Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
It was there, late into the party, after the birthday cake had been served, after she’d drunk a good deal of red wine and taken too many hits from the joints that floated by her, that the husband told Sabina that he and his wife had been thinking about her, that they’d both been thinking about her since that first night they’d met her a few weeks back, “When we’re making love,” he said, “we think about you all the time,” and he leaned close to her then and asked would she stay after everyone else had left.
“Why are you thinking about me?” She’d laughed, tilting her head over to the wife who stood near a table arrayed in empty wine bottles deep in conversation with another woman. Both women absently swayed to music while they talked. The wife was young, not yet even 30, with long, honey hair and a body so slender that sometimes, like this night, she looked like a teenager, a Dutch au pair, instead of the mother of the twin girls who had fallen asleep in their double stroller and, like angels, stayed asleep even when the music was cranked and for a while people danced.
“We are,” the man said gently. “I can only tell you that we are.”
“That’s crazy,” Sabina twirled at her short hair. “Are you looking at what you’ve got right over there?”
* * *
“Isn’t it crazy?” she told Teddy. This morning he had her doing supersets—lunges and dips, then side squats and bench presses. They worked in a quiet part of the gym.
“You’ve been locked up for too long, girl,” he said. “Welcome to the world.” It didn’t matter that their stories were altogether different—Sabina married for 15 years, divorced for two, a son in middle school and a daughter in high school, and Teddy, ten years younger than her, single—they never stop yakking while he trained her, her goading him on to find a girl that he’d like for more than a week or a girl that actually lived in the same city.
Teddy was at least a little, sort of right about parenting—a lock up or down—nights of homework, dinner, homework, dinner, Code-Orange meltdowns, and exhausted mornings where Sabina was somehow to blame when a kid’s shoe was MIA.
Teddy told her about a man who’d approached him once offering any amount of money Teddy could name to fuck his drop-dead-fucking-gorgeous wife, any you-name-it amount for the guy to watch Teddy go to it with his wife.
“Come on, wasn’t that a movie plot? Did you do it?” she asked, stepping out on her second set of lunges. On the return she stopped in front of the mirror for bicep curls. “What’s he want with me?” she said.
“I’m saying it’s pretty obvious what he wants.” He motioned for her final set, flicking the back of her legs with a towel. “You think all this work here is going for nothing?”
What are you wasting this for? Teddy had been saying for the last year. He’d been right about the squats and banishing white flour. And now after her second time saying yes to an invite, Sabina wasn’t talking about her son’s stolen bike; she had a story that matched his.
“Well, I’m just saying this wife is practically too young for you, Romeo,” she said, and handed Teddy the 12-pound weights.
* * *
The husband, Antonio, was from Barcelona, saying everything with a soft, carpety th sound. He was slight and fair skinned, which didn’t fit Sabina’s rugged image of a Spaniard. He was older than Marley, his wife, older by more than 20 years, and there were daughters, twins, though he’d never really planned on children, “It’s good they’re so damn cute,” he muttered over and over again with a delight that his wife called to the guests’ attention.
“Listen to what Antonio’s become.” Marley tried to sound annoyed but to Sabina it sounded like crooning.
As a rule, if Sabina ever even went to parties, she left them early. Even if her kids were sleeping out she could say, “I’ve got to get home and make sure someone keeps to a curfew in our family.” But last night Sabina had stayed late, she hadn’t even noticed how late until the party thinned to this last seven or eight and they’d all drifted back into dancing. Sabina danced salsa with a man named Tomaso. He’d paid attention to Sabina all evening, but even still, Sabina was pretty sure with the two-toned suede shoes he had to be gay. She could see Antonio and Marley as they danced. They were both small and blond and they fitted together just right, his leg locked between hers. Their moves were practiced but not show-offy. Sabina could see his mouth moving, whispering against Marley’s cheek.
“You’re strict,” Sabina said to Tomaso who kept pulling her in, correcting her position. The flirty tone in her voice was new. She wasn’t sure what to make of it. But it was all new. When was the last time she had danced with anyone but her husband or maybe a few other people’s husbands at weddings? Tomaso adjusted her stance, pressing her elbow up with his. He pushed with his hip and Sabina stepped back.
“Am I learning fast enough?” Sabina tried to keep eye contact with Tomaso. His shaved head looked oiled. “I’ve got you,” Tomaso said. “Just stop trying to lead.” When he pulled her back in from a spin, he pulled her close, cheek to cheek, “You smell delicious,” he said, keeping her movements tight until the end of the song.
