A Long Way Down

In this striking, stirring Christmas tale, the frozen gap of difference may be a chasm not even love can thaw.

If a pin dropped, she wouldn’t be able to hear it. It was Christmas, her first with a man that she wanted her family to meet. 

She’d come straight home from college. She’d taken the bus after her last class straight back to the home she grew up in. The first thing her mother made her do was change from her comfortable blue jeans to a black skirt, and then complained that it was too short. 

1967 meant nothing to the old fashioned women in the room; knees were not meant to be seen in their kitchen.

He was running late because there was traffic. No worries. She knew that was going to happen, so she told her mother that he was coming an hour later than he said. 

There was a jolt in the kitchen: someone said something funny. She didn’t go into the kitchen and find out what, because it was boiling in there. But a chorus of laughs swept over her — old laughs that end in coughs, laughs trying to hide because that’s what they’re used to, wheezing laughs, breathy laughs, clapping laughs, stomping laughs, crying laughs, out-of-breath laughs, giggling laughs, whiny types of laughs, the I-was-drinking-something laugh, pregnant woman laughs, the new mother laugh, the I-don’t-feel-like-laughing laugh, the classic “holding onto your sister while she tries not to get her hair in Grandma’s pasta because she’s bent over laughing” laugh … 

She marveled at how warm it is to be a black woman. 

So she sat under a blanket on the couch with her sleepy little brother. Her uncle confiscated toys and books and other gadgets from kids, so they could actually do something with the snow outside. His grumbling under a graying mustache was a dull roar in her ear. 

It was funny; she always thought your heart was supposed to beat out of your chest during moments like this. But as she listened to it, it was like a man beating a gong inside of her ribs and every second she thought about him and what her father would say was a vibration. 

It wasn’t the cold making her shiver.

If she could cancel out one part of her mind, would it be her thoughts or her emotions? If she could cancel out one of her senses, which one would it be? 

Forget the basic five, those belonged to her body. And love was blind, deaf, and dumb — so which one of her senses would she cancel from her heart? 

She closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see. She only wanted to listen. 

Children in the snow, shrieking as Mother Nature played along with them. She heard each snowball like a gunshot and she hoped she was the next in line to be caught in the crossfire between human and nature.

She heard the women, now singing, and fell into the voice of her mother, her aunt, her sister and the women just like them. It was their life and their story. The song begged to be heard as it beat from their hearts; it knew where it was going. Their hearts knew where they wanted to be and they were loud and proud and she wondered why she was afraid.

If she loved this man, why was she so ashamed to say it, to sing it, to praise it, to pray for him, to make it real with words — real, honest to God, truthful words, the only sound that ever made anything real.

She wanted to say it so much that it lost its meaning, just so she could spend years trying to find it again.

The occasional shadowy and yet tangible “I love you,” said factually as a stepping stool for confidence, was a promise not to run away — from the scrutinizing gaze from her father that still made her fold into herself; from the veiled and vague judgments from her mother that still made her cry some nights (only the nights where she was alone). 

Disappointment and disapproval were the universal defenses of all parents who felt as if they were losing their children. 

She remembered meeting him. She was passing the bus stop, on her way to lunch after class, when she’d dropped her book in front of a group of white men. 

She didn’t feel like getting heckled or worse today, not after what had been happening that week on campus. She wanted to keep her head down and not think about it.

He was the tallest one behind the man with her book between his feet. She didn’t glance at him once because she was busy self-loathing. Legs wobbling as she reached for it, she saw a pair of shoes move out of the way, and a different pair came from her peripheral vision. 

But she kept her eyes focused on her book and her mind on how dumb she was and as her fingers closed around the cover, his fingers brushed over hers. 

He had pushed past his friend to get her book for her and the shock made her drop it again.

She apologized and stood up quickly, smoothing out and pulling down her skirt. She looked up at him for the first time, andasked him for her book in the smallest voice possible. 

And he was smiling at her, shyly as if this was his fault too. As he fumbled for the book he just picked up, his friends sniggered behind him. He turned red. That made him drop his papers and curse underneath his breath. 

She remembered that as she was bending down and picking them up for him, the ghost of a smile graced her lips. He had grinned, handing her book back to her. 

She accepted.

The next afternoon, and every single one after that for a week on her way to lunch, she saw him standing there alone, whether she was alone, with friends, in the rain, in the heat … 

He was buzzing with nervousness each time, she could feel it. As she passed by him, he looked at her as if he was trying not to — but she always managed to catch his eye. She wasn’t sure, but this was probably what being pursued felt like and it made her feel pretty — and forget that it was dangerous. 

One afternoon, on a whim, she sat down next to him. His lips curled up in a smile and talked to her about Hamlet, the book she dropped a long time ago. She gave him her number. They talked at every hour they could. 

A month later, at 4 a.m., he asked her to go to a drive-in, and she had said yes before she even gave herself a chance to think about it. 

It scared her to be so ashamed of him.

Interracial soulmates have existed since the dawn of time. Back in slave times, slave women with white soulmates were sentenced to death immediately or kept as a mistress in the house. It was illegal to marry in pretty much every state. If she tried to work around the law, some states would still sentence her to death. If you drew a hand like this, you basically had to either live without your soulmate, or hide away in secret. 

Something about that solitude, more than death or jail, made her feel like she was not safe. Her  throat tightened.

It could be so easy for him to be arrogant with her. The men she’d dated prior were always cool and calm, never seemed to worry about messing up, because they knew she wasn’t the one.  

She liked that he was nervous picking her up for her first date. Because if they were being serious, in shades of black to white and pink to blue, he was the one with the power. Their feelings were truly in spite of fate. 

Her silence about him had taken over. Silence had been the one waking up in white arms and brewing two cups of coffee with three packets of white sugar and kissing pink frosted lips goodbye as they both headed to work. 

It had been coming home to make dinner and watch the Ed Sullivan Show with, and sleep next to and with, a white man who treated her less like property than her own father did. 

Her silence wouldn’t shut up to friends about her miracle — but it feared parents. It did not want to admit that she did the one thing she knew she wasn’t supposed to do but that felt right.

And when he pulled up in his broken-down, beat-up car, she knew. 

The children went silent. The white snow fell to the ground, harmless bullets. 

It wasn’t the cold making her shiver. Mother Nature and those children had never heard a white man talk to them without segregation on his tongue, separate but equal tattooed on both of his lips, or “hello” meaning “back of the bus.” 

As he turned the doorknob, she threw the blanket off of herself and put her head in her hands. She closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see. She only wanted to listen, but her silence just wouldn’t shut up about her miracle. Her heart betrayed her body, because her body didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to hear her mother gasp, didn’t want to hear her father yell.

All her heart wanted to do was listen.

Her mother sang with fervor in the distance.

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Mernine Ameris

Mernine Ameris

Mernine Ameris is a media literacy educator, speech coach, communication specialist, social media manager, writer, poet, activist and founder of The Sunflower Girl Collective. Learn more at www.mernineameris.me.

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