The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
WINNER, Summer 2015
BY RACHEL WYMAN
Months before I met Sugar, I bought a roll of easel paper, pinned a six-foot piece to my closet door and made a huge drawing of a gap-toothed man in a top hat and sunglasses smoking a blunt. He wasn’t supposed to be a man, but a spirit in the Vodou pantheon called Guédé.
I was learning about Guédé, Vodou, and all matters of spirit in a Haitian dance class that I chanced upon soon after moving to Brooklyn. I didn’t notice for a long time, but my mind was changing.
I surprised myself, drawing Guédé. When I stepped back and decided the larger-than-life sketch was finished, I hardly recognized my involvement in its creation. I examined Guédé’s staring face and thought, I did that? Then, Why did I do that? At the time I decided it was spontaneous creativity, but I see I was beginning a very slow, monumental transformation. I think of that drawing as a catalyst, an invocation that caught the attention of some force I didn’t know I needed.
I’ve always liked to put my finger on turning points. Identify the Why. Find a dangling thread and follow it back to its source, admiring how it connects everything along the way. I love being able to say Oh yes, that was the moment. The thing that brought me here. Made me this way. It makes a story, and stories neutralize every good, bad, and sad thing. They let you realize it’s all there to be what you need.
In my story, the usual transitions and rites of passage shrink in comparison to that drawing. Losing my virginity, moving away from home, getting a degree. Those signifiers of change don’t seem so significant to me. When I think of pivotal moments, odd memories stick out. Years before I drew Guédé, for instance, I remember telling my parents that I wanted to quit riding horses. I’m certain that act
precipitated the end of my childhood.
I was eight years old when I started, with skinny legs and arms. I took lessons with a lady who lived in a trailer surrounded by wheatfields thirty miles out of town. She was bighearted, had stray dogs, cats, and guinea hens roaming on her land, and often brought up The Lord. I didn’t know anything about The Lord, but miles away from town, sounds, and other people, I started to feel something I didn’t know. A feeling like being nothing and everything. So comfortable in the air and land around me I would forget thoughts, identity and body. Evaporate in the sun and slip back into being the no body I vaguely knew I had been.
I remember many summer days in scorched dirt paddocks. Sweet animal smell, star thistle growing rampant. Creaking saddle leather, the sound boots and hooves make kicking up clods of dry dirt. Then, my favorite, riding bareback after a lesson. Feeling the sweat and heat of another being, so close that the body boundaries softened, sometimes disappeared completely. I couldn’t be sure which of us was an extension of the other animal, baptized in a fine layer of dust.
The changes must have started before I actually quit, around when I turned fourteen. My interest in boys had probably grown enough to sicken me with the desperate want for a desirable body. Surely I was already getting pubic hair, breasts. But as far as I remember, it was the act of telling my parents I was done with riding that brought on puberty to sex and possess me. The walls of my body, once so insubstantial, still halfway in ether and imagination, hardened and held me. Some unfulfilled instinct left me ill at ease and hungry, constantly dissatisfied.
Part of me believes that it all could have been prevented, that I did myself in. My declaration was an incantation, a conjuring that worked on me until I unwittingly summoned a new force with my drawing, a long way from wheat and horses. The root took hold in Brooklyn, where Guédé planted the seed. When I finally met him, Sugar germinated it, grew it til it filled me up.
I liked D the moment I saw her. She must have been six months pregnant when I walked into her class for the first time, but still dancing hard, going in as I would hear Brooklyn people say. I panted and puffed in the sticky June heat, thinking incredulously that I needed to start a training regimen if I wanted to keep up once D’s baby was born. Aside from her perfectly round belly, she was long and lanky with high cheekbones, large dark eyes and biscuity brown skin. She kept her head shaved and habitually wore purple sweatpants with one leg rolled up to expose a slender shin. As she explained in the first class, the dances she taught were mostly connected to Vodou, and she was serious about dispelling misconceptions and ignorance.
“People be like ‘Vooodooooo!'” she’d say, wiggling her fingers by her face and widening her eyes. “But Vodou isn’t about sticking shit in dolls. It’s a beautiful system. It’s about getting deeper into your soul, deeper into the natural world. Serious stuff.”
I admired D’s dancing, her long elegant limbs. But I marvelled at her way of casually infusing class with information—for the body, brain, and whatever was in-between. I was a few months into my transplanted life, and New York was constantly reminding me that I was naive and uncultured. So I was surprised at how comfortably her teachings sat with me, even while being completely foreign. I began to meet the major Vodou spirits, and through D, they showed me new ways of moving. Their dances embodied principles and personalities.
