Out of the blue Andrea texted me:
Hey. Have issues with men. With the few opps that exist for blks. Sry for dissing your diss + pulling you into a fight. What you said had me 🔥. I said some 🔥 stuff too. Idk what to say/do at this point.
I’d called twice before her text. Had apologized in a voicemail the first time. Then, hung up when she didn’t pick up the second time. After that, nothing between us. Until a month later, I saw her at the Graduate Center Library and just to see what would happen, I sat across from her. She looked drawn. Thinner? She didn’t look up when I said hello.
“I got your text.” Get right to it.
“So you know how I feel then.” She turned a page in her book. “The police thing was a crazy thing to say, Darren.”
“Nothing?” She looked at me now.
I waited for the moment to pass. Saying sorry was always hard for me. We were on the second floor of the library, near the windows overlooking 35th Street. It was late April and sunlight hit her books, the desk, her face and made a star that orbited the arc of her lower lip.
She nodded then looked out the window then back at me. The desk shook as she tapped one foot underneath, one of her few things-that-could annoy-but-didn’t habits.
“I am.” I took out my laptop and we worked in silence. Usually, I would be winding down with a Hole of Convenience (HoC) by this time of year, but everything was different with Andrea.
After two hours or so, she declared she was taking a break. We went to the dingy room, with tables and armchairs, next to the café and talked like before, only her laughs and smiles were hesitant and nervous. As we left the library later that day, I asked, “Want to go for a drink?” My department was sponsoring a thing for a visiting professor at a restaurant nearby.
“I’d planned to go straight home. I need another layer.” She lifted her shoulders and hugged herself. When she accepted the gray sweater that I always carried in my bag, I felt like she was also accepting my sorry.
The private room at the back of the restaurant was dimly lit, filled with murmuring voices and the sharp kisses between cutlery and porcelain. As I shook hands and chatted with the guest of honor, a specialist on Asian merchants in the British Colonial Empire from Tanzania, Andrea mingled. My body clocked hers as she circled between jeaned and hoodied students and white-haired faculty. That night, both of us drunk on too-dry wine, we walked along 34th street and joked about the way this tall skinny guy, who we could see wherever we went in the room, was trying to ingratiate himself to the colonial scholar to get him on his dissertation committee.
“Right there in front of everyone,” she yelled. “It was like academic porn.”
“No! Dissertation porn.”
She shrieked then covered her mouth.
I wanted to kiss her but stopped a few inches from her face, wary of the past.
She kissed me. Quick. Like she was trying it out to see what would happen.
“I’ll see you next time.” That wasn’t what I meant to say. The wine delayed my reaction to the kiss, so my mouth uttered what I was planning to say before she did it.
“You can see me now.”
The next morning, I sat in bed with both knees drawn up, the covers between my legs, like hills rimmed with white cloud.
“I thought you were celibate?”
“Was.” She put her chin on my shoulder like we’d always done this. “Until two weeks ago.”
“Awright.” I tried to picture the man, who she could have met and been with in only a month, when she had refused me for three.
Outside cars made slushy sounds as they drove on roads wet from rain mixed with snow that had fallen earlier that morning. These sounds made our conversation seem domestic and routine. I had to be in Trinidad in a few weeks to complete my interviews and look for documents. Her HoC status was so coming to an end. And maybe I was mad about the celibacy thing. Yeah. I was.
“Andrea, I have to go. Do some writing.”
“Now?” She reached under the covers. I shifted my hips so she’d miss her mark. She sat up. Breasts flopped against her chest.
I kissed her in the space between her nose and upper lip and sprang off the bed.
“Am I going to be doing the walk of shame by myself?” she asked.
“Am…” I stretched my arms above my head and smelled my armpits. Sour. “I’m not that kinda fella.”
“What kinda fella are you?”
I laughed because I didn’t know what to say.
She moved the curtain of hair from her eyes and looked at me. No. Saw me, I realized months later.
