“I thought we had an agreement,” Diana said. She was bouncing on Anabelle’s king-sized bed in sweatpants, a t-shirt, and glasses, her thick, curly, light-brown hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“I never said I wouldn’t,” Anabelle replied.
“A silent agreement,” Diana said. “Don’t you remember when we watched Monster’s Ball?”
Anabelle was getting ready for her second date with Lawrence, and her roommate, Diana, was trying to make her feel guilty for going out with a white boy. They’d only moved in together eight weeks earlier; already Diana had made herself perfectly at home in Anabelle’s bedroom.
“Lawrence is not Billy Bob,” Anabelle said. “And you’re more Halle than me.”
Diana scoffed at the comparison to another light skinned woman. “Than I,” she corrected Anabelle.
“A white guy named Lawrence. I just don’t trust him.”
“You haven’t met them all,” Anabelle said.
“I haven’t met every Republican, either, but I know I’ll never date one,” said Diana.
“That is not the same!” Anabelle watched the steam rise from her flat iron in the mirror as she smoothed the ends of her jet-black hair, which had become frizzy in the few humid days since her last relaxer.
“All the movies, books, science, history, politics—all revolving around white men,” Diana said. “Don’t you get sick of them?”
“Maybe I’m not as weary of them as you. I didn’t have to grow up with them.” Anabelle had spent her childhood alternating between her home country of Haiti, where her father worked as a diplomat, and a middle-class black neighborhood in Atlanta. “Anyways, you’ve definitely liked some white boys.”
“I see them the way I see women—I appreciate when they’re good looking, I’m just not attracted,” Diana said.
“What about the bartender at O’ Shea’s?”
“Well, he has an accent. And that whole working-class thing,” Diana replied.
Anabelle squinted at Diana’s reflection. Diana was looking at her too; they were almost seeing eye to eye. “What about that magazine cutout of Andre Agassi in your room?” Anabelle asked her.
“He’s not white,” Diana said.
“And your Spanish personal trainer?” Anabelle pressed on.
“He’s from southern Spain. Practically Morocco. The man is my color,” Diana said, holding up her arm and pointing to her skin, somewhere between olive and brown, carefully tanned by the Georgia sun.
Anabelle started singing: “Choosey lover, girl I’m so proud of ya.”
“You’re really in a good mood about this date, huh?” Diana said, annoyed.
“I’m so glad you choooose me baby,” Anabelle continued to sing, leaning towards the mirror to carefully apply eyeliner.
“And with all these black men in Atlanta?” Diana said. “You should be ashamed.”
“So that’s why you moved here. Weren’t there enough black guys for you in New York?” Anabelle joked. Diana had transitioned from her job at the New York Civil Rights Coalition to a better position at the Southern Poverty Law Center, tracking hate groups.
“I moved here to be with you, boo!” Diana said. They’d been roommates for the last two years of college, and Diana, despite laying claim to her own fierce independence in the City, had been overcome with loneliness.
“Oh, do you have any of those Planned Parenthood free condoms for me?” Diana asked.
“I gave you that whole big box a few weeks ago.”
Diana stood, angling her body sensuously towards the mirror as if to prove she would in fact use them all. “Not so choosey after all,” Anabelle joked, clipping her earrings on, always with an eye on herself in the mirror.
“Shut up.” Diana threw one of the fluffy pillows at her—it bounced off of her butt and onto the floor.
“I don’t have any more condoms,” Anabelle said.
“Not even your own personal stash?” Diana asked. Anabelle laughed nervously. She hadn’t told Diana that she was still a virgin; she let her believe that she’d lost it to her college boyfriend, even though keeping it was probably one of the reasons their relationship hadn’t lasted.
“Maybe you do need this date. You don’t have enough fun… you work too much.” It amazed Diana that on top of med school, Anabelle worked part-time as an assistant at the Planned Parenthood clinic.
Diana admired Anabelle’s reflection in the mirror, the peach, turtleneck dress that came just past her knees complimenting her warm brown skin. Diana wondered if Anabelle was trying to seem modest. When the two girls went out together, Anabelle usually wore short dresses with bright patterns.
