Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, a native Ghanaian, is author of the groundbreaking memoir, Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression, and editor of three critically anthologies: Becoming American: Personal Essays by First Generation Immigrant Women, Shaking the Tree: New Fiction and Memoir by Black Women, and most recently, The Black Body. She is also a poet, public speaker, and radio commentator. Danquah divides her time between Los Angeles, California and Accra, Ghana.
The Other Afrik
ADAGIO — a work of short fiction
It all started, as these things often do, with the second bottle of wine. Amber and Sophia were having one of their semi-regular hang sessions. Once or twice a month, depending on their need for a sisterhood connection, they would meet at one of the women’s apartments—usually Sophia’s because hers was decidedly larger and more homey—and spend the evening eating, drinking and catching up on each other’s lives.
Theirs was a relatively new friendship. They had met by chance, one of those encounters that either affirms or, at the very least, makes you consider your belief in fate, in destiny. It happened on a typical August night in Washington, humid and insufferably slow. Sophia was sitting alone at an Ethiopian restaurant in Adams Morgan, picking at her food, pretending to read a book. She must have looked as lonely as she felt. Perhaps that’s why Amber had approached her. Tall, slender, cinnamon-skinned, smelling like one of those oils that the street venders positioned near the Gallery Place Metro sold in small glass vials, she was also dining alone and wanted to know if Sophia would like to join her.
Initially, Sophia was hesitant. It just felt odd, being asked by some stranger to come and dine at her table, break bread with her. It was not something Sophia had ever experienced. Her first thought was why. Why had Amber asked her? Was it out of pity? Kindness? Curiosity? Sophia couldn’t figure it out; but against all her apprehensions, against all her rigid, conservative sensibilities, she heard herself accept the invitation. And now, six months later, there they were, the two of them, sitting cross-legged on Sophia’s couch, struggling to eat take-out Chinese with chopsticks instead of forks, going on about the books they’d read, the movies they’d seen, about how their daily routines, how DC in general, was just wearing them out.
“You’re right. This place is turning into one huge yawn,” Amber agreed. “But it’s not prison. You can always leave, go to a different city, a different country. Sometimes all it takes is a break, a little time away to get you back into yourself, make you feel like you’re still alive and kickin’. Even if it’s only a day. And girl, let me tell you what a difference a day can make,” she giggled.
It was the delicious giggle of a small girl with a secret held tightly between her lips. She threw her head back and giggled again before reaching for the corkscrew. Her face, with its sharp features—perfectly almond eyes, full lips and cheekbones so high they looked as if someone had sculpted them by hand—was filled with a flighty sort of laughter. It was clear that she was getting tipsy.
“Vino?” Amber asked, as she poured herself a glass from the newly opened bottle. Sophia declined.
“I have a meeting early in the morning,” she explained. Amber ignored the refusal and poured her a glass anyway.
“Oh, girl, please. We all have to get up early. Live a little,” Amber said. She handed her the glass, which Sophia took without further objection. “Sooooo,” Amber continued. “You’ll never guess what happened to me the other day.” She must have been sure of that because she didn’t even afford Sophia the opportunity. “I met this guy while I was in Atlanta, this incredibly sexy guy, and we, uh, we did it in the service elevator at the hotel. …And we did it in my room. …And we…”
“You what?” Sophia asked sharply, cutting her off. She could hardly get her words out.
“Yeah, girl, they don’t call it Hotlanta for nothing. There’re some fine black men up in that city. I thought it was gonna be some boring-ass business trip, sitting around in a conference room all day surrounded by case files and a bunch of pin-striped white men named Colby and Reese. It turned out to be an all-expense paid orgasm, or two…or three. Ha! How’s that for employee benefits?” She raised her glass, as if toasting, and gave a small, knowing grin.
Sophia was repulsed by this spontaneous confession. Even so, she was also somewhat intrigued. She and Amber had never talked about sex before. For most of the time they’d known each other, Amber had been in a steady relationship with some guy who Sophia had only heard about in passing, but never met. They’d broken up just a few weeks ago, though Amber had never really explained why. Not that Sophia would have cared to know. Sex was generally not a subject that entered any of Sophia’s discussions. Never. Not with anyone except, of course, her lovers. (She’d had only two; which, in her mind, was an acceptable number for a twenty-five year old woman.)
