THE HEART OF A WOMAN
The lipstick smudge was not mine, nor did the perfume come from my bottles. I laid Vus's shirt across the chair and hung his suit from the doorknob. Then I sat down to wait for him to come from the shower.
We had not discussed infidelity; I had simply never thought of it. But the third time Vus's clothes were stained with the evidence of other women's make-up I had to face the possibility.
He came into the bedroom, tying the belt of his silk paisley dressing gown.
"Dear, shall we go out to breakfast? I have a meeting downtown. We could go to Broadway and then-"
"Vus, who is the woman? Or rather, who are the women?"
He turned to me and dropped his hands to his side. His face as blank as a wooden slat.
"Women? What women?" The round eyes which I loved were glazed over, shutting me out. "What stupidness are you talking about?"
I kept my voice low. I was asking because I was my mother's daughter and I was supposed to be courageous and honest. I didn't want an honest answer. I wished for him to deny everything, or to hand me any contrived explanation.
"The lipstick. It's fuchsia. It's not mine. This time the perfume is Tweed. I have never worn that scent."
"Ah," he smiled, stretching and opening his fine lips, allowing me a flash of even teeth. "Ah, my darling, you're jealous." He walked over and took my hands and pulled me up from the chair. He held me close and his belly shook against mine. He was laughing at me.
"My darling wife is a little jealous." His voice and body rumbled. He released me and looked into my eyes.
"My dear, there are no other women. You are the only love in my world. You are the only woman I've ever wanted and all that I have."
That was what I wanted to hear, but as a black American woman, I had a history to respect and a duty to discharge. I looked at him directly.
"Vus, if you fell in love with Abbey, or Rosa or Paule, I could understand. I would be hurt but not insulted. They are women who would not intend to hurt me, but love is like a virus. It can happen to anybody at any time. But if you chippie on me, you could get hurt, and I mean seriously."
Vus pulled away. We were face to face, but he had withdrawn into his privacy.
"Don't you ever threaten me. I am an African. I do not scare easily and I do not run at all. Do not question me again. You are my wife. That is all you need to know."
He dressed and left without repeating his breakfast invitation.
I walked around the house thinking of my alternatives. Separation was not possible. Too many friends had advised me against the marriage, and my pride would not allow me to prove them right. Guy would never forgive me if I moved us one more time and I couldn't risk losing the only person who really loved me. If I caught Vus flagrantly betraying me, I would get a gun and blow his ass away or wait until he slept and pour boiling lye in his mouth. I would never use poison, it could take too long to act.
I hung his suit near an open window and washed the lipstick stain from his shirt.
There was a sad irony in the truth that I was happier in the dusty theater than in my pretty apartment on Central Park West.
Despite the clash of cultures, Guy and Vus were building a friendship. My son was making a strenuous effort to understand the ways of "Dad." He was interested in knowing what it must have been like to be a black male growing up in Africa. Vus was pleased by Guy's interest and accepted his free, curious upbringing, although it was alien to his own. When Guy questioned his stepfather's announcements, Vus took the time to explain that an African youngster would never ask an adult why he had done or said a certain thing. Rather, African youths courteously accepted grown-up statements, then went off on their own to find the answers that suited them. They sat together, laughing, talking and playing chess. They were pleased with the dinners I prepared, but when I called their attention to the fresh flowers on the table or a new dress I was wearing, their reactions were identical.
"How very nice, my wife."
"Lovely, Mom. Really very lovely."
"Guy, your mother makes a beautiful house for us."
They treated me as if I were the kind and competent family retainer.
Guy had forgotten the years when I had encouraged him to interrogate me, question my rules, try to pick apart my every conclusion. There had been no father to bring balance into the pattern of my parenting, so he had had the right to question and I had the responsibility of explaining. Now Vus was teaching him to be an African male, and he was an apt student. Ambiguity stretched me like elastic. I yearned for our old closeness, and his dependence, but I knew he needed a father, a male image, a man in his life. I had been raised in a fatherless home, so I didn't even know what fathers talked about to their daughters, and surely I had no inkling of what they taught their sons.
