Writing has been my pastime and passion for about six months now. I have this desire to create something worth reading, to bring a world to life, and to help change the world in a positive way through fiction. My world has been changed by books like The Kite Runner and Night, and while I in no way claim to have the talent of Khaled Hosseini or Elie Wiesel, my dream is to enter that sphere of writers who make people think long after they put a book down.
I began a second novel a few weeks ago, with a rather lofty, difficult goal in mind: I want to address 21st century racism and race relations among the millennial generation.
Some background: I’ve grown up in mostly white and Asian communities and gone to mostly white and Asian schools all my life. I’ve had limited exposure to African American people and culture, except in the news (which is generally negative and portrays African Americans as either impoverished or victims of police brutality). As I’ve gotten older and read things like Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, I’ve become more uncomfortable with myself and my lack of exposure to minorities. I feel guilty as a white person often, and I’ve struggled to know how to interact with people racially different than I am. For me and many members of my generation, battling racism is an issue of communication and learning how each race wants to be treated and viewed by the others. Of course, as a young female, I also have a lot of feelings about growing up as a girl and dealing with feelings of inadequacy and relationships and love and boundaries and friendship and finding your place in the world. Enter my story.
I’d give you a synopsis, but I’m curious to see what you all think of the first chapter. If you’re at all intrigued, I’ll post another soon, and let you know where I think the end is going. Please, please, leave your honest thoughts here. The only way I can improve as a writer and storyteller is to have others give me real feedback. Thank you! It’s a little long, so sit back and grab a cup of tea or read later when you have a few extra minutes to spare. Also, if anyone has any insight into a way to really hone in on the way African Americans/minorities want to be viewed in society as white people can’t normally see, PLEASE share. Thanks!
Two weeks after the word “SOLD” was hung from the realty sign in front of the little white house on Canterbury Street, the whole town knew exactly who would be moving in. At school, they said the information was leaked by the realtor to Dr. Carlson down at the dermatology office, and he went on to tell Christa the local weather woman during a round of botox, and, well, it went from there.
Usually, July in Oklahoma was nothing more than a few gallons of sweat and hoards of people loitering on each other’s porches, crammed around big white plug-in fans that could chop your fingers off if you reached through the caging. It was sleeping naked between sticky covers, mowing brown lawns, and treading lightly with everyone, because even things that were only mildly irritating during the school year could bring someone to start a fistfight in the summer. For Sabrina and me, summer meant going down to the drug store and buying diet lemonade and reading the books her sister brought her from the Urban Outfitters in Oklahoma City, or taking pictures down by the creek and the creepy old windmill. I mostly took photos of her, because she didn’t know the first thing about SLRs and I didn’t know the first thing about looking pretty in front of a lens.
But that July was not a typical July, because the “SOLD” sign was not hung for a nice middle-aged widow from Alabama or a young couple straight from Lincoln with a blonde toddler in tow. It wasn’t even hung for a divorced forty-something or a tattooed young artist type looking for a peaceful place to observe. No, it was for the first African American family to ever move to our town, straight from uptown Manhattan.
The morning of their scheduled arrival, I stumbled into the kitchen in my pajamas. Mom had her apron on for the first time in years, poking a metal bowl with an electric mixer. The oven light was on, the little screen reading 328 degrees. A half-filled carton of eggs, an empty package of brown sugar, a little bottle of organic vanilla, sugar, flour, and a nearly empty bag of Nestle chocolate chips sat on the counter.
“What’s with the cookies?” I asked, pouring the last few chocolate chips into my hand and tossing them into my mouth. My parents, by then, were probably tenured members of the Whole Foods loyalty program; Nestle chocolate chips showed up in our house about as often as the Mormon guys with the bicycles who Dad sat down for an hour long lecture about Atheism.
“I thought you could bring them over to the new neighbors. You know, as a welcoming present. I’m sure they never had anything like that in Manhattan,” she brushed a strand of hair from her sweat-beaded face.
“Oh?” she said, raising an eyebrow.
“No, sorry, I’ll bring them. I just…”
What did I just? I didn’t just want to stay away from the family, or make no effort not to know them, or feel like they didn’t deserve the cookies. Of course not. I was never racist at all; between growing up in Portland and being raised by a pair of ex-hippies, I was anything but racist.
“Just what, Margaret?”
“I just don’t want them to think it’s contrived, or that we’re trying to compensate for something” I said after a minute.
“Ahh,” Mom sighed, wedging her hands in the space between her hip bones and rib cage. She looked out the kitchen window at our wilting array of tomato plants and burnt rose bushes. “Alright, well, you tell me what’s better: bringing them cookies or not bringing them cookies?”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I said, scraping the dough off the edge of the bowl.
