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Deesha Philyaw Thomas

The Africana Journal recently predicted his emergence as the foremost authority on the black male psyche, but”—Eugene gulped air—“Ellison's credentials speak for themselves.” Eugene pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and mopped his face before adding, “In my estimation, he's the most astute observer of our social and political disenfranchisement writing today.”

Spouting such hyperbole was enough to leave Eugene breathless, but having to take two steps for every one of my strides across the quad in 85-degree heat left him gasping and sweaty. My stack-heeled vantage point put me at eye-level with Eugene's perspiring bald spot. Glancing down at his striped bow tie and his ancient sports jacket, I got mad all over again at his criticism of my most recent paper: “Your basic premise reeks of old grievances and well-worn platitudes.”

We were late for a meeting with our department chair, partly my fault for losing track of time preparing for the next morning's lecture, partly Eugene's, that beach-ball belly of his slowing us down.

“Go on,” I said, snatching open the door of Ainsley Hall. “What else?”

Eugene sighed and followed me inside. “Ellison spent a year in South Africa after apartheid fell”—he gulped—“Mandela greeted him as a brother.”

I turned to Eugene and widened my eyes.

“But to answer your question”—Eugene stopped and placed his palm on the wall for support—“No, Ellison is not an axe-murderer.”

So, I said “yes” to Ellison, in part because Eugene vouched for him, and while I would never let Eugene pick my clothes, I trusted him as a decent judge of character. I liked Eugene as much as I liked doing my taxes, but as potentially the only one standing between me and tenure some day, I tolerated him.

I called Ellison later that afternoon and suggested several spots for dinner Friday night. “Ali Baba's? Sushi Cafe? That new Thai place on Elm?”

Silence, followed by: “How about Applebee's?” This was my first clue Ellison was less than he appeared to be. Still, I agreed to Applebee's, arranged to meet him for cocktails first at Eight Bar, and braced myself for certain anti-climax by evening's end.

Still, instead of returning to my office after class Friday morning, I drove straight to Dionne, my hairdresser, plopped into her chair without an appointment, reminding her of all the times she'd run late when I did have an appointment. She huffed but gave me auburn highlights and loose curls falling just beneath my ears. Best of all, I was in and out in under three hours (a record for Dionne), leaving me just enough time to blow three hundred bucks on a black and cream Anna Sui lace empire dress.

With Ellison's double-take when I walked into Eight Bar, the Anna Sui paid for itself.

Right after we placed our drink orders, Ellison said, “I'm sure you're curious about my uncommon first name. My mother is a huge fan of Invisible Man.”

I smiled and nodded, sensing he expected at least that.

“Ralph Ellison's book. Not the movie,&rldquo; he added. I resisted the urge to say, “Really? There's a book?” It was too early in the evening for sarcasm.

“Her doctorate aside, my mother is a true autodidact.” Ellison paused, perhaps allowing me time to puzzle over “autodidact.” “When she finished undergrad, her alma mater was still a few years away from establishing its Africana studies program. Vassar '67,” he added, as if remembering a favorite vineyard and a very good year.

The bartender brought our drinks. “Eugene tells me you were the first in your family to even go to college—and to an Ivy, no less,” Ellison said. “And your father was...a bus driver?” He squinted at my humble roots.

“A cab driver,” I corrected.

“I'm sure he's very proud of your accomplishments, and well he should be.” Ellison lifted his Black and Tan, toasting to my sturdy boot-straps.

I deserved this for giving my number to a stranger I met standing in line at Starbuck's. A stranger decked out in a dark chocolate leather jacket, cream turtleneck and jeans showcasing his muscular thighs. He towered over everyone else in line, male and female. I saw him from behind first and sent up a silent prayer that such a glorious physique would not be wasted on someone who made Mike Tyson look cute.

“A skim vanilla latte, ventí, please,” he'd ordered. Sort of a wuss drink, but that voice! One part Baptist preacher, two parts sloe gin. He turned around and my prayers were answered. He was beautiful. Perfect white teeth set off against the blackest skin I'd seen this side of the Atlantic. No doubt he'd been called “blue-black” at least once in his life in an attempt to disparage, but truly he resembled a Senegalese prince. He sported a fresh gentleman's fade and bore no visible piercings. His broad back, the bag full of books and papers, the scholarly but trendy eyeglasses—my summation: bookish, but likely to fuck like a pro.

Ellison was in town for a few weeks, to co-present a series of talks at the University with my esteemed colleague and blow-hard extraordinaire, Professor Eugene Simmons III, on the subject, “Millenial Mediocrity: Crisis in African-American National Leadership.” Eugene had been Ellison's undergrad advisor and mentor at Yale, where Ellison had double-majored in history and sociology. They were also collaborating on an anthology of post-Martin Luther King, pre-Rodney King black protest literature. Ellison considered work on the anthology a vacation of sorts from his pursuits as a Fellow at a prestigious D.C. think-tank called The Washington-DuBois Center for Economic Justice, Historical Accuracy, and Progressive Black Thought. Or something similarly unwieldy.

