The Sunday after everyone moved out, Rhiannon and I got breakfast at Au Bon Pain. I tucked a spoonful of yogurt into my mouth and pulled it out slowly. Looking over Rhiannon’s shoulder, I saw the guy behind the counter glance up, then back down at the sandwich he was making. I licked my lips. “Why does this taste so good?”
Rhiannon shook her shaggy red hair out of her face. “It’s whipped,” she said, taking another mouthful. Rhiannon was the kind of prep school grad the right summers just lined themselves up for. She was from Maryland but had gone to boarding school in New Hampshire, and her family took an annual vacation in the Hamptons. She was doing an internship at Bain in New York City starting mid-June. Before that, she had nothing to do but drink, hook up with guys she hadn’t hooked up with during the year, and buy me yogurt.
I licked the last of the yogurt from my spoon, wiped my mouth, and got out my mirror. I stared back at myself, brown eyes tiny under thick eyebrows fresh from yesterday’s wax. My nose—“Smallest Nigerian nose in history!” as I constantly reminded my family—wasn’t shiny yet. I tilted the mirror up so I could see my hair. The black waves were sitting calmly in place. One week until my next wash, two weeks until my retouch. I dropped my mirror back in my bag.
I heard someone walking up and turned to see the guy from the counter coming over with a tray. “Hi ladies,” he said. “I thought you two could use this.” He put a couple of Danishes on the table, his rolled-up sleeves exposing toned arms. “On the house.”
Rhiannon squealed and thanked him. “My pleasure,” he said, smiling at me. He headed back to the counter.
Rhiannon raised her eyebrows. “He was cute.”
I flashed a fake smile. “He was not cute. He’s an average-looking guy who works at a deli and is indentured to his dick. That’s the only reason he brought that Danish over here.”
Rhiannon dropped her spoon into her empty cup, which fell over and clattered against the table. “You know, this swearing off guys thing is turning you into a real bitch.”
“I mean, we can’t even eat breakfast without you saying stupid shit like that.”
I raised my palms and looked around to ask where this was coming from. “I’m sorry, I just got out of a break-up. Like two weeks ago? Remember that?”
“Oh, fourteen whole days? It’s about time you got over it.” Rhiannon hoisted her bag. “And if I remember correctly, it wasn’t even a break-up. Don’t delude yourself.” She whirled out of Au Bon Pain, leaving her trash and both Danish on the table. Bitch. I gathered everything and dumped it in the garbage on my way out.
I walked back to Old Campus slowly, partly to avoid catching up with Rhiannon, partly because nothing was waiting for me there. I thought about all the time I would have to myself this summer, the evenings and weekends when I wasn’t helping Professor Lee with his book. I was so unused to having this much free time, it made me nervous. I considered reading on the quad, but May in New Haven was chilly. I could feel the wind thinking about picking up. I considered going to my room for a scarf and looked everyone on the street in the eye as if I were polling them: what do you think I should do? Scarf? No scarf? Scarf?
Soon I was halfway across Old Campus and still undecided. The half I left behind stretched green and neatly trimmed beneath the morning fog. Suddenly I noticed, spreading out on all sides, a sea of chairs. Commencement wasn’t until next week, but they were already setting up chairs, thousands of white folding chairs for the families who would flock to campus from California and Chicago and China to see their sons and sisters graduate. The further I walked, the deeper I went into the sea of folding chairs. I had to stop myself from holding my breath.
My older brother, Ozor, had graduated from Harvard the year before. I still remembered how vast the crowd had looked at the ceremony. Hundreds and hundreds of Harvard faces. Smiling. Mostly black in the section where my family sat. Ozor was at Stanford now, law school. He hadn’t gotten into Harvard Law, but no one else thought that mattered. He was spending the summer there, working at a law clinic whose specialization I forgot. From the sound of things (i.e. the perfunctory Skype conversation we’d had after Mom asked whether we were keeping in touch), it sounded like he was living it up, impressing lawyers during the week, partying across the Bay Area on the weekends.
The men setting up the chairs were rugged, burly men in dirt-smudged jeans. I heard them calling orders to each other. One repeated an order he’d just given. The third time I heard it, I realized it was directed at me. I stopped and looked for whoever was yelling at me. A tall man leaning against a stack of chairs was looking at me sideways. Skin the color of Georgia clay. Dark hair in twists. He said hello for the fourth time.
