IT WAS ALMOST A SHAME TO EDIT THEM INTO BLACK & WHITE.
This is my 100th post. It’s a post I started at midnight about two weeks ago but fell asleep in the middle of writing. When I woke up the next morning, I was 27 years old, had a 9 a.m. phone interview with a mathematician from Maine, a cover story due about a ballet dancer from Houston and plans to go to the beach (see left) with my best friend Ro and sister Heelya.
Those kind of cones.
I loved them even without ice cream scooped on top. They were a nice cardboard-flavored snack.
I reckon biting into stale ice cream cones is a fine way to hurry along loose teeth and considering I was fairly cash-strapped at five, gnawing on these things until teeth fell out was probably a small price to pay for dividends from the Bank of Tooth Fairy.
“MOM!” I yelled. “COME HERE!”
Pointing to the crumbs, oblivious to where they’d come from, I explained that the tooth fairy must have left dust in my room.
My mother, amused and well aware of my sloppy eating habits, let me believe the crumbs were fairy dust and entertained my request for a sandwich baggie so I could bring them to kindergarten class that morning for show and tell.
A few days later, when my teacher saw my mother, she said, “Nice touch with the tooth fairy stuff. Crumbling up food and calling it fairy dust. Cute.”
My mother replied, “It wasn’t me, Kathy. She walked into her bedroom that day with an ice cream cone and dropped crumbs all over her bed. When she woke up in the morning she was convinced they’d come from the tooth fairy.”
Thank you Mom, for letting me believe in things like this. I love you.
PS. That’s me up there in the pumpkin patch, showing off my baby teeth.
So he decided to call her a few days later to see if she wanted to meet for dinner. And without officially reconciling, they began dating again.
As he told me this story, blushing and eating spring rolls, insisting he wasn’t going to invest himself in the situation because he wasn’t sure how the gal felt about him, I couldn’t help but pound the table again.
This one’s for my Nana.
We were sitting around the kitchen table Christmas night – my mom, my sisters, Nana and me. And for whatever reason PK got on the subject of homesickness.
She remarked that she has good days and bad days. That some days, no matter how many romantic comedies she watches, or how much chocolate ice cream she eats, she cannot shed the veil of homesickness that shrouds her every move.
Because I’m hard-headed and fail miserably at making my sisters feel better when given the opportunity to do so, I didn’t tell PK that when I was 22 and living alone in Sarasota, I Googled the distance between North Collins, N.Y. and the Gulf Coast of Florida. And that every time I cried out of homesickness, I’d remind myself that 1,269 miles is pretty good chunk of space.
Putting my pangs of sadness to good use, I wrote a math equation.
For every one mile I was separated from my family I would devote one day to giving Sarasota a fair shake. Rounding up slightly, I divided 1,269 miles by 365 days, giving myself 3.5 years to make a go at in Sarasota. If after 3.5 years I was still sad as hell, missing home, or craving a new adventure, I’d throw in my beach towel, pack up my things and leave.
But of course I didn’t tell my sister any of this as we were sitting around the kitchen table. Because the happy ending to this story is, after 3.5 years I met Joe.
Instead it was my Nana who piped up.
“I was terribly homesick when I was living in Arkansas,” she said.
Dumbfounded, we asked, “WHAT? Arkansas? WHEN?“
My Nana – who raised her family next door to her sisters’ houses, across the street from her brothers’ houses, and literally within footsteps of the house she grew up in – lived in Arkansas. Arkansas? I don’t think even my mother knew Nana lived in Arkansas.
Captivated, my sisters and I urged her to continue with the story, the likes of which goes something like this:
Nana’s father owned grape fields stretching the length of Brant-North Collins Road. Nana and her six brothers and sisters grew up in these fields. And if they were doing poorly in school their father, my great-grandfather, would pull them out of class and stick them on the farm.
My Nana, the middle child, was whip smart, with a wicked sense of humor, and strong arms from playing softball and picking grapes. When Nana was 18 her father sent her to Sturkie, Ark. for the summer, where he owned a strawberry canning factory with his brother, Louie.
“Dottie,” he told his daughter. “I’m too tied up in local affairs to travel south. I need someone to keep an eye on the Arkansas factory.”
My great-grandfather had gotten wind of some shady dealings in Arkansas, and Nana, being whip smart, was as good an ambassador as any, so he sent her.