“It’s pretty tight,” Anabelle said, turning to examine her backside in the mirror. When the two went out to the club, Anabelle got more attention with her curvy figure, clear dark skin, and big bright eyes. Diana wore plain black dresses when they went out, and she was skinny and tall and never as sun-kissed as she wanted to be, her long legs her only real asset. The attention Anabelle got made Diana jealous, but then, Diana was the only one of the two who ever went home with a man. When she saw a man who fit her type—dark-skinned, tall, solid looking—she fixed her translucent eyes on him and waited.
Anabelle had seen Diana bait men this way before. At first, she was sure it would unsettle them—that way that Diana’s eyes changed from gray to green to blue seemed eerie, especially when she focused on you. But there must have been something irresistible about it. Anabelle preferred to keep things subtle, a lesson from her reserved yet stunning mother.
“You’re lucky,” Diana said. “If I had kids with a white guy, the color would be wiped right out of them.” It seemed to have come out of nowhere, but Anabelle thought she must have been thinking about it for a while. “No one will be able to tell. You’re dark enough that your kids will be black no matter who you have them with.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that,” Anabelle said.
“Why not?” Diana asked.
“It just sounds wrong. Besides, it’s not always true. You, for one, should know how strange families can turn out.”
“Come on, that doesn’t offend you,” Diana said.
“You should just be careful what you say. Some people think you’re white,” Anabelle said, brushing pink shimmery powder on her cheeks. “You could even pass, you know, if you needed to.”
She hadn’t meant it to be hurtful, but she could see Diana’s face change in the mirror, lips pushing out and eyebrows pressing together.
“I mean like, if you were living in the 1920s or something,” Anabelle followed up, trying to patch up the hurt she’d caused.
“Why would I want to do that?” Diana said. “If I were alive in the ‘20s, I would have lived in Harlem, at 128th and Columbus, or in a townhouse in Hamilton Heights. I would have been married to a musician, and we’d have people like Jean Toomer and Claude McKay over for dinner.”
“No clue what you’re talking about,” said Anabelle.
“You should have taken some literature classes.”
“Do you know my parents? When I said I wanted to study art history, they stopped paying my room and board,” Anabelle said. “Be grateful your parents aren’t immigrants.”
“I don’t blame them!” Diana said. “No bankroll in museum curating. I wish my parents had the sense to warn me away from this thankless social justice work.”
“Oh come on, you love what you do,” Anabelle said. “Putting white supremacists on blast? What could be better?”
“Eh.” Diana shrugged. “What’s good for the soul is bad for the wallet.”
“My brother’s about to go to college. He wants to study music. And guess what, my parents are encouraging him!” Anabelle said. “Guess you can afford to be impractical if you have a penis.”
Diana’s eyes floated to the photo of Anabelle and Daniel on the dresser, he standing a head taller than she, their long arms circled around each other.
Diana sighed with the hot desire to belong. “Your family’s beautiful.”
“Hey, ethnically ambiguous is hot right now,” Anabelle said.
Diana’s eyes lingered on the photo, drinking in Daniel’s smile.
“In slavery times, I’d have been right along with the rest,” Diana mumbled.
“Working in the house,” Anabelle said.
“Getting fucked by the master,” said Diana.
“That’s not funny,” Anabelle said, but they both laughed.
The doorbell rang.
“That must be Lawrence,” Anabelle said, her voice rising an octave.
“Coming to the door and not just honking? What a nice southern boy.”
“Have a good night!” Anabelle was out the door in a flash, Jimmy Choos tapping on the hardwood. She wasn’t ready for Lawrence to meet her roommate, not yet—she could just imagine Diana’s death glares when she saw how WASPy Lawrence was.
He was standing on the deck, adorably All-American, as in a J.Crew ad. He gave her a kiss on the cheek and led her by her arm to his silver Lexus. While he held open the door for her, Anabelle looked over her shoulder toward the window. She smiled—no peeping Diana.