I immediately fell in love with a dance called Yanvalou, for the serpent spirit Damballa and his wife Ayida, the rainbow. D explained that together Damballa and Ayida encircle the world without beginning or end, and Yanvalou’s continuous spinal undulations symbolize timelessness and infinite presence. She demonstrated this with supernatural fluidity, sine waves traveling through her spine, shoulders and neck. Where one undulation rippled through her back and disappeared, another was already gathering underfoot, traveling up through her legs to resurface.
I couldn’t imagine a body doing anything more beautiful, and learning to move this way felt supremely important. I undulated in my room, in the shower, in front of the mirror in the living room while my roommate was at work. I stood on trains and buses, trying to feel every subtle weight shift in my pelvis and spine as we slowed, sped up, rocked. Each time I practiced, my body found the undulation faster. After a while the movement became reflexive and thinking about it seemed disruptive, so I surrendered thoughts to sensation.
In the last week before D went on maternity leave, Guédé appeared to end class in a brief, clamorous finale. The drummers started up with a rhythm so driving and staccatoed it was nearly frantic, and D took the last five minutes to lead us in a procession around the room. Her steps were light and fast, her pelvis loose. The dance had a sly personality, at least the way D did it. At one point she stopped to respond to a break in the drum rhythm. Rooting her left foot, she swept her right leg up and out to plant herself in the slightest of squats. Then, the punchline, she slowly lifted her pelvis in a suggestive grind and abruptly let it drop. It was sexual without being sexy, with D’s execution so frank and humorous that it never became coy. She introduced the dance as Banda, and the spirit behind Banda as Papa Guédé.
“My personal favorite. He’s death, rebirth and regeneration. He sees the really big picture, so he can’t take our emotional hang-ups seriously. Especially when it comes to sex. He’s just pure creating energy, without the social expectations. He tears apart all the romance and sentimental stuff we put on it.”
I watched D absent-mindedly rub her pregnant belly. “For Guédé it’s like, ‘Y’all got here somehow so don’t even pretend.’ Sex is creating power, and that’s everything. When we do this little—” she marked the pelvic drop “—we’re not just flaunting our stuff. We’re asking for fertility. Maybe you want to make new life with your body. Or maybe you want to make art with your soul. Either way, we ask Guédé for those blessings.”
She gave a small smirk, put her hands on her hips and said dryly, “Can’t nobody run home tonight and put me on blast for hoochie-coochie dancing. Guédé is deep.”
Growing up in a rural area, I didn’t see hordes of people every day; I saw stretches of uninhabited land. The vastness of open fields dwarfed the already small slice of humanity I was familiar with. I looked at myself and the people around me as random, unimportant figures passing in and out of a permanent landscape. The land had lasting value, but whoever and whatever we were was inconsequential.
In the city, people are everywhere and everything. The city tells people that humans and their doings carry the world’s meaning. And because there are so many people and endless possibilities for different interactions, encounters feel significant. Destiny seems to guide every path.
Sugar and I could have intersected early in my new New York life. My first year in the city, I would only venture into Manhattan to visit a particular dance studio I liked, and Sugar owned a small store across the street. By day it was a somewhat inscrutable boutique proffering an array of vintage clothing and rare vinyl. In the evenings, when he wasn’t toiling away on his own projects, he hosted happenings and workshops for artist friends.
Of course I knew nothing of those gatherings on the evenings I emerged sweaty and exultant from class to sway back toward the subway, open and receptive to whatever twilight spirits would have me. On how many occasions had I unknowingly heard his voice from across the street, mingled with other voices as an event broke up? How often had his deep, sweet laugh rolled over me and receded like a wave as I walked obliviously in the opposite direction? And how many times had our paths run parallel, had we not quite merged on the road?
Sometimes I’d mournfully wonder why we couldn’t have met sooner, why Fate didn’t guide me across the street one single time. Why I had to wait so long. But I always concluded it was supposed to happen this way. Otherwise, I would not have recognized his place in my life.
When adolescence hit and reorganized my priorities, I wasn’t interested in boozing or blazing. My mind was already altered by the charms of the opposite sex, and what I craved was sticky, sweet body contact. A childhood friend became my first serious boyfriend, the summer I was sixteen. We took every opportunity to be alone, and stole the time that wasn’t ours by lying to our parents and sneaking out of school assemblies. He seemed to get a thrill from lying and sneaking, but I hated it. For the next two years I was constantly anxious we would be discovered—on the living room couch, in his truck in empty parking lots, on playgrounds after dark. Even so, my worrying mind never gained leverage over my body. Sex seemed more urgent than any possible consequence.
