I should have known this conference was gonna be crazy when I found out they sold liquor at the big box store a few blocks away from the hotel. As soon as I’d turned my phone off airplane mode and started following the stream of familiar-looking passengers to baggage claim, I got a text from Taya, who’d landed a few hours earlier:

—Girl. Target got Seagram’s. Go get yours and let’s get schwasted.

I’d met Taya a few months before at a writer’s retreat, and, among other things, we’d bonded over heartbreak and her poetry, which is delicate and devastating like her calf muscles. But that’s another story. I’d been up all night packing. but I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to chill. My panel wasn’t until Friday, so I had at least a half-day or so to trick off before I met with the other presenters to strategize. Kelly, another friend who’d flown in the day before to visit relatives, had already texted during my layover in Chicago. She was staying in to grade papers, but we’d agreed to meet up the next morning to pick up our badges and browse the book fair. That’s Kelly for you. She comes to conferences to actually buy books and go to things. I come to see my friends and for the offsite events, which I usually do with Kelly because she does her research two weeks in advance and always finds the shit that’s interesting—sometimes on accident. One time, we were at a reading for a prestigious journal that got crashed by all the people who got rejected from it the year before. They stood in the back and loudly read their own work, and it was so good, the emcee finally just let them on stage. The editor-in-chief sat on the front row, smiling as broadly as a used-car salesman, but you could tell by his beet-red ears and neck that he was about to explode. When he stood up to thank the audience for a “memorable evening” through his teeth, and one of the crashers, safe in the anonymity of a cluster of people in the back, yelled, “yeah, remember our names the next time we submit, motherfuckers!,” even Kelly had to chuckle. Fun times, yo.

When I got out of the Uber at the box store, it was already dusk, and the streets were packed with beautiful men with fresh edge-ups and women who looked mixed with something. My blonde Afro, which had shrunk three inches in the recycled air of the main cabin, felt like an odd-shaped spotlight for my pale face. I have albinism, so sometimes in big crowds I feel like I’m glowing, but not in a good way. More like the way Ross’s teeth glowed when he got them whitened on that one episode of Friends, and it freaked everybody out. Kinda like that. By the time I’d gotten to my room, I wanted three things: a drink, an Afro pic, and something to wash the film of grease or whatever the fuck they put in airplane air off my face.

Because my friends are writers and flaky as hell, I’d already gotten three texts that totally changed my plans for the night. Taya had run into Nick, her crush from the retreat, and had canceled our plans to get drunk and binge watch Power. Kel had gotten tired of reading rich kids’ internet-purchased essays and wanted to check out a nearby bar that served flaming margaritas. Vanessa and Stephen were also coming, and I didn’t know them all that well, but the more the merrier, you know? I’d also gotten a text from Quinon, a guy I secretly like who my best friend can’t stand (though she’s never met him—she’s a writer but she never comes to these things). She calls him Qui-not, as in: “I just can’t see y’all together. He’s too... I mean, I don’t want to call him a bird ass nigga, but....” Lennia loves Jay-Z and every Jay-Z verse is a quotable, so she does. Usually, it makes me laugh. Sometimes it hurts my feelings, like when she said my ex was a heaux and she needed to say it because you gotta call a spade a spade—it just is what it is. The Quinon one? I’d never tell her, but it kinda did both.

So here’s the deal with Quinon. About a year ago, I’m on FB messenger with Kelly, and she starts talking relationships:

K: Think you’ll ever get married?

Me: Of course. Can’t wait to actually.

K: If something happens to hubby IDK if I would again. I’ll just be the cat lady I guess.

Me: LOL

K: Hey, do you know Quinon Wesley? He’s a poet too. He’s so sweet. I bet you guys would make a cute couple.

Me: No. Wait—maybe? I think we might be FB friends. Lemme check.

Turns out we were. He was one of those friends I had added after returning from a workshop where you meet a bunch of people and they add you and then their people add you ad nauseum. So we kinda knew each other but didn’t meet until last year’s conference. Kelly and I were standing in the middle of the book fair and I see this long-haired guy in a beat-up military jacket standing in the middle of the aisle, enrapt as Patricia Watkins talked about her poetry in a corner of the huge room. It was hard to hear her over the noise, but he was frozen in place, a box of Swedish Fish dangling from a raised hand as if he’d planned to sprinkle out a handful, but forgot. (When I later told Lennia how much he loved Swedish Fish, she sucked her teeth: “Must be the white in him. Black folks don’t eat that shit.”) “Hey, is that your friend?” I asked Kelly. She looked behind her and broke into her “principal walk”—long, quick strides, with the plastic bag of books thumping against her thigh. “It is. Quin! Quin!”

