Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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for Noah and Christopher
It was already too late when I met Virginia and Carly during the fall of 1997, for by then I was both suffering from a broken heart and thoroughly sick of white people.
Virginia and I were in an English-literature class together during my senior year at the State University of New York at Albany. She wore black-rimmed “cafe girl” glasses and had one of those bright, pale faces that slips back and forth from plain to attractive. Altogether her style was a mixture of grunge and hippie, and I found Virginia sexy as hell. During the week that we covered James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, she and I united against the close-minded faction in class who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, comprehend how one man could love another. We chastised them on breaks and shouted them down during discussions. At the end of class one evening, Virginia discovered that I, too, liked getting high, and she smiled — her face alive with mischief — and counted off three words on her fingers: Suburban. Bitch. Cruise.
I was raised in the Bronx, on a block where half the apartment buildings were newly erected Section 8 housing and the other half were ancient, dilapidated tenements. We moved into one of the new buildings when I was eleven, and I was grateful, for I believed the spotless tile floor, shining silver mailboxes, and functioning incinerator meant that I was a better person and would lead a fuller life than the families who came and went from the run-down edifices up the street. After discovering that my parents were drug addicts and my stepfather beat my mother, I understood that the kind of buildings people lived in had little to do with the quality of the lives they led. Finding used crack pipes and hearing the slap of hand against cheek made judging the worth of my neighbors’ lives in relation to mine irrelevant. I got down to the business of raising myself for fear that not just the building but the whole of who I was would come crashing down around me before I could get away.
Nothing I’d encountered in the Bronx prepared me for the conservative suburban America that was to become my new home when I left in 1993 to attend Brent College, a predominantly white private school in upstate New York. Raw and ripe and determined to exorcise all the awfulness that I had lived through and that had defined for me what love was, I dated a handful of open-minded white girls who were mesmerized by how my tragic, inner-city anger often dissolved into sadness after I’d tired of it. These girls, though, didn’t seem to have any despair of their own. I thought the empathy they offered was due to the intensity with which we had sex, and for a time that was all right with me. But ultimately the affairs left me hollow and, worse, made it possible for me to see these girls as only white, just as my pain kept me from being anything else but a troubled black guy to them. When I met Lisa during my sophomore year, she made me forget the color of her skin and mine, for she had recently lost her father to cancer and had been molested as a child by a relative. We related hungrily to each other’s trauma and shared our horror stories day in and day out, and night in and night out we tried to fuck our misery out of existence.
Eventually the weight of our tragedies bore down on the relationship. Having spent so much time admiring the bright red of each other’s wounds, we neglected our own. We thought that our aching bodies pressed together would naturally heal us of our pasts and transform us into different people. Instead the passion and pain we traded back and forth tore us up; ours wasn’t a breakup but an implosion, and, having never loved someone like I had Lisa, I transferred to SUNY Albany after my junior year.
The inside of Virginia’s metallic blue Pontiac Sunfire smelled of cigarettes and pot and air freshener. CDs, books, and papers covered the passenger seat, and she rushed to clear a space for me to sit. I climbed in and was immediately up to my ankles in crushed soda cans and crumpled potato-chip bags, but it was better than waiting in the cold for the bus.
Virginia apologized for being such a slob.
“This is your ride,” I said. “You don’t have to be sorry for anything.”
She talked nonstop on the way to her home in the suburbs — her parents’ home, she reminded me, as if to distance herself from her wealthy upbringing. Her nervousness was understandable. We’d known each other only in class, and now we were sharing the intimate space of a car’s front seat. When the casual topics of conversation had been exhausted, Virginia mentioned her past drug addiction and how her parents had been unable to deal with a daughter who was on “the hard shit,” so they’d just left her alone. After kicking the habit, she’d been prescribed Prozac.
When I’d first encountered at Brent the notion that a pill could change the way one felt about oneself, it seemed as absurd and fantastical as time travel. Terms like “bipolar disorder” and “ADHD” were common at the school, and many spoke openly, sometimes jokingly, about the medication they were on. I learned quickly that if you weren’t taking drugs, you knew someone who was; and if you were prescribed certain drugs but refused to ingest them, you sold them to healthy friends who just wanted to get high. Back in the Bronx, I had never heard the word “depression” used to describe a deep, paralyzing sadness that made one eligible for magical tablets. But many of the boys and girls on my block smoked blunts and guzzled forty-ounce beers. (Just as many didn’t, including me.) Those Bronx boys and girls craved those substances in the same way those white kids did at Brent. Knowing that Virginia was part of that sick tribe made me even more fiercely attracted to her, as I had been to Lisa.
