by John Vercher
Laurie broke my heart. She didn’t mean to. I know that now. I’m sure I knew it then. But still.
My parents transferred me to the public high school after four years in two separate parochial schools. This is to say I knew no one. The first day seemed interminable. Class after class, I extended my hand to introduce myself and met with hard stares and warnings to not get caught in the parking lot alone when the bell rang at the end of the day. That all happened before lunch. Noon came, and I exited the food line, tray in hand and looked out across throngs of unfamiliar faces. They glared back. I weaved my way through the tables in the hopes that someone would slide a chair out for me instead of pushing the empty ones in. I ate alone and wished the day away.
Alphabetical seating arrangements left Laurie and me in the last seats of our respective rows of Algebra I. Blonde bangs hovered above her forehead, a waterfall that flowed out from the sawtoothed strands of her crimped hair. Before class began, she laughed with her friends and her braces glinted in the glow of the fluorescents overhead. Her laugh lines almost, but not quite concealed a mole next to her nose, a beauty mark, perfect in its imperfection. The second bell rang and as the students finished their murmurs and turned forward, she glanced back at me.
I opened to a random page in my book and hoped she hadn’t seen me. I felt her look away. Certain I was in the clear, I went to resume my stare.
She’d been watching me. This day was looking up.
The curtains pulled back and the movie trailer of our relationship played on the screen of my mind’s eye. Berlin sang “Take My Breath Away” over footage of me as I scrawled my first note to her. Will you go with me? Check yes or no. Sorry So Short. Cut to our own table at lunch. Cut to holding hands in the hallway. Cut to prom. As I stared off into space, I caught movement in my periphery. She looked at me again. This time neither of us looked away. My glasses, thick enough to see the future, had slid down my oil-slicked nose, and I pushed them back up. I finger combed at the duckling soft hair on my upper lip, smiled my gap-toothed smile (my braces wouldn’t come for another year) and just when I thought I the day couldn’t end any better, she went ahead and said it.
“You have a really nice tan,” she whispered.
The movie reel sputtered. The celluloid melted. The film broke.
* * *
In the countless times I’ve thought about that day, I haven’t figured out what I honestly expected Laurie to say. The truth is, I never expected her to say anything, at least not to someone like me; someone who collected comic books, played with action figures a little longer than he should have, and spent lost weekends with Sonic the Hedgehog and King Hippo. Someone whose clothes were less cool than his glasses, and with a complexion that resembled the terrain of a topographical map. I never thought about the fact that I had brown skin, a wide nose, and straight hair. I was a biracial geek before it was hip to be either. No wonder Laurie stared. To be fair, I shared her confusion, about what I was and about who I was. And though my struggles with identity had begun long before that day, Laurie still ended up my first.
With one statement, Laurie became the first person to make me realize that there was something else about me that people, particularly girls, would see before they noticed the barely-there moustache or my questionable fashion sense. That afternoon was my big bang, the event from which all other questions of my identity sprung forth. It was the beginning of a high wire act, on which I walked with a constant teeter, only able to take a step before I re-assessed my footing, before I found a balance between what I liked and what I was supposed to like. How I talked and how I was supposed to talk. Who I loved and whom I was supposed to love. As if being thirteen weren’t hard enough.
* * *
“I kind of have it all the time,” I said.
“Are you Italian?”
I shook my head. She cocked hers with tight-lipped confusion. Her bangs didn’t move.
“So…what are you?”
“I’m black,” I said.
“Both parents?” she asked.
Laurie had exclaimed it with such surprise that a few students ahead of us turned. My face went hot, embarrassed at their watching, humiliated by her disbelief. My throat felt dry and I managed a nod.
“Huh,” she said, and turned back around.
* * *
My sons are three and one. My wife is white. Beyond the pale of her skin, my oldest boy looks little like her. He shares my wide nose, my gapped teeth, and my straight hair. My one year old has my wife’s features and her complexion. The frequency with which I’ve thought about that afternoon increased exponentially since I first found out we were pregnant.
My three year old might meet his own Laurie. She won’t stare at his skin color. She won’t list all the possible races and ethnicities she thinks he could be, (because that’s a thing to do), and she won’t bark in disbelief when he names the only one she didn’t guess. They’ll pass notes, hold hands and maybe he’ll even bring her home to meet his folks. That’s when the questions will start, both his and hers. She won’t understand why I look so different. He won’t understand why it matters.
I know what to teach my sons about who they are, but not about who the world expects them to be. I want to infect them with mine and their mother’s rampant idealism, with the notion that we all crawled from the same soup, that we are all human beings but I know that doing so leaves them vulnerable to pain. I know that as much as we don’t want it to matter, despite the declarations that we live in a post-racial America, it does matter. I want my sons to understand the struggle, but I don’t want them to experience it. And I don’t know if that’s right.
I know that Laurie didn’t mean anything by what she said. I do know that even at our young ages, the fact that she thought it was okay to ask those questions isn’t okay, that it’s representative of a problem ever present almost thirty years later. I also know that while I want my boys to know why Daddy is nervous when he gets pulled over, they won’t ever have to be. I know that while I’ll be concerned when they’re out late with their friends, I won’t be worried because their pants are a little baggy or they wore a hoodie that night. I won’t be worried about these things, because while they look like me, they don’t look enough like me. For that I am glad.
And because I am glad, I am ashamed.
John Vercher is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. His piece, "Homewood," won the 2014 Assignment Student Contest, and can be seen in Issue #1.