Quin was—-well, I don’t remember exactly what I thought when I first saw him. I was probably wondering if it was obvious that my jeans were uncomfortably tight—it was early spring, but I had gained so much weight last fall it was ridiculous. Was my nystagmus acting up? Was the thread in my sew-in showing? That’s what I think about when I meet people. Kelly was giving Quin one of her stiff hugs. “This is my friend, Kezziah Bailey. Do you guys know each other?” Kelly had already said she was going to introduce us during the convo about marriage, but she made the whole thing sound offhanded as hell. She stay trying to be the real MVP. She’s my girl.

I do remember his smile seemed really kind in a genuine way, not in that cat-that-ate-the-canary way most niggas smile at women, and he didn’t do the quick body-check glance some of them do either. But it also seemed like he smiled like that at everybody. “Nice to meet you! Kelly! How’ve you been? You cut your hair?! It looks awesome.” There was a huge bag of books sitting at his feet. “This book fair is amazing. I got so much stuff.” Quin and Kelly spent the next few minutes comparing titles, and I tried to look generally interested while secretly checking him out. He was tall and thin, but his jacket was huge, as if it’d been bought for someone twice his size. His jeans also ballooned at the hips, and it looked like, beneath his Super Mario Brothers t-shirt, the waist was cinched together with a belt whose strap bulged behind one of Mario’s shoes. I thought about Kevin at home, to whom I’d just given a key to my apartment and—let me be honest with you—a pretty decent blow job before he’d dropped me off at the airport. Kevin was a supervisor at the local natural gas company. He’d just bought a new truck and had a 401k. Quin didn’t look like he had either. But he was cute. And hairy, and I’m into hairy men. Sometimes when we’d talk in bed, I’d run my fingers through Kevin’s beard. “How do you know to do that? I love you so much,” he’d purr. That was Kevin. The better you learned how to please him, the more he loved you. We’d been together for about six weeks.

I stood to one side and feigned deep interest in a question someone was asking Watkins, who I knew was going to kill the answer. I’m pretty new to the game, but even I know sometimes you gotta take the basic-ass race query and respond to it in a way that makes it look like it was a really well-thought-out question, and then flip it and turn the conversation into something interesting. I strained to hear the response while sneaking glances at Quin’s right cheek. Every now and then he laughed at Kelly’s complaints about some new comic book whose plot was boring, and when he did, a faint indentation would appear beneath his stubbly beard. Damn. And he got dimples.

For the next few days, we hung out with Quin and his friend Rohan, who had an obvious crush on Vanessa, though they seemed an unlikely match. Like Kelly, Vanessa was down to hang out, but even quieter, usually preferring to listen to the chatter and smile and nod when she agreed. Rohan was always trying to get her to talk, which she did, sometimes. I often tried to act the way Vanessa looked: wholesome with her beautifully round face that seemed incapable of acne, and a thick tangle of dark curls that never shrank, but fell in fat, velvety coils over her eyes. Quin never tried to talk to me, except that one time we’d found ourselves sitting together at a hip-hop panel, and he’d asked me how I’d enjoyed shopping with Kelly earlier that day. “Fun, but demoralizing. She can afford way more stuff than me,” I shrugged. He gave a short laugh. “Yeah. Been there.” He spent the rest of the time before the panel began laughing with Rohan, who was taking selfies for Instagram. During one of the presentations, I pretended to look out the window so I could check him out a little better, but all I could really see was his hair. It was a soft brown, with blond strands here and there. Or maybe that was just the sunlight filtering through it. It fell in coarse curls past his shoulders. No shade, but I was glad it wasn’t white-people silky. It had texture. I wondered how it felt to the touch.

It was a week after the conference that we actually started talking to each other, and not just sitting in groups with people and laughing at the same jokes. Someone had tagged a pic of him and set the location for Nashville, so I’d messaged him:

Me: Hey! It was cool hanging out with you in Portland. Are you here?

Q: Hi! No I actually took that pic at the conference. My friend Sarah also lives in Nashville, which I’ve never actually been to, even tho I grew up kinda close.

Me: Right! Kelly said you were from GA.

Q: Well, sort of. It’s the last place we moved to when I was a kid. Fort Stewart. I was born in Cali, but we lived in Ohio, TX, Germany...

And that’s how it started. I was still dating Kevin until the end of the summer, but I’d check in every now and then, and he would too sometimes, or would repost a poem I’d published. When I’d sent him a link to my first article, he’d reposted it with the caption: “A little black woman brilliance for your Tuesday morning.” Another time, we’d had a super long conversation about skin identity, and I’d said: Man, sometimes I wonder about black existence, like if I’m really living it. I mean, when I walk into a store, clerks are staring, but not always bc they assume I might steal. They’re usually trying to figure out wtf I am. He texted back: EXACTLY! Or with me they wanna know if I’m trying to blow something up because they think I look a terrorist. Sigh, I replied. People are stupid.

