Saturday, November 19, 2016

a letter to a guy I met at the library

I'm so glad we're friends on Facebook. I like knowing you. I wish we'd gotten to know each other better in real life before I moved. Maybe we could have been real-life friends, too. I appreciated all the attention you gave me at the library, all the big smiles and doe-eyed looks. I was working really hard in school, and sometimes your smiles were my only break. I'm glad we went for drinks those times. You made it really obvious that you were trying to hook up with me, but that you were also trying to hook up with everybody, so it was casual, no big deal. I wasn't trying to hook up with anybody at that time, but if I had been you would have been at the top of the list. It's funny we didn't get to be better friends, though. We just never quite made it past a certain superficial barrier, and I really wanted to, because whatever was on the other side of that barrier, I have a feeling, was probably pretty cool.

I try to think about how your experience of being an incredibly good-looking guy of color might have played into that situation. You were probably used to being exoticized and fetishized by white girls you met at the library. You pretty much said as much, and you implied that this was fine, because you liked getting laid. This was pretty much as far as we got.

I was older than you. I wanted to be respectful, careful. I didn't want to fetishize you or exoticize you because I wasn't really sure if it was as OK with you as you said, or if it would always be as OK with you as you said it was then. When I was 22, I submitted myself to a lot objectification that I must have believed at the time was inevitable, that I thought, in my insouciance, I might as well make bank on, since it was already there. I do not feel now all the ways that I did then. I question how the discourses of oppression persuaded me I could embrace what were presented as the rewards without being harmed, without harming others.

Not that you were not beautiful. Not that part of what was fun about going for drinks with you after six hours studying for qualifiers was not about the shine on your mahogany skin, your thick, black eyelashes, your long, strong fingers. Not that race was not absolutely there, between us at the bar, grazing against us always like our knuckles grazed when we reached for our glasses at the same time.

I didn't think this letter would be so much about race, but it feels unavoidable after the kind of election we've just had. I voted blue after watching a Youtube video of a young white guy talking about his Nazi ideals. I've been depressed ever since. I wonder if you voted and what you think about all this. You never gave me the impression you were particularly political, but we never got that deep about things like that, which is funny because I like getting deep about things like that, and you were a history major. I wouldn't have like to hear what you would say. I think that sex, and race, and my fear, my desire to be respectful, as well as whatever was going on inside of you about all the white girls you met at the library, it all got in the way. I wonder why it was now that you got in touch, years after our last last-call together, our last high-five and side-hug before weaving our separate ways home, your message: You moved? How am I supposed to run into you now?

I haven't been onto Facebook since the election, couldn't face all the vomit of feelings the come up with the re-posts about Muslim registry, hate crimes, quotes from Elie Wiesel, my own sick sense of impotence. I beg myself not to think: Nobody, nothing can arrest this. Everything that was supposed to get better is getting worse. Shame. Rage. In what ways have I participated? I want nothing more than to be innocent and that is something none of us can be.

While we're on the subject of race, can I tell the story about the last time I was close with a black guy? It was in sixth grade. I know, a long time ago. I've had good friends who were Latino, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, but in between sixth grade and now, none of them have been black guys. I don't know why. Probably has something to do with growing up in a crappy ass part of the rural south, a town left behind in time thirty years ago, with nothing to sell itself but it's long, low rows of chicken houses stinking up the summer breeze. Those shitty houses where only the poorest of the poor would work, the migrant families and the black people who lived, not even in a shitty part of town but in a whole other town, Jonesboro, a town outside of the town, where there was no water, no sidewalks, no nothing but a few rows of shanty houses, trailers, an old horse, an old dog, the ever-living moss hanging from its strangled perch on the trees.

Erik Washington, my last black guy friend, lived there. I lived even further out of town, down the most dirt of dirt roads, so the bus picked me up the very last, even after Erik and the other Jonesboro kids. I got in the mornings, clueless and forlorn in my cousin's hand-me-downs, out of date and never the right size, my hair cut never-quite-straight by mom sitting on the landing upstairs under the bare bulb where the light was brightest. Town kids clucked and mooed at me while I walked down the aisle and no one moved over to give me a seat until the bus driver stopped the bus and yelled back without turning around.

