Nigger. Say it to my face. No, look me in the eyes and say it slowly. I dare you to say it right now. I dare you to say that word, the word that diminishes African Americans volitions and pride, the word that’s said carelessly when singing songs or in spur of the moment name-calling between different races. If you’re not a person of color and say this word, you’re ignorant as well as racist. Maylum Park’s my name, not nigger, not the nigger who lives in an apartment with his mom who struggles to pay rent, not the nigger who wears dark blue and black hoodies and baggy jeans, not the nigger who doesn’t use slang as much as he’s expected to use at seventeen years old.
I’ve cut off so many people who fling the word around like it doesn’t hold significant meaning. Tess. Michael. Lydia. Emily. James. Of course, they were all mere acquaintances, people who weren’t a part of my triangle of friendship with Lavetta and Alan. Now the triangle is more like a right angle. Alan was the essential piece. I’d never thought that I would have to cut off my best friend.
Now, I’m at the Smooth Notes Music Store with Lavetta. We’re lost among the shelves of C.D.’s, looking for nothing in particular. Over the speakers, Oh Wonder plays “My Friends,” the duo’s voices making me feel like I’m lost in a blinding blue mist, arms outstretched, looking for the light to penetrate the overhanging cloud. The shag carpeting and posters of artists and their gleaming mics helps me calm down. A Noir photo of Ella Fitzgerald hangs above me, her prominent eyelashes, flashy smile, and laid edges making me feel like the most handsome young man in the world. I pick up an old R. Kelly C.D., but it’s soon smacked out of my hand by Lavetta.
"What?" I ask, rubbing my hand. She shakes her head, repeating my name like a mother disappointed in her child.
I look at her; my eyebrow raised so high that it can float off my forehead. "Yes. My name's Maylum. We’ve established this.” I take out my school I.D. "Yep — name's Maylum. Overbite and all."
She tilts her head to the side, looking at me like I just said every offensive thing that can earn me a Twitter backlash. “That man is a psychopath.”
I laugh, picking up the C.D. again. “How would you know? Do you personally know him?” I look to my left and right, whispering to her like she’s committed a crime. “Did he lure you into his domain by breaking off a little preview of his remix?”
She punches my arm, and I wince. "You are so stupid; you know that. What about all the girls he’s manipulated over the years. Have you seen “Surviving R. Kelly?”
I pick up the C.D. again, this time holding it tighter. “No, I think I was too busy thinking about a certain person who called me a certain word.” I set the C.D. back in its place, staring at the man with the vest and baton. I try to look busy, seeing if there are any new R&B out there for me to groove to, but my face feels hot. I shouldn't have even mentioned it. I should've commented on how R. Kelly was an insane person, abusing his power to get girls to do what he wanted.
Lavetta stands beside me, examining a C.D. with H.E.R. on the cover.
“You should talk to him,” she said, flipping the C.D. over.
“What’s there to talk about? He said,” I look to the front desk, a bored blonde, making sure she didn’t hear me, “he said nigger. He offended me.” I pick up a C.D. of Ella Mai and show it to Lavetta and examines it.
“Yes. And you have every right to be angry.” She walks towards me, her nails an amethyst color. “I would be angry too. You know I don’t tolerate that shit, right?”
I nod. Lavetta's proud of her melanin, embraces her pom – pom hair, her purple lipstick that coats her full lips, and makes sure everyone she knows sees it. She’ll rock her curls and strut like Beyonce and leave behind a trail of envy and fascination as people wonder how a young woman can hold so much power and determination. The definition of black girl magic.
“Maylum. He’s apologized over and over again.”
“I answered his phone calls. We did talk.”
She places a hand on her hip. Her “Black by Popular Demand” sweatshirt made me strain my eyes with its bright yellow letters. “Hanging up a second after you answer doesn’t entail a conversation.”
“Well, I answered his phone calls. He’s lucky that I’m doing even that.”
I watch her eyes, dilating and widening while reading the back of the C.D. “Ella Mai’s my idol. You know, my parents complain that R&B is shit now, but they’re wrong. This,” she turns the front of the C.D. over, showing me the woman with an angsty stare and female power, “this is proof that we’ve evolved.”
“Okay, what the hell? I thought we were talking about me?”
She looks at me, lifting her hand to silence me. “We were. But I’ve been telling you to talk to Alan for about a week now. Shit’s becoming old news now. Might as well move on to the next big thing.”
