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(Names have been changed to retain anonymity.)
Off-white walls and a busted bed frame, two hyperactive children dependent on their oldest sibling, one of my closest friends, and the glass mezuzah I’m studying complete the humble and quaint, but never quiet, home of my friend Judith. Long phone calls throughout the week, for the last few weeks, practically every single night, raise questions with unsure answers. After being suffocated by convoluted thoughts, I tune back into what she’s been talking about – Broadway jargon of some sort – and I interrupt her, “I think I’m going to ask Audrey to be my girlfriend.” I wait for her support and encouragement, a final push. That small feeling where I wish she could decide for me.
“Hmm shit, how come?” is as close as she gets to my expectation. I laugh a bit.
“Well, I don’t see why not. We’ve been exclusive for a while and it’s practically the same thing, just adding a title. I feel like the title is the only scary part, but there’s no actual difference.”
“So do it.” She shoots it out, as if it’s a no-brainer.
“I’m scared, I think.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to feel it out, I guess, sleep on it. But it would have to be at Todd’s house show-party-thing.”
“Alright, well keep me posted.”
She presses play on her phone and continues singing at the top of her lungs. I join her.
We cross the street and risk being out in the open to be able to hide behind some trees. My hazy mind and influenced judgment weigh the risks against the possibility of refuge. I realize that there is no innocent way to look behind your shoulder when you’re obviously guilty. My heart is beating through my ears and my surroundings are all at once completely muted and on full blast. I hear every bark and whistle, but can’t make out a single thought. I’m moving on autopilot, acting on survival instincts.
My vision blurs and there are gaps between every blink: from keeping an eye on the canines, to reaching for my phone to call my brother, to keeping track of Judith. Having to make sure her disoriented mind doesn’t wander off too loudly, I tell her to grab onto my shirt. She starts blurting out every thought, which does little to help.
“Judith,” I say, “let’s play a game. Every time you want to say something out loud, keep it in your head, okay?”
She apologizes and nods, like a dumbed-down version of herself.
My brother picks up the phone and I explain to him what has happened. We thought it would be an alright idea to walk through this park where the bay meets the seawall. My friend and I giggled our way along the edge of the water, casual paraphernalia in hand. The gut-wrenching feeling hit me when this older white couple couldn’t stop staring. That’s when I looked over to Judith and cut her protests. I made us leave.
I told my brother that they wouldn’t take their eyes off of me. I had every bad feeling I could’ve possibly had. I knew that it was the old white couple that had called out of suspicion.
My brother confirmed my hunch, said, “When they see a little black girl with dreads, they think gang member. And where there’s a gang member, there’s drugs. And where there are drugs, there’s violence. The police are paid to answer those calls and protect the racists. You need to get out of there, now.”
His simple instructions were lost to panic. He hung up. I called Audrey, turning to check on Judith and scan our surroundings; we were about to reach the end of the street, where a hedged fence greeted us head on. Audrey didn’t pick up. My eyes started to water; I’d never been so scared. My brother calls me back to check on me. I let him know that we were still walking away from the cop cars. Midway though, I got another call. I looked to see that it was her; my heart stopped.
I turned to Judith, “Call Audrey.”
At least with her simple mind, she was calm and cooperative.
We shimmied through a small opening in the fence. I reassured my brother that I’d call him with updates as the night progressed. I didn’t let my paranoia catch up to me; I just wanted to hear her voice. I took the phone from Judith, and tasted honey as if for the first time.
“Baby, I’m freaking out…”
The sun had burnt the sky and left it dark, like ash. The moon, like ice, gave the sky a break from persistent flames. My friends and I tried to find our way through muddy grass backyards. We were told to go around the corner, down the sidewalk, and turn left at the opening of the fence. Laughing and pushing each other against wooden fences and into mud puddles, my friends let Audrey and I lead the way to the show. We looked for the crowd of voices and found the opening to Todd’s backyard. Groups of people talking and drinking filled the scene. In certain corners and along certain walls there were other forms of entertainment. “T.E.’s House Show” was painted in huge red letters on a sign at the door.
The band members and hosts finished setting up the equipment. Then the main host, Todd, approached the mic. “I want to thank you all for coming to Todd and Ellie’s Midsummer’s Night House Show!” The support radiated from the crowd as we all clapped and cheered. “Let’s start this bitch.” He stepped back, allowing the first band to start.
Empty cans, kicked around by dancing teenagers bathed in fluorescent blue and purple lights. Obnoxious cheers from bodies sitting on fences, legs swinging. The night was deep and black, making it difficult to make out any faces. Leaning against the wall with Audrey in my arms, hers was the only face I could see. To my left and to my right, young bodies sat along the concrete. Everyone was enjoying the music, some with more active expressions than others. A mosh pit broke out in the center of the crowd. Smoke escaped overhead.