It was 1950, and Nana, together with a girl named Vicky and a guy named Vinnie, crossed the Arkansas/Missouri line in a dusty Cadillac with the windows rolled down.
Nana, wearing a sundress and feeling ridiculously independent, remembers pulling over for breakfast at a diner with fly strip-yellow lighting. She remembers Vinnie, who was older, perverted, and a friend of her fathers, muttering under his breath that if the waitresses’ tits weren’t rubber, he’d eat them. She remembers she and Vicky slapping Vinnie’s hands away when he went to pinch the waitress’ ass, and she remembers thinking: my father sent me to Arkansas with this creep?
She was dating my Papa at the time, so of course she missed him and wrote him letters every day. When she heard that he was dating someone else – another girl named Dorothy – she brushed it off, because, as she says, “the other Dorothy wasn’t a threat.”
One time, Vinnie handed Nana a letter. He asked her to drive it to a post office in St. Louis, Mo. Any post office, so long as it was in St. Louis. Nana says she figured the guy was fooling around with some lass in Arkansas, but that his wife back home thought he was in St. Louis. Whatever the situation, she didn’t care. It was nice to take a break from strawberry canning and get behind the wheel of a Cadillac.
When Nana got back to Brant, she scolded Papa for “philandering around,” (with another Dorothy no less.) Two years later she and Papa got married. They had five children, including my mother, the second-to-the-youngest, who was born in 1960.
Nana says she found the other Dorothy’s sweater pin in Papa’s possession, and that Papa tried to pawn it off as a gift for her. But she knew better.
She held onto it for few years. It was after all, a name pin, and Dorothy was her name too. Whenever she’d see The Other Dorothy around town, she’d think, Ha! I’ve got your pin at home. But eventually she lost it, threw it out, or whatever happens to things like that.
As she talked about Arkansas (“It was awful. I couldn’t wait to come home.”) her eyes sparkled. Sure she was homesick, but I could tell, the memory of her independence thrilled her.
For the helluvit, I Googled the distance between Sturkie, Ark. and Brant, N.Y. It’s 946 miles. Or by my coping calculations, two and half years.
PS. Happy Birthday Nana, four days late.
A month later she flew back to Dakar. By Thanksgiving she and Mbaye were back in the states – Mbaye for the first time in his life.
Rather than explain any of this I’ll dig up an old e-mail written by Ricci in bullet-point fashion, as I’m sure she was writing it while filing a story about Senegalese scrabble champions, while photographing a sword-juggling monkey, while carrying on a conversation (in French) with a soothsayer, while daydreaming of malted milkshakes.
Filed the story and now ready to file my story with you.
- have bought plane ticket back to states for sept. 17. this freaks me out, because i do not want to truly leave to dakar.
- also have plane ticket back to dakar, where i will stay from oct. 20 — nov. 22 (i have some work to do here at that time)
- my boy and i are going to the us embassy next wed. to apply for a visitor visa so he can come here and meet the fam. we’re SO nervous. i’m scared of the us government. if they say no, i guess we’ll just have to get married so he can come visit. (do NOT get me started on the ridiculousness of this process. i’m actually documenting it (via words).. it’s SO convoluted and feels like some ridiculous Willy Wonka-type, bureaucratic scavenger hunt. Just so he can come VISIT!!) our country blows sometimes.
I interviewed the couple earlier this month on a sun-drenched stretch of interstate on route to Sarasota. Since Mbaye speaks only French and Wolof – his native Senegalese language – and since the only French sentence I know goes something like, “Ohh la la j’ai une rendevous avec David dans 20 minutes …” I asked Ricci to translate.
Note: Unless Mbaye gets signed to an American soccer team he will have to return to Dakar in May.
“He says he’s a little nervous because he doesn’t know who he’s going to meet and if they’ll be as nice as they were last time.”
Ricci, are you nervous?
“I’m nervous about him flying by himself, about him getting lost at the airport or something.”
You don’t feel the fate of your relationship hangs on whether or not he makes the team?
“I just have to think we’re going to work it out no matter what happens. If he makes the team, great. If he doesn’t we’ll figure something out.”
Have your communication skills improved, dating someone who doesn’t speak English?
“If we have a fight — and it’s usually me who gets mad because he rarely gets mad — I want to make sure I say how I feel correctly in French. And after I go through it in my head I realize if I can’t explain it simply in terms he can understand, then it’s probably not worth getting mad over because it’s convoluted and more my problem than his.”
You’ve learned to not overreact.
