I am watching my lover, Amèlie, move through the market sifting through items neither of us can hope to afford. It is stinking hot, the kind of hot where it feels like even my eyeballs are sweating and I want nothing more than to jump into the salty water of the ocean for respite. I am watching my lover because it is too dangerous to do anything but watch. Her face is thin and drawn but when her fingers dance across a trinket she likes, her eyes light up and the muscles in her shoulders relax. I imagine that she is imagining what it would be like to own these petty items she covets. There are a few tourists in the market, walking around confused, as if they read the wrong brochure. Most Americans come to Haiti expecting it to be like Aruba or St. Kitts. They lump all of these small islands into one paradise where libations flow freely and cabana boys are waiting to attend to their every need. Unfortunately, for them, the cabana boys have all fled the country and there is no ice to cool their drinks.
Amèlie and I have known each other since we were children. Our mothers are best friends and together, we watched our fathers taken away for supporting free elections, we watched our brothers disappear into the countryside or the ocean, and we watched each other. We always watched each other. Once, as we sat on her front porch drinking mango juice, holding the cool glasses to our foreheads between sips, she turned to me and said, “Sometimes, Marie Françoise, you are the only thing in this world I care to see.”
A gaggle of school children noisily push their way past me, and just looking at them makes me want to cry. They are so young, not so innocent, and they too want things they cannot have. Amèlie looks up and smiles at me. No one else could recognize it as a smile, but I know. Her eyelids are raised, lips slightly curled at the edges, her thumb grazing her chin. I cock my head to the side and pretend to be interested in a box of Corn Flakes selling for thirteen dollars. I smooth one eyebrow and draw my finger down my cheek. This is my way of smiling at her, telling her that I wish I could touch her face, hold her hand as we shop, whisper futile fantasies of what we wish was but cannot be.
Slowly, I move toward her, ignoring the bony elbows, gaunt faces, tired old women sucking their lips. My heart pounds and with each step, the sharp twinge between my thighs melts into a gentle throb. I should stay away, but I am feeling rebellious today. I enjoy torturing myself with this dance of being so close yet so far. When I am finally next to her, I carefully inspect a handful of patterned beads with my left hand, my right loosely by my side, two fingers reaching toward the worn pink fabric of her dress, one of only three she owns. She leans into me and I can feel the light pressure of her thigh against my finger, her bare arm against mine.
She turns and I can feel her staring at me. I force myself to look forward but it feels like she is reaching inside my body with her eyes, reaching past skin, bone, and blood to my heart. I slide my fingers upward, along the round edges of her hip to her waist. In another time, or another place, or if I were another person, I would stand behind her, graze the back of her neck with my lips. I would wrap my arms around her for a moment of comfort before taking her hand to continue strolling through the market. But since we are here and now, I step away as I notice a group of young, angry men walking toward us. I doubt that there is any particular reason for their anger. It is the anger that most men feel these days; they are angry about their impotence and their desires and their reality. It is an anger we all feel. But it is an anger only men can freely express.
I start walking in the other direction and though I want to turn around and whisper I love you, I keep walking. On days like today, I think I could walk until the muscles in my legs burned in protest, until I drifted into the ocean, until I walked into that time and place where Amèlie and I could be together, out in the open. For now, we are women who don’t exist. We are less than shadows, more than ghosts. We’re the way-ward relatives neighbors gossip about in hushed, horrified tones. We are the women people ignore because two women loving each other is an American thing — not the sort of behavior god-fearing island folk would engage in. There are a few people who live openly, men mostly, artists who are indulged in their bright-colored sashaying about town because their work is so brilliant. But even they meet with contempt now and then; an insult hurled here, a sharp rock thrown there. And when they get sick, they are greeted with smug smiles, a harsh reminder of all good things, as their bodies waste to nothing.
Amèlie and I were caught once, when I was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. It was late at night and we met in the dark shadows between our houses. Our mothers were asleep; our neighbors were asleep. It was a moment when we were the only two women in the world and we felt a certain freedom — a freedom to do as we pleased. Even beneath the cover of night it was so hot that we were sweating. There are nights in Haiti when it feels possible that the moon burns just as hot as the sun. She was wearing a T-shirt and worn sandals. I was wearing my housecoat, the top three buttons open. We clasped hands and sank into the darkest part of that dark space and we traced each other’s faces with our fingers as if in the space of the few hours since last seeing each other, perhaps our features had changed.
I ran my tongue from the tip of her chin to the hollow just beneath her throat. I tasted the salt of sweat and could feel her breath humming just beneath the surface of her skin. We said nothing, but there was no need for words. Everything that could possibly be said had already been spoken between us over the course of so many years. She clasped the back of my neck and lifted my head, bringing my lips to hers and she kissed me so hard, I imagined she could swallow me whole. Our lips were so dry and cracked I tasted blood. My tongue pushed past her lips, running over the sharp edges of her teeth, meeting with hers. And then she pushed me lower, pulling her T-shirt over her narrow shoulders. I took her breasts into my hands, and the soft mounds of flesh spilled through my fingers. Amèlie whispered only one word, “Please,” so I lay her on the ground, my hands greedily spreading her thighs.
