The wood of the cube, greenish in color, as if the trees were too young to cut, too moist to burn, brings out the Cherokee red in my skin, the Scottish red in my hair, the black red of Mississippi dirt, all over me. But the planks are wide--my nose, wide--so this must be an illusion of my set designer.
This is my stage and I feel like a lone doll standing on a shelf in a child's room, the only toy that isn't on the floor or kept by the bed, dirty and worn.
I wish it was dark, I wish no one could see me up here on this stage. There are three silhouettes in the middle of the orchestra seats. I'm not ready. I don't want to perform my life over again. This show can't last two weeks. Waiting. I wish I could die quickly, quietly, in my own bed, and not have to be here.
Everything is going black. The house lights are going down. I can see orange and violet spheres separate from the blackness. My mind can wander, my toes uncurl; I can fly in this blackness to a place where my mind can be free from these muscles and bones, this skin, my own blood. Fly away and play in the closet with Donna, my little imaginary sister. We used to crawl in the closet and close the door behind us. Disappear. Donna would ask me to tell her stories, but I would only tell her the truth. I would listen to her whimpers in the blackness, between the silences I needed to remember the exact words, events. After a while I wouldn't be able to hear her and I would think my words were being absorbed by clothes, blocked by hangers, and I would crawl across the blackness and touch her chest to be sure she was still breathing, still there.
A childhood memory
Momma said that Grandma likes me more than you, likes me more than her and Daddy. She said Grandma called today and told her so. She said Grandma said when she dies she's going to leave me everything, her house in Meridian, her jewelry, all her money. I don't want the money. I told Momma I didn't want the money, but she said I had been telling Grandma secrets and she wanted to know my secrets, too. I didn't tell Grandma anything, but Momma said I did and if I told her she would give me a special treat, make me some cookies and I wouldn't have to eat any vegetables with dinner. But I didn't have any secrets to tell and I only tell my secrets to you. And you better not tell or else I'm going to turn into a monster, too.
Then Momma said I could stay home because my jaw was swelling fast. She made me some juice and said I could sit in the kitchen and watch her make cookies all day while I kept an ice pack on my jaw. She said it was going to be our secret and she wasn't going to give any to you. She said I was good at keeping secrets. And I am. Do you want to known secret? I know a secret about Perry. Do you want to know? Well, maybe I shouldn't tell you because you'll want to see it, too.
Donna? Donna? Are you listening?
Well, Perry's got a magic flower at the end of his pee pee. He showed it to me. Momma let me go outside after the cookies and she told me to tell everyone I had a toothache and the swelling was going to go down after the new tooth comes in. Perry was home, too. He didn't go to school either and he told me his flower was soft and it could disappear. He showed it to me. It wasn't like mine. And when I touched it, the petals started disappearing and then his was just like mine. And he smelled mine and said his smelled better than mine. And I smelled his. I wish I smelled like him.
No one's clapping. The stage lights are up and no one's clapping. There wasn't any music either. There should have been music before the lights. Dueling guitars, drums beating, never settling in one time signature. Or, a single male voice, moaning and droning. No words. Lonely music, blue music in the blackness, before the lights. The music should have taken the audience back to no specific time, even though a piano would have been playing in a strutting style, joined by brushed cymbals rushing out to tickle ears. A sax should have mirrored the moans, rising and rising, blowing the hair inside of ears, then suddenly breaking from the voice to a deafening low note, a tone so low no one would ever imagine a tenor sax reaching so low. Then the lights should have slowly risen.
The lights are hurting my eyes. They're too bright. Squinting doesn't help. Putting my hands up doesn't help. I can see the red of blood in the tips of my fingers, along the edges, outlining my hands as if they were on fire. I'm sweating. Mel-ting, melting. How long have I been up here? How long did I say this show was going to last? Two weeks. And I will measure time by the dripping of sweat, down my face, down my cheeks, neck. I feel like an iron skillet, heating up, ready for frying when the sweat crackles in the grease. I shouldn't have worn black. And my make-up job is melting. Foundation? Rouge? Am I a clown or a sickly drag queen? Diana Ross or Dolly Parton? I should have practiced lip-synching. There's no music anyway. I could be Shirley Bassie in a slinky sequined dress, low-cut in the front, and deep cut in the back, all the way down to the crack, doing my jazzy rendition of "Cry Me A River" or "Blue Velvet" while cradling up to the microphone, using it as my male member. Up, down. Caressing it lovingly. Exaggerating my pronunciations, curling my ruby lips, extending my arms out at the end of each refrain.
