There was a point in time when I thought that I could control the course of our relationship like some ego-inflated Hollywood director. Maybe it was the control I craved, more than the love. A chance to feel that I had power.
When I met you all those years ago, I was alight with the fires of a woman scorned, or rather, lingering in the final stage of metamorphosis, shedding the skin of that Bambi-eyed girl child who was eager to sell her heart to the cleverest con-artist. Once I had left the monotony of my hometown, I headed for the comfort of the city. I wandered through the newfound world of academia, a little wooden ship bobbing in the endless ocean, desperately waiting for a savior. I latched onto knowledge and avoided the popular past time of binge-drinking, though I would never turn down the sticky-sweet haze of pot. The inner chambers of my mind were limitless, but I struggled to tap into that reservoir; I thought that weed could serve as the key. By the time I moved off campus and into a cozy apartment near the central hive of Boston University, I still hadn’t gone on a date or had a boyfriend. This probably had to do with the fact that the unchecked depression that had been lingering in adolescence had come to fruition. I’d spent the rest of my time in Boston feeling miserable, at best feeling helpless, at worst feeling hopeless.
After I graduated from Emerson College with a BA and still without a clue as to the next steps towards my future, I went to graduate school. The summer before I started my first semester at The New School was colored by the bliss of freedom, a fragile identity constructed out of silver screen femme fatale philosophies and the realization that I was invisible to men. I vowed that I would collect men like baseball cards. It was time to leave behind the girl who roamed the streets of Boston and never looked men in the eye. I was alive and I was getting out of bed in the morning. I’d been rescued from the bell jar by the school’s health services. I wasn’t half a person anymore.
The only man who had ever told me that I was beautiful was my father. For me, that didn’t count. In high school, I was worse than ugly; I was a minority, the kind of mixed-race girl who did not snugly fit white ideals of beauty or character, the kind that loved books too much and whose African and Asian features reminded her white classmates that Otherness was a akin to physical disfigurement, a source of mockery. I knew what the white boys wanted; evidence was splashed across the pages of glossy magazines and TV screens. The All American Girl had peachy, pale skin, a small nose and straight, honey-colored hair, and light eyes and a ballerina physique. This was the universal truth that all young girls were meant to swallow without complaint.
Despite their well-rooted intentions, even my white girl friends didn’t understand the different set of standards that were imposed upon women of color. They couldn’t understand that despite the occasional flare of zits or their lack of cleavage, they would never be branded fundamentally and irredeemably ugly. The weight of the word was akin to a slur; to be black meant that your race and the color of your skin automatically excluded you from being not only aesthetically pleasing, but a human worthy of respect. I didn’t fully comprehend this history, this form of brainwashing, which is still practiced but never publicly addressed, until I fled suburbia. I didn’t fully comprehend that I’d been a passive participant in this twisted and racist logic until I devoured the progressive literature required for my college classes: The Wretched of the Earth, Black Skins, White Masks, Native Speaker, bell hooks, Audra Lorde, and on and on, and all of the discarded, underrepresented, ignored voices who took off their rose-colored glasses and demanded that we hold up the mirror to our society’s gaping open wounds.
The summer before I went off to New York, these recently discovered truths were swirling around in my mind, a storm of sound and fury, unstoppable like trains rumbling on the tracks. I wanted revenge. I wanted justice. I wanted to make any man that I encountered feel the same crushing weight of hurt and humiliation that I had carried for so many years like a hoarder. I wanted these faceless men and the ghosts of men past to pay for the institutionalized discrimination that they consciously and unconsciously supported. In the absence of infatuation, I become fixated on this mission with the zealous faith of a suicide bomber. Everyone has different ways of coping with grief. I chose to act out.
That summer I met boys and I seduced them and I used them. I kissed them and inflated their ridiculous egos and pretended that they were madly in love with me. I was Ava Gardner, beautiful and brassy and incapable of love. The romance was all wrapped up in the game, the chase, and I was propelled by greed, the need to feel indestructible. I read anything by Anaïs Nin that I could find. I took up smoking cigarettes again.
