My cousins can be split into two groups: Ones who grew up with weaves and skin lighteners and ones who needed sunscreen and haircuts. Our family is a classic case of women and the black men who left them versus the white men who stayed.
I remember being 6 and slapping my white uncle in the face to figure out why his face turned bloodred. I wondered how men with such delicate bodies seemed to be the only ones who could endure the storm. When my cousin on the all-black side birthed a baby girl whose father had become abusive, we took a long ride to a shopping mall. She was looking to me for advice on raising a fatherless child, considering my firsthand experience.
We rolled down the windows in her beat-up car and took in as much air as we could. There is nothing to worry about. She will be fine. At least she will have a great uncle. I turned out okay. We bought crop tops, tight jeans, and earrings so big that they touched our shoulders.
On the ride home we were quiet and I decided I would never date a black man as long as my feet touched this earth. It was like that for a while—dismissing every suitor who resembled my father. The only girl in my group of black girlfriends who had a boyfriend was dating a white boy who was white enough to have a family that hated black people. We would sit squished in a row behind them with all of our smirks perfectly even as they drove us home.
There was something about watching a black boy murdered from the comfort of my home that made me want to go out and love a black man as hard as I could, as though somehow it could resurrect the child in him.
I started dating my first official black boyfriend, a neuroscientist, shortly after. He was gentle in a very straightforward way, pulling out chairs for me at restaurants and picking me up after work to take me to exhibition openings, where he would look at me instead of looking at the art.
He supported my work and called me Butterfly; our relationship was nauseatingly blissful. I was so content in who I was with him. I posted photos of black love on every social media account and considered myself as part of a larger revolution.
I wore Black Lives Matter buttons, attended marches, sported hoodies, vowed to date only black men, and prepared myself to raise a son who might be faced with a death in the same vein as Trayvon, a name I had spoken so often that it felt like that of a brother. Our portrait was perfectly hung and constantly dusted for shine. But whenever he would call, I would let my phone ring until the screen went black. It was only a month later that it struck me that it was over.
After nine months, my black savior, the neuroscientist, had broken up with me and left me with no words to cry over. It felt too ironic; the first black man who I dated had left me in exactly the way that I feared. He had grown tired of letting me pretend, I realized. I cleaned myself up: I got a well-paying job; moved to the city; got my own apartment and painted it yellow and got plants to place on the windowsill.
I avoided the letdown of a fantasy dying. I joined Tinder on a whim to break the routine of eat, work, eat, sleep. I had stopped knowing who to count out at parties or open bars, and so I winged it. I found myself on a first date with a guy who was born and raised in Yonkers, with a family from El Salvador.
He told me that he had gotten out of a year relationship with the girl he thought he would marry and I told him that I had spent two years alone finding myself. We were open with each other; he had been warned to stay away from black girls, and I was advised to not date men of color.
We stood on the head of our warnings every day as we got to know each other. Our conversations always started with why. I knew I was a far away from the Latina girls he was used to with silk hair, milk-toffee skin, and sharp tongues: I had forgotten how vulnerable it felt to be black in the apartment building lobby of a potential love.
I was eager to level up. Before every date I would always buy myself a new outfit or piece of clothing to impress him, as though being constantly new would distract from any shortcomings. I would stretch my hair every inch that I could, to make it appear longer. Our relationship progressed quickly. The first term we used was exclusive. We got stared down in every bar that we entered, and approached with unsolicited offers for company, as though our relationship could only be sexual, as though we needed more than each other to be satisfied.
These were the days that he learned how to hold me when I cried. We always felt halfway to a crime that we could never commit. We were two people of color, the passive transgression, but the responsibility of leaving our races still clung onto our chests. We live together in a small studio in Chelsea, where we cook dinners and take showers. We ask each other about dessert options and call each other good-looking even though we have gained weight. We know how to laugh loud like our lips are hooked up to strings pulling them in different directions: some up, some down.
We say crude things to each other and have to apologize. We look each other in the eyes and we also look away. We try our best to get it right and take note of when we have gotten it wrong. I wrote a message to say congratulations and good luck. They posted pictures on the Internet with their cheeks touching and their bodies wrapped together. They travel to places with ice mountains but also send updates about the flu. I ask my mother if she has heard anything about how they are doing. Are they happy? Her writing focuses on race, relationships, and the lives of women.
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