Fiction Finalist: Ugly Girls

I was on Fulton buying gossip books—five for a dollar—when I ran into that actor, Lamont Evans. Didn’t see him right away, too busy staring at the cover of Mocha Dreams, a best-seller by January “Mocha” Jones, the video vixen who’d been married to seven different rappers, two at the same time. The cover of Mocha Dreams made you feel lusty and envious all at once: January had lips the color of the inside of a melon, and she lounged inside a bathtub full of diamonds, blowing jewels from her fingertips the way other folks would bubbles.

“Want DVDs with that?” Charles, the vendor, leaned across the cardboard table, his round fingers tapping rows of shiny, plastic-covered movies.

I shook my head. The last time I bought a DVD from Charles, it was like watching someone else’s nightmare: occasional explosions of blurry laughter; gray, ghostlike heads floating across the screen.

“Just the books,” I said, trying to sound friendly, polite, because I like Charles, but the words came out sarcastic. That day, for some reason, the air stank of Dark and Lovely relaxer, and the chemical smell made everything feel a little harsh.

“I’m sorry.” I picked up another book, a children’s book about Rosa Parks, just to show I was socially conscious and not a mean, siddity type of person.

Charles shrugged, opened a thin plastic bag. From faraway, we heard a voice that sounded like something heavy breaking. “Marissa!” a man shouted. I whirled around, dropped the books.

“It’s me, Lamont.” The man speaking caught my shoulders, pressed me close and deep into him, which kept me from falling. “Let me get this,” he said.

Immediately, I liked his voice—authoritative, as though he were used to being listened to. The man gave Charles a few dollars, picked up the books, placed them in Charles’s black plastic bag, set the bag on top of my purse. Casually, he scanned the movies. “Get me this DVD too. I’m in it.”

“As part of the audience or part of the film?” I asked.

“You don’t remember?” he smiled. The man had dimples so deep a person couldn’t help but like him. “We dated for six, seven months? Back in the day, we were in that gospel play together, Sometimes the Sun Goes Down.”

I remembered the play, not the guy. I wondered if he’d had extreme plastic surgery of some sort. A chin implant, a nose job or two, maybe a set of artificial cheekbones? He had to be doing well for himself now, because back then, how could he have afforded it? The gospel play had made money, sold out across the southeast, but because the cast consisted of out-of-work R&B singers and actors, we were paid just enough to make rent.

“It was a very large cast,” I looked at the cover of January’s book, at her sexy, bored expression, and wondered what she’d say in this sort of situation. “I think I’m a different person.”

“It was so long ago, we’re all different people,” Lamont said, and he stretched his arms out to indicate the world’s tilted, sickening movement, the whole dizzying pace of time. Charles, who normally doesn’t smile did, and nodded as though he understood. A few pedestrians turned, stared as though Lamont’s words were the beginning of a church sermon. “People grow, they change.” Lamont lowered his voice—he spoke now as though we were in a private, intimate space—and he placed his arm protectively around me. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. But I was immature, back then.”

“I mean, I don’t know you,” I said. “We’ve never met.”

Lamont laughed, but I still hadn’t a clue. I waved bye to Charles, walked past the Jimmy Jazz store, the Footlocker, and headed towards the train. Lamont followed, his determined pace suggesting there had once been something heroic about our relationship.

“Marissa,” he spoke with a force that made me stop walking. “Don’t play like you don’t remember…The walks in that park downtown, how we grabbed fried catfish and sweet tea over at the Beautiful, the step-show at Morehouse, the final night of the play—and all we did after?”

The details were so specific that for a second I wondered if I were experiencing another memory lapse—I’ve had amnesia before: shortly after graduation, I forgot the name of my high school; when I lost my cell phone two years ago, I also lost the contact information of everyone I’d ever known—but I was sure this time, positive I had never seen this man before in my life.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I don’t know you,” I told him. “I hate to admit to not knowing someone as good-looking as you, but really, we’ve never met.”

Lamont laughed; he seemed more amused than ever. “If we’ve never met, then tell me this—how’d I know your name?”

