The Divine Auditor


It is still dark when my cell phone begins to buzz. When I flip it open, my mother’s voice comes through a connection often interrupted by the apartment building’s iron girders. We make some awkward small talk and then she says:

                  “I guess you want to talk about the email you sent me last week.”

                  “Yes,” I whisper, trying not to wake my boyfriend, Zoran, who is asleep beside me. I glance at the clock and realize it is 6:30 a.m..

                  “Before I say anything,” she says after a long pause, “tell me if you think we’ve always loved you.”

                  I begin to tear up at this, and I feel my body grow weak. I know what is coming.

                  “Of course,” I manage.

                  She too begins to cry and through sobs tells me a disconnected story about when she was at a spring break house party as a sophomore in college. Someone put something in her drink… She woke up the next day knowing something had happened, someone had taken advantage of her.

                  “Are you saying . . . you were raped,” I ask, trying to soften my voice as I do so. She cries and does not answer. “Was he . . .” I continue but cannot finish the sentence.

                  “Yes,” she says. “He was African American.”

“He was black . . .”

“He was,” she says.

                  “Who was it?” I ask, clambering over Zoran in my underwear, taking the phone into the hallway so as not to wake him.

                  “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t remember.”

                  Now I don’t know what to say. I want to know more, but her crying, her hurt sounds make me afraid to push. I know that I am sounding harsh when I speak again, but I can’t help it. She doesn’t know who it was, but she knows he was black. She knows that. How does she remember that? But I don’t ask her that.

                  “Why are you only telling me this now?” I say.

                  “Because you asked. I have to go, I’m going to be late,” she says.

                  Then she hangs up and goes to her shift at the hospital.

                  I stand there shivering in the dark. I cannot decide which is more shocking; that I was conceived in rape or that my father is not the man I’ve grown up with, but some black guy my mother went to school with, whose name she does not remember, who may or may not have drugged her. I have so many questions, but it is this that sticks in my head: both of my parents and my two younger brothers are white. After years of suspecting I was not, finally at the age of twenty-seven I gathered the courage to ask my mother about it. And this is how she tells me. I don’t even know if my father knows. I mean the man I have called my father for twenty-eight years. Is this a secret from him, too? Sadness mixes with anger and disbelief. But there is also a sense of resolution; so I’m not a freak of nature. There is a rational explanation for me after all. This is what I tell myself, but none of it is rational. My brain is still trying to make sense of it all.

It is almost noon and Zoran is trying to wake me.

                  “Stavaj . . . no, ne stava?” he says, rocking me back and forth, trying to turn me over. As he props himself up on one elbow, his pajama shirt, dark blue, hangs open, and his hair falls down either side of his face and over his shoulders.

                  “Ne chtem stava,” I say, pulling him and the blankets close. His warmth is reassuring. I suddenly feel like I am back in my own world where things make sense, and the phone call this morning almost seems like nothing more than a bad dream. I turn my head over on the pillow and squint up at him through our mingled hair. Dark stubble frames his lips, and his eyes, almost black, sparkle. He sees me looking at him and winks.

                  “You look like a pirate,” I say.

                  “Of course,” he says, brushing some hair back behind his ears. “Slovaks are brigands—of the mountains. How else could we have survived?”

                  While Zoran is in the bathroom, I go over the day’s tasks in my head. It feels good to keep my mind busy with mundane thoughts. I am a graduate student of Slavic languages and literature, but I have to prepare for an English department graduate conference this weekend; I volunteered when the person who was supposed to do it dropped out. As moderator I will have to introduce the presenters, say a few words about the topics, and, when participation flags, come up with informed questions . . . but there is a vague disconnect as my mind slips back to the revelation I received this morning. I try to incorporate the new information into my store of self-knowledge: My real father is a black man, therefore, I am black.

                  Suddenly I feel as if I am looking at myself from the outside. Even as I look down at my hands, which have always been a few shades darker than my brothers’. The color of my own skin is suddenly familiar and foreign: I have always thought of myself as tan, dark, olive, brown—many colors. But never that color.

