

The second and last installment of the short story that begins here.

One morning in Vermont, Abiza woke to the smiling face of a green-eyed boy. She rubbed her eyes in disbelief at his pinkened lips and cooked-cream skin, generously powdered with nutmeg freckles. She stares at them along the bridge of his nose, all over his cheeks, across his forehead.

He placed his warm, white palm on her bare, cold shoulder. She saw smudged green ink on the back of his hand, where he’d scrawled a reminder to file for financial aid.  ‘FAFSA,’ the smudge read. “Tell me about when you were born,” he said, and she jumped, pulling the covers up to her chin and shrinking to her edge of the mattress. She didn’t really remember him. She had a vague recollection of the night before, of a faculty reading and claret sipped from paper cups.

“What did you say?”

He didn’t repeat himself.

“Daddy, tell me about when I was born.”

Clap tells her every time she asks. She asks even when she doesn’t want to know. Part of her hopes he’ll refuse—or at the very least, that he’ll forget the details.

“You weren’t born,” he’d begin, “You were forcibly liberated.”

“It was ’79 and our neighborhood was burning. The government had already succeeded in turning most of the comrades to crackheads. And without a solid, legal-arms-holding line of defense, we were easy to isolate and obliterate.

“I’d met your mama ten years before, working alongside her every morning at that Panther free breakfast program. But I stopped seeing her there after about a year. It was six years before I saw her again. I ran into her at a rally. She told me she’d been off at Berkeley, studying anthropology and early childhood education. I was scared to ask her out after she told me that, but I did it anyway. Took her to see Stevie Wonder and by the time he finished opening with ‘Too High,’ I knew she was gonna be it for me. Take Donny Hathaway’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” and wrap it in Nina Simone’s “Four Women.” That was your mama.

“We found ourselves a pad in South Philly—small, but we got by with it. We were saving up for something better, both working. She was at a nursery school nearby. I was at a record store my man Hasaan inherited after his father was killed.

“We were completely legit in ’79, Abiza. And when we found out we were gonna have you, there were no more skeletons to clear from our closets. We weren’t even really protesting anymore. The revolution—if it had come at all—was over for us. We were settling down. We had fought our wars, committed our so-called war crimes, and emerged without implication. I’m ashamed of it now, but we were grateful. Glad for those four-dollar-an-hour pieces of jobs and our little walk-up efficiency where we could just listen to records and read Mari Evans and Amiri Baraka to each other—and to you, in those months before you were born. We were grateful that we were still here to reminisce instead of lying stark-still on a corpse in a pine box on its way to Cuba or rotting in solitary at some prison in a city we’d long since forgotten the name of.

“We sold off most of our guns, but we kept some of our knives and ammo—just in case anybody wanted to break bad—but for the most part, there was quiet. For the most part, we thought there was peace.

“We were settling into an anonymous life, Abiza. You have to understand how dangerous that is—attempting anonymity. Give me notoriety over anonymity any day. You think you’re slipping under the radar. You think if you live in a certain measure of stillness, folks’ll stop comin’ after you. The fact is: the man who exposes his willingness to go unnoticed is only setting himself up as an easier target.

“Your mama and I didn’t know that. We were startin’ to  sleep soundly every night—but not so enough to move the switchblades from under our pillows. She’d started sleepin’ on her back at one point ‘cause she’d gotten too big for it to be comfortable any other way, and her arm would be pinned under my shoulder. My hand would be on her stomach—in whatever spot you had decided to kick that night. And I’d keep it there ‘til the three of us fell asleep.

“We were just like that when a brick shattered our window. We didn’t wake up right off, so we didn’t notice the grenade of tear gas that sailed in after it. Seems like I should’ve been a much lighter sleeper back then.”

Abiza didn’t see the red-haired boy again, after that morning in his bedroom, when he’d asked about her birth. She never got his name. But she thinks of him as Ramsey drops her off in front of her father’s house, a little after 4 a.m. She thinks of how she’d urged him to lie on his back next to her, how they stayed that way, arm to arm, shoulder to shoulder, while she stared at his chalk-white ceiling and she told him all the things she saw there—

