SHORT STORY CONTEST
A STARTING PLACE
by Stephanie Renée Payne
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?
“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.