“Do the pills make you feel better?” I asked, resisting the impulse to lean over and kiss her neck.
“Oh my God, yes,” she said. I couldn’t tell if this was sarcasm or not. Then she added, “Sometimes I don’t take them, and then I spiral.”
“Well, you ain’t got to worry about me judging you, girl,” I told her. “My parents were crackheads — maybe still are for all I know.”
“Jesus. You don’t talk to them anymore?”
“Not since I was eighteen,” I said. “Don’t care if I ever do either.”
I also told her that, in general, I didn’t care for people who were sane; that if a person’s head hadn’t gotten screwed up once or twice in life, then he or she wasn’t worth knowing. I also confessed to Virginia that I’d had enough of white people who used so much energy pretending to be functional that they were afraid of their own shadows — which, in turn, made them afraid of me.
“I hate people who act like they’re better than you,” Virginia said.
I said, “I especially hate white people who act like they’re better than you.”
Virginia and I drove in silence for a few minutes. Then she asked me if I had a girlfriend, and that’s when I told her about the tormented relationship with Lisa and how I’d been at that private college before coming to SUNY Albany. As we pulled into the driveway of her parents’ two-story home, she shook her head. “Don’t you know we’re all crazy?”
I didn’t know if she meant girls, white girls, white people, or everyone on the planet. So I just said, “Yeah, I know — but that girl was gone.”
I never hated myself for being black, even though I grew up in the rough part of the Bronx and thus came to adore the pristine television version of whiteness. Those weekly sitcoms I made a religion of watching showed parents that adored one another and their children: tears and hugs and I love you’s were dished out at the end of every episode. Suburban living rooms and kitchens and streets were clean — and stayed that way. Refrigerators were packed with food — and stayed that way. One never had to add water to powder in order to make milk. One never had to hear the cries of his mother after she’d been struck in the face or the hissing sound of smoke being sucked through a crack pipe. Knowing that I would never wake up in that reality, I couldn’t help but love what I thought was whiteness.
When I was accepted to that private college, I began to fantasize about my arrival: I’d step into a theater filled with white people, who would stand up and applaud me for enduring those tumultuous years in the Bronx and finally ascending to their upstate Eden. After I’d taken my seat next to a row of other minorities, whose stories of survival mirrored mine, a distinguished college administrator would make his way to the podium and tap the microphone a few times to test it. Then he would smile at us and give a brief but moving speech about how we had left behind the old world for the new, where we no longer had to worry about our lives being in danger.
In reality no trumpets sounded upon my arrival at Brent. There was no parade, no concert in my honor. Instead, the week before classes began, the administration held a luncheon for us — the fifteen or so minorities who’d been accepted into the financial-aid program. We sat in a fancy conference room, in chairs so cushy I felt as if my ass were being cradled by the hand of God. They served us vegetables and dip and endless bread and butter. Though the main course of sliced turkey breast and mashed potatoes tasted no better than the cafeteria food I’d eaten in high school, the silverware was wrapped in thick, burgundy cloth napkins, which made me feel honored and elite. Over dessert — hot apple pie and vanilla ice cream — the dean of students addressed us. Unfortunately, he said, neither the president nor the vice-president was able to attend the luncheon, due to prior obligations. But he did his best to inspire us, and toward the end he said with gusto, “You’ve come this far; now go even farther!”
A hell yeah! erupted inside me despite the man’s lackluster oratory. I had to believe that I’d come this far of my own determination and that nothing and no one could prevent me from doing whatever I wanted to do. And for a while the college’s well-manicured lawns and hedges, its cathedral-looking dormitories, and the serene faces of those upper-class white kids — so free of the weight of life — were an acceptable facsimile of the safe, secure whiteness I’d seen on television. When I discovered that the majority of white people at Brent behaved as though the blood in their veins were fine wine, I felt like I’d been cheated out of a better life.