"Yes. Your devotion to Ella Mai far surpasses my being and what calamity comes my way." Comically, I hike up my shoulders, like a man down on his luck. "Guess I'm just another black man whose voice is unheard. A man of democracy once again not reaping the benefits of equal partnership and respect among the white people in 2019. A lone wolf who…”
I look to my right and see Lavetta on the other side of the aisle, engrossed in the magazines of singers with her headphones in her ears. I scan over more music, crossing into the Indie and Jazz sections then revisiting the R&B section, contemporary and classic vocalists all arranged in alphabetical order on chipped wooden shelves. Anita Baker. Ella Mai. Tory Lanez. Zhane. After two Ariana Grande songs have played, we leave the small store. Lavetta decided to buy the Ella Mai C.D.
I put on my seatbelt as Lavetta turns on the radio before leaving the parking lot.
“Remember Monogram Forest?” She stops at a red light abruptly, and the top half of my body jerks forward like a Raggedy Anne doll.
“I think Ella Mai can wait.” She side eyes me and puts the C.D. in the slot. “Yeah, I remember. Why?”
"Well, …they're closing down the forest." She turns right on Newell, cutting off a Camry.
“Closing it? Why?”
Her voice turns somber, the timbre of it soft and fragile. “No one’s been there since they found that guy six months ago. Remember?” I did. They found a twenty-one-year-old African American naked under the dead orange and red leaves. Myles Entreo. His eyes were swollen and plump like plums. Foul play was involved. The guy that did it is still being looked for.
"Let me guess." I pull down the drawstrings of my blue hoodie. "You want to go there before it becomes a wasteland."
“No, I want to watch our haven burn to the ground
"Alright, then. Let's do it." She stopped again, and my head nearly hit the dashboard. "That is if you don't kill us."
As we left the side streets and merged onto the freeway, I thought about Alan. I don't know why I am. What he did was inexcusable. It's beyond forgiveness, and no number of apologies can change that. I rested my head against my seat and let Ella Mai lull me to sleep as she sang about gut feelings and intuition.
When I awoke, my senses came slowly back to me. The evening produces an orange and blue sky and clouds swirled and tumbled around each other like a drop of ink in water. We park on a gravel road surrounded by trees and shrubbery that rattled in the January wind. Near the entrance, a decaying sign read Monogram Forest in faded yellow letters.
I pat myself across the chest, then my legs, then my face. Lavetta looked at me with amused skepticism. I broke the ice.
“Hey, what do you know, only four bumps on my forehead this time.”
She smacked her lips and combed through her curls with her fingers. “How are you going to talk shit, Maylum? At least I have my license.”
"And what a sad day for the DMV and all of the law enforcement when you did." I got out of the car before she could hit my shoulder. I stretched my arms and legs, taking in the surroundings. The main trail adjacent to the vehicle disappeared between willow trees that brushed the grass beneath. Lavetta said something about applying her makeup. I left her to her mascara and Ella Mai and walked down the path.
As the music faded, I could hear the sounds of Monogram; the crunch of pebbles and rocks under my feet, the sound of branches and twigs shifting in the wind like they knew where to go and when, and the quiet scurrying of squirrels. Besides the occasional condom or six, this forest remains my favorite place. I would say our favorite place, but Alan is the furthest thing from my mind right now. I don't want to think about him or the word that escaped his lips.
Words of honesty and broken syntax were told in this forest between Alan and me, Lavetta too when we met Sophomore year. It was our oasis against the outside world, away from social media, police, school, overbearing parents, and the mundane accommodations our lives have given us. We’d talk about our troubles; my mom not getting enough sleep from working three jobs, leaving home at 8:00 PM and coming home the following night and Lavetta’s urge to run away from her home, where her mother wouldn’t stop shaming the way she dyed parts of her hair blue or her daughter’s fault filled plan to ditch college and go to New York, where she wished to become an upcoming singer. Alan surprised me with his insecurities and self-degradation, saying that he wanted people not to assume his life was perfect. He wasn't exactly overweight, but he still felt insecure enough to not take his shirt off at the pool during summer. He told us about his panic attack after he debated with Rieger Schultz at our school about the incident of the African American man who was killed in his apartment by an off-duty police officer. Monogram Forest was our place of cleansing, for venting out our thoughts. The willow trees will soon no longer shade us or anyone else seeking refuge.
I've been walking for twenty minutes. I shove my hands in my hoodie. The cold's more present now, and I can see my breath. The sky, thirty minutes ago a blazing orange, is now a cool blue, an indicator that it was going to be night soon. I've never stayed here during the night. It's not as welcoming and aesthetic at night as it is in the morning.
I stopped. I heard a flicker what sounded like the sound of a lighter. I spun my head around, looking back down the trail.
“Lavetta?” No answer. All I saw was the faint beige colored trail and the outlines of the willows like whips dragging along the surrounding foliage. I didn’t scare easily, but that wasn’t an excuse to not remain cautious.