We’d met the October before, at a seminar on activism at the Graduate Center. During the Q&A, she asked if Black Lives Matter was still a genuine movement, not co-opted by capitalism and the media.
There was a murmur. A clap started that was picked up by a few, then a few more until the whole room was clapping. Tomkins, a policy guy from one of the public colleges said something about BLM being co-opted by armchair and social media activists, who wore BLM t-shirts and put signs in their windows, but had never waved a banner, signed a petition, or been in a sit in. It was activism, he made air quotes, without ever leaving the comfort of your home or taking your eyes from your smart phone.
After that, a man asked another BLM question, and for the rest of the Q &A the conversation centered around BLM and the role of activism under the Obama presidency. I was hoping to ask a question about connections between Black Power in Trinidad in the 1960s and 70’s and the resurgence of militant activism in the United States. When the Q&A was over, I went on stage and posed my question to Tomkins, who saw a connection and suggested a book and some papers that were probably at Howard University. Andrea was still on stage, shaking hands and smiling. A few of the all-male white panel, confounded by her luminous eyes and Grace Jones-body, seemed to bow as they shook her hand (whose idea was it to have a panel on activism with no women, no PoCs, and nobody outside of academia?). When the stage cleared, I introduced myself and walked out with her.
Andrea, a doctoral student in American Studies at NYU who was taking two courses at the GC, said she liked my accent, so I brought out the full Trini to make her laugh. I couldn’t tell if she liked me, the minimum requirement for a HoC. I walked her to the F-train and took the No. Two, but didn’t think about her that night, and not for a while anyhow because the diss wasn’t going so well.
The next day, a bird singing outside my apartment window seemed to be keeping pace with Lord Invader’s voice on my CD player. The calypsonian’s lyrics mentioned rivalry between political parties and Black Power but there was nothing to support my idea that events and race relations in Trinidad in the 1940’s shaped Kwame Touré/Stokely Carmichael’s activism in the States. I opened the window to look for the little singer in the tree outside on Nostrand Ave. At that same moment, a truck horn blared and the bird, a fan of brown feathers, flew away. I kept the window open as I worked on Chapter 4: Race Relations in the First Eleven Years, so that the car noises and voices that made it up to the third floor became the soundtrack to my writing. I wrote till four o’ clock, taught my Intro to Caribbean and Latin American History class at Brighton College, then met Hugh for our regular.
For the first half hour, like he did every time we met, Hugh talked about his graduate fieldwork in Africa and about Kwesi, the “wonderful young man” from Sierra Leone “who could have been a star” had he lived. After the second Kwesi story, I offered to send my first three chapters to him. “To see if it’s on track.”
“Nah.” Hugh waved his fat hands and pointy fingers without taking his elbows off the arms of his chair. “Just give it to me when you’re done.”
I smiled to break up the impenetrable stone of my face. “Ok.” I stood, my back bent a little so I wouldn’t look too tall in his small, bare office. “When ah done den.” Everyone gets angry in their native tongue.
“Listen,” he said as he got up. His gray, cashmered belly jutted out at me. “If you were any other student, I would look at every chapter. But you’re very bright. And a good writer. I wish all my graduate students were like you. Hell, you should’ve been a woman. Then we could check off two boxes on those EOC compliance things.” He slapped me on the shoulder. “Har, har, har.”
I laughed too. But I wanted to argue, insist he read the draft, use words like fock and muddah cunt and pound on the table and…and other words that faded as I crossed the empty campus with its tall bright lamps that chastened the dark and my mood by the time I’d exited through the south gate.
November’s cold air quieted Nostrand, as the mostly Caribbean residents didn’t linger on the street. The quiet outside was like some big spongy thing trying to force its way into my apartment, making the pre-war one-bedroom seem smaller. Me and my books and papers were too big for the place, so I started writing at the GC Library.
One evening, weeks after meeting her at the GC auditorium, I found Andrea on the second floor bracketed by two piles of books. I walked over and said Hey.
For a few seconds, a curve formed between her eyes then she smiled.
