All my best friends in middle school were black. J and Bruce and Stan the Man and Pete and Bobby and Dick and Kenny and T and Ricky and Randal. When that white cheerleader who sat behind me in Algebra II said, “So, what, are you trying to be black?” I said, “Black is beautiful, baby.” My friends would come over and shoot hoops on the basket my mom put up at the end of our cul-de-sac and then stay for dinner. They introduced me to their sisters, cousins, girls in my class—Sonja, Teresa, Terri, Lisa. Supposedly, we had just reached puberty, but Lisa looked like she’d been there for years, eyed me up and down and said, “You got nice skin, boy, but your hair needs a comb. I’ll wash it if you want.” “OK,” I answered to the ground, toe in the dirt, and everyone fell out. We bought PG tickets and snuck into The Shining and laughed out loud as hell when Jack Nicholson laughed crazy and told Shelly Duvall not to go in there and then put his axe in Scatman Crothers. One of my happiest times ever is the summer between eighth and high school, swinging on ropes into the Ichetucknee and stealing a toke or swig of Mad Dog from whichever older brother drove us, lying on the bank getting sunburned and dreaming of NBA careers for all.
On the first day of high school, I thought, All right, now I’m one of the big kids. Mom had spent the weekend mending clothes so that you couldn’t tell by looking that my favorite jeans had had a giant rip in the knee where I wiped out on my skateboard over the summer. I fought the urge to show excitement—that wasn’t done. Giving Pete the nod in home room, I yawned through the morning, then ambled down the hall toward lunch. In middle school, you didn’t wait in line like a sucker to get your food and pay—you walked to the front. If anyone gave you language, you just had to look at them usually, maybe step close. We did this in groups of five or six, and the white kids, even if sometimes bigger, were outnumbered and didn’t say shit.
That was when I started to realize that something had changed, but not in the way I had thought. There was no one with me at the back of that line and I just stood there, not able to move up even though the kid in front of me had braces and glasses and his backpack straps over both shoulders and looked pale and weak. Something told me I needed to wait in line just like everyone else to get my sausage pizza and apple and milk, to hand over my lunch coupon doled out to all the poor kids before school.
Don’t worry, this is no grab for sympathy or a coming-of-age sob story where the character realizes he’s not nearly as tough as he thought. And it’s not a wordy version of “some of my best friends are black.” This kid won’t see the light and suddenly say, “Deep in my heart, I knew I was just as racist as anyone else.” But I haven’t been able to shrug it off when you said to me the other morning, “Don’t exoticize me.” You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but you’re not just a woman or a teacher or a racquetball player—you’re also black. When you’re fucking me in the morning and Miles and Coltrane are wailing “Ah-leu-cha” on the stereo in the living room at a pace we couldn’t possibly match—Trane throwing clusters of notes between beats and Jimmy Cobb hiccupping the rhythm on snare, the ride the only proof he knows what time means—and my head’s sunk in the pillow, fingers digging into your ass, and you’re straddling me, sucking in air like you’d like to speak but only saying, “ah, ah, ah,” and your hair writhes on your head like some kind of African Medusa while the sun streams through the windowpanes and fringes that angelic face and your back is arched and you’ve got a hand behind you for balance and, you know, damn, your skin is beautiful, at least partly, because it’s the color of coffee without cream. Although I know that we’re too intelligent to be split by a fact as stupidly biological as the amount of melanin in our skin, your words have been tickling the back of my neck like a strange finger for days.
I’ve been trying to just forget it and move on, but I was reading in the paper this morning about those scientists trying to invent some sci-fi shit, what they call an “interceptor missile,” a missile that can knock others out of the air. The arms race is over, but we keep on running. And I thought about those white coats in a lab under the ground in Virginia somewhere, trying to invent a bullet that can hit other bullets in transit—something which, even if possible, all the top scientists have said will be easy and cheap to fool by any attacker—and I thought of the word we used back in middle school to mean cocky, even against the greatest of odds: “attitudinous.” As in “We got to get attitudinous, y’all,” which my best friend J said in timeout when our city league basketball team was down to the Sharks, 18-0. And we did get attitudinous and came back and won in overtime.
Bear with me: All this talk about race and childhood and love and missile defense is interrelated. Our fifth-year anniversary is coming up and do you realize how little we speak of race? I make small-talk with your dad about growing tobacco and peas and you chat with my mom about making bread, but when we look at each other’s families or they look at us we see just people—I suppose, at least usually—not different races. And maybe that’s good. But for years my friend J called me honky and I called him black boy. (Somehow I knew not to use the N-word nor any of its close derivatives no matter how close we were.) I distinctly remember helping him carry his mother’s antique bureau down from their attic, us taunting each other over that scarred wood, his mama saying, “Now hush, you two” with a smile in her voice. And I think of that $60 billion sucked underground somewhere in Virginia while a man sleeps in a doorway just a block from our apartment. And by the way, I do notice that he’s black.
That first day of high school, I carried my tray across the raucous cafeteria toward the cluster of tables where the black kids sat and Kevin Peoples, the senior running back was telling some story which ended with “Sometimes you just got to go upside a motherfucker’s head,” and then punched his open palm with an audible smack and everyone laughed and pounded the table and I felt this shiver of fear. I put my tray at the only empty spot and Kevin gave me a mean look, leaned over to J who was still laughing and said, “Who’s the key?” meaning “Who’s the honky?” The way that word sounded on his lips was very different from the way J spoke it, and I had an urge to leave, but I wanted to hear what J would say. He looked at me for the first time since we had become high schoolers, there was just a beat of a pause, and when his lips opened, I expected him to say, “Go.” But instead, he said “He’s all right,” and then looked at his watch, got up, and left.
John Talbird is the author of the chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind. His fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Ambit, Xavier Review and many others. He is on the Editorial Board of Green Hills Literary Lantern and a frequent contributor to Film International. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives in New York City with his wife.
–Art by Marina Ćorić