The flicker sounded like it was coming from in front of me. Scenarios ran through my mind like a runner from Kenya. I was going to be killed, maybe tied up and buried in the forest where no one would find me. I'm going to be hung from a tree and have my clothes stripped from me. I'm going to end up like Myles, with my eyes swollen, my lips cracked, forgotten and alone. Up ahead of me, about a willow away, the flickering sounded. I looked on the ground for a weapon, anything that can hurt the attacker. A few fallen branches, but none too heavy to knock whoever it was out. I kneel quietly near the bushes, searching under them. The mud was fresh, but I was sweating. Whoever it was could jump out at any moment. The flickering continues. I feel like I'm in a horror movie, the token minority getting the first lick.
I found something, an empty glass bottle. Now that I had my weapon, I felt a little more confident, but still, I kept my breath short and my footsteps as light as I possibly could. Inch by inch, I creep towards the tree where the flickering occurred. I hold the bottle around the neck, the base glinting slightly under the light blue night light — the flickering stops. I raise the bottle, waiting for the attack. It's do or die, fight or flight. The swishing trees, the fresh night air, and my accelerating heart told me to run, to get out of there. If I run, I'll lead the attacker back to Lavetta, and I couldn't do that.
Like a lion ready to pounce on its prey, I jumped at the tree, wielding the bottle so I could get a good hit. The attacker came into view, but I missed. The bottle smashed against the bark and the shards sprinkled near the base of the tree like diamonds. He ducked out of the way, landing on the ground on his side.
"Wait! Stop!" Out of excitement and fear, I still held the bottle. My vision was off slightly, and the guy's features didn't come into view right away. It was like being outside for a while in bright sunlight then entering a room, and your vision is taken up by circles of random orange and yellow light. His features came into focus. His hair was brown and tangled, strands of it covering his forehead. If a red checkered shirt accompanied by a grey casual jacket and Converse sneakers was an idea of a killer, he must've been new at this. As my vision acclimated again to my surroundings, his hair, the thin cheekbones, the nervous way he stood up brushing himself off, my fear's replaced by anger, my carefulness replaced by a surge of recklessness. Lavetta set me up. He waved at me, shyly, not quite reaching my eyes.
“Hey, Maylum,” he said.
Nigger. Just looking at him reminded me of that word. I swallowed and searched for my phone to call Lavetta and tell her why I was standing here with Alan a few feet away from me.
Talk to him. That’s all she said when I called, and then hung up. Doing that was like treading on ice. The more we tramped, the more we conversed, like walking over thin ice, the more one of us was at risk of falling, plunging ourselves into a sea of bone-chilling water that consisted of insults and hurt feelings.
We were back on the trail. I would’ve stormed back towards the car if Lavetta hadn’t driven off. I was far enough away not to hear the engine and the spinning tires flicking gravel. Now, we’re walking in silence, with no destination in mind.
“You know, 70 percent of U.S. voters are supporting the right for gay men and women to enlist in the army.” I don’t look over at him, only focusing on the trail up ahead, where the path diverged and encircled a willow. He continued. “Of course, the Trump Administration doesn’t approve. You know, Al Green joined Tom Seyer to impeach trump. When you think about it, it's funny, a Democratic congressman and a billionaire liberal working side by side.”
Alan still hadn't changed. Whenever he experienced conflict and was too flustered to solve it, he talked about the news, anything that was happening in the outside world that could help dilute the tension or anxiety he was feeling. I don't care about billionaires or politicians or gay men and women or the common fight against the Democrats and the Republicans. Like alcoholics drinking their problems away, Alan's using world events to mask the trouble he caused when it only speaks louder to the tension between the two of us.
We reach the point where the path diverges. I went right, and Alan hesitantly goes left. The willow in the center, the leaves like beads of water on an icicle, sways back and forth in the wind. When I look to my left, through the branches, I make out Alan's figure. He's wringing his hands together, wringing each finger as if he was a chiropractor. That explains the flickering I heard behind the tree earlier. I always told him it was gross when he did that, but he said it helps him with stress. He looks to my direction, and I look back in front of me, focusing my attention on the foliage to my right. Taller, narrower trees cast shadows as the evening light bounces between them, giving the impression of moving headlights between the trees.
We met again. I kept walking, but Alan stopped. He was looking around him, wringing his hands, looking up at the taller trees around us. His Adam’s apple moved up and down, words caught in that ball of moving skin.
“Maylum, what do you want me to say?”
He wasn’t moving. The silent treatment wasn’t going to cut it. “I think you said enough last week. Why are you asking me?” My voice was steady, but the venom was there, like a snake ready to bite.
