Edie

We had a black nanny and housekeeper briefly when I was a kid.  Even writing it down makes me cringe from the white privilege. My physical impressions of Edie are clear still: the short, broad shape of her in slacks, peter pan collar, and sweater; a pair of inscrutable dark eyes; the wigs she wore that Mom called ‘fright wigs’ because they were the kind you could only buy at Halloween. What did my Mom know about black women’s wigs?

What I remember about Edie the most is an air of calm; she didn’t bustle and she never seemed frantic. This wasn’t like our family, where it seemed someone was always whipping through the room in a state of agitation. We were always running late, losing things, grabbing paper towels to sop up a spill, scrambling into socks with clumsy fingers.

Edie worked for our family from the time that I was an infant until I was perhaps four. Then she worked for us a little later, but this time just cleaning house. When I was in my teens, Edie hadn’t been cleaning for us in a number of years. But sometimes she would call my mom to talk and inevitably she would ask to speak to my sisters and I directly. Following the cues of my older siblings, I either dodged the call by frantically waving my hands and mouthing ‘no’ or I took it with a sullen expression on my face, like someone being forced into an obligation.

I think the reason we tried to avoid the call was that we didn’t remember Edie much and it felt like an awkward exchange with an elder who wasn’t family. Maybe there was a little sense that her ‘otherness’ was an excuse; we certainly were raised with a lot of racism in the family. Yet this perspective might be a distortion.  I am thinking of an elderly white lady friend of the family with whom I would definitely have felt the same stilted discomfort if we were placed on the phone together.

In retrospect, it would have been a good idea if my Mom had pulled us aside at some point and made a nice movie speech about Edie and why we owed her a small degree of affection or at least respect.

“That old woman, with her cheap wig and her moth-eaten sweaters, was the closest thing to a mother you had when I had to punch the clock to get this family through the mess Carter made of the economy! And I’ll be damned if you ever, ever make her feel like spending a minute on the horn to ask her how she’s doing is anything but a pleasure! Do you hear me?”

She would have waved her finger at us as she spoke and we – sufficiently cowed by the force of her conviction – would have exchanged guilty glances. Watery music would have underscored the scene and one of us would have suggested we go out, get some ice cream, and take it to Edie’s house. The director of photography would pull away as we all spooned dessert from bowls on our housekeeper’s porch, smiling and laughing, lens flares nudging bubbles of light across the screen as the camera tilted upward through a stand of pines.

Our mom never really forced our hand like that, making us confront our attitude problem.  She did sometimes say, “Poor old Edie, I don’t know why you kids…” She would trail off, distracted by the can she was opening for dinner or something she had been reading in a magazine before Edie called.

A few years ago, my mom told me she had invited Edie to come live with her.  I had always known that Edie and her only child, a daughter, had a strained relationship. The daughter had become a Jehovah Witness and Edie could never come to respect that choice.  With Edie’s mind and body beginning to fail, she felt she had no place to go. Mom set her up in the guest room.

Edie felt haunted, it seemed, in her dementia. She often told members of the family about the man who would come into the house when she was alone, and how she didn’t like him. He would stand at the foot of her bed and stare her down. We couldn’t imagine it was real.  In our old house, back when I was a kid, where Edie had lived in for a while, she used to talk about the noises the ghost made in the basement.   My father swore it was the belching of the furnace.

My mom would further dismiss the ghost theory, “No one ever even died in this house, unless you count the son of the last owner, but he was killed in a car accident at the end of the driveway, so even that doesn’t make sense.”

This time around, we were sure that Edie was just imagining things. Eventually she became so agitated by the idea of the strange man that she didn’t want to stay with Mom and Dad anymore. Her daughter was convinced to come pick her up; she put Edie in a home after that, where she stayed until her death some years later.

I wonder if Edie’s daughter visited her frequently. When her mother called, did she look at the number on caller ID and have the same desire to dodge it that we did as kids?

