The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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The summer after I just barely graduated from high school, I had no idea what I wanted, or wanted to do, or how not to do what I didn’t want to that I wound up working at LaGuardia Airport. Hardly nobody flew in the early 00s, and US Airways, the company at my terminal, had went into Chapter 11. And even worser than that, like my homegirls in Hollis would put it, I didn’t work for no airline, I worked in the food court at Burger Barn. It said it was a chain, but I ain’t heard of another one before or since. Only the air conditioning made that long-assed, two-bus trip worth it, since I spent practically half my paycheck on transportation.
Now, I had some problems at home, so even LaGuardia felt like The Magic Kingdom to me. In the middle of sophomore year my mother served papers on my Daddy, and he moved to New Jersey, which was like, you couldn’t get there from Queens far as I knew. Daddy still had five of my macaroni collages from elementary school framed in his living room. Mama took up with this man I hated—I called him Jabba because he was gigantic and had a frog mouth. I wanted to go live with Daddy, or my Grandma in Brooklyn, or Darth Vader, or Freddie Kruger, but Mama had legal custody and would not give it up. Even so, half the nights she slept with Jabba and the other time he was at our house doing it in the bedroom—loud. I said, Mama, why I can’t live with Daddy if you gonna spend all your time with Wesley? Don’t you know she slapped me upside my head just as hard?
So if you looked at a chart of my grades from then, it’d be like, straight down into the Valley of Death. I could not wait to turn 18, but that wasn’t going to happen until November. I was mad angry and depressed about life. I had this doom thing, that I’d be a old lady working at the Burger Barn. So I smoked a lotta lotta weed then, and when Mama caught me and accused me of trying to escape reality I said Damn right I got a lot to escape from around here and got whacked again.
Burger Barn, it probably go without saying, sucked. Two famous-name chains sat right around the corner in the real food court. I wish I had got my salary off how many people came to the counter, looked at the menu, ordered a Big Bull with Bacon, a large fries and a MegaShake, saw one of them other joints, and was like, Sayonara. Leaving me there, all pissed off in my black and yellow striped polyester outfit, my back aching from waiting on orders all afternoon, breaking my nails voiding their order on them sticky-assed register keys. I’d fold my arms and pout and lean back against the soda machine with a five-finger-discount Mountain Dew, waiting for the next customer. That would take a long time, because this was not no fancy French cuisine— these were some fake grill-marked, wrapped in foil, microwaved, dripping wet with nasty special sauce, bun going stale under some sunlamps, burgers.
Because we had so much downtime, though, me and this other girl who worked there, Tenisha, we always got up in other people business. Mostly me, because Tenisha wasn’t never there. And right across the walkway the mall had one of those technology-type stores, The Cutting Edge, that sold all kind of wild future shit—noise cancellation headphones, hands-free can openers, a security camcorder hidden in a clock, a floating pool thermometer with remote digital display (so you could check your pool’s temperature from inside your house, duh!), contour foam slippers—that whole deal. In my 1BR-for-three-Negroes world, I could not imagine who other than these white airport businessmen walking around with gym bags and a rod up they butts could a) afford all this loot; and b) think they needed it. At the same time, it seemed like shit that everybody was right about to get, like fax machines and cordless phones used to was, and if you had it now, you was James Mufugin Bond. Most important, you could try all of it out right in the store. So on my breaks, I made a beeline for that joint.
Usually I put the hand-held back massager to my neck—I needed it—but sometimes I stuck my shoes in the vibrating foot bath—there wasn’t no water, I had to pretend—and hung out until Tommy the Manager chased me away. And I quickly got to know who all worked there in the kind of Oh who’s that, what do it say on the name badge way that everybody in the US Airways Terminal Mall did. Mostly who was there was Tommy, this skinny white dude named George, and then sometimes this girl Dahlia.
