Vida was a half-hour early for the poetry reading. She wanted to settle in and make sure her heart rate was stable before it was her turn to get on the mic.

A dozen patrons, mostly women, sat in metal-backed chairs or lounged by the espresso bar. They didn’t look in her direction. No matter what their economic background or education, Vida noticed that black women barely spoke to each other in LA. They regarded her timid salutations with mistrustful glances, terse replies or downright silence. They eyed her hair to see if it was real, scrutinized her Coach bag to see if it was authentic or a knockoff from the Fashion District. She spoke to no one.

Mari was leaning on the tiny stage talking to the musicians, her back to the audience. When she turned around, Vida bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. Her friend was always in costume. Her twists were pulled back in a taffeta head wrap and she wore huge gold earrings that dangled to her shoulders. She almost tripped over her flowing African print dress as she strolled regally over to Vida. When they embraced, Vida caught a whiff of patchouli, the fragrance of choice for the poetry set.

 “Blessings my sister.” She looked at the Nikki Giovanni book in Vida’s hands. “Read as much as you want. It’s only going to be me, you and John on the mic.”

As Vida scanned the coffeehouse, Mari chimed in, “I don’t know what John looks like, but he’ll be the only non-black face in the room, so it won’t be hard to spot him.”

A gap-toothed drummer called to Mari, and she excused herself. Vida glanced around the small candle-lit room. Indigo walls were adorned with posters of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and African art. The hiss of the espresso machine and the smell of coffee beans were driving her crazy. She craved a mocha with steamed soymilk, but she didn’t want the caffeine to make her heart race and send her back to the emergency room. Vida selected a table by the window and opened her book. She always had a feeling of safety sitting near the exit.

Halfway through her second reading of “Woman,” the door opened, and the night breeze creased her pages. Vida glanced up, mildly annoyed. A cute Italian guy strolled in, taking off his Sixers cap to reveal spiky-smooth hair. He stared up at the stage, then down at her.

“You here for the open mic?”

Vida nodded. She checked his accent, thinking, I was wrong about him being Italian. Baby boy is definitely an ese.

The guy looked at his watch. “There was hella traffic on the drive out here. Guess I’m running on CP time.”

Vida joined in with his laughter, but her annoyance intensified. She wasn’t in the mood to indulge his esoteric references to black culture. She just wanted to read her poem and head back to the Valley.

Unasked, the man pulled out a chair. He lifted her book to check the cover and then grinned, showing strong white teeth. “You get props for reading Nikki. She’s one of my favorite poets.”

Against her will, Vida smiled. “I’ve loved her since high school. She’s totally unpretentious. She really bares her soul.”

There was a rustling movement at her elbow. She looked up into the sweating face of Mari.

“John?”

Whattup, Sapphire? I’m glad we finally hooked up.”

“I see you met my girl Vida.”

He flashed a crooked grin. “Almost. We were both professing a mutual respect for the gifted Nikki Giovanni.”

“Yeah, big ups to the Black Arts movement. Well, let’s get this party started. I’ll read first, then you, Vida, and John can close out the set. We need to finish up by ten because the band has a gig in Leimert Park later on.” Mari glanced around the half-filled room. “We’ll just have an open mic afterwards if any of the three or four people who showed up want to read.”

As Mari hurried back over to the stage, the Mexican extended his hand to Vida.

“We haven’t been formally introduced. John Marques.”

Tentatively, Vida grasped his fingers. “Vida Donnevan.”

“Life-giver. I dig that.”
          When she cocked her head, puzzled, he said, “I’m just hooked on semantics. Looking for meaning in everything. Your name means life-giver. Well, it could mean life-giver, etymologically speaking. Vida is Spanish for ‘life,’ and donner means ‘to give’ in French. A ‘giver of life.’”

“So you’re trilingual?”

“Not hardly. I picked up the Spanish from my pops, and a little French from my moms. Very little.”

John turned to the stage as Mari took the mic. He listened to her ode to thick thighs for a minute, then faced Vida. “I’m glad I hooked up with Sapphire. I’ve been out of the spoken word scene for awhile. It’s good to be home.”

“Where were you?”

“Church.”

“Are they mutually exclusive?”

John smiled wryly. “No. I just swapped one clique for another.”

He was quiet for a moment, then he said, “You been performing long?”

Something about his probing glance and the cadence in his speech, that iambic pentameter swirled with street flavor, made her nervous. She fidgeted in her chair.

“I’m not an ‘artist.’ I’m just helping out Mar—Sapphire.”

John flashed his big teeth. When he smiled, his lips disappeared. “It’s all about community, you know? Coalition building. We have to empower each other.”

Vida sighed inwardly. Just her luck, a Latino Black Panther had chosen her table. Now she would be expected to engage in a tirade about unity and interlocking systems of oppression.

She gazed into John’s greenish-brown eyes and thought she recognized him. He was the Mexican who idled next to her SUV at the stoplight in his used red Honda, rap music blasting through speakers so worn, the lyrics were barely intelligible. In the summertime, he wore Dickies and a herringbone necklace above a thatch of thick black hair that sprouted from the border of his white wife beater. His speech was shot through with hip-hop slang as he high-fived with the brothers at the liquor stores and pool halls, rallying them to fight the power or register to vote. His breath smelled of carne asada as he spoke rapid-fire Spanish to his homeboys at the East LA auto body shop where he worked. Fingers stained with grease, he composed poems on a wrinkled brown bag during his lunch break, dreaming of the day that he would rock crowds as the first Latino activist poet-rapper.

Faintly, Vida heard her name called. She rose as if on legs that didn’t belong to her. Grabbing her book, she walked to the stage, feeling John’s eyes on her back. Why did I put on these jeans? she moaned to herself. They really make me look like I have a flat butt. I wonder if John wonders why I have no hips for a black woman.

Warily, Vida approached the mic. She needed to think of a witty preamble the way most poets did to segue into their pieces, something clever to show that she was hip and enlightened.

“I’m not really a poet,” she began.

“No disclaimer. No disclaimer.” John spoke up from the back of the room, smiling.

Vida smiled back, grateful for the distraction. “But I love good poetry. Since I can’t write any, I thought I’d let Nikki Giovanni speak for me.”

Taking a deep breath, she began: “She wanted to be a blade of grass amid the fields/but he wouldn’t agree to be the dandelion…”

Vida glanced up and caught John’s gaze. Hazel eyes held brown ones. His chin rested on his palms, as if her words were sustaining him. Self-conscious, Vida reached up to rub her temple and paused at a pimple that was developing there. She realized in horror that she was wearing no makeup. Cursing Demetra, she continued reading. How was she was ever going to get through all those paragraphs without passing out?

“…she decided to become a woman/and though he still refused to be a man/she decided it was all right.”

When she closed the book, the audience clapped and hooted as if she had chanted an original piece. Sisterhood had thawed the unspoken hostility in the room. Vida bowed briefly, trying not to look too rushed as she made her way back to her table. She needed to get some air.

As she stuffed the book into her Coach bag, John put his hand on her wrist. “I know you’re not going to be a poetry whore.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Read and run. You can’t dip out before you hear the other poets.”

Vida looked wistfully toward the door, then back at John. She had almost made it. “I really have to head back to the Valley. I’m tired.”

He twisted his lips in disbelief. “Tired? It’s only 9:40. You can hang out with the common folk for twenty more minutes, right?”

Sighing, Vida plopped into her chair. “Okay. No whoring tonight.” She gave a tiny smile.

John sauntered to the stage as if he owned it. Rubbing his hands together, he said, “Nikki Giovanni’s always a hard act to follow.” When the audience stopped tittering, he continued, “But I think this is something she might be proud of. A tribute to strong sisters.”

He is going to be sooo corny. Vida groaned to herself, embarrassed for the little Mexican. He’s trying too hard to act like he’s black.

“Like Zora observed/She be the mule of the world/A burro burdened by his story/Saddled with the weight of society/While trying to be more than the eye can see/No shrinking violet she/Can stand on her own two/Don’t think that she can’t argue—”

Finger snaps resounded throughout the dimly-lit cafe. Vida felt her hand climbing to her neck and fought off the urge to check her heart rate. There was a fluttering in her chest like the wings of a small bird in panic trying to escape. But this was a different feeling than the terror that sent her racing to the ER. She fidgeted in her chair as if she could silence the bird trapped in her bosom.

“—or put heads in check/In any dialect/Ebonics or academic rhetoric/Fingers that wring wetness out of cotton sweaters /Once picked cotton for rednecks/Her beauty’s effortless/From caramel coated to russet complexion/Pales in comparison to no one/Yet she still struggles on this journey/Saddled with the weight of society/While trying to be more than the eye can see …”

John gestured as he recited, plucking words out of the air. Vida noticed how gentle and beckoning his fingers were, like an evangelist. Even after what came later, she would always remember the kind arc of his hands.