Marissa was becoming a name like Ebony or Tasha; several girls in the neighborhood shared the same identity. Besides, I’ve been told I look like a Marissa. I tried to explain this to Lamont.

His response? He squeezed my hand—and listen—my hand hadn’t been squeezed with that kind of familiarity since I was a girl crossing the street with my mother. Suddenly I felt a flash of safety and warmth, and I knew Lamont was someone I could trust. “Your hands are cold,” he said and shook his head vigorously, but I couldn’t tell whether he disapproved of me or the weather. “You’re in New York now; you should think about wearing gloves. I know you’re not used to them—you never wore gloves, not that you needed them in Atlanta. But now you’ve got to think about protecting yourself.”

“I’ve got to catch the train,” I whispered so Lamont would continue speaking in that same intimate way he had been, and we began walking again, only more quickly and this time holding hands.

“Junior’s is right across from the train station,” Lamont gestured in front of us, at the diner’s glowing yellow sign. “You got time to catch up?”

I did have to meet someone, but I knew she’d be late. And too, I knew it wouldn’t take that long to get to where I was going. But the most important factor: over the years I’d gotten used to being passive; I simply didn’t try to fight the natural course of life the way I used to. And so I nodded, followed Lamont into the restaurant.

***

Laila, our waitress, had the most glistening, brilliant black ponytail I’d ever seen. Pulled tight, it rose up, up until it was a good four or five inches away from her head, then it exploded in dips and turns and rollercoaster waves until it collapsed in exhaustion mid-way down her back.

“I’ve been thinking about getting my hair like that,” I told Lamont as we watched Laila’s hips switch away.

Lamont glanced from my face to the back of Laila’s shiny, immovable black tower. He seemed to be seriously considering how the style would look on my face, which surprised me. Most people will decide whether they like a style before they determine whether it’s a good look for you; if they like the style, they say it will look good on you, but if they don’t, they say it won’t. Rarely do people consider how their friends will look in a particular style, how a new color or hair texture matches up with that person’s particular personality.

“There’s a place not far from here where you can buy some hair like that,” Lamont said and pointed out the window, in the general direction he was thinking of. “You’d look good like that. You always were a pretty girl. Not too many styles you can’t wear. Few years back, I saw you in a hair magazine. You were modeling blonde braids that looked like corn kernels. My sister owned a beauty salon. Months after your picture was in that magazine, women came in asking for braids. And this was right in the middle of winter, when nobody gets their hair braided.”

I smiled, pleased. “We really know each other?”

Lamont nodded. “I knew you before you knew me.  You did a lot of hair shows, and ‘cause of my sister, I went to them all. At the Bronner Brother show one year, you had green hair, your skin painted to match.”

“I remember!” I thought about how my breasts had itched, how days after I’d find flecks of green paint under my armpits and against my thighs. “I was Nature Woman. That was the theme. The stylists put swamp makeup on me—pure hell getting it off. They had fake twigs and branches in my bangs.”

“We didn’t actually talk until we did Sometimes the Sun Goes Down,” Lamont went on. He was smiling so deep I thought his dimples would puncture his tongue. “I used to be shy, a real church boy. But you were the kind of person who shook cobwebs out of life. I knew we’d be together that time after the show, after the final curtain call. That night, most of the cast headed to that three-level club, used to be on Peachtree.”

“Club Visions?” I asked, and though Lamont’s story interested me, I stared at the window. A shriek of wind had grabbed my attention, and when I turned to look, it was snowing. A few scattered snowflakes flew furiously at the glass.

“Yeah,” he said. “Visions, before it got shut down.” Lamont reached across the table, took my hand, pulled me back into the conversation. “Doesn’t weather like this make you miss the ATL?” he asked without a glance toward the window. “When it gets like this, I can’t wait to be back down south, or even out in LA.” He shrugged, then continued. “That night, everyone else was at Visions, but we somehow ended up backstage, like we’d planned it beforehand, like we’d agreed to do it. But we hadn’t. We never spoke much, not even during rehearsals. And that night, we still didn’t say much. It was just me and you, this darkness, this heat, this enthusiasm…We had all this enthusiasm and didn’t know what to do with it. We could still hear the audience clapping and cheering. You stood next to me, and even though it was dark, I knew it was you. I felt your breathing, and it was like I could still hear the music, the singing. Even when I started taking off your clothes, I felt like I was in church.”

