When I was seven I told my father that I wanted to grow up to be invisible. He told me to read Invisible Man. For him, the answers were always in books.
I did read Ellison’s novel, but I seem to have the opposite problem. People see me everywhere I go, remember me places where I haven’t even been. They follow me with their eyes, their questions. They ask me things I haven’t even asked myself.
“What are you, anyway?”
A bullfrog, a butterfly.
“I mean, where are you from?”
Boston. 151 Tremont Street. My mother’s womb.
“Your parents? Grandparents?”
New York. Minnesota. A Brooklyn brownstone. The Blue Ridge Mountains. A sod house in Iowa. A dairy farm.
“But what’s your nationality?”
“…Is that it?”
And German, Irish, and English. Cherokee, Chippewa. African. (Sorry, I don’t know from where.)
“You are all those things?”
“You don’t look black.”
Do I look white?
“You look different, like no one I’ve ever seen.”
I look exactly like myself.
We are finally leaving Virginia. The sign that tells me this is small and has a picture of a hand waving. Strange, I think, I left Virginia about six hundred miles ago. I left her standing in the driveway of a two-story house I might never see again. Virginia is my mother, a woman I’ve never associated with this backward state until now. Thank god we aren’t moving here. I wouldn’t want to see my mother’s name on the back of every car and at the bottom of every letter. Virginia. I don’t think I’ll ever come back.
West Virginia is not much better, but it’s a smaller state, one we can cross in a few hours. At this rate we should make it to Cleveland by dinnertime. Tomorrow we’ll drive through all those “I” states—Indiana, Illinois and Iowa—and finally make it up to Minnesota by Friday. That is the plan. My father always has one, and unlike most people, he follows it. We’ve been doing this ride every summer for my entire life: Boston to St. Croix, 1500 miles in three days. This summer is the first time we’ve altered the route, dropping down to Virginia to pick up my cousin. That added an extra 500 miles on to the trip, but it won’t slow us down. He’ll make up for it after Cleveland, skimming through the Midwest like a book he’s trying to finish. My father likes to drive, likes to sit behind the wheel. Even if my mother were here she wouldn’t be driving. She drives too slow and stops at too many rest areas. My father likes to move fast, even when he isn’t in a rush. I guess he’s not comfortable with where he is; he’s always focused on where he’s going.
My cousin is not a good traveler. It’s been two hours since the last stop and already she’s begging to use the bathroom. I don’t believe her. She lies the way some people clear their throat. If we were alone my father would tell me to hold it, but he’s being nice to her because she doesn’t have a father, and has grown up thinking that all vegetables have to be defrosted before you can eat them. Well, she has a father—my mother’s brother Renny—but she knows him about as well as she knows us. (Three hours in the car, so far, and my grandfather’s funeral when we were five.) Barely more than strangers.
When we get inside the gas station’s bathroom she doesn’t even go into a stall. Instead, she stands in front of the mirror and watches her reflection pull a cigarette out of her bra. I close my door on her face, a mischievous smile, and smell the smoke before it’s even locked.
“Goddamn, that’s good,” Jess says slowly.
“You act like it’s food or something.”
“Nah, it’s better than food.” She pauses. “Except grits. Grits and smothered biscuits. Nothing’s better than that.”
Jess is from the South, the only one of my cousins, on either side, born below the Mason-Dixon Line. This isn’t the only thing that separates us, but maybe it’s the most important. So far, I pretty much hate the South. (Except for the food since I love anything fried.) I tried to have an open mind, but by the time we picked Jess up in Roanoke it was locked shut. And I’m not just talking about the rednecks. The black people bother me, too. Everybody stares too much, and they ask more questions than an English teacher. The accent also pisses me off; they talk all slow like you came all the way here just to listen to them. So far my favorite places have been the bathrooms. Cool and quiet like church. Even the old ladies leave you alone in here. Not Jess, though, she acts like the bathroom is her confessional, and she has to share everything that comes into her mind. Sometimes I think she’s afraid of silence, maybe because she’s an only child. Not me. When you grow up with older brothers you start to love solitude.
When I come out of the stall, she’s sitting on the counter between the two sinks. She’s so skinny that her ass isn’t touching either sink. I haven’t done that since I was six. I wash my hands in the cold water, using lots of pink powdered soap. It turns into a paste like one of my mother’s facial scrubs, the kind with the grit that will take off a layer of skin. I’m afraid if I rub too hard it will wash away all my color.
“I’m gonna miss Virginia,” Jess says. “I’ve never been gone so long.”
“It’s been three hours.”
“No, I mean the whole summer.” She taps her cigarette against the sink. When the ashes touch the water it looks like wet sand. I once read about a black-sand beach in Hawaii. I will swim there one day and remember this moment.
“Virginia summers are the best. They’re sunny and real hot, and everyone just hangs out on their porches. The Virginia Players come for the Fourth of July, and then the Virginia music—”
“Will you stop saying that?” I stare at the back of her head in the mirror. The ends are streaked blonde in a way that looks like she dyes it, but I know she doesn’t. That would be too much work.
