A short story by SPB

{The following is a short story I wrote a few years ago, which I dug out to read at an AKA-sponsored reading at Brown University last year, mainly because the story took place in Providence, Rhode Island, and because the audience, like some of the main characters, were soon to be college graduates. After reading the story I realized that I liked it more than I thought, so before I started grad school last year, I did a revision of it, and now I like it more. The best critique I got of it? A woman at the reading told me that she really believed the female narrator’s voice. That was nice to hear. Hope you do, too. Leave a comment if you like…}

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“Something About the Warmth”

My boyfriend Eric believes women are smarter than men. Or so he tells me as we stand on the screened-in porch watching his parents drive away through the deep dirty puddles along my dead-end street. My t-shirt is damp from the raindrops whisking through the screen; I look like a candy bar waiting to be unwrapped. Eric is completely dry; he was standing back from the door as we waved goodbye. So much for my innate female intelligence. But before I can say this to him, he’s back inside the house, sprawled across my little couch, his head thrown back on a pillow with his eyes closed, nodding rhythmically, his eardrums — and mine — assaulted by the rap music beats thrusting from the speakers hanging over the stereo. Rather than shout at him to turn it down before the man downstairs begins to complain again, I get the prints I was working on before his parents’ surprise visit and go back out to the porch. The window screens vibrate with the beat of the music, like they want to jump out of their settings and dance away into the rain. I wouldn’t mind doing the same, but I have work to do, which Eric doesn’t seem to understand. But, recent college grad that he is, with his “dream job” awaiting him in New York, work isn’t something he takes too seriously right now.

I wonder, sometimes, dream job or not, if he’ll ever take it seriously. But I try not to wonder that at this moment. I push that thought aside.

Instead I push the prints around on the old carpenters table, rearranging the order, trying to tell a new story.  The familiar faces of my friends stare out at me from the photographs, staring at me from the past, young, and promising, and promised to. They’re looking up at me from their locked, photographed impressions like I can give them answers.  I know that I can’t though and something in me regrets that. But I don’t let that bother me either. Instead I tell myself that it only means I did my work correctly.  Besides, who needs the answers when you really can’t even remember what the questions were?

“Tell me that story again.” It’s Eric, standing right behind me. The music is lower, not as mean and propulsive, and his hand on my arm is soft and easy. “Tell me about your friends again. Tell me about the black cat.”

I have to smile at that last request. I almost always forget about the cat. I almost always inwardly kick myself for not taking a picture of the cat, to have it here to move around the carpenters table with the other photographs from that day.

“What happens when a black person crosses a cat’s path?” That was Sean talking that day, raising a match to an unfiltered Camel and leaning his head to the side to shield the breeze rushing through the van windows.

We were driving along a dusky Rhode Island road, on our way to a beach, any beach, to spend the few remaining hours before our college graduation. A vanful of Ivy League (or Ivory League, as Sean put it) black folks we were—among us a future actor,  banker, filmmaker, and attorney—passing other cars, laughing at jokes told two, maybe three, years before. Someone spotted a black cat slinking by the side of the road and we all laughed at that, too, making jokes about bad luck: what if we didn’t make it back in time to don our majestic caps and gowns and make our parents proud? What if graduation happened without us? Then someone said, Forget our bad luck. We got six Negroes driving in front of a cat; that cat’s gonna have good luck for the rest of his nine lives. Everyone laughed again, tripped out over a truly giddy occasion. Were we that happy? Or just nervous? As nervous as that cat was, I guess, as it reared up and dashed right across the road, just missing the van wheels.