Miraculously, I maintained my grades and was accepted to a college I loved, across the country. I had an instinct I needed to get out of town. My boyfriend stayed in the area and stopped speaking to me, wounded that I chose to break us up. As I packed and prepared to leave home, it occurred to me for the first time that I was lucky. I had floated along fairly thoughtlessly, and by some good fortune I wasn’t pregnant, married, or stuck in town. Refocused and free of my own compulsive urges, I realized how easily obsession takes over.
For that reason, I was wary of romance when I left home. I saw how much living and learning I had to catch up on and perceived no room for anything but growing into something better than what I had been.
The idea of spiritual satisfaction was easy in good times, but I was drawn to quick sources of sweetness and comfort when I was unhappy. I was easily swayed by a look of love and any sign of a tender heart. My second winter in New York, I was underemployed and depressed, desperately trying to find shape in the ridiculous mudpie life I was slopping together. Along with dancing and whispering prayers for clarity, sex was medicine for my malaise.
I wanted reassuring touch and intimacy, the distraction of another body. But I was often torn between lust and repulsion, finding that so many men were clumsy and predictable. The same seduction, the same touch. I could see the wheels turning, calculating where to put hands and lips. Pawing and squeezing, no finesse. I’d get bored, yet I was always curious and ever hopeful that something interesting would happen. I counted on my mating mechanisms to kick in and force satisfaction out of the event.
It was like drifting on a gentle current, bodies passing easily without a snag of joy or anguish to grab onto. By February, I needed grounding, a different kind of physical expression. Something that lingered. I found an art supply store and bought easel paper, then I went home and drew Guédé. Lying in bed that night, I examined him staring back at me from the closet door until my eyelids got heavy and I
turned off the light.
As a kid, I was both deeply unsettled and fascinated by ghost stories and anything supernatural. I wanted constant reassurance that the spooky thoughts I came up with were trapped in my mind and couldn’t enter the physical world. I was afraid just thinking of something made it real.
I couldn’t help but think those thoughts, though. My imagination spun images and stories against my will, pulled material from such unknown depths of mind that I believed I’d invented something out of thin air. Or that something had come to me from outside myself. Images, scenes. A revelation, a flash of insight, a spirit. Tucked into my bed in the dark, I understood logically that thinking of a ghost did not mean it was in the room with me. But my body didn’t understand logic and its fear told me I couldn’t be certain.
Almost every night I ran down the hall to my parents’ room, trying to escape the solitude of my mind with its shapeshifting thoughts and dreams. Seeking the solid comfort of real bodies, warm and breathing.
I thought I would die of relief when D started teaching again in the middle of March. Her first class back was salvation and rebirth. We did a series of agricultural dances to encourage the advent of spring—a Kombit Suite, D called it. In her earthy voice she sang, “bonswa Kouzin, bonswa Kouzine oh“—greeting Zaka, patron spirit of farmers, vendors and all hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people. I was ecstatic, sweat disguising my tears of joy. Lost memories of square dancing in high school gym class resurfaced in sentimental light. I thought of all the boys at my school who wore Carhartts and camo, kept hunting rifles in their pickups and spoke with an unplaceable accent that might only be classified as “rural.”
The days slowly became longer. It rained a lot and got warmer; the smell of damp earth and new foliage refreshed some part of me that had become brittle. I felt better to be taking class with D again, but I still didn’t know what I was doing with myself and all of the time invested in dancing. Believing that serious dancers are in serious companies, I went to auditions under a cloud of obligation and dread. I found most of them unpleasant and a few depressing. So many bodies crammed together, identified only by numbers pinned on spandex leotards. I always felt a heaviness in the air.
The concept of energy was still new to me as a recent transplant, so I didn’t understand what I was sensing. Back home, I had never felt the emanations of so many people. Their desires, fears, failures, ambitions, intentions, visions, nightmares, passions, wounds, mistakes, neuroses, schemes, delusions, grudges, and hope-against-hopes. Constant projections mingling in different combinations, blessing the air of New York one day and making it heavy with mourning the next. I was learning to handle other people’s energy in daily life, but it was poisonously concentrated at auditions.
Finally I stopped looking at dance company notices. I decided I didn’t need validation as a dancer so much as the freedom to keep exploring what was speaking to me. In my favorite self-indulgent fantasy, kind patrons supported me as a full-time student and practitioner of Vodou dance. But I knew I needed to pay a fair price for spiritual enlightenment and self-actualization. I thought the price involved working a lot, being resourceful and living below the poverty line. I found work babysitting. I stuck to a strict budget. And I focused all thoughts and energy on Vodou, cutting off every romantic prospect I had entertained during mid-winter loneliness.
