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Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson

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BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
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What You Don't Say

n her third year at
college, Benny was cornered in the dorms by two girls who had seen Benny getting flirty with one of the guys from the African American fraternity. They called her a traitor. One of them pushed her into her room and when Benny caught her foot on the metal leg of her bed and fell, she kicked Benny in the face.

It was the surprise of what was happening that caused Benny to stay there on the ground, more than any of the blows landed by her schoolmate. She was, after all, six feet tall, and though she'd never loved the surfing and swimming as much as her parents and Byron, she'd done a bit of sport all the same, she'd grown up pretty strong.

In the end, it was all soft-tissue damage; the bruises would heal in time. But there was a deeper hurt that drove Benny away from the school. These were girls who she'd thought would have supported her for her differences, not lashed out at her. The one who kicked her while she lay on the ground had once danced with her at the student pub, then leaned her against a dark wall that smelled like beer and sneakers and kissed her. They had both smiled, then headed back to the dance floor.

This is the kind of thing a person doesn't say. That these were senior-year students who'd initially made her glad to be on campus. That instead of closing ranks around Benny, they'd closed her out. That as the one girl kicked Benny where she lay, the other didn't say
But Benny would never report them. She refused to give anyone
the chance to look her up and down the way people sometimes did and say,
You see?

From then on, with each move, first back home to California, then Italy, then Arizona, Benny yearned consistently for one thing more than any other, a life that felt emotionally unremarkable. A life that felt safe.

Arizona had seemed like a good place to start once Benny had decided to go to art school. She would get as far away as she could from the feel of the northeastern university that she'd left behind. She would study something that interested her, not her parents. She would take that time to figure out exactly how to move forward, how to find her place in the working world.

Benny was energized by the broad, seemingly barren expanses that, seen from up close, were popping with life. The furred leaves of the velvet mesquite. The blue-green bark and yellow flowers of the blue palo verde. The bristly javelinas, the splotchy Gila monsters, the baby rattlesnakes that flicked their tiny tails to warn of the potency already pooled within.

Arizona had a good art program that Benny could afford and Benny had grades that could get her into the school, almost no questions asked. And that was how Benny met Joanie. At the time, Joanie was a graduate assistant in ceramics. She had a sharp jaw and wavy ponytail that pulled at Benny the first time she saw her walking down a corridor with clay-splattered coveralls.

Then Benny saw the blue vase. It was nearing the end of the first term and some of the students had gone over to Joanie's townhouse for drinks and snacks. The poured-cement floor in Joanie's living room was cool and bare. The only carpeting in the central space was a claret-colored rug hanging on one of the walls and below it, on the floor, was a row of Joanie's ceramic pieces. The partygoers were clustered together in front of an enormous blue vase.

To say the vase was blue was about as imprecise as calling a person interesting, but everyone agreed that it was, at the very least, bluish. Benny sat staring at the waist-high object for what felt like an hour,
pulling her gaze up from the mostly emerald lower border, through its rich celestial middle, to the pale aquamarine splash at the top, the flecks of gold and amber near the upper edge, and finally, part of the lip and bulge of the vase, which had been left uncolored, the natural, reddish tone of the pottery exposed. Benny contemplated the vase, then looked over at Joanie. And Joanie smiled back at her in that way that Benny would come to know.

Four years into their relationship, Benny still hadn't told her family about Joanie, and this had become a problem. Joanie was ten years older,
been there, done that,
plus they were living in the twenty-first century, for Pete's sake, she said. Benny tried to make it up to her. She filled Joanie's kitchen, decidedly nicer than her own, with spices and sautés. She sent emails around to promote Joanie's exhibits. She waited every Friday night for Joanie outside the office where Joanie worked part time, so they could grab a pizza together.

But Joanie was the kind of person who appeared not to mind the slights of others, until finally they had crossed some invisible line. And now, it was Benny's turn to find out what that could mean.

As another winter of holiday plans approached, Joanie told Benny that Benny had been doing too much for her, suffocating her, when all Joanie had ever asked her for was one thing. Benny rushed over to Joanie's place. As soon as Joanie let her inside, Benny saw that the blue vase and a couple of the other pieces were gone, leaving empty spaces along the floor. It was then that Benny noticed the wall rug, rolled up and bound with plastic ties, the cardboard cartons lined up near the kitchen counter. Joanie told Benny she had decided to move to New York to take a teaching job, she'd be leaving before Thanksgiving. And just like that, it was the end of Benny and Joanie.

But only for now, Benny told herself, as she sped away from Joanie's house, hands tight on the steering wheel. Only for now, she told herself the following week, as she drove home to California, eye on the speedometer, trying to stay under ninety miles an hour.

The Bennetts

hanksgiving Day, 2010, right here
in this house. When Benny’s father finally grasped what Benny had been trying to say about her love life, he raised his voice. And Dad was not the voice-raising kind. She tried to interject but her dad kept talking over her. Then he stood up.

“I don’t see how you can manage to live a decent life with this kind of confusion,” Bert said.

“Decent?” Benny said. “Are you saying I am not decent?”

“Don’t you raise your voice at me, young lady,” Bert said.

“Daddy, you are the one who is shouting at me. You are the one who asked me if I was dating someone. You are the one who said, why don’t I bring someone home? I was just trying to explain that it might be a
or it might be a

“So your mother and I are supposed to be okay with you sleeping around?”

“I am not sleeping around, Daddy. I’ve been with the same woman for four years. I’ve only dated a couple of people, ever. But that’s not the point….”

“The point is, you’re not even sure what you want.”

“Yes, I am sure, Daddy. This is who I am. I’m Benny.”