"I didn't mean to offend you. I thought…I thought we were having fun. The music was on your playlist, and I was singing along to the words."
I removed my hands from my pockets and crossed my arms. “Every action is never done without meaning, Alan. Do you not know what that did to me?”
“No, you don’t.”
“Maylum, I do!”
“NO! YOU DON’T!” Alan took a step back. I tried to calm down, my anger and equanimity battling one another. I didn’t want to hurt him. I could tell that he was scared. “Alan, that word has more meaning than you could know."
He opens his mouth, but I cut him off again. "I know you know the history of that word, the context of what it was used for, to degrade African Americans. Black people, Alan, like me." I lift my sleeve to reveal my skin, darker under the trees and moonlight. "I know you're not racist. I know you don't judge me because of my skin color or the way I dress, but you, just saying that word without any consideration, it's like you forgot who I was."
I stepped toward him. “It’s like you forgot that I was black.”
We stand in silence for a full minute, both of us looking at the ground, at the surrounding trees, the abyss of sky overhead, anywhere but at each other. To the right up ahead, a camp bathroom with a dingy orange overhead light's calling my name. If I'm going to be pissed at Alan, I don't want to do it on a full bladder.
“I’m using the bathroom.” I surge ahead, not waiting for him to catch up. I shoo a few moths away and open the screen door. I swear, they never cleaned the bathrooms here. The yellow tiles are caked with dirt and other grime. Dead flies occupy the tinted windows. I'm not a big fan of using the urinals because anyone who relieved themselves while standing next to another person's just weird to me. After I finish, I wash my hands and dry them. The door was to my right, the stalls adjacent to it in the middle. My phone buzzes, a text from Lavetta.
Lavetta: Any progress, Maylum?
Lavetta: Are you trying?
I sigh. Why should I try? It's Alan who's in the wrong.
Me: You’re pure evil for leaving us here.
Lavetta: Hey, I’ll be back in half an hr. Or until you two have reached somewhat of an understanding.
Me: Then you’ll never be back.
Lavetta: Half an hr.
"Excuse me?" The sudden voice nearly made me drop my phone. I looked around, not seeing anything until my eyes rested on the middle stall where a pair of unlaced Timberland boots are exposed.
"Could you look in the other stalls and find me some tissue paper? It seems I'm all out here." The voice was gravelly, like a smokers. I look in the other stalls until I unhooked a roll.
"Here you go, sir." I held it just under the stall door for him to grab. The hand that comes to reach it brushes mine. They were cold to the touch and black hair coiled together between his fingers. A faint scar, a diagonal scabbed over a cut, caught my eye. It stretched from the knuckle of his index finger to the center of his backhand. I imagined what could've caused that.
“No problem.” I left the bathroom just as he flushed the toilet.
Outside, Alan was leaning against the wall where the vending machines were. He was holding a Coke and A Sprite. I remembered when we used to mix them, creating new sugar filled flavors. Alan noticed me and handed me the Coke.
“I had some extra change on me,” he said. I took it, not because I’m falling for his attempt at an apology, but because I’m thirsty and after the encounter in the bathroom, my throat needs something moist.
"Thanks." I lean against the wall where the red paint was peeling. The neon blue light from the vending machine makes his outline shine. The crease in his jacket's a mix of dark blue and beautiful aquamarine. His face, before nervous and fretful, was serene and held no tremors of fear.
Alan's a big-time liberal. He has a life-size poster of Donald Trump hanging wall that he uses for throwing darts at, which I couldn't believe. He supports all kinds of LGBTQ causes, ranging from the right for gay men and women to enlist in the army to getting married in all fifty states. I tell him over and over again that it's legal in all fifty states, but he can't ignore the injustice that many gays face. He even supports the Black Lives Matter Movement, which scored him some points on my "This white dude isn't half bad" meter, until recently.
Nigger. Alan sang it a week ago as we were listening to a Lil Wayne song in his car. We’ve been friends for four years, from eighth grade to the present senior year. He drives a Mercedes Benz, has two loving parents, lives in a Victorian style house near the coast with a blue paint job and many windows that reveal bookshelves, a granite filled kitchen, a plasma screen TV, and clothes that consist of clean-cut jeans and tight designer hoodies, as well as wrinkle-free button-ups and dress shoes. I always imagine a spoiled, arrogant, and ignorant person who doesn’t acknowledge anything outside of their dome of luxury. I feel that way sometimes when I’m with Alan. I know I shouldn’t, but he broke my trust during that time of leisure. I took the bus home that night.
“Do you remember last year when the three of us came here? It was after we celebrated Lavetta’s big night at school.”