Lawrence drank an Old Fashioned, and Anabelle admired his hands as they twisted around the glass. His gold college ring with its dark red stone, the blue veins visible under his skin, the palms the same color as his knuckles.
“What’s new with school?” he asked her.
“Another midterm next week. Sensory system. We’re dissecting the cadaver’s face in lab this week.”
Lawrence had been holding up a piece of rare steak to his mouth, but he put it back down on his plate. They were at a restaurant she’d never been to in Home Park, where the prix fixe 5-course meal was the default.
Anabelle laughed, covering her mouth. “Sorry. Should talk about that after dinner.”
“Guess I’m a bit squeamish,” Lawrence said. “I failed Biology twice in college—couldn’t get through the pig dissection.”
"Really? That was my favorite part. You just have to learn to see bodies as objects.”
“So that’s how you medical people think of us? As objects?”
“Surgeons, at least.” She sipped her Grey Goose martini, which she’d ordered thinking this was the type of place where you should order one, but was quickly realizing she didn’t have the stomach for.
“You want to be a surgeon?”
“I’m not sure. I think I want to go into gynecology, reproductive health. I’d like to open up a clinic in the Caribbean one day.” She watched his face for signs of changes, thinking she might get a glimpse of his thoughts on family planning. He showed no reaction. She hadn’t yet mentioned Planned Parenthood, and she felt ashamed at her own reluctance to proudly claim the work she felt was so important.
“How’s business?” she asked. Lawrence had founded his own start-up company at twenty-five, refurbishing and selling electronics.
“It’s going well. But man, tax season hit me hard. I’m in an insane tax bracket now. We should be getting more breaks for the work we’re doing. Instead I’m being punished for my success. I don’t see the incentive in small businesses doing well if this is how they’re treated.”
She raised an eyebrow. Anabelle had heard her father express the same way of thinking about his import/export business, and cite it as the reason he voted for McCain in 2008. She didn’t ask about Lawrence’s voting history.
“You should come by the office sometime,” Lawrence said. “My colleagues would love you. Well, they’d be jealous of me, being with such a beautiful woman.” He blushed when he said this, as if it was something audacious. She thought of the men who stood out on the corner of her street, who showered her and Diana with unsolicited attention and compliments each time they walked by on their way to O’Shea’s, their neighborhood bar. Diana sometimes encouraged it, smiling or laughing or even throwing a quip back at them, but Anabelle hated the catcalls; they felt generic, rehearsed, too easy. She liked the way Lawrence called her beautiful, with the color of blood appearing under his skin, his eyes crinkling up under his light, long eyelashes.
Something caught her eye over Lawrence’s shoulder, and she started looking around the restaurant. She felt that the people around were watching them, yet she couldn’t catch them looking. Her eyes settled on an older white couple—she thought she saw them whispering to each other.
“How do you like this place? My parents recommended it,” Lawrence said, his eyes following hers as they jumped around the restaurant.
“It’s nice,” Anabelle said.
“A little stuffy, maybe. They were supposed to have a band,” he said. He was looking around at the décor, and Anabelle had the sense he was trying to distract her, to convince her eyes to follow his.
“So you told your parents we were going on a date?” Anabelle said, trying not to watch the nearby couple—she’d become convinced they were staring and discussing her and Lawrence.
“Yup,” he said.
“What do you think they’d think of me?”
“They would love you! Emory med student? You kidding?”
“Yeah?” She imagined meeting his parents, their eyes widening in shock: This is Anabelle?
“Totally. What about yours?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve never brought a guy home to meet them.”
She didn’t mention that they’d probably feel more comfortable with someone they understood better--a hardworking boy from the islands.
From the back of the restaurant came the music of a salsa band. “Oh, I love this song,” Lawrence said.
“Really?” Anabelle said.
“Yeah, want to dance?”
He laughed. “It is a salsa song.” She felt her cheeks go hot.
“Okay,” she said. He helped her stand up, and placed one hand on her waist and one on her shoulder. No one else in the restaurant was dancing.
