I grew up in a small town in Ohio where time stood still. Everything that happened in the rest of the country was slow to be adopted in our little corner of the world, if at all. Fashion trends hit the stores years later than when they first came out and so did attitudes and social changes. Manufacturing jobs were plentiful and they sustained the town until the Reagan years when places such as my home town suffered miserably under the crushing weight of trickle-down economics. My family was your typical mid-western, white, middle-income family where both parents worked. My mother was a nurse and my dad was a foreman at Quaker Oats. Dad worked days and Mom worked nights, so that we kids never had a babysitter.
It was the early 1980’s and I’m 15, a sophomore in high school. As freshman, we had been isolated in one building, but this year we are together with the older kids. My teacher, Coach Johnson, moved from the Freshman building to Harding High School along with my class. In my Freshman year, he saw something in me I did not and insisted I become a football manager. I was reluctant, surprised that he even asked me. But I trusted him, so I said yes. It was to be my job for the rest of my high school career, so I already had my role to play as I entered the main high school with the rest of the students.
We had two-a-days practice in the late summer months where I dragged the football equipment out from the storage room every morning and put it away every late afternoon. I followed the coaches around listening to their barking commands and responding to their every whim. I tended to the footballs, clean out the guys lockers and did laundry, tentatively removing such odious items as jock straps and sweaty jerseys with only a couple of fingers while holding my nose. The locker room smelled like boys sweat, green grass, dirt and sunshine. It was an odd mixture of smells, definitely masculine, and one that I will never forget. When they needed me to, I even rode on the blocking sled while the linebackers rammed into it propelling me down the field. I learned how to take football stats, although my first attempts greatly frustrated the coaches.
There’s a boy on the football team, a year ahead of me. I have never seen him before, but when he spots me, he hones in on me like a laser. I don’t notice him at first, head down, busy at my tasks, but he keeps showing up everywhere I turn, patiently stalking me. I notice him a few times, smiling shyly before turning back to whatever I am doing. Finally he approaches me, “Hi. My name is William. You ever date a black guy before?” I shake my head no shyly and he smiles, “Well you do now!” I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to think, but there was something in his smile that drew me in. I really wasn’t sure about it, but thought hey, it’s the 1980’s. Surely, interracial dating is no longer a problem for anyone. He convinces me and we start “going together.”
When school starts, the reaction of the student body was anything but mixed. William saw jealousy and envy everywhere he looked. I saw something else. Teenagers stared, heads bent together in communion as whispering followed us down the hall. People that I had once considered close friends all of a sudden had other things to do. I had one girlfriend who flat out told me that if I was going to do this she could no longer associate with me. The boys looked away in disgust, the girls tittered nervously, knowing that I was committing social suicide. I told myself it didn’t matter, that William and I were above it all. Still, something was bothering me in my gut.
In the course of a couple of months, William and I are completely and utterly in love. We can’t get enough of each other and I can’t stop kissing him. I place my hand on his neck as he leans in and I admire the contrast our skin makes. He flashes a white toothed grin and hugs me close. He has become my world and I can’t even imagine dating anyone else. William is a cut-up, a class clown and he keeps me in stitches. Constantly laughing, the humor helps to stave off the fact that I now have no one else but him.
One day I’m in gym class and we are playing basketball. I hate sports, I’m just not any good at them and I always feel awkward and gangly. Gym class was one of those periods I just tried to get through. On this particular day I am about to make a huge mistake. While trying to get the ball, I accidentally bump into one of the black girls on the opposing team. She shoves me hard and yells at me, “Don’t look at me like that! Just cause you’re dating a black guy doesn’t mean I’m your friend! I should kick your ass! I don’t agree with what you’re doing!” Everyone in the gym stops and stares. I feel myself shrink inside. One thing I was never good at was confrontation and I feel my face turn beat red at the humiliation. Lucky for me she stomps off in a huff. Now I feel even more isolated than I did before.
