Blaise Allysen Kearsley | Longreads | November 2019 | 8 minutes (2,056 words)
I always wanted to be liked by everyone’s parents. So with my No. 2 pencil, I wrote a note that said:
Does your father like me?
I passed it to my friend as I walked by her desk — I’ll call her Margaret Bauer. In fourth grade we sat in small groups, clusters of three desks pushed together in the shape of a T. Margaret sat one cluster away from me. I could see her from my desk, with her bushy, light brown, shoulder-length hair in two ribbon-braided barrettes framing her pale pink cheeks, and I waited anxiously for her to write back. When she walked by and handed the note back to me, it read:
I don’t think my father likes you, but my mother does.
That Margaret said her mother liked me was a consolation, but not much. Mrs. Bauer was nice to me but she always seemed a little less friendly when her husband was around.
The Bauers lived down the street from my mother’s house in a suburb just outside of Boston — that small, perpetually segregated and pedigree-obsessed city. They were a five-minute walk away and on the path to school, which was another 10 minutes down a quiet road lined with big trees and bigger houses. There were no Black people who lived in those Victorian-style houses. But I lived there part-time with my white, Jewish mother. The rest of the time I was with my Black father, whose life began nearly thirty years before the Civil Rights Movement. He lived in an equally stodgy part of town — but they had maybe one or two more Black people.
Margaret told me she couldn’t walk to school with me anymore. She told me it was because her parents said we were always late.
In third grade Margaret and I would walk to school together during the weeks I stayed at my mother’s. In the mornings I’d amble down the porch steps, along the steep driveway, looking both ways before I crossed the street. Around the bend I’d go, and when I reached the busy intersection where the crossing guard was stationed in her reflective orange vest, Margaret would be waiting on the corner in front of the towering wooden fence that hid her house.
But then Margaret told me she couldn’t walk to school with me anymore. She told me it was because her parents said we were always late. I don’t know if that was true, but it’s entirely possible; my mother was a late person and I became one too. It was hard to get me out of bed, and I know there were some mornings I left the house late because my mother was trying to comb through the knots in my thick, curly hair, which would get wildly tangled and matted overnight. It stung that I couldn’t walk to school with Margaret anymore. I’d always been sensitive to things. Did I do something wrong? Maybe if I had different hair.
But we remained friends. One early evening I had dinner with Margaret, her parents, and her older brother. It was spring, when the days were long, and their narrow dining room filled with natural light, gradually dimming. Mr. Bauer sat diagonally from me. He had almost all-white hair, not balding, but thin and soft-looking. He wore round, wire-rimmed glasses across the bridge of his long ivory nose. His lips were naturally pursed, and he had a slight double chin despite being slender. He was tall — all the Bauers were — and he always wore a suit.
I was nervous in that way I always was when eating at friends’ houses, not knowing their rituals or what was expected. On the dining table, just beyond my plate, sat a Corningware casserole dish densely packed with steaming baked macaroni and cheese — a delicacy. We were serving ourselves, so I reached forward, wrapped my hand around the silver serving spoon’s handle, and dug in. As I carefully brought the spoon back toward my plate my hand shook and a clump of macaroni plopped onto the floral tablecloth.
“Whoops,” I said quietly.
Mr. Bauer glared at me. I froze. The room darkened around the perimeter of the dining table and the overhead light seemed focused solely on me and the macaroni. I sensed the tension even though I didn’t know the word for that change in the air, the tightening of the atmosphere, the firing of too many neurons. Everyone else seemed to ignore it. But I felt my olive skin flame up and my cheeks wouldn’t let me disappear.
Mr. Bauer watched me as I picked up the macaroni with my jittery fingers and dropped it onto my plate. I didn’t know what else to do. I’d washed my hands before dinner. Should I have used the spoon? But it seemed rude to touch it to the table. He was giving me a dirty look, like when one of your friends is being mean to you. His dirty look told me I was the one who was dirty. His hardened, squinting eyes, his clenched jaw, and his stiffening neck said how dare I drop food on the table. It said I had no manners. It said he didn’t want me there. It said I wasn’t welcome and this was exactly why. His was a look that told me why Margaret couldn’t walk to school with me anymore.
There were so many internal “buts” attached to why Mr. Bauer acted the way he did when I was around. But I’m polite. But I’m a good person. But I live in the same neighborhood as you. But Mrs. Bauer doesn’t glare at me sideways. But Margaret is my friend. But I didn’t do anything to you.
At the end of another afternoon spent at Margaret’s house, it was time for me to leave; Margaret had something else to do and her father was driving her to whatever it was — piano lessons, tutoring, flute practice; I don’t recall.
“Do you want a ride home?” Margaret asked as we walked out to the driveway.
“No, that’s okay,” I said. “Thanks.” I wanted to be benevolent and gracious. “It’s just a short walk.”
