The Space Between

I make coffee in my kitchen while the wan light of early morning on the lake filters through the louvers of the Venetian blinds in the cottage. It’s the last of my Blue Mountain, a gift from the griot, Kayode ‘Kayo’ Mackenzie of Hilton Head Island. I want it for myself, and I fear I’ll wake Charmaine who is still asleep in the loft and I’ll have to share my last drop of him. I roll its liquor on my tongue. Strange that I’d feel that way about something as mundane as coffee, but that’s the way it is. It’s bitter and sweet; something like the man. Something like all that followed our brief acquaintance. The screen door is squeaky and I try not to let it bang as I step out onto the flagstone patio into the dim morning. The air is fresh, and frosted with the resinous smell of pine, like the interior of a cathedral after mass is said. It is still as a church too, hemmed in by trees some seventy feet tall. It’s almost light. Soon the morning chorus will begin. Soon the lake will buzz with boat motors and cries of water-skiers. Soon Charmaine will be getting up, stretching, looking for me.

Last night she lay in the space between my thighs and stabbed at my emptiness with her tongue until it was filled loosely, like water outflowing a cracked vessel. I am empty because she is using me. I know that. I’m using her too. We are like mutually supporting parasites. It’s his fault. She is using me because I once had the almost-famous MacKenzie, whom she desires. She has not had the pleasure despite tracking him like a camp-follower. Of this I am certain.

“I’ve been in love with that man for a decade,” she confessed over Cuba Libres at the old BamBoo Club in downtown Toronto. Some people idolize singers. Charmaine was like that with poets and artists. So am I, I confess. She responded to Kayo the way women my mother’s age swooned over Leonard Cohen. Striped by shade from one of the Club’s namesake grasses, she swung one sandaled foot under the patio table, her purple-painted toenails coming perilously close to my bare shin. ” It’s more than lust. It’s lo-ove.” She flapped her fingers like an excited teenager. I tried not to stare at her cleavage. “I’ve seen him every time he comes up here. I’ve even seen him perform here,” she enthused, waving to take in the whole of the club. “Then I go home and single-handedly console myself that the streets are not paved with talented and handsome men like him, sensitive guys just ripe for the plucking. Any girl should get one. But no,” she sucked her teeth, “those ones are rare and worth the wait, not that a girl should go without some while she is waiting.”

We laughed, but I was a bit put out. I wish she wasn’t so transparently smitten, even if I agreed wholeheartedly with her assessment of Kayo’s worth. A girl shouldn’t go without a bit of something. I could be that something for her. Like Charmaine, I’m in love with words and most recently with her words. My guru says I shouldn’t trust what people say, only what they do, but I’m susceptible to art and sweet-talk. I’d been working at bedding Charmaine for six months, now, ever since the writer’s conference where we met. She’s brilliant—a poet as well. I’m a sucker for that sort of shine; that sort of smart-hot. She had always been willing to come out to talk, to shop or share, but I’d wanted more for a long time, and I searched her face and the shifting plains and hills of her body for clues, but had found no evidence of my desire returned. That she was so indifferent to me hurt. She thrummed with passion. I quivered back. She was edible. I was hungry. I satred across the table. She looked away. She had broad, high cheekbones, a diamond-shaped face that spoke of her jambalaya roots: Trini French, Indian; African in one. Creole. Red. Her eyes were large, and the corners curled down slightly. This was beautiful. But it was her body; the queenly heft of it, and the way she moved her high chest and broad behind with grace upon slender legs like stalks of grass that I found so compelling. Her ass jutted one way, her tits, belly and chin the other, like those African carvings of dancing girls with long shins and a hand on one hip. That and the words. The words.

We were talking American poets. Slammers. The import Dub set. Spoken-word traditionalists. That’s her thing. She brought up Kayo’s name and I sat for a long time contemplating my drink and the plate of over-sour escoveitched snapper steaming in front of me. In this moment I sensed a shift about to occur, some rending of the fabric of my universe. “I know him,” I said, finally, “personally . . . ”

She looked at me with surprise.

“How come you never said so? No. Don’t shit me.”

“I guess it never occurred to me. We had an affair a year ago.”

She weighed this statement against what she believed. “No. No way . . . he’d never. He’s a separatist. He’s all for la raza, Leni.”

