Book Excerpt – Waiting in Vain
Copyright © 1999 Penguin Random House/Colin Channer No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.
On the day he met Sylvia, Fire woke up in Blanche’s arms with a numbness in his soul. It was his ninetieth day of celibacy, and the night before had almost been his last, for Blanche had tied his wrists in his sleep and mounted him.
He wanted to talk to her but didn’t know how. Couldn’t decide how to do it without losing his temper or his pride. He searched the room for answers—the arched windows … the rattan chairs … the hardwood floors with the swirling grain …
The mattress stirred. He heard the strike of her match. Felt the heat. And the tidal pull of her lips. She was naked, and the urgency of smoking did not disturb her breasts, hard and still like turtles.
A lizard crawled from the windowsill to the peak of the angled ceiling and slid down the pole of the old brass fan whose blades were sheathed in straw. It flicked its tongue and wagged its head, shook loose a fold of skin and puffed a red balloon.
Fire watched it closely, enchanted by its beauty; Blanche sucked her teeth and said it was a nuisance. He didn’t answer, and she began to taunt it, choking it with rings of smoke till it arched its back and sprang. It fell on her belly with a thwack and did a war dance on her birthmark, a swatch of brown below her navel. She watched it for a while, amused by its bravery, then whipped her body sideways, shimmering the flesh on her hips, and spilled the lizard to the floor.
Fire closed his eyes.
Last night he’d dreamed that they’d wallowed in a muddy ditch in a sunflower field. Her belly was wet with almond oil and her nipples were gummed with molasses. A believer in fate and the wisdom of dreams, he’d been dreaming of molasses for months now. Blanche was not the woman, though. He was sure. And denial was a way of preparing for her … whoever she might be.
Blanche watched as he rose, snatched glances as he dressed. He was tall and rangy. His hair was a cluster of twists and curls. His body looked like a pencil sketch, proportioned but not detailed, except in the chest and upper back.
He went to the terrace and sat in a rocker beneath a brace of ferns, which rustled and fluttered like moody hens. The land cruised away below him, drained through an orchard to an old stone fence, then plunged in an avalanche of crabgrass and buttercups to a terraced farm. Beyond the valley, surreal through the mist, was the broad, flat face of Kingston.
He took a mango from a bowl and peeled it with his teeth. What would he say to her? How would he say it? She was singing in the shower now. He imagined her body—the swell of her thighs, the rise of her ass. And, of course, her breasts. When would he say it? Soon, he thought … but not right now.
Resting the fruit on a stack of books, he picked up the poem he’d begun the day before.
I dare not love you as you deserve. It is not that I don’t know how. I do understand the language of love, and were it a different world I would write you poems etching you into the tender cliche of Negril’s palmy coast …
He didn’t know where he’d take it. He didn’t understand poetry really. He’d never studied it. He believed in it as an act of faith.
Bird. He began to think of Ian now. They used to call him Bird for his hawkish nose and pelican legs. What will it be like to see him again? He checked his watch. It was eleven. Air Jamaica was leaving at three; they were always on time. He would be in New York at seven.
Blanche came out and joined him. She was wearing one of his shirts. It was a soft tangerine with a broad camp collar and flaps on the pleated pockets. A few months short of fifty, she moved with the angular vim of a teenager. She leaned against the banister, a Rothman’s between her lips.
Age had refined her beauty, streaking her hair silver and adding lines and accents to the poetry of her face—commas that made him pause at her eyes, dashes that framed her mouth. She had brows like Frida Kahlo, and lips like Chaka Khan.
"New York," she began. "How long are you going to be there?"
"Just the weekend," he said.
"Then you go to London. And you’re coming back when?"
"The end o’ August."
As she watched him pick up the mango, she marveled anew at his face. Like reggae, it was a New World hybrid, a genetic melange of bloods that carried in their DNA memories of the tribes that fought and fucked on the shores of the Americas—Chinese and Arab, English and Scotch from his father’s side; Dutch and Portuguese Sephardic Jew from his mother’s. But the final combination—brown like sun-fired clay; cheeks high and spread apart; nose narrow with a rounded tip; lips wide and fluted—was a vibrant African presence, Yoruba and Akan.