After about six months, my family has finally figured it out and they are anything but happy. I’m in the bathroom getting ready to take a bath, sitting on the edge of the tub naked while the steamy water rises up. My mother bursts into the bathroom unannounced and informs me that I have shamed the family and I am to stop seeing William. I am in shock and my mouth falls open as I stare at the wild fury my mother has become. I start to cry feeling crushed at the idea of losing my world. Through half choked sobs, I say I won’t do it, I don’t care what she thinks. I hold my chin up defiantly waiting for the physical blow that doesn’t come. Instead I am hit with words no child should ever hear their mother utter. “I’d rather put a bullet through your head than have you date some black buck!” she screams. Her words chill me to the bone. I will never forget those words or the horror I felt. She wouldn’t have actually done it, but to an impressionable kid, it seemed like a real death threat. She left the bathroom, slamming the door behind her so hard the frame shook and I was left in her wake, shaking as uncontrollably as the door. I climb into the tub and hug my knees as I contemplate what just happened. I still go on seeing William anyway.
I was never raised with prejudice. My parents had never uttered one bad word about anyone different from us. It you don’t teach someone prejudice, they don’t learn it. The only incident I can ever remember is when we were standing in line one summer, waiting to go on a ride at Cedar Point. There was a black couple in line ahead of us. I was talking animatedly about something, enthusiastic the way children get and oblivious to everything around me as usual. At one point I got really close to the couple in front of us, almost bumping into them. My mother grabs me and pulls me toward her shaking her head. I turn around and realize what I had almost done. I apologize to them and they smile tolerantly at me. She pulls me close and whispers in my ear “That’s not it.” I say “What are you talking about?” And she says “I’ll tell you later.” She never did. I couldn’t even begin to understand what the problem was. Other than that incident though, there never was anything else I can remember.
Imagine my shock when my parents turned into people I didn’t recognize. My father can now no longer watch basketball games on the television without saying the word “nigger” in my presence. I receive glares and harsh punishments and I am grounded more than once. My sisters watch sympathetically, knowing that what is going on is wrong, but unwilling to risk it and jump in on my behalf. My mother berates me daily and slaps me. I still go on seeing William. It’s a long school year.
Summer finally comes and I end up spending a lot of time over at William’s house. I ride my bike over there, even though it’s across town. I don’t care about the long bike ride and my parents have grown used to me disappearing. I wait for them to look away and I take off, relishing in my momentary freedom, not caring about the price I will pay later. William’s mom Claire is wonderful to me and I love her dearly. She hugs and kisses me and feeds me. She yells at William to treat me right even though he has always done so. I wish my own mother was more like Claire.
William and I are walking down the alley behind his house. It’s a hot, dry day and the dust kicks up at our feet as we walk, laughing and joking around as ever. There’s a side street and a red truck pulls onto it. At first we don’t notice it, so wrapped up in each other as we were. In the back of the pickup truck are three white guys that I had never seen before, carrying baseball bats. They jump out of the back of the truck and head toward us. I feel instant confusion. William yells at me to run back to the house. I cannot. My feet are glued to the ground in terror, not for myself, but for him. I yell I will not leave him and his head darts back and forth between me and the approaching men. He tells me I have to go. The men are almost to him. I feel my knees buckle and I start to scream. I scream and I scream and I scream. The sounds coming from my throat are almost guttural, it sounds like an animal dying. All I felt was the hopelessness that they were going to take my world away. The idea of seeing William bloodied and beaten is more than my nerves can stand. The men back up. They looked frightened, not expecting my reaction. People are starting to come out of their homes, alerted by the all the ruckus I am making. The men return to the truck at a very fast pace, climb in and pull away. William runs to me and drags me back to the house. I am crying, terrified still. He sits me on his lap and grabs my face in his hands wiping the tears away. “When I tell you to run, you run! I can’t protect you and handle a situation like that!” He wraps his arms around me and pulls me close. Understanding dawns on me.
