The Skin We’re In

The Skin We’re In
Photo by Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times/Redux

The writing career of Associate Professor of English Jess Row is on fire, with a critically acclaimed novel and a New Yorker short story (“The Empties”) published in the last six months. Row’s work, which also includes two short story collections, has been called “daring” by The New York Times, “subtle…and fascinating” by Entertainment Weekly, and “flat-out brilliant” by the Los Angeles Times. In his debut novel, Your Face in Mine, Row takes a fresh and unflinching look at race, identity, privilege, and alienation. The following is an excerpt from the book. Sit back and enjoy.

jessrow-coverIt doesn’t seem possible, even now, that it could begin the way it begins, in the blank light of a Sunday afternoon in February, crossing the parking lot at the Mondawmin Mall on the way to Lee’s Asian Grocery, my jacket in my hand, because it’s warm, the sudden, bleary, half-withheld breath of spring one gets in late winter in Baltimore, and a black man comes from the opposite direction, alone, my age or younger, still bundled in a black lambswool coat with the hood up, and as he draws nearer I feel an unmistakable shock of recognition. Even with the hood, that elected shade, that halo of shadow. I don’t know whether to call it a certain place above the bridge of the nose and between the eyes, or perhaps something about the shape of the nose itself, or the way he carries it. Or the exact way his lips meet. Or the mild inquisitive look in his eyes that changes as I come closer to something unreadable, something close to surprise. I am looking into the face of a black man, and I’ll be utterly honest, unsurprisingly honest: I don’t know so many black men well enough that I would feel such a strong pull, such a decisive certainty. I know this guy, I’m thinking, yet I’m sure I’ve never seen this face before. Who goes around looking for ghost eyes, for pleading looks of remembrance, in the faces of strangers? Not me. He’s coming closer, and I’m running through all my past at a furious clip, riffling frantically the index cards of my memory for a forgotten slight, a stray remark, a door slammed in a black man’s face, a braying car horn behind me on 83 South. He has his eyes trained on me with a faint smile, a smile that dips at the left corner, and says,

Kelly. I’ll bet you’re wondering why I know your name.

I’m sorry, I say. Do I know you?

Kelly, he says, pursing his lips, it’s Martin.

We’re alone, in a field of cracked asphalt, dotted here and there with sprays of tenacious weeds, a mostly abandoned shopping plaza missing its anchor tenant. I would never have come here but for Lee’s being the closest Chinese grocery to my apartment, an emergency stop for days when I unexpectedly run out of tree-ear fungus or Shaoxing wine or shallots or tapioca starch. Yes, we’re in Baltimore; yes, I once lived here, grew up here; but because Baltimore is not just one feeble city but many, and Mondawmin is, to be as honest as I have to be, on the black side of town, in the course of my predictable life, I might as well be on the surface of the moon. As a child I imagined there were hidden places—the tangle of bushes dividing the north and south lanes of the freeway, the fenced‑in, overgrown side yard on the far side of our elderly neighbor’s house—that held gaps, portholes, in the fabric of the world, and if I crawled into one of them I would become one of the disappeared children whose faces appeared on circulars and milk cartons and Girl Scout cookie boxes, whose cold bodies were orbiting earth as we spoke, and every so often bumped into the Space Shuttle and slid off, unbeknownst to the astronauts inside. How was I supposed to know that I would only have to cross town to find my own gap, my own way into the beyond?

I cross my arms protectively in front of my chest, and say,

I know you are.

You do?

Martin, I say, I need an explanation.

We cross the parking lot together, Martin, the black man who used to be Martin, ducked slightly behind my right shoulder, flickering in and out of my peripheral vision. Somehow I’m still possessed of enough of my faculties to remember to grab a shopping cart. The sliding door creaks on an unoiled runner, and we breathe in the comforting sting of Asian markets everywhere—dried scallops and mushrooms, wilting choi sum, fish guts in a bucket behind the seafood counter. Mr. Lee looks up at me over yesterday’s Apple Daily—when did they start getting the Hong Kong papers?—and says, you’re too late, the cha siu bao are all sold out.

It’s okay, I say. I need to lose weight anyway.

Yeah, says his daughter, stacking napa cabbages on newspaper in a shopping cart. You’re too fat.

Lee gives her a dour Confucian look. Little number three, he says, that’s enough out of you. And then, turning to me: is the black man with you? He doesn’t speak Chinese, too, does he?

Martin has halted by the soy milk case, reading the labels intently.

Yes, I say. Yes, he’s with me. And no, he doesn’t.

Tell him we don’t have candy bars or potato chips. They always ask.

I give him a noncommittal nod.

My wife was Chinese, I say to Martin, making my way down aisle one, filling the cart with black tree fungus and Sichuan chilies and dried beans and tofu skin. I lived there for three years before I got my PhD. She taught me how to cook. My voice sounds bland, conversational, informational: I’ve been stunned, that’s the only way to explain it, stunned back into a certain strained normality. He follows everything I’m saying with lidded eyes and pursed lips, nodding to himself, as if it’s exactly what I would have done, in his mind, as if he could have projected it all, with slight variations.

Hold on. Your wife was? You’re not together?

No, I say, no, she died. She and my daughter died. In a car accident.

How long?

I look at my watch.

A year, I say, six months, three weeks, and two days.

Mr. Lee, who has never before seen me speaking English, is pretending not to watch us, stealing interested glances over a full-page picture of Maggie Cheung.

