“You don’t remember me, do you?”
Katherine peers at the man, then swivels around, to find out who he’s talking to. No one is standing close by, so she turns back to him and says, “You’re right. I don’t remember you.”
“I read that you were starring in this play. I’ve seen it three times,” he remarks. He laughs and adds, “Camp. A long time ago.
”Katherine opens her eyes wider and studies the man. He’s sallow-complexioned, with a receding hairline, a type she would normally not give a second glance. But as she silently considers him, he laughs again. His twisted grin looks chillingly familiar.
“We went to camp together,” the man explains. Not waiting for a response, he adds, “You look great, by the way. Different than before. But I recognized you.”
Katherine stifles the urge to insult the guy, and says instead, “I don’t remember you. My memories of that time are mostly gone.”
Once the words are out of her mouth, she moves away, as quickly as she can .Weaving through the crowd, she’s grateful to reach the drinks table, strewn with clear plastic cups and half-empty wine bottles, on the other side of the room. She reaches for the open bottle of Cabernet, hoping the wine will ease the anxiety, causing an aching sensation in her stomach. The cast is celebrating its final performance of September in San Francisco. The romantic comedy in which Katherine nabbed a leading role has finished a successful run, with great reviews and seats sold out for months. There’s talk of the play heading out of San Francisco, maybe going all the way to Broadway.
Katherine feels a mix of pride, coupled with sadness, that the run is at an end. She has no other work lined up.She sips the somewhat sweet wine from the plastic cup and looks around, knowing she ought to mingle, since there might be agents in the crowd. Even though she hates that sort of thing, she’s perfectly capable of slipping into character, as a confident, chatty woman who can strike up a conversation with anyone. The room hums. Katherine searches for people she knows, along with unfamiliar faces, who might be good contacts. Her male lead, Ryan, is chatting nearby, with some people Katherine doesn’t recognize. Hoping to discourage another encounter, she happily makes her way to Ryan’s side. From the corner of her eye, she confirms that the stranger has followed her. Throwing her arms around Ryan’s neck, Katherine plants a kiss on his lips.
“Oh, Franny,” Ryan gushes, easily dropping back into character.“
"Chet,” Katherine whispers, running her fingers through Ryan’s hair.When she steps back, she can’t help noticing the stranger eyeing her, a few feet away. Her eyes dart around the room. Spotting an opening, she tells Ryan goodbye, then scurries toward the room’s opposite side. Relieved at making it to the women’s restroom, Katherine rushes through the door. At last, she’s found a place where the strange man hopefully won’t follow her. Safely locked in a stall, she leans against the metal door. For the first time that night, she lets her thoughts travel back to that time. An image of Nganga floats into her mind. Elegant, she thinks, with his long slender hands and arms, lovely dark eyes, beautiful black skin and French-accented speech. Polite and shy, Nganga was taunted by the other boys. Nganga was from Africa, his mother, father, and five brothers and sisters, refugees from the Congo, sponsored by a local church. He was not like any of the boys Katherine knew. He asked Katherine if she cared to take a walk. She couldn’t think of a reason why not. They had a free hour, before having to help prepare dinner. Several times in the previous few weeks, she had found herself next to Nganga, eating in the large all-purpose room or involved with one activity or another outside. She had never known anyone from a foreign country, especially one as remote as the Congo. She’d also not had a male friend or been close to a person who wasn’t White. Before agreeing to take the walk, Katherine silently acknowledged that she wasn’t supposed to be alone with a boy. Nevertheless, she told herself that being outside, not far from the other kids and camp counselors, wasn’t the same as being in a room with him alone.They weren’t, she mentally argued with her mother and father, doing anything wrong. At fourteen, Katherine wasn’t exactly clear what sins a boy and girl might commit, on a too-warm, muggy afternoon, at a Christian camp in the country. Katherine slips out of the stall, tiptoes to the sink, and turns on the faucet. As she washes her hands, she considers her reflection in the mirror. How could the stranger have recognized her after so many years? Studying her face, she brings up a picture of the awkward young girl she’d once been, her hair pulled back into a ponytail that occasionally brushed her neck. Medium tall, neither beautiful nor unattractive, Katherine falls somewhere in between. Her large blue eyes are the first thing anyone notices, along with an unforgettable gap between her two top front teeth, which her husband Mohammed, who everyone calls