for my darling Mer
It started with a fall. Well, that is not entirely true. If there are such things as beginnings, something he doubted in his academic work, it started, this time, in the Kroger parking lot after he picked up his infant son from daycare with elastic boogers and a 102º fever. It was not so much that she thought he was stealing his own baby, it was her impulse to announce this to him. Even more because by that point he sensed that it was no longer an accusation in her mind. Nor was it an apology.
It was after the smiling head nod he involuntarily gave all in his new hometown that he spotted a stray cart between two cars and abruptly turned toward it. Why carry the car seat the long walk when he could roll it? Besides, his son loved to look up at him and feel the rattle from the concrete. When he darted to the cart he saw in his periphery that his movement visibly shook this woman. Recovered, as they were now nearly side-by-side, she turned to him: “I was suspicious you were stealing that baby,” she said. “That you were going to put him in another car.” A slight laugh. He mirrored this laugh and followed her the awkward three hundred some feet to the automatic doors. And honestly, by the time he picked up the Motrin and some humus for his wife, the exchange had left his mind. Sadly, he was accustomed to such encounters in his life, even in the larger, more liberal cities he had lived in. However infrequent, they were frequent enough. It was on his return to the car, after singing to distract the boy as he leaned in to wipe snot, that it dawned on him. Light skinned as his son was, favoring his mother, this woman thought I was carrying someone’s white baby…and this ignited for her some inborn obligation. He grew furious at his own laugh, muted and uncomfortable as it had been.
His planning was immaculate. The New Faculty Welcome was set for the following Monday. As all large events did, it was to take place in the school’s in-name-only chapel. His new colleagues and the entire administration would be in forced attendance as he and others were paraded across the stage. When his name was called, before kind words could be said of him, his left shoulder shook. Then a wobble, his knees knocking—some among them may have begun the thought that he was dancing. But he tripped and sent himself careening into the marble sarcophagus of the fallen confederate general ominously placed in the chapel’s apse. The crowd gasped as it rose in unison.
He was careful not to bang his head, but stayed on the floor with a bedazed look as if he had. Those on stage rushed to him. The dean of the college waved them away so that he could have air while a woman he recognized from the president’s inauguration searched the spot where he had tripped, perhaps making sure the university would be free of culpability. Three days later he came with his doctored note diagnosing his adult-onset Tourette’s, feigning tears in the Office of Employee Relations while requesting an accommodation. He told the woman across the desk that he had been warned that authority and crowds may force symptoms to come to the surface and, that though things may progress, this particular doctor foresaw nothing that would impede his path toward tenure. He watched videos online, practiced with his wife and in front of the mirror, and was sure to pepper in smaller yet noticeable episodes as he sat in various department meetings and events related to diversity that he had been volunteered for. That was it as fall turned to winter and winter to spring. Midway through his family’s summer vacation in Panama he sent the meticulously constructed email to that same woman behind the desk informing her that his syndrome had, unfortunately, progressed to include a vocal tic. To gear up for the coming term, his regimen now included grocery stores and buses as his family toured the nation of his father’s birth. He knew even if his English was understood the context would most likely not be. And his son was not yet two and so would not remember these days in his life—though he and his wife giggled in bed one morning at the prospect of infecting their child’s first words.
Almost a year to the day from his ambush of the general, the university planned an event, a lightly attended open forum to discuss the tepid implementation of only a portion of the recommendations from the Committee on Race and Institutionally Necessary Growth and Engagement. Depending on whom you asked, this was either an earnest undertaking or a cover-your-ass reflex to the events in a nearby town the year prior. The gathering was to be attended by, among others, the university president and some assigned-to-be concerned members of the board of trustees, and was designed as a serious-faced celebration of the university’s long and arduous journey coming to grips with the somehow suddenly recognizable history. The Q & A segment arrived, as did a congratulatory reaffirmation of the “self-evident” mission of the university. Those on the dais and the small crowd appeared anxious to make their way to the stand of craft beer and macaroons. He waited until the president returned to the podium to declare a successful adjournment before he stood. The question he asked of the president was, from his perspective, rather innocuous and sought to understand how the powers that be felt the forthcoming actions would impact the retention of black students and faculty, a stated need of the institution. Trapped in his tone was the fact that he thought their efforts would not. The president turned to those seated to his left and after an interminable moment, broken only by the ungraceful adjusting of one chair, he was still met by only silence. “Well, in my experience, compromise,” the president started. Before he could continue, the tic announced itself for the first time. Twice, in fact. As if shot from a gun. This time there was no gasp, and no rising from those surrounding him. They did look to the stage, many having expressed genuine if not clumsy condolences in the months prior—one sharing the story of a distant cousin “similarly touched.” He did not flinch, or laugh, as he fruitlessly awaited an answer to his question. In the stillness, his mind carried back to an afternoon, years earlier, when he was a university student sitting on the stoop of his girlfriend’s apartment. He had more hair then that he let go wild and was wearing the quite-expensive-though-baggy purple Karl Kani jeans his mother bought him over winter break. Two elderly women intent on doing good approached him and offered a boxed meal that he rejected, again too kindly, and again laughing reflexively. They walked away, possibly embarrassed, to take their Meals on Wheels elsewhere. Then, he buried the interaction and went about his life. Today, he felt a release and a vague diminishing of an inside thing.
The next morning at the urinal the man who ritualistically peered over the partition to ask of his day after smiling with big teeth, neither confirming nor denying the existence of an actual bond, did so again. This was the last time he was somewhat in control. He soon made an appointment with the most respected specialist in the region, more out of curiosity than concern, and his own diagnosis was medically confirmed. Psychosomatic or otherwise, he was at ease. And though it rarely happened in their company, he prepared his students at the start of each semester. In his mind, it was a teaching moment. He was surprised that talk of this had not surfaced on Rate My Professor, though he decided that if his students were so tickled he would not be offended. And to date there was only one mention in his tenure file that he knew of: “----'s affliction aside, he has been remarkably collegial and is a tremendous ambassador for our department.” Affliction certainly would not have been his choice of words.
Ricardo is an assistant professor of English and Africana Studies at Washington and Lee University. He has been a PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellow, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society for the Humanities at Cornell, and a Jentel Artist in Residence. He has published work in Callaloo, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, and CR: The New Centennial Review. His first academic book, The Nigrescent Beyond: Mexico and the Psychic Vanishing of Blackness, is under contract with Northwestern University Press. Apparent Horizons, his recently completed collection of stories and novellas, is looking for a home.
Cover Image:”Parking Lot”Jessica Brilli