by Travis Craig
At the California Pizza Kitchen, Reagan Airport, D.C., I sit at my table watching the counter and hope that the Chicken Caesar Salad sandwich just “up” is not mine because I don’t like the way it looks.
My waitress, Ethiopia, brings it over, places the plate on the table—and she says, “Anything else?” and I say, “No thanks,” and I take a bite, and it is good.
Never jump the gun—or judge a book by its cover—or leap before looking—or count your eggs . . . something, something. Expressions I’ve never said aloud, but I perform them all the time, as if out of necessity the notion cautions me.
I am glad for it.
I can’t complain.
There is a lectern outside the entrance, patrons waiting to be seated by the hostess while others loiter inside, and me: reading expressions: It’s my business to loiter, I’m giving you my money. Customer’s always right, right? Where’s the bathroom?
The staff are all brown people.
Not Negroes. And I can’t say Hispanics either. Not Middle-Easterners. Just plain brown folk. A pecan brown—the ripe inside, not the shell.
I feel fine. We all belong to each other’s people.
“Pickup, Fee-Fee!” the head cook, from behind the counter to my right, yells at a volume I am sure even the dead can hear. And I immediately assign Fee-Fee best waitress in the place—most popular—people from all over come to her corner of California Pizza Kitchen, at Reagan Airport, terminal A, inside the Beltway, for that service.
“Fee-Fee! Pickup, Fee-Fee!”
So often, it’s a war chant. Or a church song like “Go Down Moses” or “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”—one every congregation across the country knows, but sings at slightly different tempos.
Come with a blast of Trumpets! Jesus!
I try finding Fee-Fee, but can’t. Think she’s lightning—darting between tables and lingering customers so quickly I can’t see her. But I search, and in the process of searching I spy a blonde woman, her wavering image, from the midsection up, reflecting off the dark glass of the counter.
Is she looking, too? At me?
Maybe. I cannot see her straight ahead because there are two people sitting at the two-seater square table in between us: Blonde Woman facing me, me facing her.
She and I are both alone.
Blonde Woman wears a gold, cotton blouse. I think her make-up is perfect—not too much, not too little—she was very careful with the lipstick, which is the same red as the restaurant chairs. She can’t be bleached. I always check the brow, then the lashes and any arm hair, to make a match. But I cannot see her directly, only the reflection.
I can see Ethiopia.
“Yes,” I reply, a sort of automated response. Though I want to add another yes, as in Yes! Yes! Ethiopia, darling. I love you. And your darkness. Lovely! You were waiting for me here, in this place, weren’t you? I am here now. You are beautiful.
I have still not seen Fee-Fee.
I take another bite from my sandwich, half of half of which is gone, so is the side salad, and half the “Coke”—which I hastily ordered. Just a reflex, really—“Coke,” which means any soda. Clear and bubbling. Yellow like urine and bubbling. Or brown. It doesn’t matter. “Coke.”
What does matter is: the people between me and Blonde Woman have stood. Are leaving. And I watch.
Blonde Woman is, indeed, a natural. The brow, lashes, arm hairs check out.
And I look into her eyes—oval marble mystery—for too long, just a second too long, because she catches me looking, so I must retreat with that mouth-closed-friendly smile—which I have never been good at: possibly because I like to smile my regular smile, my top-teeth-showing smile, or possibly because I am simply not friendly. But I try it, nonetheless, and turn my head before having a chance to receive her response.
There is so much distance between us, I want to say. But really, we’re the same. We’re each other’s.
I am Black, and young, and a writer, and I look good in a blue suit—professional and trustworthy in a blue suit. But across from me I see blonde, un-young, woman, gold blouse, perfect make-up. While she sees. . .I-don’t-know-what.
A white tee-shirt under a black pullover, black-rimmed glasses, a black mustache and goatee on a Black face?
I don’t know. I chew Chicken Caesar Salad sandwich, careful-slow, so that if Blonde Woman is looking, I won’t seem as hungry as I truly am—because to be hungry is to be desperate, and I am alone in an airport restaurant, between “here” and “nowhere,” and no one wants to seem desperate in a place like this.