“Did we trip over any props?” I asked. “The space—wasn’t it cramped? I remember all those costume changes and the curling irons and the wigs for the beauty parlor scenes.”

“We were graceful, actually. You were very good at balancing on one foot. Still, someone might have seen us, I don’t know. Maybe a member of the crew, but no one said anything. But after that night, I wanted us to be together. I thought you and I understood each other. You don’t remember how afterwards we went down to the Beautiful and ate grits and fried catfish? I remember thinking it was funny how you put hot sauce on your grits. But a few weeks later, I started doing the same.”

I nodded because this sounded like something that could have happened to me, to us. I pressed my hand against the cool window, just as Laila came back. She frowned, to scold me for leaving fingerprints on the window, and I quickly wiped them off with a napkin. I left a streak, however.  Sighing, Laila set things on the table: a mug of hot chocolate and whipped cream for me, coffee for Lamont.

“Anything else?” she asked.

“Cobb salad,” Lamont said. “You?”

“I’m fine,” I said, and Laila nodded, before she and her magnificent hair disappeared.

“You used to eat,” Lamont gestured at my hot chocolate. “Pork chops, steak, fried chicken! I never knew one woman could eat so much. So a cup of milk can’t be it for you. You’re not getting all Hollywood on me?”

“I have to meet my mentee today for lunch,” I told him. “I’ll get something else when I see her.”

This amused and impressed Lamont. He leaned into me, his smile wide, generous.

“You’re someone’s mentor, now?” Lamont picked up his coffee but didn’t drink it. “With what, Big Sisters? The Girl Scouts?”

I sipped some hot chocolate, thought it needed to be sweeter and emptied sugar packets in it. “She’s a college sophomore,” I told Lamont after I had re-tasted my hot chocolate and found it more to my liking. “Last year, I taught spoken word at a college in Atlanta—but now she’s here at Barnard on domestic exchange.  In that class, she was my best student.”

“How so?”

“Passionate, enthusiastic. She gets mad at all the things people don’t care about anymore.”

“You were like that. I remember you were always going to protests.”

“Nia—she’s a writer; she sends me her poems. Once in a while, she’ll mail a book she’s read—all marked up with words underlined. There’ll be this note saying ‘read this’ followed by three exclamation points. Then I feel I have to, even if it’s something I’ve read before and disliked.”

“I still care about things, important, positive things,” Lamont waved his hand as though I had protested something he’d said. “I know you don’t think I do, and because of all that happened to us you probably think I’m selfish, that I’m a jerk, but whenever I’m not filming, I try to give back. Each month, I volunteer with at least fifteen different charities.”

“That’s a lot,” I said.

Lamont nodded. “Ever since you and me broke up, I’ve been trying to prove that I’m the person you thought I was.” Lamont sipped his coffee, and I wondered—what kind of person was he? And what kind of person had he been? I started to ask, but then he was talking again. “But enough about me,” he said. “You’re probably a great mentor. You’re smart, could teach a young person a lot.”

I sipped my hot chocolate and wondered if this were true as Laila came back and knelt to set the salad in front of Lamont.  As she got closer, she paused. I looked at her and could see her face softening although her hair remained as sturdy and intractable as ever.

“You look familiar,” she told Lamont with cautious excitement. “We get all kinds in here, so you don’t mind me asking—you from that video countdown show, Video Jump-Offs?”

Lamont nodded. Laila let out a little shriek.

“Before you leave, mind if I get your autograph? My daughters love that show,” Laila smiled brightly at Lamont.

“Find a pen,” Lamont said, and Laila reached inside her enormous ponytail.  It took Lamont two full minutes to write his own name; it was as though his own signature felt unfamiliar to him. The family seated behind us made impatient noises as Lamont crafted a series of careful swirls and loops.