“Hey yourself Trini.” She was working on her proposal, but wouldn’t tell me what it was about. Didn’t matter. From then on, whenever I was at the GC, we took breaks together in the grimy lounge next to the library or in the Starbucks on 35th. At first, we talked about Stokely and Black Power, then the convo switched to the economic situation for Blacks after slavery in the U.S. Her proposal topic, I realized later. We wrote in the same building and talked while we ate, but didn’t get closer until a few weeks into our routine when she took me to Zaras.
I followed her around the store while she browsed and tried things on. Women and girls crisscrossed the store and filled it with excited talk and hangers gliding along metal racks. Every now and then Andrea would appear at the changing room door in minis and other tight things. Without looking at me she commented on how fat her thighs were or how something made her look old. And I, like a chupidee, smiled and refuted every claim, then wondered if I’d bowed to her beauty like the men on the panel had three months earlier. A Zara-run was a boyfriend thing. A couple’s thing. I didn’t realize I was annoyed until when just before she ran down the subway steps, I held her arm.
“You have a man? What we doing here?”
Her heart-shaped lips grinned.
“I serious. What we doing?” I let her go.
“I’m celibate, Darren.”
I pretended not to hear it. “I like you, Andrea. You know that. I want to be your man.” I had to try a thing.
“But I’m celibate. It won’t be much fun for you.” The pink lights from Victoria’s Secret twinkled in her eyes. “And I know how you Island men are. All that hot sun in your blood—”
“Stop right there!” I explained that her celibacy didn’t mean that we couldn’t date. Normally, I didn’t date my HoCs, but, like I said, this whole thing was happening in a different way. Then, I went Ivory Tower and said that she had a simplified, prejudiced view of Caribbean men, and other overused tropes from the identity politics playbook. It worked because she apologized and agreed to dinner that weekend. As soon as Andrea had descended the subway stairs, I called a former HoC from a year ago. She was home and said I could come over and watch Netflix and eat Chinese food with her. After the call, I waited ten minutes to be sure that Andrea was well on her way to Queens. I was still looking around for her when I boarded the F to Brooklyn. By Second Avenue, I felt at ease and was already thinking of the route I’d take from ______’s apartment on the walk of shame the next day.
My first date with Andrea went fine. Food, nuanced academic talk, and a fraternal hug at the train station before she descended the steps. On the third date, at an Indian restaurant near Astor Place, I told her about my fellowship with tuition and a stipend.
“You know you’re benefitting from affirmative action, right?” She dropped the spoon in the copper bowl and tikka sauce splashed across the table.
“I’m benefiting from hard work and late nights. I deserve it.”
“Deserve? Your grandparents didn’t march. Get mauled by police dogs. Nobody opened a fire hydrant on them. We fought for this. And we continue to not get our share. Because Caribbean people displace us as the preferred kind of Black. I see you nodding hello at the cops you know—”
“And don’t forget Mutumbu an’ dem.” I grinned, then pretended to blow a dart through a hole in my fist.
“This isn’t funny, Darren. Yes, Africans too. They are Black Europeans basically. Exotic because they have real traditions…” She made air quotations. “That whites could see. Better than former slaves. You getting a fellowship meant for African Americans is like a theft. And one day you. And Mutumbu,” she made her voice deeper to mock me, “will have to make reparations.”
I mentioned Stokely and his activism with Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers.
“Stokely was a sellout. A dictator. When King and everybody wanted a peaceful movement. For policy. Lasting change. He didn’t and went to Africa and had his self a Black Power movement all by his self.” She held up a Black Power fist then spread her fingers so it exploded.
I was about to say how King had divided the movement but couldn’t get a word in.
“And Stokely. One guy. Isn’t enough to pay the way for all of you.” Her lips got thin and flat.
“I don’t think anyone,” I said slowly, “especially a fellowship committee, makes the distinction between one kind of black person and another.” I hoped to salvage the date and get back to my biryani. But she goaded me. Talked shit about Stokely and called my diss an apology. While she talked, I had the urge to kiss her lips. No, I wanted to bite them then swallow her whole. I felt weird, and suddenly I couldn’t hear what she was saying and had no sense of time or where I was in relation to the rest of the world. It was just her, my erection, and a thumping sound in both ears.