I take a sip of Coke. Yeah, I remembered. The three of us rode in Alan's Mercedes to Applebee's to full-on fries and buffalo wings. Lavetta kept annoying our server by singing everything she wanted. She could sing the phone book, and her voice would be alluring and tantalizing to the sound.
“Yeah, I remember.”
Alan nodded his head. “Do you remember what we did after? We came here and did some…corny shit. What was it?”
I thought about it, the gears turning. “I think each of us buried something under one of the willow trees.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s right.” He was becoming more animated, smiling and revealing his crooked teeth on his side. “We used a marker, something to help us find it.”
"You mean the chalk." Alan's little sister loved playing with chalk. A whole case of colors is stashed under the backseat for her.
“Exactly, yes!” He swirled what remained of his Sprite, looking down into the bottle. “You know, I bet we could find it. Lavetta told me how this forest was closing down so better take a look at our time capsule while we can right?”
I look at Alan, my used to be bestfriend who broke my trust. Is this his attempt at redemption, revisiting the past so that it can remind me of all the good times we shared? It wouldn't work. The past was there for a reason, the memories only belonging to that time frame of our lives when our stupidity seemed justified and laughable. Now, our ignorance comes with consequences, some harsher than others. If he wanted to attempt to build a bridge between us again, using memories and times of leisure for the bricks, moments of fidelity and honesty for the support beams, I doubt he would finish. Not enough minds in the world could fix the hole he caused. Still, Monogram Forest was our place. I had to give it its death wish.
“Fine.” I finished my Coke and tossed it at the overflowing recycling bin. “Lead the way.”
We trek farther into the woods, the light on our phones guiding us. Alan leads the way, sometimes hopping over rocks and tripping over sticks that let out a laugh from me. I'm angry with him. His boyish clumsiness is no excuse for me to show signs of forgiveness, but it's toxic, his inelegant way of traveling over not so smooth surfaces. He ends up removing his jacket and ties it around his waist and rolls up the sleeves of his shirt. I lift my hoodie and do the same, tying it around my waist and letting my t-shirt breathe.
The farther North we went, the more I notice how the trees begin to lessen, the forest becoming less dense and the air circling us moving more freely.
“Know where we’re going?” I asked, panting.
“Yeah…yeah,” he said panting as well. "We just…we keep going North…and it should be the tree with the markers we made underneath on the bark.”
“Alright, then. The hell if I know. Everything looks the same to me.”
“Well, willow trees grow in cold and moist soil. It should be prevalent because we chose one that was the biggest and distinguished.”
“Oh, you’re a botanist now?”
"No, I just pay attention in Environmental Class." He gave me a look, and I roll my eyes.
“Hey, how’s your mom, Maylum?” He asked, continuing forward.
"She's…you know, not great. But she's still alive, and breathing…you know."
“Yeah.” Alan pushed his hands in his pockets. “Yeah, I know, man.”
He looked at me, sincerity mixed with empathy. I could see it in the way he shifted his weight onto his right hip, how he looked at me, unblinking, his eyes not even quavering to direct their attention from anywhere else under his ruffled hair. He knew about my mom's morning, night, and weekend jobs. My mom met him once when she dropped me off at school in the morning last January before Alan became my personal Uber driver. She told me afterward that it's good that I've made a friend: translation, someone who wasn’t black.
He looked down at one of his converse sneakers, the white strip caked with dead leaves and mud. My brain told me to not ask about him. I was still mad at him after all, for calling me that word. I took my mind off autopilot.
“How’s…how are you holding up? Any…attacks recently?”
“Umm, no, not recently.” He continued to dig in the mud with his toe. “I mean, they’ll always happen, you know. Medication helps, but…I still feel. Fuck, man, it’s been rough for the last week.”
I nod. “Yeah.” We ventured farther North, the dirt and cold mud sloshing and crunching under our feet. The willows started to get less sparse, moving away from us every three minutes. Our willow was close. I remember commenting on how free this space was, how it could make room for an underground concert. I even wondered at one point if Oh Wonder would perform here.
The silence was deafening, nothing but the night and its accompanied noises; the sound of leaves blowing, the too far to see, but close to hear the sound of cars, and the subtle wind gliding the dark clouds overhead. I needed music to fill the space.
As if he read my mind, Alan turned around, walking backward. "Do you still listen to Indie?"
“Yeah. Lavetta made fun of me for it.”
“Why would she do that?”
I shook my head. "She thought I wasn't true to my roots, that I should stick with R&B and Soul music. You know, things that emanate African American culture."
He raises his eyebrow, still walking backward. "Music is universal. It's supposed to be for everyone. She of all people should know that if she's gonna move to New York.”
