It was Georgios’s knocking the Missouri History Museum’s traveling Nazi propaganda exhibit that started the whole shtunk. Georgios’s main criticism was not specific to the presentation or information included, but rather that he’d had enough of Holocaust exhibits. Like most of my boyfriend’s new friends, Georgios was a PHD student. He was an international student from Greece, tall but slouched, with a shock of blond hair and old-fashioned, wire glasses. “It’s like all European history has been distilled down to one event. Everything is Holocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust,” he said. “We need to get over it and focus on other problems.” I was stunned. Just as I was gearing up to jump in, Keandre beat me to it. “I mean, think about it,” he said. “Think about how much time we spend learning about the Holocaust, over and over again, instead of everything else terrible that’s gone down in history. Think of how we teach these few years over and over, instead of the history that actually needs to be taught.” Keandre was a visual arts MFA student on the same fellowship that had lured my boyfriend Amadou from New York. When he’d showed up late to the bar, he’d whipped out his phone to show us photographs of his abstract sculptures, which he explained, one by one, in detail. He was short with eyes magnified by oversized glasses and a gravity-defying mass of hair that he kept twisting into a man bun and then letting spring back into an Afro. He was too subversive for the “art elite,” he said, which is why he didn’t get into Yale. “Take for instance,” he said now, “the transatlantic slave trade. That was way worse than the Holocaust.” Georgios nodded over his beer. Keandre went on to list the ways in which the slave trade was worse than the Holocaust: it affected more people, lasted a much longer time, and took away an entire race’s humanity. I glanced over at Amadou, but he was messing around on his phone. As I listened to this, I knew that at any point I could drop the Grandma Eva bomb. She was in four concentration camps, I could have interjected. And she was a slave laborer in a Dresden munitions factory during the Dresden bombing, which resulted in her reparations checks from the German government, paltry sums she still uses to buy the most mundane household items. She heard the guards at Stutthof shoot
her grandmother dead for their Saturday night entertainment; she survived a weeks-long death march with a rusty nail wedged into her foot; she was in Birkenau. Birkenau. I held no feelings that the Holocaust was in any way worse than slavery: both were unimaginably horrible. And I didn’t want to call out Amadou’s friends, especially when they were talking about slavery, which I couldn’t talk about with the authority they could, as Keandre and Amadou are black and I am white. I didn’t want to be perceived as insensitive or, worse, racist. But, on the other hand, I was sick of being told (rather condescendingly, I might add) that the Holocaust wasn’t as bad as I thought. Mostly, I was confused as to why Amadou wasn’t arguing with Keandre. On one of our first dates, he expressed surprise that I was Jewish. “My mother is Jewish,” he had said. “It makes me happy that you are, too. It connects us.” His words snaked together in odd shapes, his S’s drawn out like he was performing his words, not just speaking them. Amadou never made it a secret that he felt closer to me because of my Judaism and my link to the Holocaust. My family story made me able to understand him better, he said. His childhood more closely resembled Grandma Eva’s than mine: he is a political refugee from a war-torn West African nation, and the Jewish mother is his adoptive mother. He is very private about his childhood but shared it with me, in pieces: one chapter while we walked through Riverside Park, another as we dug our toes into the sand at East River State Park, a few more as we lounged in my bed listening to raw Delta blues. He loved talking about the Holocaust and made connections between our families’ stories, although my family’s tragedy is buried two generations back and in no direct way affects me. So why wasn’t he on my side, against Keandre and Georgios? I got that he didn’t want to fight with his new friends. He had just moved halfway across the country to a city he didn’t know and was having trouble warming to, and I understood that he didn’t want to make enemies. Also, he’s quiet, not one for confrontation. Then, of course, there was the possibility that he agreed with his friends, and what would that mean if he did? If he wasn’t going to call out Keandre, I was going to do it myself. I downed the rest of my beer and cut him off. “Look, both of them were terrible,” I said. “Why does it have to be a contest? How is this in any way a productive discussion?” Keandre stopped talking, for once, and focused his eyes on mine. When he spoke, his voice was thick was emotion. “You will never
understand what Amadou and I have to go through every single day because of the legacy of slavery.”