“Okay, okay, sorry,” I glared at her, but went to the sink and washed all the batter off my finger, nudging the brown lump down the drain with my finger.
Once the batter was molded into balls, placed on cookie sheets, and put in the oven, Dad came downstairs and the three of us sat down for a conventional O’Ryan family breakfast of non-GMO granola and yogurt from cows not treated with rBST. Our yogurt always made Sabrina happy; cows were one of the few things she gave a real shit about.
Dad picked up the UNL science magazine for the fourth time while Mom gave him a dollop of yogurt and sprinkled everyone’s with granola.
“So, the new neighbors are moving in today.”
“On Canterbury?” Dad looked up from the magazine.
“Yes, them,” she said.
“Oh, that’s fantastic. This town could do for some diversity,” he said as he adjusted his glasses on the crook of his nose. He exhaled the beginning of a grumbled sigh, but let it fall short.
My parents were both professors at the Oklahoma State University in the city, and both subscribed to nearly every college professor stereotype like the list was handed to them in place of the Ten Commandments and drilled into their heads until they lived and breathed them. Behind Dad’s horn rimmed glasses, his brain was always buzzing from idea to idea, so that when he began to explain something from his anthropology class he inevitably ended the lecture lamenting about the polar ice caps or the way technology has shaped the lives of millennials around the globe. Those lectures typically lasted about forty five minutes; Sabrina once tried to excuse herself, but he didn’t even break his sentence to acknowledge her “I need to use the bathroom”. Mom wasn’t as scatterbrained as Dad, but her endless insights into the world of environmental science yielded their fair share of lectures, too.
Mom turned on CNN and we watched the news over breakfast, the Prime Minister of Ukraine giving a final awkward wave to the camera before disappearing from the political stage for good. I half-payed attention, shoveling yogurt into my mouth and trying to swallow only the granola in it. The air was so hot that we could smell it smoldering and smoking.
But it wasn’t the air; it was the cookies in the oven. The smoke alarm began to shriek, sending Mom’s spoon clattering to the floor and Dad out of his chair. I pressed my hands over my ears and silently grinned while the pair of them danced around, looking for the broom to dismantle the alarm with. Mom shouted something to Dad and he dove into the mud room, returning a second later with a mop. He stabbed blindly at the alarm, instead hitting the ceiling and breaking through the plaster. A chunk of it fell to the floor, exploding in a cloud of dust. After a few more failed attempts and a few more clumps of ceiling, he finally managed to hit the alarm and silence it. Mom ripped the oven open, pulled out the baking sheet with a hand towel, and threw the sheet into the sink. The cookies were no longer cookies, but hockey pucks, little black discs stuck to the cookie sheet, smoking like a blown out candle.
“I can fix that,” Dad said, looking from the ceiling to the plaster on the floor. He rubbed his balding head and looked towards the mud room. “Wood glue.”
Mom and I watched, frozen in place, as he back to the mud room and return with a bottle of glue. He dragged a chair underneath the alarm, picked up the largest chunks of the plaster from the floor, spread glue over the edges, and tried without success to piece the ceiling back together. Each piece of plaster tumbled back to the floor.
“I can’t,” is all Mom could say.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Dad mumbled, pushing the chair back under the table with his tail between his legs. Mom took a deep breath and pressed her fingers together into the shapes of teardrops.
“Now our house looks like the anthropology department, too,” I said. “Maybe it was meant to be.”
“You know what? I think Margaret’s right,” Mom sighed and put her arm around Dad’s waist. “A little personal interior decorating never hurt.”
“It certainly matches the pots upstairs,” Dad said, scratching his head and smiling.
He went on one archaeological dig in his short archaeology career, at some small excavation site in Belize. He managed to dig up nearly two complete pots, shattered into a hundred tiny pieces. They ended up being pretty boring, but he didn’t care; they were immediately put on the ledge at the top of the stairs, where he had a little spotlight installed on them. He even made them little tags like you’d see at a museum: “Ceramic Pottery from Maya Early Classic Period (250-550 CE)”. Sabrina got a kick out of those.
Half the cookie batter was left, so Mom and I made another batch with an unscathed cookie sheet. Dad disappeared somewhere with the dustpan full of ceiling dust. The room still reeked of burning dough, so we opened the windows and turned off the AC; it’s a waste of money to cool the house when you’ve got a wall of hundred degree air spilling in through the window.
“Ready to put them in?” Mom said, returning from the AC panel in the garage.
