One of my oldest memories is of fire...the hot, acrid smell of smoke...a crowd gathered, yelling...my mother screaming...and two loud, heavy, life-altering pops. A shotgun I think. I was later told the fire I remembered was a huge cross burning on our lawn. It wasn't a large lawn, just a small patch really, but my father was pretty proud of how green he kept it. Someone told someone, who told someone else, that my father said something inappropriate to Mrs. Shawnee, the white woman my mother cleaned house for. Actually, considering I had been eavesdropping, my father had simply asked when they planned to pay the balance on my mother's wages. They had short-changed her again. And then I remember fire and smoke, and my mother shoving me into a tiny cupboard, where I stayed for almost 48 hours before anyone thought to come looking for me. That was in South Carolina, 1937.
The next part of my life was spent being shuttled from neighbor to neighbor. Back then blacks didn't rely on services funded by the state to take care of orphaned kids. Oh, did I mention both my parents were killed that night? I began my adventures with Mrs. Middleton, a woman who lived two doors down from us. But she and her husband already had four kids and she was pregnant. So when she gave birth, I spent two years with another neighbor, Mrs. Freeman, who only had a son and a daughter. Her husband had been killed, I'm not sure how. I liked living with Mrs. Freeman. She made sure I went to school, we had plenty to eat, their house was bigger than most and I had my own room. The only problem was her teenage son. He decided he would practice his "stroke" on me...and I don't mean golf. When Mrs. Freeman found out he was sneaking into my room at night, she decided I had to go.
Eventually I was shipped off to live with a neighbor who moved out of town. And then a neighbor who moved out of the state. Some of the homes were pretty nice and some of the families made me feel welcome. Others saw me as another mouth to feed, a live-in servant, or easy access to a female body. Finally I was shipped all the way up to New York City.
Harlem. When I first arrived, I was stunned. The grocery stores, barber shops, restaurants, clothing stores...all owned by blacks. Black men and women dressed in dark suits, beautiful, colorful dresses, pencil slim skirts and billowy blouses, high heels in different colors...and they wore those outfits every day, not only on Sunday! I was staying with Mrs. Johnson on 124th and Lenox. She was in her fifties and lived alone in a huge three bedroom apartment, her husband having died some years ago. I can't begin to explain how difficult it was for her to adjust to having a kid around, but she did it. We lived beside a black owned grocery store and a black owned tailor. I went to school with all black children and even the teachers were black. It was an amazing reality, blacks living well, happy, and safe. I liked this life and enjoyed the security and stability of it for years.
But when I was 25, Mrs. Johnson died of a heart attack. I had finished high school a little later than most, considering I'd missed a few years with all the moving around, and college, at that time, wasn't something most blacks considered. So, I was working at the tailor next door as a seamstress. It was a skill Mrs. Johnson had insisted I learn and I was grateful I would be able to continue working there, and living in the apartment, because I had a trade. Still, her death was a shock to me. I was numb for quite some time. But after about a year, it dawned on me that I was on my own. I didn't have anyone to look out for me, true, but I also didn't have to report to anyone. And so, with that realization, I started accepting dates from the men that visited the shop where I worked. First it was Donald. Everyone called him Donnie. He was tall, rail thin, dark skinned, and he worked in a factory. Factory workers made good money. I'm sure Mrs. Johnson would have approved the match if she had allowed me to date, which she hadn't. He took me to see Rear Window and it was fantastic. It was my first visit to a movie theater and I fell in love with movies right then and there. We also went to The Lenox Lounge, one of the more popular dance lounges in Harlem. I had never been to a dance lounge before either. I had my first taste of alcohol, danced for hours on end, and went home happy and a little tipsy. But when Donnie tried to kiss me goodnight after our fourth date...I panicked. I'm not sure why, he was perfectly nice. But...I just didn't want to. So I stopped seeing Donnie.
