I can’t remember his name or what he looked like, except that he was black, twenty-something, and wearing shoes with Velcro buckles. I was walking from the Bed-Stuy YMCA to my apartment in Crown Heights. I was in a bad mood because it was an uphill walk against cold wind; March is still winter in Brooklyn, which really pisses me off. We get some of our worst weather in March.
I had just crossed Dean Street when, in my peripheral vision, I saw him see me and part ways with his friend. I dimly registered what was about to happen.
“Sweetheart,” he called, and fell into step beside me. I don’t remember specifics. He asked me basic questions, my age and where I was from. If I smoked weed, what I did for fun. I answered his questions succinctly, fluctuating between annoyance and curiosity as he persisted. We passed Bergen, Prospect, Park, Sterling, Saint John’s. What compels a man to follow a stranger for half a mile in the cold? Horniness? Loneliness? Boredom? Hope? Thinking we were dangerously close to my block and wondering how to politely disengage, I tuned out his chatter. Then he got my attention.
“Don’t split the pole, baby,” he said, moving to my other side.
The unfamiliar phrase snagged me and settled in my head. Don’t split the pole. At Eastern Parkway, he asked for my number. I told him I was in love with somebody.
Two years before, on a sticky July afternoon, I’d had another encounter on my walk home from Bed-Stuy. Omar lived in the neighborhood and had introduced himself earlier that summer, after seeing me come and go several times. When I first met him he was sporting pointed gold caps on his canine teeth. He told me he was Jamaican and that he loved vampires. I told him I was learning about Vodoo from a Haitian woman who owned the variety store next door to my apartment.
“Voodoo?” He repeated incredulously. “Be careful with that shit. Haitians are crazy. I myself don’t believe any of it.”
That afternoon in July, he shouted me out from across the street.
“How’s the beige Haitian?” He asked, approaching with a grin and looking me up and down. He was dressed in seasonal Brooklyn men’s wear: bright white wife-beater, basketball shorts and Adidas slides with socks. His gold vampire caps glinted in the sun. He opened his arms and I moved in to hug him. I didn’t know Omar well, but I liked him. He had large brown eyes with beautiful long lashes that made his face look perpetually angelic.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” he said. “I thought the devil might have gotten you.”
I laughed and asked, “Why would you ever think that?”
“You believe in that Voodoo stuff, man! You’re koo-koo.” I made as if to punch him and he dodged my fist.
“I never said I believed anything. I’m just curious about it. And who’s koo-koo? You believe in vampires!”
“That’s different,” he said, suddenly serious.
“Isn’t it all supernatural?” I pressed.
He shook his head and repeated, “It’s different.”
“Hmm!” I looked at him skeptically.
An ambulance wailed by. We watched a group of long-legged teenage girls amble up the block and pass us.
“What about ghosts?” I asked.
“Duppies,” he corrected. “Hell yeah. I’ve seen them.”
“Tell me!” I exclaimed, grabbing his arm. He laughed.
“You’re such a freak! I guess that makes it okay to tell you. Wait,” he noticed me squinting and looked around. “Let’s get out of the sun.” I wanted to make a vampire joke but I didn’t think he would receive it well. We crossed to the shady side of the street.
“Okay. I swear to God this happened. Oh, you’re open to this shit; I don’t need to tell you…” He looked slightly uncomfortable, but continued.
“Last year I went on vacation in the DR, right. With my mom and some of her other kids and an auntie and some cousins. We stayed by another aunt, a rich one, in her house. She’s got money, man, that house is nice. The food was great, we smoked, swam in the ocean. Everyone was feeling nice…” he paused, his gaze moving past my face at a man passing behind me. “What’s up, brother. Everything good? Alright.” The man turned the corner. I watched Omar take stock of the street. He cleared his throat and spat.
“So,” he continued, “we smoked one evening and I was done for the night, I went to my room to drop off. Okay.” He paused and looked at me squarely.
“Mind you. I have never ever had, like, visions or hallucinations. Not even when I smoke, and I’ve never tried any of that other stuff. I stick to weed. I’m not trying to lose my mind, no.”
“So I go lie down and close my eyes, but I start…feeling something. I sit up in bed and there’s this girl…you know, young woman…sitting on the dresser buck naked. She’s beautiful, long hair, dope body, but her eyes! She’s got these twilight zone eyes, all blank and spacey. That’s how I knew she wasn’t human. She was staring at me with these eyes and I swear to God, I was terrified. I’m sitting there screaming at the top of my lungs but no one hears me and I can’t move from the bed.”
“What happened? Did she hurt you?”
“No! She just sat there staring at me. But I’m telling you, I was so scared. I’ve never been so scared in my life. I sat there in my bed all night. Then finally as the sun was coming up she disappeared. Boom. Gone. I went out into the kitchen and everyone was standing around. I said, ‘What the fuck? No one heard me screaming? No one saw anything strange?’”
“No one had heard you?”
“No one. They thought I was crazy.”
“You’re sure it wasn’t a vivid dream?”
He put a hand to his heart, “I was wide awake. I’m positive.”
“Did she come back?”
