She never used to hate meeting new people. Everyone talked about what a pretty child she was, and what a beautiful young lady she’d blossomed into, and she believed it. (She’d go to her grave believing it - she was beautiful, her sister was beautiful, her brother was beautiful. Her parents, her aunts and uncles and all their children were beautiful, so she knew, without a doubt, that she was incredibly beautiful, and didn’t need anyone else to convince her otherwise, even on her most bedraggled and bedheaded of days.)
When her young man came back from the war, hungry and miserable and determined to change the world, she gathered him to herself, and said, yes my love, we will change the world! She’d gone to Watts, to see the burned out hull of a neighborhood, and had praised the Almighty that her mother had thought to get her away from all that violence, but she also knew deep in her heart that she still had a responsibility to her people, to all her people, to unite them as a single unit. And so when her wartorn young man came to roost in their old neighborhood, she took him by the hand and showed him the destruction. We will change the world!
She didn’t actually know how they were going to change anything. The silly, romantic, flighty girl in her wanted to run off to San Francisco, where they would be seen as a symbol of the changing times, proof of the transcendence of love. But the practical, logical part of her knew that what her young man needed was work, not flower power. So she convinced him to investigate the poor people of color, to find out what they needed, and to figure out how he could help get that to him.
His answer surprised her. It irritated her, too - at first. “Everyone needs safety, and shelter, right? And what’s one of the biggest threats to safety and shelter? Fire. So, everybody needs firefighters.” Well, yeah, okay, sure. But how was that going to change the world?
Turns out, it was a gateway to great, sweeping changes all over the nation. And she was married to a man who had first hand experience in making those changes - a true pioneer! She should have been meeting everyone she could, grandstanding it up. Her husband was a hero!
But she couldn’t go - she had babies. A soft limbed, soft eyed little boy who made everyone think of Dennis the Menace, even though he really was as easy as could be. And a plump, perfect little girl, brand spanking new, and the spitting image of the Gerber baby. She had two darling little ones to look after. She cleaned them up til they sparkled, and walked them through the streets whenever she could. She wanted them to see the world, the good world, the loving, changing world.
She wanted to see the changing world herself - it had to be there. Her husband would come home after every long, hard, dirty shift, and tell her all about the changes he’d seen, and the way everything was opening up. But she wasn’t seeing it. And it wasn’t just because she was stuck in the house raising children, either.
All she was seeing, instead, was strange, confused faces, lit with the tang of belligerence as their opening conversations wore on. She didn’t want to meet any new people. Not anymore. She’d met all she could take before her daughter was born, and now each new face posed a problem of real ugliness. She thought she’d be better able to handle the new faces when her brave man took on the challenge of paramedicine, but the doctors and nurses were no better than the rest. “Where is your wife?” She’d all but given up. All she could hear were the rude, invasive questions at the park sandbox:
“Are you sure he should be there at his age? Won’t his mother be upset?”
“How do you calm them so easily? My nanny always has a terrible time!”
“But they’re blond!”
“You do realize you’re not passing, don’t you?”
She’d only been asked that last one once, granted, and it had been by a vile old woman who’d been talking shit to any and everybody in her path, but that had been the question that sealed it for her - no more new faces. This world was never going to change. There was no justice, and she might as well take off and leave her babies be to grow up healthy and happy and white. Maybe she could convince her husband to pass them off as latin or some nonsense like that.
But as soon as she called his name –
– she’d chicken right the fuck out. She couldn’t leave such a good, kind, loving man - even if she didn’t love him, and God knew she did. She couldn’t leave the children she loved more than life itself. She’d defied everyone to get him - her mother, who knew firsthand what she’d be facing by taking off with a White man; her father, by marrying a soldier; her teachers, who saw her burning potential and wanted her to make waves for the people she (and her mother) had left behind; her sister, who wasn’t ready to give up girlhood so soon; her brother, who resented her not rejecting their father and taking up a militant stance; the left wing, who disapproved of her falling so easily into the role her father taught her to play; the right wing, who thought she should be paying the price for her mother’s uppity ways. Even if she didn’t care a whit for him, she couldn’t let that small act of defiance be all for nothing.
She looked at herself and pondered today’s presentation. She thought of wearing her favorite little wig - the short, funky one that made her look less exotic, more like Doris Day than Doris Troy - but in the end, she set it aside. For the year and a half since the inception of the paramedic program, she’d tried her best to present a wholesome, smooth, Creamsicle-Wonderbread face to her husband’s Eisenhoweresque boss. The deceit had proven to be more trouble than it was worth, though, because there were plenty of wives who didn’t like the new airs she’d put on - it was okay for her to join their ranks with her fireman husband, but how dare she try to pass as a genuine purebred WASP! The horror! (It hadn’t all been for naught, though. She’d learned who her real friends were.)
She didn’t bother to hide the curls, or to cover her eyes in the right kind of makeup, or any of the other dozens of little things she did to blend in to a whiter crowd. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t met any of these people at least once, but… there was still something of the unknown in tonight’s crowd. There would be judgment. Someone would ask where his wife was, why the nurse. She knew it. They wouldn’t recognize her without the babies. She ought to cover her hair, put on the gobs of makeup–
“Joanne. I’ve heard of fashionably late, but this is ridiculous. Come on, sugar, or the babysitter’s gonna give up and go home.”
She dropped the kohl pencil back on her vanity table and forced herself away from the mirror, out the bedroom, into the living room. He was fiddling with his tie, and grinning madly at her. The wheelchair was folded up by the door, waiting for her to carry it out to the car. He leaned heavily on his crutches and gave his tie a final tug. “So, you ready?” He looked her up and down. “You look ready.”
“I don’t know… I don’t think…”
He took her hand in his, and brought it to his lips. “But I do.” He straightened up and began hobbling for the front door, mindful of his casted leg. “Come on, before the sun comes up. You know the party doesn’t start until you get there.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be stealing the spotlight from this magical penthouse housewarming thing.”
He leaned in the doorway, and smiled at her. His toothy grin was brilliant, and full of the joy of their five years of wedded bliss. (She suspected it was also full of certain medications for the broken bones and things, but who could blame him for that?) “Joanne… you can’t steal the spotlight. You are the spotlight. That’s why everyone always stares at us.”
Such a simple, stupid point of view. Everything was always so good and wonderful from where he sat. But that was why she loved him. He could take the ugliest things and make them beautiful, with just a thought.
Even meeting new people.