Swing sets everywhere. Toddlers played in well-groomed yards. Each house had character, and all of my playmates were white. Every single one.
Our contemporary house was set on the end of a cul-de-sac. Dad wore sharp suits and cologne, carefully side-parting his hair. He drove a Cadillac. Mom, wearing makeup, drove a mini van.
Of course, my brother, sister and I weren't without our share of universal childhood problems -- alcoholism, mental illness, eating disorders, you name it -- but on the outside things always appeared flawless, clean and stark white.
For high school, I went to Ursuline. There were a few black girls in each grade, and at lunch they sat together at the same table every day. When I enrolled in an all-women's college in Virginia, I thought I was open-minded due to my education, but I'd never had one close black friend.
After college -- through self-induced near-homeless life on the Seattle streets -- I made friends of all ages, all colors, learning humility the hard way. My method involved booze, gravel, alleys, brick, loneliness and filth.
Regardless of backgrounds, we were just surviving. We were in love with whoever had food or drugs.
But one still-dark, early morning in Seattle, I was lost, drunk and high, wandering through downtown alleys until I came to a dead end. Two tall, thick-muscled black girls approached me, getting in my face.
Assuming they wanted trouble, I searched for an escape route, but I was trapped. Angry at my street-dumb route choice, I stood still, waiting, annoyed but unafraid. I felt too sick and hopeless to be scared of strangers because, deep down, I wanted to die.
But I worried that they'd beat me up, leaving me there wrecked though still alive.
Instead, one girl put her hands on my shoulders, gently shaking me. She scrunched her brows, acting motherly. She was maybe 18.
"Girl, what're you doin' in these parts alone? You're not safe here," she said.
Groggily, I shrugged and said, "I know."
The other girl said, "We gotta get you out of here. Now. You're gonna get killed."
I thanked them, slurring. Then I blacked out. Later, I woke up in a hostel bunk bed, unharmed, wondering if the girls had saved my life.
Still, in my twenties I put up a wall whenever I was in the minority. For instance, when I hung out at The Greenwich to hear some spoken word readings, I suddenly turned into some person I thought others might "approve of."
I changed my speech, calling up my best Seattle street talk. I changed my appearance. Although I thought I was well-read and open, I suddenly felt the need to act "bad-ass." In reality, I was insecure and too proud to admit it.
Some years back, when I first shopped at the Walnut Hills Kroger, I noticed I was one of the few white girls there. Wandering through aisles, I felt like I was still wearing my old Catholic uniform in public.
It took me a while to trash my symbolic uniform, to leave behind the white girl from the cul-de-sac. It took me a while to realize that I was just another freaking shopper.
I wasn't special. I needed food like everybody else. And it wasn't the other customers making me feel different.
The environment wasn't the problem. The problem was me.
I never had any close black friends until I met E three years ago. At first, we bickered often about history, having heated discussions about topics such as the all-white faces on stained glass windows in most churches.
Later, the conversations turned to music, creativity, passions. We shared our lives. Instead of using my head to prove points, carrying around a defensive look, I simply became his friend. Serious, brow-knit glances were replaced by smiles.
E always greets me the same way, calling me by my nickname, asking, "How you doin', Mac?" And I know he's not asking for my bullshit "acquaintance" answer. He wants to know the truth.
He wanted to know when I was depressed and aching, fresh out of the hospital. He listened, trying to understand, reminding me to eat and sleep. Now, when I send out my memoir trying for publication, he crosses his fingers for me.
Eventually, wordy debates vanished and shared life experience led to truth, a truth that was in the practice of it, one glowing truth that came from contact, not books.
Certainly, I'm still learning, but I know this: Bonds form when I'm humble enough to know that I need to just be me and to let myself rest inside friendships that transcend dead ends, appearances and time, creating a lasting connection. Here, all roads are open.
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