SEPTEMBER 2019
After a quiet morning spent roaming the town’s co-op cradling
ripe pears and stocking up on the Sun Chips the boys insisted on
for the drive back home, it seemed silly now how I had worried on
the way up from Brooklyn.
Would Vermont’s raw nature and
remoteness turn the boys off? Would our trip be reduced to
coaxing the boys, stone-faced in front of their devices, out of our
rented room? Would two curly headed brown boys feel like aliens
in a sea of white faces?
But when we arrived, they ditched their
phones and dashed toward the town’s grass-filled community
square. Good trip. Good mother. I pulled it off.

The lure to the Green Mountain State was a five-day post-graduate
conference, but connecting with my boys was the real goal. Goals
written out on hot pink and blinding yellow florescent Post-its
tacked up on my bathroom mirror had become my world. Goals for
our morning routine―
get the lunches done before showering. Goals
to get through a day of teaching―
only an upbeat instructor can
inspire the same from a student
. Goals kept me safe that first year
after the divorce.

My Joshy, at ten, seemed to take it all in stride with his bright,
smiling face. But Nathaniel, my six-foot-one, gangly seventeen-
year old was just as raw and just as broken as I was. He both
clung to me and pushed me away to find his footing. I had only
that summer before he went off to college to save my eldest from
whatever travesty my maternal mind could conjure. Too much sex.
Too much people pleasing. Depression. He was too much like his
mother.

Sitting on a bench in the center of town, I let it all go. With the
book I’d been reading and re-reading for months resting in my lap,
I sat back without a Post-it note tattooed to my brain. I had been
coddling the “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” playbook by August
Wilson for months because in my mind it explained the pain of the
black man. But the deeper truth I sought was to understand the
pain of my ex black man. I needed to understand what kind of pain
a man would have to feel to destroy the life he once lived, to shun
the woman he once loved, to walk away from the children he once
called his own.

Drawn to the life on that summer-busy street, the book’s pull
diminished in the bright Montpelier sunlight. A few people, mostly
older folks, looked at me and smiled with a nervous
acknowledgement that I was an outsider, perhaps tagged by my
brown skin in a town of mostly white faces. Or maybe it was my
demeanor. Maybe my dress. Maybe my very existence screamed
city girl. Divorcee. A woman who existed in this place only to
escape.

I liked the feel of that undefined space—to be seen but not
known—where no one could touch me. But then the spell was
broken when a dark haired young man settled next to me. I sensed
him before I looked. Smelled the mustiness of him, as he plopped
down on
my bench. He even had the nerve to move closer into my
precious private domain by tapping on the book in my lap.

“August Wilson’s best work,” he said and squinted his eyes toward
the sun.

What did this white boy from Vermont know about August Wilson?

“Are you a playwright?” I asked in a voice that wasn’t quite mine.
A voice that had an edge, a voice that was trying to say what I
couldn’t. Leave me alone!

No, came the answer and then silence.

“Have you seen many of his plays?” I asked.

“Haven’t seen any.”

“You just like reading plays?”

“I read them like books. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”

Touché I wanted to say, but instead I reached for my water bottle
resting near my tote bag. The boy-man reminded me of my
standout students—the sharp-tongued smart ass boys reaching for
their manhood ready to take me on. I angled myself away from
him, signaling that I wanted him to leave, a signal he didn’t seem
to get. Instead he focused on my water bottle with its blue sky,
white cloud, cow in the pasture image I acquired on a trip to the
famous Vermont ice cream factory.

“Ben & Jerry’s,” he said, and laughed to himself like it was some
kind of private joke. I had taken the boys the day before. It was a
successful trip. Even Nathaniel was entertained by “Late Night
Snack,” the new flavor they were featuring that day. A flavor
inspired by nighttime talk show host Jimmy Fallon—chocolate
covered potato chips swirled into vanilla ice cream. Remembering
how much fun the boys had―no fighting, no unkind words―
something inside of me beamed prideful.

“Yeah, I did the tour,” I said holding up the sparkling new water
bottle. But then my face flushed with embarrassment as I caught
myself giving the boy-man stranger more information than I
intended.

“I used to work there,” he said. “Years ago. I dig them. I do.”

Finally, I opened my book with a determination to make the hour I
had count before checking up on the boys for lunch, but the young
man beside me lingered.

“You from New York?

“Brooklyn.”

“Me, too.”

“Where?” I asked, genuinely wanting to know.

