THEY: ORIGIN AND CARTOGRAPHY
after Toni Morrison
They come from pockets, satchels of seclusion in the American Midwest. From Lorain. Lansing. From Kankakee. From Elkhart. From Ravenna. The sounds of these names leaving their mouths make you think of dark smoke climbing out of factory towers. When you ask them where they are from, they look above your eyes and say “Lorain” and you think you’ve been overpassed. They say “Clarion” and you see hapless birds soaring between speeding, oxidized train cars. They say “South Bend” and you want to say “Come, and stay with me.” You’ve never heard of these towns, and you relish the thought of them boarding planes and never returning.
Lansing. The sound of it smooth in juxtaposition to their bodily cadence: half notes scattered without rhythm in each footfall passing between rooms of a cold-floored house. Their roots are shallow and their aches are fathomless. They have the ashy, chapped elbows of girls who spend good portions of their life submerged (half-way to their shoulders) in water. Dish washers. Hands&knees floor scrubbers. Child bathers. Laundry hand-washers. These girls live in white boroughs that buckle the Rust Belt. Where there is nearly always enough food for dinner. Where they are rarely asked over to the parties and sleepovers of neighboring white children. They are tall brown girls who have looked long at their best friends in the backyards of Kankakee, Elkhart, Ravenna, and Clarion. And like their best friends they are content for now sharing lipstick together in public school bathrooms. And unlike their best friends they will grow to desire more than just the second-hand pressing of her mouth on theirs.
They go to liberal arts schools, modestly impressive, and learn to talk the white man’s talk: liberal jargon to educate, but not unsettle his children; polite evading of unsavory subject matters by way of their new nicotine habit; saying they will when they won’t. Here they learn how to touch other young women the way they desired to touch their best friend.
They never seem to have boyfriends, but they are often seen leaving apartments that aren’t theirs during the early hours of the morning. Certain men watch them for their candor, quickness to smile, their seeming availability. Certain men with straighter than average teeth, smoother than average skin, softer than average hands, prettier than average lips take them back to their beds from time to time. A sidelong look could be enough to tell him that she is willing enough. Other men will sense that she is lacking a certain enthusiasm.
He must enter her surreptitiously, a slow plunging, adding a finger at a time until it is he—and he has linked their bodies in what he considers the final act—the act where he finishes. While he moves inside her, she will think of the low, open E string on a bass being plucked, the plastic moans of women who are fucked in pornographic films, bottoming as a frame of reference for every social scenario she has encountered this past week, the time she drank a whole bottle of wine with a turkey baster on a dare. She may stiffen at his hand on her belly, considering infants and the availability of her empty uterus. She wishes the condom was like the sleeve of her sweater—something she could easily check and tug down to limit her skin’s contact with anything that is not her. When she senses some spasm about to grip him, she cannot help but let her mind sink into a pool of smugness. She will open her eyes to watch his climaxing. His physical ecstasy is a spectacle because it is not mutual, and because for some reason she finds orgasm in the presence of a different gender a performance that she is unwilling to give. When he withdraws she heads to the bathroom to release a heavy stream of urine. She wants to leave, but can’t admit she hates this small place even more at night. Every tree resembles a murder site, the wind a man’s hot breath on her neck. She asks to stay till morning forgetting each time that these men will usually insist upon holding her in the night, their breath hot, and much more unrelenting than the wind.