“What?” She looks at me, all innocent.
“How would you like it if I lived in a state called Shelley? If I was born in Shelley, went to school in Shelley, and just loved being from Shelley?”
Jess laughs, exhaling smoke. “My mother would never have a state named after her. She’s way too crooked.”
“Mine’s no citizen of the year either.” I dry my hands with a coarse paper towel. Jess puts her cigarette out in the sink and hops down.
“Did yours steals clothes from the Salvation Army dumpsters? Did she pretend to be crazy to get into some study at the hospital? Did she borrow your neighbors car to go to Atlantic City and end up gambling it away? Did she get kicked off welfare for pretending she had another kid?”
To my knowledge, my mother has only broken one law.
“No,” I say.
“Trust me, the criminals are on my side of the family.”
I know she includes herself on that list, probably at the top. Right before we picked her up my father told me she got expelled from her high school for trying to bribe a teacher. I decide not to mention it.
“Aren’t you going to pee?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
“Nah, I’ll wait till the next stop.” She holds the door open for me. “After you,” she says. Such southern hospitality.
As we walk out she smells her T-shirt, checking for smoke. My father has a rule about sixteen year olds smoking, even if they’re not his own. I stop at the counter to buy a pack of gum. Jess stands next to me, thumbing through the latest issue of Teen Beat, the one with Matt Dillon on the cover. When the cashier turns his back she tucks the magazine down the front of her cutoffs. The first of many laws she will break this summer.
* * *
I am reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for my summer reading list. When we cross into Ohio I am with Sethe and we are both running. I look down from the bridge as we drive over the Ohio River. All I can see are the waves of blue sky reflected in the water, thick white clouds breaking in the distance. How many people died in that river, drowning softly in the clouds and sky? I don’t think I would have made it as a slave, even with the benefits of being a “house nigger.” There are few lives I could imagine living other than my own.
I was five the first time I realized I was black. After watching Roots my brothers and I began to fantasize about slavery. Marcus, always defiant, claimed he would have run off just like Kunta Kinte.
“I wouldn’t let anybody own me,” he said, with the unflinching confidence that only a ten-year-old can muster.
“I don’t know…” Noah spoke slowly. “I don’t think I’d want to be one of the black people.” He was almost eight.
“You mean you’d pretend to be white?” Marcus looked shocked.
“But I am white.” Noah held out his arm. In all fairness, he was a bit lighter than us.
“No.” Marcus shook his head. “Mom’s white. We’re black, like Dad.”
“But Dad’s brown,” Noah said. “Uncle Bobby’s black.”
“Aren’t we both?” I asked.
“Yeah, but all that really means is we’re black.”
“I don’t know if I want to be black.” Noah was scratching a scab on his knee.
“You don’t have a choice,” Marcus said. “None of us do.”
We were all quiet for a minute, sitting in a circle on the hardwood floors. I tried to focus on the planks of wood, sanded and stained a golden brown, not much lighter than the color of my skin.
“Reggie Jackson’s black,” I finally said.
The Yankees had just won the World Series. We’d spent the week marching around the block, celebrating each win like we lived in the Bronx instead of two miles from Fenway Park. We’d even taped the newspaper clippings to our walls, we were so proud.
“I love Reggie,” Noah said. “He looks like Dad if he lost some weight.”
We all laughed. Even my mother thought they looked alike. She’d called him “Reggie” all day when he took us to the park to play softball.
“He looks like us,” Marcus said, so sure of himself that I had to believe him.
We didn’t talk about race again.
* * *
“This magazine sucks,” Jess says from the backseat. “No good pictures.” She tosses the stolen Teen Beat into my lap. “You want it?”
“I’ve got a book,” I say, letting the magazine fall to the floor.
“I don’t like books.”
“Oh really?” My father glances in the rearview mirror. He’s an English professor, and he loves books almost more than he loves his children. I smile to myself, wondering how she’ll get out of this.
“I don’t like made-up stories. They’re all a bunch of B.S. Give me something real, with pictures.”
“I’ve got a New Yorker you can look at,” my father says. “Lots of cartoons.” He reaches up to adjust the mirror. I don’t know if he included her in his view or cut her out.
“No thanks,” Jess says.
I watch her in the side mirror as she puts her window all the way down. The wind pushes her hair back, completely off her face, and she closes her eyes. Suddenly, she looks like a Christiansen. Not like Renny, exactly, but like my grandfather and my aunts. Maybe my mother.
I lift my gaze to stare at the view out my window. The fields of grass and uncut wheat seem endless. I wonder if this is what it looked like a hundred years ago to the people migrating north. Is this what Sethe saw when she stumbled through the woods in bare feet with nothing but a torn dress and her pregnant belly? I wish I could stand at one end of America and look all the way across to the other side. I want to experience something that vast, to lose myself in the miles in between. I want to feel as small and insignificant as I am.
Brass Ankle Blues on Amazon.