She hit the table with both palms and the dishes jumped, a metallic rattle. “What? Cat got your tongue?”
I closed my eyes, then opened them. Andrea was looking at me. And checking me out, I think.
“I wish your cat would swallow my tongue.” I leaned back and looked directly into her eyes.
She stared back and I thought I saw her heart beat faster at the base of her fine neck, a short quick breath moved between her parted lips.
She refused me. With some feminist, existential explanation that made any arousal a form of assault. A door inside me swung open and words poured out. I told her that American-born Blacks (You People! is what I said) dropped out of doctoral programs like flies because they expected everything to be handed to them. Then I felt free, didn’t give a fock because I’d been following her around for three months, reading articles not on my reading list so I could have convos with her, and seeing a former HoC on the side to get by, and said, “Dat is why de police always shooting allyuh.”
She stood. The dishes jangled on the table. She picked up her coat and walked out.
The thumping in my ears subsided and I was back in the world again. The smell of cardamom rose from the biryani and I felt the chair against my shoulder blades and along my spine. I paid the bill and walked through Lower Manhattan, along the Bowery and then across the Brooklyn Bridge. The carpet of lights below me, the breeze blowing up from the water, couples holding hands and tourists posing for pictures, made the walk seem otherworldly. By the time I descended the steps to Washington Street, the conversation and the unfinished meal seemed to have happened a lifetime ago.
After our first night together, we were a regular thing. We slept at each other’s apartment and met at the GC to write and talk. As May ended, I prepared to go to Trinidad. I sublet the apartment to a student from Bolivia, who had a violin fellowship at Carnegie Hall. I had planned that before I left I would treat Andrea to the MO I used when I wanted to discharge an HoC— answer every other call then every two and so on, refuse opportunities for sex, and when I did see her, let her do all the talking. But, before I could start break-up proceedings, Andrea left for North Carolina to begin research on land contracts in the post-slavery period. She sent me an email a day after she arrived. We was by my apartment two nights ago and she never say a friggin’ word. When ah read dat email eh…meh body get weak. Like I was she Pole of Convenience and she was slacking me off as part of she MO. Ah didn’t email she back. Stchuuu.
While I waited to board the plane to Port-of-Spain, I kept checking my phone for a message that could provide an opportunity to regain my position as the king of the little republic we had. Nothing. I took the sim card out when my group was called. On the plastic encased path to the plane door, I took off New York, grad school, Andrea, everything, like a jacket. Only the diss stayed with me, as close as my ribs.
I got to the Scheme in South Trinidad at night. Ma, who everyone called Miss Nursey because she was a nurse at San Fernando General Hospital, cried and held me tight. She was warm and smelled of White Satin perfume. I wanted to rest my head against her belly like when I was a boy so that her warmth and scent could crowd out all the thoughts in my head.
The Scheme, short for Government Housing Scheme, was built in the 1970’s as part of a government project to house squatters and others in urban areas, largely Afro-Trinidadians, who couldn’t afford housing. Early the next day, a Sunday, we caught an around-the-town car at the Scheme entrance and went to the market on Mucurapo Street. The market was mostly unchanged, a large open concrete shed, just off the street, that smelled like onions and smoked herring. What had changed was that some vendors sold cell phone cases, chargers and headphones, along with vegetables and meat. Outside there were vendors selling things like aloo pies, doubles and burgers, from the backs of trucks and metal kiosks with full color screen printed graphics of shiny fries and cans of Coca Cola with perfect beads of water on them. These carts could be in any city in the world. Some vendors, like Miss Millie, who was now blind in one eye, remembered me and talked about when I used to haggle for the lowest price just before the market closed. As we left those stalls, vendors threw a little extra of what we had already bought into our woven plastic shopping bag, handfuls of homecoming to show they were glad to see me.
