Be My Concubine
When I was in high school I had hook-ups and dates, playmates and long-term pinings. None of those equaled a boyfriend. That’s what I wanted. A boyfriend. The real deal, no questions asked. Holding hands. Dances. Look me in the eye and say you are mine and I am yours. Yours for all to see.
At an “Up-North” university summer camp for high school debaters, I found myself one night with the other debate kids, hanging out in a quad common space. I was the only brown girl there, but growing up in the white suburbs of Detroit made a scene like this normal, to be expected.
Someone said: how about a backrub chain? We sat down “Indian style,” as our teachers used to call it, in a circle. We faced each others’ backs and rubbed each other. I had just turned sixteen. I felt mature, knowing that this was just play, the way we kept our shirts down as awkward, super-smart kids rubbed smart alecs who rubbed quiet girls. Someone put on Billy Joel. Captain Jack. New York State of Mind. A skinny boy with thin, strong fingers rubbed my shoulders. As he rubbed me, I rubbed the back of an older boy. James*.
James’s reputation preceded him. He was from a small town that I only knew as a dot on the map, but he was the best debater at camp, maybe in the state. A rising senior. Football captain. Student government president. I admired his soft-spoken confidence. And his attractiveness: he kept his soft blond hair short, and his shoulders felt thick with muscle beneath my hands. I pressed deeply, my fingers focused on the work. I wanted him to feel what I loved to feel: tingly waves of pleasure. I wanted him to think that I was good at this. If he was the best debater, then let me be the best masseuse. I felt confident enough in my own debate skills not to be intimidated by his.
Billy Joel cut off, and so did the massaging. James thanked me. He spoke quietly, but there was respect in his voice. Surprise, even. I laughed it off, thanking the guy behind me at the same time. I went to my room.
The next day, James sought me out. We were in the university library and he took me deep down a stack that smelled of aged reference books. He looked into my eyes. As corny as it sounds, I felt like a flower, opening.
“What are you doing tonight?” James asked. “I don’t know,” I answered. “I have an idea,” he said. “We can go to the laundromat. You can do my laundry.” I laughed. “I’m not doing your laundry,” I said, not sure at all where he was coming from. “Why not?” he asked. “You can do your own laundry,” I answered. “Come on, don’t you want to do it for me?”
I stood there, confused. OK, maybe he hadn’t mistaken me for the maid. Maybe there was a sweet intimacy he was offering, too tender to be acknowledged, that instead must be masked this way.
“There’s a problem,” I said. “I don’t know how to do laundry. My mom always washes my clothes.” James looked as if he’d never anticipated this problem.“She never taught you how?” he asked. “No. She’d rather I study and work a paying job,” I said. “Well, if you come out with me, I’ll teach you.”
We drove in James’s modest car to a nearby laundromat. I followed him inside like an apprentice, smiling as he taught me how to wash his clothes. Whites with whites. Colors with colors. I nodded, for I was the girl who never really had to do chores, except for some yard work, but had held down a job since I was 14. I stood there next to the best debater at camp, staring down at the underwear he included in the laundry basket. White briefs. I let him handle those. Then we sat in plastic scoop chairs, waiting for each cycle to finish.
“Stacy, I have a proposition for you,” he asked. I hoped it wasn’t ironing; I couldn’t do that either. “You could be my concubine,” he said, his eyes meeting mine. “What’s that?” I asked. “Concubine,” he answered. “Your what?” I asked, still not recognizing the word. “Con-cu-bine,” he repeated, again, drawing out the word in a low voice, as if he didn’t want the other launderers to hear. I sat there, looking for meaning in his face. “Do you know what I’m asking?” I shook my head. “Look up the word when you get back. Then tell me what you think.”
When James brought me back to the dorm, I left him with his laundry and walked straight to the library with its gigantic every-word-in-the-language dictionary, the one on its own stand, and I looked up the word. Concubine. Noun [C].a woman who, in some societies, lives and has sex with a man she is not married to, and has a lower social rank than his wife or wives.
In college, I would see the film Raise the Red Lantern and be mesmerized by the dark dynamics between a rich Chinese man and his multiple wives. Later, I would learn of “Quadroon Balls” where New Orleans Europeans could dance and romance lovely ladies of ¼ African parentage, and of placage, the antebellum convention of Louisiana European men marrying European women, but having second families with women of color. I would study black history and learn that mixed women like me were known as “tragic mulattas,” supposedly doomed to never be white or black enough, but perfect for the role of sexualized playthings for men—so much so that we had our own film archetype. I would read of white men in small Southern towns who kept black girlfriends on the side, part and parcel of the old order they fought like dogs to maintain.
But as a schoolgirl, I felt more ignored than desired. If boys wanted me, I never felt that chomping at the bit, that pressure, as if there was a force they couldn’t contain. There was a caution. A knowledge that on the beauty hierarchy, I did not sit on the top.
James walked up behind me. I felt his body and I turned around. “I’m not interested,” I said, as coldly as I could.
Then he kissed me. In the stacks. I could smell warm laundry on him and despite how indignant I felt, it was nice. I kissed him back.
The next day I heard about “the list.” Allegedly, the debate camp boys had huddled together and ranked us girls from prettiest to ugliest. There were 12 of us. One girl found out and interrogated one of the boys, but he wouldn’t explain, apologize, nor let her see the list. This was the bullshit I expected from asshole-y popular boys. Not these guys. We were in this supposedly safe microcosm, and this was how the boys chose to assert themselves. When I saw James, I ridiculed him and asked him how a man of his so-called maturity could participate in an act so degrading to others. He thought the list was wrong, he said. But not for the reasons I thought. The list was wrong because they ranked me second, he said. They should have ranked me first.