A tangible whiteness expands and clings to everything. Clap’s own coughing wakes him. He is groggy. Panic hasn’t registered. He does not spring to action. It isn’t until Abiza’s mother stirs beside him that his focus begins to sharpen. His palm brushes the hair from her forehead, his lips are at her ear, and he says, “C’mon, now, baby. Come on, we need to move.” Her eyes, when she opens them, are wide but unruffled. She starts to sit up and he watches her eyes to make sure they won’t close again. When she kicks at the covers, he rushes to the closet to get his shotgun just as the front door is knocked in. Three men without uniforms or visible badges shout, “Freeze!” A cluster of explosions sounds, a round of five, maybe six, and Clap turns from the closet in time to see her falling, bloodied. Her head catches on the sharp edge of their night table on the way down. A ragged cry tears out of his torso as he charges into the haze, toward the sound of the shots and retreating footfalls. All he manages to glimpse are scrawny silhouettes slinking into an unmarked, idling car and speeding off. If he runs hard and aims right, he can blow out a tire, catch the car, pistol whip one before the others overtakes him. It’s worth the odds. Then he remembers her—turns, stumbles to the place where she has fallen, kneels. She is pulseless. She is wide-eyed. She is dead. The fingers on her right hand are folded into a fist, half-concealing the handle of her switchblade. She hadn’t even had time to open it. Clap pries the knife free, plunges it into her stomach, and pulls across, forcing a jagged incision. His hands are warm, reaching into her womb—one hand on Abiza’s torso, the other over her face. He cuts the cord, pulls a bed-sheet to swaddle her, holds her to his chest. Runs.

Runs,” she whispered to the red-haired boy, and she noticed the tears on his face.

It occurred to her then that she wanted an apology. She wanted him to say that he was sorry that her mother was woken up by White men, just to be killed. She wanted him to say that he was sorry her father would always carry the memory of gutting his woman to save their child.  The boy reached for her hand and clutched it. Then, he took the deepest breath—like everything she’d said had just happened to him, and he was already weary of the burden.

She sees a beam of yellow light floating under the closed door to Clap’s home office. It was foolish of her to think that he would be asleep—he rarely sleeps. There’s no other way to her room but past his door. He will see the shadow of her feet passing. He will swing his door wide and narrow his eyes. There will be a deluge of obscenities. She steels herself and starts the walk, but when she nears his door, she hears music. Clap has always loved music, but Abiza’s rarely known him to listen to it. It is one of the things he’s relinquished, one of the things he left burning in that South Philly apartment. Music. It staggers her. All she can do is knock, and then respond to his silence by opening the door.

He seems small, hunched in his swivel chair, surrounded by newspaper clippings and out-of-print books, nursing a snifter of cognac. She walks over and rests her hand in his shrubby hair, gone nearly all grey and wiry in the crown.

“You just gettin’ home?”

“Yeah.”

“Come over here and sit down.” He gestures to a spot in front of him, on a less cluttered edge of his desk.

“I have always expected to find you dead,” he says.

“Same here.”

“You can’t just keep comin’ in here at all hours. Your mama was right in her own bed when they came for her. That’s the kinda shit you were born into.”

“I know, Daddy.”

“You think they gon’ pass you if they catch your ass in the dark?”

“I know they won’t.”

“I don’t understand you. What we used to do in my day was for the greater good. We were civil servants—out there livin’ and dyin’ for the people. It’s like y’all done forgot everything we did. The baton done fell on a hill and it’s rollin’ toward a storm drain. None of y’all wanna pick it up. Y’all just wanna ‘live your lives’ and die. But when y’all die, your deaths don’t mean anything, Abiza. They don’t mean anything.”

Abiza lifts Clap’s half-smoked cigarette from the glass ashtray beside her and takes a long drag. She considers telling him about the red-haired boy or about Ramsey and the barely-thirteen-year-old prostitutes on Eutaw and Baltimore. Or about one of the many times she was stopped by the police driving to and from school in Vermont. She should tell him about the underserved children she tutored there—how they came to school hungry until she decided to start bringing them muffins and apples, how holey and stained their clothes were until she decided to sew them new outfits. She should mention how many of those children were White. But what would be gained? she wonders. Would any ground ever be gained?

Then her ear keens to a song crackling under the needle of Clap’s record player:

… ‘Cause there ain’t nothin’ in this world can stop me worryin’ bout that giiiiirl.

“Okay, Daddy,” she says. “All right.”

The needle slides to the innermost grooves of the vinyl and stays there, in the soundless region of the record. They listen to it revolve, each turn seeming a little different than the last.

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Fiction

A Revolution Like Vinyl, Part 1.

Writer’s Note: the very recent passing of first Gil Scott-Heron (with whom, I’m afraid, I seem to be falling into a bit of posthumous love) and Geronimo Pratt has made me call to mind the key work of my graduate thesis: a long short story titled, “A Revolution Like Vinyl,” penned in 2006. It won the fiction award at the Gwendolyn Brooks Creative Writing Conference four or five years ago, but it’s never been published. I’m going to serialize it here, while I start another, possibly stronger story with similar subject matter.

*  *  *

Abiza jabs her fist at the drizzling air, curling her fingers into her palm until a dull pain shoots through her forearm and bicep. She imagines herself as a snapshot—just now, as her mouth widens to a roar and her lips twist to a scowl. Click.

