When you're four, your mother sits you down to explain to you what your life will be like.
"Some people will try to tell you to feel bad about yourself," she says. "Because of..."
She hesitates, then skips over the because.
"The important thing to know is, you're not like the others, the ones they're trying to make feel bad about themselves. You're not one of them. You're different. You're better than they are. Don't let anyone make you feel bad about yourself because of who you are."
This is said around the time that you are obsessed with Disney movies. The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White: you know that all of these princesses have something in common, something you lack, and it's your expression of that lack that makes your mother sit you down, awkwardly talk to you, try to tell you to be proud of who you are.
All the princesses are white, and you're not. You want to know when you'll be white. When she says you never will be, that other people will try to make your life hell because of it, you only half-listen. You're better, somehow, but somehow not? It's confusing, and anyway, there are more important things to think about.
That year, for your birthday, she'll give you a beautiful doll that looks like you, but tell you you're not allowed to play with her, that she's for display only.
You'll stare at her, on her little stand, and lift her full skirts to look at the petticoats underneath, but you'll mostly obey, and the lesson that you take away is, some dolls are only for looking at, and not so much about the color of your skin, or identity.
When you're six, it's something else. Your grandmother is trying to teach you Spanish, in a sort of quiet way, and your mother is having none of it.
"It's going to be hard enough, even without you..."
You listen to the lessons, and you're wise enough not to say anything in front of your mother.
You use what little of the language you learn to play with the girl across the street.
When she disappears, later, you ask your grandmother what happened, and she says something that makes no sense to you: "INS."
You ask your mom, and she tries to explain, but it's bungled, in a way, and all that comes out is that you shouldn't learn to speak Spanish, because you might be taken, too, so you stop.
Your grandmother will ask you, later, to count for her, to make sure your accent is still good, and she will feed you tortillas and menudo with hominy, or pigs' feet, or rice with beans, but you don't talk about the family across the street, and maybe it's your mom's doing, or maybe it's your own reluctance, but she doesn't teach you any more vocabulary.
In school, it's not a big deal. You're not alone; there are lots of kids who look like you, all from the poor part of town, where you also live. You play four-square and tag and make up elaborate pretend games in which you're princesses (or later, Knights of the Round Table), but you don't talk about the complicated things, like INS or where someone's dad is, or language. Everything takes place in English, and you go to sleepovers on the weekends, like anyone else, and your dad fixes waffles for your friends, or else you toast Poptarts, and there's no weirdness. Sundays you go to your grandmother's for dinner, and she fixes all your favorites, but there's American food in there, too, and so you figure: everyone's life must be this way; you're not different from anyone else. The tow-headed kids in your class probably also eat beans and tortillas. It's not a big deal. There's nothing weird.
And then that illusion shatters.
You're doing a family history project. "Where are you from?"
"Spain," you say, because it's what your mom has told you.
"Are you sure?" asks your teacher.
When you stubbornly insist that you are, she sighs and marks you down as "unknown."
When you ask your dad, "where are we from?", he'll hem and haw a little.
"Your grandmother grew up in Montana," he says.
"And grandpa?" He died before you were born, so you honestly don't know.
More equivocating, before he finally says: "Old Mexico."
There's your answer, then, not Spain, and you don't know what to do with it. You know the geography of the United States. You know about New Mexico, and Four Corners National Monument.
"Old Mexico" you can't find on any map, and it's only later that it will occur to you, what this must mean.
In junior high, you have to pick a language to learn.
To your mother's eternal chagrin, your only choices are German or Spanish.
Knowing you have a built-in practice partner in the form of your dad, you pick Spanish.
You only realize your mistake when they lump you in with the class of native speakers, sorted by last name only, with no particular attention paid to how long they have been in the district.
Your mother has to come bail you out, rescue you again, and you let her.
They won't listen to you, not with your skin and your eyes and your hair, but they'll listen to your mom, who makes milk look tan.
"She's not a native speaker," your mom says in the front office. "Look at me. Listen to me. I'm her mother."
So they stick you with the dumb kids, and you get picked on anyway, by the teacher, because your accent is good and with your last name, something must have gone awry.
The first thing you learn to say, that you really memorize, is: Solo hablo ingles. Soy de los Estados Unidos.
I only speak English. I'm from the United States.
The fucked-up-ness of this doesn't escape you.
You manage to escape high school unscathed, apart from a few incidents: you're an under-represented minority, and so they want to tell you that college is within your grasp, after you've already been offered a place at some of the top schools in the country.
When you tell them this, they make you sit through the presentation on community college anyway, and you seethe at the idea that you're missing calculus for this, but you don't say anything further.
You've learned, without being told, that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, and if you want to escape without lasting emotional scars, it's better to keep your head down.
Later, when you're told that your photo hangs in the high school office, as a testament to one of the best students they ever had, you'll remember the presentation ("have you thought about completing a two-year degree?") and laugh, but it won't be with bitterness.
You escape college largely unscathed, too. You pick a field in which you know you will not shine, but you get the grades and get the degree and get a job, one that you have to move out of state for, that you quickly fall in love with and excel at, but also despair of regularly.
Whenever you go somewhere new, someone will ask you: where are you from?
The answer will never waver. You tell them the nearest city to the small town you grew up in.
I meant, where is your family from?
"Montana," you say, and wait for their confused look.
But I thought...
They want to slot you away, find a neat box to fit you into, stow you away somewhere dark and quiet, but you refuse to be slotted; refuse to be neatly stowed. You want to be remembered for achievements, and not skin color, not national origin, not some identity that they thrust upon you, and so you hide that you speak Spanish fluently, you answer "white" on all the stupid internal surveys, and if anyone says that your awards at work are due to skin color, well, God love them, because you raise hell. "Hostile work environment" shouldn't have to be part of anyone's vocabulary, but it's part of yours, and if it keeps them off your back, then so be it.
You escape adolescence unscathed, or so you think.
Your Spanish skills are mostly dying. The woman at the taqueria you love tries to talk to you in Spanish sometimes, and you humor her, talk a little at first, then switch to English as soon as you're both more comfortable. It's a conscious decision, though.
You watch as politics get worse and worse, as the personal suddenly becomes political, as merely existing becomes a revolutionary act. You watch as it shifts from I'm queer to I'm Latina being the thing that's hardest to disclose, as your grandmother starts carrying her papers with her everywhere, because "Montana" is not strictly true, not when "Montana" is where she got citizenship.
When the worst, or what people are calling the worst, begins to happen, and everyone asks, where are you from, you have a choice:
You can stick your head in the sand, decide you are apolitical, and tell people the old standby: Montana.
Or you can rise up and tell them: "I'm Chicana. My grandpa died without ever becoming a citizen."
Neither one is easy.
Which do you choose?
When your boss asks you, so, how do you identify? after you're hired on somewhere new, what do you say?
"Soy de los Estados Unidos."
I'm from the United States.
"But how do you identify?"
I am Mexican-American.
She's surprised by this, because your new-hire paperwork didn't include it.
"There wasn't a spot to indicate non-white Latino."
"I'll update the paperwork," she says. "We'll have you fill it out again."
And it is, it has to be.
A week after you tell her, after it becomes important for her to know, your boss will forward you a press release.
"FOR IMMEDIATE PUBLICATION", and then there are her remarks, in bold type.
Her thoughts on the "current situation".
The words themselves won't stick in your head, but the sentiment does:
We value you for who you are, not what you are. You are not a diversity hire. We stand with you, now, when the personal has become political, when continuing to exist and identify as you do is a revolutionary act.
When he said, "I love you", he was twenty-seven to my seventeen, and I didn't know enough to run.
"I love you too," I said, and he smiled a self-satisifed little smile, and kissed the top of my head, the way that you would a child, or a dog, someone in a position beneath yours. Someone you had control over.
At the time, I was annoyed that he didn't kiss me on the mouth.
The implications only became clear later.
At seventeen, I was too preoccupied with whether or not I was mature, or beautiful, to wonder at the fact that a 27-year-old loved me. I should have been mystified, perhaps, or confused, but I took it instead as validation: that I was beautiful; that I was mature. He told me I was, after all, and he was so much older than I was...
I didn't think anything of it, when he wanted to sleep with me. It was the way of the world, he reassured me, and that resonated with what I knew. The one high school boy I'd dated had also wanted to, and I'd said no, because I wanted the first time to be something special, more than a fumbled encounter in the basement of their parents' house. He had an apartment. He had a roommate, too, a woman I rarely saw, but knew vaguely, by her first name only.