I did know that Guy was treating me in a new and unpleasant way. My face was no longer examined for approval, nor did he weigh my voice for anger. He laughed with Vus, and consulted Vus. It was what I said I wanted, but I had to admit to myself that for my son I had become only a reliable convenience. A something of very little importance.
At home, Vus read American, European and African papers, clipping articles which he later copied and sent to colleagues abroad. He spent mornings at the United Nations, buttonholing delegates, conspiring with other African freedom fighters and trying to convince the press that South Africa in revolution would make the Algerian seven-year war appear like a Sunday School picnic. He talked to everyone he thought influential -- bankers, lawyers, clergymen and stockbrokers. I decided to accept that the make-up which smudged his collars and the sweet aromas which perfumed his clothes came from brushes with the secretaries of powerful men.
I started going to the theater early and returning home reluctantly.
Backstage, Roscoe Lee Browne and I acted out a two-character drama which brought color into my slowly fading life. Our strongest expressions were silent, and physical touching was limited to scrupulous pecks on each other's cheeks. More picturesque than handsome, his attentions held no threat or promise of intimacy. Although the other cast members appeared oblivious to the measure of my misery, he noticed but was too discreet to embarrass me with questions.
When I sat in my dressing room, working the crossword puzzle, or pressing a poem into shape, Roscoe's light step would sound beyond the door.
"Hello, my dear. It's outside. By the door."
I would jump to catch the sight of him, but the hallway was always empty, save a neat posy resting against the wall, or one flower wrapped in flimsy green paper.
The constancy and delicacy of Roscoe's concern made him the ideal hero for fantasy and the necessary contrast to my real life. He was all pleasure and no offense, excitement without responsibility. If we had embraced or if we once discussed the torment of my marriage, our private ritual of romance would have failed, overburdened by ordinariness. If one is lucky a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities.
My controlled paranoia prevented me from realizing the seriousness of a phone call I received one evening.
When I picked up the receiver, a man's throaty voice whispered "Maya Make? Vusumzi Make is not coming home."
The statement surprised me but I wasn't alarmed. I asked, "Did he ask you to tell me that? Why didn't he call? Who are you?"
The man said, "Vusumzi will never come home again." He hung up the telephone.
I walked around the living room trying to sort out the message. The English was labored but I could not place the origin of the heavy accent. Vus knew so many foreigners, the man could have been from any country in the world. He also knew many women, and just possibly an African diplomat suspected that his wife and Vus were having an affair. He telephoned, not so much to threaten Vus, as to awaken my suspicions. He had wasted his money and his time. When I left for the theater, Vus hadn't returned home.
During the play the memory of the telephone call lay just under the remembered lines. Helen Martin and I were engaged in the play's final duel when the idea came to me that Vus might be in danger. The angry husband could have already hurt him. Maybe he had been caught with the man's wife and had been shot or stabbed. I finished the play, and only Roscoe took notice of my distraction. Each time I looked at him, he raised an eyebrow or pursed his lips, or gave me a questioning glance.
After the final ensemble stare into the audience, I turned and rushed for my dressing room, but Roscoe caught up with me in the corridor behind the stage.
""Maya, are you all right?"
The care on his face activated my tears. "It's Vus. I'm worried."
He nodded. "Oh yes, I see." He couldn't possibly see and I couldn't possibly tell him. We walked into the lobby en route to the dressing rooms, and Vus stepped out of the crowd of playgoers.
"Good evening, my dearest." He was whole and he was beautiful.
Roscoe smiled as they shook hands. He said, "Mr. Make, our Queen is a great actress. Tonight she excelled herself." He inclined his head toward me and walked away. I knew that Vus didn't approve of public displays of emotion, so I hugged him quickly and went to change into street clothes.