Mo, adores. She makes the most of what she’s been given. Blond highlighted hair frames her oval face, in a shaggy, layered style. Before going out each day, she sculpts the fine strands with gel. In public places, such as an airport waiting area, she’s been known to suddenly move into a yoga pose, her head far below and feet high in the air.They stepped into the woods on a path that ran along the river. Closing her eyes, Katherine can hear the sound the water made that day, rushing over rocks. Purple trillium sprouted amongst the varied shades of green grass along the sides. A little way into the woods, Nganga brushed her hand. He did it again, a moment later. Before she had a chance to say something or move, Nganga had braided his fingers between her’s. The kiss came as a surprise, once they’d found two large rocks, perfect for sitting. Her fingers entwined with Nganga’s, Katherine marveled how beautiful they looked, one pale, the other dark. She was saying something, at the moment he leaned down and placed his lips on hers. Nganga had been that one shining moment in her young life. This stranger turned a shimmering light into something dark.Katherine blindly searches the bottom of her purse, where paper clips and pens have collected, until her fingers brush the smooth cylinder of her lipstick tube. As she leans close to the mirror and spreads dark mauve across her lips, she remembers the stranger’s name. Brett. And she recalls Brett leering at her, starting in June when camp began. The looks he threw her way did not seem like ones a boy would give a girl he liked. Neither Nganga nor Katherine heard steps moving close as they held one another, their eyes shut. The two young people failed to see, since trees blocked the sun and no shadow had formed.
“Ouch.” A stinging sensation at the top of her left arm startled Katherine. She thought a bee or yellowjacket had stung her, and she turned to carefully swat it away. Instead of a swollen red splotch, her skin was streaked with dark brown mud. She looked up.
“Caught ya’,” Brett said, hugging a mud-soaked rock.
His fingers on Katherine’s arm, Nganga leaned over, looking to see what this tall White boy had done. He shot his gaze at the boy and back to Katherine’s arm. Then he stood up and stepped close.
“You do this?” Nganga demanded to know.
“Yeah, I do this,” the boy said. “It’s I did this, not I do this. Guess they don’t teach the right way to talk where you come from,” he laughed.
Nganga’s slender body looked half the size of the bully’s. He clenched his right hand into a fist and pulled his arm back.
Katherine jumped up, grabbed him and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
Nganga resisted. But she tugged on his arm, yanking him past the boy, still armed with that muddy rock. The memory leaves Katherine feeling cold, and she starts to shiver. What began as a beautiful day turned dirty as mud. They were running, with Katherine urging Nganga on. She feared a fight, in which Nganga, being smaller and slight, would get badly beaten.Katherine shakes her head, as she remembers the rest of that day. The soiled memory is one she’s buried for decades.
“Oh, forget that stuff,” Katherine admonishes herself, dropping the lipstick tube into her purse and heading for the door.
Across the crowded room, Katherine spots Mo. He’s tall, which makes her able to locate him, even in such a crowd. Like Nganga, Mo is dark, and sweet, gentle and funny. Everyone loves Mo, Katherine knows, more than they like her. She doesn’t bother searching for the stranger, now that she’s not alone.
“There’s the star,” Mo announces, when Katherine’s almost at his side. “I was looking for you.”
Relief floods her body.“I was in the Ladies,” she says, on tiptoe now, giving her husband a hug. “You were late.”
“We had a meeting. New menu items,” he explains.
Mo turns away from Katherine, finishing a story about something that happened in the restaurant where he works as a chef. Katherine takes the opportunity to glance around, exhaling her caught breath when she doesn’t find the bully nearby. As much as she wants to shove that old memory back to a dark, never-opened closet in her mind, she can’t help recalling what happened later. The camp director was sitting behind his desk, in a too-bright office, at the side of the all-purpose room. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, patterned in small red, yellow and navy-blue squares. His wrists were pudgy, his hands little fat pillows. Nganga stood a few feet away from Katherine. The director leaned forward, his round bald head shiny under the overhead lights. He twirled a pen, like a weapon, between his thick index and second fingers. Katherine felt her cheeks grow hot, when he said that word. Fornicating. She feared she might explode. What was Nganga thinking, she wanted to know, but couldn’t make herself turn and look at him.
“I will have to tell your parents,” the director, Mr. Meade, announced, swiveling his body to face Katherine, though he shot his gaze past her, smack against the back wall.