“I got to go see what these people want,” Laila tucked the autograph into her uniform and sighed.  That sigh was full of so much exhaustion that, briefly, I felt sorry for her.

“So you host a video countdown show?” I asked as we watched Laila and her hair stomp off.

“Pays the bills. Makes it easier to get other kinds of work. My goal, in fact, is to return to theater. When I get old, I want to play Enobarbus in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra,” he said. “You see, I’m thinking about the future now, ‘Rissa. The past is the past.”

I thought Lamont’s goals were a bit lofty, but I didn’t say anything. Instead, I took out my copy of January’s Mocha Dreams. “She’s in all the videos, and she married my favorite rapper. Have you met her? What’s she like?”

For the first time, Lamont looked uncomfortable. “She’s been on the show,” he said, then coughed and looked as though he wanted to say something else.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s nothing. She’s nothing like you. And it’s strange to be talking to one woman about another so different.  This reminds me of something I’ve thought ever since those days back in Atlanta—you’d make a great baby’s mama. You got good DNA. Know that? You and I could raise the kind of child that would make the world a more harmonious place,” Lamont stopped, drank some coffee, paused to consider: “I’m getting ahead of myself. Are you seeing someone?”

I told him that I wasn’t. Lamont then began discussing the merits of natural childbirth. He also wanted to know what day I started ovulating. He said he wanted his children to learn at least three foreign languages, and he asked if I knew Russian. When he finished, I looked down at my watch and realized it was time to meet Nia. I told Lamont goodbye, but before I left, he gave me his card—his name, cell phone, and email in large gold letters.

“It’s okay that you and I have to go right now,” he said, after he’d kissed my cheek. “We’ll see each other soon enough.”

I shuffled books around in my purse and searched for my metro card. When I looked out the window, it was still lightly snowing.

Lamont took that as a sign.

“This is the start of something,” he said, “the start of a brighter, sweeter life.”

When he spoke in that authoritative way he had, I believed him—this really was the beginning of something new and wonderful. It wasn’t until I was seated on the train, racing furiously from Brooklyn to Manhattan, that I started to think, wonder how I’d just agreed to have a baby with a man I’d only just met.

**

But my story shouldn’t alarm you. Lamont and I are one of many lost love stories drifting cloudlike across New York. And, it’s not just New York but everywhere this happens—people sail past each other then realize that one person, one moment, could have made their lives so much larger. Love involves random luck more than anything else, no matter what all the relationship experts tell you about how to go about attracting a mate. Every once in a while, I’ll scan Craigslist, see all the anonymous people grateful or just plain ticked off they didn’t win the romantic lottery.

To The Hispanic Man with the White Baseball Cap in front of Fordham Plaza on Thursday, November 4. You came up to me very politely that morning and gave me the most beautiful compliment I have ever heard in my life. You told me I was a naturally beautiful woman that morning… Thank you for making me smile and making me feel beautiful.

Or:

For the lady in the blue dress: Sadly, the train pulled into Metropolitan Avenue, and you were gone. I noticed that your dark blue dress had white lettering down the left side – I realized too late it was a website address. I wish I had seen it sooner. I wish I had said something to you. I wish I didn’t have this damn ring on my finger!

Today, as the train rocked back and forth towards Manhattan, I thought about the man with the baseball cap, the lady in the blue dress, how they’d each given someone a moment of joy. Then, I tried to remember Lamont, our relationship, what we must have meant to each other. I couldn’t remember too much, but the more I thought about it, the more certain I became that something must have happened…I pondered all this as a man sat so close I could smell the baking soda he used to brush his teeth. I felt heat between us, so I stood to avoid spilling into his lap. I grabbed the pole in the center of the train, held on tight as the train slammed to a stop. Then the announcer bellowed that we were being held at the station because of a sick passenger, that the sick passenger felt dry and weakened by life. The lights in the train flickered off and on; the air got very hot and sweetly musky, but in a few seconds, the train started moving again, smelled once again of rust and piss.  I wondered, then, if the sick passenger really had been sick, whether it wasn’t just the temporary nausea one experiences whenever life moves too slowly or too fast…

The train came to my stop and I got off. I thought: The relationship with Lamont must have been real. We must have had lazy, dreamlike sex on Saturday mornings and performed in melodramatic gospel plays together, spent our Friday nights at college step shows that shook with so much excitement our hearts stung. And our relationship must have ended in some tragic way, and it’s just because I’m one of those people who does the Zora Hurston thing and conveniently “forgets everything I don’t want to remember” that I can’t recall all those moments that should have shaken me with so much pain and gratitude.

