Archived Opinion

Relationship — and innocence — lost, just like that

op coxMany years ago, in a time and a place that seems so far away to me now, I courted a young lady and fancied I was in love. We were really just kids playing at being grown-ups, but we believed we were destined to spend eternity together.

We had even been playing around with the idea of marriage, and one night we began talking about plans — where, when, and how, right down to the kind of band we’d get to play at the reception. She ticked off her bridesmaids one, two, three, four — just like that — and wanted to know who I would have standing up there with me on my side of the aisle. It was all completely ridiculous, but we got caught up in the spirit of it like two kids playing house.

I named a couple of friends she already met and knew, and then there was my brother, and another friend named Steve that she had not yet met.

“You’ll absolutely love him,” I said. “He’s one of the funniest guys I know. We used to crack each other up riding up and down the roads all hours of the night looking for something to get into.”

She had a million questions. Where did he live? What did he do for a living? Did I have any pictures? What did he look like?

I cannot remember exactly how I told her that he was black. It certainly was not the first thing I told her, or the second, or the third. I probably mentioned that he had recently bulked up in the weight room and had gained about 20 pounds of muscle. I surely told her that even though we spent a lot of time at the disco in Galax, Virginia, neither one of us could dance a lick. We laughed at each other without mercy. It didn’t occur to me to mention that he was black right away because I didn’t know it mattered. But it did.

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“Wait a minute,” she said. “He’s BLACK!”

“Yeah, why?”

“There is not a chance in hell that he will be allowed in our church,” she said. “There has never been a colored to set foot in that church, and there never will.”

She was angry, but she could see that I was in shock — and we both felt that everything was crumbling in that very instant, our few months together falling like numbers off a calendar until there was nothing left — so she softened and backped-aled. A little.

“I mean, if he’s your friend, I’m sure he’s a great guy,” she said. “I mean, I’m sure I would like him. Maybe we could invite him out to dinner sometime. Or — I know — we could have like a party the weekend after the wedding and invite him to that!”

 I could see that she was genuinely excited by this idea. I was still trying to get my feet back underneath me. I felt numb, and hardened, like concrete. But I could feel outrage beginning to seep into the cracks where I could still feel something. It was quiet for a minute or two, until the cracks widened enough for everything to pour in — disgust, pity, sadness, anger — and I was suddenly flooded.

I knew what I wanted to say, but didn’t know exactly how to say it. I was still going back over the past several months since we had met. How had this topic never come up? When you live in a small town in the South and might very well go days at a time without seeing a single black person, well, there is that. And when you’re young and you think you’re in love, you don’t venture far out of that little cocoon for a while. There’s that. But still.

“Let me be as clear about this as I can,” I said, puffing up. “I will never step foot in any church where Steve is not welcome.”

Once I got started, I could not stop. I wish I had been kinder, more understanding, and less self-righteous, less angry. She was just telling the truth, just repeating what she had heard all of her life. Her experience had not prepared her for this contingency.

But I was relentless. I was probably more disappointed than angry, but anger is so much easier to translate, especially at that age. Pretty soon she’d be telling me about HER black friends from school (“we’ve fallen out of touch”) or reminding me that her favorite singer was black, or assuring me that every race has “good ones” and “bad ones.”

I could not stand it anymore, so I made some excuse to go home early. I jumped in my car, started and revved it a couple of times, then pushed a cassette into the tape deck out of habit while she stood in the driveway, arms folded.

“There’s got to be some way for us to talk about this,” she said, as I backed out, and maybe there was, but by the time I got 50 feet down the street and looked into the rearview mirror, she was already gone for good. 

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. His most recent book, The Way We Say Goodbye, is available in local bookstores and at Amazon. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)  

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