When we got home, Ma cooked my favorites—stewed chicken, macaroni pie, and fried rice with a lettuce and cucumber salad. She watched as I ate at the kitchen table, where she still kept a red and white plaid plastic tablecloth, with matching salt and pepper shakers on either side of a napkin holder, like a table in a restaurant, expecting costumers any minute.
“You get so small. What you do for food when you up there?” She asked this same question when I called her from New York.
“I buy it or cook sometimes.” Her hair had grayed at the front and her cheekbones protruded slightly. “You alright, Ma? You get small too.”
“You know…” she shrugged. “No rest for the wicked. You want me to tell people you come? Or you here to study?”
“I here to study.” I put a spoonful in my mouth and chewed. “You remember the long, long paper I tell you about? To finish the degree?”
“Well, I want to finish it by August. So I go be writing real plenty. Sometimes I might have to go to UWI or to talk to some people—”
“And then you will be a professor?” She put a piece of lettuce back on my plate that had fallen onto the table.
“Yeah.” It was easier than the truth.
She clapped her hands above her head. “Darren if you know how I does pray for you.” She put her clasped hands between her thighs and smiled.
I leaned in so I could be closer to her. “You sure you not hungry? Is nearly one o’clock.”
She narrowed her eyes and looked up.
“What?” I asked.
“I checking to see if I hungry.”
We both laughed.
“Yes. I’ll take a lil thing. Just rice and gravy and salad.”
I made her a plate.
The outside walls of the housing blocks in the Scheme were a faded orange with splashes of dirt and dust close to the ground, like a shadow hedge. Many of the families I had known still lived in the blocks in some form, either the parents had died and left adult children or the families had moved out and the apartment was occupied by relatives new to San Fernando. I stayed inside for the first two weeks sorting papers and making appointments for interviews. Other than the sound of cars passing on the street and the occasional dog or radio, there was a lulling quiet that was only interrupted by the sound of Ma’s key in the door after her shift.
I stopped working when she was there. Then I’d watch her cook dinner while we talked about New York, and President Obama and his family. Then we’d switch to talking about Trinidad politics. She hated all the political parties and thought that the People’s National Movement, the predominantly Afro-Trinidadian party “didn’t keep its promise to Negro people,” and that the “party thief all the money.” I didn’t agree with her, but said I did to avoid being that son. That son who got a little education and thought his mother didn’t know anything anymore.
Once I started my research, I left early in the morning and came back just before Ma did. Somehow, people still found out I was home and sent messages through Ma. The first was Nigel Harris, who I had gone to secondary school with. I was at home, listening to recorded interviews, when he knocked on the door one weekday afternoon. I peeped through the living room curtain to see who it was.
“Open de door nah man,” Nigel shouted.
He grabbed me in a rough hug. “Darko! Long time. How you doing, man?”
I had forgotten about the nickname. In secondary, I was Darko in our set of four dark-skinned friends who used to lime together. Nigel was Blue Black. Lyndon Mobsey, Black Boy, and Colin Hunt, the darkest of us, was the Ace of Spades.
“Nigel. I good. Cool.”
“I is Blue. You forget?”
“I remember. You look good though.” His belly hung over his large silver colored belt buckle. The hairy eye of his navel looked out at me from under the curve of his faded gray polo shirt.
“You looking real good. Still in shape.”
“All them is yours?” I pointed at the children with him.
“Yeah. Come.” Nigel pushed them forward. “This is the oldest, Kerron, he eight. Nobel, five, and this is the queen.” He lifted a thin girl with two long braids into his arms. “Maya, four. Ent Maya, you is the queen?” He rubbed his nose into her chest.
“Yes!” she said and we laughed.
“You want to come in?” I offered.
“Nah, can’t stay. They have to change and reach karate class for five. So, everything alright with you? You here to stay? Visit?”
“Visit. Here to finish up some things for school.”
“I hear bout that. Miss Nursey tell me. Still a scholar eh. You was always the brightest one. Me, I working in a mechanics place in Pleasantville. Married to Sasha.”