Sex, and other intricate details of relationships, she felt, were private matters best left within the confines of the bedroom. Public displays of affection disgusted her. She even went so far as to avoid friendships, both close and casual, with people who made it a habit of constantly talking about their dates, their desires, the dirty laundry of their affairs.
It wasn’t that she was a prude, at least she didn’t think of herself that way. It was, more than anything, a stand she thought she was taking against what she viewed as the cheapening of love and intimacy in the general culture. Sex, after all, was more than a thirst, a simple hunger satisfied by the sweat and the flesh of another; it was an act of expression, a physical manifestation of emotion. Was it not?
There were so many other things two women could share in conversation, so many insights, personal histories and passions that had nothing to do with men, or sex. Sophia had assumed that Amber, career-minded Amber, who went to court everyday and spoke up on behalf of battered women and molested children, would naturally share those same beliefs. All those evenings they’d spent together, the only men they had talked about were the bosses they despised, the overbearing fathers who acted as if they were their keepers, and the singers whose voices swept their emotions into a soft, un-nameable place of surrender.
“You slept with some man you didn’t know?” Sophia asked, the disapproval becoming more evident with each spoken word. The questions, Sophia’s whole tone, seemed to sober Amber, who suddenly sat ironing-board straight, unfolded her legs and placed both feet on the floor. Then she leaned forward as if she were about to stand. She stayed silent for awhile, lightly tracing the rim of her wine glass with her index finger. All evidence of laughter and happiness left her face. What replaced it was not sadness or anything nearing sorrow. It was more a muted pensiveness, as if she were in the midst of considering and forming her thoughts, outlining her defense: the motive, the act, the justification.
“Yes,” Amber finally answered. “I did.” The brief response threw Sophia. She had been expecting more. What else had existed in the space of silence that separated question from answer? Amber stayed silent a while longer. She placed her glass on the coffee table, raised her hands and gathered her long, jet-black locks into a bunch. She wrapped them into a ponytail with the hair accessory that she wore around her wrist like a bracelet.
“Girl, I am so tired of waiting on Mr. Right. Not that I’m willing to settle for Mr. Wrong. But why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t we be satisfied with Mr. Right Now, and then figure it all out later? I mean, we all want to find love that will last forever but isn’t love still love even if it’s not forever, even if it’s for one year or one month or one night? In the end, does it really matter? I mean, Soph, don’t you ever just want to be touched, just want to feel? No thinking it all through, no words, no promises. Just feeling. Don’t you ever?” She relaxed her posture, leaned back against the couch, threw her arms to her sides; and the smile, the mischievous smile, returned.
This time, it was Sophia’s turn to be silent, pensive. What Amber was saying was so foreign to her she might as well have been speaking a different language. It made Sophia slightly uncomfortable, this whole business of feeling for feeling’s sake. She was an accountant, not an artist or an attorney. The world in which she lived was not one defined by chance or passion; it was a calculated world of figures, formulas, un-changing deadlines and fixed bottom lines. In her world, it was essential to understand the difference between short-term reward and long-term value. Yes, she had physical yearnings; she wanted touch; she wanted pleasure. But she was willing to wait, to suffer through the pain and tediousness of waiting for the right touch, the right person. That’s how she had been raised, what she had been taught, to not want for want alone.
Still, there was something evocative in that smile of Amber’s. It inspired the same trust Sophia had felt that first night at the restaurant when Amber walked up to her; it inspired a sense of safety that gave her permission—perhaps even urged her—to throw caution to the wind. She downed her wine in one smooth gulp.
“Yes,” Sophia admitted, much to her own surprise. The more time Sophia spent with Amber, the more that sort of thing happened to her, saying things—true things—that she wouldn’t ordinarily admit, not even to herself. “Sometimes I do, but…”
“But what?” Amber wanted to know. Sophia looked at the fine strands of hair just above Amber’s ears and near her temples. She spent a breath taking in Amber’s beauty.
“Nothing,” Sophia quickly replied. But there was something. Something unspoken. Between them. A slight discomfort; a tension. A dialogue of sighs and stares; there was a whole conversation within the silence. Sophia leaned toward Amber, and grabbed the bottle. She refilled her glass. To hell with getting up early in the morning, she thought. Those meetings were so brainless anyway; a little hangover wouldn’t affect her abilities.
