[about the author]
i actually like speaking in front of large crowds. freakish,
i work crossword puzzles in ink.
i am the american nigella lawson. or maybe the american eddie
izzard. can't decide, really.
i would be a really good mom, but i'm cool with being a really
i am sometimes more perceptive than i would like to be.
i am fiercely loyal. sometimes, stupidly so.
i never play dumb. never.
i am way too hard on myself.
i am a change agent.
i sometimes cross that fine line between assertive and aggressive.
i am not afraid to tell people that i love them.
i am militantly pro-choice.
i am pro-adoption.
i know a little bit about alot of things.
i typically enjoy the company of men more than women.
i am capable of being really mean and nasty, but i fight it.
i am a lifelong cubs fan. do not laugh.
i have been known to hold a grudge.
i have hips.
i am not my sister.
i am lousy at forgiving myself.
i am an indoor kind of gal.
i am a bargain shopper. to the point of obsession.
i am 32 flavors. and then some.
the letter v. the spirit
in the town where i grew up there wasn't much to do. in retrospect, it was very much the best of times and the worst of times. i'd often spend an entire afternoon tucked away in our treehouse reading. or sitting by the lake feeding ducks or catching salamanders. but, as the years passed, i began to yearn for something more than my small-town life. i couldn't shake the feeling that there was a whole big exotic world out there that i was missing out on.
i often thought that the girls had it a bit easier than the boys. most of my girlfriends growing up read to pass the time. or we played games that required us to role play, or invent stories. like the classic charlie's angels, in which i was always sabrina. always.
but the boys seemed to find more base ways to pass the time. usually by ganging up on one of the boys and picking on him until a fight broke out or he cried. i don't really think they had a preference to the outcome. potato, potahto.
a frequent target of their jabs was derrick. derrick was an ideal mark. although he had many winning attributes, he wasn't always the quickest with a sharp comeback. usually not even a "nuh-uh" could be heard to escape his lips before the gang of boys had become tired of waiting and just jumped him.
add to this the fact that derrick was preternaturally blond in a sea of dark brown and dishwater blond heads. and, of course, there was also the fact that derrick was a twin. with a girl. this fact alone was probably enough to land derrick in hot water with the other boys.
one day on the bus ride home from our fourth grade class, the ribbing started early and escalated quickly, with one of the biggest boys leaning over and landing a hellatious charlie horse on derrick's right thigh. derrick's face screwed up in anguish. the boys began to bay.
"awww, he looks just like his sister!"
"looky, he's gonna cry!"
"whassa matter derrrrrick? your pussy hurt?"
they smelled blood in the water. he knew it. we all knew it. he had to act fast. not his strong suit.
"what are you looking at?" he suddenly spat.
he was looking at me. i could feel my eyes grow big.
"yeah, i'm talking to you. what are you looking at?"
i turned around and slid down in the green vinyl seat.
"that's right, nigger lover, you go right on ahead and turn back around."
all the boys began to hoot and clap in the back of the bus.
"why don't you tell me why you're such a nigger lover? why are you always chumming around with that nigger?"
carrie elbowed me. "don't say anything," she whispered.
"is he talking to me? what's he talking about?"
"sshhh" she hissed. "pretend you can't hear him."
"but what's he talking about?"
"he's talking about lenora."
lenora was my best friend, and been since my brief stint in kindergarten. she lived on the other side of town in a yellow house with vinyl siding. it was the first house with vinyl siding i had ever seen, and one day, when we went to pick her up for our camp fire girls meeting, i had almost made us late because i was fascinated with running my hands over the siding and feeling it catch my fingers as i dragged them along. lenora's dad had a huge cadillac, painted bright yellow to match their house. he wore a white hat and drove around town, seeming to not really have anywhere to go. whenever lenora would come and spend the night at my house, her father would drop her off at the end of our driveway, and i would watch the big yellow cadillac drive away, turning the corner and fading out of sight. the next day, she would call home, and twenty minutes later, the cadillac would pull up outside our house. he never honked the horn. she just knew when he was there. in all the years we were friends, i never rode in that cadillac. and i never saw lenora's mother.
