By Kalev Pehme
Just as every landscape has its own character, so do cities have their own music. Chicago is big and brassy. Manhattan is jazz piano and sax. Tonight it is all piano. I am walking down Fifth Avenue past the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Wilhelmina, my African Queen. Her head is a complex of tightly braided strands, layered over each other, in a Gordian knot. She wears a gold torque around her ebon neck, and her colorful dress from some remote land nearly reached the ground, but spins with her as she moves like a black panther around me as we walk. It is more like dancing, and all I hear is a piano playing some mental music, romantic, but with a bit of tension.
“A beat is so big,” I say to her, encasing about a foot-and-half of air between my palms. “So, you can hit the beat here or here, anywhere in between the beat to make a sound. You are my beat, Wilhelmina; you are a breathy step in my life.”
She simply laughs, and it is warm, as warm as the air tonight. I don’t hear the traffic charging down Fifth Avenue; I don’t notice the small crowd sitting in the open-air chairs along the museum’s flagstones and hear its fountains. I see only Wilhelmina, now spinning around, her dress a-twirl, revealing her sandaled feet and thin legs. She has beautiful breasts, I think, as she spins around me, slowly, and I continue to hear the piano. It is a melody for us, and it is so simple that it feels highly complicated. It is enchanting, because I am so unmusical. I can’t keep a beat, but I have a music all my own. And tonight that music and Wilhelmina are one.
She, however, is not hearing my piano. She is a grand opera with the entire city as its stage and characters. We are the leads, and she is the graceful soprano and I am the lugubrious tenor, well, maybe not lugubrious, but hardly the stuff of an operetta. She is the femme fatale and I am her victim, a willing victim, but a victim nevertheless. We reach Noguchi’s statue at the southern end of the museum when it begins to drizzle. This time I am prepared with a huge golf umbrella which opens with a metal scrape. I hold it like an Asian servant over Wilhelmina who continues to spin around me. I am getting wet, but I don’t care. Manhattan streets look good when wet at night. It moisture is a glaze that goes well with the sound of the piano in my head.
All the while, Wilhelmina is laughing. It is a knowing and teasing laugh, and in her dress it feels primal, out of Africa, a place I have never been or seen. She doesn’t say a word, but she laughs, sometimes even in lovely trills, and sometimes it is intermittent and quiet while she thinks or fantasizes of whatever it is that she is keeping to herself. And she smiles with big teeth as she dances on the opera stage and I realize that everyone passing by is watching her, in part, because Wilhelmina is not going to let anyone stop her spin and they have to give way. She is the star of this night, a black star in a universe of black matter. She continues to dance around me when we cross the Central Park transverse at 79th Street.
How long can she do this? As she spins, she arches her back far more than before, and she becomes even more exotic than before. It is trance she has danced herself into. The slow piano melody continues to overlay her movement, but they do not synchronize. Meanwhile, whatever point we are in the opera, seems to be coming to a crescendo of some kind. Her eyes are closed and she is hearing some kind of music, probably a great orchestrated Wagner recast with African drums. Finally, she stops by my side and allows the umbrella to cover us both. For a moment, she puts her head against my shoulder and then straightens up again. I want to put my arm around her, but I am too shy. We now walk silently and enter the park. We walk for a while and we walk to the Bethesda Fountain and sit down in the darkness on a bench that is not wet for some reason. I don’t say a word and neither does she. Wilhelmina stares at the lake from the fountain’s edge, and I just sit by her holding the umbrella. It is far more quiet now, but the piano continues to play. She is turned away from me and her back gives me a bit of courage. Without hesitation, but slowly, I gently put my right hand over her shoulder, a bit more towards her breast, but stopping before I can go lower.
Wilhelmina says nothing. But she reaches to touch my hand with her left hand. It is a tender and accepting gesture. We realize that it is nearly dawn, and we get up. When we reach Central Park West, we catch a cab, one of the new ones, and we go to her apartment in Chelsea. I have never seen it before, and it completely catches me by surprise. It is decorated as if it were Paris, not Manhattan, including 19th century sofas that look out of the French Revolution or the Napoleonic period. With a quick sweep over her head, she removes her dress. She is bare breasted and wearing a delicate black thong. She motions me to the elegant little sofa, and it’s understood where I am going to sleep. I stay awake for a while to watch her in her bed where she is sleeping between silken cream-colored sheets without a blanket. It is too warm for that.
The piano has faded from my head and I fall asleep, dreaming soon, dreaming of an Africa svelte where statuesque Wilhelmina is walking, naked, with a large basket balanced on her braids, into a great sunned horizon.
She awakes before me and has prepared breakfast. In the night, she threw a sheet over me, and I didn’t realize it. I have slept better than I have in years. I am hungry, and she brings over a tray of goodies, including the brightest orange juice I have seen as the light hits it just right. Wilhelmina is dressed in a Japanese kimono, with a large dragon on its back. She puts the tray on her bed and bids me to join her, curling her finger and pointing me the way. The kimono reveals a lot as she moves. Various slits open and close, and I catch sight or her breasts again, as well as her long legs. I now see that her skin is not truly black, but a deep dark chocolate. I rest my elbow on the bed, and reach for the glass of orange juice: It is fresh from fresh oranges, and chilled as well. It goes down like the nectar of the gods. There is caviar and crispy toast, and luxurious marmalade. The coffee is Kenyan, and we drink it black, but she uses sugar. We hardly say anything at all. I compliment her on the meal, and she nods and smiles. It amazes me that although she has slept, her braids are precisely held together as they were when we were walking Fifth Avenue.
