Growing up in inner-city Los Angeles, author Michael Datcher was fatherless — the one thing he had in common with his friends. Every night their mothers returned home exhausted after working overtime to put food on the table, and they didn’t have to speak a word to let their sons know the truth: Men were not to be trusted. But as a young man, having already committed petty theft, experimented with sex, and developed a mortal fear of police, Datcher still had what he called “picket-fence” dreams. Here's an excerpt of “Today Bookclub” selection, Datcher’s “Raising Fences”:
I've been obsessed with being a husband and father since I was seven years old. Quiet as it’s kept, many young black men have the same obsession. Picket-fence dreams. A played-out metaphor in the white community but one still secretly riding the bench in black neighborhoods nationwide.
When the picket-fence motif was in vogue, only a few of us could get in the game. The swelling ranks of those who couldn’t (the Perpetual Second Team) were forced to the sidelines, scowling-and pretending we didn’t even want to play.
The bastard children of these Second Teamers stalk the same sidelines. We rarely sit on the bench. Too restless. We can’t figure out if we want to beg to play or raise a stiff middle finger. Sometimes we do both. But usually we strike a cool pose. Hide Huxtable-family dreams in the corner: Can’t let someone catch us hoping that hard.
We know few people believe in us. We struggle to believe in ourselves. So we pose. We have gotten good. We can pose and cry at the same time-no one sees. We can pose and cry out for help-no one hears. We are the urban ventriloquists. Of the thirty families that lived in our east-side Long Beach, California, apartment building during the mid-seventies, I never saw a father living in a household. I never even saw one visit.
There were lots of boys in the neighborhood: Ricky, Dante, Pig Pen, Curt Rock. We rarely talked about our missing fathers. Instead, we poured our passion into our skateboards, our marbles, and our mothers. Yet the unspoken sparkled from our eyes whenever any neighborhood men showed us attention. Once in their gaze, we worked to outperform one another, trying our best to keep the manlight from straying.
“Watch this! I can do a back flip off the curb... Heh, betchu a quarter I can make a shot from the free-throw line.”
It’s likely one of these men laid the seed that sprouted into a back-flipper before them. Neighborhood rumors have a way of falling off grown-up kitchen tables and splattering on ghetto playgrounds.
We flipped, pop-locked, and did the Robot for them, but we were knowing: Men weren’t to be trusted. Even when our mothers didn’t speak these words, their tired lives whispered the message.
I knew many of these men had kids. Where were they? Why were they watching me spin instead of their own children? No, these men were not to be trusted. How could I accept their advice when their personal lives screamed, “I’m lost toooo”? There was too much fatherhood failure around. The disease seemed to be contagious given the epidemic in our neighborhood. These men could watch me spin, but I couldn’t let them get close enough to breathe on me.
The ghetto irony: Many of my generation’s young spinners have become the twenty- and thirty-something men who can’t be trusted. Making children who will grow up to hate them.
Circumstance, suspect choices, and fear have ways of disfiguring urban hopes with surgical precision. A four-ounce bottle of baby formula becomes much heavier than a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor. Having five women becomes easier than having one.
I stroll into Hollywood’s Club Flame with a slight malt-liquor buzz. Slow my roll so my eyes can adjust to the semidarkness most reggae clubs favor. No air-conditioning. I can feel sweat coming of age beneath my armpits, down my back. The pungent scent of high-grade marijuana flavors the air like designer musk. Invisible men in corners send snippets of Jamaican patois slicing through the dense wall of bass-heavy dance-hall reggae. This island funk is just what I need. It pulsates through my damp chest, lubricating the stiffness that graduate school at UCLA engenders. I’m in baggy black jeans, an oversized black Levi’s shirt, and big black stomping boots. Feeling strong and sexy. It’s August 1993. The last few weeks before the quarter starts. I need to be rubbed on. My night vision kicks in. The club is crowded with an international set from the African diaspora. Nigerians, Ethiopians, and West Indians dominate the long bar. Bright colors abound. Accents and dialects I grew accustomed to on Berkeley’s campus converge with gymnastic Ebonics of black L.A. folk. I’m in my element.
Despite the steadily increasing numbers, few people are dancing on the boxing ring-sized floor in the middle of the club. Instead, people are checking people. Just beneath the strobe light, a dark-brown sister with her hair pulled back into a ponytail is deep inside the island groove. From time to time she closes her eyes to get deeper. Wearing white short-shorts and a small, bright-red blouse knotted above her belly button, she is moving with the slow winding confidence of a woman accustomed to the gaze of men. With only three or four other couples on the floor, many of the men’s casual scanning glances end at her slim waist.
After making my way to the bar to grab a beer, I walk over to the dance floor’s edge. I want to watch her dance. I can tell she isn’t really interested in the brother on the floor with her. Their bodies aren’t communicating. They aren’t even making eye contact. She’s winding in her own world.
The side winder leaves the boxing ring and returns to two friends near the bar. Guinness in hand, I step to her. Heavily accented loud-bar chatter camouflages my motive for leaning past her cheek, just a warm breath from her ear.
“You’re gonna hurt someone dancing like that.”
“Hmmph,” she says, angling her neck and ear away, eyelids squatting into a defensive stand. “As hard as you were looking, seem like you wanna get hurt.”
Seeing the choosing-in-progress, her two friends turn away and rest their palms on the bar.
“Where you from, sister?”
“Dominican Republic,” she responds, holding gaze to see if I’m duly impressed. Never good at geography, I don’t even know where the Dominican Republic is.
“You must’ve gone to school in the States. I’m not hearing an accent.”
“I went to Locke High, then Cal State Dominguez.”
“What did you study?”
“Math,” she says, her kumquat lips easing into a sly smile. “So don’t be saying no shit that don’t add up.”
Her playful eyes sparkle.
“Is that little dance you do kinda like a Dominican national dance?” I say, winding into a heartfelt version of her hip-heavy groove.
She watches, cards close to vest.
I sneak a glance at her bare thighs. Although the upper part of her five-foot two-inch frame is small-boned, her legs are long and muscular.
“A little Dominican, mostly me. I got my own thang.”
“You wanna teach that thang to me?”
“If you promise not to sue me when you get hurt,” she tosses over her shoulder, leading the way to the ring.
Saucy. Book smart too-and a warm, easy smile to boot. My type.
Up close and personal, her slow wind is even sexier. I’m winding too-and looking her dead in the eye.
She returns my steady stare as our hips, just inches apart, synchronize pelvic circles to the island funk. As the dance floor fills, swaying bodies brush and bump us. I leave her eyes, taking in her long neck, breasts, naked stomach, fixing my stare below her waist. She begins to perform. A slow-motion pelvic orbit. I bring my hand around the small of her sweaty back, guiding her body into mine. Our hips meet in a nervous kiss. We settle into rhythm. Eye contact resumes. We wind close this way for several songs, saying little, but saying a lot.
After dancing together much of the night, I ask for her number. Embarrassed, I lean past her cheek. “Tell me your name again, sister?”
The first year of grad school at UCLA was intense; the second, beginning in a matter of days, doesn’t look any easier. The workload is heavy, and there is little financial support in my African-American studies program.
Besides school, I’m working as a Los Angeles news correspondent for Pacific News Service and freelancing for magazines around the country, writing about politics, culture, and music-and working twenty hours a week as a research assistant. Sibling deadlines compete for attention. Stress levels are high. When I call Camille a few days after our Club Flame introduction, I’m looking forward to taking a break.
“Hi. This is Michael, I met you at Club Flame.”
“Why is it that guys ask for your number,” she coos in what must be her best telephone voice, “then wait a week to call when they want to call you next day?”
I start laughing.
“You know you wanted to call, now didn’t you?”
“I’m calling you now.”
“You know what I mean. Not a week later.”
“It’s only been a few days. Why you givin a brother a hard time? What’s up with the full-court press?”
We begin to talk. Camille tells me that when she was a child, her parents separated, but she’s remained close to her math-teacher father.
“My father’s a teacher, and you know how teachers are when they have students who look like them. I didn’t mind, though. I’ve always been good with numbers.”
“That’s right, and proud of it. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Damnn,” I chuckle. “Did Daddy teach you that, too?”
“A man’s calling my house and I can’t ask if he has a woman?”
“It’s not that you’re asking; we ain’t been on the phone five minutes.”
“Well, if you didn’t have a woman it wouldn’t be a problem, right? You probably got someone . . . or someone got you.”
“Hmmph, I bet.”
“Why I gotta have a girlfriend?”
“You don’t gotta have a girlfriend, you just sound like you got one.”