"Allison," he introduced her to me, and once she had left: "She's old and boring."
Not like you, was the implication. You're exciting.
Naive as I was, I didn't think to question this. I was exciting. How else had I earned his affection? He'd dated other girls I knew. One of my sort-of-friends, the kind I mostly saw in school and only rarely talked to outside of classes, was rumored to have done it with him, once. She was how I'd met him, at one of the parties she held, when her disinterested parents were out of the house. She'd introduced us. "Since you're both weird."
The rumors that they'd slept together only came later, after I'd started dating him.
I wanted to ask her how it was, but I never got up the guts.
Truth be told, I was afraid of the act, myself. He claimed to understand this, said he would be patient, but still leaned on me, subtly. He asked me for "inappropriate" photos, over and over again. "Just your underwear. Nothing uncovered, nothing too immodest. I just want photos of you so, you know..."
When I declined, the first time, he heaved a sigh and told me not to be a prude. "They put pictures of women in even skimpier clothing on billboards."
Women, I thought. Not girls.
He only ever called me a girl.
I lied to my parents, to spend time with him. I said I had orchestra practice, or that I was painting sets for the school play. I would do those things, but they wouldn't take as long as I said they did. I'd drive over to his house, after I was finished with whatever I was doing, and curl up on his sofa, listen to him talk about the way the world worked. We had different ideas about that, about what our respective places were, but he told me he loved me, repeated it over and over again, that he wanted to marry me someday, "just as soon as you're old enough."
I was flattered. At seventeen, I loved him, thought he was The One. Wasn't my mother always telling me, marry your best friend? Wasn't he my best friend? Didn't we spend an hour or two every day, talking about just that?
"Pick out a ring," he said, as my birthday grew nearer and nearer. "You'll be an adult, we should..."
When I did, he told me he hadn't been serious, but: "I love how much you love me."
The push-pull dynamic of our relationship already had me hooked, by then. I should have been unhappy.
I was, but not unhappy enough to leave.
I want to say it started slow, but it didn't. He wanted someone easy to control, and he found it in me. I'd never had a boyfriend before, never done more than gone on a handful of dates with different boys in my classes and been bored by them. I didn't know what normal was, and he took advantage of that. I wanted him to love me, and all he had to do was ask.
"I think you should grow your hair out," when I'd been cutting it short for years, and I did so.
"You need to lose weight," and I shed fifteen pounds.
"I don't like your friend Rosie. I think she's trying to split us up," and I stopped talking to her.
On and on, the list went. Anything he didn't approve of, I changed, until I almost didn't recognize myself anymore.
"I'd like to think I've improved you, in the time we've been together," he told me.
I agreed. It was, after all, what he wanted me to do.
I wouldn't sleep with him. That was where I drew the line, what I would and wouldn't do.
"I don't want you to get in trouble," I told him, and that was certainly part of the fear, though there were other things, too. He wanted me on birth control, so we "wouldn't have to worry", but refused to help me pay for it, and I couldn't think of a lie to tell my parents to get it.
"I'd never leave you with a baby," he insisted, but I stayed firm.
"Not until I'm eighteen," I said.
He relented, eventually, but we both felt strange about it.
I turned eighteen in January. We'd been dating almost a year. I was looking at staying at college in state, to be near him, since he'd said he wouldn't follow me.
He didn't give me anything for my birthday. I drove over to his house, after classes let out, and knocked at the door. Allison let me in.
"He's not here," she said, pleasantly. "You can wait for him, though."
I was used to this, to waiting. I'd been doing a lot of it, especially over the last few weeks. He'd been job-hunting, he said, and so he'd been gone most days, right when I got out of practice, could come see him. I'd wait for a half hour, an hour, and he'd turn up. I didn't think anything of it.
Today, I was annoyed, but only because it was my birthday. We were supposed to have plans. I'd said we'd finally go to bed together, now that legality wasn't an obstacle, and I didn't have a lot of time.
"Actually, I wanted to talk to you," said Allison, as I sat on the sofa, compulsively checking my phone. "It's about Michael."
I looked up at her. We rarely talked. She hadn't said more than ten words to me, in the months I'd been dating him. "What about Michael?"
"How much do you know about him, Beth?"
I shrugged. "We've been dating ten months," I said. "So...enough?"
She grimaced. "Did you know he's been married before?"
I didn't. "Yes," I lied.
I blinked. "What?"
"I suppose I should say 'still married'," she said, bitterly. "It hasn't been finalized yet. I'm waiting on documents I need from him."
"Did he, or did you...?"
"I did," she said. "There was an incident, with someone else..."
I thought of the girl at the house party.
"He...does this," Allison said, quietly. "I didn't know about you until I put the pieces together, two days ago. How old are you?"
"When did you turn eighteen?"
"Um," I said. "Look, I..."
"He preys on younger women," she said. "He...you're easy to control. I know. I was one of you."
"How old are you?" I asked. I was curious. I couldn't help it.
"I'll be 29 in a month."
"So you're older than he is," I laughed. "It's not..."
She looked at me. "How old did Michael tell you he is?"
"He -- he's 27."
She nodded slowly. "Of course," she said. "Wait here a moment."
She disappeared into the back of the apartment. I watched her go, wondering what she could possibly be doing.
She emerged a moment later, a photo album in her hands.
"Look," she said, and flipped to a page in the middle. "Look..."
There they were, Michael and Allison, standing together in a photo, in front of a wedding cake. She was in a wedding dress, obviously much younger. She looked happy. He was holding a knife, to cut the cake, pretending at being oh-so-serious. He looked much the same.
The date was on a placard, on the table with the cake.
June 20th, 1995.
"I was nineteen," said Allison. "He was 27."
"Shit," I said. "I...he..."
"He's always done this," she said. "When I met him, he said he was 21. It wasn't until we signed the wedding certificate that I found out he was 27. He's 36, going to be 37 in March."
"I need to think," I said, faintly.
"Has he asked you to marry him?" pressed Allison, not unkindly. "He does that, too, you know."
"I'd be living anywhere else," she said, "except I don't have the money to break the lease, and he won't move out. It's up at the end of the month, and I'll be free."
Free. As though she was trapped now. In a way, she was.
"I wanted to warn you, though, because I know what he can do..."
"I understand," I said, rising to my feet. "Thank you."
Something broke in me, then. If I hadn't known before, I knew now: the lateness, the "looking for a job"--he was seeing someone else.
I even had an idea as to who she was.
"Are you coming?" he texted me, half an hour after I'd left the apartment.
I didn't respond.
"It's your birthday" he sent, as I walked into my bedroom, dropped my backpack on the chair. "We had plans"
I lay back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, ignoring the insistent chime of the phone as he sent text after text.
Before, I would have blamed myself, for why it had all gone sideways, but now...
He'd lied. About everything. About Allison, about being married, about where he was, even about the basic fact of his age.
I'd thought he was the one, and now I knew: he was just another asshole, some heel who would pretend to love me, while fucking someone else on the side.
"Fuck," I said to the ceiling. "What am I gonna do?"
I thought about the pictures, the ones he'd asked me to take. I thought about the likelihood that he had others, that there were other girls he had convinced to take off their clothes. I thought about the law, what it would say, where the line was drawn.
I thought about what it would mean, if I reported him. If I was doing the right thing, or if I was trying to ruin his life, out of spite.
He'd sent me messages, what he wanted to do to me. I'd saved them all.
I gathered up all the evidence I had, steeled myself for what would come next, and walked downstairs to tell my parents.
It would come out, in the course of the investigation, after my parents had convinced me (with little persuasion needed) to talk to the police, that there were many girls. I was one of six. There had been four before me, one concurrent. I was the oldest of them all. He had photos of the others. There was other evidence of what he'd done.
"I didn't think you had it in you to be a bitch," he emailed me, after it began. "I know I did wrong, but this is over the top. What did I do to deserve this? Why are you trying to ruin my fucking life?"
I didn't reply. I'd been told not to.
"You were always so sweet before. What happened to you?"
Sweet. Pliant. Ready to bend toward his every whim. What had happened to me?
You, I thought, and I still didn't say anything.
That was the last email, before they formally arrested him.
Allison called me, after the trial was over, once he'd been sentenced.
"I'm sure you've heard the news," she said. "I just wanted to say, um..."
