Ice Cream by Katherine Agard
A woman I once loved now lives in Copenhagen. I imagine her there, happy and dressed in furs I know she would never own. This is my image of the north: one knows precisely how to keep oneself fine and warm. It is a place I am not able to visit.
Once we sat together and she told me that some people are never happy. Two friends of hers – a man and a woman – had been lovers for a decade when one morning the woman woke up and looked the man in the eyes and said “I don’t love you any longer.” She made preparations to leave. She left. The man woke up the next morning and did all the things he had once done with her, without her. He filled his time with new things.
She said, “It’s remarkable, I would have expected him to be shaken. But some people do not know how to be sad, how to let a sad thing shake them.” It was still summer, and she had taken my hand as we walked along the street. I felt stiff and sweating. I released her hand and walked next to her, listening but wanting to be closer still. We went into an ice cream parlour on a narrow street paved with brick, and she continued her sentence: “And some people do not know how to be happy, to let a happy thing shake them. That’s just the way people are.” She looked at me and smiled. I could not look her in the eyes, although I understood.
The woman and I sat together not eating ice cream and not talking. We are in Massachusetts – this series of letters always sits swamp-like upon my tongue. We are in Cambridge, a place I cannot call a city and cannot call a town and cannot call a suburb. It rests in my mind as a reconstruction of Cambridge – that concept that sits in my mind as the epitome of an England. This American Cambridge stands in my mind next to the stone-walled Cambridge of novels and dreams.
In this American Cambridge I had come to from my warm colony was an outside of sticky heat. Inside the fans were perfectly timed and the vents precisely open. The interior is programmed so that we can forget the outside, forget the feeling of moist air upon skin. One can imagine this type of place if one has ever visited a city founded on order and personal wealth : On the walls are framed posters of anonymous Parisian cafes in muted colours. The gleaming wood counters smell faintly of orange soap. The floors are patterned sparkling tile wiped clean every night to erasing the passing day. There is no longer memory of people sweating on the linen chairs or breathing out the smells of tobacco or flesh or frustration. All is wiped clean on schedule: every morning it is made to smell again like almost nothing at all. The flavours of ice cream are written out in chalk above the countertop. This is all one needs to remember.
The woman and I sat in front of the thick paned windows and looked onto the street. The sun filtered through the windows onto her face. I remember her chin caught in the shadow. I have created a space in my memory of her so that I do not remember the look in her eyes when they met mine. I have made this memory so that I only remember what I looked upon indirectly.
Ice cream parlours will always be strange to me. I had seen them, of course, before arriving in the US. I had see them on television and in books and in movies. I had images in my head, of course, of something like the 1950s — with the soda fountains and the pink-skinned white capped men talking about nothing at all. Incorrect images, of course, I knew, but the media gave me the concept of the ice cream parlour, as it gave me many concepts I had yet no direct experience of. These images filtered into my head and gave me the ability to speak against anyone who dared say the island I grew up on was small and I was ignorant because of it. Despite all this, ice cream parlours, from the moment I arrived in Cambridge from Trinidad for ‘college’, seemed the epitome of the bizarre. What a concept: that one could produce a space for so specific an action and so repel any others.
I remember no such ice cream parlours in Trinidad. There was the parlour, of course ,and there was ice cream, of course, dug up from a iced over freezer. There was digging my hands in to find the last lolly along with the softening box of something else. The parlours were always dark. The floors were always dusty linoleum or cracked tile. The corners were never clean; dust and coins and shreds of paper emerged on every failed sweep. The interiors were always a steady stale heat. The corners of dark combat the heat outside. Still now, in this place I have not visited in some time, there must still remain there a parlour with its iron grating guarded by a Tantie with nut brown skin. She must still be reading the paper in a back room no-one will ever enter just as she was reading it when I was teenager. We went there after school to get something or the other, but really because we knew Tantie might not even come out to serve you at all. We’d wait in the shadows and we’d say that we were waiting for her while we did other things — mostly stroking the backs of boys in sweaty cotton shirts. When and if she arrived, we’d leave a dollar on the counter in change and leave. And then suddenly, we would be in the hot again, the sun bright against our faces and the ice cream melting against our fingers. We licked these, laughing at the taste of sweet and sweat.