Then she envisions a foreigner examining the frozen image—someone who would not immediately recognize the much older man behind her, the one into whose chest she’s leaning, as the infamous Clap Turner, and might instead assume that he is Abiza’s much older lover. Their eyes share the same fire, so the foreigner could deduce that she’s adopted the elder’s causes as a contingency to their affair and that most of their dates involve picket lines and rallies like this one, in the background of their snapshot.

Abiza is here, though. She is living the moment. There’s no camera nearby to capture it. She knows truths an assumptive glance could not ascertain.

“The truth is a burden,” she tells herself.

“Damn right,” her father answers.

She feels his chest puff out as he lifts his picket sign high over their heads and chants, “Free all political prisoners now! Free all political prisoners now! Free all political prisoners now!”

It isn’t catchy, this chant. They’re never catchy. Because when you live a life of perpetual protest, there’s no glamour. No cinema. Just a long stretch of adjoining injustices.

“Free Mumia!” she calls out, half-heartedly. “Remember Fred Hampton!”

Clap kisses her cheek as she begins a mental list of ways she’d rather be spending her Saturday, and soon it begins to rain outright. She knows better than to hope that this will mean an early end to the demonstration. If anything, this could prolong it. The voices around them swell, competing with the loud rhythm of rain.

Throngs unnerve her. She was raised to anticipate a pair of White hands closing in from behind—one clapped over her mouth, the other hooked around her torso—dragging her off into an undocumented abyss for an indeterminate number of days, months, years. “It’s bound to happen at least once in your life,” her daddy often says. It’s like a Black Boy Scout aphorism for him.  “Always be prepared.”

He pulls her to a tented table set up at the perimeter of the thinning crowd and she recognizes the men manning it as George and Dragon, men her father’s known since before she was born.

George quickly casts his eyes up at Abiza as he trails his tongue along a thin hem of paper and closes the damp edge over a line of tobacco. His eyes are cold, and Abiza remembers how he’d hit on her the last time he’d seen her—while her father was off somewhere, giving a talk or signing an autograph. George adds the cig to a can on Dragon’s side of the table. Her father gestures to bum one from Dragon, whose long fingers tremble as he extends the cigarette between them. Dragon’s nerves are shot. He once told Abiza, “It’s because of the Agent Orange. Been like that since a couple years after I got back from the rice paddies.”

She scans the table, strewn with photocopied pamphlets, empty chip bags, wadded napkins streaked with powdered cheese fingerprints. Dragon has a can of Pepsi with a straw in it. The tip is chewed to shreds. It’s a pretty chaotic scene, she thinks, her eyes crossing over the clutter. Her artwork, neatly arranged to face out toward passersby, is on the outermost rim of their table. Tiny glass-blown replicas of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising their fists at a 1968 Olympics medal ceremony, are nestled in a bed of black fabric. On the fists are little leather gloves. Those figurines took her months to master. On either side of them are porcelain pickaninnies and paintings on five-by-eight-inch canvases of watermelon slices with a single bite at the center. The box she’d dropped off that morning had hand-sewn wall-hangings of David Hammons “African-American flag,” with its red and black stripes around ebony stars emblazoned on a patch of green. Those aren’t on display.

“Have you sold anything?” she asks, thinking that the scene before her—the chaos and the crafts—would make a great monochrome still.

“We’re all out of the flags,” Dragon announces, grinning.

Will that have an effect on her father—knowing that her fine arts education in Vermont is yielding revenue for his Revolution? She doesn’t know or care now. It only mattered when he was fiercely opposed to her attendance, when he “refused to invest his Black dollar in a White miseducational institution.” In the end, she’d applied for a series of scholarships—three of which she won—and told him to keep his Black dollar for causes he felt as passionately about as she did about painting and sculpting in Vermont. And he’d done just that, using her college fund to self-publish his memoirs, even though he’d always maintained that he wouldn’t write down his life story until all the Black children in all the ghettos of the world had learned to read.

He says nothing now, as Dragon opens the cash box and shakily fans out a handful of twenties.

“Daddy, I’m gonna head to the library before it closes. Can I get anything for you while I’m there?”

“Ain’t nothin’ I need from a public library I ain’t got in my private one. Hurry back, hear?”

She nods, sort of amazed that the library thing worked. There was a time when he wouldn’t have let her go to a library alone. He had to come with her and screen her selections. When she was ten, he banned The Babysitters Club, because only one of the babysitters was Black and “she only got the wards the little white girls didn’t want.”

“They ain’t slick,” he’d said, “They think Black parents ain’t up on what their kids are readin’, but I’m hip, and Abiza, that shit’s encoded. They want all y’all little Black girls to believe that only a white girl would be enterprising enough to start a temp agency at 13—and if an Asian chick or a Black one wants to be down, she better just fall in line and wait on the scraps.”

