Good Writing from a Bad Year
Saturday nights, era of Corona, and none of us were working anymore. I used to be a bartender. In one fell swoop, our entire industry had been wiped out. Actually, I’d been predicting its collapse for years. I just didn’t think it’d be because of a virus.
That temporary unemployment stimulus allowed us not to stress, but just for a moment. None of us were stupid, and we understood none of this was natural. We were workers. Clocking in, clocking out. Something tangible to bitch about. It’s how we felt normal. Imagine that.
I think a lot of us didn’t want to be alone. Alone in our brains. Truthfully, most of the time, I didn’t mind. I’d already learned how to be alone, and I’d learned the hard way. So I could own it. But my girl wasn’t having it easy. OK. It’d be tough, but at least we had each other.
One of my good friend’s was really going crazy though. He needed a lot of attention. He’d always need a lot of attention. He was a man who needed much reaffirmation. I was glad to do it because, I thought naively, who did it hurt? No one could take away the generosity of service.
Soon, he started having my lady and I over on Saturdays regularly. I knew that helped him, and usually it was fine for us too. He and his wife had a nice house. They had a nice dog. They had a backyard where we could play yard games, grill, and look at the sky.
The protests were every day by then. I went often but I had to take breaks. I’d see ugly things out on the streets. On both sides. I didn’t want to say that and seldom did, but I knew what I was seeing, and it was ugly on both sides. Sometimes, I’d tell my good friend about it. His name was Jake. Jake was white and while I considered Jake a very good friend, he wasn’t the friend I talked to about certain things. We were different in a lot of ways, even though we liked to talk about how much we were the same. We certainly weren’t in the same place. We never would be, beyond the physical notion. We did like the same music, stuff like that. He just wasn’t the “deep friend.” He wasn’t the one you sat up with until the sun came up, talking talking talking. Not without it turning black, or even worse, ugly.
And I accepted that about him. I liked how we looked together, I guess. I liked that we could laugh so much. I liked not needing so many people. I realize maybe that’s selfish, in a way. I realize I maybe did that on purpose.
One weekend, we planned an elaborate dinner. He and I had shopped the day before. I paid for the groceries. He spent the day prepping. My girl and I brought over some fancy wine. We opened it up and poured some glasses, played a game of badminton, then he and I started the grill. Our significant others sat at a table at the end of the yard, up to their necks in conversation.
“What did you do yesterday?” he asked me.
“Went to the protest downtown. Hall of Justice. Jackie Lacy,” I said.
“She’s bad huh?”
“Yeah. We gotta get her out,” I said.
“Meat’s on. Gonna take a second. Let’s go inside and take a shot,” my friend said.
“Yup,” I said.
We snuck inside and the dog followed us, thinking she was going get a treat. He took out two shot glasses and we walked over to the bar and he poured some rum. Smith and Cross. Straight. Fire down the gullet. We both winced.
“I’ve been obsessed with this video,” he told me.
“Show me,” I said.
He took out his phone. It was this Tom and Jerry cartoon with a voiceover. It was hilarious. We both keeled over.
“I want to tell people this joke so bad,” my friend told me.
“Why don’t you?” I asked.
“You gotta be able to say the N-word. It doesn’t have the same impact if you can’t say the N-word. Man, I wish I could say that word.”
“Yeah. Like, never in a bad way. I’d never say it in a racist way. You know that. I just want to be natural. Be cool. You have to say it straight to make it sound right. Don’t you think so?”
“I guess so. So, you want to say it?”
“Well, for this joke, yeah. Otherwise, I don’t think you could say it. The joke. It doesn’t follow through. It doesn’t work.”
I was quiet a while, then I said, “Go ahead.”
“Go ahead. Say the joke. Say it all the way. Say it with the nigga part.”
“Yeah. It’s fine. I’m giving you a pass,” I told him.
He said the joke. When he said it, it sounded like he was trying out a new language. A new dance. A new jacket. A new car. A new face. A new voice. A new dick. And his face looked scared, but he went through with it, just like you would. Nervously gleeful. We both laughed. I didn’t like it but I could pretend. We laughed like it was the same joke we’d just watched. Like everything was alright. I wanted my friend to be happy.
The next weekend was coming up. My friend texted me.
<What are you doing?>
<Going to a protest.>
He asked if he could come. He’d mentioned a few times before how much he’d wanted to go.
Honestly, I’d never taken him very seriously. I just didn’t see it being the kind of place he’d feel comfortable at, but he was asking again. That meant something. It meant something to me. I told him I’d pick him up.
We got there with our signs. Apparently, it had been on his mind. Going. He’d made a very elaborate sign. It looked very nice. Mine was just letters. Just the message.
Stop Killing Black People.
Big letters. Killing in red and everything else in black.
“You have a good sign,” he told me.
“Thanks,” I said.
The protest had been organized by a high schooler. I found that inspirational. We lined up on a busy street and chanted along with everyone else, masks on, hoisting our signs.
“My arms are getting tired!” Jake said to me after fifteen minutes.
We stood out there for two hours, chanting. Cars would pass, honking. It was a very positive affair. Jake remarked on how positive it was.
