Saturday, June 20, 2009


I’m not sure how long Venita had been dishing out the likes of mashed potatoes in the basement cafeteria of my George Washington University dorm before I noticed that she was saying more to me than hello. I had a girlfriend at another school, so I wasn’t looking for one, and if I had been, I would have looked among my fellow students rather than among the cafeteria help. I don’t think she was flirting with me, but she seemed friendly, and I was certainly open to making friends. I didn’t have any black friends, and she had a pleasant smile, so I enjoyed chatting with her.

We had been exchanging a couple of sentences worth of pleasantries at every meal for a while when one day she told me she was going into the hospital for surgery. I told her I’d come to see her and for good measure gave her my phone number and told her to call me if she needed anything.

Sure enough, she called me the afternoon after her surgery and told me she was hurting. I told her there wasn’t much I could do, but anytime she wanted to talk, she should feel free to call. And she did, twice in the middle of that night and twice the next. She didn’t have much to say besides “My ass hurts,” and having been roused from sound sleep, I could manage even less of substance, but I did my best and certainly never hinted that she ought to hang up.

I also tried to go see her. The first time, I walked from the dorm at 19th and F to 8th and K Northwest, only to find that the hospital was at 8th and K Northeast, and there wasn’t time to walk the rest of the way. So I called her when I returned to my room and told her I’d take the bus over the next day. She told me what bus to ride, so I boarded the bus the next afternoon and realized too late that I was on the right bus going the wrong way. Finally, the third day I actually made it there. After hello and how are you, the conversation lagged, and I was just about to ask her if I could ask her what surgery she had gone in for when the TV started playing a commercial for a hemorrhoid medicine. When Venita covered her face with her sheet, I figured I had my answer.

I can’t think of anything I did that whole year that I’m proud of. The best I did was answering the phone for Venita, letting her tell me she hurt, and telling her she was free to call anytime.

Not long after that, I was returning from an afternoon class when out of the front door to the dorm came one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, a tall, svelte black woman with a rich afro, wearing a turquoise pantsuit. Only when she called my name did I realize it was Venita. I’d only seen her with her hair straightened and in either her uniform or at the hospital, so this was quite a surprise, and the fourteen-year-old in me was gratified that such a beauty would actually acknowledge me in public. That was the good news. The bad news was that she had found another job and wouldn’t be returning. But she gave me her telephone number, and we agreed to stay in touch.

When the semester ended, my girlfriend and I decided to go separate ways, and I had already decided to leave GWU and continue my education in Washington State. I wanted to see Venita again before I left, so I called her a few days before my departure and arranged to meet her for lunch. With visions of the afro and turquoise pantsuit dancing in my head, I walked into the shoe store she worked at and again didn’t recognize her until she called my name. This time she had cut her hair shorter than mine and was attired a step down from business casual. But she was still good company. We had a cordial lunch, and though cigarettes and vocabulary reminded me that we would never share anything more intimate than a meal and conversation, I promised to keep in touch with her from the West, and we exchanged a few letters through the autumn.

I saw her for the last time when I was visiting my parents over Christmas break. We agreed that the first Sunday I was home I would pick her up, take her with me to church, and bring her home for lunch. But when I finally found her house, I realized things weren’t as I was expecting. An older woman answered the door, looked at me suspiciously, and called back into the house, “Venita! There’s a white man here for you!”

Venita came to the door and told me she couldn’t go for some reason. But we did arrange to go on a picnic at the Washington Monument (which, despite never having left the District her entire life, she had never been up) after church the next week. (I was honored that she was game enough to agree to a picnic in January.) Again the next Sunday I drove down, and again she wasn’t able to go to church, but she told me to pick her up for the picnic after church.

So I did. Surprise! She came out the door carrying a toddler and followed by a six-year-old. It turned out that the toddler, Kwasi (which she pronounced “KWAY-see”), was her nephew, and Michael was her son. I didn’t do the math until later: she’d become a mother at sixteen. She had lived with her mother and worked at GWU and the shoe store to try to save money to start nursing school.

I guess she had decided not to come home with me or go to my church because she didn’t think the good white folks would take kindly to a black woman showing up with a couple of bastards. I think she was wrong; if she had explained her situation I would have been happy to have them come along both times. But she may have been right: a censorious expression must have come over my face when she told me, because she felt it necessary to point out that everyone makes mistakes. Still, I like to think that maybe my patience with her phone calls gave her the confidence to surprise me.

Not being one to plan much in advance, it was only after she was in the car that I considered what we would eat. I’d seen Kentucky Fried Chicken place on the way. “Would you like chicken?” I asked.

“How many black people do you know who don’t like chicken?”

“How many black people do I know?”

Chicken it was.

We arrived at the Monument grounds, spread out a blanket, and, despite overcast and 50-something degree weather, had what seemed to me a reasonably enjoyable meal. I certainly hope she was glad then that she had agreed to come along, because the rest of the day was a disaster. When we had finished eating, I realized I hadn’t remembered to pick up napkins. Fortunately, there was a roll of toilet paper in the trunk of the car, but Venita was not impressed. We joined the line to go up the Monument, but it was forty-five minutes before we made it to the door, and the clouds were starting to descend. Sure enough, by the time we exited the elevator at the top of the Monument, Kwasi was a wreck, Michael was really wanting to go home, and the clouds had totally blocked the view. So much for visiting history.

Once we were back in the car, Venita asked if there was someplace nearby where she could buy cigarettes. I knew of a drugstore close to my dorm at GWU, so we headed for it. After I parked the car, Venita said she didn’t want to go in alone. Kwasi was asleep in the back seat, and it would only take a minute, so we left him there and took Michael in. Sure enough, it only took a minute. Unfortunately, when I searched in my pocket for my keys, I realized I’d locked them in the car. This being downtown DC, there was someone standing on the corner who was expert in opening locked cars without keys, and we were soon on our way.

But enough was enough. She told me not to bother parking and simply took the boys into the house from the middle of the street. She never answered any letters after that, and when I tried calling her a few months later, her phone had been disconnected. I wish her the best—nursing school, a man who won’t abandon her, a father for Michael, eternal life—but I don’t expect ever to find out what became of her.

When Venita comes to mind, I first remember the botched attempts to visit her in the hospital and everything that went wrong at the picnic. It’s humiliating to know that you’ve let down someone who was fond of you at one time. I suppose it’s some comfort that my motivation was basically nothing to be ashamed of (though I do wonder if I’d have been so interested in her if she’d been ugly), but plain old incompetence is nothing to be proud of. Even so, though, I still smile when I remember the nighttime phone calls.

Venita, if you’re out there, feel free to call me—even if it’s just to tell me your ass hurts.

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