The first reading was for a fundraiser for Breast Cancer. My friend from high school emailed a while back asking if I’d participate. I immediately said yes before I thought—exactly what am I supposed to say to a room full of women about breast cancer?? What kind of audience is this?? But my heart kept insisting: Read the poem There Is Sun. Then, as time got closer: Read it and tell it to the audience as if to your mother…
Ok. “There are so many things I’ve never gotten to share with her.” There Is Sun is a poem of love and hope and its nearly songlike. I’d read after the praise dancers and before the fashion show, she said. Be high energy and positive, she said.
The venue was near the airport and I saw on line how a bus passed it, but when I got on that bus a different story emerged. The bus by-passes the area I needed by a half mile, then kept going. The bus driver had no idea what the street was or if a bus went there and apologized as he dropped me off at the quiet airport. I was stuck and needed a cab. I had less than a half hour.
A woman approached me at the taxi stand. She said it would be 20 dollars. I’d been paid 50 already. I reached into my pocket, but she said: After your ride, sir.
I got in shotgun. A woman was already in the backseat of the van waiting.
I was told we were going first to Alameda to drop her off. The driver took off slow. I relaxed, not trying to push into anxiety. Everything will turn out as it should, I thought.
The woman whispered directions to the driver. The driver turned onto a cul-de-sac where a huge spruce tree was covered with white lights. We pull up outside a boxy mansion, a necklace of lights smiling in the window. A woman strolled out down the path as the driver pulled a suitcase from out of the van. How much do I owe, she said after greeting the girl.
The driver plugged my address into his phone and we quietly drove back to the airport. No radio. No conversation until he pointed to a dark building I didn’t clearly see. A great Indian restaurant there, he said. I didn’t want to be an ass. I’ll need to talk to people later tonight, right? I said: I was in Mumbai last Christmas. He grunted. We turned down one street then another as his phone counted down the number of feet. We pulled up in the crowded driveway and I got out.
The banquet hall turned out to be a mason meeting temple. I stood in the lobby and saw group photographs of men and women in sashes and mason symbols hanging on the wall.
And not just any mason. But the order my mother was a member of.
I remained shyly in the lobby doorway. To my left, a large banquet hall where the breast cancer fundraiser was beginning. The huge round tables were decorated in white and pink. As I arrived, the crowded room all stood to get in line for hors’doerves of meatballs and deviled eggs and fruit slices. To my right, a doorway opened to a long hallway and a smaller meeting room and the bathrooms. Before me, a 1970’s wood paneled stairwell ascended upstairs, decorated with class-style group photographs and plaques. I wanted to follow the stairwell but didn’t. No one would’ve stopped me until they found out I was just being nosy. So I remained in the lobby, not feeling comfortable enough to go inside, not feeling comfortable enough to wander around upstairs and not sure what I was doing, period. With me at the door was a older man in a folding chair, and two women dressed in matching white who were to perform just before me. We all introduced ourselves. The women were waiting to be called next.
About then, I begin wondering where my friend was and what she looks like now. Then, for the first time in years, I lay eyes on her, recognizing her immediately. She reminded me of a spring bird with long black eyelashes. She seemed the perfect organizer, supervisor. Confident, cool, precise and all knowing. Not rushed. I entered slowly like a gunfighter, my hands in the pockets of my long black overcoat. She made an announcement on mic, then took a lap around the room before approaching me, sans hello.
Are you ready to go? She said. The program lay across her forearm like a clipboard.
Uh, right now? I shrugged. Yeah.
Well, in a minute, she said. You’re after the dancers, they’ll be up in one second. She spun off.
I didn’t know what to do with myself. I talked with the dude sitting at the door about his grandchildren in Atlanta. I went over to a table of women and asked for a program, but there was none. After a couple of minutes, my friend marched over and handed me one. Then said: Can you go a little longer, the fashion people are still getting ready.
I told her I was going to read one poem, tell a story and do the Poem. She gave a non-verbal okay with that and walked off.
The praise dancers performed to a pre-recorded gospel song. I saw little of it being all the way in back, except how the ladies raised their gloved hands to push an imaginary sun across the sky with choreography. My friend walks past me with ‘you’re next’ and I slip out of my coat and get up.