We had all of the important things in common: the habit of cramming our pockets with subway books; a disinterest in the animal kingdom; a wise, half-blind grandmother who taught us about genocide. His brothers and parents seemed to like me—his mother dished out Yiddish phrases by the tuts and asked me for advice on detangling the tallis she accidentally ran through the dryer. At last, one of her sons had found a nice Jewish girl, even if he was the adopted one who wasn’t familiar with the Torah but had the entire Koran memorized. Amadou made too much of Grandma Eva and the Holocaust connection—he gave me too much credit, tried to draw a parallel between our stories even though he’d gone through tragedy himself, and I just write about someone else’s. The plan was to avoid meeting someone. Any relationship would involve the inevitable decision to either attempt or not attempt long distance. This was supposed to be my year of unattached sex; midmorning, trans-borough subway rides of shame; waking up with whiskey breath in an unfamiliar Harlem studio. Either that or a selfimposed year of getting myself together: chastity, buckling down on my thesis, finally learning how to use the machines at the gym. I would wear only baggy sweaters and my comfy jeans—an ancient pair of thrift-store Levi’s—because I would have no one to impress. Then after graduation, I would leave New York behind and move to New Orleans, where I had secured a teaching job and where it would make sense to look for someone. But he had asked me out after our friend’s birthday party—a coffee date that turned into strolling the circumference of Central Park, then dinner, drinks, and a kiss in the cab back to my apartment. I liked the way I made him laugh, the skin around his eyes crinkling, and how he stopped mid-step to catch his breath. “You’re a funny girl,” he gasped. He doesn’t laugh enough, and I liked being the one who could cause it. I liked the way my fingers caught in his hair, the way his arms pinned me down. He begged me to call out his name, which fell from my tongue in three legato syllables. We both knew it was a bad idea—he was moving halfway across the country in a few months, and I had a year left of school here. But he left me voicemails in French, woke me up by kissing my neck. He read me poems and soccer score updates in bed as the ambulances wailed down Amsterdam and the frat boys blasted hip-hop that pulsed through the floor. We had my whole apartment to ourselves for the summer, and he never really wore clothes, doing the dishes in his underwear while I sat curled on the kitchen floor and finished my
coffee. One infernal June night, we lay in a sweaty tangle underneath my fan, and he told me that he loved me.
“Is everything going okay here?” — Policeman who stopped us when we were walking together in Van Cortlandt Park “You sure everything is going okay here, miss?” — Policeman who stopped us when we were walking together in West Harlem
We were sitting around the breakfast table sipping at the remnants of our coffee and talking about how Amadou had only a month left before his big trek out west. I think that’s how we came upon the subject of race—his asking me how racist my home state was, the state he was moving to. “Honestly,” I said, “I don’t know.” Amadou told me he felt weird accepting a fellowship designed to diversify a mostly white university in the Midwest. It was going to put him under a lot of pressure, he said, like the pressure he was put under in high school and undergrad and even in our graduate program, which I thought of as pretty diverse. He was not the first serious non-white boyfriend I had had; I hadn’t talked about race with the previous one, either. I had never known what to say. And in college, I had a black roommate, but I never brought it up with him either. That seems almost inconceivable now—how did we never discuss it? Why did I never bring it up? These are questions that bother me now, long after he and I have lost touch. One of the only times we ever acknowledged the subject was when there was an armed robbery on our driveway. The cop lights flashed red and blue on our living room wall, above our laptop lids and stacks of textbooks. He said he was going to go outside and check out what was going on. Off-campus crime was frequent, and we agreed it was probably just a mugging. Instinctively, I told him that maybe he should stay inside, and I would go see what was going on. “Good idea. I bet I fit the suspect’s description,” he said with a grin, pointing to the hood of his sweatshirt, pulled low over his forehead. I nervous laughed and made sure to close the front door quickly behind me as I stepped onto the porch. But with Amadou, this avoidance didn’t seem like an option. I didn’t know what to say, but once in a while during this conversation, I asked questions that I wasn’t sure were the right ones. After a pause, I took an awkward fake sip of coffee from my empty mug.
“I know I don’t know how to talk about this,” I said, “and I’m clearly not good at it, but I want you to feel like you can talk to me about race, like we can talk about it, you know, if you want.” He was quiet for a second, his expression unreadable. “I’ve never talked about race with any of my girlfriends before.” I felt like I had made a mistake—maybe he didn’t want to talk about it, after all. Hadn’t he mentioned that all his exes were white? Maybe he found it awkward or unnecessary to discuss race with them, with me. “Sorry.” “Don’t be sorry,” he said. “Then why did you never talk about it? Because you didn’t want to?” “Because none of them ever brought it up,” he said. “So thanks, I would like to talk about it.”