Camille insists that I must have a girlfriend, but I don’t. Between school and work, I’m not really looking for a lady right now. I tell her that I’m just dating.
“When I’m in a relationship, I like to really be in the relationship, but that’s not where my head’s at,” I say.
There’s an awkward pause to match the awkward moment. We haven’t been talking five minutes, and my cards are already spread sloppily across the table. Full house, no commitment please. I can tell Camille’s a little disappointed. I’m embarrassed. The pace seems too grown. She changes the subject to our dance floor chemistry.
We talk on the phone about once a week. With her Quiet Storm telephone voice and playful, flirting manner, Camille does more than her part to keep the conversations stimulating. Our subject matter often turns to sex. Never overtly between her and me-but we’re always the subtext.
“Why is there this sexual double standard?” Camille starts one night on the phone. “When a man enjoys sex he can go out and shake his little pole at any fish biting and it’s no problem. But when a woman has a strong sex drive and enjoys expressing that side of herself, she’s a ho and everybody has a problem with it.”
“Me, myself, I don’t have a problem with it.”
“Hmmph, I bet you don’t.”
We laugh and change the subject.
After a month of telephone flirting between busy schedules, Camille and I finally get together. We spend an evening in Santa Monica, eventually taking a late-night stroll along the beach. Camille’s got a lot of personality. She wears clear lip gloss that accentuates her sly smile. We talk and laugh about our flirtatious natures. She teases me about the way I dance.
“You get all serious. Looking at me like you’d rather be doing something else.”
“That reggae just puts me in a zone, man. Plus, those little short-shorts, working your magic, your Dominican vodun.
“You put a spell on yourself, okaay,” she says, turning to face me. “Cause I don’t work my spells on the dance floor.”
She pivots and starts walking back to the car.
When we arrive at my apartment, we bend and wind and sway with an intensity that leaves my thin, student-budget sheets soaked from our effort.
There are probably a handful of people you’re intimate with during your life who really butter your toast. People who touch you in a primal place. When both parties are having their toast buttered, watch out. This is the case with Camille and me. When I talk to her the next evening, we laugh that our dance-floor chemistry was a sign of things to come.
A couple of nights later, writing at my desk, I get a call from Camille.
“Busy?” she asks, her voice melting.
“Could be. Whachu have in mind?”
“I need help on a real tricky logarithm. Just can’t seem to work it out.”
“Is that right? I thought you had that math thing all sewn up?”
“Well, see, it’s one of those word problems, and I figured, words . . . that’s your thing, right?
“Right, right. I’ll see what I can do for you.”
I make the ten-minute drive up Crenshaw Boulevard, passing liquor stores, barbeque joints, hair shops, and churches. An appropriate mix of opiates for a people concerned with salvation, how they look, and how they’re going to get through another day.
As soon as we get inside my place, I swing Camille so she is facing the door, arms raised, legs spread LAPD-style. I press my pelvis hard into her arched 501 blues. All hands, motion, breath, and heat, we hang from the wooden door like a human Christmas stocking caught aflame.
After our first time together, I had tried to figure out what made our intimacy so passionate. When Camille wiggles and writhes free to turn and kiss me, I start to figure it out.
It’s the way she looks at me.
Her stare is so intense. Even when she kisses me, she keeps her eyes open. I love her confidence and boldness. She seems to want me as much as I want her. Mid-kiss, I try to unbutton her blouse. She stops me.
Camille wants to undress me. Great.
After she takes my shirt off, she tells me to close my eyes. I can tell she’s fumbling through my tape collection in the milk crate against the living-room wall. My dance hall reggae mixed tape begins to play.
“Stand still and keep your eyes closed,” she says above the bumping music. Camille steps me out of my jeans. Still in the last stages of my latent Prince period, I rarely wear underwear. When she stands and gyrates her body behind me, it’s skin to skin. Spin. Facing me, she reaches up and wraps her arms around my neck and shoulders.
She brings me down to the carpet on my back. The sound of plastic tearing. She’s brought her own condoms. After mounting, she starts her slow orbit. My hands find her concave back. She pleads, “Open your eyes and talk me through this.” We lock eyes, wind and talk, and sweat through the night.
Excerpted from Raising Fences: A Black Man’s Love Story by Michael Datcher. Copyright © 2002 by Michael Datcher. Published by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.