Mr. Bauer nodded silently as if to say, Yes — it is just a short walk. At first I thought he was showing some kernel of kindness; we were agreeing on something. But he looked uncomfortable and conveyed that same stiff body language I’d witnessed at the dining table that one time. I wanted him to say “No, we’ll drive you home,” just like any of my other friends’ parents would — just like my parents would for Margaret. It wasn’t like it was out of the way.
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I said goodbye and walked away as they ducked into the car. I turned onto the sidewalk feeling lame and uneven, a crawling sensation slithering under my skin. I reached the corner where the crossing guard stood on school mornings, and where Margaret used to wait for me. My chin quivered before I even understood what I thought or felt. It wasn’t so much that I wanted a ride, but that I realized he simply didn’t want to give me one. I heard the car’s hum advance alongside me. I imagined them stopping to tell me they’d drive me home anyway, make sure I got there safe, and I’d open the door and climb into the back seat and be at my house in two minutes. But Margaret smiled and waved out of the passenger side window. I waved back. Mr. Bauer gripped the steering wheel. He glowered at me from the corner of his eye, his mouth cemented into something halfway between a scowl and a smirk. They drove off until they were out of sight.
Recently I googled Margaret. Our friendship ended when we left elementary school and moved on to junior high — a time when I made new friends and wanted to be somebody other than the child I’d been in 6th grade. Most of the kids at our new school seemed worldly and more grown up. I wanted to be mature, the way I thought all 13-year-olds were when I was 12. I found Margaret in an article about how she and her brother were carrying on their father’s legacy after he’d died of cancer at age 84.
An obituary from Boston public radio’s website said he had been a philanthropist and political activist, well-known in the area. Bolstered by having traced his German lineage back several generations, he founded an organization that awarded non-Jewish Germans for their goodwill toward Jews. Because Germans today had nothing to do with the Holocaust, he’d said in an interview on NPR, they got a “bad rap.” I wondered if he thought white people got a bad rap because of slavery.
There were photos in the article and Mr. Bauer’s face was in front of me for the first time in three decades. His hair was even whiter and he’d grown an equally snowy beard. In the pictures, taken months before he died, he laughed with Margaret and her brother, and grinned and touched noses with a pudgy baby in a blue bonnet. In all the occasions I crossed Mr. Bauer’s path, I’d never seen a smile on his face.
Mr. Bauer wasn’t the first. He was just the first person I knew. The first one I didn’t know was the affable man in the rug department at Bloomingdale’s. He loved my mom and me when we walked in that day. My mother liked taking me shopping because salespeople cooed over me; it gave her a leg up for haggling. I must have been 5 or 6 — at peak cuteness with unkempt curls in a ball on top of my head, light bronze skin, near black eyes, and a nose people loved to boop with their pointer finger. My mother held my hand as she chatted with the man, who was of South Asian descent. He leaned down, bending at the waist, hands in the front pockets of his gray dress pants, and grinned in my face.
I felt Mr. Bauer’s grounds for not liking me in my bones, the way people of color just do. It’s an inherent, visceral knowing that’s passed down through generations.
“You look almost like me!” he said. “Where are you from?”
I looked up at my mother, having no idea what he was asking.
“She’s from here.” My mother smiled and gave my hand three rapid squeezes. “Her father’s Black” she said.
The man straightened up and shrugged. “Well, you don’t have to tell anyone that.”
I walked alone along the Bauer’s giant fence after watching Margaret and her father drive away. My chest hurt. It was heavy-like, and my heart rang in my eardrums. I seethed and felt flushed. Gravity tugged at the corners of my mouth. Ripples of warm tears swelled in my eyes. By the time I got to my house, I’d wiped them dry with the backs of my hands on my way up the driveway, relieved to be home. I didn’t tell my mother; there was nothing to tell. After all, it was reasonable that I walked home instead of getting a ride. I lived so close by, and they had somewhere to get to. Plus, my mother and Mrs. Bauer seemed to like each other. This was what I reasoned.
But it would not settle. The feelings kept drifting back, roiling and pooling in my throat. So I wrote Margaret the note. I wanted everything to be made right. What could I do differently? I knew her father had a problem with me, but I bore that knowledge like my weakness. I felt his grounds for not liking me in my bones, the way people of color just do. It’s an inherent, visceral knowing that’s passed down through generations. We know it the first time we ever experience intolerance. The senses crack open, and we can never unfeel them, a kind of innocence held for a ransom we could never come up with.
I stared at Margaret’s answer, wishing it said something more — maybe an apology on her father’s behalf. But that wouldn’t have been enough. Besides, it was hardly Margaret’s fault. My brain was busting open, but I couldn’t find the external language to describe how Mr. Bauer made me feel when I was 8 and 9 and 10 and 11. I could only write a note with my No. 2 pencil, asking my friend if her father liked me.
* * *
Blaise Allysen Kearsley is at work on a memoir about growing up as a biracial teenage girl in the 80s punk and alternative scene in and around Boston. She is the producer and host of the “How I Learned” storytelling series, and teaches creative nonfiction workshops in New York City.
Editor: Sari Botton