I had casually dated more that winter than ever before in my life, although I tried to avoid the intimacy of sex. I decided never to sleep in an unfamiliar bed, and the prospect of my roommate’s silent judgment made me reluctant to bring too many different men to our apartment. After Guédé appeared like another presence in my bedroom, though, I became bolder and brought more of my dates home. I was curious about their reactions.
In the intimate act of creation, I never considered the possibility that anyone would enter my sacred space and see Guédé. But it was a prominently displayed piece, and a life-size figure in a top hat and sunglasses demanded some explanation for the uninformed. I tried to articulate Guédé as best as I understood him. In return I received raised eyebrows, smirks, sage nods, and uncomfortable silence. Most moved on quickly to seduction, while others asked questions. I wondered if the men who probed further were curious about Guédé himself, or in what my interest in Guédé revealed about me. I shrugged when one guy asked why I wanted him watching me each night. I had never thought about it like that and had no answer.
Everyone reacted to Guédé, and most reactions fit somewhere between Mild Interest and Mild Diaspproval. But it was Sugar who stood in front of the drawing and declared, “It’s me.”
I imagine the memories and information we accumulate as little streams that flow into an ocean of knowledge. If our minds were designed differently, maybe we’d see their boundaries and sources clearly. We’d know exactly when some piece of information entered us and where it came from. As it is, everything runs together. I’m forgetful. It seems so long ago, and so many memories have come to crowd this one that I think it must be warped. Clear, chilly day. The end of April, maybe. White shirt, buttoned all the way up, a felt hat tipped on his head. Dark. Wide cheekbones. Ethnically ambiguous eyes, like mine. A subtle exchange of gazes, one of those minute, subconscious interactions between animals.
He liked to tell me he was a genuine love child, a product of his parents’ first passion. They were eighteen, still growing up even as they raised him. There was a lot of love between them, he told me. Many evenings he found them dancing to records in the living room. George Benson, Marvin Gaye. They were romantic.
“They separated for a while,” he said. When I asked why, he was silent for a long time.
“They didn’t know how to handle practical problems,” he offered finally. “But they got back together eventually. They loved each other too much.”
“They’re still together now?”
“Yes, to this day. My mother is dead, but yes, even so. I was on the phone with my father yesterday. He said, ‘I dreamed about your mom again last night. She was right there.’ He dreams about her all the time. I don’t dream as much, but I think about her.”
“You were close with her?”
“Very. She was the one who always called me Sugar. Even when I was bad.”
Aside from that, he asked many questions and spoke little about his life. This endeared him to me, since I liked receiving other people’s words silently and sympathetically, without interruption. I had learned that other people would handle the talking if I asked a few questions and shut up. His immunity to magic silence forced me to tell him things. The things became stories as I spoke, and I listened to my own narrative with some wonder.
He turned every query back on me, opened me up while maintaining his mystery. I always went away feeling that he had stared straight in as I shamelessly revealed myself. He saw me and it felt nice. I sensed the danger of intoxication lurking in that feeling, threatening the equilibrium I had finally regained.
“What keeps you from doing what you want?” he asked.
“Self-doubt and fear. Questioning the value of what I want to do.”
“That’s honest.” He smiled. I smiled back and shrugged.
“What is it you want to do?” he asked. I was going to say I didn’t know yet, but some other words came.
“I want to understand what I can. But also find some peace with not understanding.”
“You’re looking for spiritual enlightenment?”
“Maybe. I didn’t know I was looking for that.”
“Do you think your dancing fits in there somewhere?”
“I don’t know how to explain.”
“You do. Relax. Your brow is all furrowed.”
“I’m going to get wrinkles. It’s furrowed in every photograph since birth.” He laughed. I rubbed my brow and took a breath.
I said, “I read so many ghost stories as a kid but they scared the shit out of me. I hated to think anything like that could be real. Things I couldn’t see in the physical world . . . the idea was too spooky. I always loved dancing because it felt so solid.” I stopped, trying to find the thread.
“And?” he prompted after a while.
“Now the more I dance, the less solid it feels.” He waited for more, realized I was done.
“Now I don’t follow.”
“I don’t know how to say it. It started feeling beyond my body.”
“Maybe. I told you I’ve been learning about Vodou?”
“Yes. . . .”
“That stuff is all about invisible things. Everything that I would usually say isn’t real, period. But the dances are so beautiful that it all seems beautiful. The different spirits, the symbolism. The ideas. It makes me unsure about everything.”
“What do you mean ‘everything?’”
“Just . . . everything. What is or isn’t real. There’s so much out of sight. Unknowns. Not just specific questions I’ll never fully answer, ‘What’s the meaning of life’ or whatever. Questions that I’ll never know are out there at all. It makes me uncomfortable. But maybe that’s good.”