I shrugged, burning inwardly. Truth was often stranger than art. We invent some of our truths. I couldn’t keep my trap shut. Fuck her. I couldn’t be telling the truth because he was out there saying he wouldn’t touch whitey. There I was, shoving one sacred cow in her face. I wished to fuck she wanted me. There, take that. I attempted the fish. The vinegar rankled my nostrils and burned my tongue. I pushed it away, called the waiter and asked to see the menu again . . .

“Well, he did. We did. The only thing he was separating then were my legs. Not long, not deep . . . not love I’m afraid . . . ” She stared at me, disbelieving. “I met him in Charleston. I was doing that article for Saturday Night. I have some pictures. Maybe I’ll show you. You can come over.”

I did have pictures; there was not much to divine from them. They didn’t show us, or anyone else fucking. But there is always a story behind an image. In my favorite, he is standing on a narrow, cobbled lane in Charleston, under a huge hanging fern, his bald head turned to one side, his cheek laid across one shoulder. The flash glints off of one earing, dangling along his cheek. The fern stands on the side of his head, looking like a great green jester’s cap; a woodland king’s crown, sliding off. A church spire rises in the distance at the end of the alley. He is smiling, gap-toothed, goofily at the camera. That was the day after we met. We’d shared breakfast without touching.

I’d been pulled by a bill posted on a telephone pole to attend a slam of Island poets in a back-street club. I thought, great, I could do an extra article on contemporary Gullah culture alive and well in South Carolina. It’s why I was there, after all—dredging stories. I went into that place, shining like the North Star. It was fantastic: hot, angry, exuberant. There was much shouting and later, pressing of flesh, the knocking of knuckles in acknowledgment of the groove. I was talking to the performers and he, sliding past my table after his set, did a double take and asked if I had got lost. I laughed and said no. He was very tall, and dark like espresso, with a split in his smile that made him look like an overgrown boy. I was not lost. I was there for the show. Spur of the moment, I asked if I could interview him. He sat down and talked, and that was the beginning. He said to come for breakfast at his hotel. What the hell . . . I did. We drove in his old truck to the Island, after.

Some men are so facile with their charm they astound me. I love that much moxie. He asked. I went. Simple. His sunglasses made him look professorial. He smiled a tiny, tiny inscrutable smile the whole way. We didn’t talk on the drive. Not much. I mouthed some appreciation of the raw power of his words. He waxed philosophical and stressed how important his work is to the culture of the island. The ego—but I got he wasn’t making it up. I suggested we save it for the interview proper. Pausing in speech, he had the distracting habit of touching his tongue to his upper lip. It made my insides twitchy. I looked out the window. I watched his hands, slid my eyes to the side and examined his belly; the tented folds of his loose trousers. If I wasn’t conscious of it before, I acknowledged it now: I’d sleep with him, should that occasion arise.

We stopped for groceries. The clerk eyed me with some interest and looked pointedly at Mackenzie, but he offered no explanation of my presence. When we left, I felt the cashier’s eyes on my back and didn’t turn around.

He stayed on the island in a beach house, where the ocean raced up to meet the land, and the wind battered the thin grass flat. Sandpipers raced ahead of the surf and chased it back as it sucked in upon itself, sighing. They peeped as they ran. Palmettoes spiked the grainy ground around the house. I thought it was a miracle the place still stood, a survivor of countless storms. The pale yellow paint peeled on the clapboard. I walked up the tall steps, the house high on its pilings, its hedge against the cruelty of the sea. A pelican stood on the roof. I stood outside for several minutes before stepping in.

“Y’all like hushpuppies?” he called from the bright kitchen. It was a blaze of sunflower gold.

“Sure. I’ll eat anything.”


“Anything, honestly.”

“Fried clams?”


“Well if you want ’em y’all’ll have to get’em. There’s a pail and a digger out on the porch. Go get us some, then. Know how to find ’em right?” I nodded. “Make sure you bring ’em in some clean water. Tide’s out so it’s perfect. They’ll be frisky, though. Work fast. See if you can find some crabs, too.”

I was back in half an hour, the bucket filled. He puttered in the kitchen, pots clattering, conversing as he worked and emerged shortly with two steaming plates, topped with sliced tomatoes, dusted with pepper and parsley.

Over lunch and for part of the afternoon, I asked the questions, got my answers, sipped on the Bud he’d pulled out of the fridge.