There was a pause, loaded with meaning. Thank you for doing what I couldn't, maybe, or thank you for being a bitch and reporting him, now he can't hurt anyone else.
I can't remember a time before I loved music. To be honest, I'm not sure it existed. My mom isn't big on music, but my dad is. He played all his favorite recordings for me in the womb, introduced me to all of his great loves. Mom taught me about poetry, later, and art, but Dad was the one to give me music.
"I want to see you on stage someday," he told me, when I was just a kid. "I want to see you play..."
Usually he'd name something famous, for some instrument. Some piano piece I was familiar with, or something that had a really great violin part, or an amazing flute solo. Those were the three instruments he gravitated toward.
I think I surprised all of us when I picked the clarinet.
"'Flight of the Bumblebee'?" he offered. "'Rhapsody in Blue'? I don't know much else, I don't think..."
That he couldn't list any pieces, off the top of his head, was part of why I'd chosen the clarinet.
I picked clarinet because it was a safe option. I couldn't pick one of the others. Dad could play the piano better than almost anyone I knew. I was intimidated by him. He never tried to teach me (he knew better than that), and he never tried to force me. He offered to take me to lessons, at a few different points. There was a woman who lived up the street from us that he knew, back from the days when he'd moonlighted as an accompanist, but I always found excuses not to go to her. Same with the flute, and the violin: I loved music, but I was always afraid, somehow. Afraid that I wouldn't be good enough, that I wouldn't live up to his ideal; that, somehow, I'd let him down. He loved music. What if my squeaking and caterwauling didn't give way to beautiful music? What if I never got beyond "fifth grade band" good? I didn't want to ruin any of his favorites for him, afraid that if I never got to be good enough, he'd let go of me, stop calling me his daughter.
He got me a private teacher anyway, a white-haired old man who introduced himself as "Mr. B" from our first lesson, and cheerfully told me to get all my honks out "in private". He taught me about reeds and different hardnesses, what an embouchure was and how to hold my mouth, what "tonguing" meant, in the context of playing. He didn't let my dad sit in on my lessons ("save it for the recitals, George, you don't want to hear what her lessons are like"), encouraged me even when I was sure that sight-reading was going to be the death of me, pushed me, but never too hard. He was an excellent teacher.
I never told him why I picked the clarinet, and he never asked. He was happy that someone else had chosen his instrument, didn't dwell on the whys or hows of that decision. I loved him for that, too. I never had to disclose my worries to him, the little anxieties I had about my dad and being good enough.
"Big shoes to fill, eh?" he said, sometime during one of our early lessons. "Your dad..."
It was something I was used to hearing. Dad could have gone pro, really pro, if he hadn't chosen to get married and have a kid, give up all the time he'd dedicated to piano to a full-time job, no longer working part-time at the music store while trying to score auditions. Everyone who was anyone in the music circle of our city knew his name. I'd grown up hearing, "so, you're George's kid?" before I could even talk, alongside the records and everything else; had learned to say, "No, I'm Sarah's daughter" when pressed (a sign, Dad said, of my spunk and independence).
Mr. B didn't press. When I mumbled a yes, and didn't immediately volunteer that, at eleven, I already played the piano beautifully, or that I could sight-read like nobody's business, he wisely changed the subject.
"Well, you've chosen an excellent instrument," he said. "Much more portable than, say, the tuba."
I giggled, and we moved on to more early lessons in how to read music, how to finger different notes.
I never talked to Mr. B about my specific anxieties surrounding music. In a way, I think he knew, without me having to tell him. He didn't press me into auditions, didn't tell me to compete in State Solo and Ensemble when I was in high school. He let me come to my own decisions about what I would and wouldn't do. Yes, I would audition for the woodwind ensemble that met after school, and yes, I would compete to see if I could get the cadenza in the piece we were playing for the spring concert, but no, I wouldn't go out for musical pit, and up until senior year, I didn't go to compete at State. Mr. B accepted my decisions, even as Dad questioned them, and the worries lifted as soon as I entered his practice rooms.
"You love it," he said. "I can see that. So..."
So, he didn't say, I don't need to push you. You'll do just fine without my specific guidance. You're not one of the ones I have to worry about.
The worries I held should have dissipated over time, maybe, should have been replaced entirely by love of what I did, but somehow, that never quite happened.
Dad picked up more work as an accompanist, around the time I started to realize that I maybe wasn't so bad at clarinet after all. He said to help pay for my lessons. Mom said it was because he loved playing and had missed being able to play on something better than the old upright piano in our living room.
Somehow, I'd never really played for him.
One of the big disagreements I'd had with Dad was whether I was going to let him come to my recitals or not. I hadn't performed in any, the first four or so years I was taking lessons from Mr. B. I let Dad come to the school concerts, but those were different. School concerts didn't involve clarinet solos, and when they did, I would mysteriously get the dates wrong for the concert, so Dad couldn't come after all. Recitals were different.
The first four years, I didn't perform in any recitals. Mr. B encouraged me to, gently, but as soon as I made it clear that I was flat-out terrified of playing at anything my dad might show up to, he let it drop.
"Parental pressure can be hard, hmm?" he said.
Dad mumbled something about paying for lessons and wanting to see what I was getting out of them, but Mom always shut him up.
"You can't force her to do something she's not comfortable with, George."
He bristled at this, but since there was not much that could be said (not without making it sound as though he was going to force me), he let it go.
I thought about inviting him to one or two, but somehow I couldn't bring myself to. It was the elephant in the room: he wanted to come, on some level I wanted him to come, but I couldn't connect the dots and get over myself long enough to make it happen.
"I'm good," I'd tell myself. "Maybe not Julliard good, but how many people are? I'm good. I'm first chair in school, second chair in the entire city, I've gotten perfect scores at State Solo and Ensemble, and I've gotten into every group I've ever auditioned for. How much more of a yardstick do I need? I should tell him to come to the next recital."
And then I'd heard Dad goofing off on the piano in the evenings, and I would lose my nerve, every time.
I loved it, more than almost anything.
I didn't love it enough to let him hear me.
I didn't think anything could weather that.
Senior year of high school, when we were supposed to be picking where we wanted to go to college and what we wanted to major in, Mr. B asked me about my plans.
"I don't know," I said. "I was thinking, maybe I'll be undeclared for a while? I want to audition for the non-major woodwind ensemble though, and the orchestra, so I'm going to need help picking audition pieces..."
"Use your State solo piece," he said. He paused a moment. "Though, if you're already thinking about going out for two musical groups, I'd strongly suggest you think about majoring in music."
I fidgeted in my chair, pretended to adjust my reed. "I'm just not sure what I could do, if I majored in music."
"You'd have a few different options," said Mr. B. He elucidated them for me: performance (trying to scrape by on a musician's salary, which he thought I might be able to do, because he still had contacts with our city orchestra, and while it wasn't world-renowned, it still paid), teaching (privately or on the middle or high school levels), or minoring in something "useful" and using that as a fallback.
"I know the current lead clarinet for the city symphony," he offered. "If you want to talk to someone about what your path might look like. I'd suggest talking to your father first, though."
I looked up at him, surprised. "My dad?"
"He had to make the same choice, didn't he?"
"Talk to him, Patricia," he urged. "You're facing a remarkably similar choice to his."
"Okay," I said.
We picked up the lesson again.
At the end, Mr. B hugged me. "It's February," he said. "Our time together is nearly at an end. Another six months, maybe, and by then..."
By then I would have started college, and I would either have found a new mentor, someone to help me through the music program, or I would have decided to give it up.
I hugged my clarinet case close to my chest, thought about the beautiful wooden instrument inside, that felt like an extension of me, not merely an instrument.
"Can we delay thinking about it?" I asked. "I haven't declared yet, so..."
"Of course," said Mr. B. "Have a good weekend. I'll see you Tuesday. Remember to practice the glissando in the piece I assigned you for technical work!"
"And talk to your dad," he reminded me. "He really does have a lot of input on this."
I felt the old fear gnawing away in the pit of my stomach again, suddenly.
"Um," I said. "I'll talk to hi--"
"Good," said Mr. B, not letting me finish. "Do it. See you Tuesday."
I danced around the thought of talking to Dad for a few days. I figured, if I asked him, that meant I had to play for him, and I wasn't sure if I was up for that. What if I honked through the entire performance? What if he told me I was never going to match up to his expectations of me?
I'd picked clarinet specifically to avoid letting him down. That was the dark secret at the center of why I'd chosen the instrument I had fallen in love with, the one flaw in the otherwise beautiful relationship I had with music. It ate at me. I didn't know how to get around it.