The place Nia wanted to meet was only a short walk away from the station. It had a fireplace, sofas, bookshelves, rugs, and looked more like your best friend’s living room than a restaurant. When I walked in, Nia was seated at the center, and she looked as she always did–pure, beautiful, almost too delicate to be alive: her stem-like body led to a tiny Afro floating around her forehead as sweetly as dandelion fluff.

That day, Nia had a book in her hands and seemed immersed. Before I walked up to her, I fixed my face into the most intelligent expression I could—whenever I saw Nia, I always tried to look as wise as possible.   She noticed me, though, when I was still a few feet away, and shut the book so quickly I forgot my intelligent expression and wondered if her book were only a prop.

“Marissa!” she spoke with sparkle in her voice. “You look adorable. There’re snowflakes sticking to your eyelashes!”

I laughed, brushed snowflakes from my cheeks.

“You’re on time,” I gave her a hug. “I thought you’d be late.” Nia grinned, explained how she’d finally figured out the New York subway system, and discovered she lived no more than three stops away from everything.

“You want to grab something and then get out of here?” she asked. “I lived in Savannah, before I moved to Atlanta for school,” and she paused to dust snow from my hair, “so this is my first time in the north, my first time seeing snow. I don’t want to spend the day inside and miss something magical.”

“Let’s go,” I agreed; I too wanted to get out in the world. “We can spend the afternoon walking around the park and catching up.”

Nia put on her coat, placed her book into a satchel. Then, we stepped outside.

As soon as we were on the sidewalk, I felt my fingers grow numb. “I need to start wearing gloves,” I said, and my statement made me remember Lamont.  I told Nia about seeing him while I rubbed my hands together.

“But I don’t remember anything about him, the relationship,” I said.  “Is that strange?”

“It’s normal for you.  You were always like this.  Midway through a lecture, you’d make a point that seemed totally unrelated, as though you were remembering something from a previous class,” she said.  “It all came together at the end, but there was always something disjointed about you. Kept us on our toes.”  Nia shoved her gloved hands inside her coat pockets. “The thing about snow is that it’s cold. Beautiful, but cold.  Let’s walk.”

So we did.  We crisscrossed and zigzagged until we came to the park, and as we walked, the snow stopped falling, though the sidewalk still glittered with thin patches of ice.  Near the park’s entrance, a middle-aged woman walked her dog.  The woman seemed unaware of her surroundings: she was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, but her dog had better sense and wore a plaid hat and matching jacket.   Nia and I shook our heads and laughed.  We watched until they turned a corner, and then we returned to the subject of Lamont.

“But shouldn’t I remember something?” I asked. It was one of those moments when I suddenly felt frustrated by everything in life: my inability to connect the past with the present, little dogs that dressed better than I did.

“Your friend–I know who he is!” Nia interrupted my self-pity with a recognition that made her face shine. “Video Jump-offs shows all the videos that feature rappers’ mistresses. I can’t believe that waitress lets her daughters watch that show!”

“It’s raunchy?”

“They’re not music videos,” Nia explained. “Every week, Lamont counts down the top ten sex tapes released by rappers and downloaded by the public. Every once in a while, one of the women from the sex tapes comes on the show to discuss the tape and how it’s helped her career.”

“They discuss private sex tapes?  The kind people film in the privacy of their homes?”

“It’s nothing new,” Nia shrugged. “People have been watching other couples’ sex tapes since R. Kelly peed on that girl.”

I nodded, and we walked through dying grass until we came to four boys dressed in silky orange pants, long-sleeved shirts.  Because everything around us—the grass, the sky, the heavy trunks of trees–was gray or brown, the boys’ outfits made them stand out.  They’d combined skateboarding with hip-hop dancing, and they played music that throbbed.  Each time they leaped into the sky, they looked and sounded like firecrackers.

