The Blue Box Blues

Homegirl had the nerve to smile at me as she walked out of Steve’s on Broad and Windrim with the last of the baked macaroni and cheese. She probably didn’t remember me, but I rarely forget. She was victim to the physical expansion and mental stagnation of most folks I’d known in grade school, but to be honest, the booty to waist ratio was something to behold. Seeing it from the front is usually grounds for further investigating. I may have glanced as she glanced back at me. I tend to lick my lips often, and it’s possible that she mistook this as interest in her as opposed to my fantasizing about the Ox tail and macaroni and cheese with yams I would soon obtain. But as soon as I realized that she procured the last serving of my preferred side dish, I never wanted to lay eyes on her or her booty again.

I settled on rice instead of macaroni…

As I walked out of Steve’s she was sitting in her car with a friend staring at the door. She tried to flag me down but I sped up, walking across the street into the Rite-Aid parking lot where my car was. Of course when I came out of the lot to pass them and be on my way, the light in front of us both, turned red. There I was frozen, right next to her, looking forward, listening to The Wind Up Bird Chronicle on audible. I turned the volume all the way up when I saw her lean out of her window towards me preparing to talk, but since some of the characters speak in hushed tones, I could still make out what she was saying. Against otherworldly gravity I forced my head slightly towards her, offering a fake smile. The light turned green and I crept off, making sure I didn’t seem eager to escape. The last thing I caught from her was: “What kind of nerd shit is that you listenin’ to?”

And at that moment I hated her. The opposite of how Ender felt when he understood his enemies. Granted, I could have caught much more had I stayed and entertained a conversation of avoidance with her—had I given in to more penile desires, but I hadn’t even considered it. Seven or eight years ago, I would have been wasting even more time texting her the next day to see when she could come over. I would have repeated the same mistake I have made countless times in moments of supreme loneliness. Now that isn’t to say that I haven’t slept with any of the wrong women in the past seven or eight years; clearly that is false. However, the gradient and frequency of wrong has fallen from a steep cliff, in spite of record highs in loneliness and it isn’t easy to define why.

Some folks will say it has to do with “maturity,” which is a subjective claim they have yet to reconcile within their own universe. Another easy one that gets tossed around is, “it’s because you have kids now, a daughter at that,” which is clearly nonsensical, knowing some of the guys I know who have daughters. A more rational, yet not all encompassing explanation would be the factor of time. “You’re much busier now, and value your time more,” I’ve been told. In some ways that last statement is true, about valuing time, but there was once a Joseph that worked three jobs and was out of the house from 4:00 A.M. until late into the night 6-7 days a week, during that time I had little contact with friends but there was certainly a wide breadth of sexual intrigue. It’s definitely not a vanishing libido problem either…

Although several factors play a role I’m sure, I am choosing to attribute the no longer getting any booty phenomenon (NLGABP) to simply growing apart. The same stark separation that has occurred with friends, has also been taking place with everyone I could potentially date. From an aerial view, my friends, family and potential mates are way outside of Wall Maria and I’m stuck trying to climb Wall Rose. Implications of savagery not my own. The thing is, navigating a society that you have only in recent years been a part of is difficult. It requires changes that I haven’t always been willing to admit—mostly because it means acknowledging how far away I’ve drifted from loves ones. I can no longer be roused, even slightly by the things many of my friends consider to be gospel, nor can they feign interest in any of my obsessions. It hurts to say that, because none of us have ever, and may never have this conversation in person. We will continue to make plans with each other less frequently, and cancel them more often. We will continue to love each other, of course—we’ll see each other at weddings and some funerals, but that will dry up too. And that isn’t all bad, it’s just reality.

What’s bad is that none of us truly have the emotional intelligence to have this conversation. To care enough to have this conversation. It was either not bred into us, or beaten out of us. Sure, we can get together and talk a load of shit about anything, have some laughs, primarily at the expense of each other. But a heart shearing séance of emotion really just isn’t in the cards, although one of them, Drake in particular, is drinking the emotional intelligence avocado smoothie and sharing it as manly as he possibly can. Aisha says I should get a therapist; probably right.

Anyways, all that is to say, if the rift between myself and those whom I’ve already loved has grown so much, it’s no wonder that potential mates—who are of the same age, demographic and sensibilities as my estranged loved ones, seem like Lucifer by comparison. Add to that the NLGABP and the fact that homegirl took the last of the macaroni and cheese and therein lies my obsession.