The Sweet Valley Twins suffered the same fate at Abiza’s house.

“Took them over a hundred volumes to give a Black girl a storyline—and what’s the storyline? Her football-playin’ boyfriend is mad at her and the Sweet Whitey Twins gotta come in and mediate. That’s bullshit, Abiza. Bull. Shit.”

He didn’t like the classics, either, but he approved them because he wanted Abiza to be competitive. “Get Beowulf, the Brontes, Milton, Chaucer, every single James Baldwin book you can find, Austen, Ellison, Chekhov, Nabokov—all that shit. Affirmative action, my ass!”

She did as she was told. And by the time she was fifteen, he trusted her to recognize “subliminal racism” when she read it. She’s twenty-six now. She’s not going to the library.

Evanston Avenue is emptier than she expects, but the playground ahead teems with children. Multicolored chalk adorns the sidewalk in flowers and hopscotch templates. She sits on a swing and listens to the rusty chains squeak while the kids on either side of her sail back and forth, kicking up dust.

When she was little, her father once took her to a playground like this one. She watched him sit frowning on a nearby bench while she scooped clods of pee-dampened sand into and out of a bucket. Without thinking, she called out to him, “Daddy, how come you let your beard grow so wild like that?”

“Excessive facial hair on a Black man intimidates white people, Abiza. It reminds them of slavery.”

She still remembers how the other parents at the park froze. She still remembers the appalled looks on some of their faces.

“Oh,” she had whispered.

“It’s like lookin’ into the face of a ghost for them, baby. Like lookin’ into the face of a ghost.”

Abiza knows about ghosts. She will never tell her father, but she sees them. Her parents’. She sees them cinematically, projecting themselves onto walls and into the blank spaces where she finds herself so often staring—

They are in a room with concrete walls painted mustard. They are hanging felt silhouettes of the African continent on bulletin boards, under fliers that hold leaping black panthers and the words, ‘Free Breakfast Program.’ They are cooking hot links and powdered eggs for the children. They are collecting the crust from little wide eyes and noses into warm, clean washcloths. They are stealing small, sexy glances at each other.

He is so handsome here, without those seemingly ancient furrows of anger, that leathery rage by which Abiza always recognizes him in a crowd. It will be impossible for her mother to resist him, whenever he gets ready to lay down his rap. But her father never makes his move. Eventually, her mother flashes him the kind of smile too radiant to exist anywhere outside the reflective crevices of imagination. And then she leaves him there with the children.

Warmth creeps up from behind and rests on the side of Abiza’s waist. A hand. A large, male hand. It tightens as another palm fastens on her mouth, and she is calm for some reason, the only thought in her mind being: “My father is not a liar.” She lowers her eyes to look at the hand and finds that it is brown, not white. This is when she panics, jumping off the swing and struggling to free herself. The man is doubled over clapping and whooping when she turns to face him.

“Ramsey!” she exclaims. “Fool, don’t sneak. You know how I am about that sneaky shit.”

He laughs harder, then they hug. “Let’s get outta here,” he gasps.

“This is unexpected, Ramsey,” she says when they reach his car. “I usually see you at night.”

“I know,” he grins, opening her door. “I thought just maybe, today, I could feed you.”

Abiza rolls her eyes as Ramsey gets in on the other side and pulls off. They only ride a few blocks before he parks in front of Song’s Vegetarian Soul Kitchen, which isn’t vegetarian at all because it sells fried chicken, and they hop out.

She feels his eyes roaming from the nape of her neck to her ankles as he walks behind her and opens the glass door so she can walk in. He’s going to ask her out, she thinks. It’s finally come to this. And for a second she considers knocking her whole body into his heavy shoulder and bolting. They’re seated before she can follow through.

There are plenty of things she’s used to doing with Ramsey: cleaning guns, visiting the firing range, building small explosives in narrow glass bottles, snatching brown paper bags from groggy bums and pouring out their liquor. Sitting down to a meal with him is somehow unsettling.

He smiles at her and she tenses. He knows good and well that she doesn’t date within the Struggle. Or rather, he knows that she doesn’t date. This is what she tells all the brothers her father mentors, who timidly ask her out at rallies or try surreptitiously to get her number while Clap Turner is at a microphone in the front of a room. She likes the idea of compartmentalizing her romances, sequestering them far away from the rest of her activities within the Movement. She’s probably seen as this beacon of Black womanhood, too focused on eradicating atrocities to be sidetracked by men, when really she is just protecting the only seedling of freedom that’s truly hers to nurture.

