It was a hot and humid day in the middle of August on Mission Hill, Boston. I was waiting for my friend Steve, standing on a slope surrounded by old wooden houses. Some houses were painted yellow, some were white. Every building needed repainting.
Something moved in my sight. Something colorful. I turned toward the direction and saw two women coming out of one of the houses. They sat on a stoop. While the younger woman had a plain white T-shirt and cut-off jeans, an older one had her body wrapped with a long black cloth decorated with an explosion of colors. It must have been a traditional dress of somewhere in Africa.
I walked toward them trying to catch their attention.
"What an outfit! " I said and touched her clothes in my hands. Silky and soft. It was a perfect thing to wear in the summer of Boston.
"You like it? I sell it for you. How about this scarf? 10 dollars. It costs 20 in New York, " said the older woman.
"No, no, I'm not interested. I don't think I look good in colors. It looks good because it's on your skin, " I said and slid my fingers on her neck. Her skin was charcoal-black, almost grayish.
"You touched my skin," said the woman. She turned to her friend and repeated, "she touched my skin." The woman in colors looked back at me and asked,
"You're not an American. Where are you from?"
"I'm from Japan. Where are you from?"
Steve, standing on another side of the street, found me and walked towards us. After talking to the two women for five minutes, his skin looked too white, almost fragile. When Steve joined us, the woman in the dress asked me,
"Is he your husband?"
"No," we both replied at the same time.
"How can you live here? Do you have a visa?" the woman looked into my eyes intensely.
"I have a green card. I used to be married to an American, " I answered.
For the first time during our conversation, the woman in the dress smiled. She showed her teeth, which looked very white and strong against her skin.
"That's the best thing you could do, isn't it? You marry an American and dump him after you get a permit." The two women grinned and nodded looking at each other, and then at me and Steve.
I had to defend myself.
"I don't think it was my original intention. I think we fell in love in the beginning," I said.
"Let me tell you. No American man would fall in love with me," the woman in colors said and started laughing. The younger woman began laughing, too. So I started laughing. So did Steve. I didn't know what we were laughing about, but it felt good just laughing on a street filled with heat.
"Do you want to know what kind of man I want to marry?" The older woman asked me still giggling. "No smoke, no drug, no sickness. I don't like sickness. No, no, no. No sickness for me."
A van stopped in front of us. Inside the van, there were half a dozen women, who I guessed were also from Senegal. The older woman explained to me that they were on the way to a dance studio in Cambridge, for an African dance class. I remembered having taken this class once before. The sound of live drum and movements of African dancers charmed me. But I could not stand looking at myself in the mirror. It seemed that my body was not made for that dance. Just like I didn't have a body for the colorful clothes of the older woman.
The two women left in the van with the other women. Steve and I started walking towards a subway station.
"What she meant by 'sickness' is AIDS, right? Doesn't it make you feel sad?" mumbled Steve. Instead of answering, I said,
"You don't smoke. You don't do drugs. You don't have AIDS. She would marry you. Do you want to?"
"What are you talking about?"
I continued, "you don't think about it because you're an American man?"
Steve ignored me. He recently had returned from a few years' stay in Indonesia. He once told me one of his experiences. Wherever Steve went in that country, pregnant women came close to him and touched his skin. "They said that they wished their babies would have lighter skins by touching my body. " Steve paused a little and continued, "My girlfriend that I had there had dark skin. One of the darkest in the town we lived. Men in the town used to come to me and say giggling, 'why did you end up with such a dark one? You're unlucky. You're a very unlucky American man.'"
On this hot and humid day in Boston, Steve looked like he was thinking about these experiences. I thought about Indonesia, a place I had never been to. I looked back to Steve to ask questions about that country and noticed the color of his eyes. It stunned me. How blue they were! Especially in a strong sunlight. I asked in my head, "what is it like to have such eyes? The world seems as if it was buried under water like an ancient city?"
I thought that it must have been fun, in the same way that the Senegalese woman enjoyed wearing a splash of colors on her charcoal-black body.
(2000/10/30. This essay is on gate39.com.)