——-—For John Marchesella
——-—“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
————————————–——Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
IAM STANDING IN MY KITCHEN, trying to remember the first time we touched. I think it was at the restaurant in Savannah. The room was loud in a way that I like: thick bursts of conversation far enough away, but the group of us cocooned inside our own little planet, united by the soft tissue of affection and curiosity. Ostrich was on the menu. We were six random people in town for a seminar sitting close around a low wooden table talking about the strangest things we’ve ever eaten. There was some competition over whose appetites were most pitiless. A discussion of unusual food quickly degenerated into talk of murder. Devastating scenes of bloodshed were laid out like garish hors d’oeuvres. We learned how a pig is gutted, the deliberate and slow art of draining life from a being against its will. We heard stories of bloody deer splayed out in the back of trucks and how they got there; decapitated snakes; poultry choked to death by bare hands (that was my contribution). Bloodthirsty tales of stalking and hunting executed as solemn, sacred preludes to holiday meals. You and I both chuckled, talked, and kept eating through the remembered massacres, but as you sat next to me, I was aware that you were receiving these stories with a gravity that was not represented in your big laugh and open manner. Maybe it’s because we were both Black, but when our knees touched, I felt it was because of a shared understanding of what it meant to feel like prey.
It is possible to feel that time belongs to a person in these early morning hours before the rest of world is awake. When my daughters were small, I used these hours for work. Or I tried. It was nearly impossible in our old house, where we were much more connected. I would rise in the morning and feel their little bodies stir simultaneously across the square footage between us. I sat at the kitchen counter, cleared a tiny space for my laptop, and typed as quietly as I could. Sometimes Isabella would join me. Once, she let her hand drift toward mine on the keyboard, rested her fingers on mine, and then pulled the whole thing toward her, saying, “I want to write my story.” She was so small, and we were both new, but I knew that the dilemma of the moment—how to both write and mother, how to remain present for both page and person—would be the dilemma of my life.
In the kitchen I still have a few hours before the flight that will take me to your home. I open the supermarket box of quick bread I bought to placate my family, a guilt tax that no one ever asked me to pay, a tax for leaving them in order to experience joy in some other place with some other person, like what my husband calls the “dad tax” when he eats corners of the children’s food. How much of life is simply the giving and taking of food? The paying of taxes? Blood, money; the sensual and the material; the body and the world. The way to think this through is by doing, so I mix ingredients and consider, a cold metal bowl against my abdomen, a wooden spoon wrapped in my fist. After a few strokes, the recipe insists: use your hands. So, I immerse my naked hands in the ball of dough, which yields like flesh to my fingers, like my husband’s skin, whose texture never fails to comfort me, and the heat he gives off in bed next to me, my awareness of it, his body a quiet, steady engine waking me and only me before dawn.
He’s too hot these days. Menopause drives me to sleep in our basement bedroom, the coldest room in the house. It doesn’t take long for my body to meet the needs of the cold and exceed them; I still awaken most nights, wet with sweat. I tried medication for a while. It worked, or it didn’t, and then I decided to give up, to give in to what was happening in my body, to ride it out, to see it through. I learned things. Over time my days became continuous, twenty-four-hour affairs. Night and day are now largely indistinct. It’s all just life, punctuated by work, food, and rest. Talk. People. I miss my husband. But what I am learning about the night now, about time, about myself, I wouldn’t trade for anything, not even for marriage. It’s all temporary anyway.
I take the bread out of the oven and wave my hand over it, sending its aromas upstairs to tempt my husband and children awake. I will be in the air when their day starts, counting down the hours until our new chapter begins.