The inside of Virginia’s house was ridiculously spacious and clean. I had the childish impulse to slide across the floor, drag my hands over the marble countertops, and repeatedly open and close the massive door of the vaultlike refrigerator. The cabinets and drawers were full to bursting, like treasure chests. I imagined the water that came from the bright brass faucet would taste like nothing I’d ever drunk before. Virginia led me down the hall to her room, which I thought was going to be as immaculate as the rest of the house but turned out to be just as unkempt as the inside of her car.
“I like it dirty,” she said in mock flirtation, which I knew was real flirtation. “Close the door behind you.”
All we did was talk, which for the moment was just fine. We were both English majors — or at least I was, and she liked taking literature courses. Virginia tossed a few books in my lap by writers I’d only vaguely heard of, and then a few epic and boring canonical novels that I didn’t give a damn about. I told her this.
“Well, who’s your favorite writer?” she asked.
When I told her I was my favorite writer, she accused me of being egotistical. From there we talked mostly about the Internet chat rooms we frequented and the promiscuous, sometimes regrettable encounters we’d had with people we’d met there. Virginia didn’t strike me as a slut — not any more of one than I was — and I beamed at the possibility of our having casual but uplifting sex.
Then Virginia’s cellphone rang. She spoke briefly into it, slapped it shut, and said, “Let’s cruise.”
Virginia’s best friend, Carly, was leaning against a tan BMW when we stepped outside. She was short, and from a distance she looked like a little girl. Even close up she didn’t look much older than fifteen, but her firm handshake convinced me that she was, in fact, a woman. “Hey, what’s up?” she whispered, flashing a smile and shyly averting her eyes at the same time. I returned her greeting in the same quiet tone of voice, afraid that if I spoke any louder, she’d crumble to the ground.
The car doors shut noiselessly behind us. The artificial quiet and climate-controlled atmosphere made me think of the inside of a spaceship. Encased in all that luxury, I began to wonder whether driving around the suburbs and getting high with two white girls wasn’t a stupid and dangerous idea. As we pulled out of Virginia’s driveway, I asked if it wouldn’t be better just to go somewhere secluded and smoke up. They told me not to worry, that they’d never had a problem before.
“Ever have a black guy in the back seat before?” I asked.
They were silent for several moments. Then Carly said, “We’re pros. Trust us.”
My first semester in college was also my first real encounter with white culture, which at that private school seemed to be a combination of egotism, insecurity, and fear that became a dangerous concoction when mixed with alcohol. In many ways the climate at Brent reminded me of that side of the Bronx where you could get hit in the face for accidentally stepping on someone’s clean sneakers; or jumped, fucked up, and robbed of your 8-ball leather jacket; or, in far too many cases, shot for telling the wrong person to kiss your black ass. The only difference was that, back home, I knew all the twists and turns, and I could duck and hide or even become invisible in certain situations — something it was impossible to do on that small campus.
When it came to dating, the only girls I had a chance with were those who looked me unflinchingly in the eye and held my gaze firm. This was a contrast to the majority of white girls at college, who said, “I’m sorry,” for no other reason, it seemed, than because we’d made sudden eye contact in the narrow dorm corridors; or because I’d gotten off an elevator as they got on; or because, to their surprise, I’d held a door for them. The apologies from guys came mainly in the bathroom: “My bad, bro,” they’d say if we’d arrived at a stall at the same time. Their sorry’s were too rushed, their tone too genuine, and this precluded the possibility they were actually sincere.
Though I couldn’t prove it, it was clear to me that my new peers must have believed I was disgusted with having to inhabit the same physical space as them, and that this disgust would eventually cause me to have a black meltdown, which they tried to preempt by apologizing for nothing. Disciplining myself not to go berserk at their fabricated kindness became an infuriating ritual that I loathed but refused to stop performing.
“Give people a chance,” Sam, my white roommate, would tell me when I’d return from class, cursing the gauntlet of frightened white faces I’d just passed through on my way back to my dorm. “A lot of them have never known a black person.”
Sam had grown up in a suburb of Syracuse and hadn’t known many black people himself. I hadn’t known any white people either, except for the majority of the teachers I’d had, but they didn’t count in my mind. Sam and I had become, with both effort and ease, as close as brothers that first semester, mostly because we debated one another late into the night. Our disagreements often sounded like tirades, and the topics we battled over ranged from religion (he was Catholic; I was nothing) to politics to sports to who was the better artist, Michael Jackson or Jimi Hendrix. No matter how our battles panned out, we were able to shake hands or hug and go to bed without the threat of one of us choking the other in his sleep. Had he been any other white person than the one he was, I would’ve told him to go to hell with his philosophy of giving people a chance.