The server comes to collect Abiza’s order of curried tempeh. Ramsey asks for fried chicken.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something,” he begins.

He shifts his girth to the back of his chair, the front two legs lifting off the floor. Ramsey is a drummer, and a beard perpetually infused with the scent of weed obscures most of his face. He is Dragon’s only and biracial son. She’s known him since the days of her father’s playground diatribes. Despite the beard, Ramsey is still a little boy with Play-Doh breath and pudgy palms pushing a mop of sandy brown curls off his forehead.

“Remember that time you said that, when it comes to you, your daddy’s a softie, underneath it all?”

“Yeah.”

“You lied. I’ve really been watching him lately. He’s sad, maybe, but ain’t a damn thing soft about him.”

“You think my father is sad,” she smirked.

“He could be.”

“Ramsey, Clap Turner is pickled in bitterness. There’s no ‘sad.’ He does eight octaves of angry, but he doesn’t do sad.”

“Even if you’re right—and I don’t think you are—you need to be careful what you try to slide past him. Sad, bitter, or otherwise, we both know gettin’ on his bad side could be lethal. Literally lethal.”

“I get it, Rams.”

She had to admit: she found his concern a little flattering. But people had been trying to tell her things about her father for years, things they’d picked up picketing or letter-writing alongside him, things they thought might help her better relate to him. None of their intel made much of a difference.

The food arrives. “I just thought you should know,” Ramsey shrugs, before shoveling the first heap of baked beans into his mouth.

They don’t speak after that. Abiza barely touches the tempeh, distracted by a scene unfolding between the wooden grooves of their table—

Her mother’s slim back sways in a paisley mini-dress as she smoothes her straightened hair. Clap Turner’s massive mahogany hand presses the base of her spine. They are dancing. They are dancing to what her father would now call “White music,” what her father would now deem undanceable, unlistenable, what he would now deny ever having danced to. It is The Kinks. It is The Kinks’ “Nothing in This World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl.”

            Met a girl, fell in love, glad as I can beeeeee…

A blonde is with them. She has threaded her fingers between a Black man’s fingers. The Black man is Dragon. The blonde will soon be Ramsey’s mother. The four of them are whispering, whispering then laughing. Wide-mouthed laughter, startling in its whimsy. Her father has no whimsy.

            But I think all the time, ‘Is she true to meeeeee…?”  

The blonde points at Abiza’s mother. A fresh peal of laughter erupts. Her father squats in front of her mother and kisses the spot the blonde pointed out. Her mother turns to reveal a lump under the mini-dress, bulging with life.

Ramsey pays the bill and the minute they’re back on the sidewalk out front, the street lamps switch on. The rally-thinning rain still pelts. She knows how they will spend their night. They will pick the unguarded pockets of the truly unsuspecting—the person who concentrates on counting his freshly dispensed bills rather than noticing the hurried, trailing footsteps of the people who stood behind him at the ATM, the women who doze off on overcrowded subways with their wallets sticking handily up from unzipped handbags, the unlicensed vendors hustling candy bars, tube socks, and bootlegs to indifferent commuters, their take tucked in some raggedy envelope between their wares.  Should any of these targets prove penniless, Ramsey will leave them a dollar. He likes to think of it as a kind of calling card. Abiza will fold their spoils into money clips while Ramsey cruises up and down Eutaw and Baltimore Streets, beckoning young Black hookers—only the obvious amateurs. Whenever a little girl approaches the car, he will hurl a money clip, usually slapping her face with the folded stack of bills. “Stop hoein’!” he’ll yell, before speeding off.

This routine is rote now. They’ve exacted it to a science in the years since their fifteenth birthdays. Even after Abiza’s four-year absence for college, they were able to resume their work without so much as an overview.

The money they will give is stolen, just like Ramsey’s car. Abiza is fully aware of the thefts, having been an accomplice to several of them. Her father would never approve. But his approval has never been hers to gain.

Standard
Fiction

Seeing You This Way.

This afternoon, I stumbled across one of the many snatches of writing I’ve started, then abandoned. This one’s actually pretty recent. I started it the first week of the new year. I don’t know; I feel like it has potential. But I’m interested in your feedback, so please leave some.

* * *

Mama was never right after Minnie Ripperton died. For months, she walked around the house, grabbin’ at her bosoms like a slaver. “C’mere, girl,” she’d call to me or one-a my sisters, pressin’ our palms to the orb of her breast,”That feel like a lump to you?”

After she got over gropin’ herself, she took to callin’ us in from outside early and holdin’ us to her chest, goin’, “Mm, mm, mmm,” all the time. She wore baby’s breath in her hair for a while, which was nice, but then she took and burned up all her batik dresses. I was ‘specially sad to see those go. Always figured I’d inherit at least one of ’em; then I could go floatin’ around like a goddess from Cape Town.