The first time I went in The Cutting Edge she mistook me for a real customer and I played along. I always took the hat and the badge off and put my jeans on top of the pants on breaks because wearing just the shirt, you could pass for a real person. Like for a hour you could shake off the shame. Dahlia had almost sold me a $399 portable ab cruncher when go, Look at me, I’m huge. There’s no way I could afford that working at Burger Barn. I thought she would get mad, but she blushed and said I knew I recognized you. I would have bugged out, but Dahlia wasn’t nothing like me. She was pretty the way guys meant pretty: honey skin, straightened hair all sweeping against her polo shirt, worked out body, full lips, and a medium bra size. She was Blatina, her Mom was from the DR. Whereas I was a “big chocolate Easter Bunny,” like my baby cousin said—and that’s the nicest way anybody ever put it.
Standing at the Burger Barn counter, you could see everything going on at The Cutting Edge, so looking over there was like my television. So one day Dahlia’s spending a long time chatting with this white dude in a dark suit. At first he seemed like just another customer listening to her explain how to work the buttons on the musical toy dog, but this conversation go on for a half a hour. I know, I watched the whole thing out the corner of my eye. Then he starts playing with her fingertips real gentle, like they a piano.
I gave Tenisha a nudge and said Lookit. Tenisha had hot coffee in her hand and spilled a little because I nudged too hard, so she snapped at me and then apologized for snapping at me, but just to the customer. By the time that little drama got done, Dahlia was talking to Tommy and the white dude was standing out in the walkway, looking straight up. The US Airways Terminal had skylights to make the passengers think about good things like the sun and God when they looked up instead of terrorists and firebombs and planes blowing up like they must have had in mind what with CNN on all them TVs. In a minute, dude turned to watch Dahlia get done talking with Tommy. She started walking toward him and it looked like he was leading her somewhere but they didn’t want it to look like they were together.
I’m like, Oh snap. I stand up straight and say to Tenisha I’m going to the bathroom and go follow them. This dude knows ezzactly where he going, like this has happened before. He walk fast, but with something that might be a limp but it’s sort of a bop so he makes it look cool. Don’t no white American men walk like that, and earlier I saw he had on these weird no-name alligator shoes that only Russian guys wear? Dahlia don’t look behind her, she’s focused on the man like a cop on a drug raid, she takes fast steps while he limping along. They go way the hell over, until I’m out of breath, to the other side of the building and out the security area to check-in. The dude goes into Java Joe’s and waits at the counter. Dahlia slips into the gift store next door and starts going through oversize wedding cards, these big behemoth things with ginormous pink bows. The line at Tyler Car Rental across the way is so long that I could stand on it and front like I’m about to rent a car—there ain’t no chance I’ll get served before I see what I need to see, okay?
Dude buys a coffee and then the barista hands him the bathroom key on a long chain with a huge piece of plastic attached. He goes around back to the bathroom. Dahlia comes out the stationery store and walks over to Java Joe’s, this time casual as opposed to before. She counts the people sitting at the tables, picks up a Java Joe’s coffee go-thermos, puts it down, and goes back where the bathroom is at. I’m like, Ooh, Girl, tryna to make it look all casual, huh? There’s still three people ahead of me at Tyler. I count to twenty and jump off the line over to Java Joe’s and go back there, making sure she’s not waiting no more.
There’s only one bathroom, with all three symbols on it: man, woman, and cripple. So any type of people could be up in that joint, supposedly one at a time. I get up to the door and I hear her moaning and breathing real low, and him talking to her in that yang he talk, and suddenly I get really really mad. Like so mad that I think about busting down the door. So mad that I’m outside the madness going, Why the hell I’m so mad? When Mama and Jabba get their freak on, it piss me off because I can’t sleep and I miss Daddy, but this’s different. So I yank the door handle and jiggle it like somebody very impatient waiting for the bathroom. Inside there, the dude yells out Jest meenute! But that makes the whole thing change for me, and I get mad scared, so I book back to the food court, about to barf up my heart.
