What Happened to the Phillips?

Tyrese L. Coleman

We meet at a restaurant with dusty wine bottles from places we still cannot pronounce stacked high up the walls. A carafe of pinot grigio between us. We grown now. You wonder out loud if I’m the right person. Am I really your old college roommate who drank Sprite and $7.99 Popov vodka, paper bowl of Easy Mac warming between her legs?

 

I trip over words, make excuses for why you don’t recognize me: I’ve gained weight working from home. Cut my hair. Easier to manage with kids and schedules and lives, and you can’t see the gray as much when it’s short. My skin is dry from never leaving the house, that’s why. That’s why I’m so happy to be here. So happy to be out.

 

You look good, you say. Your eyes demand contact. I sip the wine, gazing into the silky yellow swirl, afraid to return their touch.

 

I need a stronger drink. Strong enough to manage the ten thousand yous I’ve thought about. You’re in L.A. now, a screenwriter. I’d imagined your life for myself back when we were together. You’re just a different version of me. One without three amazing asshole kids. A senile Baptist father who called what we had together “sickness.” No spouse whose bologna farts wake you from sleep gagging. I tell you this. Ha, you laugh. I say, but I’m OK with that being all there is to complain about. No, truly. This isn’t some piece about a lonely near-middle-aged married woman with unfulfilled dreams—you and I know that shit’s cliché. I lean into my next mouthful of wine, lips against the warm glass, daring now to see how dark your irises are in the tube of sunlight spreading over your face.

 

Your wife is pregnant. You show me a picture, the both of you holding a sonogram photo. I’ve seen her on your Facebook, yet her whiteness stings with new disappointment. You said our love was revolutionary when there was more than a bowl between my thighs. But I don’t speak on all that. I say I’m happy for you. I order more wine.

 

After dinner, we walk the newly gentrified wharf. High rises, yoga, Afro-Chinese fusion. We are shocked by the newness. The rest of the city feels like a restoration not a renovation, but the wharf makes no pretense about its wish to forget what it was before. Neither of us would’ve known this place if we hadn’t been here ages ago.

 

You take my hand because people will watch, because I am married and so are you, because you are rebellious even though you’ve grown neat corporate locs and wear shiny loafers. I throb with longing and discomfort. With you I am wild and twenty and fresh. I force myself to forget fear. My family is not here. I let you hold my hand as if denial and shame had not wasted this quickening for more than twenty years.

 

White people have ruined our Chocolate City, you say. I roll my eyes. You point at some new hotel, mention it used to be a Phillips. What happened to the Phillips? I shake my head; I don’t know. D.C. is nothing like it used to be, you say. Could you imagine two black women like us on display back then?

 

An old woman who resembles my mother passes. Shame on you, her eyes say. Shame on you, my mother had said. I loosen my grip, try to shake you free. But you hold me tighter.

 

I want to ask you if this is easier with your white woman, if it’s easier to love another woman if she’s white. At least easier than it was with me. I want to ask why you emailed me, why you wanted to see me, but decide all that’s best kept out of this narrative. No space for explanations.

 

If I saw us walking holding hands, I’d stare, I say. Then, I’d see someone like me staring and think what the hell is she looking at. But I wouldn’t be staring at two women holding hands because it’s two women holding hands. I’d be staring because it wasn’t me holding hands with you. You laugh and say that makes no sense. We both know it makes all the sense.

 

There is a boat at the end of the dock. The sun is setting behind its pointed steepled mast. The sky reminds me of wheat and syrup and violets. There are hammocks on the dock, and when you lie down, I tumble in beside you. I am D.C. thick. You’re California thin. Your neck smells of oranges and coconut oil. Gray whiskers I hadn’t noticed before are right there, lining your lip. They are thin pieces of silver filament backed against your molten gold skin. They remind me of my husband. I told him I was meeting an old friend—someone he didn’t know but whom I’d spoken about those nights when we first started dating and we shared our past. I played up my history with you, said we fucked, added vulgarity because if I’d told him that I loved you it wouldn’t have been as sexy for him. That young desperate version of me was all about keeping a man. About denying myself. About erasing the confusion and betrayal from my father’s eyes. All about ease.

 

So yes, this is that kind of piece after all. A story about missing out, of being nearly forty and still afraid to hold hands. I hope it doesn’t end like this, I say. Maybe there’s another version of us. You nod. But we both know there isn’t.

Tyrese L. Coleman (@tylachelleco) is a writer, wife, mother, attorney, and writing instructor. She is also the reviews editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. An essayist and fiction writer, her prose has appeared in several publications, including Catapult, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and the Kenyon Review. An alumna of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University and a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, her collection, How To Sit, debuted in October 2018 with Mason Jar Press and is a 2019 PEN Open Book Award finalist. She can be reached at tyresecoleman.com.