Middle School

Washington Heights, New York City, 1970

On a rainy day after school I finally get to see Patrice again. We meet up at the pizza joint on St. Nicholas Avenue packed with people staying out of the storm. I call home from the pay phone but there is no answer. The pizza guy pushes the hot flat box over the glass counter. We run with it back to her car.

By the time we pull to the curb across from her building, the pizza has fogged up the windshield.

“You shouldn’t’ve opened the box,” I say.

“Had to make sure we got what we ordered. Right?”

“Right you are,” I say, sounding dopey.

We sit in the car eating pizza and listening to the Delphonics while rain pounds down on the canvas and plastic roof. When I wipe some orange pizza juice on a napkin, she looks at my greasy palm and shows me my heart lines, my head lines and something else.

“It’s supposed to mean that you will live a long time and you will have two babies.” She shows me two creases on the side of my hand beneath my pinky,

“See? Baby One and Baby Two.”

She shows me my “sensitivity pads” on the tips of my fingers and all the crazy looking tiny lines and grooves that tell how smart and complicated I am. I’m surprised how much I missed her. My hand feels so good. She says she isn’t a palmist but she knows a little bit about it. Every crease, line, and spot has meaning.

“Que sera, sera,” I say.

The D.J. on W.L.I.B., Vy Higginson, has just finished playing “I Wanna Go Outside in the Rain” by the Dramatics. In the two seconds it takes us to dash across St. Nicholas Ave., we get soaked to the bone. We splash into her building and drip up the worn marble steps to the third floor.

When we get inside, I have a feeling something happy is happening. She is reaching out to me for something. I follow her gaze to my wet school bag still hanging on my arm. I hand it over. She gives me a pair of sweatpants and a City College sweatshirt. I go in her bathroom and hang up my wet stuff on top of the radiator. There is a single can of Comet, one tube of Crest, one bottle of Breck shampoo, one cake of Dove soap, one toothbrush. No makeup. No extras of anything. At my house we have stuff like Fantastic, two or three different types of deodorants, shampoos, conditioners, and things like Soap-On-A-Rope. Our bathroom is more fun but her bathroom is more peaceful. Her porcelain has no shine but it’s soft like a piece of beach glass. I think this will be the kind of bathroom I will have when I grow up.

Back in the living room, I see that Patrice has gone in the bedroom to change into dry clothes. When she reappears, she’s wearing tight new blue jeans and a City College sweatshirt. She sits down in a big velvet armchair next to a brass floor lamp topped with a stained-glass paper lantern with a silky fringe. She opens a wooden box on the coffee table and rolls a joint sliding the pink tip of her tongue along the gummed edge of the paper and twisting the ends between her lips.

I sit on her coffee egg cream couch trying to look casual. I look at her bookshelves made of cinderblocks and wooden planks. She lights up and takes a deep drag before passing it to me. I take a couple of little hits, try not to cough, and pass it back. I ask her the name of the man singing, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free.”

“Her name is Nina Simone,” she says, handing me an album cover. She stubs out the roach. Then she says,

“Sugar, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna lie down. You can stay here and listen to the music, or, if you like, you can come take a nap with me.”

I pick out an album by Sly and the Family Stone but pretty soon I start nodding out on the couch. I rouse myself, lift the arm off the record and turn the heavy metal knob that shuts down the blue lighted receiver. If I was home I’d be watching television but Patrice doesn’t even have a T.V. set – unless there’s one in the bedroom I can’t see.

The polyurethane floor is slippery under my socked feet. I take some steps toward the bedroom, stop, listen, take a breath. It is dark early. When I push the dim bedroom door open, street light shows through the blinds on a king-sized bed.

She holds up a corner of the blanket, patting the spot next to her. I wade blindly toward her. I take off the sweatpants and t-shirt, slide under the blanket, and settle into the crook of her body. There is the ocean sound of wind, rain, and cars.

I play with a piece of her long hair. The alarm clock ticks. She touches my cheek. Her face is close to the nape of my neck.

Back in school, at first I am flying high but soon I can’t concentrate and I don’t care about spending time with my friends.

Algebra has six sections. First Math is geniuses. Sixth Math is idiots.

In a few months I get demoted from Fourth Math to Fifth Math and then to Sixth. Sixth Math has only five students. We sit around a Formica table writing notes,

“You’re ugly.”

“So are you.”

Even when I’m not in my basketball gear, I wear Blue and White; blue jacket, white sweatshirt, jeans, and white Pro Keds. Some days I go shoplifting by myself but Alexander’s keeps their leathers chained to the rack. I take Patrice downtown to show her a blue suede jacket with white stitching and silver snaps.

“I am not made of money,” laughs Patrice.

“Yes you are,” I say.

The night that she buys it for me, I go to sleep with its sleeve wrapped around me so my dreams will smell like blue suede.