Last night was wrong, she said to herself. But she’d been holding back for months now . . . had even thought she would get through it. But last night, knowing he’d be leaving today just made her desperate. Or was it angry? Three months is a long time for a woman, she thought, especially with a man like this, one who makes love from the inside out—from the core of her soul where she hides her fears, to the taut muscles on the back of her neck. And the way he was eating that mango—the flesh becoming slush and dripping down his arm.
The juice was inking the nib between her legs, making her want to draft an epic on his face. Couldn’t he just screw her? She’d take just that. So what if the love was gone? The first time had been just a screw. And she had no regrets. Seeing him nude that first time had made her think of holidays, of turkey legs slathered with gravy. At first she thought he’d be a rammer, a longhorn bedroom bully, which would’ve been fine. She liked a little roughness at times. But he held her like a dancer, assumed that he would lead, and frigged her with finesse. He understood her needs. Wordplay for him was foreplay. Her thighs were the covers of an open book—a journal lined with fantasies and fears. He read her like a child read, slowly, with his nose against the page, using a finger to guide his way. So he knew when to baby her and when to bitch her up.
If he didn’t want to screw her, she thought, couldn’t they just flirt? Flirting was more than his pastime. It was an addiction. He couldn’t help himself. He was intelligent and amusing, which was why women fell for him. That’s why she had fallen. In the days when he loved her, his wordskissed her ears like butterfly wings. Now they stung like wasps: "I don’t want you anymore. Leave me alone. I don’t care how you feel."
She forced a smile. He didn’t respond, but she knew he wanted her. She could feel it. What to do? What to say? She wanted to be the mango so he could suck her down to the seed.
The words were hers. He tried to resist. Thought he had, until his tongue was a honey stick in hot tea. Soon he was melting into memory … into their first kiss ten years ago in Cuba.
She was standing on a street corner in Old Havana, a map in her hand, using her own brand of filleted Spanish to explain to a group of curious onlookers that the Yanquis didn’t hate them, that the Yanquis in fact pitied them and really hated the French, whom they found repugnant and smug. She didn’t know how to say "smug" in Spanish.
"Apuesto," he said from the back, "pulcro." Their eyes met.
"Excuse me," she said, as the crowd trailed away, "do you speak English?"
"No," he replied. "Do you?" She was wearing a lavender dress and sandals. He was wearing an Exodus T-shirt and Red Army boots. He liked her voice. She spoke with a flourish, as if her words were meant to be drawn in calligraphy.
They drifted into a walk, cruised the cobblestoned streets, brushed against each other as they passed under arbors of billowing clothes. She took photographs of the crumbling houses … posed on the hoods of vintage cars. It was her first visit to Cuba, she told him. She was forty, and taught English and Near Eastern studies at Columbia. Her father was Jamaican, her mother from Iran. She’d been raised outside Toronto.
They had lunch in a paladar. Over gallina vieja and yellow rice she learned that he’d been living in Cuba for three years, had gone there to study with the famous muralist Francisco Irtubbe after receiving a fine arts degree at Yale. He was twenty-four and Jamaican, and his favorite uncle, I-nelik, had toured and recorded with the Wailers.
She asked if he was a communist and he told her no. Said he was a socialist. Then they began to talk about art and she said there wasn’t any money in murals. Money isn’t all, he replied. What is? she asked. Love, he said… . All you need is love. She said that was a crock of shit. He liked her directness. It was hard to find that in women his own age.
He offered her a drink when they left the restaurant. She looked at him … cocked her head … seemed unsure. He smiled, as I-nelik had taught him, and led her home without discussion.
They sipped mojitos in the courtyard, a moldering square of tiles around an almond tree, and shared a macanudo (cigar) and talked and listened and argued, entangling their minds in a wrestling match which she won with ease, for she was wiser and more wordly. She’d lived in five countries, including Morocco and India, and spoke Arabic, Farsi, French, and Hindi.