Edie didn’t ask for anything for herself when she spoke with you. She asked how school was going and when you said okay, she’d reply with, “Mmm-hmm.” You could hear her chewing gum, which she always did.  Then the silence would stretch for a while and she would say, “And how you behaving?” When you’d say you were being good, she’d give another ‘mmm-hmm’ but this one sounded more doubtful. More gum chewing. Then Mom would take mercy on both of us and take the receiver back, getting Edie to chat about people they both knew.

I have a strong sense of myself. I know what I want and how to ask for help when needed. I make a point of fostering only meaningful relationships, knowing I want to make room for conversation only with people who enjoy me as much as I enjoy them. I am guarded a little bit, but I never have to be at the mercy of relationships that aren’t equal.  It is perhaps one of the many subtle advantages of privilege.

What choices did Edie have in life?  Who would she have been if she had the same opportunities as I did? I had so many choices that I’ve been wasteful with some of them. Maybe Edie’s daughter saw how her mother’s life shaped her into someone who took what was offered and accepted it. Maybe the daughter made it a point to question everything, even her faith, and to make a study of using choice to shape herself. This difference between them would have been profound and it was perhaps what distanced them ultimately.

I have a lot of trouble separating prejudice from my musings about Edie. If we were the color-blind society that some would like to pretend we are, than my recollections about her would probably only ponder how children don’t like chit-chat with their elders.  If we were more honoring of age in this country, perhaps there would be little else to consider. Because I would never have made Edie do all the heavy lifting when I got on the phone with her. Instead I would have made it equal.

“How are you doing, Edie?”

The bigger yet picture suggests that if our society wasn’t laced through with race crime, than very likely we would not have had an Edie to look out for us as children. That a white family in a small home with only middling incomes could afford to pay a black woman a very likely small going rate is in and of itself the legacy of slavery. Centuries of abhorrent, racist policies had caused our very different paths to intersect for a while.

I’ve inherited a lot of white guilt, but strangely my mother – who sides politically with so much that disenfranchises people of color – is the only one of us who never hesitated to take Edie’s calls and even gave her a place to stay when she needed it. Edie knew she could ask.

Race is as complicated as people are themselves.  I hope we can solve it, but it will likely take more willingness to connect and less abstract liberalism to bridge the divide. Less expressing that we are all one from the safety of a social media bubble and more sitting at the same table and opening up about our conflicted and incomplete impressions of one another.

 

How Junior High Almost Crushed Me

You can survive growing up different in a small town, but you have to find your tribe. This was something I didn’t know until I was grown up.  It would have changed everything about my junior high school years.

Instead I did it all alone. At home, even when my mom implored me to share why I dreaded school so much, at my most honest moment, I could only say, “The kids all call me fag.”  What I would say now is, “I’m gay and the kids are hateful about it.”

But the reason I couldn’t say it the honest way was because I had already picked up on the fact that being gay was undesirable at home and at school. Everywhere. When I told my mom what the kids were saying, she said, “Well, you aren’t, are you?”

I knew the answer she wanted and I said it. “Of course not.”

I’m sure I looked at the floor when I said it because I’ve never been comfortable lying.

In sixth grade I ditched school by hiding in the pines halfway down our driveway on the way to the bus. I would stay in the woods all day and come out when the bus returned to drop off the neighbor kids. Instead my brother-in-law spotted me sneaking across the lawn to another part of the farm and he and my mom slowly hounded me through the woods, cutting me off eventually like prey, and they drove me into school.

I was absent from school so often, eventually my mom and the principal had an understanding: he would drive out and pick me up himself.  She used to threaten that social services would take me away from her for being an unfit mother.  I had played sick so much the last year or two, she knew all my tricks, even the one about putting soap in my eye to pretend I had an infection.

In the car ride with my principal, he’d ask me if I didn’t like learning. I could only fixate on the fear of being teased and ridiculed; learning was somehow secondary to feeling safe.

