Breaking Away

Breaking Away


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345442499
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/01/2003
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.36(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

Kristin Lattany is the author of Do Unto Others, Kinfolks, Guests in the Promised Land, which was nominated for a National Book Award, The Landlord, which became a motion picture, and a bestselling young adult novel, The Soul Brothers & Sister Lou. She received the Moonstone Black Writing Celebration Lifetime Achievement Award. She lives in New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

Life was good.
Dr. Bethesda Barnes finished the last of her ten laps, rolled over, and floated on her back contentedly in the warm peace of the pool. Surrounded by blue light, breathing chlorinated air, she counted her blessings.
A job I love. Thank you, Lord. She did not have tenure, but she did have a sense of security. Her four-year contract had only a year to run, but it had been renewed twice almost automatically, and she did not anticipate any problems this time. Her class comparing male and female American writers with similar regional backgrounds was almost as full as last year's Black Literature and Music. Overflowing, like Beth herself in last year's purple bathing suit.
Black Literature and Music was successful, but it had been a mistake. She had been inspired to create the course when she was teaching Black Women Writers and learned that most of her students knew even less about music than she did. When they read Paule Marshall's sublime Praisesong for the Widow, and she found out that they had never heard of "After Hours" or any of the other great recordings with which the Jay Johnsons pleasured themselves in private, she felt something had to be done. Avery Parish's great piano blues, her father had told her, had once been so popular people called "After Hours" the Negro National Anthem. Many people of her generation, he'd said, would not have been born at all were it not for that record played for slow dancing at dimly lit basement parties.
She had taught the course with the help of local musicologists, and it had been a blast. But she could never repeat it, because over the summer one of her two guest lecturers had died, taking hisknowledge of big bands, folk music, blues, and boogie-woogie with him.
Among her other blessings Bethesda counted being born in the fifties, and not before. With her gifts and drive, she felt, she would have succeeded anyway, but when she emerged from grad school, Ph.D. in hand, at twenty-eight, the barriers were down and the doors were open.
She had put in seven years of teaching at a state school, during which she published her book on Ohio writers, a sardonic study of Himes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Morrison, Giovanni, and Dove called O. is for Other, and then landed this plum spot at one of the Ivy League schools. The world was hers. Now, to paraphrase another of her favorite writers, all she had to do was keep her oyster knife handy.
Beth still felt oddly distanced from this institution where she had spent four years as an undergraduate and seven as a teacher, but her popularity with her students and her close relationships with a few of them made up for that. There was something about the place that kept people apart. Tall buildings blocking the sunlight. Communication via mailboxes and e-mail instead of face-to-face conversations. She had only one friend on the faculty, Irene Levinson, a Shakespeare scholar who kept warning her that she ought to do more to shore up her position. Irene said that she should read all the faculty newsletters carefully, cultivate relationships with full professors and department heads, and go to faculty meetings even though her attendance there was not required.
Beth ignored her friend's advice because she was diffident about reaching out to her white colleagues. She saw no point in attending meetings when she was not a voting member of the faculty. After preparing for her classes, conferring with her students, and reading their papers, she had no time to socialize or go to meetings, anyway. So, instead of cultivating friendships with other faculty members, she kept her distance, just as they kept theirs, and she became close to her students. Instead of reaching out to her peers and asking questions, she preserved an air of independence and aloofness.
It had taken Beth two years to locate the ladies' room on her floor of the Humanities Building, years during which she borrowed the secretaries' keys to use the facility on the first floor. Once she had said to herself, "Beth, this is ridiculous," and stopped a female colleague in the hall to ask the location of the ladies' room on her floor. The woman simply stared at her with eyes like pus-filled gray sores. She never answered. Later Beth learned that she was from South Carolina. After that encounter, rather than ask directions around the fortresslike campus, whose new buildings turned blank faces to the street, she carried a map in her purse.
The warnings of her parents, Curtis and Delores Barnes, must have registered deeply on her childish consciousness. They had said repeatedly as they sent her off to various white schools, "You going to be around them, and you supposed to know everything they know. If you don't know, don't show your ignorance by asking. Find out the best way you can."
Her mother was part of that generation of women who always dressed in their best to go shopping downtown, wearing hats, pearls, silk dresses, and white gloves so they would not be insulted or refused service by some prejudiced, minimum-wage clerk. They were often humiliated, anyway.
Still, Bethesda, having begun her career in the years when Blackness was in and doors were opening to the qualified, did not attribute the poor communication on campus to racism. The place was just cold, she thought.