I smirk. “It’s a good thing New York’s main hub of transportation is the subway system. She’ll probably end up using it twenty-four seven when she gets her license revoked.”
"Yeah." Alan runs a hand through his hair. "Lavetta Vaughn. The only girl in the world to get in an accident before even starting the car.”
We both laugh, and it feels good to laugh again. My hatred towards him has been suppressed, but not entirely. It's like the feeling after it rains, and you look up at the heated brown clouds that filter sunlight. You know it'll rain again so enjoy the aftermath.
After what felt like hrs. of walking, we reach a clearing about the size of Miller Park, encircled by willows that slant and bend and taller narrower trees that shoot into the sky like gate spikes. The tips of the grass bounced moonlight off of one another, a soft white above the black. There are a few empty bottles of Jack Daniels and clear looking drinks that look like they would set your mouth ablaze. At the back center of the clearing, the heart of the labyrinth of trees we passed, a large willow with more leaves than bark stands. It’s not like the others, where the bark underneath is revealed through sudden changes in the wind. No, the bark's completely hidden. It was like a dress that covered your ankles. No matter how much movement, the bark remained inconspicuous.
“That it?” I asked. The cogs in my head were turning even before I said anything.
Alan stood motionless, a small being in front of the great willow. He started to run, the grass crunching under of his feet, his grey jacket flaring at his waist, his limbs quick, slicing through the cold. I took off after him. The willow swayed gently, its leaves like water droplets on icicles. This exhilaration lifted my spirits. As I run, I take in our journey. Of course, we have the luxuries of phones and cars and modern respect, but our quest is a Microcosm of Harriet Tubman's trips to the North. The way Alan was tripping and fumbling over the rocks earlier…it was like he was portraying the runaway slaves, how they had little to eat, trying to find their way out of the dark woods filled with snakes and dodging patrol. Of course, Alan’s just clumsy, but the meaning’s still there. Like the slaves, like Harriet Tubman, we were both striving to reach a place where our troubles would be relatively forgotten, where harsh words aren't exchanged, and where prejudice, even still present, made room for darker colors of life.
Nigger. Alan said it. To me, but without malice. It was carefree, free of accusation, although it’s just as bad. I don’t know whether to forgive him or throw him out of my life. What he does on his own time is none of my business, but in the years leading up to the incident, he's never disrespected me. He's never called me out on the way I put my headphones in during study hall when I should be doing homework, never called me out on how I talk, occasional slang slipping into my vocabulary. As for me, I had my doubts about him when I first met him in eighth grade. A skinny kid with a mop of brown hair and acne and short sleeved shirts, I thought he would rather stay away from me. I thought he would rather read the newspaper on weekends and have family dinners and eat meals that had leaves on them. I was in eighth grade, give me a break. The point being is that I had my presumptions about him, my prejudices, my comparisons. They still exist, even today, when our friendship is on the verge of oblivion.
I can't fault him for what his ancestors did to people who had darker skin. African Americans who were separated from their families and traveled overseas to work on plantations wasn't his fault. Unlawful arrests against men and women weren't his fault. No, he had nothing to do with that. Nigger. It's that word and that word alone that paints people like me to be violent, uneducated, and have no understanding of our place in society. It's stained with the blood of slaves. It's stained with the blood of men and women and children who were whipped by overseers. It's stained with the blood of men and women who stood by Martin Luther King Jr, the blood of young college students who only wanted to eat at a diner, the blood of the Freedom Riders who inhaled tear gas and were met with steel pipes and kicks to the head. It's stained with the blood of Myles who was killed in Monogram Forest.
We make it to the base of the tree. I stand next to Alan, who looks up at the great tree, its branches like curtains. He's out of breath, with his hands on his hips and rapidly blinking as he tries to gain his breath. I haven't forgiven him yet. I'm not ready too. The word he spoke was too powerful, too deeply rooted in the mistreatment of black people for me to make amends. But he was still my friend. He's still the same Alan who listened to me under these willows, listening to me vent about my mom’s troubles, the one who supported Lavetta, even though he had his concerns to join the music crowd in New York, living in high rises and drinking champagne.
We stand by each other, looking at one another then back to the tree. We push the branches aside and disappear under the willows.
“Where do you think it is?” Alan asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I was following you, Columbus." We're back in the thicker part of the woods, following the trail that led back to the main road. I texted Lavetta, but there was no response. Our time capsule, our items of close value wasn’t buried under the willow tree. The marker was there, the faded blue, pink, and yellow chalk lines outlining our crudely drawn bodies, but no capsule.
"Maybe someone dug it up?" I suggest. We pass by the bathroom again, the orange light sending us in and out of darkness.