I was in Shanghai and Hangzhou once, Martin says. Only briefly, on business. Loved it. Loved the energy. Wish I could have stayed longer. He reaches up and pulls the hood away from his forehead. His hair, a black man’s hair, of course, razored close to the scalp, with neat lines at the temples and the nape of the neck. The look of a man who’s close friends with his barber. I can’t help thinking of my own scraggling beard, and the last time I tried to crop it into a new shape, how it looked, as Meimei used to put it, half goat-eaten. Fullness of time, I can’t help thinking. The phrase just won’t leave my mind. Fullness of time.

You know, he says. You’re a brave man, Kelly. I think I’d have run away screaming. His voice is different. It is, thoroughly, unmistakably, a black man’s voice, declarative, deep, warm, with a faint twang in the nasal consonants. It’s just a couple of operations, he says. And some skin treatments. In the right hands, no big thing at all. That is to say, it won’t be. When it becomes more common.

Does it, does it—I’m flailing here—does it have a name? What you’ve done?

If it had a name, he says, what would that change, exactly? Would it be more acceptable to you? Would it be a thing people do? Would it have a category unto itself?

He laughs.

I’m just playing with you, he says. You should see the look on your face. Kelly, of course it has a name. What do you think it would be called? Racial reassignment.

We’ve stopped at the end of the dried goods aisle, the aisle of staples, and I’m teetering on the edge of the snacks aisle: lychee gummies, shrimp chips, dried squid, mango slices in foil, and three or four rows of Pocky, that bizarre Japanese name for pretzel sticks dipped in coatings of one or another artificially flavored candy. Pocky comes in cigarette-sized packs with flip-top lids, and there is, in addition to strawberry, raspberry, and vanilla, Men’s Pocky, plain chocolate, in a distinguished pine-green. It’s never been clear to me whether this is an elaborate inside joke on the part of the manufacturer or a sincere message to the consumer. There is Men’s Pocky, but not Women’s Pocky. Am I supposed to be reassured, not having to make a choice?

Racial reassignment surgery.

Yeah, of course, surgery. But it’s more than that. It’s a long process.

Meaning, I have to say—I strain to form the words—meaning you were always black. Like a sex change. Inside you always felt black.

Damn, he says. You get right to the point, don’t you? I don’t remember you being this direct, Kelly.

Martin, I say, without quite being able to look at him—I cast my eyes up to the stained ceiling tile, the fluorescent panel lamps dotted with dead flies—we’re not going to see each other again, are we? Isn’t that the point? You wanted a new life. I’m certainly not going to intrude.

Anyone can get a new life, he says. It’s easy to fall off the map. I don’t recall you ever trying to track me down. And all of you guys left, anyway. Am I just repeating the obvious here? I never thought I’d see you back in Baltimore. You get hired by Hopkins?

No, I say. I’m not an academic. Not anymore. I work in public radio. No kidding? You mean, what is it, 91.1? The Hopkins station?

No, the other one. WBCC. 107.3.

Oh, yeah. Right. Way up at the top of the dial. I always wondered why there were two.

Are you a listener?

Heck no, he says. I listen to XM. No offense, I like the news sometimes, but not all that turtleneck-sweater, mandolin, Lake Wobegon stuff. Not my thing.

Yeah. I understand.

You do? You understand?

I read the surveys, runs through my mind, that’s my job, I know the demographics. I could break down our audience into the single percentiles. Look, I say, I mean, it’s not a secret. It’s a problem. We think about it every day. We want to be a station for the whole city, you know, Baltimore, and we’re just not. It’s an issue. I’m trying, believe me.

He whistles through his teeth. Maybe you’re the man for me, he says. I need somebody to help me with this project. This idea I have. A communicator. He takes a slim billfold from his front pocket—the long, old-fashioned kind, meant to fit in a blazer—and takes out a glossy orange business card. Martin Wilkinson, Orchid Imports LLC.

You changed your name.

You know many brothers named Martin Lipkin?

It’s just one in a long list of inconceivable things I’ve had to conceive of in the last fifteen minutes, so I nod nonchalantly.

And what, you sell orchids?

No, no. Electronics. My wife came up with the name.

Okay, I say, nodding again, a yes-man.

So you’ll email me? Can I buy you lunch?

Is that really a good idea? I ask him. I mean, I know you. Aren’t I kind of a liability? A piece of personal history?

I trust you, he says, staring at me, boxing me in, so that I’m forced to look straight at his coffee-colored pupils—just the same as before, at least as far as I remember. Listen, he says, we can act like this never happened. If that’s what you want. Either way, you’ll respect my privacy. I know that much. So I’m just asking: you want to come with me a little further down this road, Kelly? You curious? You want the whole story?

Keeping my head straight, our eyes level, in this Vulcan-mind-meld game he seems to want to play, I conduct the briefest possible mental inventory of my life: an empty apartment; an enormous, shockingly expensive storage unit out in Towson, filled with boxes I’ll never open; a job, if you can call it a job; a few friends, widely spaced; a 500-page manuscript on two dead poets, gathering dust in its library binding up in Cambridge; a wall of books in five languages I never want to read again.

Yes, I say, yes, I’ll have lunch with you, Martin.

See you then. He pulls his hood back up, hunches his shoulders, and disappears through the door, back into the tepid weather, the diffident sunshine, the blank, anonymous world that seems almost to have created him.

Reprinted from Your Face in Mine by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Jess Row.

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