I just stared at him, wondering where I knew him from. But he was wearing smudged jeans and he was moving Commencement chairs. Not a Yalie. Just an older black man trying to talk to me. As usual. I realized that my swearing off men didn’t really mean anything. I put on my most sarcastic smile and said good morning before heading to my room.
My scarf was lying on my desk chair. I checked my clock. 11:15. I spent a minute rearranging things on my desk just to kill more time. If I’d been at home, my family would just be getting back from Sunday mass. I’d missed the only service on campus today.
Back outside, the sea of chairs spread steadily outward. I got to the place where the man had said hello to me. Without meaning to, I glanced in the direction where he’d stood. He was still there, laying down another row of chairs. He straightened up when he saw me, and I saw a defined chest rise and fall beneath his thin shirt. As I walked past, averting my eyes, he said, “Are you coming back?”
I ignored him.
I ended up at Koffee?. The shop was three blocks away from central campus and perfect for this lonely morning. I paid four bucks for the right to claim the couch in the back corner and opened my book: Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Ten minutes later, I found myself folding my scarf into a cushion and considering the social acceptability of napping in coffeeshops. Was that a thing? I could have sworn Rhiannon said she did it during exams.
Thinking of Rhiannon made me remember what she’d said about me and Ezra. “It wasn’t even a breakup.” She was such a bitch to say that, but she was also right. Ezra was your typical classically beautiful varsity soccer-playing AEPi bro. He seemed reasonably socialized and purportedly came from good New England family, so I had assumed, when he’d kissed me in the backyard of some hipster party before spring break, that if things kept going in this direction, he would eventually want to date me. When we first got shuffled into the same corner of the off-campus house, he’d been the one to admit we knew each other, introduced by mutual acquaintances earlier in the year. We started talking about how uncool we were compared to our hipster hosts, how insufficiently concerned with finding the perfect Cosby sweater on half-price Wednesday at Salvation Army, how woefully ignorant of the arrhythmic indie remix blaring from the basement. We moved from the sweaty kitchen to a pair of tree stumps in the backyard, where Ezra suddenly got a text and had to go—one of his brothers had gotten far too drunk at a party nearby. He had disappeared, cell phone buried beneath his curly hair, and left me on a tree stump wondering what had just happened. But he reentered the backyard a few minutes later, shaking his head and mouthing obscenities. When he reached me, he said, “Such an idiot,” then bent down and kissed me. He gave me another kiss when he walked me home, and this gentlemanly display was what made me say yes when he asked to hang out a weekend later.
We “hung out” for six weeks. It’s stupid, but it was only after he stopped texting me that I realized we only ever made out in my room or grinded at parties. I kept thinking we would naturally end up doing couplish things, like studying in Bass Library together. Activities ostensibly platonic but motivated by affection, meant to make a statement, the statement, “This is a person I choose to spend significant periods of my life with. This person is significant.” I wanted that. I had wanted that since freshman year. The problem was that Yale guys who wanted that were an endangered species. And when Ezra started appearing in public with a certain blonde Cog Sci major, it became clear that if he was was one of those rare men, he’d decided that he didn’t want to get significant with me. It hadn’t been a breakup because I didn’t even have the right to be jealous of her. Ezra and I slipped back into passing each other anonymously on the street. I was back on the tree stump, wondering why he had started it in the first place, and when exactly he’d decided I wasn’t worth it. Whether he ever thought I was.
I had told Rhiannon I was done with guys until further notice, that I no longer saw the point of investing in someone you would inevitably dislike. What I meant was, I needed time to forget how unlikeable I felt. I thought she would get that.
“Ekene!” someone said. I looked up and saw a girl in an oversized button-down with a messy brown updo heading toward me. I recognized her, but I had no idea from where. When she reached my couch and held out both arms, I suddenly remembered.
“Oh my God, Dom!” I said, hugging her. I only knew Dom through Rhiannon and Instagram. Dominique Morgan. Judging by her profile, she was one of those girls who went out on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights but still managed to take advanced Econ seminars and get summer jobs at the UN. I had met her once before, some Saturday night at Rhiannon’s, and she’d been genuinely nice. And she was hot. She was half-white, so she had great hair. And she had her own style going on, a hipster/bohemian thing. Dom was The Competition.