It’s been years. There was nothing between us, nothing to separate us. I reflected on that as I approached you for the very first time and then stopped in my tracks. Something held me there; I knew the next step would be momentous. But this is always true. We never know where the next encounter will take us. What are you seeking? It is a question I like to ask myself, to remind myself that no matter what, life is always moving forward. What is it? A rooftop cocktail party at the hotel where the seminar was being held. I had never heard your name before that night, but the entire conference was preoccupied with you. The elevator up to the roof was alive with anticipation. I wondered about it, but then I saw you from behind. It was fall, windy and dark but mild. Temperate. You were wearing a light-pink collared shirt with white pants. Maybe it was your socks that stopped me: also pink but electric, peeking out tastefully between the crisp hem of your pants and your rich brown leather shoes. Next to you stood the conference coordinator, a large white man. His clothes hung from him flaccidly, like the thick, limp bands of hair that framed his oblong face. He was trying to hold your attention. I could see bits of chicken satay in the corner of his mouth as he spoke to you. One hand gripped a soiled cocktail napkin. The other hand wound through the air like a windmill, like he was churning out a story to amuse you. He was trying to hold you, but his hand was empty. I could tell from the way you stood—legs slightly apart, hands in both pockets—that you didn’t care. You didn’t need anything from him.
I could also tell you weren’t American born from the way you held yourself, occupying space in a way that was neither defensive nor apologetic. I was intrigued but still hesitant and self-conscious about approaching two men, both strangers to me, in the middle of something. I have only one father, too many brothers, and no sons; I seek no substitutes. But the thing that drew me to you then confounds and appeals to me now: the way you wear your masculinity, deliberately but lightly. It’s the same way you wear your allegiance to the country of your birth, as well as the country of your present life. You would soon share with me your philosophy of living in this world, which is to step lightly through it on human feet, never declaring absolute fealty to anyone or anything, especially naturally flawed concepts like race and gender. Politics. Nations. Falling into kinship with you taught me to love masculinity on its own, but also to see the feminine in the masculine, and enjoy it all.
Of course, you were handsome. No one not beautiful would command that kind of attention. Next to the big oaf you seemed small at first, but power so concentrated is always more dangerous. And then the way your masculinity seems to transcend the masculine: this scares people. With your kind of beauty comes fear. And there’s your skin, and the stories our dark bodies convey even before we open our mouths. We pay most dearly for the part of the story we had no hand in creating.
You turned your head slightly and saw me, smiled broadly. I stepped forward and offered my hand. When you took it, you pulled me in slightly, until I was standing as you were standing. We were mirroring each other; you turned us into mirrors. I could see that you knew who you were in time and space; you understood your dimensions. I relaxed, felt safe.
As I wait for the cab to arrive this morning to take me to the airport, I think of a young writer I spoke with recently. Before we met in person, he compared himself to a golden retriever. I told him golden retrievers didn’t understand their dimensions. Did he not understand his dimensions? When we met for coffee, I could see that he did not. He was looking around the room, knocking a bunch of innocent people out with his good looks, spending his charm like it was money running through his fingers. As the taxi pulls into my driveway, I wonder if the writer will spend his young life being continuously startled by the desire he leaves in his wake. As opposed to you back then. You held my gaze and did not drop it.
The last time I took a flight this early, my father died. I was on my way to visit him in Nashville at the time of his death, which was wholly unexpected. Still, I knew. He was old but not ill, in excellent health. But I started crying in the taxi on the way to the airport for reasons I did not understand, which made the overwhelming nature of my emotions even scarier. “It’s not like you’re going to a funeral,” I wrote in my journal in the airport. But I was, as I would soon find out. Today, sitting in a cab on the way to the same airport seven years later, I check inside to see if my body is holding any current news of death that I am ignoring. All clear. I relax and watch the power of the streetlights fade against the dawning sun.
You put me in mind of my father back then. I seem to look for my mother in every beautiful woman, and in every charismatic man I seek my father’s imprint. When he was alive, my father’s touch sometimes made me recoil. Maybe it was too familiar; maybe it was not enough. But what I have learned is that when it comes to someone you love but can no longer see in human form, the memory of their touch feels like a desperate thing in and of itself. You are hungry for it, searching for it without searching. Memory is a hunger that lives inside. This is a fact about love: it leaves its mark; it takes its toll.