Like Me.

A wise man once said to me, at Pen’s Chinese store in Logan, “bitch niggas like you couldn’t handle it in jail!”

No, I hadn’t provoked him. I was just waiting in line— mouth watering at the thought of my stingy serving of shrimp with broccoli.

I was confused, and just said, “Well, it’s a good thing niggas like me don’t usually go to jail.”

Clarence was cracking up so hard after the guy left that his eyes began to water, and I couldn’t help laughing either.

“What the fuck was boul’s problem?” He said.

“I don’t know, niggas always trippin’ around here,” I replied.

He was right though, I’m more Tom Dubois than I would have admitted back then. Homeboy saw right through me. Pulled my card.

 

When I remembered that occasion later, I thought of someone much more likely to need booty defense classes than I; Julian. My little brother had officially chucked the deuces at high school like everyone else, but he knew, and I knew, and he knew that I knew that he was not made for the anyone’s streets. This is the same kid who stood even taller than me, but answered his own denial of fear with complete silence and passivity. He was so tender, but smart enough to know that our tenderness was a death sentence. I don’t remember him actively participating in any fight, or even a serious complication. When he was in middle school, and I in high school, I had to threaten some kid on our block because he dropped Julian in the middle of the street. Little did I know, he was kin to some drug dealer who pulled a gun on me before I even considered whether I could beat him in one of those “fair ones,” that used to exist.

Julian and I were both light-skinned and lanky, people often thought we looked alike. When my son was born, everyone—including Yana, who I think started it—joked that the resemblance was uncanny, it could be Julian’s kid. Since my brother started talking I always imagined that he and I would grow so close together, play ball together, travel together, watch anime together, argue about the same books and movies, but rarely did any of that occur.

Thinking of him officially entering the life of doom made me nauseous. Once, after I returned from Iraq, back from disowning everyone, Earl called and asked me to “come talk to my brother.” We sat in my car and I tried so damn hard to connect with him, then I tried to empathize with him, then I threatened him— “Do you want to end up like them?” After this failed shotgun approach he mentioned one of those low expectation, for-profit universities that typically take advantage of poor folks and black people; I cringed. If only I could keep him away from Steve Harvey, maybe that would help.

Nothing I said mattered one bit. On my ride home, I cried for the first time in a while, at something that wasn’t a major motion picture. My laziness as an older brother was partly to blame. I hadn’t triaged him as expectant, like my mother, grandmother or most friends, I just thought he would figure it all out and leave the house, move on to bigger and better things. So I never shared any plans with him and I didn’t put much effort into hanging out with him when he was still impressionable. When he had troubles getting picked on at school—just like I did—I never consoled him. I just thought, he’ll figure it out. I just knew he would figure it out on his own. When I’d come to visit after that, he would be sitting in the living room, mid-day with all the lights off, shades drawn, smoking weed in his pajamas with several rock-faced boys.

 

Nowadays he has a job, working with Earl. Certainly, it isn’t the job I’d imagined for him. I’d hoped engineer or artist, educator or designer. But I am not him, and he is not me, and he seems to be happy. But I can’t help thinking about the limited versions of “happy” that will ever be accessible to him. And I have no idea how to tell him.

When he sent me a picture of his daughter he was elated, excited, proud. But I couldn’t respond, since I only felt sad.

Better Man.

To be taken back so far so quickly. To think that all someone had to do was suggest that I move my car. That I stop helping to dig out this African stranger’s minivan from the street and move my vehicle, so that someone else could pass. Maybe it was the way he said it.

“Yo, you need to move that car though.”

Maybe it was because he was a large black man, taller than myself, and visibly angry. Although certainly not angrier than I—I’ve never been able to admit that possibility.

Maybe it’s due to my own expectations of him. Of his type, and what I was willing to stand for, or what I wasn’t willing to stand for any longer—at least not at this moment. And all that good will and solidarity and kinship that I had imagined sharing just minutes ago melted off my hot skin like I wished that god damn snow would. And my heart rate skyrocketed and I was afraid, but I was so angry. I trembled. Angry like the time I told some jock in high school: I will whoop your fucking ass, over some offhand comment during a basketball game. Back then, I remember Clarence laughed and said: “Yo, I can’t believe you said that.” But there was no blood, even though for hours after I wished there was.

