Fiction • Jamel Brinkley
The woman came out of the museum and navigated the masses in the plaza. She fluidly pivoted left and right, and no matter which way she moved, or how often men tried to get her attention, her gaze remained soft, placid, nonchalant as she surveyed the crowd. Every first Saturday, the museum offered free admission as well as lectures, performances, films, and a dance party, a popular program of events attended by thousands of people. Aside from the leering Romeos and the expected head turners, there were also white people and elderly people, families burdened by their kids. The woman cut through them all with unperturbed elegance, or they moved their bodies to make way for hers, or it seemed like they did. The gold and emerald colors she wore leapt out, the lit glass of the museum’s pavilion glowing behind her. One guy stepped away from his friends and into her path, but she dodged him effortlessly, the hem of her floral sundress fluttering, her purse bouncing against her thigh. He reached for her wrist, but with no effort at all her arm slipped away, escaping that too, and he turned to watch as a breeze pulled her dress against the shape of her body. The woman’s mellow beauty—and her tranquil, charming rejection—left his eyes full of bitter longing. Then her gaze abruptly sharpened. Whatever she had caught sight of caused her to halt, and her expression became puzzled. She shook her head, the movement like a tremor had run through her, as though a notion had charged into her mind only, seconds later, to collapse under the weight of uncertainty. But all of a sudden she started walking again, with more quickness and purpose. Her steps were bringing her in the direction she was looking, and it became clear, despite every self-abnegating doubt, that she was walking toward me.
I felt as giddy as a little boy. I looked to the side as though my friend was standing there, but he hadn’t trusted the prospects at a museum, so it was an exchange of glances with no one. The woman was dark, deliciously stout, her strong legs probably twice as thick as mine. Though I felt self-conscious in my basketball shorts and my father’s hand-me-down Globetrotters T-shirt, I stood tall and puffed out my chest, relaxed my face until it felt like a mask. The woman glided past a few more people and walked right up to me, holding her purse in one hand and a pack of cigarettes in the other. She wore jewelry everywhere. Bracelets, necklaces, rings. Her short curly hair was styled somewhere between a pixie and a bob. The heat of her sweating body was very close, and her scent was like a complex of spices and honeyed smoke. Through fake eyelashes she stared boldly up into my face, as though expecting me to spread my arms for a hug.
“I have the worst timing!” she announced. “Can you believe it?” She took out a cigarette but then, looking at all the people surrounding us, put it back and placed the handsome red package into her crochet purse. She was much smaller than I had imagined and appeared to be around my mother’s age, in her forties, maybe even fifties. From her appearance and enunciation, it was clear right away that she was the bougie type; she had the strange transatlantic accent of the black intelligentsia. When she caught me observing her, she looked away coyly and then sighed. “Polka! Why would they play polka? What makes anyone think people want to dance to such crazy music?”
In response, I did a few half steps and jumps. My long legs and feet became a blur. I had taken some lessons my first year of college, one of my many attempts to meet people. Polka, I told her, was actually pretty fun.
“You should be inside cutting a rug then,” she said, clearly amused.
“Why be in there when there’s so much to look at right where I’m standing?” My voice shook as I said it, but I felt proud when she laughed and touched my arm.
“Oh, is that what you’re doing? Out here all by yourself? Looking?” Her gaze, lingering on my face even more, seemed to be posing questions too. “Well, at least the exhibits are good,” she said. “I came to see them yesterday, but by the time I got here the museum was already closed.”
“Bad timing,” I said.
“The worst timing. But here I am! Today I made it, and let me tell you something, I can’t stop thinking about the photographs. Exceptional. What did you think?”
