The Final Frontier

cropped-cropped-hpim06581.jpgIn the drizzling rain, Salima’s hair became a fluffy soggy mass. Again she was outside the Breath of Fire Yoga Studio, standing in front of the two large wooden doors. She blocked the way of the patrons so that when they entered and exited they had to open the door carefully and offer “excuse mes” for nearly hitting her. Salima didn’t acknowledge them. She continued in silent disagreement with herself, trying to catch at least one of the myriad thoughts appearing in her head like rapid fire before they faded. One thought formed the undercurrent: the anger is quiet. The meditation was helping, she reasoned, but still, she wasn’t sure if this place could be the final frontier of healing.

“It’s okay to be mad with God,” her mother Minnie said calmly when she told her she’d started supplementing weekly church services with psychotherapy. Her reaction to the meditation was stronger: “Oh, Great God. We cast down satan, in the mighty, holy name of Jesus! Lord, at the utterance of your name, let your power be known to our enemies. Oh, Great God. I ask that you reclaim my child from the snares of Buddhism. This, and all things, we ask in Jesus’ precious name. Amen.” Salima imagined her small-framed mother, miles away in the house she grew up in just on the outskirts of Atlanta. She imagined Minnie wiping her moist face with a paper towel. The thought made Salima laugh to herself. “Mama, meditation is not a religion,” she might have said had she not known that such efforts to educate would be misspent on her mother.

You see, Minnie was from the school of Jesus is All You Need. And if you carried your troubles elsewhere then you were anti-Jesus. That Jesus’ grace might need supplementing was inconceivable to her mind.  If you were having money troubles, Jesus was the answer.  If you were feeling lost and confused, you needed to talk to Jesus more. If you hated everything about your life and were consumed with despair, then you needed to ask for Jesus’ forgiveness, because he had turned his back on you. There was too much Jesus on Minnie’s lips, too little Jesus in Minnie’s heart. Which is why Minnie had never understood her daughter, why she had not ever figured out how to deal with her very emotional child. All little Salima wanted was a little compassion. The first time a boy dumped she had locked herself in her bedroom and refused to go to school. “That boy is in school right now! Are you just gonna lay in there and die?” Minnie sputtered at the door. “Are you saying that Jesus can give sight to the blind, but cannot heal a teenager’s broken heart?” And this was the source of Salima’s anger. Devin walking out just three months before their wedding had hurt, but it was Minnie’s refusal to be there for her daughter, to show concern or affection, her constant shoving of a divine being between them, that got inside Salima and snapped something loose.

It was January, only six months after they moved to New Haven, that Devin had broken off the engagement. Salima slept on the maroon leather couch, a holdover from Devin’s Atlanta bachelor pad that the two of them, when they arrived in July, had angled, flipped, and pushed up the rickety back staircase to their apartment inside a multifamily Victorian. Together they forced it through the narrow kitchen doorway and down the only hall in the tiny space. Afterwards, when it was perfectly centered in the living room, they collapsed onto the hardwood floor, chests heaving, fingers intermingled, eyes to the ceiling, feeling equally excited and exhausted.

She wasn’t worried about him the night before. His early morning arrivals had become so commonplace, she didn’t even stir when he walked in. She expected him to head for the shower, the way he always did when he’d stayed out all night. But after closing the door he began to approach her, his soft-bottom loafers clomping the wood. She had snapped her eyes shut hoping to avoid him, but she could hear him hovering over her. For about half a minute he stood there silently, then he double-tapped the fleshy area under her clavicle.

“Salima, I need to talk to you.”

Slowly, she sat up. Keeping up the Sleeping Beauty charade, she rubbed both eyes with the backs of her hands. “What?”

“You know I love you, right?” He looked tired when he squatted down in front of her and took up her hands. His eyes were bloodshot, his beard scruffy, in a way that made him seem dangerous. She offered a sympathetic expression, as if to say she knew he had tried to love her. For more than four years he had been successful at it, but the evidence had gone missing. Since the first few months after they’d stuffed her Civic and his Trailblazer full of belongings thought too precious to leave behind and trekked the seventeen hours up from Atlanta to New Haven things had changed.

He couldn’t be sure if getting married was the right thing to do and for months he had been doing things he wasn’t proud of, he confessed. She wasn’t shocked, but the words still seemed to suck the air out of the room; a lengthy silence replaced it. What did she want him to do? He finally asked. Did she want to ask him anything, and couldn’t she just say something?