I was angry like when that fat blonde kid Anthony at Harding Middle School got laughs at the expense of my blackened, Kool-Aid tarnished teeth. “Shitmouth,” he would say. Until one day in gym class when Anthony wasn’t saying a word, I sat two children behind him, legs crossed over my dot on the floor and grew furious at his existence. I got up without speaking, walked in front of him and tried to break my fist on his flubbery fat face. My hand ached and throbbed after I returned to my seat. He stayed still with a hand on his cheek, sobbing and struggling to stay silent. A few seconds after sitting, I began to cry too, but louder, which only made me angrier. When I got home from school that day, I told Earl that I had finally stood up for myself; he called me a faggot and told me to get my shit together. It was my first suspension, but Anthony and I became friends later on and the remaining kids moved on to teasing me about other things.

When the big black guy got out of his car and told me to move I said, “Calm the fuck down, you do realize we’re busy—so unless you want to help, get your silly ass back in your car and go around.” In a way that meant: Look at me, I am way smarter and superior to you, and I’m a good samaritan and you’re just a piece of shit. It felt so good—even better knowing I could quickly reach my glove compartment even if things got hairy.

And maybe I justified it by imagining him in a du-rag and some Tims, beating the hell out of his girlfriend, smoking a Philly blunt in front of his kid and listening to Waka Flocka or some other disgrace to rap/disgrace to black like the troves of people I knew and wanted so badly for him to be. I knew I couldn’t actually reason with a scumbag like him. I had tried and failed—at my own expense—far too may times. They only understand one language. It was me or him. I needed to strike first, to come off stronger or he could just eat me alive. He might have his way with me if I don’t threaten his life, his intelligence and his manhood immediately.

But none of that shit was probably true. I was in Elkins Park, not Frankford. I was an adult, not a boy. He was a living, breathing person; not my indignant imagination. For safety, for fear, in my anger and out of desire for superiority—for higher ground—I had just gambled with his life, with my life, my freedom. But sinking back into that mode so easily, makes me feel I was never free to begin with. Hell, I could still make excuses. What if he was that guy? What if my submitting would have encouraged him? What if it would have made him believe I was weak and that he could take advantage of me? Then what?

I don’t know, maybe he’d circle the block over and over again telling me to move my car. Maybe he would run my toes over as he drove by. Maybe he would spit in my face and speed away. And what if I ran into him again? Would he remember and then escalate, had I let him off easy? If I saw him in some Chinese store in North Philly at 1:00 in the morning buying a Philly blunt would he remember, and try to rob, or attack me for being soft when all I wanted to do was get my General Tso’s Chicken and go to bed on a full stomach?

And that is how ridiculous these justifications get. Where passivity or kindness no longer mean life or death, my reflexes have yet to catch up with my comparatively bourgeoisie social situation.

He didn’t say anything after I spoke, just got back in his car and took an alternate route. But it took months for me to accept it; to realize that he was the better man.

A Moment in Milwaukee

A few years ago when I was in Wisconsin, on my way to Iraq, Jojo was born, or “baby jofist” if you ask Bry. My son was a pale little creature who I had yet to meet in person, although it was already decided, by everyone, that he looked exactly like me. This could have contributed to his mother naming him after me; that or the fact that she thought I might die while I was deployed. It was a gift.

The pre-deployment train up left us with a few days before getting on a plane to go over seas, but not really enough time and money to fly back home; that would wait until the middle of the tour. So, some of us drove to Milwaukee for a few days. I walked the city during the day, and at night, taking in the sights. I felt only mildly uncomfortable, alone and not exactly running into people I could relate to.

I looked at photos of Jojo on my phone.

Sergeant Didonado was also in Milwaukee, his fiancé came up and one night I met them at a bar. It was a pretty typical place, about half full with dim lights and a draft list you could count on one hand, sporting events on the televisions. As I was sitting with SSG Didonado and his fiancé, a young shapely white woman with long, light hair came up and sat next to me, started making conversation. It was the usual where are you from, and how long are you in town at first—the white man, black man, and Asian woman combo may have given us away as outsiders, but I couldn’t be certain. The conversation lulled and I cringed a little when she mentioned the weather and then something about her clothing. I then said that my son was recently born.

