We moved out of the city and into the yawning expanse of the suburbs a few days after my twenty-fifth birthday. My fiance, always one to guzzle the clear poison of mouth-numbing optimism, barely lamented the loss of our diverse Brooklyn neighborhood. Although I’d been raised in the nondescript and cloistered confines of small-town America, I knew that I would miss the liberation of anonymity. Walking the streets without feeling like a sloppy spectacle. Engaged in a community that was constantly reading, reading, reading; on the subway, on the bus, in coffee shops, poring over mildewed pages in the flat silence of the libraries. A member of a nomadic tribe, strung together by the thinnest of spiderwebs.
Small town living produced a needling sense of paranoia. The need to uncover the innermost details of a stranger’s life, right down to the veins of the secrets, because it was easier to judge thy neighbor than love thy neighbor. My parents still lived in my New Jersey hometown in the same house with a spruce tree that seemed to permanently shed larger clusters of needles than the year before. My mom was black and born in America, while my father was originally from Trinidad. They were quite the sharp pair, my mom dressing up just to run to the grocery store, my father believing in God and a good pair of genuine leather shoes, both always spotting new patterns, ticks, behaviors of anti-blackness. Yet no matter how much they complained, my parents had yet to make any plans of escape. They were rooted in place by the fear of further disappointment.
My fiance, Aaron, was a bona-fide city kid long disenchanted with his country, thoroughly sick of the scorched earth army of Wall Street-funded corporate office buildings and chain stores and luxury apartments with climbing rents that hit like a cheap sucker punch to the mouth. His father had died before we’d even met and his mother served as his curious example of reflexive idolatry. They were not the closest of mother and son, but Aaron’s love was unpersuadable, mere genetics cementing a spiritual bond, the fickle mistress with her voodoo-controlled child. Aaron wanted to eventually get his mother out of the city, though I didn’t know why because both of us knew that she would never leave. He insisted that the “peace and quiet” would do her good, that she could live in a place where she didn’t need a deadbolt on her door, and drug dealers weren’t loitering around the way. It didn’t bother me that Aaron wanted his mother to experience a change of scenery; it frustrated me that he’d elevated the suburbs to Holy Grail mysticism. Inevitably, it was something that sneaked its horned head into our conversations, whether we were discussing that night’s dinner menu or how we were going to scrounge together the rest of the approaching rent.
On the way to our new place, a house that we would be renting in the “countryside” of Connecticut, he turned down the radio and said, “You think the neighbors will come by and give us like, a casserole or something?”
I rolled my eyes, a habit he’d never liked because it made him feel small.
“This isn’t a Norman Rockwell painting.”
“Who’s Norman Rockwell?” he asked.
Aaron had his left elbow resting on the window, a cigarette quickly expiring, ash like quicksand to the tips of his fingers. He had his septum pierced, which he replaced with a clear plastic placeholder when he went to work. He was a black boy with a limited view of the white world, alluring because he was one of the “alternative” persuasion, with his piercings and skateboard and Sailor Jerry tattoos and the leather jacket with the safety pins he’d bought when he’d been on a punk kick. People had always thought he was “weird,” that he didn’t do the things that maintained the “authenticity” of his identity as a black man. But in New York, this was more of a conversation starter, a plump peacock feather, rather than the trappings of a target. What I mean to say is that to a degree, his weirdness was tolerated, almost expected, sometimes celebrated, a New York-ism. The suburbs were a land not as kind as home. I’d told him that in the suburbs, people would think that he was even weirder than normal. Aaron had laughed and said there were no stop and frisk laws in the suburbs, no gangs, no roaches, no morning commutes with foul-smelling bums who marked the seats with bodily fluids. I told him not to underestimate the clawing justifications of white ignorance.
“You’ve seen his stuff. He did that painting of Ruby Bridges,” I said.
“Oh! That guy. Yeah. I always associated him with 50’s soda fountains. Sock Hops and shit.”