“Who else would know?” He said tersely. We kept it a secret.”
“Maybe we buried it somewhere else. We did celebrate pretty hard. We probably moved from one tree to the next.”
Alan scratches his chin. His jacket's riddled with dirt and the white strips of his sneakers resemble charcoal. "I guess. I was sure that it was there."
Circling the tree that broke the path in two, we saw the main road, but something caught my attention. Flashes of red and blue illuminate the bark and foliage that surround us. From a distance, it looks like a patrolman and a girl with curly hair. Her gestures were frantic, motioning to the car that was behind her and back down the road where the police car was parked.
“Lavetta!” I screamed. We ran down the path, trying to reach her.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” She screamed into her hands.
“What happened?” Alan asked the female officer whose hair was in a tight ponytail. She had a notepad in one hand and finished scribbling. She looked at us and spoke firmly with brown eyes.
“Do you know this young lady?”
“Yes,” I said.” We’re her friends. I’m Maylum Park, and this is Alan Brown.”
"Hi." Alan waves.
She looked at Lavetta for confirmation, and she nodded her head.
“I’m officer Yani. A hit and run's what happened here. A man walking out of the forest was struck by her car. He's alive but unconscious. He's in the ambulance and will be taken to the hospital." She points with her pen to the ambulance behind her. All I can see are the bottom of his shoes.
“Wow,” Alan said, under his breath, “with the way she drives, I’m surprised she didn’t kill him.”
“She’ll be fined with speeding,” she said, looking at Lavetta. “Of course, if the people back at the station look at it differently, it’ll be dropped, and she'll be dubbed a hero."
“A hero?” Alan and I said together.
“Yes. Come see.” The three of us followed her to the back of the ambulance. She motioned us to come in. Alan and Lavetta were on one side and Officer Yani and I on the other.”
“Oh my God,” Alan said. He wrung his hands, which cracked and caused Officer Yani to make a face.
“What?” I asked.
“His hand. Look at his hand.” I looked to see, and the realization hit me; Timberland boots, hairy knuckles, a scar that ran from his index finger to the base. It was the guy in the bathroom, the one that needed toilet paper.
“I know him,” I said, breathlessly.
“You do?” Officer Yani said. She was giving me a suspecting look.
“I mean, no not really. He was in the stall in the bathroom, and I gave him some toilet paper."
Alan speaks up next. "Maylum, have you seen the news lately?" I haven't seen the news in a week. I was too busy thinking about my reality, ignoring Alan's phone calls and texts.
“This is Michael Lawler.”
“This is the man that killed Myles Entreo six months ago. That was his scar.” Alan pointed to the man’s hand.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“Indeed,” said Officer Yani. "You boys are lucky to be alive. I've told the people down at the station that Monogram should close until the murderer's caught, but no. It was a huge attraction for Small Rock, and it wouldn't look pretty to know that a man of color was killed in this forest." She looked back to the entrance. "It’s hard being a minority, especially as a woman of the law.”
"Yes! I hear you!" Lavetta raises her hand for a high five but is met with Officer Yani’s cold stare, and she put it down again.
“Follow me down to the station. We’ll ask you some more questions.”
We pile into the Sedan. Alan takes the wheel while Lavetta sits in the backseat. The ambulance goes in the opposite direction. The police car up ahead put the car in drive.
“Wow, Lavetta,” I said, resting my hand on my cheek, “I think this is the first time you’re driving has saved a life.”
“Boy, shut up!” I laughed as she sulked in the backseat. "When you think about it, I saved both of your lives. Who knew what that creep was going to do if I hadn't shown up.
Alan looked in the rearview mirror. “Umm…not get run over by a car?”
“And not ending up in a potential coma?” I added.
“You know what…” Lavetta shook her head in frustrated while we laughed at her expense. “Anyways…you two make up?”
I look at Alan, whose hands are steady at the wheel, calm and calculated as he makes turns and stops at red lights. He looks at me with a self-shaming look, like he’s a monster, someone whose unworthy of unforgiveness. It was the aftermath of what happened under the great willow tree. We came in searching for physical items to take with us, treasures of our past that didn’t deserve to be paved over and become a part of the soil. Instead, Alan, both of us actually, emerged with a new connection, one that binds to history as well as the present day.
After digging on our hands and knees and found nothing, we rested against the bark of the tree, the three faded blue, pink, and yellow figures of us just above our heads. I took off my tattered North Face shoes, and Alan did the same with his sneakers. The mud felt brittle and crisp on my feet, and the nightly air massaged my back, cooling my underarms and neck. The moon snuck its way through the branches, giving Alan and I a ghost-like quality, softening our edges with its calming touch.
