Far by John Vanderslice:
The car slows to a halt almost before I realize it’s there. Stop walking and pay attention to what is going on, Marijo. I know this, all right? I know that if you don’t know it and don’t practice it you can end up hurt—or worse. I’ve seen worse. I have seen worse. But this night, when I see who is riding shotgun, when I note the expression of disappointment on his wide blonde face, when the all-too-familiar question forms in his blue eyes, I know I have nothing to fear. I also know what he is going to ask even before he starts. I wonder why he stopped beside me in the first place. I wonder what gave him hope. Maybe it’s the dark knotted hair curling up around my neck, or the tanned color of my exposed arms, the milky brown that looks more shadowy in the cheap streetlight of 10:00 p.m. Almost certainly, though, it’s my butt.
“Any of you girls black?” the blonde man says.
“Who wants to know?”
Sly smile. “We all do.”
I study the inside of the car—a champagne Impala—and see a jowly guy behind the wheel. He has a light brown crewcut, peachy skin, and moist optimistic eyes: a kid’s face in a 30 year old. I see a third guy—stringy hair and a long, thin face—huddled tightly in the back, as if afraid to be seen. But he’s there all the same.
“What for?” I say.
Blonde smiles bigger. He thinks he’s enjoying this game. He doesn’t get it, though. I’m not playing. I am trying to keep him stuck on a skewer for as long as possible, just so I can watch him flail.
“I think you know what for,” he says. Then: “Come on. Please?”
There are probably five other blocks on El Cajon alone—and plenty more in San Diego—where he can find girls waiting to give him what he wants. Why does he have to find what he wants here, on this piece of sidewalk?
I sigh. “Come back in twenty minutes. Ask for Kareen.”
“Where is she now?”
I stare at him. “What do you think?”
His face falls. “Right. Okay, ma’am. We’ll come back. Thanks.”
Ma’am? Thanks? Fuck you.
Blonde says something to the driver. I see the guy in the back shrug. I hear the driver hoot. “Twenty minutes!” he shouts, then he jabs the car back into traffic. A minute later, when I reach my usual post, the intersection of El Cajon and Ohio, they are out of sight.
They may come back. They may not. Chances are, they’ll find their business elsewhere and forget I ever told them about Kareen. Or they’ll remember four hours from now, after she’s stopped for the night, because by that time she’ll have more than made her quota. Her quota is higher than any of ours. “To whom much is given, much is required,” David likes to intone, a leering smile on his face. But Kareen always makes her quota. Always. I told those guys to come back in twenty, but truth is Kareen might return in ten and then be gone two minutes later with someone new. And that someone might keep her for an hour if that’s what he feels like paying for. With Kareen, sometimes they do. Kareen is never not busy. I don’t know why David doesn’t rope in two or three just like her. He’d probably double his money. I guess he figures Ximena and I can substitute.
No, we can’t.
No one else in this family—not me, not Ximena, not the two blonde girls, not our newbie from South Korea—can substitute for Kareen.
Not with white men.
It’s not that Kareen is so nubile or so glamorous. She’s not even young. She says she’s thirty-one, which really means thirty-eight or nine. And she’s not blessed with especially attractive curves. She’s more on the lean side, one of those angular, bony black women’s bodies. More like a basketball player than a pinup. Her face isn’t a lot better. She has a lantern jaw, like she could crush a king crab in the vice of her mouth; and her ears belong to a gigante. But she has that dark brown skin, very dark for an American, and that makes her David’s goldmine. The only way David could make more money from any one of his girls would be to employ a fifteen-year-old boy. But that’s a business he isn’t interested in. I’ll credit him for that. Then again, among white men, especially white American men, Kareen’s skin would trump even the delights of a pretty young boy.
