Fiction · 11/18/2020

Osmosis

After the party I felt very cool in my long, slim black dress, and through the French doors, I could feel the morning’s overcast grey. August. Six am. British Isles. The restlessness. I did not know what to do with myself after all the guests had left but I was still cresting on adrenaline the party had induced and so started observing little things about the house, which I had only been in for a few days. On one side of the doors a flimsy netted fence gave a run of grass the distinction of a garden — then, further down past the net, the grass tapered out and gave way to pebbles and rocky beach. At that hour of the morning the sea rose in particles and came up to the house as fog. Along the coast, the tide rasped.

On the other side of the doors were Gia and Inez, arguing with their brother. I could distinguish them by the varying lengths of their fine blonde hair. Gia’s husband had a broom in his hand, he was cleaning. He had said he did not like to wake up to mess. We were in an open plan kitchen. To get to the side of the house which held the guest room, I would have had to go past Inez. But she was scowling, given to increasing fits of bad temper, and because the house had thin curtains and I could not sleep in daylight, I gave up waiting for the fight to subside. I was not going to sleep. I watched Gia’s husband finish sweeping, his progress taking clean cups out of the dishwasher; his back and forth across the floor putting cutlery and plates away. When he reloaded the machine with the last of the dirty plates, I watched his black hands dipping in and out of piles of white crockery in measured breaststrokes.

For want of sleep, I made coffee. I tried to get in his way as little as possible, but by side stepping and hopping around, I created traffic and obstacles for him. Go outside, he said to me, though he was looking at his wife. She likes to have an argument at the end of a night. Go ahead. I’ll mop the floor while they finish and you can come back in when everything’s done.

He sent me out very calmly and in good spirits whilst Gia, a couple of meters behind him, said, I don’t understand how you can be such an idiot about it, to her brother and started crying.

The garden was full of things it was impractical to grow on the coast. Gia and Inez kept tomatoes, which flourished in huge blue ceramic pots. Long, fragrant vines held up by wooden sticks towered around me. The garden was full of them and lettuce. On the fringes by the netted fence, Inez had bushes of pink roses which, in turns, shot up out of the ground agitatedly, or else drooped at the cold, humid air, the oversaturation. The allure of the garden as a whole was that it was overgrown, rambling and near-constantly wet — even in the finest of British summers, the sea found its way to it. There were always droplets of water everywhere and because this was a holiday house, such displeasures became charming. I held my coffee in my hand. I could hear Duke Ellington coming on the speakers, La Plus Belle Africaine, played live at Cote d’Azur. Amid the plants, after the party, in my cool black dress in the cool morning air, I felt right. Then I heard Inez bang her fist on the table. This was because her brother had said, G. I don’t know why you’re crying like you’re up for best actress at the Academy Awards. You say I’m getting it wrong because I can’t possibly understand, but you’re just the same as me: We grew up in the same house, we have the same features, we experience the same privilege. Why would you know any better?

To which Inez said, Take Jews or Poles instead. My neighbors. They’re white, and people tell them to go back to their own country all the time. This isn’t about race, this is about bigotry.

But Gia cut her off, shouting, No. No, that’s wrong, too. It is about race. I’m not saying I understand what it’s like. I’m saying the premise of your argument is wrong because we, as white people, can’t. For example, I read online —

By the side of the French doors, there was a red plastic basin Gia’s husband used to collect ripe tomatoes in every morning. We ate them for breakfast with a bit of salt and buttered bread. They were not the best things, they were slightly watery with lack of sun, but the ritual of bringing them in from the garden every morning appealed to us all. I put my coffee mug in the basin and tucked the basin under my arm so that I could reach in for my coffee and sip as I went. The tomatoes I began throwing in around the cup.

I had only heard La Plus Belle Africaine a handful of times before, but I remembered the low piano riff and mounting drums it began on: I moved to them with pleasure. Those quick, scatty repetitions were laid over a steadier double bass and woodwind arrangement so that the whole thing sounded like a body going through high reeds: heady, insect-filled magniloquence. It was good music to pick tomatoes to. Occasionally, the argument ruined it. When Ellington’s vocal accompaniments guiding the orchestra through crescendoed into an ecstatic Aaaaa, the sudden swell of sax at his command was ruined by Inez, shouting, Okay, okay, okay, okay. Wait. She turned the stereo down. I wanted to go back into the room and condemn her for it, but she was saying, G., shut it and give him a chance to speak. So you think, what, that we’re overthinking it?