I turn my attention to the airline technicians on the tarmac outside the window, to my left. A Black man, with a mustache like Billy Dee Williams in “Star Wars,” unwinds a hose from the side compartment of a fuel van.
His blue uniform is clean.
And this man knows how desperate we are, I think. He is here every day, doing whatever else he does, and pulling on that hose, which is an important job—very important. And he is not watching me, because he doesn’t have to. Because he knows I am desperate to be somewhere other than this. That I am desperate, period. Airport Billy Dee can smell desperation like a front porch hound dog smells bad intention. Can see trails of despondency like the invisible, up-there, interstate-highway-system planes travel. And he knows there is no use judging. He gets desperate, too.
Ethiopia has refilled my “Coke” without my noticing—without my asking. I love you, baby. My queen. I am here.
And I don’t want to look at Blonde Woman, but all things are magnetized and she and I are opposite poles. Pulled together—being pulled together. I am resisting.
I glance down at page 244 of Gumbo, the anthology I had taken out of my bag and placed on the table before my food came, and I read more of Ravi’s story—Ravi, whom I’d met just yesterday at the awards ceremony, who is from Alabama, too, living in Jersey now, working for NFL Films, writing to stay alive just like me. Ravi is a storyteller, and I like that; so many writers aren’t storytellers, these days. In his story, he mentions the paper mill stench of Mobile—same as me in chapter two of my novel—and I want to be back there, in my second floor apartment on University Blvd., in my glider recliner, my writing chair, because I want to tell the story of me and Blonde Woman: how we are married but sleep in separate beds, place Post-It notes on our groceries, our own—she likes pulp in her orange juice. I don’t. She is yin; I am the space between her and the yang. We touch one another, despite that distant something in her eyes, like the D.C. snow to an Alabama boy—this false-unfamiliarity—because I know cold, been freezing in Mobile rain, though the rain was not quite frozen—but I’m human, and I shiver, and my teeth chatter, and I like a blanket fresh out the dryer sometimes; but Blonde Woman doesn’t see this, she is not looking at me, and not looking at me, either.
I watch her. She is digging through her purse, getting ready to leave, searching for tip money, or spearmint gum, a cell phone, maybe more California-Pizza-Kitchen-plastic-chair-red lipstick. Put it on perfect, baby. Maybe she needs her passport. Boarding already, darling?
I want Blonde Woman to wash over me—ocean water—when she passes my table, to kiss me with her oval mystery eyes and not argue, because we should make love—we should make love, because there is nothing between us except people saying there-is-something-between-us—and it’s a lie—I want to tell her it’s a lie—I want to scream: It – Is – A – Lie, baby! We belong here, together—
But my blonde wife stands—
And below that beautiful, gold-cotton, cotton-gold are stone-washed blue-jeans. Maybe Bongo, or Jordache—some brand not popular since a long, long time ago. And below those unpopular jeans are white sneakers. But dirty-white, torn, ragged—I guess ragged from wear; I guess ragged from traveling.
And I lose something. Furrow my brow. Start searching—that false-frantic frantic search people start at odd times: patting the chest to feel the shirt pockets, when the shirt had no pockets all along—moving the hands to the waist, then up again to the absent pockets, looking down to the floor, then all over.
And Blonde Woman walks by, and I am not looking at her, and probably, neither is she at me, and I stop Ethiopia and ask her to please refill my “Coke,” and out the window that Billy Dee is still pulling that hose, and I still can’t find Fee-Fee, but I know she is here, somewhere, and I don’t want to be.
Who is in control here?
We are all not looking at the next man, or next woman. The next anything. As if there is easy disease spreading.
I think it is a disease of consciousness, a fear of discovering that we should not be afraid, of one another. And it seems I am not afraid to admit this to myself. Consciously. But the unconscious holds the key—the man at the gate—the bouncer outside the nightclub who won’t let us in. So we must stand there on the street, I suppose, behind the velvet rope, and rejoice in the music when a snippet slips through that tiny space between ground and door.
Leaving the pizza kitchen, my carry-on bag strap pulled across one shoulder, I watch the airport shops: the hollow eyes of this place.
The shops are, in a sense, completely empty, yet bustling: the stuff, the people, more stuff, and even more things. And who are these people shopping?