But the anger didn’t go away. On my next couple of shifts, I tried to keep from even glancing over at The Cutting Edge. The customers and their little fussy-assed demands made me so sick, I was always like, these people, sorry but most of them white, always want everything ezzactly their way, and when they can’t get it, they whine like babies. So when this frosted blond lady with a PBS tote bag talking on a cell phone asked if she could have the special sauce for her Fishwich on the side, I slapped my palms on the counter and stuck my chin out and said No you can’t. She goes What do you mean No I can’t? and I went Sorry, it don’t come that way. Tenisha was like, Lonnie, what’s your problem? and pumped some sauce into a cup and gave it to her. I rolled my eyes and said Have a Nice Day but I meant Fuck you and your Fishwich sauce, Bitch, and she knew it.
A little later, but still at the middle of my attitude earthquake, who should come flouncing over to the Burger Barn but Dahlia, with a smile on that could cut through prison bars. I was ringing up this Indian dude and saw her out the corner of my eye before she even got halfway across the walkway. The teeth on that girl sparkled like dewdrops on a spider web, I swear. That’s from a poem I wrote about her after that day. I tried to stay mad, but my whole grudge against her fell off me like a bunch of armor. My face went into a smirk and then a smile all by itself. Then I got mad at myself for letting that happen.
The girl was totally delusional. She goes Could I get the hot curly fries with cheese and her word ‘cheese’ sounded like I was supposed to take her picture. Once I filled her order and refused the money ‘cause I’m nice, there wasn’t no customers behind her, so instead of going to the dining area, she stood there and ate one, lifting it up and sticking her mouth under the cheese before it could fall back in the paper boat. She giggled and blinked at me. Them blinking eyes and those shiny teeth wanted a conversation so bad. It was real hard to igg her, but I held out. I pretended to do some official shit with the register. After she snarfed a bunch of cheese fries, she whispered, Lonnie? Lonnie. I bet you want to know why I’m so happy, don’t you? I turned around and cocked my head and said That’s why I asked, but she didn’t grip the sarcasm behind that.
It’s the weirdest thing, she goes, I met this guy. Really? I didn’t think I sounded surprised enough, but she couldn’t tell I was faking. When people in love, they can’t judge shit at all. Like Mama and Jabba. Inside I’m like Mama how you could love a motherfucker that smell like a landfill—it’s like seagulls be following this nigger home!—when you coulda had Daddy? People in love is all adoy chickie hoy hoy, like they lost the part of they brain that pay attention to the honest facts, like She doesn’t like me that way or This motherfucker is a con man. But you do got to make some rational decisions about love, I think, even if it’s just I’ma throw this number out, or I’ma kiss that nigger. I’ve always been a real good judge of character though, plus not a lot of people get me, so I usually know what I’m doing when I get involved with somebody. Not this time, not #1. People be saying all romantic bullshit about first love, but that’s because nobody want to admit how much shame they brought down on theyselves and others.
Where you meet him? I asked. Here. In the mall? She nodded, all embarrassed. Who is it, Lester from Tie Emporium? He’s fly. Ew, you can have him. So who? You’ll never guess. I wanted to say Some white Russian fool with a limp but I said, So just tell me then.
His name is Sergei. At the time I never heard that name before—I thought it was like, Sir Gay—so I held in my laughter. He’s like, a frequent flier, he works on the Internet? He comes through LaGuardia like, twice a week, and a month ago I sold him one of those musical toy bears with the light show. Bears symbolize Russia, where he’s from? Then he just started dropping in before and after his flights. I’ve seen him like five times. He’s quite the gentleman. Brings me presents from all over the place. He got me a yellow rose from Houston, some “Suicide Bomb” hot sauce from New Orleans, a sun catcher with a dolphin on it from Jacksonville, and a candle holder with a little space needle from Seattle.
Hmm, he do a lot of traveling, I said, trying to suggest that maybe he had a bitch in every airport. Yeah he does, Dahlia sighed. She nodded like I’d just pointed out some mad profound shit. He speaks seven languages. Can you imagine? How the sex? A couple of customers showed up right when I asked that so I had to ask again when I got done serving them.
