Sunday, July 26, 2009

Short Story Sunday VIII

In the wake of recent events such as the group of African American children who were treated in a reprehensible manner at a Pennsylvania pool club; the accusation of racial profiling in the incident involving a lauded college professor and the Cambridge police department; and discussions that came about as result of the sudden death of Michael Jackson and the question of who would raise his children; it seems fitting to post one of my short stories that addresses the subject of racial identity for edition number eight of Short Story Sunday.


BY ROY L. PICKERING JR. Copyright by Roy L. Pickering Jr.

Last year I read “The Metamorphosis” for English class. In case you aren't familiar with the book, it's this crazy story about a guy who wakes up one morning to discover he has mutated into a giant cockroach. Surprisingly, he wasn't bothered much. He didn't even question how or why it happened, just went about his business, figuring out how to function in his new body.

Five months ago I underwent a transformation of my own. You'll probably consider my experience less dramatic than the bug guy's, but its effects were certainly devastating. My life was thrown into turmoil as I too found it necessary to adjust, in a manner of speaking, to a new skin.

I did not awaken that day possessing antennae, extra appendages, or anything else insect in nature. The morning started off pretty much as they all do. A shaft of sunlight beamed through the part in my bedroom window curtains, disturbing my slumber just enough that I shifted to face the opposite direction. I needn't have bothered, for the shrill cry of my alarm clock forced me from bed minutes later. After my teeth had been brushed, body showered; and curlers removed from my hair; I headed downstairs. The meal smelled scrumptious as usual, but my mother's expression was uncharacteristically grave.

"I was up all night trying to figure out how I should tell you this, Taiesha."

I remained silent, waiting to find out what was wrong before my mind ran loose with worst case scenarios.

“It’s about your father.”

There was nothing I could imagine my mother revealing about him that I did not already know. I was soon to learn how uninformed I was. Over the next twenty to thirty minutes I found out that as a young woman, my mother had been simultaneously involved with two men. Once this situation was brought to light, neither offered to bow out gracefully. Instead they both issued ultimatums. My mother was to choose between them. Problem was, she had no idea who she loved more.

“I definitely made the right choice. Life with Dedric was everything I could have hoped for. You know how great a father he was. He was an equally wonderful husband.”

The stunning revelations continued, tumbling one upon another like clothing in a dryer. On her wedding day, my mother was unaware that she was pregnant. When her condition was discovered, she was left to wonder which of her two suitors was responsible; the one she had picked to spend a lifetime with, or the one relegated to her bank of memories. A blood test showed the answer to be the latter.

I took this all in as my breakfast grew cold on the plate. Quite a tale for so early in the morning. Then came the cherry on top.

“My heart couldn’t decide between them, so I left it up to common sense. I chose Dedric for the welfare of any children I might have. If I had known I was already carrying Stuart’s child, I might have decided differently. But I didn’t know. I just figured I would eventually have kids, and that their lives would be less complicated if both parents were black.”

"Mom, are you telling me that my biological father is white?"

“Yes, honey. That’s what I’m saying.”

When told that your history is a lie, the present immediately becomes shaky and the future something not to be trusted. My emotions ran counter to one another, preventing me from reacting in any particular way. So I just sat there and slowly absorbed the onslaught of information. My mind chewed on it, but was incapable of digestion.

In my stupor, I thought of the father who raised me, the only father I had known of up till now. A feeling of warmth came over me like slipping into a bubble bath. I had adored him. The most traumatic event of my life was losing him to cancer when I was thirteen. My parents prepared me for his death as best they could, and we grew closer during his last months than most families ever do. But no amount of final goodbyes could fill the void created by his passing.

“What’s the matter, baby?”, asked Calvin when I returned to school after a few days hiatus. My mother had fully appreciated my need for head clearing time. Class assignments and the gossip of peers could be put on hold until I was ready to face reality again.

“Is it something I did? If so, just tell me what and I’ll undo it. You know I only want to make you happy.”

“I’m fine, I told him. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”

My world had flip flopped. I needed to right it again. I thought I had given myself enough time, that I could pretend all was as it had always been. But Calvin knew me better than I knew myself. He saw straight through to my heart, and though he could not make out what was troubling it, he recognized that something was changed.

We had been dating since the end of our sophmore year in high school. Calvin is as real as they come, doesn't believe in playing games or holding his tongue about what he stands for. Unlike the majority of guys his age, he respects women. He has the looks to be a dawg extraordinaire if he so chose, but puts his mind to use rather than devoting it mostly to sex. I had no doubts the prior winter when I allowed him to become my first ever lover. I knew that both the time and the man were right.

When I learned of my true ethnicity, Calvin quickly came to mind. I'd stop short of describing him as militant, but he does have clear cut views regarding matters of race. He believes that black folks need to establish a stronger sense of solidarity. Our divisiveness is the chief instrument used by whites to maintain oppression, or so he is fond of stating. Calvin lives according to strict self-imposed rules of conduct, one of which I couldn't help but think of the morning of my mother's pronouncements. He would never date a white girl.

