For Howard China and its endless nourishment & enlightenment.
Malik loved Drew Hall. Its smell. Its history. Fuck it, he didn’t need consistent air conditioning. It more than sufficed to have his boys, his room, and Nicole.
He met Nicole at the party on the Yard during Freshman Week, and she quickly became as much of his Drew Hall experience as the communal showers down the hall.
He walked up behind Nicole and caught the twerk as custom dictated. She glanced at him and almost simultaneously determined that he would be an adequate dancing partner. They continued their established rhythm for a few more songs.
A visit to the Drew courtyard followed the obligatory trip to McDonald’s, and Malik knew that she would be a central point of his first year at Howard. Well into the semester, they adopted a routine that worked pretty well for both of them. They grabbed dinner at Blackburn, returned to Drew, and mostly studied. Sometimes, a blunt or their physical attraction would distract them, but they generally remained fairly diligent.
One night, a craving for Howard China, best known as Hochi, struck Malik like a member of the Showtime Band would strike their cymbals.
“Are you hungry? Do you want to walk with me to Hochi?”
Malik posed the two questions with the expectation that she would respond affirmatively to both. He was right.
“A three piece does sound pretty great right now. Do you have cash on you? No, I should’ve gotten some from the ATM in Blackburn. Want to walk with me there, then on to Hochi?”
Nicole stood up, leaned down to kiss him, and grabbed her coat.
“You’ve got it babe.”
Malik followed her lead, and they were soon on their way. The November air was certainly brisk, but it was also tolerable. Just as they passed Burr Gymnasium, Nicole took Malik’s hands in her own. He glanced over at her while maintaining a consistent gait – she inspired so much warmth within him.
Only a few people existed on the path – the handful that did were mostly athletes and band members. It felt like Thanksgiving had come early.
Blackburn stood as resolute as ever, with just several students congregated on the low brick wall in front of it. Malik held the door for Nicole, and they made an immediate left to reach the Bank of America ATM machine. Nicole stayed slightly behind as Malik approached the glowing screen.
It soon swallowed his bank card, chip and all. He glared at the monitor, caught between whether he should request $20 or $40. He strained to recall his balance; whatever the exact amount was, he knew that it had to be under $100.
Even though he could get Hochi meals for him and Nicole for under $15, Malik decided to go for the $40. Some extra cash on his person couldn’t hurt. He pushed the corresponding button. The blinking dotted lines continued to flash for several seconds. It lasted a bit longer than it normally did, temporarily leading Malik to believe that he’d made the wrong choice and overdrawn his account.
Thankfully, the contraption opened its mouth and produced two crisp $20 bills. Malik’s fear dissipated and his normal level of confidence replaced it.
“I know you must be extra hungry by now, babe. Let’s head over there.”
Malik offered the declaration to Nicole, extended his left hand to her, and grabbed his phone with his right one. He retrieved the number to the restaurant from his recent calls; Hochi was at least a weekly occurrence.
“Hello, may I help you?”
“Yes, may I have two orders of three wings with fries, mambo sauce all over, and two large mixes.”
“Okay – ten minutes.”
He could complete that ritual in his sleep. There was no telling how many times he’d made that call and had that conversation.
They strolled casually along the same path they’d taken to get to Blackburn. Just as they passed Burr Gymnasium again and prepared to turn left on Gresham, Nicole expressed an enticing challenge.
“Once we finish eating, we should check and see if the gym is open and go swimming in the pool.”
Malik smiled and nodded. Even with the calendar being deep into late autumn, it was an idea worth exploring.
They quickly completed the rest of their journey – basking in the energy that the intersection of Gresham Place NW and Georgia Avenue NW perennially provided. Malik got the door for Nicole once more, and he almost instantly recognized Terrance – one of his floor mates from Drew. A young woman was standing right next to him.
“What’s up Malik! Have you met my girl, Keana?”
“No, I don’t think I have.”
Malik extended his hand to meet Keana’s.
“Have you met my girl, Nicole?”
“Yeah, I think I have. It’s good to see you again.”
Malik briefly parted ways with the three of them to walk up to the counter and pay. Afterwards, the four of them started casually conversing. A few minutes passed, and an older couple entered the space. Both appeared to be in their early sixties – the woman wore golden hoop earrings, had her hair slicked back, and was primarily covered by a large brown coat. The man sported a long-sleeved t-shirt with the DC flag in the middle of it – he had a tattoo on his left forearm to match.
The woman immediately took a seat in one of the four available chairs; the man brusquely approached the window.
“Let me get two orders of three wings – one with fried rice and the other with fries.”
As he finished placing his order, another man entered with a cigarette in his mouth.
“Hey Joe. Why did you have to do me like that? I just needed a few dollars.”
“Clark, get out of here with that mess. I told you not to start with me.”
Malik, Nicole, Terrance, and Keana observed the escalating conflict from a small corner near the trash cans.
“Fuck that Joe. I’m tired of you always disrespecting me.”
Clark then lit the cigarette; Joe started to take the opportunity to respond. The woman used the brief window to offer her perspective.
“Come on now y’all. We don’t need to do this in here right now”
“You’d better listen to Ruth, Clark.”
Joe’s threat pushed Clark over the edge; Clark lunged forward and shoved Joe against the wall. Joe took only a few seconds to gather himself and respond with a push of his own. The four college students stood, immobilized, as the fight unfolded.