“Salima, do you hear me? Salima!” He shook her, but not hard. More silence.

There was nothing to say. She imagined other couples in their situation, conjured scenes of crying women coughing up vulnerability like loose phlegm. She wondered if it said something awful about her that she couldn’t reveal her thoughts, let alone the feelings that brought on the tightness in her chest. Then she recovered. Why should she bare herself to someone who had decided he was done, someone who had decided months before?

In November, the chill had clung to the New Haven air and seeped through the cracked window like a confused burglar, bringing with it the gift of gloom. She assumed the results of the election were in. Shots from probably illegal firearms and shouts filing into the streets griped her, and for a moment the gloom became lost in an overwhelming desire to celebrate. But there was no one to hug.

Minnie had warned her against moving hundreds of miles away with a man she wasn’t married to.

“I don’t care how long y’all been together, no man gonna pay the price for the cow when the milk man comes every night not ‘specting a dime!” It was a classic Minnieism: a common saying butchered to the point it hardly made sense. But she’d had a point.

“Connecticut? Move…with you? To Connecticut?” Salima was skeptical. But after three years of pretending not to be in love with him she realized this was the point she either kept up the charade and lost him or packed her bags.

They’d met at a Fourth of July barbecue in Decatur. At Fred and Simone’s—a couple that had endured Columbia High School with Salima and Georgia Tech with Devin—the crowd was larger than Salima had expected, but tame. Devin stood out amid rib-scented smoke, loud music and the jumble of voices. His way of speaking was sultry, melodic, only a slight drawl. He was slightly older than her, Salima could tell by the gray specks that dotted his mostly black hair and the feeble creases forming at the corners of his eyes. From a green plastic chair on the opposite side of the yard she watched him debate sports with half-drunken men and transform a pack of frowning, cross-legged women into giggling school girls.

Devin was waiting beside the grill for meat when he noticed Salima. Her cheekbones starkly angled, pronounced freckles and dimples, her curly hair messy the way he liked, the straps of her tribal-print sundress sliding down her shoulders. Good, not a buttoned-up control freak, he’d thought.

It was quiet in Candler Park the night of their first date; the Atlanta skyline formed an idyllic backdrop. Salima could still remember standing outside the converted warehouse building with him.

Usually at the end of dates—which were few and far between—she’d dart from barely-stopped cars into the night air, offering nothing more than a curt “Goodnight.” She’d done the same with Devin, but he’d caught her at the metal door.

“I had a good time.” He’d said, a little breathy. She turned to face him, but didn’t speak at first.

He talked about the restaurant where they’d had dinner—a stuffy little place in the Old Fourth Ward, with a pretentious crowd. Next, his favorite musicians: Maxwell, Winton Marsalis, Hendrix. In the span of minutes she learned he was a second generation Engineer and that his family was nuclear, complete with mom, dad and four siblings. Just like the Cosby’s.

Between the handicap ramp and the metal door that led to the stairway—which led up to her apartment—they talked coyly and traded glances. She didn’t trust the perfection of it, which reminded her of the day she had married Barbie and Ken. Against the protests of her playmate Jessica, who said they already were married, Salima pronounced them husband and wife, then held their plastic faces together. She could still hear Minnie’s words: “Happily ever after is for white folks.”

Two months in, they were heading to Midtown every weekend for dinner, exhibits at The High, and plays at The Fox. By the seventh month, they were holding hands in the car while Dwele crooned about weekend love. None of this made her acknowledge them as a couple.

“We fuck” she often reminded him, her legs splayed across his pelvis. “This is not love.”

Ten months in, he kissed her outside a restaurant in the Virginia Highlands. It was late and they were buzzed from too much wine, but he meant it when he pulled away from her kisses, looked into her eyes, and said he loved her. She frowned and walked over to the passenger side of his truck. He followed, silently agreeing to carry on this way: continuously giving chase but never knowing whether he’d actually caught her.

Devin came out of the bedroom pulling an oversized suitcase behind him. Salima glanced at it, wondering when he’d packed it.

“Say something,” he pleaded.

