July 8, 2021
My name is Senzar. It is the name I had when my mother adopted me. She said that I stared at her with my big brown eyes and captured her heart. "And there you were, a sweet brown sugar," she would smile. The white people in Podunk, including my parents, never saw me for my color, I was just Senzar. There were times when I was implicated by my pigment but rarely were those racial epithets directed toward me. They were usually followed by disclaimers and qualifications, "Not you Senzar, you're different." My injuries were collateral damage from vituperative shrapnel meant to harm strangers. That's how I looked at it. It was our small town against the world.
Our town wasn't racist because everyone had a black friend—me. "And he's kinda dark," some would say. My friend Tom and I had a very inning joke, "The blacker the berry the better the credit." You know, because black people are known for having bad credit and having street cred? Tom is insightful like that. He is the All-American white guy, blonde haired, blue eyed, square jawed, captain of the football team. I told him that he was wonderfully disgusting stereotype and he loved it—and I loved him for owning it.
Tom was the one who introduced me to Sarah. Tom had noticed my eye on her, an olive skinned athlete with auburn hair and beautiful brown freckles. I fell in love instantly. In that way, she was like me, she didn't look like everyone else. Neither did she think like anyone else, she was a soul too vast to remain trapped in such a small town.
"The minds are too small," she would say.
And I would think that she was talking about her parents who obviously objected to our relationship. My town knew that I was black and male, they knew some day I would have to choose a mate. No one wanted it to be their daughter. But everyone knew it would be Sarah, she never did what anyone expected. While working at the diner, she once poured a milkshake in a cop's lap for calling her "sweetheart."
Sarah was thoughtful, kind and inquisitive. Knowing wasn't enough, to her experience was everything. She explored my body like there as a secret inside, her yes would lock onto mine and she'd ask a question like, "Can you feel that I want you?" I'd answer yes and she'd ask me, "What do you feel?" Sarah was strange like that but I felt comfortable with Sarah—six years of comfort.
"Have you ever dated a black girl?" Sarah asked. We were cradled in a hammock facing the blackening night. She rested between my legs, her head against my chest, her hair smelled like strawberry.
"No." I said.
"Why not?" she inquired.
"Well, the town of Podunk happens to have a shortage of black girls." I said, sarcastically. Sarcasm was my way of avoiding things head on, it was my way of taking a deep breath, knowing that impact was inevitable. "I've seen those reality shows, they're always yelling and angry."
"Your mother was a black woman," she said matter of factly.
Funny, I hadn't thought about my mother as a black woman. For so long, in my mind, her greatest characteristic was that she abandoned me. "My mother is Susan McRandle." I said with the dry scrape of tears against my throat.
"You know what I mean, Senzar."
I did. Sarah had a sixth sense, she didn't know that I had searched for, and found my mother. While Sarah was away in Ari's for the summer I was heading to the city to confront my mother.
"You should date a black girl."
"You should," she insisted. "I have."
"So, I'm just supposed to forget about you and date some random black chick?"
"Senzar, live a little. I don't own you and you most certainly don't own me."
Frustrated with her nonchalance I asked, "so what is this?"
"Love," she said. "And it will always be here."
I had no idea what relationships were supposed to be like but a piece of me hurt. Still, another part of me felt free. Free from what? What the hell was I going to do with freedom?
I wore my Vans, cargo shorts and a black T-shirt. I thought I would blend in. I didn't. The neighborhood had a silent alert to all things foreign. It is called suspicion, it is in every eye, window and mounted camera. The project houses were built identically except for the faded or sometimes missing numbers that were supposed to identify the residences. There were rows of them that stretched along a roadway that bent inward to form a court. I parked where the apartments were numbered in the 300s and stepped onto the cracked concrete. The sidewalk was littered with the remnants of living in poverty, junk food wrappers, malt liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia were signs that destruction lived there.
A ways down the street a small brown woman with a crimson hue was sweeping the sidewalk and collecting trash. I sighed in relief, all hope was not lost for these people. The woman looked at me disapprovingly, as if I had contributed to the litter. I shrugged with my eyes. She stared at me as if in shock. I averted my gaze and looked back to find her looking. Her hair was close cropped with shining waves, she wore sneakers, jeans and a T-shirt that said "Black Wives Matter." I smiled and entered the 300 court. I was searching for 341.
