As you drive your mother home from the doctor’s office she breaks the silence, turns to you and says, “I didn’t raise you to be a racist.”
“What?” You glance at her, swerving the car. You can tell by the spiteful glint in her eyes that, under her mask, she is smirking. Here we go, you think, and wonder how she always gets you, why you can never predict her stunts. You want to ask what she’s been listening to or watching that inspired this declaration. She loves copying t.v. and movies, pretending she’s the caring but put-upon matriarch in an old chick-flick. The one who knows you better than you know yourself. Cloth balloons, then puckers against your mouth as you huff your annoyance into your mask.
You are driving to the home you’ve been sharing again since the pandemic began. The home that is not supposed to be your home anymore. It is a four bedroom, gray two-story, on a cul-de-sac surrounded by rows of other two-stories that appear equally restrained and despondent. That same mood overshadowed your childhood. Each morning since moving back you walk through the neighborhood and rarely see anyone else. The new trend is that everyone, including your mother, has installed privacy film on their windows. All the houses have multiple, vacant eyes reflecting tiny, treeless lawns at you as you walk down the center of the empty streets. You try to imagine children growing up inside those eyes.
In the car, your mother complains about taking you to a boy’s house when you were in 7th grade and says his parents kept “one of those flags” in their garage. You don’t have to ask what kind of flag she means. Both of you grew up putting one hand over your heart to honor American flags that flew next to a state flag bearing confederate symbols, pretending the hypocrisy wasn’t glaring.
Middle school was decades ago but your mother talks as if she dropped you off at the boy’s house yesterday. She keeps on but you stop listening. You realize your mother is talking about Simon, with his bright blue eyes and white-blond, wispy hair that he shook out of his face in a way that somehow made him seem authoritative and vulnerable at the same time. You remember Simon’s bedroom closet, where the two of you hid to makeout, and swimming in his above-ground pool. You remember Simon’s mother because she was so nice to you. She said that you were pretty and made Simon say it too by asking, “Isn’t she pretty, Simon?”
“Yes ma’am.” he replied, eyes cast downward. Simon’s mother asked which classes were your favorites. She told you little things about Simon that felt like secrets, that he cried when the family buried their dead dog, and that he always helped her dry the dishes after dinner. Those moments convinced you she rooted for you over the other girls who swam in the round, leaf-littered pool with Simon. You don’t remember the family’s garage or seeing any flags.
In 7th grade English you wrote a story about growing ten feet tall overnight and everyone laughed when you read it out loud, standing at the front of the classroom. “Girls are supposed to be small,” they told you. Your teacher rolled her eyes at your inconvenient red face, tears you wiped away with the neck of your t-shirt before they fell. Simon laughed at your story but you went swimming at his house again anyway.
You remember Tina, new to your school that year, had not laughed. She approached you at lunch, tugged your sleeve to say, “I like your story. I want to feel powerful too.” Her slow, sweet drawl oozed honesty. The two of you spent the rest of lunch period comparing your favorite science fiction novels and discussing Wonder Woman reruns.
Was Tina the only Black girl in school? You can’t remember. Near the end of the year the boys in class emptied their pencil sharpeners into cupped hands held under desks. They jumped up as if a whistle blew, ran at Tina, smashed their palms down on her head, rubbed the shavings into her hair, grinned. Tina shrieked.
“Boys, get back to your seats right now. Everyone, be quiet,” was all the teacher said. Her inaction confused you. Still grinning, Simon tapped you on the shoulder with his fist as he passed on the way to his desk. Torn between standing up to your classmates or conforming, you gave in to paralysis. You don’t remember talking to Tina after that. She wasn’t at your school for 8th grade.
In the driveway of your mother’s house, you feel embarrassed you don’t know where Tina went after the pencil shavings incident. She was your friend after all, shouldn’t you have known that? Your mother is still talking and it’s hot inside the car. The mask over your mouth and nose is damp and feels heavy against your skin. You jam your thumb onto the garage door opener, press too hard, hold it too long, as though this will release your frustrations, your regrets. The plastic cracks, pinching you. The door shudders to life, opening like the mouth of a fat, sleepy animal. You stare inside. The void is the same soulless shade as the house. Your mother is trying to hand you the plastic sack filled with her new medications. It makes a crackling sound as it repeatedly bumps your shoulder.
Ashley Lewin is a writer originally from Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing can also be found in Sky Island Journal, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, and The Citron Review. She taught college English after spending 15 years as a veterinary technician. She now writes and farms in Belen, New Mexico.