College parties are the heartland of post-adolescent anarchy. That probably explains why this house has such a loud pulse.
Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.
I can feel the bass drum beating its way through the closed front door, syncopating itself with my heartbeat. As new as I am to this environment, I have a feeling it’s quickly going to become my scene. I put my hand on the vibrating brass doorknob and propel myself into the world of eternal youth.
If Christmas lights are the epitome of classy college decorations, this place is a five star hotel. The room’s lights are veneered by a film of gray smoke permeating the air. And the smell. The smell is so distinct. If you told me marijuana was growing out of the carpet and the audience sitting on it was plucking it fresh before lighting it up, I would believe you. As I attempt to squeeze through the crowd of pseudo-artists, I see the pipe passed around the room, college students sucking euphoria out of its tail end. Pipe dreams.
Tonight, I am performing here for the first time. I’m excited, nervous, and afraid of getting a contact high. I tiptoe my way to the front of the crowd and take a seat. I wring my hands together, hoping to squeeze the nervous itch out of them. There is a girl sitting next to me. A bohemian goddess. A worn leather headband adorns her head like a halo. She is wearing a loose-fitting, frilly white dress with a brown belt pulled tightly around her slim waist. She taps her feet to the music, drawing my eyes to her beat-up moccasins. She’s cute. Too cute for me.
It takes a while until it’s my turn to play – the new guys are always last on the set list. Still, the excitement inside of me is bubbling.
I’m on stage now.
Nothing is more fulfilling than the opportunity to have your voice augmented in front of a room full of peers. And yet, receiving the power to take the room by its reigns and say “HEY! LISTEN TO ME!” incites a nervousness that’s almost too much to bear. Almost. But this is it. The culmination of my stupid childhood dreams. The aural release of my inhibitions and insecurities. The actualization of weeks of rehearsal. This is it.
There are glow-in-the-dark stars glued to the ceiling.
I close my eyes and begin to sing, crawling across chromatic melancholic melodies, humming to in-my-head harmonies, pushing past the threshold of ambivalence with each note. I love closing my eyes when I sing because I don’t have to see the panic-inducing faces before me, but instead am afforded the chance to see the music. And with my eyes closed, I can see an array of rays – although it might just be the after-sight of Christmas lights and glow-in-the-dark stars.
I open my eyes just in time to catch her closing hers. She is nodding and swaying her body side-to-side charismatically. Feelin’ it. She opens her eyes just in time to catch mine darting away from her pretty face. She smiles at me.
There’s something about positive audience feedback that re-energizes a performer. In that moment, her smile is my energy, and its consumption wets my vocal chords enough for me to leap across notes expertly. The surge dances down to my feet and makes them tap rhythmically, stretches itself to my fingertips and helps me treat the tambourine like an entire percussion section. Just the boost of confidence I needed. Thanks, chick.
The song ends. Pleasantly enough, the audience roars and cheers, a visceral response I was not expecting. Fixating on the girl in the front row, however, had distracted me from the realizing how empty the room is. I now become sober to the fact that while I was singing, most of the audience had evacuated the smoke-filled building. But I couldn’t blame them. It was 1 am. Most of the parties around campus were just getting started.
I walk over to the alcohol table near the stage, where the girl is standing. I try to act casual and hope she says something to me. She’s so hard to keep my eyes off of; fair skin adorns her modelesque frame, completely milky in its smoothness, with the exception of a few freckles sprinkled across her face like strawberry sprinkles on a vanilla ice cream cone. Her hair is a dirty blonde, and weaved into it are thin brown feathers. There is something very earthy about her.
We reach for the same beer at the same time. For a second, the room is immersed in a slow motion sequence: our hands are moving towards each other in perfect blind synchronicity, destined to lock with each other in an unsuspecting moment of gentle touch. Instead, however, my clumsy hand hits the can too hard and knocks the beer over. I was so distracted that I didn’t notice it was already open.