I couldn't hold my relief. In the taxi I rubbed his large round thigh, and put my head on his chest, breathing in his living scent. "You are loving me tonight." He chuckled and the sound rumbled sweetly in my ear.
He made drinks at home and we sat on the good sofa. He took my hand.
"You are very nervous. You have been excited. What happened at the theater?"
I told him about the telephone call and his face changed. He began chewing the inside of his bottom lip; his eyes were deep and private.
I faked a light laugh and said, "I thought some irate husband had caught you and his wife in flagrante, and maybe he ... "
I shut up. I sounded silly even to myself. Vus was far away.
When he spoke his voice was cold and his speech even more precise than usual.
"We must have the number changed. I'm surprised it took them so long."
I didn't understand. He explained. "That was someone from the South African police. They do that sort of thing. Telephone the wives of freedom fighters and tell them their husbands or their children have been killed." He grunted, "I guess I should be insulted that they are just beginning on you. It indicates that they have not been taking me seriously." He turned his large body to face me. "Tomorrow, I'll have the number changed. And I will step up my campaign."
The telephone incident brought me closer to the reality of South African politics than all the speeches I had heard. That voice stayed in my ear like the inane melody of a commercial jingle. When I least expected it, it would growl, "Maya Make? Vusumzi Make will never come home again."
I wanted to stay at Vus's side, go everywhere with him. My concern followed him in the street, in taxis, trailed him into the U.N. Even when we were at home, I wasn't satisfied unless we were in the same room. Vus's attempts to reassure me were futile. Worry had come to live with me, and it sat in the palms of my hands like beads of sweat. It returned even as I wiped it away.
The second telephone call came about two weeks later.
"Maya Make? Do you know your husband is dead?" The voice was different but the accent was the same. "His throat has been cut." I slammed down the telephone, and a second later I picked it up and screamed obscenities over the buzz of the dial tone. "You're a lying dog. You racist, Apartheid-loving, baby-killing son of a bitch." When I replaced the telephone, I had used every profane word I knew and used them in every possible combination. When I told Vus he said he'd have the number changed again. He worried that such tactics threw me. I could expect those and worse. I decided if the phone calls continued, I would handle them and keep the news to myself.
Having a live-in father had a visible effect on my son. All his life Guy had been casual to the point of total indifference about his clothing, but under Vus's influence, he became interested in color-coordinated outfits. Vus took him to a tailor to be fitted for two vested suits. He bought splendid shoes and button-down shirts for my fifteen-year-old, and Guy responded as if he had been waiting for such elegance all his life.
The telephone calls resumed. I was told that I could pick up my husband's body at Bellevue, or that he had been shot to death in Harlem. Whenever I was home alone, I watched the telephone as if it were a coiled cobra. If it rang, I would grab its head and hold on. I never said hello but waited for the caller's voice. If I heard "Maya Make," I would start to quietly explain that South Africa would be free someday and all the white racists had better be long-distance swimmers or have well-stocked life rafts, because the Africans were going to run them right to the ocean. After my statement I would replace the receiver softly and think, That ought to get them. Usually, I could spend an hour or so complimenting myself on my brilliant control, before worry would snake its way into my thoughts. Then I would use the same telephone to try to locate Vus.
Mburumba Kerina, of the South-West Africa People's Organization, was his friend and lived in Brooklyn. I would call and Jane, Kerina's black American wife, would answer.
"Hi, Jane. It's Maya."
"Oh hello, Maya. How are things?"
"O.K. and with you?"
"Oh nothing. And with you?"
"Nothing." Then she would shatter my hopes that my husband was at her house. "How is Vus?"
"Oh fine. And Mburumba?"
"Just fine. We ought to get together soon."
"Yes, very soon. Well, take care."
"You too. Bye."
Jane never knew how I envied her unusual assurance. She was younger than I and had been working as a guide at the U.N. when she met Kerina. They fell in love and married, and she settled into the nervous life of a freedom fighter's wife as coolly as if she had married the minister of a small-town Baptist church.
