The closure to their relationship was nearly formally done, with little or no rancour. It was simple. She was ready for marriage. He was not. He offered no particular reason for he knew of none except an unvoiced unpreparedness to make the final step—to formalize an already formal relationship. He staggered home, reeling from her ultimatum, resenting it. But he understood it. She was all in or all out. Her decision depended on him—the final decision was his to make—before she left. They parted as friends. He did not see her off at the airport, at her request.
Before, they had joked about the threat of separation to their lives. To this day he believed he was genuine when he released her to the possibility of other men with the single proviso that they be neither his friend nor his enemy. He had revolting images of friends secretly laughing at his invisible horns while consuming his scotch or that enemy—political or otherwise—telling other enemies that he wasn’t the bullshitting hotshot he thought he was—that he could not even control his woman. Her reaction made all that thinking null and void.
She was back home for a few days—Easter coinciding fortuitously with her father’s seventy-fifth birthday. They had danced together in the hotel ballroom under the admiring glances of her parents and the envy of their detractors, male and female. None knew their story; none could have guessed it from their intimacy. They led the toast to Pop’s long life. She spent time with friends catching up with six months of gossip and career moves in the Public Service and the regional bank—returning frequently to his knot of male cricket analyst friends, most of whom never held a real bat.
The excitement evaporated as they bid their goodbyes to the birthday gathering, a lengthy process – God, she knew everybody. They drove in silence—brooding, foreboding. It was their first time together since that night when they hugged and wished each other well. ‘Friends’ she offered then, ‘best of friends. I love you.’ Both knew what conversation was ahead.
She would have liked to explain, but didn’t, but couldn’t. She had met a man—African American of Jamaican parents, Harvey Clarke—who was on the same internship with the IMF as she was. He drove, she didn’t. The accepted offer of rides home in the evenings, freeing her from the early autumn Washington chill of the twenty minute walk to the bus stop, evolved into morning pick-ups, also. By the second week of shared daily commutes, he had learnt of her long relationship with Ralf. He had also gleaned her restrained eagerness to settle down. His divorce was only one year old—bitter—she was vindictive, was all he would explain, but he was healing.
And lunch and dinner and the visiting Broadway production of ‘Fela’ and the Saturday trip to the mall and the supermarket and Thanksgiving dinner with his mother and aunts, one of whom threatened to put some flesh on her bones as she heaped tons of turkey and barbecued ribs and collard greens and cornbread stuffing on the over-sized dinner plate; and the strolls around the National Mall and the Columbia Heights area—ducking in and out of art galleries, book shops and ninety-nine cents trinket shops; and her half-innocent invitation to coffee before he braved the drive home that midnight through the snowy treachery of the nation’s capital first nor’ easterner, an invitation that turned into a logical overnight stay, the first. His offer to sleep on the couch was relieving, welcome, but yet unnerving. Would she have welcomed him to her bed? She consoled her conflicting emotions with the certainty, even though temporary, that she never knew for she was never tested.
The certainty of habit and his reliability gave her security though. It also gave her a safe space to mull over the long distance of Ralf’s affection and their physical and temporal challenges to ‘settling down’. At no time did she think she was out of the relationship; at no time did she consider herself vulnerable to the charms and wit of other men; she was not available. And yet there was guilt.
She had begun to find Harvey attractive—his thereness and devotion, his patience. And so they settled into a deep emotional friendship, avoiding togetherness in tight spaces—he not ready; she content, not prepared for another nose dive, aware of her investment and love for Ralf; hoping.
He parked, unsure of his invitation, not prepared to assume. She was staying in her brother’s downstairs apartment—that is what it was called, downstairs apartment.
She made coffee, as instant as her decision to talk about them…about her. She was honest, non-evasive.
“I have been seeing somebody,” matter of fact.
“You know? How?”
“A collection of small things…” Women, Ralf thought, always lay claim to intuition, some special knowledge encoded in their DNA to know things before they should be known, to see things before they were seen—definitely before men knew or saw. But he knew, before she told him. Hers was not a confession.
“Don’t worry. Some of us men feel too. Some of us are not as dense as many women think.” He did not tell her of his observed change in the patterns and timing of her e-mails and telephone calls—recently now routinely either very early morning or late late night. Nor did he speak to the change of their nature, the loss of the frill ‘love-you’ comment, the lack of specificity about the weekend, the off-hand reference to ‘me and my friends’, curiously unnamed.
“You tell me—not I tell you.”
“What…tell you what?” It was not as easy as she thought.
“He is good to you?”
“He is good for you?”
“I think so—why? That is not an issue.”
“I want the best for you.”
“Well, you sound as if…”
“I am being honest. I really wish you the best.”
There were so many things she could say, so many questions she should ask but they all blurred into a demure, “Thanks.”
They sat in silence for a moment—her certainty disintegrating with each passing moment, with each yearning glance, with each unspoken thought, as did his masculinity. She escaped to the bedroom. He did not follow.
Minutes later she returned to meet him staring through the window. She had freed herself of the crimson strapless gown and push-up brassiere. She stood nervously at his side, reaching tentatively to rumple his hair, stroking the back of his neck and the tops of his shoulders. She hugged him from behind, turning him to face her, giving him the opportunity to derail her emotional stray, to end it, to re-claim her, to make her once again—forever his. He hesitated and as though sleepwalking, turned away from her proffered kiss, her offer of reconciliation. He could not do it. He could not kiss those lips that were once his, lips that were now shared. He had felt the press of her soft unfettered breasts below the T-shirt she wore, breasts that were once his but now knew the praise of other tongues—the rake of other teeth. He was unmoved—paralyzed by his own internal contradictions.
She tried one more time, still hugging him, “I do not think I love him. There is baggage, too much.”
“He has expectations—no?”
“I do not know…and even if he or I did, you have freed me.”
“I haven’t used the freedom.”
“So you say—so you all say.”
It was on that brutish note he left. He would later deny his double standards. There was nothing in his thinking that did not give her the freedoms that he assumed on to himself, the same himself he was trying to fool.
There was incongruity here, he was honest enough to recognise. Had he really—at least in recent times—ever kissed unkissed lips? When had he ever touched untouched breasts? When and where had he slept in beds that were unfamiliar to others? He blinked back uninvited tears…tears of loss, of pity, of ambiguity. He—the big man on campus; he—the airplane version of the legendary sailor-man with a home in every port; he—the suave modern-day Caribbean village ram; he—the Anancy king of the spider movement—morose, unprepared to accept the torment of his own fucked-up decisions.
She did not cry. Unlike him, she fought for and found solace. Harvey would be at Dulles International to pick her up tomorrow afternoon, actually this afternoon—honourable Harvey, who no longer had pain in his eyes.
•••Sunshine Award winner Dorbrene E. O’Marde stokes many fires in our Caribbean cultural world. He is best known as playwright, director and producer (theatre and music), and a calypso writer, judge and analyst. His essays have appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines and as author his first novel Send out You Hand was published in 2012. This was followed in 2013 by his biography of King Short Shirt/Mclean Emanuel, Nobody Go Run Me. O’Marde is Chairperson of the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Support Commission.