“We’re so happy you came to my birthday,” Marley said when the dancing ended, Sabina and the last stragglers in the tight vestibule. “I don’t want my night with you to end.” She kissed Sabina on both cheeks. She sounded sweet and excited and overtired like a kid at the end of a birthday party. Sabina was sure she didn’t mean it the way the husband had meant it.
“Tomaso, you’ll get my new best friend home safely,” Marley said and buttoned the top button of Sabina’s coat.
“I’m fine, really,“ Sabina said to Tomaso, but then she heard her voice soften, “if you’d just help me into a cab.”
* * *
It was a strange secret she carried around all week. Not that she thought about it during meetings at work, but wiping down the counter after dinner, or now, sitting in the bleachers at her son’s basketball game, she looked around at the other moms in their jeans and cardigan sweaters, their extravagant, large purses junked with their cashmere coats, their dutiful shouts of “Defense, defense!” and thought about the husband and wife. She wasn’t conjuring anything explicit. She couldn’t really figure that out exactly, the abundance of limbs and parts didn’t even seem very appealing, but it felt sexy; it made her feel sexy. She felt excited, complicit. She wasn’t going to do anything but she felt somehow like she had already done it.
“You’re dating?” a mother of a boy on the team asked, though it sounded more like she had discovered Sabina in flagrante delicto. Sabina had known this mom since the boys were in grade school. But right now she was spacing on her name—an S name, she knew that—Sally, Stacey, Sophie—it would come to her. They’d helped at the school carnival together, painting Spiderman and Little Mermaid faces at the make-up booth. This woman—Sheila, that was it! Sheila—had been kinder than many during the divorce.
“Nothing really serious,” Sabina said. She hoped the conversation could end there. Sabina hadn’t gone on anything resembling a date in more than a year.
“Perfect,” Sheila said, “I could go for a couple nights with Nothing Serious.” The two women laughed. A whistle blew and the women turned to the court. “And let me start with him, Mr. Hot Temper.” Sabina could have sworn she heard Sheila growl.
The coach was out on the court arguing with the referee. Sabina tried to see him as something hot but he looked just out of college, wearing the same permanent-press dress shirt and tie at every game where he was in constant motion, up and down, running out to point and jab his finger in the air between him and a referee.
“Please just tire the eager dear out so our boys actually have a chance to play ball,” Sabina said.
“I’m just saying with two kids practically out the door, I definitely wouldn’t be rushing into the marriage thing.”
Sabina looked at Sheila. She liked this woman and her husband, they were a good couple, one of the rock solid as far as Sabina could assess, although Sabina knew the obvious—that whatever you think you know, you don’t know jackshit about anyone else’s marriage. But she thought she could tell which ones had some umpf still in them and which ones were basically kaput.
But now there was this whole private world in marriage she’d never thought about.
Did Sheila and her husband whisper smutty fantasies to one another?
Did she tell her husband that she imagined fucking their son’s basketball coach?
Did her husband ask her to pretend to be the airline attendant he’d flirted with coming home from Detroit?
Sabina and her husband had never lain around spinning fantasies. She didn’t think she’d really had any fantasies. “We fit together real good, like a special order,” her husband liked to say sometimes after making love and Sabina would press her face down against the familiar smell of his chest, saying, ”I don’t think it gets better than this.” Like that they’d had a perfectly good time together until they weren’t having a perfectly good time, and then when it was over, everything so unwound around them that they tripped just getting from the bed to the bathroom, they both looked at each other with dazed sorrow. Even still they seemed more confused than anything else when they spoke on the phone or sat next to one another at one of the kids’ games or concerts.
Now Sabina wondered if they’d been narrow-minded, relying on their bodies’ limited resources. Maybe if they’d been the kind of people who came up with games, who brought toys—maybe even other bodies into bed with them—it would have been healthy, like a weekend getaway, a way of letting some fresh country air into the marriage.
Sabina’s son scored the last three-pointer and all the parents were up in the stands shouting. Sabina was up on her feet. The other team was only up by a point.
“That’s it, Stevie. Give us another one! Go Stevie!“ Sheila was shouting, shouting Sabina’s boy’s name, and adding that cutesy end onto “Steve.” Sabina never shouted at the games. She didn’t want to look like one of those out-of-control parents or the embarrassing mom that shouted, “Go honey. Go baby.” Steve said she was right. “If you become one of the mother shouters, you’re banished,” he assured her.