“People really support this!” Jake exclaimed.
He couldn’t see my face. I was wearing a mask, like everyone else. But I had a shell up over me anytime I went to a protest regardless. I was glad for the mask. My face looked different for these things. The truth of it was, I didn’t want to seem approachable. I didn’t want to look nice. I didn’t want to look like someone you could have a conversation or even ask for directions. I was thinking about all the shit. All the reasons we were out there in the first place. I was on the edge. Edge of what? You know or you don’t. Without even telling anyone, I’d become one of them, you see. The ones the people on the news were afraid of. But the mask hid that. Some of it.
A march started after a while. It was a fair amount of people by then. Not like how it had been Downtown nights before, definitely not as much as that first crazy, wild, incendiary weekend in Hollywood. But I was happy for the high schooler who had arranged it. I was grateful to her. I wanted to shake her hand. I wanted to tell her, “Wow, what a good job. Keep it up.”
We marched down the street. No one said anything. I could tell most of these people were new. Idealistic. Optimistic. Just happy to be there. It got a little quiet for my liking. Like we were kids on our way to the cafeteria. I felt I should start a chant.
“WHOSE STREET? OUR STREET!”
Jake looked over at me. His mask was still on of course, but I could tell what his face looked like beneath it. I could tell by his eyes and how they widened. The chant picked up quick. All of us, we became very loud. People who didn’t march with us stopped and regarded us, and not casually. I would yell the first part and the people around me would yell the second and we went like that the rest of the way and by the time we reached the park my voice was hoarse but I felt charged and strong and I could tell some of the people around me felt the same.
Afterwards, I was driving Jake home.
“That was pretty great back there. The chants. The march. Inspiring. I never knew you could be so loud,” he told me. I smiled, staring ahead as I drove. I didn’t look at him. I was still wearing my mask.
Jake was having another dinner that Saturday. This time he had invited another couple in addition to my lady and me. I knew the couple, and I felt comfortable to come over and share space with them. I thought to myself, “How lovely it is, to have some kind of constant in this crazy deadly Trump pinball world.”
My girlfriend and I brought over flowers, a watermelon, and a bottle of good mezcal. Everyone hugged and kissed, and I felt so grateful to have this staple in my life where everything was fantasy and fun and yes yes yes.
After all the greetings and the initial cocktail, I joined the men at the grill. We were all smiling and happy to be there, not working full time, healthy, bills paid, not in prison, no humidity, no family members with COVID, with our girlfriends and wives, our beautiful partners who loved us, at least in public, and we were able to drink, able to eat, able to stand, still full of dreams and motivations and ambitions.
Jake was telling a joke. I was only half listening, because I was looking at my girl. I was enjoying her laugh, enjoying her teeth and her eyes and her neck and how it curved back when she laughed.
I only heard the word because I will always hear the word. Even if I didn’t hear the whole sentence, story, whatever. Jake said “nigga” with me there and his other friend, who was white. Very white. I didn’t freeze up. I proceeded, very casually, because this was my life, and this wasn’t my first damn rodeo. I maintained nonchalance. Jake was laughing. His friend was smiling but not laughing. His friend was a very nice guy.
I had a glass of wine in my hand. I turned my full attention back into the conversation at hand. I stopped looking at my girl. Jake was laughing. Turning chicken on the grill. He was still telling the story.
He said it again.
It’s funny, he must have thought. The first time, I would’ve told myself it was a hallucination in my ear. Some slip up. Like all black people do when they question their very certain reality, which is actually their sanity. Jake was still laughing. His friend was smiling, doing everything in his power not to look at me.
There it was. You’d be a fool to miss it. I’d be a fool.
I went to the bathroom. I locked the door behind me. I put my drink on the sink and looked in the mirror. I took a piss and flushed. I washed my hands and looked for Jake.
“Can I talk to you?”
“Of course, dude. What’s up?”
We went into the kitchen. Everyone was out in the yard.
“You can’t say that word,” I said.
“Nigga. You can’t say that. I know I said you could say it when it was just us. I didn’t realize I had to set this apart, but you can’t just say it, as in, whenever.”
“Hey, calm down,” Jake said.
In my mind, fighting hot steam blowing from all pipes, I had to reassure myself that I wasn’t raising my voice. I wasn’t. I knew I wasn’t. I knew I was speaking calmly. I had to remind myself. I had to remind myself my hand wasn’t clutching his neck and that I hadn’t pushed him up against the wall, which was certainly what I wanted to do. I had to make sure I was still composed. I had to make sure.
“I am calm. Jake. I’m calm. I’m just saying. I know we had that conversation before. But now you are saying it around your white friends. You can’t do that.”
“OK, OK. I won’t do it again. I didn’t even realize. I was just telling a joke.”
“But you can’t say that, Jake. You need to know.”
“I didn’t know you were so sensitive about it,” he said.
“Yeah. It’s a joke. We say it when you aren’t around anyway. We’re not serious. But I hear you. I hear you, buddy. I won’t do it again. Promise,” he told me, massaging my shoulder with a hand. Smiling. Smiling to my face. My friend. My good friend. My good good friend.