Omar shook his head. “I didn’t see her again. And I smoked and drank on other nights too, so I know it wasn’t that. Those eyes? This thing was a real duppy, man. I don’t know what she wanted from me, but she was there that night. I’ll never forget it.”
He came over early in the morning, before I was dressed. I opened the door in my fleece bathrobe and socks and was assaulted by a gust of cold air. The split-second image before he entered dazzled me in its dinginess: his body in the foreground a long, thickly bundled shape. Slender calves and ankles sticking out beneath his coat, remarkably vulnerable and underdressed in comparison. Stony gray buildings and sky behind him, offering no hope for winter’s end. Wind whipping dirty napkins and potato chip bags to and fro on the sidewalk. All of it framed in the open door, rusty on its hinges.
“Hi there.” he stepped into the hall and I slammed the door behind him, determined to keep the ugliness outside. He kissed me gingerly with cold lips. We went into my bedroom and I lit candles and palo santo, trying to create the illusion of warmth. He began removing layers of scarves, coats, sweaters, vests and hand-knit sleeveless and hooded pieces I couldn’t categorize.
After he had de-layered I asked, “What does it mean to split the pole?”
“You don’t split the pole,” he answered. He took off his shoes and sat down beside me on the bed. “My feet are cold.”
“Here.” I got down on the floor and sat on them, hugging his legs. He gave me a small smile.
“Don’t split the pole is what our parents used to warn us as kids, when we went out without adults.” He held his two index fingers up so that they nearly touched. “It means you don’t let anything or anybody come between you and the person you walk with. Because then your connection is broken.”
“You might lose each other in a crowd,” I suggested.
“That, sure. But with Southern black folk there’s always the spiritual part to it too.”
He lay back, tucked his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. I climbed onto the bed and sat cross-legged, gazing down at his face. He looked tired, with fine lines around his eyes that I hadn’t noticed before. I felt a powerful urge to tell him I loved him, but I restrained myself. He didn’t like to hear it. Words are like shoes, he always said, quoting Prince. They’re just something to stand on.
“There are these beliefs,” he continued in a low voice, eyes still shut. “Belief in energy, juju, hoodoo, haunts, hags. Superstition. You keep the good in and the bad out. Keep energy contained and strong inside yourself. And inside your tribe. You follow?”
“So splitting the pole doesn’t just break the physical connection, it breaks the energy between people. And that makes you vulnerable in a different way.”
He cracked one eye. “Who’s been talking to you about splitting poles?”
“Nobody,” I laughed. “I heard it on the street.” He looked at me sideways and pursed his lips in mock disbelief. In my best country twang I said, “Come on, baby, and get under these here covers with me.”
“Whatever you say, Suzie Q. I’m keeping my socks on.”
One family story goes like this: my father got halfway through ministry school at the University of Chicago before switching to a doctorate track in Western Theology and Religion. His own father was a minister, and for a while it seemed Dad had inherited his path. Instead, his intellectual curiosity turned out to be deeper than his religious feeling.
My father is brilliant and quiet and very internal. He’s often not forthcoming with his feelings, but one summer when I visited home he was noticeably glum.
On a hot afternoon, I found him in his study with the blinds down and the fan on. He was hunched over a book on his desk, vigorously chewing gum and looking deeply engrossed. I was reluctant to disturb him, but I pulled a wooden chair to his desk and sat down.
“Hi honey,” he looked up from the book and angled his chair toward me expectantly.
I asked, “Are you working on a project?”
“Well, trying. This is a very difficult text.”
“Because of the content?”
“The content, and it’s written in eighteenth-century German.”
“Oh. That’ll do it.”
“Are you still interested in this stuff?” I asked, “After studying it so much?”
He gazed at his hands on the desk for a moment, then slowly and quietly said, “I must admit, I’ve become increasingly skeptical about religion as a whole.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well,” he paused. The fan hummed. “Simply put, I can’t buy into the supernatural stuff anymore. I don’t believe in God.”
“Oh.” I thought about it, hesitated, then asked, “Did you ever?”
“Of course. You know your granddad was a minister. I grew up with talk of God all around me. I took it for granted.”
“Until…?” I prompted.
“You know how it goes, honey. You leave the nest, come into contact with new ideas. Your thinking evolves. I was getting skeptical in grad school, but I was still interested in theological questions.”
“Is that different now?”
He took a deep breath through his nose, leaned back in his chair and searched the ceiling.
“My question now,” he began, “is what is it reasonable to believe? It’s reasonable to believe in what’s testable. It’s reasonable to believe in the laws of the natural world. It’s reasonable to believe, as neuroscience has shown, that change and damage to the brain changes consciousness. Depending on the damage, sometimes the very essence of a person changes. So it’s reasonable to believe that the self—the deepest experience of being—is ultimately material. A physical body and brain. From that alone, the idea of a disembodied consciousness is unreasonable to me.”
I watched him lean forward onto the desk again and furrow his brow.
“So here we have an omniscient, disembodied creator of all the matter of the universe? From what I’ve come to understand, the natural world doesn’t work that way.”
“But isn’t there a lot that reason can’t explain? What’s time, what’s the universe, and all of that?”
