was 1971, when Americans were caught up in the
Civil Rights March, the Vietnam War, protest songs
and folk music at Woodstock, and psychedelic drugs.
was 25 years old, unemployed, living in Brooklyn,
NY with my parents, a quintessential alienated
youth recently discharged from a hospital where
I'd spent a year after a half-hearted suicide
attempt. Now in therapy, I'd relapsed into depression
after my boyfriend with the blonde slick-backed
hair had stopped calling and made me feel like
a cheap, used Woolworth comb with broken teeth.
therapist advised me to get a job to have some
sort of structure in my life. I answered an ad
in The New York Times for a position as secretary
at the Brooklyn Museum. My new supervisor, Margaret,
was a political activist who was living with a
Black man and did all she could to favor the Black
children in the art program. This was the first
time I'd ever encountered a Black community, because
wed all grown up in separate neighborhoods.
Even in the "melting pot," the early
seventies was a time of segregation.
I first heard the expression "Black is beautiful,"
my ideas of beauty had gotten shaken up and rearranged
like bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, because
I was brought up to believe that the fairer you
were, the more beautiful you were. But now, at
the Brooklyn Museum, I was discovering a new kind
my first day as secretary at the Junior Membership
Department at the Brooklyn Museum, I spent my
lunch hour walking in the Botanical Gardens. I
came to a cherry tree with its trunk divided into
three parts, the branches twisting outward. While
I looked through them, I saw a young Black man
standing immediately on the other side of the
tree. He was bending his body in a twisty fashion
and looking at me with a quizzical expression
on his face, as if he were studying me the way
I was studying the tree. He was almost the same
color as the trunk of the tree--a pinkish silvery
light brown--but less pink and more light brown.
He seemed to be frozen in a dance motion like
a reflection of twisting branches. I appreciated
his strange beauty, the way he was part of the
scene, and even the joke he seemed to be playing
loved the word "strange." It tasted
like a mango or an avocado in my mouth. Id
never heard the protest song, Strange Fruit, sung
by Billy Holiday, nor could I have guessed what
the words referred toa man hanging from
a tree after a lynching, because white racists
found him too strange to live.
you studying me or the tree?" I asked.
me?" he answered.
you a student at the Brooklyn Museum?"
didnt answer and just continued his meditation.
He was a mystery.
spent the rest of the day with his image rooted
in my mind--a man who resembled a tree. In the
landscape of my imagination, this man was an exotic
but plant-like being--an orchid that enticed me
with its voluptuous color, but was indistinguishable
from the earth and sky. I had discovered a living
Rousseau painting where earthy figures blended
with the scenery. I felt under the spell of the
moon in the spatter of sunlight...in an enchanted
circle of darkness within light.
next day, I saw him in the museum cafeteria and
said "Hi." He looked at me intently,
but didnt break the mystical connection
between us with a casual smile. Apart from the
grass and sky, he now looked like a regular person.
He was about six foot tall but not very muscular,
like a boy still developing into a man, dressed
in black chinos, a white tee-shirt, and black
sneakers that slapped the floor as he walked,
had a large head that may have looked larger because
of his explosive head of hair, and wore gold-rimmed
glasses that gave him the look of an intellectual.
He was much lighter than I remembered--hardly
Black at all. As I met his eyes, I felt myself
flush, as if he had lifted my skirt.
that day, he came up to my office in the tower
and breathlessly introduced himself.
Rodriguez. Im an art student here. Just
walked up seven flights to see you."
didnt you take the elevator?"
twisted his mouth, as if he had just tasted something
bitter, and waved his hand dismissively. Then
he suddenly smiled, turned his hand palm up and
offered it to me. I took it and we held hands
for a few seconds instead of really shaking.
was no longer the botanist, and he, the man behind
the tree. We had exchanged places. Though he didnt
seem to know what to say, his eyes explored my
blushing face, long brown hair, yellow cotton
blouse, and green corduroy skirt, as if I were
an exotic flower. His eyes told me that he wanted
to be close to me, to study me, to be inspired
saw you this morning," he said.
remember. I saw you, too."
you like it?" His eyes searched mine with
like the watercolors on the second floor and the
pottery on the first. I havent seen much
of the rest of the buildingexcept for the
African exhibit on the main floor," I confessed,
shifted his eyes away from me for a second. Was
it with embarrassment? If so, was he embarrassed
for himself or for me? I felt it was now my turn
you come here often?"
he asked, startled.
I thought you meant here--to your office."
do you come here, too?"