                  Growing up in western Pennsylvania in Wexford, a rural suburb north of Pittsburgh, my family, like most others who lived there, was white, modestly middle class, and Catholic. Irish and Italian, to be exact, with my father representing the Irish side, my mother the Italian. The fact that my mother’s background also comprised Greek, Slovak, and Ukrainian—that her Eastern European ancestors had come to work in the steel mills in densely wooded Aliquippa in the 1920s and that her mother had been raised in the Greek Orthodox faith—never entered our family story. Instead we focused on her father’s Italian heritage, the story of his illiterate Italian grandmother who no speak-a English, the story that he was or may have been born in Italy, that they changed their last name from DiMartini to Martin at Ellis Island, that even though they were poor and lived in a tiny house with a concrete floor in Freedom, PA, they always kept it clean. This Italian heritage, my mother liked to remind us, meant that we were the inheritors of the Romans and Julius Caesar; we were the inheritors of “the greatest civilization on earth.”

                  We were supposed to take pride in both the majesty and poverty of our Italian heritage, just as we were supposed to take pride in the scoundrel nature of our Irish blood. The story of the Dunns, my father told us, was that they were horse thieves who were arrested in eighteenth-century Ireland and given a choice: be sentenced to death or be sent to the New World. The fact that they were most likely sent as indentured servants, like other poor whites who were sold or exiled to this country from their homelands as disposable labor, was never part of the story. Instead we were supposed to be proud of their hardscrabble endurance, their fearlessness at leaving home to make a life in a new land, their heartbreak and eternal pining for Ireland, and most of all, that generation after generation, they had worked and scraped their way to the middle class. They stayed on the East Coast, settling in Newark and Philadelphia. Apparently, one of them had become a mayor in the early 1900s. Another had even fought in the Revolutionary War, and my father used to tell me that that meant I was a Daughter of the Revolution, part of a select group of women who could trace their ancestry in this country all the way back to the colonial era. He did not mention that this was a conservative organization, or that it was an organization at all; it was simply presented to me as a fact, an honor and a birthright.

                  But, as it turns out, I am not a Daughter of the Revolution, at least not in the way my father meant it. As it turns out, I am not a Dunn, not the descendent of the brave, roguish Irish ruffians that my father and brothers can lay claim to. My father—my real father—is some mysterious black man, which puts me in another category altogether. A black man with no face, no place, and no name is my father. And if my father is not my real father, if he is some strange black man, that means I am no longer white, a heritage in which, through the language of nationality, my parents taught me to take great pride.

When Zoran comes out of the bathroom, I take my towel. I have half a mind to tell him about my mom’s phone call, but I hesitate. I still don’t know the whole story, still don’t know how I feel about the news. I want to know, but I also dread knowing. I just kiss him and pat him on the butt as he passes.

                  In the shower, my brain cells awaken and I realize the reason for the disconnect, the strangeness. It is because, although it was not spoken of in my family (and only joked about among my friends), my difference while always real to me was a secret: it was plain for all to see, but it was never spoken of. Things that linked me to black culture in even the slightest way would disappear: the Rasta hats, Jordan t-shirts, rap tapes, until I realized that if my mother found anything in my cache of twelve- or thirteen-year-old’s plunder that smacked of African-Americana, it would be confiscated. The only thing that was not confiscated was my rock. I found it one day after track practice, large, flat, and shaped like that mysterious continent. I took it home, feeling its contours in my pocket. It was my Africa Rock, and it sat on my desk in plain view, unmolested, until I forgot about it. Before that though, it reminded me that the only black things I could have were the ones only I could see.

                  Somehow, even in my all-white school, being different did not negatively affect my popularity. My difference became something of an inside joke between my friends and me. They would say I was the daughter of “Jerome” the milkman and that the racial profile of our school changed depending on how I wore my hair that day. I went along with the joke: after all, I had no straightforward way of articulating the contradictory nature of my position. I had seen enough photos of my parents with me as a newborn and heard the story of my birth enough times not to doubt that they were my “real” parents, but I also knew there was something about my looks—more than just being a dark-featured Italian—that made me different. How could both things be true? It did not help that no one in my family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and certainly not my brothers or parents—ever remarked on my appearance. The silence was strictly enforced by my mother through tacit agreement. My brothers knew that she would abide any kind of teasing directed at her daughter—her laughter, her quirkiness, anything, but never jokes about her hair, her color. Soon the silence was complete. My difference—was always the elephant in the room, but to me, to us, it all seemed normal. When my brothers’ friends asked them if I was adopted, they simply responded “No.”