“Cobble Hill. Lived there the first sixteen years of my life.”

In all my openness—my black woman living in a white world depth
of understanding and compassion—I had summed him up as a five-
generation Vermonter. Hearty. Strong. Isolated. Ignorant.

“That’s funny,” I said. “I live in Ft. Green. How’d you find August
Wilson?”

“I got a stack of plays at The Book Garden on State for free. I read
. . . I read everything.”

“Good. Reading . . . reading is good,” I said, but instantly wanted
to take back my maternal, teacherly words. I was interested, and
the man saw it on my face. He took it as some kind of
serendipitous connection, a connection that gave him permission
to tell me about his trek from Brooklyn to Quebec City where his
mother was born. French Canadian mother, north Italian father, his
good looks solidified with that exquisite mix. I struggled to keep
from staring at his pretty face. I listened more intently than I
wanted to as he spoke of settling on his own a dozen or so years
ago in Vermont after his mother died of cancer when he was only
seventeen.

“I travel a lot,” he said. “I don’t know how long I’ll be here.
Traveling is kind of like . . . like my education. You know what I
mean?”

I shook my head yes, but I didn’t know at all what he meant.
Struggling to finish my undergraduate degree with a baby, and
attending graduate school against my husband’s will, a will that
almost broke me in two when I, for the first time, stood up to him.
No. I didn’t at all understand what he meant. But I was attracted
to this pretty, man-boy’s freedom, to his ability to move at his own
pace without another person’s opposing will pressing at his back. I
wanted to know more about his self-directed education. I wanted
to know his name, but I didn’t ask. I contemplated lying if he
asked me mine, but he didn’t.

I tucked my book and water bottle inside my tote as the stranger
next to me came alive. I crossed and uncrossed my summer
shaved legs, letting in what little bit of air existed flow between
my sweaty thighs on that hot day.

We talked Obama, the environment, even our favorite Ben & Jerry’s
ice cream flavors. Both of us drawn to the chocolaty varieties laced
with ribbons of caramel and fudge. But when we stumbled upon
jazz―Mingus, Miles, Coltrane―I smiled, and for the first time
gazed into the gray-blue eyes of the dark-haired nameless man
dressed in work boots, a too hot for the weather long sleeved T-
shirt and baggy jeans. He was beautiful, no denying. His baby-fine,
shoulder length hair cloaked his face like a sheet of black silk when
he looked down at his feet to gather his thoughts.

Even though the progression of us walking and talking seemed so
natural, how I got from that bench to his top floor Main Street
apartment was lost to me. Perhaps it was a book, or a promised
glimpse of a rare Miles Davis album cover. Lost, too, was how the
boldness to unbutton my white cotton dress took hold of me like a
bull, or like a bear. I could never get those market values straight;
I was busy being somebody’s wife for the past twenty-three years.
I couldn’t recall how I unabashedly bore the fruits of my aging
body before this younger man, a man that made my forty-five feel
like twenty-five with every kiss, with every nibble, with every
stroke of my frizzy, brown hair that was strangled into a bun, but
with this man it felt easy to set free. I gave myself over to him
with every piece of my clothing splayed on his wood-planked floor.
I even unhooked my bra, a chore for the man, and let the arousal
in my breasts awaken him even more.

Why I let that man on that day scoop me up like a child, his baggy
jeans still around his ankles, his work boots still on his feet, was a
question that didn’t need an answer. We were engaged in a dance,
the music too enticing to resist. I was full on board, wrapping my
brown legs around his hips, letting the richness of my African-
American, Native American, and somewhere in the ancestry, a bit
of Irish blood pulse beside his shirtless chest. A line of sweat
settled down my back and dripped to the floor as I held on, the
strength of my five-mile a day runner’s legs anchored around his
waist.

He lifted me slightly and then softly let me settle into the cradle
he created with his bent legs. My hand searched to find where we
fit, searched to connect what made him a man and me a woman.
He groaned with pleasure and pressed his hips against mine. I
groaned, too, and was sloppy in his ear, on his neck, and on his
face, lapping up the salty goodness of his sunburned skin.

Who was this woman? I didn’t recognize myself. Then I
remembered I was Joan of Arc again without the wedding band
that once rested on my left index finger. I could let myself soar up
to the sky and even beyond with every thrust that this strong baby
of a man had for me in that hot, hot room, his ceiling fan vainly
churning away.