What am I doing? What if my father's in the audience? Daddy could be out there with Momma. She probably told him there was a bar in the lobby to get him here, and he's probably well on his way--if he wasn't before he got here. All the way from the Midwest; they left their middle-class home, in their middle-class suburb in Ohio, just to annoy me when I don't need it. And Momma, she's probably wearing those silver, handcrafted earrings I got her for her birthday in a little shop on Fifth Avenue, and that French perfume I bought her for this year's Mother's Day, at Barney's, and one of her fancy dresses she claims she never gets to wear anywhere.
My mother is a superwoman. Black. Light-skinned with freckles and natural, dark auburn, relaxed hair. All of my family on my mother's side show their Southern ancestry. But that's just an illusion. Momma's black. She makes the best fried chicken, greens and cornbread north of the Ohio River. Her nose is thick. Her lips are full. And she's got a heavy, heavy hand. When she turned on the lights in my room in the morning, I didn't wait for her to tell me to get up. And stop talking to yourself, boy. She would fix breakfast before leaving for work. Pancakes popping in bacon grease. Oatmeal and cinnamon toast. Or grits and eggs. Then she'd drop me off at Aunt Cora's house so I could leave for school from there. And don't bring that doll, boy; I don't know what's gotten into your grandma, sending you a doll. Every morning, six o'clock in the morning. Dad would just be getting in from the night shift and Momma worked the day. In a factory, sewing Cadillac seat covers at Fisher Body. On an assembly line. Doing piece work, avoiding five-inch needles on industrial-size power sewing machines. She would pick me up from Aunt Cora's at five, do the little shopping she had to do. Don't you show off in this store, boy; And I won't forget it when we get home, Donald Jefferson McIntire. We would eat dinner then go to choir practice. She was in the Senior Choir and I was in the Youth and Young Adult Choir. St. Paul's A.M.E. Church. Choir practice on Tuesdays, bible study on Thursdays, Sunday school in the morning and church service all day on Sundays. Your imaginary friend's got to stay home with Daddy on Sundays; You hear me, boy?; And you better not act up. Momma was the treasurer of the Finance Committee and she was the most successful fund-raiser in the church. Every year she led the Ebony Drive, selling subscriptions to everyone at Fisher Body. Ebony, Jet, and Ebony Junior. Even to the whites. Momma made all of our church clothes when I was young. We were the sharpest family in the whole congregation. Double-breasted, double-knit suits for me and midi- or maxi-dresses for her. The Ebony Showcase Family. Except Daddy stayed at home. Donald's always banging that hard head of his on something; Look at that boy!; There is not a day in the week he doesn't get another hicky on that hard head of his. We always had a nice car to ride to church in, seeing that Momma worked for GM and got an employee discount. Cutlass Supreme. Buick Regal. Ninety-Eight Regency Brougham. We lived in the suburbs and drove in our new cars to church in the city. We lived on a tree-lined street with more and more black neighbors every year. I don't know how Mary's affording to move way out there to Chagrin Falls; Maybe she'll start looking rich, too; She told me you been telling everyone you have a baby sister, boy; Don't be embarrassing me like that in front of white people. Momma always made sure our house looked the best on the street. Inside and out. We plastered and painted walls. We wallpapered. Laid down wall-to-wall carpeting, retiled the bathroom, put up new kitchen cabinet fronts, stripped wallpaper, sanded walls, repainted walls, pulled up carpeting, sanded, stained and polyurethaned our oak floors. Momma subscribed to the Time/Life Do-It-Yourself Home Improvement Series. She knew how to use all of Dad's power tools better than he did. If she couldn't get Daddy to do the outside ladder work, she contracted it out. Aluminum siding with fake aluminum shutters on the upstairs front windows. On Saturdays we worked in the yard. I would cut the grass and Momma would work in the garden. Roses in the front of the house and a vegetable garden in the back. She planted tulip bulbs for the spring and petunias and gladiolas in the summer. Momma's favorite were her potted geraniums on the porch which bloomed from June to October. You better get those leaves up and get in here and practice your piano; I ain't paying all that money for lessons and that big old piano to take up all the space in my living room for you not to play on it; If you don't want to play it I can just give it to Aunt Cora for Louise; You can't be going down the