“I hear so.” I pictured Sasha in her plaid pleated skirt and matching tie, her hair in two long plaits, just like Maya’s.
“Yeah. Five years now. We live in the blocks. 2H. Second Hibiscus Block. Right where my mother used to live. You know she die right?”
I did know.
“Cancer. Yeah. It was rough. You must come through for a lime before you go back. When you going?”
“September.” I didn’t want to be back in secondary school again, like a pair of training wheels rolling behind Blue and Sasha as they ran away to the beach. Other times, walking between them to create the illusion that Blue and Sasha were just friends.
“Ok, so we have time to link. Have to go. Go check yuh.”
Dexter Mitchell, Candice’s brother, was more persistent. He invited himself in, one evening, then knocked on our door almost every night just after Ma got home to invite me for a drink. Candice was the first girl I was with and I thought I was going to marry her. I also thought that Dexter would have food and drinks, but when I got there, he had a bottle of warm white rum and two glasses. We talked about politics and Dexter’s job as a P.E. teacher then Dexter asked me for money. I told him I didn’t have any and he accused me of returning to Trinidad to “show off on poor people.” Then, embarrassed, he changed the subject and fingered the glass for long stretches between words. I hung around for an hour and made jokes about it. After that night, we waved quickly and didn’t stop to talk when we encountered each other in the Scheme.
The same week, Candice showed up. When Ma got up to refill her glass of sorrel, she put her foot on my crotch under the kitchen table. I started talking about the girlfriend I had in New York.
“True?” Candice asked.
Ma poured the sorrel and sat down.
“She studying at NYU. Right now, she in North Carolina working on her studies, while I doing mine here.” That morning, Andrea had emailed to say how her research was going and asked about mine.
No. I didn’t answer any of she emails.
Yes. Still vex ‘bout allegedly. Me being she PoC.
Still, as I talked about her to Candice, Andrea seemed more real and vivid to me than the person who sent the email.
“Hmm. That is nice.” Candice withdrew her foot.
Afterwards, Ma asked about Andrea.
“I only say that to put Candace off the scent.”
Ma raised an eyebrow.
“First the brother come sniffing, now Candice.” Not sure what Ma thought about that, but she didn’t say more.
When I wasn’t at UWI selecting documents to copy or interviewing the remnants of Trinidad’s revolutionaries, men who still wore jackets with mandarin collars and didn’t trim their beards, I wrote one thousand to fifteen hundred words a day. It came up in a few interviews that I should talk to more people in Grenada, but I had already spent a summer there and I wanted to be done. By July, I had a clarity about the diss that had eluded me in New York. It was as if what the research had to say about the social climate that shaped Stokely’s activism, could only be heard, felt in this place. Other things occurred to me too. The jacket I had taken off when I boarded the plane to Port-of-Spain was replaced by another as whatever status people thought I had by spending nine years in the States had blown away like sugarcane ash in the wind. In Trinidad, I was like everybody else, nothing exceptional. Here, everybody wore the same jacket and didn’t seem to notice it or the jacket of people around them. I felt the fabric of Trinidad against my back and chest and, sometimes, the tag at the back of the collar irritated my neck.
Once I was in New York, I put in my sim card and found four text messages from Andrea. In the first two, she talked about her research. In the others, she had finished her interviews and wondering if I was still in Trinidad, and if she could fly over. I started to text her back but couldn’t finish it. The morning I left, Ma stayed in her room so she wouldn’t see me walking through the door with my luggage, my back to her. Not seeing her before I left and returning to the empty apartment that my sublet had left pristine, made me feel unmoored, not connected to anything. I called Andrea.
“Hi, Darren,” she said and laughed an easy laugh. We made a dinner date for later that night as she was excited to hear about my process for completing a draft of the diss:
“Ready for the Revolution?”: How the racial politics of Trinidad (1939 to 1952) shaped Kwame Touré/Stokely Carmichael’s activism
In the small office in the history department at Brighton College, Hugh was furious.
