Clarity and Movement
Has life ever caught up with you on a winding road in Western Massachusetts in the fall when faraway mountains look purple and looming trees drop crisp foliage underneath your heavy tires?
It's enough to make you feel like you're still dreaming, haven't woke up yet. It's enough to make your whole body shake.
I thought I was done with Missouri. I thought those days were behind me. This place, Western Massachusetts, is my home now. I have my beautiful fiancé, who knows these mountains and trees well, who grew up here. I have my cat. I have my students, my work, my fresh apples, and my picturesque winding roads. I have a life finally pieced together. I thought I was done with Missouri.
That's the thing with trauma, time, and space: once you think you're safe, here it all comes roaring back. Like it never left and never plans to. And once it's back, once it's sitting on your lap and making it hard to steer straight, once it's got hands around your throat -- you realize you were never fixed; you're still broken.
History and Misery
Six years ago, in the fall of 2009, I arrived at the University of Missouri with too much baggage. I was an 18-year-old with a drinking problem and a smoking problem and an arrogance problem. I had already been arrested for possession once back home, in Chicago. I had already allowed my destructive behavior to ruin romantic and personal relationships. I say those are problems now. Then, it was just fun; I was doing me. By October, I was already on behavioral probation for two drinking tickets received seven days apart. I would remain on behavioral probation due to an accumulation of such tickets until my final day in Missouri. All that to say: when I pledged a frat, I was already a veteran. This is something to keep in mind. Sure, while I pledged the frat I drank more, I smoked more, I cared less and less about how my behavior affected others. Sure, while I pledged the frat I put myself in situations that I wouldn't have found otherwise. Like the night in our parking lot, when I was alone, rolling a joint in my car, and I heard members of our rival frat breaking bottles against our asphalt, when I got out and confronted them and ended up throwing punches after someone called me a nigger.
If you're reading this as a history of my deterioration, you could say that was when it all went from bad to worse. That was when I was firmly placed on the outskirts. Or you could go back further, to my sophomore year of high school, when my North Side girlfriend explained, gently, that her parents didn't want her dating South Side me. Or you could go back further, when my white dad and black mom enrolled me in a mostly white private school and my brown skin was always something to consider, something to ponder. Further still, to when my white dad and black mom decided to settle in Chicago instead of Hawaii. Further, to when my white dad and black mom met in New York and said "We love each other. Who cares what the world thinks?" Further, to when my black grandma migrated up to Harlem with countless other wide-eyed southerners. Further, to America's beginning, when my white dad's white ancestors owned my black mom's black ancestors; not exactly, but, you know, exactly.
That's the thing with racial trauma, time, and space in America: where the hell do you begin?
After three months in Missouri, I was ready to call it quits. Thanksgiving break, I thought about not going back. Christmas break: same thing. I am a lot of things, I thought, but a quitter ain't one of them.
My second semester I took an independent study with Speer Morgan, editor of the Missouri Review. I moved off campus into a nice apartment downtown that my white father wished would make my time a little easier. The drinking and smoking and partying didn't slow down. I was, however, still a member of the Honors College. Speer Morgan and I met every once in a while and talked about lumpenproletariat literature. Steinbeck, Henry Roth, Dahlberg. I spent my pre-Missouri life reading African-American and African Literature. I thought reading and learning more about white culture would help me understand my situation. Know your enemy, understand your enemy, maybe you'll help your enemy and come closer to your enemy. I also enrolled in a Sociology class for the same reason. I wanted to be proactive with my despair. I wanted to start over. It seemed like it was working: no one had called me a nigger since that fraternity brawl. I was depressed, didn't know it, was happy. Then the last day of February, the last day of Black History Month, this happened.
I was on my way to Speer's office when I heard. He hadn't heard. I told him. This moment, I'll never forget: us sitting in his office with the sun coming down and him asking "What? Why? What?" and me smiling and shrugging my shoulders. Why was I smiling? I'm still not sure. Maybe this: I was a smiley baby. Smiling was always my security blanket. When life gets too hard, Gabey, smile your ass off and it'll go away.