I think you’re giving a group of people a complex they might not necessarily have, her brother said. And one which might not even, in some contexts, exist. For example, in this room, none of us are racists. So why would someone be worried or upset about being in the room with us? Would they constantly interrogate their identity because, what? They’re the only Black person in the room? They wouldn’t. They’d have a glass of champagne with us and we’d have a fucking good time together.

I heard rather than saw Gia’s head go into her hands. You’re such an idiot, she said. It’s not twenty years ago anymore. Don’t be so cavalier. First of all, I don’t mean this room. I mean higher rooms, where people don’t see themselves represented. If someone is in a room, in an elite kind of room, and they are the only Black person in that room, what do you think they’re thinking?

I think they’re probably saying to themselves, look how fucking great it is that I’m here when so few others managed, I must be really fucking clever.

Oh, get fucked. You just really don’t get it.

Of course I get it. You’re treating me like a moron who thinks racism doesn’t exist, of course it exists. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about your little performance here, and how it might actually be demeaning to the people you’re talking about. People of… of other races aren’t just constant balls of turmoil and pain. Let’s take your friend, the one who’s staying with you. She’s some brilliant artist or another, isn’t she? You told me she just won a prize.

Yes, Gia said, and then, pertly: he was the only Black nominee, and the first Black woman to ever win generally. There was a big ceremony.

Okay, she’s a brilliant young Black painter who just won an award, and at this ceremony, she was the only one of her kind in the room. And do you really think she was crying about there being no other Black people there? At this party being held, literally for the purpose of celebrating her? No, she was enjoying herself, she wasn’t thinking on the level of race, because she doesn’t have to! It’s not a concern for her!

I wondered whether they thought the mere air passing through the open doors, marking the boundary between kitchen and garden, became somehow different when it hit the frame, allowing the inside of the house to be soundproofed against the outside. I peered around the vines. I wanted to see what Gia’s husband was doing, but it was the same as before — he said nothing; he was mopping the floor.

In any case it wasn’t true. In the first place, I was a sculptor, not a painter. There had been two other Black nominees and the room had contained other people of color, beyond which, I was mixed-race, and something about the tone with which the discussion collapsed the nuances and degrees of experience between me and the other two candidates caught me by surprise. I looked at my brown arms in the pale light. I began to feel embarrassed. Suddenly, I thought the low cut simple line of what I was wearing, along with the bun I had spent half an hour methodically twisting and pinning until it seemed as though I had simply flung it up, looked like a costume. I stopped picking tomatoes and stood still. I had felt so good in that dress.

I heard Inez start to say, Okay but have you bothered to think why it might be that in spite of how prodigious she is, someone like her is the only one of her kind in a room like that?

I was sad and nostalgic for thirty seconds ago: a time in which I had looked good in my dress, and the smell of the tomatoes in the morning air was its own form of pleasure. There was nothing else to do but keep picking. I crouched to the bottoms of the vines. Gia and Inez grew mostly Tigerella and beef tomatoes, they were large. The stems of each plant bowed to one side and the leaves sometimes shielded fruit from view. I had more coffee; I went back to it. If I strained for it, I could still hear the Ellington filtering through.