The same thing happened with Larry and Richard. We would go out a few times, to a movie theater or a club, but whenever they wanted to get a little closer, I would panic. So, I had planned to stop dating. Maybe the fast lane just wasn't for me? I was thinking this as I sat in a booth at The Savoy, dressed in a purple, satin, knee-length dress, sipping a fruity cocktail, watching the couples dance to the big band's cool music. I was with Charles, or Chuckie as everyone called him. I wasn't sure what he did, but he seemed to know a lot of people at the club and he seemed to be comfortable spending a lot of money. We had one of the best booths, a waiter catered to our every need, people stopped by to say hello to him all night long...he was clearly a big shot. The attention was nice, and Chuckie was handsome, tall, with broad shoulders and a slight bulge around his middle. He was dressed in a pinstriped suit that had cost a small fortune. Mr. Mitchell, my boss, had ordered the material from Italy and it had taken months to complete the order. I had been responsible for the intricate stitch around the seams and I was proud of the job. He was pretty nice for the most part, although he wasn't as attentive as my other dates had been.
We spent hours at the club. I was nodding off when he finally noticed how tired I was. He sent the waiter to retrieve my wrap, but on the way out he stopped to talk to some more people. He didn't bother to introduce me, so I moved to the side and looked around at the people who were just arriving. I couldn't believe anyone could stay awake this long. Thank goodness tomorrow was Sunday and I could sleep in. That's what I was thinking when I noticed another regular customer from the shop. Everyone called him Lin. Lin was smaller in build than most of the other male customers and his orders always took a little longer because of this, but he was sweet and a very good tipper. He was always very nice to me. When he caught my eye across the crowd, I smiled and waved. He separated from his party and walked over. I liked to watch him walk. He moved differently compared to other men. Dressed in a tailored black suit, with a black shirt and red tie, he had a bit of a swagger, but it wasn't as exaggerated as the other guys. There was a fluidity to the way he walked, the way he moved, it was graceful...almost poetic. He was also quite attractive, dark skinned with close cropped hair, rather bulky, especially his arms. He was a very much sought after man because of how he behaved, how much money he had...and who he dated. Tonight? She was curvaceous, honey colored and quite lovely. Younger than me, she was dressed in a form fitting red dress that matched Lin's tie. They made an attractive couple.
"Hey, what you doin' here?" He asked when he finally made his way over to me, a smile dancing around his warm, chestnut brown eyes.
I appreciated Lin's slightly protective nature. He'd become just a little more of a big brother after Mrs. Johnson died. And he hadn't been too happy when I told him I was dating some of the customers. That probably explained why I hadn't told him about Chuckie. Lin didn't like Chuckie. I wasn't sure why, but there was bad blood between them. However, there really wasn't a way around such a direct question, so I pointed in Chuckie's direction.
"Waiting to leave actually," I smiled shyly.
He looked in the direction I was pointing and I watched the warmth in his eyes disappear. When he turned back to me, I could see his eyes had darkened a bit.
"He takin' you home?"
"I think," I answered, surprised by the harshness in his voice.
He nodded, reaching into his inside jacket pocket and removing a business card.
"You need anything, or if anything happens and you—...you just call me, okay?"
It wasn't really a request, so I just took the card and nodded. Odd, Lin had never asked me to call him before. He turned and left as Chuckie made his way over. I was a little confused by the entire exchange, quietly thinking about it as I followed Chuckie from the club. The valet hailed a checkered cab and I slid into the spacious back seat. I was surprised when Chuckie closed the door without getting in.
"You're okay from here, right? I'll get the cab."
And that was it. He handed the driver a few bills and went back inside the club. I'd never been left on my own to get home before. I sat in silence, not sure what to do next. The cab driver finally asked for my address and I gave it to him. To be honest, I was only a short distance from my apartment, but it was still odd that he had not escorted me to my door. I was a little nervous as the cab pulled away from the curb. Suddenly, someone whistled shrilly and the cab came to an abrupt halt. The back door opened and Lin slid in. I sighed and smiled, relieved.
I nodded, happy to allow Lin to instruct the driver. He was silent as the driver resumed his course.
"You didn't leave your lady friend, did you?" I asked, hoping no one else was feeling the same way I'd felt a moment ago.
He shook his head, "she's ok."