There was a town hall meeting, news stations converged on campus, changes were promised, I kept on smiling, we talked about it in Sociology, the culprits were caught and kicked out of school, and I was right: it went away. Life proceeded as usual like nothing ever happened. I kept meeting, every now and then, with Speer to talk about old men writing about old white problems. Understand your enemy.
The only change was that my interest in Sociology intensified. My professor, Veronica Medina, was a Ph.D. student at the time. Now she's an Assistant Professor at Indiana University Southeast. At that point, she was the only professor of color I knew at Mizzou.
A few months later, I sat in her office crying. It had happened again. I had tried to pledge that same frat again. I had kept a safe distance from them after my experience in the fall. I would still party there. You have to drink and smoke somewhere, right? My best black friends stuck it out. Why couldn't I try again? Then this happened.
Veronica was my ally before I knew what an ally was, before the term ally was a word to use. She was someone I could talk to, cry to, complain to. Without Veronica -- I'd rather not think about it.
Veronica was the first person I reached out to, after my white father and black mother, when, in October of my sophomore year, I almost died on a Missouri expressway.
I spent the summer between freshman and sophomore year in Missouri. I had switched majors from Journalism to Sociology. I was taking Political Science and Economics to make sure I could still graduate on time. Some of my friends were in Missouri also. For their sake, I'll exclude their names. Just know that was a summer I'll always remember for all the right reasons.
I had a brown-skinned girlfriend, Derrick Rose had just finished an all-star season, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, I won $1000 on a $10 scratch-off and spent all of it on weed and DVDs I've never watched, I read all about Bobby Kennedy and how he changed after JFK and how he calmed the city of Indianapolis after MLK was assassinated; we played soccer and basketball everyday, smoked, drank, went back home for Fourth of July, sat inside when outside got above 100 degrees and everything felt like hell; we watched Kobe win his fifth championship and Spain win their first World Cup.
That summer... that summer was all right.
Fall started out the same. I signed up for a creative nonfiction class, took courses about black literature, took a course on religion and law. I was reenergized. Things were so good that we, my brown-skinned girlfriend and her brown-skinned friend and some of my white soccer-obsessed friends decided to drive up to Chicago to watch U.S.A. vs. Poland at Soldier field. We didn't sleep much that weekend. The game was October 9th.
On October 10th, in Montgomery County, an hour outside Columbia, I feel asleep at the wheel and drove into a ditch going 80 miles per hour. I kicked my door open, hyperventilated, and asked if everyone was okay. Everyone was okay. My knees wouldn't stop moving. Semi trucks busted through the darkness carrying cheap loads to Walmart, Target, and Costco. Missouri expressways late on a Sunday night are similar to any other expressway late on a Sunday night: void of hope. I called 911.
The white Missouri Highway Patrolman asked if we were okay. Then he asked if there was weed in the car. No, I said. It's faint, he said. No, I said. It's faint but I can smell it, he said. No, I said. Please, I said. Sir, I said. Okay, he said. And went back to his patrol car and waited until the tow truck came.
The white tow truck driver looked in his rearview, saw the white Missouri patrolman. You sure there's nothing in the car, he said. No, I said. They only follow if they're sure something is in the car, he said. No, I said. Well, he said.
At the impound lot, the white Missouri Highway Patrolman asked us again. He asked us again. He asked us one more time. Okay, he said. Wait here, he said. We waited as he opened my trunk, tossed my books in the dirt, tossed our bags in the dirt, tossed out clothes in the dirt. We waited as he used his flashlight to scan every crevasse, every part of my ripped-up car.
The white tow truck driver waited also. He's really looking, he said. I'm so sorry, I said. I'm so, so sorry, I said.
The white Missouri Highway Patrolman came back, flashlight illuminating his palm, asked: What's this?
This was a roach from an old and stale long-ago-smoked blunt with a fingernail's worth of crumbly weed. He showed it to us like a David Attenborough showing the camera a tiny Amazonian frog seen for the first time by human eyes.
The white Missouri Highway Patrolman charged me with possession of under thirty grams of marijuana; my fourth misdemeanor in Missouri. Fifth total. When my brown-skinned girlfriend spoke up and claimed the crumbs as her own, out of love for me, the white Missouri Highway Patrolman charged her also.
