Number One comes in the morning:

The waiting room of the free health clinic is buzzing with angry noise: babies howling and phones ringing above the pinched voices of tired nurses in white with their weary eyes, late enough in their shift that annoyance has overwhelmed sympathy. She's sitting across from me on the plastic chairs, big and soft and dark as coffee. Breasts like melons resting on an enormous stomach, one of those huge black women who doesn't seem overweight, but simply made to be that size, to be large and full and thick like sweet biscuits fresh from the oven, swollen with warmth and sugar. She looks young, in her twenties maybe, her thick nappy hair pulled back so tightly that it seems visibly tense, like a caged animal ready to spring free or a taut clothesline on a summer day.

Her skin is very dark but her eyes are startlingly light, a soft, watery brown like drops of Yoo-hoo on the white kitchen counter. They are staring at the hospital green wall without seeing it at all, preoccupied, at sea. Seeing her lost in her own head like that, I have an urge to protect her from the word swirling around her, the dangers that she, deep in thought or maybe just fatigue, cannot see.

I think of food when I look at her, not only because she is so big, but because of her lips, soft and full, and the way her tongue, small and pointy, darts over them momentarily, as if tasting for some lost morsel. Because of the way her hands are moving, worrying the buttons on her shirt, almost as if they are kneading bread. Because she is black, and I've found that only the black people in this city eat the food I grew up loving, being poor white trash, the collards and the corn bread and the fried chicken. Because she is poor and I know that only when you've been deprived like that, been that poor child who never gets enough food or enough love, do you know that wracking, wrecking need, in the deepest part of your stomach, to gorge yourself on as much of both as you can grab on to.

Her face is so soft, dark velvet soft. Her eyes are so chocolate milk soft. Her hands are so mother soft, mother in the kitchen baking bread soft, those kneading knuckles, dough soft dark fingers. Her body is so big and so soft. She is soft and warm and full of senses, the taste and smell and feel of good food on my tongue. She's too lost in her worries to notice me staring, and I want to cook for her, or have her cook for me, to sit and eat for hours with her, rubbing her soft dark skin, her yards and yards of dark flesh, listening to the soft satisfied moans that she would make, when I fill her full of food and sex.

I think she would be offended, be revolted, that I am sitting across from her in the free clinic imagining what her face would look like as she ate good barbecue and orgasmed. But it's not as bad as it sounds. I want to see the worries wash down off her face that looks too hard and old and too young and soft all at once. I have a terribly tender love marinating in my gut.

When I walk out of the clinic an hour later, she's gone. I head off on my day's errands and promptly forget about her.

Two in the afternoon:

I am waiting again, at the checkout line in the grocery store, when I see her. She is passing by the window. I first notice her hair, that silky white hair that very pale people sometimes have, corn silk hair, milkweed soft, curving inwards around her chin. In the bright sunlight she is bleached so light, so white, from her thin white hair to her thin white-skinned ankles, that she almost seems to glow.

She stops for a second to adjust her straight green skirt, studying her reflection in the store window. I see her figure closely now, skinny and tall and boyishly straight. I am witness, on the other side of the glass that she doesn't realize there is anyone behind, to things she thinks no one sees, things she would not want anyone to see, like a police officer watching an unaware suspect through a two-way mirror: the awkward tilt of her shoulders under her too-large blouse; the self-conscious, hasty way she tugs at her skirt; the worried glance at her reflected facial features, quick and disapproving; how painfully self-aware she is. It is strange to watch someone looking at themselves and see exactly what they see- intimate and voyeuristic. She is beautiful, I think, really, strangely, ethereally beautiful. And she has no idea.

I think about abandoning my loaf of bread and jug of milk at the checkout counter and running out into the street to grab her skinny arms and tell her how beautiful she is, how simply beautiful she is.

And she walks, hurriedly, away.

And three in the evening:

I splurge on Indian food tonight, sitting all by my lonesome at the restaurant table and sipping my lassi. The waiters are used to this. They often stop by my table to chat when things are slow, the more recent arrivals in stunted, awkward fragments, the older ones more smoothly and eloquently. I think absentmindedly about learning to speak Hindi some day and taking my own turn being the tongue-tied participant in these conversations. It is a quiet, pleasant sort of night. Good food in my stomach. Sleepy thoughts swimming leisurely through my head.

And then a man sits down in the table next to mine, and I realize with a start that the man is wearing the cologne he used to wear. I haven't smelt that smell in years, and it hits my head like a flash flood, obliterating everything with the ugly images, memories it conjures up. They say of all the senses, smell is the strongest trigger of memory, and, oh God, I have to get away from this one. I am dizzy, sweaty, scared, choking down a flashback that threatens to usurp my brain. And all the while I'm so aggravated that after all this time, after all this therapy, after everything I've done to erase him and escape him, he can still do this to me.

As I leave the restaurant, trying to conceal the cold lump of panic melting through me, Shiva, one of the newer waiters here, opens the door for me. I jump down the steps to the sidewalk, the cool air sharp on my sweating skin, and he calls out after me, his voice fast and high. "Em! Please thank you miss please you someday will become okay please." I turn back, startled, to face him, and I only see his face for the briefest of moments before the door swings shut, his black, black eyes, but it's long enough for me to know.

The tables have turned


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