“There’s a level of communication that has to be there because sometimes when you speak the same language, you just assume what somebody means when they say something. For us, when I say something, it’s like this is what I’m saying, but this is what I mean.”
What do you guys fight about?
(Translates into French for Mbaye)
Ricci: “I don’t think we’ve had a big blow-out fight.”
(Mbaye interrupts in French.)
Ricci: “Oh yeah. We had one in Senegal.”
Ricci: “It was over money.”
Ricci: “And we got in one once when we got in a car and I didn’t know where I was going. I was freaking out and he was l like, ‘Don’t freak out you’re going to get in an accident.’”
Is that his role? To calm you down?
(Ricci laughs. Translates into French.)
Mbaye (in broken English): “She is never calm.”
Ricci: “One time I was calm and peaceful and he was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I said, ‘Nothing, why?’ And he said, ‘When the volcano is quiet one must question why.’”
Did Mbaye have anxiety about coming to the United States?
“He worried that my friends were going to think he was different or maybe not a good guy. He wasn’t afraid that they would be mean. He just figured they’d act weird around him.”
Did we act weird?
“He says no. He says all my friends were so nice and took such good care of him.”
Does he have a favorite American food?
“He says he has a stomach he doesn’t understand. It accepts everything that goes into it.”
How has your relationship changed in the United States?
“In Africa he knew how to get around and he knew the language and I was the person who didn’t know what was going on. If we’d have to get something done, he would know exactly what to do and I wouldn’t even ask questions. In Africa we never spent the night together. There were days we wouldn’t see each other. And here, I don’t think we’ve been apart more than an hour — once when he flew to Charleston for a tryout. I was worried at first that we would get sick of each other, but we’ve gotten along better the more we’re together.”
(Translates into French for Mbaye.)
“He says the relationship is better here. When we were apart I’d call him 20 times a day.”
Because your insecurities are magnified when you’re apart. That’s pretty normal, I think.
“Yeah. We fought more in Senegal than we do here.”
Were you worried Mbaye wouldn’t adapt to American shizzle?
“I was worried he might get homesick, but I wasn’t worried about him adapting at all.”
(In lousy French) Le Ikea pullout couch etait-il comfortable la nuit?
Mbaye: “Tres comfortable.”
Ricci, how would you describe your relationship with Mbaye?
“It’s easy. It’s almost like … I don’t know … I’m happy. Girls always say, ‘I want to find The One. I want to find The One,’ and when you think about it, it’s like, oh this is it. Anticlimactic is the wrong word because it has a negative connotation, but I don’t know … it just feels good.”
Finding The One was less dramatic than you thought.
“Yes, I guess.”
The people in your life better be comfortable around cameras. Does Mbaye ever tire of being your model?
“He loves it. He always jokes he’s the poorest model in the world.”
Is it frustrating for him to not be able to communicate with your friends?
“He says he’s not frustrated. He’s sorry he can’t speak English but the fact that people try to talk to him is the most important thing. He says there’s a lot a smile and hand gestures can communicate.”
In what ways is this relationship different than others you’ve had?
“Well, we don’t speak English and we’re biracial. Those are the obvious ways it’s different. He makes me a better person. I feel like I have to be a better person because he raises the bar for me. Sometimes I’m like, but what do I do for you?”
How has the biracial thing played out?
“I have a lot of friends who date Senegalese men, but it’s also like ‘he’s with her because she has money and connections. Or, ‘he’s using her to get further or whatever.’ Someone said to me once when we were applying for a visa – ‘how do you know he’s not just using you for the visa?”
That’s a rotten thing to say.
“First of all I said, ‘He wouldn’t do that because he’s a good guy and an honest person.’ Second of all, there’s a level of trust in every relationship. How do you know your girlfriend is not cheating on you? You have to trust people are who they say they are in any relationship.”
But generally you haven’t felt discriminated against?
“Most of my friends are super liberal and accepting. I’m sure there are some people who have problems with it but then it’s like, it’s not your relationship. I’d rather be with him and have these kinds of problems than be with somebody who doesn’t make me happy and have people look at us like we are – quote – normal.”
“I feel like most of our problems are the world’s problems, not our problems.”
And what does Mbaye think?
“He says people look at us strangely because we’re beautiful.”
PS. The picture above was taken during a turkey sammie picnic on St. Pete Beach. For a glorious list of sammie recipes click here.
It was a blip of a moment in an overly air-conditioned bedroom.