Finally, I sucked it up. I talked to him while he was goofing around on the piano, teasing Mom by playing little snippets of songs they both remembered, the first few bars of one song melting into another, just having fun.
He played a few bars of something at my mom, then turned and looked at me. "Got a request, Pat?"
"I wanted to talk to you, actually."
He stopped playing, swiveled around on the office chair he used instead of a real piano bench, ever since his back had started bothering him the year before. "What is it?"
"Mr. B thinks I should major in music, and I was wondering what you thought."
"Ah," he said. "Well, yes. But pick a useful minor, just in case you decide you want to do something else."
I blinked. I hadn't thought the conversation would go this way. "I thought..."
"You're talented," Dad said. "You love it. Why not do it?"
"I got married very young," he said, and smiled at Mom. "You, however, unless there's someone we haven't met, aren't likely to do that. Plus, you're more talented than I was, and good clarinetists are much rarer than competent pianists."
"You've never even heard me play!" I blurted. I couldn't help myself.
"Pat," said Mom. "Your bedroom isn't exactly soundproofed. We've heard you, over the years."
"Practicing isn't the same as really playing though," I said stubbornly. "You've heard every honk, every squeak, ever swear word..."
"Including some we didn't know," murmured my mother gently.
"I figured that you'd tuned it out. I tried to practice when you weren't home. I tried..."
Dad stood up and hugged me suddenly.
"I never figured I'd be, well, good."
"That was never the point," said Dad, as he let go. "I didn't want to show you off. I knew you loved music as much as I did. I remember when you were a baby, and I used to put on Tchaikovsky, and you'd ask me to play it over and over again..."
"Romeo and Juliet," I said. "Yeah."
"I wanted you to have that same love," he continued. "And you obviously seemed to love it, so who was I to worry that you didn't want me at your recitals? I could hear you at home, anyway, and you sounded great."
"Thanks," I said. I swallowed hard, suddenly close to tears. "I'll think about it."
Eight months later, I am waiting nervously backstage at the university, warmed up and ready to go on, fiddling with my mouthpiece and practicing tricky fingering runs silently, mentally bracing myself for my solo.
"It's time," says the concert mistress, and we all file out in unison. I settle into my seat, and prepare myself for what's to come next.
"A few words before we start out performance," says our conductor. "This is our first concert of the season. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Philharmonic group, we're strictly music-majors only and highly competitive. This year, we had three hundred students audition, and twenty chosen to perform with us."
He continues on, repeating what's already in the program, and I sigh. I simultaneously want this to be over with, even as I don't want it to end. I focus on the sheet music in front of me, don't look out into the audience to find Dad. I know he's there, with Mom, somewhere in the third row. He texted me while I was warming up.
A rustle of pages, and we're due to start. The conductor nods at the concert mistress, and we begin.
I lift the clarinet to my mouth, lick the reed, and the old fear vanishes, replaced by a sense of rightness.
I love music.
I love my dad.
The old anxiety is gone. Only the love remains, and I know, finally, that I've made him proud.
Dar told me, on our first date, that I was the sort of person her parents would hate.
"Not that I care, I just..." she started, then stopped, drew a breath. "Look. I like you a lot. It's been an issue in the past, and so I'm warning you now: I'm out to my parents, and they're all right with parts of it, but other parts..."
I didn't know what she meant at the time, what it was going to mean. What out but not out-out meant.
I told her it was okay, that I hadn't talked to my own parents since I'd come out, years ago. "Because, you know, with the whole religious thing, they think I'm going to Hell, and I can't convince them that I'm happy, so if you can keep your family..."
She nodded like she understood, and it didn't come up again.
She didn't let me meet them until we'd been together a year. "You need to be prepared."
"I'm sure it'll be fine. I think I can hold my own."
I did, but only just.
"Isn't Alex a boy's name?" asked her dad, first thing, and I just shrugged.
"It's short for Alexandra," I told him.
"I used to know an Alexandra," he said, stuffily. "She went by Lexie."
The unspoken question: so why don't you?, and I dodge it with a true story: "I used to, but there are some unfortunate things that rhyme with Lexie, and I started going by Alex in junior high."
I could see him think, when I said this. He laughed after a moment.
"Let me get you a drink, Alex," he said, and I knew that was as close to acceptance as I was going to get. I saw Dar relax when he said it.
When he disappeared into the kitchen, she let out a sigh and squeezed my hand.
"I think you'll be all right," she said. What she meant was, I think we'll be all right.
"Yeah," I said. "I think so."
That dinner went smoothly, and the ones after it, and slowly we were invited to all the Sunday dinners, the little family events. We didn't have my family, but we had hers, and I could feel the pull, every time she asked me if I wanted to go: is this all right?
I knew what she wanted me to say; knew what had to happen to keep everyone happy.
"Of course? Why wouldn't it be?"
So we went, to every event, and answered every invitation with a yes, unless we had a reason not to.
So we keep going.
Every time we visit, I'm struck by how we all keep dancing around the topic. It's all right that their daughter is a lesbian. They've managed to wrap their heads around this. What they fear is that she'll date someone who doesn't look like their idea of a woman.
Whenever we go visit her family, I keep my hair down, try to dress feminine, or feminine enough, don't correct people when they use she and her. It's not a place for other pronouns, not somewhere I can pull my hair back, or hide it under a hat. I'd have cut it all off a long time ago, except she told me, sort of sadly, that if I did...
"They accept it, you know," she says, and waves a hand. Meaning, that I'm a lesbian. "They couldn't accept..."
The more generic label: queer. They don't like in-betweens. Black and white, and no shades of gray, or rainbow.
"They'd rather I was seeing a man, but, you know, they've come around on this, I don't want to push too much..."
So we dance around the edges, and I pay no mind to the whispers in the kitchen, questions about how I'm dressed, the lack of makeup.
"We have to stay one step ahead," she says, and I listen to her, because I love her, and I know how important her family is. It's one night a week. "Someday I'll tell them..."
"Doesn't it bother you?" asks someone in the support group we're both part of. "You know. You came out, your parents disowned you, and now if you really come out to her family..."
"No," I say. "It doesn't bother me."
"It should," and the subject is dropped.
I want to say, sometimes it does.
Sometimes I find myself wondering what life would be like, if I could be honest with her family. If I could cut my hair the way I wanted to, wear the clothes I want to, put on my binder when I feel like it. I know that she loves me for who I am; that she fell in love with me because I don't conform, and I don't question whether this means she wants a femme girlfriend, but sometimes...
It comes to a head around the holidays.
"Darcy, you and Alexandra are invited to the family Christmas party. Jim's going to propose to Stephanie, so please dress accordingly,” says the message from her mom.
“For pictures,” she says. “If she says yes, they’re going to take a bunch of photos. The party is usually semi-formal anyway, and I’m pretty sure Stephanie knows what to expect.”
“I don’t even own a dress.”
“You can borrow something, maybe from Janine? I think you’re both the same size. She’s a fourteen, too.”
“No, I don’t…” I pause. “Look, we’ve compromised a lot on this. I have nice clothes that aren’t a dress. Can we please…”
“It’s important to them,” she says. “Like. Appearances are the most important thing. You know I love you because of who you are, not in spite of it, but this is...different.”
Please don’t make me choose, her eyes say. Please don’t tell me I have to choose between you and my family.
“Fine. I’ll text Janine.”
I find a dress that I can wear without feeling like I’m being strangled around the middle. I leave my binder off. I let my hair down. I don’t put on makeup, but they don’t expect me to, these days.
I stand in front of the bathroom mirror and stare at the reflection of myself, suddenly transported back to high school, closeted and unhappy.
“Are you ready?” comes Dar’s voice from the living room. “I’ll go warm up the car, if you are.”
There’s a pair of clippers in the drawer. I bought them when I first came out, when I told everyone who I was by buzzing my head.
“I need a few minutes,” I tell her. “Go warm up the car; I’ll be ready when it is.”
When I meet her in the car ten minutes later, I’m wearing lipstick.
“You look, um,” she starts, lamely. “Nice?” She wants to ask about the makeup, and I can tell, but she’s polite enough not to ask.
“Thanks,” I say. I think silently about the pile of hair in the bathroom trashcan and grin. The undercut I’ve given myself is ragged and imperfect, but it’ll do to keep me centered until I can clean it up after the party.
