Excerpt from 'New People'

New People

By Danzy Senna

Riverhead Books

Copyright © 2017 Danzy Senna
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59448-709-5


She wasn't expecting to see him here tonight. Now, her face feels warm as she watches him step onto the stage and pick up the microphone. He stands like a teenager, slouched and ambivalent, hands shoved in his pockets, as if he's been forced to appear, forced to read his poetry before strangers. Maria first met him several months ago — and now, it seems, he is everywhere she looks. Or maybe she is everywhere he looks. Just last week she ran into him at a restaurant. He was there — sitting at the bar alone, drinking a beer — when she arrived to meet a friend. She stopped to say hello and he said a polite hello back, frowning as if he couldn't remember her name. Afterward, she sat only half listening to her friend rattle on about work, conscious with every breath of his form at the bar.

In the audience, listening to his voice, she realizes that she has been waiting to see him again. She feels uneasy with this awareness. She keeps her eyes fixed on his sneakers, which are dirty and giant. It is too much to look at his face.

Her fiancé, Khalil, sits beside her. Khalil's sister, Lisa, sits on the other side. They flank her. The audience around her, who moments before were laughing and hooting at the last performer, a girl who swung her long hair from side to side, seems to have gone unusually still, alert, as if at the precipice of some new awareness.

Khalil places a hand on Maria's knee and leans in and whispers, This guy's pretty good. She nods, glancing away from the stage toward the back of the club. It is raining outside. Maria thinks she should tell Khalil she feels sick and wants to go home — because in a way, this is true. But she doesn't. She stays seated, her face turned away toward the exit, and when it's all over, she follows Khalil and Lisa to the front of the club; they both want to say hello. She hangs back, listening to them speak. Lisa is saying something about a line she likes from his penultimate poem. That's the word she uses. Penultimate. Khalil is smiling, nodding in agreement.

The poet looks embarrassed by their praise. He keeps scratching his arm as he stares at the floor.

Maria hovers in the background, her fists clenched in her pockets.

The poet's eyes discover her.

You good? he says.

She nods, chokes out the lie: I'm good.

* * *

In her dream that night she is sitting on a blue velvet sofa, reading the pages of a friend's novel. She realizes in the dream that it is a perfect story she is reading. She is miserable that she did not write it. She knows she will never write a book like this. She will never write a work of fiction. She is a scholar; she only works with given materials.

She wakes up hot with envy. She has to remind herself that the novel doesn't exist outside of her dream, nor does the friend who wrote it.

Khalil is asleep beside her. There is a ticking sound coming from the kitchen. Maria closes her eyes, thinking of the poet. She remembers his face and the way he stood half-turned away from the audience. She remembers, with photographic clarity, the slope of his forehead and the small scar cutting through his eyebrow. Warmth and a kind of preemptive grief move through her body.

Khalil looks politely bored in his sleep, as if he's listening to somebody recounting a dream.

Maria is twenty-seven. She is engaged to marry Khalil, who loves her unequivocally. She is the one he has been waiting for his whole life. Maria loves Khalil. She never doubts this. He is the one she needs, the one who can repair her.

They met in college on the other coast years ago, so they have, in a sense, grown up together. It is sometimes hard for Maria to see where one of them ends and the other begins. Their favorite song is Al Green's "Simply Beautiful." Their favorite movies are Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Chameleon Street, and Nothin' But a Man. Their favorite novel is Giovanni's Room. Khalil says they make each other complete. Their skin is the same shade of beige. Together, they look like the end of a story.

They live together in Brooklyn in a neighborhood that is changing. It is November, 1996. Interspersed among the old guard — the Jamaican ladies with their folding chairs, the churchy men in their brown polyester suits — are the ones who have just arrived. It is subtle, this shift, almost imperceptible. When Maria blurs her eyes right it doesn't appear to be happening. They dance together at house parties in the dark. If I ruled the world, they sing, their voices rising as one, imagine that. I'd free all my sons.

Maria is writing a dissertation. She has been granted a small fellowship to live on in this final year, so she can focus on completion; it isn't enough to foot their bills, but Khalil carries the rest. Khalil works in computers. He makes enough as a part-time technology consultant to support them both. His real passion is the business he and a friend from college are trying to get off the ground. Khalil has explained their plan to Maria — it will be an online community of like-minded souls, modern tribalism at its best. He says it will make them rich someday. He is looking for investors.

Maria spends her days at the social science library on 118th and Amsterdam, poring over materials from a long-gone time and place. It is already late fall and she has come to rely on rituals to get her work done. She wears the same pea-coat and the same red gauzy scarf. She stops at the same deli and orders the same thing from the burly guy behind the counter, a buttered bialy and a coffee, light and sweet. She keeps the same assortment of snacks in her purse: a bag of salted cashews, a chocolate bar, a bottle of water.