street if we're going to sing our duet on Sunday; We've got to practice and I'm tired; That's what I got you here for--take out the garbage and let me get a little rest without complaining; I declare, you are one hardheaded boy; Donald, stop all that racket in there; I don't care if you are talking in your sleep; Donna's not real, she's imaginary; No you can't go to the movies and I don't want that fast girl calling here at all hours, raising my phone bill; I can't get you to do as I say anymore; You will not be driving my car; You will not be driving my car to the prom; If you want to waste all that money you better spend it with your old imaginary friend; And when you get your pictures taken, get the five poses, everyone's going to want one of your senior pictures; I don't know why on earth you would want to go to college in New York City, the filthiest of all places; Why you want to study art history?; Why can't you become an architect or an engineer?; When you come home this summer I have an internship lined up for you at my job; When you coming for a visit, boy?; I want you to give a talk to the children at church on Thanksgiving; You always come home when it's cold and snowing; I'll send you a ticket for Easter; The upstairs will need some paint by then, and I can't do it myself anymore.
Momma? Are you out there? Dad? If you are, forget the drag queen stuff. Say? What's a drag queen? Oh, that's a guy who thinks he's royalty. You know, like Ivana Trump. See, it doesn't have to be real royalty, it could be a disco queen, like Thelma Houston or Sylvester, Barbara Streisand, of course, or Vicky Sue Robinson. You know what I mean? Diana Ross-like. I know how much you hate fake Diana, but she's like royalty. It's sorta like Flip Wilson doing Geraldine. Remember that show? They call it transvestitism. Some of them are good. You should see the outfits. These boys can sew. I've never even worn a dress, Momma. Although I did use to play with Barbie dolls and dress them up. But all kids do that kind of stuff. I'm not into it now. I like to watch, go to shows and see the outfits, see the boys.
I told you I was gay. Remember and you got all upset because the news was scaring everybody about the gay plague in New York and San Francisco and I told you it was all over and anybody could get it. Remember? 'Cause we still don't talk about it. I had just broken up with my first longtime boyfriend, six months, and I just wanted you to know I was upset. And you sent me that letter with the scary article out of the Plain Dealer about AIDS and how it was this homosexual disease. Or druggies. Or people from Haiti. I wanted to call you and assure you that I wasn't sick or anything--I'm still not sick; I just had unsafe sex once, Ma, once. I wanted you to come around. And you did call and you told me you wished I hadn't told you and that I should never tell Dad.
Oh Daddy. Oh Father.
Then when I came home for Christmas, we didn't talk about it. And then Dad drove me back to the airport and you came too, and this guy cut Dad off and Dad called him a faggot. Fucking faggot's probably what he said. But he said it with such hate, like a bad taste in his mouth. Think about that one, Momma.
Momma are you out there? I can't see a fucking thing.
We're on our way to Mississippi. Momma and Dad are in the front and Donna and I are in the back. There's lots of room in Dad's new car, but he won't let me play much in the back seat. He won't let me use trucks or cars on his leather seats, so Donna and I sit on the floor most of the time. There's that much room in Dad's new car. He only told me once not to play on the seats. He didn't have to say it again. Momma kept looking back on me anyway, with her warning eyes. We liked sitting on the floor. You could hear the wheels and the road go by underneath. And there was a hump in the middle of the floor, a side for me, a side for Donna. I could feel Momma patting her foot as she listened to the eight-track tapes she had brought with us. She talked a lot, too. She pointed out road signs to Dad and read some to me. Sometimes she would test me on billboards and I would crane my neck up to the window and read the signs before we went by. It didn't count if I said it after we passed. She liked that game and she kept telling Dad that I was going to be a genius. Gets The Dirt Out Fast. Have a Kool One. Rest Stop 4 1/2 Miles. Sometimes Donna and I would just sit in our seats and look out the window at the old barns, empty, doors closed, not like the red ones that I liked to color, rusty barns with big silver silos on the side, domed on top. Ditches by the side of the road. Checkered green hills with perfectly straight rows of bushes and trees. Feather-topped fields of corn. Purple and yellow flowers. Sometimes cows and horses.