I nodded, watching him closely. He didn't have any facial hair. Odd for a man who had to be in his thirties. The suit fit him nicely, gaping faultlessly in front, the arms not too snug, the pants complementing the size of his thighs. I looked away, my face warm. I was not in the habit of looking at someone's body so carefully unless they were being fitted in the shop. I swallowed, enjoying the cool breeze on my cheeks as it moved the hair back from my face. I wore my hair shoulder length now. It had been short when I was younger. Mrs. Johnson said it was less of a hassle that way. But now the dark locks framed my caramel colored face in a way that made my full cheeks seem just a little less innocent. I was blessed, and cursed, with a baby face. Wide, bright eyes, the color of warm amber, full cheeks that Mrs. Johnson used to refer to as chipmunk cheeks, thick brows that seemed to arch perfectly on their own, and a full, pouting mouth. I would forever look like a chubby-cheeked 13 year old. Except my body directly refuted that image. I was five feet, five inches and I had full, rounded breasts, shapely, womanly hips and a slim waist. Mrs. Johnson had often complained about my shapely, hour-glass figure, expressing a great deal of concern about men who might be inclined to take advantage of it. Little did she know I didn't have a virtue to protect, thanks to my childhood travels.
We sat in the back of the cab, not looking at one another, as the cab sped toward my apartment. Finally, Lin sighed impatiently and turned to me.
"Look Sadie, you gotta be careful who you cool it with, you know?"
It was a presumptuous, testy comment, but I took it as if a big brother had delivered it. I knew Lin cared about me.
"I know, I just decided to stop dating."
Lin chuckled, a deep, raspy sound that scraped across my skin in the most peculiar way. I shook my head to clear it, surprised by my reaction.
"I'm not sayin' you should hole up like a scared little rabbit..."
I laughed too, "I know, but it's too...I don't know...difficult. I'm not comfortable."
There was silence for a moment.
"What do you mean? Did someone do something to you?"
His voice was soft, concerned...and a little angry. I sighed.
"No. Not any of them." I forced myself to stop talking. I didn't want to have this conversation with Lin. I didn't want to have the conversation with anyone.
More silence and then the cab stopped in front of my apartment building. Lin stepped from the car and held the door for me. He closed the door after I exited and leaned into the front window.
"Hey man, wait for me a sec, okay?"
The cabbie nodded and Lin quickly climbed the short, squat steps that led up to the lobby. He held the door for me again, following me inside to the elevator. I didn't want to look at him, so instead I looked at his leather, black and white oxfords. A small foot for a man...
Lin followed me from the elevator to my apartment door on the third floor. I reached into my matching satin purple bag and removed the key, fumbling to unlock the door. Finally Lin took the key from my clumsy hand and slid it into the lock. Small hands for a man too...
"Good night, Sadie."
"'Night Lin. Thanks."
Lin winked and I smiled as I stepped inside, closing the door behind me. I sighed once the door was closed, refusing to move until I heard his footsteps retreating. Then I smiled to myself, switching on the light closest to the door. My cheeks were still warm, my heart was beating quickly and I was feeling a little out of breath. Odd feelings to have for your big brother, I thought to myself as I made my way to the bedroom.
I decided to honor my decision and avoid dating. I didn't see any of the men I had dated for the next few weeks and for that I was grateful. When they all finally returned to the shop for alterations, or to order something new, I was more than prepared to turn down their advances. Especially Chuckie, who had the nerve to ask me out on another date. Other men had also started asking me out on dates and I wondered if my willingness to date a few customers had suggested I was loose or easy. I sighed. I could hear Mrs. Johnson's warnings in my head and it seemed, as she suggested, I would not win this battle. So, as I had already decided, it was probably best for me to stay at home most evenings. It's not like I didn't have a lot to do. I'd started doing alterations after work for women in the building and some of their friends. It was a nice way to earn a little extra money. I'd also made a new friend, Betty, so that I could partake in my new pastime, going to the movie theater. It wasn't proper for me to go alone and I just couldn't stop going. I couldn't get enough of the huge screen, buttered popcorn, oversized sweet treats and soda pop. So, it was good I had a female friend to accompany me. Other than that, the radio and my books kept me company. I was pretty convinced that I wasn't missing anything important by staying home most nights.