Though I listened, I knew Sam’s problem was that he was devoted (or addicted) to optimism. Even when a Peruvian friend of mine, whom we called Davey Boy, was smashed over the head with a beer bottle because he’d danced with a white girl at a club, Sam’s philosophy of hope and patience remained strong. “You can’t be scared to hang out and party with white people just because you think something might go down,” he said to me.
“To hell with that shit,” I told Sam. I wasn’t stepping foot in a nightclub no matter how small he thought the chances of my being harmed were. Why would I cross a bridge that had a likelihood of collapsing, just so I could prove to myself the importance of crossing bridges?
All along, though, I knew I was fooling myself: I hadn’t spent eighteen years in the Bronx only to be defeated because most white people were neither courageous nor imaginative enough to embrace me. White people were in my system, under my skin. Not only that, but I was charming and egotistical. I knew how to talk to girls — those who held my gaze — and I was going to, and I didn’t give a damn who liked it or not. Locking myself in my dorm room was ridiculous; I hadn’t locked myself in my bedroom back in the Bronx. But, confident as I was, I couldn’t stop thinking about the beer bottle splitting open Davey Boy’s scalp and brow and the way doctors had sewn it up. Certain as I was about my right to be at Brent, there was no way I was going to be that liberal, progressive black guy lying on the floor of some club, bleeding all my tolerant, accepting blood just because I wanted to act like there was some fundamental difference between 1993 and 1963. Sooner or later I would have to pick up a bottle myself and prove to a white person from the suburbs that I was here and wasn’t going anywhere.
Eventually I succumbed to Sam’s insistence, partly because there was nothing else to do, but mostly because his reckless optimism was backed by a devotion to me, to himself, to us, and he would stand shoulder to shoulder with me, prepared to kick the ass of anyone who threatened the friendship we’d cultivated.
“Trust me,” he told me once as we stood outside a convenience store near his suburb, prepared to purchase a case of beer with a fake ID. I was scared as hell but also mesmerized by how fearless he was to commit a crime with me at his side. I do trust you, I thought, as we moved inside and headed for the cooler, wholly bathed in the faith that the power of his skin to protect me was greater than the power of my skin to endanger us both.
In the back seat of Carly’s car that night after English class, I wrapped myself in those girls’ egos. I had no choice but to trust them. I wanted to see if something of Sam was in them, to continue discovering which white people would stare at me long enough to love me and which wouldn’t and would never be worth getting into a car with. Which ones, then, I ought to purge from my system once and for all.
After a half dozen chest-filling drags, I was more than high.
“We’re cruising now,” Virginia said, repacking the bowl.
She handed the pipe to Carly, who steadied the wheel with her knees so she could take a hit. Whenever the road curved, she shifted her leg, and the car followed the lane as if she’d been driving this way her entire life.
After we’d passed the bowl around several more times, I couldn’t feel my face, and my stomach was a deep pit. The next time Carly took a hit, she let out a blasting cough, her knee jerked, and the car swerved into the oncoming lane. I yelled. Virginia grabbed the wheel and pulled it toward her, bringing us back into our lane and then onto the right shoulder. The tires kicked up gravel and dirt, and I braced myself for collision just before Carly steered us straight again.
The girls burst into maniacal giggles, but my mind was still electrified with the possibility of death.
“Sorry,” Carly said over her shoulder, going back to hitting the bowl, driving once again with her knees.
I tried to calm myself by steering the car with my thoughts, but it didn’t work. Ahead of us the road curved. Though the headlights lit the ground, there was a vast darkness just beyond their reach, so it looked as though we were forever driving toward the edge of a cliff.
Inwardly I began to freak out and thought, What if a child wandered onto the road? I saw us swerving into a tree to miss the kid, and then the three of us ejected face first through the windshield. My drug-addled imagination went wild: What if these girls are leading me somewhere to cut off my dick and drop me maimed on the side of the road? What if they’re leading me to a Klan meeting? What if they want to frame me for rape?
