Single Black Woman
A single black woman had been told many times that her standards were too high. She had been told that her hair was too straight, too fake, too curly, her skin too dark. Not to wear bright red lipstick. If a dress was too short, scandalous. Long skirt, conservative. Well-intentioned advice had been doled out from single mothers, aunts, and grandmothers like first and second helpings, while their own plates sat empty.
A single black woman by the name of Temi was sitting and waiting for a bus to arrive on the corner of a quiet road at the outskirts of a midsized Midwestern city. The sun was warm, but the wind quite contrary. The corners of her trench coat were turned up just enough to shield her neck. She wore a hat that covered her face, which was plausible in the winter, but in the summer had required a suspension of disbelief. Not many took the bus out of the city in this direction. She knew the bus driver by name. She waited for her usual companions to join. There was Agatha, a maid that worked in a condo and lived just outside of the city. She always got off on one of the first stops where the family homes sat shoulder to shoulder holding each other up. While on the bus, Agatha massaged each joint one at a time with icy hot until Temi’s nostrils burned. The seat all the way in the back was occupied by Gail, a college student who wore noise-cancelling headphones and hummed off-key until the bus pulled up in front of her off-campus apartment. And then there was a tall, black man whose hairline was making its initial retreat. He carried his young son just inside of his wool coat. They had just finished a day of volunteering at a soup kitchen and were now ready for their journey home.
Temi sat approximately four seats behind the man and his son.
Today, the son was flush with excitement about an ice hockey game that he would be playing the next day. His father was attentive. He had an easy smile that was not overenthusiastic. It was reassuring. The game was something to look forward to, but not all that the young boy had to look forward to. In fact, his future would comprise of an amalgam of experiences equal and perhaps exceeding that of the upcoming game.
Temi had always liked this quality about Steven.
She remembered the first time she had seen him sitting at a desk on the first floor of the law library, the least desirable floor in the entire building. Only those that were not serious about studying could possibly accomplish any work on this floor. The noise that flowed in from the double doors and up and down the main stairs was impossible to ignore. But Steve could tune in and out of anything. He would look up and catch the eye of an acquaintance and launch into a heated conversation or he could have his head buried so deep in a book that no one would dare disturb him.
Temi and her friends had been plotting for weeks about how they could enter his orbit. They had deemed him the most eligible bachelor in their law school class. Temi had been different back then. She had grown up in a neighborhood where everyone was different shades of brown. She had still worn her natural hair in a blown-out afro that she meticulously plaited each night.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” she told her friends. “I’ll go talk to him. I’ll invite him to study for the midterm.”
When she approached his chair, he raised his head at first in anticipation of a brief respite, and then with apprehension mixed with curiosity. He looked around as though he was expecting someone else to materialize.
Temi’s face had flushed with heat. It was ridiculous, she did not make a habit of blushing, but the blood vessels in her face were turgid and each cell was pulsating. “I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Temi. We’re both in the same class.”
“Ah, Temi. It’s Steven.”
They chatted for a few moments, polite chatter, regarding their classes, strictly superficial. She noticed his shoulders were tense during the entire conversation. And when she turned to walk away, one of his friends nearby let out a low whistle and he didn’t correct them.
Her friends applauded her once she rejoined them on the second floor, a slightly more respectable study space. “It was like talking to cardboard,” Temi said. “I don’t see what all the hype is about.”
“Just wait, you’ll see,” they assured her. “It’s only like talking to cardboard when he’s talking to you.”
Not like when he was talking to his son. His son had loose curls that his father would brush away when they occasionally flopped into his eyes. Temi tried to estimate how old the son must be, maybe 8 or 9 years old. She had lost count of how many years she had been measuring his growth against the wall in her head. There were aspects of him that belonged to his father even though they barely resembled each other. Like how he asked questions, and then asked another one before the first could be answered, like the initial rush from a garden hose.