Jim proposes to Stephanie. Her parents see that I’m wearing a dress, for the first time since they’ve known me, and compliment me carefully on it. No one notices the hair, and I feel like I’m getting away with something.
“Thanks for keeping the peace,” Dar says, in the car, and I smile again.
“I gave myself an undercut.”
“In the bathroom, while you were warming up the car.” I lift my hair and show her. “It’s not quite what I would want, but…”
“Compromise,” she says. “One step ahead.”
“I figure, if they accept this…”
“You’re moving the goalposts,” she says. “Making it okay.”
“So that eventually we can tell them.”
“Yes,” Dar says, and it’s the answer I want to hear.
[A quick explanation.]I know nothing about hockey, but when I read the quote, I was reminded of how my own relationship with my family has changed over time: how it went from, "if you ever come out to us, it's going to be a huge problem" to now where we basically all acknowledge I'm queer, but it's not something we talk about. I've managed to avoid conflict mostly by staying one step ahead and gently changing our dynamic: never quite forcing my parents to sit up and go, "our daughter is queer! Our daughter has a complicated relationship with gender identity!", but pushing just enough and staying one step ahead, recognizing patterns and knowing what will be acceptable and let me be true to myself, and what will not be.
When does it start? Is it when you're five, and you're being tortured by the other children, some kind of strange, bullying game, because you're too soft-hearted to know that they don't like you, that nothing you do will make them like you, there is no right answer? Is that when the switch is turned, or does it come later, when the teacher comes to rescue you (or so you think), and instead of telling them off, punishing them, punishes you, for crying, because, "they wouldn't do it if you didn't cry"?
Is that when you learn?
Your parents only reinforce it. "Don't cry, or I'll give you something to cry about," and the assertion of violence that contains.
It's supposed to be in reference to tantrums, but for two people who never wanted to have children, who only did so because it was expected of them, any show of emotion that is not unbridled happiness might as well be a tantrum.
"She's so cold," your mother says, later, of you, to acquaintances. "She never wants me to touch her, never wants to snuggle, the way her sister does..."
She doesn't mention the lessons that she's been slowly enforcing, that kindness is weakness; that to show emotion of any kind is to burden others with it, no one wants a blubbering mess in a time of sadness, everyone wants the calm man in a crisis.
When you, at eight, start crying sporadically, in times of stress, the school counselor suggests a bribe. "If she can go four weeks without crying..."
You pick out a doll. You'll be allowed to have her, if you don't cry.
You somehow manage not to, despite being bullied by one of the teachers, someone who had your older sibling and all the trials and tribulations teaching them contained, and is now taking it out on you.
You hold it together, even as she says you'll never amount to anything. You want that doll. More than that, though, you don't want to be punished, and it's been implied that punishment is what will await you if you have another breakdown, have to leave the classroom yet again.
You earn the doll.
You never play with her, choosing instead to let her sit in her basket, cold and unloved.
Even at eight, almost nine, you recognize the parallels, though you don't have the words for them.
When your aunt dies, and you don't cry, when you give the eulogy at the funeral, because she was the closest thing you had to a mother, everyone offers their condolences, but no one tells you to cry, no one says it's unnatural not to.
They praise you, instead, for holding the family together.
When your favorite uncle dies, you don't cry. You drive yourself to the funeral and see your mother cry for the first time, sobbing through the service, and you wonder, uncomfortable, what's wrong with you, because your mother, whom you have never seen cry before, is bawling, while you can't bring yourself to shed any tears.
"Thank you," she says, after the service is over, when she rides to the graveyard with you, because she's not sure she's capable of driving, and you're not sure just what she's thanking you for.
You drift further into adulthood. You don't cry. You can't bring yourself to show any emotion, not really.
At work, you're praised for being cool and logical.
Inwardly, you're not in turmoil, exactly, but you're not what anyone would call "calm": a twist of naked anxiety fills the pit of your stomach every time you have to clock in.
You're promoted, you win awards, you're praised for all that you do, but no one would call you happy, and you don't believe you are, yourself.
"You're so cold," your mother complains, after your father dies, and she tries to convince you that she should move in with you. "Sometimes I feel like I'm living with a houseplant."
You bristle at this, and who wouldn't, but she tells you to calm down. "It was just a joke, Lisa. Get over it."
You help her find a place in an assisted living facility, once it's clear that the arrangement isn't working for either of you. She calls you cold again, unfeeling, but without any venom behind it.
"It's just how you are, isn't it?" she says. "You always were a dutiful kid."
Neither of you comments on that further. You visit her twice a week, bringing activities that you can engage in with a minimum amount of talking, and you don't discuss your relationship with her, or her relationship with your older brother, whom neither of you ever see.
When she dies, you arrange her funeral with a minimum of amount of fuss.
Others sob through the service, but you're perfectly calm.
You meet someone.
It goes about as well as can be expected, for you. You let your guard down a little. You're happy around him; you're warm, you're affectionate. You're as friendly and outgoing as you ever are, not twisting away from his touch (so foreign to you, someone touching you, unexpected in its intensity, its pleasure), and you make an effort to be better than how you have been raised; to be kinder, sweeter, more thoughtful. You do things for him, to show him that you love him, because acts of service are the only love-language you recognize, and you slowly adjust yourself to life with another person. You manage to be more than a houseplant, to him, but it's still not enough.
"It's okay to cry," he says, when terrible things happen. "It's a normal, human response."
You tell him about your childhood, your upbringing, the difficulty you have showing any emotion, being the extremely affectionate, extremely loving partner he desires. You agree to try therapy, and you go to a few sessions, but when it's not immediately successful, when the therapist says it will be years of work because there are years of undoing, he loses patience.
It doesn't happen all at once. He tells you again and again that it's all right to cry, tries to prod you into showing any emotion, anything at all, beyond the small joy that you've grown to enjoy sharing with him, the minor amounts of irritation or frustration or anger that you occasionally let out about work. "It's all right to be sad," he says, and there's a note of irritation in his voice as he says it, as if he's asking, why don't you cry? Why can't you? What have I signed up for?, and so you can't bring yourself to believe him.
That's why it comes crashing down, later.
"I'm not sure you even love me," he says, exasperated. He packs up his things and goes, and he doesn't respond to your calls or texts after that.
Another lesson, this time learned too late, and badly: once you start to cry, you can't stop, and there's precious little that will bring him back, now that he's gone.
"Cold," echoes your mother's voice in your head, as soon as the tears stop. "Like living with a houseplant," and you laugh, even as you're crying, at the bitter irony of her, of all people, having been the one to complain the most.
The ability to divine the future, or at least the claim to be able to divine the future, runs in the family. My grandmother used to say that she could tell when someone was going to die, because she'd dream about them, the night before they passed.
"Yeah," I giggled as a kid, when my dad came home, heaved a big sigh, and said that my aunt was the next doomed to die. "She dreams that she's the one that does it."
She had a low hit rate, something like one out of three at best and only if you fudged the numbers slightly, ignoring that the only people that had died after she'd said they were going to were already old and sick, so I didn't feel guilty joking about it. My aunt was in good health, anyway, and when Dad called her to tell her, she just laughed.
"Well, I had a dream I lived to be a hundred and six. Guess we'll see which of us wins."
She didn't die. Neither did the next three healthy people Grandma said were due to kick the bucket.
"Oh, I've got a powerful feeling," she wailed. "The dreams I've been having..."
And all of us rolled our eyes and didn't say a word.
My little sister claimed, once she hit her teens, that it had skipped a generation. It hadn't hit Dad or his sisters, Betty and Dot, but it had hit her like a ton of bricks.
"I can tell you what you need to know, Tad," she intoned at me, shuffling a battered tarot deck from hand to hand. "It's all here in the cards..."
The cards, she said, could tell her anything, from whether or not Addie would go to the dance with me (the cards said no, but she said yes when I asked her), to which college I would get into (Clemson didn't want me, unlike what the cards said, but I got into the local community college, no problem, and it all worked out in the end). I asked her questions mostly to humor her, because otherwise she'd get pissed and tell me I'd never believed in her, and that was the last thing I wanted, being the only boy in a house full of girls, and the middle child to boot, so I'd roll my eyes and ask away.
"Focus on your question..." she'd say, as she did the reading. "Think about what you want the spirits to answer."
I didn't think that "the spirits" had much to do with tarot, but I knew fuck-all about it, so I shrugged and focused anyway.
