Portland is my kind of town. I don’t mean its liberal attitude, or its hip, ‘we don’t need your approval’ punk undertones, or its ‘we don’t got no employability’ college graduate feel. I mean the weather. It rains all year round, and it’s always cold. I’ve always gotten hives when temperatures run high or emotions flare, when I’m afraid or anxious. But around friends, I feel secure, and my flesh isn’t coated in nettles. Portland is a friend, with its cool weather and accepting atmosphere.
But tonight isn’t one of those nights.
I’m plastered on the couch, held there by the surface tension of a layer of sweat and the inertia that only a muggy heat can beat into your cerebrum. The fan spins furiously: persistent but impotent, doing little more than cycle hot air around. It’s one of those ‘get out of the house and explore the neighborhood’ nights, and I’ve always been one to do what the night tells me. I’m walking down the street with my ladyfriend.
A few weeks ago, we crashed headlong into the unique part of what I’ve lovingly come to see as the best part of any relationship. The point where you’re a two person package deal of sexual tension kept apart only by the fact that you’re either with her friends or your friends or in public and whichever it is, you both feel a bit too awkward to cling madly to each other like you’re afraid you’ll realize there’s somebody better for either of you. This isn’t that phase. This is the phase after that phase, when you’ve decided “fuck it, we’re going to be one of those couples, but only just a little”. It starts as holding hands on the bus, and it ends with the two of you curled up on her friends’ couch as though if only you were one body, it wouldn’t be too damn hot for the two of you to be this close.
And so we step out into the moonlit street and the cool breeze carries away the smothering heat of the indoors leaving only the smouldering heat that forces you together; we collapse into each others arms, but surely it’s her roommates who are more glad to have that obnoxiously cuddly couple out of sight.
I’m thinking this all as we walk — because my internal monologue never stops; never stops talking, never stops categorizing and thinking about the world and how all that is has happened before and will happen before because the skeleton of the world is steady, even if the flesh may change with time — but I’m interrupted by a passing car and a shout: “stick to your own kind”. The sudden spike of emotion — of shame and rage and contempt — sends waves of prickly pain down my skin.
My ladyfriend asks “what did they say, I couldn’t hear?” and I shake my head and say that I couldn’t hear either, because how do you explain the truth, the cold, hard truth, that because you’re caramel-y brown and she’s pale tan and pink, some people will disapprove, possibly violently and definitely angrily. Oh, she’s white, by the way. These stories are hard to put together, all pieces of information that are important to the world and yet trivial to me. I’ve never thought anything of it. Of course most people I’ve dated have been white: I live in Portland and went to a college not exactly known for diversity; whom else would I date? But how do you ruin the perfect cool of the night and the feel of her skin against yours to talk about the broken nature of the world?
And what does that mean “your own kind”, anyway? There are other half-black Swedes in the world, to be sure; we meet weekly for fika, but we’ve agreed to date only outside of our circle, because it’s just too awkward to date within a group of 7.
My mother used to tell me “if they call you names, they’re probably not your friends at all”. But if Portland isn’t my friend, then what is Ohio, where the hairdresser calls my hair ‘not that negro’, and my family’s neighbors think Obama’s a secret Muslim? What is Florida, where I could be shot and killed for the crime of making people feel scared?