When I found Vus after numerous phone calls, I gave reasons contrived for my interruptions.
"Let's go to dinner after the play."
"Let's go straight home after the play."
"Let's go to a bar after the play."
Vus was a master of intrigue, so I suppose that I never fooled him with my amateur cunning, but he was simply generous enough to pretend. One afternoon I answered the telephone and was thumped into a fear and subsequent rage so dense that I was made temporarily deaf.
"Hello, Maya Make?" Shreds of a Southern accent still hung in the white woman's voice.
"Yes? Maya Make speaking." I thought the woman was probably a journalist or a theater critic, wanting an interview from Maya Angelou Make, the actress.
''I'm calling about Guy." My mind shifted quickly from a pleasant anticipation to apprehension.
"Are you from his school? What is the matter?"
"No, I'm at Mid-town Hospital. I'm sorry but there's been a serious accident. We'd like you to come right away. Emergency ward."
She hung up. I grabbed my purse and the keys, slammed the door, raced down the stairs and was standing on the pavement before I realized I didn't know the address of the hospital. Fortunately, a taxi had stopped by a traffic light. I ran over and asked the driver if he knew where the Mid-town Hospital was located. He nodded and I got into the cab and said, "Please hurry. It's my son."
My watch said it was eleven, so Guy was in school and couldn't have been hurt in a traffic accident. Maybe there had been a gang fight. The cabbie cut in front of cars, causing other drivers to honk their horns and screech their tires, but it seemed that time and the taxi were crawling.
I paid with bills I never saw and ran through the doors of the Emergency entrance. A young black nurse at the desk looked at me wearily.
I told her that my son had been hurt, and I wanted to know how badly, and where was he and could I see him? I told her his name, and she began to run her finger down a list. She continued examining the next page. She didn't find Guy's name. I told her I had received a phone call. She said they had not admitted a Guy Johnson and was I sure of the hospital? I heard the caller's voice. ''I'm at Mid-town Hospital ... "
She was lying. She was in the South African service. The thoughts slammed into my consciousness like blows to the heart. For the first time since I heard ''I'm calling about Guy" I became aware of thinking.
I went to a pay phone and called Guy's school. After a few minutes I learned that he was in history class.
I walked up Central Park West toward the apartment, too angry to savor relief. I thought of the greedy immorals who lay claim to a people's land by force, and denied the existence of other human beings because of their color. I had opposed the racist regime on principle because it was ugly, violent, debasing and murderous. My husband had his own reasons for trying to bring down the government of Verwoerd and I had supported him. But as I walked under the green trees, and smelled the aroma of young summer flowers, I felt a spasm of hate constrict my throat and tighten my chest. To break a mother's heart for no gain was the most squalid act I could imagine. My defiance from now on would be personal.
Ethel Ayler had a co-starring role in a new Broadway play, so she was leaving The Blacks. We talked backstage on her last night.
Ethel said, "Maya, Sidney ought to pay us something for our music." I agreed.
We had tried to squeeze money out of the producer on three or four occasions, but each time we mentioned being paid for composing the two songs, he had laughed and invited us to lunch or dinner. Now when Ethel was closing we decided to make a last attempt. We changed clothes quickly and rushed into the lobby, where we saw Sidney Bernstein standing alone.
Ethel and I walked over to him. Ethel said, "Sidney, you know this was my last night. I start rehearsing Kwamina tomorrow."
Sidney turned and gave Ethel an insipid little smile, "Yeah, Ethel, congratulations. I hope it'll be a hit."
I said, "So does she, Sidney. But we want to talk to you about money. You have to pay us something for composing the music for this show."
He raised his chin and looked in my face. He didn't even try to dilute his scorn.
"Get off my back, will you? You didn't compose anything. I saw you. You just sat down at the piano and made up something."