Dahlia’s eyeballs went up into her lids and she twisted her neck like the words wasn’t coming to her. Then she went, Well, and paused. You took too long, I said. I think it’ll get better. It’s just that—That what? We’ve only done it once, and it got sort of interrupted so we had to stop. I took a breath and dropped a bunch of fork and spoon packages when I realized that that was my fault. But he also sort of bit me too hard. Bit you? For real? Like a aminal? Where? I don’t really want to say. You gonna see him again? I don’t know, that’s the other thing.
Dahlia drumming her nails on the chrome. She picked up one of them brown trays and start twirling it between her palms. I only see him here. He says he lives in Brooklyn but he won’t give me his phone number and he doesn’t want to meet outside the airport. Dahlia squinted. Should I be worried about that? Is that a bad sign?
That’s what I mean about adoy chickie hoy hoy. When somebody say something dumb, you go Duh! Right? Then where I’m from, if somebody say something real dumb, you go Adoy! But then this girlfriend of mines and I made up Adoy chickie hoy hoy for when it’s so unbelievably dumb that you bug your eyes and your tongue out like a cartoon character. That’s adoy chickie hoy hoy. So this was that. But I couldn’t say nothing, because Dahlia was so sweet! She had a real soft voice like Janet Jackson but she talked all Nuyorican, she said vaight for right, di’int for didn’t, and na’ah when she meant no. I was so feeling that. She was hood, right, but like, a angel out the hood. So I felt mad sorry for my homegirl, like if she got played by this Russky dude it would hurt me worse than her. I knew in my gut that I could truly assassinate this fool, and I was already hating on my life, so I was serious. Honest to God I had the thought that I’d look good in a orange jumpsuit. But if I’da said what I wanted right then, which was That’s such a bad sign that you should push that sucker on a one way plane to Moscow this minute, would Dahlia have heard me or no?
I rest my case.
* * *
Dahlia wouldn’t introduce me to Sergei, I asked and she said it was too early. But she also didn’t know that I knew what he looked like, though it should have crossed her mind that I could see everything going on at The Cutting Edge. So the next time I watched them come back from Java Joe’s before one of his flights, I took a break and followed him to the gate. I didn’t know what I had in mind, but I knew something was up, and if I could find the dirt on him, I could keep Dahlia from getting hurt or getting pregnant by this shady dude and having to marry him forever.
That first time he almost missed a plane to Atlanta, so he got right on and I didn’t get to eavesdrop. The next time, his flight to Chicago got delayed, and I sat behind him in a chair facing the opposite way while he made about ten different calls on his cell phone. Most of the time he talking Russian, but sometimes he’d say a weird expression from English like “bandwidth,” or “email address.” I’d recognize some of the words but I didn’t know boo about most of the others. But this wasn’t nothing you said to nobody you was poking, less they was a mega-geek. My man Sergei talked a lot of that yang before some flights to Minneapolis, Toronto, Miami, and Houston. By the Miami trip it bored me so much that I started to wonder if I didn’t have the whole thing backwards. I mean, clearly this shit was his passion, not banging no Blatinas from Corona. The nigger wasn’t never home enough to have another girlfriend, let alone a wife and child.
But weeks later, right before she said she’d introduce us, Dahlia told me that he still wouldn’t give her his cell number or make a date outside the terminal, and that had the needle on my creepograph leaping into the red zone. She said the sex had got better, though, but that made it worse for me. Right before I followed him to the Houston gate, I decided two things: a) this is the last time I’ma do this because I’m meddling too damn much; and b) I’ma write down some of those expressions he says and take them to this Korean dude Greg who I went to high school with. Either he’d know what they meant, or one of his computery friends would. So when Dahlia and Sergei did the piano thing that time, I slipped a couple of Burger Barn napkins out the dispenser and grabbed a pen out the drawer and went after him, because if I ran on that slippery marble floor in my flats, I’d fall and bust my titties open. At Gate C15 I listened real carefully and wrote down as much of his expressions as I could.
