“You’re leaving?” she asked.
Daniel was packing up his backpack. Not recklessly, jut methodically. His military training.
“Of course,” she scoffed. “We’re in the middle of an argument, and you’re leaving.”
“You keep the car, Kira,” he said, putting the keys on the cooler. “I’m going to hike out of here. It’ll give me some time to think. And to enjoy this incredible scenery.”
She looked out, over the mountain. Forget the beautiful fall colors. “Was that a little sarcasm I detected there?”
“Not at all,” he said.
“Because you can’t enjoy it with me, right? What’s the matter, Daniel? Am I too…cranky for you? ”
He just gave her a look and kept on packing.
Her mouth didn’t know when to stop sometimes. “You need time to think. You. Daniel, at least I was talking to you. Why can’t you talk to me?”
“You weren’t talking to me. You were talking at me.” He zipped the knapsack.
He didn’t answer. He never explained what was in his head. The world was supposed to know. Well, screw that.
“Why do you always do that? Expect the world to know what’s in your mind?” She shook her head from side to side. “Guys,” she whispered under her breath. “White guys.”
He stood up. All six foot seven of him. “You want to know what’s in my head? Well, I hope you can take it. Here it goes.”
She zipped her jacket at the sudden chill.
“I love you Kira, you know that?”
He looked out at the horizon. “But I have to let you go, girl.”
Her mouth didn’t move now.
“You know why? Because I can’t stand how you hate yourself when you’re with me.”
“Huh?” This was escalating to a place she’d never intended.
“Yeah. That’s right, I know you do. You hate yourself because you’re a black woman in love with a white man.”
Kira stopped breathing.
But Daniel wasn’t done. “Look, I’m just a guy. Yeah, a white guy. Out here trying to live my life. Not a white supremacist, not a tool, just a guy. And you’re so angry all the time. All the time. Not at the world! At me! Like I’m supposed to redeem the world for you, so that you can live in it. You look at me and you don’t see me. You see white privilege, even though you know what I come from. That I’ve had to pull myself up from nothing. You see the system, broken down, corrupt, and in chaos, and you want me to fix it. All by myself! You want fairy tales, Kira. And I’m not the guy who can give them to you.”
He now slung the pack over his shoulders. Fingered his cap.
“If you decide you want me, come and find me, I’m committed. And we can build a life together, I mean a real life. Kids, cabin in the woods, we can do some pioneer thing. Or, we can do your corporate newscaster circuit, whatever you want. But you have to come with a different attitude. Because I won’t be with you like this. It just tears me apart.”
He took her arms and kissed her, slow and heavy. Then he turned around and started down the mountain.
Kira Lee was left with the feel of bruised lips, sexual arousal, and astonishment.
Astonishment at the sheer number of words that had come out of that man’s mouth. In all the time she’d known him, he’d never strung that many words together. Not once. At least, not about his feelings.
She had a suspicious lump in her throat.
Their idyllic camping weekend was ruined.
She sank down, on the side of the mountain, facing not just the russet forest and the sun climbing the blue horizon, but the analysis she was forced to make, of his exit speech.
She really, really hated that man.
Tall, lanky, powerful, and chiseled. Wicked skilled, hard working and even-tempered.
Daniel was perfect.
From where she could see, he was untroubled by doubts, imposter fraud syndrome, or insecurity. He was Superman.
And that is why she hated him. So much!
But she also admired him. She also loved him.
She was smart enough to know, that looking at him like that, like he was perfect, was dangerous. It was brain washed, it was shit! And she hated herself. He was right about that.
She knew that he must have faults, he must have insecurities. He was human after all. But he didn’t talk about them, he didn’t let anyone see them. He was wound tighter than a rubber band. He was in command all the time, naturally. He never sat still. He took three aspirin when he had a headache and just slugged it out. He was a prisoner of his own self image. When he keeled over, it would be for good. Because nothing would stop him before that.
And he was right. When she saw him in all his glory, she also saw white privilege.
Even the confidence to work hard was a part of that white privileged. She envied everything he was and everything he had.
He had bought into the narrative that he could do anything, it had propelled him, it had him in its grip and it would not let him go. To him, admitting vulnerability, ignorance, feebleness of any kind was to fail, to be weak.
And she was weak. That made them basically incompatible, didn’t it?
She wasn’t weak on the outside. Not in the obvious sense. She was a ripped, fit, tall, chocolate sister. She could shoot a three pointer from any angle on the court and sink that basket.
She was acing it in her career, just like she had in her tour of duty. Her daily speech to the bathroom mirror was, “I’m a strong black woman and I don’t take no shit from nobody.”
This motto got her through life.
But it was a lie.