During this entire trip, I had been thinking I wanted to buy my friend Erin a present, something unusual, something interesting as a bag of melted snow with twigs and D.C. leaves, only more permanent. But she has been here, lived here while studying at G. W., has seen the dirty D.C. snow. And I cannot force my Self into one of the shops. To buy her a gift there would be unholy. And if I walked into an airport shop, I am almost completely sure it would consume me. Swallow me whole like Captain Ahab’s white whale swallowing sailors—and I am no Melville sailor, but as I walk through the airport toward the shuttle bus, toward my boarding gate, or toward any space of place that wants me to stop and converse, I feel like some Thing bobbing up and down, my feet dangling and stretching, toes grasping for a bottom—but I must also keep my head above surface, keep breathing.
As I pass the luggage shop on my left, I decide to sit down again, on the opposite side of the walkway, in a chair near the long, wall-window through which you can see the planes coming and going. The luggage shop boy—with the extra-long necktie and shiny-clean, black, bald head—is gone. I arrived at the airport three hours before my flight, and that was two hours ago. And when I came in the first time and sat in this same spot, facing the luggage shop, the boy had been standing in the window with his arms crossed, licking the passers-by with his eyes, sucking them like warm, meatless chicken bones.
Yes, there is still flavor! I had wanted to yell at him. Had wanted to tell him it was okay. But take it easy. You were the one who chose to work in this hollow place. You are the echo. We are the sound. And why the luggage shop, anyway? Who in the hell comes to the airport without luggage?
I sit waiting as I had before, and the passing passengers are a timeline.
Must be that little boy’s grandfather. And the mother? So young. If that is your son, more-power-to-you, Pops. Keep strokin’. ‘Til you break the goddamned thing. ‘Til your pipes run dry.
When I first arrived at the airport, in this same section of seats (which is two rows of ten chairs, back to back) a pretty brown girl (likely early or mid twenties), wearing velour sweatpants and a tank-top, sat on the row behind me. Or rather, she lounged, beach towel body stretched across three chairs. I saw her lying, face toward the window, watching the planes come and go, as I approached, two hours ago, early as that proverbial bird who gets his worm.
I did not want a worm.
I only wanted to sit and read the Washington Post I had taken from the hotel lobby. But Brown Girl turned her head and gazed back at me: me, frozen in that however-few seconds: hers. Some sort of judgment was made. I could see it in her expression. I could easily surmise it. Just a flash of thought, really: Young Black guy sees young, possibly-Black girl. He gonna talk to me? Try getting the digits, maybe? I don’t have time for this shit.
And I needed to say, “Baby, I don’t have time for that shit either. I only want to read my Post. I’m trying to get somewhere.”
But I didn’t.
I sat, silent. My back to her. My front to the luggage store boy. And I read my Post. And she started talking on her cell phone. And for a long time, too. It seemed this brown girl called everyone she’s ever known.
First, from the sound of things, it was obviously her mother, whom Brown Girl was not going home to. Brown Girl was returning to her own home in Cali, had been in Philly, N.Y., then here for a week.
“Didn’t really like the east coast,” she told Jelly, who’s sex I never deciphered. But Jelly was a friend in New Mexico, whom Brown Girl knew would be up. “I knew you’d be awake to keep me company,” she had said. “. . . Not for another hour. . . Just sitting here, looking out the window.”
The front page of the April 13, 2003 Washington Post had no memorable headlines. Only some general sandwich spread about troops and war; and I now realize that the intricate rules of social intercourse vehemently force certain things, after a certain amount of time, to become mundane, no matter how real and nail-biting bloody they are.
I am, apparently, okay with this, because I then turned to the Funnies, most of which were not funny. Nor “funnie.”
Brown Girl was funny. Or maybe it’s just real life that is more comical than anything made up—because I had already given her a name, assigned her certain characteristics that made her real in my mind, connected us like jigsaw and timber. And, as if she had cut right into my thoughts, I listened to Brown Girl say, still talking to Jelly I presumed, “Yeah . . . Exactly. No one ever really knows that I’m Black. Unless I tell them. And I don’t really hang out with any Black people so . . . No. No one ever asks. I guess it doesn’t matter.”