Things were going well until Christmas break. We’d been messaging long conversations that sometimes stretched out over days because, to paraphrase a bedtime poem I learned as a kid but can’t remember where, whenever a ball is thrown at me, sistah gotta throw it back, you know? And sometimes I stagger the throw, just to keep things going. My sister got married a few weeks before the holiday, and when she started posting pics of us at the reception, he sent a message:

Q: How was the wedding? You look really nice.

Me: Thanks. That’s so sweet. Wedding was off the chain. Black people dancing and doing the most with winter fashion. Did you see the fur collar on my mama’s suit? It’s 70 degrees here, BTW.

Q: Hahahahaha. I totally did.

Another time he’d messaged while watching TV with his older brother, who’d also just got married a few months before. They were on some latenight shit with snacks and Adult Swim, and New Wife had given up on them and gone to bed.

Me: What do grown brothers do when spending quality time together? Wrestle? Wait for one to fall asleep so the other can pour hot sauce in his mouth?

Q: Damn. We didn’t even do that stuff when we were kids. Mostly video games. When I was younger he’d read to me, or try to teach me how.

Me: Word. I totally did the hot sauce thing to my sister once. She beat my ass, tho.

Q: Hahahha. That’s awful.

Me: Listen, We were poor. We had to make our own fun. We did free shit, like wait for videos to come on The Box and play hand games: Miss Mary Mack, Bullfrog. You know: down by the riverside, hanky-panky. Stuff like that.

Q: I do know, actually. I was just reading about that in a book about gaming for this reading group I’m in.

One day, I asked him HYPOTHETICALLY (I know; emotionally, I’m like twelve) whether he’d be attracted to a girl who made a first move toward a relationship. Here’s what I got.

Q: Well, I think strict gender roles in relationships are overrated [Pause]

—A woman should do whatever she wants and the guy should respect it [Pause]

—it’s helpful because 1. I never know when a person is into me and 2. You never know how a person feels until they say so [Long Pause]

—But maybe I’m not the best person to ask. I’ve never dated regular like. I work all the time and Tinder keeps matching me with weird people. I also can’t do long distance at all. I like to be around the people I date all the time. Which means I’d spend my whole life travelling. It would suck.

I guess what was my cue. And when I told that story to Lennia, she called him a bird-ass nigga for the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last. She said it again a few nights before I left for this year’s conference, when I wondered aloud if he’d be there. “Who gives a damn? By the way, you should kick Kelly’s ass for introducing you. Dude is trash.”

So when I was in the hotel room mixing my second Smirnoff and cranberry, and I got the text from Quin asking if I knew anyone who he could room with Friday night, I thought about what Lennia would say: “Who the fuck goes to a conference and room surfs?” I sighed and tried to be polite about it:

Me: IDK anyone except me. But you might not feel comfortable doing that & I totally understand. I can ask around tho.

An easy out. I figured he wouldn’t want to do it anyway, but I would have felt bad not offering. I’ve definitely crashed with people before to save money. Writers ain’t rich. Len would understand.

Q: Last year I slept in a room with eight people. How many other people are in your room?

Me: Just me.

Q: Ohhhhh. Do you have a pullout couch or something? Could you ask for a cot?

That pissed me off. Did this fool seriously think I was gonna propose we slept in the same bed?

Me: I have a double. That was all that was left when I booked.

Q: Oh, awesome. Lemme ask around and I’ll get back to you. Thank you kezziah!

Ugh. I hate it when motherfuckers don’t capitalize my name in text messages. Especially when I have crushes on them and I already feel invisible as fuck.

The ask was for the night after my panel was done, and I knew enough about him to know that if he found someone else, I probably wouldn’t hear from him again. After the long-distance convo, the only time I talked to Quin was when I texted him. Sometimes he wouldn’t answer for weeks, and the excuse would always be something like: I’m so sorry. Sometimes my phone marks things as read when I haven’t actually read them! Or: Sometimes I can see them but I can’t click on them to respond! My phone is the worst! (Fuck him with all those exclamation points. Even though I’d usually text back immediately.) Still, I didn’t want to spend the next day waiting to see if he’d have the courtesy to tell me he was crashing somewhere else. Tonight, I would chill. I made myself another drink and started getting dressed. Liquor and makeup always make me feel fierce. I checked myself in the full-length mirror next to the desk, spit-dabbing at a streak of deodorant that somehow got onto my collar while trying to pull my halter jumper up over my shoulders. “You’ve got a cute shape,” I heard my mother’s voice echoing in my head. I know they don’t mean to, but moms make everything sound corny, including titties.