Sabina watched as her boy intercepted the ball and drove it down the court. Arms lifted, she clenched her fists Black-Panther style, punching the slightest with each “go go go go,” she shouted robustly in her head.
“You must be dating,“ Sheila said when they sat on the bleacher, “you have quite a new look happening. I’m happy for you.”
* * *
Something was definitely happening. But fuck if Sabina knew what it was. Walking down the street, dreary mid-February cold, wrapped in her coat and scarf, Sabina could see she was getting noticed. Men—young, old, white, black, Latino—were checking her out, catching her eye or nodding.
Some saying hello. Even a few bold, “You’re so hot.” Suddenly I’m hot? Sabina laughed for a block. But it felt true, at least a little true. Her walk had shifted, not a sashay or anything ridiculous, but Sabina felt a line running through her—maybe it was all just Teddy’s work on core strength—but her carriage was up, a bit thrown back. She took quick looks at herself in storefronts but all she saw was herself bundled up. She crossed in front of a guy who held open the coffee-shop door. “My pleasure,” he said when Sabina nodded thanks. The guy was wearing a parka, shorts, and flip-flops. He had a thick ring through his nose.
“You’re not freezing?” Sabina never talked to strangers, but—hello!—now she was talking to guys with piercings.
“Not anymore,“ he bowed slightly as she passed. “Come on, Sunshine, it’s practically summer.”
* * *
“Jesus, Mom, You have a busier life than me,” Sabina’s daughter teased, “What are you, the gay divorcee?”
“I might be,” Sabina was at the stove getting a dinner ready for the kids. Her high heels clicked on the floor tiles as she moved between the stove and sink to drain the ravioli. There was, it was true, after two years on the sofa, a continuous stream of small dinners, birthdays, and Sabina it seemed, by spring, had become part of some ongoing world party—Spaniards, Italians, Latin Americans, there was always a book party for a new friend’s new novel or cocktails for someone’s ex-wife who’d arrived from Costa Brava. Everyone had another home somewhere else. She kept getting offers for vacations. She hadn’t danced this much since she was in college.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” her daughter looked hard at her mother.
Sabina put a clump of pesto in the bowl and began to toss. “No honey,“ she said. “It’s all a lot more boring. No boyfriend.”
“Well, you look like you do,” her daughter accused.
* * *
Another intimate dinner and the wife, legs tucked under her, squirreled close to Sabina on a low couch. “I’m so glad to see you,” she said in a velvety whisper. Marley reached out and stroked Sabina’s short hair. It seemed like something Sabina’s daughter and friends did, something they’d picked up from the music videos the kids watched until they blasted out of Sabina’s house claiming they were heading to another kid’s house.
”I’m glad to see you too,” Sabina said. Her voice sounded formal and she tried to adjust it. “How are the twins?”
“Delicious,” Marley said, “and mostly delicious when they’re asleep.” They both laughed. It felt good to laugh with Marley about mother stuff, normal stuff, things Sabina was comfortable speaking about, had spoken about for years.
But later in the night, there was Antonio saying, “You look amazing. I loved watching you across the room when you were talking with my wife.” His hand slid along the length of Sabina’s torso. “Marvelous,” he said and Sabina thought his eyes went a little swimmy.
Then later he motioned to Sabina and when she came over, he asked her to sit with them on the couch. “We missed you,” he said. Sabina looked at Marley, trying to read if she had any idea what Antonio had said to Sabina, but Marley’s eyes were closed.
Sabina thought she should turn and find someone to dance with. Where was Tomaso?
“Please,” said Marley, her eyes still closed, reaching out a hand for Sabina.
“I think it’s really time for me to get home,” but Sabina let Marley pull her down. Sabina looked at where Marley’s arm had relaxed against Sabina’s leg. Marley’s arm was smooth, an impossibly tiny-wristed arm, no hair at all on the forearm. Antonio reached his hand across and put his hand on the women’s hands. It looked like the hand pile-up her son and his teammates did before a game.