The next few months were pretty normal. Nothing surprising, except for the way I reacted the few times Lin visited the shop. Every time I saw him, I noticed new things...like how long his lashes were, how small his waist was, how full his lips were, how elegant his movements were... He continued to behave like a big brother, asking if I was seeing anyone, bringing me sweets, and making me laugh. I looked forward to his visits more and more.
During one particular visit, I was giggling so much my boss, Mr. Mitchell, actually asked to speak to me in the back office. He reminded me that it wasn't a good idea to fraternize with the customers. I nodded, scolding myself for such inappropriate behavior. When I returned, and Lin noticed I was much more subdued, he waited until my boss went in the back again before coming up behind me as I labored over a very intricate stitch.
"So, he blasted you out, huh?"
I shook my head, "no, just reminded me that I need to be professional."
I looked over my shoulder and saw Lin smile. I turned away quickly, annoyed as my heart lurched and my hands began to shake. The needle slipped and I cursed myself for my clumsiness, sucking at the drop of blood that appeared.
"Oops, my fault. Let me."
In all of my life I would probably never forget the next few moments. He took my hand gently, winking as he slowly brought it to his lips. Then he parted his lips just a little and slipped my finger inside. The heat of his mouth, the softness of his tongue as it stroked my fingertip, the feel against my flesh as he sucked gently...my head swirled. It was over quickly, but I was frozen, my breath lodged in my chest, my stomach fluttering. He returned to the small platform as Mr. Mitchell rejoined us and finished fitting Lin's slacks. But I sat there...absolutely frozen. I was staring at my finger, trying to figure out the feelings rushing through me. I was warm...no, it was more. I was burning. My chest was tight, my body was trembling...I didn't understand what was happening.
I'm not sure how long it took me to force myself back into the detailed stitching assignment. My head was into it, but my heart wasn't. Lin left eventually, refusing to say goodbye lest he cost me another tongue lashing. But he managed to catch my eye and wink before stepping through the front door. And once again, the feelings I had been trying to control surged to the surface, consuming me.
That evening, as I sat picking at my dinner, I tried to analyze the feelings once again. I'd never felt them before. That rush of heat, the tingling that spread through my entire body, the throb that seemed concentrated at my center...lower than my tummy...a place I typically ignored. I had been distracted for the remainder of the day...and those warm, chestnut eyes still lingered in my mind. How could someone do that to me? What did it mean? And how was I going to remain 'friends' with someone who could affect me like that?
I was both relieved and disappointed when I didn't see Lin again for a few weeks. Relieved because it let me get some work done without having to undo everything and start over. Disappointed because...well...I wanted to know if the feelings were still there. Sure I felt "funny" whenever I thought of him, but that didn't mean those feelings were real...right? Ugh, I had no idea what I was thinking, much less feeling...I just wanted to see him again. I missed his dark chocolate skin and those deeply intense chestnut brown eyes...I missed the way he moved, the way he spoke, his smell, his smile (which was really more of a smirk most of the time)...I missed him, period.
I had his business card at my bedside and I looked at it almost every night. Call if I needed him, that's what he'd said. Did I need him? I needed something...I just wasn't sure what it was.
My friend Betty and I had planned to visit Harlem's largest movie theater to see Witness For The Prosecution. It had been released more than a year ago, but movies were slow to come to Harlem. I didn't care, it was new to me. And I was excited to be going back to the movies. Unfortunately, when I arrived home and stopped by Betty's, she was sick and had to cancel. I sighed, kicking my kitchen counter in frustration. I went into the bedroom, about to take off my white blouse and pencil slim navy blue skirt when I noticed the business card on the bedside table. I bit my bottom lip. There was no way I was allowed to actually call a man to invite him to the movies, but a friend? Someone who was like a brother to me? That was...questionable, but possible. I hurried to the living room and dialed the number before I could change my mind. The phone rang enough times that I probably should have hung up. But as soon as I was about to, someone picked up the other line.
It was him. Out of breath and slightly annoyed, but it was him. I swallowed once...twice...trying to get up the nerve to say something.