I have this friend, Kathy, from way back in the 1990s. We met through work. She wrote software manuals and I developed training for the same systems.
Kathy and I got to be Friends-friends when she overheard me talking about playing Spades. Her eyes got all big and her hands started going all jazz hands (which is highly unusual because Kathy is very elegant and reserved). She confided that she loved playing Spades but hadn’t played in years, so that Friday night, four of us got up a little card game. And that was that.
Her baby, Maiya, was the itty-bittiest baby I ever held, just about a week old. I got so scared holding that tiny little thing when she started mewling, but Kathy wouldn’t take her back. She said, “You gotta get used to it sometime.” Maiya’s almost done with college now. Kathy had two baby girls and a husband and a house and all those grown up things while I was just getting my legs under me. We stayed friends after I married and left town. Our little Spades group got together as much as we could. When Fartbuster and I divorced, Kathy talked me through it. When Richard and I met, Kathy cheered me on. When he got sick, she started praying for him. And for me.
A few months after Richard was diagnosed with leukemia, Kathy called me on a scorching hot summer day. She asked about Richard then I asked after her family. “You aren’t going to believe this when I tell you,” she said. “Vincent has cancer. Multiple myeloma.” I remember exactly where I was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking out over the backyard into all of that sunshine. How could this possibly be true? Two of us with husbands with blood cancer? Talk about being in the same boat, the one going right up Shit Creek.
Kathy and I kept in touch through the cancer journey. I told her what I knew about the path. Vincent had more options than Richard. His chemo worked…pretty much. I was ashamed to admit it, but there were some days back then when I couldn’t talk to Kathy. Her husband was getting better and mine was getting sicker. But I was glad for her and the girls and Vincent. It was just hard to have enough space in my heart with all that fear clanging around in there.
Well, Richard died. Kathy told me she couldn’t come to the funeral and I absolutely understood 100% why that would be too much. She couldn’t let the idea of dying into her mind when their hold on life was so shaky. I was glad for her family, that they had found a way out.
One weekend, I went down to visit and Vincent and I talked about painting (he was an artist and teacher). We were in his studio at the back of their house so he could show me some of his latest drawings. He pulled out a painting of a chanteuse, maybe Billie Holliday, done in purples and yellow. I commented on the range of colors that he used to create skin tone. He pulled out a companion painting of a young man in a bowler hat and bow tie, something reminiscent of the 1910’s. Yellow brought out his cheekbone, while purple made the hollow of the cheek. White wasn’t white–it was yellow. Shadows weren’t gray–they were red and purple. He tried to show me a crucial speck of green in the corner of the young man’s eye but the light in that room wasn’t strong enough. Vincent, so thin and cautious from the cancer, led me outside so I could see his painting in the sunlight. We marveled at how it touch so much color to make something as ordinary as skin. I stepped out of my own grief and felt alive that day, talking to a painter about painting. Learning again, feeling excited about the world.
Multiple myeloma is hard to beat. Vincent had a bone marrow transplant. It didn’t fix the cancer. Kathy and I talked more often but I couldn’t talk to her about being a widow. So we talked about the girls and the necessities and the good things.
Vincent died in October, at home. HIs students, his family, his friends–the whole town felt his loss. The funeral plans grew and grew and grew. When Kathy told me the date of the service, my heart sank. I was going to be out of state that weekend. She told me to go on the trip. She didn’t want me to miss any chance for happiness. But I didn’t want to miss out on a chance to help her through the hard days.
We came up with a better plan than me trying to be one more face in a thousand at the funeral. I took a Wednesday off work and came down to help her with all the things that had to be done. The girls were still going to school to keep things as normal as possible. I did the spare things–proofread the program for the service, helped her decide on a photo, zipped up his suit in a garment bag to take to the funeral home. She needed to run to the beauty shop to get her hair touched up but didn’t feel up for driving, so I drove her over.
The bell rang when Kathy pushed open the door to the beauty shop and every eye looked up to see us coming in. The owner gave Kathy a hug and patted her on the head. They started talking hair so I took a seat under the window. Once she was in the chair, Kathy introduced me over her shoulder and the salon owner gave me a small smile then got down to business.
That’s when a little girl sitting next to her mama on the row of dryers said, really loudly:
WHAT IS THAT WHITE LADY DOING IN HERE?
Her mama ignored her the first time. As the girl opened her mouth to ask again, her mama tapped her on the knee and shushed her. The whole place got quiet. I sat there alone with my magazine, trying not to be awkward.
Many months later, Kathy and the girls came over for the weekend. In one of our late-night conversations, I told Kathy about that moment in the beauty shop and how it had stuck with me. At that point in my life, that moment was one of the first times I experienced my own Otherness. She assured me that I hadn’t been imagining the icy feeling in the salon–we had crossed a line. Kathy’s stylist gave her the cold shoulder for a few months.
I grew up in a small town where everyone knew me and my family. I went to a small school, a small church, a small hair salon. Everything and everyone around me was LIKE me. I grew up in a place that was still segregated by practice. Each half of town “kept to our own kind.” I enjoyed a position in the majority, in the ruling class (if you can call it that), so I experienced very little Otherness. That feeling of not belonging, of not being invited to the table, of trespassing.
When I wandered into that beauty shop–a place for black women, by black women–I did the trespassing and I realized I was Other.
What’s the point of this whole story?
Whenever we try to talk about racism in America, it’s tough because one side has a hard time seeing it–we’ve never been Other. And the other side has been made to feel nothing but Other. It’s our government and our schools and our lunch counter and our bus and our ourness. There’s us, then there’s OTHER.
Whenever some narrow-ass terrorist starts talking about “taking back our country,” that’s someone who is afraid of Other. The more I travel, the more chances I have to experience Otherness. The wider my circle of friends, the more I listen, the more chances I have to understand Otherness.
Racism won’t go away because we pray or legislate or circulate a picture on Facebook. Racism can only be overcome when we break down the essential idea that divides Us/Other.
That was a long one. I could use a scalp massage.