We found a beach and piled out of the van, snapping knee joints, stretching necks and arms like twenty-one year old newborns escaping a tightly-packed womb. Gregory, his angular face at odds with the stubbier contours of his chubby body, ran his fingers through his dreadlocks and led the way down to the water. This was his domain–the RISD Beach, where art students like himself found inspiration in the weeds, smoking and carving and painting, until smoking was all there was left to do. Sure that our color spoke volumes over the sound of our footfalls anyway, we tiptoed mockingly in single-file. Behind Gregory were the brothers from Minneapolis, Sean and Wayne, Sean an actor in ripped jeans and sneakers, Wayne, a visitor from Yale Law, private and soft-spoken and erect, but surprisingly, smilingly, familiar, moving to our school-bred rhythms with the ease of the adapter he was apparently training to be. Silas, a black LA boy transferred East, in the sixteenth year of what his parents called “solid Eastern education”, with a funky, asymmetrical haircut and three earrings, followed behind me, imagining choreographed steps over the rocks and stones. It was just me and the boys, that morning.

I’d taken my sodden sneakers off and tossed them back to the musty old blanket someone had dragged from Gregory’s van before I made my way down to the water, which was dark and cold at the edge. Sean and Wayne tossed flat stones onto the water, and we watched the weathered rocks skip skip skip along the tide for another journey back to shore. I snapped pictures of the two brothers as they swung their arms high over their heads, competing for  position. And our laughter hadn’t subsided either. As Silas passed cigarettes to the smokers of the group (most of us), we watched three campers bundled up in limp matching sleeping bags nearby struggle to close out our raucous early-morning jive. Finally, they stood up—one guy in boxers, one woman in a bra and gym shorts and another guy, completely nude—virtually spit out their waning campfire and strode fitfully to the Mercedes we’d passed as we pulled into the lot. I snapped a few pictures of them as well.

“Good riddance,” said Silas, snorting out a laugh and waving away the cloud of cigarette smoke escaping his lips.

“So,” Eric interrupts me, “who do you think turned you guys in? The cat or the campers?”

Turned us in. What a way to consider it. That part has faded somewhat in my memory. I remember following Sean and Wayne over to the abandoned campsite. I remember Wayne spotting the nickel bag of weed tied to the shoelace of a left-behind sneaker. I remember Silas kneeling down to untie it just as a pair of cops drove up into the parking lot, drenching us in the glare of flashlight beams and rushing toward us, shouting something about the reported scent of marijuana. They were a Laurel and Hardy parody, one fat and in charge and one thin and retiring, depressed with themselves and their own sad fate, but impressed, I’m sure, with the awkwardness and fear they saw in our Ivory League eyes. We looked at each other, looked at the cops.  We tried to explain. They didn’t believe us; didn’t listen; didn’t want to listen to spoiled, rich, asshole college kids. They arrested my friends, four innocent black men, and encouraged me to get back to campus. We made it back for graduation long after it had begun, escorted in a cop cruiser, its siren blaring out our return like an accusation.

We didn’t get to march with our class; we didn’t get to speak to our parents before the ceremony. And the lawsuit Gregory’s father filed against the state of Rhode Island made each of us a bit of money after blazing across New England headlines for months on end.

Eric likes this story because we were already legendary before that graduation day fiasco occurred; we were role models of the highest order. We had been winners in the black college-kid sweepstakes, smart and popular with white classmates and black (though we were more than cynical about our benighted status, starting a sort of secret society of sarcasm, I suspected, to take the pressure off.)  But after the arrest we became downright mythical. We were the most talented of the talented tenth, yet treated like we didn’t even make the grade, and many classes after ours, including Eric’s, ten years later, used our story to explain anything that needed explanation when black students became, periodically, current events on campus: we became martyrs of the struggle.

It’s funny how no one ever tells you that winning the jackpot isn’t always the best thing.

As I recount the story, Eric laughs where he usually laughs and grimaces where he usually grimaces, and rubs my arm some more. He sits his chin on the very center of my head and nods his head to the beat of the music inside. My head nods with his for a second or two. But soon I cock my head to the side and his chin falls to my shoulder. He kisses me, then goes back inside to the couch, bringing the noise to an unbearable volume again. We were playing rap music that day on the beach. It’s funny how I didn’t mind it then. The porch screens begin their little shimmy again and I push my photographs around some more.