"What you doing?" asked a round button of a face, with oval eyes and pronounced pigtails.
"Well," I was entertained at the maturity in her voice, "I'm looking for Ms. Roberta James."
A woman yelled from an open window, "Jayla! Get outta that boy's face."
I smiled at the woman. She returned my smile with a half-smile of her own and watched me as if I were about to steal.
Jayla yelled back to the woman, "He lookin' for Miss Bobby."
I looked back to the woman and she pointed diagonally down the walk. "Thank you." I yelled.
She yelled back. "The one with the red grill in the front yard!"
I spotted the charcoal grill and headed toward it.
I had rehearsed what I would say. My throat was dry. "What if they try to kill me?" I thought. I got to 341 and turned onto the short walk, before I could reach the door a woman, not far from my own age appeared swinging the screen door open. She had beautiful skin of onyx and a well-kempt afro. Her shirt was tied at her navel, on it, a photo memorializing someone. Her thick legs threatened to burst her jeans shorts. Yellow painted toe nails.
"What you want?" she asked with the impatience of those reality show black girls I had come to know.
I turned and pointed to the lady in the window, "That lady down there said that I could find Ms. Roberta James here."
"Toni!" she yelled at the woman.
Yelling seemed to be the primary means of communication.
"What?" Toni yelled back.
"Don't be telling nobody where we live!"
"I ain't say shit!" Toni exclaimed. "That boy snitchin' already!" with that she retreated and slammed the window.
The woman in the doorway asked "Who are you?" as she searched my face.
"My name is Senzar." I replied.
As if mesmerized by my answer she stepped onto the hot concrete. "Get. The fuck. Outta here." she said approaching me.
She sacred the shit out of me. I turned to leave.
"Where you going!" she yelled, freezing me in my tracks.
"You told me to leave."
She smiled, "Damn you's a lame. Where you been?"
"Sort of, it isn't really far from here."
"No, I mean were you locked up?"
"Oh, no." I chuckled. "I live in Podunk."
"Oh, snap." She pushed my shoulder. "Well, I'm your sister, Ta-Merry." She opened her arms.
I stepped into them.
She embraced me.
She hugged me like I had actually been missed. Suddenly she grabbed my hand and escorted me into the house. Inside I was bombarded by a cornucopia of fragrances, foods, incense, lotion and laughter descended upon me with familiarity. Ta-Merry ushered me through a small living room with black furniture and gold trimming on everything.
Through the living room was the kitchen from which the sound of soul music emanated. The kitchen was a bright sunflower with a tan tiled floor, a small table sat in the center and at it a woman with her back to me. Without seeing her face, I felt her familiarity. Her hair was in cornrows and her neck laced with three small gold chains. Ta-Merry tapped her, "Ma?"
The woman was startled and turned to scold Ta-Merry, "Don't you scare me like that!" She noticed me standing there and was startled again. "Who the?" Then, in her eyes, recognition, "Senzar." She stood and hugged me. As her sobs fell into my chest, she stepped back and examined me through tear-filled eyes. She and a squarish nose, full lips and was a shade or three lighter than me. She could pass for only a decade my senior but her beautiful brown eyes held enough pain to tell her true age.
"Why?" My preparation had failed me. "Why?" is all that I could manage. I felt my knees start to give. The two women grabbed me and set me in a chair. Ta-Merry fetched a glass of water while Bobby kept my head pressed tight against her bosom.
My father was a gangster. They said I looked exactly like him. That was something I would hear from everyone I met. When I was young, the police had raided my father's home and seized his businesses. They accused him of murder and trafficking. He had not committed the murder but he knew who had. When he did not provide the police with the identity of the true murderer, they sought it fit to pin the murder on him. As Bobby put it, "Your daddy was in no way an innocent man, but he sure as hell wasn't guilty either." In order to pressure my father into cooperating the district attorney brought down charges on Bobby and other family members. None of it worked.
My father told the District attorney that, "You can lock up my mama, I ain't telling you shit."
The District Attorney politely obliged.
"Your grandmother got two years." said Bobby. "I did fifteen, cousin Reggie did seventeen, your aunt Evelyn did five, her sister Regina did five, your father's best friend Victor got 40 and they gave your pops three hundred years."
"Where is he now?" I asked.
"He passed, son."
"Stabbed in the back. Literally."