I remember that night in Savannah you said you did not trust people who spent their lives trying to make themselves impervious to love. “We are all beggars at love’s table,” you told us. “Who among us refuses to be humbled by love?” you asked us around the table, your voice an invitation to confess our human arrogance. “Who here believes they are bigger than love?” you demanded playfully. No one said anything, but I could feel a new level of understanding settle among us. A grateful humility. A delighted silence. This happens to you a lot. People leave your company speechless, unsure of what they experienced but feeling somehow enlightened, both smaller and bigger at once. “It’s all that third worldliness they perceive,” you joked when I remarked on this phenomenon. “I am what they want to see.” Your eyes literally twinkled; you seem continuously amused. Ever mocking, ever playful, ever loving. Tricksters, you told me, make meaning out of the world as it is.
The six of us walked in silence from the restaurant back to the hotel. We rode the elevator together to our separate rooms. It was still early on a lively night at the hotel, but no one needed anything more from the evening. We were happy.
That night I had one of three dreams I would have over the course of the conference. The lesson of the first dream was that touching is loving. I could see my hands, my fingers leaving their impressions on things I touch every day. I understood that I was kneading love into those objects. Early in the morning, I remembered a wallet given to me by a dear friend from whom I was estranged for many years. It had been her wallet, but I admired it very much, so she gave it to me. That was the kind of person she was then. Over the years we were apart, I would sometimes take the wallet in my palms, close my eyes, and wish her well. Then, just before the pandemic, I saw her by chance in a subway station in New York. Our eyes met, and without a word, we embraced deeply. A peace settled easily between us. Our bodies fit together as neatly as they ever did.
Later that morning, the six of us from the night before gathered with the other six seminar participants over cool cantaloupe, bright-yellow eggs, and warm, dense sausage links in one room of the hotel. We wore nametags for the whole week and spoke only to one another, but yours is the only name I recall. I sat close to you but out of your line of sight. I wanted to focus on eating, and I was nervous. How quickly we went from not knowing each other at all to that intimate touch under a table in an odd restaurant in a strange city. I thought about it as I ate. Savannah. What am I seeking here? What did the touch mean? As it turned out, nothing sinister. Whatever we were to each other in another life, in this one it is no longer dangerous. It’s still wild territory, though. I couldn’t see the end then any more clearly than I can see it now. But life moves forward regardless of whether we understand it or not. When I entered the seminar room, you were already there, and I knew the seat next to you was mine, even before you pointed to the place card and crooked your finger at me, smiling all the while.
Since that moment it has felt like one long conversation between us, whether others are talking or not. You held forth; I listened. We have traded roles again and again over the years, even invented new ones for each other, but always kept talking. We are Langston Hughes and Richard Bruce Nugent who, as a young artist, walked with the older poet back and forth one night, from one of their homes to the other, back and forth, all night long. That is our life together: one long conversation that has changed the nature and purpose of home for both of us. It’s definitely love. And everyone saw. They asked how long we’d known each other, even people who had been with us the night before at the cocktail party and witnessed the moment we were introduced; even members of our random dinner crew who saw that we were as much strangers to each other as we were to them. In the unblinking light of day, though, it was clear even to us that something had happened. But what we knew that others didn’t was that what was happening between us had very little to do with us. Love will make a host out of you whether you like it or not.
At the break, you put your watch in the space between us when you saw I didn’t have one. The tender way you positioned its face—rose-colored, surrounded by shiny crystals—so that it was perfectly visible to both of us made me laugh, which made you laugh. Trying to explain my laughter, I told you I was simply touched by your gesture. “You’re touched?!” you repeated. It was suddenly so ridiculous, those words together in a sentence, language itself. It made us both howl; we really couldn’t stop. Here we were, two brown people trying and failing to contain hysterical laughter around a seminar table in a room full of white people. “It was fairly Ellisonian,” you remarked later, referring to the author of Invisible Man, because that’s the kind of thing you say. I couldn’t look at you, and you couldn’t look at me, and the more we tried not to look, the more the laughter bubbled up. This dreadful and wonderful state of affairs went on for the rest of the morning. By the long break in the afternoon, I was exhausted, which is when I had my second dream.
In the second dream, I was hugged very hard twice, so hard that my torso was lifted off the bed. I was nearly jerked awake by this friendly but aggressive presence. I was not afraid, but I was overwhelmed. The enthusiastic embrace felt like the bear hugs my daughter was known for as a toddler. I tried to speak, to connect with the presence, but the words choked me. Half-awake, I thought of my mother, who had died more than thirteen years earlier. Suddenly, she was there, in front of me, at the foot of the bed. “Whenever you think of me, I am already with you,” she said. “What you take for longing is actually contentment.”