“Yeah,” I turned with the tray and she held the oven open for me.
“Maybe we should set a timer this time.”
She set the timer and we both sat down at the table again and waited. She grabbed the UNL science magazine off the table and flipped to the middle, which typically meant she would be tuned out of the world for at least twenty minutes, so I got up to return to my room. There was always the chance that she’d tune out the alarm, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt because watching cookies melt in the oven for ten minutes got old when I was in third grade.
My room hadn’t changed much since we moved to Nebraska five years before; same rose-printed covers, light blue and silver wallpaper, gauzy white curtains that always reminded me of malaria netting, and same antique wooden desk that Dad gave me for my twelfth birthday, with the little crystal knobs and matching upholstered chair. The only things that really changed were the wall decor and the objects sitting on the shelving above my bed. Sabrina, in one of her endless attempts to “get me laid”, coaxed me into replacing my stuffed animals and Native American pottery with little potted succulents, like the ones on the Instagrams of the Southern Californian girls she followed. Her sister brought her a polaroid camera for her birthday, so in return for my photography services, she helped me hang half of the polaroids on my wall. We nailed up a piece of brown twine and pinned them up with clothespins from the laundromat. According to her, there had never been an artsier room in all of Oklahoma.
That summer, I decided to make a scrapbook. The pieces of it were scattered on my bed, dozens of printed photographs and sheets of stickers and colored paper. I needed something to commit to, because when there’s nothing at all going on and it’s a hundred degrees outside, there’s not much to stop you from going crazy.
I curled up on the bed and shuffled through the photographs, trying my best not to leave fingerprints all over the gloss paper. They were mostly of Sabrina, her blonde hair tousled around her ears, holding her arms casually over her head to make her torso look thinner. She always pouted in pictures, sticking her bottom lip out just a little and tilting her chin down so that she was perpetually glaring at the camera. She called it her “fuck you” face, but we both knew there was a beauty to it, like the girls from the magazines. No one smiled in pictures, not the types I took. Smiles were for family trips and obligatory group photos at birthday parties, taken on parents’ iPhones with shaky hands. Not for models.
I turned to the only picture of myself I had printed. Sabrina took it down by the old railroad tracks when I wasn’t looking. I was balanced on one of the rusty rails, my arms outstretched and my hair over the side of my face. There were clouds in the background, big cotton ball ones, and the Indian grass ruffled in the wind, going in two directions, like the part of someone’s hair. There was nothing particularly beautiful about it; I had on an old 5k t-shirt from Oregon, with jean shorts and white Converse that got destroyed in a rainstorm a month later. It just looked authentic, like the teenage-hood I always wanted to live. The carefree one, with messy hair and secret trips out to the railroad. Sabrina said it was only missing a boy, blonde hair and sandy skin, standing behind me on the rail and laughing. I told her it doesn’t work like that, and she said you have to hope. I printed it.
My parents had a rule against using the car for trips within the neighborhood, so I slid the plate of cookies into the woven basket on my bike. The plate only fit in the basket sideways, but Mom double plastic wrapped them and tied a ribbon around them, so they weren’t going anywhere.
I flipped up the kickstand and pedaled off, keeping a pace that wouldn’t give me pit stains that seeped down my sides. That was the battle for us girls; antiperspirant on or not, sweating through your clothes in the summer was a very real fear. It was to be taken seriously.
When I moved to Oklahoma at age twelve, the first thing I noticed was the horizon. There were no trees to eclipse the view, and you could see for miles, over the wheat fields and past the shrubbery and houses and all the way to the hills, little grassy mounds rolling in the distance. The sky and the hills were inseparable, always; land led to blue or grey or black, in every direction. At first, the expansiveness of it felt hollow, empty, like we might be blown away at any moment, like Dorothy and Toto in a tornado. But I got used to it, and eventually it began to feel familiar, just like the little white house on the corner of Sherwin and Brown began to feel like home.
I could see the heat radiating off the pavement in rippling layers and I wiped my forehead. Everything was shining, reflecting sunlight like a tinfoil oven, and I squinted my eyes and looked up only behind my eyelashes. The fabric under my arms felt warm and wet. Failure number twenty-seven of the summer. Hopefully the neighbors wouldn’t mind a little elbow grease with their dessert.
A monstrous white moving van was parked in the gutter in front of their house, tilting dangerously towards the sidewalk. The trunk was open and inside were a pair of couches, a headboard, a bubble-wrapped coffee table, and enough cardboard boxes to fill our English classroom. There was no one around unloading the truck or even watching over it. Maybe no one was home.
