This will be the second in a series of 5 short articles.
Rachel was one of my closest friends in high school.
When we were seniors, she was probably my best friend.
Here’s the first article, if you missed it. Kathryn
Rachel is short. Really short. I’m very tall for a girl. We are friends. We are oddballs. In every possible way. I’m overweight. She wears glasses. I have a two-tone mullet (okay, maybe I was the oddestball). But we both like Duran Duran in a small town where Country is king.
Rachel has an athletic build and powerful legs. Small face and, impossibly, the same metallic eyes as my grandmother. It might be the glasses, it might be the hardened edge against a chaotic life. It might be the soulful stare of a mind that’s lived ten thousand lives before this moment. It might be she’s a guardian angel or ancient shaman and no one, not even her, knows it.
It is worth noting that Rachel is the only African-American girl in a Midwest farm town. Not because she’s different, but because it’s the late 80s and the middle of the country. We are only 30 miles east of Kansas City, but we might as well be in the Ozarks. We grow up with red necks and racists. Bigots and brutes. Ignorant sons of bitches who say mean things, do mean things. Inherited thoughts from an even more unenlightened generation of drunks and dullards. Alcoholics give birth to alcoholics. Idiots give birth to idiots. Mean people give birth to mean people. Ignorance begets hatred. Not always, but a lot. Not everyone in this small town is a bigot. But a lot.
I remember meeting Rachel’s mom. She was so funny. One of the nicest moms I ever met. She started telling me about the bias they encountered. Over and over. Walking into the local bingo parlor and every white face whipped to see who just opened the door. (They probably would have done the same to any outsider, honestly. The bingo crowd was a small enclave of smoker gamblers. Hell, I was shot some looks in the bingo parlor for talking over the number call. But I’m sure it didn’t help that they were black.)
“Do I have chocolate pie all over my face??” she quipped. I died laughing. So did Rachel. No one had ever been so open and direct with me. That’s the kind of mom I want to be. Drop-dead honest and funny.
Rachel was smart. Whip smart. Just like her mother. She was clever, full of jokes and laughter, and worldly. She knew and cared about the things that I loved. Or the things I didn’t know I loved until I met those things.
She let me borrow her Rich Hall Sniglets compilation and I almost lost the book in study hall when I burst out laughing at one of the entries. The Sniglet in which Hall (et al) describes someone sharpening their pencil. Specifically, the movement and perfect synchronization of the Sharpener’s butt to their hand as they crank the tiny handle. (Can’t find the actual entry, so I forget the word. 😦 Ack! Please comment if you remember!)
I believe I spit all over myself and almost peed my pants in a totally silent room. I nearly lost all bodily fluids and control. I shook violently at the stifling. My face contorted. Flushed with blood. Anyone who couldn’t see what I was holding might have thought I was having a seizure. I was definitely shot a look from the study hall teacher attendant, much like those bingo hall side-eyes. Although, this look had also a small touch of concern for my well-being. I was embarrassed and hysterical all at the same moment.
Rachel always knew about the coolest thing. She was the coolest person I knew. She changed my idea of people. She stood everything I knew on its head. She taught me to be confident in the face of fear. She taught me to be fierce. Loyal. Brave. Nice to those who weren’t. Assertive to those who required it. And honest. Even when it’s difficult or embarrassing. Not by lecturing me, but by example.
She taught me I could be myself without having to apologize for it. She accepted me. I accepted her. For whatever we were.
I don’t know how I made it out of that one-song town. I don’t know how I had a black friend.
My dad was an alcoholic, a racist. Not always bright and definitely crazy. He would come home and complain about the n****** at work. He said he even stabbed a black man at work one day with a screwdriver. I don’t know if that’s true? He said a lot of crazy things.
He said the man attacked him first. He had a stab wound in his leg to prove it. (That could have been from anything! By his own hand even.) I was personally ill and deeply concerned by the description, but you just didn’t question the man. It is humiliating to even hear this story, relay this story or be related to someone capable of this act. To know someone who is willing to hurt another human being physically. It’s disgusting to me. It is humbling and worrisome to be powerless in changing your life, the life of your loved ones or the world. You would think my father would lose his job if that actually happened. But in this culture? I don’t know now. I do know this: my dad was completely capable of stabbing anyone and the meanest human I personally knew.
And Rachel was the nicest. I’m glad I had Rachel. She changed me. She taught me something my dad couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. Embracing something or someone different than what I grew up to know wasn’t difficult. If all you know is pain? The first person or opportunity that looks like something other than pain is welcome. Appreciated. Loved.
We understood each other. I was understood for the first time by a smart person. For the first time I loved someone different. If I did nothing else for anyone ever? I at least did not carry forward the burning torch of racism for myself or my daughter. And I’ll never forget Rachel’s eyes.