Dom’s hand lingered on my arm. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” I said. “What are you doing in the Have? I thought you were in New York this summer.”
Dom laughed. “Who’d you hear that from?”
“Oh, I think Rhiannon must have mentioned it at some point. UN job? Or maybe I’m just making that up…?”
“Ha ha, no, you’re right, I am in New York, I’m just taking my time before that gig starts.” Dom glanced down at my coffee, still untouched. “What about you? What are you up to this summer?”
“Oh, I’m helping my philosophy professor research his new book,” I said. “Nothing exciting.”
“Are you kidding? That’s totally exciting,” Dom said. “A book. So you’re gonna be a co-author?”
“I might get a mention in his ‘Acknowledgements.’ Might.”
“Well, you’re the one working for the UN.”
“Oh, it’s just an internship,” Dom said. “Unpaid.”
“Um, you know that’s huge, right? How did you, like, swing that?”
She shrugged. “No idea, girl. I was surprised they accepted me.”
I nodded and thought, Lies.
“But hey, if we’re both gonna be in New Haven for a while, we should hang out!”
“Yeah, we should!” I agreed. “It’s about time, right? Let me get your number.”
We exchanged numbers and made plans to get a meal. Dom went off to buy her coffee. I waited to see if she would wave goodbye. She did. I watched her walk down the street toward Whitney Avenue—she was so graceful she seemed to float—then went back to doing nothing.
Monday morning, I left my dorm an hour and a half too early for work. I was up and had nothing else to do, so I figured I’d read Kant over a long, long breakfast. Fog from another night of rain hung over the quad. I wondered if I would ever spend summer in a summery place, somewhere with a beach or just a water body. Around me, the white folding chairs held pools of water in their laps, and I couldn’t help but imagine thousands of people having wet themselves. As I walked past, I pictured my own parents dressed up for my graduation, the seats of their traditional clothes sopping with urine. I was still contemplating the image of my parents when I saw him.
He said good morning. I narrowed my eyes, totally bewildered as to why he was saying hello to me again. What, were we were friends now? Just because I said good morning two days ago? As I passed, irritated, he said, “What you got there?”
Just keep walking, I thought, but stopped. “Sorry?” I said, buying myself time. I wanted to work Not interested into my answer.
He jutted out his chin. “What you got there?”
“Oh. Um.” I took Critique of Judgment out from under my arm and held it up for him.
He peered at it and nodded. “Is it good?”
What is your point? I thought, shrugging.
“You read a lot, don’t you?” he asked, crossing his arms, settling in for what he apparently thought would be a long conversation.
I blinked and started walking again. “I’m sorry, I have to go to work.”
“Wait,” he said. “Can I get a name?”
I kept walking. “I’m Ignacio,” he called. I shook my head. Telling me his name, like that was magically going to make me interested. If I was getting hit on by guys with that little game, I had sunk really low.
That night, I got a text from Rhiannon. Party at the Oxford 1030 comeee. I stared at her text and its dubious grammar. She had spent less than two seconds sending this message. She probably hadn’t even sent it to me—it looked suspiciously like a mass-text. But I was too bored to be offended. I wrote back, Are you going to pregame? She responded immediately: Obviiiiii :)
I smiled in real life. I imagined an anchor greeting his TV audience after a commercial break (“And we’re back!”), only the show was my life and he was running commentary on my friendship with Rhiannon.
I didn’t actually drink (which always horrified people and probably made me one of five thousand on campus), so as usual, I sat on the couch in Rhiannon’s Chapel Street apartment and watched our weekend girlfriends down shots of Absolut. Rhiannon was already tipsy—I knew because she always threw her arms in the air when she was feeling it, in a way that said, “I’ve arrived!” I used to guess what she’d arrived at: nirvana, oblivion, a less inhibited version of herself, if that was possible, to be less inhibited than Rhiannon. As usual, I cheered and threw my arms around her to welcome her to whatever it was. She gave me a sloppy kiss on the cheek and tongued the words, “You have to have drink.”
“Oh no,” I said, declining a drink from her for not the first time. “You know I don’t drink, girl.”
“Eh-keh-NEH!” Rhiannon shouted, jabbing a finger at me. “You need drink! You need drink right now. Have drink.”
