Matters of the Heart

“You have to treat him well,” my brother reprimands, “I don’t want you breaking his heart, he doesn’t deserve it.”

“I won’t,” I tell him, looking down, unsure of myself, but interested in the boy.

“Okay, text him if you want then. Give me my cellphone back later,” he says with a shoulder shove. It probably all started with a ‘Hey.’ Who can remember these things? But soon we had endearing nicknames, and were passing notes between classes.


“I’m coming to your house after school today,” the gorgeous boy smiles, but I wait all afternoon and nothing. I don’t dare ask for my brother’s phone, I’m too proud, and what did I do to make the boy change his mind? I give up by sunset, and hang out on the front porch after I get the stink eye from pestering my brother, following him and that cell phone around like a hopeful puppy. Out of the dark blue sky, the boy appears, arms full, gleaming half moon smile, elated to see me.

“Would you be my girlfriend?” he asks, but all I see is a huge party bag of Doritos and start giggling wildly.

“Why do you have Doritos?” He pulls out a silver bracelet from his pocket, and slides it over my wrist. He has a long-stem rose, and holds it out for me to take.

“Those are for you. But the Doritos are to break the news to your brothers.” It is ridiculous. And perfect.


It didn’t seem to matter to him that our house was in terrible disrepair, or that we had nothing to offer him besides whatever we could work metal bunny ears into receiving, so we sat there on my brother’s bed all eating the Doritos, watching sitcoms. He was satisfied in his acceptance, he’d done all the right things, he got the girl. It was all a matter of the heart.


I had the luxury back then to be blinded by the idea of love, no one ever believing that I never saw the color. He was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen. He was in love with my blonde hair, telling me I walked through the halls of school like a Victoria’s Secret model; confessing he’d secretly dubbed me his nubian princess to my brothers and friends, claiming me long before I belonged to him. Maybe he was exotic, but only because he was the most unguarded teenage boy I’d ever met, the only boy who ever treated me so well, the happiest & purest person I’d ever known. Maybe I was exotic to him because I was the only person in his life who didn’t remind him his color made him any different from any boy, vying for the attention of any girl.


We had exactly two black students for the majority of my public education in my majority white school. This is, until a new range of families trickled in when a Fortune 500 company in town climbed the ranks and brought with them international diversity. But in this instant melting pot, equality wasn’t inherent. I’d overheard some disparaging things about black people every now and then from almost everyone, including my own father, usually masked as ‘joke.’ “Don’t worry,” they’d say confronted with my teenage ‘fuck off’ attitude, “I’m not racist.” Another glaring reason I never took anything most people around there said seriously. It was my world; I saw it how I chose to see it.


It wasn’t so easy, of course, a black boy with a white girl, I knew that. His mother made me know it, actually. It didn’t become clear until the day she hung up on The This Is The White Girl?, why my first conversations with him began on the autonomous screens of glowing cell phones late at night. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he said, “We didn’t have a great life in Chicago, and now we have this big new house, and the schools here are great… She wants me to be with a black girl,” he’d try, and touch me softly.


Thinking about that day he came to my house always makes me smile even though we don’t know each other anymore. He went on to serve his country, even though he was smart enough and had the money to go to any college of his choosing. But I’m older now, my eyes are capable, and a vision of that same boy, that same night, wrenches my heart something fierce.


What really happened is that he had been late because he abandoned his car on the side of the road. It began to act up in some way so he pulled over, climbed out and just left it. He took the bracelet out of its box, too bulky to stick in his jacket, so he put it bare in his pocket. He walked miles to the store and then miles to my house, along busy roads with an unwavering passion.


Night had really set by the time we’d laughed at the programs on the static tv and ate up all the chips. I didn’t quite understand why he didn’t want to walk home, besides that his mom would be pissed he’d come like any parent who wouldn’t allow their teenager to do anything, so he hid in my bedroom. He hid from my dad. He didn’t call home. We snuck him out the door onto the school bus in the morning, and he sat away from me, next to my brother. He smiled at me across the rows of tall vinyl seating, but something in the way he carried himself had changed. He hadn’t only risked his ego like I was so settled in my white, carefree, teenage conceit to believe.


To some lesser authority than his mother, God, or me, he could have been a Black Boy with a malfunctioning, disruptive automobile; a Black Boy walking in an all white neighborhood at dusk, with a silver bracelet in his pocket. It becomes wrong to have an undependable car like that, the wrong move to leave it there and wander off, the wrong determined hell-or-highwater attitude, or knocking on the wrong door before: AGGRAVATED BLACK BOY SHOT DEAD. And I would have been there, at the services, my heart wrung out all over the red sidewalk he was slain at, my red rose screwed into the protest rifles of What Really Happened. My What Ifs are agonizing. But nothing like what we put his mother through that night he walked to my doorstep and never came home.

I used to be irritated that she tried to stop me from loving him- but she knew better, as mothers often do. Love assumes responsibility; something a starry-eyed teenager was not prepared to deal with if she couldn’t accept what the color of his skin meant to some people. I don’t want to imagine what could have happened that night, but I no longer want the privilege not to accept it- Black is a matter of the heart; a love that you see through to the end, until they are standing there at the finish line, next to you.

The torture I put his mother through the night she spent checking his bed, then the news, then his bed but her never calling the police is too apparent a scene now. Not all policemen would deliver her son as flawlessly as she delivered him into the world. And still years later we are all pacing our anger across the bedfloor of America, trying to secure a rightful end for the Race that never seems to win.
Painting above, painted by Ina in High school. 

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