Margaritas were two-for-one, and even though they weren’t completely on fire, they came out in these huge bowl-shaped glasses with tiny flames puckering the petal-shaped slices of lemon rind floating on top. I was already on my third one—which is really where I shoulda stopped, but they were two for one, and I’m a Bailey: I don’t throw anything away—when my phone buzzed. It was Thaxton, a guy I’d met a few years before at the same retreat where I’d met Taya. He was married, but he was from Texas and funny as hell. Like me, he used words like y’all and could remember where he was the first time he heard UGK on the radio. The sound of his drawl also reminded me of home. I grew up in Louisiana, just a few miles from the state line, and Thaxton sounded like all my uncles, especially Carlos, who, whenever I walk into a room, yells, “Kezzy Bear! Whachu know good??” I can’t lie. I’m damn near thirty and I love that shit. It reminds me that, at some point in life, somebody loved me enough to give me an extra name. Whenever I see Thaxton, he yells: “Kez!!! What it do, fam?” I actually think he’s the person who got everyone to start calling me Kez. He never asked if it was OK, but it’s cool. I kinda like it now.

T: Kez! Just landed and checked in with the wife. What’s going on tonight?

Me: Not sure yet. I’ll have to ask Kelly. I think she mentioned ANKH is doing an offsite reading. She got published in their fall issue, even though she’s not in the lineup.

T: Bet. I heard about that too. See you there?

Me: Yep. I’ll text if I got the name wrong.

I was already buzzing, my skin warm enough not to need my sweater as we walked to the venue arm in arm, laughing loudly at Stephen’s jokes and taking up space like we owned that shit. I like going to readings drunk because I forget how unimportant I am, and I get up the nerve to talk to big-name writers—something I wouldn’t dream of doing sober. I once got so comfortable in a conversation with this one dude that I put my fist up to give him dap. He was an old head, and he knocked mine, laughing: “Miss Bailey. You are tonight’s beautiful bright light.” I was too drunk to know if that was sarcasm, but I later found out he was kind of a lech, so...meh.

The room was packed, but as soon as we came in, Thaxton appeared with a shot glass of some dark-colored liquor in hand. Southern niggas always be on that brown. “Whatchall drinking? Let this first round be on me.” Vanessa shook her head, and Kelly politely declined, but Stephen didn’t miss a beat. “Can you get me a vodka and cranberry?” I held up two fingers. There’s a certain point in the night when I stop caring what I drink, as long as I’m maintaining the vibe. Plus, why not begin and end on the same drink? This’ll be my last anyway. Or so I thought.

Am I a terrible person for being a writer who hates readings? Especially when a person gets on stage for what’s supposed to be two minutes, and tries to make a name for herself by reading every poem she’s ever written, or the longest one, which—no shade—is rarely ever good anywhere but on the page (if that). The only thing I could remember about one girl’s poem was blood on the sidewalk, which resonated with me because I’d been standing so long my feet felt like they were melting into painful, fleshy puddles in my heels. I leaned on Thaxton, draping one arm across his shoulder as he wrapped one around my waist. Kelly, who was standing behind us, huffed. “When will this be over?” I could tell by the edge in her voice that she felt some kind of way about not being asked to read. But even after more drinks than I’d bothered to count, I could still tell her stuff was way better than this. Thaxton laughed. “You know how they do. Whitegirl gon take as long as she want and they gon cheer her on til she does an encore.” My head started to swim, and I took a swig of something purple. “The Devil is a liar.” Thaxton pinched my waist as we laughed as soundlessly as we could. We knew that we could never be so longwinded, or so loved.

*

Thaxton reclined on the spare bed and laughed. “Now that I got you back to your room safe, we can talk. Ain’t as noisy in here.” He patted a spot next to him. “Take a load off, Kez. Let’s see what’s really good.” The way he said ‘really’ pricked my haze. I’d always loved how safe I felt around Thaxton. He seemed harmless: a teddy bear with fleshy forearms and wire-framed glasses. A perfectly edged-up goatee and a penchant for posting Instagram pics of his wife’s dinner plates at bourgie meat-and-threes. Or FB pics of himself hugged up with his oldest son, who held a baseball bat while Thaxton waved a catcher’s mitt at the camera. But then there were also endless drinks, the slight brush against my breast as I stumbled down the stairs into the still-crowded lobby, the way Vanessa had somehow disappeared from the cab first, even though my hotel was closest to where we’d been.

I tried to lighten the mood and started flipping channels, looking for material. I got to the hotel’s kid’s station. “You know what I like to watch when I’m drunk? Sesame Street! Man, I used to love Big Bird when I was little. Our hair was the same color.” I shot an under-eyed smile at Thaxton. “He made me feel normal.”

Bad. Idea. Thaxton hopped up from the bed and walked over to where I was standing in front of the TV. “Nah. Nah. I like the fact that you different. Remember that poem I wrote called ‘Vermillion Sin’? About the girl in the red dress? Girl, that was boutchu!”

The exotic angle. Get the fuck out of here.