“I thought they were exceptional,” I told her, which was a lie. I hadn’t seen the photography. I hadn’t gone inside the museum at all. Only one thing had brought me all the way down to Brooklyn that night: the let-out. So it didn’t matter to me what music was playing. The true dance was the shadow dance, or the dance that follows the dance, and it was out here, where a circle of boys who dared to be daring raised their arms and voices in collective awe of girls taking pictures in various poses, their bodies vague silhouettes against the pavilion’s shining glass. Out here where every blissful perspiring body was spent, which is to say less guarded, which is to say carefree, which meant a heightened chance for possibility. Out here where there was an openness to the haphazard and the serendipitous, where it seemed feasible to make contact.
“You haven’t told me your name,” she said. When I told her what it was, she closed her eyes and nodded, gave a little hum of pleasure. She shared her name, which was Ramona, and then looked at her watch. “There’s still over an hour before it closes,” she said. “Come on. Show me some more of that fancy footwork, prove me wrong.” Then she raised her arm and waited.
She wanted me to take it, I realized, and this, despite my highest hopes, was a complete surprise. What was happening? For my friend the explanation would have been simple. I could hear his voice now: “Cougar, a cougar stalketh.” He’d joke that way whenever we saw a woman of a certain age acknowledge her sexuality. But women like that never actually spoke to us; we were never their prey. Besides, the force of Ramona’s attention seemed different than that. For one thing, she had noticed me, which hardly ever happened. I was not the kind to be noticed. It felt nice to be picked out from the background, to step forward rather than recede.
Up to now, every let-out had gone full tilt down the road to disaster. Just last week my friend and I, both home from college for the summer, had gone to a nightclub in Manhattan, which was what we usually did; I had never gone to a let-out alone. We arrived at close to four in the morning, when things started winding down and the people in the club were beginning to leave. After a few false starts, my friend took the lead and we approached a group of women wearing short-shorts. They looked exhausted as they emerged, with bleary eyes and sweat-ruined hair, but after my friend’s come-ons they had no problem summoning the energy to tell us off. “Little boys, why don’t you go home to your mamas!” one said. “Get your broke asses out of my face!” said another. Week after week that summer, we had accumulated these stinging rejections, but they were predictable, reliable, and accurate. It was true that we were young—a year too young to even get into the club—and broke—too broke to afford the cover anyway. What’s fair is fair. I took some solace in being judged on the merits. And I had read my mother’s self-help books many times: “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day-in and day-out.” At some point things could be different.
I hooked my arm into Ramona’s, but she wouldn’t move until I moved first. We walked like that, arm in arm, through the growing crowd and toward the museum, like two lovers on a date. She swaggered against me, bumping me with the swell of her flesh, the swing in her hips even more emphatic than when she had first approached. People went out of their way to look at her, but she ignored them. She kept glancing up at me. As we pushed through the revolving doors and went inside, the odor of spice and smoke was heavy in her hair, overwhelming in fact, and I had to fight off a strange wave of nausea as it rose from the top of her head.
We threaded our way through the people in the pavilion, past a line of wide brick pillars, and into the lobby of the museum. The faint sound of the band grew louder and led us to the party upstairs. The acoustics were awful but that wasn’t a deterrent. The spacious court, surrounded by sleek ivory archways, was filled with people, but in stark contrast to the scene on the plaza almost everyone there was white. High above us rose a ceiling with a broad skylight. From its perfect center hung an enormous brass chandelier, like a watch suspended from a chain. But the best feature was the floor, made of terrazzo and large glass panels. As I showed Ramona a few simple steps, we both kept looking down. From certain angles there appeared to be another floor underneath this floor, made of the same materials. Was it an optical illusion, or was it real? I couldn’t tell, but at some point the question ceased to matter. The simple fact was that I was dancing with a woman, this woman, on layered sheets of glass.