******

I’ve been working in Providence for about ten years now, since the day after graduation.  It’s the only place I’ve lived other than Oakland, where I was born and raised and where my parents still live. I am co-owner of Open and Shutter, a camera store slash photographer’s studio on Benefit Street up here on College Hill, on the plush East Side of Providence, where Brown is. Actually, I’m not really co-owner, more like co-photographer. When I graduated, Herman Atwells asked me if I wanted to shoot for him. He’d seen some of my pictures at a student exhibit and probably figured that a young female photographer would bring in more business. Either that or he just has a fondness for artistic black women. Don’t get me wrong, I mean, he probably did like my stuff and he was already a famous Providence portraitist when he hired me, but sometimes I think about that. Besides I really didn’t want to go back to live in Oakland after school and New York was too polished, too finished, for me, so sticking around Providence didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

I was offered an apartment in New York, which had belonged to John Bentley, an old professor of mine, and his lover, Earl Glass, a novelist, who—after Bentley retired just after my graduation—had decided to box up their typewriters and pencils and the three prints of mine they’d purchased from my student show, and return to Paris, where they first found fame and, Earl said, notoriety. When he said this, a sly grin would crease the edges of his thin whispery lips, brownish from too many cigarettes and cutting remarks. Earl offered me the apartment as a tribute, he said: to his lover of thirty years, who had taught me literature for four years at college, and as a favor to the Gods, who would look down on me and not allow me to “live the cramped ghetto existence of an aspiring artist.”

Even before he offered the apartment, my artistic survival was his favorite topic. He’d smile that coy, suspect smile, then suddenly frown. “No one should starve for art,” he’d say, reclining regally before Bentley and me in the courtyard terrace of the house they shared in East Providence, blowing smooth bluish lines of smoke over his thin shoulder toward the sky. “And no one should freeze for art or be uncomfortable for it, either.” I’d laugh, reaching for my own pack of cigarettes. “It just doesn’t make sense, does it Bentley? I mean, it doesn’t build character and it doesn’t make you any more talented if you already are talented. And you are talented, Angela. Special.” Then he would laugh, a large, choking, knowing laugh that knew more than I did, yet required me to join him, as it did anyone who might be strolling by the fenced-in garden spot just off the street.

“I can’t take the apartment,” I told him the last time we discussed it. “I need to stay here and work. Take pictures.” New York would always be there, I told him, no rush, no reason to run to that den of competition and spite and backbiting when I could refine my work here in quiet Providence. I found it hard to admit fear to Earl and Bentley, but I was sure there were times when they could see right through me, through my bluster, as if I were a photo negative of myself, all outline, no substance.

“Just don’t get stuck here,” he said, and glanced at Bentley again. Bentley didn’t meet his glance. He took the tray from the lowboy near Earl and disappeared into the kitchen. “But you must take pictures, Angela. Find an absolutely beautiful specimen and make him your model. Make him your inspiration.”

He coughed then, and sat forward, throwing another glance at the door through which Bentley had made his escape. He’d called out to Bentley and got no respsonse, other than the sound of water running in the kitchen sink. I knew then my visit had come to an end, that I was now about to leave the comfortable expanse of their home and make my way through the rain to my tiny, moth-ridden apartment over the sandwich shop on Thayer Street. I murmured goodbyes, hugged Earl and Bentley, and walk the fifteen blocks to my place, drunk on wine and conversation and indecision.