There is a window beside her carrel where she sometimes pauses to watch the cold air sharpening the edges of buildings. She has decided all university campuses are alike — the sense of possibility and stasis. She thinks this too: all graduate students, if you look closely enough, exude the same aura of privilege and poverty.

The photo on Maria's university ID is now four years old. It was taken the year she and Khalil moved here from California. In the picture she looks like a different Maria. It isn't just the golden brown of her skin, and it isn't just her bangs, which hang long over her eyes. It is her smile, crooked and loose, and the expression in her eyes, some barely contained hilarity. She looks preserved in the moment before you burst into laughter. She can no longer remember what was so funny.

Maria's subject is Jonestown, the Peoples Temple. She entered the program planning to study seventies-era intentional communities — the bonds of kinship forged among unrelated people. Once she started investigating Jonestown, she could not look away.

She knew then only the most basic facts, the ones that had become part of the detritus of the culture: That Jonestown was a cult. That the group's leader, Jim Jones, wore sunglasses everywhere. That he and his followers committed mass suicide together one day in the jungles of South America by drinking the Kool-Aid.

The question that guided her then was the most banal, the one posed by all holocausts: How does such a thing happen? She was guided by a line from Juvenal's Satires: Nobody becomes depraved overnight.

Now, so many years into it, her focus has shifted. She wants to know not how they died but how they kept themselves going. There is no memorial to the people of Jonestown. The remote jungle in Guyana that they cleared, where they built a society, has long been reclaimed by vegetation. The last visitor to the site reported finding only the barest remnants of what once was: a tractor engine, a rusting file cabinet, the metal drum they had used to poison the liquid before they drank it.

The music they made — the tapes they recorded — are all that is left of the people who lived there. They sang in the early days in Indiana where the church began. They sang while they rode the fleet of Greyhound buses from Indianapolis to Ukiah, California. They sang when they arrived in Guyana, while they cleared the cassava and palm trees with machetes. They sang while they cooked the rice and oily gravy that was their main diet. They sang while they cared for the children in the Cuffy Nursery. They sang in the beginning and they sang at the end. It is all on tape.

Maria is trying to write about their music — an ethnomusicology of the Peoples Temple. She is trying to uncover the modes of resistance in the hymns and melodies they recorded when they were alive. She is trying to excavate, using their music, the clues not to why they would commit suicide but to how they survived as long as they did. She argued in her proposal that the music was a form of resistance to Jim Jones himself. Her project is going to be — is supposed to be — a radical reclamation of Jonestown on behalf of the people who built it.

The last time Maria saw her dissertation advisor, he was packing up his office to go on sabbatical. He told her he didn't think she'd found it yet, the true meaning of her work. He said, You're still circling the jungle, Maria. You're still afraid to land.

When they said goodbye at the door to his office, he asked her if she was dreaming about Jonestown yet. Did it come to her at night?

She told him no, she wasn't dreaming of it yet. He smiled and said, Then you're not working hard enough. They need to be in your dreams.

Maria shows up every day. And every day she comes upon a new revelation about the people of Jonestown. Just the other day she discovered that the hand-painted sign they kept hanging in their pavilion, the one that read, Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, was a slight misquote of a line from George Santayana; the real quote said those who "cannot" remember the past. It seems to her this was a serious error, but she can't figure out why.

Today she closes her eyes and listens to an audiocassette of the Peoples Temple Choir album. It was released in 1973 when they were still based in the church front on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. A copy of the actual LP is wrapped in plastic in the special collections library across campus. She has held it in her hands. On the cover is a photograph, a hundred choir members standing at the edge of a lake. The women are wearing floor-length blue satin gowns and the men are wearing starched white shirts. They look somehow both old-timey and hip, just like the music they make, which sounds a little bit gospel, a little bit rock and roll. The first cut is the children's song. They sound so clear and bright that she feels as if they are here with her. Their voices rise and fall with what she imagines is the conductor's baton.

He keeps me singing a happy song.
He keeps me singing it all day long.
Although my days may be drear,
He always is near,
And that's why my heart is always filled with song.

* * *

The next time she sees the poet, she is walking through the Village, going to meet Khalil for lunch with friends. It's a cold afternoon. The weather has turned. She has just come from the library. She is wearing her peacoat and her red scarf.

She sees him before he sees her. He's standing up ahead looking in the window of a record shop. She catches her breath and stops several feet away.