“Right. Well, trust me when I say the greatest trick the suburbs can do is convince you that it’s totally liberal and open-minded.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, c’mon Pearl. You’re being a little too hysterical about the suburbs. What, is someone going to burn a cross on our lawn? You rather we’d raise a kid in the city in some cramped apartment? Make him go to a school where there aren’t even enough desks?”
“Him? Could be a girl,” I stubbornly replied.
“It’s going to be a boy. Anyway, you’re not going to convince me that this is a mistake.”
“I’m not trying to say that this a mistake, I’m just-”
“You’re trying to get us to move back to Brooklyn. I see through what you’re doing. But I thought we agreed that we were making an investment in this house…my job….it’d be different if we weren’t having a baby. But engineering jobs are hard to come by and I’d be crazy not to take this opportunity.”
“I just want us to be happy,” I said. I lacked the energy to form an impassioned rebuttal, one that would encourage the onion-skin peeling and dissection of his Utopian suburbia. There was a feeling of dread that swung from the back of my throat like a wrecking ball and I wanted these feelings exorcised from my body.
“I know babe, I know,” he tenderly murmured.
As we approached the town, population twenty thousand citizens, the houses and the stores spread out. A pickup truck swung in front of us. The tailpipe spewed white smoke and the engine rumbled like a whale surging through chilly Atlantic waters, breaking the surface.
I looked at the back window. In the right corner, there was a faded sticker of the Confederate flag. A white sticker with navy blue script was plastered in the center of the rusty bumper:
TAKE BACK OUR AMERICA.
“What America do you think he’s talking about?” I wondered, glancing at Aaron.
He didn’t answer, only took a drag of his pitiful cigarette, then turned the radio back on.
The house we rented was neither opulent or quaint, not quite an eyesore but certainly the black sheep of an otherwise pristine neighborhood. Pepto-Bismol pink with sullied white shutters, the dirt and the dust and the grime like the sheen of condensation on a boiling tea kettle. The grass was brown like the cartons of chocolate milk we’d get in elementary school. The previous owners had planted a pink flamingo in the ground, right near the mailbox, a plastic talisman to ward off unsavory intruders. Aaron liked the fact that the house came with a working grill and a decent backyard and a two car garage. He’d never had a proper backyard and instead of a clothesline, his mother hung wet shirts and pants out to dry over the shower rod and over windowsills, anywhere there was available space.
We were unpacking the last of the overstuffed boxes when the doorbell rang. Aaron, shirtless and desperate to stop work and chug a beer, frowned and tilted his head slightly to the left, as though the difference in angle would help deconstruct an abstract painting. The doorbell rang again, an insistent chirp. I put down the scissors I was holding and navigated my way through the living room, barefeet sighing upon meeting the cold wooden floors.
I opened the door and was greeted by a tall, boxy brunnette with broad shoulders and mammoth feet encased in straight-out-the-box Coach sneakers. Her eyebrows formed pencil thin quotation marks, artfully arched like a 1930s silver screen femme fatale. Her outfit was head-to-toe white: white T-shirt, long, white open-faced sweater with batwing sleeves, and white pants undoubtedly plucked from the recent spring collection offered by Ann Taylor. A basket of blueberry muffins was in the crook of her elbow. I wondered if she knew beforehand that a black couple was moving into the house or if she’d heard and wanted to check out the scene like a rubbernecker studying the aftermath of a semi-truck smashing into a minivan.
“Oh! Why, hello. You must be the new neighbors. My name is Tracey Wellington-Beasley and I live right down the road.”
She pointed to the right, more of a flap of the hand than a declarative gesture. I couldn’t tell if she was twenty-five or forty-five. It was like parts of her face were expiring, sagging faster than the others. Tracey Wellington-Beasley poked her head in the doorframe and noticed Aaron, who was still shirtless and fiddling with the iPod speakers.
“Yes. I’m Pearl.” I met her gaze and my name felt like sand beneath my tongue.
“It’s so nice to have some fresh faces in this neighborhood. May I come in?”
She took a step forward, the basket suddenly prominent like an eagle-headed cane.
“Ummm, ok. Excuse the mess. My fiance and I were in the middle of unpacking,” I explained.