That they were never right was sort of the point. I knew that no matter what the cards told me, to plan on the opposite. I put down a deposit on a tux when they said Addie wouldn't go out with me; applied to the local schools when it said I'd get into my dream school. It was useful, in a way, and it kept Hayley happy, gave her something to do, to practice using her "powers", as she called them.
"Oh," she'd say, and shiver in an exaggerated sort of way. "Feels like someone walked over my grave. The spirits want to tell you something..."
And then she'd whip out the cards, and I'd let her do a reading, and that would be the end of it.
She made money in high school, that way, doing readings for different people. She practiced on me, and then I guess she started telling people what they wanted to hear, because she made a pretty penny doing it. She stopped bothering me as much, too, which was nice, since I was in college by that point and didn't have time to humor her anymore.
Once the readings stopped, we stopped talking about all the woo-woo junk she dabbled in, the books about kitchen witchery and divining your own future. She tossed most of 'em after her first serious boyfriend dumped her, muttering something about how it was all bullshit. I figured it was cos the cards had told her he was The One, and she'd walked in on him getting a blowjob from her best friend, so obviously they were wrong. I knew better than to ask, though, and we never discussed the switch that was flipped, her sudden return to the rational and practical. If I'm being honest, we didn't talk much at all. I had a good job by that point, working for one of the big oil companies, and she was working as a CNA to pay the bills while she went to school to get her nursing degree. We'd both grown up. Grandma had died years before, having failed to predict her own death, and Hayley didn't do card readings anymore, so there was nowhere it might have come up, no way to naturally introduce the topic. I figured she'd stopped believing for her own reasons, had finally admitted it was bullshit, until the night she called me.
"Tad," she said, when I picked up. "Whatever you do, next time you're on the highway and you see a green Subaru, don't drive behind it."
"What the fuck?"
"I have a bad feeling," she said. "Like, you know, when we were kids and Grandma said she could tell someone was gonna die?"
"Yeah. You had a bad dream?"
She hesitated. I could hear the static on the line. "Yeah," she said finally. "A dream. Humor me anyway. If you see a Subaru, don't drive behind it."
"Green," I said. "Right. Well. I'll keep it in mind."
"Just humor me," she repeated. "It's a small thing, isn't it?"
Having exacted the closest thing to a promise she was likely to get from me, she hung up without saying anything else.
I shrugged, and hung up myself.
I probably would have forgotten it, but...
Next morning, my boss let me know he needed me to drive to a different site.
"Some big to-do over there this morning, they need an extra man. I said you could help."
I groaned. It was a forty mile drive, one I didn't feel like making.
"We'll reimburse you for mileage," said my boss. "Get on it."
I felt like keeping my job, so I didn't argue, just loaded into my car and headed out south. Got onto the highway without any issues, started driving, and then I saw it, one car ahead of me: a green Subaru Outback with PA plates.
"Lord," I said, and I thought over what to do.
I didn't have to think very hard, because the car that was between us got over and got off the freeway in two exits, leaving only me behind the Subaru.
As soon as the other car got off, I had a horrible feeling. A full-body coldness, a shudder, as though, like Hayley had always said, someone had walked over my grave.
"Shit," I said, pretty sure I was going to puke, and I changed lanes, pulled over onto the shoulder, climbed out of the car, and dry-heaved.
I sat for a minute, then, once I was sure I wasn't going to hurl after all, climbed back into the car and started driving again.
Before I knew it, I'd caught up to the Subaru again.
Again, the same feeling, though I powered through it. I changed lanes, so I wasn't right behind it, more off to the side of it, and felt better.
"Goddamn Hayley for making me worry about this shit," I muttered, and that helped me feel better, too.
Twenty miles to the job site, then ten, then five, and...
It was foggy, near the job site. Freezing fog, the radio said. Nasty stuff, black ice on the roads. Difficult to recognize, if you weren't from around our area. The kind of thing you wouldn't expect, if you were only visiting from out of state. No snow and roads that looked wet, not icy, made things treacherous.
Something small and furry ran across the road. I couldn't tell what it was, clearly, though the long tail looked like it didn't have any fur on it, so it was likely a possum. Whatever it was, that green Subaru slammed on their brakes to avoid hitting it, hit an icy patch, and did a 180. I could just make out the look on the other driver's face, the "oh shit" as they realized they were suddenly facing the wrong way, in the middle of the highway, the sudden fear as they looked for oncoming traffic, the inevitable.
There was no one behind him. The relief, when he realized that, must have been palpable.
He got his bearings again, got the car back facing the right way, started driving again. It took him a second. I watched him fumble with his seatbelt, adjusting it, probably, after the near-miss, and once I knew he was fine, that there was no danger, I let out a sigh and got going again myself.
It occurred to me, about thirty seconds after I'd started driving again, how close it had come to being me that was behind them, me hitting their car head-on.
"Shit," I said, and I had to pull over to dry-heave again.
I called Hayley when I got to the job site.
"Thanks for that tip about the green Subaru," I said. "Just watched them do a 180 in the middle of the freeway. Would have hit them head on if it wasn't for your advice, totaled my car."
"Yeah," she replied, distracted. "You're welcome."
There was an awkward pause, before I tried to ask: "How did you..." I started. I couldn't bring myself to finish.
"Well," she said. "It was just a bad feeling. In the dream I had, you didn't die, but they weren't wearing a seatbelt, and you had to watch them die. I figured you could live without that."
"Uh," I said, thinking about the fumbling the other driver had done with his seatbelt before he got going again. "Thanks."
"Yeah," said Hayley. "No problem. I'll talk to you later. I'm on break but it's just about up, and I don't want to get busted with my phone out."
"Thanks," I repeated. I wasn't sure what else to say.
She snorted. "Yeah," she said. "Fucking possums."
I didn't know what to say to that.
Hayley's never had a dream like that since. I've never had any like it either, though I pay attention to mine now, just in case they're trying to tell me something.
Dad once told me not to take a flight into Galveston, when my boss wanted me to, because of some dream he'd had. I listened to him, though far as I could tell, nothing happened.
I'm a little more superstitious these days, but not much else has changed.
I still hate possums. Whenever I see one, I get that weird shivery feeling, as though someone's stepped on my grave, but I don't think it's their fault.
It's an acknowledgment, maybe, of how close I came to killing someone else. How bad that could have been.
"I moved here about five years ago. I went to college at..."
I don't give a straight answer.
It's not a friendly question, most of the time. It's a challenge: just what are you? Even when it's phrased in a way that others would find friendly, I can't accept that it is. It's never asked by other people of color. It's always asked by white folk. They're not inquiring as to my place of origin because they really care. Where are you from really means, how can I other you?
They're not asking out of simple curiosity. They're asking because where I am from tells them more about me than who I am, in their minds. The place and its stereotypes are more famous than I am; it's easy to slot me into a neat little box if I just tell them.
Perils and perks of being obviously a person of color who doesn't possess an accent beyond your basic flat American intonation. I can't be easily sorted (just what am I?), and so it leads to questions that most would find rude, if someone asked them. Questions such as: are you Jewish? Are you, perhaps, Italian? Greek? Something Mediterranean, maybe? Is your family from the south of France? Your last name sounds like it could be French...or else you could be Moroccan? Egyptian? Iranian?
They don't care where I'm actually from. That's not what the question is about. They're trying to ask me, what am I? How can they dismiss me more easily? If I reveal that I'm not actually American, that my family is from Elsewhere, I can be reduced to a convenient caricature: I am an outsider, posing as an American; I am actually from [x] location and thus they needn't care about me anymore.
So, I deflect.
If the only way you're going to see me as a person is if I ignore the original question, if I force you to admit that I'm not exotic at all, despite my brown skin, that I am in fact extremely goddamn boring -- well, that's the ironic part. That's when people stop trying to pull me back down, force me to admit that I fit into their stereotype box, and find out more about me.
I deflect, out of self-defense, because it is easier than saying, "Oh, my family is originally from [place name] and I'm [first, second, third] generation American."
I deflect, because otherwise I'm not seen as a person, only a location and its assorted collection of stereotypes about what people from that location are like.
I deflect so that I can be more than the sum of my parts.
Perhaps others are allowed to be proud of where they're from. Perhaps they want to be associated with their town. Perhaps they're happy, that there are a collection of stereotypes about where they're from.
I'll never be one of them. Not because I'm not, but because to answer the question, to not deflect, is to invite the unflattering stereotypes and racist remarks.
