WallsBy Tess Almendarez Lojacono
“Did you see who died?” Weezie tried to hand me the newspaper.
“Just tell me.”
She shook the paper at me. “Marcel.”
Our older sister took up with a black man when we were both in college. Now, from that you can infer that we are not black. Strictly speaking we aren’t white either, but we definitely are not black.
When we were growing up, blacks were called Negros, not meaning any disrespect, that’s just what they were called. And Asians were Chinese or Japanese or whatever. Thailand was still Siam and Russia was vast and a wall separated Western Europe from Eastern Europe. A wall. This was curious to me then, thinking of the walls I knew. A wall was more obstacle than barrier back then, something to be scaled, not a deterrence.
But our sister set out to build an actual barricade. Was it anger? Defiance? A sign of the times? I didn’t stop to consider the underlying cause as I immediately followed suit. She looked with disdain upon this—far from being flattered, here was evidence that I had no mind, no expression of my own. I dated a black fellow too, mine more boy than man, a handsome boy but ungrown, energetic and obnoxious.
One day he and I were in the Foodland and I realized I’d have to decide. If I stayed with him, declared myself his girlfriend, I’d be labeling myself as that kind of formless girl not savvy enough to get a white man of her own, so destined to play big white fish to his small black pond. I could see it in the eyes of the cashiers and box boys. Some looked with pity at us, some with a grudging admiration.
Again, I don’t mean any disrespect; I just wasn’t ready to wear a label yet. So I disentangled myself, even though I must squeeze underneath my bed, breathing in the carpet hairs, hiding, until he finally wandered off and I could go back to being me.
But my sister built what she thought was a sturdy wall with a man who would form bricks of shock and deep dismay.
She loved his name: Marcel. Not tall, nor thin—I met him at the bar. He was holding court, surrounded by my sister and her friends. I shook his hand, a soft hand, and wondered what the fuss was all about. My sister called him deep. She said he was a Black Panther, raising people from the dirt of disrespect. I thought of this when I rinsed tiny ringlets of black hair from our sink.
I wondered if he knew that she was using him. But then, she was a good shock to his family too, I guessed. I guessed it all was even in the end.
And then my sister got over whatever was eating her and she let her wall come down. Amiably it seemed, they went their separate ways. I wondered what his wall was for, and if she tumbled his. I wondered how many people were building and dismantling walls and if Weezie and I did it too, without realizing.
“Does she know?” I asked.
Weezie shrugged. “Probably. That was long ago. When she knew him, I mean.”
Photo "Facing the Racial Wall" by Michael Gehm. Visit his website at www.snapshotwillie.com