After all, Black Literature and Music had been one of the most popular courses ever offered in the department, enrolling almost an equal number of black and white students. It was still being talked about by undergraduates, who often came to her office asking when she would offer it again. But besides the death of one of her guest lecturers, she had no grant this year with which to pay visiting speakers. Instead, she'd had to think up a course that she could do all by herself. She had come up with one that compared male and female American writers from similar backgrounds, an easy shoe-in as a women's studies class that allowed her to enter the entire twentieth century through the side door. Bethesda had begun Man's World/Woman's World in Twentieth-Century American Fiction with the obvious comparison, James and Wharton, both upper-class New Yorkers, and moved forward in time to Zora Neale Hurston and Erskine Caldwell, who were from the neighboring states of Florida and Georgia. She would attempt to prove that region was at least as important an influence on their work as race or sex before moving on to Faulkner and O'Connor, who, though from different states, were both Southern whites. She planned to end with Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, a pair of black writers from Mississippi.
She was enjoying her new course, though it required a lot of close reading, and she was enjoying her students. Two of them, girls named Rhonda and Dana, were especially quick and responsive. A boy called C. T. Jones was mostly quiet, but he had made a couple of razor-sharp comments. The brightest and the best came to this school. She had been one of them. Thank you, Lord.
Propelling herself with a lazy yet powerful frog kick, she continued counting her blessings. A man who loves me. Thank you, Lord. Her other guest expert on music, Lloyd Bounds-a postal clerk by day, a disc jockey by night-had filled her classroom with his vast knowledge of jazz. Now he filled Bethesda, too, quite adequately and quite often. She had no complaints about their life in bed. But, though he brought her groceries and cooked for her like a Cordon Bleu chef and played new records every weekend for their private finger-popping fun, something was missing.
Lloyd didn't really get what she was about; that was it. They inhabited different worlds, and sometimes they seemed to be on different planes. That was why she had refused to move in with him. One weekend at his house with his loud recordings breaking into her thoughts had been enough. Lester Young's "Lester Leaps In" had charged into her consciousness, commanding attention through five speakers while she was trying to concentrate on Baldwin's great first novel. It was followed by Charlie Parker's "Bird Feathers," a bright blast of male exuberance breaking the mood of the somber organ symphony that was Go Tell It on the Mountain. Then Lloyd played another Parker song, this time with strings: "Just Friends"- a rhapsody of soaring, fluent notes. By now the music had Beth's full attention. Next Lloyd played a Mariah Carey cut, "Hero." Carey's voice, almost too ornate, cascaded and tumbled and decorated the melody much like Parker's playing.
"Ah," Beth had said.
"Ah," Lloyd had echoed, smiling because he knew she understood the connection he had made, so much like the connections she made among writers' works when teaching. But her reading had been hopelessly interrupted, and she never returned to it that day.
Beth had assumed that someone with Lloyd's knowledge of music would also love to read, but she had never seen him crack a book.
Stop complaining, Beth, she told herself as she kicked more energetically, moving herself toward the edge of the pool. Lloyd loved her, and he was good to her. She could teach him to respect her work, if not to appreciate it. Thank you, Lord, for Lloyd.
She added good health and a healthy family to her list of blessings. When Beth made and kept appointments for checkups, her doctor looked at her as if asking, "Why are you wasting my time?" He did want her to lose weight, though. She always politely accepted the diets he gave her, folded them, and put them in her bag, where they stayed until she changed pocketbooks. She was comfortable with the lush padding under her skin that made her resemble a sleek brown seal in the water, and since Lloyd liked it, too, she had no plans to change.
Sometimes, though, carrying thirty pounds of extra weight around, along with her course load and her concerns about her family, made her feel as overburdened as a mule or an ox. That was why she loved swimming. The water buoyed her, made her weightless and free. She stared at the patterns the pool's under- water lights made in the water, white streaks in turquoise, ducked underneath to see them better, and came up coughing. She hated swimming underwater because she could not hold her breath long enough to stop the water from going up her nose, but sometimes she did it, anyway. She did a few slow, luxurious spins on her back, using one arm as a rudder, and then a couple of extra laps with her powerful backstroke before she resumed floating. Yes, she was heavy, but she was healthy. Just in case, though, it was good to have the best health insurance and the availability of one of the city's-no, one of the world's-greatest teaching hospitals. Thank you, Lord.
Coming back to this pool at night was a way of coming home, a way of touching base with her past self. She had learned to swim here under duress. If she squinted, she could go back in time and see her classmates, Sherri, Laura, and Margaret, bobbing in the pool, clinging to the side with heads like balloons from the strips of chamois wound round them under their caps. The chamois was supposed to keep their heat-straightened hair dry. It hadn't worked for Bethesda; she always had a wet head and a cold that lasted all winter. Since her hair was naturally near-straight, Beth hadn't really needed the chamois. She just wore it not to be different from the others.

Copyright© 2003 by Kristin Hunter Lattany

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