Wednesday, August 10, 2016
I'd Like to Introduce You to...
"Do you know who I am?"
I stared at her unable to speak. I had no idea who she was. But I knew what was happening. I was getting "jumped".
My "friend" Jennifer, who had been walking with me, sprinted toward Center Street and left me there as soon as someone said, "White girl — get the fuck outta here!"
I watched her helplessly as she disappeared around the corner, her long legs kicking behind her.
Why did they let her go?
This alley behind the JC Penney was a shortcut that Jennifer and I took everyday after school on our way to get vanilla lollipops from the See's Candy by the BART station entrance. Somehow these four girls knew that we would be heading through there after school today.
They weren't interested in her!
I was startled by my revelation.
They waited here for me. They wanted me. But why?
"Did you HEAR me?" she raised her voice. "I asked you a question. Do you know who I am?"
I remained mute and backed up as far as I could go. I felt the wall behind me frantically with my fingers as though maybe I could press a secret button and open an escape panel. The porous brown bricks grabbed the knit of my red and white, cotton baseball t-shirt every time I leaned forward.
Why do they want to beat me up?
The leader took a step forward and pushed my forehead back with a gloved finger. It was a dirty, thick work glove, like a glove you would see a farmer wearing while driving a tractor. As the back of my head hit flat against the wall, I kept eye contact with her, but I could see an object in her hand out of the corner of my periphery.
She's got a baseball bat....
"Look at her" she said to the others with a snarly laugh.
They all snickered and smacked fists into open palms, like in an 1940s gangster movie. I resisted the insane urge to laugh.
I stood straighter against the wall. I felt terribly under prepared for whatever was about to happen. I had never struck anyone. I had never been struck. I hoped fervently that the two pair (yes two pair!) of size double zero Sticky Finger jeans I was wearing made me look bigger than the 98 pounds I weighed. I was taller than her by a head (at 5'8, I was taller than almost everyone in the 9th grade), but she was more solidly built than I.
It was easily 75 degrees outside and all four of them were wearing heavy, black "derby" jackets that read "Westside De Berkeley" on the back in gold embroidery.
Why, they're in a gang, I realized dreamily as sweat trickled down the sides of my face.
I'm getting jumped behind the JC Penney by Westside De Berkeley!
"So who's gonna hit her first?" The leader held the bat toward the other 3 girls and took a step away from me with a flourishy arm-movement that looked like an invitation to "step up to the plate".
"Come on? Who's first?"
It went on like that for what felt like minutes, but was probably more like seconds.
"Come on, Terri" said one of the shorter ones with a high, squeaky voice. "Somebody needs to hit her."
So her name is Terri.
I wracked my brain for any encounter that I could have ever had with a Terri that would have been offensive.
What did I do to you, Terri?
Terri put her face right in front of mine. I could smell her lavender gum and freshly Aqua-netted hair.
"I'll tell you what Bambi," she said menacingly.
"Bambi?" said the squeaky-voiced one.
"Look at them big eyes," said Terri. "Don't she remind you of that fuckin' deer?"
She turned her attention back to me poking my forehead with her finger to emphasize each syllable.
Michael? This is about Michael?
"I almost got my ass kicked!" I screamed to Jennifer on the phone later on.
"I ran to get help," she said. "I'm sorry. Did they hurt you?"
"Really?" I said, not try to keep the accusation out of my voice. "You ran to get help? What happened?"
"I came back as soon as I could with Big Keith," she stammered. "But you were all already gone."
"They had a bat! Did you know that? They said I was lucky."
"Did they hurt you?"
"They didn't touch me."
"Because..." I said in a far away voice. "Because it was a warning from his girl.
to stay away from Michael."
But instead I stayed away from that alley behind JC Penney's. I stayed away from girls in black jackets. And eventually I stayed away from Jennifer too (I couldn't get over the fact that she'd just left me there). But I could not, would not stay away from Michael. I didn't care if there was someone else. Even someone who could have a girl-gang jump me in the alley. If he loved her, I was willing to wait until he didn't. And so I waited in the wings through most of high school, while he and his real girlfriend carried out their public high school romance. I could accept that he needed to be with her. But for me, there would be no one else but Michael.
