I’m never coming here AGAIN. Alexis Therese shudders as the thought crosses her mind for the fifth time in the last three minutes at the Uptown Juice Bar, a health food café with a soul twist in Harlem. Invited by the best of her friends -- Juanita and Rudy, both of whom are black and swear the food is fantastic -- she blanches at having to be on 125th Street. She doesn’t like the big, chunky jewelry sold on sidewalk tables. She didn't listen to hip-hop. Nor does she care about celebrating Malcolm X’s life.
Juanita interrupts her train of thought. "Alexis, you'll love it."
"The food here's amazing," Rudy adds.
She nods, but inspects the silverware for spots.
"We promise. You'll love it," Juanita repeats.
Smiling as she did at root canals, Alexis Therese notices she is the only Filipino customer in the room. Probably the only Catholic one too, I bet. She wonders if they would understand the beauty of St. Therese of Lisieux, her namesake saint, a young woman who died of tuberculosis in a French nunnery at twenty-four after ten years of quiet devotion. Would these people know she granted wishes after nine days of fervent Novena? Could they ever recognize the serenity of St. Therese’s trademark rose -- the sign she granted prayers with -- while screaming and yelling in their services? She doubts it.
"Oh, hello," Rudy says, smiling at the waiter arriving at their table.
As steaming plates of soy chicken and grilled vegetables are set down with small bowls of brown rice, Alexis Therese wrinkles her nose. The smells aren't familiar. Nor does brown rice seem appetizing; compared to white rice, it looks like larvae.
"The flavors are so great here," Rudy says, serving himself a generous amount of chicken.
Juanita laughs. "You can use a little more culture past hot dogs and fried rice."
Though annoyed at her midnight snack used as personal ammunition, Alexis Therese represses a retort she could utter about Juanita’s African and Korean parentage. Since when did Pam Grier and kimchi count as cultural contributions?
"Oh, just try it," Rudy says, rolling his eyes.
Immediately doing as she is told, Alexis Therese places small portions on her plate. Slicing her meal into bite-size morsels, she smiles and nibbles while pushing the rest of the food around. As long as she looked like she was eating, people didn't question her bathroom trips afterwards. Nor did they hear anything as long as she ran the sink water.
"So do you like it?" Juanita asks.
"It's fat-free. She's gotta like it," Rudy says. With a snort, he looks at her and adds, "And it's better than that Slim-Fast you drink every morning. That aftertaste sucks. You're so—"
"Don't use the F-word," Juanita warns.
Knowing Rudy would have called her fascist, Alexis Therese narrows her eyes. He just didn't understand she was disciplined. Nor could he ever empathize when he had the luxury of burning off everything he ate within minutes. Calories, calories. A lady had to be moderate with her food. Nor did a lady raid All-You-Can-Eat buffet tables for third portions, or sneak extra bread out in napkins.
"You're so... not eating," Rudy amends.
Recalling her own mother’s gauche restaurant behavior, Alexis Therese takes a grudging bigger bite of soy chicken. Digesting its unfamiliar flavor, she wonders how anyone carrying Maria as one of her given names could laugh loudly without caring about neighboring diners’ conversations. Nor was anyone’s food safe -- once, on a first-class flight, her mother decided the best way to have the uneaten gourmet cheese on another passenger’s tray was to tell him she was the last living descendant of Emperor Pu Yi of China. Her mother’s sole motivation was cheese. Cheese!
Now craving a grilled cheese sandwich with toasted white bread, Alexis Therese looks at the doorway. Outside, at a deli many, many blocks away from the café, she could pick one up. As the sandwich beckons her to ditch her new-fangled worldly lunch and return to its routine comfort, she hears a baritone voice say hello.
Initially wondering if her Kraft cheddar fantasy truly came to life, Alexis Therese looks straight into the eyes of a young man with a resemblance to Djimon Hounsou. His skin looks like polished ebony, while his bright white teeth are framed by lips that seem lush. Blushing, she watches his glance travel down to her legs—where, to her horror, her pastel-pink skirt has ridden up to mid-thigh. The young man tilts his chin up with half-lidded eyes. He gave me The Look! He’s wearing sweat pants!
"You're very sexy," says the young man, whose Caribbean accent makes her ears tingle. Smiling, he walks away to another table in the dining room.
"He's cute," Juanita says.
"He sounds Jamaican," Rudy says, glancing at her and Juanita, then looking at the young man. "Is he Jamaican?"
"I don't know, but he's hot," Juanita adds.
"You're married," Rudy scolds.
"At the moment I'm not," Juanita retorts.
As her friends continue their playful bickering, Alexis Therese immediately Christianizes her clothing. With the expert discipline of an Army maneuver, she yanks her hemline closer to her knees and crosses her legs. She isn’t some bling-covered Baby Phat-wearing 50 Cent dancer showing off her Little Flower. No, she wasn't one of those girls. They were hideous. Tacky. They're pregnant all the time! No wonder Bill Cosby didn't like them, either.
Noticing the young man still looking at her, Alexis Therese averts her face. Every time a man stared, her skin crawled. She never liked being called Sexy Lexy in third grade; the bastardization of her birth name was bad enough, but what was on all their minds was worse. They wanted One Thing.
"Awwww," Juanita says, rubbing her arm. "It's okay."
"Sweetie, you don't have to be so shy," Rudy says, looking at the young man. "He's very cute. He thinks you are too."