Ethel and I stared at him, then at each other. The people Sidney had been waiting for arrived, collected him and, laughing, walked down the stairs.
I saw Ethel control her features. She closed her lips and made her eyes vacant. When she shrugged her shoulders I thought I knew what she was going to say.
"He's a fool, Maya. Forget him." I had anticipated correctly. She held her cosmetic case delicately in her left and waved at me elegantly with her right. "Take it easy, Maya. Let's keep in touch." She walked away. A Broadway success was her future, so she could ignore Sidney Bernstein's unfairness. However, I couldn't. And the statement that I had composed nothing, I had simply sat down at the piano and made the music up, clogged the movement of my brain.
Vus and James Baldwin were waiting at the bottom of the stairs, so I dropped the befuddlement on them.
What did it mean? The stupid bastard was of a piece with the other arrogant thieves who took the work of black artists without even threatening them with drawn pistols. I wasn't locked into The Blacks.
Vus still paid most of the bills, so I wasn't dependent on the job, and since I had no theatrical ambition I didn't have to be afraid that the producers would bad-mouth me off and on Broadway. Vus and Jim stayed quiet.
Vus took my shoulders in his hands and pressed his thumbs into the soft muscles at the joint of my arms. The pain made me forget about Sidney Bernstein, Ethel Ayler, the music and The Blacks. I stopped crying and he released me.
"My dear. You will never return to this theater. You have just closed."
I looked at Jim Baldwin. Vus's statement was as shocking as Bernstein's rejection. I knew that Jim would understand that I couldn't simply not return to the theater. He would explain that as a member of Equity, the theatrical union, I was obliged to give at least two weeks' notice. Jim was silent. Although we three stood in arm's reach of each other, he watched Vus and me as if we were screen actors and he was sitting apart in a distant auditorium.
I said, "I can't close without giving notice. My union will have me up on charges. Bernstein can sue me ... "
Vus walked away to the pavement's edge and hailed a taxi. I whispered to Jim, "Tell him I can't do that. Please explain. He doesn't understand."
Jim grinned, his big eyes flashing with enjoyment. "He understands, Maya. He understands more about what Bernstein has done than you. Don't worry, you'll be all right."
We crowded into the back seat of the cab. Vus leaned toward the driver.
"Take us, please, to the nearest Western Union office."
The driver hesitated for a few seconds, then started his motor and drove us to Broadway. On the ride, Vus and Jim leaned across me, agreeing on the bloody arrogance of white folks. It was ironic that the producer of a play which exposed white greed so eloquently could himself be such a glutton. Whether we were in the mines of South Africa, or the liberal New York theater, nothing changed. Whites wanted everything. They thought they deserved everything. That they wanted to possess all the materials of the earth was in itself disturbing, but that they also wanted to control the souls and the pride of people was inexplicable.
We walked into the Western Union office. Jim and I stood talking while Vus filled out a form.
He handed it to the telegraph operator. When the man finished copying the message, Vus paid and then, taking the form back, he walked over to us and read aloud: "Mrs. Maya Angelou Make will not be returning to The Blacks or the St. Mark's Playhouse. She resists the exploitation of herself and her people. She has closed. Signed, Vusumzi Linda Make, Pan African Congress, Johannesburg, South Africa. Currently Petitioner at United Nations."
Vus continued. "That will be the last you will hear of those people, my dear. Unless Bernstein wants an international incident."
Jim laughed out loud. "See, Maya Angelou, I told you, you have nothing to worry about."
We walked out of the office, and linking arms, strolled into the nearest bar.
The fat Xhosa, the thin New Yorker and the tall Southerner drank all night and exchanged unsurprising stories on the theme of white aggression and black vulnerability. And somehow we laughed.
I sat beside the telephone the next day. The hangover and drama of leaving the show made me quick and ready to blast the ears of Bernstein, or Frankel or Glanville or anyone who would dare call me about Vus's telegram. The telephone never rang.