As a gift to our potential members, Live From Planet Earth offers 2 chapters from the forthcoming novel Let Me Look at You, a 21st-century urban tale of post-Black survival, art, and love. Join us today with a monthly contribution to help us publish this project in full, printed and perfect-bound for all 1-year members (annual or 12 consecutive months).
Michael J. Wilson
Let Me Look at You (2021).
The Liberator Magazine
(artwork: Madeline Lafontant)
I woke up to the sound of a wooden table snapping and crunching in the back of a garbage truck outside. It's always during the most pacifying dreams that the waking world puts together an orchestra of grating noises to rouse you from your peace. Nothing is worse than the scraping sound of my doorbell, which is why I cut the wire to it. I rarely turn the ringer up on my phone. I keep my windows shut in the summer to try and drown out the noise of car stereos and home entertainment systems, but the bass still rattles my walls. I think a perfect day for me would include sitting silently with Contessa by my side and maybe a little rain, or even better, heavy snow so that I wouldn't have to put up with the ruckus of snarling buses and wailing ambulance sirens (...)
The first thing that I remembered after the sweet image of Contessa had vanished momentarily from my mind was that I was still very poor. I reached for my wallet in the back pocket of a pair of jeans I had hanging on the closet door. I opened it and it was empty.
At that time, I had a job. I worked as a counselor for drug-abusing high school students. Most of the kids were dropouts trying to finish their GED requirements and remain clean, but I don't think any of them quit using drugs entirely. It was my job to oversee the progress of a small group of students by visiting their homes during the week to help them with their studies and talk to them about any problems they were having. After these meetings, I would add comments about each student to his or her individual file, which then had to be turned in to my boss, Rosa, every two weeks. Rosa's office was on Wall Street and going to visit her there always made me feel very important, even if all the big finance companies had fled lower Manhattan since 9/11 leaving vacancies to be filled by mismanaged non-profits like the one I worked for. Signing-in in the lobby, taking the elevator to the seventeenth floor, looking at all the workers going back and forth between offices and bathrooms—it gave me the sense that I belonged to something larger and more important than the dreary little world of my room with its internet and empty, unwashed bowls. It was an easy job too, aside from the visits to Rosa, I had complete freedom to arrange my schedule however I liked, so long as I recorded two visits per week with each student. A visit was supposed to last two hours, but I was usually able to leave in fifteen minutes because people don't like visits from social worker-types to begin with. Some of the families were friendlier, but most were happy to see me close my binder and walk out the door. With shortened sessions, I could take on more students and that meant more money. On average, I made about three thousand dollars a month—if I felt really sinister, I could take home five.
I was broke now because I hadn't been to visit any of my students since first becoming obsessed with Contessa. I'd spent the last couple of weeks submerged in the depression of defeat, I started feeling ugly and out of shape and very few events interested me but those feelings passed and, feeling reinvigorated, I pledged to get some more money, find Contessa and show her that she had made a mistake in being with anyone but me.
The rent for my room was due soon so I had to hurry. Any day now, old, evil, plodding Randall was going to come knocking on my door with his ashy fist, asking dryly, "You got the rent?" I was motivated by this and grabbed the necessary folder and paperwork describing the case of Erin Greene, a marijuana-abusing dropout who was now twenty years old and unable to read much of anything. His forms stated that he had been a masterful dodger of school, having somehow evaded truancy and absence notices for three years. He was only discovered after Mr. Chapman, a teacher who was taking his science class on a field trip to the Natural History Museum using the trains, was teased by some of his students for not recognizing "Erin Greene" whose name had been called every day of the semester without a response and whom they had just seen walking on the platform of the C train at Euclid with his mother and younger sister. Embarrassed and uncertain, Mr. Chapman took it upon himself to ask the mother if everything was all right, seeing as how Erin hadn't been to class in several weeks. Ms. Greene was baffled. Finally captured in this manner, Erin confessed everything to his mother right there on the platform and re-enrolled in school. Later, when it was discovered by his schoolmates that he was the oldest freshman in the school's one hundred fourteen-year history, he was forced to dropout once more on account of all the jokes being made about his "senior citizen" status. He endured those taunts for two daunting and friendless years, all the while developing an insatiable appetite for weed and cheap cognac. Finally, after being called to the principal's office under suspicion of selling weed on campus, he was expelled and recommended for the BRIGHT Program where I was assigned to help him get his life together.
Now, to get to Erin's place, I had to take the bus on a solemn journey to the very back of the city, which is East New York. I say that this bus ride was solemn because everybody always seemed grimmer once we crossed New Lots Avenue into that neighborhood of barbed-wire fences and burned couches waiting at the curb.
I gathered just enough change from my drawer to cover the bus fare there and back and went out the door quietly so as not to alert the brooding Randall, who I was certain was upstairs with his ear pressed to the door or his head hovering out over the steps waiting to catch me as I left. I made it out undetected. Outside, December was approaching, but November was doing its best to keep the inevitable snows at bay. The sky was silver and sunless but there was still some light. The uninterrupted grey of the clouds looked hard like stone and I imagined the sky itself cracking and revealing some unfathomable scene behind it, like God in her dressing room. My old friends, the brownstones, stood proudly, ever ready like sentinels on the night watch, all lined up together at the shoulders with their longing, darkened windows forever staring across the streets at each other. Half a block ahead, I saw my bus cross the intersection, so I ran to join the line of passengers queuing up to board. As it turned out, I was ten cents short on the fare, but the bus driver was impatient and unconcerned and agitated with traffic and crammed passengers who were unwilling to make room for the newly boarded. Without even looking at me, he waved his hand as if batting at a gnat and said, "Hurry up."
Everyone on the bus eyed me suspiciously as if my presence meant that they would have to share an already low supply of food with me. At each stop, two people would get off and ten more would get on. The traffic jam we found ourselves in felt unjustified; there were no accidents, no broken stoplights, just people fighting like rats over a few inches of spaces in a given lane. In the midst of this congested nightmare, one of the passengers, completely invisible to me, began preaching a fiery sermon on Daniel in the lion's den. The preacher was furious, and his quotation of scripture carried such a dazzling note of sincerity and charisma that some of the passengers couldn't help themselves and yelled "Amen." The preacher's terrifying assault on the sinner came next and was followed by ominous warnings about the return of Christ. A large portion of the congregation soon lost interest and one enraged passenger came right out with it, yelling out, "Shut the fuck up, please!"
