"I need to go to the bathroom."
Innocuous words, unless spoken, say, on a full elevator, or in the middle of rush-hour traffic, or especially on the subway, as they were that day.
The subway car rumbled to a stop, but not their stop.
"Can you hold it?" she asked.
"Yes." But the brown eyes looking up at her seemed just a wee bit desperate.
The train started up again. Two more stops. Hopefully there would be some place with a public toilet aboveground, some building that had a big neon sign flashing "TOILET! TOILET!"
The train lurched to a stop, and they jumped up out of their seats to make their way out of the train, out of the station. Stairs up and up and up to a street in Brooklyn, just like any other street in Brooklyn.
There were no flashing neon signs.
"I really need to go," he said.
There was a furniture shop, a bakery, and a small grocery. The grocery looked the most promising.
They stepped in, "Do you have a restroom?" she asked the man behind the counter. "He really needs to go." She pointed to the small gingerbread boy dancing next to her.
He smiled at them, took out a key, and led the way to the back of the store. A trap door leading down to a basement was opened, and another man stood by it, talking on the phone, making an order.
"I got four of them," he said.
"Four? Why'd you get four? We only need two a week," their rescuer said.
"Two then. We'll just get two," he said into the phone.
The man on the phone got out of the way, and the first man put the trapdoor down, and unlocked a door behind it. A mop stood propped in a bucket in front of a toilet in a bathroom smaller than a broom closet.
While the gingerbread boy found relief in the small bathroom, she waited with her older gingerbread boy.
"Why'd you let them back there?" she overheard the man who had been on the phone ask the other one.
She heard only snippets more: black man and shoot and white people, though she can't say what order they came in as she was still musing on the first bit.
She never really thinks about her skin color, except in terms of skin cancer awareness. She only thinks she has people-colored skin. Isn't that enough? Doesn't he have people-colored skin, too? And the man on the phone? Isn't he people-colored?
Once, she worked at the Madame Walker Theater Center, a theater honoring African-American work. When she was hired, she thought she would be the token white girl, but when she left, she felt like part of the family--a large family of people.
And now? She feels sad that anyone would treat her differently because she's white, that anyone would treat the gingerbread boy differently because of the color of his skin, not the level of his desperation.
On their way back to the front of the store, she opened a refrigerator case and picked out a carton of orange juice. They could meet over orange juice: darker than her skin, lighter than his.
"Thanks," she said, paying in cash, as the gingerbread boys waved good-bye, unaware of what really just happened.