The restaurant where she's headed is up around the block and she is already a few minutes late, but instead of going on her way she just stands there stiffly until the poet looks up and sees her.

He does a double take, squints at her, as if trying to remember how he knows her. Then he smiles slightly and walks toward her. Hey, you, he says.

She says his name aloud, thinking, not for the first time, that he doesn't remember hers. They've met several times in loud places, and they've shaken hands, but she cannot recall him ever once saying her name. She is too embarrassed to tell it to him now.

Where you headed?

Meeting a friend. She looks away, toward the street, the omission burning on her tongue.

You live around here?

She tells him she lives in Brooklyn.

He makes a face. Do you like it there?

Then, before she can answer, he says: I hate Brooklyn. I never go there if I can help it.

She feels stung, as if he has just admitted to hating her. She wants to tell him Brooklyn was Khalil's idea, that he got it in his head long ago, before they left California, before they talked all senior year about wanting to join the Brooklyn Renaissance. But she doesn't say it.

There is a long, full silence. He is watching her. She feels his gaze as a physical thing, a heat moving across her skin. When his eyes move away her skin feels cold again.

Hey, you're friends with Lisa and Khalil, right?

She nods.

Right. I remember you.

She pauses. I'm going to meet them.

Don't let me keep you, he says, stepping aside to let her pass.

He is already looking beyond her at something in the distance, and she feels the cold again. She thinks maybe she's coming down with something.

She starts forward, but stops and turns back.

Do you even know my name? she asks.

He scratches his cheek, shrugs. Looks a little caught.

Maybe, he says.

It's Maria. I wasn't sure — because you never say it.

His eyes are amused. Maria, he says. Maria. Maria. Maria.

She laughs, tilts her face down, and walks away, her heart galloping. At the end of the block she glances back to see him still standing in front of the record shop. He is watching her, but he turns away when she spots him looking.

* * *

Khalil and Lisa are already there, at a table at the back with three other people. Khalil is wearing his faded X T-shirt from college. His dreadlocks have long since passed the Basquiat stage but have not quite arrived at Marley. Lisa is wearing a head wrap of brightly colored fabric, magenta and blue. She says, Maria, as always on CP time.

What took you so long? Khalil says, leaning forward to kiss her. He puts a hand on the small of her back.

A woman at the table, someone she knows, grabs Maria's hand and yanks it toward her.

Okay, I've got to see it. This is the famous ring. Oh damn, now this isn't fair.

It's a family ring, Khalil says. We had it restored, resized.

When he says "we" he means Lisa. She was in on this.

Lisa is younger than Khalil by two years. She goes everywhere with him. They don't look much alike. Lisa is darker than Khalil; she takes after their mother. Khalil takes after their father. Khalil is the firstborn, the beloved messiah. Lisa, in second-child tradition, has always been the more difficult one. Khalil once told Maria that his whole childhood was spent watching Lisa be carried out of restaurants, shrieking.

Some facts about Lisa: She has only ever dated white boys. She speaks fluent Italian. She has a framed poster for Fellini's La Dolce Vita on the wall of her apartment. She likes to read film theory in bed. It's still not clear what Lisa is going to do with all of her education, how she will build on all the years of good parenting that have gone into her. She was studying to be a pastry chef when Maria first met her; now she works in a French bakery in Soho, but everyone in the family knows it's temporary.

Lisa has discovered only since Maria became a part of their family that her darkness is something she can lord over people — that it is something superior to her brother's high yellow. Maria was surprised nobody ever told her this before. Lisa is beginning to understand that the very things she hated growing up, her kink and her color, have begun to have currency if you know where to go, who to be around, who to avoid, how to frame the conversation.

Lisa mentions her darkness a lot these days, how much darker she is than her brother and Maria — though really she isn't very dark unless she stands beside them. Maria didn't like Lisa the first time they met. She thought the head wrap made her look like she was either hiding something or trying to appear like an African objet d'art to the willowy white boy she was dating at the time. Maria thought Lisa was the kind of black person she would have avoided in high school. So was Khalil, for that matter. What was it they called those kinds of black people back in the day? Miscellaneous.

Now Khalil and Lisa are changing, turning into something closer to Maria, and she feels like Charon, leading them across the river to the dark side.

Lisa bought a T-shirt on the street in Harlem a few weeks ago that reads, It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand.

Maria sometimes catches sight of herself walking with them through the city and thinks what an unlikely arbiter of blackness she is. How strange that it should be she to ferry them across.

From New People. Published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group USA (LLC). Copyright © Danzy Senna, 2017.


Excerpted from New People by Danzy Senna. Copyright © 2017 Danzy Senna. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books.
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