“My wife is too amazing,“ Antonio said and kissed Marley on the lips. He drew back and looked directly at Sabina and went into the kiss again. Marley’s hand tightened and then relaxed and when it tightened again, Antonio had worked his hand between the women’s hands. Sabina knew he was kissing Marley for Sabina’s attention, she felt trapped, like the odd girl out at a middle-school party where the mood has shifted from Twister to Seven Minutes in Heaven. Or worse, in college, where she had once listened to her roommate and a boyfriend endlessly screwing in the bunk below her. She couldn’t believe something could go on quite so long, the flimsy metal frame jostling, the two of them below her breathing and laughing and actually grunting till finally her roommate squealed, “Sabina, I’m sorry,” and when her roommate said it again in the morning, Sabina pretended she’d slept through it all. But now with the two of them kissing and the hands doing some pressing, grabby thing in her lap she couldn’t fake sleep and then she felt another hand, Antonio’s other hand, on her neck, drawing a slow repeating line up to her ear and back down the length of her neck.
Sabina looked around to see if anyone had taken notice of the three of them. But the clusters of conversation were dense and sparkly. No one was looking. And what was there to see? A husband and wife kissing, what was the big deal? Maybe it was no big deal, really, all an exaggerated Spanish way of speaking, just a little thrilling Spanish affection; clearly Antonio and Marley were mad for one another. Even Antonio’s hand on her neck was just affection, a friendly thing, and, face it, it felt good. Sabina decided she could stand being a little less American.
* * *
“Who do you think you are, the fucking UN? I’ll tell you about American.” Teddy was standing behind Sabina, spotting her on the bench press. He’d put extra weights on today claiming she better step up into the big time.
Sabina lowered the bar, working to bring it down close to her chest before pressing up.
“Come on, look at me. Midwestern, a football player, black and Native American but growing up in an all-white town, I’m asking is there anything more American than me?” Teddy said. “So when I went home last Christmas all the married friends were doing the name-in-the-hat thing.”
“The hat thing?” Sabina wrestled the bar into the weight rack.
“That’s what I’m talking about. You’ve been in la-la land. Yeah, the name in the hat, go home with the other guy’s wife thing. It was a kind of ’70s revival.”
“In Missouri?” Sabina angled her head to catch if Teddy was bullshitting her.
“They invited me to join in even though I didn’t have a wife. I figure I made up for not having a wife by offering black hope. Or fear. You know, taste black, you can’t come back.” Teddy busted out a few steps, circling his hips to the beat in the song over the gym speakers.
“Did you?” Sabina wasn’t sure what answer she was hoping for.
Teddy took his time, counting out her last set then dancing his way over to the abductor machine.
“I don’t roll that way,” Teddy said. “Plus, they’d all packed on the pounds and I definitely wasn’t rolling that way.”
* * *
After the parent-teacher conference, Sabina and her ex-husband had their customary coffee, but this time it was Pinot Gris, to celebrate—of course they should—the incredible year their daughter’s had. Early, no question, for wine but it felt great to be sitting outside on a spring day and feeling their girl’s okay which, “Let’s face it,” Sabina said, “means we didn’t screw up too bad even though we screwed up.”
They knocked glasses, at that. Why not? A good kid. A great kid. She was well positioned, even in these ridiculous, insane demographics, these you-have-to-be-in-line-for-a-Nobel-prize-by-graduation times for a good, hardworking, straight-A kid to get into the college where Sabina and her husband met and fell in love, though both were certain they’d never be accepted under current conditions. And not only a smartypants.
The advisor recounted one after another story about their daughter’s daily acts of genuine kindness to kids across the board. But why then did Sabina feel herself start falling from some high perch inside, tumbling down, down a long slick and muddy hillside and she thought she could keep falling until she’d be at the table in a rubbley heap of emotional run-off?
“You seem well, “ her ex said. She barely thought of him as her ex—even though he had a serious girlfriend who seemed, according to the kids, to be living with him. She thought of him still as her husband, a distant husband, but just because they were divorced didn’t mean they weren’t married. It was married with new rules. Mostly better rules. And now that they had been apart for a while, the old hurts and anger had mostly been replaced by fondness, so that the way he swirled and practically gargled the wine seemed sweet rather than pretentious and idiotic.
“I think I am,” Sabina took a big sip, hoping the Pinot Gris might be an ice pick to steady her when the avalanche started. Her ex looked older. He’d always been so boyish with his thick, dark hair, his muscular, lean body. For the first time she could see his hair was thinning “Things are actually kind of great,” she said.
It occurred to her that her ex and the girlfriend might trade fantasies.
Maybe public sex.
Maybe homemade videos.
