The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - So­phie Un­ter­man

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.

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