"You have such good hair."

"What are you anyway? Puerto Rican? Dominican?"

"I like you butter pecan girls."

"Are those contacts, or is that your real eye color?"

I am no stranger to comments like these. I used to regard them with little interest or interpretation. My features being as they are, I figured people were just saying what came naturally. After meeting Calvin, my perspective began to change. I took more pride in my heritage, and as a direct result, took offense at any insinuation that I was less black than others. Yet I knew there would always be those who saw me as such. So I had no choice but to constantly assert my identity. I did so well enough to satisfy Calvin's ideal of a strong black woman. Well enough to thoroughly convince myself.

I learned to become unflattered when told I was beautiful, if the compliment came with an attachment. The attachment being that my beauty was tied to the seemingly European aspects of my make-up, rather than what I had inherited from Mother Africa. I refused to let others separate my race from my beauty, refused to let them interpret me as a contradiction. I declared that I am not beautiful despite being black, but because of it.

When I found out the truth, my assertions crumbled like dead leaves under the feet of hurrying pedestrians. Could I continue to be what I had seen myself as, knowing now that this image was imprecise? Would my newfound knowledge change me overnight, regardless of my will to remain unaltered? If I pretended not to know, would it be any different than when I actually didn't? Or would my secret grow within me like the cancer that had taken my father?

My mother had loosely remained in contact with Stuart, so most of my immediate questions could be answered. I learned that he had started his own contracting business and made a fair success of it. Like myself, he dabbled in watercolors and was a crossword puzzle fanatic. He married a few years after my mother broke up with him, but fathered no children, me excluded.

Most important, he was by all accounts a good man.

He was killed in a car accident the same year as the only man I would ever truly consider to be my father. Up until his final day, Stuart never knew of his role in my creation. As for why my mother had chosen to finally inform me, she explained simply that the time had come for me to know. It was my right, she said. Did Calvin own this right as well? Our relationship went against his principles. In order to remain true to what he believed, his only recourse was to end it. If his feelings for me proved stronger than his convictions, what we had could continue. But it would not be the same. We would both be different people. Our love would change shape, and perhaps no longer fit so perfectly into each other’s hearts.

Before doing any confessing, I decided to speak with my friend Sharice. I figured she might be able to provide valuable perspective. Granted, she has always known that her father is white and her mother black. It wasn't sprung on her by surprise over breakfast. Her parents divorced years ago, and her father showed little interest with keeping in touch. Although she does not deny that half of her DNA comes from a white person, Sharice sees herself exclusively as black.

I asked if she was angry at her father. She admitted that she was. Did this anger affect her sense of identity? Perhaps she would have been more accepting of her white half if her father had been a bigger part of her life. I told her to suppose that the races of her parents were reversed.

"That wouldn’t have changed anything, Taeisha. Sure, I would have eaten other types of food, been exposed to different kinds of music, been taught different values about certain things. And plenty of what I now take for granted would be missing. But I would have found them eventually. I would have sought out black people for friendship, to feel comfortable being around."

"Do you hate white people?"

"No. I couldn’t even if I wanted to, I suppose. But it makes no difference who I love or who I hate. No matter what, I'm black. Regardless of who raised me or how I was raised, nothing can change that. Nothing could have changed it. Not even a father who stuck around."

Talking to Sharice didn't clarify matters. It just reinforced what I already knew. I am a black woman regardless of whose sperm generated my existence. I was surrounded by the art, and literature, and music, and language, and vibe of my people. But had I not been, I would still be black. I am black because as light as my skin may be, the origin of my heritage cannot be denied. Even if the tint of my flesh could not be detected, if I was able to pass, I would still be black. No matter what diction I employ; what opinions I adopt; how straight my hair happens to be; my nature is set. I am a black woman, ain’t nothing gonna change that fact.

Yet my uneasiness about confessing to Calvin persisted, for I feared such logic would fail to persuade him. My blood was diluted, tainted by that of the descendants of slave traders. Could he deal with that?

I asked myself for the first time why his last two girlfriends had been as light skinned as myself. Should he not have been drawn to darker girls? The more I tried to make sense of things, the less I understood. Hypocrisy and deception awaited me at every turn. I wasn't sure of who I was, who I wasn't, or if it mattered one way or the other. Mostly I was frustrated that the person I wanted to share my dilemma with, he whose wisdom and support I had grown dependant on, was the one I couldn't confide in.

Despite my frustration, secrecy is precisely what I kept. Not that the deceit was constant. For the most part, it wasn’t an issue to be considered with urgency. There were merely sporadic occasions when Calvin made remarks that seemed designed to goad me. An interracial couple passed on the street would provoke his contempt for the black man's supposedly self-destructive obsession with women outside their race. The following eyes of a store security guard or the latest news report of racially inspired police brutality would arouse his disdain for the ways of white folk. I didn't know how much longer I could bite my lip. My conscience must reside in my stomach, for that is what burned with guilt. Something was bound to give.

