| I had it. I listened to it five times in succession just to make sure. The holy grail. The best Stevie Wonder song ever recorded. This song rivaled anything on "Songs in the Key of Life." I thought I had heard everything. It gave me great pleasure but I wasn't sure why. I listened to the lyrics more closely.|
All I do
Is think about you
Think how it exciting it would be,
If you should discover you feel like me.
Bland lyrics. But somehow the drifting, chanting female chorus gave them power. The sweetness of the chord progression. Or maybe as bland as they were, they were just plain relevant. And as I connected the sentiments to a woman I knew, and downloaded the song to my hard drive, a malfunction happened. My frontal cortex did not extinguish the impulse to share this newfound favorite song with the person who was the subject of that song's narrative. I emailed it to Belinia as an attachment along with a note saying I was looking forward to seeing her on Thursday night in two days time.
The next day, Wednesday, I called to confirm our dinner the following evening. Over the past three years I had realized that Belinia had a habit of forgetting to call me back and forgetting about our plans. I wanted to take her to an expensive, traditional Italian restaurant in nearby Clinton Hill. I thought since she showed real estate in the neighborhood, it would be good to reference to her clients.
When she answered the phone, she kept repeating the phrase- "whose number is callin' me?" This was a form of humor but I didn't get the joke. Then she put her daughter, who's four years old, on the phone and asked her to identify me.
This was frustrating, but I did eventually speak to Belinia. However, she was too preoccupied with speaking to her daughter and son to have any sustained discussion with me.
"Why don't you just call me after you put the kids to bed?" I finally asked her.
Five hours later, at ten thirty pm, I called and left a message on her voicemail.
"Yeah, this is Denver, I guess I just will assume you can't go out tomorrow night if I don't hear from you. If you wanna go just give me a call." I had shifted the presumption so she had no obligation to call or even remember the engagement.
She didn't call.
The next morning I had to bicycle downtown to Brooklyn criminal court to watch a trial for a class assignment. I had scarcely pedaled ten blocks to the corner of Gates and Washington Avenues, when I spied a beautiful black woman in classic designer couture standing at the crosswalk waiting for the light. She was tall and graceful and I slowly rolled my wheels forward to see the side of her face. Finally she turned and caught my gaze.
It was Phyllis Pozoh. We had gone on two internet dates four years ago. I had never called her after that second one.
On our second date I had taken Phyllis to see a movie at BAM. It was horribly depressing and starred Ben Kingsley as an Iranian immigrant who lost his house to a desperate white woman in San Francisco. The movie was called 'House of Fog'. After the film Phyllis drove us to her brownstone eight blocks away in her Mercedes. We made small talk about our new years eve celebrations that past week and I remember her being very sparse about the details of her evening. In her living room I perused her collection of books on political science and African American culture while she prepared me her delicious strawberry shortcake. Her parents were from Ghana. She had a master's degree from Stanford in urban planning. Our first date had gone well except that I had given her the idea that I lived in more posh living quarters than my current Single Room Occupancy in a decrepit run down tenement building in Manhattan. I got only the location right in my description of a one bedroom walkup in the west village. Of all the struggling artists who lived in confined spaces, only my friend Ed could ever convince a woman that an SRO was an artistic incubator. Women had kissed me in that room and never called me again.
The second date with Phyllis was in full bloom and I paused to consider my good fortune as she placed a three way phone call to her sister in California and her mother in Kansas. As she began to converse with them in her bedroom I discovered, while perusing her living room bookshelf, that she had misled me into believing she had authored an important politician's biography when, in fact, she had assisted someone else in that task.
Minutes passed. I could hear her sharing the day's annoyances with her family over the wire. As I waited I listened to the latest album by Joe, an uninspiring R&B crooner, that was the only thing in her CD player. Half the album played and she still hadn't come out of the bedroom, and I continued to wait. Ignoring someone for this long who was a guest in your home was one thing, but when it was a second date, a fragile relationship just beginning to form, what was the sense in ignoring that person? There had to be a power dynamic in play- her power to make me wait for her. When she finally ended the conversation I was a caged tiger. I made cursory small talk and asked for directions to the subway. We shook hands, making an awkward gesture of goodbye, and I stomped down the stairs of her stoop in disbelief at her rudeness. You would have thought I had suffered grievous injury to my reputation or been humiliated at the prom.