But she gave her attention to signs of other life outside the window—cars zooming down Nicholl Street, brakes squeaking; birds chirping; squirrels leaping in the bare dogwood that leaned against the window. Later, she would wonder about him in the same way she wondered about the boys who stalked the phases of her relationships in college. Each one had positioned himself as a friend in anticipation of the dismissal of the guy before him. When things ended with Kevin, Chris was there to cheer her up. When she spotted Gary holding hands with another girl, it was Chauncey who picked up the pieces. They all got what they came for: laughter, as they careened down free falls at amusement parks, an intense connection, from penetrating stares into her eyes—a blondish hazel that made one curious of her parentage—endless thrusting, buttercream limbs wrapped around them, crinkly tendrils between their fingers after midnight.

There was a hard breakup before graduation she wouldn’t discuss. It was what caused her to believe the fizzling out of another hot-blooded affair would kill her, and why she became good at avoiding the lingering stares of men she didn’t know well. And so, she hadn’t dated anyone–not really–since college. Then Devin.

From the open door, he told her she could keep the apartment and the ring, mentioned something about an envelope on the counter “holding her over until she found a job.” He waited again for a response, but she lay back down on the bachelor couch and covered herself with the leopard print throw.

“You’re really not well,” he’d said before closing the door.

Maury’s guest was a white girl with stringy blonde hair. She ran from the studio crying and screaming backstage, but stopped to slide down a wall. Maury had just informed her that the boy she’d slept with ten months earlier—the only man she claimed she’d ever slept with—was not the father of two month old Cherish. Salima watched the show from her bed, finding each episode more troubling than the one before it. Somehow the pictures of babies on giant screens, the trashy clothing, the vulgar words spewed from sometimes gold-clad mouths had cleansing power for her—making her feel at once sadder and happier about her life. For three days she lay there, grateful she didn’t have a job to call in sick to, but worried about how she’d afford the place now that Devin was gone, if she would even stay there at all.

The smell seeping beneath the bedroom door became unbearable before she considered getting out of bed. She hadn’t felt like cleaning, or cooking, and her laziness had produced a pile of brown banana peels at the top of the trash heap. Her grandma Pearly would have said it was the devil that got into her. But Salima wasn’t too sure about the devil. He’d always been to her comical: a little white man in a red costume, with horns and a tail, wielding a pitchfork that towered above him. But now she couldn’t help believing he was more formidable, like God only malevolent. Maybe the devil was the reason she couldn’t bear the thought of getting out of bed let alone the action, but she wasn’t too keen on being under his power. The light of the sun, peeking in through the blinds cast a tiered shadow on the floor. It was the same light that gave her the push she needed to get up. As she peeled the comforter away an odorous whiff from her own body jarred her, a mild but persistent mustiness. Devil, or no devil, she was tired of moping and refused to be eaten alive by her own filth.

In the bathroom mirror she saw that her once-defined curls were matted and beginning to lock—the result of being trapped for days beneath a silk scarf. She grimaced then made silly faces then she started to cry.

When she met Devin, Salima was in the habit of getting up early. Before light, she’d caught the MARTA bus from Candler Park into downtown Atlanta. Her first shots were of street signs, old buildings, and vagabonds. Mid-morning was for Piedmont Park where she captured fast-moving cyclists, stay-at-home moms pushing strollers, and cityscapes. She headed south to The Underground in the afternoon, taking the same three mile route: straight down Peachtree and onto Alabama. There, her camera captured evangelists standing on brick walls, hard-haired mothers dragging sniffling toddlers by the wrists, and peddlers—men with waist-long dreads hawking scented oils and CDs: “I’ll give you five for twenty, Miss, three for fifteen.” They’d say.

At night she schlepped up to the CVS on N. Decatur where she had worked as a Pharmacy Tech for seven years, since she was a freshman at Georgia State. It was Devin who convinced her it was no job for a woman with a degree, even if the degree was in Anthropology. She was happy with the freedom her lifestyle allowed and the prospect of working a normal nine to five seemed confining, but Devin spoke of self-sufficiency until it felt silly of her not to take the teller position his frat brother Ryan, who managed a credit union branch in Tucker, had offered.

Kiyomi, a gifted artist by her choice, and a third year Yale med student by her parents’ choice, was taken in in February to cover Devin’s half of the expenses (Salima hadn’t yet figured out where her half would come from). The twin brown leather couches Kiyomi brought with her replaced Devin’s bachelor sofa, which Salima sold to the highest bidder on Craigslist. Kiyomi made pillows and draped the couches from end to end with them. Salima selected the fabric. She and Kiyomi had painted the walls of the kitchen marigold, because of something Kiyomi had read about the solar plexus chakra and the color yellow. They took turns placing fresh flowers in a window planter above the kitchen sink.

