Jonathan D. Scott
It took me a few seconds before I understood that the girl was talking to me. She stood on the step above where I was sitting, bent slightly, casting a shadow over my textbook.
I looked up. She was a white girl. Her light brown hair was pulled back behind her ears with clips. She had large blue eyes and wonderfully smooth cheekbones.
I have never been called Joe. I should have told her that then. I should have said that, even though all young African-American men must look alike, she was mistaken. But at that moment it seemed somehow unkind and unnecessarily rude, especially as she seemed so eager. And was so pretty.
I simply didn’t know what to say.
“It’s me, Wendy. You changed a flat tire for me last fall? On Morganton Road out near the reservoir?”
In high school I had taken honors classes where I was the only African-American in class. I was used to the way I was treated—with politeness and carefully measured acceptance. Never fully expressed, but always underlying, there was a quiet assumption that I was an outsider, a representative of the slightly less-thans who had been given temporary entrance into the world of the slightly-more-thans. But the girls—and especially the attractive ones—overtly regretted any attraction that they might have incited in me. They maintained a distance I had come to accept as inevitable.
“I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come along.”
“That’s quite all right,” I said, finding a voice. “I was glad to help.” I told myself I was doing the right thing on behalf of ‘Joe’ and all black men. I was politely obliging, able to meet her standard of manners without being self-abasing.
“You didn’t tell me you were a student here.”
I held up my book. Ethics of Psychology.
“I can only hope,” I said.
“Imagine that. If I had known you were here, I would have sent you a note. I don’t think I ever really said thank you.”
I shook my head, indicating suitable humility, hoping the interlude would end without embarrassment. “No problem,” I said.
“Listen, Joe, could I buy you a cup of coffee or something? I feel like it’s the very least I can do for you. It’s cold out here anyway.”
Her smile was distinctly not cold. It kept me from giving her the proper answer. “Maybe just a quick cup,” I said. “I don’t deserve any more than that.”
We walked across the Quad to the Student Union, a distance of not much more than fifty yards. I ignored the part of me that was painfully aware of how entrenched I was becoming. Instead, I imagined the experience of walking with her as if it were a date, taking a measure of my real feelings for white women. My only girlfriends had been black, and all those of average attractiveness. None had as much of the look of a catalog model as this woman.
I held the door open. “Wendy, what’s your major?”
She smiled again, looked directly at me, and I was struck by the softness and light of her eyes. “I can’t make up my mind,”’ she said. “I don’t seem to have the brains for science, or the stomach for medicine. I was actually thinking of switching my major to psychology. Maybe you can tell me what I’d be in for.”
I followed her to the Rathskeller where she immediately drew the attention of the eager student behind the counter. “I’d guess you’d be in for years and years of education,” I said, “before you had enough letters after your name to get a decent job.”
She laughed and ordered a latte. I took a cup of their house coffee, black, the least expensive thing on the menu board. We sat at a small wooden table near the window.
“Is that what you want to do, Joe? Get a doctorate?”
“I just take it a semester at a time. Most of it depends on how much financial aid I get.”
She blew across the top of her latte but put down the cup without drinking. “I hope you get all you need. You strike me as the kind of person who’d make a good therapist.”
I was once again at a loss. I was desperately trying to construct a painless escape when a young woman, stocky and blonde, walked up to our table. “Susan,” she said to Wendy, “did you ever find your phone?”
Wendy looked up. “I had to keep calling my own number from Frankie’s phone,” she said. “It turned out it was in my car. It had fallen in between the seats.”
“Ah.” The other woman, obviously perplexed, turned to me.
“Robin, this is Joe. Remember when I had that flat last fall? Joe is the guy who changed my tire. I had no idea he was a student here.”
“Isn’t that nice?” Her voice was flat. “I won’t be back home until after dinner. I have to do laundry.”
Wendy did what manners required. “Joe, this is Robin, She’s one of my roommates.”
I extended a hand that was reluctantly accepted. “Nice to meet you,” I said.
“Sure. I suppose I’ll see you later then.” She shifted her shoulder strap and left, holding her Styrofoam cup with the hand that also held her books.
“She called you Susan.” I immediately regretted the way I had said it, but she grinned, barely suppressing a laugh.
“This is really awkward,” she said.
“The thing is, it was dark and I wasn’t sure what sort of person you might be. There are so many strange people out there these days. I gave you a different name. Just in case. My parents always taught me to be cautious with strangers. Especially…especially men, you know what I mean.”
I knew what she meant.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I understand. There are strange people out there. My parents taught me the same thing. My name’s not really Joe. It’s David.”
For a brief moment her grin remained, then it was lost. I hadn’t meant to confuse her or confront her, but my words seemed to have upset some comfortable and unconsidered assumption.
I tried to come to her rescue. “But I’m glad to know your real name.”
I doubted that I would ever have another coffee with such a beautiful woman. “It’s been nice to see you again,” I said, rising. “Thanks for the coffee. I hope that makes us even.”
She looked past me and stared out the window, where the sun was bright across the Quad and the shadow of the library fell across the steps.