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Then Momma kept saying that we were almost there and we stopped one last time. She said I better go to the bathroom now, 'cause we ain't going to stop anymore. We were almost there. We had started out when it was dark, early in the morning. Donna and I had bathed and gotten dressed before we went to bed. We slept in our clothes and dreamed ourselves into the car when Momma turned on our bedroom light. Now it was almost dark again and Momma kept saying we were almost there. And I thought I could hold it in, but I think she was lying. I didn't say anything at first and Donna and I played cards to pass the time. I couldn't wait to get to Grandma's house.
I don't know how it happened. Momma started yelling at me and she told me I was going to have to explain everything to Grandma when we got there, that I was a stinky. She called me stinky at first and then she called me other names. And then she took her clog off and threw it in the back seat at me.
It didn't hurt, Donna. Don't get mad. Donna, don't cry. See, I'm not crying. Don't let Dad see me crying, he won't like me or Momma anymore.
Momma told me not to get blood on the leather, and, think about how was I going to tell Grandma about my black eye. Dad didn't stop until we got there.
I'm on a roll now. A little soft shoe, and they'll be mine.
They like it. They're laughing. They're clapping.
Take a bow.
I can't believe it; they really like the soft shoe. Listen to them laugh.
Did I hear Daddy's laugh? I think I hear Daddy's laugh: it's just like mine, similar to the sound a car makes when it's already on and you start it again and you feel embarrassed, the way I feel now.
I don't like being noticed, the center of attention. I love being close enough to a person to see my reflection in their eyes. They talk, I listen, nod at the right moments, respond at the right times, turn the conversation till it's just about to reach a resolution, then change the subject. My reflection in their eyes tells me that I'm a good listener. And they thank me.
Why the music now? I've got to talk to someone about this show. Long, vibratoless, violin notes rising in a twelve-tone scale. I hate this music.
The lights are softer now, reddish. A trap in the floor is opening. A small tree is rising up out of the stage: a birch sapling, not potted, but standing in a mound of dirt, which is sliding from around the roots. I've got to pack the dirt down, keep it alive. Cool and moist. It's like making mud pies after it rains and the dirt smells so good.
Something stuck me. Fucking tree. I've got a cut and I feel like crying. Hold it in. I can't let them see me crying. I knocked the tree over, crawled up to the exposed roots, rubbed my head against the tangled knots. Hide. And cry, just a little.
It wasn't our first date. We had been seeing each other for more than a month, but each time we ended the night together something strange occurred. We would go to his apartment and he would have to cover my mouth to keep me quiet, stop me from giggling. He didn't want his upstairs neighbors to hear. Instead he preferred to keep everything visual, with the lights on and eyes open. He was an artist, making a living assisting photographers when he thought their work was important enough for him to lower himself to setting up lights, painting backdrops, making sure the music playing was to the model and photographer's liking. Instead of moaning I would listen to the sounds from outside. I became certain that the wind knew exactly when to rise, when to calm down, when to shake branches violently from side to side. He was always the wind.
I love the way you laugh, he said.
Yeah. Why do you always cover your mouth when you laugh? It's so funny, like you don't want it to come out.
You have such beautiful teeth, too, big and white. I guess your skin color makes them look whiter. Mine makes my teeth look gray.
Your teeth aren't gray. I wish mine were as straight as yours. I wanted to get braces when I was younger, but my mother told me I shouldn't, they're part of my personality. See? This one canine tooth sticks out in front of the other ones.
I never noticed that. It's cute, too.
Everything was all right for a while, I guess. William didn't work much and he spent most of his time painting. A few collectors had been over and liked his work. They only bought drawings, though, and they suggested that William start preparing for a show of larger paintings, use large canvases that wouldn't confine his work within a frame. He started immediately, working on six-by-eight foot canvases that took up all the wall space in his apartment, working on three paintings at a time, blocking in armless figures topped with tiny heads in confining cubical spaces, I didn't like the images, they scared me. The cubicles were made of jagged wooden planks, distorted in perspective, and unable to accommodate the figures.