While I had my napkin writing thing going, Dahlia kept coming by every time I had a shift. When do I get to meet Sergei? I kept asking, and it wasn’t dishonest because I hadn’t never really met him. Dahlia only sounded like a idiot when she talked about him, and she’d drop the dreamy girl-voice once I started asking her about work or school. She told me how she was going to Hofstra in the fall to major in marine biology or engineering. I went Really? ‘Cause you could be a supermodel and make mad cash. The idea of having a smart friend flipped me out because of how dumb I felt that summer, how not college-bound I was, plus how forever it felt—Burger Barn, Jabba, US Airways. As a first taste of real life, it didn’t get no more sour than this.
Cut it out, Dahlia said. She whacked my arm and it stung but felt good. You’re embarrassing me. But you ain’t disagreeing neither. I raised my eyebrows. Tenisha said Mm-hmm. You look good. I seed all them guys over at The Cutting Edge trying to get a rap. You need to send us your leftovers. I hear that, I said. So Dahlia got all whiny and went, But I want to be appreciated for my mind, and slapped her hands on her thighs and her bracelets jingled. So Tenisha go, Then you better get out of that body.
* * *
The airport had a whole different, calm, kinda scary feeling to it around 9pm, which was closing time for Burger Barn and The Cutting Edge. Most of the flights and passengers was gone. Only folks left was cleaning staff, security, and some tired people getting in off a late flight, dragging them suitcases on wheels like Jesus doing the Stations of the Cross. Businesses up and down the walkway pulling them creaky gates shut. Tenisha left at 8:50. Watching Dahlia turn off the toys and stereos, I paced myself to make sure we finished at the same time so we’d walk to the Q23 bus together. We had to go all the way to Ditmars, over the Grand Central Parkway and wait forever. Then I had to transfer to the 60 to Jamaica. I went over all casual, like You getting the Q23? I’m scared to go alone. At that time, fear justified everything. Back then you could have told your parents you was afraid to go to school because of terrorism and they would have stayed home with you under the bed. I waited for her and we made that long haul to Ditmars.
I hoped that the Q23 would take a long time. That’s my favorite thing, when you actually wantthe MTA to be slow as shit, because it don’t never disappoint you. Wanting the world to do the bad thing it’s already gonna do makes everything annoying and wrong suddenly good and right. Out in front of the terminal was almost deserted, just vans going to the rental lots, cabs, and town cars. Dahlia kept stepping out into the traffic lane as if she could see the bus coming better that way. The white lights from inside the terminal made the background of the Grand Central Parkway and Queens behind it look real dark and made her stand out against the city in that red polo shirt. The breeze was warm and it blew her hair around like she was J-Lo in a video. She walked back and growled at the lateness of the bus. I felt like I had control of the universe. This was good. I didn’t want to go home to no Mama and Jabba. I was like, Don’t ever come, Q23. Don’t take away this tiny flash of happiness and non-work. Don’t be taking me back to the sadness of reality, you stupid bus. How wack is that, when your most wonderful moment in life be happening at a city bus stop?
We talked about how tired me and Dahlia was and how she was going to have to quit and get a job closer to Hempstead near Hofstra or get a car and I said Don’t quit. We kept quiet for a while, staring into the future, and then I asked about Sergei. A smirky grin came up on her face and she said, He went to France? Lookit. Dahlia turned to me and stuck her chest out like showing me her boobs, but I could see that she wanted me to look at her necklace. Real carefully, I stuck my finger between the collar and the chain. My fingernail brushed against the hot soft part of her skin when I tugged the pendant out from between her titties. The feet of a golden Eiffel Tower touched both her breasts, then it broke out and swung back and forth and flashed in the light.