I felt his fingernails dig into the side of my thighs and into my
rear, and heard a series of breathy staccato sighs come out of his
mouth. This man, this young man still up on his feet, our bodies
dripping profusely, unclasped my hands from around his neck and
tilted me away from him. The sensation of falling held no fear even
though I didn’t know his name, and he didn’t know mine. Soon the
coolness of his white-sheeted, mess of a bed held my body. I
settled my head on his lumpy pillow, the smell of his working man
scent on unwashed sheets was now the scent in my nose. I waited
for him to land beside me, but he was on his knees, his head
between my thighs, a thing my ex-husband never did.

The man I married at twenty-one was nine years my senior and
both a monster and a saint, both a lover and a tormentor. When
things went his way he loved with abandon, was generous beyond
his means, and funny and alive. But when things didn’t, he
threatened with his tone, with the weight of his body, with his
hands around my neck. The man I married rained his terror down
with a cold neglect, and with words so demeaning and tethered to
my deepest insecurities, he nearly succeeded in breaking me all
the way down. Never did I imagine I would find myself squirming
and wiggling my pleasure in another man’s bed, a young beauty of
a man who loved the soulfulness of August Wilson.

When I was spent, when he had given me all that my body could
bear, I heard his boots land in the corner of his room with a thud,
and the chime of his belt buckle still attached to his jeans land on
the floor. I felt the warmth of his pulsing body next to mine, and
his arms wrap around me pulling me into him. He nestled his head
on our shared pillow between my neck and shoulder, and I waited
for him to fall asleep. I waited for him to withdraw, to retreat, his
manly thirst now quenched. But this man was fully awake and still
present. He whispered in my ear:

“You’re beautiful, you know that? You’re really, really beautiful.”

I had no words. I just held myself there naked and exposed, the
pulse of unreason now gone with my body settling into a post-
orgasmic state.

He turned his naked back to me and fiddled at the edge of his bed
groping for something on the floor and then held up a pack of
Marlboros, tapped out a cigarette, lit up and blew circles of smoke
into the stifling, hot air. He offered, but I declined.

“This was supposed to happen,” he said. “I was supposed to find
you, you know, and you were supposed to find me.”

Still, I had no words. The reality of this stranger commingled in my
life in such an intimate way was now a stabbing sensation inside
my head.

“This is beautiful,” he said. “It’s real, you know. It’s fucking real.”

He continued to suck in his nicotine, blowing it out into the air as
he settled into a familiar comfort in his soiled bed with me by his
side. I felt the urge to bolt, to get up out of that bed with my arms
shielding my now vulnerable body. I wanted to get on with the
details of my day, but the boy-man prattled on about connections
and fate and the meaning of it all.

Just how far away his world was from my life became painfully
clear. How simply he could make love out of sex. How easily he
could detach from reality and romantically live inside the plays and
books and music piled high on the make-shift cinder block shelves
that lined his tiny room.

My mind began to question, frantically searching to find the
threads of reason that put me in that room. Was I crying out for
this as I sat on that bench, an unmarried, middle-aged woman in a
thin cotton dress? Or was I simply a part of his self-directed
education? One of his lessons? His very own August Wilson styled
black woman-folk odyssey? Or was it just lust?

A good meal, I thought, that’s what this was, an indulgent, tasty
meal. I’d have to double my run in the morning, the last day of the
conference, which was a cross of genres, a mix of artists-
academics sharing their methods and tricks of their trade.

With the beautiful nameless man still holding me close, I
strategized my exit. I’d make my escape by hushing him before he
could protest with my finger pressed to his lips. I’d kiss him on his
forehead, thank him, and say my goodbyes. My mind now rooted in
the reality of my single woman, single parent life. I thought about
my boys playing a mile up East State Street on the Vermont green
college quad giggling with water guns in their hands and no shoes
on their feet. I thought about the lecture that I was missing, the
shower I wanted to take, the ripe pear from the co-op I wanted to
sink my teeth into, and the long drive home.


Stephanie Renée Payne lives in her native Los Angeles. She
earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing has
appeared in Hunger Mountain, For Harriet, Shadowbox Literary
Magazine, and Woman2Woman magazine, among others. Payne has
taught creative writing at The New School University for Social
Research in New York City, academic writing at Temple University
in Philadelphia, and is currently faculty in the Writing Program at
the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
A STARTING
PLACE
by Stephanie Renée Payne