“So,” Ellison said, “tell me about your dissertation.”

Before I could say “early twentieth-century black women writers,” Ellison had closed his eyes. With his index fingers templed under his gorgeous goateed chin, he appeared to meditate as I spoke of gender roles and class-consciousness.

“ spite of being largely ignored by first-wave feminists.” I cleared my throat to indicate conclusion, but Ellison remained silent. Just as I reached for my purse to indicate leaving, Ellison trained bedroom eyes on me and declared my work, “very, very necessary.”

To fill the silence which followed, I griped about departmental politics but praised the handful of critical thinkers among the freshmen in my intro to Af-Am lit class. Ellison responded briefly, dismissing the myth of meritocracy and asking for mercy on behalf of today's well-meaning youth. Otherwise he kept to his script: the furrowed brow, the slow nod, the pregnant pauses between my turn and his in our little tête à tête, all well-rehearsed but badly executed affectations. I found his deep penetrating stare laughably transparent in its attempt to reassure me I had his undivided attention, that my pithy observations as well as my more earnest ones were most compelling. What little he did offer in the way of conversation amounted to what my grandmother would call a whole lot of nothin'.

Somewhere between my second and third Coronas, I decided this beautiful creature, this smooth son of the South was an idiot. A highly-educated idiot. It was depressing.

But don't throw in the towel yet, I cautioned myself. Other parts of Ellison's anatomy might well compensate for his brain's deficiencies, and I was game for that concession. I refused to use the word “settle.” Certainly no small measure of dignity distinguished me from those women whom my girlfriends and I routinely raked over the coals. The kind of women who traded their principles for spare man-parts—a loose assemblage of handsome faces, pairs of smooth hands and wandering eyes, but no spines (Cowardly Lions) or hearts (Tin Men) to speak of. The kind of women who, consequently, dated a lot more than I did.

Ellison was indeed a Scarecrow, but the layer of dust covering the condoms in my night-stand drawer prompted me to search for common ground. I vented about recent revelations that Paul Laurence Dunbar—the late 19th century Negro poet laureate after whom countless urban high schools are named—flew into rages, beat his lesser-known poet wife, and likely raped her during their engagement.


“What do you mean, ‘but’?“ I asked. "There is no 'but'."

“Hear me out, my sister. Just for one moment, recall the conditions to which black men were subjected in that era. Consider the depravity...the perversity.” Ellison's drawl transformed the word into "perversi-teh", and I felt at once superior and turned on.

At Applebee's, once I located a menu item that did not come fried or covered with mozzarella cheese, Ellison continued his dissertation on the coexistence and meaning of personal responsibility within a dual legacy of oppression and achievement-against-the-odds. As he explored conceptual gems like "the excessively pathological propensity to extrapolate from the isolated anomaly to the tragically persistent norm,” I studied the rise and fall of those full, kissable lips, longing for a mute button, something, anything to shut him up. He was ruining the fantasy. What good was a sexy, thirty-one-year-old PhD if his use of language betrayed the fact that he probably studied the dictionary for fun as a kid?

We managed to squeeze in dinner between lengthy rants on “what black people need to do” (Ellison), followed by terse musings on the similarities between Ivory Tower pontificators and armchair quarterbacks (me). Then, right before our Death by Chocolate arrived, Ellison started blinking rapidly. What the hell was this? A nervous tic? Was he sleepy, bored? Or had the medication finally kicked in?

“Can I tell you something,” Ellison asked, “just between us?” He tossed his napkin on the table.


“Eugene was totally wrong about you. Personally, I find your outspokenness rather refreshing. Now, don't get me wrong: I respect Eugene greatly, in matters of philosophy and”—blink, blink—“and politics. But in affairs de coeur,”—Ellison leaned over the table toward me—“we are of entirely different schools of thought.”

“Eugene is of the ‘women should be seen and not heard’ school of thought.”

Ellison laughed. “True. My man can be quite traditional in his ways.”

“And you?”

Ellison stared at the ceiling, as if his answer were written up there (at least the blinking had stopped). “I like an independent woman, a free thinker,” he decided, nodding. “A woman with class and the right credentials. And she's got to look like a woman.”

I knew I would regret it, but asked anyway: “And what, in your opinion, should a woman look like?”

“Like you.” Ellison tilted his head and stroked his chin. “Pretty. Feminine.” Now here was the guy I met in Starbuck's that day.

Then he vanished. “Now, I understand the politics of natural hair and all that.” Ellison waved his hand dismissively. “Harkening back to the motherland has its place in the diaspora of black cultural expression—a somewhat remedial place, but a place nonetheless. But am I supposed to assume the dread-locked sister is more progressive, more enlightened than the sister with nice, straight hair?”

Nice, straight hair? What next? Would he whip out a brown paper bag and hold it next to my skin?

Ellison continued. “I contend that what's inside one's head”—he was about to refute his own point, but far be it for me to stop him—“is far more important than what's on top.