The girlfriend was younger than they were, by ten years, and had tattoos, a star on her shoulder and a vine thing on her back. Maybe the girlfriend had encouraged the new—her bringing him into shops where things needed a lot of batteries and everything smelled of overripe fruit.
“Well, something is agreeing with you,” he said.
“I guess we have to keep learning new tricks,” Sabina said and nodded when the waiter asked if she wanted another glass of wine.
There was something reassuring in imagining her husband, her ex, learning new tricks. Sitting opposite from him, talking about the kids’ summer plans, she imagined the girlfriend tying him up and saying rough, degrading things to him. But in her imagination, her husband couldn’t stay serious and he kept cracking up and crying, “Uncle, uncle.”
* * *
“Sabina, please, please call me back.” Tomaso pouted on the second message he left. Sabina assumed it meant another party but it turned out Tomaso wanted to cook dinner. “There are always so many people. I want a night with you all to myself,” he said. “I’m a fabulous cook.” Saturday was fine. “Promise you’ll wear your dancing shoes. Ciao,” Tomaso said.
Was he planning to give her a lesson?
What had he meant by wanting a night with her? She wanted it to be a date. She hadn’t been on one in so long she couldn’t figure out the invitation. On the other hand, the use of “fabulous” and “cook” in the same sentence reeked of majorly gay.
But then it was Saturday, and when Tomaso opened the door to his loft, the tinted votive candles positioned all over the room and the open-mouthed kiss at the door seemed to answer the question.
Dinner was pretty “fabulous.” Dinner involved a lot of kissing.
Kissing! Sabina had forgotten just how much she liked kissing! This was the first person beside her husband whose tongue she’d tasted since she was 20. And it was a little like being 20 again, but better.
“Let’s go slowly,” Sabina said. She wasn’t scared; she just wasn’t sure when it would happen again.
“Keep talking,” Tomaso said. That threw Sabina. Talk about what? Was it just an encouragement like: “Oh baby, now you’re talking.” Or was it instructional, like his dance lessons? Sabina tried to get back into the groove but she was distracted, imagining that soon she’d be expected to narrate like a sportscaster. What would she say? Everything would have a lot of o’s. I’m sooooo … You’re sooooo …
“Oh, don’t bite,” Tomaso pulled back. “Biting? I didn’t take you for one of the adventurous girls.” He kissed Sabina wetly on the nose.
“Oops,” Sabina laughed. A talker. A biter. Now she was an adventurous girl? She wanted to ask if he was okay, had she hurt him, but Tomaso pulled back in close to Sabina and was moving his tongue in the lightest, most delicious circles against her lips, parting her mouth and then teasingly pulling back when her tongue touched his. And then because she could—because the kids were with her ex, because she better start somewhere, and because she already seemed to be somewhere in the middle in this loft where the kissing had begun to involve their whole bodies working against one another—she went to bed with Tomaso.
* * *
But it was as though they could smell a change in their mother when the kids came back to her home on Monday.
“What’s with you?” Sabina’s daughter said.
Sabina had roasted an organic freerange chicken. There was wild rice and a mesculin salad. Suddenly the dinner felt less wholesome than promiscuous.
“Stuff,” the kids said when she asked about their weekends.
“I’m not your mom,” Sabina tried the old joke that used to terrify and delight her children. “I’m the mom imposter. You better check for the tell-tale scar.” She stuck out her hand for the kids to look at the U-shaped scar she’d told them would be her foolproof identification.
“I don’t need to look to know you’re weird.” Sabina’s daughter picked over the roasted chicken like it was contaminated.
* * *
After her workout shower, she dropped the rough, washed-thin gym towel and took a look. First just a quick hip-and-ass back-glance as she walked to the cream dispenser. Then facing herself straight on, Sabina worked the lotion up her legs and stomach.
She thought she better look.
Because, again, why?—come on, it had to be asked—why all the actual, real-life attention, random smiles, sudden declarations; it seemed that even her colleagues had noticed, walking past her drafting table saying things like, “Nice dress, Sabina.”
All in all, she looked like herself. Her legs were her same legs. Holding up. Maybe a little bunchy around the knees. Her stomach—she could gather a handful of crepey skin—but that had been true since the kids were born. Her breasts—less up then down, nothing her underwire didn’t lift. Sun spots, a fleshier neck, spider veins mapping the backs of her legs. There was a thickening to her waist. But on the positive, thanks to Teddy—her legs were cut, no jiggly arms—she had muscles.