I didn't know what to feel about the man that had chosen a code over his own flesh and blood. He was a selfish idiot. But his selfish could he be if he wasn't willing to trade his friend's life for his own? I wondered what made a man like that?
Soon, the house was flooded with people, I met cousins, aunts, uncles and distant relatives who all greeted me like they knew me their entire lives. There were legends about my father, comments about how, "You look like he spit you out." I nodded. I smiled. I ate, drank, and was drained. Until I met Roneisha.
She made her way through the cramped living room, the sea of bodies parting like the red sea, Lauryn Hill provided the theme for her entrance. Time stopped. She had incandescent amber skin, the likes of which I had never seen on a human. I imagined what she smelled like. I imagined that she was soft. Her golden brown dreadlocks were piled away from her face. She had balmy brown eyes, a slightly pointed nose and a round mouth. I wanted to kiss her.
"Put your tongue back in your mouth." Ta-Merry said as she slapped the back of my head. "Ronnie!" she called her friend over to us.
My senses were overwhelmed by her ambrosial scent and my eyes revoked her without sate. She wore a red t-shirt and jeans and she wore them like no one I had ever seen in my life. Witnessing her was like seeing a deer in the wild, majestic. A crease of sunlight crept through the curtains and captured magical particles of life that orbited her ambience. I stood. Ta-Merry introduced us.
"Ronnie, this is my long lost brother, Senzar."
Her smile was a halo. It made her existence seem cruel—the rest of the world was not so beautiful. For years I had sat within the preacher's pews and allowed him to alleviate my anxiety with stories of inherent human imperfection. He was a liar. Ronnie was perfection in the flesh.
"You are beautiful," she said.
I panicked. Held my breath. She was reading my mind.
"The secret language," she said.
"The secret language," she repeated. "Your name is the secret language."
Her words were a whirlwind that carried us away from the crowd. Before I knew it, we were alone on the stoop that led into the backyard and she was explaining about ancient mysteries, secret languages, and select excerpts of our life stories.
"You are beautiful," I said.
She held up a finger, "Nope, I already said that."
"You are the most wonderful human being I have ever met."
"What about Sarah?" she asked.
"She doesn't own me. I don't own her."
"Do you love her?"
"I don't think I ever knew what love was, until."
"Everyone here showed me love like..."
"Like you never left?"
"Yes." I confessed.
"You feel like you're betraying your Podunk family because you feel love here?"
"It feels like," I searched for words, "like home."
"Home doesn't have to be one place, one people," she softly punched my arm. "The earth is your turf, my brother."
"I wish I knew what to say."
"We can only communicate to the level of our understanding," she said as she took my hand in hers. Dusk was setting in. Fireflies frolicked. A soft him came over the projects. It was in the air. "You gonna be aiight."
"You believe in love at first sight?" I asked.
"No," she said. "That's horny bullshit. I believe in love without seeing."
"Love is blind." I nodded in agreement.
"No. Not in the watered down way that you mean it." She paused. "I can love any black man because I love all black people."
"I love all people." I replied.
"That's cool," she shrugged. "But I'm taking about black people. You don't have to defend everyone else."
"I'm not." I defended myself with futility.
"You'll learn about a black woman's love soon enough."
"You gonna teach me?" I asked.
She pinched my cheek. "Aw, don't worry your sweet little head. This is what you do: Go home. Spend some time with your folks. Talk to Becky."
"I'm sorry, Sarah." She smiled coyly. "If you feel the same way in a week or two, you tell her that you're coming home."
"Okay," I said excited. "Sounds like a plan.
"So," she said mimicking a grade school teacher, "what do you learn?"
I thought for a moment, "I learned about the secret language."
"Okay," she nodded. "All of that and you only remembered what had to do with you." She rolled her eyes. "I guess you deserve that much, you're an orphan and an only child." She stood to leave.
My words stopped her. "No." I said. "I know that this is the secret language of us. In all that we do. I see it in how we walk, talk, cook greet and even listen. I learned it when I met my sister, my mother. I felt it then. I saw you." I grabbed her hands and lingered there, pulling her back toward me.
"Speak," she ordered.
She kissed my forehead, "I didn't give you anything that wasn't already yours." She dotted my nose with her finger. "Don't tell our secret."
"They wouldn't understand. And people fear what they can't understand."