We lived by the sea many years ago, do you remember? We lived in a small green house that you painted every year after the rains. And in that house we made love almost every day and dreamed about all the lands we would see together, and in that house I imagined writing a book about being there with you. The book would be about love. I knew that then. It would be about living deliriously without all the things and people I held dear. I had you and I had the sea and I had the beautiful blue indigo the women wore on the cloths wrapped around their waists. I had fish and I had the taste of you — salty, musky amber, after a long day with the men on the boats.
Do you remember those days at the end of the world, mpenzi? The long, bumpy ride on the cement truck back from town loaded up with weekly supplies of cassava, cardamom, and tomato? The way I veiled and covered for you? The way you peeled me open each night, unwrapping my sarongs, my brightly colored scarves one at a time before sleeping, as the flame of the white candle we kept by the bed flickered hungrily. The seashells the size of watermelons that tumbled from the sea. Do you remember walking miles into the mouth of the ocean at low tide, our feet burning until we found her wetness again, fell into her cooling waters, and emerged renewed, the white of your teeth meeting the whites of my eyes?
Our story, Adé's and mine, began one day in autumn. It was the kind of day New Englanders boast about, with red and orange leaves fluttering through an impossibly blue sky. I was walking with a friend, Miriam, down College Street, listening to her chatter on about playing pinball at a bar the night before, and the dull sex with her new boyfriend that followed. A cold wind swept in, and I tilted my face toward the sun for a moment's respite, picturing Miriam in bed beneath a boy. I hooked my arm in hers and pulled her close. Why didn't you come to see me, I said, taking in her flushed cheeks and hazel eyes, fighting the urge to kiss her forehead. I should have, she said, laughing. But then we would have slept through breakfast and never made it to the gym, let alone the steam!
And then the cavernous limestone gymnasium at the outskirts of campus was upon us, and Miriam took my hand and pulled me up the wide, shallow steps until we were inside, wandering around in the gothic dark.
In the hushed dampness of the steam room, I reclined on the highest ledge, absolutely still on my towel. Miriam sat on the floor with her legs crossed, turning herself around in slow circles without a towel underneath her, her ample butt cheeks spread and rubbing against the faded green tile. She had huge pale pink nipples and smooth, fleshy thighs covered with hairs that made her legs appear tanned even in winter. She was like the zaftig women in the paintings by Ingres that I was studying in my art-history courses, the voluptuous women with skin like alabaster getting in and out of the bath.
"What about Thailand?" Miriam asked, so out of nowhere that I thought she might be delusional. She began twirling faster. "What about Koh Samui and Phuket and Chiang Mai?" Spinning faster and faster, as if the words themselves were propelling her body.
"Mmm, hmm," I said, joining in. "What about Egypt? What about Karnak and Abu Simbel and Giza? What about Luxor and Aswan?"
"Yes!" Miriam said excitedly, going even faster now, no doubt chafing her buttocks and the backs of her thighs.
"What about the Nile?"
I was nineteen years old to Miriam's twenty-one. I felt raw and unfinished, where she seemed complete and self-assured. I was a child of divorce and felt like I came from a thousand places — each one holding a little piece of me, and I drifted among them with no way to gather them up. Miriam was from just one place, Miami, and more specifically, the moneyed enclave of Coconut Grove.
At Yale, she belonged to a set I had not known, even in the progressive environs of my gentrified Haight-Ashbury high school. Miriam and her friends built shrines to Madonna adorned with gold spray-paint and rose petals. They loved red wine and postmodern feminist artists like Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Frida Kahlo, and the Guerrilla Girls. They quoted Julia Kristeva, Karl Marx, and Simone de Beauvoir. They read Rilke and Thoreau and Whitman and nodded sagely when I brought a battered old copy of poems by Borges and added it to the makeshift library on the mantle of the old house that Miriam and her four closest friends had rented on Howe Street.
I met Miriam in a film-studies class, Power and Politics: The Film of Latin America. We both wept at the end of the Cuban classic Lucia, and from that moment, were one. We found that we were, in some ways, the same — outsiders in a world of insiders, and together we limned the depths of normalcy, pushing the sharp edge of the envelope with our tongues. We crashed parties at elitist mausoleums and secret societies that still held the intoxicating perfume of luxury. We spent drunken evenings at Bar, the hangout of morose comp-lit students we loved to mock. We laughed over whiskey sours while they downed vodka and agonized over the anti-Semitism of deconstructionist Paul de Man.
Miriam fascinated me, as if she were an exquisite object, a multifaceted ruby, or a one hundred foot tall Buddha. She paired a diamond ring her father gave her with a ripped polyester skirt that we bought at a thrift store for two dollars. She sometimes tied a colorful scarf over her dark brown hair, knotted beneath her chin. She walked with her solid calves turned out slightly, as if she belonged to a village in the Old Country. When the neo-Gothic limestone of our Ivy League grew too much to bear, Miriam picked me up in her dusty red Chevy Nova, complete with pink and orange strands of Mardi Gras beads dangling from her neck, and drove us out of New Haven to Cinema 21, several towns over. Some evenings we watched the sunset from East Rock, a tall bluff outside of town, interlacing our fingers and pressing our cheeks together to keep warm. Miriam was a force. She pursued, adored, and claimed me, and I was desperate to be claimed.