The conversation had drowned out the track’s first climax, a point at which the orchestra as a whole roared a chorus that should have shaken the house to its foundations had Inez not turned it down. But, I was glad to remember, the astonishing thing about it was how seamlessly this transmuted into a string section that felt more akin to Bach’s cello suites on speed than standard jazz. I tuned back in time to hear the tremeloes before the chorus roared again and relaxed, mellowed out into an altogether bouncier, more elongated rhythm. I tried to hum to it, but it was hard to do. The piece relied on the constant variation and exploration of the same core theme. Even having heard it a few times before, I could not predict where it would go. I heard, Well, you should talk to her, ask her what that ceremony was like, because she’ll tell you, to be the only Black person in any room is fucking terrible for her, and to have to walk around all these white people in her industry and not have anyone else, is terrible for her — and then checked to see whether or not the basin was full. I heard — If it’s so bad, why would she stay? And — Because she wants to change the world — and decided that I had not picked enough tomatoes for a satisfactory breakfast. Usually, they went sliced on top of sourdough. This time, I wanted a salad of them, quartered and tossed lightly in salt. It did not take long to find several more, and upon rising, the rose bushes fell into my view. In spite of the damp and the cold, several of them had managed to grow into something beautiful, and against all reason I felt it a massive shame that they had to sit in the ground. I tried to break a couple of stems with my fingers and cut myself on the thorn of one; I crumpled the petals of most of the other. But the strength of my feeling that they should not be next to the house was enough to take me back through the French doors.

Gia and Inez fell silent immediately; their brother smiled widely and said, Hey, how’s it going?

Good, good, I said. I was just looking for some secateurs.

He started to say he didn’t know, but from behind me I heard, They’re in the cupboard under the sink over there, and turned at the sound. Gia’s husband stood next to the fridge, depositing containers of leftover food wherever they fit. I looked hard at his face, but his expression was neutral; I tried to send him a message that said, Are you okay?, with my eyes, but if we were telepathic the connection was faulty.

So instead I retrieved the shears and said, Great. I thought I’d cut some roses for the table.

And Gia’s wet little face said, That’s so thoughtful, thank you, with excessive tenderness.

I waved the secateurs in the air and as an afterthought added, Nice Ellington track, by the way.

Yes, isn’t it? Inez said at once, and sprang to turn the volume on the stereo up. Divine.

Absolutely. I smiled and left for the garden.

I cut a dozen flowers and spread them out on the grass to clip the thorns and excess leaves. Then I gathered them loosely in my hand. I was getting cold but nothing in me wanted to go back into the kitchen, so I put the bouquet in the basin, inside the empty coffee mug anchored by fruit, and walked the short length down to the coast. The last of the Ellington, already fainter in its finishing lines, dimmed as I went out. And because the last of what I could hear was — Look, I know you’re so good hearted that you can’t conceive of other people discriminating based on skin color at the level of hiring, but trust me. You know it’s true of women because you saw how difficult a time I had of it, so let’s try to take that experience, and put it one step further — I wanted to think of the sound of the sea as respite.

It didn’t quite work that way. I was freezing, and the coast was ugly. No matter how far at bay I kept, the direction of the breeze meant I kept being hit with spray. But the distance from the house gave me time to adjust the hem of my dress; wash the mud off the area around my knees in the cold water. I smoothed my baby hairs and touched my bun to make sure it was still pinned up; hooked my fingers under my eyes and dragged them in one direction to wipe any fallen mascara off. I bit my lips hard until they went swollen and seemed a little red. Okay, I said to myself. Okay. And walked back to the house.

I collected the basin and the roses along the way. In the kitchen, the countertops gleamed. Oh hello, Inez said brightly, and though Gia’s face was the one soaked with tears, the latter hugged me as though I’d just survived war, or famine, murmuring, I’m so glad you managed to make it here for the weekend. Can I get you anything before we go up to bed? I assured her I was okay.

Inez arranged the flowers. Over her shoulder, her brother gave me a smile and a nod. After they’d retreated, Gia’s husband wiped his hands tiredly with a dishcloth and locked the French doors behind me. I’m done, he said, and nodded at the tomatoes. Nice work with those. I offered him the basin and said, Thanks, but he shook his head. Kitchen’s clean, he said. All yours. I’m going to bed. When he left, I stood holding the basin for a few minutes, with the sun starting to come up over the rose bushes and the netted fence. Weak light trickled in. A beat. I found a knife, a wooden board. I cut the tomatoes and put some salt on them. I ate them.

+++

Jo Hamya is a writer and freelance journalist. Her novel, Three Rooms, will be published in July 2021 by Jonathan Cape in the UK, and in August 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US. She lives in London.