"Now I will," he said, deepening his
voice, his eyes dancing into mine.
had never experienced such instant devotion--or
any devotion at all, for that matter. Was I someone
in a movie that was playing in his mind? Did he
find me alluring simply because I was white? Swept
away by his attention, I was caught up in excited
confusion on the interplaying winds of romance
and revolution. If he was flirting with me, I
had never been flirted with so eloquently. I felt
a sweet awakening, letting my questions drop like
petals to the ground. It felt strange, special,
and scary to be the object of someone elses
fantasies--a strange new nectar I drank in, even
as he was drinking mine.
was what southern Blacks call "high yallah"a
Black person so light-skinned, he almost looked
white. He had hair that was not quite kinky enough
to be an Afro but stood out of his head with a
wild, uncombed look. His lips were thick and his
lower lip consistently drooped open, and one of
his eyebrows was perpetually raised in a questioning
manner. His cheeks were so smooth, I didnt
think he shaved, but he had the merest trace of
a mustache--just a few stray hairs--reminiscent
of the whiskers of a catfish. You might say he
was handsome in an offbeat sort of way. Was he
a mulatto--possibly from the Carribean? I always
liked to know who peoples ancestors were,
even if I had to learn they were slaves. I returned
his gaze as he stood before me in the office of
the Junior Membership Department.
is your background?" I asked him.
mother came from Cuba and my father was from Honduras,
but I grew up without my father."
you born in this country?"
old are you?"
all right. I like older women," he said with
an inviting smile.
had to answer the phone, as flustered as I felt,
and Armand discreetly left the office. Other young
people came and went, but for the rest of the
day, I was haunted by his dark eyes, full lips,
broad nose, and buttercream face.
had always been fascinated, while looking at photographs
of Malcolm X, to see how light-skinned he was.
It was the African in the features of both Armand
and this most radical Black man that made them
Black. Armand was American, but he looked like
a foreigner to me. I wanted to get to know him
and hoped that, in time, what I now found odd
about his looks would grow familiar. I trusted
that love would smooth away our facial differences,
as well as our cultural onesbecause, in
the urgent unfolding of our glances, words and
unspoken needs, I sensed he was the shining prince
who had finally come to rescue me from my loneliness.
it was time to go home, I turned off the lights
and locked the door to the office behind me, taking
his image with me. Suddenly, my vague daydreaming
yielded to reality. He was there waiting for me
in the hall. We slowly approached each other like
prize-fighters in a boxing ring or bug-eyed ostriches
about to begin a mating dance. I smiled in confusion,
unable to look away, not knowing which way to
move. Before I could turn to go down the steps
that led from the tower to the elevator, he gently
pushed me into a corner, and I not unwillingly
received his kiss. His tongue filled my mouth
before I knew if I wanted it.
we separated, we searched each others faces
for a sign of how much we liked each other, but
saw only the questions in each others eyes.
keys were still in my hand, so I said, "Come
back into the office."
want to show you something."
was after hours, but the office in the tower was
now more than just my place of work. I opened
the door to the office, and then--the door to
he said. "I had no idea this was here!"
theres a dome outside," I said, as
if he might not know, "it has to have an
inside to it."
I realize that. But I didnt think you could
forbidden sanctuary. An inner sanctum. We were
standing on the edge of a cliff, looking at the
concave, moon-colored vault of an indoor sky.
Space all around us and a foothold of refuge.
Our bodies insignificant, absorbed by the darkness,
our souls clamped in shells of heavy silence.
A musty smell of stone, dust, wood, and burning
lamps permeated the air.
catwalk looked shakier than ever, swaying with
the barely noticeable wind that came through the
open door. I led the way and Armand followed tentatively,
no doubt afraid of falling as I had been the first
time, but lifting his chest and trying to look
brave. Sweat poured out of my armpits and trickled
down my sides. I was still afraid--not only of
falling, but also of the darkand felt a
rush of excitement between my legs. Though we
could barely see each other and had to walk single
file, leaving space between us to balance the
catwalk, I felt as close to Armand now as when
we had kissed.
I yelled, so that Armand could hear the echo.
where are you leading me?"
dont know," I answered.
we laughed, trying not to rock too hard, and listened
to the oceanic echo of our laughter.
ha ha ho ho ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!"
danger and darkness of the secret place created
an intimacy between us that we could never have
known if we had merely gone out on a date together.
Already, I could taste the words "date"
and "boyfriend." I felt privileged to
have access to the inner mysteries of the museum.
and share them with this wild and poetic young
man. I could feel the word "privileged"
rolling on my tongue where his tongue had touched
a few moments before. And inside the dome of my
head, as if I had shouted it, without even realizing
I had been thinking it, I heard the echo:
was lying on a black leather couch, as usual,
looking up at the ceiling, playing with my hair,
dressed in one of my vintage-antique, thrift-shop
dresses, while Dr. Goldberg sat behind me, as
he always did, taking notes. I didnt know
if he was looking at me. I could hear him listening,
his soft, middle-aged body shifting its position
in his armchair. I pictured him lifting his eyes
from his notebook and staring into space, or tugging
at his short, kinky brown beard, in unconscious
imitation of Freud.
closed Venetian blinds, keeping our secrets in
the room, the muted buzz of traffic from the street,
the imposing mahogany desk beside the window,
its glass top reflecting the glare of a small
light bulb at the end of a desk lamp arm--were
all reminders that we were physically present.