Paris, I said. I suddenly felt a pothole drop in my fat stomach, Q23 regardless. I wanted to go to Paris. I wanted to go to Paris with Dahlia. But at that time, even Elizabeth, New Jersey, where my Daddy stayed and I couldn’t visit, that was exotic to me. All day I was slinging curly fries at people who was going places I couldn’t. Hell, the food itself even went more places than me inside them people. I dropped the pendant. Did he leave out of here? Dahlia pulled her shirt forward into a tent and put the Eiffel Tower back where it was safe. The Q23 came wobbling around the corner. She twisted up her gorgeous face. No, LaGuardia is domestic flights. Right, I said. Stupid me. My eyes was right about to become a human waterfall. Right.
* * *
My next day off, I found that dude Greg at the comic book shop. He had trouble figuring out my handwriting, so I had to read some of the stuff off the napkin to him.
When we got done he frowned and turned it over between three fingers and sighed. Well, these terms, almost anybody in the tech world might be using them. He could just be an IT guy or even a web designer, probably for a pretty low-class outfit, but I can’t tell if there’s anything specifically illegal going on. He took off his glasses and start scratching his head with that same hand. Who is this guy? Somebody I see at the airport a lot.
I squatted to check out the rare comics in the glass display case while he put his glasses back on and re-read the list. He could be a terrorist, but I bet this guy’s a spammer. I nodded, but it must have been a nod that said I didn’t have no clue. You know spam? Junk email? I seen that. It’s a crime? Technically no, but its sleazy, and way irritating. But if your guy is selling drugs or working for jihad or pushing kiddie porn, that’s mad illegal. Oh snap. Kiddie porn? For real? That is the most nastiest thing on the whole planet earth. Ew. How you could do that to a innocent child?
Greg shook his head. There’s some sick sons of bitches out there. I’ll tell the cops he’s a terrorist, that’ll get them juiced. I said Okay but in my stomach I got the kind of fear you get when somebody point a gun at you, like once when me and my girlfriend was robbed? It’s like, so much fear that you jump outside your life so it won’t hurt to get dead.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though, Greg said. Tell you what. Let me show your napkin to some guys I know who are better at this stuff. In back of the store, he made a photocopy and handed the napkin back. I wanted to thank Greg and I needed some shit to read on the bus, so I bought a Spiderman comic (not the expensive one). Yeah, you know, Lonnie, Greg said while he taping up my book with a paper bag, You probably want to keep this quiet.
* * *
Dahlia bought lunch at Burger Barn on my next shift, a Fishwich and hot curly cheese fries like always. We chatted about nothing and then she goes, You here until closing? I said, Mm-hmm. What’s up? I thought she wanted to get the Q23 again. Sergei’s coming in from San Francisco tonight right around then, you want to meet him? Oh yeah, I’d love to meet him, I told her, even though I didn’t and was scared to, plus disappointed and jealous. The disgustingness of what if he did kiddie porn would not leave my mind. We’re finally going back to his place. She made a kind of perverted-looking smile that I liked and remembered.
That whole rest of the day I was seriously bugging. Not mean like with the PBS lady but forgetting shit and screwing up people orders. I dropped a MegaSize soda behind the counter without the lid on. It got all on my shoes and socks and the floor kept on being sticky even after I mopped the Ho-Ho-Kus out of it.
Dahlia left work early to meet Sergei at the gate, and then I’m pretty sure they done their thing at Java Joe’s, because by the time I was closing out and they came over, holding hands, they had that red-assed, turned-out look. Up close he had a fly smile, and these interesting eyebrows that came to a point in the middle, but crooked teeth, one of them brown. Otherwise he looked pretty good for a nigger in a tan suit, a green shirt, and white shoes. The whole day had been way too much, so I acted a little crazy. When I shook Sergei’s hand, I thought about that it had maybe touched some children’s private parts and I was like, Oh no and wanted to wash it right immediately. You look familiar, he said. Do you travel a lot? I gave him face and put my hand on my hip. Why certainly, I said in my bad version of a British accent. In my capacity here at Burger Barn, I take a great deal of business trips and pleasurable vacations. They laughed. You probably just seened me here, Hello? I pointed back and forth at how close The Cutting Edge was. Good save, I told my brain.