********

Today is my birthday. I’m now thirty years old. I came to Providence when I was seventeen, graduated at twenty-one, and here I am, still here at thirty. Providence has changed quite a bit, particularly downtown, which has become a kind of mini-business district, but I’m sure that I haven’t changed at all. My photography is a good thing to have. It’s a good thing for anyone to have as she is getting older. The mere idea of capturing the motion of the present and saving it for the future—portable flashbacks, I like to call photos—is enough to convince me that growing older is as much a stationary thing as a progressive thing. Eric is twenty-one now and he kids me about turning thirty; halfway to sixty, he says and laughs. I don’t find that particularly humorous or introspective. But his mother, a finicky, pale-brown, stiff-necked woman who made sure she and her husband stopped by yesterday to wish me happy birthday on their way home from Martha’s Vineyard, told me that I was becoming myself now, that the questions and answers would make more sense now. I don’t particularly like her—I know she thinks I’m too dark to be dating her dear son, even though her new husband is white (Eric has pretty much told me that)—but for some reason, I trust her judgment on that for some reason.

*********

Eric lives with four other people on Brook Street, in a rambling old house typical of this decaying section near campus. People call his house (have always called it, in fact) the Acropolis, because most of the wealthy Greek students live or fuck or party or drink there at some point during their college careers. We went over there the other night after his parents left. No one else was around, which suited me fine because all his housemates do is sit around and moan about bad American food and how they’d rather be home in Paris or Athens or New York City. Even now, over the summer, the ones who’ve stuck around complain about the same thing, like someone had locked them in Rhode Island and threw away the key. Sometimes I wonder why Eric, the lone black guy, remains hooked up with these people. He explains that he went to prep school in Switzerland with them and has known them for most of his life, how they’re really good guys who just take some getting used to. Actually, all of them aren’t bad; I’d even like to photograph a few of their jaded almost-old, almost-smiling faces. But the ones who are bad bug the shit out of me most of the time.

Eric sits on the ornate trunk that doubles as the coffee table in their shabby, single-guy living room. He wears a pair of cut-off jeans and an oxford shirt is wrapped around his waist.  I circle him slowly, releasing the shutter on my camera, trying to capture him, imagining him framed. His legs, muscular from years of rugby, press against the frayed edges of the shorts, tapering down to his ankles and smooth hairless feet. He’s really light-skinned, toffee-colored like baking clay; the faded blue of the jeans juxtaposes nicely against his skin. He’s black-and-white-film heaven, posing there on the trunk.

Then he says, “I don’t know any famous black female photographers.”

I ignored him for a second, adjusting the shutter speed.

“They’re good at what they do,” I say. “They don’t have to be famous.” I take the camera from my eye and look straight at him. “You’re a good model, Eric.”

He smiles. He likes for me to say things like this to him. I know from experience that people like compliments when they’re being photographed. It improves the performance.

“They tell me I’m going to be famous when my album comes out,” he says, scratching the very center of his smooth chest. “You know what Danny said–”

“Yeah, you tell me every day.” I must sound sharper than I mean to when I say this because he stops talking and won’t look at me when I circle him again, edging in for a close-up.

After a few minutes, he says, “What’s your problem? We talked about this before.”

“We talk about it every day, Eric. Sit still.”

“I thought you were proud of me.”

“I am proud of you. I’m excited like you wouldn’t believe. But right now, I’m working.”

“You just sounded crazy strange when you said that. Like you were scolding me or something.”

“Sometimes you need scolding. Now can I finish this, please?”

Then silence. I watch Eric stretch his long torso into a dramatic and obvious yawn. The only sound we hear is the clicking of my shutter. Then we hear a key in the front door and for a few seconds the sound of the key is in sync with the shutter of the camera and it sounds, feels, like the few seconds before the explosion of a bomb.

It’s Eric’s housemate, Constantine. He sees my camera and strikes a pose as he pulls his key from the lock, mocking fashion model fluidity. I point the camera his way, pretending to shoot him. His hooded eyelids droop seductively and he dramatically slouches a shoulder to close the door against the rain.  Eric jumps down from the trunk and laughs and throws a Nerf ball at Constantine, who’s more of a ham than Eric is, and for a brief moment I realize why they are friends. They both give good audience as well as they perform. Eric grabs a t-shirt from a pile of laundry near the couch and pulls it over his head. “Nietzsche” is printed on it in thick capital letters. He got it when he performed in Godspell last summer. Constantine rushes at him, as if the living room were actually a rugby field and they tumble onto the couch, shouting curses in some frat-boy tongue I don’t understand. Which I take as my cue to gather my things and go.