They went inside when the night brought rain. Setting cans to catch the leaks in the parlor, they talked some more, leaning against each other on the swaybacked sofa with their feet propped up on a milk crate.
At some point—he could never remember when, because it had been so unexpected—she’d pointed to the record changer, a hefty old thing from Albania, and asked if he had any jazz. The questions felt like a test, a requirement for entry to her finishing school. He knew this by the way she smiled when he asked her, like a bartender at a good hotel, "What can I get for you?" She smiled from the inside, happy for the both of them.
They listened to Johnny Hartman, giggled each time the record changer fell asleep. Then he put on the Wailers—Kaya—and the bass began to lick them like a curious tongue … and nothing was funny anymore.
"Would you like to dance?" he asked. She said yes, and he held her by the waist, which was soft even then, and sank his hips into the sweet spot. She shook when he started to stir it up, then answered his circumlocutions with inquiries of her own. They continued to dub after the last track had faded like the paint on the wall she was against. Her legs were apart. Her dress hiked up. Her body clammy with their mingled sweat. What to do? They weren’t quite sure. Then there was a power cut, and it was inevitable.
"What are you thinking?" she asked.
"That I want you to stay the night."
She slipped a hand down his thigh. "Why?"
"I want to see you naked."
She coaxed his hand into the pulpy split. "See me through your fingers," she said. "Let’s pretend to be blind."
"I want to see you," he replied, "to keep a piece of you with me forever. We might have the night and lose the day."
"But I only need today," she whispered.
"But I need tomorrow … I’m just that kinda guy. Share a little tomorrow with me."
She kissed him.
"Before I say yes," she said, "I should tell you something. I am woman . . . I am water. You are man … you are stone. Water will wear down stone."
They stayed in touch through letters. Phone calls sometimes. But those were harder, requiring a connection through a third country. Then she came to visit three months after leaving and he began to smell molasses. One night, as they biked along the Malec’n, she asked if he was dating. She hopped off the handlebars and they sat with their backs to the sea. He told the truth.
"You must get rid of them," she said. "I love you too much to share you."
"And you," he asked, "are you involved?"
"The very question," she replied, "insults me."
They wrote once a week for the next two years—soppy letters that made them laugh—and saw each other twice, each time for three months during her summer break. He wanted to see her more, but couldn’t. He was routinely denied U.S. entry because he was labeled a communist.
Then twenty-six months, three weeks, and two days after they met, he got a three-day visa through luck and bribery, and went to New York to surprise her. He found out she was married—with a mortgage, a dog, and three children."I’m so sorry," she said, as they cried in her office. "Just give me time … I’m just waiting for the right time to leave."
"When will that be?"
"Soon," she said.
"Soon as things are right … it’s all in the timing."
Chinatown collides with Soho and Tribeca at Canal and West Broadway, chucking chichi bistros against hardware stores, stereo shops, and purveyors of fake Chanel. As the clock closed in on midnight, Fire stepped out of the subway and strayed through the gates of love. Dressed in a red T-shirt and slack-fitting jeans, he forded the truck-polluted stream of Canal and strode up West Broadway in his tough, scuffed boots, past cafes and bars whose faces were pressed together like a Polaroid of friends from prep school. His destination was the Marie Rose Galleries, where his friend Ian Gore was having his first show in five years. By the note in his pocket, the opening had been over for two hours. But this didn’t bother him. After twenty-five years, Ian was used to his lateness, and Fire understood Ian’s mood swings.
I wonder how he looks, he thought, as a doorway caught his eye. For all its pretensions, he liked Soho. The brickwork reminded him of London and the ironwork reminded him of older parts of Kingston. He liked the scale of it. It was low. One could see the sky without trying.
As he walked along Spring Street, contemplating Ian’s life, he saw a woman walking toward him in a navy blazer with buttons shaped like sunflowers.
She was tallish and slender, with short, curly hair. And like a dancer, she walked with her toes pointed outward and her neck loose.
Trailing behind her in the coltish breeze was a light silk scarf whose flutter he thought was romantic. As she passed, he turned around and sent her a smile, an unsigned thank-you card for having a nice vibe.