"Damn that white boy can play. He's got to be a brotha in disguise."

Calvin was fawning over Dirk Nowitzki, a star player on his favorite basketball team, the Dallas Mavericks. His parents were at a wedding, so Calvin had invited me over for an evening of romance. Presumably the romancing would begin once the game ended.

"Unbelievable!" Dirk had made consecutive acrobatic plays, the Mavericks had taken the lead, and Calvin was beside himself. I, on the other hand, was feeling rather nauseous. Regardless of the game's outcome, what I had in store for Calvin would surely reshape his mood and rearrange his priorities.

Further procrastination was not an option. This business had been put off long enough. The only thing in question was whether to address it before or after throwing up.

The game clock ran out and Calvin celebrated as if he personally had made the winning shot. A memory from childhood was summoned by my state of anxiety. I was in third grade at the time, a major handful for my parents due to my rambunctious nature. On this particular day I had been sent home early from school. Ursula Jenkins had been teasing me all week about my new hairstyle. If it wasn't my hair, she would have found some other reason to pick on me. Ursula didn't appreciate my popularity. She didn't like the fact that a bold boy or two would trail behind me like puppies during recess. Ursula may not have been considered prettier than me, but she certainly was bigger. In fact, she was the biggest kid in our class and even bullied the occasional boy. But I was her favorite target.

I was no pushover though, so when Ursula pulled on my ponytail her face was greeted by the back of my hand. The response was pure reflex. Had I time to think it over, slapping her would not have been a likely decision. Thanks to our teacher's quick intervention I escaped a pummeling. But I was unable to avoid suspension from school.

My mother was called to pick me up. I sullenly accepted the unavoidable lecture, knowing that the worst was yet to come. The disciplinarian of our family was my father. I sat in my bedroom until he came home from work. Usually I would run to the front door and greet him with a hug. On this day I nervously awaited his judgment. But it wasn't punishment that worried me. It was the disappointment I expected to find in his eyes. I had let my father down.

I’ll never forget the moment when he walked into the room, sat beside me, then wrapped his oak tree arm around my shoulders and kissed my tear stained cheeks. He told me he loved me, that it was okay. He was not angry at me. He understood. I understood something as well. I had the greatest daddy in the world.

"You know what", Calvin said, drawing me back to the present. "Nowitzki and Tiger Woods must have switched races at birth. That would explain a lot."

I would have laughed if able to, or at least granted a courtesy smile. Instead I grabbed the remote control from his hand and turned off the television.

It amazes me how such a seemingly arbitrary property like color manages to affect our lives. Drive through a green light at a busy intersection and things will probably work out fine. Go past that same light when it's red and tragedy is likely to ensue. No wonder dogs are usually chipper. All is gravy to them from their black and white perspective.

"I love you, Calvin. Do you love me?"

"Of course I do, baby."

"No matter what?"

"No matter what", he answered, reaching to put his arms around me. I was on my feet before he could get a grasp, gesturing for him to follow. I didn't need to curl my finger twice. He was up and at my heels in a flash. Much to his surprise, I was not leading Calvin to his bedroom. Instead I opened the bathroom door.

"Come on. I have something to show you."

I didn't know if it was really possible to love someone without imposing conditions. I didn't know what would occur in the next few seconds, or how it would affect the rest of my life. I only held certainty that Calvin is a good man, and this was as good a start as any woman is likely to get.

"Is that what I think it is?”

"If you think it's a home pregnancy test, then yes."

"It's blue”, Calvin said. “You mind telling me what that means?"

I doubt Calvin could have been more nervous had he been before a firing squad. That may have been a preferable situation for him. At least it would be guaranteed to end quickly. As for the predicament he was in now ...

"Blue means you can breathe", I said. "I'm not pregnant."

Calvin took the advice, exhaling a mammoth breath of relief in conjunction with my own.

"Whew, thank God."

"I was thinking the same thing."

"I guess we should be more careful from now on", Calvin said.

"Sounds like a good idea."

He put his arms around me. I wished I could remain in the embrace forever. Calvin brushed back my hair and absorbed me with his liquid eyes.

"I want you to know I would have been there for you if it turned out different, no matter what

you decided to do."

"I know that, sweetie."

He kissed me, at first in joy and relief, then changing to familiar passion. It was apparent that

although he planned to follow his advice about exercising caution, this in no way meant that he intended to be idle. His scare was already over and we still had a couple of hours until his parents came home. I gently pushed him away, because one last matter needed to be resolved.

"I have something to tell you, Calvin. You up for a surprise?"

"That depends. Is this one as big as finding out that you might have been pregnant?"

"I'll leave that for you to decide."

There was another color test for the two of us to either pass or fail. Maybe we could get through it safely. Maybe our relationship wouldn't be able to handle the results. In any event, Calvin deserved to know what our baby who could have been would have been. He deserved a relationship that wasn’t bound by a secret. And I deserved to know how well the love we declared would continue to fit into each other's hearts.

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