Sociology class taught me his frustration was simple: he wanted more. He wanted the big bust. Here were three frightened brown-skinned teenagers in a place they didn't belong late on a Sunday night, scared and shocked, begging for mercy. What were they hiding? That was the only question. Not "what if they had died?" Why else would a white Missouri Highway Patrolman charge two people with possession of one pile of crumbs? I was starting to understand the enemy. But so what?
A white cab driver drove us home.
That ride was all darkness. I don't remember seeing or feeling light until the morning. I do remember tears, a constant flow. And my brown-skinned girlfriend's hand and voice trying to scrub those tears away. I'm sorry, I said. It's okay, she said. I'm so, so sorry, I said. It's okay, she said. I'm so, so, so sorry, I said. It's okay.
Was I sorry I had placed her life in danger when she had placed it in my hands? Was I sorry I had violated my probation again? Was I sorry I had to miss class in the morning, again, not because of a hangover but because my ripped-to-shreds car was somewhere in Montgomery Country? Sorry I made my white dad and black mom cry again? Sorry my uncontrollable sobbing gave my white dad no choice but to hop in his car and drive down, right now, this instant, I'm coming, hang in there? Sorry my black mom had to imagine losing another loved one, as if a father and brother and two unborn babies wasn't enough? Sorry I couldn't stop smoking weed and drinking and hurting other people? Sorry I got everything I deserved? Sorry I got caught -- again? Sorry my white dad had to hold back tears when we drove to the junkyard and there it was: a wreck people just don't walk away from? Sorry I knew it would never stop? Sorry I knew it would happen again?
Sorry, in advance, for that night in the spring of 2011, when another person called me nigger at a party and instead of fighting I stumbled home in the middle of the street with two middle fingers raised and cops came -- and misdemeanor number six came -- and life came too fast, and they thought about kicking me out of school. And I told them I was getting better and I was getting better, and better wasn't good enough and better was still the worst?
Sorry my brown-skinned girlfriend couldn't find me a year later, in the summer of 2011, after we had been drinking with friends, after I had blacked out, after cops came and found me on a beautiful Frank-Lloyd-Wright-style porch in Oak Park, banging on the door, banging on the window, scaring the homeowner half to death? Sorry that was the final straw? Sorry I was killing myself? Sorry Missouri was killing me?
Newness and Oldness
The next morning, I decided not to go back. One by one my family walked into my bedroom. I was still hung over, still a little drunk. First, my white dad came in and kissed me. Then, my black mom came in and sat on my bed and gave me that same look she gives me when my heart's broken and her heart can't take the sight of it. Then, my big brother came in and gave me the same speech he gives me when's there's nothing left to say. Shit, man, he said, you okay?
I spent the last six years trying to forget all that. After moving back to my parents' house in the summer of 2011, I got a job working as a cashier in a nightclub. I met a nice woman from the northern suburbs and put her through hell for the next three years. I thought drinking and staying out all night in Chicago was different than drinking and staying out all night in Missouri. It was better. Better was still worse. Everything was, in comparison to Missouri. My standard for happiness was skewed, backward.
I enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the spring of 2012. During my two years there, I found it hard to get close with anybody. I didn't trust anybody. I visited friends in Missouri. Each time I went down there I heard another story about a friend from freshman year that, seemingly overnight, turned into a racist lunatic. Each time I went down there I blacked out and ended up returning home without anything to remember. Each time felt like the last time. Each time my white dad and black mom couldn't believe it.
I was in Missouri when my grandma died.
The real last time was in the spring of 2013, for graduation. All my friends survived. I went down to celebrate. I don't remember much. I only remember waking up on couches. Sometimes with my clothes soaking wet. Sometimes in an unfamiliar house. Always trying to forget and move on.
Last fall I moved to Western Massachusetts to write and teach.
Confusion and Movement
Have you ever driven down a winding road in Western Massachusetts in fall without knowing where you're headed?
It's enough to make you embrace those memories you tried to escape.