So by seventh grade I knew I had no more passes left. The principal of the junior high was a different person altogether; not only did she not have Dr. Blanton’s worry-creased brow and pitying southern drawl, she was too busy herding the monsters that are middle schoolers to make car trips for one kid who refused to get on the bus.

If I were to survive seventh grade, I would have to be as invisible as possible, avoiding anyone who might hurt me.  That meant not going into the cafeteria, where I feared that the gathered masses would introduce me to a replay of what I experienced each morning when we assembled in the gym after getting off the buses and before homeroom. Every day as I walked along the bleachers, a silence would fall among just enough of my peers that I noticed it. It was followed by whispers and snickers. Sometimes one word would rise above the murmurs: “Queer.”

I couldn’t avoid morning assembly, but I had found a way to dodge the repeat airing of it at lunchtime. As we left Mrs. Bardwell’s class each day to head to the cafeteria, I would let myself fall to the back of the line.  When we rounded the first corner, I ducked into the bathroom and waited until the halls grew silent again. Then I pushed through the outside door and squat-walked along the side of the building to the windows of our class room. I always made sure one was unlocked before we went to lunch.  I would push it open and climb in, waiting in the silent comfort of the classroom where only moments before I had dreaded being called on by the teacher. If I was called on, it meant hearing the giggles, the ones that meant at least two people were sharing the joke about me. The same joke about me that brought the chatter of morning assembly to a halt.

So I kept my head down in class, avoided raising my hand even when I knew the answer. If I could make myself invisible, I could avoid the pain of being ridiculed.

In the half hour that I spent alone in the classroom, I felt at peace and I wished it could go on and on forever. Hearing the lunch bell brought a knot of pain to my stomach because I knew my sanctuary time was up. So in reverse I repeated the steps that had brought me there: shimmied out the window, slithered along the side of the building, pushed back into the hall, ducked into the bathroom, fell back into line as my classmates dashed past.

I hid in the bathroom in fourth period. The kids in that class seemed especially hard around the edges.  And despite the attempts of a few sympathetic family members to convince me that most of it was in my head, I knew that I wasn’t imagining how much contempt my classmates had for me.

It was confirmed one Monday morning when the whispering about me didn’t end with morning assembly, but followed me down the hall to my locker, which it normally did not, since the other kids started thinking about homework to be turned in and finding their buddies before classes. This day the whispering was still going on after first and second and third period. Finally I found out why.

Someone had dedicated a song to me the night before on the local radio station. It was Aerosmith’s Dude Looks Like A Lady.  At fourteen I was plump, wore my hair in a luxuriant brunette mullet, and had porcelain skin that I would kill for now. Maybe I did look more like a girl than a boy, but I knew the song was about more than that. Someone in my class wanted to put it out there so their friends could hear it and laugh in appreciation.  The joke about what a fag I was should be shared with the world outside of school.

Now I realize a different kind of kid would put a pithy, Rupaul-inspired spin on the whole situation. They would decide their foe had instead made them famous. Maybe what I needed more than anything was more fearless drag queens on TV.  I think my whole generation would have benefited.

I can almost relive the rise in my blood pressure that happened when I was told about the song on the radio.  It wasn’t anger. It was fear. Whether it was genetic or just a learned response, by this age I was strictly a flight strategist. Fighting was not my norm. So I hid the rest of the day in the bathrooms, roaming from one to another only when classes were in session. I ducked as I went past each door so I wouldn’t be spotted.

I luckily didn’t learn to loathe myself because of how I was treated, but it did make me loathe society for many years.  It took a long time to learn how to move through the world with an open mind toward others. One thing that I am always thankful for is that I have a lot of compassion for underdogs, for people who are misrepresented or even ignored. It is part of why I care so much about how our society treats people based on ethnicity, cultural and religious origin, gender, sexuality, age, size, income.  I know how feeling unsafe turns everyday life into a precarious obstacle course. How it twists you up inside.