“Nooo,” I insisted. I watched as Rhiannon, with drunken firmness, instructed one of the girls to pour me a cup of mango grapefruit juice and Malibu. She handed me the Solo cup. I took it and stared at its pink contents. Maybe it was the color that seduced me. A childhood memory came to mind, or rather, a photograph that my parents’ stories had turned into a memory. I was posing with my brother. It was Easter in a year before my younger sisters were born. My mom had dressed me and Ozor for Easter mass and wanting to document her sartorial success, wielded my dad’s camera like a weapon.
“Ekene,” she had hissed. “Your dress is beautiful. Stop pouting, now, so we can snap this picture and go.”
But my dress wasn’t beautiful. It was a puffy, lacy, pink disaster. And I had wanted to wear a pair of sparkly black jeans I’d begged and begged Mom to get for me. They were so cool—I had seen some child actress wear a similar pair in a Disney Channel series—but for some reason, Mom said I couldn’t wear those jeans to church. I refused to stop pouting about it. And thus, my bulging bottom lip was immortalized on my dad’s film. This incident, or so I told everyone, was the reason I’d always hated pink. I still hated it. I just found it so lame. Now I was staring down a pink drink and thinking, “I can take this.”
“You know,” I said, remembering something from Directed Studies, the Classics program from hell that I was in freshman year, “the Greeks used to have this crazy three-day drinking festival in honor of Dionysus.”
“Driiiiiiink,” Rhiannon groaned.
I lifted the cup a centimeter closer to my mouth. “They went hard,” I said. Rhiannon lost interest, turning away and demanding to know the whereabouts of her phone. I took a sip. A sip wasn’t going to get me drunk. The drink was sweet—the mango, surprisingly, beat out the grapefruit and the rum. I hmmed as I considered it, as if this sloppy pregame were a wine-tasting. The drink tingled as it went down my throat, then trickled down to my stomach, where it burned in a way that was not unpleasant. I liked it. I took another sip, which Rhiannon, phone abandoned, saw. She tried to tip the rest of the drink into my mouth and spilled it all over me.
“Jesus!” I screamed, wiping the juice from my cheeks.
“Sorry! Sorry!” Rhiannon said. One of the girls ran out of the room and came back with a ream of toilet paper. I dabbed my face and realized I’d saved my dress by getting up so quickly. I felt a pang of guilt for taking the Lord’s name in vain and pushed it away, annoyed with myself for being so immature. A little later, when everyone was immersed in the Chief Keef track booming from Rhiannon’s speakers, I poured myself another drink. It would still equal one, I thought, pouring Malibu into juice. Oh, shit, how much was a shot? I estimated and sipped. I couldn’t taste anything. I finished the drink by the end of the song.
One of the girls handed me her drink and requested that I finish it. She had about half a cup left. What were my reasons for not drinking, anyway, I wondered as I swirled the girl’s slightly bitterer cocktail around in my mouth. My parents’ disapproval. Church youth group meetings condemning drugs and alcohol. High school health classes condemning drugs and alcohol. Taking all those things too much to heart, apparently. Because here I was, drinking, and none of the perceived dangers seemed to apply. I brought the Solo cup to my mouth again and eagerly sucked in air. I abandoned the empty cup on a nearby Ikea table.
Rhiannon decided we were ready to leave. It took everyone a minute to compose themselves, find phones, their shoes, their balance, refresh smeared eyeliner. Finally, we spilled out onto Chapel Street. On the way to the Oxford, I started to feel the warm tingling in my stomach all over my body. I laughed. I was drunk! I was drunk in college. It felt good. I was lightheaded, light-bodied. I felt like I was bouncing effortlessly down the sidewalk. Now I knew why everyone drank so much.
The stuttering dubstep remix ebbing from the Oxford apartment was as jarring as a strobe light. We waded into the darkness, discovering other people as we accidentally made contact with their bodies. Then our eyes adjusted and I saw that there was actually light in the room—it was pale blue, ebbing from the laptop of a boy who was trying and failing to DJ. The end of the remix was followed by a two-minute pause.