The cell phone pictures made an appearance and SSG Didonado’s fiancé said things like “awe,” and “cute,” and then I showed the girl who had sat down next to me. She held the phone in her hand for a second, glanced at it and passed it back to me.

“Pretty cute, for a black baby,” she said.

 

I’m pretty sure SSG Didonado started laughing first, but he definitely said, “wait, what did you just say?” His fiancé looked at the girl, confuzzled. I might have been laughing the hardest. We all laughed even louder though when we realized that the girl sitting next to me didn’t understand why we were laughing.

Eventually, when we tired out, everyone just stared towards the center of the bar for a little while. The girl who sat next to me never quite understood why we were laughing. She left without a word. Afterwards, we chatted about how ridiculous the event was, about how her obliviousness amplified the hilarity. Sad, but hilarious.

And these moments are where I start when I consider how to talk to the kids about race. There used to be a sliver of naïveté in me that thought: maybe I won’t even have to bring that kind of stuff up, they might not have to deal with that. But that would be stupid. And dangerous. Because an infant who, not very long ago lived in my testicles, who had no melanin to spare, was already considered a lesser being because of his blackness—by a girl who never met him and never would, in a photo, 900 miles and a time zone away. I wondered how many years he had before she might consider him armed and dangerous.

And best of all, she probably still doesn’t know what was so funny.

The Weekend.

Cassie and Riley are wrestling over who will lick the cat first. The kids enter and try to get both dog’s attentions. Then comes my mother. She slides straight into the kitchen to profile the food. She picks up Chimay and champagne simultaneously.

“Can I drink these?” she says. If not for the directness I would have thought she was talking to her main John, the phone is still to her ear. All week she begged me to come over and spend time with the kids. And here we are.

“Put them down,” I say, trying not to raise my voice. “Can’t you calm down for a second? I’m about to cook dinner.” She is relatively calm. Relatively. She hadn’t demanded that I buy her cigarettes seven or eight times on the drive to my apartment. But I hadn’t demanded that she stop smoking crack so we were even.

She sucks her teeth and puts the alcohol back in the fridge. Riley now has the cat in her mouth, pinned down on the ottoman by my computer. My mother continues to search through the fridge as I’m boiling water and seasoning salmon. She pulls out a plastic Ziploc bag that contains half an avocado, apple and orange slices. She stares at the avocado. Pokes it.

“Joey, what’s this?” she says.

“It’s an avocado…” Probing my fruit isn’t the worst thing she’s done, so I try to consider that. I really try.

Earlier, when she got in my car from Earl’s house, the air died. Jojo was asleep in the back seat, and without him, Leah was quietly listening to the Lightspeed podcast with me. Until my mother got in. From the moment she opened the passenger side door I could no longer enjoy the short story and I switched to music instead, slightly raising the volume whenever she tried to talk up her John. She asked me to “do her a favor” and “meet him.” She asked me to be nice to him. But the best I could imagine was dismissing a weak handshake, instead of palming this guy’s head like a basketball and mashing it up against the brick surface of my grandfather’s house. The ladder made me feel a little better. Breathing came easier at the thought.

“You can have one if you’d like, they’re in the bottom drawer, you don’t have to fondle that one.”

“No, I just want to taste it.” The avocado, or societal participation? I thought.

“Well then taste it and close the refrigerator door.” But she doesn’t taste it. Never will.

Jojo and Leah are playing tug of war with Cassie and her dog rope. They’re yelling “You can’t beat both of us Cassie!” But Cassie is indeed beating both of them, even on the hardwood floor. Riley is nibbling on the cat. My mother is on her phone, cooing and begging for money from the John.

“Daddy, what are you making for dinner?” says Jojo. Which translates to: “can I have peanut butter and jelly?”

“It’s salmon and shrimp with pasta,” I say. He can’t hide his disappointment, but knows he’s supposed to.

“Is there any asparagus with that?” he says. Naturally, Leah jumps in and mimics him word for word. My mother takes the phone away from her ear for a second.

“What you know about asparagus?” says my mother.

“More than you know about avocados,” replies Jojo, under his breath.

My mother doesn’t hear it. She’s freaking out because her phone is about to die and she can’t find the charger.