She picks up a remote control from her end table, presses a couple of buttons, and her morning music is on. It is the murmuring of voices. I ask, “What is that?”
“Enchanting.” It sounds like the close harmony of mystical beings that one believes one knows and yet know that one doesn’t.
“Yes,” she affirms with diffidence.
She turns down the volume though, so that it doesn’t interfere with any conversation we might have. The bed is comfortable, firm and yet soft. I want to touch her, but I don’t dare. Wilhelmina must allow it, and so far she hasn’t.
“You did a lot to meet me,” she says.
“Patience and endurance and persistence sometimes pay off.”
“No one has ever persisted like that with me, and I am a big star. You’re a nobody, and yet here you are in my bedroom eating breakfast with me.”
“Well, I’m not a nobody any more, am I?”
Her eyes light up, and she smiles, “No, you’re not. You really are somebody now. I haven’t let a man in this room in a long time. Watch the marmalade.”
I am so enraptured that I fail to watch the marmalade dripping from my French bread. Its sweetness is offset by the caviar, which I also greedily devour. Wilhelmina changes position, and her breasts come into view again. This time she does nothing to cover them up. Her nipples are dark and hard.
“Do you like them?” she asks.
“They are beautiful. You are beautiful.”
She laughs and changes position again. The breasts disappear from view. “You’re a lot taller than me,” I continue.
“Yes, but not that tall. The tallest model was that Cleopatra Jones woman, Tamara Dobson. Now, she was tall.”
“You were very clever,” she says. “You managed to get my attention and not stalk me at the same time. If you had been so persistent by standing by the stage door or going to the show every night in the typical way, I probably would have had you arrested.”
“I’m glad you didn’t. I have never enjoyed an evening and a night more.”
“Do you have a girl friend?”
“Yes. She’s from San Juan, Juanita.”
“Is she pretty?”
“Very much so.”
“Then, why me?”
I shift positions again, so that I could be closer to her. “It was the first show you did. I just thought that you were the greatest dancer and singer that I had ever seen. You invigorated my spirit and I conspired to get near you. That’s all. I know I can’t have you, and that you are going to leave tomorrow on tour in Europe. I have read everything that I can find about you. But no one seems to understand you, and I had to make a try at it myself. Wilhelmina, you are the music of my life.”
“You know, I may not be the ideal that you think of me as.”
“I can’t believe that.”
“I’m just a plain girl from Harlem who has a decent education, remade herself, and got lucky. I’ll end up with some man eventually, have kids, and probably end up doing something teaching at a black college in the South when I am too old to be attractive to anyone.”
“That’ll never happen. You’ll always be attractive and beautiful. You’re a legend all ready.”
Wilhelmina shook her bead: “You really don’t understand, do you?”
“I am not what you think I am, or, rather, I am not your fantasy. Oh, yes, I model, and I dance and sing, and I do movies, but those are my jobs. I am not those women you see on stage or on the screen or in the magazines. I am just a plain girl from Harlem, and I am no different than you, my somebody who is a nobody. What do you do for your job?”
“I work in a factory in Brooklyn. I am a foreman. We make caskets, coffins. I should have been painter, but I have been too poor for that.”
“A foreman with a great sense of art and beauty and coffins. You see, you and I are really very much alike. Plain people with a great imagination.”
The music of the Pygmies has changed to Coltrane. It is time for the saxophone, and “The Night has a Thousand Eyes.”
Wilhelmina smiles again and continues, “You really want to have sex with me, don’t you?”
“The thought has crossed my mind, but I am grateful for what I you have given me already,” I answer sincerely.
“Yes, I can see that.” Wilhelmina leans back against the headrest of her bed and opens her kimono. She is completely naked. “I am giving you a look, but no touch. Now what do you see? Do you see me when I leave nothing to the imagination?”
Wilhelmina is dazzling in her nakedness. My lust is enflamed, but I listen to what she has said. I wanted to meet her, because I really wanted to know who she really was, and now I really can’t tell what she is at all. Propped on her elbows, Wilhelmina’s body doesn’t say anything about her that she doesn’t want me to know. In the background, Coltrane’s sax sounds guttural and pained. I look at everything about her, including into her sex and I start to fantasize. I catch myself. I am fantasizing about Wilhelmina, including some very strong sexual fantasies. But a fantasy isn’t real, is it? The question goes unspoken, and all there is jazz around us. She lies there naked, and I don’t see her.
“I really don’t know,” I have to admit. “But what I see is the woman who danced around me all night and lifted my heart. It wasn’t a woman on stage or on the screen or in some magazine’s swimsuit edition. That’s the woman I love. But this woman here, startlingly naked and desirable, making me hard between my legs, generously gave of herself to me in a way no woman has ever done for me, whether she did it to make fun or to have fun, I don’t know. But I’m glad she did.”
Wilhelmina smiled inscrutably, and then closed her kimono. She then moved to me and embraced me. I could feel her solid flesh against me, and she gave me a kiss on my cheek. It was quiet, and the mournful sax continued to fill the air.
“You have to go now,” she said. “I have to get ready for Europe.”
I got my things together, including the big umbrella which I had left in a stand by the door. She walked me to the door, and said, “Thank you for the marvelous night. I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
She was right. I will never see her again. I couldn’t, not after what we had done. Wilhelmina opened the door of her apartment and gave me another kiss, but this time chastely on the mouth. I responded well, and turned and went out into the late-morning traffic of a Sunday in Manhattan. I was on my way back to Brooklyn. The music had stopped.