                  My normalization was secured because my family was well known and well liked in the community. Ever since we moved to Wexford when I was in kindergarten my mother had volunteered for everything from lunch lady to Sunday school teacher to pta to fundraising for our varsity sports teams. My father coached all our extracurricular sports teams, from my brothers’ pee-wee football and tee ball teams to my softball and basketball teams, even when I was too young and uncoordinated to be any good at sports or care about them. Luckily, when I turned twelve I grew six inches and my coordination improved, helping to make me the star athlete I became in middle and high school. In a class of six hundred students, everyone knew who I was, and I was voted “Most Athletic” every year, despite the fact that girls on our varsity diving team had qualified for the Olympic trials. I was five feet nine inches by age thirteen, and this prompted comments like, “How old are you? Where are you from? You should be a model!” Whenever anyone asked my nationality, which happened frequently, I would say “Irish and Italian.” When they still seemed puzzled I elaborated, “My mother’s family is from southern Italy.” As a senior in high school, when a guidance counselor told me about the kinds of minority scholarships available to someone with grades as high as mine, I politely replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t qualify for those.” I told my dad about this on the way home from basketball practice one day.

                  “If people think I qualify for these scholarships,” I said, “shouldn’t I apply for them? It could be helpful.”

                  “No,” he said without missing a beat. “That would be dishonest.” Then he paused for a few seconds and added: “Do not tell your mother about this.”

                  Growing up I lived with a kind of double consciousness: with my friends and people who didn’t know me I was exotic, different, possibly black, but at home with my family I was a good Irish-Italian Catholic girl.

When I get out of the shower I realize that I no longer have to live with this double consciousness. I can resolve the contradiction! My difference is also no longer a secret. It is like coming out—cause for uneasy celebration. I am both elated at having this burden lifted from my conscience but also terrified of what happens next, of fully stepping into this new identity. So, although it is usually something I do on weekends (because it takes time to set), I open the cabinet and reach for my pore-refining charcoal mask. The steam clears as I apply the blue-black substance to my face, and when I look in the mirror, my eyes and lips pop out at me from my blackened face under a towel turban.

                  This is it, I think. No more pretending to be something I’m not.

                  I can hear the short and long vowels of Slovak in the other room—Zoran talking probably with his mom on the headset. She is in Slovakia, and they talk almost every day.

It is like learning to swim without water wings, waking up one day, a grown woman, and learning that you are black. Now, as I walk around, performing my daily tasks, I am black. I am black as I look at the sun shining through trees, black as I talk to Zoran on the shuttle to campus. When I walk across the stone courtyard and under the Gothic arch of the Humanities building, I do not do it as a “dark-skinned Italian,” but as a black person. I wonder: Are there certain black ways to do these things that I don’t know about? Will my behavior now change to reflect my official blackness? It occurs to me that, since I feel inclined to specify that I am black while doing these things, before I was not simply doing them, but doing them as white. This is something I never thought about, and it strikes me with surprise and shame that this assumed whiteness—despite my persistent doubts—has been a condition of my existence. It also means that if I feel this way, everyone else must, too. White people are walking around being white. Black people are walking around being black. And this is the great truth about the condition of being a minority in this country: African Americans are not allowed to forget that they are walking around, picking out groceries, driving their kids to school while being black; white people think they are just doing these things while simply being people. If you ask a white person if he is aware that he is being white while gardening or waiting for the bus, he will probably ask you what you mean by that.