In law school, Steven had raised his hand more than anyone else. He had heard somewhere that the loudest voice got the highest grades. He liked that the professors could find him anywhere in the room and had come to rely on him to start the class discussion and to stir up debates.
Shortly after Temi had made the decision to ignore Steven, she found that he was suddenly everywhere that she was. She ran into him at the grocery store with his beanie hat and matching Adidas tracksuit. He was more relaxed this time. He allowed himself to break into a familiar smile.
He asked her how she was doing, and she was prepared to give him a rote response. She still bristled at the way he had talked to her like she was a stranger in the library. And how when he passed her in the hallways, he looked at her like she was the one that did not belong and moreover did not know how to belong.
“Some people just forget where they came from,” her close friend Atianna said. They had bonded over growing up with blue magic and hair picks, spinning blues tracks on the record player, and learning how to live in two different worlds without splitting in half.
Temi did not think this was a fair assessment. Steven had learned something that was intrinsic to being human, he had learned natural selection and applied it. To survive where others merely existed, he had yielded to evolutionary pressure.
The reason why Temi was in the grocery store in the first place was because she had been following news coverage of an unarmed police shooting and she craved the solace of cookie dough ice-cream with the fudge pieces. Standing next to him, she felt small in the extra-large hoodie she’d used to cover her undone hair, convinced she would make a quick and discreet jaunt to the store. “I’m not doing well,” she told him. “I’m sitting in my apartment reading about property law while my people are losing their sons and daughters.”
She felt him watching her and pulled the hoodie more snugly around her head. How interesting, even then, how concerned she was that if he saw too much of himself in her then he would be forced to look away.
Steven helped her select an ice-cream flavor and walked her all the way back to her apartment. He told her, “My son won’t live in this world. I’ll make a new one for him.” He had grown up in a middle-class family but had been surrounded by friends who had made poor choices out of the limited choices they had. As a small-town prodigy, he’d been told he was going to be the one to make it out. He didn’t want to let them down. He wrote articles for newspapers about racial justice and held rallies each month downtown. No one knew this about him, because it was a different Steven that walked up and down the streets with the speakerphone and boldfaced signs.
She told him how her parents had immigrated from a different country to give her a better life and in doing so had sacrificed their own self-fulfillment. They had been strict when she was growing up. Before college, she had never touched a sip of alcohol. Had never gone on a date. His eyes had widened in surprise when she told him that.
“You? No way. You seem like you have everything together.”
“I don’t. No one does.”
Something shifted that night into a more natural alignment. From then on, they were study partners, went grocery shopping together, and even folded laundry side by side. He helped her learn how to take up space and she taught him to listen as much as he spoke. They built each other up from the ground up in a way that their classmates never needed building.
On Sunday evenings, Temi cut his hair with a clipper because no one in town could do an adequate job. The individual curly hairs fell around them like winter’s first snow. She never looked directly at their reflections in the mirror when she was cutting his hair. That way, they did not exist, and she could not lose what she never had.
The roads morphed from gravel into smooth pavement that curved around the countryside. The streetlights started to blink on one by one. The houses expanded in girth, shaking off the constraints of multiple family homes and standing tall and proud over verdant front lawns, winding driveways, and marble fountains.
Steven and his son had moved on to more somber conversation. “Dad, I don’t want to volunteer at the soup kitchen anymore. Everyone smells bad. I don’t understand why we have to go every week.”
“We have to give back,” his father explained.
“Give back what?”
“To our community, Brendan.”
“But we live in Glendale. Mom says that you feel the need to be a hero,” said the son. “She said there’s nothing wrong with leaving all of that behind.”
It was the last year of law school before Temi thought to ask Steven about his previous girlfriends. He got a strange look in his eyes when she casually brought up this question. His response was a string of unintelligible words.
She realized she wasn’t close enough to his friends to ask. Temi and Steven had always hung out alone or with Atianna but he never made an effort to invite her to hang out with his friends, a group of wealthy unemployed classmates who vacationed every weekend and partied every other day.