If you work in the business for even a few months, you learn that the most common fantasy among white men—so common it’s like a disease—is to be with a black woman. Let me say that for the longest time after I came to the USA I did not understand this. For a long time, it angered me. Why isn’t another color good enough to spark your fantasy? Why isn’t your own color good enough? Plenty of pretty white women out there. But it’s a fact. The sad thing is that I’m sure these same white men—at least most of them—are too scared to approach a black woman in their real lives. They’re cowards or just feel too fixed by what is still the norm to even consider stepping out and taking the risk. But the fantasy is still there. The fantasy remains. The fantasy burns. If it doesn’t, explain to me why Kareen remains so busy and that Impala just drove away. Once in a while, an Asian guy or a Mexican or even a black man will pay for Kareen, but almost always—almost always—her customers are white. So few of mine are.
I’ve thought about darkening my skin. Not all the way. That would make me look like a clown. But dark enough that some of these desperate men would wonder for a second and come down to where I stand. Dark enough so that if it’s a black woman they are after they can tell themselves they’ve got one. I’m missing some of the other features, of course, but I can always say I’m mixed. Where horny white men are concerned, mixed doesn’t really mean mixed but black. Meanwhile, if some other customer is after a very tanned white girl, I can be that too. And if any of these boys wants a natural born Venezuelan—well, in truth, that’s exactly what he would have. I can’t pretend to be Japanese, or an Eskimo. I can’t pretend to be a blue-eyed Baptist. But with a little effort maybe I could steal some of Kareen’s profit.
What I look like right now is atrocious, but I’m made out to catch attention not win awards. I’ve got on a hip-hugging neon pink skirt and a sleeveless blouse that sparkles silver. I’ve propped my red heeled foot on a fire hydrant to show the world the underside of my thigh, all the way up to my treasure. After you turn thirty you have to work it a bit—unless you’re Kareen.
Another car stops. The driver—a short-haired Asian guy with a compact jaw and tiny lips—studies my thigh like it’s a specimen in a jar.
“How much?” he asks.
“Depends on what you want for your money.”
“Nothing special,” he says.
“Well,” I say, putting my foot down and sauntering up to his window, “you’re out of luck. Because I am special.” He just looks at me. “Want to find out?”
“How much?” he says.
Jesus. “How much are you looking to spend?”
He shakes his head once. “Tell me,” he says. Turd.
“A fuck will cost you one-seventy-five.”
“Too much,” he says and drives off. I’m not surprised. Even on El Cajon, the Asian guys guard their money. I wonder if I should have told him one-fifty, but I don’t want to sell myself short. I’ll never make quota that way. The real problem is he wouldn’t tell me what he wanted to pay. I hate to give a price without knowing. It never works out. Ten minutes later, another car stops. Another Asian. I tell him one-sixty, and he agrees. Fortunately, he’s not staying far from here, so I’m back in twenty-five minutes. A white guy with dusty pink skin and a hard foreign accent—German, I think—stops and asks me what I can do for him. With that accent he sounds like he detests the sight of me; he sounds like a generaldressing down a soldado. Something about him is scary. It’s not just the accent or the eerie skin. There’s something in his eye.
“I pretty much just fuck,” I say.
“’Pretty much’,” he says. “What does that mean?”
“It means I’ll only fuck you.”
“Because that’s what I do.”
His neck bulges, a spot of red enters his face. “Not good enough,” he says. He moves the gear shift. “Bitch.” Then he’s back in traffic.
I have to wonder what he really wants, but I’m glad I don’t have to find out. If David knew I lied to that guy to get him to leave he would slug me. He might even cut my take in half. But I think he ought to be happy I’m keeping myself alive. A third Asian stops, this one more adventurous. I blow him for three hundred. Later on, a tired old black man practically cries when he fucks me. I only ask him for a hundred. Then I get a new kid who crossed in Tijuana not very long ago. He’s looking for more experience, and I’m guessing I remind him of his mother. He shows me what he’s got, close to ninety dollars. Probably his whole day’s pay. I tell him that’s what a fuck costs and I throw in a handjob for free. He’s just a kid, after all. Tenga una buena vida, muchacho dulce.