But as we spoke into the air without looking at
each other, I thought of us as disembodied voices
in a vacuum.
met someone," I said after a silence.
you telling me you have a boyfriend?"
know this is not your first."
the first one whos Black."
do you feel about that?"
dont care. I mean I like him. A lot. Ive
always been interested in meeting foreign people,
but Armand seems more different than a foreigner."
was brought up to believe that Black people were
on the other side of a dividing line. Ive
never been afraid of crossing lines before. So
why should this be any different? I feel eager
to take the step with my conscious mind."
you feel your unconscious mind doesnt go
is a dirty thing."
telling you my associations."
Im going to do something dirty, what would
be better than to do it in the dark, with a person
who was of the dark? But in a part of me I cant
control, Im still afraid of the dark."
me about your fear of the dark."
goes back to childhood. When my sister and I were
little, we both used to beg our mother to leave
the little light on when we went to bed, because
we were afraid of the dark. You couldnt
see anything in the room, not even your own arms
and legs, so how would you know if you were still
there or if anything else was?"
couldnt see and felt a lack of control."
in the middle of the night, when I wasnt
sure if I was awake or asleep, I thought my parents
had become gorillas in the next room. It was scary
that there wasnt anyone left to turn to
and tell that I was afraid."
may have been frightened by your parents having
sex, and associated the dark with animal fantasies
about your parents. Anything else?"
grandmothers house where I grew up was next
door to a hospital, but my sister and I never
thought of the sick people inside. It was just
a building with a brick wall that was covered
with soot. In between my grandmothers house
and the hospital, there was a narrow alley and
a side entrance to the house that nobody used
except the man who went down into the cellar to
deliver the coal, who Cindy and I called the bogey
man. Whenever he came, we would run out of the
alley, screaming, The bogey man! The bogey
man! The alley was a blurry zone between scary
stories and reality. It was dark, the coal cellar
was dark, and we didnt like to touch the
hospital wall because it was contaminated by the
the man dark?"
was olive skinned, I think. But the bogey man
was more than just this man whose presence frightened
us. He was also an invisible ghost who was there
all the time, hanging about the alley, and who
might appear in it at any moment. He was someone
from the world of darkness who could slip over
into the daytime. It was the threat of his appearance
that was so terrifying to us. If he came, his
shape would fill all the space around us and would
instantly obliterate us if it touched us."
you were afraid of the bogey man. I think thats
very common among children. Did you associate
this bogey man with Black people?"
I dont think so. I had never seen any Black
people. Not till I got a little older and traveled
on the bus with my parents. Grandma Riva, my fathers
mother, lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn
and we had to pass through a Black neighborhood
to get to her house. When I looked out the bus
window, it was odd to see the people on the street
dressed just like white people, only they had
dark faces looking out from under their hats,
and dark hands and arms sticking out from their
sleeves. The only other people I knew who looked
like them were the lady on the Aunt Jemima pancake
box, the boy in my Little Black Sambo book, and
Amos and Andy on T.V., who the grownups found
so funny, though I couldnt tell why."
were a comedy team, werent they?
guess so. But I didnt think they were funny.
I think the grownups just liked to laugh at them."
Aunt Hannah and Uncle Yitzak, who were also on
my fathers side of the family and lived
in a faraway part of Brooklyn, sometimes visited
my Grandma Riva at the same time we did. Every
time they talked to my parents, the conversation
seemed to be about the same thing. First they
would talk about the news. After that, they would
make a face and say, The neighborhood is
changing. I was beginning to understand
that meant that Negroes were moving in, though
I couldnt understand why my relatives should
mind if they knew about Abraham Lincoln and the
freeing of the slaves, which we learned about
your family disapproved of Back people, but you
felt differently. You had a positive feeling about
There was an opera on television by Gian Carlo
Menotti called The Medium. It was the first opera
I ever saw. I was surprised that it was in English
and different from the kinds of screaming I sometimes
heard on the radio. There was a girl with long
golden hair who had a servant friend who was Black
and mute. I think the girl wasnt allowed
to go outside, so she invented all kinds of indoor
games to play with the servant. They played with
scarves of different colors, wrapping them around
each other and twirling in and out, dancing under
each others arms, and never letting go of
the scarves. At one point, she said to him, If
only you could speak. I felt so close to
them in their games and thought the scarves were
so beautiful, like something out of a dream. I
wanted a silent friend I could play with, too.
Someone who totally understood my ideas without
a word being said. I wanted us to be able to read
each others minds."
you had a fantasy about an ideal friend,"
said Dr. Goldberg.
was Black," I said.
mute," he added.
the next issue, Millie and Armand spend a weekend
in the country together but dont bother
to make hotel reservations. After this experience,
Millie meets with her therapist again and decides
to break off with her therapist? With Armand?
Read on and find out.
us with your comments.