Before he was mine, Michael would invite me over to hang out with him and his folks (when "she" wasn't there). I would spend many happy hours in Michael's home with his little sister, Teri, his mother, Emmarine and his father, Ronnie -- they became like my second family. I was almost 18 before I could really call Michael my boyfriend. But by age 20, when I decided to go live with my dad in Florida and go to junior college there, Michael opted to stay in Berkeley and take the fire fighter's exam. I loved him, but I was eager to see what the world beyond Berkeley had to offer. And so, after a few tearful talks in my childhood bedroom, we parted ways for good.
I found out about Emmarine's passing this January on Facebook like most of our other Berkeley High-classmates. I hadn't spoken with Michael in a long, long time. He had been in Germany for almost 20 years and only made brief trips back to the states (which I knew of mainly from Teri's Facebook posts). I messaged them both but it was Teri who responded first. They were heartbroken. It was totally unexpected — the worst kind of devastation. There was so much hurt. My heart hurt as well. She had been like a mother to me too.
Emmarine's passing rekindled my relationship with both Michael and Teri. As we messaged back and forth, memories of the times we spent together came crashing in like the waves on a beach.
"My kids, Scottie and his kids and my mom and I will be going through the bay area on a road trip in August," I messaged Teri, in flurry of nostalgia one day. "I would love to see you guys." The moment she typed back "yes" I got knots in my stomach.
What did I do? I made a date to see my old boyfriend and his sister with my boyfriend and our families? What will Scottie think? I haven't Michael in over 30 years. Is it too strange?
Two weeks ago Scottie, my kids, his kids and my mom, Linda arrived in San Francisco. We were on the second to last leg of our annual summer road trip that had begun 8 days earlier in Vancouver, Canada. Back in March when I was planning this leg of the trip, Scottie had taken the news pretty well when I told him that I had invited Michael and Teri to meet us for lunch.
"High school boyfriend, huh?"
"And his sister," I offered quickly. "They were like my family for quite a few years."
"Okay," he said. "If you think it'll be cool. I'm okay with it."
We hadn't discussed again it since then, and now it was eminent — we were meeting them the next afternoon.
"What's the day tomorrow?" he asked (this is our bedtime ritual. We run through the following day's itinerary with the other before we go to sleep.)
"Um, tomorrow, we're meeting Michael and Teri for lunch in Oakland."
I took in a deep breath. "Michael, my high school boyfriend and his sister, Teri."
"That's tomorrow?" he sounded slightly irritated. I chastised myself inwardly for not having reminded him sooner.
"Yeah - tomorrow."
I rolled him over so we were facing each other. The chintzy hotel pillow cases crinkled like wax paper under our heads.
"It's just lunch. I don't know how it will be. I haven't seen either of them in years. I don't think I've seen him for 30 years or so. Maybe you can bring your camera?" I said brightly.
Scottie looked tired. He hadn't had moment to rest. His mom, Nancy, had passed on July 8th and he'd only just returned from settling her affairs in Virginia before he had to pack up and come on this pre-planned road trip. My heart suddenly ached with compassion.
"Would you rather not come?"
"No," he sighed. "I'll go. I'm sure it will be fine. But it's just kind of weird. I forgot about it, is all."
Michael and Teri were seated at a table, facing the entrance when we walked in to The Southern Cafe. The enticing aroma of smothered pork chops and fried chicken hit us as soon as we walked through the door. I placed my open palm against my stomach to buffer the sound of it's growling as they both got up to greet us. Michael looked exactly the same as he did the last time I saw him, handsome, chocolate brown, close-cropped hair and muscular. Somehow, he seemed to be slightly shorter than me (I swear he used to be taller). He and I are about the same age, but he looked just like he did in high school. I mean, he had a stray gray hair or two around the temple (and a couple in his sparse chin and sideburn hair). But other than that, he looked as youthful as he had back then -- it was uncanny.