“Aw, thanks, homie,” I slurred, trying to ditch the implications. But he held out his arms. “Come here.” I hoped my chest wasn’t turning splotchy, which always happens when I get nervous. Liquor sloshed in my belly, and I wondered if I could make myself throw up, which I hate. But it would make me cry, and that might get him to leave. He reached over and took my hands in his, pulling me toward the bed. Ugh. Barfing would take time and be messy. Plus, I have a digestive disease and acid reflux. Maybe stomach acids in my esophagus ain’t the best look. But I also didn’t want to outright reject him. I thought of all the times I’d texted Hi! to Quin with no response. Even assholes don’t deserve to get summarily dissed. And Thaxton was one of the homies. Still, no way this was going down. The day I’d broken up with Kevin, it was because he’d sat me down and said, in his I’m-speaking-calmly-and-succinctly-because-women-are-stupid-and-hysterical voice: “Baby, I know we’ve had fun, but I have to ask if you’d be willing to do something for me. Let me fuck an Asian girl. I know you only do monogamy, but it’s been a dream of mine for a long time, and there’s this new girl at work...” By then I was already over his occasional cocaine use and the fact that he still sent money to an old girlfriend because she was his fallback between relationships and he didn’t want to lose the steady. I asked for my key back and blocked his number. Now, I thought briefly of Thaxton’s wife. I’d only met her once. She was soft-spoken and church-girl pretty like Vanessa, and seemed kind.

Funny how you never realize how quickly you can get sober until shit hits the fan. I could hear Taya’s voice during our late night phone calls: “Vacation time?! Bitchplease. Black women don’t get no vacations from being hunted.” Thaxton sat down on the bed again and was trying to pull me on top of him. I pushed around in the fog lifting slowly from my brain. Then I got it. I fluttered my eyes a little, and fell straight back on the bed, arms up above my head, which made them easily accessible if he decided to try climbing on top of me, but not so much if he grabbed my wrists and held them there. Risky move, for sure. I made sure to make a small wheething sound through my nose and keep my mouth open, like I had simply fallen asleep without warning. Thaxton paused for a minute, then lightly shook one of my shoulders. “Kez? You ok? Wake up.” I didn’t move. He sat there for a minute, probably unsure whether to continue. Whatever he decided, though, I was ready. I could play sleep like a motherfucker, but I’d wake up real quick if necessary. I did a mental scan of the room. I had the bottle of Smirnoff on the desk. I could break it and slice him if I needed to. Would be a shame to lose that liquor though, even if it was on clearance. He leaned over me, his mouth close to mine. “Kez? Sweetie?” I could have clocked him then, but I just fluttered my eyes again so I could see what he was doing, but not too much, so he wouldn’t think I was having a seizure. Then I started talking as if I was dreaming about a convo with one of my friends. “Girl, you crazy. For real?” I laughed a little, deep in my throat, my chest shaking. “Mm-hm.” I turned over on one side, drawing my knees up to my chest. He was so close to me that the left one grazed his crotch. He was hard. Jackass. I started breathing evenly, like I was really sleeping.

After a few minutes, he finally stood, then leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “Aight. See you later, sweetie,” he whispered, hot whiskey breath slipping down my neck. I could barely hear his footsteps, but when I finally heard the door close softly behind him, I got up and ran to it as fast as I could, flipping the bolt quietly in case he was still there. I tiptoed back to the bed, then threw myself on it face-first. Even though breathing evenly had been the most important part of my scheme, I felt like I’d been holding my breath the whole time. I lifted my face and exhaled, then gasped for air. If I hadn’t been so drunk, I probably would have had a panic attack. Suddenly I remembered something Quin had texted the night I told him I’d just been diagnosed with Crohn’s: At least I can say you’re Ok. This is terrible, but right now you’re OK. That’s a thing to be thankful for. I remembered feeling empty, like I’d wanted him to be shocked, or angry, or feel something besides his seemingly blanket obligation of gentleness.

Suddenly my message alert chimed. Probably Thaxton’s bitch ass. I snatched my purse from the foot of the other bed and pulled out my phone. No Thaxton. Speak of the devil:

Q: Heya. Sorry for the late text. I think I might have to take you up on that offer. Is that OK?

For a moment, my breath caught again in my chest. I thought of Thaxton standing over my body and the skin on my arms started to crawl. Then I remembered all the things that had never happened between Quin and me. Shit, I’d be as safe with him here as I was right now. Maybe safer. At least Thaxton wouldn’t have a reason to walk me to my room again.

Me: Sure. Just text sometime tomorrow so you can drop off your stuff.

