By Linda Villarosa
Copyright © 2008. Dafina Books, Kensington Publishing Corp.
In this excerpt from Passing for Black, a new novel by our columnist Linda Villarosa, magazine editor Angela Wright has broken up with her fiancé, Keith. With no place to live, Angela is staying with her best friend, Mae. Mae wonders what caused the sudden break-up. She has no idea that Angela has fallen in love with a woman.
I walked into the well-lit lobby of Mae's building at 28th and Madison after working late at Désire. I had been shuttling between her place and my parents' for over a week.
Mae's apartment was located in a weird, commercial part of Manhattan, but she loved it. I think she loved that she lived in a high-rise building, and was always trying to work the phrase "my doorman" into conversation. Mae was standing in the doorway wearing a pink shortie nightgown and matching pink silk head scarf. She had put on dusty-rose lipstick even.
"Honey you're home!" Mae said, as she helped me pull off my coat. We sat together on her bed, which was in the living room of her studio. It was really "our" bed now. I had slept badly every night I'd been there, teetering on my edge. Last night was the worst: I had awakened at 3 a.m. with Mae's pudgy hand on the side of my head, a clunky ring wedged in my ear. Her apartment didn't have to be configured the way it was, but she'd chosen a yawning walk-in closet over a bedroom.
"You don't look so great, Ang." As soon as Mae said it, I started to cry. She looked at me worriedly, awkwardly stroking my shoulder. She handed me a tissue out of a candy-striped box on her nightstand.
"Mae, I know I look like shit. My life is ruined," I huffed through sobs. "What have I done?"
Though I was raw from my breakup with Keith, it was Cait that I longed for. But I hadn't told Mae that part.
"Ang, explain to me again why Keith broke up with you and kicked you out of your apartment so suddenly?" She handed me a tissue.
I wanted to tell her, to blurt out the whole thing and stop obscuring the details, but I was afraid. Would she be able to handle the gay part? She had lots of gay male friends, but she was a Southern girl. Maybe it was irrational, but I was afraid of the kind of small-town Christian judgment that clings like a faint accent, even to the sophisticated people long after they've left the South. I couldn't risk losing another person that I loved.
"You know you're not a good liar; you never were," Mae said, putting her arms around me tightly. "I love you no matter what, right? Now tell me whatever it is."
"Okay, remember how you told me that I'd feel better about getting married if I had an affair?" Oh God, here goes, I thought.
"Uh-huh." Mae said, fluffing up her pillows and kicking her feet out in front of her on the bed.
"Well…" I stopped and lowered my head, staring at her bedspread which was splashed with color and embellished with a map of Mississippi, her home state.
"Oh my God, you're having an affair? Oh my God, Oh my God," said Mae excitedly. "With who? Tell, tell me, tell me now."
"With, um, a woman. Remember the woman, Cait, you met at the conference?" I turned to her and studied her face.
Mae didn't say anything. She just stared at me, looking shocked. Her hooded eyes were as big as silver dollars. As I searched Mae's face, I could detect nothing more than surprise, sarcasm and confusion. She was still my Mae and hadn't morphed into a dour church lady.
As I told her the rest of the story, she listened quietly, save for the occasional "in front of all those stuffy academics?" "You let that girl do that to you?" and "No he did not."
"Girl, you're in trouble," Mae said finally as she tucked her legs beneath her.
"Hey, it's your fault. You were the one who told me to have an affair." Seeing that she was not going to abandon me, I was able to smile.
"Yeah, yeah, but I didn't think you would. I thought an affair would be too messy for you. You don't like disorder. I mean I assumed that cheating would be too sloppy for you. Plus, come on, I had no idea you were gonna get with a woman."
"Are you mad at me?"
"I'm not mad at you for being a lez or whatever it is you are," said Mae slowly. "I'm mad at you for not telling me sooner."
"I'm sorry, Mae," I said, snuggling into the pillow next to her. "I was so afraid to lose you."
"That will never, ever, ever, ever, ever happen." She moved her head over to my pillow, her head nudging mine. "Well, what are you going to do now?"
"I don't know," I answered, sitting up. "What should I do? I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't think."
She sat up, too, and moved in front of me, pulling my arms around her thick shoulders. We rocked back and forth, and I clutched her and buried my head in her back. "You're a mess."
"I know." I sighed, feeling weary, but wired. "I'm talked out, but I'm never going to sleep."
"Here, get comfy, and we can watch a movie until you fall asleep."
Mae walked over to her gold-leaf dresser, so large and shiny that it looked like it belonged in Emerald City. She pulled out a pair of pajamas dotted with lavender poodles. "Put these on. Perfect color for your coming out."
I stripped off my clothes and put on the pajamas, which were about three sizes too big but felt warm and cozy. Mae picked up the remote and began shuffling through the crowded cable-tv menu. "Okay, let's see. Our goal is distraction, without getting pissed or offended, and maybe some black people—right?"
"I'm with you."
"Let's try the Independent Film Channel first." She pointed and clicked through the titles and descriptions. "Let's see: noble, wise uneducated Africans teach an upper class family that has escaped Nazi Germany to recognize their humanity? God, no!" She stuck out her tongue at the screen.
"Westchester housewife embraces her independence with the help of her wise and noble housekeeper," I read, squinting at the screen. "No."
"An uptight lawyer learns to relax and dance with the help of his wise and wisecracking African-American client, who has recently been released from prison. No, no, no."
"Socialite loses her fortune and discovers her humanity after she becomes a drama instructor-basketball coach at an impoverished inner-city middle school….full of wise noble seventh graders." Mae managed to laugh as she scrolled near the end of the selections.
"Repressed army colonel taps into deep reserves of empathy and courage saving a village of Africans from invasion by an enemy tribe."
"Jesus. Let's try something black with some women in it, but nothing that takes place in the hood, at a beauty shop, barber shop or car wash. Kay?" Mae clicked onto BET's menu.
"Here's one: a bitter unmarried black advertising executive discovers her capacity for love when she switches places with a hooker and falls in love with one of her johns." We both hissed at the screen. "It might be hard out there for a pimp, but it's worse for a ho," I said, laughing.
"Forget it, let's choose something with no blacks."
"That's easy. Let's find some old Woody Allen and call it a day."
Linda Villarosa is a health columnist for The Root. "Passing for Black" is her first novel. For more go to her Web site.