Tension spread throughout the bus; some of the riders sided with the preacher while the others grew more unsettled. It had gotten so crowded that I was no longer holding on to the rail above my head. I was packed so tightly I could do nothing but stand up straight and listen to the preaching.
Although I was hedged in from every side, it wasn't claustrophobia that was responsible for my agitation. It wasn't the creeping odor that began to fill the bus or even the general want of personal space. What really bothered me was being unable to get my phone out of my pocket so that I could look at Contessa's profile to see if she'd added any new pictures. If Contessa had been standing there next to me she would have liked to hear that sermon and perhaps we would have both glanced over at each other and smiled about it, knowing we had just silently established a little inside joke together, something we could bring up later that night or over the phone and laugh about. Although shrewd and cunning, Marcelle did not have the higher type of personality necessary to share brief and delicate moments with people around him. Boorish people, like Marcelle, were incapable of camaraderie; the savage nature of their upbringing and its constant state of paranoia and hunger forced people like Marcelle to rely on banditry and cheap flattery so as to keep everyone around them reeling and off-balance.
I missed my stop. I was now in an unfamiliar part of Brooklyn because the bus had made a detour around some construction. I was jammed in the center of the bus too. Everything outside looked miserable, impoverished, vandalized, and shuttered and the sun was setting. I pressed the tape above the rail to get off at the next stop. I was the only person getting off at that stop and people grunted at me as I squeezed by them to get to the door. Standing on the sidewalk again I sort of missed the back-of-the-bus-preacher's voice. It was calming even though his frightening message wasn't. I went for my phone and used the map to find out just how far from Erin's I was—about six blocks. The important thing was to not look stupid and lost. There were some people hanging around, wobbling in front of a fried chicken spot, pulling on the last bits of cigarettes. Homeless people, winos, hookers, and even dopeheads are generally not a big problem. I find them to be rather polite if you just say, "No, I don't have it, sorry." They usually don't have time to sit around and keep begging the same person for money. But that logic only worked for me in Bed-Stuy; these East New York stragglers were persistent. It wasn't so much that they begged more, but that they were more insistent on not being so easily dismissed.
I was about a block away from Erin's when I turned a corner and was approached by a haggard man. He walked up to me decisively, wearing a tattered black trench coat with a wool sweater beneath and brown pants full of stains. He did not have an odor, which was my primary concern as he invaded my personal space before catching himself and backing up a bit out of courtesy. He had an untrimmed beard and yellow eyes though, I admit, he did not go about with the usual delirious look of defeat so common among street people. He had a spark of intelligence in his face and he addressed me with the greatest poise.
"Excuse me young brother, now look now, look... I don't mean to bother you in the least. I can see from how you' dressed right now that you' got very important things to get to so I don't want to keep you for too long, I don't want to take up too much of your time, but the Lord put something on my heart to share with you. And, I'm gon' say too that I'm not out here on nobody's drugs or out here begging nobody for anything. I believe a strong and able-bodied man should work for his food and work for his money; it builds character, and character is something that a lot of all these young brothers don't have no more, because they've tried to extinguish all that good character out of our community. Let me be one hundred percent honest with you and say right now though that I am an alcoholic, but I don't touch no crack cocaine or no heron, and I'm not anybody's criminal—just to assure you, young brother. Like I said, the Lord put it on my heart to come up and share something with you, and I think it would be to your benefit if you listened to this good word.
"Now, check this out, you might find it hard to believe, looking at the way I look right now, but there was once a time, not too long ago, when I had it going on just like you, but at that time I was using drugs and living in sin and I allowed those things to come in and take over my life. I was an abuser and a user, you understand what I'm saying? I was a loser and an abuser and a user. Heh, heh. I'm going to show you my wallet just so you know that I'm telling the truth, I ain't trying to run no game on nobody. Here we go, see that? That's my expired drivers license from 2012 and if you look closely you can also see that I used to live on the Upper West Side, I was well to do, I made money, I was a professor, I had a good life with a beautiful wife and three smart and beautiful children. I was living the good life for about nine years until them drugs got inside me and tore me away from my family. My wife left me and she took the kids with her and I ain't seen none of them for the last, what, five years? And look at this, this is my American Express card. See it has my name on it, "Thomas Cooper." That's to prove that I didn't steal this wallet. All of the contents, including the three dollars inside, belong to me.
"I'm sure you're probably still asking yourself, "What the hell does this old fool want?" but I assure you that I'm just trying to share my testimony with you young brother. Now, do you know what the word acclimate means? To become acclimated to something means to become accustomed to or, better yet, used to something, so you could say that I became acclimated to my lifestyle on the Upper West Side and certain kinds of entertainment and certain types of food... You know for a long time I didn't eat any meat? No pork, no ham, no beef, no chicken, no veal, no turkey, no flesh, because I was eating the best, the freshest vegetables, the seasonal vegetables. I had bok choy and swiss chard and I was eating that stuff everyday and I felt so good in the morning and so healthy and just fresh inside and out and my kids, well, I didn't force them to eat what I ate, but they liked how I would season my vegetables and they sort of played at becoming vegetarian too, but not my wife, no, she loved her meat, she would make the best chicken, but she still liked to eat those vegetables and that bok choy with me.
"Now, you would think with all of that going on for me, that I liked to date white women, but no, no, no. My wife was black, real black, you know what I mean, because she was from Georgia, and darker than me. Stay away from them white women young brother. Even though they love smart brothers like you and me, do your best to stay away from them because they don't want nothing but those African nuts, and once they get them... Well, what do you think happens to a man, to an African man when he loses his nuts? Think about that young brother. Think about that young king.
"Now I know I went on for a while, but I had to speak to you out of love and concern for you, because we are brothers, young brother, and I wish you all the best success on your path and I only ask that you bless me if you can young brother. I'm very hungry this evening and if you can find it in your heart to help me out with anything just so I could get a sandwich to eat tonight..."
Without any delay I went for my wallet only to be reminded again that it was empty. I searched through my other pockets hoping desperately to find a few quarters to help the old man. His story, even if it was just a scam, had touched me. The only coins I had were those I needed to take the bus back home after leaving Erin's—there was no way I could walk. There was nothing in my pockets so I had to tell him that I couldn't help him. He didn't miss a beat. The old man simply waved another blessing at me and bid me farewell. When I looked back after him, he had already turned the corner and disappeared into the night.