William got his driver’s license finally and we had his family’s car. It was a beautiful summer night and we went to the nearby park. The windows were rolled up and completely steamed with our breath. He put his hands under my shirt and pulled it off. He was kissing my neck and fondling my breasts. I felt lust swell up in me even though I didn’t quite understand where this was suppose to go. We were so busy in our fevered kissing and touching we never noticed the police officer pull in beside us. All of a sudden, there’s a sharp rapping on the window and startled I grab my shirt and clutch it to myself trying to cover up. William rolls down the window and the officer shines the flashlight into the car. “The parks closed,” he says with just a hint of disgust. He shines the flashlight on me, spotlighting my disheveled state. “Young lady, do your parents know that you are out with this guy?” he says disbelievingly. I shake my head yes. “Unbelievable,” he mutters under his breath. “How old are you?” he questions. “I’m sixteen,” I state. He shines the flashlight on William. “You’re damn lucky son, cause if she was any younger I’d run you in for statutory rape. You two get out of here now!” he yells as he stalks off. I get my shirt back on and William and I promptly leave the park.
On another summer day, William and I are in his bedroom. His parents aren’t home. We are in bed together fumbling around, kissing and petting. Both virgins, neither one of us knows what we are doing. Everyone assumes we have had sex, but they’re wrong. We think it’s time and we actually want to give ourselves to each other. We discuss it. I’m nervous and frightened, so is he. We make a really clumsy attempt but we just don’t quite have it right. When I look back on it now, it’s really amazing how innocent we both were. I didn’t want to get pregnant and I was scared to death it would happen. I ask William to stop. He understands. He holds my face in his hands and kisses me. We stop messing around and just curl up together, both frustrated but relaxed because we no longer have to be afraid. He holds me tight. William is more patient with me then any person I have ever known. He says he loves me. We tell each other that everyday.
I am a Junior in high school and nothing has changed. The other kids in school still snicker behind my back and whisper the taunt “nigger lover” as I walk down the hallway. I still have my head up, but it’s wearing on me. My mother has stopped slapping me, but my father has a surprise for me. One morning William comes early to pick me up for school. It’s dark out, the middle of fall and I am walking silently as a cat to get out the door before my family sees me. I round the corner of the kitchen and my father is standing there fuming, looking out the window at William’s car. He turns, quick as a flash, and my head starts ringing from the impact of his hand slamming into my face. Later on, amazingly, he will tell everyone I walked into his hand. I cry. I am always crying anymore, everything hurts. I wipe the tears from my face and run out the front door slamming it behind me, no longer interested in being quiet. I straighten myself up, wipe away my tears, put a smile on my face and get in the car. William never knows.
During football season, we travel a lot. Bus rides to games and back again. I ride with the football players. The guys are joking around, talking trash about sex. I am trying to ignore them. One of the guys, Neil, makes a lewd gesture about shoving an entire forearm up a girl’s vagina. An impossibility he doesn’t really care about. Then he makes like he is pulling it out and runs his nose along his arm like he’s inhaling some magnificent fragrance. He grins at me and says, “You know what I’m talking about right Robin? Of course you do!” And all the guys laugh heartily and elbow each other in the ribs. Not only do I think they are disgusting, but the lewd stares directed at me from the guys make me want to vomit. I hunker down and bury my nose in a book.
Once, after we get back from an away game, William is going to take me home. He smiles at me and says “I have something I want to show you.” We drive around and pull into a deserted parking lot of a nearby church. “Get out.” he says. Curious, I emerge from the car, wondering what we are doing here. William silently takes my hand and leads me to the middle of the parking lot. He signals for me to get down on the ground. I am really confused cause I have no idea what he is getting at, but I do it anyway. We lay on our backs and stare up at the sky. From this vantage point you can see the stars really well and it was a nice clear night. William points out constellations to me. We hold hands as we lay there, cracking jokes, discussing the stars. I will relish the memory of this special moment for the rest of my life.
