He was nearly purple-black, and when he smiled, the whiteness of his teeth was startling.
Grabbing coffee had been Daniel’s idea. The other members of his workshop were not interested in lingering on campus longer than necessary. They wanted to crawl back into their obscure corners of the city and shop at their co-ops and winter farmer’s markets, though none of them had actually ever been to a farm. And the obscure corners they now occupied had once housed great communities of color, the members of which were scattered across the city in a shattered and struggling diaspora. Occasionally, there were small articles sufficiently suffused with white guilt over the plight of people displaced by gentrification.
The only person Daniel could get to grab coffee with him was the quiet boy who sat closest to the door. Michael was tall and lean, as if his body had been shaped during a time of famine or lack. There was something hard and cutting about the way he moved, something hollow and birdlike about his bones. During the summer, he had worn plaid shirts always opened at the collar, so that his sternum was clearly visible. The light blurred against his skin. He was nearly purple-black, and when he smiled, the whiteness of his teeth was startling.
Michael’s work put the other workshop members on edge. It was not filled with what they expected from an African-American writer. Rather, his writing was full of sweetness and kindness, with warmth and depth and a gentle, goading persistence. His writing contained within it a genuineness that the other students mistook for naivety. That he refused to answer their questions about the prevalence of race in his stories only further irritated them.
It was not unusual for Michael to simply smile and nod in response to a critique that he had yet again written about race but had refused to do so in an “authentic” way, meaning that his characters did not extort or point guns or rage against the white man. Instead, his characters worked against mundane problems like first loves and tentative longing and dealing with parental expectations. They spoke not in vernacular, but in the flat, polished tone of the middle class. They asked him when he was going to get serious and dig into the real African-American condition, and Michael just smiled and nodded.
“Good question,” he said, “good question."
Grabbing coffee that day, Daniel felt somewhat nervous. His own piece had been up for discussion. In his story, a teenaged girl had gone to a priest to ask if she aborted her baby, God would still love her. The priest had answered sharply, harshly, that abortion was, without question, a grave sin. The truth came out later that the girl had been the daughter of a close friend of the priest, and the friend had been abusing the girl all along. Everyone had said how brave the story was for tackling such a complex moral issue and how difficult the decision was. They had further mused on the accessibility of abortion to low-income people, digging around in the lives of people far below the poverty line and wondering if abortions were more available, if these girls could begin to pull themselves up out of poverty.
During the conversation, Michael had sat silently, absorbing their words. When asked by the professor what his thoughts on the matter were, Michael had simply smiled and nodded: “I’d rather not say.”
This put a charge into the air as the other students leaned in as if to hear his thoughts whispered through his skin. The teacher gazed at Michael, his blue eyes skimming his eyelashes. Then he too smiled and said, “Well, that’s fine.” But his words dragged against the new weight in the air as if moving through static. The hairs on Daniel’s arms stood on end, and he felt a damp heat circulating through his body. The heat had not dissipated when he and Michael made their away out into the cold November air. It was a bright, clear day. The sky over the frozen lake was blue and empty of any clouds. In the distance, along a solemn slip of peninsular land stretched out into the lake like a thumbs down sign. People were skating, and their calls carried inland, washing faintly against Daniel and Michael as they walked.
“They take the pier apart at the end of fall,” Michael said.
“Yeah, so it doesn’t freeze or break or something.”
“It’s strange, I think. That they take it apart and rebuild it.”
“Why’s that so strange?”
“Because it makes me wonder, I don’t know, why? Why build it if you have to take it apart.”
“I mean, you can’t fight the lake, you know?”
“Yeah, that’s why it makes me wonder, I guess. You can’t fight the lake.”
The cold had turned Michael’s skin grey. His dark eyes gleamed against the brightness of the day. It must have been just around two in the afternoon. Soon, all of the blue would drain from the sky and there’d only be night left.
“Why didn’t you say anything about my story in class?” Daniel stuffed his hands deep into his pockets. Michael didn’t seem startled by the question, though he did pause, absorbing the words, their heat, the abrasiveness in his tone, which Daniel had not meant.
“I felt uneasy. Them talking about poor people and abortions. I felt uneasy, because I don’t think they know anything about it.”
“And you do?”