Was it some kind of age statistic? Some last hurrah of the body before its freefall into the progressive lens cavern of late middle age? Was it a conspiracy, a biological imperative by the last semi-robust, non-rancid, horny eggs to have a spicy final fling?
Two turban-wrapped women came out of the steam room. They were laughing. “I bet you,” one said, “not everyone would say that.” The women exchanged quick looks and then they were there at the mirror where Sabina stood.
Was she secreting a come-hither scent or something?
“Excuse me, we need to ask you something?” the other woman said. Now they were all naked in front of the mirror. Whatever she’d noticed before, it looked paler and droopier next to these younger bodies.
“We have a bottle of wine riding on this. Would you say you do or don’t look back on your first boyfriends and feel embarrassed?” They were all talking to one another in the mirror.
“Wait, that is so not the question,” the other woman said and Sabina watched her knock into her friend. “The question is—if you could—no questions asked, current life not jeopardized—would you go for a night with them again.”
Sabina said, “I met my husband when I was 19.”
“Get out of here; that’s awesome,” one said, but they both looked as if Sabina had admitted that she was a virgin.
“We’ve been split up for two years,“ Sabina said, aware that she was standing naked confessing to naked strangers. “And I’ve just started sleeping in the middle of the king-size bed.”
* * *
The next Saturday she didn’t want to sit next to Tomaso at the dinner given for Antonio’s sister visiting from Barcelona. But it wouldn’t have mattered if Sabina had wanted to, since Marley had made heartshaped placecards. Sabina was seated between Antonio and a French cardiologist.
“We were so jealous to hear you had dinner with Tomaso,” Antonio said.
“Of Tomaso or of me?” Sabina said. When exactly had she become this flirty, cheeky woman, she didn’t know.
She hated that Tomaso had told them—even if he’d only boasted about his fabulous cooking. Couldn’t she have dinner with a man? She wasn’t breaking any law or vow. She wasn’t putting her marriage at risk. She was single. She hadn’t ever been single before. She never used the word “single” before she was married, and even these last two years she hadn’t once thought she was single. But now she was. And she could do anything she wanted. She could even make love with the husband and the wife and Tomaso if she wanted.
Sabina turned to the French cardiologist and asked about a patent she’d overheard him speaking about before dinner. There was apparently another doctor in California who was working on a similar valve. It was a race, the cardiologist said and, “We are neck and neck.” It sounded with his accent that the doctor was saying, “We are naked neck.” Sabina was trying to stay in the conversation but now an image had stuck in her head. She felt certain the husband had seen it too and was waiting patiently for her to turn back to him. It was really as if it had already happened: her kneeling naked on the floor, kissing the naked wife. The husband in a chair watching. Him coming over to sit behind her, reaching around to fit his hand inside her.
“I am trying so hard,” the cardiologist said. Sabina saw how exhausted the man looked. It seemed like he might drop his fork. It made Sabina feel tired.
“Maybe you need to step away from the race and take a holiday.” Sabina realized she didn’t know what she was talking about. Everything tonight felt like a posture. Saying holiday instead of vacation. Pretending she was single when what she was was divorced. Having fantasies when she was a person who didn’t have fantasies.
She wanted to go home, put on sweatpants, walk the dog and make sure her daughter came in by curfew.
“It is not just a race. The work is important.” The cardiologist with his messy curls, strong nose, and intense gaze looked more like a French actor playing a doctor than any doctor Sabina knew. He held his knife in place while his fork pushed into the slice of steak.“ I have to finish what I have to do. But now we are at a party and I must suffer so many beautiful women at one table.”
* * *
On Monday, Teddy told Sabina that over the weekend he’d broken up with the woman he’d been dating from Connecticut.
Sabina tried to remember Connecticut. She remembered Denver was in marketing. Boston worked on local television. She thought Connecticut might have been a pilates instructor with a five year old. But that might have been Tampa.
“Do long phone conversations really count as dating?” Sabina was on the assisted dips and pull-ups machine. Even assisted, the last pull-ups were hard.
“That’s why I broke up. I realized I didn’t even want to go on a first date.”
“What I know how to be is married,” Sabina said to Teddy. Her arms in the mirror looked buff. She thought she could do fewer pull-ups and Teddy wouldn’t notice.
“But you haven’t been for like, years.”
“Given that I still pour two cups of coffee in the morning, can we say I’m just a little bit lost?”
* * *
Then suddenly, well, not exactly suddenly, but as if the first had brought on more, like going from frigid to torrentially orgasmic—Sabina was a person who had fantasies.