“Everyone says life is uncertainty, and that’s hard to live with. I want to learn how to live.”
He looked into my face with an indecipherable expression. After a long silence he said, “Do you know what you are?”
“A hillbilly in the city,” I offered. He ignored my joke.
“What does that mean?”
“You’re open. Maybe even too open. You don’t hide.”
“Not from you.” I gave him a shy smile, but he didn’t respond. His expression remained unreadable and where before he felt so close and warm, he was suddenly remote. Then his face softened slightly.
“You need boundaries in this city,” he said.
Vodou speaks of spirit possession as horsemanship. In ceremony, a person becomes chwal—the horse for an arriving spirit to mount and ride. The human body is necessary for spiritual contact, allowing “divine horsemen” to join the physical world and mingle with the living. But to enter the body, the horseman must displace its steed’s consciousness. While everyone else enjoys the visitor’s company, the horse wakes up with no memory of divine communion. Just a tired body and other people’s tales of what happened.
“When’s your birthday?” he asked.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
“How did you know?”
“I grew up in New York. I know everybody’s special days. What do you know about it, country bun’kin?”
“There’s a big Catholic Hispanic population in my town.”
“I thought it was all rednecks where you’re from.”
“Yeah, and folks who came up from Mexico. And California.” With some difficulty, I formed the letters ‘b-l-o-o-d’ with my fingers. “I think a California transplant taught me that.”
“Country gangster. I like you. Or maybe it’s because we’re both fire signs.”
“When’s your birthday?”
“I’m a Leo.”
“You won’t tell?”
“It was last Tuesday. Don’t suck your teeth at me, I don’t celebrate birthdays.”
“You could have said something. I wouldn’t have made a big deal out of it. How old are you?” I realized I had no idea. I looked closely at his face. More than twenty, less than eighty.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Twenty-five. And . . .” I counted on my fingers, “eight months.” He pulled his driver’s license from his wallet and showed it to me. I did a quick calculation. He had just turned forty-eight.
“I can’t believe it.”
“That freaks you out?” he asked.
“A little. You look good.”
“Black don’t crack.”
“It don’t. I won’t look that good in twenty-three years.”
“That makes me sound old.”
“A number is just a number.”
“That’s true. You still like me?” The question surprised me, especially its hint of vulnerability.
“Why wouldn’t I?” I wondered. He nodded. We sat in silence for a while.
“I never had birthday parties when I was little. I’m not in the habit of celebrating.”
“Not even with family?”
“I don’t remember when I was really young. My parents split by the time I was eight or nine and I went with my mom, so we kept it minimal. Sometimes she would make a cake. Or my aunt would. Women always pay better attention to stuff like that.” He smiled, looking lost. Then his face lit up.
“I forgot all about this ’til now,” he continued. “I had this girlfriend in high school. I hadn’t said anything to her about my birthday coming up, but I guess she knew. Must have been . . . I think my seventeenth. We had planned to go out, just have a regular date and go to a movie or something. But when we were almost to the train she said she had forgotten something and we needed to go back to her house. I was like, ‘What! We have to go all the way back!’ Really annoyed. Turned out she had planned this surprise party, gotten all our friends in on it. We walked in and everybody was there, she had made a cake and everything. Man, they really got me . . . I had no idea. It was the only surprise party I ever had.” He shook his head, grinning.
“She must have cared for you a lot,” I said.
“Yeah. We were a little serious.”
I tried to imagine the girl who planned his only surprise party, who lovingly baked his cake and delighted in his look of astonishment when the lights came on and everyone jumped out. I felt a pang of jealousy. When Sugar was seventeen and running around New York with his sweetheart, I was still six years away from even existing. I couldn’t decide if the thought made me feel better or worse.
Sugar always saw me home after we’d been out, but he never tried to come inside. He’d deliver me to my doorstep and plant a chaste kiss my mouth, the way my father used to kiss me before picking up his briefcase and heading out the door. I had a feeling he would never ask to come in. The choice would have to be unambiguously mine.
“My roommate is away.” I told him under the streetlight. The air outside was finally cooling, drying my sweat. A jagged white band of salt had formed across the front of the leotard I’d worn to class and sported on our date. He noticed and lightly touched my ribs.
“Do you have to leave right away?” He checked his watch.
“No. I don’t have to leave.” He looked at me and waited, making no moves. I was uncomfortable asking for what I wanted, unsure what to expect from him.
“Will you come in,” I finally asked, “and spend some more time with me?”
“Yeah. Let’s see your nest.”
I led him in. As I showed him the living room and kitchen full of my roommate’s furniture, decorations, and cooking equipment, I realized that there was nothing of mine in the common space. My bedroom contained my few possessions, and they rarely spilled out of that boundary.