Each of my mother’s three brothers had earned a medical degree in Jamaica and used it to become black men in Ireland. My parents wanted me to understand, unlike the friends who had remained in Trinidad, that the world was much larger than the Caribbean which was simultaneously very small and far too expansive to ever understand. They wanted to prepare me before I left for university in the US like I was supposed to. My parents had a somewhat romantic notion of winter. “It will be beautiful,” my mother said, “all the fields of white.” I’d sit in my uncles’ guest rooms in January reading their books and shivering. My uncles told me to eat ice cream to cope. “It’s the gate theory of pain,” said the surgeon uncle. “Yes,” continued the anesthetist,” if you feel pain in one place you close the gate to the other source of pain.” “You’ll feel less cold,” said the humble dermatologist, “try it”.
Georg and I would eat ice cream, and then we’d have sex. I told him about the gate theory of pain, the ice cream slipping onto our bellies and settling onto our hips. His face registered its usual mild distress as he said “It’s cute for a woman to be curvy, but a fat man is just … undesirable.” But I am here, desiring you, is what I should have said and what I wanted to be able to say – you are desirable. But this was untrue and my silence knew what we were only able to speak years later. When it was all out in the open, he would complain bitterly about a friend of ours who was, at the time, suicidal, covered in acne but effortlessly very thin saying “ this gay community cares only about your thinness not about your sanity”. He always saw his fatness as what made him undesirable to other men, even as I was comforted by his size. But it was comfort, not desire and certainly not what other people would call love. My silence also said, I do not desire you and you do not desire me; we are safe here to complain about this world that does not want us, we are safe here together.
I am thinking of the woman now in the cold as I long for summer again. In Trinidad we would call the July August school vacation summer even though each day was just as hot as every other day. Summer was a word trickled down from American television; it marked a particular kind of time. I am thinking of one particular summer: I am twelve years old, and my grandmother has just bought me a pink fabric bikini with white trim. It is tiny, and I am self-conscious wearing it but my grandmother tells me I look just like a girl in a magazine. I know exactly which girl she means too, and I lie in the plastic pool she has set in her driveway. She brings me lemonade, a fanciful act made to match me to the image of that hypothetical girl she is saying I look like. My limbs are sweating and visible to the sun. She is saying, use sunscreen, you don’t want to get too dark. I remember squirting the white liquid onto my skin and feeling it cold there. I am pleased : at the cold against my hot skin, pleased by the sound of the squirting liquid, pleased that there is something made to protect me from getting darker. my eyes are closed and seeing the pressure of the sun’s rays against my eyes.
I remember this intensely: pleasure as this thing that I could use and buy and by using and buying it and having it and using it I was doing all I needed to be okay. My grandmother had brought chocolate wafers out to the pool and I ate all of them lying on my back. “Can I have more?” I asked. She said “They in the fridge but no. You eat more and you cah wear that anymore.”
I got of the shallow water and went into the house. I opened the fridge to eat the wafers nonetheless. The wafers were gone, but there was ice cream. I was stuffing my face and consuming even though it would make me spill out of the clothes that protected my outsides. I was stuffing my face even though it would make me fat, and therefore, it followed, ugly. I would no longer be able to bare skin in the sun, and therefore no longer feel the cool sunscreen neatly protecting me. I’d have to find something else to acquire as protection
I had told men that I was a lesbian – as an excuse, as a half truth, as a way out – long before I had ever touched another woman with conscious desire. When I say men, I really mean just black and brown ones. But Georg was the first white person, male or female, who said he wanted me and although I felt nothing but amusement I said yes, knowing as I did so that the braver thing to have done would have been to say no, not like this. I wish I could have said “You want something contained in me – not me. I am tempted because I want something contained in you – not you.”
I remember his timid fingers circling my back at two in the morning. “Good night,” I said, closing my laptop. He did not move from my bed, but stayed there, circling my back. I was amused and impatient. Most of all, I was bored with his temerity and grabbed him. I was bored with his boundaries, his timid and respectful needs for confirmation, and most of all, his doubt. This is not usually the way the story goes – I was the one who did not ask and took what was necessary. He was a virgin when I met him, two days later he was not. But in retrospect, I dominated him because I knew he would — at that point — never refuse me. To have refused me — at that point — would have meant admitting more than he could bear at the time.