Because she too had drunk the cool aid. If Daniel thought he could succeed at anything because he was white, then she thought, deep down, she believed she could never make it out there, in the real world, because she was black. The lowest on the totem pol. A black, dark black, nappy haired, female.
There it was. She had bought into the myth. On a celular, DNA level, living in the United States of fucked up America, she was also fucked up.
She hated herself more than she hated Daniel.
She hated herself because she was a highly visible professional journalist, who wanted to throw it all away.
She hated herself because she was a feminist, who just wanted to have babies with this man.
She hated herself because, while descending from a long line of mammies and domestic workers, all she wanted to be was a housewife. A stay at home, privileged, well kept, suburban, soccer mom. Huh! On a fireman’s salary.
And it was his fault! He was the one. He had done this.
Taken away all her confidence, her will to fight, to slug it out in the professional arena.
He was the one that made her feel so safe, that she could let go of the reigns, slow the horses, and coast to a stop. She could step down from the stage coach, walk barefoot in the prairie, find the little cabin on the hillside, plant a veggie garden, and begin to homestead.
She wanted to hide behind this man. She wanted him to fight all her battles, like a knight in shining armor. In other words, she wanted to cash in on his white privilege.
And that was sooo messed up.
What if she lost herself in the process?
And wasn’t that just drinking a little bit more of the cool aid? This idea that a man and woman could be happy ever after. This myth.
But yeah, he was the one she wanted. Since she was a fourteen-year-old, boy-crazy girl, she’d been looking for a man like this. She’d found him. They’d known each other for seven years. They’d met during her tour of duty in Afghanistan, then he’d been over there by himself for another tour. Now, they’d been together for the last three years.
God! What had she done to make him give her this ultimatum?
Huh! What hadn’t she done.
She wiped away the tears with the back of her hand and nearly scratched her eyeball with the ring.
She looked at the ring that was on her fourth finger. He had given it to her last night. After they’d hiked all day, shot some amazing pictures, come back exhausted, built a fire and cooked.
After that, they had christened the tent with some amazingly good sex. Then he had pulled the little box out and said, “Been meaning to give this to you all day.”
He put the velvet box in her hand and said, “Sleep on it.”
“Wait! Aren’t you going to do the thing?”
“The get down on one knee and ask thing.”
“I’m nearly naked and it’s cold, get back under the sleeping bag.”
She slipped the ring on her finger and it fit.
She snuggled back into the sleeping bag and tried to sleep.
But somehow, in the middle of the night, her dreams had become entangled with some real ugly stuff.
Like, “How come I didn’t get the ‘Will you marry me question?’ Don’t I rate that? Is there something about me that, like, says, no you don’t have to ask her, you can just give her a box and roll over and go to sleep? Is this what black girls rate? If I had been a white girl would you have done it like that?”
On and on and on, all night long, the question was being asked, and magnified.
So that when he got up, she was already up, making coffee, banging things around.
He came out of the tent, smiling from ear to ear, “Good morning. Oh my God, look at this view, the mountains, the valley, the pine trees, the river. Isn’t it awesome?”
How could he not tell?
He went off to the woods, came back. He helped her fry the eggs in the bacon drippings. It wasn’t till the second cup of coffee that he seemed to notice her quietness.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter,” she shrugged.
“You can take your time, you know.” He smiled, with understanding eyes.
“Time for what?” She said.
“To give me an answer to my proposal.”
“What proposal? There was no proposal.”
“Oh?” He got serious. “Give me back the ring then, I’ll do it again. I’ll do it properly.”
“It’s not that. I don’t need you to go down on one knee.”
“What’s it about then?”
“Oh, really! You don’t have any idea?”
“Come on, Kira, let’s not play games.”
“Oh, oh you really think this is a game?”
“No. I didn’t mean that. Just tell me what I did wrong, okay?”
“Oh, now it’s my job. It’s always my job to explain.”
“Wait, Is this about race? How is this about race?”
“You didn’t ask, you just gave me the box and went to sleep.”
He sat still. He looked out across the horizon, then back at her.
“Do you know what it means for a man to spend three months of his salary on a ring? It’s a symbol. It means he wants to honor you, protect you, support you, take care of you.”
And that is when she should have stopped. And actually heard him. But she had to get in the last word.
“Well I don’t know, but where I come from, there are certain symbols too, like champagne and candlelight and a question. It’s called romance. Or is that just for white women?”
That’s when he had gone into the tent, and emerged with his backpack.
Kira wiped her face again, this time with a proper tissue.
She remembered now, being in a bar with him, more than a year ago. What was it he had said?
“C’mon Kira, I’m getting too old for this.”
“To be a boyfriend. I’m thirty eight.”
She had laughed. “So what do you want to be?”
“I want a family,” he said, quietly.