Ramona rolled her eyes and complained playfully about the music, but she never stopped moving. She did so with agility and grace, no surprise given the way she walked. Once she got the basic steps down, I taught her a variation of side steps that she picked up quickly. With the same dreamy expression from before, she looked up into my face and said, “Okay, I’m ready. Let’s dance.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant. In my mind we were already dancing. But then she took my right hand and placed it low on her back, where the cut of her dress exposed her flesh. She held onto my shoulder and our free hands came together. At first she was in control—interlocking the fingers of our clasped hands and drawing us unusually close—but then she wasn’t. She waited again for me to lead, and I was eager to do so, to prove to myself that I could. As we danced, the scent from her hair was so full in my nostrils I could taste it.
“I haven’t danced like this in so long,” Ramona said after a while.
“I thought you’d never danced to polka before.”
“Live music, I mean,” she said. “I mean in the arms of a man.”
I smiled. “One of my first memories,” I told her, “is my mom and dad dancing in our living room.”
“So he taught you how to lead.”
I laughed in response, thinking of the rare times my father would try, and fail, to coax my mother into a bit of romance. “It’s not a real memory,” I explained. “I’m pretty sure I made it up. I used to do that kind of thing a lot when I was a kid.”
Ramona leaned away to look at me, her expression bemused, but then she gave a little squeal of delight. “Well,” she said, “some lessons don’t need to be taught. It’s just biology. It’s in the blood.”
We both fell silent for a while and varied our steps. I kept wondering about the position of my hand on her back, which should have been higher, near or at her shoulder blade. The spot I touched, wet with perspiration, felt hot, or the flesh of my own hand did. Every muscle she had seemed to be connected to that spot. Whenever any of my fingers pressed against her, it felt like I was sending out vibrations she could detect. Some part of her body would tense up, alert, like a spider listening to the strong silks of its web. The space between us widened a little, and she would close her eyes from time to time, smiling pleasantly. At one point she began to get carried away and go someplace else. She shimmied her shoulders, shifted her ribcage from side to side and exaggerated the motion of her hips, as if we were listening to Cuban salsa. Her movements compelled me to imitate them. My shoulders and hips followed hers. It felt strange, and the way we were dancing must have looked strange too; the eyes of other people were on us, staring with bewilderment and even anger, as though we were stealing from them, as though we were an infection or a stain, threatening to spread. Their looks didn’t bother me though. Wherever Ramona was going I wanted to go too.
We kept dancing until there was a break in the music. Ramona clapped wildly during the applause between songs, which was when I noticed a wedding band among her many rings. I stared blankly at it as the music started up again.
She looked at the wedding band and then all the jewelry on all her fingers, before drawing her hands up slowly to her necklaces. “To tell you the truth,” she said, “that ring is by far the most boring thing on my body. It’s the thing that tells you the very least about me.” Then she added, “Don’t worry. My husband is all the way on the other side of the country. He doesn’t care if I dance with another man. He doesn’t give a damn what I do at all.”
When she called me a man again, I felt sure she was doing it deliberately. With or without her husband’s approval, it seemed, she was here looking for some excitement. I watched her head tip left and right to the music as she scanned the court. The more I thought about it, the more curious I became about her relationship with her husband, but the concern I had about somehow violating her marriage began to drain away. I had to see where things would go.
“I want to see the photography again,” she announced. “I leave tomorrow so I won’t have another chance. Let’s go back. We still have time. I want you to show me your favorite.”
We linked arms again, but then she slid hers down and took hold of my hand. Our fingers were interlocked for a second time, and when her thumb started skimming across mine a current ran through my body. As we left the party, people were looking at us again. I had never been that kind of person before, the kind who made people stare.
Ramona and I ended up riding the elevator with two well-dressed middle-aged white women. They were discussing the latest horrors in the local news—a girl shot in Queens, families displaced in Brooklyn—but with a kind of theatrical dismay, as if they were confident about the many ways they were safe from harm. Then, as they became aware of Ramona, they got quiet and frowned. For some reason, the raw fact of her was too much for them to bear. Under the elevator’s fluorescent lights, her dark sticky eyelashes, her abundance of jewelry, and her brightly painted nails made her seem tawdry, I could admit, but I felt protective of her. The two women made no effort to hide their disapproval, of her and of us, holding hands. Scowling at them, I put some bass in my voice and said, “Is there a problem here?” The women simpered at me but neither said a word in response, and when the door opened they rushed off the elevator. Ramona and I got off too and started walking in the opposite direction, toward the galleries.