                  As I stop at Small World to get a coffee, and stand in line scanning the densely crowded café for people I know, getting annoyed at the loud banging against the counter that signals a barista is emptying espresso grinds into the trash, I realize once again that I am doing all this as a black person. My manner has not changed—I still do these routine things in the way I always have, half-consciously, impatiently, thoughts jumping from subject to subject, taking in the sights and smells around me and having positive and negative reactions to them, thinking about what I’d rather be doing, dreading the next day’s class preparation and the exhausting tedium of teaching three identical introductory language classes in a row—but the fact of my existence has.

                  So far, everything is the same—and yet everything is different.

After Small World I stop at the graduate lounge in my department to pick up the conference abstracts—the organizers said they’d leave them in my mailbox. The light in the lounge does not automatically turn on as it should when I enter, and I wonder why it doesn’t see me.

                  With the natural light, the old newspapers on the table, the computer parts stacked in the corner, the room has a deserted feel. I walk to a side wall to look in my mailbox, which is really just a recessed slot among two rows of slots, and sort through brightly colored fliers to lectures and events long past, alumni giving requests, and a few old phone bills (I make a mental note to change my address). When I find the abstracts and am about to take them out of the brown, string-tied envelope, Frank, the language instructor for whom I am a teaching assistant, walks in.

                  For some reason his flaming hair and beard, his tie that hangs only halfway down his shirtfront, and his self-important junior-faculty manner particularly annoy me today. I pretend to be deeply engaged in my abstracts, but he sticks out his potbelly (perhaps not intentionally) in collegial recognition when he sees me.

                  “Okh! Zdravstvuite, Sara Robertovna,” he says. “Have you picked up Monday’s homeworks?”

                  “No,” I say, angling to avoid a conversation he will inevitably steer toward the linguistic specificity of Russian participles or the deterioration of university a cappella singing. He is American—from Boston—but likes to keep up the language teacher façade even outside the classroom, which I find creepy and unnerving. Frank is very, very white. I register this and realize that, in addition to being annoyed, I am also now on the defensive.

                  Though I always try to avoid conversation with Frank, today I don’t even smile. I try to edge past him, my envelope held in front of my chest, but he stands resolutely between me and the door, sweating a little.

                  “Sara Robertovna,” he says again, with a false nasality that makes my skin crawl; the patronymic synthesized from my father’s first name, which sounds ridiculous anyway but which he insists on using “for the sake of cultural authenticity in the classroom,” as he put it, today seems like an especially cruel joke. “Your family’s Italian, right?”

                  I do not know what he’s getting at, but I have to pause because, technically, this is true. I wait in silence, trying to look defiant, although I’m not used to not smiling—even at Frank—and it makes me feel uncomfortable, like I’m the one being rude.

                  “Last semester McGavaran ta-ed with me,” he continues. “I bet we looked like two stuffed shirts!” He fingers the paper cup in his hands but does not throw it in the trash. “At least this semester they have one instructor who’s less male and less white than me. Looks good for the department, too. Russian doesn’t get many instructors like you.” He lingers, smiling, but my lack of response puts us both ill at ease. Is he trying to give me a compliment?

                  “Look, Frank,” I say, focusing on a spot above his head and shifting my weight forward, “I am not less anything. I have a student waiting for me downstairs. I have to go.” My heart is pounding and my only instinct is to get out. I push past him, but I sense he is watching me, and I try not to run down the corridor. Just before I go down the steps he calls, his voice still too near:

                  “Don’t forget to take those homeworks!”

                  Downstairs, the red walls and silver tables of the café seem to be from another planet. The place swarms with students, and every seat on the black couch circling the room is occupied by these vagabonds and their giant sacks. The lights and noise are dizzying, and I have to shoulder through the line forming at the counter to get a seat.

                  I finally unpack the abstracts. They do not contain the authors’ names but are simply marked for the panel entitled “The Voice of Sense.” There are only three papers: “Sense and Sensible Nonsense in the Poetry of William Butler Yeats,” “No Sense Is Good Sense: The Open Poem and Post-Modern Receptivity,” and “The Dramatic Monologue and the Divine Auditor.” What a bunch of bullshit, I think, disappointed that I cannot even drown my thoughts in these. I get up to get coffee and suddenly realize that I am like one chip in a really big cookie. Looking around, I note a few other chips. Funny, I think, that I never noticed.

                  As I read the abstracts, my frustration and anger mount. Not only are they poorly written, they are completely irrelevant. Why should I, as a black person, care about Yeats and post-modern receptivity? And what the hell is the Divine Auditor? I read: In the nineteenth century, speakers of dramatic monologues address themselves to God, the Divine Auditor, because they cannot reveal their thoughts to one another. I slam the papers down in disgust as around me the din of the café is deafening. The topic is so English. So white. No black person would ever think of a topic like this because the inability to communicate openly is a white problem. Black people have no problem speaking their minds: Just this morning, the guy cleaning the women’s bathroom tried to pick me up!

                  I am pained that I have to concentrate on these ridiculous abstracts when I have much more pressing concerns. Ingrid, a fellow grad student in my program, sees a free spot at my table and comes over.

                  “Hallo!” she says, her ha breathy as her pixie cut and freshwater pearls. “There is no room today, ah?” She unbelts her trench coat and slides into the seat opposite.

                  “Has Frank seemed strange to you lately?” I ask.

                  She tries to suppress a smile but fails.

                  “You mean he finally tried to ask you out?” She asks this as if it were a reasonable question.

                  Even though I usually do not blush, I feel heat rising in my face. “What are you talking about?” I ask, and it is not a question as much as a demand.

                  “You haven’t noticed? The whole department knows!” She laughs, and I realize what’s stunning about Ingrid, besides her creamy skin and doe eyes, is that her voice, with its killer accent, can become very husky and low. “Remember the little birthday cake, the Valentine card in your mailbox, the Orthodox Easter card? You are not even Orthodox, ja?” She has a point, but this is not what interests me.

                  “He said something racially offensive to me today,” I say, trying to convey the gravity of the situation.

                  “What?” Ingrid says, in disbelief. “What is your race?”

                  “I’m black,” I say, as if I were used to saying this, as if it were self-evident.

                  She looks at me and thinks for a moment. “No, you look not so black,” she says. “Greek, maybe, or Creole—from Martinique.”

                  “My mother is Greek, actually,” I say, but she doesn’t let me finish.

                  “Oh, so you are mixed, that is different. See Zoran over there?” I look to see Zoran at a far booth with his laptop and headset and wonder why she spotted him before I did.

                  “In Slovakia they are all mixed. There is no such thing as ‘Slovak.’ He, for instance, is quarter Czech, quarter Austrian, quarter Hungarian, and quarter Slovak.” She squints across the room at him, reckoning. His hair is down and collar undone, as if he just blew in from the high seas.

                  “He is very tan,” she continues. “He looks more Hungarian than Slovak.”

                  “How do you know so much about Zoran?” I ask, as an inkling of suspicion dawns.

                  “Oh, nothing,” she says. “I only see him at the international dinners.”

                  My stomach gurgles acidly as I sip my coffee. “It better only be international dinners,” I say, looking, unsmiling, into her big, velvety eyes.

                  “Well,” she says, her voice low, “Central Europeans are naturally close. We have a lot in common, much more so than with Americans.”

                  “That’s a lie,” I say. “Zoran’s said himself that no one would speak to him in Berlin. He said no one hates Eastern Europeans more than Germans.”

                  “I am from Austria,” Ingrid says. She picks up her trench coat and, before making her exit, adds: “Maybe you should not forget Frank, ah? Americans with interest in language have much to talk about.”

                  Slut, I say under my breath, but she has already gone.

                  Fuming, I look over again at Zoran, who has not noticed anything of this little scene. He has his headset on and his expression is concentrated, a sure sign he’s talking to his mother. Again? How many times does a grown man need to talk to his mother during a single day? This is not normal, not even for him. Still, I collect my bag, coffee, and papers and elbow through the crowd to his table.

                  “Hey,” I say, and he waves in a way that both greets me and signals that I shouldn’t talk. I sink into the leather booth.

                  When he takes off his headset, a worried expression lingers around his temples.

                  “How are you?” he says, giving me a quick kiss. Without waiting for the answer, he hands me a large stack of papers. “You will correct this for me?” he asks, and I see that it is his latest chapter on Aristotle’s moral psychology.

                  “What am I, your slave?” I nearly yell this, but it is lost in the din.

                  I expect him to see that I am truly upset and apologize, but instead, he brightens and says: “Yes, why don’t you be my slave?” He holds me against his shoulder, stroking my mass of curly hair. “I promise to feed you—one warm meal each day. And not to sell you for one year! What do you say?”

                  I push him away, knocking over his coffee, which splatters over his shirt, his chapter, his laptop. He jumps to salvage the machine, bewildered, and this gives me unexpected glee.

                  “Guess you can’t call your mom back,” I chide. “Or maybe you’d rather talk to Ingrid?”

                  “Jei Maria,” he says, as he picks up his laptop and tips some liquid out. When he finally looks up at me he stops and asks, “What is wrong?”

                  It is then that I realize I am standing above him, tears streaming down my face. I take one of the coffee napkins and blow my nose. When I wipe my eyes, I am startled to see black rub off and realize my mascara must be destroyed.

                  “I bet I look awful,” I say, trying to laugh.

                  “Yes, you look bad,” Zoran says as I sit down.

                  “You know,” I say, calming down a bit, “this morning, while you were asleep—”

                  “I know,” he cuts in. “I heard you. You are not so quiet as you think.” His face has softened, and I lean against his arm.

                  “She lied to me,” I whisper into his shirt.

                  “Not lie,” he says. “She just didn’t want to hurt you.”

                  “What do you know about it?” I say, suddenly angry. I take more coffee napkins from the table to wipe my face.

                  “While you were in the shower,” he says, as he continues to blot his laptop, “on the phone, my mother told me she has cancer. She has known for one month.”

                  “But you talk to her every day,” I say. “That’s awful! Why didn’t she tell you earlier?”

                  “She knows that if I leave to Slovakia before the semester is over, I cannot return to the U.S. It is not in my visa. My father is now in Austria.” He gets up to get more napkins. When he comes back, he says: “I am sorry. In ancient Greece they have slaves, but I forget that about this Americans cannot joke.”

The day of the conference I wake at 8:00 and see in the mirror puffy bags under my eyes. Outside it is cold and the wind creeps into my coat seams, and I feel exposed. Rain assails the windows, roofs, and pavement. My umbrella is old and soon soaks through, fat drops matting my hair in sections, frizzing it in others, undermining my professional look. My heels, which are also for the occasion, stumble through puddles, and before I get to the car, gravel gets into my shoe and grinds against the damp balls of my feet. In the car, I switch the windshield wipers on, and for a moment I am not sure where I am going.

                  As if by accident I find Adams Hall, the auditorium where the conference is taking place. The organizers—other doctoral students like myself—are glad I’ve come early, and they are frantically arranging bottled water on the refreshments table, stretching too-small trash bags over the mouths of the trashcans provided by Event Services, and calling Maintenance to locate the auditorium’s light switch. Soon the presenters arrive, walking down the short hallway to the auditorium’s lobby, shaking rain off coats and umbrellas, nervously smiling or pretending to look over the heads of the group of us waiting to greet them and give them nametags.

                  By 9:00 most of the participants have arrived, and I have greeted, tagged, and offered coffee to the authors of the first two papers on my panel. The author of “Sense and Sensible Nonsense” is a large bearded man in his late thirties wearing a sweater vest and suit coat. He brushes a hand over a receding wave of chestnut hair as he chats with me conspiratorially.

                  “Yeats is so much better if you read him with an Irish brogue,” he confides, pronouncing the o’s in dialect.

                  Thank goodness for nametags, I think, chatting with the author of “No Sense Is Good Sense,” whose waist-length locks, thick-rimmed glasses, and floor-trailing skirt seem to be common features of several conference members.

                  The first panel begins at 9:30, and as we file into the auditorium, I scan the participants and lobby area for any sign of my third author. Our panel will begin after lunch, the last of three, so in theory, the missing author has plenty of time. However, it is considered bad form to show up only for one’s own talk, not taking part in other discussions. Perhaps, I note snarkily, there is a reason besides English dourness the author chose to write on monologue.