“And I want another drink!” She waved her glass at the bartender.
And that was all she had said. Funny how you knew now, things that you couldn’t even acknowledge at the time. Now, she knew she had hurt him. How? Because now she remembered the slight pause before he had said, “I want a family.” And the still, wary look in those blue eyes. Like he expected to be blown off.
That was fear.
He’d never brought it up afterwords. And she didn’t either.
How long had he planned this weekend? Had that episode been a prelude to this? Had he been slowly overcoming her defenses, her skittishness. First, her awkwardness at dating a white man, then her shyness at calling him her boyfriend, then, her resistance at taking the final plunge. Had it taken him another year to get up his nerve again? Is that why he’d said, “sleep on it,” instead of, “Will you marry me.”
And had she really complained that his proposal wasn’t romantic?
A perfect setting, a perfect moment, and she had ruined it all, by saying it wasn’t romantic. What a bitch!
She wiped her face again.
But why couldn’t he stay and fight it out with her? Fight for her?
In her way of thinking, she should be able to ask questions. Like, “Well, how’s this gonna work?” And, “How’s that gonna work?” And so on, and so forth.
But really, the fight was between her and herself. And he knew it. If three years of being with him hadn’t answered her questions, overcome her mistrust, what would?
Daniel wasn’t good at talking about race. But he was the one doing the big brother stuff, building for the community center, coaching in his spare time. He walked the walk and she did the talking. Talk, talk, talk.
There was a cancer on her soul and she was afraid to name it. But she had to, if she was going to root it out.
In a subtle way, Kira knew she was a racist.
Not because she believed she was better than someone else, but because she had fallen prey to the other lie. The idea that she was not equal, that she was less. Impossible to say how that had happened. But maybe she wasn’t the only one. If you lived in a society that kept telling you in a million ways, every day, that you were inferior, wouldn’t it seep in? Politician’s babble, election campaigns with their innuendo and coded language. Job interviews and reviews, the corporate structure, all made you feel that you shouldn’t be there, that you were an imposter, an anomaly who could speak “proper” English. The continual need to push back on this narrative wore you down, made you crazy. Beauty standards, hair comparisons, make up adds, movies and people, these were telling you that you were less than, that your story was missing, that your human experience was not as important. My God, when had this happened to her?
And the resentment of Daniel, where had it come from? It comes from constantly comparing yourself to him.
The mistrust, the ever present, growing mistrust, that should have been diminishing as her love grew, but wasn’t. It was growing, always wanting proof that he wouldn’t, by some small slight, by some tiny tiny act, reveal that he was a racist. As the stakes grew, so did the fear that he could betray her.
But all this shit, this cancer on her soul, was getting her nowhere. It wasn’t protecting her. It was just interfering with her happiness.
If Daniel had vestiges of racism in him, then that was his problem, his spiritual battle to face. She had her own battle to fight.
“Push through it,” she hissed, as if she were doing her crunches.
And now she knew, that instead of drowning in fear and resentment, she had to follow her bliss.
She started humming the words to the song, under her breath. “What a girl wants, what a girl needs, whatever makes me happy.”
Suddenly, Kira got up and started packing up the campsite gear. She, too, was methodical, army trained. She took the tent down, packed it up in minutes.
“What would make me happy is to trust,” she said, out loud.
“What would make me happy is to not focus on our faults.”
“What would make me happy is to build something with Daniel. To accept him as my mirror. To know that he’s just like me.”
“Yeah, he triggers me. And that is okay. That is the point. We’re gonna grow together.”
“I’ve gotta tell him I’ve got his back. He can open up with me. I’ll be his safe zone. You don’t have to be Superman, baby.”
“Baby, I love you. You’re gonna be okay with me. We’re gonna be alright. Oh God, pick up the phone. Pick up your phone, Daniel!”
When she got to the car she found his phone there. “Damn!”
When she got home he wasn’t there.
It’s okay. He would have had to hike out of the National park, then catch a ride. It could take a while.
Twenty four hours later he wasn’t back yet. She called the fire station.
No. He hadn’t reported for work. He wasn’t due back on shift for another day.
No need to worry about his safety on the job today. No need for the stomach ache that accompanied her most days, when he was going into burning buildings, saving people’s lives.
Another twenty four hours, and now she was frantic.
“Where are you, baby? How could you forget your phone?”
“I’ve got to let you go.” That’s what he’d said.
What the hell does that mean anyways? You left your phone on purpose?
What if he fell down a hole and broke his leg?
“You see, only a white man would think he could go off without a means of communication and be okay. That nothing could happen to him that he couldn’t resolve himself. Such an arrogant prick!“
Her alter ego countered, “Well, after all, he is a rescuer. People call him when they’re in trouble.”