“You’ve got a little bit of a temper, I see,” she said.
“I get it from my mother,” I admitted. You could sense the pulse of my mother’s temper always, but it almost never flared up. It seemed to be held in check by what I could only understand as her modest expectations regarding life. A few early memories cast her as a laughing woman, but it seemed unlikely that they weren’t inventions, nothing more than wishful make-believe. “Yeah, from my mother,” I said, “or at least that’s what my father seems to think.”
“And he’s the gentle one.”
I wondered for a moment about Ramona’s marriage, her husband. “Is gentle the same thing as quiet? I don’t think so.”
“Well, you seem gentle and quiet, so maybe it’s your daddy you take after.”
“I don’t think so,” I repeated.
“I bet people say you look like him though.”
Her eyes darted at me and she studied me for a moment. “What’s wrong?”
Something I had studied in school, the theory of the panopticon, had come to mind, but I didn’t tell her that. “It just feels like I’m talking to someone who’s been secretly watching me my whole life,” I said.
Ramona looked down, her lashes shrouding her eyes. “When I first saw you,” she said, “I couldn’t believe it. It felt like 1989 all over again. What I mean is, I knew him. We were friends back then, back in the day. I should have told you right away, but then I wasn’t sure. You don’t look as much like him as I thought.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Your father used to be my friend,” she said. “But it was a long time ago.”
Immediately, the sensation of holding Ramona’s hand lost all of its allure. I felt like a little boy being escorted across the street.
“But how could you be friends?” I asked. “You’re from the other side of the country.”
“I live there, in California, but I’m from here. I grew up in the Bronx.”
“Just like my father…”
“I was running up and down the Grand Concourse when I was a little thing in pigtails. But tell me, how’s Lawrence doing these days?”
Reflexively my hand pulled away from hers. It was disturbing to hear his name—his given, proper name—in her mouth. No one called him Lawrence, not even my mother. Even worse, Ramona’s question invited a comparison I was unable to make. I could tell her he was better or worse now, but better or worse than what? My father’s involvement in my life had been suspended in the late eighties, at the very end of the decade. I was only five then, and, aside from the things I fabricated for my own peace of mind, I hadn’t yet formed many memories that would endure. What I remember most from those years aren’t images or events, but sensations, feelings of anger, aggression, and obstinacy, a hot soup of emotion in which I was constantly simmering. Like the sulky child I was said to have been, facing a question I didn’t want to answer, I kept my mouth closed now and shrugged stiffly in response.
Ramona and I were strolling through the galleries. We paused here and there to look at some of the photographs, but they made zero impression on me. Not many other people were around, mostly elderly couples or solitary eccentrics who stood too close to the art. Ramona stopped to stare at a large-scale photograph frenzied with garish streaks of yellow and crimson paint, and I stood beside her.
“You have his mind, don’t you?” she said. “It feels like you do. Does he still tell those incredible stories?”
She was talking about my father again. “You sure you two were friends?” I said. “It sounds like you’ve got him confused for somebody else. The man I know barely says a word.”
“Is that right? Things change, I guess. Just tell me, please, that he isn’t balding.”
This is what people of a certain age did, which I knew, they obsessively ask about those who had once been a part of their lives. I’d seen it at reunions and other family functions, and I’d sensed that the obsession was about something more than satisfying one’s curiosity; it had something to do with taking measure of one’s own self as well. But still, I was annoyed that Ramona was talking about my father so much. It made me think I had to compete with him, or with some wonderful, and therefore unbelievable, version of him that was lost in the past. A new edge came into my feelings about Ramona too. She seemed to know my father better than I ever would and that, on some level, made her a rival.