“And one last thing.” Ellison grinned, quite pleased with himself. “I'm not one of those jungle fever brothers.”

White women everywhere heaved a sigh of relief.

“Ellison,” I said, “I have no doubt you will get exactly the woman you deserve.”

Ellison reached over suddenly and enfolded my hand between his warm palms. “Maybe I already have.” He lifted my fingers to his lips and gave them a lingering kiss. I heard myself moan.

I wanted so badly to hate Ellison, to reject the rest of him along with his bone-headed ideas. But nothing he said made him look any less edible. Besides, bedding Eugene's protégée and then tossing him aside like a half-read Jet magazine held a certain appeal.

Our waiter strolled by, asked if we wanted coffee (we didn't), and left the check in the center of the table. “Maybe” Ellison said, reaching for the check, “I've found her, and she's everything I imagined she would be.”

I slid the check across to my side of the table. “No one gets everything they want,” I said.

“Only if they stop looking before they find it.” Ellison freed the check from beneath my fingertips and placed his credit card on top of it. “Patience,” he said, “is rewarded.”

“And what advice do you have for the chronically impatient?” I asked, smiling my first sincere smile since “hello.”

As Ellison quoted everybody from Gandhi to Tolstoy to Kierkegaard on the subject of patience, I took inventory: no feelings to keep in check, no regrets, my expectations could fall no lower. I had nothing to lose. Or as Ellison would say, why not shut off the subterranean regions of my brain and just let the senses run amok?

At my car, Ellison began wrapping up his monologue on patience: “Life is, therefore, the sum of our approximations as we wait, merely the accumulation of lessons”—he paused to let that pearl of wisdom sink in—“lessons we ignore at our peril. Lessons that—“

I placed my finger over his lips. “Look,” I said, “I don't normally do this...”

And I took Ellison home with me, with subsequent festivities resulting in declarations of love (him), marveling at the human body's ability to contort (me), and serious rug burn (both of us).

Early the next morning, we lay spoon-fashion on the living room floor covered by a thin blanket, a single throw pillow beneath our heads. Other than light snoring in my ear, Ellison was blessedly quiet. I eyed the trail of our discarded clothes. Ellison's leather jacket and khakis with his briefs still inside rested against the front door of my apartment. Socks, a sweater, a watch, Cole Haan loafers and ankle-strap Ferragamos lead the way into the living room, followed by my underwear and Ellison's shirt. Along with my bra, the Anna Sui lay crumpled beside me. I fingered the lace and a smile crept across my face, more nostalgic than victorious.

Soon Ellison stirred, whispering, “Listen, perhaps this is all a bit premature, but we could be so good together. Come visit me in D.C.”

I begged off. He persisted. ‘Then promise me you'll at least come to the lectures next week. Eugene and I really hope...” and thus began another unintelligible appraisal of the state of Black America. The last thing I heard was “...leaders who are truly morally bankrupt and inefficacious” before I pulled the blanket over our heads, blocking out the sun peaking between the blinds. I rolled over and straddled Ellison, determined to exhaust what remained of the promise from last week at Starbuck's.

Afterwards, Ellison insisted on making coffee, and staying to drink it. As he puttered around in my kitchen, I showered and sorted through the gibberish he'd spouted the night before in the parking lot, something about patience as the art of hoping. Hope. Before Ellison, when was the last time I'd done that? Probably the last time I'd been disappointed. The two seemed to go hand in hand, like Eugene and polyester.

Not something I said every day, but Eugene had been right. Ellison's credentials did speak for themselves. His scholarship announced him as a man of many, many words; his body announced him as a very capable lover. He'd delivered on those promises, in spades. What more had I hoped for? Good sex and good conversation? For Ellison to be socially aware and politically astute, but down-to-earth? Sophisticated, but with a sense of humor? In short, everything I'd never met in a man. All that because he carried lots of books? Because he was handsome, well-dressed, and his voice evoked tousled sheets on breezeless summer nights?

Perhaps I wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer either.

Over coffee, I tried to assure Ellison he was not in love with me, as he tried to plan out the rest of the weekend together. I pled fatigue, papers to grade, a sick grandmother. He offered a massage, promises to entertain himself while I worked, and his mother's chicken soup recipe. I negotiated for a quick shoulder rub and Ellison's pre-lunch departure.

I settled onto the couch to work, a stack of mostly uninspired essays on my lap. Ellison watered my two dying butterfly palms and then went to work alphabetizing my scattered CD collection. At one point he wondered aloud if 10,000 Maniacs “belonged with the t's or before the a's the way numbered groups are often catalogued,” but other than that, he didn't say a word.

In that moment, with Ellison on mute, I could imagine D.C. in April, strolling among the cherry blossoms on the Mall while Ellison provided a year-by-year socio-political review of the four decades since Dr. King shared his hopes for the nation there. There were worse ways to wait, worse ways to spend a weekend, if not a lifetime.

But the moment passed, and finally—finally—at noon, Ellison left.

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