“I’ll call you tonight,” Eric shouts in muffled tones from beneath Constantine’s broad shoulders, “if I’m not too busy in the studio.”

********

The dream job awaiting Eric in New York is a record deal.  He was discovered eight months ago where he won a contest at a snazzy old jazz club in downtown Providence, sitting at a piano and doing a pretty good imitation of Stevie Wonder. Or so it seemed to me.  After playing the shy, retiring winner, Eric returned to the Acropolis with a smooth soiled fifty dollar bill in one hand and the number of an A&R guy from a record label (who’d gone to college with me) in the other.

“You can’t just be talented, you have to be connected,” he would to tell me for weeks after that, in bed or at the gym or wherever we happened to be. I nodded and photographed him. He made copies of demo tapes; he spent most of his time composing songs on a tuneless grand piano in the music department. This was, for him, a sort of thesis. “I’m so excited,” he’d say, rushing off from our frequently infrequent dinner dates. “Can you believe this is happening to me?”

********

When Eric isn’t preparing for his departure for stardom in New York and I’m not photographing families for wallet-sized gifts to grandparents, we spend our time on the beach. Newport Beach glistens with the advent of sunshiny days and diamond-drenched society matrons. The day after my birthday, Eric and I pack his Jeep with food and fresh clothing and head down I-95 to the water. During the drive, the hot wind pregnant with the smell of eventual rain falls over my ears, and I try to imagine next summer, when Eric won’t be here anymore, when I’ll be starting my thirteenth year in Providence.

“Have your parents found you an apartment?” I ask him, over the loud music that seems to be pushing us along as strongly as the engine does.

“They’re scared I’ll be associating with the wrong types in the music industry. My mother’s glad you’re coming with me.”

He looks over at me, smiling and nodding his head to the beat. We haven’t discussed this lately and I certainly hadn’t planned on discussing it today. He starts to speak, but decides to rap along with the lyrics instead, tapping out a rhythm on the leather-encased steering wheel with his perfectly tapered brown fingers. He glances down at the seat between us.

“You brought your camera? On your birthday?”

“My birthday was yesterday. Today’s a work day.”

“Shoot me in the water,” he says, confident that all is settled and right with the world. I thought he might be pissed about my comments at his house, but he seems fine, eager to engage me. He’s like a child, moving through moods with casual ease. I realize why he was blessed with such contoured musculature around his chest and shoulders: He was made to shrug.

“Happy Birthday,” he says then, and we pull into the parking lot of Second Beach.

**********

I watch Eric as he opens the door and steps down from the Jeep and slides his brown legs into his swimming trunks. I accused him once of exhibitionism when he did this, since he could simply change at home, then drive to the beach in his trunks.  He just grinned and waved his bare behind at me. Of course I grab the camera and record his ass for posterity, then feel guilty because I wonder if the only reason I started dating him was so that I could use that exhibitionist body—those lithe legs, that defined chest, those dark, arching eyebrows and the hands sprouting gardens of rough curly hair around the knuckles—as a model for no charge. But then I remember something Eric told me. He says that guys as beautiful as he is love to be photographed as a manifestation of self.  In other words, he says, there’s more than just mere vanity involved. Rather, existence on film means existence forever, and guys that are good-looking don’t have much credibility. I don’t have the heart to expose the vapid logic he uses as an excuse for his own vanity. Nor do I tell him that not even film lasts forever.  I just continue my job, making him more concrete, if not more tangible, by preserving him, keeping him perfectly intact on film.

“I’m ready,” he says, and follows me toward the water.