I was finally at the entrance to the housing project where Erin lived. The Montgomery Houses was a vast collection of brick cages that had seemingly burst forth from their graves, surrounded by dead trees and garbage. The buildings looked frightening from the ground as you walked up, everything was dark and it took a moment to realize that the blacked-out holes dotting the exteriors were actually windows to apartments with human beings living inside. There were a couple of playgrounds with brand-new equipment although each was empty because of the cold. People stood outside of the entrances to some of the buildings carrying on conversations about the upcoming election or else silently dragging on menthol cigarettes. Trash bags had been piled up in clumps against the iron gates; someone had even detached a kitchen sink and counter and left it in the middle of a walkway.
After some assistance with the door—I still had not mastered the trick of getting it to open without a key the way the residents had—I found myself in the flickering lights of the hallway. A man in a wheelchair had fallen asleep waiting on one of the two unreliable elevators. "9E" was the apartment number and when the elevator crashed into place and ripped open I stepped inside over a puddle of piss and pressed "9". On the way up, I looked at Contessa's new profile pictures. She was still gorgeous, although she was fully-covered in winter clothes now. Her hair was still billowing and full of life. I thought about the little flower she wore the night we danced together then the doors opened. I took a big step again, so as not to step in the piss which I had almost forgotten about, and I rang the bell at 9E.
I feel very manly when I walk in the door to Mrs. Greene's apartment. She's older than me of course, maybe in her forties, but she welcomes me every time as if I were a father coming home to his family. She smiles at me with pretty teeth and the lines in her face disappear for just a moment as she walks me into the living room where a comfortable seat is waiting along with a glass of water and maybe even a bowl of soup. The children are in the back rooms, hidden. She always wears something loose-fitting, so as not to give off the wrong impression too plainly, but her strut is impressive and she moves about the small, dim apartment with grace, welcoming me to my seat before she yells for Erin to join me at the table.
"Erin, come on, Mr. Bellinger is here," she says before turning back to me and smiling.
There is always music playing when I arrive. This time she was playing a song I had never heard by the singer Mary J. Blige. The music is too loud and, noticing my raised eyebrows, she lowers the volume completely, which gives way to the music playing in the back of the apartment. The smell of fried shrimp reaches me before the lyrics from Erin's room do but, eventually, I can make out the words,
"It ain't nothing to chop that bitch off/
It ain't nothing to chop that bitch off/
Stupid bitch be on the nuts tho'/
Crazy hoe be trying to front tho'/
I bust that nut and then I'm gone tho'/
Stupid hoe be like, 'don't go.'"
Silent embarrassment washed over me after hearing those lyrics from the back room, which the highly perceptive and dutiful Ms. Greene picked-up on immediately. I wasn't embarrassed for myself, having heard the song hundreds of times from passing cars outside of my bedroom window. I was embarrassed for Ms. Greene. She went through great pains to give me the impression that her household was a stable and sustainable one for Erin to study and remain drug-free in. It's true, I never smelled marijuana when I came to their apartment, but it wouldn't have been out of the ordinary from what I usually saw in most of the apartments I visited. Some of the other parents had boyfriends who wouldn't even bother to turn down the television or put out the Blunt, let alone acknowledge my presence. The mothers, always a bit ashamed of their boyfriends' behavior, would smile graciously and guide me to a quieter, more hidden part of the apartment to begin working with the delinquent student. I was always able to tell how often a man stayed in the apartment by how filthy it looked.
Ms. Greene's was a clean apartment, but it was cramped and the presence of a lurking twenty-year-old son only made it feel even more suffocating. The daughter, who was not home this time, had even begun having her boyfriend visit, so often that he too was becoming a member of the household. Still, it had always been a relief to cross the threshold at Ms. Greene's.
As for the obscene music, I even had to be honest with myself and say that it wasn't embarrassment that I felt for Ms. Greene after all; it was really only a small surprise, something akin to the feeling we get when someone shows up with an unexpected but useless gift, which we take with a rush of gratitude only to sit beside a similar gift that we had just received only yesterday; I hadn't expected to hear those lyrics, but I shouldn't have expected much else. It's pretty much the case these days that no matter where you go, whether to a mall or a small bakery or just to a good friend's house, there's going to be some kind of music playing. If there is no music, you'll suddenly notice how awkward everyone gets just sitting there having to listen to that little buzz in their ears—which is the sound of the brain remembering what it's actually meant to do—and before long, unable to endure the silence any longer, someone will stand up and ask, "Have you heard this?" and begin playing this week's new hit. The fact that Erin's choice was such a ratchet song has no extra bearing on the original problem, which is the loss of silence, and not merely the foul language or the pornographic content that replaces it. After all, at twenty, Erin is an adult and is entitled to listen to whatever he likes.
Still, something has to be said about a barrage of songs that condone "nutting on a bitch's weave, flooding the streets with the best dope, and treating these monkey-hoes like some garbage on the floor." However crude the lyrics, these songs continue to be among the most popular and it can't be simply because they're all so profane. You can't go anywhere in the neighborhood for too long without hearing some young person chanting one of the hooks and yet the hooks themselves are often the trashiest part of the song. I guess that's what makes all of this new Black music so funny; on the one hand, one might take up the argument that all of the vulgarity is merely a radical resituating of language; the former slaves have finally managed to make English say something that isn't dry and evasive. Instead, they manipulated the language to say something revolutionary and breathtakingly honest. What American—no matter his color—doesn't like having a selection of pussy catering to his need, multiple cars to drive around and floss in, endless amounts of cash to flex with? And what's more, selling dope is nothing more than a metaphor for that most-American of practices: hustling, which more and more has become the only way to get money and women and, most importantly, security in this land of failed banks and toxic mortgages. Without hustling, what would America be? The fact that low-income black criminals and other social misfits and outsiders have found a way to explain all of this in tantalizing, simple, and musical terms is nothing less than a testament to the creative genius of the Nigga.