During the pause, conversation around me roared to life. That’s all people were doing, talking and standing around. Even in the dim light, I could tell the girls and I were overdressed for this party. We were an island of tight dresses and pointy flats in a sea of t-shirts, pinnies, and denim shorts. My friends fell to chatting. I had no idea what they had to talk about. There was absolutely nothing going on at this party, not even enough light to see whose behavior to turn into gossip. I knew how to pretend I was having the best time, but this time, I was irritated. Why did I always have to pretend I was having fun at parties? All anyone ever did was stand around. Why didn’t people dance? Despite his shitty transitions, the DJ was actually playing some okay tracks. But people were just pushing past each other as if they had somewhere to go. They shoved me as they passed, nudging me further and further into the crowd. I let them, pouting and praying that they took me somewhere interesting.
I ended up beside a table covered in bottles. The music started again, some hipster dance track ironically imitating hip hop. I scanned the half-full Solo cups next to empty or half-full bottles of Malibu, Skyy Vodka, Jose Cuervo. I found myself looking for a clean cup. Some guy came by and said hello to me, curious whether I was having a good time, leaning in close even though the DJ’s flimsy speakers weren’t that loud. Looking over his shoulder, I noticed the crowd rippling. Another wave of people had arrived. The crowd parted, and I realized it wasn’t a group—it was Dom. She was singlehandedly causing the commotion, stumbling from side to side, completely drunk.
“Dom!” I said loudly. She needed help. I left the overly ambitious guy by the wall and slid my arm around Dom’s waist, sliding into place as her crutch. She looked at me and yelled, then threw her arms around me. From her hug, I could tell she was much more in balance than I had thought. I felt silly for thinking she needed me.
I felt Dom’s face, lodged over my shoulder, burrow into the space between my ear and shoulder. “It’s so good to see you,” I heard her slightly muffled voice say.
I turned my head to say, “You too,” and found my face too close to hers—she hadn’t pulled away, so instead of speaking into her ear, I’d spoken directly into her mouth. She leaned forward slightly. I leaned back. Her hand slid down my arm and took mine. “We should dance,” she yelled.
I yelled back “Yes” and barely heard it—the DJ was suddenly blasting a song I recognized at max volume. I felt my interest in the party increase. Dom led me to another corner of the room and started bobbing in place to the beat. I realized I had no idea what to do with this music. Dom’s moves matched the song effortlessly. Her Facebook profile flashed through my mind; this was the type of music she had listed as her favorite. At that moment, for the first time in my life, I copied someone else’s moves. I was always the only black girl at the party. Whatever I did on the dance floor usually turned the whole party into the Cha Cha Slide. I would look up and see everyone’s eyes glued to me, straining to mimic every move I made. This time, Dom was DJ Casper. I tried to hide the fact that I was following her lead. Her hips were grinding slow circles into the air as if we were listening to Rihanna, not Sleigh Bells. I felt myself relax; that, I could do. I bent my knees slightly and let my hips go. Someone put a hand on my back, a request to pass, and I inched forward, suddenly close enough to Dom that the laptop light revealed her eyes. They were hazel. I’d never noticed that before. She looked at me intently. Her face wasn’t sad, but she wasn’t smiling. I wondered if she drank to deal with something, if alcohol lifted her to a place between the two.
Dom looked down at her hips, which were now drawing circles much closer to mine. She wound to the left; I wound to the right. We maintained a perfect diamond-shaped space between our sliding hips, then the space closed. I felt my lower stomach meet Dom’s. I looked up to apologize for bumping into her before realizing she had pulled me to her. The song changed—the DJ got the transition right this time, I barely noticed it—and we adjusted to the slower track, adding a dip on the downbeat. I knew how we looked. People around us would be nodding in approval—black girls killin’ it. I dipped carefully with Dom, adding an extra hip curl when I knew I should. Until now, my arms had been hanging awkwardly by my sides, but it didn’t make sense to be this close and not touching. I put a hand on her waist. Dom leaned forward, and I watched her eyes, more comfortable with her steady gaze. I didn’t lean back. We were just dancing. Dom rested her forehead against mine, and I felt her nose against my nose, and I knew it would happen a second before it did and yet I didn’t pull away. Dom pressed her lips to mine and slowly opened and closed them a few times. She paused, then kissed me again. I kissed her back—it was practically a reflex—but I pulled out of her embrace then, hoping no one could tell that the diamond between my legs was throbbing like a bassline [...]