“Let’s watch,” Nia said.

The icy ground made the show even more thrilling. Imagine it: growing fearful when the boys came close to falling, exhilarated once they glided through the air. Initially there were six of us, but after a couple of minutes, the crowd grew to fifteen.

The music got faster and faster, the tricks more daring.  The boys jumped in the air and high-fived each other, bounced from one skateboard to another. One skateboarder was especially talented.  Short and good-looking, he had a sassy confidence to him he’d earned: lean muscles pressed against his shirt as he did a series of back flips; he landed effortlessly on his skateboard even as it slid over ice.

The fast-paced tempo shook something inside me: I swayed my hips left and right, wondered if I could still do a handstand.  I felt young at that moment and very free. I looked over at Nia.  She’d put down her satchel and was joyfully clapping her hands.

The boys stopped moving.  Abruptly, they crouched down on their skateboards.  Even though some people placed money in a nearby baseball cap, most of us realized, from the rhythm of the show that it wasn’t over.  The boys looked too much like runners at the start of a race, their bodies tense and ready for movement.

And then we heard it—the song meant to blast the boys rocket-like into the air.   Their skateboards raced over the ground as the song “Ugly Girls” tore through the sky and offered explicit instructions as to how women could best use their mouths and vaginas.

Nia stopped clapping just as the boys took flight.

“Do not play that song,” she screamed, and mid-air, one of them actually turned to look at her.  “You wouldn’t play that song in front of your mother, someone you respect.”

Nia’s words took us all—skaters, watching crowd, perhaps herself—by surprise.  The surprise turned to confusion—should we have been protesting this?  Should we have been standing as Nia was, chin raised, arms outstretched and enraged?  Were we supposed to be angry?  And if not, why weren’t we? Had this bland, snowy day made us nonchalant or had we been like this our entire lives? How long, we wondered, had the boys performed this routine in front of people with this song as the finale? Had anyone thought this was wrong before?  If so, why had no one spoken up?  Looking at each other, unsure of the proper response, the crowd melted away.

“Don’t get tight, Mamí.  It’s just a song. Nothing to it,” the most talented skateboarder said, but he turned the music off.

“It’s verbal assault,” Nia’s voice wasn’t as sure as it had been at first. But because the boys seemed to be listening to her, she regained confidence.   “When you play this you disrespect half your audience. And it’s a Dirty Killa remake. It ain’t even original.”

“Alright.  Next time, we try something different,” one of the boys answered, and it was hard to tell whether he was resigned to change, or just didn’t care.

But Nia was still angry.  She picked up her satchel, stomped out the park. I glanced at the boys, shrugged my shoulders, followed her.

Nia walked to a card table where a man sold photographs of the city skyline.

“Sometimes I act a fool, get loud and crazy for no reason.” She wouldn’t look at me. Instead, she stared at the photographs in front of her, their cool, black-and-white moodiness.

“You shouldn’t be embarrassed. There’s no reason to be,” I said, but Nia still wouldn’t face me.

“How much?” I pointed at one photograph. It showed the city at night ten years ago, and the towers peaked through the clouds; life looked as hard and glamorous as an old movie.

“That one?” The man sitting behind the card table had bundled himself in a navy coat, earmuffs and scarf, so you could barely see his eyes, a mild shade of brown. “It’s fifteen, but you can have it for ten. It’s cold today. No one else is buying.”

I handed the man the money, and suddenly I did feel cold, colder than I had all day.  I started coughing.

“Are you okay?”  Nia placed her hand on my shoulder, but the violence of my coughs jerked her hand aside.

“Asthma,” I wheezed.  For a few seconds I felt as though I had been squeezed inside one of the man’s photographs; I was in a flat place without air, but I wasn’t scared.  I’d had asthma attacks before.  I reached into my purse, took a couple of puffs from an inhaler I rarely used.

“Lady? You need me to call an ambulance or something? I got a cell.” The guy selling photographs sounded concerned, but I shook my head, turned away from his table.