One day Miriam and I kissed, not because we felt passion for each other, but because we wanted to know what it felt like. We were on a ferry going to visit her mother and decided to try. Our tongues collided as we left Mystic, with all its submarines and tools of war, and the Connecticut coastline trailing behind us. She felt strange and new in my arms, round and soft where boyfriends in the past were tall and solid, moist and yielding where they were firm and sovereign. In that moment, I loved her more than all the rest. She was rooted but unbound. She functioned in the middle of the cacophony. I wanted to devour her and take some of her knowledge for myself.
One night not long after, the girls threw a rather large party, a soirée, at their house on Howe Street, and after too many bottles of wine and too much Bob Dylan and on the third go-round of Truffaut's The 400 Hundred Blows on the muted television set, I whispered to Miriam a little too loudly that I thought a boy across the room named Parker was cute — a little James Dean cum Jackson Pollock, very drunk and very emotionally cut off, and thus, very manly. We were lazing on her huge bed, tucked into an alcove in the living room by then; things were winding down, but many of the guests hung on. I wonder if he can fuck, I said to her as a kind of foreplay, and slowly reached my tongue to meet hers.
Miriam responded enthusiastically, to my kiss or the promise of Parker I can't be sure, but I accepted it willingly, just the same, with all the frisson of transgression. When we came up for air, the conversation had stopped all around us, and Miriam righted herself on her pillow, then filled the space with a throaty Cat on a Hot Tin Roof drawl. "Parker, Parker," she called, patting the mattress of her queen-size bed. "Come sit here, by us, honey."
It was a turning point, the first time we ensnared an outsider into our web, the first time we created an us that preyed upon a them, an us that, in loyalty and in every other way that mattered, took precedence over everyone and everything else.
Parker strutted over, beer in hand, cowboy boots clacking on the floor, and slid onto the bed alongside Miriam, kicking one leg over her already slightly parted thigh. In response, she ran her hand over his chest, casually unbuttoning his shirt and finding his nipples. He lurched forward and let out a low growl that made my own nipples stand up. Somewhere behind me I heard the tinkle of bottles and the rumblings of the exiting salonistes, but I was riveted by the scene before me, transfixed by what Miriam was creating for my pleasure.
That night we both had Parker, as many times as he would oblige us, and we kissed several times and rubbed each other's back and thighs while Parker labored, reminding the other of the tender softness that was there too. But we never made love with each other, not in the conventional sense. There was no mounting or rubbing, no sharing of bodily fluids, though the intimacy of watching each other was intense. There was a moment so vivid — Miriam with her head back, her hands between her legs as Parker entered her — it could have been etched into my memory with a machete. She reached out her free hand to find mine, then opened her eyes and smiled at me, bridging for me the endless distance between beholder and beheld.
But then we wanted to sleep, and we wanted to do it without Parker. Suddenly he smelled bad and took up far too much room. We woke him up and told him to leave. He was hurt and looked it, even as his hangover bravado provided some cover. He pushed his face into his pillow, feigning exhaustion and mumbling about the cold, but we were unrelenting, verging on cruel. Finally, he pulled his shirt on, and Miriam slid close to me from behind. She draped her arm around my waist and I felt spent, delicious, and shockingly guilt free. At dinner the next night, over a bowl of pasta with mushrooms, Miriam exclaimed that boys could come and go — and here she raised her wine glass and leaned toward me, touching her perfect nose to mine. "But we," she said with a flourish, "we are what remains." Within days, Miriam and I had a plan. We had traveled together before, but this time we would go for a year, maybe two.
Within weeks a huge map of Africa was taped on top of the giant Walasse Ting poster of wildflowers hanging on the wall of my tiny off-campus apartment. As we drew lines and calculated distances, I eked out the last major paper of my college career on the poetics of space and the encoding of meaning into the built environment, paragraph by paragraph, citation by citation. There were days I thought I could not write another line, could not figure another way to make one idea tie coherently to the next. The giant map, the huge continent, beckoned, but Africa did not seem real. I could not imagine taming the beast at the computer.
But then one day, there it was. The end. Miriam and some friends took me out for tapas. I ate olives, little pieces of bread dipped in oil, a salad of tomato and fish. I drank wine, a nice Sancerre. I came back to the apartment afterward, light-headed, and began to pack. I threw hundreds of pages of drafts into a huge black garbage bag and tied it shut. I sat in the middle of the living room, watching the sun come up, as Segovia played classical guitar through the tiny speaker on my windowsill.
Miriam came to check on me in the early afternoon. We had rented a storage space on Orange Street, and she had picked up the key. We took our books over, and the chair and ottoman splashed with green flowers of felt I bought for twenty-five dollars at the Salvation Army. My paintings — a Mexican girl standing by the window, the Picasso etching my father gave me as a child, a huge disfigured ghost I bought from an art-school student who buried his canvases for months, then dug them up as if reclaiming dead ancestors — went too, encased in large cardboard picture boxes. I kept my favorite sweater and unceremoniously dumped the rest of my clothes on the porch of the campus ministry. I was spent and hungry, high on the promise of the unknown. And then we left that place, the cold walls of stone. We were going. We were in flight. We were gone.
From Adé: A Love Story by Rebecca Walker. Copyright 2013 by Rebecca Walker. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.