The new World Trade Center in all its grotesque, sanitized and bleached whiteness still makes me a bit sick. I remember the towers before the planes hit; I remember the smoke and grief that wafted into Brooklyn after they fell.
So this new whale carcass filled with high-end stores and corny tourist attractions turns my stomach a bit. It isn’t easily avoided when you’re going from Newark, N.J., to the New York City borough, so I have learned to avert my eyes and hide my disgust at the photo-seeking tourists and their eagerness to stand, smiling, on graves, posed next to the latest exhibition of schmaltz and capitalism just in time for Christmas.
I told my friend that I would meet him in Brooklyn at noon, and here it was noon and I was just making it to WTC from Newark.
I hate crowds.
Hate the way they all seem to breathe and surge independent of me, forcing my anxiety to ask questions like, “What if they all run? What if there’s a fire? What if they crowd so close to you that you can’t breathe?” I could feel myself begin to feel faint and couldn’t stand another moment underground, so I opted for a cab. I would just have to swallow the $20 ride for the sake of not ending up limp and lifeless on a subway platform.
It was the first cab that stopped—one of those motorized vans meant for picking up luggage from airports and people in wheelchairs. I usually let them go to find someone who needs them more than I do, but I was already late.
I don’t always want to be. I wish I could be crass and cross and fix myself into a mask of “Don’t talk to me. Don’t even look at me,” but instead, my face is cut with a smile and eyes that appear eager for a conversation.
I hate when people in service industries are ignored, so when the cabbie begins to speak, I turn my wireless headphones off. His accent is thick and European, so I can barely make out his words.
I glance at the photo. He’s older. If he’s not in his 60s, then he needs to take better care of himself. His name mostly consonants crowded against each other.
The conversation begins pleasantly enough. Standard curves around small talk: traffic on the bridge, how much the city has changed, what time I need to be where I’m going and ultimately, “Where are you from?”
“My last girlfriend was from Nigeria.”
I look up and see his eyes on me in the rearview mirror. Before I can demand something else of it, my face lifts in a nervous smile.
“You know I only date black girls.” His eyes focus deeper on me. The smile on my face freezes. He goes into detail: Loyal. Beautiful. Know how to treat a man.
Really like to take care of you. And on and on.
Tell him this is inappropriate.
Your friend texts you and you tell him what’s going on.
Another demands that I turn on the FaceTime option so she can address the driver directly.
“Is he making you uncomfortable?”
“Yes. But it’s OK.”
It’s not, but ...
Brooklyn has changed so much that although I recognize the street names, the neighborhoods all look like movie sets. I have to rely on him to get me where I need to go.
The cab driver is still talking. I note how he says “black girls,” not women, and how good to him “they” are. I look up from my phone at this because the emphasis on the words draws my eyes up. His eyes are still more on me than the road.
Messaging my friends:
Wondering why I haven’t fixed my mouth to tell him off or change the subject or just tell him to stop talking to me.
Despite my discomfort, I’m still married to this idea of politeness.
In fact, what I’m waiting for is for him to say something disparaging about black men. He’s careful to keep the “not as good for you as I am” implied but never directly stated. I’m waiting for that in order to find my tongue and my mouth. Just him making me uncomfortable isn’t enough. I’m not sure why this is. Why I’m more ready to defend my brothers than I am to protect myself from his words.
Why protect us when we can’t protect you?
My friend messages me when I tell him this.
What else am I supposed to do? I’m just grateful that it is 2 p.m. and not a.m. Grateful that he picked me up from the street and not my house.
We finally make it to Bed-Stuy and pull across the street from my café destination. I pay with a card and not cash to avoid any physical interaction.
“You need to sign the receipt.”
I’ve never had to do this.
I notice that his eyes linger, his fingers spend too much time on my skin for an exchange meant to be brief: pen and paper; sign and return.
I hand him the signed receipt and pen, doing my best to avoid his skin; he finds a way for his fingertips to graze my palm again.
“I’d love to see you again, Bassey,” he says, my name full and clear on the receipt he’s holding.
“I have a boyfriend,” I choke out. Grateful that I’m meeting a male friend: “You might need to pretend to be my man … ,” I begin but don’t send a message.
“That’s too bad. He’s very lucky.”
Uh-huh. My stupid smile. The robotic head nod.
I exit quickly, praying that I have all my belongings with me. From the inside of the café, I’m trying to figure out why I’m so shaken. My friend greets me with a hug and asks if I’m OK. I nod yes until we both glance outside and find the cab still there. When he sees us, I suppose he’s satisfied that this black man I’m meeting may very well be my partner.
He pulls off.
The street where he sat is now empty save for a few hard-rock Brooklyn men dapping each other as they pass. It’s a moment before I relax, before I’m satisfied that he won’t be returning.
Until the frozen smile melts and I’m certain that it is safe.