“No hay que llorar,” he sang softly, beginning to lead her confidently in the step, even moving with his hips. Anabelle hesitated—dancing salsa was intellectual for her; she had to train her brain to follow the choreography: 1-2-3, pause; 1-2-3, pause. But the way he held her and tilted her hips allowed her to sense the moves she was supposed to make. “Y las penas se van cantandoo.”
She laughed. “Where’d you learn salsa?”
“I spent a semester abroad in Santo Domingo,” he said. “I dated a Dominican girl for a little while, that’s how I really learned.”
“How did I not know you lived in DR?”
“You don’t know everything about this white boy,” he said. His face was pressed to hers, and she could feel him smiling. She hoped he couldn’t feel her perspiration. She had a sudden flash of Diana’s voice in her head: So he has a fetish for girls from Hispaniola. She brushed it away.
Anabelle could feel the hot eyes all around. She paused to take one last gulp of her martini, now slightly warm and salty with olive brine. Then she allowed herself to be spun around and around.
Diana stripped off her clothes. A five-minute shower, no makeup or perfume. Cleanliness was her only standard for trysts—it seemed strange to dress up just to have someone undress you.
She studied her face in Anabelle’s gilded mirror—she didn’t have one in her room. She surveyed her amber-colored skin—what the black folks in Georgia called high yellow, or in the country, redbone. Amber hair, light amber eyes. A dull monotony, she thought, her features all variations on the same color. Passable.
A rapping on the door interrupted her thoughts, with its familiar little beat.
Daniel stood on the porch, looking like he stepped straight out of a fantasy. The diamonds in his ear glittered, his large, even teeth sparkled to match. He was tall and lean, and his skin reminded her of water at night—silky and dark with little hints of light.
She swung the door open and stepped aside to grant him passage. There were no pretenses with them, and she liked that. They wouldn’t put on a movie or have a drink. No candles, no Nina Simone or Miguel. Just through the door, into her bedroom, falling onto her mattress on the floor. It felt like she’d been underwater since the last time she saw him, waiting to come to the surface, and he was the air. She inhaled greedy breaths of him, buried her face in his chest and tasted the oil, spiked with cologne of lemon and olive. I could pick up your scent out of a lineup, she thought. She captured it for future lonely nights.
He lifted her head and pulled the elastic from her hair, unraveling a cascade of slippery curls across the pillow. He buried his long fingers in them, grasping her behind the neck. He liked to have his hands in her hair. She thought of her grandmother running her fingers through it when she was little, and telling her she was lucky to have such good hair.
She wrapped her legs around his back, and secured him between her thighs—she wanted to protect him from the world outside. Possession was paramount; she needed him all to herself. With her, he couldn’t have any other lovers, or homeboys, or an older sister, or any past at all. All the space in his mind must be occupied by her.
Never mind that hers kept on turning. The link between sex and poetry deepened the grooves in her memory—when she thought of one, she almost always thought of the other. Her desire found language, the words of a favorite poet, Jean Toomer: “Then with your tongue remove the tape/and press your lips to mine/till they are incandescent.”
Daniel allowed her to gain the advantage, a thoughtful partner, especially for his age, Diana thought—she was sure there were many before her. He helped to turn her over without them coming apart.
Worlds spun out behind her eyelids as she floated above him. He as a Harlem musician, she as a Renaissance poet, a darker version of herself, making love while a jazz record played, trying to keep quiet, in an apartment they owned—their home—with unfinished wood floors, two milk-chocolate children playing in the next room.
Or back another century, he as a field worker, she the kitchen hand, meeting in secret out in the woods by the clear light of the moon, fucking against a tree, his nails clawing wood, tiny splinters lodging in her back.
She took his earlobe in her mouth and twisted the diamond with her tongue.
He picked her up and turned her around.
Facing the wall, Diana almost let her mind slide away. But the feminist in her wouldn’t shut up, it kept saying, You’re not the type of woman to be on all fours, so she reared up her torso to meet his. She looked down at his hands on the tops of her thighs and spread hers over them. She loved those fingers intertwined—light, dark, light, dark, light.