But it does matter, I had thought.
Then I recalled the repellency in her initial gaze—that defensiveness, like a tennis backhand—that “step back” in the voice of her eyes. And then she was on the phone, as if in retreat, as if running through unfamiliar woods, calling out for these people—the Mamas and the Jellys—these people all spread out across the country who could vouch for her existence, who could provide proof that she was, indeed, not alone and that she did not need me, some strange Black boy in an airport, to save her from the lonesomeness of this malformed forest littered with hollow shops and deadly-desperate people going anywhere but here. Brown Girl retreated deep, deep within herself, to a place she felt I could not possibly shine enough light, not even if I grabbed a little piece of the sun—“No!” she exclaimed, and slammed down her fist. “I am not alone! Not afraid! I am not desperate—not for you! And no, I am not Black. And neither are you, though I see that you, indeed, are.”
People are just people, I know that even now she keeps telling herself. Even says it aloud.
And we both know this is true.
But also know that it is not.
I kept reading my paper after that. Brown Girl soon got up, walked over and bought a Cinna-Bun at the pastry place next to the luggage shop, and headed, I supposed, toward her boarding gate since her plane would be taking-off soon. Her walk reminded me of Jennie—or maybe it was the heart shape of her derriere that did. And I thought about Jennie and what I had really done that Fall Semester at school.
I had dumped her, cold turkey, like a street junkie quits junk. And I now know, precisely, that it was because she didn’t look enough like her “other”: the one-quarter of her genes Japanese was too deeply buried underneath whatever kind of Caucasian made up the rest of her. Looking at Jennie, no one would know she wasn’t just another plain old “White” girl—and even looking at her (looking deep beneath the surface at Who she believed she truly was), no one would know either—because she had always been treated “White,” had assimilated to this homogenous idea of “Whiteness,” and lived happily within it. I lived within that homogenized thing as well, just fine—same as I lived with my specified “Blackness.” But, at a certain point in our relationship, I thought about the World at large, saw light shining from that keyhole the unconscious will sometimes allow you to look through for a moment, and I didn’t like what I saw—didn’t want to be, in the future, that “Brother”: the pro-Black one working on the Afro-American Studies PhD., shouting “Power to the people! Let’s get free!”, my black hair-pick with the mean black fist climbing out the back of my Fro, wearing a red-black-and-green wristband, with “White” girl on my arm.
And I didn’t like my Self for looking at that: this sentiment rooted, I believe, deeply and systematically in some far-back-reaching concept of base Colonialism. Something to do with hanging on to a fading notion of what I assume is my National Culture—a National American-Negro Culture—a certain “Blackness”: an abstract object that I desperately need to hold on to so as not to be swept completely away by that evil thing called “Western Culture”: dripping from its slobbering mouth the processed-cheese-in-a-can music of Brittany Spears, the hum of high emission SUVs, the incessant rabble-rabble of “American families” in TGI Fridays lapping up over-portioned plates of grease-fried grease. And I realize that part of what we call “Western” and “Culture” need be rejected because it is, very much, the dregs—the absolute least desirable. I also realize there is a certain need for a certain racialization of thought in order for me to connect to something soundly “Black” or “Negro,” in order for me to remain functional in a society that will likely never look at me without at least a slight consideration of my certified hue.
But there is a wrongness to this.
I am rebelling, in a sense, and in a sense conforming. I am not really getting off the beaten path, I am only convincing myself that I am. Because even though Jennie is actually part Japanese but looks White, even though it shouldn’t matter (and it doesn’t—just like Brown Girl said: people are just people), it does matter.
And I know that.
And so does Jennie.
And the World—the one At Large.
And neither is mad at me. That’s simply the way things are. How shit be.
It’s a mentality—an ideology from which I see no route to escape. And, believe me, I am looking, in every sense of the word.
I know that I am trying to recover some sort of original experience, something genuine—a rare diamond: like a misspelled word in those rhetorical war headlines that, in a Freudian slip type sense, reveals the truth about what is really going on over there. I realize that I am missing out on something. And I am at least glad for the realization.