If I could parent myself through the whole thing now, I would make sure it turned out differently. No one should be made to feel like hiding is the option, like being invisible is preferable to finding your light and place. And perhaps I could have gotten to myself at the perfect moment when my future empathy would be assured, but before I learned to be quite as cynical as I became. Probably I would even leave that alone, because I grew out of it eventually.

The one thing I know I would do to help myself is that I wouldn’t try to convince myself not to worry about what was happening to me. Every grown up tried to take that course, from my parents to the shrinks they sent me to. “Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

That would be the saddest coffee mug quote in the world and it didn’t do much to comfort me.

What I would say is, “You’re right to let this bother you so much. You want to be liked and instead you feel loathed.” Then I would explain that having the whole world love you is impossible and not even the goal.  You just need a small but meaningful tribe.

It starts with taking the time to notice the other kids being picked on. I know I wasn’t alone.  There were kids who were teased because their clothes were ragged. There were kids who were tripped and knocked down because they had a speech impediment.  I would tell my fourteen year old self to give the other beaten up and spit on kids a smile when I got to assembly in the morning. Eventually, I would say, you can choose to sit next to one of them and ask them their name. Then you might find them in the cafeteria and sit with them.

Friends matter because there is safety in numbers.  A group that is made up of people who have been shaped by rejection may be the strongest, because they value what it means to find inclusion after feeling adrift and alone.  If the world had more tribes made of people who were vastly different except that they shared only the desire to protect and encourage each other to personal happiness, we would perhaps divide ourselves less by race and creed and more by the contents of our hearts.  It would have saved me a lot of pain in junior high and it would certainly heal so much of what ails the world today.

 

Failed Pass

I came to the party to see both the brothers.  Strangely it was not the one I was in love with who I hoped to hook up with before going home.  The one I loved was not an option, a guy a couple of years older than me who was strictly into girls.  But his brother, Dillon, was what we called open.  We had fooled around in the back of my car once, parked behind the high school, but it hadn’t ended great.  He’d been too drunk to concentrate and finally we straightened up the seats and I drove him back to his car across town.  I still thought about him a lot – the taste and feel and scent of him and perhaps most that things ended so incompletely.

 


 

The party thinned until there were only a few straggling in the foyer, but still I hung back, pretending to read the spines of the books on the shelves in the library. Earlier in the night their mother had shown me this room, waving a dismissive hand at the volumes that climbed to the ceiling.

“But who has time anymore?” she’d asked in a breezy, rhetorical manner.  She smiled at me, “I guess when you’re young…”

Linda seemed more human to me in that moment, thought I still didn’t care for her. Earlier that night I’d heard her use the word ‘fag’ about her oldest son.

“I mean honestly, I don’t know why Linus is so sensitive about everything,” she told one of his friends, a girl named Terin who had big red lips and iddy-biddy bangs. “He’s such a fag sometimes.”

Terin and I had exchanged a glance.

I had glanced over at Linus, watching him shrug off the jab, and thinking wryly, ‘I wish.’

 


 

He was slenderer than his brother, with a long bony nose and bright green eyes hidden under meticulously polished spectacles.  These weren’t eyeglasses as I knew them back then: the huge plastic frames that hid half the face.  These were small, clever, brass. They made him look bookish and vaguely historical, which was probably why he chose them. Maybe too why I romanticized him so much.

I used to study Linus like a painter does a muse, but when the muse doesn’t welcome the scrutiny, there are too many veils to peel away.  I wanted intimacy with him and when I was so young my hormones and naïveté conspired to convince me that was unattainable. Because the way I saw getting there was steeped in sex and sexuality.  I’d never had a solid friendship with a man and didn’t know how that was supposed to work.

Dillon spoke a language I understood more viscerally, a language not of words but of straight up sex.