I knew Erik from 4-H, where we both showed calves. Maybe they mooed at him to when he got on, although I wouldn't know because that was before my stop. I don't think so, though, because Erik was kind of popular. He was older than me and played football. He had a nice smile and a goofy, friendly sense of humor. We talked sometimes, I don't remember what about. I do remember a mom of somebody, a white lady, come over while we drinking punch together at a 4-H meet and acting like we were doing something wrong. I remember not understanding this, forgetting it, then remembering it again. If Erik was sitting by himself on the bus, he would move over. He was one of only two or three people who would do it without getting yelled at by the driver. I remember the sweet relief on those mornings, when I knew I would at least get to school OK. If I had to sit next to someone who did not want to sit next to me, that was the beginning of a bad day.

The white girls from town were mean with their words: Hey, look. It's the real-life garbage-patch kid. the black girls were mean with their eyes. I don't know why they were mad at me, except that I was garbage, worse than garbage, and yet still, inexplicably, white with all and whatever of what that meant. It was the white boys that were scariest, though. It didn't matter if they were from town or not, they looked at me with a kind of viscous appetite, like hurting me was the start of something that made them hungrier as it went. Scariest, because when it started like that in the morning it would usually go on all day -- the snarled comments at my locker, the foot stuck out to trip me in the hall. My stink of fear and submission --please don't hurt me, please don't look at me -- around me all day like a fog. The bus home on those days, those were the worst times. That was when there was holding down, pinching, the whispers, the words that didn't even make sense to me, things I didn't understand and I didn't even ask myself why me, because I was nothing and anything could happen to me, because everyone saw what happened and nobody cared.

Just Erik. Erik was the one, the only one who spoke for me. Erik told his mom. Erik's mom turned out to be a sober lady of the church. She knew right from wrong. She came to our house, I remember this. I remember opening the door to someone I had never met. I remember her sitting at the table with my mother. I am sent out of the room for their conversation, but I hover half-way up the stairs and listen to her voice cutting through the haze and silence of our house: What's happening to your child is not right. What's happening is not right. We have to come together. Something moves in my chest, unfurling, not large but solid, unmistakeable and with heat. It hits against what's real, and though it comes with pain its name is also hope.

I want my mother to be like Erik's mother. I want her voice to get angry and strong and sure. What Erik's mom doesn't know is, my mother is not the coming-together kind. Not that she doesn't want to, but she doesn't know how. She only knows how to close her eyes and wish my pain would go away, like she wishes away her own. She never talks to me about this conversation, and so I only know what I learned from the stairs, but that turns out to be a lot. What is happening to me is not alright. It is not alright, but it is happening. Like the chicken-houses are not alright. Like the Nicaraguan girl whose parents work there, who sits next to me in class but cannot learn because she does not speak English and because she needs glasses and cannot see the board, like that is not alright. Like it is not alright that there is a place like Jonesboro, where people like Erik and his mother, who are angry and strong and sure and know that it is not alright, must still live anyway. It is not our choice. The things that are happening to us are not our choice and that is not alright.

Nothing changes on the bus after this. My mother turns her mind to something else while that thing that is warm and solid in my chest folds up again, and I never see Erik's mom again. Erik and I never talk about this, although he will still let me next to him the few times that seat is empty. But Erik still saved me.

Today, I wish I had another story where I am the hero and save Erik, where I stand up for him to a crowd of kids, where I raise my voice and shout them into silence. Back then, I never even thought of this. I never imagined myself with any power I turn to anyone's effect: garbage girl.  Even a decade after, long after I thought it put this off, it wasn't off. It took so much work, so many violent convulsions of spirit. I did some things in the course of that, things I wouldn't do now.

Maybe you have, too. Back to you. I'm going to guess that you've been angry, too, and sure and strong sometimes, your soul has bucked with a surge of strength and hit with pain against the limits of our situation. Maybe fallen back at times, maybe accepted oppression as inevitable, resigned to make the most of it, to get laid as much as possible. I remember you talked up growing up in Washington - so white there I thought I had a skin disease.  Maybe one day looked in the mirror and seen your high cheekbones, your long eyelashes, thought about the hunger certain people have when they look at you and decided there is a way to feel good about this, to use it. Maybe I didn't want to be part of this, and didn't know how to find my way out either. Maybe this is why we were only friends, and why we're still friends. Maybe I'm over-thinking everything.

Anyway, this was my baggage when we were sitting at the bar talking about nothing, with sex keeping everything safe, intentional, and on the surface. I don't know what your baggage was. We never got there. I'd be curious to know.