Allowing herself to relax a little, Alexis Therese still feels shaken. Men wanted just One Thing, and wanted it with other… things. Toys. Dildos. Whips. Masks. Handcuffs. Leather. Latex. Corsets. Goodness, they even wanted to do it in contortions that looked weird, angles that surely weren’t possible, and positions she could only guess they learned in a yoga class.
"You're okay, aren't you?" asks Juanita.
Nodding, Alexis Therese sniffs. However those girls wanted to do it or whatever they wanted to do, she wouldn’t do it. She was saving herself for marriage to a nice man. The only one suitable enough to pick from her immediate surroundings was Clarence Thomas.
"You there?" Rudy asks.
"She'll be okay," Juanita says. "Let her calm down. She isn't as social as you are."
"Come on sweetie," Rudy says with a soft voice designed to encourage a cat down from a tree. "It's not as bad as the porn shop."
Juanita snorts, then shoots Rudy a reproving glance while trying not to smile.
Smiling weakly while summoning the daydream that rescues her from awkward social moments, Alexis Therese pictures her wedding day. She sees herself standing in a grand basilica wearing a gown like Princess Diana's, but knows she won’t have her church ceremony this year. Her last three dates stopped calling abruptly after inflicting Post-Traumatic Second Base syndrome. Refusing to think about how long she waited for them to call her again, she serves herself a larger second portion and attacks it with the diplomacy of wildlife predators.
"I guess that's settled," Rudy says, arching an eyebrow and looking at Juanita.
Attempting to satiate her suddenly ravenous appetite, Alexis Therese tries to understand why she is alone. Her last few dates just seemed so promising -- the slightly nerdy “Firefly”-addicted modern dancer, the Latin opera-singing San Francisco corporate attorney. However, their collective distress didn’t compare to the swarthy Greek, whose comic book collection she initially favored because he seemed like Clark Kent, but who actually showed her his black Polo Ralph Lauren briefs to her! Who actually asked her if she would put her hands and mouth underneath them! Who even said it was a good start when her jaw dropped open!
Swallowing vegetables down with vigor, Alexis Therese hoped the Greek took his Super Funny-Tasting tzatziki and shoved it. Without ever seeing what color her bra was, he had broken her heart. She didn't need to be judged for saving herself. Only God could judge her, and she knew what He did to anyone who deviated from The Way.
“Hey sweetie,” Rudy says. "I have something to tell you."
“This is why we asked you to lunch,” Juanita adds.
Thankful for anything else to think about besides Greek yogurt dip and damnation, she sits up.
“I’m gay,” Rudy announces.
Her mouth drops open. Damned Greek yogurt dip was easier to think about.
“I’m gay,” Rudy repeats. He looks at her, waiting for her response.
Stupefied, Alexis Therese searches for clues that could have told her so. He was a fantastic dancer -- was that a sign he was gay all this time? Maybe she should have suspected something when he dyed his dreads blond, but Rudy was creatively stylish -- he dressed really, really well right out of the pages of his GQ subscription. He was always cultured enough to keep reading something. Though she never read "Running With Scissors", Augusten Burroughs seemed as sophisticated as Edith Wharton.
“Are you okay?” asks Juanita.
Hearing the I’m Gonna Git You Sucka warning in Juanita’s voice, she nods.
“What do you think?” asks Rudy.
He likes boys. He likes boys. He likes boys.
“Alex,” Juanita says.
Knowing she should say something -- anything -- supportive, Alexis Therese struggles to find an appropriate response in the two minutes she has before Juanita will lose her temper. But he likes boys still spins around her mind at centrifugal speed. As Rudy and Juanita continue staring at her, she notices a lull in the dining room noise. The entire crowd is listening to their conversation. Close to thirty black people in Harlem are watching her.
“You aren't freaked out, are you?” Rudy asks.
Shaking her head and standing up from the table, Alexis Therese announces she is going to the bathroom. Wobbling like the unsteady drunk she never is in public, she hopes everyone isn’t staring, but can still feel sixty-plus black eyes on her back. After a few minutes alone, she would focus. She wouldn’t talk about the One Thing men did with each other; she would say the right ones. Being gay wasn’t too bad—Valentino was gay. Lance Bass was gay. Even Kevin Kline was gay in that Joan Cusack movie she loved so much. Right, she would say that.
Oblivious to the cockroach skittering towards her sandal, Alexis Therese shrieks when it grazes her toe. She twists her ankle and slips, landing right on her tailbone on the slightly damp and dirty linoleum floor. Wincing at calls of “Yo, you okay?” and the black smudge on her rear end, she pulls herself up from the floor and locks herself into the bathroom. As she runs the sink water, the thought occurs to her once more. I’m never coming here AGAIN.
An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.
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6.18.07 @ 7:24a
Great images. Great writing.
6.18.07 @ 10:21p
He was a fantastic dancer -- was that a sign he was gay all this time?
Oh, too funny!
Poor, poor girl - I suspect more adventures await her, yes?
6.18.07 @ 10:36p
Hi Tracey! Alexis Therese hasn't recovered from landing on her ass. In fact, she's gonna hate me for even writing about it. But when she isn't crying into her vodka while waiting for the phone to ring, she's sort of getting okay with Rudy being gay. She's worried he's damned, but likes his T-shirts.