Andi, Monica and I were a couple of hours into our salutatory conversation, yet it already had the patina of easy friendship – two old friends and the imperfect stranger having a drink in their neighborhood Chicago bar. The Katty Kay revelation and discussion of my blog were the impetus for our bonding – sharing secrets with people who don’t live in your town is an infectious habit. I shared, Andi shared, Monica shared, and I shared some more. We covered lost loves, drunken sexcapades, famous crushes, and a few things that I cannot recall.
When Monica asked about my plans for the rest of the weekend, it felt like a natural extension of the conversation rather than a veiled invitation.
“I’ve got a lot of work to finish in reviewing this business plan” I said while patting the stack of papers to my left. “So that should take me through most of the day tomorrow. I was thinking about finding a place to Step tomorrow night, but a) most people go to the Step joints with a partner, and b) I might not be finished with my report by then so it might be a moot point anyway.”
“You’ve got to finish in time because you need to take us steppin’ with you” Andi exclaimed. To bolster the point, she added “we never get to go any more… just can’t convince our friends to learn.”
I began to chuckle a bit before Andi gave me a playful punch in the shoulder and asked “What’s so funny; are you laughing because I just asked you out?”
“No, I’m laughing cuz I’m wondering how Irish and Italian girls from Evanston learned to step” I replied still laughing. My continued snickering earned me another punch to the shoulder.
Monica jumped into the conversation to correct me; “I’m from Evanston, Andi’s from Highland Park.”
“There’s a difference?” I mocked while moving out of punching range.
“Yes, and we’re all going stepping tomorrow night or I’m gonna find your blog and leave a bunch of comments about how you refused to take two hot women dancing so you could hole up in a hotel room with a bunch of spreadsheets” Monica stated with a tone that was a mix of joke and threat.
The Lady had a point.
“OK, we’re going steppin’ tomorrow night” I replied in what was a not too difficult capitulation. “There is one problem – despite the rumors on the bathroom walls, I don’t have an ego big enough to think that I can take two women dancing at the same time.”
Andi was quick to intone “Monica will bring her ex – he can step, and they need to have some post-break-up-sex anyway.”
The statement was a small conversation grenade. Monica gave Andi a look that seemed to say “that’s true, but did you need to share that with the stranger at the bar?” I blushed at the candor but tried to ignore it… it was consistent with our theme of sharing after all.
“Since I’m the out-of-towner, I’ll leave it to you two to pick the place; and if you’ll grant me one more indulgence, can we meet at the bar of my hotel for a cocktail first so I can have as much time as possible to finish my work?” I offered as a solution.
The plan was accepted, digits were exchanged, and a friendship, the seeds of which were planted earlier in the evening, had its first bloom.
Saturday’s sun came and went quickly. I spent most of the day in a coffeeshop’s corner trying to preemptively rid myself of work guilt. Ninety percent complete would have to suffice because just after 8pm and a little over an hour to get back to my hotel, eat, shower, and get dressed was about the right amount of time.
Scrubbed, shined and with my steppin’ shoes on, I elevatored down to the hotel bar. Having made friends with the bartender earlier in the week, I took him up on his offer to “let [him] know about anything [he] could do while I was staying there.” I was fairly certain that he was referencing call girls and blow (there are certain signs that industry pros will notice) but all I wanted was a table by the fireplace, which he kindly reserved for me.
I took the liberty of ordering a bottle of Prosecco (bubbles before all things – my wine mentor used to say.) Monica’s ex was the first to arrive. Derrick was my almost five inches taller mirror image, African-American, the frame of a former athlete whose lines had softened just a bit, short grown-up hair, clean shaven, and well tailored black three button suit with a dark shirt underneath. He walked straight towards me and introduced himself with “you must be Refugee, I’m Derrick.”
I stood and met his hand before Derrick said, by way of explanation, “Monica said that I should look for a guy who looks and dresses a lot like me; since you’re the only other brother in here, I was pretty sure I headed to the right table.”
We shared a slight laugh that was more shared knowledge than humor.
I poured a glass of Prosecco for Derrick, we toasted to “new friends” and took our seats. Monica and Andi entered a few minutes later, turning every head in the room in the process. They were both casually, but well, attired last night when we met; tonight however, they were dressed in cocktail attire. They both shared Italian and Irish lineage but did so inversely – Monica took the shockingly pale skin from her Irish mother and dark curly hair from her Italian dad; Andi had the red hair and green eyes of her Irish father, but the lightly olive skin and strong features of her Italian mom. They both were simply stunning in dresses that fell just above and just below the knee.
Derrick and I watched them cross the room towards us and both stood to greet our nominal, but questionably accurate, dates. Cheek kisses were sent all around as was mutual admiration for how well all of us “cleaned-up.”
After we drained the bottle, again leaning on the bartender’s offer for assistance, I had the hotel’s town car waiting curbside – there was a fifty dollar handshake on my exit.
Twenty minutes later we walked into an uptown ballroom filled with late 30 to mid 50 something Black Chicago Society. I’ve been, and frequently am, the only Black person in the room for many situations. It’s never been by design just circumstance of social/professional circles; and I rarely take stock of that circumstance. Yet there I was suddenly, instantly aware, and slightly discomfited by the fact that Derrick and I were the two “Black guys who brought the White girls.”
The socio-political implications of race are too fraught with peril but never more delicate than within the Black community. The far too simplistic explanation of my feeling is: I know that I am not that stereotypical successful Black man who wears a Caucasian woman on his arm as an accessory or trapping of that success, and I know that our pairing that evening developed organically. However, I sensed that too many people in that room, rightly or wrongly, assumed that we were that cliché because the evidence of their life and the media told them it was most likely the case.
Our foursome ordered drinks at the bar and chatted with just a touch of the awkwardness of 8th graders at their first junior high dance – who will be the first to ask whom for that dance? Right about the midpoint of our collective and individual glasses, the song changed and it seemed like the logical moment to extend my hand to Andi. Derrick followed suit.
Andi stepped better than me – she never answered that question about how she learned – like, I-need-to-really-pay-attention-to-not-screw-up, better. When I had moment to glance over at Derrick and Monica, they were really good too.
We took a few turns on the dance floor before the ladies went to the restroom and Derrick and I adjourned to the bar.
Standing at the bar next to a couple of early 50s Black women, Derrick and I ordered a couple of Bourbons for me and Monica, and a couple of glasses of generic red wine for him and Andi. The woman nearest me, a younger Nancy Wilson clone, leaned over to me and whispered, almost conspiratorially, “at least they know how to step.”