There was no truth to that word, she wanted to argue, but remained silent.
Nganga, however, spoke up.“We are innocent sir,” he said, in the quiet way he always talked.
The director looked at Nganga and shook his head.“There is nothing innocent about what you have done. And this is after the church has taken you in, Nganga. We are keeping this quiet, so as not to bring shame on the camp. But there is certainly suspicion, young man, that you may have forced yourself on this girl. You must pray for forgiveness, as God will be your judge.”
Katherine shakes her head, trying to dislodge the memory. Mo is speaking to her, a look of concern on his face.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Oh, yes,” Katherine says. “I was just thinking about something.”
“Yeah, you looked like you were a million miles away.”
Katherine wonders if she should tell Mo about the stranger. Instead, she smiles and asks, “Would you get me a glass of wine?”
The rest of the night, Katherine tries to move into the spirit of the party. But the appearance of that guy has ruined the evening for her. She’s always loved listening to Mo tell stories, as he was doing tonight. He has a gift, Katherine often tells him, for details that transport listeners to some foreign place, so they forget where they are. But her mind keeps drifting off.The day after Katherine and Nganga stood in front of the director, her father, Reverend Ash, arrived. As she’d been instructed, Katherine waited outside, watching her father drive up, in his shiny silver Ford .He didn’t look at her, when she got in the car.
During the two-hour drive, the only words he said were, “Your mother and I are very disappointed.”
From time to time, Katherine sweeps her gaze around the room. Past midnight, the crowd has thinned. She holds onto Mo when she surveys the space, where only a handful of people remain. Not finding the man, she lets out a long sigh.
“Are you sad about the play ending?” Mo asks Katherine, as they step outside.
Katherine realizes she’s hardly thought about it, since encountering that man.
“I probably will be tomorrow,” Katherine says, happy to be out of that room.
“When I would normally go to the theater. That’s when it’ll hit.”
Thick fog swirls through the air. Feet from the couple, buildings are hidden from view. Katherine can’t help thinking how her past is like this fog. Only now is it possible to see, as if the fog has finally lifted. As If Nganga had been White, Brett wouldn’t have followed them. And if Nganga weren’t Black, would this White boy have made up a story that the director automatically believed, without ever asking Katherine or Nganga to tell their side? Katherine pulls Mo closer, thinking how lucky she is to have him in her life.
“What?” he asks.
“Just thinking how much I love you,” Katherine says.
The following afternoon, a few minutes before four o’clock, Mo leaves for work. Katherine stands at the window, watching him pass the building, on his way to the corner. Once Katherine’s sure her husband is gone, she heads down the hall to the bedroom and opens the closet. There’s a large cardboard box in the back, and she slides it out. Taking a seat on the hard wooden floor, she lifts the cardboard flaps and reaches inside, rifling through the contents. Several minutes later, she finds what she’s looking for, a stuffed manila envelope near the bottom. Lifting the envelope, she turns it over, letting loose photographs fall to the floor.Small school portraits drop into a pile, mixed with black and white prints, framed by narrow, jagged white borders. Larger eight-by-ten class pictures from elementary school are buried in the mess. Katherine runs a hand over the pile, to one side and the other, as if shuffling a deck of cards. She keeps her eyes peeled for one.He stands out completely, the only Black camper in the bunch. Anyone’s eyes would be drawn to him. Smiling like the other kids, he appears happy, though he must have known he didn’t belong. As she looks at the photo, Katherine can hear her father speaking, though he’s been dead almost ten years now.
“Everyone has their place, Katherine. We live in a certain neighborhood and worship in a particular church. Other sorts of people live and worship in theirs.”
Long after those words were spoken, she realizes how easily people can get fenced off, based on what a few others decide. Wasn’t that one reason Katherine left home as soon as she could, fleeing to San Francisco, a city where so many people who didn’t fit elsewhere discovered a place they belonged? At that moment, Katherine is tempted to search the Internet for Nganga, to see if she might learn what happened to him. After leaving camp early that day, she never saw Nganga again. Without a second thought, she quietly starts a small tear in the camp photograph, at the top. Then she goes on. She’s surprised how easily the picture comes apart. Holding separate halves in each hand, she rips those into smaller squares. For a moment, she considers whether to set the ragged piles on fire or not.
Author Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and The Nassau Review, among others, and in over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, as well as to Best of the Net.