I read a poem dedicated to my mom, then told the story about how my next poem was written, then do the last poem. I kept my eyes at the back of the room on the table of girls I’d gone to school with. I kept my eyes on the woman standing all the way at the back of the room against the wall. I scanned the tables of older women around me. There were some men in the room, but not many. One young man, maybe in his 20s or so, never looked up at me. I hoped something I said meant something. I finished my first poem to silence. I felt the silence and it halted me. The room was listening, though I was listening to the void left by them listening. There was no podium to hide behind and ground myself. This made me nervous and I told the room so. Me? Nervous? Rare. I began telling the story and felt suddenly inarticulate and foolish, as if my words were boxy Legos I had to awkwardly angle out of my mouth. I didn’t go blank, exactly. My words just felt sloppy and malleable.
I powered through the set, got off to applause, then sat in back of the room. No one really looked at me and certainly no one said anything. I thought: What did that have to do with breast cancer? Silly. I felt silly. And awkward.
A woman approached me flanked by two small children, each holding paper plates of fruit. The woman was taller, larger than me. Near her, I also felt like a kind of child. She sat in the chair next to me, her son on the other side. I got up and gave my seat to her daughter. I told her my ride was coming, and it was ok. No one was looking when I got up. I went out of the banquet hall into the lobby and called Harem, the shuttle driver. I went out to the cold parking lot. I didn’t want to see the fashion show, I didn’t want anything else. I stood outside, shrank into my coat and felt embarrassed.
The shuttle arrived in minutes. I got in, looked at my phone and realized I was inside the banquet hall for a shorter amount of time than the ride here from the airport through Alameda. The shuttle was still quiet, no other passengers and no radio playing. We passed the Indian restaurant the driver pointed out earlier and I asked him: What part of India are you from? He said he was from Afghanistan. I shrunk into my seat further and didn’t say anything else except Thank You when I got out.
The second reading was this past Saturday. Not far from my house.
I got off the bus, walked a couple of dark blocks through a double wall of boys standing quietly on the street corner. I found the address, double checked it on my phone and saw a small sign on the hand-rail pointing to the alley next to the house, which was illuminated with tall glass candles.
A white dude stood in shadow in the backyard. He greeted me, his voice nervous, watching me approach in the dark, alone, responding only to his questions. I could hear his heart thumping as he asked; You hear for the reading? Then: You’re the first to arrive. The reading was in the basement garage of a large Victorian. The basement huge, nicely lit with white rope lights. There was the presence of a piano and a white sheet up for a film to be shown later.
A small table with bottles of wine, cookies and crackers laid out like a shuffled deck of cards. I was cornered in conversation for a long while by a filmmaker from New Zealand. This benefited me because:
1) He stayed with our conversation as the room behind him filled up. There was no opportunity to mingle or feel awkward around anyone else.
2) He kept me from finding a seat and sitting quietly, pretending to scroll through my Facebook feed
3) He helped the hour pass while waiting for others to arrive and the show to start.
He apologized for holding me hostage– me not peeling out of my coat and backpack until it was time to read. I was surprised I did know about four or five people who arrived. I find myself often wishing I was a different kind of person, more gregarious, more likeable, more charming. One woman who arrived was in my writers group from years ago. She asked: What happened to your manuscript. And I was flooded with excuses and shame. It stalled, I told her truthfully. But some truth a West Indian woman will look askance at, and for good reason.
Its true, as shit piled on a corner is true. But its still shit.
There’s not much detail to share. But the event was nice, intimate. It opened with some great music, one of the performers playing piano, a woman sang a spiritual, the pianist read poems. I read, followed by another woman who performed from memory. The event ended with the filmmakers film. I’d been told the film was experimental and abstract. We all settled down quietly for the next seven minutes. The room darkened, the screen then lit with blue and we waited for the film to start.
But it started already. It was a shot of the sky, wispy clouds. A single shot, quiet. No ambient noise, and for several minutes we were unsure anything was playing at all. The filmmaker said: I submit this to you as a kind of meditation. But did we want that? We paitiently waited through the seven minutes and suddenly, as if a plug was pulled, the screen went black. The quiet room stayed quiet. And with no one speaking, we all gradually got up and began to leave.
Well, I was the first to leave…