I haven’t had a single proposition tonight from an American causcasian. Nothing unusual there. They all want Kareen. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the need to sleep with a black woman is some newfangled obsession among white men. All you have to do is look at the black people in America, and you know who’s been lusting after whom since way back. Compare your average African-American to a real African. What do you notice? Precisely. Of the two of them, only the African is actually black. The African-American? Well, some can be as dark as Kareen; some can look like coffee blurred with a couple splashes of milk; some can be a lighter, warmer shade of chocolate; and some aren’t really brown at all. You think this lightening came about through solemn love and sanctified marriage? It came about because horny slaveowners could not get their minds off the rich dark skin of their slave women, and couldn’t keep their peckers out of that poontang. I’m surprised no one saw it coming. These men had whole populations of enslaved concubines to choose from. What’s the slave to do, say no?
So it’s not a question of what. The what is the thunder of white male obsession. It goes back hundreds of years in the USA; it goes back way further in other places. It’s not a question of what. It’s a question of why. This is what I find myself thinking about as I stand night after night at the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Ohio Street, my foot propped on a fire hydrant, watching white man after white man stop to offer large sums of money to Kareen. Why? It’s too easy to say their mujeres are no good: too pale and too tepid to do anything thrilling in bed. It’s too easy to say the hombres are just bored. From what I know, white women do a lot of crazy things in bed. White women are the queens of bed crazy. Not Venezuelans; not Mexicans; not South Koreans. Not African-Americans. That’s not it. I can actually believe these white men are satisfied with whatever they get from their wives and girlfriends. I don’t think the why is boredom. That’s too easy. It’s something else. Something in their nature.
I keep coming back to that old story we are told in fifth grade. At least I was told it in fifth grade. Do they tell the story in America to fifth graders? That every single human being alive—or who has ever lived—came from Africa. That the human being species was born in Africa. So whatever kind of hair or eyes or butt you have, it doesn’t matter. Everybody, at one time—maybe hundreds of thousands of years ago; maybe longer—was together, and looked the same, in Africa. How the Chinese got to China, how the Venezuelans got to Venezuela, I don’t know. Why whites would leave warm Africa for cold Europe, I don’t know. Maybe they got chased out. But I have to wonder if the white man’s need—not just his desire, but his need—for black women isn’t nostalgia hunger. A longing to go back to where he started from, so long ago, beneath the fog of history. Before there was a history. After all, the white man in Europe wandered pretty damn far from his roots. And I don’t mean geography; I don’t mean distance. I mean his thin, lucent skin. I mean his white-beingness. And I think he can still feel it today, everyday, living inside white American culture. Walking around inside white flesh, eating tasteless white food, buying white brand names, going to stiff white churches, watching dumb white tv, listening to his angry and scared and joyless music. So little alegría in white music. You don’t think they can’t feel their alienation from who they once were? And maybe when Mr. Blonde has his white pecker snugly inside a black woman’s pussy, the hurt goes away—just for a second. The distance cuts down. The separation is eased. Is it possible that in that moment of comfort what the white man feels isn’t just sex but a return to home?
I think that’s it. That’s what I’ve decided, out here on El Cajon. Call me crazy, but I’ve had a lot more time and reason to think about it than any of you. And that’s what I think. I don’t see any other explanation for their singlemindedness, their urgency. Their need. All the way back to the time when they first saw black women in this country. But I also can’t help but think—whenever I watch yet another dopey white dude ask for Kareen—that it’s hopeless for them. It’s hopeless. Save your money, I want to tell them. You’ve come too far. You left home so long ago and went so far away; so far they don’t recognize you anymore, and they don’t want you. They don’t want you back, I’d like to tell them. It’s all theirs now. And you’re not allowed.
John Vanderslice lives and works in Conway, Arkansas, where he serves as Associate Editor of Toad Suck Review. His fiction has been published in several journals, including Seattle Review, Laurel Review, Sou’wester, The Pinch, and South Carolina Review.