As we gazed at each other in the crosshairs of traffic at Gates and Washington Avenues, a horrible anxiety overtook me as that four year old story from my past came screaming up my memory tunnel in fitful blasts of fact and distortion. Her beautiful figure, her gorgeous smile, transformed into an ugly alien grimace. Her eye muscles tightened as it dawned over her who exactly she was looking at. I yanked my handlebars to the left and started pedaling away from her down Washington Avenue toward Prospect Park. Five blocks later, I realized I was headed away from the Brooklyn criminal courthouse.
That afternoon my classmate Eileen and I carefully observed any evidentiary disputes we could while moving from courtroom to courtroom, ending up in a burglary trial on the nineteenth floor of the supreme court building.
I noticed that the judges now spoke English instead of legalese. I could understand the pain behind their frustration in their rulings to the lawyers. I begin to formulate my own silent admonitions to the Court.
'A ruling, your honor! Let's have another evidentiary ruling! When are one of these opposing counsels going to make another objection? Please let's have an objection or are you going to let opposing counsel stomp all over your witness?'
I also noted how many black women were on the criminal juries in Brooklyn- 8 of 12 in this burglary case. I thought of all the black citigroup secretaries who I'd become acquaintances or friends with over the years. I suddenly had a vision of myself delivering a closing argument and speaking to a jury comprised of all black women from Brooklyn who understood exactly what story I was telling them. It was a vision of grandeur and it was fleeting.
I awoke from my reverie when the judge in the burglary trial dismissed the jury for the day without further discussion of any of the rules of evidence in our Professor's curriculum.
As we left the courtroom and headed toward the elevators I was struck by the invisible bias that hovered around the defendant in the courtroom and I mentioned a phrase to Eileen that I had heard in my Defenders Seminar classroom - "the presumption of guilt". Suddenly I spied the jury heading our way toward the same bank of elevators.
"More later" I whispered.
"Hey you two!" yelled a Court officer sitting in the lobby. He made a motion for us to approach his desk. As we approached he looked at us gravely and continued- "You better watch what you say. Those are jurors" he said pointing to the women at the elevator. As if we hadn't just been sitting in the gallery staring at them.
"I know that." I said.
"I heard you say 'the presumption of guilt.' You can't say that."
"I can't say that?"
"You know what I'm saying. You shouldn't be talking like that around here. Understand?"
"Yes, I..." What was the point of explaining myself? In protesting his assertion of authority.
"You could get in a lot of trouble."
"Yes. I'm sorry. (Are you happy you son of a bitch? Contrition, ok?) Hey, do you know where there might be any more trials on this floor?"
"No. I'm serious. That really was not ok."
Had I really committed a felony tampering with a jury offense?
"That's tampering with a jury. They'll lock you up."
As soon as I got out of the building I called my sister, who did some lawyering in that courthouse, and asked her about my admonishment.
"Fucking prick" I said.
"Don't worry about it," she said, "I got yelled at by a Court Officer today too."
"No laughing? That's a rule?"
"Apparently I was laughing too much. I was talking to another attorney about something during a break and the court officer yelled at me 'Counselor! Stop laughing!' She was very stern.
"You can't laugh in court?"
The next day Belinia called me.
"Did I stand you up last night?"
"No" I said.
"I thought maybe I did."
"No. The presumption is always you will not meet me anywhere unless I see you physically in person at the place of the meeting."
"Okay. Well, what're you doing tonight?"
"you wanna come over?"
"Are your kids at home?"
"I'll call you when I'm coming."
I left my house and quickly realized I was stepping into the worst snow storm of the year. Howling gusts of wind mixed with large ice pellets smashing pedestrians in the face from the hand of some vengeful God. My cell phone was almost dead. I thought about turning back. About getting to her apartment building and having no juice, futilely pounding on the door. The streets were deserted. The easterly wind rose and almost bent me over backward. The spokes on my umbrella were immediately torn out of the lining. I stopped and considered returning to the warmth of my bedroom, considering what my reception would be once I arrived, the difficulty of the trip, the futility of the whole thing. But then I remembered a fragment of a conversation we had or maybe it was a moment of physical intimacy we had shared. Something kept me in the march.
I shuffled through the snow for forty five minutes in Bed Stuy and called her from her doorstep. She answered and said she'd let me in. I waited a few minutes, the snow biting at my face, and finally tried the door. She had unlocked it but not opened it.