"I don't expect you to forgive me," Alan said. Half of his face was covered in shadows, and half revealed through the moonlight.
I look to him, wrapping my arms around my knees. I let him finish.
"I didn't think when I said what I said. You know I wouldn't intentionally hurt you or what you stand for. I let my carelessness get the best of me. It sucks because I'm always careful. I'm careful when I'm debating with the Republican Club at school so that I don't hurt anyone's feelings. I'm careful when driving you home." True. Alan looks to the left and to the right six times after the light turns green before he presses his foot on the gas.
"I'm even careful not to use words like "fag" when addressing gay people. I'm not trying to paint myself as a righteous human because there are times when I stereotype people. I don't say it, but I think it."
I nod my head. “You know, I think we’re all inadvertently racist.”
He looks at me with brown eyes inkling for forgiveness. “How so?”
I readjust myself, stretching my legs on the dirt. “Well, racism is defined as having prejudice or antagonism towards people who you feel are less superior to you. It doesn't even have to be about skin color. It could be because someone has a different political affiliation or because of different religious beliefs."
I swallowed, closing my eyes. "Not a lot of people associate black people for being racist. Why? Because we have so many things that justify our hatred towards white people. My ancestors were taken from Africa, tricked into thinking that their lives would be better in European countries. They slaved in the hot sun, worked more than they slept, and couldn't do anything about it. Sure, they used music to keep their spirits up, and on occasion, people would rebel like Nat Turner for example. Still, the uprisings and the freedom of slaves still wouldn't be enough to ease the tension."
Alan was quiet, holding his right wrist, looking at me with a scholarly look. No judgment, no words, just listening.
“Of course, now, when I think about it…I'm just as racist as you are." Alan looked at me with skepticism, but I cut him off. "Yes, Alan, both of us are racist. It’s like a spectrum. If you constantly worry about what you’ll say and how you say it, if you’re always afraid of offending people, then it makes you sound racist because you’re trying too hard to be accepted. It doesn’t feel genuine is what I’m trying to say, and that can backfire on your ass quicker than shit. On the other hand, those who are unaware of what they say, those who don’t know the setbacks saying certain words or phrases can be deemed as racist as well.”
Alan let out a huff of air. “So…how do you break the spectrum?”
I smile, shaking my head. "You don't. It's always going to be there. As long as we live in this political climate, there will always be racists, whether they know it or not. There'll always be judgment and assumptions made by black people and white people. The cars certain people drive, the clothes we wear, the way we talk, the way we walk, the schools we to go, the friends we have, the families we grow up in….all those are factors we can’t escape.”
Alan rested his hands at his sides. He scratched the base of his neck, his chin close to his chest. “Maylum. With music. Do you think it's universal? I mean…with the Lil Wayne song we were listening too?”
I thought about it. I told him yes, music is supposed to be heard by everyone, but a few are supposed to understand it, honestly. I told him about Lavetta’s Ella Mai CD she picked up in the store. On our way over here, she played “Gut Feelings” non-stop. It wasn't only because Ella's vocals were out of this world or that she collaborated with H.E.R. to make it ten times more sensual. When she was listening, the neurons sent impulses to the brain, causing her to visualize her life when she followed her intuition of moving to New York. When you listen to music, you enjoy the surface, the shallow enjoyment of the beat and the words and the instruments, but when you understand, it’s otherworldly. You enter a universe, a space separated from your body, where you are the sole being. You cruise along the burning balls of stars and bright supernovas visualizing your pain, your emotions, your life as an unsung song. Alan was only listening, and in doing so, the word that escaped his lips was a product of listening, not understanding.
Our future star’s asleep in the backseat, her curls covering her face and her small frame curled in the seat. I turn down the radio, just enough where the music could still be heard, but didn’t drown out the sound of the tires pressing the pavement. Alan, sporting his Rick and Morty undershirt, stops at a red light, but instead of looking back and forth six times like he usually does, he turns to me.
“Maylum?” I turn my head.
“Need a ride to school in the morning?”
“Sure.” With the quickness of a Cobra, I turn up the radio again and startle the backseat rider awake. We both laugh and continue down Fornex Avenue, where the mural of stars and people of different races with fists in the air. The three of us watch the painting in silence, remembering Monogram Forest’s sweet embrace, its reassuring air of mystery, and the willows proving us a space of freedom and direction. I take Alan's free hand and squeeze it when I see a tear slide down his cheek. I don’t want him to listen to me anymore about the troubles we face, the colorism we’re subjected to. I don’t want him to feel sorry for me, for other sensitive people like me. Listening's only half the battle. I need him to understand.