Sometime, in the kitchen, while the water ran, Mama would purse her lips and, with suds up to her elbows, she’d mumble down in her throat, where she thought no one could hear:”I’m gon’ have to get me a white man….” Even if it meant dyin’ too young to see her babies grown, Mama wanted to be Minnie.

She was still mournin’ after she turned 50 and Maya Rudolph had been on Saturday Night Live for years. She’d watch her impersonate Whitney or Oprah and still say, “That poor, poor child….”

Mama was prettier’n Minnie, with her heart-shaped booty and her French roast skin and them itty-bitty cornrows curvin’ up ’round her head like tiny ropes turnin’ double-dutch. Whenever she went out with a man, which wasn’t as often as the neighbors had each other thinkin’, we used to sneak into her bedroom and rub her tubes of Desert Plum and Tinted Ruby lipstick ‘cross our faces so hard they crumbled, then steal splats of her cold cream and splashes of all her eau de toilettes. We were greasy and glad to be there, in that over-warm shotgun house with the ebony statues of naked men and women huggin’. Just us three girls and our ever-mournin’ Mama.

We didn’t think nothin’ of it, all those years she spent wonderin’ if modern advances coulda saved Minnie Ripperton. Mama was just like that; she held on too long. She didn’t see no harm in it, and I suppose there wasn’t none. But over the years, she lost many a friend and lover to clingin’. It was just too hard for her to accept people change.

“I’m here, Mama.”

Her skin was clammy as ever. Cold in the fingers like she was already half-gone, and she was. She most certainly was.

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Fiction

A Fiction Attempt.

Isla

That was the only night I ever spent in Nathan’s arms. I gave the full heft of myself to that embrace, just went limp and made my spine an outward arc so I could gaze up at the ceiling. Never once felt in danger of falling.

Spanish moss dangled from the rafters; the whole club felt like a jungle aflutter with beastly gyration. The band, who’d come down all the way from  Chicago, played with a fervor their cool, smirking faces didn’t betray. Their congas fed pulsations to the floorboards. We felt the quaking rise up through our feet. That band and the sweat and the waggle of hips only inches apart, on every side, sent my husband and the two noisy babies I’d borne him deep into the back of my mind—not long and not for good, just for seconds at a time. Glorious, airy seconds at a time.

Now and then, Nathan leaned forward and let his lips graze my collarbone. Each time, my face flushed, cheeks aflame, and heat prickled every pore on my body. I’d recall his grin and how hungry it was, when he first spotted me in my black dress, looking for all the world like a sexy, sequined fish, the way the skirt hugged my hips and bloomed out at the knee. It was a risk, waiting for him out front, my hand poised to open the latch on our gate, before the sun even had a chance to go all the way down. But I was alone, for once—completely alone. I couldn’t help but make the best of it.

He hadn’t waited for the gate to open. He hopped it, eyes tearing straight down from my marceled hair to my scarlet toenails, and pulled us down, practically to our knees, to steal a kiss beyond the prying eyes of my neighbors. It was the only time we ever kissed square on the mouth. He told me, lifting me back to my feet, that I smelled like lilacs and home. He smelled like talcum and conquest. But I kept that to myself.

On the dance floor, what little there was of it, folks were watching. But folks were always watching, then holding forth on all the things they’d watched, days later, huddled over washbasins or whiling away a few minutes in line at the butcher’s.

I knew my name would burn up the telephone wires come the next day, but I let Nate kiss on me that night, every time he tried. I couldn’t help it. His lips had this way of humming a song against my skin, and all I wanted to do was hear it.

I should’ve known something wicked was coming. My Grandma Jo always used to say: you lose your shame, your death ain’t far behind.



Standard
Fiction

Gills, Part 2.

(Read “Gills, Pt. 1,” before proceeding.)

“Where are we?” she stupidly wondered, as he turned the key to the front door of a third-floor condo.

“We’re where I live,” he answered just as stupidly.

This date was a disaster; that much was certain. She knew that when it ended, he’d know nothing about her. She knew, at the end of six to eight months, when the relationship they’d likely start tonight slowed to a crawl and then died, he’d know even less.

She was sad, so sad she felt like she’d been drinking.

Gray excused himself to make a phone call. When he returned, he lifted her chin till their lips were aligned and kissed her. It was strange, considering that they’d spent the ride over in silence, that this was the first time tonight they’d even touched.

Lisette wanted to tell him that she’d always thought mouths were their own oceans; you entered them and felt thrilled, however briefly, that you could drown. But she couldn’t trust that he’d know what she’d meant. She couldn’t know whether or not that would hurt him.

She pulled away. “Why’d you tell me?”