“You know,” Amber started. “I was standing at the hotel bar. I’d just ordered. When the bartender brought my drink, this man popped up from out of nowhere and paid for it. He didn’t say a word; he put the cash on the counter, picked up the glass, and handed it to me. I looked up at him to say, ‘thank you’ and when I saw his face, I knew. It was like we were already in this other moment. We were already naked and moaning, all twisted around each other. I knew that it was only a matter of time—maybe minutes, maybe hours—before the us that was standing there would catch up to the us that was already somewhere else. I just followed a path that was laid out right in front of me. Does that make sense, Soph?” Sophia said nothing.
“Ugh,” Amber grunted, dropping her head in Sophia’s lap. Sophia rested a hand on Amber’s shoulder. “Oh, maybe I’m just babbling. Maybe there was no magic. I don’t know what I’m saying. I think I drank too much. I think I’m making a fool of myself. Ugh, I don’t even wanna think anymore. I’m gonna go home.” With that, she lifted her head, stood up, walked to the front closet and retrieved her coat. Sophia rose.
“Thanks for coming over,” she said perfunctorily. “Let’s talk over the week, figure out our schedules and plan a time to hook up again.”
The two of them moved into an embrace. It was what they customarily did when greeting each other or parting company. While letting go, their cheeks grazed; it was a slight caress, an accidental touch. Yet instead of immediately turning away, Amber and Sophia turned toward each other until they easily, almost instinctively entered into a kiss.
Even after the shower, Sophia felt dirty. She sat on the edge of her bed and lotioned her body. When she was done, she reached for the baby powder. She cupped her hand and poured some into her palm. As soon as the scent of it reached her, she thought of Amber, their kiss. Sophia couldn’t believe that she had actually kissed another woman. No, not simply another woman; she had kissed Amber.
She could still fee the weight of Amber’s breasts pressing against her own, could still taste the Chardonnay and the assortment of Oriental spices on Amber’s tongue, smell the lingering aroma of baby powder at the base of her throat and around her collarbone. The memory of it all made Sophia weak with want. What was happening to her?
She sprinkled the powder she was holding onto the carpet, and used her feet to furiously rub it in until it was all gone. This was wrong, she told herself; it was so wrong, so…dirty. Everything she knew and everything she believed in told her it was wrong. Women are not supposed to be kissing each other, not like that, all open-mouthed and hungry-tongued. All Sophia wanted to do now was climb in bed and fall asleep. She wanted to put an end to that day and all its decadence. With any luck, she thought, by morning, it would have all been forgotten, nothing more than a bad memory.
After Amber left Sophia’s that evening, she’d stood behind the door wondering if she should ring the bell, wondering if Sophia would let her back in, if she would ever talk to her again after what had happened. She decided against it, decided instead to get in her car and drive. She drove from Dupont Circle to Adams Morgan, stopped and looked into the front window of the restaurant where they had met. Amber had spotted Sophia as soon as she came into the restaurant. She was striking, unlike anyone Amber had ever seen in the four years she’d been living in DC. Her skin was so flawless and deep in color it looked almost liquid, like molasses. She’d wanted to meet her, to know her. She’d been surprised when Sophia had agreed to come and join her for dinner. Even more surprised that they’d kept in touch after that night, became friends. Now she was afraid that she’d lost that friendship forever, all because of a desire she didn’t even understand.
Before she’d met Sophia, Amber had never been attracted to a woman. Not physically. In the beginning, she would have never categorized her attraction to Sophia like that. And even now, she was hesitant to do so, to think of what existed between her and Sophia as simply physical. She wanted to be with Sophia in the same way that she had wanted men to be with her, for reasons that did not merely serve as fuel for the fire of their needs. That’s why she had told Sophia the story about Atlanta, a story filled more with fantasy than truth.
Sophia’s reaction was unmistakably judgmental. Although for a second, Amber thought she’d also sensed a bit of jealousy there, which had made her happy. She’d hoped that by turning her rather uneventful Atlanta business trip into a juicy escapade, she could introduce another element to their friendship, a sexual element. She’d hoped Sophia would also share some fantasy or past experience of her own. But she hadn’t, instead she froze, an icicle of confusion and condescension. And now Amber regretted taking that risk.