“You knocked my beer over!” she exclaims, not quite angry, not quite indifferent. She turns to me with accusatory eyes.
“Oh, um, sorry,” I mutter, suddenly feeling like the dirtiest pig at the county fair. “I’m-“
“Hey, aren’t you the guy who just sang?”
I smile, embarrassed. “Yeah… that was me.” I look down at my shoe. Suddenly, my curled toes are worth staring at.
“Oh my God! I love you! Your voice is so beautiful. So soulful. It reminds me of Usher, or James Brown, or Luther Vandross. Something like that.”
I don’t quite understand the relation between those artists, but I go with it anyway. “Thanks.”
Every time I meet a girl, I can’t help but wonder if this is “the one.” If this is the girl I will fall in love with, the girl I will have to conceal from my disapproving Baptist parents, the girl I will go out of my way to buy ugly flowers for just because I know she’ll appreciate the gesture. But it never happens that way. I usually end up spending little time with her before realizing that she’s annoying, or that she has a boyfriend, or she’s an atheist, or that she’s actually kind of ugly in the daylight, or… all of the above. Yeah. That girl’s name was Maggie.
With this girl, however, I have a feeling things will go my way. She seems like the kind of chic who’s liberal enough to date a black guy.
“What is your name?” I ask, standing up straight. Knowing that she likes my voice immediately makes me feel more attractive.
“Emily,” I say. Such a plain name for an abstract soul. “Emily, do you want to-“
“Sit down and talk?” she asks, the tail end of her phrase escalating with a hopeful rise. She cocks her head to the side, smiles on the left side of her mouth and shuts her left eye in anticipation. I suppose she thinks if half of her face looks stroke-stricken, I’ll say yes to her proposition (which was really my proposition to begin with). Cute.
“Yeah! Haha. Woah. Weird. That’s exactly what I was gonna say.”
“Oh my God! No way!” She pauses. “Okay, I know I just met you, but I have a funny story.” She doesn’t bother to pause to see if I’m interested in hearing her story. She’s gonna go right on ahead and tell me anyway. “When I was young my girlfriends and I had this deep metaphysical theory that there were these things called brain waves, and whenever you felt the same way another person did – like, if your souls connected or something – there was this invisible, magical medium on which your thoughts could travel across to each other. It was like, you and this person became telepathic – but only for each other – because you had a soul connection. I know, I know, you think I’m crazy…”
“You know, it kinda sounds like you’re intellectually hitting on me right now,” I tease.
“Oh… uh…” Her eyes dart around the room, feigning to search for an escape.
“Awkward…” We say harmoniously. Simultaneously, we burst into laughter. “You know,” I admit, “I don’t usually get all philosophical on the first date. But we should talk more. You’re… interesting.”
“Yeah, thanks. You’re pretty weird too bro.” She smiles. I’ve never seen teeth more perfect.
So we sit on the dirty carpet in the near-abandoned apartment and talk. The last act of the night is up, guitar in hand and a harmonica maneuvered around his neck somehow. He plays somber, bluesy tunes. Bob Dylan meets B.B. King. Perfect soundtrack to fall in love with someone, I think. I’m not blind to the effect the elements have on my emotions. The dim light makes her skin appear even smoother (although it makes me quietly self-conscious; there’s no way she can see my dark skin well in this light. I don’t exactly glisten in the shadows. Would she find me ugly in the daylight?); the somber melodies being pulled out of the guitar soften my heart to her; the glow-in-the-dark-stars glued to the black ceiling give us something to look up at and something more to look forward to.
And there, underneath the pale-green starlight, with our legs crossed Indian-style, she puts her hand over mine. An expression somehow more delicate than holding hands and interlocking fingers – her pale skin draped over the back of my hand feels like a shield. Protecting me from the darkness. I will never understand how a stranger can tap into your most concealed feelings with the touch of her hand.