lenora was the only black person i knew when i was young. except johnathan. we met johnathan when i was in fifth grade. the school had a month long art camp program of some sort the month after school was out. of course, it wasn't much of an art camp. they just called it that so there would be money to fund it. it was really a way to make sure that poor kids had lunch every day when school was out.
the extent of our arts education was making bugs out of pipe cleaners and tearing up pieces of tissue paper to make "mosaics." despite the lack of pastels and canvas, it was an amazing month and i met fascinating people. there was jennifer, who drew the most beautiful and perfect horses. she was several years older than i was, with long blonde hair and rosy cheeks and wide eyes that looked scared all the time. every day for a month she would ask me if i wanted her to draw me a picture. every day i told her yes, and every day i asked her to draw me a horse. by the end of the month, my collection covered my closet doors.
i also met albert. albert had wiry black hair and thick glasses. he also drew, but his pictures were more detailed. and there were no horses. just black ink. he made balloon animals.
then there was johnathan. johnathan's art was dance, so he spent most days lounging outside under a tree with his legs crossed smoking cigarettes. johnathan's parents had caught him kissing the man who lived up the street and thrown him out of the house. he carried a ratty blue duffle bag and wore eyeliner. some days i'd sit outside with him while he told me about his plans to go to new york or hollywood. occasionally he'd even reach into his bag and pull out tubes and bottles and jars and paint my eyes. "you have the most amazing eyes! very mysterious! perfect crease!"
when my mom would arrive to deliver the free lunches she picked up from a school across town, i'd rush to the side of her car and bat my eyes at her. "mom! johnathan says i'm mysterious!" while we ate, my mom would often go and sit with johnathan. she would ask him if he had a place to stay, and sometimes i would see her give him money. he always hugged her good-bye. near the end of art camp we arrived to find that the school had been broken into and vandalized. we spent the whole day cleaning up. johnathan didn't come that day, or any of the days that followed. i didn't see him again until several years later. he was sleeping on the bench outside of the kentucky fried chicken. i recognized him immediately, but was afraid to say anything to him because i didn’t want to embarrass him. i stood looking at him for a moment, then just dropped all my change into the cup on the ground in front of the bench. he was killed several years later when he wandered out onto the highway and was struck by a car.
"my dad says it ain't too hard to figure out why you're a nigger lover. says anybody can take one look at you and see your momma was a nigger lover too."
i elbowed carrie. "what's he callin' me?"
"a nigger lover."
"someone who loves black people."
"oh. well, okay."
"no, it's not okay."
i was confused, but the boys were cackling and hooting even louder than before. derrick's plan was a raging success. absolutely no one was thinking about the unfinished business of derrick's remaining unscathed thigh.
but, i was sure the upper hand was mine. with his last blow, derrick had painted himself into a corner. my powers of logic and reasoning were as sharp as derrick's hair was blond.
"don't be stupid, derrick. your dad knows my dad. they both go down to wayne's archery range to shoot target practice. my dad isn't black. you're just making stuff up."
i remember having a smug smile on my lips that faded quickly and was replaced by a look of puzzlement as i wondered what difference it made if my dad was black or not.
a few days later, i was on the back porch drawing on the concrete wall with chalk. my mother was in the kitchen peeling potatoes and singing along with the radio. it was tuned to wkaz’s saturday afternoon acoustic show. wkaz was mostly disco, but on saturdays they played acoustic stuff, like ventura highway and have you never been mellow and afternoon delight.
the back door was open, the screen door letting the spring air into our stuffy house. i dropped my blue chalk and i watched it roll across the porch, bouncing into the corner. i made my way over to retrieve it when a black spider scampered out from the dark corner.
i immediately tried to stomp on it, but it was too fast for me. i gave pursuit as it made its way across the porch toward the steps. i jumped ahead of it and stomped again, but missed by a mile. i was frustrated now, and would not be denied.
"come back here, you little nigger!" i shouted, chasing after it once again.
the sound of the screen door slamming open so hard that it ricocheted off of the side of the house sounded like a starter's pistol.
my mother must have taken two giant steps to close the gap between the doorway to our kitchen and the edge of the porch where i stood with my foot raised about to deliver the death blow. she spun me around so quickly that, with my foot raised, i lost my balance and toppled onto the ground.
