You’re at dinner near the beach with a bunch of people you kind of know; you are “partying” this weekend even though you have never been very good at it, and you’re proud of yourself for keeping up, for not retreating in the face of distinctly uncomfortable moments—when grown women tell girls who might be twenty years old to take their shirts off—but you are out of your element; you don’t know the rules of these Romans. You shake your head and walk away, but you also make sure to be visibly laughing, so as to kill nobody’s buzz. This is what the weekend’s about, apparently, and you signed up for it because you wanted something new and distracting, something uncharacteristic, something that might loosen you the hell up. When crowds take pictures of strangers dry humping on pool tables, you chase scenes from The Accused out of your always-too-serious mind, you wave away the statistics that say you’re not the only one here whose body contains memories that void such scenes of the possibility of pleasure. You summon the sentiment from handpainted signs around your city, back home, to “THINK that you might be wrong” even as your brain screams about cycles of oppression and violence. They’re just having fun. Loosen the hell up. Look away if you must, but make sure they can see you’re laughing.
Waiting for food to arrive, you’re arguing, playfully, about pronunciations. Your table gets loud, but the whole weekend has been loud and unleashed, no big deal. You forget about the couple next to you, the one from whose table you borrowed a couple of seats. It’s their Memorial Day getaway too, but they’re not here for clubs and trampolines and loud double-entendres. They look like newlyweds. The man asks you to keep it down and you feel chastened because you remember just then about public space and you know they’re right. The table is overcome by the shared embarrassment that naturally follows such a moment, but you’ve all been on both sides of such moments plenty of times before. You catch the man’s eyes and mouth your sorry with an apologetic smile. The awkwardness will pass; you make quieter jokes and draw on the napkins with crayons. A waiter reiterates the man’s request and you nod. Inevitably, one of your party jokes about taking a date to a sports bar; rude but harmless, perhaps a mild salve to wounded pride.
The conversation at your table splits into smaller ones: you lean towards one couple because they look nervous; you assure them that everything is fine. “I don’t want to cause any trouble,” says one; you agree. “They can be so aggressive.” You double take, confused; you have heard that they many times before and you didn’t think that they was in her vocabulary. In the pause, you hear from across the table, loud, “…would let us get away with it if we were Black.” You look straight at the speaker and slit your throat with your finger, frowning. She laughs. You say it’s neither funny nor true and she stops. She is very, very drunk. The voice next to you is even more nervous now: “he’s looking at us. Shit…gonna start something.” She is wrong. The couple looks angry and mortified; they are eating silently. You feel angry and mortified, too, but you are complicit. You can’t separate yourself from this. Your patented move, your turn away with shaking head and overcompensating smile, is unthinkable now.
Get up and go apologize? That would make it worse, would create a spectacle, would embarrass the innocent and insult the guilty, making them louder. Walk away from here, get out? You don’t trust your table left to their own devices; maybe you have an inflated sense of your ability to restrain them somehow, or maybe a sense of duty, an absurd sense that is the only thing staving off the purest kind of shame, hopelessness, powerlessness. You did not dream that these ideas were in their hearts. You try to imagine what is going on in the minds of the silently eating couple and you know you can’t fathom it and your entire body aches with the fact that you are one of this number, that you are an inseparable part of It. That It is everywhere and that you didn’t know it, or that you knew it but were arrogant enough to think that you could be elsewhere. You are dumbfounded and you are dumb. For the first time, you understand that everywhere means everywhere.
Excusing yourself to go to the restroom, you find the waitress. You tell her what happened. You want to ask her to ask your party to leave, but you feel crazy for asking this, especially when you see the look on her face—overwhelmed, trapped, unsure what to do. She’s a kid. You can’t ask her to soothe your guilt. She offers to let you pay their tab if they agree to it. There must be a better way, but you can’t think of it. You’re not sure why you are trying so hard to fix what you know is unfixable, but you know the reason is ultimately selfish. Perhaps the only unselfish thing to do would be to feel this fully and privately, to sit with it and ache and squirm. You pay for their meal and ask her to send apologies, but you feel more impotent and ashamed than ever. You ask her not to tell anyone at your table, but you’re not sure why.
After the couple has left, you do as well, taking the drunkest of your party back to her room. You ask your friends to bring you the meal in a box. You hold it together even when you’re confronted by the anger of your party—you don’t ask how they found out because you are surprised to learn that they are angry at you, talking to you about them and how they are. “I work in the ghetto, so I know. I’m telling you…” You let them take advantage of you to get a free meal. They always do that. You stay calm as you refute their points, as you offer evidence, as you explain your thinking. But none of that matters, because you are in the grips of unreason now, and in this realm, you have actually made their irrational case for them, you have provided exhibit A, created another anecdote that will be distorted into proving a point about them. By asking an obnoxious table to keep it down a little, and then by ignoring the racist insult that followed, by practicing restraint, a Black couple is assumed to be “playing the race card” to get a free meal. If you had practiced the same restraint, if you had done nothing, there would be no such twisted evidence for your table to bring home and spread. You have fucked up. And how.
You spend the balance of the evening alone; you hold your tears back until they have all gone out to rub up on each other against pool tables. The sobbing that follows feels self-indulgent and silly, as if you are a child who has just been disabused of her naïve notions about a harmonious Small World. But you are not naïve; you have no such notions. You are not worried for the insulted couple; they were visibly pissed off, of course, but why would they put any more stock than that into a group of obnoxious drunks? The despair that’s latched on to you is one part about your own stupidity and three parts about the point it has driven home for you: it is everywhere. Your teacher once compared racism in the United States to smog in Los Angeles. You can’t live in L.A. and choose not to breathe in smog; it’s going to get into your lungs, into everybody’s lungs. Still, these are not the people you expect it from. This table is educated, it is diverse in ethnicity, class, nationality, region, home language, sexuality. There was not a Tea Partier in the bunch, not a white man, much less the straight Southern white man with a Confederate flag license plate holder, the specter we use to contain all American racism in our imaginations.
But so what? Where do you take this, now? It makes you think about the self-loathing that seems to link the parts of the weekend together, about the anger that we seem to take out on ourselves and each other, about the reasons why you don’t want to loosen the hell up, not now. About how you and everyone you love breathes this smog, and about how you can possibly keep loving them, and about what your life will be if you don’t. About self-righteousness and holier-than-thouness but also about knowing that they were just plain wrong this time. About feeling hamstrung but remembering that you are not, not really.