How stupid was I to put myself back in danger with white people — white girls — I didn’t know? I’d known Lisa, and yet our relationship had ended dismally. Why had I ever believed that one learned anything about his heart from the hearts of others? Why had I ever thought such a thing were worth it or possible? And even if relationships with white people were both worth it and possible, would I care long enough about such an endeavor to reap the benefits? My pursuit of the sexual encounter that I’d assumed would come out of this suburban bitch cruise with these good white girls now seemed masochistic, for here I was once again, propelled by my reckless dick, prepared to fuck away my unhappiness instead of dealing with it. Full of doubt and terror, I wanted to grab the door handle and throw my black ass from the car.
Despite my friendship with Sam, my attempts to overcome the racial divide at that private college were a failure. I was patient at first with the majority’s ignorance, and I embraced opportunities to provide them with the details of my life. I offered specifics about where I had come from — more than they’d seen in rap videos, or in an evening-news mug shot, or in the brown face of a star ballplayer who’d roamed the halls of their high school like a delusional Zeus. I didn’t expect a white kid my age to fully comprehend the particulars of my life in the inner city, but I did want him or her to understand that I had particulars, that I was more than the dimensionless caricature of a black person some thought me to be. The more I expected the students at that small school to see that the color of my skin was as relevant or irrelevant as theirs, which is what I had to do in order to get through a day on campus, the more it seemed like I was deluding myself.
By the spring semester a handful of my freshmen friends in the financial-aid program had dropped out and retreated back to the city. There was a sense that the rest of us would continue to drop off one by one, like victims in a slasher film.
You have come this far; now go even farther!
The dean’s speech had moved me. It was full of the muscle and might of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy, which we’d all had preached to us by New York City’s public schools. It was a necessary tragedy, we believed, to be siphoned from the general masses of our high schools, our ascent the result of a fierce ambition and desire that our inferior brothers and sisters would never possess. The spirit of the preacher flowed rampant through our privileged-minority veins as we made our way through college in this foreign land we attempted to make our new home.
But there was only so much farther we could go on our own. For us to go beyond that, the white people at Brent needed to move toward us, as we had moved toward them for a better life. What no one — not the dean nor anyone else — had told us is that this would never happen. We’d entered a culture where there was no incentive for the inhabitants to learn how to pronounce the tricky cadences of our names or listen to the tales of who we were, because there were no negative repercussions if they didn’t. These boys and girls hadn’t grown up with a television or movie screen that showed them how our lives were better than theirs, and no one told us how that had insulated their minds from us. The fact that we, as privileged minorities, were climbing out of our world meant that we were climbing into theirs — the same world that had produced their parents, and this private school, and them. The road to success and wealth and happiness would never run the other way — from the suburbs to the Bronx — so we were forced to know everything about white people, while they didn’t have to learn anything about us.
And no one also told us that the Sam’s were few, and only a tiny percentage of the good ones would be willing to combat those who would crack beer bottles over brown heads to prevent us from going anywhere.
While the remaining minorities at Brent clung to one another and turned their dorm rooms into miniature inner cities, I now took off into those pockets of whiteness where even Sam had warned me not to go. I had to go there, for I was no longer going to mythologize white people. They wanted to be seen and not seen, both at once; they wanted to look at me and not look at me, both at once. Their whiteness seemed both grotesque and human to me, and I planned to taste as much of it as I could.
I befriended a black kid named Derek who had been adopted as an infant by a white couple and raised in the suburbs. He explained to me that he didn’t consider himself black, though his skin was darker than mine. I didn’t fight the illogic of his stance, for it seemed very logical to him. What I did was use Derek as a key into those white spaces that had produced his schizophrenic sense of himself. At frat parties, wearing a collared shirt and cargo shorts and a nonthreatening demeanor, I really thought I could change white people’s minds just by looking them in the eye or clutching their shoulders and saying, Don’t I seem real to you? In reality I spent a lot of time laughing at bad racist jokes, pretending I was hip enough not to care about such a thing because “racism is dead.” Sometimes, not often, I’d take a girl home — one who was conservative in front of other people but not when we got back to her room — and seduce her with my suffering. These girls had been looking for trauma like mine because being financially comfortable all their lives had left them hollow. (A few of them were medicated for depression.) Lying in bed next to them after sex, I realized I didn’t want just to seduce them with my pain; I wanted to find one of them who could understand my pain, because she had bright, bleeding scars of her own.