But I decide that I do not want to float, to hover on the outside, looking in, as I sit in that same spot across from the luggage store wanting only to be free. I think of how I trapped myself on the plane ride here, how I trapped myself inside the ordinary, an exercise in familiarity, thinking I would gain something because, after all, there are some very interesting people on airplanes—you never know what kind of life they lead or have led, where they’re going, have been—they’re like the thousands of tiny pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, a small part of this enormous, vivid picture. But some pieces have round, smooth edges, while others are all squared. It is sometimes hard finding two that match, but I thought I’d give it a shot on the plane ride here because Alan Hodges, who bought a Delta Airlines ticket from Mobile, Alabama to Washington, D.C. for the same flight, same day, same seat row (27E for me and 27D for him) as I did, looked like an interesting story, like maybe I could get something out of him: him in his blue-jeans, short-sleeved company-logo t-shirt tucked into the jeans, no belt, Nikes with no socks, brown-graying beard, belly, Chicago Bulls cap (underneath which he was balding), rigidly angular nose, and exceedingly comfortable eyes that said, “This is just another taxicab ride, no big deal.”
I didn’t pull my Discman from the bag underneath my seat and strap on the headphones; I didn’t bury my face in the book I borrowed from Devon, blues poems by Kevin Young: Jelly Roll. I offered Alan, when he asked where I was headed, “D.C.; I’m actually going there to accept this writing award, for college writers.”
He had already asked if I was from Mobile, what I was doing here; had told me his wife was an English teacher after I said that I was working on a Masters degree in Writing and would be going elsewhere for a PhD. in African-American Studies next year. Then Alan Hodges told me about his job, how he traveled constantly, all across the country, setting up information systems databases for companies that were just getting started—a lengthy explanation I didn’t quite understand, an explanation I almost automatically assign to a person who has one of those plush jobs where they travel, make lots of money, and shoot-the-shit with the best of businessmen but never actually do any real work. One of those occupations where, more so than the product, you sell yourself.
I found out about Alan’s four kids, all girls under ten years old. He was from Chicago. The girls were in Chicago, with the wife, whom he had actually been legally separated from for quite some time now. I looked to the left hand: wedding band still on the finger.
You’re holding on, I had wanted to say. Just let go, you poor bastard.
But of course I said nothing.
And I felt I had gotten nothing.
So I looked out the window.
We were just taking off over Mobile, and I watched as the rich, Country Club Estates houses, the never-sleep roadways, and the life-life trees became simple shapes on a grid map. How easily one could crush all that life, I thought. Just mash it, one stomp, flat as paper.
It is a sad thing to realize how small you are, how tiny we all are in the grand scope of things. How you’re not even a single word in a sentence, how you may only be the dot over some lowercase i. If that.
Mind over matter.
Soul before flesh, I suppose.
I think of this as I hand my boarding pass to the attendant at gate 17. I don’t even look up, but notice that she is a woman because of her hand: what seems to be a lengthy paper cut between the thumb and forefinger, manicured nails, French tips, no jewelry, wonder if there’s any on the other hand, the left, wonder if she’s married: If not, maybe you could look up Alan Hodges. He is not married either, although he says he has a wife; but that doesn’t matter, he just wants something to hold on to, something both physical and figurative. That’s what we all need. At least I think that’s what we all need.
The hand gives me back my pass, and I debate, in a millisecond, whether or not to look up into this person’s eyes. But my body is already moving through the walkway, has decided that we should hurry and leave this place.
But where are we going? I want to scream and pull back, resistance. Wait a minute and tell me where the hell we’re going!
But my body is moving.
And only forward. Toward.
Let’s go! I hear it say. We have to go. Let’s get out of here.
Out of where? I ask, gritting my teeth.
Just, here. Away. Somewhere else. Let’s go. Come on, now.
And by this time I am clicking the buckle of my seatbelt because the Captain has started that fasten safety belts button. And my headphones are on, the window shade pulled down, closed, Jelly Roll opened and lying across my lap. And I am reading aloud, to myself: my Self: how this man misses this woman who left him so hard that every day of his life feels like heavy rain. Soggy, even inside his apartment. As if rain, was just, coming down from the ceiling.