As soon as she stepped into the room, all the white men followed her with their eyes. I dropped my fork and knife on the dinner table and, with my eyes, followed her peregrination to an empty seat at the far end of the big hall.
We were at an American Bar Association dinner conference in Washington D.C. In a room of about five hundred lawyers, I was just one of five black men. Of the black men, only two us were African – until she walked in. I froze, inexplicably, as I watched her. I watched her walk with the grace and self-assurance of a lioness on the plains of the Serengeti.
She first surveyed the gawking eyes of the awe-stricken men, with a mischievous smile, and then walked towards her seat with the slow but unmistakable confidence of a girl who knew that she had cast a spell on the men. I was impressed.
Her skin was dark, polished to such a glowing glaze that it shone like dark sunshades on a sunny afternoon. Her hair, also dark, and in all its natural splendor, was simply held back in a pony tail, restrained by a green-white-green piece of cloth that gave me a clue… She was tall, at least six-foot tall, and her eyes, even from the far end of the hall, emitted the type of twinkles that reminded a village boy like me of the heavenly stars looking down to earth on a moonless night.
As she walked away, it was impossible not to see her manifestly expensive gray jacket with a matching skirt, a suit, which fit her perfectly like a second skin. The high-prized suit, the well-groomed physical deportment, and the reticent mannerism immediately identified her, in my mind, as a cultured lady, a city girl.
This lady was unmistakably African; and with the green-white-green piece of cloth holding down her ponytail, I was convinced that she was of the Naija extraction and she was proud of it.
I tried to return to my food as the other men had done. Being a village boy, I had never liked city girls. Besides, my mother had warned me against them: white girls and city girls are not good for a village boy, she said. As a mama’s boy, I had not forgotten.
But as I watched her sit, alone, at the far end of the hall, my palms began to sweat, my heart began to pound, and suddenly I was no longer hungry. Something had just happened to me and I could not decipher what. I loosened my necktie and the collar of my shirt to restore the flow of oxygen to my brains; then I lifted my handkerchief from my jacket and mopped my brow, which was beginning to congeal with perspiration. My breathing alternated between spasmodic rhythms and long pauses. Mentally, I was aware of what I would like to do, but my body would not cooperate with my mind. I sat and watched the lady from the corner of my eyes for thirty minutes, which seemed like forever.
I kept hoping that a man would walk in and join her at the table so that I would stop nursing this stupid idea and suppress this pitter-patter of my heart. But I had no such luck. In fact, the lady sat alone and did not even eat the food at her table. The worst thing that could happen to me now, I thought, would be to see another man in the room walk to her table and strike up a conversation … then I would never forgive myself for not even trying…I took out the handkerchief again…
When I looked up again and straight, I froze: from across the far end of the hall, the lady was looking at me with what I saw as an invitational smile. I pinched myself. Still watching the inviting smile, my mind wrested some control of my humanity away from my falling flesh. I was temporarily fortified.
As I started to stand up, I looked up again: the smile on her face was gone, as she appeared to suspect that I wanted to make a move towards her. I could see her face clearly. It was now blank, but beautifully blank nonetheless. My anxiety returned.
But since I was already getting up, I was not going to sit back down. I had to make that move. This village boy mentality must wait for another day with apologies to my mother.
With a considerably timorous demeanor, and my tremulous flesh betraying my anxiety, I became the very personification of clinical hysteria. Already paralyzed with fear, not withstanding my legal erudition, I sat up as if the seat had suddenly sprouted thorns… I walked the long distance from my seat towards her; I walked gingerly, half-dragging my feet and half-muttering the possible ‘ice-breakers’ that I intended to use: I was considering either “Excuse me, would you mind if I sat with you …” or “You are very beautiful and…” or “May I ask you your name…”
As I bent down and extended my hand for a handshake, and before I could open my mouth, she looked past me and I turned round following her gaze; right behind me, apparently behind me all along as I was walking towards the girl was Lawrence, a white guy I knew from my days at law school. Lawrence greeted me warmly and, pointing at the girl of my dreams, said: “Meet my girlfriend, Bimbo, she is from Nigeria …”
I shook hands with Lawrence and Bimbo; and as they ignored my exaggerated display of false cordiality, my heart still pounding, and thoroughly embarrassed, I dragged my feet back to my table, licking my wounds, and thinking of my mother’s warning…