White girls have never been interested in me. And I don’t blame them. Maybe they were too accustomed to falling in love with mirrors and television romances to see the difference in me as an attracting quality. So over the years, I have learned to let every ivory crush pass by silently like a stolen ship in the night. Floating out of sight slowly and elusively. Emily is the first one who has shown interest in me, and in turn, I want to know everything about her before this moment, too, sails off.
We go through the customary niceties quickly. Where are you from? What’s your major? Do you have an STD? (No? Oh, um, good, neither do I…) How old are you? What’s your favorite band? (You’ve probably never heard of them…) What year are you? Favorite food? Cornbread. Favorite Color? Black.
“Tell me about your culture,” she says passively. Something about her question takes me aback.
“You know. I wanna know more about black culture.”
“Why? I can assure you that my culture is no more interesting than yours.”
She laughs and nudges me with her elbow. “Oh please, don’t be silly. There’s no such thing as ‘white culture.’ White people are, like, just bland and normal. I think African-American culture is so beautiful. I’d love for you to tell me more about it, like your favorite aspects of it and stuff.”
Now I’m a little upset. But it’s so hard to be mad at a pretty, carefree white girl. Whose temperament is no more decisive than the wind, and whose ignorance is no less adorable than her pet cat is. So I find a nice way to phrase my thoughts. “No, seriously though. I’m no more interesting than you are. I put my underwear on one leg at a time, just like you do. I like to watch television. I like to go to the movies. I like watching baseball. I can’t speak for all black people… I only know what my personal preferences are.”
Not even her scattered freckles can cover up the disappointed look that sunsets across her face. “Oh… I guess. That kinda sucks. You should get more in touch with your culture. Hell, I probably know more about your culture than you do!”
“Really?” I answer. She is really beginning to get on my nerves. “How so?”
“Well, I mean…” she looks around to see if anyone’s listening, and then leans in to me as if she’s going to kiss me. She stops a few inches away from my face and then turns rightwards toward my ear. “All my boyfriends have been black.” She pulls back and nods, proud of herself.
“… Oh. Oh gosh. Please don’t tell me you have a fetish of some sort.”
“No, no. I mean I wouldn’t call it that. Isn’t jungle fever the proper term?” She laughs childishly. Childishly not because she’s immature, but because she literally laughs with the youthfulness of a small girl. She locks her giggles inside of her mouth with clasped hands covering her lips, squints her eyes as if trying to see me in a better light, rocks back and forth as if her world has been shifted. I smile to oblige her, but don’t really find her too amusing at this moment.
Her face sobers up a bit after seeing my lack of amusement. “No, seriously though. Honestly, I just don’t feel that in sync with my background. My parents are such snobs that they send their PAs to homeless shelters to do the volunteering for them. Can you believe that?!”
“PAs? What’s that?”
“Oh,” she says, not missing a beat, “Personal Assistants. They offer personal assistance. Haha. Get it?” Corny pun.
Despite my innermost reluctance, I give in. I laugh. Something about a pun-layered joke makes me unable to not laugh.
“But anyway,” she says, the laughter slowly ebbing from her voice, “I don’t really get my parents. I never really felt like I fit into that whole upper middle class scene. It’s all fake. The women, their boobs, the relationships. Fake fake fake. I feel more connected to the minorities. The Mexicans, the Indians, the Blacks,” she says, twirling the feathers in her hair. “And honestly, something about Black men is really hot. Idk. They’re really hot and they’re all really tough. I swear it’s like they’ve got this natural muscle or something. And super talented! Like all the black guys I’ve dated have been good singers or dancers or rappers. I swear! I swear, you’re so lucky. And you’re really, really cute.” She smiles.
I don’t know how to respond to this. Thank you? Fuck you? Fuck you now, thank you later? So I just sit there. And watch as her hand caresses my face. Rubbing her thin white skin against my thick black skin.
