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Not A Contradiction

By Sandra, xanii@aol.com

It's not like you'd think.

That's what my mind says as we lay next to each other. And it still startles me sometimes, the way our skin looks. Hers a cloudy pearl color, mine a deep pecan pine. I still manage to get lost in what is hers and where I begin and what is mine and where it is that she ends. Still. And I still cannot reconcile, how all my life all I've ever known was black and all I ever saw in my neighborhood where black people in careful houses with their black children. And all I was ever taught was black is beautiful and black is all that and black love. And here I was, sharing my bed with the lighter shade: milky- cream, white of me: brown- dark, black.

She says she loves how my hair feels through her fingers. Strong, full, she tells me and when she says it, I almost forget how hard I used to work at keeping these coarse locks straw straight. Almost. Even when I put pencil braids in them, she says she loves how I am transformed, how I turn into this totally other person that she loves all over again. She gives me this affirmation. This otherness that I never got to experience as black is beautiful.

I can hear Sadie at the kitchen table where Mama used to invite her over, I'd hear her,

"I ain't want to be in no one's business Mary, but what you gonna do about Alexa?"

And I could see Mama throw that, Mind Your Own Damn Business look over her shoulder, while she finished with the dishes. Sadie would continue, adding timber to the fire,

"...Bill, down on 57th, said he saw her coming from Lizanda Avenue, you know the only thing down there is that girl/girl and boy/boy place." And she'd give this sound under her breath that sounded like I Told You So and People Are Talking all wrapped into one: MmmmHummm. Slow and long.

I knew Sadie could never understand what it was for me to be out there, on Lizanda Avenue, sitting in the stoops of women who lived with other women and men who lived with men and sometimes they all loved each other and sometimes they fought but they had their families and lived just like my black neighborhoods except there, it was Irish and Hindu and American and Russian and Spanish and Black living shoulder to shoulder, living day to day sharing platanos and hominy and Shepherd pie and iced vodka on summer nights.

Here felt like home.

"She has friends she likes to visit Sadie." And Mama would get that hurt sound in her voice, like What Am I Supposed To Do?

"Friends? Marryyy..." And Sadie would lift her hands to her head and start this wailing that she knew got on Mama's nerves.

"Mama...? I'm leaving for school... I'll call you from the bakery."

And I'd peck her on the cheek and I remember how her hand felt clammy from the dish water and nervous from Sadie.

"Be careful out there baby."

"Yes Alexa, be careful, the Devil is everywhere!" And I thought of giving her a peck until she opened her mouth and said what she said.

"Good-bye Ms. Govney." And that would be the end of my excruciating pain until I'd have to leave on some mornings because Mama would lapse from having been around Sadie and her Devil talk. Those mornings she would turn on the gospel and sing her 'Rebuke You Devil' hymns and she'd bust into my room while I tried to study my College Algebra and claim to be dusting before she had to get to work. And then it would come.

"Lexa..." She'd stand with her hand on her hip and purse her lips.

"No Mama!" And I'd leave my nose buried in my books until she left or continued.

"Lexa honey..."

"Mama... We've been back to this a million times. I can't deal with this today."

"You can't deal with this? What about me Alexa, what about me? Every time I go to the market or to the post office, even at church... they all just look at me, 'Poor Mary and that Girl of hers'. 'That Girl' not even my daughter, That Girl. I don't know if I can deal with this Alexa!" And she left.

Greta let me move in and pay only $100 for rent. She understood about me paying for school and books and not having a car and how I was trying to save Mama from any more grief by moving out. I didn't have to but I'd bring home day old bread and pastries and jams that didn't make the cut. They weren't bad, they either had huge air bubbles in them or mixed contents like apple grape or raspberry strawberry. Things like that.

"You don't have to you know."

"I know, that's what makes it better, because I can and I don't have to."

She'd sit on the other side of the table in the kitchen in her bathrobe and drink tea. Sometimes she'd flip through my notes or start reading my Lit books.

"You remember all this stuff?" I'd lift my head and scratch my neck and rub my eyes behind the glasses.

"Some of it. Most of the time. I'll have to teach this stuff one day, I wanna know it like the back of my hand." I smile and she looks at me like I need to be saying other things.

She said she loved how my clothes fit. Not like baggy and too big but boi enough to keep me still looking like a girl. Which I thought was weird. She asked if I shopped in the mens department and I assured her no. Which she thought was weird. She wore suits and skirts to work during the week and beach dresses and flip flops at home... home.

There was this pattern we fell into. She'd make breakfast in the mornings: pastries I bought home the night before and scrambled eggs with cheese and onions and bell peppers, chopped small and she'd leave it in the oven, on warm. Then I'd come home from classes and work at the bakery and make dinner: steak and white rice and macaroni and cheese and string beans.