When I think about the Caribbean, in conjunction with Georg and his cold north home I wanted desperately to visit, I think about all the boys I never quite fucked. I think about the heat and the rising smells and the dirt in the corners of the rooms. We were afraid, but it was fun to be afraid. We made it funny. We had to. We made jokes about AIDS even though the only people with AIDS I knew were the children playing with stained soft toys in Cyril Ross, or the men walking paper thin on the pavement. Still though, we developed elaborate systems of avoiding disease and dirtiness. My friend, my only gay friend and thus known against his will as only this aspect of his person, would refer to things as a duttiness. Duttiness: the dirty pavement and the potholes in the road; but really the vagrant who asked for two dollars for a drink but on receiving a cup of water instead saying scornfully “I only drink bottle water”. Duttiness was the Cricket Crew, the group of Indian boys who got together to listen to cricket on their phones at all hours of the school day, shunning homework and taking bets with their feet up on their table and their pants legs rolled up whenever maths class was cancelled. Duttiness was especially present at parties. It was present in the rolling hips of girls in short pants; in the music throbbing to be felt in dark rooms with bare concrete floors to be washed off in the morning and in the course of the night accruing layers of sweat, smut and scrap upon which we lowered ourselves, pressed close to the ground, pressed into each other. The heart of the duttiness was sex, but sex as present in school discos and dance floors and photocopied passport pages photoshopped to read birth year 1987. Duttiness was also the foreign passport discount, and the thrill of straightening one’s hair, speaking Spanish or taking on an American accent to get in for free. Duttiness was being pressed into walls by small boys who sweated out your flat-ironed hair as older ones watched.
I would often joke that Georg and I were together only for me to acquire a “useful” citizenship. I’d say this in front of him, and with him. It was a joke that I never believed alone, but , I told myself, it was like a willful delusion, a joke, like eating ice cream to pretend it wasn’t cold, or avoiding the duttiness by telling jokes about not having black men because you don’t want to get AIDS. I was, and am, resentful of the borders that my Trinidad passport forced me to be aware of. I wanted to be free to move through the world without having to acquire wealth or status or security to prove that I was a person you could trust enough to let into your country. I didn’t want to have to marry for citizenship, or have to become a doctor like my uncles or whatever profession was judged useful at the time by immigration. I didn’t even know if I wanted to live in the so-called first world at all: I just wanted to have the choice of making the decision myself. I was upset and tired that I had jumped through all of these hoops to get to university, that I had tired myself out, only to be told there were more forms, more aspirations, more hoops. I was tired because every desire I began to feel – for people, for occupation, for identity – was tied to how easy the future could be and what privileges I could possibly attain. If only I wanted nothing more than to marry a white boy and study economics and then live in the first world and have 2.5 children. I did not want these things, but I tried to avoid this reality for as long as I could.
I had gone to the market with my mother just once when I lived in Trinidad: I was a delicate child and the rivulets of blood streaming from below the chickens made my stomach turn. I told this to my grandmother. “The market here have to be so dutty,” she said. I remember that we were sitting in her white linen bedroom with her fake pearls hanging over the mirror. “Is because is so hot – in Englan you know the market neat neat, all the vegetable line up by colour. Is too hot to get anything but damn dutty vegetables here.”
I told a friend this – the one known for his gayness – some time later. He howled. The damn dutty vegetables,” he laughed. “She’s right! Everything is cleaner when it’s cold. No flies, no smells.” We lay back and sighed, half-joking. “When will be go there?” he asked. “ We can eat polished vegetables and cut them into perfect slices.” We laughed. “Everything here is a duttiness,” he said. We did not laugh.
A memory: Georg and I are sitting on the edge of a building in the darkness. It is November. “It might be good for us,” he said “to have different groups of friends.” He had been confessing a particularly bleak set of things. As I knew him then, he had some vague notion of becoming a development economist. He spoke about developing countries and the third world in ways I found naive and annoying but also completely over my head. As I know him now he is a banker. I have no idea what he does, only the vague hope that he has not completely abandoned the unformed hopes he once had to change things. I do not know. That day in November we sat in the darkness and he told me the happiest moment in his life was the moment he got into boarding school and thought he would leave home. He saw Copenhagen as a dark place, both literally and figuratively. We were bonded by our equal hopes for America. Arriving had elicited a high unmatched by little else since, and having now arrived in this land of promise, we were both coming down. We had escaped our countries for a moment, but these four years were a chance to build a foundation to escape the pains we had previously attached to our home countries. And we did not know how.
Duttiness did not have a fixed location: we could see it everywhere. We attempted to avoid it as best we could, while being attracted to its core : the warmth of others, desiring, needing to eat, wanting fresh vegetables, to be safe. Duttiness lived with brown and black skins that were trying to get the best out of a situation while continuing, as far as possible, to enjoy life. From my vantage point of being told I was lucky and bright and able to go to the source of good things, that vague cold north, I looked upon those that didn’t have the choice with a mixed shame, attraction, revulsion, pity and alienation. As I think about Georg now with a mixture of distance (my gay ex-boyfriend) and attachment (my friend who I hope is happy and learning from the past the way I hope I am) I think of Idrees, who perhaps first taught me about the extents that one would separate and fragment one’s mind and body to escape that confusion of the duttiness.
