They’d been going out for six months but this was their first trip out of town as a couple, using a weekend of winter break to browse Greenville, two hours and change from where they taught college in Atlanta. Back in the spring, at the buffet table, they had grimaced and then smirked at each other after tasting bland black bean tarts served at the Dean’s spring reception for promoted faculty, and they wondered why they hadn’t seen each other on campus before. Laney had blonde hair swept to one side, a floaty white dress printed with flowers and birds, and green suede ankle boots. Davis liked her style. He wore his blue jacket and brown chinos with a light blue shirt and brown shoes. No tie. He taught Sociology, and Laney taught Drawing and Painting. Both now full Professors in their forties (late for Davis, mid for Laney), they felt old enough and secure enough to venture into a mixed-race Southern romance. They discussed it during the third or fourth time they met for lunch, after a night of kissing like teenagers in Davis’s car outside a gallery where some of her students had a show. Who cares? Not their ex-spouses. Laney’s, a chemistry professor, had moved on to another university three years before, and Davis’s, a computer coder, discovered van life, traveling the country and working from wherever she wanted. “Which isn’t with you,” Laney said, to test for residual pain. “Definitely not,” he replied. So, no longer feeling the loss of their exes, they said they were ready for each other. Besides, it seemed they couldn’t keep their bodies apart. They guessed it was great good fortune they had met.
They made a handsome couple, Davis with his height, Laney with her green-eyed, blonde shapeliness. They figured they were envied at pubs and candlelit restaurants, on hikes of greenspace trails, in line outside theaters. Maybe they were resented by some. Sometimes Davis noticed black women particularly with sour expressions looking at them. He felt self-conscious, mentioned it to Laney, who said she saw the looks, too. Yet, before they met, seldom had other women, race and ethnicity irrelevant, paid him attention at all. Still, history held that if there ever was a danger from somebody’s displeasure it would probably be from white guys, but more likely out of the city, where Confederate flags still flew. They got in the habit of looking past people in crowds, on the streets, on the trails, avoiding possible disapproval. They got in the habit of looking at each other.
Among his emotions, including all-day affection and occasional trepidation, Davis felt proud to be with Laney, who was smart and funny and increasingly good looking. She could talk about social issues and art, had read a lot of what he had read, and had good stuff to recommend. She liked movies with subtle moods and great open scenery–brooding characters around water and cliffs. He liked them too. Before he met her, he watched movies alone anyway, mostly stuff that made him laugh out loud, and thrillers, which for her were often too violent and laden with threat. He liked her paintings, misty shapes streaked with color– turquoise, yellow and pink–as if impressions of fogged and rainy spring landscapes. Or maybe clouds in outer space. They touched a lot, held hands on drives and on walks, laughed.
They had heard Greenville was a cool place and suspected maybe a young scene with bookstores and coffee shops, but it surprised them with its busy city holiday vibe. Young, sure, single and coupled, families with kids, floating clumps of spectrum-haired teenagers, and people their age and older on the sidewalks and in decorated stores and restaurants. Their hotel was joyful with twinkling Christmas trees, red-vested carolers, and bathed with lots of natural daytime light in the lobby. For Davis their interracial aspect did cause more anxiety out of town. He hardly saw other black people except some hotel workers and the cooks in the kitchen of the restaurant where they had lunch that first day. None were among the diners, and few were among the shoppers going in and out of the various stores.
Exploring, they walked to a park that featured a river right downtown. Delightful. At one point, briefly, he lost Laney there when he stopped to read a plaque about a Civil War event and she walked on to watch the water rush by. He looked up and couldn’t find her among the other people sitting on rocks and benches and standing along the river’s hilly bank. But then she turned to him on the bank and her smile ignited his. Happy recognition and reunion. Privately, he was startled to realize she could disappear or be so suddenly absorbed among others. But it happened again the same day when they separated in a many-sectioned store that sold a confusing assemblage of goods—clothing, candles, colorful metal water bottles, silver and beaded picture frames, artisanal jams and relishes, jewelry, books, undersized block-print greeting cards. While Davis tried on hats in one room, Laney roamed other rooms. He sought her out for her opinion about a cap, dark tweed with a snap brim and a buckle in the back, but he couldn’t find her. Room after room, he carried the cap. Blonde women, similarly shaped, in quilted jackets and blue jeans and boots, shopped in all of them. From behind, they all looked like Laney, and even from the front if he didn’t focus hard on their faces. There was something of a bad dream about it, a little funny while awake, like the recurring dream when he had to walk for miles at night searching for his car. Except this was daytime, and not even shadows dimmed the store, overhead light falling equally on everything, brightening already bright strands of tinsel strung among the merchandise. At the river, she had reappeared rather quickly but now a panicked, stranded feeling edged closer. As he stepped over thresholds, from one bright room to another, he imagined the store was populated with a disproportionate abundance of yellow parrots, lighting on shelves of hot sauces, pillows, and coffee table books, and on racks of T‑shirts and coats and cartoony socks. So much sameness among so much variety. He decided to go outside and come back in with a fresh perspective. Maybe Laney was out there, anyway, on the sidewalk. First, he needed to return the cap to its rack. It was back with the hats that he saw her, relief washing away the lost, panicky feeling, but not the embarrassing comedy of his failure to pick her out of the crowd.
She didn’t like the hat he’d chosen, at least not as he wore it. “Thug?” she said grimacing, prettily, as she had that first time he saw her at the Dean’s party. But she did like the book she was holding, photographs of birds. “Cool,” he said, and flipped through the glossy pages that, of course, fluttered like wings and fanned his hot face. He thought, how kismet would it be if he found there a yellow parrot. When he found a page with lots of them, blue and green ones too, all smothering some spindly tropical tree, he looked at her and smirked, but as he closed the book and returned it to her, this time she wouldn’t know why.
John Holman is the author of Squabble and Other Stories, Luminous Mysteries, and Triangle Ray. His work has appeared in many journals and anthologies. He teaches writing at Georgia State University.