A casual glance behind my shoulder and I found my heart getting clogged somewhere in my lungs, because I couldn’t breathe and my heart sure as fuck stopped beating. In one instant I’d never been so ready to die. My car was parked along the curb, surrounded on each side by a cop car. Six officers patrolling, each with a dog in hand. To know that it was me they were after, I immediately considered the odds of making it out. I’d never felt so helpless. With half a mind to walk up, hands already behind my head, I realized I couldn’t leave Judith’s life at risk.
My first and only thought was how ready I was to be another black teenage victim.
It felt good that my friends counted on me to know how to get specific “party favors.” When they turned to me with such requests, I was filled with an odd and twisted sense of accomplishment. Finally, I was some sort of top dog. As soon as we got to the show I was able to get it done with a single phone call. Within minutes, my friends were passing me five dollars each, more than enough for the six of us.
Audrey, my right hand, held her phone over me as a flashlight so I didn’t miss or drop anything. Premium goods, and I carefully packed them in my brand new, and absolute favorite, pipe. It went around as we established a rotation. We all laughed as we struggled with the mini-torch lighter in turn.
A few rotations in and I grabbed Audrey’s hand, “Can I talk to you?” She laughed as I dragged her away from the crowd. I leaned against the fence with her pulled against me. I saw her through squinting eyes.
“Weird, usually I’d be against the wall and you’d be all suave with your hand posted up hovering over me,” she tells me.
“Well baby, hella honestly I physically cannot hold myself up right now. I definitely need to be leaning against the wall. Also, I didn’t really notice until you said it.”
In between punk rock and loud cheers, I heard her laugh. She pulled my focus with her utterance of natural music, the sweetest sound.
“Audrey, I wanted to ask you something. I’ve wanted to ask you for a while now. I want you to know it’s something I’ve been thinking about. I was going to ask you tonight. I don’t want you to think I’m only asking you because I’m like this. But you should know that I’m gone as fuck.”
She interrupted me, unable to hold her laughing, “L, it’s fine, just tell me.”
I gather my remaining sobriety and I ask her, “Audrey, do you want to be my girlfriend?”
I repeated his instructions over in my head: Get out of there, but don’t call attention to yourself. You need to hurry up. Do not run. The overwhelming amount of adrenaline canceled out the lowered reaction time, at least that’s what I convinced myself. I felt my breathing in my eyes with every palpitating pulse. Heaves so heavy they weighed me down; it was getting harder to run. I turned and saw my friend was having an even more difficult time.
“Judith, please, we’re almost there. I just need you to run with me.”
The pain in her voice was convincing enough. “L, I really want to but I just can’t. Everything hurts. I think I’m going to faint.”
My brother had been calling me every five minutes to check where I was. Audrey had stayed on the phone with Judith to distract her and to keep her quiet, so I’d have less to worry about.
We passed familiar streets and unsuspecting homes. Every car that drove past made my heart jump into my throat. It started to rain.
My glasses blurred; every block looks the same as the last. I was convinced that we were running in circles. I got another phone call from my brother. He yelled in my ear: “Where are you?”
“We’re almost at the pizza place.”
“How far? Because if you’re close enough, I can just come and get you. But I need to know where you are.”
My chest lit up. I let him know that we were only a block away. We sat in front of what seemed like a yoga studio. In the pouring rain, every car looked like his. When the headlights blinked at me, there was no mixing it up. I fumbled and tripped, slipping in the rain. I had no words when I saw him, floods of apology storming my mind.
The first thing he did was order Judith an Uber. She went home.
“Hmmm, I mean I guess I’m down,” she said finally, after a short pause, but her irrepressible smile gave her away. I took her into my arms and we hovered in our own space of music.
Over the crowd of people I heard, “If you have that special someone, hold them close for this one.”
My overexcited mind stopped. Grabbing her hand, I dragged her to the center of the yard and we danced. The song was completely blurred. The clearest thing was our chests pressing against each other.
There, I held her, for the first time as my girlfriend.
A consistent guilt and shame overwhelmed me, keeping me up on my brother’s couch for a week. Sleep became an activity only for those who wouldn’t get arrested or shot. An entire season of some random show on Netflix went by quicker than our all-night phone call.
That night I couldn’t stand to have my back facing the door, afraid of the police bursting in to put an end to my “ethnically ambiguous” mixed-race ass. She stayed up with me. She told me a bedtime story to try and distract me. I was too scared to close my eyes.