The coughing stopped, but was replaced with dizziness, a rush of loud music.  The room I was in was dark and hot and smelled of weed and coconut incense. I heard voices, loud but blurry—and where exactly? Above me? Underneath? Male or female?  It was like watching one of Charles’ DVDs.  A clearer, more distinct voice: someone in my ear telling me that my bourgie ass should stop thinking I was so fucking special, that I had what every other bitch had. But over that—the music, loud as a headache, making it impossible to hear, think.  I wanted to close my eyes, but I knew if I opened them, I wouldn’t see a monster, just Chris—pudgy, green-eyed Chris.  Chris who wore dirty, beat-up Jordans. Who got invited to the party only ‘cause he was Antonio’s cousin. And what was that goddamn song playing? Ugly Girls.  But how—in 1998? Nia had said it was a remake. Folks remaking old hip-hop songs now?  People must like songs that give directions, that tell them what their roles are.  I wanted to take a shower and go to sleep. I’d fought, but lost, and now blood fell from my nose, between my legs.  But someone must have heard something because they banged on the door…So what happened after they opened that door?

“I’m hailing a cab and taking you to the hospital,” Nia said. “You don’t look well.”

“No, I’m fine.” I straightened myself up and laughed.  “This sort of thing happens to me all the time. I’m fine, fine,” I repeated.

Nia still looked worried, but she didn’t press further.   We crossed the street and walked past a used bookstore, a clothing boutique that sold ironic t-shirts and socks, this orange-and-gold building where you could buy New York’s best Ethiopian food.  I nodded and laughed and asked questions.

But what happened after they opened the door?  Most people had left, but the few still there saw my nose bleeding; they saw the scratches on his face, and they knew what’d happened.  I’d always been popular, well-liked, but for a few weeks, no one knew what to do with me. Chris was even more of an outcast; no one in our crowd trusted him, but there was something else: a lot of people, even those who didn’t want to be around him, respected him the way they’d respect a drug dealer.  He started dating—Dana? Denise?  Something with a “D.” She swore it wasn’t true, I’d made the whole thing up, she said. After all, he’d never hurt her, and they planned to marry after graduation. Then Chris lost weight, got a job, and finally, some new Jordans.  I stopped getting invited to parties.  Chris joined Antonio’s fraternity. People left notes under my door calling me a skank. Those at the party forgot what they saw that night, or told themselves they hadn’t seen it. My car was vandalized twice. I dropped out of college, bummed around for a while. Three months later, I auditioned for a play, singing “Sometimes the Sun Goes Down” as though it were my salvation.

“So I’m thinking about texting him.”  Nia had told me about her classes at Barnard; now she was explaining her most recent crush. “Something light, flirty. But I don’t want to look stupid.”

“You can look stupid in your twenties,” I said.  “So don’t be afraid to act.  Don’t end up like me, unable to remember entire years of your life.  I can’t remember entire years of my life,” I repeated, but softly so she wouldn’t hear.

“You’re right,” Nia agreed, “I can’t be afraid to take action.”

I nodded, made what I hoped was a wise, stoic face.

“I’m tired,” I pointed at a nearby train station. “Think I’ll head home.  But before you go back south, we’ll have lunch?  See a play?”

“Yes, definitely,” Nia exclaimed.  Then her voice grew more hesitant. “I just hope you’re not mad at me, for acting a fool today.  Sometimes my temper just—“

“No. Don’t apologize,” I stopped her.  And because that chemical scent had followed me from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I thought my “no” sounded harsh, so I bent down and hugged her.

**

I took the Q train back home and fell asleep twice.   When I finally woke, I was still three blocks from my stop.  I sat up and counted the health-related signs on the train: Dr. Zizmor’s cure for acne, the Happy Sexy Times’ advertisement for curing impotence.  Then the conductor announced my stop, and I got off.