But sadly, that can't be the whole of it now can it? We have to account for the raging ignorance such music has become the soundtrack to. We have to also account for its sharp contrast to the truly dynamic and virtuosic masters of music, all those greats who played actual instruments and sang about love and God and all the beautiful, hopeful parts of life. In the face of all that beauty and joy—the kind of music that allowed the slaves to maintain their dignity even while being whipped and raped; the kind of music that encouraged a woman to walk bravely amid the police dogs and fire hoses aimed at her—in the face of such history, the music flowing from Erin Greene's bedroom was, at best, unadulterated nonsense; nothing but cyclical, elementary, brute ignorance designed to captivate the dumb and entice the feeble, and what's more it represented a cloaked attack on the Black race in particular, in the form of hypnosis and entertainment, subterfuge involving the tom tom, which has always been so irresistible for black people.
"Boy turn that stupid mess off, Mr. Bell is here for you!" Ms. Green yelled out and just as quickly, the music was muted and Erin came out shyly to the kitchen table where I was sitting with his file open in front of me.
"Good evening Mr. Bellinger," he said, taking a seat, reluctantly, across from me.
After we exchanged greetings, I looked down at our progress sheet to see what we might be able to finish during the session. I also wanted to see Contessa badly. The sheet indicated that it was time for me to give Erin his piss cup for the drug test he was supposed to take in the next few days, but I had lost that some weeks ago. There was also a math assessment that he was due to take and luckily I did have a copy of that. As I gathered the necessary forms, Erin sat there uninterested; he looked rather annoyingly at the sheet of math problems.
"Now, you remember the last time I was here, I gave you that English assessment," I began ceremoniously; it was important not to let the GED students feel too friendly with the caseworker. "This time I want you to do another one, except it will be in math."
"Nah son, I don't fuck with math," he said plainly, pushing the test sheet back toward me.
"Watch your damn mouth, E!" said Ms. Greene with concern.
"It's just an assessment to help you get ready for the GED test," I went on carefully, "You've got to be prepared or else you'll have to stay in this program and keep trying to take the test over and over."
"What kind of math is it?" He pulled the worksheet back and examined it with his mouth hanging open, frowning. "Yo, can you just take it for me since it's not even the real test? These questions look too hard for me anyway, I'm not at that level."
"If I took the test for you that would defeat the purpose of assessing you to see where you need help," I said, trying to maintain an air of authority.
"And I'm telling you right now, mistah, I can't do none of this. Them question look hard as shit, yo. I can't pass that."
"It's not about passing or—"
"So you saying I can fail?"
I said yes before realizing the trap he had set. When he gave the assessment back to me five minutes later I saw that he had filled in "A" for all fifty of the multiple-choice questions. He hadn't tried to work through any of the problems; the instructions were to "add and subtract positive and negative integers." It was still my responsibility to grade the assessment and because he had not taken the test seriously I basically ended up having to "take" it for him. A large part of me wanted to say, "Fine then, you dumb little nigga," and tear the test to shreds but it would have broken poor Ms. Greene's heart.
She was standing near the stove looking at Erin and I with so much pride. Her boy was finally getting his act together, finally getting serious about life—"he gon' be a doctor..."
Erin Greene scored a seventeen percent on the assessment. I smiled spuriously at Ms. Greene when I shook her hand goodbye. The next day, I called Rosa and told her to drop the Greenes from my roster and I haven't seen any of them ever since.
November finally gave way to December and I took the transition in stride. It was the fifth year in a row that I would spend Thanksgiving alone. I'm not big on holidays and my relationship to my family back in Virginia is strained, to put it gently. You might even say that I grew up all alone, in my own head, although I have siblings—one younger sister and an older sister who is now in prison for murder—we never were very close. My parents separated while I was in high school, mainly because my father was an alcoholic and a philanderer, but my mother was no saint either; she was a gold digger, who never fully respected my father because he spent the little money he did have on drinking and taking out other women. My gift, to myself, was being accepted to college and leaving that life behind. I haven't been back home to visit in two years and probably won't go back until someone dies. I don't mean to seem so disenchanted with my family, suffice it to say that the torture and despair I experienced growing up back in Virginia will make for a fine book, which I promise to write just as soon as I have Contessa and maybe start a normal family of my own, that way there won't be so many tears on the pages.
December opened with a few brilliant days of sun and on the first Friday of the month I received an invitation to attend a panel discussion on opening night at the Brooklyn Institute of Fine Art. The artist Theodore Mdembe was going to present a work that promised to be more titillating and controversial than anything he had done before, including his most recent show, which featured the artist placing himself inside a 10x10 foot steel cage in the middle of a museum in London and living there, naked, for a whole two months. The Internet went into hysterics when it was discovered that Mdembe wanted nothing more than bowls for food and water and a metal pan to be used as a bathroom—all three were cleaned as often as possible. Although he was only on display for four hours a day, the artist chose to remain in the cage even after the museum closed. The show was a humongous success and was touted as the most provocative statement on race in the 21st century, surpassing even Kara Walker's sugar mammy sphinx which had been erected in an abandoned sugar factory on the Brooklyn waterfront just a couple of years before.
I accepted the invitation without question. I'd always considered myself a great lover of the arts and had been to one of Mdembe's shows before, in Chicago, where he managed to perform a tap dance routine non-stop for twelve hours. The show was given the same amount of praise as the one in London, but there was a segment of reviewers who thought the show had been the work of nothing more than an art-house coon. As for me, I was conflicted; the performance was beautiful and the skill involved was superb—but he did tap-dance for twelve hours. According to the artist himself, the point of all his work was "to amuse and enrage, to seduce the audience into ignoring their politically correct thinking for a moment before finally realizing that they were committing the same crime as the racists they'd been taught to despise."
I purchased one ticket and then went about getting an outfit together for the next night. I kept it plain—faded blue jeans, brown boots, a dark green wool shirt and a heavy coat with matching scarf and gloves. I put some cash in a small envelope and slid it under Randall's door upstairs. Next I made myself a small bowl of canned chili, which I ate along with an apple and a glass of tap water. During my meal, I looked at pictures of Contessa; she'd added one new picture of her holding a cat that probably belonged to one of her girlfriends. She was still stunning, but she was clutching the cat like someone who doesn't have anyone to share a laugh with before she goes to bed. Maybe I was just reading too much into it, but what good is it not to have little innocent fantasies about the people we want? It's just a little harmless daydream, but sometimes those daydreams become so vivid and sumptuous that I get nervous and have to stop looking at her pictures all together. In such cases, when the savory memory of Contessa becomes unbearable, I let it all vanish and retreat back to the mundane reality of my computer desk.