 


 

Even as the summer of my eighteenth year grew sweatier and more still, all the mild breezes of spring spent, even as I fell more in love with Linus, there were more chances to spend time with his brother.  We met with mutual friends at the tea house, bantering about topical things now forgotten, smoking too many cigarettes.  He had a hunger about him.  Despite the fact that he was handsome and athletic, Dillon seemed to always search your glance for admiration.  I sensed it about him and I was put off by it.  Perhaps I preferred the enigma that was his older brother.

Still I enjoyed watching Dillon for months before our singular hook up.  He had golden skin and dark golden curls. His legs were covered in golden hair and rippled with muscles he’d built playing soccer. His hands were broad and square and capable, his lips each full and quick with a reckless grin.

Then a friend of mine who went to military academy with him told me how he used to sleep with a boy that was their classmate.  I hadn’t seen this coming.  Dillon seemed unattainable until that morsel of gossip. Shortly after, he and I were the last ones to close down the teahouse – me lingering later than was my wont – and with only a slight pass, I opened the door to the fleeting encounter behind the high school.

It was sexy and yet not sexy all at once.  In later years I wished I’d made more of the night. We should have gotten out of the car and wandered down over the hill into the grass. There ought to have been night sky and the summer cacophony of cricket and cicada and swiftly running brook.

 


 

When they invited me to the party, I was surprised to be asked.  I never really thought anyone liked me very much and was often taken aback to be included.  I didn’t know if it were Dillon or Linus who proposed my name.  I never found out, not that it came to matter.

It was odd to be there, wanting to be loved by one brother and to have sex with the other. Perhaps it wasn’t so much about want as realism and expediency. I knew I stood a chance with Dillon.  Linus thought of me as merely a new friend.

As the guests started to leave in groups, while I was hiding in the library, I heard Linus head out with his girlfriend.  Their mother even said good night, making a lot of noise about the clean up waiting until the morning.  There was one person left standing in the foyer with Dillon when I peered out from the library.  It was a girl he’d been talking to much of the night.  She had curves for days and hair like an angel in a Renaissance painting.

Dillon glanced my way and rather than be caught, I barreled out a little too quickly, pretending to only then discover how the house had emptied.  The girl with the beautiful hair said she needed to get home; she was going on a long road trip the next day.  Dillon gave her a kiss before closing the door. He peered through the sidelight until she drove away.

When he turned to study me, I dropped my gaze.  It occurred to me that we hadn’t really spoken much since the night in the car.  We’d never been alone together since then.  I wished I’d never come tonight, but a part of me longed for a chance to be with him again. There was a lonely craving in me that supplanted all better judgment.

“You not tired?” he asked.

“I thought we could hang out.”

He shrugged and I followed him into his bedroom down the hall. We sat on the bed and looked at an album cover together while he talked about things that happened at the party.  The scent of him made a kaleidoscope of butterflies circle in my stomach.  When I put a hand on his thigh, he stiffened.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

The butterflies dropped as if turned to stone by his tone.

“I thought we might…”

I faltered as he turned his brown eyes on me. Dillon always seemed to have laughing eyes, but tonight they were impenetrable, dense and cold like a pond in winter.  I felt myself grow smaller.

“We’re in my mother’s house,” he said.  “That was my girlfriend who just left.”

The funny thing is that I can’t remember how I responded. I didn’t say anything to him to change his mind.  Yet how he looked as I left or whether I stumbled out or was walked to the door are facts lost to time.  What I do remember is the light in his room.  There was only one lamp in a corner, casting long shadows over our suddenly sordid tableau.  Shadows trailed from his lashes and from his bed and from the soles of my feet to the top of my head.  Maybe he softened his rebuke with a smile. I honestly couldn’t say.

The drive back from their remote home on the river seemed interminable.  It was hard to believe I’d only passed these landmarks a few hours earlier.  The night had left me hanging open, exposed and restless.  With the windows down, I could feel the coldness of March on my skin and moving through my hair.  I should have turned on the radio and filled my bandwidth with raucous sound, but I made the trip home in silence, wondering what Dillon would tell his brother about my failed pass.