"what did you just say?"
"what did you just say?"
"i'm going to count to three..."
i know she thought i was being coy. or obstinate. but i was truly baffled. the word nigger had never been used in my house. i'd never heard it until derrick used it on the bus. as far as i knew, it was some cool hip new way to say black. i really had no idea what was causing my mother's eyes to bulge three feet out of her skull.
"all i said was 'come back here you little nigger.' it just means black, mom."
my mom was a hippie. she was all about time out and discussing consequences way before it became de riguer. she didn't spank.
but that day, she made an exception.
and then she told me. what it was. what it meant. that it was a word used out of hate and ignorance. she told me that i was smarter than that. and then she dropped the bomb:
"it would hurt lenora very much to think that you would call someone that name."
and that was it. i was mortified. sobbing. wailing. how could i? how could i be such a horrible friend?
the next day, i gave lenora my little debbie oatmeal cake at lunch.
"what's this for?"
"just because you're my best friend."
"okay," she shrugged.
i was far too embarrassed to tell her what i had done. terrified that if she knew, she would never speak to me again.
i had to find a way to make it up to her.
the next weekend, my mother and i made our weekly trip to charleston to go to the diamond department store where she worked part-time. we ate at the lunch counter where the waitresses all knew me by name, and knew my regular order: a chili dog, extra fries and a cherry coke. a real cherry coke. the kind they make with the cherry syrup so when you hold it up to the light, it's red. and they always gave me a bendy straw. it was heaven.
that day, i was in for a very special treat. super duper charlie cooper was broadcasting live from the diamond! he had set up a table and his equipment in one of the huge display windows at the front of the store. super duper charlie cooper was only the most awesome dj in all of charleston. he was the star dj on wkaz, playing the best disco music during his friday night all-request dance hour. i had to meet him.
there was a line of people waiting to get a chance to talk to him. he was talking to people live on the radio, and giving away albums. i begged my mom to let me get in line.
"pleeeease. please oh please. i just have to meet him!"
my mom eyed the couple walking past who had just come from talking to super duper charlie cooper. they were holding their copy of fleetwood mac's rumours album with the "not for resale" gold stamp across the front cover.
my mom loved fleetwood mac with a ferocity that none could rival.
"okay, let's go."
we waited for an hour. finally, it was our turn. as we stepped into the window, i saw him. his hair was black and straight and hung down below his waist. he was smoking, and wearing a ramones t-shirt and a black leather vest. he had a look of surprise on his face when he saw me.
"they just keep getting younger," he mused, putting out his cigarette in the already overflowing ash tray in front of him.
"mr. cooper, i'm julie. i'm your biggest fan."
"i'm flattered. and i like your hair."
"thanks,” i beamed, shaking my head to swing my own shiny black waist length hair. “this is my mom. she's almost as big a fan as i am. she let me wait a whole hour just to meet you, even though i think she just did it to get a free fleetwood mac album."
he explained that we were about to go live and that he would ask me a question and i should speak into the microphone and answer.
"you're not going to freeze up are you?"
"no way. no how."
"okay, you have someone you want to say 'hello' to?"
"i sure do."
"okay. here we go."
and with that, we were live. i smiled up at my mom and closed my eyes tightly thinking about the brilliant plan that had unfolded in my mind during the hour we waited to get to this point.
he asked me my name, and i leaned close in to the microphone, speaking clearly. again, i smiled up at my mom, giddy with anticipation of what was to follow.
"so, who would you like to say hello to?"
"my best friend in the whole world, lenora!"
"well, that's terrific. so, she's your best friend, huh?"
"yep, she sure is! and i don't even care if stupid people like derrick and his dad think that makes me a nigger lover, because i love black people."
years later, in my twenties, i went to the wedding of a friend of a friend. at the reception, the dj was charlie cooper. no longer super duper, even though his now-silver-streaked hair still hung past his shoulders. toward the end of the night, i found myself standing at the bar beside him. he turned to me with a strange look on his face.
"you look really familiar to me for some reason."
i just turned to him and smiled, "my best friend in the whole world is named lenora."
he stared at me for a moment and then i saw him remember. "oh my god," he smiled. "i thought for sure your mother must have killed you when she got you home that day."
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