I'd clean sometimes, when the mood hit me, when I ran out of clean clothes or when I had nothing better to do. Mostly though, I was the one to do the shopping. For groceries or bath mats or towels or linens. Lightbulbs or washers for the sink that kept on dripping. Here, she'd say, when you're out next, will you get some ----- ? And she'd throw a twenty or a fifty and keep on her way. I always tried to return the change but she'd wave me away and give me this satisfied smile, like she was glad that I let her help me... with what, I couldn't be sure.

I found her one night, surrounded by my papers. Her, this freckle skinned, curly haired, dark headed woman, surrounded by sheets and sheets of scribble and ink and pencil and red and blue and green and highlighter and sadness and outrage.

I placed my book bag down quietly by the door and knelt, inching my way as I cleared the floor of my writings. She hadn't moved as I entered the door, then closed it, or when I started ruffling the papers or as I approached her. She just sat on the bare wood of the floor, in front of the sofa, reading this sheaf of paper. I cleared around her and found more papers on the counters and the dining table and the stove and plastered to the fridge.

I sighed.

"Why don't you get these published?"

I reached the counter and scooped up the scattered pages.

"For what Greta?"

"For people to read!"

I sighed again and continued to my room. I pulled a sleeveless undershirt from my top draw and dumped the papers in the middle of the room, watching as they flushed quickly to the corners. I did simple work of changing into the sleeveless shirt and a cotton pull on skirt and went straight to the kitchen to cook. I turned my braids up and fastened them, sloppily to the top of my head. We were gonna have vegetarian chili and yucca with garlic. I never had to ask if she liked what I cooked 'cause she never complained.

I started hacking at the bark like outside of the yucca with a paring knife, running it under water to gauge my progress, then I felt her soft hands touch the side of my neck and followed as she went to the center of my back then down. I caught my breath as she urged me around and touched the sides of my breasts. She tried to kiss my lips and I turned from her, only to turn back, wanting to feel her near.

The water ran in back of me and made noise as it emptied down the drain. Slowly she kissed my lips, taking my breath and pinning me to the counter with her hips. I felt her hand in the middle of my chest, beneath my shirt, warm, slow. And I melted, easing to the safety of the floor, pulling her with me. She straddled me as I leaned my back against the cabinets and I felt the heat from her middle on my thighs. Excruciatingly, she kissed my neck, slow and then slower.

"What are you doing to me?"

"Loving you Lexa... let me love you..."

Simple. That was all she wanted to do.

The Yucca was still on the counter and the knife found its way to the floor. It was a bit early for chili now, so I put the things away and got out some juice. The pastries from the bakery were still in my bag by the door, which slept unlocked last night. The sun came in from the window in the kitchen and warmed the side of my calf as I stood by the sink.

"Mornin..." And she had this embarrassed, Oh God Do You Hate Me Now look.

"Hey..."

"Are you okay?" She comes closer and rubs my back.

"Fine..." And I have the glass of juice linger by my lips, sipping when I was sure she wanted to kiss me.

"I'm gonna get ready for work..." and she backs away, making sure that I look okay.

I walk out of the apartment to Lacy's, just down the hall and knock.

"Hey Lexa!"

"Can I use your, umm shower?"

"Lacy, Who is it?"

"It's just Lexa Honey!... sure, come in, we're done."

And I run in, holding my rolled up jeans and shirt and my sneakers and toiletry bag to my chest.

Myra will be home today and I know I can talk to her but I decide to wait. When the water hits my back, I can smell her smell rising from my skin. I shudder and wish she were here, to love me, like she was doing. I get dressed in the bathroom and leave almost as quickly as I came.

"Lexa?"

I stop with my hand on the knob.

"Yeah?" And I try my best perky smile.

"What's wrong?" Myra comes close and touches my head. I step back. I look over her shoulder and notice Lacy's firefighter jacket was gone.

"Umm... I slept with Greta last night... and umm... for some reason I'm having a hard time this morning."

Myra gets this gushy look on her face and I almost want to throw up.

"Do you want to talk about it?" And she fixes my braid on my shoulder.

"No... I gotta go to school. See you later?" She rubs my back and I notice she leaves her door ajar.

"Looks like someone has been up to something." Joshua pokes me in the arm as we leave Lit class.

"If you turned that frown into a smile you'd be abso - fuckin'- lutely glowing man!! Who was she?"

I give him this sideways look as I unlock Greta's car and throw my bag in.

"Someone."

"No details?! This was nuclear man!! Nuclear!!"

I can only laugh and shake my head. "I'll see you and Ron later."

He leans into the car and kisses me on the lips." No you won't man and I won't wait up either!" He starts clapping and whistling as I pull away.