It’s the middle of football season and we are at Todd Trent’s birthday party. I eat pizza and drink Pepsi, listen to music and hang out. It’s a fun time and it’s nice to get to cut loose for a bit. As William and I leave the party, I fall off the cement steps leading to the sidewalk and go down on my ankle. I tear the ligaments that hold the small bones in the foot together, rendering them in half. I am rolling on the ground screaming and all the football players run out of the house. William is holding me trying to comfort me, not sure what is going on. I am surrounded by all of these huge hulking guys, whispering for me to shush, telling me it’s not that bad, reminding me that I am causing a disturbance in front of the neighbors. I would have laughed at the looks on their faces if not for the pain. I roll off of William’s lap and all the pizza and soda come up in a rush and I hear a resounding “Eeewww!!” from the guys. William helps me up and wipes my face off and asks me if I am okay. I have my hands on his big shoulders, balancing myself and I gingerly place my foot on the ground. Shock rings through me as I feel the bones in my ankle crunch together and I immediately raise my foot back up in the air, shaking my head no. He helps me into the car and William drives me to a pay phone and calls my house and luckily my sister Laura answers. He tells her what has happened and that I am with him. She says she will look for me. William drives me home and we end up arguing most of the way. He wants to carry me in the house and I say “No!” I am afraid of what my father will do. I end up winning the argument and I make him let me off at the stone wall in front of the neighbor’s house. He watches helplessly as I hop on one foot to the wall. I balance myself, turn around and make him drive away. To say he was angry is an understatement. I yell for my sister Laura. I yell and yell until she hears me. She comes rushing out the front door calling my name. She sees me in the dark, leaning up against the wall, and after reaching me helps me into the house.
When I am seated in the big recliner in the living room, Laura helps me get my shoes and socks off. I have a swollen grapefruit on the side of my ankle. My father surveys the damage and looks up at me, bewildered. “Why didn’t William carry you in the house?” he asks. My mouth falls open and then clamps shut again and I glare. “Are you kidding? I wouldn’t let him come near this house!” My father looks like he has been slapped. He never says “nigger” in front of me again. He will tell me later when I am older that he realized that if I was out with William and got into trouble, I would never call him for help. A sobering fact that made him uneasy. That was the turning point for my father.
I’m at school, on crutches and William is kissing me on the stoop. I open my eyes and see the Vice Principal staring at us with disgust on his face, lips pursed as if he had just sucked on a lemon. He tells us to move on, that sort of display is not to be tolerated. I am confused because I see kids kissing all the time. Then I realize, it’s not just any kids kissing, it’s me and William.
Last football game of the year. There’s another boy, Eric. I had always had a crush on Eric, that is until I met William. We are walking towards the school, the marching band is playing in the distance, it’s night and the game is about to begin. Eric tells me that he admires me, that I am the only one that he knows that has any balls. He grabs me and kisses me. I kiss him back. I feel awe that he would even consider it since I was the local pariah. That’s when I realize the weight of everything that has happened to me and I feel that tightening in my gut again, opening up a little from shutting down to stop myself from feeling the pain of everyone’s rejection. It wasn’t that I had balls, I just had the ability to endure it. He goes onto the game and I am left wondering what could have been. Would I have had a different experience in high school for the past two years if I had not been dating William? I know the answer and then remorse floods over me and the guilt is unbearable that I would even think about it. After the game, I tell William what happened. We are in the car and he puts his hands around my throat, tears streaming down his face. He feels utterly betrayed. I am crying also, crying because of the pain I have caused him. I had never done anything to hurt William before. He keeps asking me if more than just a kiss happened. I tell him no repeatedly. He doesn’t understand why I am crying so, if was just a kiss and nothing more. Something else must have happened. I tell him no, nothing more than a kiss. But I know. I know the real betrayal. It’s not the kiss. It’s me wondering about my own life, wondering if I would have been happier without him and I can’t stop crying because I know I am going to break up with him. He insists it will not change anything, but it does. Not for him, but for me.
Two years now, William and I have been together and we have truly loved each other. But it has also been two years of being beaten, called names and being harassed, two years of having my own family abuse me, of having no friends, of being isolated. William was my world, my only world, not by choice, but because of other people. It wasn’t enough. I wanted a life, a real life, with friends and the love of my family. William hasn’t seen it, I have kept it from him. I am 17 and I collapse under the weight of my world coming to a crushing end. I let William go and something inside of me dies. The loneliness I feel from releasing him from my life will haunt me forever. William doesn’t understand. I carry the guilt of hurting him, of caving in, for the next thirty years and when I finally see him again, we are adults and he still doesn’t understand.