While she slept, Sophia dreamt of dirt. She dreamt of soil that was pure, rich, black in color, the sort of earth that grew civilizations, generation of plants and people. It had a marvelous texture, this soil. Not too granular, but not too solid; it was yielding, nurturing. In her dream, she was compelled to take it, scoop it up with her hands and spread it carefully over her unclothed body. She started first with her feet, distributing a far amount between each of the toes and then moving up to her legs, the muscled calves and sturdy thighs. She lay face down on the ground, stretched her arm behind her back and threw a bit along the divide of her buttocks. She placed it in her hair, massaging it into the scalp beneath her short-cropped natural as one would a lathering shampoo.
Then she kissed it. Put her lips against the rising heat of the earth beneath her. Sophia had never felt this free, this uninhibited. She was so happy, so unburdened, she wanted to cry. She wanted to soak her tears into this soil, to allow the wetness to flow, like a river, from her eyes, her armpits, from in between her legs. She kissed the ground harder, opened her mouth and drew a small circle in the soil with the tip of her tongue. She kept repeating that motion again and again and again until it appeared that the impossible was happening, as if the earth was opening itself up to receive her.
The next time she extended her tongue toward the earth, what she met was not soil, not dirt, but Amber’s welcoming lips, which Sophia readily accepted.
Amber drove through Mt. Pleasant, then up 16th Street until she was approaching the Maryland border. She was tired, but she didn’t want to go home. She didn’t want the night to slip away from her. Not yet. She wanted to go over the details in her mind, one by one, until she could understand what it was that had happened to her, what it was that had happened between her and Sophia. Amber parked her car on one of the side streets, pulled a pack of cigarettes out from the glove compartment. She held a stick between her fingers and lit it, inhaling deeply. She took another drag before throwing it out the window. It was an unusually warm February night. She decided to get some air.
Amber got out of the car and stepped onto the sidewalk. She threw her coat down on the ground, not far from the lawn of the church that stood on the corner, and sat on it. She thought, again, about their kiss; she thought about how both of them had naturally surrendered themselves to that act. Sophia had closed her eyes, pressed herself into Amber, gliding her fingertips slowly across Amber’s face as if she was reading some message hidden beneath the skin.
“I can’t do this,” she had suddenly uttered. It sounded almost apologetic.
“Okay,” Amber had said. “Okay.” She’d reached for Sophia’s hand, squeezed it lightly, and left.
What energy had Amber’s face seeped into those hands? What had caused Sophia to abruptly pull away, break the bond? She had to know. She had to go back there. She had to talk to Sophia. They were either going to move forward tonight or they were going to drift apart, but either way, as far as Amber could tell, they were already in motion.
Sophia was so deep into the dream that she barely heard the bell. When it rang a second time, Sophia snatched the alarm clock off the bedside table. She glanced at the position of its hands and realized that it couldn’t possibly be the clock that was ringing, not at 1:25 in the morning. She’d set the alarm for 6:00. She was stuck in a consciousness somewhere between the dream and the disruption, intent on ridding herself of one so that she could return to the other. She looked at the telephone. No, she thought, nobody would dare call her at this hour. Despite her certainty about this, she reached for the small volume dial on the handset and turned the ringer to its off position.
She took the baby powder, twisted the top of the container so all the holes were fully open. She laid down on the bed and turned the container upside down so that the powder fell, like an avalanche of snow, all over her chest each time she squeezed. Sophia wanted to surround herself with the smell of Amber, to let the scent ease her back into sleep, into another dream, where Amber would surely be awaiting her arrival. She smoothed the powder over her neck, breasts and belly. Then finally, finally, she turned her back to the phone and clock, pulled the covers over her head and sank into her pillow.
When the bell rang for the third time, Sophia figured out that it was the door. She threw the covers off her naked body and stumbled through the dark apartment. She looked into the peephole and saw Amber standing on the other side. Sophia unlocked the door, opened it a crack, enough to let Amber know she could enter. Amber slowly pushed the door a little wider and quietly slid herself in. Once in, she saw Sophia standing there, arms crossed over her chest, each hand holding tight the opposite shoulder.
Amber unzipped her coat, removed it and carefully draped it around Sophia’s shivering body. Sophia unfolded her arms she walked past Amber, closed and locked the door. She pulled the coat closer to her body, holding both ends of the collar together with her hands. She took in the bouquet of nicotine, baby powder and earth. She inhaled again. Yes, it was definitely earth. She could even feel the remaining particles of dirt sticking to her bare spine. Sophia thought maybe she was still dreaming. She took Amber’s hand, held it in hers, and then without saying a word, Sophia turned and started walking toward her bedroom, looking behind her every so often to make sure that Amber was still there.
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