THE HEART OF A WOMAN
For six months I had been coordinator of the SCLC. I knew how to contact reliable philanthropists, the first names of their secretaries, and which restaurants the donors used for lunches. I carried a briefcase, and sat on subways, sternly studying legal papers. I was called Miss Angelou in my office and took copious notes in business conferences with Stan Levison and Jack Murray. Martin Luther King was sacred and fund-raising was my calling. Days were crammed with phone calls, taxi rides and serious letters reminding the mailing list that freedom was costly and that a donation of any amount was a direct blow against the citadel of oppression which held a helpless people enthralled.
After a day of such heart-stirring acts, I would travel back to my apartment. Somewhere after sunset and before I reached Brooklyn, the glorious magic disappeared. When I stepped off the subway at Park, I was no longer the bright young woman executive dedicated to Justice, Fair Play for Cuba and a member of the Harlem Writers Guild. I was an unmarried woman with the rent to pay and a fifteen-year-old son, who had decided that anything was better than another dull evening at home with Mother. Secretly, I agreed with him.
Tony's Restaurant and Bar on nearby Sterling Place became a sanctuary. It was not so dull that it attracted churchgoing families exclusively, nor so boisterous as to promise company combined with danger to unescorted women.
The first time I went into Tony's, I chose a barstool and ordered a drink, offering my largest bill, and invited the bartender to take out enough for one for himself. (Vivian Baxter told me when I was seventeen and on my own that a strange woman alone in a bar could always count on protection if she had treated the bartender right.)
He poured out my second drink loosely, allowing the gin to spill over the measuring jigger, then he told me his name.
Teddy was a small, neat man, his light toast-colored skin pulled tight across his face. He had large, slow eyes, which raked the bar while his little hands snapped at bottles, glasses and ice, and he talked with everyone along the counter, stepping into and out of conversations without losing a name or mixing up a drink.
"New in the neighborhood?" He carried drinks to the end of the bar, collected money, rang the register and asked, "Where're you from?
"Are you a working girl or do you have a job?"
The softness of his voice belied the fact that he was asking if I was a prostitute. I knew better than to act either ignorant or offended. I said my name was Maya. I was from California and I had a job in Manhattan, lived alone with my teenage son three blocks away.
He returned from the other end of the bar carrying a drink.
"This one's on me, Maya. I want you to feel at home. Come in anytime."
I left a good tip, thanked him and decided to return the next evening.
Within a month, Teddy and I had a sly joking relationship, and the regulars nodded to me coolly but without hostility.
Appearances to the contrary, there is a code of social behavior among Southern blacks (and almost all of us fall into that category, willingly or not) which is as severe and distinct as a seventeenth-century minuet or an African initiation ritual. There is a moment to speak, a tone of voice to be used, words to be carefully chosen, a time to drop one's eyes, and a split-second when a stranger can be touched on the shoulder or arm or even knee without conveying anything more than respectful friendliness. A lone woman in a new situation knows it is correct to smile slightly at the other women, never grin (a grin is proper only between friends or people making friendship), and nod to unknown men. This behavior tells the company that the new woman is ready to be friendly but is not thirsting after another woman's mate. She should be sensual, caring for her appearance, but taking special care to minimize her sexuality.
The big man and I had noticed each other several times, but, although he was always alone, he had never spoken to me. One evening I walked into the bar and settled myself on a corner stool. Teddy served me my first drink and called me the Harlem Girl Friday. Then the man called from his stool at the bar's extreme end.
"Hey, Bar, that one's on me."
Teddy looked at the man, then at me. I shook my head. Teddy didn't move, but his eyes swung back to the man, who nodded, accepting my refusal.
Accepting the first drink from a strange man is very much like a nice girl having sex on a first date. I sat waiting for the second offer.
"My name is Tom, Maya, why won't you have a drink with me?"
I hadn't seen him move and suddenly he was close enough for me to feel his body heat. He spoke just above a whisper.
"I didn't know you, I didn't know your name. A lady can't drink with a nameless man." I smiled, pressing my cheek muscle down to show the hint of a dimple.
He was a reddish-tan color which Southern blacks called mariney. His face was freckled and his smile a blur of white.
"Well, I'm Thomas Allen. I live on Clark off Eastern Parkway. I'm forty-three and unmarried. I work in Queens and I work hard and I make pretty good money. Now you know me." He raised his voice, "Bar, give us another one like that other one," then dropped his voice. "Tell me, why are you all alone? Have the men gone blind?"
Although I knew it was an expected move in the courting game, flirting made me uncomfortable. Each coy remark made me feel like a liar. I wiggled on the stool and giggled and said, "Oh, stop."
Thomas was smooth. He led, I followed; at the proper time he withdrew and I pulled forward; by the end of our introductory ceremony, I had given him my address and accepted an invitation to dinner.
We had two dinner dates, where I learned that he was a bail bondsman and divorced. I went to his house and received lavish satisfaction. After a few nights of pleasure I took him home to meet my son.
