Short Fiction By Té V. Smith
I’ll be honest with you; I have no idea where I’m headed. It’s 3:00 a.m. and I’ve been walking through the streets of the French Quarter of New Orleans for hours. I’m at the end of Frenchman Street. The wild, nocturnal breath of music from the young Second Line band has abandoned the background like a gentle plot twist. The wind is beautiful; warm with a cool hum, drifting between steps. It's a welcomed cessation from the mid-November weather of Brooklyn. My flight landed nearly seven hours ago and no one knows I’m here. Perhaps I’ve chosen this solitude because of the splendor of this survivors’ city. Maybe I need to allow enough time for my heart to ask questions that only my soul can answer; or perhaps I’m a bit overwhelmed with the despair of knowing that I’ve reached my eighth-month romantic mark with Naima and I feel myself pulling away. I’ve learned, through great discomforts, to do this: to walk away just before a lover begins to expect things from me that I have neither body nor soul to give. I’ve learned to perfect the skill of loving another, while presenting myself as an intriguing mystery.
Things have been wonderful. We met during my first trip to record and perform an original Jazz piano score for the Tremé legend, Kermit Ruffin. Our eyes danced around each other all night, surrounded by sweat-filled summer saints, the holy aroma of sin-soaked bourbon, and trumpets wailing for God and the groove. We’d shed most of our inhibitions by the time the morning met us. I knew that this gorgeous 5 foot 6, dark chocolate woman with the forward flowing afro, lips full enough to speak the word of the Lord, and eyes piercing enough to purify you after, was originally from Chicago. She’d moved to New Orleans seven years ago to attend Xavier and never left. “The city owns me and I own it,” she said. I knew that her father was a preacher and her mom a nurse. I knew that she had two older siblings but likes to pretend that she’s the only child. I knew that she loved her job. She loved teaching 5th graders but hated the politics of the charter school system. That night, she opened her mind, her soul, her heart and body to me. She trusted me and we leapt into one another and never parted.
I shared all of me with someone once. That truth distorted their image of us so much that she, in a confused acceleration, took her love from me. This didn’t happen all at once. I felt her drifting away in the midst of prayers, over Skype sessions that lost focus and clarity, and over cancelled date-nights. I heard her leave in the heart of her asking, “so what are you saying?” I felt her go as she paced the steps of the Musée du Quai Branly during our summer trip to Paris, trying to gather the courage to tell me that she needed less, more, or both from a lover. We flew back home and landed in separate classes, separate dorm-room meet-ups, and separate friend circles. I told myself that I would never again, by any means, be so forgotten.
This time I am terrified. This time this relationship is different. This time we’re in love. This time I want to trust her. I want her to love me—to know me. I’ve run out of five relationships since that day in Paris. I am already mourning over our last full night together. I can already see her face as I tell her my views on marriage, love and masculinity. I can see her ask herself first, and then me, if I’m telling her that I’m gay. She will answer this before constructing the calmness to ask. I can see the mystification when I tell her that I’m gender queer; and that it means that I subscribe to being human over anything else. She will tell me that it doesn’t make sense—that I don’t make sense. She will ask if I’ve been with a man, she will ask if I’m a “down low brotha”. I will tell her that I’m not, but she won’t believe me. I will tell her that I love her, in the same tone that I once said it just before being forsaken in Paris. She will say that this is too much, and that I am too much, and that love ought not be this complex. She will ask why I did this thing to her. She will ask God, in front of me, where the real men are. She will scream and beg. There will be desperate tears, throbbing anger, and spiteful feelings of betrayal that will kiss us both. It’s now 4:37 a.m. I can’t make sense of this darkness, but I can’t stay out all night.
I walk the winding road to Esplanade Avenue to hail a car. Fifteen minutes later, the kind, Nigerian brother driving the United Cab, leans against the curb to pick me up. He tells me about the city. He tells me about the casket girls, the Yoruba culture, and how nowadays’ every conversation in the city is divided between before and after Katrina. He drops me off just before daybreak at her New Orleans East apartment. Naima is so happy to see me that she doesn’t ask questions. We shower and make love until we fall into a deep sleep, wrapped around one another in a twirling glory. I wake before her and cook breakfast: eggs, turkey bacon, oat-nut toast with blackberry preserves. Staggering into the kitchen like a lost angel, I watch her smile through the waving tones of the dawn-lit room, as if she holds the day between her teeth. We sit across from each other at the cherry mahogany table we’d picked out together at an impromptu Goodwill adventure last fall. I hear her call me her sun at the end of her good morning.
“I love you, Miles.”
I hear her glow with excitement as I ask if the meal is ok. I hear her love as it fills the room, as she expresses her exaggerated joy over how good the eggs taste, as she shares the adorable stories of how her brilliant students bring an overwhelming delight to her days. I hear it in the way she describes running into little Brandon and his family in the frozen aisle of Rouses. I listen with guilt and glee, and everything inside of me wants to explode. How can I tell her? How can I ruin this wonderful thing, this thing that makes me think of the future, this thing that rescued us both from despair? After spending what felt like a lifetime in her eyes, I leapt into it,
“Naima, darling, I’d like to talk to you about something.”
The fear came pouring out. I came pouring out. I told her everything. I looked at everything else in the room, except for her. I didn’t notice her place her fork gently on the napkin beside her plate or that she’d gotten up and sat beside me. I didn’t notice the trembling in my voice until she held my hand and gently led my face down to meet hers,
"Oh Miles, you silly, silly man. Is this why you been distant? Is this what’s caused you to act like you’re afraid of me? Boy, I love you! If I wanted some macho guy, I would’ve gotten one, or stayed with the jerk I was with before praying for you. Hyper- masculinity has abused women, raped women, abandoned women, shut women out, and oppressed the voice of women. Being a man, to me, is so much more than and so much less than what society pushes to us. My father was a strong man because he loved. You are a strong man because you love. The problem with this unmovable hulk is that it puts men and women in an unsafe place. Men who are never taught to love themselves fully are dangerous to everyone. You can’t love someone else to atone for not loving yourself. We don’t need unmovable men; we need men who know that their true strength is in their gentleness, their humanity, and their love for God, themselves, their family, and the world. I love you because we are equal. You thought I was going to leave you because you’re not a caveman? Baby, it’s 2016, ain’t nobody’ got time fa’dat’. Now on your definition of gender queer, I think we all should exist and operate outside of this destructive system of gender roles. You’re not there so you don’t see my love for you in my classrooms when I teach my young boys about being a man, because I see it in you first. You don’t notice my love when my nephews come around anytime you’re in town. I do this because I see you, Miles. I see all of you and I love every bit of your nappy-headed ass. I’m sorry if you felt like you had to swallow this beautiful truth of yours. I’m sorry if the world and other women have made you feel like you weren’t enough. This doesn’t make you less than a man; this makes you a whole one. I love you. Sit down and tell me about your flight!
One more thing…the eggs are good, but next time can you please go easy on the salt?"
Té V. Smith writes stories and books on the subjects of spiritual freedom, gender liberation, black masculinity and emotional growth. He prays and works tirelessly so that his writing might lead to more healing and restoration. Check his work on his website www.tevsmith.com and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @tevsmith.