We walked out the terminal and Sergei told Dahlia about San Francisco and the Napa Wine Valley and how beautiful and how good the wines and have I been there (no) and all different wine names that sounded like the leaders of alien planets to me. Zinfandel? I wanted to ask if they made good kiddie porn out there but I held my tongue. We didn’t talk about how we would get home until we got outside. For some damn reason I figured we’d all get on the Q23, stupid me. But once we got out there he asks Where you are headed? Dahlia goes, Sergei’s driving his convertible BMW. I said I’m in Jamaica and he’s like Aw, I’m in Flatbush like wasn’t it a shame he couldn’t give me a ride but not really because they got to be alone. That’s okay, y’all go on, I said. The bus right about to come. I gave Dahlia a long hug and said Goodnight and shook Sergei’s kiddie porn hand. Later I wiped my hand on my pants leg.
They went off to the parking garage and I heard them laugh and when I turned around I saw that hand on her ass. I rolled my eyes and dragged myself to the bus stop. I was totally alone. In addition to everything I was on my period so the second I leaned against the inside of the bus shelter to wait I cried my eyes out, like big, body-rocking sobs. To top it off, the idiot bus never even came so I had to walk all the way to the E train after standing up all damn day. Feet have not ached like that in the whole history of feet. Mama and Jabba had gone out somewhere so I smoked like almost a ounce of pot that night by myself. I thought how to kill myself, maybe OD on pot, but I knew I couldn’t do that right neither. By 3am if you asked me my name, I’da said Adoy chickie hoy hoy.
* * *
You know how sadness be. When you really down in it like I was, you start trying to destroy lives. First your own, and if you ain’t brave enough to do that, other people’s. My next two shifts, I showed up late and the boss came by to inform me that a third lateness would result in termination. I said to my brain, Good. Later that week at home, I tore open a stuffed elephant I had had since junior high and I snapped my favorite CD in half, Nellyville by Nelly, just because it kept skipping on “Hot in Herre.”
As for other people, I decided I was gonna rain on Dahlia’s little Russian parade. Because the truth was, I had some very strong feelings for her and I was not sure what they meant, or what I wanted them to mean. I knew what I didn’t want them to mean. So I needed that to stop. And the easiest way to keep from liking somebody you confused about, especially at the age I was, is to hate. Act like you hate them, do things to make them hate you, hate on everything they like, hate on everything in creation. So when she was all Sergei and I saw this great movie, I went, I heard that shit sucked. You liked it? No other situation in my life was going good, so I thought I’d do it like a forest fire—burn everything down so maybe some new little sprouts could grow. But at the time I was not thinking the sprouts part. If Dahlia had stepped to me like, Today I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior, I’da been like, As-Salaam Alekiem, Sister. Security would’ve taken my ass to Guantánamo for speaking Muslim, but how much worse could it have got?
So I’m pouring ketchup into the pump in the middle of the dead time after lunch, about 3:30pm, and these suit-types walk up to the counter. I go, Can I take y’alls order? One of them says they detectives and asks if my name is my name. I’m high, of course—I sparked up in the employee bathroom—so the paranoia tells me I’m busted. I don’t say nothing, just stand there with my eyes wide. They ask again and I go, I got the right to remain silent. The other goes, This isn’t an arrest, Miss Livingston. We just want to talk to you.
Turned out Greg’s computer friend is a nutcase who’s all into ethics. His dad’s a high up cop and he feel like if something happen to a office building or a child because we didn’t do nothing, we’d be as bad as the dudes making the terrorism kiddie porn. I heard that, but I didn’t expect no cops to show up at my job and everybody up in the US Airways Terminal Mall to see them take me into the cafeteria for a long-assed conversation about Sergei. My ass is so terrified that I tell them shit they don’t even ask about. I say I saw him lurking around alone at first, but then I let something about Dahlia slip and they pick up on it. So they’re like We want to talk to her too, but I’m going, Could y’all just wait until I mention it to her, because she don’t know none of this. One the detectives lean back and goes, Okay, you got three days. Funny, him giving me that break could be what made me decide go into law enforcement myself later, ‘cause didn’t nobody else during that whole time show me no kindness whatsoever.