Joe was wearing a souvenir alien T-shirt from Area 51. I was wearing his heaviest red sweater. We both had our glasses on, which doesn’t happen often because Joe hates wearing his glasses. He says they make him dizzy.
Stubborn, fiercely independent, and at times straight-up flighty, I couldn’t promise him that. At least not in the beginning.
When he asked me about myself, I told him how my family had installed a corn-burning furnace in the basement of their Western New York home, and how when it burned, the whole house smelled like Orville Redenbacher’s.
The second time we met, I told him I was outta here, that I was moving to Oregon or Idaho or Montana. I told him I was writing a book about a girl who spends her days righting ordinary wrongs, who makes a living on a ranch and sleeps in a hayloft that smells like manure and maple syrup.
“I have to live it if I want to write it,” I said nonchalantly.
We were at a birthday party in Sarasota, at a bar with a punching bag. I was dressed as Courtney Love – pink baby doll dress, combat boots, mascara smudges, the whole getup. The theme was “high school flashback,” and I was never so happy to resurrect the 90s. A 1993 graduate of an all-boys Jesuit high school in Tampa, Joe was wearing a too-tiny suit and tie that made him look like Ben Stiller.
I told him I was reading a memoir by Mary Karr that was written like none other I’d read before. He asked me if my novel would be a memoir and I replied that it was pompous to write a memoir at the age of 25.
“Not that what I’m writing isn’t mostly true anway,” I conceded.
I was chugging too many Miller Lites, filming the party for my roommate Zac, confessing on camera in a slurred lisp that I was fed-up with doing his dishes.
Joe drove me home that night in his blue Honda Accord. Unlike most of the cars that belonged to people I knew, his was immaculate.
We went back to our friends, Max and Meredith’s house – a beach cottage – where we drank some more, played games and ate leftover pasta from the fridge. Joe heated up a bowl of bow tie macaroni with red sauce, and in between rounds of (was it Taboo?) he offered me several spoonfuls, which I found comforting.
As we sat there on the steps leading into Max and Meredith’s 10-by-10 living room, our knees touched. Joe was still dressed in his Jesuit uniform. I was still dressed as Courtney Love. Spooning noodles out of his bowl and into my mouth, it was as if I had slopped off his plate for years. When he walked outside to have a cigarette, I stumbled out of the living room with my roommate and left. It was late and I was tired.
The third time I saw him we were on an actual date. At the urging of my roommate, who had observed our Lady and the Tramp pasta moment, I went ahead and asked Max for Joe’s phone number.
“Tell me he’s not one of those too-nice, sappy guys,” I said.
“No, but he’s not an asshole either if that’s what you’re asking,” Max replied.
For four days his number sat untouched. Written on a Post-It note and stuck to a cardboard-box-night stand by my bed, I agonized over making the first move. I was nervous. Feeling sheepish. Feeling like perhaps I drank too much that night, or that I had left coldly without saying goodbye.
When I finally called, he answered on the second ring. He knew right away who I was and why I was calling. He fired off date plans like a semi-automatic weapon, as I joked that simply willing your phone to dial on its own never works.
“Lucky for you, you picked up on the second ring,” I said. “I probably would have hung up on the third.”
This phone call was huge for me. I was still hellbent on moving to Oregon, or Idaho, or Montana. But if the way we shared pasta was any indication of things to come, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, all of it would scarcely measure up.
However, none of these moments were as compelling as the one I mentioned earlier that came two months later, a week before my Jack Kerouac-ian gallivant across the country.
We were lying on his bed – Joe in his souvenir alien T-shirt, me in his heaviest red sweater, and the pug curled up like a Roman snail beside us. He was questioning my blind love for the Dakotas. I was romanticizing The Badlands.
Reaching around my side, he kissed me somewhere near my armpit and said, “If your body were the United States, this would be South Dakota.”
Though not in agreement, I let him go on.
Next, he kissed my elbow. Called it Iowa. Then my wrist. Called it Missouri. My spine – Oregon. And on it went. Lazily, languidly, and with no regard for geographic accuracy, he mapped out my road trip with kisses.
When he finally reached my lips, our glasses clanked together like timpani drums. He didn’t say it, but I knew. In that overly air-conditioned bedroom, in that heavy red sweater, in our similarly prescribed eyeglasses, his lips were home.
PS. Joe proposed last week. I said yes.
Because when I say, “I want something salty” at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night he cuts up two potatoes and makes me french fries.