“Nice,” he said as I opened the door to my room. He put his hands on his heart and crossed the threshold with a look of reverence. He gazed around and I watched, trying to see myself as he saw me. The plants on the windowsill, the dreamcatcher I’d brought from home hanging by the bed. The mattress dressed in old pink sheets, pillows bunched up to make a nest and a few books stacked nearby. My bureau with its piles and scatterings of earrings and necklaces, half-used bottles of scented oil and lotions, wheat pennies, and plastic hair ornaments. All of it sitting in dust.
He looked at the small shrine I had recently constructed in a corner on the floor, my attempt at honoring the spirits I was beginning to know and love, along with my better-known creators. I had amassed and carefully arranged pictures of my parents and grandparents, candles, seashells, heart-shaped jewelry and trinkets, crosses, beads, and anything else that struck me as a nice offering. I thought suddenly of my childhood home and how my mother would pick up any shiny thing off the sidewalk—a piece of glass or wire or wayward bracelet charm. How those things would find their way to the kitchen windowsill or living room mantelpiece, along with rocks and shells from beach vacations, feathers found out in the countryside. Once, playing in a dark corner of the basement, I had come across an artful scattering of shells on an abandoned shelf. Everywhere I turned were little arrangements, artifacts of life.
Finally Sugar examined my closet door. He stared into Guédé’s face for a moment, then turned back to the bureau and grazed his fingers over a dusty pair of snake earrings from the dollar store.
“Nice.” He turned to me with a small smile. “I see you, country bun’kin.”
Being possessed fascinates me. I like the idea of coalescence, merging the small self into a bigger whole. How sweet to transform the ego, to crack that hard little nut that guards its boundaries so carefully. To expand into something beyond the body or to be swallowed up by it, who can tell the difference?
I have read all kinds of accounts of Vodou ceremonies and what happens when spirits ride. There are things about it that frighten and attract me at the same time. The loss of control, for instance. When you are possessed you are literally out of your mind, and someone else is there.
Sometimes a spirit will punish a practitioner who has done wrong. I read an ethnologist’s recollection in which Damballa mounted a man who had failed to properly serve him. Ridden by the snake spirit, the man effortlessly climbed a huge tree. When he was up beyond all reach of the congregation, Damballa departed, leaving him to figure out his own way down.
When he brought his face close to mine, my heart jumped and my whole body burned. He radiated heat and smelled like earth, cloves, and something oily. I felt a little dizzy, and the silence around my head made my breath loud.
“You’re open.” He murmured. Our lips hardly touched as he breathed into me. An image of large, soft nostrils overpowered my mind, my first riding lesson suddenly resurfacing. Horses greet by breathing into each other’s noses, I thought hazily. I was burning up. I sighed and he inhaled my exhalation. I floated to the bed, took off my shorts and lay down in my leotard, incapacitated by blood that felt too viscous in my veins. He shut the door behind him and removed his hat and several long beaded necklaces. He put these items down carefully in a pile, then stripped naked and shut my lamp off.
I watched him approach. From down on the bed, his darkened figure reminded me of the way shadows stretch long in evening sun. He eased onto me with his full weight, covering me like a blanket. Silky and leonine, heavy. He took my head and kissed my lips and cheeks. Then he was beside me, shucking off my damp leotard. I opened up for him. Time and movement slowed and became dense, like honey had replaced sand in the hourglass. I was being consumed by my own fire. I wondered when I would distintegrate, and would Sugar disappear too, or just find himself covered in soot?
Before either of us spontaneously combusted, he disentangled and pulled me to his side.
“That’s enough for now,” he told me. My face was hot and there were tears on my cheeks. I stared at him.
“I have to get back to the store,” he explained. “And get ready for an event tomorrow.” His mind was moving to the next thing; he gave me a small squeeze then got up and went into the bathroom. I heard the faucet running. I tried to reconstruct what had just happened but the replay was already scratched and skipping. I was sweating again, my body agitated.
“It’s me.” He had come back in, was standing naked in front of Guédé. I sat up.
“With the teeth and everything,” he continued. He mimicked the drawing’s expression, pointing a finger at his own face and another at Guédé’s. It was true; they shared a sly, gap-toothed grin. I remembered the warmth I felt, watching his broad face take shape. The pleasure I took in making his mouth just so.
“Who is this?” he asked.
“A Vodou spirit.” I replied. He smiled and pulled his pants on.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to stay here and get some sleep, and go to the store in the morning?” I asked. He shook his head, putting on his shirt.
“No, love. I really need to work on a few things.”
