I’m more than halfway through my adult novel, One Eye Open. It’s fascinating to look at this manuscript and see the writer I was back then; this is the story I had to write in order to evolve into the writer I am today. I started this novel when I was 21, and I was clearly still a romantic at that point…by the time I went back to the novel in ’98 I was five years older, and things were happening in the city that changed my point of view: in 1996, TWA Flight 800 went down, killing a member of our NYU community. And the decade closed with outrage over the brutal murder of Amadou Diallo by the NYPD. In a way, this novel is a love song dedicated to the Brooklyn I fell in love with as a young woman…what to do, though, with the references to answering machines and cassette tapes? Here’s one of my favorite chapters:
Isaiah called Nina at noon to let her know there was a blues band playing in the park that evening. She arranged to meet him after work, and after meeting briefly with Kiyana to discuss the girls’ program, Nina walked the short distance to his grandmother’s house. Mrs. Edwards declined their invitation to join them for the concert, and instead packed them a small bag filled with cake, fruit, and a jar of lemonade. Carrying their food and a blanket to sit on, Isaiah and Nina headed for the park, their clasped hands swinging lazily between them.
As they passed through the park’s stone gateposts, they seemed to enter another world. Just inside the gate was a brightly painted playground where dozens of children were playing and chasing one another around a sputtering sprinkler. In the near distance Nina could see a sizeable crowd already gathered around the stage. Further back, adults of all ages dotted the field, some seated in lawn chairs, others on the threadbare grass. Deliriously dizzy children ran back and forth, losing themselves in the maze of adults. Here and there a solitary person danced freely to the music, head bowed and limbs swaying to the memory of their own blues.
Isaiah surveyed the scene with quiet satisfaction and led Nina across the dry brown field. New sod had been laid just last year, but already it was more dirt than grass due to the beating it took from football, soccer, and cricket players alike. The park also boasted four tennis courts, and the soft thud of balls meeting racquet strings beat an uneven pulse behind the band’s slow, funky flow. Nina spotted a patch of grass on a slope far back from the stage. Isaiah spread their blanket, gave her a sudden kiss on the forehead, then settled down for some of his grandmother’s lemon poppyseed cake.
Nina sat beside him and marveled at the energy around her. It hovered in the air, which was golden and still warm as the sun sank in the fiery sky. The music was mellow, yet the children bounded about the park like young animals, freed from the leash of their parents’ watchful gaze. Adults stretched out on their blankets, chatted with neighbors, or quietly fell into each other, soothed by the good feeling of the summer night. Nina looked at the people around her, the mix of faces, colors, families, and couples. The beautiful people were there, standing up near the front to show their stylish profiles to advantage. Nina shifted her gaze to the performers onstage. They were older men, talented musicians who still knew how to wield a horn or guitar despite their graying hair and solid, comfortable bellies. Nina’s eyes tired as she strained to see the distant stage. She took one more look at the crowd around her, then shifted herself on the blanket and lay down.
Almost immediately, Isaiah dragged her back up. He popped the last morsel of cake into Nina’s laughing mouth, and then lay down himself. Spreading his arms out wide, he reached for her then and pulled Nina down beside him. She relaxed into his body and felt its solid warmth pressing against the length of her own. Nina took long steady breaths, releasing the week’s stress and filling herself with the peaceful spirit of the night.
The children, the Center, all lay waiting for her on the other side of the park. But for that moment, Nina forgot they were there. She nestled her head against Isaiah’s chest and looked up at the darkening sky. For an instant she lost track of the music. It became part of the blur of sound that whirled around them: the laughter of children, the excited barking of dogs, the creaking of the swings in the playground, the hum of shy voices that stumbled over forgotten lyrics though they remembered the tune. These sounds floated around them like a mist rising from the ground, but above them the evening sky was silent and deep. Nina watched as a plane flew overhead, so close and large it seemed she could easily pluck it from the sky simply by reaching her hand into the air. It passed over them, then disappeared into the dark fringe of treetops surrounding the park.
Nina lay still and waited until another plane flew by. So many unknown people, heading to unknown destinations. So many people there in the park, strangers also, who would soon disperse and go to their separate homes. So many things could happen: planes could crash, people could die. But Nina thought only of the things that were certain, like the rise of Isaiah’s chest as one breath followed another. She knew that in a moment the concert would end, the music would stop, the adults would gather their lovers, their children, or their pets, and the park would be empty again. The sky would deepen to an inky blue, and stars would struggle to be seen against the lights from the city below. All these things would happen in time.
Assured by this guarantee, Nina stayed silent and still. She didn’t reach for the plane as another flew overhead. She didn’t turn her ear towards the last blue strains of music. She didn’t slide her eyes to the glowing strands of neon color wound about the children’s necks and wrists. She didn’t cup her hands to catch the fireflies as they danced lazily in the humid air. Nina simply closed her eyes and let herself be content. Just to lie there on the ground as it cooled and grew damp beneath their warm bodies. Just to feel between the earth and the sky that they were, in that moment, together. She didn’t need anything more from Isaiah just then. It was enough that he lay there beside her, a pillow and a shield from the hard possibilities that spread out beyond the border of their bodies.
Finally, the performance came to an end. Applause rose weakly against the falling night as people around them stood, shook out their blankets, and headed home. Nina waited for Isaiah to stir, and wondered if it was possible for them to sleep in the park that night. They could do it, couldn’t they? They had a blanket, and the clear sky promised no rain. Nina thought of them making love, there on the edge of the meadow with the dark border of trees and the weak stars above them. The police sometimes cruised through the park at night, but they were supposed to be looking for dealers, not lovers. Still, Nina knew they wouldn’t allow people like her and Isaiah to make love in a city park. To the police, their love was illicit; at the very least, an indecent exchange. In the bedroom or the bushes, no matter where it took place.
Nina watched as another plane flew overhead, its red flashing lights and dark body temporarily blotting out the infrequent stars. Isaiah lay still beneath her, his breathing steady. She didn’t want to wake him. Nina gently eased herself up and turned to watch him sleep. She was surprised to find his eyes open, his face quiet and calm, his mouth soft with satisfaction but not quite smiling. Isaiah pulled a hand from under his head. He brushed some grass out of her hair, then used his finger to trace a line from the fringe of her eyelashes to the moist corner of her mouth. Then he took his hand away and slid his gaze from her face to the sky above.
Nina heard the faint roar of another plane passing overhead. Anything could happen. For no apparent reason, planes exploded, broke in half, and fell burning from the sky. Unspeakable things happened at night, in corners of this park and all over the city. Still, a voice within her said, do nothing. Do nothing to spoil, or change, or extend this moment. Smiles, words, caresses—nothing could measure that pleasure, that peace.
Nina looked across the meadow at the other lovers strolling the paths beneath the park’s bright lamps. Isaiah raised himself on his elbows, shook out his locks, then silently got to his feet. Nina took the hand he offered and stood as well. They gathered their belongings and crossed the stubbly field, hands joined and arms twined between them.
Copyright © 1999 by Zetta Elliott