The hot sand underneath our feet feels like coals. Summer people lie prone all across the lot, some with multi-colored towels, others on expensive beach furniture, bathing in the violent rays of Newport sun. One of them, a black woman with brightly-dyed blond hair, propped up in a rattan chair that sags to the sand underneath her, looks as though she is worshipping at a shrine. I photographed her just this way a couple of weeks ago because her blond hair and dark complexion made her look like a film negative. She was eager to be photographed, directing me toward different angles, maneuvering her chair to be caught right in the light. She asked if Eric was my husband and whether or not we had any children. Her gold teeth caught the flash of the sun when she smiled and I shielded my eyes and shook my head.

Eric and I find a spot near the edge of the gay bathing area. Eric unfolds the large chenille blanket we keep in the back of his Jeep and promptly plops himself down.

“Aren’t you going to go in first?” I ask him. I press my toe against his ribs. “Come on lazy, get up and swim with me.”

He looks up at me with squinting eyes. “I’ll never photograph you again if you don’t.” I tell him. He jumps to his feet and lunges toward me. I start to run and he chases me. Down to the water.

**********

Eric had recruited some of the guys playing volleyball to sing for me while I swam. I’m surprised by the perfectly leveled harmony, their deep voices blending behind Eric’s like professional background singers, supplemented with handclaps and a guy named Perry brushing a bottle of suntan lotion against the sand for percussion. It is the best birthday song I’ve ever heard and by the time they kiddingly get to the “How old are you now?” part, I’m angry at myself for snapping at Eric so much lately. We gorge ourselves on rice cakes with candles sticking out of them and low-fat creamsicle bars Eric bought from the ice cream truck parked in the lot.

“Thirty,” Eric says. “Halfway to sixty.”

“You’re really thirty?” Perry asks, slurping ice cream from his fingers. “You look a lot younger.”

“How much,” I ask him.

“I don’t know. About twenty,” he says with an exaggerated shrug. His ice cream falls from the stick into the sand between us.

“That,” I tell him, “is what you get for lying.”

Perry laughs and covers the ice cream with shells.

“Are you going to New York, too?” Perry asks me.

“I don’t know,” I say.  “I might stick around here a little longer.”

“Now, she’s lying,” Eric says. “Who’s gonna take the picture for my CD cover?” He grins and sticks the ice cream bar into his mouth.

********

Once, about two months into our relationship, about six months before he graduated, Eric and I were walking from the Acropolis to my apartment, sloshing through the rain. It was warm though and we were both wearing shorts under our bright yellow rain slickers. Midway through a long speech about a song he was writing, Eric said that he wouldn’t be good at being famous. “I just don’t think I’ll be a very effective famous person,” he said.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No,” he said. “I’m serious.”

“What do you mean, Eric?”

He looked down at the sidewalk, maneuvering himself around the gaping water-filled holes. “I just mean that, to be famous, you have to serve people. You know what I mean? The audience is in control and you have to make sure that you don’t offend them or insult them, or, or–. I don’t know, upset the balance or something.” He grabbed my arm to steady to umbrella. “I like to upset the balance, Angela.”

“You’re just selfish.”

“What?”

“Of course you have to serve the people, Eric. They buy your records. You better serve them. If serve is the word you’re looking for there.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Make your decision now, Eric. After May, you belong to the screaming masses and the teenage girls who want you to have a good beat and want to fuck you even more than that.”

“Don’t scold me.” He reached again to steady the umbrella, which, I realized, I had pulled close over my own head. Eric was soaking wet.

And we continued on, silent, respectful, I think, of Eric’s attempt at self-analysis. The raindrops trampolined on the umbrella over our heads, punctuating our silence before sliding down around us into the puddles on Brook Street.

*********

While Eric sleeps after my little birthday celebration, I walk around the beach, looking for shots. I head over to the volleyball game. They all look so fresh and energetic, in their fluorescent pinks and blues, their faces tribally lined with multi-colored sun shield. Spiking balls, laughing, falling, their slightest youthful movements seem dictated, governed by the incantation of lust, by the basic sheer beauty of it all.

