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Chapter Two

The day I met Sage, two years ago, I was returning from Madison, where during spring break I had been visiting a friend, another English major at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I sat in the seat of the Greyhound bus, watching accordion folds of landscape squeeze past the window, listening to the hummed speed of the bus as the scenery rose and fell in chromatic accompaniment. There was a young woman sitting in a seat across the aisle and I made a comment out loud because I had been thinking about the beard my friend had grown that resembled a bear cub clinging to his chin and I had taken that thought as far as it could go and now I was bored.

“Shit,” I commented vacantly.

My neighbor across the aisle wore the slinky sundress of her blonde breezy youth with a ruined vandalized grace, like a stained glass window that has been shattered. I had thought it probable that the cell phone she had been speaking into was sutured to her lips until she had broken off what seemed to be an unreciprocated endless monologue in a language I could not easily identify and tossed the toylike device, a cynical representation of a child’s infatuation with rectangularity, into the purse pinned between the ankles of her combat-booted feet. It was Sage, but I didn’t know that yet. My ears were still stuffed with fate-resistant material, muting the sound of fate’s tolling bell.

She seemed vulnerable and luminous in her exhausted sensuality, like Marilyn Monroe groping with one long leg to find the first step of a barbiturate ladder, Marilyn, inimitably descending.

“My sentiments exactly. What’d you say your name was?” Rising, crossing the aisle with hips easily appropriating much of the bus’s drowsy sway, she dropped down in the seat beside me.

A piquant swizzle stick of Chanel #5 stirred the air in lazy circles when she sat.

A marquee of possibilities lit up various names, all the names of people I had not been and never would be, blinking, beckoning, an array. This moment was presenting itself to me as a rare ribboned gift and I looked as deeply as I dared, without arousing her suspicion, into a parcel of potentiality, the box that had never appeared under my life’s barren Christmas tree. I might never again have the chance to be what I was not, to swathe myself in stolen silks of freedom.

So I ran through a list of names I could offer to her. Maybe an African-American man of 29 with wealthy parents could, justifiably, bear the name Bret, Halloway, Tyler, Cameron or River. Parents who had manipulated deftly the intricate paddles of corporations from within game-like palatial offices, pinballing themselves to the bell-and-whistle apex of the American dream, winning the prize that all citizens were told could be won with sufficient effort without regard to race, creed or color.

A Cameron with parents like these would receive, for his 18th birthday, a BMW, a gold MasterCard, shares of stock in the wireless sector as the cornerstone on which his newly established investment portfolio would rest. Cameron would accept these gifts as his due, standing on the Olympian peak of a privileged life and looking down to survey the bounty, happily booting up a birthday laptop fertile with sprawling acres of RAM, exuberantly inserting into his eyes, humid with greed, the soft dollops of the latest special-effect nonprescription contact lenses displaying the biohazard symbol.

But I wondered how convincingly an African-American man wearing stale blue jeans with dirt in the frowns of its folds and holes that had not been artfully engineered at time of manufacture, with anemones of thick dreadlocks swimming about his gaunt underwater face, could call himself Cameron, Tyler, or Holloway? Whose mother wandered through featureless Alzheimer landscapes irrigated by tearful half-memories of her lost youth, whose alcoholic father had failed at a career as a professional boxer, his fists effete when fired toward a single opponent because his strongest blows were wasted on the world’s brick, my father defaulting to a career as an clerk in a data processing firm, both parents now living scribbled lives, doodled into America’s trailer-park margins. Did I hold myself with the privileged poise of a Cameron, a Halloway?

And so I retreated into inspiration and turned to face her, a merciful muse depositing on my lips, like an unexpected kiss, the name “Taye.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“My name’s Taye.”

“That’s unusual,” she said. “I like it. I like the unusual. The unusual usually takes a longer time before it becomes what it really is, a bit of a fucked up disappointment.”

“That’s an unusual perspective.”

“I like to think,” she said, licking her index finger, erasing a smudge on her knee, “that I’m an unusual person. Which isn’t all that easy to be, these days.”

This close her dyed hair was startling, a porcelain sunrise shouting sleeping eyes awake, short like a sputtering white-sparked fuse. Her narrow face with its complexion of honey swirled in warm milk arrowed down to her chin, and from there the plane of her skin seemed to launch smoothly up, nudging cheekbones into high-fashion prominence. The slightly wide-set eyes ruled the domain of her features with dark queenly indifference, as though they couldn’t be bothered to fully register and absorb the kingdom of phenomenal world, where objects of perception clamored like peasants for her attention. She was accustomed to being offered, and rejecting as insufficient, the ulterior blandishments of men.

“What does your name mean?” she asked.

“Taye, I think, means ‘He has been seen.’ Ethiopian.”

“Did you change it, or was it given to you by your parents?” She was comfortably settling into a porch swing of casual inquiry, swaying through the prospect of idle time, the boredom that travel imposes on those for whom dialogue in books is a diversion inferior to dialogue with strangers.

And I, as easily as she sought to consume time in the leisurely knitting of superficial affinities, taxied further down the runway of my own biographical fictions, for one lie inevitably launches and must soar above another. “My parents.” I should have stopped there but I kept going. “Maybe wishful thinking on their part.”

I expected her to balk at the sort of remark that is a keyhole, inviting outsiders to peer into private melancholy rooms. I expected that the narrowly allusive quality of the statement would establish the absence of prescience, the lack of a very specific sort of social or historical consciousness I would expect to encounter only from another African-American. But a surprise, like aliens looking for a cornfield in Iowa but instead landing in the middle of Times Square, was waiting for me.

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