It was Kiyomi who had adorned the walls and side tables with all manner of craft projects and color-splashed canvas, had filled the air with sweetness from baking and cooking all the time, and had, in general, been a good steward of their place. It was, too, Kiyomi who had found the photos of the park and downtown Atlanta in a shoe box and suggested to Salima a trip to New York, “You should take pictures.”

Salima, who had visited the city a few times in the year since she’d moved, wondered if she’d lived in the north long enough (seven months) to become smug about the familiar journey. She no longer stood in the middle of Union Station like a lost tourist, searching for the ticket counter. The day she decided to take Kiyomi’s advice it was April, but still chilly. She marched up to the kiosk in the lobby, ticket in hand, and headed down the stairs, past Dunkin Donuts, to track eight where she waited for the express train to Grand Central.

She knew the picturesque thoroughfare the Metro-North train took like her own thoughts. She smiled in Bridgeport at the sight of the money-green house, trimmed in cream, and again in Milford when she saw the burnt red saltbox which, to her, looked like a barn. When the train passed the waterway in Westport, framed, on one side, by dogwoods, and brick buildings, on the other, she recalled the first time she ever saw it. She thought she might jump from the train to wade in the water which, from up high, almost looked clear. A strange and familiar excitement gripped her.

In Manhattan the buildings sucked air between them like a vacuum, so that the breeze seemed to move through Salima’s body not just over it. A street vendor was selling knock-off pashmina scarves for ten dollars each. She picked up one with a purple, tan, and fuchsia paisley print and pulled out her wallet to pay. The sullen older gentleman, with uncommon features, smiled warmly, debunking the legend of New Yorker rudeness.

She headed north on 5th Avenue, past the two Lion statues that framed the entrance to the New York Public library, then turned toward Bryant Park. Salima was moved when she saw a group of young, hippie-looking people, who were being trailed by several police officers, shouting an undecipherable chant. She reached for the camera she had earlier slung around her neck, and managed to snap several candids of the commotion. Then, her attention and her lens turned to other people in the park, pointing and shooting, first, two women dressed in suit separates, eating their lunches on a bench, then, to two blonde children, a boy and a girl that looked to be brother and sister, as they ran and laughed; couples and singles sitting or lying on blankets in the grass; people buying books; people buying food. With each snap, her camera captured not just the people, but the electric energy of the city. The more she snapped, the more she seemed to understand why people flocked there from all over; why, the happenings and sightings could be described, but the feeling could not.

Outside the Breath of Fire Yoga Studio women in spandex pants, toting rolled up mats, rushed past in pairs as Salima thought about Kiyomi’s suggestion for the fifth time in three weeks. They had started the meditation together and now Kiyomi had moved on to kundalini.

“It’s the humming,” she said. “Makes me think so clearly.”

Salima had tried Minnie’s Jesus Alone method before telling her what happened with Devin. For a month she went to midweek and Sunday services and bible study groups at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church on White Street–a small church that reminded her of her Grandma Pearly’s church in the country. But her smile was like a big lie that the old women, who prayed over her, came to feel insulted by. “What’s wrong, honey?” They would ask. Then they would wave her words away and suck their teeth when she offered a curt, “Nothing.” She told herself if she was going to believe that Jesus alone could heal her, she had to believe it was already done. So that is why when they continued to ask she continued to assert, “Nothing is wrong,” with more and more conviction. “Let us pray for you, child. Prayer changes things.” But Salima had been praying, and fasting, and reading in her bible day and night. And where was Jesus Alone? She waited for him silently those four weeks, refusing the prayers of the others, who eventually wrote her off as a lost cause, a woman in needing of healing but unwilling to let Jesus near the pain. Each week she sat further back, first in the front, then the middle, then the back, until she felt her rightful place was outside the doors of Mt. Moriah.

“It will help the depression,” Kiyomi had said of the meditation.