She turned her face to his and saw that he, too, was looking down at their hands. And suddenly she loved him, and she wanted to say it. She wanted him to love her too, like Teacake loved Janie, like Tom Burwell loved Louisa, like Sixo loved the Thirty-Mile Woman. Risky, ready-to-die love.
When it was over, the suspension of time melted away, and Diana became aware of the stickiness between them, the slightly sour smell of their bodies. They lay side by side, catching their breath, then he turned to her, holding himself up on one elbow.
“That was the first time we did it with the lights on,” he said, and Diana saw the youth shining out of his skin, she saw what their children would look like, and she wanted to say, You’re beautiful, but she didn’t. He put his hand on her thigh and said, “You’re like…gold.”
He kissed her collarbone and rolled over to start getting dressed.
“Stay,” she said.
He stopped and looked at her. “Sorry.” She knew he couldn’t stay the night, not with Anabelle coming home soon. Soon, soon.
“Stay a minute. Sing me something.” She’d gone to one of his shows with Anabelle the first week she’d moved to Atlanta. That’s when he’d caught her eye, or her ear: his voice clear and sweet.
“Next time. Come to my next show with Anabelle.”
At around midnight, the slap of heels on concrete alerted Diana to Anabelle’s return. She was in bed, reading a novel with the door open. She sat up when her roommate came in.
“Hey,” said Anabelle, lifting one foot to remove a shoe, then the other. “Ah, feels good.”
“Yo. How was your night?” Diana said.
“It was cool,” Anabelle said, sitting on the foot of Diana’s “bed,” which was really just a mattress on the floor.
“I like him. He’s a really nice guy.”
“And?” Diana said.
“Did you get it poppin’ in the back seat of that Lexus?” She raised and lowered her eyebrows repeatedly. “Eh, eh?”
“Stop,” Anabella said. “We only kissed.”
“Oh, Ana,” Diana said dramatically. “When are you going to get some?”
“I just haven’t felt comfortable inviting him in yet…”
“Why? ‘Cause of me? I know I’m a little cray-cray,” Diana made circles with her fingers next to her temple. “But I’m not going to like, eat him or anything. I’m just going to grill him. But I’d do that even if he wasn’t white.”
“Jesus. You sound like my little brother.”
Diana turned her eyes down to her book.
“What are you reading?” asked Anabelle.
“Corregidora. It’s a novel about a Blues singer whose great-grandmother and grandmother were both sex slaves to the same master on a plantation in Brazil. The master had a kid by his own daughter. So the Blues singer’s grandmother and mother both had the same father.”
“What? That’s disgusting.” Anabelle said. Diana shrugged. “Why do you read such horrible stuff? Isn’t there enough real-life bad shit out there?”
“It is real life. It’s just another way to tell it.”
“Pretty grim,” Anabelle said. "You working tomorrow?”
“Yup, hunting down the KKK and Co. You have class?”
“No, Planned Parenthood.”
“Great,” Diana said. “So we both have equal chances of being firebombed.”
Anabelle laughed. “We’ll take our chances.” She slid over and gave her roommate a hug. “Hmm. Smells like man.”
“In a gross way?”
“No, like Armani Code. Daniel practically bathes in it.”
Diana looked into Anabelle’s eyes, in that way that Anabelle found disquieting, where she seemed to be looking through her.
“I guess it’s pretty popular,” Diana said. She didn’t seem all too happy, even if she did have some man over, so Anabelle didn’t push it.
“Yeah guess so. And popular with the ladies, too, if I’m judging by how many girlfriends my brother has.”
“Mmm,” said Diana.
“Well. It’s bedtime. Goodnight D.”
“Goodnight Ana.” Anabelle turned off the light on her way out, leaving Diana staring after her into the dark.
Alexandra Watson is a biracial writer living in Harlem. She teaches writing at Barnard College, and is executive editor of Apogee Journal, a publication dedicated to highlighting underrepresented voices. She holds a BA from Brown University and an MFA from Columbia.