Tracey Wellington-Beasley studied the room littered with our belongings, as though she were a crime scene technician. She stood up straighter, fulfilled by her self-manufactured importance. She suddenly relished the feeling of immaculate cleanliness, as though her body were spit-shined and buffered smooth with wax. I could tell that she hadn’t seen too many black people in these parts. There was something anchored in her voice and the way she kept looking back and forth at us, the way she was caught between repulsion and titillation at Aaron’s naked chest. When I told a close friend that Aaron was moving us to Connecticut, she wrinkled her nose as though she’d taken a whiff of gasoline.
My father was from Connecticut. He was born and raised there. He hated it so much that he vowed that once he retired from his job, he’d pack up and move to Florida. He shot himself in the head before he could get there.
I had done my research the minute that Aaron insisted we move. Despite the fact that its voters were overwhelmingly democratic, Connecticut foolishly thought that it was immune to the lashings of racism and discrimination, that these microscopic seeds would not flourish if ignored. Other friends had told me that Connecticut upheld the reputation that seemed to follow New England: the people were cold and aloof, more likely to sit and watch horror unfold instead of intervening. These were all facts I presented to Aaron like unsavory tatort cards but unfortunately, he brushed it off.
“My, I hope I’m not intruding,” Tracey Wellington-Beasley proclaimed like a perfume saleswoman trying to exaggerate the merits of an otherwise wretched product.
“No, no. It’s fine,” I said.
“The last family that lived here was a black family. Well, the mother was black and I think the father was Hispanic. Or was it Indian? But lovely, lovely people! They were just so nice and friendly,” Tracey Wellington-Beasley proclaimed. She set the muffins on a nearby box, then placed her hands on her hips. The image reminded me of the haggard lunch-aide at my elementary school who wore a PE whistle around her neck, prowling the cafeteria, itching to dole out punishment.
Aaron finally settled on music: Kanye’s College Dropout. Tracey Wellington-Beasley’s overlined lips turned into a frown.
“You know, we don’t have strict rules in this community, but we try to respect one another. You know, no wild parties, no loud, disruptive music after 10.”
She aimed her laser-beam-eyes on Aaron, who hadn’t bothered to pay her any mind. This seemed to annoy her. She cleared her throat and tugged on a diamond stud. I suddenly felt exhausted like I’d been beaten with a pillowcase thick with bars of soap.
“Well, if you’ll excuse us, we really need to get back to packing,” I said.
Tracey Wellington-Beasley nodded and inched her way to the frontdoor. She cast a furtive glance at Aaron. He was mouthing the words to “All Falls Down.”
“By the way, there’s a great Southern Baptist church just ten minutes from your house.”
“Oh, thank you?”
“Just thought you’d want to know,” she replied.
With that, she was gone. After I shut the door, I didn’t say anything for a moment. Then I turned on Aaron.
“How come you didn’t say anything?” I demanded.
“What’d you mean? What was I supposed to say? White Devil be gone?” he teased.
“I don’t know. Just something! Anything!”
Aaron laughed and put his arms around me.
“Aww, is Pearl afraid of Betty Crocker?”
“Oh, fuck you, Aaron,” I said, not a drop of venom in my voice.
He laughed again and kissed me and I felt beautiful again, felt that black was beautiful, not ominous like barrels of oozing oil coating blue oceans. He kissed me again and I felt cocooned in his protection, in the myth of our invincible youth, in the bath-water-warm lullaby of untested love.
During the first week of Aaron’s new employment, on a frigid Wednesday, Tracey stopped by. I had a week until I started my own job, a thankless retail position at the Gap, one which was dismally below my education and professional skillset, but the only place that had offered to hire me.
She pounded the door with the urgency of a tax collector, smelling of Elizabeth Arden facial creams, her cheeks pink with an excess of blush. I’d just finished showering and was dressed in yoga pants and my Hunter College sweatshirt. My hair was sopping wet; this was a revelation for Tracey, like Moses and his Burning Bush. She just couldn’t believe that hair that had once been so voluminous and curly and “like an afro,” would transform into thick ropes that stopped just above my butt.