“Actually, he’s been growing this ridiculous afro,” I told her.
“No lie,” I said. “And the facial hair… It’s like he stepped out of a time machine. I tell him that 1972 wants its mutton chops back. It’s too embarrassing. I keep thinking, that man can’t be my father.”
“Well, you have his hands,” she said. “You’re tall and thin, just like he is.”
“Way taller than him now,” I said. “He’s only—what?—fifty, but he’s already shrinking. And he’s got an old-man belly. I swear to God he’s ready for the retirement home.”
“Well, let’s see, you’re younger than he was when I knew him,” she said. “Maybe he was just as tall when he was your age and he’s been getting smaller and smaller ever since. Maybe when his mama birthed him he was a giant.”
She began laughing hard at her own joke, which made me think for the first time she might be a little nuts, but I quickly put that thought away. When I tried to picture my father as a giant, I couldn’t. He had always seemed small to me, diminished, even when he returned to our family and I myself was no bigger than a twig. Both of my parents seemed diminished to me, and this quality they shared was a central reason I was convinced, despite any troubles they may have had, that they were 100 percent right for each other.
After her laughter subsided, Ramona studied me again quietly. The intensity of her gaze made me feel like the subject of one of the photographs surrounding us, as if I were also on display. All I needed was a frame around my face and a place on the wall.
“So,” she asked, “did Lawrence ever find someone else?”
Her hands came together in front of her stomach, her fingers forming a barrier between us, a little pulpit she stood behind. “When things didn’t work out with your mother,” she said slowly, with a bit of condescension. “Wasn’t there a divorce?”
A childish urge rose in me then, an impulse to karate chop the line where her fingertips met, to blast her flimsy pulpit to pieces. “Where did you get that from?” I asked. “You’re way off. They are together.”
She considered this for a moment, and I did too. What I had said was the truth, but the strain in my voice had made it sound much more like a lie. Maybe, all things considered, it was both. The family was intact, yes, but we hardly talked to one another. My parents were often apart because my father traveled for work. The only thing they did together, which I usually did with them when I was home, was watch stupid sitcoms or reality shows while shoveling dinner into their faces. Other than the tv itself, all you would hear was chewing and scraping. Those awful sounds had driven me to leave tonight and take the subway alone to Brooklyn, but I knew our family ritual was absolutely necessary. The feeling at home was this: any attempt at conversation could lead to too much conversation, and too much conversation could be deadly. The source of our strength was a strict and tacit agreement to preserve and cherish, at all costs, the simplicity of things. So much is made about the importance of depth in human interactions, but what about the delicate surface, what about the skin?
“They got back together…,” Ramona said finally. “That’s wonderful. It is. It really is something else.” But the expression on her face didn’t match the sentiment she shared. Her jaw rocked from side to side and her tongue shifted around in her cheeks. It was as though she was deciding whether she liked the taste of a food she had never had before. “He found his way back to her.…”
“What do you know about my mother?” I was overwhelmed by the sense that she disapproved of her.
“As far as I can tell,” Ramona said, “I don’t know a thing.” Then, with an abrupt turn, she walked toward the next room of the gallery. Two small children, a girl and boy with their faces painted like kittens, darted on either side of her in order to avoid a collision. A guard eyed the children warily and announced that the museum would be closing in half an hour. I considered leaving, just going without saying anything at all. But I needed to know more about this mysterious man, “Lawrence,” my father. And I needed to understand what Ramona wanted with me, the way she looked at me. I needed to understand the contours and ends of her desire.
In the next room, filled with black-and-white photographs, Ramona and I stayed apart. As she walked around, I let my eyes run over the main label introducing the work. The artist was known for the images she took with her wide-angle lens, and for her method of taking them, which emphasized quickness, spontaneity, and, above all, her subjects’ total lack of awareness of her presence. The photos were mostly taken of people in New York. Before I could finish reading, Ramona’s scent made me look up from the label. There she was, smiling next to me. She seemed to have reset herself.