“Ya’ll are welcome to stay and I can drive you back in the morning or whenever y’all have to get back. Nothin’ ever happens out here, anyway. They be talking about you back at the store. That’s how dull it is in this part. I c’n hear ’em talk about how y’all got lost from the other side. Should be with the country-club folk.” He laughed. “Should keep them going for a while. Might as well give ’em something more to talk about. Besides, it looks like the day is turning rough. Check it out.” He pointed out to the darkening sea.

A squall had blown up offshore and the surf rose with the tide until water licked close to the verandah’s stilted legs.

“Shouldn’t we be getting away?”

“Nah. Seen worse ‘an’at. Not likely going to go higher than ‘at, and there’s a spot down the road a ways where there’s more chance of a wash-out than here. Might not get past that point, anyway. Might was well stay and enjoy the show. It’s best if you get out on the porch an’ stick ya head into the wind. Always makes me feel like a sea-captain. A reg’lar pirate.” His twin earings shook.

So we stood on the porch while the waves sucked at the ground and the rain sliced and swung like a curtain parted and swaying upon itself. It turned and drove itself into us like needles. A huge explosion of lightning made me jump, crashing into him, sodden. We scurried back inside.

“Damn.” He was laughing, a big boom, boom, boom of a laugh like thunder.

“I feel like a drowned rat…”

“Y’all look like one, too, sorry to tell ya. I’ll fetch you a towel and if you like I can throw your stuff over the drying rack. I’ll getcha something dry to wear.”

He came back with a huge towel and a sweatshirt, then passed me some flannel pyjama bottoms with a drawstring waist. “You can change in the bathroom or the bedroom, wherever you like.”

“Thanks.” I chose the bath, took some time drying my hair. When I came back out, I found him standing in the same place, but dressed in a floor-length plain linen caftan. Barefoot. He looked like a prince. Like Fishburne in Othello…He was smoking a joint.

“Y’ok?” “Yeah,” I said. “Thanks” I handed him my wet things. He put them on the table and turned back to me.

“You want some?”

“Sure,” I said, holding out my hand. “Sure. Love to.”

“You need more research for your article?”

“I’m always open for new information.”

“What do you need?”

“I don’t know what else to ask. So I’ll just remain open.”

Lightning blued the light in the room.

“You want an exclusive?” That funny smile I’d seen in the truck reappeared.

“Like what? I thought I already had one.” He touched his tongue to his lip, again. I passed the joint back, sputtered a little. He put it down. And he kissed me. “Oh,” said I. A peck behind the ear, a suggestion laid upon the nape of my neck, an invitation pressed to my lips, an invocation upon my tongue. We stood like that for a long time, tasting. I mouthed his neck, at this darker hollow in a dark hollow near the collar bone. In that spot the smell of salt and wind was strong. I licked it. Salty, too—sweat and seaspray.

“Shoulda jus’ given you the towel,” he said.

I stroked him through his robe, testing weight, length, breadth and started to feel giddy at the thought of slowly jerking this man off—through what looked like an exotic housedress. Was that all I’d do? Maybe he would just want to be sucked. My legs wobbled. Where would this end? The kitchen table? The paneled wall of the den? Domestically in bed, missionary-style?

* * *

“Leni, are you in there?” She kicked me on the shin. Charmaine was looking at me. I snapped back to the present. The Bam Boo’s purple-haired waitress hovered.

“Yeah…just thinking about what you said. You’re gonna have to take my word for it. I did. We did. He’s not entirely who you think he is.Who he says he is.”

After our lunch, Charmaine came over to my house for the first time. I showed her the pictures.

Proof. Sort of.

“Damn, I could just kill you. I’m so jealous I could spit.”

“Well, get over it—it’s not like I married the guy. He was very cool. He was fulla himself, though. A regular cock of the walk…but he was…” I sighed, “for two days he was the finest man I ever was with. Sometimes I get mad, thinking about it. You know, you have the fling and it gets under your skin. You want more and it’s not there.”

“Please put me out of my misery and tell me about it…”

“About what?”

“About it all…His cock. What he said…Some times I read his poetry and I start thinking stuff…and I want to put it there…”

“Oh girl, you have it bad,” I said. I felt that shift again, the rip in the universe. If I let something go, I might get what I craved. But should I? I wasn’t the kiss-and-tell sort. Still, this could be my ticket. She wouldn’t touch me. Fuck it.

