Michel Badeau looked down on his son smearing red crayon in jagged strokes across a crudely drawn face but he didn’t really see the little boy. He sat in his armchair thinking about Marisol, how he had been so certain he had seen her walking across the road to Dillard’s earlier that day. He still grasped the dry-cleaned shirts his wife had asked him to pick up and he had run after her, the plastic bags flapping and his chest constricting with excitement. He had bellowed at the woman, planted hands on her shoulders and spun her around to find an unfamiliar face.
Perhaps he thought of her so much lately his mind had conjured her right there in the street.
He glanced at his cellphone, then back toward the kitchen where his wife, Carmen, was slicing chicken for Tuesday paella.
He thought of how sick he was of Tuesday paella.
It had been ten years since he had made love to Marisol in Boscobel, Jamaica, but two weeks since he ran into her at that conference in Atlanta.
Those last moments together came back to him full force when she appeared in a red printed dress at the top of the stairs in the conference hall. He must have looked a fool standing there, slack-jawed, watching her descend to him.
“Stranger,” she said, with a quick, brisk hug. “You don’t change one bit, eh?”
She still loved vibrant color and that light citrus scent, he thought absently.
“Ah… Bonswa! Kijan ou ye?” Michel said, in Haitian Creole. “Must be the cold up in Michigan preserving me.”
“Hey! I saw your name on the panel just now but I wasn’t sure. You stayed in Michigan to teach?”
He said he stayed after he got his doctorate and was in Atlanta just for his presentation, where all of ten people had come to his panel on the representation of black men in contemporary fiction.
She laughed and he wondered if she caught how his eyes studied the curve of the mouth he’d kissed a hundred times and how her hair still curled big and wild around her face. A whopping twelve audience members had come to hear her talk about the Jamaican folklorist, Louise Bennett Coverley, she’d said with a laugh.
As they walked to the exit, he didn’t miss the ring on her left hand.
“He’s from Ohio. His name is Tom Hendricks,” she said later over two shots of tequila in the dimly lit bar. “Yes. He’s white.”
He showed her a photo of himself, Carmen and their five-year-old, Daniel.
“You look very happy,” she said, handing him back the photo.
He nodded. How could he say it had taken him three years to recover from the loss of her, after her sudden disappearance during graduate school left a searing in his flesh that had healed unevenly.
They had met over Edith Wharton in a Women’s Studies class, he the only male, they the only brown faces. Marisol had come from Kingston to Michigan City, first to study classical piano, then Literature, then Folklore instead. They bonded over their Caribbean identity and their distaste for the cold. He even began teaching her Haitian Creole, and she, Jamaican Patois.
Those two years together, Marisol had consumed him with an alien force. He remembered her breasts soft yet firm in his mouth like just-ripe mangoes and just as sweet. He remembered their playful sparing about authors and her curious habit of leaving him lines of novels as obscure riddles all over his apartment.
“Does Carmen write too?”
“She’s an accountant,” he said simply, ordering them Scotch.
“How was Korea?” he asked.
“Foreign,” she said with a short laugh, “When I traveled to Seoul, I didn’t feel as conspicuous though, as in the more remote areas. I never got used to being stared at and my hair fondled outright like I was a sheep in a petting zoo.”
“C’mon, Mari! That bad?” he said, laughing lightly, using her pet name before he could stop himself.
When she had left him, he promised himself to steel his heart against her and here he was downing Scotch with her, reveling in her every word.
“I liked the kimchi and teaching,” she said.
They were quiet for a moment. He looked at her ring and thought how this diamond was four times the size of the one he had given her before she suddenly announced she must go to Korea to teach English.
“I just need a break from this suffocating program!” she had said to him that day, throwing herself back into his bed as he made it, spread eagling her naked form there and looking up at him still holding a corner of the comforter.
“I win a fellowship and they don’t even acknowledge it on the department page,” she had said. “But let some white male drivel fall into a publication and they talk about it at meetings, in emails, on flyers, in your damn mail box!”
“They aren’t always in our orbit!” Michel had offered.
“And that’s just the problem with you. You think everything is coincidence.”
“And you talk just like the black Americans. Everyone is not out to get us!”
“You need to open your eyes. You are a black man in America, wherever the hell you from. You think that—”
“How do you know what I think if you never ask me, if you keep telling me instead?”
She wanted to know why he always sought their validation, like he wanted to be their “good Negro.”
He remembered the anger that pressed across his temples like that for hours as they argued. Of course, he had felt his difference. A woman had called the campus police while he sat in the park out in the snow one night. He almost went to jail for wanting solace but being instead labeled, suspicious. He saw the way many white women tensed when he walked by them on the streets. It was exhausting to consider whether he should be insulted when a professor wrote pages of praise on his essay as though her low expectations had been thwarted or to be pleased. Yet he felt it would destroy him to indulge these grievances. He could not belabor them like Marisol did. So, they had argued until he succumbed, and she became once again supple and compliant and they were rumpling the sheets again.