“It’s too political. Too much like Carmichael himself. A divisive figure in American activism. But you know this, Darren.” He drew the tips of his fingers together like a teepee then spread them wide. “You know all of this—”
“The work, including the title, should reflect who Carmichael/Touré was. He answered the phone with this question until he died.” I tapped my pen on the edge of the table.
“No. This work is about how a society influenced Carmichael’s progressive ideas about Blackness in the American activist landscape. This title…” his fingers tented again, “is a daytime talk show. A provocateur. Not fitting for—Please, I can’t think with that noise.”
I tapped the pen against my thigh.
“Not fitting for an academic work in a history department. This isn’t what I expected of you. Your work should draw people in. Not stop them at the gates. This is exactly what Carmichael wanted to do. I cannot move forward with this title.”
I kept the subtitle only and defended the diss with Hugh and two other committee members.
Pass with minor revisions.
Hugh took me to lunch and, as I strutted in a new suit from the French bistro on 36th and Fifth, I realized that I wanted to celebrate even more. I called Ma, who cried and prayed with me. Then I flicked through my phone contacts, browsing the names of people from undergrad and a few people who I’d connected with when I started the doctoral program. Both groups had receded to the periphery of my research, teaching and writing. So, I went dancing and drinking with you know who. Everything she said was funny. Or I was real drunk.
It was a warmish November night and vendors were still out on the sidewalk near my apartment building. The dread who sold incense called out to me, “Soldier.”
“Brethren,” I answered.
We walked to his one-table stall. The bottles of oil on the table were amber-colored and wavered under the streetlight like a dream happening in Brooklyn.
“Miss?” He held up some incense sticks for Andrea to smell. “Damask rose. Mi ‘ave Chanel too. Want smell it?”
“How much is this one?”
“Five fi di rose. Twenty inna di pack.”
She paid and took the bag.
“She ‘ave good tase,” he said to me.
It sounded like an approval.
She introduced herself.
“Titus Carrington.” He touched his chest.
She asked if he made a good living selling on the street and they started to talk about the changes in the neighborhood and the weather. I wanted to pee and said so. They quieted their talk and I linked my arm in hers until we were in front my apartment door. As she opened the door, I muttered thank you and she hugged me to her. I was thanking her for being there, for buying incense from a Rasta man on the street and treating him like he was at a perfume counter in a fancy department store. I didn’t know what her hug meant.
I graduated in January and got a job as a lecturer in the history department. To get Andrea closer, (Yes. Indeed. So, I could begin formerly truncated break-up proceedings.) I took her to dinners, gave her pointers on her writing, and sometimes spent the weekend at her place in Jackson Heights. She changed. She stopped laughing all the time and openly disagreed with me in long discussions about history, race, and colonialism. I loved our disagreements best. The day after I announced that I was going to turn the diss into a book, she brought me a thousand index cards and Post-it Notes to “organize your thoughts. See the book.” I felt so close to her at that moment that I put the cards and Post-its on my desk and made love to her as if it was the first time, enjoying each shapely limb and prolonging her pleasure as long as I could.
Afterwards, I watched her sleep. There was no movement under her eyelids. There was no rise and fall of her body. I thought that she’d died. In a panic, I knelt on the bed, shook her shoulders and called her name, my voice breathy and shaking.
“You alright?” I asked when she opened her eyes.
“Better than alright.” She smiled and hugged my neck with both arms.
That is how love happens. You panic at the thought of her dying. I felt my heart slow.
“I know what kind of guy you are now,” she said against my ear. Then she looked at me the same way she did months ago, only her gaze seemed softer somehow, like I’d stolen something unimportant and was found out.
When Ma came for the graduation in late-May, I introduced Andrea as my girlfriend. I watched to see if she was surprised, but she hugged Ma and didn’t even look at me. After the introduction, Ma clapped her hands and looked up at the sky.
“I so happy to meet you. He hardly talk about any girls.”