This one involved—this was so sorry-assed she couldn’t believe it—the dude with the nose ring. She would have liked it if someone else—Tomaso, the French cardiologist would have been fabulous— really practically anyone else—had followed her into this dimly lit office stairwell and propped her against the steel banister, telling her to lean back and trust him. And did it even count as a fantasy if Sabina wondered, “Should I really trust a guy who pokes holes in his own face?” But like it or not here I come, it was an actual fantasy since now it seemed the dude had a tongue piercing too and while Sabina in her normal-go-about-her-life mind thought tongue piercings were gross and sure to breed infection, she liked the way the ballbit of metal felt as she leaned back, braced perilously, panties off, on the banister just outside of her office and he started working on her.
* * *
“Did we ever?” Sabina asked her ex. “Don’t you think it’s weird we didn’t?”
“No, this is what’s weird.” He looked pleadingly at Sabina. The conversation about college finance planning had ended and Sabina and her ex sat at the red Formica kitchen table. Their red Formica table. The one they bought in one of the kitchen-supply shops on the Bowery long since renovated into a club with a Saigon-circa-’40s look.
“Then just pretend this is one of those sex surveys and it’s not me asking.”
“But it is you asking. The kids are right in the other room. I’m not really comfortable talking about this.”
“That’s not question one,” Sabina said. “‘Are you comfortable talking about your desires?’ is way down the survey list.”
* * *
It was hard at first to figure out who was crying on the phone. When Sabina realized it was Marley she realized that what Marley was saying over and over was, “I don’t know what to do.”
“What’s going on?” Sabina had the phone crooked in her neck so she could keep chopping red peppers. She wished she had waited and let the answering machine pick up the call.
“You’re one of the only people I can call.” Marley said. Her voice sounded so young over the phone. “Antonio’s away for the week and I’ve been with them all day and they’re both so sick and now they have these terrible coughs that sound like they’re seals.” It took Sabina a little bit to realize the call had nothing to do with Antonio. It was the twins.
“That’s croup,” Sabina explained. “My youngest had it for years. I’ll be right over.”
When Sabina got to the apartment she brought Marley and the babies straight into the bathroom and turned the shower handle fully to hot.
“Strip down. It’s going to get really steamy in here.” Sabina wriggled out of her T-shirt without letting go of one of the babies.
Marley looked so frightened.
“We’ve got to get it hot. But it’s going to be okay, Marley.”
The women waited with the babies in their arms while the bathroom filled with steam. They were sweating, their hair sticking against their faces and the babies’ skin. Sabina passed off a baby to Marley. She stripped down out of her jeans, put up her hair and then coiled Marley’s long hair and used a toothbrush as a hairpin to hold it off Marley’s damp neck. Then Sabina settled the baby back on her shoulder. Marley handed the second baby over to Sabina so that she could take off her leggings and shirt. Sabina told Marley how for a while every time her son had a cold he became croupy. They would do it just like Sabina had learned to do it. First 20 minutes in the steam. Which is what the two women did together sitting in their wet bras and underpants till the twins’ breathing regulated.
Then Sabina took Marley and the sleeping twins and they sat by an open window. The women were quiet. The air was cool and pleasant.
“Can I get you something,” Marley said. It was half hearted; Sabina could see Marley was exhausted. She looked like a kid who’d been kept up too late babysitting.
“Why don’t you sleep,” Sabina said. “They’re good now for a while. I’ll stay. If you want I can stay for the night.”
“You’d do that?”
“I don’t have a better offer,“ Sabina said. The two women laughed. Marley leaned back against Sabina. Sabina could feel Marley’s skin was damp and goosefleshed too. Sabina pulled the toothbrush from Marley’s hair and fingered through to help loosen any knots. Her hair smelled of sweat and shampoo.
“Antonio won’t be able to even imagine what this was like,” Marley whispered, halfasleep. “That was scary.”
“They grow out of this,“ Sabina said. “But you can’t believe what comes next.” It was good then, that night, first by the window with the sounds of people outside enjoying the easy weather and then when the women crawled into Marley and Antonio’s bed, the children tucked between them.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.
Victoria Redel is the author of two books of poetry and three books of fiction. Her most recent novel is The Border of Truth. Her novel Loverboy was chosen in 2001 as a Los Angeles Times Best Book and was adapted for a feature film. Redel is on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby