The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Glancing out the window of a subway train, a conservatively dressed black man of about twenty catches the eye of an attractive, thirtyish white woman who is standing on the platform. They exchange smiles. It is the sort of meaningless casual encounter, leading nowhere, that can leave a pleasant afterglow.

As the train moves on, the woman from the platform enters the car. She is wearing bright, skimpy summer clothes and sandals, and she carries a net bag full of paperback books, fruit, and other articles. A beautiful woman with long red hair, she is very daintily eating an apple.

Taking the seat beside the young man, she confirms that she is the woman he was just looking at, but she insists that his look carried more of a sexual charge than he is willing to admit. He denies that he was running his mind over her flesh, and he finds it “funny” that she has sought him out, as she says she has done, in response to his sexual aggression. She remarks that he looks as though he is trying to grow a beard; when he asks if he really looks like that, she replies that she lies a lot. This is the first of a series of verbal attacks, retreats, and evasions that will keep Clay for much of the play in a mixed state of curiosity, desire, and confusion.

His curiosity is aroused by her uncannily accurate guesses, if they are guesses, about himself, his associates, and his life. How does she know, for instance, that his friend Warren Enright is tall and skinny, with a phony English accent? She just figured he would know someone like that, she says.

She keeps Clay’s desire alive by a pattern of verbal and nonverbal sexual innuendo. She puts her hand on his thigh, then removes it, checking his reaction as she does. She asks if he would like to get involved with her. She is a beautiful woman, the young man replies; he would be a fool not to.

She confuses Clay by sudden swerves from whatever has become the topic of conversation. “I bet you’re sure you know what you’re talking about,” she says.

She offers him an apple. On the surface, this seems unrelated to the curiosity, desire, and confusion she arouses, but her comment that eating apples together is always the first step puts a sinister spin on this apparently innocent action.

She suggests that Clay invite her to a party. He playfully objects that he must first know her name. “Lena the Hyena,” she tells him, then attempts to guess his name. Gerald? Norman? Everett? She is sure it must be one of those “hopeless colored names” creeping out of New Jersey. It is Clay, he tells her. Her name, she now declares, is not Lena but Lula. That settled, Clay formally invites Lula to the party. Her reply, given her behavior to this point, sounds disconcertingly prim and conventional. She does not know him, she says.

In another of her turnabouts, she then insists that she knows him like the palm of her hand. The play of sexual...

(The entire section is 1212 words.)