Idrees was afraid of disease : of STDs, of AIDS, and of dying. He didn’t commit to following any sexual encounter to its natural conclusion until he was twenty six. He would stop at any given moment, and divert his energies to talking about how he would have liked to continue instead.
Instead of fucking, Idrees would pull my nipples until I was sure they would bleed. Instead of going near him we’d talk about how he liked to put things in his asshole. Pipes, fingers, blunt pencils. There were points I would have liked to put knives in there. I offered. We joked that he was gay but he was confident – he just liked things up his ass. We stuck above the waist and continued to search our mouths for sores. I watched him insert a pipe inside himself and come with a clinical humour. Being with Georg was the same in a way. We separated and fragmented and queered ourselves however necessary to avoid the real unidentifiable duttiness. I just didn’t realize what I was doing with Georg until much later. It took the passage of years and years of sadness to realize that wanting to leave the Caribbean and the sometimes annoyances of its developmental inadequacy wasn’t the duttiness I was trying to escape at all.
“You’d have to speak Danish fluently to get Danish citizenship,” said Georg dismissively. “I can do that,” I said. “You wouldn’t want to live there anyway,” he said. “Living there is not the point,” I said. “Right,” he said. We would never get married, that was clear. We might not even be friends for much longer. I held on for as long as I could though, to prove that I could.
At the same time as this was all happening, I was being questioned consistently about who I was and how I identified. My passport is from Trinidad, I’d say, but I grew up on many islands, moving with my parents. I’d go through how I was mixed – maybe my grandmother was actually from Venezuela and her family was actually from Spain and so she therefore was actually white but probably not; Lebanese that we thought was Indian because that great grandfather had lived in Lahore; Scottish because Scots that came to the Caribbean married the lightest ones available and that silenced background of mixed Creole- former slave. I swear people’s eyes glazed over. How do you identify? I was asked when lying in a friend’s bed, as usual with my clothes falling off me. She refuses to identify, the friend said, but she’s queer. Obviously. Queer I had to consider as an identity label. It didn’t immediately supply me with something to deny. And of course there was always something to deny.
In the summer when I first arrived as a freshman, Georg’s skin and mine stood in contrast: a warm brown against a reddening pale under the sun. His hair grew blonder in the sun as I grew darker. In the winter when Georg and I inevitably broke up, it had reversed. His hair was getting darker as the nights grew longer, and I was becoming paler than I had ever known. He wore a stark white Burberry coat in the winter, and as hair got darker as the sun faded, he bleached it so that stalking out in the white fields of snow, he seemed to disappear completely.
I was always eating ice cream inside when friends visited my bedside. Wow, they said, I didn’t realize it was so serious. I thought it was some weird sex thing. It was and it wasn’t. What sex happened between us was terrible, and to this day I cannot remember a single moment. I can only remember that there were many. I had lost the only center that I had. I ate ice cream and gained weight. My skin grew lighter and lighter and I could not stop it.My grandmother stared at me on the video-screen with squinting eyes saying that it looks like I’ve gained weight. I’d point my chin down and smile.
Georg began eating ice to lose weight: Georg’s ice eating lost him forty pounds. He was thinner, which was what he wanted. He told me about what seemed to me like emotionless hookups. I was amused. He was as doubtful as ever, as bleak, as cynical and as wounded but he made choices to repair himself. The bleach, the ice, the boys. But what was the equivalent of sunscreen for the enveloping cold and the quickening dark? He had found his sunscreen, his ice cream parlour, his concept that cleared away all negative possibilities he did not wish to entertain.
I could not speak to him for a long time for reasons I was never able to explain. I gained forty pounds, I felt the bounds of my body slipping out of the lines. I missed an exam. I failed a class. People felt that when I said I wasn’t a lesbian I was closeted, but I did not know for sure that it could be so simple. Georg had come out. He was gay, he said that first time, shaking. “Yes,” I said and hugged him.
That he liked men was obvious, and I was outwardly happy that he was brave enough to finally admit what I had always known. But I identify now that I felt a pain that he was able to “identify” at all. We were not the same. I touched people and felt nothing. I did not know what to want or what to try. What was I trying to get away from?
The woman comes into this fog. She looks at me with soft eyes I do not want to remember. “Would you like to go for ice cream?” she asks. “Sure,” I reply, “but I’ve had so much lately that I’m sure I won’t really taste anything.” She frowns. She laughs. “That’s fine,” she says, “come anyway.”