The girls’ basketball team at Kennedy is afraid to play Riverside because they have this girl, Ne-hi, who kicked butt in the parks all summer and won MVP at the Rucker tournament. However, even Ne-hi can’t save their ass this night and we end up shocking the shit out of everybody and beating them in the last couple seconds of the game by three points that my best friend, Chessa, throws up there like an afterthought. That is Chessa’s style. She never looks like anything can knock her off a peach.

Walking out of the gym, we scream at the other team,

“Riverside sucks! Thick! Wood!”

We know we should shut up if we don’t want to get jumped by some of their girls but we feel justified because their fans used water pistols to squirt baby oil on the floor on our side of the court.

The sky is dark and crisp with a few tiny white star chips. We walk backwards against the wind on La Salle and then turn left on Broadway toward the elevated subway on 125th. “I feel good!” I say, hugging Chessa, “I got twenty. What’d you get… thirty…? Had to be at least.”

Chessa finds a piece of metal tubing from a lamp and is trying to spin it like a baton but it keeps hitting me.

“Quit it,” I say.

She says,

“Did you hear Patrice screaming from the bleachers?

“Yeah, I heard…’Far fucking out!’,” I say, imitating Patrice in a way to make her sound like an imbecile.

“Relax,” says Chessa.

She hits me with the stick again.

“Quit it!” I say.

Chessa bumps her shoulder against mine as we walk. I bump her back.

Then she goes home. I go to Patrice’s.

While Patrice is at the stove in the kitchen, I sit on a cushion on the living room floor being depressed. Patrice calls to me,

“Good to see you.”

“Too,” I answer.

She comes in the room and puts some espresso cups on the table. Then she goes over to the stereo and I watch her applying record cleaning fluid to a velvet squeegee. She picks dust off the diamond needle and the speakers make a sound like heavy furniture sliding across the floor above us. A distant bass line emerges as though it is walking towards us; gradually getting louder,

“A love supreme. A love supreme… ”

Patrice pours the Bustello and puts a sliver of lime on the lip of each little cup. She sits down leaning against some cushions on the other side of the low table. I look at an album cover with a black and white profile photo of John Coltrane on it. Over the speakers I hear John Coltrane chanting,

“A love supreme… a love supreme… a love supreme… a love supreme….”

“JEEsus,” I say, “all right, already!”

Later, in bed, Patrice is rubbing my legs.

“Where’s your circulation, girl? You’re making me feel like a necrophiliac.” “What’s that?”

“A person who makes love to dead people.”

“That’s against the law, right?”

Patrice laughs.

“Only if it’s nonconsensual,” she says.

She looks at me and I blink. She has a tiny nose. You can fit probably two noses of hers into one nose of mine. Her eyes have red veins from reading a lot.

“Don’t worry,” I say.

“Don’t worry about what, sugar?”

She strokes my wrist and looks at me in that concerned way that grown-ups use when they want you to spill the beans.

“You know.”

I hate when grownups play stupid so you’re forced to spell it out.

I kiss her hand and say,

“I won’t tell anybody I’m your woman.”

“My ‘woman’?”

Her fingers caress my hand.

“Your girlfriend,” I say.

“My baby girl,” she corrects.

I take my hand out from under hers.

“My ‘woman’,” says Patrice, smiling with that overbite that reminds me of Bugs Bunny except on her it’s pretty. Supposedly I have won the argument.

“Hum?” asks Patrice. “How did you get…such… beautiful… eyes.”

Her fingers have begun to make me feel like there is life inside me.

“Huh, dead girl?” she asks.

I widen my eyes like I’m a zombie.

“Call your Mom so she knows you’re safe.”

“I’m not gonna call her now,” I say.

“Why not?” murmurs Patrice.

“I don’t want to call her when I’m naked in bed with somebody else who is naked.” Patrice lies back and I lie on top of her.

“You’re crazy,” I say as I finally pick up the phone to call home. Mom’s not there so I tell my little sister, Cairo, to tell Mommy I’ll be home tomorrow. After I hang up, I start to breathe again. Patrice is holding me and quietly singing a song to me she says is called, Nature Boy,

There was a boy…a very strange … enchanted boy….they say he wandered very far, very far, over land and sea…” 

She whispers in my hair,

“You’re going to have lots of lovers.”

The wind rattles the windowpanes. There’s a yelping sound from the rusted hinges of the sign on the check cashing place. I’m thinking about what she just said, that I will have “lots of lovers”. Like someday I’ll be far away, and Patrice won’t even care if she’s with me or not. I wonder if she’ll remember me. I wonder who’s home with Cairo, if she’s watching The Brady Bunch, and if my dog misses me. Probably not as much as I miss him.

Melinda Goodman is a poet who has been teaching at Hunter College since 1987 when Audre Lorde recommended her as her replacement. Goodman’s work has been published in mostly Queer journals and anthologies. She is a former coeditor of Conditions, the first international lesbian literary journal. She has received fellowships from Columbia University, the New York Foundation on the Arts, the Astraea Foundation, and the Key West Literary Seminar.

1 February 2023

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