Before Thanksgiving that year, I met Lisa, a tall white girl with black curly hair, square but elegant shoulders, and a marred past that made her whiteness unimportant to me. We were drawn to one another instantly. Hours-long conversations about our difficult childhoods gave way to raw, ballistic sex, and the combination led to our falling in love.
Sam warned me Lisa was trouble, but I wouldn’t listen. I thought maybe he was jealous, or that he thought I could do better than Lisa, a girl some might consider white trash because she didn’t straighten her hair with a hot iron every morning, or because she had imperfect skin and her parents weren’t rich. But I wasn’t having any of it. I’d finally found a girl who was just as damaged as I was, and because of that we could come together and ignore our different skin colors.
Finally Sam admitted that he was concerned that if I broke up with Lisa, she might invent some terrible story about me, and everyone would believe it because she was white and I was black.
I said that was the reason why I had to keep seeing her, or else racism will never be defeated.
I believed this when I said it. And as much as it was true, it was also a lie. When things ended between Lisa and me, I knew it had nothing to do with racism. She was the same kind of girl as I was boy. We had no sense of how to deal with ourselves as individuals, so we believed sharing our woes would cure us somehow. That’s why we couldn’t stay together.
I sat in Carly’s car with my head back and my eyes closed. When I could no longer remember how long I’d been like that, I started to panic and demanded to know where we were.
The girls looked at each other. “Calm down,” Virginia said.
Carly gave a dry laugh and said, “Scared we’re gonna take you somewhere and kill you?”
The question just hung there. My mind was on fire with uncontrollable thoughts about these strange white girls.
“Anything is possible,” I murmured.
We were silent after that. I’d just implied that they were racists, or perhaps just evil, but I didn’t care. All I wanted was to get home to bed and sleep the high off. If I insisted they take me back, though, I knew I’d be fleeing from situations like this for the rest of my life. So I simply vowed to God (as I’d done many times before when getting high had riddled me with anxiety) never to smoke marijuana again and to make only the right decisions in life, if He would steer me through these remaining moments.
Finally I said I was sorry.
“It’s OK,” Carly said quietly. “We don’t know each other.” She added, “So what kind of music are you into?”
I answered her honestly, grateful she was changing the subject: “Anything that sounds good. Anything I can dance to.”
“I like everything too, I guess,” Carly said.
“Carly sings,” Virginia said. “Girl makes her own music.”
“Really?” I said, my tone flat. I imagined head-banging metal lyrics spewing from her mouth. “You any good?”
Our eyes met in the rearview mirror. Carly was angry, and also once again driving without looking at the road. My insides tightened. I’d doubted so much about these girls that I worried if I questioned any further whether she had a good voice or not, she might deliberately steer that car into a tree and kill us all.
“Do something,” I said to her, more of a plea than a demand.
She held my gaze for several moments longer, and then this stranger, this nobody-to-me suburbanite, began to hum the beginning of a soul tune from the seventies, a song I recalled my mother and stepfather slow-dancing to in our apartment when they were in love and I was their little boy. Carly eased into the lyrics, about a letter a man wrote to his lover being read on the radio. She dragged each word out, enunciating every syllable. Her voice sped up and caught fire in the chorus: “Whoa-oh-Oh-OH, on the radio!” She repeated the verse before ripping through the chorus again, finishing with her head thrown back. In the rearview mirror I could see the dark o of her mouth as she held the final note.
Her song lifted a lot from me in that moment: the paranoia from the weed; the awful human din of racism at Brent; and the sadness I was feeling over a broken heart — a sadness I’d been admitting to myself looked more and more every day like depression. It occurred to me then what a wonderful thing it is to be able to make music with your lungs and tongue and mouth, to have music in you at all times. I enjoyed the euphoric aftermath of Carly’s song, which was still moving through me like the vibration in a tuning fork, for as long as I could. Soon it would be gone, I knew, and the world would return to what the world is, and I would be who I was, and there’d be only a memory of how a white girl from the suburbs had made a black guy from the Bronx feel good about himself for a few minutes.
Eventually I leaned into the space between the front seats and begged Carly for another song, but she gently said no. I asked for the same one again, but she just smiled, her eyes for once locked on the road ahead. I hadn’t realized we were out of the suburbs until I looked up and saw the streets of downtown Albany, those old, gray government office buildings.
“Have to be careful around here,” Carly said, checking her rearview mirror.