“No. No. You see! That’s your Superman bullshit. They call a squad. A whole team of guys. And even a hundred guys, working together, can die. They died on nine eleven.”
“Shut uuup! This is crazy. I’m going crazy.”
Her hands were shaking as she called the station again.
“Yeah, Kira. He’s here. But they’re out on a call. Do you want to leave a message?”
Damn. She had to go to work herself. Would he come home after work?
On the way to work she stopped at Bloomingdales to grab a dress shirt to go on air with. In the bathroom, a middle aged white woman came out of the bathroom stall and said to her, “There’s no toilet paper in that stall.”
“You need to put more paper in that stall.”
The woman was out the door before the words came out of her mouth. “Do I look like the cleaning lady?”
In the Uber she was fuming. “I can’t believe this. Twenty first century, and this shit is still happening.”
But as the day went by she grew more philosophical. So what if someone confused you for the janitorial staff? Did you get kidnapped? Did you get raped? Forced to be a sex worker for an African war lord like those little black girls in Africa? No. So shake it off. Don’t be so damn unhappy. So whiny about an America that isn’t perfect yet.
So what if the founding fathers promised equality for all? Is that what made her so unsure of herself? So angry? The fact that the reality did not always accord with the promise?
She had freedom. To be whatever she wanted. Not as a right, but by her own effort.
She could exercise some of that freedom and marry a white man and raise some biracial kids!
Take that, bathroom lady!
She left a message at the fire station, “Come home after your shift.”
When Daniel walked in at nine she didn’t even let him get his coat off. She slammed him against the wall and was all over him.
He reacted with energy and that Superman strength. It amazed her, that her being six feet tall never stopped him from picking her up and carrying her to a bed.
“The answer is yes,” she said. “But I still want to discuss the details.”
“Afterwards,” he said, flinging his coat on the floor.
In his arms, later, she said, quietly, “I really want to get married Daniel, but I’m afraid.”
“Tell me what you’re afraid of,” he said, tightening his hold.
“I’m afraid that being with you is going to debilitate me. Make me…mentally ill.”
“Because, you’re so strong. And I’m always comparing myself to you. And I always come out…wanting.”
“It’s an expression. It just means, being inferior.”
He was silent for a moment. “Was that an example, right there?”
“Where you had to explain to the dumb jock what an English expression means?”
He lifted her chin, looked straight into her eyes. “Let me explain to you how men’s minds work…in the business of looking for a mate.”
“You see, men are very strategic. They always go for the gall they think is too good for them. They try to marry up.”
“In my case, I picked the strongest, smartest, sexiest woman to come across my path. And that’s you Kira. Hands down. I need your strength.”
“I…I’m supposed to swallow that,” she said, a suspicious treble in her voice.
“Believe it. First day you walked into my platoon in Afghanistan. That’s when you came into my sights.”
“Wow. That’s how come you signed up for another tour, when I was coming back home?”
“Well, I knew you weren’t ready to look at me yet. Plus I had to wait and see what city you’d settle down in, so I could look for a job there. I mean, here.”
Kira was at a loss for words, to think he’d been focused on wining her for so long. “You’re not just strategic, you’re scary.” She kissed him.
But he wasn’t finished. “And about this race stuff. A lot of changes are coming, we’re just gonna have to hang on and live through it, the best we can, together.”
“What kind of changes do you think are coming?”
“Oh…This is going to be the century of retribution. I know I’m a dinosaur, on my way out. Why do you think I want a black woman to have my children? So my genes will survive.”
“Ah ha ha ha ha ha. Ah ha ha ha ha.” Kira couldn’t stop laughing. It was as if someone had tickled her right in the stomach. And the perspective of race relations which had been so gloomy before, was now looking like…a pioneering adventure.
“Cmon. I wasn’t that funny,” he said.
“I can’t help it. It’s so….weird to hear you say stuff like that.”
“Well yeah, I was joking. With just a little bit of truth in there.”
“It doesn’t have to be the century of retribution, you know, it just has to be the century of restitution.”
“Well, one man’s restitution is another man’s retribution,” he said. “Why do you think there’s so many of them arming up? It’s all connected.”
She looked at him as if she were seeing him for the first time. “Wow Daniel, who knew you were this deep?”
He shrugged. “You can talk to me. Or at me. Whatever. I was wrong to walk away.”
That was all she ever wanted. That’s what love meant. That was the proof she had been waiting for.
Slowly, she felt it melt away. The mistrust. The fear. She exhaled it out.
She squeezed his hand. “Promise?”
He raised her hand to his lips. “Hurrah. Semper fi.”
That was unbreakable. On his honor. In battle, always faithful.
With Daniel, the fewer the words, the deeper the meaning.