*

It was Friday night (finally!) after my panel, and me, Kelly, Vanessa, Rohan, and Quin sat on couches in the hotel lobby, comparing notes and telling each other how we really wanted to answer some of the audience’s questions. Kelly and I had co-chaired a panel on black women writing about illness, and a younger girl who looked like she might have been in college asked us if we ever got tired of writing about race and gender. Quin laughed apologetically, but Rohan looked disinterested. Soon, like any elementary school playground, we drifted into separate conversations: Rohan was telling Quin about his crazy ex-girlfriend, a redhead who worked in the IT department at his university and who I suspected was the subject of a poem he’d read earlier that day about white girls giving head. Kelly started talking about how boring her husband was, while Vanessa and I wished aloud that we had her kind of problems. Kelly had just finished up a story about her husband’s cat, Snickers, who peed everywhere and liked to hide her scarves, which was a cause for concern because Kelly has a thing for cashmere. Vanessa flashed a dimpled smile and re-crossed her ankles. “If his cat is your biggest complaint, then consider yourself fortunate. We have to pick husbands out of this bunch, and it ain’t looking good.” She cocked her head toward Rohan, who was in the middle of a story involving I-Thot, a limousine, and a Subway sandwich. I definitely remembered reading a poem about that. “Speaking of other people’s husbands,” I turned to Kelly, “Let me tell you what happened last night.” They both leaned in as I recounted the hotel room scare. A few minutes later, I found myself shouting just so they could hear me. Some event must have ended, because the lobby was now filled with drunk people stumbling toward bad decisions; many of them, like Thaxton, had probably just texted emoji-laden goodnights to their partners back home. As one white woman passed by, she grabbed a handful of my hair. “How do you get it so blond?” she slurred, her own dust-colored mop of over-permed corkscrews bobbing as she spoke. After Kelly leaned back in her chair and looked the woman up and down, she left. Immediately after, another woman appeared at the edge of the lounge area. She had long, dark hair that hung in a loose braid down her back; it almost reached the waist of a pair of tight, stone-washed jeans. In one hand, she held a pizza box, in the other, a moleskine journal engraved with what looked like Chinese calligraphy. I recognized her as the editor of a top-tier journal; she’d also recently won a major award—the kind of money where you can take off work, travel, and write shit. She walked past us women as if we were more of the fake potted plants that circled the area. “Quin!” she cooed in a way that made his name sound like it was covered in something sticky. “I’ve been looking all over for you!” I looked at the pizza box in her left hand; it was from one of those fancy spots where they told you the name of the local farm where the pig was chopped up and the pepperoni cured. It was polka-dotted with grease, and when she raised her arms to hug Quin, I could hear the leftover slices sliding around in it. Didn’t seem like she’d been looking for him. Seemed like she’d been grubbing. “Come up to my room! I want to show you some of my new stuff.” Kelly and I exchanged sidelong glances and she sat up in her chair, uncrossing and re-crossing her legs.

Quin let out a nervous laugh. “Can I come tomorrow? I was hanging out with these guys for a minute and then I need to go upstairs to work on an application for a residency. Maybe you could help once I have a draft of my personal statement.”

The woman’s face scrunched up as if someone had told her that pepperoni wasn’t natural at all and had nitrites in it. She shook the box at him. “Oh, you can still come tomorrow, but tonight I’ve got pizza and YOU [she leaned forward like she was taunting him] don’t have a good enough excuse!” The stale slices scratched against the cardboard. Kelly looked over at me, and had the woman seen the look on her face, she might have turned on her sandaled heel and left; but since we didn’t exist to her, she missed it.

“No—I’m sorry. But I’ll call you. Promise,” Quin’s voice dropped, like he was trying to make payment arrangements by cell phone on a crowded bus. After she marched away, we sat still for a minute, while Quin plucked a tendril from his tangle of curls and twirled it around his index finger. I wondered what was worse—feeling invisible, or feeling like you’re someone’s honey-coated, cheat-day dessert.

A few minutes later, as I finished up the Thaxton story, Kelly shook her head. “Guess we’re not safe anywhere. Hey, you got an audience,” she mumbled low enough so only Vanessa and I could hear. I looked up. Since most of what had happened between Quin and me took place on my phone’s screen, I’m not sure I’d ever looked him in the eye. When I was a kid, mine used to cross out, and even now my nystagmus sometimes throws people off; if I try to hold their gaze for too long, they start to blink, almost as if they’re trying to keep up with the rapid back-and-forth movement. I’m always looking away from people—trying to spare them the sight of my strangeness. The day I met Quin I was probably looking at his chest or his beard. In fact, I’m sure of it, because I remember that some of the strands were turning gray, and Luigi’s hat had a hole in it. But for the first time, there, in a room full of people way drunker than I was, we looked at each other. As always, he looked kind but almost bewildered, as if there was something he wanted to say about the whole thing, but somehow the words were lost in a sea of folks who knew how to put feelings on pages, though not much else.

*

“Thaxton’s a jerk by the way. He acts like he’s so woke but he’s a misogynist who never needs to say anything to or about women. He’s awful.” Quin was on the floor on the other side of his bed, digging into his suitcase. Of course, he would do this while I was sober and somewhat annoyed by the other white girls he’d consoled or promised to call or made plans to catch up with tomorrow as they passed indignantly through the lobby and looked through the rest of us. Oh, you thought it was just the one? Please. Quin was the pumpkin-spiced latte of this conference, and his sheepish grin after every encounter meant that he knew something about what was happening wasn’t cool. But he’d probably try to jump through the hotel room window before broaching that conversation. I sat my phone carefully on the nightstand and sighed. “I thought you might have heard that. Stop ear-hustling.”