He agreed they would go to her family home in Jamaica to spend the last few days of summer while her parents took a cruise around the Mediterranean.
And then, at the end of summer, she was gone.
“You had enough?” Marisol was saying now, pointing to his glass.
Michel did not look at the glass. His eyes rested instead on her face until she became very still, all the unsaid things thick between them.
“Yes,” he said shortly, breaking his gaze, getting off the bar stool slowly, and reaching for his wallet.
“You’re still angry,” she said in a small voice as he tossed two bills on the counter.
“About what?” he asked.
“I can see that vein, Michel,” she said.
He shook his head, slipping large hands into the pocket of his slacks, regarding her with a strained smile.
“This is how it was meant to be,” he said.
She gave him a grim little smile, getting up from the stool.
“You could have come with me,” she said.
“In the middle of writing my dissertation? You knew I’d lose my funding,” Michel said, the familiar warm pulsing spreading across his temples.
He watched her fiddle with her purse.
“Why did you say ‘Yes’ if you knew you had no intention of marrying me?”
He had said it; the words that had plagued him for years fell heavy out of his mouth like a gourd.
“You know what? You should have my new number,” she said suddenly.
Michel had looked at the card she extended as though it were a foreign object, then turned and walked to the doorway when he felt her arm loop through his, stopping him.
“I’m sorry,” she said, squeezing his forearm. “I know I hurt you. I was just…scared… and…”
“Scared of what?”
He looked down her on unable to hide the old pain but finding her so contrite, thought instead how easy it would be to lean down and touch his lips to hers.
“I don’t know. I was a selfish then…and…” she said.
“…and impulsive…,” he said, continuing to walk.
She stumbled against him as they walked.
“…and still a lightweight.” He chuckled despite himself. Then, he put an arm around her to steady her. He felt her fingers thread his and he knew he was lost.
They came to the street. His hotel was only one block away. They could easily walk there. He would not have time to savor removing her dress. He would press her against the door the moment they entered the room. They would fumble with buckles and zippers. She would open herself to him. His body would become lost in her warmth and her scent.
It would be like coming home.
His pocket buzzed and he stopped, knowing before he looked at it that it was Carmen. He could feel Marisol’s gaze perhaps willing him to not answer but he could not look back at her as he released her fingers and reached into his pocket to clutch the phone.
“Hi my dear,” Michel said. “Oh yes… It went fine.”
He looked back at Marisol who was fumbling with her bag again, not meeting his eyes and Michel felt the cavern begin to yawn and widen between them again.
“Yes… Daddy loves you… Yes, I’ll be home soon…”
When he slipped the phone back in his pocket, Marisol was wearing large sunglasses.
“I’m…staying this way,” she said, pointing behind her.
Michel nodded slowly.
“Well, it was good to see you,” he said, reaching down to hug her, lingering there. “And congratulations.”
“Let me know about any book signings,” she said, slowly easing out of his embrace.
She had already turned to cross the busy intersection.
He would not allow himself to watch as she crossed.
Michel could not explain what he felt now, sitting in his favorite arm chair, inhaling the spicy aroma of Carmen’s Spanish dish. This morning he had broken into a sprint, his pulse racing with the mere thought of seeing Marisol again. He wondered why he was trying to reclaim a thing long dead.
He got up from the armchair and walked to the doorway of the kitchen where Carmen was leaning over the pot.
“It will be ready in a moment. Go away! Sal de aquí!” she said smiling over the pot, not looking at him, her curly black hair in a sloppy bun in that way he liked.
Michel went up behind her, locked his arms around her waist, and kissed her neck.
“I love you,” he whispered in her ear.
“I know. I know. Now go away. Let me cook,” she said patting a hand over his and using the other to stir the pot.
Michel turned her around and kissed her forehead.
“I really do,” he said.
He felt her go still against him.
“Is everything okay?”
“Everything is fine,” he said, running a finger down her jawline. His smile was met with her furrowing brow.
“Daddy, look!” Daniel appeared at the doorway with his completed drawing.
“Ah…bravo!” Michel said, taking the drawing.
Then, he went across to the fridge, and placed the drawing beside a gold starred test, Carmen’s grocery list written entirely in Spanish and her note reminding him about the dry cleaning.
He touched the note, the sick feeling of loss pooling fresh through him.
When he looked over at Carmen, she was back to stirring the pot.
He sighed deeply, then reached into the cabinet for the white dishes they always used for their Tuesday paella.