The best remedy to neutralize those kinds of thoughts, I've found, is to look at the pictures of people I care very little about. I closed the window with Contessa's pictures, went to Instagram in my phone, and searched for the hashtag "#mdembeBIFA" and saw seventeen people had already posted screenshots of their ticket purchases followed by such captions as "so ready for this;" "its going 2b totally epic;" and "not excited about this #coonery, but a friend bought my ticket ☹." I switched back to my feed to see if any of the people I followed had posted anything noteworthy. There was Grace Hampton who had purchased a new dog, some sort of Chihuahua mix, with teeth that were too large for its head. There was also the spaghetti dinner, which did look appetizing, although Patrice Clark, the cook, summarily ruined the dish in the final picture by dumping Parmesan cheese over the entire bowl like some kind of fiend. I admired Chris Dalton's use of filter in his ongoing road trip project, and I also enjoyed the underground photographer Josephine Booker's explorative collection of abandoned brownstones and empty lots throughout Brooklyn and the Bronx. On Facebook, Camron Freeman was hosting a meandering debate in his timeline. The subject involved a pair of male rappers who had put out a sextape and statement proudly embracing their homosexuality and encouraging other black celebrities to come out of the closet in similar fashion. There were eighty-seven comments, with most of the opinions in favor of the rappers' actions, though some people had enough audacity to type out, "they're tools of the White Man" and even, "nasty fucking fags smh." Part of me felt the urge to get enraged and join the debate, but if I had attracted the attention of anyone in the thread with a particularly witty or snide comment, I would have to stay up with the conversation until the end and I didn't have time for that. Beyond that, there wasn't much else of interest. I put the phone on the charger and went straight to bed.
The next morning, I was startled out of bed by a banging sound in the hallway. I opened my door cautiously and looked out to see Randall pulling a loveseat down the stairs. There was also a small side table holding open the front door of the building. There was never any mention that he was going to be moving out, but sure enough there was a big truck waiting out front with its hazard lights on and I could see that there was a bed already loaded inside of it. He was in a hurry as he struggled to get the loveseat to fit between the handrails. Although it came as a relief to see him taking his things out to the truck, I wondered what I would have to do about the rent. Ever since I'd moved into my room, I always paid my rent to Randall in cash; I never once met the actual landlord. I wasn't sure what I'd have to do about the rent or if I'd have to move out soon as well. At least I'd have the bathroom to myself for a while. I called out to Randall to find out what was going on.
"I'll tell you all about it later tonight," he said without looking at me, keeping his focus on the stubborn loveseat. "If anyone comes around here looking for me just tell them I went out of town a few days ago."
And with that, he finally got the chair down and out of the front door. He loaded the loveseat in the back of the truck, shut the door nervously and sped off in the truck over a speed bump. What else could I do but wait to talk to him later that night?
The wind was starting to pick up outside so I stayed in bed for the rest of the day until it was time to get ready for the museum. I spent the majority of the time on my phone of course, reading mildly interesting articles and taking casual note of the various updates to my friends' profiles. I came across a blog post condemning Mdembe for being a "culture vulture" of the African American experience on account of him being a Nigerian artist who worked exclusively on subject matter related to American slavery. The post pointed out that the artist only came to America for graduate school and thus had no real connection to, "The Black American Experience." I wondered if the blogger lived in Brooklyn, and whether or not she would be coming to tonight's event.
The opening was set to begin at seven o'clock so I left the house at six anticipating a long line to get inside. I was right; when I came up from the train at the BIFA station, the line was snaking around the corner and doubling back on itself. In spite of the cold, there was an absolute frenzy outside the museum. Apart from the line, there was a large crowd of onlookers who seemed satisfied knowing that they wouldn't be able to get tickets, that it was worth standing in the cold just to get a look at all of the people who were actually going inside.
The museum building itself was impressive. The BIFA is housed in a neo-classical structure that sits at the triangular intersection formed by Flatbush, Atlantic, and 6th Avenues with its facade facing the southern approach of Flatbush. From there, I was able to see three large, vertical banners hanging from the building's cornice and each one featured a striking, if not garish, close up of Mdembe's face. The first banner showed the artist smiling widely with his teeth clenched tightly together; the second focused exclusively on his bulging eyes and raised brows; the final banner zeroed in on the artist's nose, the nostrils of which were flared up as if the picture had been taken just before he was about to sneeze. Viewed from the avenue, with the brake lights and headlights of the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the banners gave the impression that a giant black man was inside the museum, shackled behind a curtain on a stage, waiting to be viewed by a clueless public.
The massive crowd outside was still growing and in true New York fashion, the newly arrived were creating a spectacle of expensive winter coats and hats and dazzling scarves. A veritable fashion show was coming into form near the entrance as the ticketholders arrived in cabs or from the subway station. Every variation of natural hair was to be seen on the heads of the women, from dyed locks, to two-toned afros, and intricate arrangements of braids. Some of the men wore beards and fedoras, long wool coats, and leather gloves, while others sported expensive sneakers or seasonal dress shoes. About a third of the crowd wore glasses. They all looked smart and you could hear sophisticated opinions being shared relating to Mdembe's oeuvre and the nature of Black art. There were a few local celebrities in line attempting to look nondescript, perhaps upset that they were forced to wait on line with everyone else. The singer, Joanna Knight, known for her modern take on the slave work songs, was there with an unknown woman, perhaps on a date. Chelsea Little, the digital artist highly regarded for her pixelated portraits of black vaginas, was standing near me and laughing and smoking cigarettes with an adoring group of friends. Everett Benson, who had made a name for himself with a recently published memoir, was also nearby, immersed in some profane debate with two other people.
I was standing in line taking all of this in when, at fourteen past seven, the line began to move. There must have been two hundred people ahead of me and an equal number behind me. People were starting to take pictures of themselves, their friends, and the immense banners when I saw Contessa walking right past me toward the end of the line. She was alone. She was wearing a marvelous, burgundy overcoat with black leather gloves and boots. There was her red lipstick and blush again and her famously spirited blowout. She didn't see me as she walked by and I worried that she might be looking to meet up with Marcelle, but my instincts told me that, if anything, he would never come to an opening, it was more likely that he was somewhere planning an after party instead. It took every drop of reserve to keep myself from calling out to Contessa and offering her a place on line. That would have been too overt and thirsty and I needed to make the best of this opportunity.