“Well, it’s not like it’s a surprise. That’s how he is. At my last retreat he—“

“Heyyyy, I’m not here to hear about Thaxton’s sexual proclivities, fam. I saw enough last night. And anyway, what I was saying to Kelly was more of a cautionary tale. For her benefit, you know?”

“All I was saying is that he’s garbage.” I almost giggled, thinking of how his words echoed Lennia’s. “Men like that are so lost. They’re the worst possible version of themselves and they’re always trying to convince some woman they’re their best. And the more women they convince, the less they have to face the fact that they’re just spewing their shit on the largest number of people possible. That way, they can bear to look themselves in the mirror. It’s some real fucked up Lacanian shit. He doesn’t deserve your friendship, or anything else for that matter.”

There was something in those last words that sounded like more question than statement, and it made me cock my head and listen a little more intently. Anything else... But then too there was—

“Can we not do the deep psychoanalytic theory tonight?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, can you talk to me like a person? I mean, if you gon’ do this, can you talk to me like an actual person with feelings, and not somebody trying to make sense of the black man’s struggle? Well, some other black man’s, since you cannot and do not talk about your own shit.”

“Was he here when I texted?” His voice took on a note of disgust.

“Was I supposed to tell you if he was?” I paused. “Besides, what would you have done?”

Quin’s back was turned to me, but when I said ‘you,’ he whipped his head around quickly. I knew what I was doing. Something thick and slippery started slithering around in the pit of my stomach. In that moment, I felt like women I’d known, who’d surveyed scenes and sized up their own worthlessness and decided that the most effective weapons they had at their disposal were questions, which they could swing through the air like maces, knowing and not knowing what was possible. I was slightly nauseous with guilt, but I kept going.

“Are you better, though? You texted five times today to figure out when you could drop off your stuff, when, real talk, I haven’t heard from you since Christmas. I wouldn’t call you an opportunist. You’re more the guy who creates the opportunity, then gets scared. You like to get close to people, and I don’t know if shit just gets inconvenient or if they want something you can’t give, but when things get complicated, you change up. Word, you can talk shit about Thaxton all you want, but for real, get some curtains for that glass house.”

“So now I’m a hypocrite.”

“I don’t know who you are. Thought I did, but I was on the other end of the change-up. So I don’t.”

“No, you don’t know shit about me. You think you’ve got this whole situation figured out, but you don’t have a clue. You’ve proven your hypothesis with zero research—”

“OH MY GOD YOU’RE DOING IT AGAIN. PLEASE STOP. Talk to me like a person. Tell me what you mean. Wait—I’ll make it easy for you. Fill in the following gaps. We meet. You’re cool. We vibe. I articulate that I like the vibe—” I hesitated to say that I liked him because I’m petty and I try not to give people the option to diss me twice “—then you start acting like I’m toxic. Shit gets awkward. Here we are. Go.“

Quin was looking down at his luggage like he was trying to figure out what to do with it. For a minute, I wondered what would happen if he threw it at me. I am that kind of girl sometimes. I never think a man’s violence means he loves you, but sometimes I just want people to feel something about me. I’m always either invisible where I wanted to be seen, or a pulsing neon light when all I want to do is blend in, be ordinary, walk into a store and buy cookies. I always get what I want at the exact moment when I need something different. And in that instant, I might have taken any kind of acknowledgement, even if it was some dude’s raggedy Samsonite in my face.

Something seemed to click in Quin’s brain. Quin stood, walked over to my bed, and kissed me. His lips were a little wet, and tasted like Jolly Ranchers and something...spicy? Probably Hot Cheetos. I knew we both loved them because we talked about shit like that. The taste of his mouth reminded me of being six years old, when my best friend was Gerald Coleman, a kid who lived across the street and loved Now & Laters. He used to call me Apple Eyes. I guess all the apples his mama bought were green. I remember my mama’s friends asking if we called ourselves liking each other. Surprisingly, we didn’t. I liked hanging out with Gerald because he liked doing things I liked to do: catching crawfish and frogs, building hay houses from all the pine needles in the empty lot next to mine, and stick fights. The truth was, I liked being friends with Quin. The worst part of his silence was that I didn’t know anybody else with whom I could have random ass conversations about New Jack City or underground rappers. Things were different now, like when my Aunt Regina found out about Gerald’s nickname for me, and she’d sing the opening refrain to Anita Baker’s “Caught Up In The Rapture of Love” every time Gerald came over to ask if I could come out to play. And that marked some kind of milestone for us. Up to that point, he was just Gerald; but now, we were a boy and a girl who liked to play with one another and the adults wanted us to explain why. We grew designations and genders and, hear them tell it, desires and attractions. We still played together, but it was never the same. Then his family moved to Dallas, and I only saw him one more time, when they came back to sell their house. For a minute—for a hot minute—I heard Regina standing at the screen door, belting out Anita’s opening strains in her pealing contralto: “Buh-buh-bye-yuh-buh-bye-bum-bye.” I wondered if this was what it would have been like to kiss Gerald. I also remembered what it was like to lose him. Quin was standing over me, leaning down, mouth closed, with his hands behind his back, and the press against my lips was faint, but persistent, like: this is where I intend my mouth to be and if you would like to respond, you can. It was sweet. But it also felt like we were playing a stupid game, where it was my turn to scream “Plop!” and try to smack his hand, or he was Sally Walker, and had jumped in front of me singing “Go on, girl: do your thang, do your thang, do your thang.” And that’s not what I wanted at all.