I told you about my dream that night at dinner. At that point, our second night of knowing each other, we had no more use for pleasantries or pretense. I made a beeline for you in the conference room where the dinner was being held. I told you my dream. You were holding a squat crystal glass containing an amber liquid. You put the glass down and said, “Let me see your hand.” I gave it to you.
When someone says, “Let me see that,” they sometimes mean to touch as much as to look at. Looking and touching: how intimately these experiences are connected. In both of them lies the potential for both love and violence.
I am child of the archive, a windowless room where it is possible for a human life to go on forever. When you research for a book, you can use your hands to sift through the personal effects of people you love but have never met. You read the letters of writers you admire, see what they saw, touch what they touched. You look at drafts of their books written in pencil and come to know the shape of their handwriting as well as your own. Sometimes this intimacy requires gloves, a prophylactic, both a precaution and a barrier to true experience. But sometimes you find yourself traveling without protection through time and the private life of another human being. You learn their secrets, left behind sometimes in the margins, in the sentences crossed out, one word chosen over another. What is touching is affecting, and you are changed forever by these encounters with the dead.
You gave me back my hand. “You are meant to be at home among ghosts,” you told me.
I took your words to heart, as always, so the third dream didn’t surprise me. In it, I arrived at a clearing on some land in Tennessee that my father once owned. I had to fight my way through thick brush, but then I was confronted with a remarkable scene: a body of water surrounded by bright green grass and crowned, like a tombstone on a grave, by a brilliant tapestry of colorful flowers and the most vital of plants with glossy green leaves. I was again overwhelmed, helpless in the face of such beauty, humbled by the glory of this secret world. Instinct and humility drove me to throw off the garment I was wearing and kneel before this spectacle in pure homage to its mystery.
I remember the dream as the plane lands. I don’t think I told you all the details, even though we have spoken many times of our dreams on the phone over the years. “God speaks to us in everyday ways,” I remember you saying once, how the words traveled through me and never left. You gave me back the gift of the phone, and it kept me throughout the pandemic. A phone call is a space for true confession, two people apart but together, like cleric and congregant, straining for closeness but safely separated by the barriers that we have chosen. My hairdresser calls me at night sometimes. We talk about our children and our work. During these conversations, I am not a client but a confessor. We switch places easily, two Black people living in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the union. Women, mothers, friends,
professionals, tenders of human experience—she and I are used to playing multiple roles in each other’s lives. Such is true for you and me as well.
A phone call is a breath that travels through a wire, your mouth to my ear. I think of the years I spent in silence. My throat chakra was blocked, you said, or maybe I was just a coward. Self-reproach is behind me, though. Perfection is no longer the goal; it’s being present. That’s what you taught me.
And that’s when it started, now that I think about it. I mean this new life where I no longer fear the night, where time no longer exists in the usual way, where night and day are the same: you gave it to me. This new knowledge, that a year is just a series of days, and that time is a god, as elusive and unknowable as any other. This awareness, I understand now, is not the curse of a pandemic but a gift of a friendship tendered by a young man from another country with a broad view and electric socks. It took forever to arrive in no time, just like me.
As I deplane, the clothes I put on in the chilly early morning hours of Vermont are suddenly too stiff and dark and tight for this place, which is your home, at least for now. Through the strange sounds and foreign words, I hear the beeping of my phone: a picture of the half-eaten loaf of bread with a thumbs-up emoji from my family. I am still laughing when I look up and see you holding my name on a homemade placard. There’s that smile. We’re both all eyes and teeth and heart chakras, taking each other in once more. I feel bigger and smaller and happy to be in your line of sight once again, after all these years. And then suddenly I remember something you told me on the phone in Savannah on our last night together in that city: that in the country of your birth, your name means love.
Emily Bernard, a 2020 Andrew Carnegie Fellow, is the author of Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine (Knopf), winner of the LA Times Christopher Isherwood Prize, and Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance (Yale).