So what do you think? he asked me.
Give me a chance to change my clothes and get comfortable first. I love the smell. Turpentine and linseed oil.
You don't like them. I can tell ... Before I start putting on the flowers I need to know, because I won't be able to go back. You see, all of this hyper-anatomy will be in opposition to stencils of flowers in bright colors. So what do you think?
Flowers sound nice.
Yeah, but what do you think of the base? Is it strong enough to still be seen behind the flowers or do you think it'll be too loud and confusing?
Well ... Ahh ...
I know you don't like them. Why?
They sort of remind me of ... They scare me. Why don't they have arms? It seems like you're making fun of that guy who paints with his toes, You know that guy, he doesn't have any arms and he paints with his toes on the sidewalk in front of museums. You shouldn't make fun of him. He's a nice guy.
That's not where this comes from. I like the silhouette and the arms would get confused with the lines of the flowers.
But they're scary. Like all these big dicks with no brains.
What are you talking about?
They look like me.
I thought you would like it. It's the one I know the best. Better than my own.
You made them look too ...
So they're big dicks with small brains. That's what you think of me.
He tried comforting me and I soon gave in to his kisses but there was something in what I was saying. I knew. Something he was unconscious of and I knew he was holding it against me. He was always talking about his wealthy family in Wisconsin and how unaware they were of how much power they had. His father was the head of a division of Derek Pharmaceuticals and he had a company jet at his disposal whenever he wanted it. They lived on the largest estate in his town and the whole town was built around it. His father was very conservative and thought that blacks were all right as long as they lived together and never gained power in the city of Chicago. He flipped his lid when a black mayor was elected and wanted to move his company offices to Wisconsin.
William told me all of this and I forgave him.
Truth. The truth is I'm blue and orange and purple. I'm the night within the night. The blackness that hides everything. The truth is I'm all colors and I have two mouths and my dick is always hard. I limp because of the weight. I don't understand words and I put them together for others to decipher. When I try to explain them sometimes I have patience, but most of the time they don't get it. I hate that and I hate myself because I'm inadequate. I'm invisible, in my room listening to Momma and Dad drink. Everywhere. I close my eyes often, but I still see everything. In my room listening to Momma and Dad argue. My eyes avoid all ugliness, but then I look in the mirror and I see myself.
I can turn from a solid to gel and back again. At the will of others. Get out of here, back in your room, back in bed, stop crying, what if the neighbors hear.
Tears don't scare me. Why should I make them stop? Blood doesn't scare me. Only my own. William doesn't scare me, only his come. I liked his taste too much. I liked it too hard, too often. And now he's dead.
William grew up with wealth and he expected his life to continue that way. He shopped at Balducci's once a week and restored antique chairs when he wasn't working or painting. Whenever we went out together, he always pointed out the gentlemen with the look of money, the ones wearing Armani slacks or perfectly coiffed hair, although he hid behind his paint-splattered jeans and worn hightop sneakers. A friend of mine told me he didn't like William and I should be careful and protect myself. He said he thought William eyed him too much and made subtle advances towards him. I didn't pay much attention to his warning. This was my first big relationship and I wanted it to work.
You look so sad sitting here by yourself, he said.
I hate looking out windows. It makes you look so sad.
I love looking out windows, seeing the world go by without being seen.
He kissed me gently on the lips and walked out the door. I watched him striding down the street with his new suit on and then suddenly he turned around, looked up to the sky and grabbed his crotch with both hands. A big smile came across his face and I could hear him laughing in my mind. He raised his hands up and wiggled his fingers like he was doing the hokey pokey, then he turned himself around and walked away.
All the lights were off in his apartment, but the street lights made it seem as if it were day inside. I walked around the apartment looking at William's paintings. They really weren't bad, good in fact, technique-wise: good colors, nice compositions, and so on. They reminded me of stills from a movie, a German expressionist film or a Godard movie. Everything looked so common, natural, but skewed just enough to make me dizzy. It was in the details of the distorted perspective of the settings, the use of orchid for the back painting and orange or red for the flower stencils that made the images jump out at me and imprison me, at the same time.