I pulled back and he straightened up. I never realized how tall he was. “Wait—what...are you doing?” I stammered.

He looked away and took a deep breath. “Hey, I’m really sorry. Seriously, I—. What the fuck,” he whispered, turning away from me toward the opposite bed. He didn’t look me in the eye again until he sat on it. We were like that for a minute: him looking at his lap, me looking at the worn knee spots on his jeans. Whatever he needed to say, he wasn’t going to say it tonight, and I’d be damned if: 1) I tried to make him say it; and 2) if anything else happened without that conversation. I can’t lie, though: for a minute, I thought about how his bare, brown legs would look against the white, white sheets. They were probably hairy as fuck. I laughed.

“What’s so funny?” he mumbled, still looking down, his voice sounding distant and small.

I sighed. “I don’t know, man. I feel like I want to be five again.”

“Five? What does that mean?”

“Like I just want to run around outside or something. Play games with my sister. Watch TV. Shit is too complicated.”

He scoffed, and his shoulders lurched forward, almost as if he was going to stand, but didn’t.

“Fuck it. Give me your hands,” I said, standing and walking toward him. When he looked up, puzzled (and maybe a little afraid), I laughed again. “Nah, I’ma show you something. Hold them like this. Me and my sister used to play “Slide” all the time. I was a master at it. Never missed her hands.”

For the next hour or so, we just played. I see best in low light, when it’s not so bright that my eyes are scrambling to focus, but not so dark that I can’t see what’s in front of me. That night, as we slapped hands and chanted song after song, his voice sometimes trailing mine as he learned the words, every object’s outline stood stark and clear in the backwash of the lamps’ champagne glow: his suitcase with pant legs and sleeves dangling from its unzipped lip; the room keys sitting atop the nightstand like the 2s pulled from a deck before spades; the cheesy painting on the wall behind his slightly bowed head, where two lovers awash in mauves and blues embraced in front of a watery sunset. It was the first time we’d ever touched each other, and I felt heady but I also wanted to record everything so I could analyze it with Len later. Were his hands sweaty for a reason, or just because it was hot? When my palms touched his, how did they feel to him? When we stood up to play “Down By the Riverside,” and I kicked off my pumps, was he looking down at my feet, or just his own hands? If it was my feet, did he think they were pretty? Soon enough, he started to get good, and I started losing, but I would have played forever if he hadn’t finally laughed sheepishly and said: “I should probably get ready for bed now.” When he leaned down to move my shoes so he could get past me and to his suitcase, I felt both satisfied and a little sad. Maybe we’d always be like this: standing in front of each other, trying to find a rhythm that somebody else had created, one he would always master quicker than I expected.

Later, when I went to the bathroom to wash my face, there was a small bruise on the back of my index finger where his class ring had hit it over and over again. As I passed by his bed on the way to mine, I let myself yawn to disguise whatever the tone of my voice might have given away: “Now you can tell your book club you tested out some of the games from that book.”

He was silent for a moment, then chuckled. “I totally did. Now, if I’m ever challenged to play, I got some skills. Thanks, Kezziah.” I gave him a thumbs-up sign before crawling under the covers. If I could have read my name slipping out of his mouth into the low-lit room, I’m not sure if the K would be capitalized, but I’m doing it here because I can.

DESTINY BIRDSONG is a poet, essayist, and editor whose poems have either appeared or are forthcoming in African American Review, The Adroit Journal, Muzzle, Indiana Review, Bettering American Poetry Volume II, The BreakBeat Poets Volume 2: Black Girl Magic, Split This Rock’s Poem of the Week, and elsewhere. Her critical work recently appeared in African American Review and The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature. Destiny has won the Academy of American Poets Prize, Naugatuck River Review’s 2016 Poetry Contest, and Meridian’s 2017 “Borders” Contest in Poetry. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, Jack Jones Literary Arts, The MacDowell Colony, Pink Door, and The Ragdale Foundation. She earned both her MFA and PhD from Vanderbilt University, where she currently works as a research coordinator.