“Why are you taking those pictures?”

I turn around. A boy in swim trunks, about nine, stands right behind me, squinting his eyes against the sunshine.

“You a professional photographer? You gettin’ paid for this?”

“Not getting paid, but I am a pro,” I say to him. “Why, do you wanna give me some cash?”

He laughs and sticks two fingers into his mouth to cover up his giggles. I could tell he thought he was too big to giggle, yet found himself moved to do so all the time; I identified with him immediately and wanted to grab him up and keep him forever. “I don’t have no money. But I could ask my brother. He’s the one with the rainbow on his shorts. You seem like you keep takin’ pictures of him.”

“I was for a while.” I followed his gaze toward his brother, who-—Latin and pretty in a knowing, devilish way—knew I’d been shooting him, striking a pose every time he reached for the ball or stepped forward to serve. “Do you think he minds?”

“Nah. He always got people calling our house to take pictures of him. But my Dad says he can’t do it until he graduates from high school. He wants to be a model. Or a rapper. He talks about it all the time.”

The boy stands there watching me as I go back to work. Then he says, “Will you take a picture of me? Don’t you think I’m cute too?  I want to give it to my teacher when I go back to school. I’m going to the third grade.” He smiles proudly, revealing two missing front teeth.

“You’d have to wait a while. I have to develop the film.”

“Maybe you can come over to my house and download it on our computer.”

“Not this kind of camera.”

“Oh, okay, see ya.”

“Wait a sec–”

But he’s gone, turning and running into the water, kicking up sand as he moves easily along the beach. His back is covered with sunburn scars.

*********

“You wanna get Chinese food on the way home?”

“Sure, Eric.”

“What’s wrong now?” He starts to pack stuff into his duffel bag. “I’m sorry about the halfway-to-sixty stuff.”

“Don’t worry about it, Eric. Just birthday blues I think.”

“Next year it’ll be different. I can sing to you from the stage at Madison Square Garden.”

We drive the rest of the way in silence. Or rather we don’t talk. The rapper on the radio spews out adult words in a boyish cadence that is not familiar to me at all from my days as a rap fan. By the time we pull into the parking lot across from Little Chopsticks, I feel like I’ve been assaulted; I can still feel the beat’s vibrations on my eardrums after Eric shuts the ignition. Eric gets out first and comes around to open my door. I jump down from my seat and we cross the street, dodging a Lexus full of Latino teenagers, blasting the same hiphop beats. Eric waves to them in recognition.

Seated inside, Eric orders Peking Ravioli and wonton soup and grabs a toothpick from the teacup on the table and asks me about my friends. I sit back and flash back on the pictures I’ve been rearranging on the carpenters table for the last three weeks. I tell Eric stories then, providing a soundtrack to the film rewinding in my head. I tell him how many of those folks, those fun, artistic, controversial undergrads he’s heard so much about, became nightmare victims of their own fiercely bourgeois, dazzlingly competitive collegiate dreams. I watch his face fade from inquisitive smile to questioning frown as I talk about Janet and Sheila and Renee and the muscular Wall Street bank that hired them and the chic new co-op on Tenth Street that shrunk to nothing when they added another wall to make a third bedroom.

I’m being mean to him now, re-mixing the high-toned rhythms of the legends he’s come to admire after all these years. I’m being mean,  I know, but I’m in a mean mood.