“You’re supposed to show me your favorite,” she said. “So which one is it?” There was a hint of flirtation in her voice again, a hint that something exciting, even forbidden, could still happen.
“It’s hard to pick,” I told her. I had forgotten about my earlier lie. “It’s like you said, they’re all exceptional.”
But with a flutter of her false lashes she insisted.
So we went around together and I pretended to reconsider the art. After a minute or two, I chose the most blatantly sexual photograph in the room. A man and a woman embraced—in Central Park, according to the label—as he pressed her back against the bark of a tree. Both of them were very attractive. One of her legs was lifted and curled around him, and his hand was halfway up her short, pleated skirt.
Ramona hummed as she examined every part of the photograph for an absurdly long time. It didn’t make sense. What was she looking for? When she finally spoke, she asked me to explain why I liked it so much.
“What do you mean why?” I said.“I mean, what does it make you think of? How does it make you feel? Why do you think the photographer took it? What does it communicate?”
Her questions annoyed me. She was playing dumb by playing smart. The reason I chose the photograph should have been obvious, and sufficient. I didn’t want to explain. I wanted her to take her cue.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just think it’s hot. Don’t you?”
“I don’t think it’s all that interesting, to tell you the truth,” she said. “Here, let me show you my favorite.”
The photograph she liked was on an adjacent wall, and it also featured a couple, a man and a woman, though they were dull by comparison. They were walking down a street, neither looking at nor touching each other, both in the middle of perfectly synced long strides. Other than the harmony of their steps, there wasn’t a single remarkable thing about them.
“This might sound like nonsense,” Ramona said, staring at the photo, “but do you ever think that something can happen in your life that stops time dead in its tracks?” Her question was accompanied by a heat that seemed to radiate from her head, and I became aware again of her scent. “Here’s what I mean. It’s like whatever future you could have had, all that newness waiting out there to introduce itself to you, it just vanishes, it gets cut the fuck off. Then the only options you’re left with, the only ones you can even imagine, are the ones you’ve already had.” Her tongue and jaw became active again before she continued. “Tell me, why do you think your parents got back together?”
I looked at the photo again, as if the answer to her question might have been hidden in it. I thought again of her husband. The guard announced that the museum would close in fifteen minutes.
“They must have realized they were still in love,” I said.
“Is that what you think?”
“What else could it be?”
“Have you ever been in love?”
She laughed dryly. “That’s mighty optimistic of you. I’ve only been in love, in that deep bone marrow love, one time. That’s it. After you experience the real thing once, you think it can happen again. But what if it doesn’t?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I told her.
Ramona frowned and kept staring straight ahead. “No, I suppose you don’t.”
“This one isn’t in New York,” she said, pointing. “See?”
I looked again. There on the sidewalk, underneath shadows cast by the couple’s legs, and washed out by the brightness of the sun, were a few stars from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I had missed the stars before, and the shadows and the sunlight too. The photograph seemed full of details now, buzzing with them.
“Have you ever been out there, to LA?” she asked. “When people manage to escape New York, that’s where they end up a lot of times. Or at least I did, for a little while. It’s beautiful in all the ways you expect—the palm trees, the weather. God damn, that weather! There’s the smog, but you can bank on it being bright and seventy-five every day.”
She got quiet for a moment, but I didn’t say anything. I just watched her.
“On the flip side, the sameness of it can work your nerves. Time gets funky, like you’re stuck in a loop, or in a simulation of life instead of the real thing. I didn’t feel that way, not at first. But some people do.” She raised a finger to her eye and touched the tips of her lashes. “Like your father. Lawrence never liked it that much.”
It was becoming clear now. I began to understand what she was suggesting.
“He was there,” she said, “when I was.”