Because I’d slept so much, the world felt dreamlike as I walked the four blocks to my building.  During that short walk, I kept thinking about my role in Sometimes the Sun Goes Down. I’d played Monisha, the town Jezebel.  In a scene that ripped off  The Color Purple, I had to walk in a crowded beauty parlor the Saturday before Easter and tell all the women to stop gossiping about me. I had to explain to them that they shouldn’t judge me because I’d climbed mountains, been to places they’d never seen.   I told the women that I was a fighter, a decent woman who wanted only to survive. Midway through the monologue, the crowd was always on its feet.  I had a good time too; I loved saying my lines and wiggling past all the good churchwomen in a scandalous, curve-accentuating red dress.

When I came to my street, I saw burnt, greasy-looking smoke circling the sky.  I coughed a few times before my lungs realized the smoke wasn’t so bad. In front of me, three firefighters pumped water into a nearby apartment’s basement window.  Two other firefighters stood by looking calm, maybe even bored.

“What happened?” I asked Julia, my eighty-something neighbor.

Julia shook her head and her reddish-gray bob brushed her face. “Fire in the building next door,” she said and propped her right leg up against the brick wall of our building. Julia’s pose was sexy and careless and reminded me of January Jones.  Then, incredibly, Julia lit a cigarette, the smoke drizzling from her cigarette gray and fairylike in contrast to the furry blackness to the left of us.

“You seem relaxed,” I said.

“It was a small fire,” she replied.

I blinked.  The sarcasm in Julia’s speech never ceased to remind me she was a native New Yorker.

“First one we’ve had on this street in thirty years,” Julia added.

I thought: hadn’t there been a fire at the end of that play?

Yes.  I—Monisha—set it when the preacher wouldn’t sleep with her. Everyone in the play came out for the final scene, and we held hands as we got baptized behind the burning church. Miraculously, the flames slowly disappeared, and stage lights turned the church’s walls gold and silver as we sang,

 

Sometimes the sun goes down…

And then sometimes it riiiii-ses!

Sometimes the sun goes down

But later it riiii-ses!

 

And then, humming the tune, suddenly I remembered.  Remembered everything.

We hadn’t met at the play, the way Lamont said. It was before that. Long before.

We were both on Atlanta’s MARTA train, on our way to the audition.  I’d sat across from Lamont, even though so many seats were empty I could have sat just about anywhere.  But I was fascinated by Lamont, by this sturdy-looking man writing the most detailed to-do list that I had ever seen. Writing quickly, nonstop, on paper so crisp it seemed ironed. Two pages front and back, each word squeezed together tightly, leaving no room for the ink to breath.

“That’s some list,” I told him, and I giggled because I thought of Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte telling everyone who would listen that Wilbur was “some pig.”

“I write so I won’t forget—all the things I want to achieve,” he responded seriously, without looking up. He told me then how much he wanted to be someone else, someone more noble, someone who said and did great things. He told me that day that he wanted to play Enobarbus.

“Why Enobarbus?” I’d asked.

The train was pushing a slow, lazy loop through Atlanta.  The steady, unrushed pace made our conversation sound sweet, old-fashioned.

“Because he makes the play’s greatest speeches about love—a love he’s not even a part of.”

So determined, that Lamont. I liked that about him.  Maybe that’s why the man was so eager to have babies.  He thought he could do something to make the world better. And that’s what made it so natural to be with him. Because even before he was inside of me, I wanted to make love to him again and again. It wasn’t that I had fallen in love with him so much as with that feeling of once again enjoying touch.  And I loved the fact that his body was strong yet surprised, that he seemed not to know what to expect next, that he appeared grateful just to have my body close to his—

“The last time there was a fire,” Julia was saying, “I got just one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“The manuscripts—the books Ed and I had been working on. The kids—Jen grabbed her homework. And Steve, he took the family photo album,” Julia spoke in such a way that I knew Steve was her favorite.  Then she frowned, crushed her cigarette against the cement sidewalk.  “What you grab in a fire, when you think this might be your last moment, says a lot about you. If you’re smart, you hold onto the things that matter.  You don’t think–you act, and you fight for your life.”

I shook my head.

“You sound like a writer,” I said.

“I am,” Julia said. Then she went into our building, closing the door firmly behind her. I reached into my purse, fingered the cover of Mocha Dreams, and followed her inside.

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