For the book, I used the original title and the publishers, a small university press, loved it. Hugh wrote the introduction and, in it, said that the book was “timely,” “a love letter to the BLM Movement,” the title “fitting.”
Imagine? Focking FITTING!
After the book came out, I accepted an Assistant Professor position that began the following fall. The position, orchestrated by Hugh, was in history but almost all my courses were cross-listed with Caribbean Studies and Africana Studies. I taught two American History courses, but that wasn’t enough to stop a bald, jeans-wearing, corduroy patches on the elbows of his jacket-colleague from telling me in the bathroom: “You’re really in Caribbean Studies. But they didn’t have a line. And we really needed a black guy, so we’re footing the bill.”
I had already figured this out but hearing it just before my class made me feel sad then vexed, and by the time I walked into the classroom, I was too confused to deliver my lecture, so I gave the students an assignment and left for the day.
Two years into my new position, Hugh knocked on the door of my office and sat down. He asked about Andrea and joked about students not doing their reading assignments. Then he asked if I was working on anything.
“Just editing a paper for a journal.” I paused. “And thinking about a new book. Something about activism in Eric Williams’ writings. Don’t really know yet.”
“Hmm…” Hugh began. “That could be your third book. How about you and I write a book together?”
I waited for more.
“On worker activism in Sierra Leone in the 1970’s.”
“Africa’s not really my area—”
“Africa. Caribbean. It’s all the same to these people.” He waved his hands in a circle to point to the whole department. “Hey,” he whispered. “I’m going to be honest with you. I’m a middle-aged white guy. You’re an up-and-coming black guy. I have license to write about activism. But not about black activism, let alone African activism. Especially with all that’s been going on. Lives mattering and all that. You’re one of the most capable people I know. Not like these pretending assholes in the department who got tenure in the 80s and haven’t done anything since, except maybe vote in union elections to make sure their salary increases pass.”
You need me for legitimacy, I thought.
“And it will look great for the tenure committee that you’ve collaborated with…” Hugh smiled then folded his arms across his chest. “A senior colleague.”
Quid pro focking quo. The thought must have showed on my face because Hugh touched my hand and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that to sound like quid pro quo because of the job and everything. It’s just that, this project will bridge—”
I stopped listening.
When Hugh was finished, I told him I’d think about it and went home.
Back in the apartment, Andrea’s red fleece hoodie greeted me from the back of the chair at the desk in the living room. She was supposed to come by after her class, so I took two burgers from the freezer to thaw. As I washed the lettuce and sliced the tomatoes, I wondered if I could find another position somewhere else, somewhere where I wasn’t a stepchild. There was a university in Florida with a strong Caribbean and Latin American Department, but I was afraid to start the tenure clock from scratch again. I could go back to Trinidad, teach at UWI, be a Lecturer my whole career. And Andrea was still working on her diss and would probably take the same path I did; get a lecturer position at NYU where she was now an adjunct, her diss chair will groom her for the first assistant professorship that opened up.
It was almost 8pm. Andrea was supposed to arrive in a few minutes and I didn’t want my conversation with Hugh to hang in the apartment like a bad smell so I emailed him my decision:
Hugh, Yes. I will work on the project with you. I’ve been thinking about ways to expand my scholarship beyond the Caribbean region and this is just the way to do it. I appreciate you asking me. 😊 Let’s talk tomorrow about next steps—writing a proposal for funding, applying for leave, etc. Don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything from me to move forward on this. Best, Darren D. Baker Ph.D. Assistant Professor of History Brighton College Department of History 1560 Bedford Avenue, Rm 113 Brooklyn, NY 11201 (718) 981-2700 email@example.com @fittingtrini
“Who really is this Darko?” – Unknown
About the Author:
A. K. Herman was born in Tobago. A. K. writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. A. K. has published in Caribbean Writer, Small Axe Journal, Aster(ix) Journal, Doek!, Lolwe and Rigorous. A. K. lives in New York and is working on a novel. Find Herman on Twitter: @akherman_author.
Feature image by aalmeidah / Pixabay