The line lurched forward at a constant pace now and, soon enough, I was able to see the ticket scanners at the entrance. It was my first time dealing with them, but I watched as other people went in without pulling out their phones to show their tickets; the little machine just scanned it off of your phone even if it was in your pocket. I thought that was very convenient. Once inside, I followed the people ahead of me to another set of doors where about fifty of us had to stand and wait for a short time. Everyone was excited. Finally, an official opened the doors and motioned us to come inside.
The gallery space turned out to be a vast hall, maybe three hundred feet wide and five hundred feet long, with a ceiling some thirty stories above. The entire space was filled with man-made trees and grass, taking on the look of a lush forest. The intricacy and detail of the trees was astonishing, each being carved with great care, the trunks and branches looking naturally twisted, gnarled, more so by the passage of many seasons than by the painstaking labor of the artist. There was even an artificial stream with glittering water bounded by a dreamlike array of flowers in various and vivid colors. A mesmerizing assortment of papier mâché butterflies was sitting amid the flowers, and the ceiling and walls had been painted to resemble a soft, purple evening sky. It was as if we had come across an undiscovered enchanted forest. For a brief moment, you would have thought we had entered a veritable paradise, complete with boulders to frolic around in, until you noticed that there were black bodies hanging from some of the branches, some of them burned to a crisp and some of them "fresh" except for the little streams of artificial blood running down the exposed breasts, backs, and legs. The artist seemed to take even greater care in rendering the facial expressions of the would-be corpses than he did in the detail of the trees; each face was contorted with pain and bewilderment, a few even featured swollen tongues jutting out of their mouths. There must have been about twenty "bodies" representing men and women, with their genitals in full view, either attached or in the grass just beneath them. The entire setting was a fusion of fantasy and nightmare, and it soon struck me with the qualities of an insane hallucination. I was dumbfounded. Some of the spectators actually turned to leave but the more adventurous went ahead and touched the bodies, surprised that they actually swung.
I realized then that a great amount of time had passed since I'd felt genuinely stunned by something. If I take the moment that Contessa first called out my name on the train as the highest and most paralyzing degree of amazement I'd ever felt, this "Nigger Forest" came to approach that feeling but it did not surpass it. With that first encounter with Contessa, the affair was intoxicating but private; the other passengers in the train car had no notion of the sudden warmth that rushed me then, they didn't notice the parade of pride and the succulent tension that builds after being recognized in a crowd. Little moments like that, the brief rushes of joy and alarm we get to experience without ever calling attention to ourselves, really are remarkable because we feel immediately changed without anyone else being the wiser. It was something just for me. But to walk into a gallery of lynching, now that was all together embarrassing—not because I felt any particular shame at having to look at such a deliciously vicious portrayal of history—it was embarrassing because it was clear that I was at a loss for how to account for what I was viewing, just like everyone else. We were collectively stupefied and although it's true that some reacted by touching the bodies admiringly or else by taking pictures and smiling the way people used to do in those old lynching postcards, I was willing to wager that no one really knew what to make of the scene—they were just better at me at hiding it.
I caught sight of Contessa just as a small group of people was moving on from spinning one of the bodies. Contessa stopped the body from swinging and moved in closer to examine the feet. She was still alone. I walked right up to her.
"Hi, Simone. What's up? Is Marcelle here, too?" I had to get the formalities out of the way.
She looked at me quizzically for a second, then recognized me.
"Oh, hi, Adrian!" She smiled and opened her arms to hug me. I wanted to hold on to her for longer, naturally, but I kept my composure and stepped back a little.
"Yeah, um, Marcelle didn't want to come, he hates Mdembe. I didn't know you were into him?"
"Me? Oh, yes! I've been into his work for years. I saw his last big show in Chicago and I thought it was amazing," I said, happy to have found some common ground.
Apparently, the shocking display of lynched bodies did nothing to disturb Contessa, she was smiling and freely touching the feet and examining the streams of blood as if they were dresses in a department store. She had no reservations whatsoever, but I still wasn't sure if it was all just an act to hide her confusion. Then again, she looked entirely dedicated to those bloodied feet; she was displaying a morbid side that I hadn't been able to glean from any of her social media. Just when you think you've got a person figured out, they come out of left field as a necrophiliac.
"He's been working on these cadavers for three years; there is a total of fifteen of them in this exhibit and each one contains a full model skeleton inside. He said he based the faces of each body on his own family members, as well. The ambition in the corpses alone shows his mastery of sculpture, to say nothing of the surrounding forest."
I nodded in agreement, desperately hoping that her admiration ended with the work and did not extend to the artist himself. Just the same, I was now willing to read every book about Mdembe so that I could always have something to talk to Contessa about. For now it seemed that so long as I was able to stand and listen, I would get to be next to her all evening.
"I think, on the whole, the piece isn't even about slavery or Jim Crow, or at least it's about something even deeper than the two. He has managed to get a diverse group of people to contemplate a brutal era in American history, that's certainly true, but he's also managed to make it beautiful, and that's the genius of it, he's taken the whole, "We Shall Overcome" bullshit and made it gorgeous instead of just pitiful.
"It's got the same mystical, eerie quality as Doris Ulman's 'Baptism in the River,' especially with regard to the construction of the forest setting, but there's also an element of Aaron Douglas' silhouettes in his Harriet Tubman mural. And also take note of the bodies, which borrow so tastefully from Eldzier Cortor's nudes. And though it's all so serene, it's captured that same frenzy of movement found in Barnes' 'Sugar Shack,' as if the bodies were dancing in their nooses. Now turn this way," she said taking me by the shoulder, "and you can see how he even put little paintings on some of the leaves, they're a bit hard to see from a distance, but those are little Adinkra symbols stamped on the undersides of the leaves. The symbol means mmere dane, or 'life changes'... I'm also really impressed that he chose to stay away from the silhouette method, and instead camouflage the bodies against the backdrop of the forest; it adds to the unsettling experience of walking into a paradise only to realize it's actually a kind of hell. The use of natural colors for the skin, which is also taut and shiny when it isn't burnt or scarred too much, lets us know that the victims were real people—young and supple individuals at that. I'm almost certain that if we could reach up to the eyelids and pull them back, we would find that only some of them have brown eyes. I mean, look at that one—it's light-skinned with reddish hair and freckles. And look at the teeth on this one, some of them are missing. If only we could get closer to the hair..."