The earth beneath our bodies was warm, inviting, generous. And then, we heard a gasp, and I knew if I moved, my heart would fall from my chest and into the ground. I knew all my fears were about to come to pass. I have had many such moments. Amèlie scrambled away from me, reaching for her T-shirt, wrapping her arms around her chest as if she could disappear if she sat ever so still. Slowly, I turned my head and saw my mother beneath a thin shaft of moonlight, and the look on her face was so horrified, so distant, I hardly recognized her. She turned and walked away. We never spoke of it — neither me and my mother nor me and my lover — but Amèlie and I never met in the dark between our houses ever again.
Now, five years later, when we want to make love we steal away to a friend’s house when we can, or we get together once in a while with other people like us, women and men who are also less than shadows, more than ghosts. They are sad little affairs, our get-togethers, on Saturday nights in the backroom of someone’s house in Port-au-Prince. The rum is watered down. We have to pay ten dollars to get in, and the entire time, we try and pretend we are in New York or Miami or Montreal, at a club with friends. We try and show each other affection. We try to pretend we aren’t staring at the doorway, afraid we’ll be caught. And Amèlie and I will steal to the bathroom, dark and dank, with little room to move. We’ll fumble with our clothing, and shove our hands between each other’s thighs, kissing for so long that we start breathing for each other, trying to extract as much pleasure from our bodies as possible before we have to return home.
On a strangely cool December evening not too long ago, a group of men, boys really, raided our private party. Amèlie and I were sitting on a couch, our arms around each other, when five men came through the front door. We could smell drink on them—we could smell hate. Albèrt, a friend of ours was by the door, and they grabbed him by his shirt, shoving him against the wall, saying the crudest, cruelest things they could. One of them, tall, fair-skinned with wide features, threw the stereo on the floor and began beating it with a baseball bat. But for some reason, the music played on. The air was filled with their taunts and the tinny of the music playing. “Faggots,” the man with the bat sneered. For a moment, we froze, eleven of us, hoping our passivity would bring the moment to an end. And then we were running through the house and out the back door, away from that place. We knew we were cowards but we didn’t dare look back. The next day, we heard that Albèrt was in the hospital with three broken ribs, a broken hand, and a chorus of bruises. I mourned for his pain. But I didn’t want that to be me, and I didn’t want that to be Amèlie. It was simply one more shame to bear. The same could be said for all of us. But we continued to meet, continued to defy the rules, because we knew that such stolen moments are the one small thing we have in this big, big world.
When I arrive home, my mother is in bed asleep. For the past several years, she has spent most of her time sleeping and her slumber is an understandable one. I stand in her doorway, listening to the sound of her breathing. It is shallow and timid. The wrinkles in her face are sharp. She looks so relaxed, so at peace that I can’t bear to wake her, disturb her stolen moment. And to wake her would do just that. I see the pain in her face when she looks at me. It is the sorrow of living with a daughter she loves but doesn’t want. There are times when I think of settling down with a man, any man. It would please my mother to no end. But then I think of the scent of Amèlie’s neck and the flutter of her fingers over mine. And I know that despite the unbearable distance between us, I would not have things any other way. Neither would she.
In the kitchen, I prepare myself a mug of café au lait, and though it is hot, even indoors, I hold my face over the steam, my pores puckering open. From the window I can see directly into Amèlie’s house. I sit there, and wait to watch her return home from the market. Her mother waves from the porch and I offer her a shy smile, a careful wave and then I look away before my face says too much. I sit for hours and I think of the last time Amèlie and I made love, how fleeting it was, how hungry it has left me. I think of her sticky thighs rubbing against each other as she walks and I think of her in the market, and the warmth of her thigh pressing against the edge of my fingertips — so many stolen moments.
The first time we made love was a shy and awkward affair. I was nineteen, she had just turned eighteen and as we walked home from school, the cracked pavement burning through the thin soles of our shoes, I grabbed her hand with mine, clenching it so tightly my knuckles turned white. She stopped and stared at me. I opened my mouth, but there were no words. But there were words, I simply didn’t know how to wrap my lips around them. In the distance, a lone Toyota ambled toward us, but I closed my eyes, leaned into her, and brushed my lips across hers. I traced the arch of her eyebrow with one finger, and then I ran away, trying not to cry. She called after me, but when I turned around, she wasn’t following, so I kept running, off the road and through a cane field, ignoring the brambles that scratched my skin, until I reached my house. My mother clutched her chest when she saw me, but I shook my head and retired to my bedroom where I sat on the cool concrete floor in a corner, my arms wrapped around my knees, rocking back and forth.