I refused to smile for him, though an involuntary relief had rushed over me for not having placed last. Instead, I asked who won. But I didn’t need to ask. I knew it was the blonde. The cute, quiet blonde.
The rest of debate camp was blurry. I made out with James a few times. Never far from my mind was the strangeness of his requests. Who asks a girl to do his laundry? Who asks a girl to be his concubine? I thought this must mean something, but I didn’t know what.
Later that summer, James invited me to visit him at his family home. We had written back and forth, and called each other a few times. My connection to him deepened so much that when he asked me to spend the night, I said yes. Not in his house, of course. He’d get a room at a local motel. OK, I said. I would.
I don’t know what I told my parents. Whatever I said involved a lie, and then, once told and accepted, that full-lunged, full-stomached relief that the parental hurdle was cleared.
On the appointed day, I drove up to his town, no problem. I exited I-75, passing the motel we would go to later, the one with fake fachwerk, the architectural mark of the Germans who settled there. Then I found his house: a lovely, big Victorian with much more character than my subdivision house in Troy. When I rang the doorbell, his mother answered. She looked like a normal mom, soft-bodied but tough. Nothing judgmental, or overprotective about her ways, I thought. We shook hands. The father walked into the foyer. We shook hands, too.
Finally James walked downstairs. The parents remained courteous but mute. We were not going to have tea or lunch or anything. Instead, James took me on a show-and-tell drive around town. There was his high school and there was his football field. We talked about his future: the military academy. He got in. His life was set. Everything was planned out.
We returned to his house. His parents were now gone. James invited me upstairs and we entered his bedroom.
This was our first time together like this. Kissing, with the sunshine bright in the room, we fell into his bed. He took off each piece of clothing with reverence. He touched me slowly, with an appreciation that seemed to come from somewhere deep. His fingers traced the light marks on my hips. He brushed one, then the other. “They grew fast,” he said. I had always felt self-conscious about my marks but he made me feel prized. Adored.
That night, we drove to the motel and continued with our touch. Everything felt good until the morning, when I would feel that feeling that would become familiar, that weirded-out energy that was sex without love, which would be the story with every lover, at least for a while. I felt connected to a deeper reservoir of anxiety, ancestral even, that warned me to tread carefully.
For James and I weren’t finished. We kept up our correspondence with banter that was intellectual and playful. We were into each other. We had something together that I couldn’t name.
Then I got the letter. The one where James wrote: we have no future. Or, we can’t have a future. He talked with his parents. Or, his parents talked with him. He couldn’t marry a girl like me and bring me back to their town. I was black. I would not be accepted.
Once again, he stunned me. James Baldwin wrote about how the worst wounds often go unexamined, even unfelt. This wasn’t the worst possible wound. But I finished the letter and felt suspended in that moment when you get cut by a blade, and you see your skin is split in two but the blood has yet to drip. You wait for pain, and it doesn’t quite come. Not until later. Not until you touch it.
In 1992, I left Detroit for The George Washington University in Washington, DC, beginning a new life of freedom and exploration. James sent me a letter from his military academy. He stood in his dress uniform. His chest filled out the suit. At the library, I found a book about his academy and saw more pictures of cadets. Some with white gloves, marching. Marching. All this honor in their hands, in their step, locked together. Would you see me? The letter asked. I will be working in Washington for the summer. Could you see me, just once?
At this point, my life had changed so much. I was a trusted White House intern. I studied what I wanted. I had made all kinds of new friends, including mixed-race girls like me. In Troy, MI, I had known no other mixed kids. On my floor in my freshman dorm, there were three of us alone! The possibilities of life, of my life, seemed endless, and I wasn’t interested in being reminded that some people kept their worlds very small—and the box for me inside of it even more so.
But I agreed. The wounding felt distant, and it was only for a short visit.
When I approached James on that summer afternoon on the Mall, he rose up from the Metro depths, up the escalator at the Smithsonian stop and smiled the smile that said I know so much more about what really matters now, in life, more than I knew before.
I let him take my hand, then hug me, just out of the way of the tourists and their heavy pedestrian traffic.
We walked. He had learned so much at the academy, he said. The world has opened up for him. Not like a clamshell. Like an explosion. He told me he was wrong to let his parents’ worry cloud his thinking. He was a man now, a man that didn’t cower when small-town know-nothings told him whom and whom not to love. He had realized that I might be the bride for him. He said this teasingly, but, in his words, I discerned good faith. That when he finished his military commitment, maybe there was a future for us.
I took it all in, staying as even-keeled as I could. I nodded my head and thanked him for telling me this. We didn’t kiss. At the time, I dated a guy who saw me as a peer. We weren’t in love, and we didn’t talk about the future, but never once did I feel disqualified from more because of my color. James and I kept walking across the matted grass of the Mall, sharing the stories of our new lives, but I didn’t feel that rushing sensation I’d known when I wanted to connect deeply with someone. When I walked him back to the Metro, I didn’t kiss his mouth. He didn’t kiss mine. We just hugged and said goodbye.
I could have said: “I told you so.” But given the opportunity, I faltered. Vindication, like the energy of the crowd roaring for you, is an interesting force. I had felt that crowd roar when I won at extracurricular activities, when I had my moments to shine. Powerful, yet not as nourishing as I once thought it would be. I realized I didn’t need it. We were not archetypes locked inside lines. James might have been my history, but he wasn’t my fate.