The tussle slightly shifted to the right, and Joe inadvertently knocked Clark into Nicole. She stumbled back, though Malik soon stabilized her. Malik experienced a sharp flash of rage while Ruth labored to get the two older men to call a truce.
The few employees who were there repeatedly yelled the word leave from behind the bulletproof glass. Joe and Clark calmed down considerably within a matter of seconds, but the indignation grew within Malik like the ringing of the bells atop Founders’ Library.
“What the fuck old man? You just hit my girlfriend!”
Joe seemed completely astonished by the forcefulness of the declarations.
“You’d better watch how you talk to me little nigga.”
Malik moved so quickly that it caught Keana, Nicole, and Terrance off guard. He found himself just a foot away from Joe’s face.
“What did you say?”
Malik raised his right hand to strike Joe, but a grip on his wrist soon stopped him – it was Nicole.
“Come on baby. Don’t do this – it’ll cause more problems than solutions.”
“Listen to your girl, young nigga. The world is something. Think more carefully before you act. Not everyone will be so patient or understanding.”
Joe and Clark simultaneously exited Hochi and abandoned their food mission, as if they were one person. Ruth lingered.
She stood in front of Terrance, Keana, Malik, and Nicole. Her gaze drifted from each of them to the next and back again. All five of them remained silent for what seemed like a long time. Ruth finally broke this period of solemnity.
“Children, I’m sorry you had to witness that. Don’t let it discourage you. Keep doing what y’all are doing. I’m proud.”
She went a few more paces toward the door before sharing a final thought.
“Men of all ages could benefit from more self-control and emotional management. Young man, continue to trust the woman standing by your side. Heed her advice.”
With that, Ruth disappeared into the night. The four Howard students looked at each other with stares that combined bewilderment and intrigue.
“Four orders of three wings and fries. Four large mixes. The food’s ready.”
The announcement from behind the glass reminded them of how quickly things could return to normal in such an atypical setting. Terrance and Malik stepped up to grab the bags, filled with the Hochi cups and boxes to which they’d grown so accustomed.
They both muttered thanks to the woman, and the four of them re-entered the moderately cold November air. Keana suggested what they were all thinking.
“Do y’all want to take this food to the Yard and eat it there?”
Everyone nodded in agreement, and they began the journey south on Georgia Avenue. They marched on in silence- each of them trying to adequately process what they had just gone through.
They made it to Howard Place, busted a left, and decided to stop and eat near the Carnegie Building. As they sat and got comfortable, Nicole took over the distribution of the food. The four of them used combinations of their hands and utensils to dig into the delicious fried food.
They ate with relative quietness surrounding them, though they took breaks to lick the sticky orange sauce from their fingers – inevitably making noise as they did so. Fifteen minutes into their meal, Malik felt compelled to break the silence and express his thoughts.
“That was pretty fucking wild, right? I mean – those old men really had some nerve.”
Terrance immediately chimed in.
“Hell yeah. They were so out of line. You definitely stood your ground well though.”
Both Keana and Nicole remained uncharacteristically unresponsive. Malik wanted more validation for the course of action that he took, so he prompted them.
“Ladies, what did you all think of what happened in there?”
Keana and Nicole shifted in a way that indicated some level of discomfort. Nicole ultimately weighed in first.
“I don’t know about Keana, but the last thing that the woman said to us stood out to me. Granted, it was a shitty situation, but you acted very impulsively Malik. It could’ve gotten bad.”
Another set of couples passed them as Nicole concluded her sentiments. The eight Bison exchanged pleasantries in the forms of nods and slight grins. Once they were out of earshot, Keana picked up where Nicole left off.
“I completely agree. I know that it was a setting filled with disrespect, but you guys generally can’t let your pride lead you off the grid when it comes to matters like that.”
Terrance and Malik both grappled with the insight of the women they’d selected as partners. Their words combined with the knowledge of Ruth and quite frankly left them dumbfounded.
“Thank you ladies. I’m sorry,” Malik stated.
Nicole, Keana, Terrance, and Malik then found themselves reflecting on their roles who had to be in constant community with life-long residents of D.C. None of them had a clear answer on the best way to mediate the inherent tension.
Following a few more minutes, Nicole suddenly jumped up, having recalled the idea she’d shared with Malik earlier.
“We should all go to Burr and swim in the pool.”
The three faces in front of her lit up.
“I’m down, but don’t you think it might be locked?”
Keana’s question articulated the only practical barrier that any of them could foresee.
“It may be, but we should still give it a shot.”
With the encouragement of Nicole, they all got up, walked past a few iconic structures – ranging from Douglass Hall to Aldridge Theatre – and came upon Burr shortly thereafter. Terrance tested the door, and their fears were assuaged when it opened.
They happily descended the few flights of stairs to the pool area; as members of the College of Arts and Sciences, all of them had taken beginning swimming that semester and were familiar with the layout of the building.
Once they all got situated around the pool, Terrance wasted no time. He stripped down to his underwear and jumped in. Nicole, Keana, and Malik soon followed. The water washed over them with expert coolness.
As they enjoyed the pool and each other, they realized that problems like the situation they’d encountered that night would likely pop up again as their Howard careers progressed.
However, for now, they were more than content to soak in the wisdom of Black women and water.