I met you in a bar. I was with your cousin, a childhood friend who I had mythologized into heroic proportions. She was the Louise to my Thelma and no matter how many years passed, we were bound together by stubborn loyalty. I was already drunk by the time we got there. I’d reapplied lipstick in the backseat of the car and decided that my persona for the night would be Marilyn Monroe. The music blended into the chatter of the other patrons, white noise for oblivious drunks. When your cousin introduced us, I smiled and knew it would be an easy victory. The rest of the night was a blur and we eventually ended up at your apartment, quickly falling into your tangled sheets. The next morning, I dressed at lightning speed. You tried to make awkward chit-chat but for me, this was a business transaction and our business was finished. When you finally dropped me off at your cousin’s house, you asked if we’d see each other again. I opened the door, and then looked back at you, foot hovering in the car, the other firmly planted on the pavement. Be cool, I thought. I studied your face, free of pretense, uneasy at my nonchalant, icy demeanor. Maybe, I said, and then hopped out of the car and into the house without looking back.
A few weeks later, I’m terrified because I realize that I’m starting to like you. Really like you. Of course, this violates all the rules of my one-woman blitzkrieg. I’m supposed to be the one running the show. Emotions aren’t supposed to be a part of my master plan. They are a liability, a form of weakness and vulnerability. But no matter how hard I try, these feelings continue to blossom, growing and expanding like a flower reaching for the light. I read The Journals of Sylvia Plath for the second time and nearly shiver with satisfaction that such a voice can reach beyond the pages and capture me:
“He is probably strutting the backs among crocuses now with seven Scandinavian mistresses. And I sit, spider-like, waiting, here, home; Penelope weaving webs of Webster, turning spindles of Tournenur. Oh, he is here; my black marauder; oh hungry hungry. I am so hungry for a big smashing creative burgeoning burdened love. I am here; I wait; and he plays on the banks of the river Cam like a casual faun.”
The only things I know about love I learned from my parents, who have nothing in common and never speak to each other at the dinner table. (Later, their marriage will end in a messy and a psychologically destructive divorce.) What makes it all the more confusing is that you’re the first white guy who finds me attractive and I can’t help but wonder when, not if, the rug will be pulled out from under me. What are your motives? Are they as selfish and cold as mine?
We smoke pot and we indulge in the magic of summer. We go to the beach and you swim like a seal, at home wrapped in miles of blue. I sit on the back of your bike and wrap my arms around your waist. We zip through the town, bobbing in and out of traffic like a boxer with wings in the ring. Art books spill out of your room, crammed into shelves and tucked beneath your bed. You are strange and beautiful and I force myself to think of all the ways I could hurt you. You tell me that you think I’m pretty, beautiful even, and they are compliments that I struggle to accept. You are beautiful and I wish you could see yourself the way I see you. I want to believe you because I’m starting to trust you. When you talk about hip-hop, it’s with respect and appreciation. You favor the classics, Wu-Tang and 2Pac and you could go on and on about how much you love Biggie. You are like some creature from another world and so I remind you of my non-existent demand, embellish past escapades to make you realize that you don’t own me, although you never claimed that you did. If some Hollywood executive were to cast you in a movie, you’d be the laid-back stoner skater who never brushes his long hair and wears knitted beanies and cruises the city for patches of concrete to graffiti. Sometimes I purposely don’t spend the night, hoping that you’ll miss me when you reach for the right side of the bed. For once in my life, I have been stripped of the damning trappings imposed by society. I am not a black girl, a biracial minority, an overwhelming anxious, mixed-up twenty-something with screwed-up synapses. I’m just a girl waiting (hoping) for a boy to love her.
When summer begins to fade, it’s time to pack up and go to school. The city seems lonely because I won’t be able to share it with you. The night before I’m supposed to leave, I’m back at your apartment, smoking pot and pretending that I haven’t fallen in love with you.
“Hey, I want to show you something,” you say. Everything feels surreal, like this moment is merely a form of deja vu, a familiar step in our courtship dance.
In your room, you pull out a painting. You had copied it from a snapshot taken in Paris, a pair of chubby angels carved into a stone fountain.
“It’s not that good,” you say, your lips curved into a sheepish smile.
“No, it’s great,” I assure.
“I painted it for you. I wanted you to have it. You know, you could hang it in your dorm room. Something to remember me by,” you explain.
I may not know much about love, but I know that I am in love with you and I am scared because that means that I’m stripping off my armor, waiting for you to take the kill shot.