By summer Salima was in consistent practice. One morning when the heat bugs and birds were a chorus of buzzing, tweeting and flapping, Salima unrolled her mat onto the hardwoods. Below the window, East Rock was calling. Old habits, like the familiar musky scent wafting out of her downstairs neighbors’ open window into hers, were lurking, reminding her of a daily ritual in which she was, in her college years, a faithful participant. There were distractions all around, each calling for her attention. She waited until sounds made by cars stuck in the rush hour traffic became a sort of dull background music and until the sound of already up and laughing children trailed off into oblivion. She inhaled thoughts of problems, religion, and sadness, then blew them out of mind and body. She waited until all the things she knew needed to be done, and all the things she knew should never be done again no longer existed. When the world just outside her door, and at large, was rendered mute by the dominance of her own deep breathing she waited for it to come to her: peace, an affirmation, a sign, an answer. She waited for the promise of movement to manifest, first in the stillness, then in her stagnating life.

“You’re really not well.” Salima remembered Devin’s parting words. She wished she had said something, but there existed between them a formality characteristic of interactions between strangers and colleagues. She knew that was the reason. She knew too, there were things she had to accept if she was going to move forward, about Minnie, about Devin, about herself. There outside the door she recalled the day in Bryant Park and the poem she’d written to honor and to seal memory:

Silkened ambrose
And dew-cloaked kisses
Remind me of you
Fondly
I finger petals
And bask in the sunshine
Of those days
Those nights
When I was brazen
Floating on the cloud of your
Admiration

It had taken her a while to learn to tune it all out, but once she got beyond the place of thinking something new was not for her, once she decided to leave everything left unsaid and undone as it was, she found that it was exactly what she’d needed.

Outside the doors of the studio, the thought it had helped the anger came to her again.

“Coming in?” A woman with skin the color of blanched almonds asked, holding the door open. Salima shook her head, less in reply to the woman than to her own fading skepticism.

New Love and Stillness

There was no semblance of love left in our marriage by December. The cold had arrived but was not yet bitter. That day, Byron rushed in with something that in hindsight looked like joy. He sat me down in the study and announced he was leaving because he was a good man. “Glo, a lesser man wouldn’t tell you,” he’d said. “But I don’t want to lie anymore.” Without emoting, he snatched forever as easy as a passing conversation with a stranger. I didn’t feign shock. I had known for some time our marriage was on its wobbly last leg.

Around the Fourth of July I began to cringe at the sound of his footsteps in the foyer, and the jingle of keys before he placed them on the hook. I felt nauseous whenever his laughter carried from the living room, where he’d taken to sleeping. Everything the good man did either annoyed or angered me. Sometimes both.

I felt better when he didn’t come home. At eleven, I would begin the first leg of my ritual: down as much merlot as possible. The second part involved suffocating hellacious wails into cold pillows. There were no children to hide my misery from, or to be my consolation.

When he was too tired to suffer the discomfort of the worn leather recliner, Byron slept with his back to me. I would peer through the darkness at the outline of his head, envisaging things a bolder woman might say.

But life was too cushy. I spent days reading everything from Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera to Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. I knew other women had spent decades shining a light on inequality so I wouldn’t have to be one, but I didn’t think myself a representative of antiquated womanhood because I relished being a housewife. Cheap perfume on an expensive shirt was no cause to displace that kind of comfort. So, I made art forms of reticence and suppression, and used my imagination.

Late at night, it was the man he used to be that came home, instead of the man he had become. The former him brought flowers, said I was beautiful, and touched me in ways that said I love you as opposed to, “Let’s get this over with.”

Often, it was that night in 76’ when we were twenty and full of wonder. I could hear the strings and Marvin’s golden voice tickling my inner ear.

I want you, to want me
But I want you to want me too

We were college kids, and Byron’s roommate was out of town. It was the first night I’d stayed over at his place that he played the song for me. We brimmed with conspiratorial delight at the thought of being in his bed. Not because we were horny, but because we were willing to be frozen in that moment of silent stillness that accompanies new love.

I want you to want me
Just like I want you

Excitement ensconced itself in fear, and hovered above our bodies like sassafras branches. Only our smiles of surrender illuminated the room. Only Marvin dared make a sound, as a glimmer of golden tomorrows appeared in the screening room of my mind.

I give you all the love I want in return, sweet darling
Pure happiness is all I crave

A rush of heat bathed a part of me, and suddenly we were atop a cliff, diving into unfamiliar waters, hoping for the best, but not knowing what becomes of new love and stillness.

“Gloria,” he cried inside my forever.