When I decided to leave home, I realized I might seem weird. I walked to the front door hearing my aunts murmur familiar statements about shallow televisions shows, clandestine community exchanges, and forgettable flimsy fantasies. The real possibility that I’d feel suffocated was ample enough that I didn’t think twice about retiring outside to start the two minute walk to the corner of our street. This was a street I knew well given the awkward morning I was ignorant enough to wear thermal underwear to the bus-stop. I was in high school and no one had bothered to tell me that “Pajama Day” meant an actual store-bought pajama set. And I had showed up in my long-johns at the stop sign not realizing that school was over for me the moment I wandered into the administrative building.
I’d make it all of five feet before the assistant principal called my grandmother. It’s scary how an embarrassing memory from 20 years ago lodges itself into your consciousness even as you’re waiting for your best friend to drive his car to where you are.
Just before I caught sight of my friend Greg’s white sedan, I was nearly drenched in sweat.
I had thought to wear my grey and black American flag tee-shirt. It was my own awkward way of showing patriotism. As a black man, A Black American flag seemed a fitting tribute to the countless African-American men that have given their lives for some shard of American glory.
The shirt I had gotten long ago was a grayish white hue just light enough to accept the humid Louisiana air, enough to deflect a sun that felt like the hottest cup of Folgers coffee against my skin.
I got into the car quickly. When I flopped down on his black interior seat at home in what felt like corduroy, I was at the corner of acceptance and ambivalence. I accepted that Greg was the bridge that brought me over to myself. I also acknowledged that I was ambivalent toward spending any time with my stuffy family, at least not today.
When Greg made a right onto the highway, he needed confirmation about whether he had made the right decision. He glanced over for but a moment and said: “I take it you’re happy to see me, friend?” Immediately, my face hardened and my heart palpitated. I sat silent for a moment and then to no one in particular I responded: What do you think?
That was Greg’s style, seeking to patronize me about what we both knew about my circumstance that day. Yes, time with Greg was better than the monotonous bland circus that my family wanted. On the phone earlier, he had asked about walking together at the only fancy shopping mall in our city.
I know what you think. You’re thinking we go there because we’re made of money. Or perhaps you believe we visit because we can’t get a date. No. We go there because we struggle staying motivated to exercise, out of mutual habit often dialoguing about the trauma in both our lives.
Sometimes we vent about all the introverted idiosyncrasies in our personalities. We were prepared for anything because we’d weather it together. During the ride, Greg asked me to go over the list of suspects that were at my house. I call them “suspects” because most of them are suspect to give me some judgemental observation about how my life decisions have not paid off. Either I’m morally bankrupt because I’m living in a family home, or something about someone else’s life “happened” and we are all supposed to care about it.
When we arrive at the mall. I continue speaking about how I feel invisibility’s threat. Everyone seemed to have someone to communicate with. My aunts, (there were two) had my grandmother to exchange with. My cousins had their “friends”.
Then, there was me. I called my pen pal in Kansas to muse about his Fourth plans just to prevent suffering from the awkwardly stale bits of conversation I knew were forthcoming. As Greg and I talked and walked, we traded life moments. He spoke of his father, his room-mate, his room-mate’s father. He spoke about songs he shazam-ed and some new place he wanted to dine at.
I talked about my career plans and how thankful I was to simply have a meaningful conversation. When the mall closed and our people watching concluded, we rode to Barnes and Noble. The Barnes and Noble had coffee and internet. Those were two of our favorite things. He used his friend’s computer to download some 50’s and 60’s classics to a pill shaped MP3 player. I grabbed him coffee while buying a sale book for five dollars.
When the bookstore closed, we rode and rode. I was able to spaz out listening to our only alternative rock station on his awesome stereo speakers. He opined that we should go to Target. I happily obliged. It was great to feel independent in a country where some disabled people are regrettably dependent.
It was great to not worry about the last stupid thing some drunk relative said. It was great to be two sober people enjoying one another’s company. When I finally came back home, I could sleep knowing that I took better emotional care of myself.
Surely, I can’t rely on my friend to always free me from social prison. But at least my jokes landed. At least Greg listened and I heard. At least we choose our own normality.