Early on he took me to a poetry reading in the Village, and then we grabbed drinks at a bar where the French tourists next to us didn’t know he was fluent. He smirked over his drink and, when they left, translated their comments, ones that we’d heard before: Opposites attract. They look good together. A beautiful couple. Nods of approval and oversized smiles from white liberals, eager to let us know they gave us the okay. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve seen today! Over dinner afterward, he asked me if I had ever dated a black guy before, and I said no. He said he’d dated lots of white girls, and I didn’t know what to say to that, so I didn’t say anything and devoured my curry instead. One Saturday afternoon, we wandered through the Upper West Side under one umbrella, then abandoned it and let the drizzle settle in our hair. We watched the swollen Hudson from a rain-soaked bench, and Amadou told me he was ready for long distance. On a blanket in East River State Park, we people-watched over the tops of our books. We strolled through Harlem, and he said that this is where we would live when he finished his PHD and we were both teaching at Columbia. We would be the uptown version of Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, except that we would stay together. It was sunset and too beautiful, the sun low over the river and both of us romanticizing everything, as we both tended to DO—MFA students with easy teaching jobs in the city in the summer, all park strolls and burning through paperbacks on empty trains and overpriced cold brew and hot jerk chicken in my unair-conditioned kitchen. His last night in the city, we crossed the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan to the soundtrack of a drummer practicing halfway across, the beats swallowed by the J thundering underneath. There were only a few bikers left that night making the fixed-gear trek back to Brooklyn
and a lone Hasid holding his hat in the wind. Amadou pressed me against the vibrating rails and kissed me, and that’s when I realized it was too late, that I wouldn’t be able to let him go. The night before I flew out to visit Amadou in St. Louis, before Labor Day weekend, I panicked. He had been pulling back, phone conversations going stale, missed calls left unanswered. He insisted everything was fine, that I was getting upset over nothing, that he was just so busy. If I was going to get this upset, things weren’t going to work. And yet, it was so comfortable the next day, falling into his arms in his new apartment cluttered with all his books, cooking couscous to jazz like before, and reading the Times on his porch. The unfamiliar bathroom still smelled like his familiar lotion; the same pictures were in the same order on his new dresser. We showered off our hellos before going out to meet his friends. I was curled on the couch with a book, waiting for him to get dressed, when I caught him watching me, shirt in hand. “You are so beautiful,” he said from the doorway. I wore the skirt he liked, the long purple one that still smelled like smoke from the last Harlem rooftop barbecue. All the pieces of clothing I packed for that trip were ones I knew he liked, a pathetic attempt that had worked with less perceptive boys. “I’m a good man,” he repeated when he ended things over the phone a week later. “I’m a good man, Sophie.” His insistence was too much for me. He was trying to convince someone else, himself, the one who dumped his girlfriend over the phone and then wouldn’t face her until we met by accident, months later, eyes caught across a small room dark with coats and bitter black coffee, my stomach dropping into my boots at his surprised smile.
Since we broke up, a year ago, I’ve made my move south and started teaching at a virtually all-black school. I work with a cohort of black and white teachers, both at my school and through Teach For America, where I am a corps member, and there is often tension between us and divisions along race lines. During one of our Teach For America summer diversity pedagogy sessions, a white teacher claimed that she felt attacked—she sensed pressure to never say the wrong thing, to not think of her students as needing to be saved, to not mess up her students’ names or question why someone would give them those names. “We’re all in this together,” she argued. “The only difference is the color of our skin.” That’s when one of the black teachers exploded: “Only the color of our skin? I am defined by the color of my skin,” she protested. “I am black. That is everything.”
Her emotion reminded me of Keandre’s, a frustration that I didn’t and will never get. I still disagree with Keandre’s comparison, but I knew that this teacher was right, that color is everything, and white people like me have made it that way. The anger behind her words put me back in that St. Louis sports bar; it made me think that in some way I needed to give Keandre’s emotion more credit, even if I still didn’t agree with all of his words. I have both of their words in the back of my head as I interact with my students, as I look for permanent housing in New Orleans, as I talk about my work with my white friends and family. As I navigate all of this, I wish I still had Amadou to talk through everything with. That’s selfish and makes it sound like he was my race-relations conversation buddy, when he was so much more than that—someone I loved and shouldn’t still miss. I imagine him sometimes when I sit on my porch in the morning, reading the paper as life begins its slow crawl on Magazine Street. I picture him beside me, bent over a folded paperback, pen in hand to jot notes in his spidery script. “Sophie, listen to this paragraph. It’s fucking amazing.” I imagine us walking at night along the river, a modified version of our New York bridge treks. I imagine us cooking together, the kitchen windows flung open and a film of roux flour on the floor. We would make fun of the tourists waddling through the Quarter and linger outside the cathedral, both of us drawn to the incense-scented sanctuary by vague maternal ties. One Sunday, too hot for the city, we would drive out past the river plantation houses to the bayou where the world drops into the water. Spindly alien trees, makeshift pirogues, Creole greetings echoing through the moss. All would be unfamiliar but natural. A football field an hour, the rate of wetlands lost to the Gulf. It would be a more than precarious situation, the two of us speeding through a vanishing landscape.
In January, when I was still living in New York, I ran into Amadou at my coffee shop. He was home visiting family; it was dusk on the last day that the two of us would be in the same city at the same time for the foreseeable future. Bashert, Grandma Eva would have called it. I chased him down 111th, coat still hooked on my chair inside, and we grabbed a drink. I tried to diffuse the weirdness with stupid, funny stories until he offered to walk me home. In my bedroom, he asked for his favorite scarf back, a bold request that I shouldn’t have fulfilled. I unraveled it from my neck, and we remained standing across my bed from each other. “I’m a good man, Sophie.” I walked him to the door, as I had countless times, like that first night when he came home with
me after our first date. With sex hair, crooked glasses, and a wrinkled T-shirt, I had let him out: one last kiss, ma chère, and a buzz in my stomach—the spark of starting something new, the anticipation of everything that was to come.
Some names have been changed.