Contessa moved around the gallery with the comfort of a coroner in a morgue, coupled with the jubilance of a child surrounded by new presents, stopping to examine one before being pulled away by yet another charm beside it. She was absolutely serious about her analysis of the work and this confirmed my hypothesis that if she wasn't a photographer, she was definitely immersed in the arts. I also couldn't help but feel that it wasn't me she was talking to at all, but to some invisible pupil following her around taking hurried notes for an upcoming exam. At times, she would go on talking even when her back was turned to me. I wanted to take her by the arm and tell her not to forget about me, her only true friend in the building, though I quickly scrubbed the thought from my mind because she was so naturally impressive as a speaker and I didn't want to interrupt her. She was all graceful movement now; she had been well-balanced the night of the dance, but here she was in her element completely. She was careful not to trample any of the plants as some of the other patrons had done. After examining a body, she would always stop it from swinging and allow it to settle before she moved on. What had began as a macabre lecture, in this cemetery of sorts, was slowly turning into a guided tour through the brain of Contessa. This encounter greatly exceeded our dance at the party; back then I felt out of synch with her, there was no real way for us to hold a conversation with all of the music and rowdiness and it was so dark that I really couldn't see her face clearly. Now, here we were looking at corpses together, talking about art together—though I admit, she did most of the talking—and just being seen out together.
A photographer, a good looking woman whom I recognized from Facebook, walked up to the two of us and said that we made such a cute and well-dressed couple that we should pose together. This sudden good fortune made me stiff until Contessa, not showing any hesitation at the opportunity, pulled me beside her and smiled and just like that, there was a flash and Contessa and I were together forever—somewhere on the Internet.
At that, that grey despair that first settled over me the night I found that Marcelle and Contessa were an item evaporated entirely and I felt reinvigorated like an anxious gladiator back in his arena with his spear after months of recuperation and training. I was aware again of the great beauty and good fortune of just being alive after enduring defeat in a little skirmish. It was the kind of defeat that happens because the warrior's opponent throws sand in his eyes. Sometimes, it really is better to retreat for a while so as not to be completely decimated in battle. Retreat and study the habits of the target then attack once more.
This surge in confidence was the result of a new realization that had finally come to me after so many weeks stuck in conjecture and speculation. Before the art show, it's true, I had gleaned most of my ideas about Contessa from the pictures on her page, but this was really a terrible mistake seeing as how her pictures created the impression of an average woman with average interests. All of those pictures taken with family members, ex-boyfriends and celebrities in nightclubs were hiding the real Contessa who was not only a high-minded art enthusiast, but also just as elegant as I had originally thought she would be before I found her online. In person, she always struck me as regal, online she seemed mundane, and the gaps in our physical contact were filled with online memories that obscured the actual Contessa. So there was the old problem resurfacing again, too much time being spent online looking at people that I should just simply talk to in person. But in my situation, that would have to do, I wasn't yet able to see Contessa at will, nor had I gone so far as to ask for her number. This small problem would have to be remedied somehow and soon; I couldn't stand the thought of retreating again back to my phone to look at her pictures without setting up another meeting in the near future first.
There was also the idea that, if Contessa had enough sensibility to have a discerning eye in art, it could be wagered that she was sensitive enough to have picked up on my feelings for her from the very beginning, prompting her to call out my name on the train as a way of winking at me. But without solid confirmation of this I risked creating a disaster. So, I resolved that before the night came to an end I would ask Contessa once and for all not, "How did you know my name?"—the original question that haunted me for so long and motivated my obsession with her—but, "Why did you say my name?" The question would be just forward enough to tear away the lingering haziness regarding any mutual feelings, but still subtle enough to remain draped in innocence, staving off the possibility of being labeled an advance.
The plan made me ecstatic, and I congratulated myself for having worked through it so ingeniously as I followed Contessa through the gallery. I will even say here that I stole a few furtive glances at her body, feeling that it was only a matter of time now before she would offer it to me.
"Hold on a minute, Simone," I interrupted her just as she was beginning to discuss Mdembe's underdeveloped chiaroscuro in some of his earlier paintings. "I want you to tell me more about this relationship between Mdembe and Rembrandt, but do you think we could get some water and sit down for a bit?"
"Oh sure! I know I was going on and on, right?" she smiled, finally seeing the rest of the world around her.
We walked out of the exhibit together like a couple, and the other patrons still waiting in line eyed us as such. I knew that gossip was already spreading like a stain through the entire museum. Of course, not everyone knew who we were, but certainly a few of the visitors did and no doubt they were already typing little text messages to their friends about seeing Addy and Simone, or maybe they were taking sneaky snapshots of the whole thing or just snickering with their friends and pointing. I remembered that buffoon Tracy's earlier assumption that I had a crush on the DJ at her party; at least now people would get the sex right.
When we came to the water fountains, Contessa said that she needed to use the restroom. After my drink, I composed myself for the question, "So why did you call out my name like that on the train that one day?" If you ask the right question you won't even need the correct answer, it's enough to just gauge the response. If Contessa did indeed harbor romantic feelings for me, I would be too thirsty to expect that she would come right out and express them there in the lobby, but I would pay close attention to the slightest changes in her face and posture, any quick tightening of the jaw or sudden raising of her brows would be enough. Or would she pretend not to remember the day all together? She might say something about Marcelle mentioning me in passing. I doubt that she would admit to stalking me on my profile page, although it was very likely.
For my own part I put a tremendous amount of effort into curating my page. I post one selfie and one picture from college weekly. I only allowed tagged pictures if women took them or if I am posing in the picture with (good looking) women. Whenever I visit the beach in New York I make sure that I take a picture from such an angle that it won't reveal the little lie when I type the comment, "Brazil was nice" underneath it. I'll post one picture of me at Jones Beach followed by a bunch of stock photos of Rio, pictures of markets and old architecture and the like, and create the impression that I actually visited South America. Of course, no one cares to check and see if I'm telling the truth because the truth doesn't matter; it's all about how you make a person feel when they come to your page. Pictures of exotic flowers, crumbling cathedrals, good-looking women with great hair and pretty shoes, those things make people happy and nostalgic and horny, and that's really what life is all about these days. I think I have about a thousand three hundred friends; most of them were lured in because of my talent for creating a spectacle of my profile page.