Moments later, there was a light knock on the door.
“Go away,” I said hoarsely, but the wooden door slowly creaked open and there, Amèlie stood, pale, lips pursed. She stepped inside my room and closed the door behind her.
“Why did you do that?” she asked.
I lowered my head, staring at the floor. She moved closer, close enough for me to smell sweat and the lingering scent of her perfume. She knelt, her knees pressed against mine and she cupped my face between her hands and in that moment she was holding the whole of me.
“Why did you do that?” she asked again.
I looked up. “I feel things I am not supposed to feel. I want things I am not supposed to want.”
“How do you know that?”
I laughed, bitterly. “If you knew, you would turn around. You would never look upon me again.”
“Do you not know me at all?”
“It is not as simple as that.”
She took my hand in hers, held it between her breasts. Her skin thrummed lightly through her shirt and my fingers trembled. It took all my self-control not to move my hand mere inches to the right or left. And then, her hand covering mine, she slid my hand under her shirt, up the smooth of her stomach and cupped it around her breast. I sighed a heavy sigh, enjoying the weight of her in the palm of my hand. I had imagined that moment for so long, lying in bed alone on dark, humid nights, that I felt a sharp, intense pain between my eyes, and for a moment, the world went white.
“Perhaps it is that simple,” she said.
A single cry escaped the dryness of my throat. I kissed her chin, her neck, pulled her shirt over her shoulders as my mouth fumbled lower. She held me to her, her fingers drawing small circles against the back of my neck. I could hear my mother shuffling around in the kitchen and my heart pounded as I prayed she wouldn’t disturb us. I slid my hand beneath the elastic waistband of Amèlie’s skirt. She remained silent and kneeling, but she parted her thighs, pressed herself against my fingers though I had no clear idea of what I was doing. Like a distant echo I could hear my mother calling me to dinner, asking Amèlie if she wanted to join us. I could not breathe.
It is hours past dark when Amèlie finally comes home. As she stands on the threshold of her house, she looks at me, sees me in the shadows, and changes her mind, making her way to my house. I greet her at the door and she looks so sad, so hollow, that I open my arms and she tumbles against my chest, perching her head against my shoulder.
“I cannot sleep alone tonight,” she whispers. “I simply cannot.”
I lift her chin with a finger, look into her eyes. “We could call on Patricia, see if she’d let us spend the night there.”
Amèlie shakes her head. “I want to sleep here in your . . . in our bed.”
There are butterflies in my stomach. I did not realize until now that I have always wanted to hear her say those words. “My mother is here.”
“I don’t care, do you?”
I think of all the tiny pleasures we have denied ourselves over the years. I cannot deny her this one thing, the only thing she has ever asked of me. “Come,” I say, leading her to the bedroom.
We tiptoe past my mother’s bedroom, she is snoring now, but I do not bother to shut her door, nor do I shut mine. Amèlie’s courage tonight, however blind it may be, makes me want to be just as brave. Her courage makes me wonder if we really have anything to fear — as if it is only ghosts and shadows forbidding our passion. She strips out of her clothes, as do I and we crawl into my bed, which creaks beneath our weight. She lies on her back, I on my side.
She traces my lips with her thumb. Her smile is genuine. The depths of her light brown eyes are fathomless. I see wisdom there, fear, a little happiness, desire.
The tension between us is palpable. I wonder if Amèlie’s mother knows where Amèlie is, what her daughter is doing. I exhale loudly. I did not realize I have been holding my breath.
“Shh,” Amèlie says, pressing one finger to my lips. I think about how dangerous this is for us. I think about stones striking flesh. My mother could be standing in the doorway but I do not turn my head.
We lie down, together. She covers her hand with mine. I fall asleep before I can tell her I love her, listening to the sound of her beating heart and rushing blood. I cannot tell her that she should leave before dawn arrives. I am too tired and too satisfied to be afraid. In the morning, my mother will find us like this, limbs entangled, bodies as one, breathing each other’s breath. My mother will think she is seeing ghosts or perhaps shadows. She will be right. ●
Excerpted from Ayiti by Roxane Gay, copyright © 2011, 2018 by Roxane Gay. “Of Ghosts and Shadows” was originally published in Best Lesbian Erotica 2003. Reprinted with the permission of Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. Ayiti will be available in the United States from Grove Press on June 19, 2018; it will be published in the United Kingdom by Corsair in eBook on June 7, 2018, and in hardcover on August 2, 2018.
Roxane Gay is also the New York Times best-selling author of the memoir Hunger; the short-story collection Difficult Women; the novel An Untamed State; the essay collection Bad Feminist; and several comic books in Marvel’s Black Panther: World of Wakanda series. She divides her time between Indiana and Los Angeles.