He hadn’t been to New York in a couple of years. And at Greene it struck him that the gallery had moved. Ian had forgotten to remind him.
He saw a phone up the block by a parking lot, across from a store named Jekyll & Hyde. He called Information for the new address. But what if they were closed? He glanced at his watch and decided to call, and as he angled to dig for pocket change, he saw the woman in the navy blazer waiting for the phone.
She had lashes like the bristles of a paintbrush and strong, rougeless cheeks.
"Are you through?" she asked. Her voice was warm but girlish—honey mixed with ashes.
"No," he replied. "But you can go if you want." She accepted politely. A smile hissed across her face—a sparked fuse.
His mouth was suddenly dry. He felt an urge to wet his lips. He didn’t, though, unsure of how she’d take it.
She struggled with a shopping bag.
"You want me to hold that?"
She refused politely. Then it slipped. And he grabbed it.
"Are you sure?"
"It’s okay," she said. "Thank you." And placed the bag between her feet.
A piece of paper fell to the sidewalk. From where, he wasn’t sure. He picked it up and read it as he leaned against a car. It was a shopping list for music: Toni Braxton, Babyface, and Gal Costa. Gal Costa? Tropicalismo … nice.
She was his age, he figured, and worked in the arts. Not music though. She would’ve been more determinedly stylish. Not fashion either—her taste would’ve had more edge. Design? Maybe. She could be an art director. But for a big firm. Not a boutique. Now where was she from? Her accent was American, but not from New York. The midwest maybe, or California. California? Hollywood. She had the trained articulation of an actress.
In the middle of his reverie she grabbed her bag and left, and he walked to the corner, warmed by the encounter. Gal Costa. He thought of Brazil, its pungent food and sensuous music, and turned to smile again. To his surprise she was smiling after him.
"Was that your smile or the reflection of mine?" he asked, slowing down. She was about ten yards away.
She shrugged her shoulders to mean "whatever."
"I hope it was the reflection of mine," he said. "I wouldn’t like you to smile at me like that before you get to know me. When you get to know me I’ll know what it means. Right now I might have the wrong idea."
She shrugged again.
"If I asked you your name, would you tell me?"
"I promise not to laugh if it’s ugly. I’ll just refuse to use it."
She looked at him blankly.
"Go ahead," he said. "Try me."
He took her coolness as a challenge … vowed to make her laugh.
"Try-y-y meeee!" he sang, mimicking James Brown. "You know that song?"
"Oh, you like Bob Marley?"
"That’s not Bob Marley," she said. "That’s James Brown."
"I knew that," he said, steadying her eyes with a stare. "Just checking."
"To see if you’re truly monosyllabic or just faking it."
She chuckled, which encouraged him.
"Will you tell me your name now?"
Her answer did not convince him.
"Well, I won’t ask you then. I’ll just make one up for you. I’ll just call you the woman-with-the-unique-buttons-on-the-navy-blazer-with-the-cute-nose-with-something-hanging-from-it."
She wiped her nose quickly.
"That one got you!"
"Well, I guess I’m not doing so badly."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I got you to laugh."
"Maybe I’m easy," she countered. He caught a flash of tongue, a bit of pink against her teeth. He liked her more now. She knew dalliance from harassment. Many women had lost that, had sacrificed good sense for politics.
"By the way," he said, trying to reconnect, "can I call you to tell you I’d like to see you again?"
"Sure," she said matter-of-factly.
"Who should I ask for?"
"The-woman-with-the-man-she-doesn’t-miss. People are waiting for me. I’ve gotta go."
She began to back away. He asked for her number again and she told him no.
"It was nice to have met you, Miss No Name."
"It was nice to have met you too, Muddy Waters."
He stopped. She stopped as well. A passing car side-lit her face. She was a portrait framed by Gordon Parks.
"It would be nice to see you again."
"I don’t feel the same way."
She glanced at his shoes. "I could fall for a man like you."
"What kinda man is that?"
"One who makes me laugh."
Claire was having a smoke outside the gallery when Fire and Ian arrived.
She started toward them, and her form swung loosely in an A-line dress that draped from a collar of beads.