It's not easier to deflect. It's one of the more difficult things I do in a day. Pretending that I have some innate connection to this other person, that I'm going to open up to them, is difficult.
It's better than the alternative, though, and that's why I'll continue to do it.
It's harder to call someone a racist slur if you like them, after all. Oh, you'll likely tell them that they're great for being whatever they are, when they finally get around to tell you, but you'll hide the worst of it, shelter them from it.
I don't question how many of my friends probably think of me as being great for being a [member of the racial group I belong to].
It's probably more than I'd think, or am comfortable admitting, that think of me largely in terms of my country of origin.
I deflect away from that, too. Stewing about it won't fix it. That way lies madness.
Do I ever wish this weren't so?
Yes, all the time.
Do I have any idea how to fix it?
No (though I do wonder why it always falls to the oppressed to find an end to their own oppression).
This, of course, is somewhat twisted around if you are not white: white people, even those that are well-meaning, have a tendency to other by asking, "so where are you from?", ignoring that there is usually a collection of stereotypes surrounding your country-of-origin.
There's a really great video that discusses this here.
I'm the go-to-woman in a crisis. I'm not quite sure what it is about me. Maybe it's that I keep calm even when things are going to hell, or perhaps it's that when shit goes sideways, I roll up my sleeves and say, "all right, here's what we're going to do..."
I can come up with a plan on the fly. Everyone else is screaming that the worst has happened, and I'm the person calling 911 and performing first aid while snapping orders at everyone else. This isn't to say that I'm calm, because I'm probably screaming too, but I can triage. I know what has to be done. I'm not going to sit idle while there's a potential solution in sight.
"You're the one I want beside me in the trenches" is and remains one of the best compliments I've ever been given, along with: "You're not an optimist, exactly, but you always know what to do, and your perseverance, while frightening, is something to be admired."
This, followed by note that I make the best loaf of bread they've ever eaten.
Sometimes, you see, we don't need a calm man in a crisis. We need a slice of homemade bread and a mug of tea, someone to lean on while we sit back and take inventory as to how it all went sideways, and I step in there, too.
Once triage is done, once whomever it is has been taken care of, and is being taken care of, or does not need taking care of any longer, what else is there to do, but care for those left behind? How else do we show we care, if not through food?
It centers you, making food for everyone else. Cooking is a way to take your mind off everything else, and people will want to eat, in a crisis. Lots of carbs, lots of comfort food. Bread is a basic one. Pasta is another, or potatoes, in all their forms.
Knead the bread, gently bring together the dough for pasta, or peel the potatoes: it centers you. It's transformative. In my case, it's usually done alone.
After all, if you're going to be the calm man in a crisis, you need time to process, and that means time alone to decompress.
Stress kills my appetite, but everyone else wants food, after the worst happens, and there's nothing quite like pounding into what will eventually become a loaf of bread to make yourself feel better.
Pound out your frustration (why did he decided to go biking today of all days?), your rage (this isn't even remotely fair, he was wearing a helmet), your grief (I guess now I'm never going to see him get married). Bread needs salt anyway; if you cry into the bowl, add a little bit of extra flour to make up for the moisture, and know that no one will be able to tell.
Take care of everyone else. Stay strong in public; break down in private, later.
There will be bread left. There always is. There will be tea leaves, too, or tea bags, if you prefer, or else someone will have made coffee.
Everything will be waiting for you, whenever you're ready, when the initial burst of this is what we have to do dissipates, and you are left to your own devices.
(Eat your bread with plenty of butter. Think about him: what was the last thing you fed him? Was it that disasterous tempura, at the party you'd rather forget, or was it the pot of chili, at the game night a few months later, when you still weren't talking? Did you ever bake bread for him? Does it matter?)
You won't have answers to any questions, not at the time. You'll have bread, though, and from that you can develop the framework for pulling yourself back together, painfully, bite by bite, crumb by crumb. Simple carbohydrates calm us down: it's scientifically proven. Spread jam over it, to up the sugar content, because that's what "simple carbohydrates" really means, and it'll help you sleep.
You won't get the "why", only the "how", and you can't make sense of anything on an empty stomach.
Eat. Think. Remember.
There will be work to do, come morning, but you make space for yourself while you can, with a loaf of bread and a cup of tea, and all the memories that you now hold all of, because the other half were held by a man who is now dead.
There will be bread. There will be jam.
If you use salted butter, you won't notice the tears.
We met in our first year of college. We were roommates, assigned to each other thanks to our survey answers: are you a morning person or a night person and do you prefer to study in your room, or in the library?
Best as we could figure, we got thrown together because both of us answered that we didn't care.
"Not that it really matters," she was fond of pointing out. "We get along all right anyway."
We did, too: we had similar course loads, similar amounts of homework, and similar interests. It was easy to plan around expectations. We knew when we had to be quiet, and when we didn't have to be.
It was no surprise to anyone when we ended up rooming together the next year, off-campus, and then junior and senior year, too. She helped me study for the GRE, and I helped her study for the LSAT, and we made plans for where life was going to take us after we graduated.
She threw me a party, when I got my early acceptance to the master's program I applied to. I threw her one when she received her law school offer.
"To being a pair of kick-ass women," she toasted both of us, at her party. "May we be friends forever."
I don't know when I realized I was in love with her. It wasn't a conscious thing. I didn't wake up one day and go, "I'm in love with Jessica." It was more gradual than that.
I'd never had a crush on anyone, before her. I'd figured I was a late bloomer. I lied at sleepovers, in junior high, when girls giggled over who liked who, asked me who I thought was cute.
"I like Anthony," I'd say, or, "I like Will", picking the boys in our grade everyone else thought were cute, too. They were just boys to me, no different from anyone else. Some of them were nicer and some of them were jerks, but there was no difference between them that I could see, not like everyone else.
I figured it out gradually. Jess went out on dates with different guys from her classes, and I got jealous. We had fights about it, about who she was bringing home and when and why, and I blamed it on roommate stuff: the guy she brought home hadn't locked the door after he'd been the last one to leave; another had left a mess in the bathroom, yet another had drunk all of my milk.
"They're inconsiderate!" I yelled at her, after one of them tracked mud across the kitchen of the apartment we shared.
It would have been fair for her to point out, then, that I objected to everyone she brought home, and what was my damage, anyway, but she never did.
"Okay," she said, and smiled, infuriatingly patient, dodging the barbs I threw. "I'll talk to them."
To her credit, she did, every time. She kept dating the ones that had committed only minor offenses, dumped the ones that had crossed serious lines, kept me in the loop as to who she was dating, who I should let in and who I should ignore. "If Tim comes over before I'm home, let him in," or: "If John shows up while I'm not here, don't let him in. I broke up with him and I'll get him his stuff on my own time."
I gritted my teeth and dealt with it, because I was a good friend, a good roommate, and anyway, it wasn't like I could tell her. Hi Jess, I'm in love with you. Have been since, I dunno, freshman year, probably. Sorry? She only ever dated men, and I wasn't sure how she'd take to my coming out, let alone how she'd react if I told her she was the reason I'd realized I was queer.
My master's program started in September. Her law program started in August. The lease on our place was up in July. We both agreed, without really talking about it, that we'd give notice that we weren't renewing in June, and work to find apartments in our new cities on our own. She didn't ask me for feedback on the prospective places she was looking at, and I didn't talk to her about where I was going, either. I knew, or thought I knew, without talking to her, that this was the end of our friendship. We'd been friends in college; now, we were moving on to bigger things, and we'd outgrown one another, grown apart.
I didn't want it to be the end, but I didn't want to say why. Admitting that I wanted us to keep being friends, real friends and not the occasional, "hey, how are you doing?" text, would mean admitting that I loved her.
So I didn't say anything. I kept up the charade that it was going to be fine, that I wouldn't be bothered when we weren't friends anymore. I helped her pack up everything and divide our shared stuff, figure out who got what from the kitchen and what we should do with the couch we'd bought, second-hand.
"I think we should just sell it," she said, and I said, "All right," when what I really wanted to say was, "I love you."
The last week came, then the last day.
We'd agreed, before the end, that we were going to eat in, just the two of us, on the last day in the old place. We'd get a pizza, sit in front of her laptop and watch Netflix, pretend that it was freshman year again.
"Because, in a way, it is," Jess had told me, when she floated the idea by me. "We're both about to start school all over again."