So I told her. I told her everything. She so wanted to know. I tormented her. I told her about lifting the linen robe very slowly, until it bunched over the high curve of his ass, held there by my fist; how his cock drizzled wet across my ribcage. Her mouth fell open, her lips wet, wet, wet, too. Looking into her mouth I remembered taking him in mine, the smell of salt marsh and wet earth, the clay tang of him as his wrinkled sheath rolled back and my tongue snaked around him, his hands in my hair. This, I told her. With her next exhalation, I was back sprawled on his sofa, exulting in his tongue parting my lips, and his words, “You taste like the sea,” eddying over me as he dragged my clit between his gapped teeth and tortured it slowly with the very same clever, pink source of all that jive that sprung from his mouth. “I’m floating on your sea…”And at this her mouth dropped open again, and in it I saw desire, and I leaned forward and put my mouth on hers, and said, “this is how it all went down…” On her, I redrew the map—re-wrote the history of that travel. The key to this had been so simple, and so unfair to use.

She writhed on the couch beside me, ripe, like a mash-y Mission fig—soft. I stroked the narrow silk gusset of her panties, slick already. She was unfashionably and beautifully unshorn, a dense mat of hair peeping all around, spreading to her upper thighs, up the inner cheeks of her ass, the indigo ribbon of her lips glistening then parting slightly: pink, like conch, inside, a recollection of the sea.

I whispered how, for all the gushing wet pouring out of me, he still hurt me with his thing. How it took working slowly, until he said, “Pull the skin fo’ward,” and then pushed into me in one slick motion. Farting and sucking from my stretched insides, gales of air caught and released. I bunched my fingers, two; three at a time, into her. She mewled. I pushed; felt resistance, pushed again and again until my hand was clenched around its breadth by her gaping mouth and she broke like surf on it. “Like that, ” I said “Big, Just like that, Charm. I was bent over the windowsill, with my face in the glass, facing the storm, the rain pelting the window, running down the glass. He made me shoot. That never happened before. It hasn’t happened since.”

Charmaine grasped my hand, shuddered, jerked like a spastic or a voudoun in trace, babbled in a strange tongue like that of love; then cried, hiccoughing into my chest.

Later I made her some of the coffee he’d given me; a gift in parting. One of his friends fronted him the expensive Jamaican grind. The stuff cost a fortune. I kept it, sealed in my fridge. Rationed it.

We smoked one too, and I petted her hair, twisted its dragon tongued-ends and re-wrapped the scarf around it so it stood up in spikes like dragon’s tongues. She looked like a queen. She checked my work in the mirror, and was surprised. “You did a good job.”

“Not your typical white girl.” We laughed.

* * *

I haven’t seen Kayo since that time. A year. We keep missing each other. I’m always where he’s not. I don’t feel like I’m entirely done. Like the poor SOB jonesing twenty minutes after his first stem of rock, I’m not done. It keeps me on edge. Moist and restless.

I can hear her stirring upstairs. The place is already beginning to heat up. It will be a clear, calm day, perfect for summer idling.

I know that part of the past is why she continues to see me, sometimes calling in the night for a fix. We keep apart unless to fuck, or in this case to flee into the country. Anais and June… Much as I’d like to, I can’t call it making love. We’d have to be in love with each other. Seems we’re both in lust with him. It’s not a fair trade. We don’t talk about him, either. That would be too much an acknowledgment of this two-sided triangle. Kayo’s the lacuna, the space between. That’s my dry, hollow place. If I shut my eyes I’ll allow her to be my diviner and I’m her channeler, her shaman. The water flows from the cracked pot, out of the space within its walls. I talk to her. I know the words. Blunt. My fist is his cock—my tongue is his too. It fills her gap. I know what it felt like. I can take her there—almost. I wish it were enough. One day I might have to deal with her finding him herself, except not by accident. She’ll go looking. Then, I don’t know what will happen. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t told her, but in this game the end justifies the means. It’s what I dealt for.

In the meantime we revolve about each other in an uneasy orbit, listening to the loons laugh like unhinged spirits on the lake. Pretending. I make her herb tea. I must make a trip into town to get some coffee. I’m out.

© 2003 Helena Settimana. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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