I tell him about Sean and Claudia, who married a few weeks after graduation and set up house in the imposing Brooklyn Heights brownstone Sean inherited from his grandmother, who’d inherited it herself from the family she’d cleaned house for for most of her life. I tell him how Claudia walked out on Sean, leaving him with their two babies because she thought marrying an actor meant money and status and not auditions and call backs and understudying. I tell him about Margot and her singing career, crooning in a jazz club on Monday evenings and living with a fifty–three year old dentist in a Fifth Avenue walkup on Tuesday and Wednesday only because he spent Thursday through Sunday in Westchester with his wife and four children. And I tell him about my first lover, beautiful, dreadlocked off–off–Broadway-bound Silas, and the SoHo loft he sold drugs to buy, the eight hundred square feet of space that holds his guitars and easels and parties for our new breed of black artists, self-described radicals, and movers and shakers who are actually, mostly, middle-class kids gone haywire on freedom and incense and the ability to speak more than one romance language.

I tell him all of this and I feel mean and lonely and small as I do and, as I do, I reach for one of the wontons swimming limply in his bowl of soup.

I can feel tears in my eyes.

***********

Later in my tiny cluttered apartment that smells of cigarettes and developing fluid, big dirt-gray moths swoop through the skylight and dance across the ceiling of the small bedroom Eric and I rarely share since the busy days following his graduation. But on this night, after the beach, after Chinese food and my tales from the brood, stealing drags from my cigarette and tickling my navel with the manicured nail of his long middle finger, Eric points to the ceiling, to the moths, and says, “Look, Angela, they’re huge.” And they are, these dark, tough-looking moths  scraping around in the dim heat of my room. Their wings make severe clacking noises that grow louder when they smack against the low ceiling. I take a long drag from the cigarette and blow the smoke at the mobile moth. It seems to watch us as we watch it dip and dart its way around the room, too dumb to find the skylight it entered through, but anxious to find a way out of what I’m sure it knows to be our space and not its own. Just as I reach for my camera, Eric says “I’m scared of those things.” I’m not surprised. He pulls the damp sweaty sheet over his head just as the moth escapes—”It’s gone now,” I tell him—and I stub out the cigarette.  He looks over the edge of the sheet. He leans over and takes me into his arms.

This is probably the only time that I’m not conscious of Eric as a younger man. I pay no attention to the voices that form questions in my mind: Why am I seeing him? Am I slumming? Am I happy? Before I met him, I thought I knew alot about sex, about physical intimacy. But he surprised me with his knowledge, and impressed me with his tenderness.  It’s lulling. I don’t think about Eric leaving Providence or even if we’ll be together in New York next month or next year.  I just concentrate on his body and the comfort of the moment, no flashbacks and no future tense. The present tense will do for now.

Because that is what my life has become. I want to burn those photographs on the carpenter’s table.  Not because I want to forget that day—as bad as it was, jail and explaining and the siren accusing us all the way to the ceremony—but because I don’t want to recollect my friends and their blemishes. I don’t want to remember them, I want to know them.

I photograph Eric as he sleeps. And a queer thought comes to me as I kneel at the edge of the bed, focussing.  Standing before some instrument with the power to keep things as they are—or were—and then walking away, forgetting the scene until the picture is developed, seems to deny the purpose of memory. And it’s my job to do that. But things slip away. I want to allow them to do that, to take that path. Eric stirs under the sheet and scratches the exact center of his chest. He seems so young there, so vulnerable. I snap another picture of his beautiful brown face. Things do slip away; but I don’t want to lose this. I snap another shot. I don’t care to remember his youth, which he appears to be sugaring off, like a syrup tree, in vast quantities. He’s just photogenic.

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3 Comments

Filed under Fiction

3 responses to “A short story by SPB

  1. Thank you for sharing this! I enjoyed it. Yes, it is difficult to convincingly write from the perspective of a gender other than your own, but you do a good job with that here. I find myself wondering how Eric will fare in NYC or if the narrator will be able to successfully plug into the big city. That means your characters are sympathetic and engaging, which is a big part of what makes a story good. Seems like this story that could have a part two….

  2. Wow, thanks for your good words! A friend who read it before I posted it actually said it felt like the characters could have more life, too! She said it felt like I could grow it into a novel. We’ll see. These two characters have stayed with me. Hope you get to read my novel when it comes out!

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