“Of course. The big mysteries are what religion tries to address. But I no longer believe in a supernatural answer, namely God.” He smiled somewhat sheepishly. “This is obviously a challenging position to be in as a theologian.”
“I guess it is,” I said. “Are you…sad about it?”
“Sad? No, not exactly. But I’m struggling these days to see how theology is actually relevant to our world. And,” he shrugged, “how it’s relevant to me.”
Somehow, out of dreaming about supermarkets and searching for milk, I woke up imagining outer space and the sun going supernova. I saw what was coming and felt the limits of my life. My heart raced and tears came to my eyes.
“Will you wake up?” I whispered, touching him beside me. He was unresponsive. I shook him. He grunted.
I said, “I’m scared.”
In the deep silence I heard sounds of him slowly regaining consciousness. His breath shifted and he rolled onto his back. He swallowed and opened his mouth, wet his lips.
“Why?” He murmured, his voice hoarse with sleep.
“I’m scared to die. I really don’t want to.”
“You don’t know what death is. No one who can talk about it does.”
I took a deep breath. “That’s true…”
“Don’t let your imagination tell you it knows. It doesn’t.”
“I don’t understand why we come here if we have to leave. I hate the ends of things.”
“Death isn’t the end,” he said. I lifted my head from the pillow and found the shape of his eyes in the dark. They were open.
“It’s not the end,” he repeated definitively.
I picked up his arm from its folded position. He cooperated, stretched it out to offer a shoulder. I put my face in his armpit, and waited to be overwhelmed with comfort, the reassurance of absolute truth in the sensual world. I didn’t feel it, but his certainty relaxed me somewhat. He had many more years of wisdom and experience than I. He knew something I didn’t know yet, and I would learn it from him.
His ribs expanded and contracted gently under my hand. I tried to breathe in unison with him, but his breath was shallower and faster than mine. I closed my eyes and felt my muscles soften. Between falling off curbs and tripping up steps, I had a thought, a message from elsewhere.
He had materialized in my life for this reason. I would love him as he grew old, and his death would force me into intimate contact with my greatest fears. It would not destroy me. Still relatively young, a great mystery would be revealed. I would stop being afraid, I would find peace. I missed the last step and fell on my face.
I opened my eyes, listening intently for his breath. Deep and regular, punctuated by spells of snoring that grated my ears and swelled tenderness in my throat. Maybe I would die first, in a freak accident. Maybe we should break up, I thought. I fell asleep.
I ran out of coffee filters and went next door to see if Valentine carried them. It was a clear late-summer morning. The air was mild; sweet by Brooklyn standards, and Valentine was sitting in a plastic chair in front of her store watching cars go up our one-way street.
“Bonjou, Valentine.” I bent down to kiss her on both cheeks. I had first won her favor when I asked her to teach me some Haitian Kreyol.
“Bonjou, Cherie.” She motioned to a stack of plastic chairs sitting nearby. “The one on top…no good…dirty. Take the second one.”
“Valentine, do you have coffee filters?” I didn’t want to be rude, but I was quietly calculating the minutes and seconds I’d have to wait before the first cup of coffee was in my greedy hands. She squinted at me, looked carefully at my face.
“You need sleep, not coffee! The city making you old, Cherie. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I’m tired.” I touched the corners of my eyes self-consciously. “You know. All work, no money. Too much to think about.” Valentine nodded and gestured to the chairs again.
“Sit for a minute. Rest that mind. Give me company.” I obeyed and pulled the first two chairs off the stack, replacing the dusty one that had been on top. I parked the chair next to hers and sat down.
“There,” she smiled at me and took my hand. I smiled back weakly. She had a full face, beautiful bone structure and radiant, dark skin. She swore she was forty-eight.
“You a good girl,” she said kindly. “But you weak. Some people got lotta problems, but they don’t pay them no mind. You young and already life things hurt you because you open and let everything in. And then you think about it too much.” She gripped my hand. “I’m right?”
“I don’t know.” We sat for a few minutes, watching traffic start and stop. I watched an emaciated old man hobble into the bodega on the corner and emerge a moment later with a brown paper bag. Every time I happened to be browsing the bodega in the morning, I had seen him come in. Every time, he bought a single tall boy. I’d never heard him speak but the lady at the counter always greeted him with genuine affection.
“You know what is balancing?” Valentine asked suddenly. I rubbed my eyes. I desperately wanted to go home and make coffee.
“It’s when the scales are equal and everything’s in harmony…nothing too heavy or light.” I said wearily.
“Nope.” she said. “When scales are equal nothing moves. When nothing moving in you, you dead!” She paused and watched me, making sure she had my attention.
“When you balancing, you making yourself alive. You making contact with hard things, things you have to fight. Even Death sometimes. You see Death and put yourself right there in his face and say ‘You don’t scare me. I’m still here.’ You shake everything up,” she made a fist and waved it vigorously. “Like those things…” She looked at me questioningly.
“Snow globes?” I offered.
“Yes, Cherie. When you finish, you feel strong and remember you still alive. Really alive. How’s Mommy?” She squeezed my hand and let it go.
“Good.” She stood up. “Come with me. I’m selling you coffee filters.”