Here, Michael did seem shocked by the question, and Daniel regretted it immediately. They idled near the lake for a moment. A hawk, solitary and dark in the midst of so much blue, drifted above them before scaling higher and higher until it invisible to them, lost in the distance and the light.
“Let’s get that coffee.”
Michael did not order coffee. He ordered a hot chocolate. Daniel ordered a small cappuccino with an extra shot of espresso. They settled near a window in the back. The cold radiated from the glass.
“You do what?” Daniel watched Michael’s eyes drift to the outside. The people were all bundled, wrapped up in layers of warm clothes, indistinguishable from one another.
“I know about being poor.”
“Oh…I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s okay. It’s just…I get sick of getting asked about it, I think.”
“You get asked a lot?”
“Yeah. I get asked a lot about poverty, about class, about race. I feel like everyone here is having a conversation at me, but I’m the only one expected to do the work.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, look at you, for example.”
“What about me?” Daniel again felt himself bristling at the question. Michael had not yet looked at him. His eyes stayed resolutely fixated on the people outside, beyond the window. He had crossed his long legs under the table.
“When you asked me that question, did you think for a moment that perhaps I didn’t want to talk about what I knew of poverty?”
“You didn’t. You probably didn’t think at all, did you? Do you ever think of poverty? Or race? Or class?”
“You probably wake up every day and find your entire world laid out before you, and you deal with it on this very object-oriented level, don’t you?”
“Well, it’s not that simple.”
Michael smiled and nodded, though did not look at him still. Daniel exhaled sharply and leaned forward. “And you’re being dismissive, by not looking at me.”
“Oh? I’m sorry. I would hate for you to feel dismissed.” Michael swung his eyes toward him and Daniel breathed roughly.
“I’m not trying to be passive aggressive, Daniel. I just get tired, I guess.”
“It’s alright.” Michael’s smile did not reach his eyes—that is to say, the warmth or the brilliance of the smile did not reach the eyes. Instead, Daniel felt the cold, hard weight of Michael’s gaze. He felt as if he were transparent, like the glass that Michael had spent most of their coffee meeting looking through.
“I feel like it’s not. Did I offend you?”
“That’s not an interesting question, is it? Did I offend you?”
“What would be an interesting question then?”
“An interesting question would be a question that addressed me as a person rather than…” Michael frowned, concentrating hard on some point just out of reach and Daniel waited, each second stretching into the next, impossibly long, painfully long.
“I can’t think of one. I guess that’s why I’m not a very good writer.”
Daniel laughed softly and shook his head. “But you are. You are a good writer.”
“Ah, I don’t think that’s true, man.”
“But it is. You are a good writer.” Daniel nodded firmly. Michael pulled his cup to his mouth to hide his embarrassed smile.
“I liked your story today. But it gets so caught up on morality, right and wrong—“
“And what was with that creepy priest. Didn’t he seem like a straw man? Too easy of a villain.”
“Broad strokes,” they said simultaneously, imitating their teacher’s well-worn phrase. Michael snickered and turned away. In that moment, a shaft of faded light struck the side of his face, illuminating him. Daniel’s heart throbbed.
“Anyway, I’m sorry for that whole mess in class today.”
“It’s okay. Probably my fault. I introduce a weird energy.”
“Yeah, but they’re so…”
“Defensive,” Michael offered, shrugging. “It is what it is, I guess.”
“To be honest—and this is probably really sad on my part—but I was hoping they were coming to coffee today. I was hoping to…ah, I don’t know.”
Michael smiled a sad, small smile. “Am I so obvious?”
“No, not at all. I guess I just recognize it because I’m…also really bad at making friends.” For a moment, neither of them said anything, but the silence between them was pleasant and soothed their irritated nerves.
“I have another class soon,” Michael said.
“Yeah, I better get going too.”
They went out into the cold again and stood facing one another. They were going in opposite directions. The sky was much darker now. The day had begun its gradual descent into darkness. Everything was swathed in that same, tired light that had washed over Michael. Daniel stuck out his cold hand. Michael took it and smiled at him. Warmth flowed between them.
“I’m glad we did this,” Michael said.
“You bet,” Daniel said, and just like that, Michael was gone, getting farther and farther away until he was invisible, lost in the grey and the gathering dark.
Brandon Taylor is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s also currently the assistant editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. He’s been both a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction.