Izula had been some kind of lynchpin of our community, though, really, she hadn’t been close to any of us; we were still very fond of her. Most anyone would say that, I’ve learned, because I have shared these observations with others, and I find them to agree. She might even have been, without any effort at all (because some aspire to such things, like politicians) and without realizing it at all, the most beloved girl in our community in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. She was one of the most promiscuous young women in the family, and those kind of girls are not so often popular; they are usually reckless, making messes here and there, pitting people against each other, or off-putting with desperation. But she had an unusual combination of personality traits. I have heard, “By the time we’re forty, we’ve come to know every personality type there is.” I agree with that to a large extent, but there was one exception that comes to me off the top of my head, and that is Izula. I don’t think I’ve met anybody else like her.
Here’s what it was: she was both very promiscuous, a different man every three weeks, an occasional lunge at the girls (including me, a set of a drunken, slim elegant fingers suddenly on my thigh), and she was really sweet and pure-hearted. She was beautiful, I mean, exceptionally, uniquely beautiful, possessed of self on some deep level, and then very sad, reckless, and self-hating on another. She never seemed to like the men she was with. They were wide-eyed and struck, shuffling along behind the glamour queen for their three weeks, before she would replace them with another, similar, non-descript white man, some hipster with an embarrassing use of the black English vernacular, and we would say to ourselves, well, if that’s how she’s going to behave, being the chanteuse that she was, why doesn’t she date a record executive?
But she was pure-hearted, if you complimented her, said hello, asked about her day, she lit up with appreciation. She loved being loved by us. She didn’t initiate such connections, she didn’t ask about our days, not out of any selfishness, I don’t think, but out of an odd shyness performers can have: bold on stage and withdrawn in other moments. And then when she wanted sex, she was aggressive, daring, but in the simple, daily connections of friendship, she was shy. Or perhaps she expected to be wanted, but not loved in that sisterly way, and it was the sisterly way that meant so much to her. When we offered her the daily niceties we would have offered anyone, she lit up with love, something so genuine one could not help but be moved. She was such an appreciative friend. Her lovers didn’t fare as well, not most of them, anyway. Promiscuous people are angry, if they’re powerful, and desperate if they’re weak, men and women both.
Izula was South African, baby-faced, huge almond eyes, button nose, deep brown coloring, tall and slim but stacked. She wore her hair very short, and it suited her, with such a pretty face. She was that God-given combination of woman and little girl that men appreciate so much: shivering, vulnerable and childlike, with cleavage. She was a maneater, my friend Tamara put her finger on it. I think it was the indifference that drove the men nuts, like a character in Toomer’s Cane. She usually dated white men, though not entirely, and they were the kind of white men you would have found in Ft. Greene at the time, bohemians who liked black women, filling the pubs, lounges and cafes, chasing the black women that lived there, these graduates of Swarthmore and Harvard and Borough of Manhattan Community College, MTA workers, undocumented domestics, lawyers, waitresses, Phd candidates, dancers, yoga instructors, nutritionists and chefs, educators, NGO workers, TV producers, secretaries, city bureaucrats, monied ex-wives, journalists, poets and models.
Izula was a singer, had come from Johannesburg to sing in the Lion King at the age of eighteen. It was one of the special things about the South African restaurant where we all hung out, Mema, that you could show up there at one or two in the morning, on your way home from Manhattan, dinner with friends, an exhilarating or a disappointing play, a ten pm rock band at Joe’s Pub, and come across her singing, and a handful of South African dancers, professionals in troops, jamming, pulling it all together off the cuff. What magic moments come from the spontaneity of such communities, the hit or miss, the joy, the improvisation over the rehearsed, slightly bored performances that we can get from more orchestrated endeavors. Holy shit. The dancers moving in those leaps and stomps that eventually became familiar to me, so that I could recognize South African dancing as I could recognize the difference between Spanish and French.
She sang sometimes in English, but more often in Zulu or Xhosa, with clicks. Some songs I’d heard before through Miriam Makeba, of course, but there were many others that everyone from South Africa and Botswana seemed to know, which I’d heard there for the first time. The restaurant owner was a white South African, and he seemed to know some of the dances, and he was no professional, no athlete, but he took those broad steps, those leaps, in unison with the dancers who frequented his spot. He knew when to stomp the floor hard, when to lean left or right.
The workers there complained that the place was always in chaos. The owner, George, was living down in Miami with his American wife, a former model, their two children, and there really was no management. The long term workers made sure everything was running as smoothly as possible, checking on orders, keeping track of inventory, an eye on reservations. There was a joke that no one ever got fired, you could be the laziest fuck in the world and the rest would just have to carry your weight. You could miss a shift, two, three in a month and the rest would just have to carry your weight. There was a man who got caught adding tips to credit cards, and when George really did fire him, he felt terrible, said he was still a friend, he could come back and have a drink, but he just couldn’t keep him on.
The staff complained constantly, always a mess, always something ridiculous happening: out of the most popular booze, some asshole they couldn’t stand who could only turn four patio chairs upside down in fifteen minutes. But that family never broke up. They stayed, year after year, because ultimately, there was a lot of love there; it was nuts, and it was family. George loved his people and expressed it. We Americans are not so good at such things, especially New York’s army of well-educated, we’re not the most affectionate people in the world. I’ll even say we’re withholding, but George was affectionate, and the people who hung at Mema were. He came around every two months or so, took out his favorite workers and a couple of the regulars, a multi-culti group of white and black professionals and bohemians, and he had a kind of joyousness and celebration in the way he conducted his daily life. He provided a space for an integrated community.
There were two kinds of regulars there: hardcore regulars who lived in the neighborhood, and then people who came from all over the city, and even the tri-state area, to hang out there for special occasions. The first type came a few times a week or even every day, the second came often enough to be recognized, maybe weekly or monthly, more in the summer when the outdoor café was opened. The second group was built more of Africans, from all over the continent, though not exclusively.
The hardcore regulars, a group I was among, were a diverse group, mostly black, African-American and from New York’s popular immigrant groups, the Caribbean, West Africa, even immigrant London. Then, there were people from all kinds of other international groups. There was a very assimilated Dominican woman, from the island rather than the Bronx, who had been to Northeastern schools from prep-school to Amherst, a Waspy Dominican (summers on the island, school years in the cold). She once told me she could tell I was “displaced,” though I have a thoroughly American accent (I’m Filipino and Irish), a gut feeling from my way in the world, how I held myself off, I suppose. It made me a little sad to hear such a thing, but it’s true and so it also made me feel a bit appreciated, understood. And the other regulars were from groups we’ve heard of, but which are not in numbers huge enough, for example, to have their own scenes and neighborhoods in New York. Sunita, who we ironically called Sunny, that belligerent drunk (who would be asked, occasionally to leave for the evening but never for good) was a British Indian girl who turned some corner on particularly bad days and started insulting people sitting across the room, minding their own business and eating their fish with peri-peri sauce. There was that bartender who was Iranian-Canadian, who spoke French fluently and was a fierce reggae dancer, she’d learned in the clubs in Montreal as a teenager, tall and thin with perfectly arched eyebrows. She spoke French with Amin, also Persian, who had been raised in Paris, but spent summers with an uncle in Brooklyn, so he had no discernable accent. There were white men and women who preferred to date people of color and found it acceptable to do so in our neighborhood. There was that best friend pairing, short thin white James who had lost his mind over that Botswanan model and big and tall black Jamal, who liked tall curvy white women. They’d been best friends since college in Atlanta, and they were quite eligible bachelors, businessmen starting up international projects.
I’m saying all this about interracial lust, but mostly, black people date black people and white people date white people, even in a scene like this. I notice these things because I’m mixed myself, the phenomenon interests me, and our neighborhood was known for this, a place where mixed couples moved because they knew they’d be relatively accepted.
There was that Cameroonian girl with one of the prettiest faces you’d ever seen, as pretty as Izula, in a more girl-next-door way, less divaesque way, cheekbones, ponytails, whom the finance men chased. There was Richard, the waiter who had an African-American mother and Puerto Rican father, who spoke no Spanish, but looked perfectly Puerto Rican and confused everybody. A Korean-American girl that had grown up in a black neighborhood, those two Cambodian brothers from Boston who also liked black women, both of them. There was that Lithuanian girl who had grown up in Detroit among Filipinos (we had a bond over her nieces and nephews, she nicknamed them with Filipino food, our names for eggrolls and pork buns), went to fancy Vassar where she learned Spanish and Portuguese fluently, an executive in the Latin music industry. The rebellious Argentinian girl, daughter of the minister of finance, who married the pretty-boy son of Bahamanian immigrants to Miami, a Basquiat look, but prettier. Arabs, Latinos, Trinidadian immigrants of Indian decent. I once stared at a Kenyan girl who was clearly half Asian, trying to guess if she was Japanese or Chinese, I couldn’t tell, and I’m usually good at such things, and she finally told me her father had been half Japanese, half Chinese, from Singapore. I was very proud of myself that day. And one more tale of my instincts on miscegenation, since I am a child of such things, I asked Edward, the most Americanized Botswanan (he’d come at eighteen and knew all about American musical history and used American slang with ease) if his grandfather were white, because his features were a little rounder, more like an African-American’s, than those stronger angles African people from his part of the world have. I was wrong, it was his great grandfather, but wow.
But back to Izula. This was our community. This was where she sang spontaneously, in the middle of the party, pulling in onlookers from the street, but mostly for the family of regulars, and she was one of the special, one of the next-level things about that place.
I suppose there are white men from Jamaica who speak the patois of the island naturally. More likely, they speak a proper British English like all the upper-class people of the country, white, black, and Chinese, and I’ve met such people in my travels in New York, as you will if you travel in circles of people of color or immigrants. But I believe there are a few white Jamaicans, the sons of rebel mothers, for example, leftists or bohemians, perhaps just plain broke, who grew up in communities where the dialect of workers, of humble people, is thick with something distant from the standard language of institutions. Yes, there are such men, as there are men like Eminem.
But this ex of Izula’s, was not such a man. Our instincts can tell us what feels organic, even though I wasn’t so familiar with the language, it just felt plastic, forced, something about his sing song just seemed silly, held his syllables a beat too long, something didn’t sound right. Everyone liked the guy. I’d heard that he was kind, outgoing, but being someone displaced like him, perhaps it irritated me more than it did others. He was tall and handsome with blue eyes, shaved hair, baseball caps, a three-day beard. There he was at the bar, face sagging as if he’d suddenly aged twenty years with sadness, and his eyes were searching the room, and we knew she’d dumped him in the ruthless way she always treated these lovers, just moved on without returning his calls.
It was a medium quiet night. These were my favorite, enough friends around to feel comfortable, enough space to talk, and a couple of new people to keep it interesting. At this time, I was in the habit of being very asexual, searching for Mr. Right, hoping to settle down soon. I knew a million people, but I was a little reserved, playing it safe in the man department. I had a list, and I had promised myself that I would not get involved with anyone who didn’t have all the qualities at the top of my list, and most of the qualities lower down. He had to be a great conversationalist, kind, an artist, supportive of my career, fun, intelligent, be passionate about his interests. And of course, I wanted to be wildly attracted to him. My friends could tell you I have a very distinct physical type, someone as exotic as I am by American standards so that we identify with each other. My friends have laughed at the series of men and how much they looked alike, how predictable my taste was: one or two shades darker than me, squinky-eyed, and well, how much they looked like me, I felt understood by men like this. I usually liked them skinny (arty men are thin), bohemian. I never dated a straight-laced looking type. More conservative men think I’m a walk on the wild side, and I don’t like that. I don’t like being the bad one. I like men who think I’m sweet. I was a wild girl in my youth, and though I was a very social woman at the time of this tale, I was relatively conservative in the habits of my private life: I went long periods without having sex. I wanted a reputation for loyalty. I only dated men if I really liked them and really wanted to give it a go. I preferred to have friends in the neighborhood, brother-sister relationships with friends, than to have flings after those late night lunges. I didn’t like to drink so much that I felt bad the next day. I had things to do, poems to write. That is just what I wanted at this particular point in my life. I had certainly lived other ways.
Joanna, the bartender, was telling me stories about some lover, some sexy man she’d met at the pub, what he’d texted. This is what we usually talked about.
Adam, the white Jamaican now-ex of Izula’s, was up the bar from me, blinking into the space in front of him, face getting longer and longer. Joanna poured me another one, the people between Adam and me left. He was two seats down. I wanted to be polite, make conversation, but I didn’t know whether it would be better to leave him alone. His expression looked perfectly tenuous, like if you poked him, he might sob. His teeth were grinding as if they had a life of their own, as if he were very very old. Just the week before, he had been a good-looking man; it was embarrassing to behold. Every time the door creaked, he looked up.
Finally, “Hello, Adam, how are you?”
We both sat with our hands on our glasses. Joanna was on the other side serving a couple of giggling best girlfriends.
“Did you watch the Grammys?” I asked. It was the year they teamed up all these younger and older performers, black and white, the Jonas Brothers with Stevie Wonder, and there was something to discuss there.
He shook his head, no.
It was the dead of winter and the cold wafted in.
I felt bad for Adam. I asked myself if I were in his position if I would want an ear, and I would have, so I went to sit next to him.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He stared ahead. He pursed his lips to say something, then decided against it. He held his drink out front, looked down into its contents, lifted it slightly, swirled, sipped, set it down with gentleness.
Then he seemed to gather himself, as if he’d reached down inside and found something that took him back from the precipice. He was not going to cry. He asked about the Grammys, I gave my two cents. He didn’t remember my name, I told him. He still looked up when the door creaked, but he was engaging me, and he didn’t seem so terribly wounded that he was about to burst, distracted, angry, perhaps, but not about to sob.
He bought me a drink. Joanna smirked at me, congratulating me on my flirtation. NO, I tried to convey to her in response, with my stare, but the truth is, I was getting wasted, and it had been a very long time since anyone touched me. It was just after Joanna’s smirk that I could feel it coming
He asked me questions about myself and didn’t listen to the answers. He was somewhere back in his own head, having two conversations at once. Where was I from, what did I do? I’m from outside of Detroit. I teach, I write poetry. Do I have any books out? Did I hear of Derek Walcott? (duh), and he bought me another one. I was getting dizzy. I usually didn’t drink that much. I didn’t have to work in the morning, it was some bank holiday. His knee fell against mine, blue denim to blue denim. I hadn’t been touched. I felt aware of my skin, toe to skull. The door creaked, it was the owner’s brother come to look at the till.
He said, “Bless-éd,” a couple of times, in two clear syllables, in a way that just didn’t sound right, though I didn’t know what right would sound like. After a gradual leaning in, his breath on my ear, he said, “You’re like a fruit. I could take my time with, a cantaloupe a mango.” I had the feeling he’d said this many times before and that he didn’t mean it at all and I was thoroughly embarrassed by its cheesiness. I cringed but went through with it. We went to my place, just a few blocks away. It occurred to me that he had not remembered my name, so I asked, and he was off by one syllable but he had the first letter. And I took him upstairs, and it was cold, a spasm of ungraceful teenagers.
Later in the week, I ran into Mitrah, the Iranian-Canadian girl at the coffee shop. Her eyebrows were perfectly arched, lips red, hair piled up in what someone had called Barbarella-style, which she wore occasionally. It was a community, I knew her habits like that. She had a large steaming mint tea in her hand, maroon nails at half moon. Bla bla, how are things, have you heard about Jack’s party, how’s the painting? How’s your husband? How’s the dog? And it came out that Adam had been sulking all week at Mema, watching the door. One night, he and EBoogie, who had been his best friend amongst us, almost came to blows because Boogie grabbed the best oyster out of his seafood soup. Adam was driving everyone nuts, until Izula showed up with the tall, thin, Russian waiter from Chez Charles, the next restaurant down, another friendly, warm, dude everyone liked, also, she picked the men everyone liked, named Roman. Then Adam quietly got up and left and never came back. The Chez Charles workers hung out at Mema, but not vice versa. The place was kind of upscale; it was French Morroccan, and it didn’t have the same family-style atmosphere. Sometimes I’d show up at Mema, and there would be four regulars at the bar who had all been hanging out there for four-to-seven years. We confessed to trying new places, NoBar, the actor George Mackie’s place in Bed-Stuy, Cielo, the Nuevo Latino place on Myrtle, but we always came home to Mema. We quoted the Godfather, “I try to get out, and they pull me back in.”
But I hadn’t been there all week, I hadn’t stopped in for my dinner of mashed potatoes with mushroom sauce when I was broke, or chicken breyani if I were flush. No Stella or Stoli and Soda or Jamesons or hot tea or diet coke. I hadn’t been there because I had suspected as much of Adam, and though I knew Izula really and truly would not give a shit, I was embarrassed to face her. It was a few weeks before I went back. The bartenders joked I’d been cheating on them with NoBar.
An aside out of chronological order: it seemed I had only blinked, and a couple of years later I ran into Adam and his wife and child. She was a Jamaican schoolteacher who spoke proper British English. He had toned it down a bit, though one would still be inclined to ask him where he was from. I held out my hand and the baby, chubby, joyous, all things a baby should be, grabbed my yellow fingers with hers.
It was spring. It was summer. I had a thing with this Puerto Rican kid, with squinky eyes, that sold pot out of a pub by my house. I say kid because he was fourteen years younger than me, silly, with his own rap moniker and a ring that covered two fingers. He was a silly kid, yes, and he still turned me out. The crowd was kind of young, art school students. I wasn’t so terribly comfortable at this place, but I found myself there, late at night, after other places, looking for Julian. It ended badly, involving a very short bartender that laughed too hard, a girl who was somehow from Turkey but had a perfectly American accent. New York is, but Fort Greene was, in particular, full of people with these elaborate life stories, jarring migrations spanning the oceans.
That summer, I was flying home to visit my folks in Michigan, so I called Neo, who was driving for a car service. He was the Botswanan that Edward (the Mema bartender) had immigrated with at the age of eighteen. They were an interesting pair. Edward, as I’ve mentioned, was very Americanized, you wouldn’t notice from his manner of speaking, at first, that he wasn’t raised here (eighteen is young enough an age to achieve such a thing if one has a good ear), and Neo had a thicker accent, a more African aesthetic. He was very tall and very thin, wore kente cloth over his blue jeans. He was bohemian, short dreds and a beard. He generally dated women from other countries, from all continents (Edward only liked African-American women), though he had married, and divorced a Korean-American woman and had a beautiful daughter that had about a thousand aunts and uncles running around Mema (in many cultures all friends are named aunt or uncle, I love that). I was impressed with the way divorced parents were raising kids in Ft. Greene, with a lot more maturity than our parents’ generation, back when too many fathers had run off in shame.
He told me about his love life, he’d met a Norwegian he was crazy about. I told him about Julian rubbing the Turkish girl in my face and he said he probably did it out of anger, and that made me feel better. He told me about his art projects, he wanted to do a sound sculpture of conversation in the taxi, upscale fashion models talking about White Castle like it was sex, lovers’ quarrels over STDs. An Arab also-driver had gotten a ride from him when his car broke down, and asked if he could hit his crack pipe in the car, just a little bit, just quickly. We laughed long and hard about that tragicomedy, and the conversation came around to Izula. Bad news first: she had had some knock-down, drag-out fight with the boyfriend after the Russian, and that boyfriend-after-the-Russian had called the cops. She called Neo to bail her out. What he repeated after laying down the outlines of the story for me: “What kind of man calls the cops on his woman? She looked so sad. She just looked so sad, man. I felt so bad for her; she looked so sad. What kind of man calls the cops on his woman?”
We rolled along in silence for a minute, whizzing through a thousand thousand cars, a thousand thousand disinterested New Yorkers caught up in their own bullshit, making a living, worrying about money, getting by, being rich or poor, from every conceivable line of ancestry on the planet, cursing, blasting music, crying for lost love, looking forward to parties, scheming revenge or seduction. Why did I think so much on this woman, whom I knew only as a neighborhood party buddy, with whom I’d never sat down for a meal, never spoken on the phone, that I was suddenly also very very sad?
So that when he gave me the good news, it didn’t erase the disturbing image of the great chanteuse with her hands cuffed behind her back. I stayed sad through half the flight home. The good news: she had gotten a play in Paris. She was going to be the lead. I knew they were going to eat her alive in Paris, her maneater vibe, her distracted, unreachable sexuality would intrigue them. She was going on to bigger things. She deserved this, she was one of the greatest singers I’d seen in my life.
I think it is hard for terrifically beautiful women to have male friends. I don’t know how she did it, Izula, maybe it was that quality of sincerity, that pure gratitude I described earlier, but men like Neo, Edward, even later the sweet, dumped ex of hers, Roman, other men in the family who had known her for years, they loved her fiercely like brothers, without anger that they couldn’t have her. I think she did this, cultivated these friendships, by not expecting such a thing at all, and being amazingly touched when it happened. I wanted to be like her, to inspire such things.
Another year, no action in my love life, a flirtation with a painter that didn’t pan out. Edward and I had a tiff and didn’t speak for eight months. He told me I was hot tempered, and I proved him right. Then, one night I came in and he was bartending, and after awkwardly ignoring each other in the room through three seasons, hanging out with other friends and never chatting, we made small talk and were friends again. He told a story about being one of the less moneyed kids at a fancy South African prep-school with rich kids from all over the continent, ordering soup-only at fancy restaurants, stomach growling, while he sat with the nephews of dictators. He wasn’t at the fanciest, it was second-tier fancy, so it was only nephews, the sons of dictators were two kilometers over at the fanciest school of all.
I saw on the internet that Izula was a hit in Europe, saw reviews from Paris, that Haitian Marie translated for us: she was stellar, elegant, (elegant confused me, she was sexier than that, she was, I thought, naughty and deep, profound, and somewhat reckless. This was like calling the funk singer Betty Davis, the one with the tattoo, “This ass invented fusion,” elegant. She was more melodic than Davis, whose assonance I love, but just as sexy, “elegant” made me think of Audrey Hepburn. I even distrusted Marie’s translation and put “elegant” in Googletranslator, but it was of course, not Marie’s mistake).
In the winter, the play came to Brooklyn, and though, at that time, I really didn’t have 70$ in my budget to spend on a single performance, I went. I had seen her in the neighborhood beforehand, told her how I’d heard of her success, told her I was going, and she lit up in that way she always did. It was so warming to me that she cared what I thought so much that she would actually glow with gratitude at my interest in her career. The day before the show, I was hanging out with Tamara, the new-media queen of documentary film, with whom I always discussed tales of miscegenation. Her husband is white, and both her parents were African-American, but she was “light-skinned” enough that many would guess she was biracial. In my years of getting to know all kinds of Americans, I’ve discovered that many people who were mixed in a multi-generational way, didn’t publically identify as mixed, such an idea is charged, but in private, in moments, they were interested in sharing the tales of how they got to be that way. Tamara and I often talked of such things, and Tamara was very sociological in her observations, Ft. Greene as a social phenomenon. I like that, I suppose that’s my way as well.
Anyway, Tamara and I were at Mema. We had tickets together for the show the next night, and in walked Izula with her Asian-American boyfriend. Now, you will have noticed, throughout this tale, that I am interested in mixed couples, drawn to them, being the product of one. I do not mean to privilege such relationships over others, as a person of color, I understand that there is always the question of whether black, brown, and yellow people choose whites out of an internalized racism. The answer is never simple. But, on some level, a multi-cultural atmosphere is the one I’m most comfortable with. I think it’s beautiful, the world feels right that way, and since I had such an atmosphere in my home, but not in the largely white community I grew up in, I revel in it. I thank life for New York, for certain Brooklyn neighborhoods (and these are not the only places), for this reason. So—I share all this to get to my observation about Izula and her boyfriend. I had shared this with certain friends before. There is something about Asian men with Black women that I feel happy to see. Perhaps because it’s the least common pairing; black men and white women, Asian women and white men, were all over the place by the nineties, something we were used to seeing. I liked the more unusual, the least usual team. I had thought that long before I saw Izula and her man. And it was clear they were very serious, the first one I’d heard of her living with, and her posts on Facebook were about how he was the best of all.
Tamara and I were curious about who he was, if he were an artist, if he were rich, and we got a bit of his life story, but not those facts. His parents lived in DC, where he was raised. They had brought a box of exquisite mangoes back from vacation in Ecuador. They had met at Gigi’s, that place with the spicy fried chicken and waffles brunch. I had guessed he was Vietnamese, but he said his parents were from Taiwan and I felt kind of stupid because I pride myself on my ability to discern such things, knowing such things better than many.
Izula’s boyfriend was sweet (they always were), had a warm vibe. They were gorgeous together, high cheekbones, medium-plump mouths. Standing next to each other, staring forward as a unit the way couples who are at some mid-point of settling into their relationship do. We talked about the neighborhood, told Paul Lien that if he were with Izula, he’d know us all soon.
The play, the Neighbor, was very good, but it wasn’t as excellent as Izula. Tamara and I ran into people from Mema It was odd, the character Izula played was more subdued than she is. She played a straying wife, continually punished by her husband for an act of indiscretion. She was sweet, humble, nothing of the distracted maneater we knew. It also wasn’t that earnest pure side of Izula that lit up, even that girl was sexier than this character. This was a girl next door, uptight, worried about what the matriarchs of the community think. She sang in the role, sang notes beautifully, but much more controlled, no, with a different kind of control than the real her. The audience loved it, and I wonder what they would have thought to see her sing as herself. Afterwards, I shared my observations with friends. She was good, very good, but it wasn’t that next-level, whole nother level, kind of performance, in which Izula practiced those hesitations, that sexy joyousness, that half-pain smile that is an indescribable manipulation of expectation. She just knew when to hold on when to let go, and her voice was all woman. Of course I couldn’t understand her lyrics, but like all great singers, no, poets, no, artists, she seemed to be feeling empathy. When she played her character, she was being good. The audience loved it, got to their feet.
Later, she was at Mema with Paul, her boyfriend. She sat at a table in back with George, the owner and Mr. Scott, the seventy-six year old former-night-club-owner who was a regular. He had a new girlfriend, a seventy-year-old with the body of a thirty-five-year-old, I shit you not, Eveline, in heals, soft scarves, and dangling earrings. The rest of the cast filled out the table. We greeted them, settled elsewhere in the restaurant, and half an hour later, Izula started to sing.
It was that performance beyond her character’s performance, just one song, with clicks, sounded like a love song, a gift song, hips, hesitation, pulling something from deep inside which moved from guttural to pure. I was in that space of feeling lucky to be there, to be a part of this scene in Brooklyn, but I was also sad because I had the sense we wouldn’t see Izula much anymore. I wouldn’t be stopping in at one am on my way from somewhere else, to catch the improv, the stomps and trills. When she was done, the whole place stood, clapped and whistled. And the thick South African girl who had brawled with her ex-boyfriend right there on DeKalb one night, and won, she burst, it was an outburst, as if it couldn’t be helped, “Izula, you make us so proud.”
I had been thinking, “We’re so proud of you,” but I couldn’t let it out, and I felt a little more sad than happy. Your special places, your special groups, do disappear one by one as life goes on. I like to hope new ones always appear if you have an open heart. I tried to remember this. There were other singers who performed off the cuff at Mema in the middle of the night the next summer, but they weren’t the same caliber as her.
Three weeks later, she was on the road. I followed her on Facebook. She was in Rome; she missed Paul. He didn’t hang out. He wasn’t one of the constants that filled up that place. It’s funny, both pathetic and wonderful, but if you stop, if I stopped in on that place on a Wednesday night at nine pm, the odds of there being four people at the bar that I’d known for four years, were very high. One night Paul came in. He seemed sad. I wondered for a moment if Izula had pulled her usual sudden disappearance stunt, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t true. You can see the love that changes people. You could see that she felt safe with him. She seemed to be a little bit of that pure Izula more often, the one who lit up, surprised and grateful, with gestures of friendship. He probably just missed her. This was one of the few times anyone saw him when Izula was out of town. There were two seats between us. Then I moved over. I was going to interview him so I could get back to Tamara about his profession, but it never came to that. I was drinking beer, but when he ordered a Jameson I said that looked good and I switched. Like a gentleman, he paid for my drink. I thought he was handsome. He had wide, thin, black eyes, high cheekbones, a plump mouth that was a little pressed together like a pouty child. Our hands on our glasses were the same color. I leaned against him. He started, as if I’d burned him. He said it was nice talking to me. He was going to Skype Izula and give her my regards. Thanks, I said. Nice talking to you too, and he walked quickly out as if walking through the cold, but it was summer. New Yorkers always walk quickly, but there is a special sprint for the cold. He only came back once or twice without her, standing in the corner near the TV, talking about the game with Edward.
Issue No. 11 • December 2013