He was Tom to his friends, but to establish myself as a type different from the people he knew, I called him Thomas. He was kind to me, always speaking gently, and generous to Guy. We were a handsome trio at the movies, at the zoo, and at Coney Island. His family treated me with courtesy, but the looks they traded with each other spoke of deep questions and distrust. What did I want with their brother? A grown woman, who had been in show business and the Good Lord knew what else. Her teenage son, whose sentences were threaded with big words, who talked radical politics and went on protest marches. What was Tommy going to do with them? And for goodness' sake, she wasn't even pretty, so what did he see in her?
If they had asked me, instead of each other, I could have informed them with two words: sex and food.
At first, my eagerness in the bedroom shocked him, but when he realized that I wasn't a freak, just a healthy woman with a healthy appetite, he was proud to please me. And I introduced him to Mexican and French menus, spreading glories of food on my dining-room table. We enjoyed each other's gifts and felt easy together. I had only one regret. We didn't talk. He never introduced a subject into our evenings and answered with monosyllables to any questions asked.
After the most commonplace greetings, our conversations were mostly limited to my shouting in his bedroom and his grunts at my dining-room table. He treated my work at the SCLC as just another job.
A large donation or a successful money drive would send me away from the office sparkling. Thomas would accept the news with a solemn nod, then thump the newspaper, so that I would know he was really busy reading. His replies to questions about the quality of his workday were generally given in a monotone.
"It was O.K."
Were any interesting people arrested?
"No. Just the same old whores and pimps and murderers."
Aren't some of those criminals dangerous?
"Walking down the street is dangerous."
Wasn't he ever afraid of gun-toting criminals?
"I've got a gun too, and a license to carry it."
But for my arrogance, our relationship would never have progressed beyond the reach of our carnal appetites.
The Writers Guild had met at Rosa's apartment and people were arranging rides to a late-night party in Harlem. I declined, saying Thomas was coming to take me home.
Someone suggested I bring him to the party, but before I could respond, another writer asked if it was true that fella was a bail bondsman. He was a bail bondsman, so what? The woman said, "Humph," and hunched her shoulders. "Well, I hope you're not getting serious about him. Because he sure as hell wouldn't be welcome in my house. They're as bad as cops. Living on poor folks' misery."
I had no time to think of the consequences of what I was going to say. The woman, of course, was not my friend, but even a polite acquaintance would not have tried to embarrass or challenge me in public. She had never bought me a pound of dried lima beans and was utterly unable to make me ugly up my face between the sheets. She could blow it out of her behind.
"I'm marrying him, and I'm tearing up your invitation to the wedding."
John Killens turned. "What the hell you say?"
Rosa, who knew all my secrets, widened her eyes and asked, "Since when?"
I dealt with all the questions with a coolness I didn't feel.
It was true that Thomas had not asked me to marry him, and Guy had no special regard for him. I knew I wasn't in love with him, but I was lonely and I would make a good wife. I could cook, clean house and I had never been unfaithful, even to a boyfriend. Our lives would be quiet.
I was getting used to the idea and even liking it. We'd buy a nice house out on Long Island, where he had relatives. I would join a church and some local women's volunteer organizations. Guy wouldn't mind another move if he was assured that it was definitely the last one. I would let my hair grow out and get it straightened and wear pretty hats with flowers and gloves and look like a nice colored woman from San Francisco.
When I told Thomas that I wanted to get married, he nodded and said, "I've been thinking about that myself. I guess it's time."
Guy accepted the news gravely. After a few seconds of silence, he said, "I hope you'll be happy, Mother." He turned away, then back again. "We'll be moving again, won't we?"
I lied about my daydreams, reminding him that Thomas had a large apartment only blocks from our house, which meant that he wouldn't have to change schools again. I thought to myself, maybe we wouldn't buy our house on Long Island until Guy went away to college.
My announcement was cheerfully received at the office. Hazel hugged me and said, "There's nothing like having a good man." She was happily married, so I expected her response.
Abbey looked at me quizzically. "Maya Angelou, I hope you know what you're doing."
"I don't, but I'm going to pray a lot."
She laughed and promised to pray with me. She was diligently minding her new marriage, keeping her penthouse immaculate and recording complicated music with Max.
Rosa was practical. "He's not jealous, is he? If you marry a jealous man, life will be hell." I told her he wouldn't have any reason for jealousy.
Rosa was writing every day, coping with her large rambunctious family, being courted by handsome African diplomats and working in a factory to pay her rent.
My two closest friends were too busy with the times and their own lives to talk me out of my rash decision.
Thomas gave me an engagement ring and said we'd marry in three months. We would be married in Virginia, his home state, in the church where his parents were married. Then we would drive to Pensacola, Florida, because he always wanted to fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Guy would stay with his family while we were away.
Obviously he didn't require my agreement, since he didn't ask for it. The decision to marry me automatically gave him authority to plan all our lives. I ignored the twinge which tried to warn me that I should stop and do some serious thinking.
I had never seen Virginia or Florida. Travel was a lovely thing to look forward to.
Time and opportunity were remolding my life. I closed my lips and agreed, with a new demureness.