I left the bike on the corner of the yellow lawn and grabbed the paper plate of cookies. The plastic wrap on top was all smeared with melted chocolate. I looked left, right, behind me, and carefully took the plastic wrap off and licked it clean of chocolate. I lived in a constant state of sugar and processed food withdrawal. I couldn’t afford to be picky about my sources.
I climbed the doorstep and rang the doorbell, a little stone frog with the button on its back. I heard it ringing inside, one of the long, windchime style bells that never seems to end. No footsteps sounded inside, so I turned to leave, but the door swung open behind me and I reeled around, one of the cookies splattering on the doorstep.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, grabbing it off the cement. I contemplated whether the five second rule applied to food being given to strangers. That was probably pushing it.
“You can just throw it in the bushes,” he said, and I looked up. He was smiling, his teeth bright against his dark skin. He was darker than I expected, and taller. I gave him a little smile and threw it towards the shrubs in front of the house. I held out my hand to shake his, and he grabbed it with his own, only to pull away instantly, staring at his palm in disgust. I should have worn deodorant everywhere.
“Sweat?” I peeped.
“No, no,” he said, shaking his head and laughing. His laugh was deeper than any I’d ever heard, like he laughed from a whole different set of lungs. “Unless you sweat chocolate.”
“Oh,” I laughed too, lightly, shaking my head. My palm was milky brown. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize there was so much.”
“You wanna come in and wash it off?”
He stood back and held the door for me to come in, and I thanked him and stepped inside. The door opened into the living room, which was completely empty except for a big, shaggy brown carpet. Strips of colored light fell on it through stained glass windows on the far wall.
“Kitchen’s over here,” he led me through a doorway into a little kitchen with a big white fridge and an eight-burner stove. Boxes sat on a tawny kitchen table, open, packing peanuts littering the floor. There were already alphabet magnets holding family pictures on the fridge. I set the cookies on the counter and quickly rinsed off my hand in the sink. He left for a moment, so I lifted my shirt and wiped my wet hand on my butt where he wouldn’t see under my t-shirt, because there weren’t any paper towels.
I walked over to the fridge and slipped a photo out from under a B magnet. The parents stood on either side of the kids, of which there were four: the boy who let me in, a girl a few inches shorter than him, another girl who reached their shoulders, and a little boy who was half their height. The taller girl had her hair braided in tiny cornrows, and the younger one had her braids tied off with big plastic stars. The boys had on hats and the older one held up a big silver hook with four fish hanging from it, shining pink and green in the sun.
“So, you found the family?” I slammed the photo back into the fridge and slapped the magnet on it.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be nosy,” I rubbed the back of my neck, looking up into his big brown eyes. He raised an eyebrow.
“No, you’re fine,” he took a step back and leaned on the counter, gripping it with his dark hands. His nails were pink. He looked up at the skylight in the ceiling and clucked his tongue quietly. The light spiraled on his curly black hair, in and out as he tilted his head. “That was in Maine last year, if you were curious.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m sorry,” I felt my cheeks getting hot, even hotter than the unconditioned air.
“No, don’t apologize. You scared of me or something? You keep jumping.”
I felt my breakfast swirling around in my stomach. My heart caught in my throat, a racing pitter pat.
Five minutes. It took five minutes for me to blow it. I really wasn’t scared of him; at least, I wasn’t scared of him, personally. I was just a shitty person to send as a welcome party, because an adrenaline spike was my God-given response to interactions with strangers. I was almost sure his race had nothing to do with it.
“No, I’m not,” I said, wringing my hands together. The room smelled sweet, from the cookies, but it didn’t entice me anymore. “I’m sorry. You’re probably busy. I’ll head out.”
“Okay,” he looked at the little leather watch coiled around his wrist. “See you around. Thanks for the cookies.”
“Sure, I’ll see you. Nice to meet you,” I held my hand out again, trying to repair the almost definitely irreparable damage. He shook it gently, my hand engulfed in his.
“Nice to meet you, too.”
I cleared out after that, because loitering meant more time to screw things up. I jumped on my bike and pedaled home as fast as I could, standing up on the pedals, the blue streamers on the handles propelled straight back, glittering. The wind caught in my ears, like jet noise. Biking home, we could go fast, because parents didn’t care about pit stains or BO.
I watched the houses fly past me, the minivans and Ford trucks out front, the incinerated lawns and the hoola hoops melting into the driveways, the town cropping up a few miles down towards the southern horizon, the white porches, the white sidewalks, the white daisies bordering the mailbox posts. My stomach was still reeling.