He untangled the beaded necklaces and put them on one at a time, then tucked them under the shirt. I reached for him and he came to the side of the bed. I wrapped my arms around his waist, noticed his body was cool. He’d siphoned his fire into me. I looked up into his face and we contemplated each other. Then he patted his pockets and came up with a small bottle.
“I have a solution,” he told me, uncapping the bottle and taking out a dainty brush. He gracefully smudged a line of amber liquid on his palm and with ceremonial gravity, swept his hand over my pillow. It was earth, oil, and cloves.
“So that I can be here,” he said. I wondered if it was a gesture of care or pity. He put on his hat and I walked him to the door. Then I came back and lay down with the pillow.
Logic told me a man is just a man, but my body could not be sure that I hadn’t been hexed.
Riding my bike in an unfamiliar neighborhood one day, I got caught in a summer thunderstorm. When the rain let up to a drizzle, I decided I would walk the rest of the way home. Coming up a quiet sidestreet, I saw Sugar’s familiar figure approaching from the opposite direction across the street. A young girl was beside him, wearing his felt hat. When he caught sight of me, he took her hand and crossed to meet me.
“This is Benita,” he said, watching me carefully. A beautiful little girl, with Sugar’s eyes. She pushed the oversized hat up her forehead.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, and we shook hands. “Your daughter?” I asked him. He looked down at her, and I followed his gaze. Benita smiled and nodded shyly.
“Her mom asked me to take her to a doctor’s appointment. I’ll call you later.” He gave me a hug and a chaste kiss, and we all waved goodbye.
“Are you married?”
“Are you sure?”
“Were you ever married? To anyone?”
“No. Her mom and I weren’t together like that.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you had a daughter earlier on?”
“What would you have done?”
“I don’t know. But at least I would have understood.”
“You. The situation I was getting into.”
“I didn’t know how to tell you. I’m sorry. Running into you like that was a relief.”
We were both silent. Then I said, “It’s hard now.”
“I’m attached to you and I don’t know if that’s okay. Are you attached to me?”
“You chose me.”
“What does that mean?”
“You chose me. I’m here for what you need.”
“Never mind. Talk to you later.”
“Wait, hold on. I am attached to you,” he said quietly. “But don’t ask me to tell you that. Ask me to show you.”
“Most people don’t care for everyone they sleep with. The body can lie,” I said.
“So can the mouth.”
“I can’t care for someone who’s not open. It’s too scary.”
“Wouldn’t you want to know who a person is and what they’ve got going in life? So you could make your own decision about it? I don’t want to be sitting in the dark.” He didn’t respond. We were silent for a long time.
Finally, he said, “We’re like soil and seed.”
“What does that mean?”
“We’re connected. And we’re helping each other.”
“How am I helping you?”
“You share a kind of . . . innocence with me. An openness.”
“And what are you sharing with me?” I asked.
“The opposite,” he said.
My apartment was on the ground floor and it sweltered in the heat of summer. Even with the windows open, no breeze blew in. I came home from a long day of babysitting, sighing into the stuffy air. I had been neglecting D’s class while I worked more to make rent, and my whole being was drained. I also felt slightly unhinged. I hadn’t seen Sugar in two weeks, despite prayers for a chance encounter, a word from him. Any divine or magical intervention would do—some tangible sign of connection. I carried his presence constantly, but I ached with the uncertainty of whether I stayed within him.
I went to the kitchen and stared at the refrigerator’s bleak contents. A carton of almond milk, an ancient jar of olives. I went to the couch and sat listening to fragments of street conversation, the rhythm of traffic. When the light changed I’d hear cars idling, lining up down the block. Sometimes a strange melody formed from many songs projected out of open windows. Other times there would be just one, which went flat and eerie driving away.
Abruptly overcome by fatigue, I went to my room to lie down. Late afternoon light angled in and I let it roast me, too lackadaisical to pull the curtains. Kids from the daycare next door were playing outside. I listened to their voices; they shouted at each other like grown people. Then the voices faded as a teacher ushered them inside.
I groped for my phone on the mattress, thinking I would set an alarm in case I accidentally fell asleep. But I felt a form and realized Sugar had come in to lie down by me. My voice was gone, but he knew I was overjoyed. I closed my eyes and felt him shift onto me. I could barely breathe, my body magnificently heavy with his.
“That feels good.” The words were hard to get out. He said nothing, but he crushed me, emanating love and warmth.
The sound of my own heavy breathing opened my eyes. I was alone, flat on my back in the oppressive heat of a sunbeam that had moved only slightly since I lay down. The feeling of the dream lingered, his presence so strong I almost believed that if I called out he would answer, emerge through the open door.
I found my phone and called, but he didn’t pick up. I rolled to my side and closed my eyes. When my phone rang and roused me, the light through the window had gone from yellow to red.
“Hi there. Sorry I missed you.”
“I just called to say you were in my dream.” My voice was thick with sleep.
“A good dream?”
“Yeah. It seemed so real.”
“What happened in it?”
“Nothing. But you felt close.”
“I am close.”
I glanced involuntarily at Guédé, staring and grinning from the closet door.
“I miss you,” he said.
“Then why don’t you reach out?”
“I am reaching out. I’ve been juggling all of my obligations.”
“I’m not trying to be an obligation.”
“I know, and I appreciate that. I’m going to come see you soon.”
I flew home in December to spend the holidays with my parents. It felt good to watch the city shrink away beneath the airplane, its looming buildings, volatile energy, and life-and-death decisions quickly reduced to memory.
Getting home from the airport was an hour’s drive through mostly empty countryside. My parents and I talked about life in the city and I elaborated on things I had told them over the phone: dancing, Vodou, the New York hustle, and searching for direction. It was hard to summarize daily life with all its moving pieces and mystical occurences waiting to unfold at any moment. They told me they missed me, but that they were proud of me. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Their love was like a buoy, and I hadn’t noticed how weary I was.
I was jetlagged and fell asleep before dinner. When I woke up it was a little after six in the morning, still dark outside. I tiptoed down the hall past pieces of my mother’s artwork that had hung for
years in the same places. I knew every dusty corner, every creak, every smell of the house as if it were part of myself. Downstairs, I put on my running shoes and slipped out. It took ten minutes to reach the city limits, and I didn’t encounter a single car, human or animal.
The stars were bright and sharp in the cold air; the eastern horizon was turning blue. I ran along a path heading towards the resevoir in the wheatfields beyond town. The fields were bare and tilled in preparation for warmer weather, when they would turn green and finally yellow-gold. I ran farther out, came to a long, steep incline and ran halfway up before I had to stop, winded. As my breath quieted, I became aware of deep silence; I heard nothing but my heartbeat. A pinprick of fear tingled in my spine. I had forgotten what absolute solitude felt like.
I took a moment to reason with myself, to ask why I was spooked if I was indeed by myself. Was it actual uncertainty as to whether I was alone? I saw nobody, no roaming farmer or coyote, yet my body was increasingly uneasy. I felt a strong urge to flee, so I began running again. I reached the top of the hill where the levy and trail joined—a beautiful view overlooking the resevoir, but I didn’t slow down. I followed the path as it took me down, up, alongside farmers’ fields and into groves of trees with naked, contorted branches. Still no other sign of life, yet I was neither looking for another presence nor running away from one that I knew about.
My lungs burned and my muscles began to fatigue. I had a sudden vision of myself as a bird might see me, a tiny figure moving almost imperceptibly through endless space. I slowed to a walk, my sweat instantly cooling. Against the chill, I felt the heat and push of blood defining the borders of my body, speaking my liveness. Still alone. I was calm again. I looked up and saw stars, the horizon’s new pink and purple light.
“Are you coming back?” he asked.
“After the holidays.”
“Will I see you?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“It’s nice to hear it.”
“I can’t distance myself from you.”
“Because you chose me.”
“Maybe. Did you choose me?”
“I let myself be chosen. By you.”
“I hate when you say that,” I said.
“Why? It’s a statement about your agency. Your power.” I sighed in reply.
“I see you,” he said.
“I know.” I paused. “I hope our lives are always entangled.”
“They will be. Who’s in your room?” I glanced around my childhood bedroom, confused. Then I thought of Guédé, grinning into an empty room in Brooklyn.
The in-between and undefined is hard for me, and from what I’ve seen in the city it’s hard for most people. I see the way we try to embrace mystery. We explore religion and spirituality, learn about planetary positions and meditation practices. But always with a purpose. To justify good or bad behavior, or to explain why so-and-so doesn’t love us, or even to find a reason for keeping on, a story that makes sense enough that we continue struggling along the path to see what’s next.
I struggled for a long time, searching for a narrative with Sugar. I desired clarity and began to write with the hope of finding it. A friend suggested that I’d never finish the writing until I reached some kind of conclusion with him in life. I thought she was right—I needed a resolution to understand the story.
Somehow, it’s not so. If anything, I’m beginning to believe that no real story ever has a resolution. There is always more string behind the loose end, and even when the whole thing comes unravelled there are still the remnants of what was, and what could be next. The last page comes, the curtain falls, but stories continue as long as life continues, and even death can’t end them. A spirit clings, revealing itself in gestures, memories with no origin, lessons learned, and words exchanged. Consciously or unconsciously, something keeps unfolding. It leaves its imprints.