                  The organizers are nervous because they’ve already had one last-minute cancellation this morning, which has shortened the second panel to two papers. One lame duck panel is fine, they say, but the afternoon will drag on endlessly if the final panel is also short. I tell them the nasty weather is probably at fault, and our author will turn up any time. They hope, they whisper, as the keynote address begins.

                  After two long panels and lunch, which I can barely touch for the knot forming in my stomach, the author of “The Divine Auditor” is still missing. As the participants excuse themselves for a final bathroom break before the last panel, one of the organizers comes up to me.

                  “How long is your introduction?” she asks. “Do you think you can improvise a bit on the themes of the last paper, so we’ll have something to talk about?”

                  “Sure,” I say, rifling through my conference folder, digging out the page-long introduction I’ve written in bullets. “I’m sure I can . . .”

                  My sentence trails off as I realize the clock is about to strike 1:30, and the participants (minus the few who sneaked off after lunch) are making their way back into the auditorium. I am searching my brain for any tidbit of nineteenth-century monologue trivia that may be accidentally stored there when someone takes my arm. I look up to see a woman of towering height, taller than me, beautiful, with long microbraids tied back in a scarf, a few stray ones falling around her shiny, dark face. She smiles so that I can see her white teeth and mouths, “I’m so sorry.

                  “Are you—the Divine Auditor?” I say before I realize what I’m asking. I am completely floored and I feel an uncomfortable sweat—the kind that stinks—seeping into my armpits.

                  “Yes, I’m Celia,” she says, taking out her papers as we enter the auditorium.

                  I take my seat next to Celia at the table in front of the audience and introduce the speakers. I feel as if a strong hand has gripped my spinal column inside my neck and that that force alone is keeping me upright, turning my head from side to side, nodding it during each talk with scholarly approval. I can no longer think of anything but She’s black and I feel the hand’s grip tighten as I listen to Celia deliver an even-toned lecture on God as listener in the late-nineteenth century. She is saying:

                  “Furthermore, God hears the kind of talk that goes on in the hidden places of the greedy heart. What God therefore demands, as any auditor should, is complete integrity, calling us to account . . .”

                  To whom am I accountable now, and why do I care? To myself, to my mother, to this woman who suddenly has become my new God? Her polished mahogany arm lies close to mine on the table, and, even though my throat is parched, I cannot reach for my water for fear my hand will tremble violently, that I will offend her by unleashing an acrid stench, or that I will grab her arm and begin stroking it violently, pressing it to my face to feel its blackness. I want to know what real blackness feels like, not the confused phony state of whatever I am. I want to know her secrets, feel the warmth radiating off her skin. I want to be inside her dark, gorgeous body, to be inside her mind and know what she knows, be what she is.

                  I ask the audience if they have questions for the panelists and try to moderate the ensuing exchange while keeping my arms rigidly at my sides. What does she think of me? I’m wondering. Is she glad there’s another black woman here? A sister? My concluding comments, which come from a place other than my brain (this is on autopilot), even elicit a few laughs. After scattered applause the crowd quickly disperses, leaving only the organizers and the panelists who are gathering their papers.

                  I want to say something to Celia, some expression, some acknowledgment of our shared race. I shake hands with the other presenters and follow her out into the lobby.

                  “I really enjoyed your paper,” I venture, as she puts on her coat to leave.

                  “Thanks,” she says.

                  Looking around and dropping my voice a little, I add: “It’s always the same at these things, though—not one other black person in sight.”

                  “You must know what it’s like, too,” she says to me sympathetically, “to be a Latina in—what’s your field?”

                  “Russian,” I can barely whisper.

                  “Oh,” she says, suddenly reaching in her bag as it sounds an electronic version of Peer Gynt. “I’ve got to go. It was nice meeting you.” She takes one more look at me, a little more searching, as if she were about to say something else, but I cannot meet her gaze, and I, too, begin rifling through my bag, pretending I’ve gotten a call.