Minutes later we stopped on Lark Street, Albany’s version of Greenwich Village, and Virginia got out. She was going to meet some people for coffee, she told me, but we’d see each other in class. I was surprised and sad to see her leave. I got out and hugged her, then climbed into the front seat and closed the door. The artificial warmth didn’t feel as good as the brief blanket of frigid air that had just swept across my face.
Being alone with Carly and sitting beside her was like meeting her again for the first time, though not awkward at all. She asked me where my apartment was, and I told her Washington Avenue. At a red light she produced a vial of Visine, tilted her head back, and administered drops to both eyes. Then she pulled a tiny aerosol can from her purse, let off two quick sprays, and tossed the canister onto the back seat. I remembered how, when Lisa and I would get high at night in her room, we’d fasten a scented dryer sheet to the end of a cardboard toilet-paper roll and blow the smoke through it. Our breath came out the other side smelling like perfume, and we’d marvel at the magic of changing one thing into another. Then we’d make love all night. We were both screamers and believed our pants and moans had the power to drown out the memories of molestation and a dead father, of a physically abusive stepfather and crackhead parents, to take away the odor of our pasts and make us come out smelling fine on the other side. Sometimes, when we woke up the next morning, we were at peace for several hours and no longer so painfully, brutally in love.
“You’re being all quiet again,” Carly said when we pulled up outside my place.
I came right out and said it: “You sound black when you sing.” Not knowing whether she would take offense, I added, “I mean that in a good way.”
“I know,” she said, her cheeks reddening. “But thank you.”
If I hadn’t been able to tell when I first met her and shook her hand outside Virginia’s home — Virginia’s parents’ home — I knew now that Carly was, like Sam, one of the good ones. Who knew whether she’d had a rough life or not. Right then, I didn’t care, didn’t believe that was a prerequisite for me to love a white woman, or a woman who happened to be white. We shook hands then, and after the initial firmness passed, we lingered, holding each other’s hands, fingering the span of skin between knuckle and wrist. She had that look in her eye; she held my gaze. How easy it would’ve been for us to walk from her car through the cold to my apartment, lie down in bed, and tell one another, I will shoulder your burdens, you will do the same for me, and together we will try to get through this. How healing it might have been if we’d then fucked each other with more passion than Lisa and I had ever done.
But I was not going to be the kind of black man who attempts to rectify the problems he has had with a past white girlfriend (and white people in general) by having sex with another white girl in the present. The psychological war that results from trying to figure out one’s blackness in relation to privileged white people’s whiteness should never wound the innocent. Carly was not Lisa. No matter how many at Brent believed or acted alike, these two women helped prove to me that white people were not all the same. The energy it had taken me to discover such an idea was immense; an even greater amount was necessary to maintain this notion. I also had to find the fuel, the resolve, to finish college, and then to decide what to do with my life — my life. I didn’t know where this power would come from or how I would achieve it or when. One thing was certain: I had to allow myself a long rest from dealing so intimately with white people, or I’d have nothing to give another soul, let alone my own, down the line.
I let go of Carly’s hand and thanked her for the ride home. I assured her we’d be seeing each other again. Upstairs I fried myself a couple of pork chops, boiled some angel-hair pasta, poured a glass of wine, and tried to separate in my memory the ugliness from the beauty that had existed between Lisa and me. I had the strength for memories of her, nothing more. I was thoroughly exhausted. Those few minutes of rest Carly’s song had given me were all I could bear of even one more white person, despite her firm handshake, her steady gaze, and her voice like a black woman’s — all of which had made me feel like she was one of the good ones.
The names of people and institutions have been changed to protect privacy.
Akhim Yuseff Cabey
In his essay “Suburban Bitch Cruise” [July 2009] Akhim Yuseff Cabey eloquently illustrates the ways that race influences the perspectives of white people. His relationship with his white female companions is an example of the painful costs, on both sides, of racism and white privilege. I hope the essay causes white readers to explore the ways their race influences the way they see the world.
I also find it interesting that, while the July issue highlights the disparities between whites and people of color, your interview subject for the issue, Tim Wise, is still a white man [“By the Color of Their Skin,” interview by David Cook]. I appreciate Wise’s work immensely, and I’m sure the interview will challenge and stimulate readers. But I also hope to see race and privilege discussed in future issues with more people of color.