The apartment smelled like snapper and red beans and rice. Greta was home early. She was standing by the stove wearing this short sleeve tee and cargo shorts. Her curly hair snapped back on either side, moving her hips to some Latin beat. I came in and leaned on the back of the door. She looked up.

"Hey!! Come over. You have to taste this!"

I drop my bag and drag my feet to her. She reaches over the stove, turns down the radio. I flick my tongue against the wooden spoon and nod my head in agreement. I turn and grab a glass of wine that rests on the table.

"You left this morning before I had a chance to say anything to you."

"Yeah umm, I didn't want to be late for class so... I went over to Lacy's and used their shower. Thanks for leaving me the car keys."

"Lexa... What's going on? You didn't answer any of my pages or my messages. You've been ignoring me all day."

She got this look in her eye that was a little more than hurt. I knew I couldn't run any more.

"You were... my first."

And I guess from the look on my face she realizes something she maybe missed before. Something she forgot to ask me, something she needed my permission for. She holds my hand and stands next to me.

"Wow." She says and closes her eyes.

I notice how her hair bobs to some quite tune she is playing in her mind. I reach over and finger a dark brown curl. She stops and opens her clear eyes.

"I didn't know." She pouts.

I look down," Does it make a difference?"

"Yes... I should have given things more time. I am sorry."

She squeezes my hand and kisses my trembling lips.

Mama says I have changed and I can only look at her and wonder what she sees. Is it the way I am ever casual in how I walk? Or the way I am so concentrated on the most mundane of things? She asks what I've been up to and I hand her my grades for the past semester. She smiles at me for keeping my A's and B's despite our split up in family. I assure her that I am happy and things are going just fine. She asks when can she visit and I tell her I have to ask Greta, the person I am renting from, first. She only looks down, maybe in fear, maybe in regret, at my answer. I can only kiss her and tell her I will be back to visit soon.

Greta has been working late these past few weeks. So she misses dinner and avoids the messages that I leave for her on the fridge. I wonder now, if things between two people are supposed to be this way.

Today though, she is home.

"Fancy meeting you here."

"Hey Lexa!"

I stop and give her this look.

"I know I haven't been here, I've had a lot to do at the office. But I'm done with this project..."

"Do you always disappear like that?"

I unpack my bag and put the new jams in the fridge.

"Okay..." She turns and puts her hands in the air.

"... what is it Lexa?"

I come closer and put my thigh between her legs.

"What am I supposed to do with this?"

I pull her near, kissing her neck, running my fingers up and down her back. Finally my lips find hers and I kiss her, not wanting to let go. In a heavy whisper, "What... am I supposed to DO with that?"

It was Saturday morning this time and we didn't have to be at work or classes or anywhere. And that was when I noticed how we were: tangled in each other, sleeping calmly. Her legs were still straddling me and I was still holding on to her medium waist. On our sides. Soundless.

And there it happened. Through the kitchen window. A bottle, filled with gasoline and a flaming rag, through our window. Flames. And there we were, running, choking on the smoke, running naked, pounding on the neighbors door, running.

I didn't want Mama to come with her church people but she did. Greta was in ICU, her lungs weren't doing so good, the asthma made her breathing worse. She kept on shutting down. Greta. The burns on my leg would heal. Nothing would make me better if Greta weren't going to be okay too. Greta.

"Mama, I'm not leaving without her."

And she gave me this What The Hell Is Going Through Your Mind look.

"She has her friends that are looking after her Lexa. You're gonna come home!"

"Home?! My home got burned up Mama. I don't have a home!"

"What are you talking about?!"

"She made it home Mama... I can't just leave her here..."

"Lexa!!! Did... you...?"

"Mama... I'm not leaving her."

She came closer, hoping I would say something different, maybe change my mind.

"Alexa, it's not too late Baby... the church, come with me..."

"Too late for what Mama? Too late for me to not be this way? Too late for me to be 'saved'? Too late for me to sleep with her? You're weeks late on that one."

And she slapped me. Stinging across my cheek. Quick and she was gone.

She was 'home' in three weeks. I'd moved what wasn't burned into this loft on the sixth floor. The Super said it needed work and if I was willing to do it he would give us a break on the rent. So every night and afternoon that I wasn't at the hospital with Greta, I'd be working on the loft. Painting and sanding and tiling and fixing and sweating and bitching. Six floors was a ways up, no one had access though, to do anything here.

The oxygen made this hissing sound when it was on. The doctors said she would have to be on it for a few more days, just to be sure.

"Thanks..." And her eyes teared.

"... I heard about what happened between you and your Mother... I'm sorry Lexa."

Hisssss. Hissssss.

"Just as long as you're okay Greta, things will be fine." And she swiped the rolling tear off my cheek.

Black is beautiful, black is fine.

We were better.


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