Naturally, every motherfucker up in the terminal wanted to know why the po-po was asking me shit for half a hour. I made up some bull about a family situation that I didn’t want to discuss. That was the easy part.
I told myself I didn’t care, but the right moment to tell Dahlia kept seeming like it was right there and then—Poof! I went to The Cutting Edge on my break and opened my mouth and Dahlia’s cell phone rang. I waited for her to get off the phone and then Tommy asks to speak to her a minute. By then my break has like two minutes left in it and I hasn’t eaten nothing so I got to go. Later Dahlia come by to get her curly cheese fries, but all she can talk about is Sergei and how much in love she be. I tried to slip in a comment about people ain’t always what they seem but Dahlia igged that one.
We took the Q23 together that night. Her stop was just past Corona and then my transfer didn’t come until Queens Boulevard. From the moment we start walking out there, my heart’s racing bad. The whole time Dahlia kept talking about Sergei and I couldn’t even hear it. I guess I probably looked at her real strange the whole time because I had just had my post-work toke and this was some mega-strong Hawaiian dope. I stared and didn’t say nothing enough that I think she got sort of uncomfortable with me and kinda stopped talking and realized I couldn’t stop staring at her. By that time my crush on her had hit its peak. My love for her felt real delicate and in danger, like the little red light on top of the World Trade Center’s antenna at 8:45am on 9/11.
So finally she’s like, Why you staring at me like that all the time? She really want a answer, too, and I’m too stoned to find a lie fast enough. But I had known this girl in high school who got into some S&M sex and got her wrists tied up once. Her parents saw bruises on her arms and asked about it so she just goes Yeah I got into S&M sex and my boyfriend tied me up. But she said it sarcastic and they didn’t believe her and nothing happened. In the millisecond I got to figure out what to say, I decide to try that. I go, Because I’m in love with you.
Dahlia lets out a little laugh but then she narrows her eyes and says For real? You one of them women who— ? Well, that’s disgusting. And I got a boyfriend, sorry. Your boyfriend’s a criminal. What? He is! I do myself the suicide move of explaining. I go from the spying even down to the point of how he’s maybe doing terrorist kiddie porn. The colors and the beauties fall off Dahlia’s face one by one, like they was petals, leaving just a ugly stump. But I still thought I was doing her a favor and she would thank me and love me.
So when she goes You just a fucking bitter, jealous dyke, aren’t you? My jaw goes crooked and I get neck deep in anger. I say Forget you, Bitch, find out for yourself and turn to look out the window. Later it turned out he wasn’t doing kiddie porn, but they nabbed him on some identity theft deal and I felt justified but I’m still so embarrassed that I can’t think about it too hard even now. Dahlia gets up and moves to a seat near the front.
For a second I can see the future and it sucks. Mama and Jabba will be home when I get back. If I go home, I will need to lock myself in my room with a wet towel against the bottom of the door and smoke all the pot in my dresser drawer. When I blow off work the next day I’ll get terminated. Tenisha will mail me my last check. I won’t never see none of these people again. So when it’s Dahlia’s stop, and she gets up and don’t say goodbye, I go Bye under my breath, without turning to watch her, like the real reason I had kept staring was to memorize her because I knew there’d be a time when I couldn’t never look again. The back doors of the bus flap together and I feel that time go bang, like a terrorist had took over my controls and exploded me into a building. When it’s my stop, I don’t even look up. Ima just keep riding, I whisper, to wherever this damn bus goes.
James Hannaham’s first novel, God Says No, was named an honor book by the American Library Association. He interviewed Ralph Lemon in the summer 2012 issue of BOMB.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.