One of the paintings didn't have the stencil over it yet and I could see that he had even added the dark birthmark on my hip to the figure, making it look more like a petunia or a tulip than it really does. He made my erect penis curve more to the right than it really does, made my butt perfectly round. But what did the cut off arms mean? Don't get a hold on me? You'll strangle me so I'll cut off your arms? You are not whole or real and I can dismantle you, accentuate your positives and shrink your weaknesses till they are unrecognizable?
I had a hard time falling asleep by myself. Someone in the neighborhood was having a party or very loud get-together. Voices were raised and I kept recognizing the songs, singing along and thinking about what a good time they must be having.
William got in late and he kept bumping into things as he was taking off his clothes. I turned over on my back to look at the strip show. He was beautiful, an ex-swimmer and cross-country runner. He still ran five miles a day. His legs were thin but hard, his waist small and expanded into a perfect triangle to his broad shoulders. His stomach was losing its definition but it made him look more human. He liked to keep his hair long and combed back so it fell into natural waves down the sides without a part. His eyes were my favorite, transparent brown eyes with flecks of green and orange. They were a bit lopsided, too, just enough so that you noticed them, looked into them and melted. He sank into the bed slowly, and kissed me before saying a word.
How are you?
Fine. I can't sleep.
No wonder, it's so noisy in this neighborhood. Why can't those porch monkeys keep it down? Hanging out all day and all night.
What did you say?
I don't know. Just ...
You don't know? Porch Monkey. William, how could you say that? I've never heard of it, but you're speaking with someone who could be described as a porch monkey if I was sitting on a porch.
I don't mean you, Honey. Not you.
Get off me. William, this is really sick. I never thought you would say something like that. Where did you get this?
I don't know. I didn't mean anything.
Don't do this. I'm sorry.
If you don't want to see house monkeys, ... porch monkeys, maybe you shouldn't live in this neighborhood, or sleep with one.
You're not like them.
You're not ... Oh, I don't know. I told you my father is a racist capitalist pig who refused to sit next to a black person on an airplane once. I'm sorry. That was dumb. But if my dad did say things like that, I wouldn't know it existed until it comes out of me. Like just then. I'm sorry. I didn't want to hurt you.
Then who did you want to hurt?
No one, nobody. I just want some peace, it's late.
Then why give a name to a group of people sitting on their porch, in front of their house, in their neighborhood?
You're right. I'm sorry, he said.
And I tried to forget him.
As I uncurled myself from the tree, I noticed that I was naked, my clothes had disappeared. This is no illusion. I'm not wearing a flesh-toned body suit. I'm nude. My dick, a small bulb sticking out of my pubic hairs. I'm searching my body looking for a sign. The skin on my arms is uneven in color, spotted. Chicken skin. I have a pimple, red and itchy. It's bleeding. My feet are tired and there are strange freckles on my ankle. Are they freckles? Are they purple? Do they hurt? Do I have diarrhea? I'm tired and I want this show to be over. Am I always tired?
I want to scream. Scream. But there's no sound. My mouth opens and I feel the sound trying to escape but it won't; it's trapped somewhere like constipated shit: you grunt and try to force it out, but there's nothing. Just my dick getting heavy and hard again. Why now? This is embarrassing. I can't hide it.
There's a commotion in the audience, muted voices, squabble, like two trumpets competing for the final solo. Two trumpets. One, my father stuttering the same phrase over and over again: Fucking faggot. Fucking faggot. Fucking faggot. The other, my mother shushing, her teeth together, her fingers to her lips, puckered. Shushing as she stands to Dad's command, his one hand on her elbow, the other holding an empty glass. She's fumbling for her coat and purse, trying not to let her eyes leave the stage. I can feel her eyes on me. Smack some sense into me. Knock the color off my skin. One more time. Don't see me, Dad, one more time, the bruises, the black eyes, the nose bleeds. Fucking faggot is all that he sees on this stage and he isn't turning around as he pushes Momma out the door.
I can see them clearly in the light of the theater's outer lobby, framed in the doorway. I'm not a part of them anymore. I'm not myself anymore. For two weeks, the time it takes to get my test results back, I will be on this stage, I will be a number. #000, triple naught. Negative, I hope. Going over every aspect of my life, every sexual encounter, every slap across my face, every heartbreak, every freckle on my skin.