As I let myself into the lobby I was stopped by a voice from the sidewalk.
"You looking for somebody?" An older black man asked me as I eased the door shut. Standing next to him was another man.
"Who you going to see?"
They nodded and resumed walking through the snow.
I tried the door to her children's bedroom that was accessible from the hallway. She had opened it as well. Inside her apartment the lights were off and the sound of a television emanated from the living room. She was sitting in there, on a pullout bed, dressed in tight white frilly underwear and a form hugging white and pink cotton t-shirt. She had long reddish hair- extensions. When I entered she stood up and said my name. She touched my cheeks with her fingers and then laid back on the bed. Pinching the remote control as she stared at the television, she flipped a blanket over her body. The heater was turned up high.
"I have a job for you," she said, "my foot hurts. I need you to rub it. Right here." She lifted the leg towards me. I sat down on the bed and unlaced my boots and removed them.
I took her foot in my hands and began to massage the upper sole. She made no sound. I tried to push the trigger points in the ball of her foot but she made no reaction. And then I began to massage her calves. When I reached above her knee she reached down and removed my hand and said-
"That's not my foot."
I laid down next to her on the bed.
"It's hot in here," she said, "will you open the window?" I did as she asked and the winter blew a cool stream of air over our prone bodies.
My chest faced her back as we lay on our sides facing the television, my head propped on several pillows to get a peek at the screen, which continued to be the sole focus of her attention. She ordered a movie on pay per view- Idyllwild, the Outkast musical. I tried to rest my hand on her waist and she threw it off-
"I'm too hot." She said curtly.
She grew bored with the film and sat at her desk checking her myspace page on the computer and speaking to one of her business partners about the logo design for a used clothing store they were opening.
"How's the store going?" I asked when she took a phone break.
"Fine" she answered. There was no way to get her to elaborate on anything. I had learned this in previous conversations.
After the movie was over she got back in bed with me and ignored a question I asked about whether she liked the film. She took out her blackberry and scrolled through her endless list of contacts and dialed people whose names sparked a sudden inspiration. To one woman she gave romantic advice, to anther some understanding about her job woes. Finally, she found one of her best friends and they laughed and regaled each other with the absurdities of the week. I realized that the power to ignore was a low hanging fruit and the temptation was just too great. She just couldn't resist. And it made her feel better. And I was complicit, lying there next to her, letting myself be ignored. I should have excused myself, walked out. Never even been there in the first place. Was it a woman to man thing? A racial thing? The truth was probably somewhere in the nexus of all these different power dynamics and masochistic desires.
"Denver's here, yeah. I'll axe him." She told her friend, turning to me she said in her best white person's voice, "Are you going to write all this down. 'And then Belinia did this. and then Belinia said that.' You gonna do that?"
"No. what's there to write about?" I said, annoyed at being spoken about like a zoo animal. Then her phone started ringing and she bolted upright. She gestured frantically toward me and put her finger to her lips.. And her tone changed when she answered. It was her lover, a person whom I had not been aware even existed. She walked out of the room.
"You want me to come over?" she asked him, "I thought you had James tonight. Okay. Alright. Yeah. I will."
She got off the phone and came back in the room. That was my maaaan calling." She smiled ferociously, "He wants me to come over. I'm gonnuh go."
Inside my body I felt a deep coldness spread. She laid down in the bed next to me and my legs froze. She let her feet accidentally touch mine. I moved mine away.
"Should I go?" she asked.
"I don't know."
She got up and went over to her computer and checked her email again. I lay there, wondering why I had left the heated comfort of my bedroom and trudged over a mile and a half through the worst snowstorm of the season to be ignored. To be thrown out when a better proposition came along. I stood up and put on my socks, shoes, coat.
"I'm leaving" I said.
"I don't think I'm gonna go over there." She said, "I think I'm gonna do some work."
It was midnight.
"Did you get that Stevie Wonder song that I sent to your email a couple of days ago?" I asked her.
I couldn't believe it. I knew it had reached her. But why would she lie? She had probably just deleted it without noticing the attachment.
"Here" she handed me a list of some R&B artists for which she wanted me to burn her some CDs. "Gimme a call later. We could have lunch."
I plodded out into the night realizing I would never see the inside of that apartment again.
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