It sounded like a good idea, at the time, and who was I to say no to the idea of spending more time together? When the day itself arrived, though, I was in a shitty mood. No matter how hard we pretended things weren't about to change, they were, and I didn't think our friendship could weather it.
The fight started when we couldn't decide what to get on the pizza. She was on a vegetarian kick and wanted pineapple and bell pepper. I thought this sounded weird, and instead of either going along with it, picking off the pineapple or suggesting alternate toppings, I snipped at her: "Are you going to give up on the whole fake vegetarian thing when you start law school?"
She shrugged, and didn't let the barb connect. "I dunno, maybe. It's not a fake thing -- I'm not huge on meat. If you don't want pineapple, we can do something half-and-half. It's easy to fix."
"So are you going to stop pretending you're a real vegetarian then, if it's just that you're 'not big on meat'?" I hated myself even as I said it, knowing I was only trying to pick a fight.
"I don't think I've told anyone I'm a vegetarian," Jess said. Her voice was strained, but she was still trying to keep the peace, I could tell, ignoring my needling.
"Yeah, you did," I pressed.
"Dale." The last guy she'd dated, a dedicated vegan. "You told him you were vegetarian the first time he came over here for dinner."
She flinched. That one had connected. "Yeah, I fibbed a little because I liked him a lot, and he'd told me he didn't think he could go out with anyone that wasn't at least vegetarian. So?"
"So you lied," I said. "Are you going to start telling the truth, once you move somewhere new?"
"Emily," Jess said. "What is this really about?"
"It's about whether you're going to stop being fake, when you move away. Whether you'll stop pretending to be someone you're not, to impress the guys you bring home."
"I haven't lied to anyone," she started, and I interrupted her.
"You told Peter that you were Lutheran when you haven't been to church since you were in high school. You told Juan that you speak French, when you took one class in it sophomore year. You told Andy that you love soccer, when you've neer played or watched it in your life. You've told little white lies to every guy you've dated. Do you even know what you want?"
"Jesus, who are you, my mom?"
"I'm just worried about you," I said, sullen.
"Okay," Jess said, picking up her phone and forcing a smile. "I'm going to go ahead and call in a pizza. I'm guessing pepperoni on your half is all right?"
She froze. "If it's not..." she started, then stopped. "Oh, fuck it." She started dialing.
"That's why you lied, isn't it?"
I knew, even before the words were out of my mouth, that I'd gone too far.
"No," said Jess, putting down the phone. "Not, 'never mind'. What did you just say?"
"Something I regret," I said.
"Because you were implying that I lied just so I could get laid, you're wrong."
"I didn't mean that," I started. "I meant..."
"I know you, Em," she said. "You meant it. Why? Why the fuck are you trying to pick a fight? This is the last night we have together. Why are you trying to ruin it?"
She challenged me, the way that she said it, pushed me out of my comfort zone, made me shift, mentally, from one gear to another.
If it were a romantic comedy, I would have admitted, then: "because I'm in love with you."
It wasn't, though, and I didn't.
If it was supposed to connect, to make me open up and make me come out, tell her the reasons why, it didn't succeed.
"I'm sorry," I offered. "I just...I'm going to miss you a lot. I don't want our friendship to change. I'm sorry for what I said -- I just...I don't want things to change."
Chickenshit. She'd tried to push me, and I'd resisted, stayed right where I was, changing nothing.
Her posture relaxed. "Don't worry," she said. "It's not going to -- we'll stay friends. Now: what do you want on your half of the pizza?"
If we'd talked about what I'd said, if I'd come out and told her the truth, we might have survived. She wouldn't have loved me -- I knew her well enough to know that she was straight -- but we might have weathered it, come through stronger friends because of it.
I didn't say anything, though, and so we didn't.
Pizza came. We watched something shitty on Netflix, both agreed that it was terrible, then threw away the paper plates and the pizza box, cleaned and boxed up the last few things in the apartment, and went to bed.
We did the final walk-through with the property manager the next morning in silence, then I helped her carry the last few things down to her car, and that was it. We hugged, we promised we'd keep in touch, and we parted ways. I drove west and she drove east, and neither of us looked back.
It's been four years since I last saw her. I finished my master's and got a job, and she's a practicing attorney now, in her home state.
I still get occasional emails from her, now and then. Perfunctory, "how are you doing?" with anecdotes about how being an adult sucks, but they're nothing like what we used to share, and I still haven't told her.
[explanation.]Another day, another "Idol taught me something new": a brushback pitch is intended to push the batter out of their comfort zone. It's something that almost connects with them, aggressive and, depending on who you ask, unsportsmanlike.
Since I don't know a lot about baseball, I opted for a less literal interpretation. Thanks for taking the time to read!
The first time he offers you anything, it's beer, when you're underage.
"Come on," he says. "Don't be a square."
But you are a square, and you don't take the can.
Later, it's something darkly green and murky, which he calls (depending on who is asking), Jungle Juice, or Hobo Spit. It's served out of a trashcan with no liner (a new one, he promises you, though you're not sure you believe him). Dark lumps bob in it, hard to make out in the dim light. It's October and it's after dark. He's got a fire lit in the makeshift fire pit, but it's sullen and smoky and doesn't cast much of a glow.
"It's just vodka and juice," he says. "I tried to make Jello shots, but they didn't gel, so I threw in the sludge from them, too."
It's not until you've drunk most of a cup (slowly, over the course of an hour, to see how it will sit on you, because you still do not drink much) that he tells you it wasn't vodka, it was Everclear, and you feel your legs start to give as you realize you are drunk, really drunk, for the first time in your life.
He apologizes later, makes you an omelette that you can't eat, thanks to your resultant hangover.
"I like the feeling," he says. "Letting go. Having to fight just to stand up makes all the other shit go away, and with your anxiety..."
You don't say anything, because what can you say?
A few months after what you will only refer to, in passing, as the Everclear Incident, he offers you pot. Edibles, specifically, in the form of brownies.
"I made my own butter," he says. "They're good."
You decline, then watch as he eats too many, finishes with beer, until he's so fucked up he can't move.
"I need this," he says.
You don't say anything.
At the Christmas party, he offers you cocaine.
That's when you realize something is wrong, and deeply, but you can't say anything. You're the square that turned down pot, who rarely drinks, the one he called once at four in the morning "just to talk" and didn't realize that he wanted you to come over, that it was his way of trying to get you into bed, both of you sober, for a change, and him in want of company.
You go through the script anyway: "Isn't that really dangerous?", and he reassures you that it's not, it's just once, it will be fine, just you wait and see.
You try to say, "I'm worried about you."
Instead, you watch his back as he retreats into the bedroom to get high alone.
He forces you to watch "Trainspotting", even though you say you don't want to.
"I have better things to do," you say, even as you sink into the couch. "I have homework..."
"Come on," he says. "We can watch 'SLC Punk' first."
You don't realize, until after you've left, that both films are stories about drug use, overdose and addiction.
You'd wonder if he's trying to tell you something, but you feel like you already know.
He spirals down.
There are incidents, too frequent to name. The time he forgot his girlfriend's birthday, because he was high.
The time he threw a container of laundry detergent at his roommate.
The time he calls you, as you're standing in the entrance to a bakery, debating if you want to get bread and a pastry, or just the bread, and berates you on the phone for something you have supposedly done, though you do not remember it: "How fucking dare you talk to my parents, it's my life and I'll fuck it up as I see fit", when you have never met his parents, have no way of contacting them.
"I love you," you say, into the phone. "I wouldn't."
"I need this," he rambles, and you know, from everyone else that has cut him out, that he must be high. "Every fucking day is a struggle, I need something. You have no right to interfere."
You think, I need you, and, I don't know if I can do this, before you sigh into the phone.
"Okay," you say, even though it's not. "Know that I love you and I'm here if you need me."
He hangs up before you can finish the rest of that sentence.
When you find out he's overdosed, a week or so after that call, it's not a surprise.
What is a surprise is that he lives, if only just.
Later, years later, when you have moved to a different city, you will be standing on someone's back porch, and they will offer you a hit of what they're smoking, and you will think of him, and wonder how he's doing.
Last you'd heard, he was still alive, working as a rehab counselor at a place in the city, single and supporting his mother, his father dead.
You'll think about calling. You've kept his number through the years, even if he's never reached out to you. You've heard from others, it's still the same, and you want to know, if he still needs it, if it's what makes his life worth living, what gets him through the day, or did he find something else?
You take the hit, get high for the first time in your life.