Teri looked the same too, she had the same big brown eyes and big, beautiful smile. She just seemed a bit more mature — more like her mother than ever. She and I fell into each other's arms. It had been 16 years since I last saw her (she came down to LA for a visit once). But the time and the absence of contact hadn't diminished how we were with each other. Holding her felt like it was 1982 again - she was my little sister.
Michael and I hugged each other gingerly. I was mindful of Scottie's presence and eager to introduce them, just to avoid any potential awkwardness.
"Honey, this is Michael and Teri. And you guys, I'd like to introduce you to Scottie." Michael gave Scottie a handshake/hug. "Hey - I'm sorry to hear about your mom," he said, making eye contact with him.
"Thanks," said Scottie. I watched him soften as he received Michael's heartfelt condolences. "I'm sorry to hear about yours too."
We all found seats around the large table set for 9. Scottie and I sat across from each other and Michael sat next to Scottie, also across from me.
"So..." said someone.
I made myself exhale because I realized that I'd been holding my breath. I looked around a realized that Scottie, Lily and Nora were the only White people in the restaurant. I hoped the location wasn't a mistake.
I was slightly disappointed in myself. I hadn't planned to be nervous. If I was nervous that might set the wrong tone for the lunch. Because yes, Scottie was right, it was weird. Here was this man that I was basically willing to die for 30-something year's ago, sitting next to my Scottie -- who everyone knows is the love of my life. I was sitting across from my past and my present and feeling overly protective of both. I didn't want Michael to feel out of place because Scottie was there with me and I didn't want Scottie to feel out of place because we were having lunch with my high school boyfriend.
I shook out my fingers under the table. I knew that none of this was anything I could control. I could hear my sponsor's voice telling me "Sometimes the greatest gift you can give anyone is the dignity of their own experience."
So there it was. I had created this potentially awkward situation and there was no going back. We were here in Oakland having lunch together. All of us. I couldn't control how Michael or Scottie felt. I couldn't control anyone else's comfort level.
Can I just be myself and not try and "manage" this whole thing?
I looked over at Michael. He was staring down the table toward my mother, who was telling a story. I knew Michael had a daughter that was younger than my kids. I knew he had moved back to Berkeley right before his mom passed, but I didn't know much else. His Facebook page lacked a storyline. His posts were few and far between and some didn't include photographs.
I exhaled again when my mom finished her story.
"How's your daughter, Michael?" I asked.
His whole demeanor changed when he told us about Sophia. The iPhones came out (both Michael's and Teri's) and pictures of this beautiful, fair-haired child with Michael's smile were passed around the table. He spoke woefully about how he had been reluctant to leave her in Germany and how they worked out an arrangement where she visits with him frequently for extended periods of time.
Scottie put his left hand on Michael's arm and motioned across the table to Lily and Nora with his free hand.
"Hey, I've got that same deal with them," he said looking him in the eye. "And now, Lily is here looking for colleges in California. We're going to her first college interview this week when we get back to LA," Scottie's smile was the one that he saved for his kids. It was both joyful and proud at the same time.
"So what do you do? Asked Michael, "Summers, Christmas?"
"All of that, I bring them out whenever I can. And when they can't come out here I go to Vermont."
"Do they travel by themselves?"
"Just this year, Lily started flying alone. Nora can travel with Lily, but when she's by herself she has to go..."
"Unaccompanied minor" they said at the same time with a laugh.
Michael turned his chair to face Scottie and they drifted off into their own conversation. Suddenly they were no longer my past and present, they were two fathers conferring on how they could spend more time with their daughters.
I floated into a conversation between Teri and my mother while my boys played on their phones and Lily and Nora listed attentively like they were watching a tennis match.
By the time the peach cobbler came, I forgot that I was nervous. I looked at Scottie with loving eyes across the table and thanked him silently.
You did great, Hon. Thank you.
Scottie winked at me and smiled as we all got up from the table. He got his camera out of his bag and held it up.
"You wanted some pictures, Hon?"