Sunday, November 17, 2013

Under the red lights

Photo credit: asifthebes (stock.xchng)
(This really happened to me some years ago. The boyfriend mentioned is NOT Two Dogs.)

Beneath a cloudless late September sky, under a row of reproachfully blinking red lights, I carefully guided my little gold Saturn into the gorge-like intersection of Tustin and 17th in Santa Ana.

How much the world we expect to protect us depends on technology -- and how alarming it is when just one small piece fails. Cars going east and west, feeling that they had greater priority than cars going north and south, surged forward threateningly. My heart fluttered like the wings of a young sparrow anxious to make its first flight.  

My boyfriend visiting from Arizona, who was seated next to me, spoke these helpful words:

“Go! Go! Go!

A white Scion xB with tinted windows made an east-to-north turn right in front of me.

“Blow your horn at those fuckin’ niggers!” he snarled.

At that moment, I finally escaped the intersection, but instead of feeling relieved, I felt an ominous echo in my eardrums.


The most incendiary of the million-or-so words in the English language. A word that darkens childhoods, torpedoes careers, and turns the fruit of respect into a pile of slimy rot. A word I had just heard, live, from someone I loved.


Years ago, I had written a paperback biography of Medgar Evers, who spent his life -- and sacrificed it -- fighting the mentality that gave birth to that word. What right had I to do anything else but make a U-turn, risk the intersection once again, return to the street where I lived, deposit the man beside me next to his Dodge Dakota, and tell him to take that vile mouth back to Arizona?

But no. I stopped at a car wash, as I had planned to do, and asked him,

“Why did you use that word?”

He didn’t mean it racially, he said. He meant it as a general insult. “The people here are animals,” he insisted. “Here” meant California in general and Santa Ana in particular.

I had to agree that some drivers here adopted a survival-of-the-fastest-and-biggest mentality, safety be royally damned. But if the vehicle that turned in front of me had been a green Impala convertible with four white kids in it, would he would have used the same word?

Didn’t think so.

The average woman would not find much to love about my boyfriend. Name a lower-to-middle-level dysfunction, and he’s got it.

He has been unemployed for over a year and a half, living off his savings. He has made no move to seek new training in IT, where he had made his living. His favorite hobby -- his only hobby - is merging with the couch and watching television (but respectable channels, at least, like National Geographic and Discovery). Because of a chronically sore neck, exercise is difficult for him; a mild thirty-minute walk is all he can stand per day. He loses his temper over tiny matters -- when the water in his kitchen sink didn’t drain quickly enough, he yelled “I hate this place!” instead of doing a Liquid Plumbr run, as 99% of the rest of us would do. He is not interested in any kind of sex - he said that the more affection he feels for a woman, the less he cares about sex. That is a true fact.

Plus he used the word “nigger,” and his name isn’t Chris Rock or 50 Cent.

It would be so easy to point at him, with the iron-girdled certainty of a Dr. Laura, and say, “This man is a loser. This man is a boat anchor. This man needs to go like a four-year-old who just drank a can of Coke in the back seat of a minivan.”

It’s not so easy to say, “Not so fast.”

It’s not so easy to be patient, in a popular culture which screams that “you have needs,” so much so that you shouldn’t be surprised to be dumped for growing a pimple or letting loose a fart that wouldn’t wake up a mouse.

Why am I patient?

He’s smart enough to see the truth of America, that we’re not really the modest “good guys” of myth, that in this country “rich” and “powerful” are synonyms for “good” and “worthy.” He’s a fine companion across the home table, whether for coffee and buttermilk pancakes or grilled steak and a bottle of zinfandel. He speaks poignantly about his alcoholic bastard of a father, whom he struggles not to be like. He is a quiet and gentle man (most of the time), in a world where “quiet” and “gentle” translate as weak. 

Short of outright physical or emotional abuse, criminal activity, or an it’s-my-world-and-I’m-only-letting-you-live-here attitude, what should make you say goodbye? True love is rare; true companionship rarer still. I have found a kindred spirit in this man (whether the move is by him, me, or both of us), we will have a great life. I know it.

(Postscript: we didn't. But it was just as well.) 

NaBloPoMo November 2013

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