“You know the answer to the question,” Atianna told her, when she explained that she didn’t know his dating history. “He’s never dated a black woman before.”
“You can’t assume that,” Temi said. “Not based on where he grew up.”
Atianna gave her a look of long-suffering patience. “Why don’t you ask him again?”
And so she did. He said he had never had a serious girlfriend. He’d always been more focused on school. He didn’t understand why the answer to the question mattered. They were distant for a short while after that. She understood that she had crossed some boundary that she should not have. He was telling her that the price of her proximity was her silence.
“Are we almost home?”
Brendan always seemed to forget how long it took to get home. He lay his head down against his father’s shoulder and his eyelashes fluttered closed as he prepared to take a nap. Back when she had thought they would spend the rest of their lives together, she had envisioned a moment like this and had known he would make the perfect father. It was reassuring to discover that she was right.
At the law school ball, three years after they had introduced themselves to each other on the first floor of the library, Temi was ready to admit to herself that she could not see a life after graduation that did not include him. She was intending to take a job at the NAACP office in D.C and he was going to run for public office in his hometown just outside of Baltimore. Atianna and Temi got their hair done together. Out of pride, Temi’s mother had commissioned a tailor to make a full-length dress with Nigerian fabric. Steven had decided to go to the ball in a party bus with his friends.
Temi remembered catching his eye from across the room. Something in his face made her stop. It was the same cardboard stare he had given her that first night in the library. But she ignored it, cutting the distance between them with several swift steps in staggering high heels. A woman came from behind him and placed an airy hand on his arm.
“Oh, is this the girl you’re always telling me about? Temi? How cute!”
Temi felt herself shrink to exist within the boundaries of the word “cute”. She found herself shaking the woman’s hand. It was like she had seen the piercing blue eyes before, the bluest eyes she’d ever seen, but she couldn’t recall where. It must have been hiding just underneath the surface the entire time, the thing she didn’t want to examine too closely in the mirror, lingering in the words they had never been able to say to each other.
“Excuse me,” Temi said in a whisper.
Atianna had taken her arm and led her away. Her friend had gleaned more information from eavesdropping. “Apparently, they’ve been dating since before he started law school. They’re engaged to be married.”
At the second to last stop, Steven nudged his son awake, but he turned his head in the opposite direction and burrowed himself deeper into his father’s side. Steven scooped him up and cradled him against his shoulder. This was the hardest part to watch. His wife would peek out the window of their palatial home, turn on the porch light, and then come outside to greet father and son. Temi wondered what it was about the woman, the house, and the life that he led now that had appealed to him. Was it that it was different from where he had grown up? Was it comfort? Safety? Was it his neighbors greeting him at first with a frown and then relief when his family came into view?
Did he ever think about what they could have had? Or was the burden hers alone to bear? Atianna would scold her if she ever found out about the weekly bus ride. In the years since she had graduated from law school, Temi had worked for many years in the NAACP office and advocated for young men like Steven who just needed an opportunity. She had dated a man long-term that could’ve been enough, if only she could ignore how he perused her published articles with polite disinterest. Yet, here she found herself in moments of weakness, longing to use the heavy knocker at Steven’s door and to say to him, “What happened to the world that we could have created?”
Steven seemed to startle in the night and turn to look at her lone figure on the bus. She turned away quickly, but he had never noticed her before. The irony that what had once drawn them to each other was the same thing that made her invisible.
Her reverie was interrupted by the baritone voice of the bus driver. “Next stop is the last stop, Ma’am.”
“Don’t I know it, Barry.”
She got off at the last stop and entered her small, modern home which was well-suited for her needs. She caught site of a commercial for lip fillers on the television which made her laugh. Parts of her were trending. The lips. The curves. The fashion. Soon, maybe the whole woman.
Fejiro Okifo is a writer and a resident physician living in Detroit, MI. Her work appears in Tahoma Literary Review, Sou’wester, Upstreet, and Litro Magazine. She was also named a finalist in the 2021 Black Warrior Review contest.