I responded as I often did, especially when I was younger, with a sort of willful, innocent denial. At home I was allowed to sit in my innocence, the way a baby is left sitting in a soiled diaper, but I hoped it might force Ramona’s hand. “Is that where the two of you met?”
She shook her head. “The thing between us, it had already started. Me and your father, we ran away to Los Angeles, together. I went there with him.” She closed her eyes, and I could see them moving beneath the lids.
One of the things that my family declined to talk about—the source of all the other things—was that time. I’d had vague memories of asking to see my father, and of my mother looking down at me kindly and saying I couldn’t, he was too far away. Or maybe as usual I had invented this, especially the comfort of the response. What I really recalled was the feeling of his absence, that boiling sensation that had defined my early childhood. Afterward, the sensation abated but it never went away; when my father returned, he stepped into the absence but he was unable to fill it. The thought of this now made the feeling return, but even more acutely.
“I knew about you,” Ramona said. Her eyes were still closed. “He would talk to me about you, back when everything between us seemed to be fine. I wanted to meet you. I was even willing to…” She shook her head as though clearing it. “But things stopped being fine, and your father left, and then I was there, alone.”
I looked at Ramona again—her hair, her face, her body—and imagined his hands touching her. I looked again at her jewelry and wondered if something she was wearing had been a gift from him. I scrutinized her with something like disgust, but I couldn’t help comparing her, favorably, to my mother, who was a slight, unadorned woman, the color of stale coffee with too much cream. Other memories, whether real or false, came to me then. Ramona’s odor, the odor of spice and smoke, wafted back through the years and into the cauldron of the past. Into my father’s hair, into the sleeves of his shirts. I saw my mother when she was young, with only me to care for, the odor clogging her mouth and her nostrils as she held my small hands and whispered useless consolations.
“Can you see it?” Ramona asked.
“See what?” I said, and I heard the petulance soaking my voice.
“We would walk down this exact street together. Hollywood and Vine. Can you see it? We were so beautiful. People would smile at us. They would turn their heads to watch.”
“What’s wrong with you?” I said.
Ramona opened her eyes and looked at me like I was the one who had asked the insane questions. “One day,” she said, “you’ll want somebody to give the nod. You’ll want someone to remember the person you were when you were happy.”
I wanted to tell her that this wasn’t true, that in my family we never asked each other to remember anything. But I also wanted to protect my family from her. I didn’t want to reveal anything else about them.
“What are you doing?” Ramona asked, staring wildly. Her eyelashes were black clots.
“Nothing,” I replied, but it was an obvious lie. I licked the salty wetness from the corners of my mouth before pinching my lips together in shame.
I looked away, toward the tick of the guard’s shoes as he approached us. He stopped and announced, in a lower voice than before, that the museum was closing. Together, Ramona and I retraced our steps through the galleries, one person who had dreamed up life’s memories and another who had lived them, but neither of us could be corroborated, so both of us slumped along in postures of defeat. I wanted to leave her on the spot, this woman from my father’s past, but I remained by her side. She was part of my past too, and my mother’s. She belonged to us, and that belonging was irrevocable, even if no one at home would ever speak her name.
In the lobby, we joined a larger group of chattering people and went with them past the pillars made of brick and out through the revolving doors. She took the pack of cigarettes from her purse and didn’t wait. Her lighter sparked and she cupped her hand, obscuring her face for a moment that stretched into forever as she breathed smoke and then began walking ahead, alone, through the crowd. We parted without either of us saying another word. I didn’t move. Someone who knew me was out there waiting, I imagined, someone I knew would find me among all the shadows drifting along the plaza. So I just waited, I stood in place. The voice of a woman behind me, emerging from the dimming lights of the museum, said excuse me, and someone else demanded I get out of the way so people could go home. But I didn’t want to go home.
Jamel Brinkley is the author of the story collection A Lucky Man (A Public Space/Graywolf), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Story Prize, the John Leonard Prize, and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize; and the winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. He lives in California, where he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
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