For five seconds he just looked at her. She’d never been close enough to notice the ashen flecks beneath the brown in his eyes.

“I just want things to be different.”

It was the kind of response she would’ve found incredibly moving when she was younger. Perhaps if she were fresh out of undergrad, she would’ve decided—right then, as he said it—to devote several years of her life to making his difference, to making him better.

But now, she just felt faint.

For the first time since they’d entered the condo, she looked at something other than him. The place had the typical bachelor-minimalist decorative scheme: an expensive leather sofa and loveseat; a low coffee table with two books; one work of art on a wall; a too-large flat-screen. His sound system speakers were built into his walls; when he said, “Play,” jazz piano wafted into the room.

It started making sense to her, this senseless situation. Gray was compulsively tidy. He reasoned with a logic that only seemed clear to him. His longest relationship was eight months. He was wonderful at his job, but terrible with social interaction. He blurted out strange information on first dates (or withheld said strange information for months at a time, even from intimates).

Gray had Asperger syndrome.

Lisette planned a tactful exit.

“Listen, Gray, I’m—I’m glad to have seen your place and… experienced how you live and I’m flattered that you think I’m… sturdy and un-cowed. But I’m starving and it’s…” She looked at her watch. 8:45. “It’s not late, but it’ll be late. Later. I’m just gonna catch a cab back to Sabato’s and pick up my car and I’ll just see you at work Monday.”

By the time she finished her spiel, she was back at the front door. He hadn’t followed her.

“This has gone badly,” he mused.

“It has.”

“But we were interested in each other, weren’t we? Vaguely, at least?”

“We were. Well, I was. I can’t speak for you.”

“Most of them just thought I was OCD. The girlfriends. I showered every few hours; they just assumed. I made a bit of a ritual of it, told them it was a deeply private rite. They left me to it.

“I learned to let people be led by their own assumptions early. It’s a survival tactic. Do you know anything about survival tactics, Lisette?”

Her eyes began to water. She thought of the one man she’d ever slept with and how they’d been together all their lives. She thought of how relieved she’d been, at eight, to know she’d never have to wonder with whom she’d purchase her very first home or have the three children she wanted. Her one true love have been hers for the taking, during fourth grade recess, downfield of a jungle gym. He’d given her a dandelion, then a buttercup and eight years later, he’d given her a chance at their child. But no one had thought she was fit to have it, least of all him. Not before college, not before becoming something more than a third-generation teen mother. And just as easily as she’d won him, he’d receded into oblivion, just as sure as their fetus had, the day she left the clinic.

“I’m gonna go.”

“I don’t want you to.” He stayed where he was, didn’t move toward her at all. She could’ve bolted, but she felt tethered, somehow, to his gaze.

The truth was: she didn’t really want to leave, either. Not until she saw them.

Gray gestured to his sofa and took tentative steps toward it himself. He didn’t sit until she budged from her spot at the door.

They didn’t sit close enough to touch. He committed to one cushion and she clung to the other. She reached for one of the coffee table books, The Art of Romare Bearden. It was even heavier than it looked. When she opened it, she immediately searched for the one piece of Bearden’s art she knew well.

There it was, the portrait of a woman on her side, lying nakedly, her deep brown skin traced carefully in electric blue: Reclining Nude, c. 1977. Lisette stared at the collage—“comprised of various papers with ink and graphite”—and the same wave of awe she felt in the National Gallery of Art, where she’d stood three years earlier, tilting her head at the original, enveloped her. She felt safer, somehow, and at ease.

“What do you think of the blue?” Gray whispered, as though they were actually in a museum, rather than his living room.

“I think that, without it, in exactly the shade he chose, this would be a far less haunting image.”

He nodded, and they stared at it for a long while before Lisette thought to turn the page.

Ten minutes after they began poring over the intricate bits of raw material Bearden crafted into art, the doorbell rang and Gray rushed to answer it. He stood in the small gap he opened, blocking Lisette’s view of the person on the other side. They spoke in a brief hush; there were brief movements of hands, then the door was closed again.

When Gray turned he grinned at her, with two Styrofoam cartons in his outstretched hands.

“I ordered food.”

Her eyes lit. “What’d you order?”

He was back at the sofa in a flash. This time, as he sat, he inched closer. “Open it.”

Snapper. Headless and perfect, on a bed of wild rice.

She pushed two fingers into the filet and pulled meat from the fleshiest part of it. Gray didn’t question her decision not to use the plastic cutlery that came with their meals. He simply opened his own carton, full of curried chicken, and pulled meat from the bone of the bird. They ate that way, licking their saucy fingers and forming their rice into clumps, until they were full.

It was the eating that led Lisette to hope.