Curiously enough, even if she had visited my page, Contessa hadn't sent me a friend request. I took that as a bit of an insult, although it was probably for the better. Contessa's page was no doubt curated as well, she was definitely hiding the fact that she was a nerd; there was no real indication of her intellect just looking at her page, unless one looked carefully at her actual face as I had done. That's just how things are done today, you have to tell little lies or hold back the real you so that you have something to talk about in person, because everybody knows everything about everybody else now. Obviously, Contessa understood this.
She came out of the hallway that the restrooms were in and stopped to look at her phone. Finally, I was going to get to the heart of things once and for all, and to chill myself out I took a seat on a nearby bench. That's when I saw him, sifting through the crowd of patrons, just like he had in the subway. He was wearing his same mischievous grin as if he had heard everything about my plot and was coming over to gloat on his timely intrusion.
"What's going on, you ugly ass nigga? Where you been at, fool?" he asked gripping me into a hug and smiling widely.
"Working, most of the time, this is like the first time I've really been out in a while," I said, deflated.
He surveyed the hall then said, "Well, what you getting into tonight? I know Simone is up here, have you seen her?"
"Yeah, we spoke earlier, she's over there by the bathrooms."
"Damn, I got to deal with her now. I thought she would've already left."
"Did you see the exhibit?" I asked.
Marcelle turned to me proudly, "Oh yes, nigga, the video been going around online for a cool minute, but I ain't got time for that spooky, haunted house shit right now. Mdembe a fool for this one though."
"Yeah, but the video can't really stand up to the real thing..."
"Nigga, did you see the video? It was like two hours long, going in on how this fool got the hair for the bodies' heads from real barbershops in Bed-Stuy." That was a detail that the placards for the exhibit failed to mention. "We getting ready to go to the after party for it though. You trying to come too?"
It was out of the question that I would go and hangout with them, making myself the third wheel. At that point I just wanted to go home and look through my phone. If I had taken Marcelle up on his offer—which might have happened accidentally, had I not been careful to follow the sneaky rhythm of insinuation in his voice, allowing his slick suggestions to go unnoticed—it would have meant standing around for hours as the enemy basked in victory. No doubt, there would be kissing and hand-holding, but even worse, there might be cuddling and whispering, and me just standing there happenstance, like a dunce or a child who's dropped his ice cream cone. They would make me play the supporting friend role in this tactical assault of Marcelle's, and it might mean Contessa being convinced of my strictly platonic intentions for her. I could not let Marcelle gain that kind of ground so easily, with so little effort involved, reveling in victory even as the battle was being fought.
Contessa came over to join us, and Marcelle pulled her in for a kiss. I'd never seen them do that before.
"So you coming, Addy? You know it's gon' be some women there," he said, rubbing his chin after the kiss.
That too was another tactic of his, mentioning that there would be women there, knowing my refusal would go just that much further in making me look like a downer to Contessa.
I smiled irreverently and backed away from the bait. It was time to get away from them at that point, no point in extending an embarrassing episode.
I've got to do better next time, I've got to be prepared. There's only so much time a man has before he gets trapped in that purgatory of intimacy: the friend zone. If you're not overt enough in the pursuit, you may as well disappear all together, otherwise you risk being seen as too friendly or as a good guy. I probably shouldn't have even said one word to Contessa. Now she was probably filing me away as a dud or just an awkward acquaintance of Marcelle's. I could feel the trench between us widening like never before. My mistake? Shyness. There was nothing wrong with going up to a woman you really loved and announcing then and there. And what was so terrible about that, even if her boyfriend was around? Couldn't she see that Marcelle was slick and disrespectful? He didn't even care that she was at the museum.
I reconsidered the offer briefly; the opportunity might come for me to best Marcelle in conversation in front of Contessa, but he wasn't going to play by the rules. He'd somehow inject well-timed vulgarity into things knowing I wouldn't be willing to stay in that kind of conversation. This vulgarity of his would be used to corner me so that he would get free-reign over the topic at hand. Marcelle was willing to sling mud.
"I'm meeting up with somebody a little later," I said, trying to remain coolheaded.
"Oh, you got a new girl now?"
"No, just a friend."
"Well all right then, handle that my nigga."
Cordially, I reached in to hug Contessa with one arm and then I did the same with Marcelle. We parted ways.
Contessa's scent was still in my coat when the train hissed into place in front of me on the platform. It was almost ten o'clock and the train was full of people ending their nights early. The lights on board flickered, then went out completely for a few minutes. It would have been completely dark were it not for the dozens of phone screens that let out a conjuring, soothing glow throughout the train car. You could see the soft blue light rendering the faces. Everyone was concentrating on swiping or watching videos. Then the real lights returned, but no one looked up. They were all still looking down at their screens when I got off at my stop.
I ordered a greasy sandwich from a pizza place across the street from the station. There was turkey and old lettuce, with mustard squirted in between to cover up the taste of the stale bread. I was hungry though, and this was a solution. I came out of the pizza shop and gave some change to a haggard old woman who was crying about not having any shoes. The night was full with a creeping snowstorm, some flakes were already falling and settling into various nooks: on top of rear view mirrors, near the curbs, on people's shoulders. Without an umbrella, my ears were getting wet. I walked faster, squeezing by a doting couple with Whole Foods bags. I was jealous of them for that.
When I made it within sight of my building, I saw a crowd of people enduring the cold to look up my stairwell. There was an ambulance outside with its lights popping and rolling, casting a purple glow on all of the buildings. As I made it closer, I heard my neighbor, Mr. Barkley, saying he "knew it was gunshots because" he "was in Vietnam." There were still more people choking the stairs when a police car pulled up and parked out front. Two officers jumped out of the car and scurried up the steps, clearing a path for the stretcher. They came outside with Randall's lifeless body under a sheet that covered everything but his face. People drew back, gasping, but when the stretcher was right in front of me, I pulled out my phone and took a picture without thinking.
Michael J. Wilson is a writer for The Liberator Magazine and associate professor of English at New York City College of Technology. He is the assistant editor of The Last Generation of Black People and author of several articles and stories including, "How to Listen to New Music", "The Case of Hip-hop", "Pre-blackness Blackness & Post-Blackness: 195,000 b.c. to Today", "We've Brought In the New Year With a Gunshot", "The Great Long Beach Burnout", and "Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Masks." He lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and Los Angeles, California.
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