“How do you get your hair like that?” she wondered, a little girl in awe of Santa Claus.
“Lots of shea butter.”
We were sitting at the kitchen table and drinking coffee. I didn’t want Tracey to stay but it was nice to get the chance to talk to another adult. The few times I’d been out and about in town, people stared a little too long, blinking as though I were a mirage. No one had approached with malicious words, but the stares were on purpose. I didn’t want to inspire any ill-will from Tracey or our other neighbors and at the same time, chided myself for pandering to this silent mob.
“Is that like cocoa butter?”
“Uh, I don’t think so? Cocoa butter is just for lotion.”
“You knowing, growing up in Greenwich, I didn’t see too many black people. It’s nice to live in such an ethnic neighborhood now.”
She was so proud of herself that I would not have been surprised if she demanded a gold star.
One day, Tracey came over, hoping to sell boxes of Girl Scout cookies for her eight-year-old daughter. Tracey was dressed in monochromatic green, the color of mint julep leaves. I could tell she’d rehearsed a whole speech about the benefits of supporting the Girl Scouts but I agreed to buy two boxes before she could begin. The prior day, she had come over after finishing a glass of white wine. Her tipsy mouth couldn’t help but unlock unfiltered confessions, ones that yearned for a forced sense of “sistership.” She told me that when she was younger, she used to listen to rap because she’d been trying to impress her jocks of choice. When I told her that I didn’t listen to a lot of rap, she was visibly startled. She said that even now, she sometimes dug out her old 2Pac CD (the one with “Changes”) and sang along, N-word flying free. It would be an understatement to say that I was disturbed by her bluntness and her lack of shame. Then again, this was a woman who thought that privilege meant being able to use affirmative action in your favor and was grateful for MapQuest so she could avoid driving through “the ghettos.”
And I know all the words. My car is the only place I can sing those songs because what would my husband think?
“Thank you, Pearl. We appreciate it. You know, the family that lived here before never bought cookies from us. They said they were too expensive. Can you imagine that! Why, the day before I’d seen them at the Best Buy, picking out a new TV. Who needs people like that?”
I only nodded, wondering what kind of people she was picking out and why, exactly, they deserved her wrath.
It was the weekend when it happened. Aaron was out in the woods when the cop car pulled into our driveway. He’d been mowing the lawn and cutting some brushes, tossing the debris into the brush.
The police officer was a forty-something white man who kept one hand hovering near his holster.
“Miss, it’s been reported that a strange man is loitering behind your house. Some of the neighbors were concerned.”
“There’s no one here but me and my fiance,” I replied, confused.
The police officer’s poker face caused sweat to pool beneath my armpits.
“You mind if I head around back?”
He was gone before I could consent.
What seemed like an hour later, the cop marched like a Stormtrooper back to his car. Aaron came in through the back door and it was like he’d sprouted bull horns.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“That fucking cop tried to hassle me. He asked if I lived here and how long and where I worked. I guess some idiots called the cops on me for standing in my own yard,” he fumed.
The next day, Tracey came over. I told her about the encounter with the cop. She was Scarlett O’Hara performing for her ever-obliging Mammy, wide open mouth, inserting extra empathetic inflection to disguise her disingenuous sympathy.
“I just don’t know why someone would call the police on your fiance! After all, you’re not the rowdy type.”
I gave her a stiff nod, knowing that all she wanted was an audience and then she would be on her way. I shoved my hands beneath my thighs so that I wouldn’t yield to the impulse of lifting up my mug and tossing all of my coffee in her smug face.
But with the descent of my silence, I felt that I had betrayed Aaron and written it out on a Pacific Coast Highway billboard.
I could only take so much of Tracey’s arsenal of gossip and her achingly, sickeningly sweet department-store-perfume of the week and the white, white whites of her eyes and her insistence on playing dumb.
I got her out of the house the way a baker shoves rats out of his kitchen with a broom.
But even when I closed and locked the door, I felt thousands of bug eyes boring through the walls, etching fear into my skin.
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been featured on Thought Catalog, The Toast, The Hairpin, Literally, Darling, and Bitch Media. She is a Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com.