When it was time, Gray stood and stared down at her for a second. A vague smile lit his face as he turned and left her there on the sofa. Her eyes trailed him through the kitchen and when he was out of view, she listened to his footfalls on an iron staircase. When he reached the top, she heard the creak of a door, night wind rushing through it, and the click of it closing shut.

She could’ve used the opportunity of his absence to go snooping through his place, using the contents of his medicine cabinet and sock drawer to further confirm her suspicion that he was more than a little quirky and possibly a bit mentally adrift.

But it made more sense to follow him, through the kitchen and up the staircase and out to wherever he’d wandered. He wasn’t an ordinary suitor—and the thing she most wanted to know about him couldn’t be found in the nooks of his closets.

When she got to the kitchen she noticed that the iron staircase was narrow and winding. It led to the roof of the condo.

The door stuck at first, as though it wanted to give her an opportunity to reconsider, but she pressed until it budged and pushed until she could slip easily through it.

What she saw, centered on the glittering asphalt, offset by the twinkling track lights along the roof’s perimeter, was a tank eight feet tall. A human aquarium. It was filled, nearly to the top, with what looked like saltwater. There were dotted koi and ruddy coral, electric blue angelfish and shards of obsidian and smoother, smaller pebbles.

Gray was standing inside it. Breathing. His eyes had been closed, but he’d opened them when she’d stepped through the door. Now, they were staring at one another, neither quite able to move.

Lisette couldn’t swim. She wasn’t afraid of water; she’d just never learned to tread it.

When she began to peel off her layers—first her thin, wrap sweater with its overlong bell sleeves, then the wool pencil skirt that fondled her hips adoringly, next the silk cap-sleeved blouse with the plunging Victorian collar—she surprised herself. But when she began to walk, barefoot and confident, toward the ladder at the side of tank and then up each rung till she reached a sliding door atop the tank, she was perfectly calm.

She dove headfirst and shimmied to the floor, like a dolphin.

Gray, for his part, remained still, his expression unreadable. Lisette planted her feet on the bottom of the tank and face him.

It wasn’t until she saw them, tiny and bared before her, that she realized she’d never truly believed they’d be there at all. They were papery and slightly tremulous, now that they were submerged. The constant absorption of water was slowly turning the edge of each slit translucent.

Lisette lifted her hand and reached for them, imagining they’d feel pliant and fragile, like rose petals, but Gray shook his head and it stayed her hand.

She knew that in the future, while they stood shoulder to shoulder pouring powdered creamer into tepid break-room coffee or sat across from each other at restaurants, avoiding the seafood sections of menus, or stood kissing under her porchlight far longer than they needed to before crossing the threshold or pored over real versions of the paintings reproduced in his art books, none of this would be all that significant.

The gills and the accommodations he needed to make for them would become as rote as any other medical condition. She would come to think of them as no different than diabetes; his excusing himself to hydrate would be akin to an insulin injection.

This was nothing. Or it wouldn’t be. Eventually.

But tonight, while the gills were new, they were all-encompassing. As they fluttered under the whir of the filter’s current, she felt held in their thrall.

She was beginning to feel faint, holding her breath, and now that she was eight feet under, she didn’t quite know how to make her way back to the top. Her eyes stung from holding them open. She wanted to communicate her discomfort to him, but she didn’t know how, without parting her lips and involuntarily gulping water.

He must’ve sensed it, the same way he’d sensed her presence on the roof, because for the first time since she’d entered the water, he moved, wrapping an arm around her waist and pushing them both upward. She felt crushed, under the muscled grip of him, and when they finally reached the surface, she was glad to let him go. Her arms flopped over the side of the tank and her chest heaved.

She could feel Gray’s eyes searching her for any serious damage. Her unladylike snorts and gurgles were the loudest sound in the air between them.

“You probably shouldn’t have done that,” he said, finally.

Lisette wasn’t entirely sure which “that” he meant, following him in the first place or stripping down to her intimates and diving into eight feet of water with zero ability to swim.

They were silent on the descent back to the living room. Gray told her to wait and disappeared into a hallway. He returned minutes later with a towel and a dry oxford shirt and chinos. He’d already rolled the cuffs of the slacks for her.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, though she wasn’t sure what for: the fact that he had to live with gills or her brazen voyeurism, her disbelief or her presumptuousness?

Maybe it was something else entirely.

He shrugged and more water dripped into the puddle collecting at his feet.

In the weeks that followed, Gray would keep shrugging, every time he’d ask himself if he would’ve resisted instinct and hidden his condition, had he known that their first date would also be their last.

In the weeks that followed, Lisette would dream that she’d grown her own brown slivers of skin, undulating against a current in an effort to keep her alive.

Each night, she’d wake in a cold sweat.

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