There was a look in her parents’ eyes that she had never seen before. Everything went quiet, like that second before a pot of water comes to a boil. She looked over at Byron but he was just sitting there,
looking at the floor. He wasn’t going to help her, was he? Benny had feared it would come to this. She breathed in and out slowly, letting the hurt of what she was thinking run through her until she heard herself saying it.

“It’s you who aren’t sure, Daddy.” Benny worked hard to keep the quiver out of her voice. “It’s you who aren’t sure if you love me anymore.” At which point her father turned away from her and stalked out of the room, her mother following after him, saying, “Bert, Bert.” Benny hadn’t intended to spend Thanksgiving Day all alone, but she didn’t see how she could stay, what with her dad saying she was
and her mother wet-eyed and trailing after her father, and a bunch of people on their way over to the house for dinner.

The Bennetts usually entered and exited by the back door of their family home, the one that led directly into the kitchen, but instead of crossing through the house as usual, Benny headed straight for the front door. It took a couple of tries to get the door to open, its tendency to stick being one of the reasons why they’d always preferred the back entrance. When Benny finally tugged it open, she went through without saying a word.

She left the door open. She figured her brother would follow her out, but he didn’t. When she got home, she checked her messages, thinking Byron would have called her, would have grumbled,
What the heck were you thinking?
But he hadn’t. At least the long drive back to Arizona had its advantages. By the time she turned onto her street late that night, the holiday was over, and she was not the only person on the block to be seen trudging up the walkway, turning a key in the lock, and switching on the lights in an empty unit.

Benny tried to take comfort in the fact that lots of people didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.

The problem was, that wasn’t how Benny had been raised. This was a time of year when Benny’s family gathered together with friends and took time to be grateful. It was the being together that counted and Benny had just been excluded from it all.

In the weeks that followed, the landline at home would ring and the
caller ID panel would light up with the word
and Benny would punch the button to answer, but no one would speak. Benny would tell herself that it was her mother calling, because it wouldn’t have been her father. Sometimes, after a pause, a telemarketer would greet her in that buoyant tone that a person tended to use when bracing themselves for rejection.

Benny was always polite when she said no to the telemarketers because she understood that they were just trying to earn a living, they were just trying to get through the week, they were just hoping for a sign of acceptance.

Hoping for acceptance. Benny knew a thing or two about that.

She started sorting through her things that very night. What to take with her to New York, what to donate. There was that charity group that sent around a truck that made you feel better about having to part with stuff. You could tell yourself you were doing something good for someone. When Benny moved to New York soon after, hoping that, in time, Joanie would forgive her, she didn’t even bother to send her new address to her folks. They had her cellphone number, anyway, and they hadn’t used it in a while, now, not since she’d texted them to say that she’d be spending the Christmas holidays elsewhere.

Byron on the Tube

n the years after her
move to New York, Benny’s brother became so popular that she could see him every day, if she wanted to, on the television news, on a late-night talk show, on her laptop. Lately, Benny has been keeping a link on her smartphone that takes her to a documentary where a camera crew is following Byron around. TV Byron feels much more accessible right now than that other Byron who is out in the living room with Mr. Mitch.

TV Byron tells an interviewer that most of the world’s oceans remain uncharted, that information about the depth and shape of the seafloor could be used in so many things. Tsunami forecasting. Pollution control. The mining of materials for the electronics that people use every day. Everything we need to know about our past and our future is here, Byron tells the camera, pointing at a screen showing remote-sensing images. And everything that we can learn about who we are as human beings and what we are willing to do will be tested by this kind of technology.

Robots under the sea are helping scientists to carry out a major mapping project, but Byron says having more information will be an enormous test of international good faith. With every new technological development, knowledge has to be shared. Accords must be developed and respected. Otherwise, there is a risk, he says, that human greed will be the dominant force, just as it has been on land.

“What if I had a vegetable garden at home,” he says, “and every
time I wanted something like corn or tomatoes for dinner, I’d pull up all the plants by their roots or chop down an entire fruit tree just to have, say, a few apples? Well, you would say that makes no sense, right?”

Byron points now to a full-screen image of an idyllic seascape. “We need to be more careful with our underwater resources because that, out there, is the biggest garden we have on Earth. It may look infinite, but it’s not. We need to go easy on the seabed, we need to allow it to flourish.”

All the things that had initially threatened to work against Byron as a young scholar in ocean sciences have ended up turning him into a media darling. He talks about things like sonar technology, topography, and hydrothermal vents in ways that folks can understand. He looks like a fashion model for a high-end outerwear company. And, of course, he’s black.

There was a golden moment there, at about the time that Byron completed his PhD, when ethnic minorities were being encouraged more than ever to go for STEM degrees, though they didn’t always land the jobs with the best potential for professional growth. Byron had a very specific idea of what he wanted to do with his training. He kept knocking on doors and when, finally, one of those doors swung open at a newly formed foundation, wouldn’t you know it, he told Benny back then, he walked right through the reception area and into his dream job.

Byron grabbed the ball and ran with it and social media took him the rest of the way. Hashtags frequently seen alongside #ByronBennett include #ocean #science #underwater #tides #tsunami #globalwarming #environment #geohazards #oil #gas #pipeline #minerals #mining #defense #AfricanAmerican #sciencestud and #bachelors.

By tracking Byron online, Benny could pretend, at times, that it wasn’t true that they hadn’t seen each other in years, or hadn’t spoken in ages. She could allow herself to forget that she no longer had the kind of brother who would pick up the phone just to say hello, who would want to know how she was doing. Who might have gotten on a
plane, banged on her front door, and pulled her into a bear hug had Benny called him in the middle of the night to say
I need help.

She knows that part of this is her fault. But she’s here now, isn’t she? Still, it feels like Benny could yell at the top of her lungs and Byron, just down the hallway, wouldn’t hear her. Or he’d choose not to.

BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
3.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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