“I love your skin. Wait, is it weird that I’m touching you?” She chuckles and starts to pull away. “Sorry.”
“No!” I respond a little too quickly. “Uh… no. It’s fine. I actually don’t mind it. But wouldn’t your parents?”
She laughs. “Haha, yeah. My mom would probably jump off of the third floor balcony.” Her hand returns to my face. “You have the most beautiful skin ever,” she mutters under her breath. “The tone is perfect. And it’s smooth. So smooth.” I can’t help but wonder if she’s secretly hoping my color will rub off on her and top off her tan.
Suddenly she grabs her purse and begins to rummage through it.
“Hey, do you smoke?” she asks.
“Uh… no, sorry,” I mutter, arms folded.
“Really? I feel like all artsy types do. Why not?”
“No big reason,” I say. The more I talk to her, the less I feel like talking to her. “I like to stay natural, I guess.”
“Wait, really? Not even weed?” she asks, as if my response to her question had been “No, I don’t smoke anything, well anything except weed, yeah, that’s totally an exception…”
“No. Like I said, I like to stay natural.”
“Oh, come on. There’s nothing more natural than weed. It grows out of the ground.”
“Really? I thought it grew out of this carpet.” She laughs and nudges me with her bony elbow again.
“Oh well. More for me,” she says as she zips her purse up and puts it down. “More fun for me then. Although it’s weird, I kinda thought all black people smoked weed.”
“Okay, seriously Emily? That’s such a generalization.” I uncross my legs.
She pauses and processes the thought. A look of surprised dismay dawns upon her face. “Oh my God. Sorry. That was such a dumb thing to say. Forgive me. I think I’m just kind of nervous around you. Honestly, since you started singing, I’ve been so attracted to you. How can I make this up to you?” She asks, scooting her body closer to my body and draping a leg over mine.
It’s been three hours since we sat down. The music has stopped playing. The apartment has been cleared out (with the exception of the people who live there; two of them had gone to bed, and one of them had lured an “unsuspecting” yet willing sorority girl into his room), and I still don’t know where I stand with this girl. If she likes me for me, or for who she wanted me to be. Was this an actual romantic experience, or was she only romanticizing my existence? Right here, at twenty years old, in this old dusty apartment, I am faced with a dilemma usually common to sixteen year old girls: at the end of the day, when I take off my jean jacket and climb into bed, I want whoever is with me to like me for me, not because I fulfill their desire for some kind of nature boy.
So when she leans in for a kiss, I turn my head away and let her lips adorn my cheek. She pulls back.
“What about when I came in?” I ask.
“Huh?” she replies, clearly still thrown off by my reluctance to kiss her. “You said you were attracted to me right when I started singing. What about when I came in the door? Our eyes met. I sat next to you. But you didn’t offer me so much as a double take. Do you even remember my name?”
There’s no going back now. Everything’s awkward.
“Honestly, I don’t like the way you’re treating me. The chances of a girl like me trying to get with a guy like you are really slim. You should be thanking me.”
“Thanking you? Fuck you.”
She takes her leg off of mine in an instant. “No thanks,” she responds pseudo-cleverly. She picks up her naturally enhanced purse and storms out the door. I stare out the window as her moccasins stomp down the driveway. She climbs into her 2010 midnight BMW and drives away.
I saw Emily only once after that day. She was with her new boyfriend, a basketball player. 6’5, too muscular to wear a t-shirt with sleeves, and skin blacker than Emily’s BMW. Seriously, this guy was so black, you couldn’t even see his tattoos.
Me, I’ve pretty much given up on dating white girls. I’m open to the idea, but I know the next time I’m at picnic in the park with a Susie, Becky, or Jennifer, in the back of my mind will be Emily, running through my hair with a comb, taking black-and-white film pictures of me, and asking me to smile in the dark.
Besides, there’s someone new in my life. I met her after my last show, and I think she might be a keeper. Her name is Esperanza.