One Millimeter

Amy Simonson


          My friend and I scamper towards the sprawling apple tree in the corner of my grandparents’ back yard on West 25th Street in Wilmington, Delaware. It rained hard last night, and we are delighted to find a tin basin full of fruit and fresh water.
          We dunk our hands in, like mini agitators, then pull them out. “It’s cold!” I squeal.
          I am decked out in a yellow rain slicker with matching boots which, in my mind, complement the color of my hair. My friend has on a long sleeved blue shirt, tattered jeans and tennis shoes, one of which has a small hole near his toe.
          I pick up an apple off the ground. It’s red and green, and dotted with two brown holes. “This is where the worms go in,” I explain. “It means the apples are sweet.”
          I find a large branch, and stir the fruit. “You come home from work, and I make the soup for dinner.”
          I sing “Maggie May,” my favorite song at the moment. Even though I’m only four years old, I know most of the lyrics. My friend watches me with a big smile plastered across his face, and nods his head to the beat of my voice.
          We sit down on wet leaves, and the cold dampness seeps into my bottom. We pretend to slurp soup and catch up on the day like my parents do when Daddy comes home from the office.
          “How was your day, hon?” I ask.
          The boy laughs and watches me do most of the work. He doesn’t say much; he never does. This is fine by me. I prefer being in charge rather than following orders.
          I bite an apple, then hold it up for my friend to see. “It’s red on the outside and white on the inside.” I look at my friend’s skin and wonder if he’s white on the inside too.
          Our play is disrupted by heavy footsteps tromping through the wet grass. My grandfather is marching towards us. He is thin, with closely shaven salt and pepper hair. He wears black-rimmed, metal framed spectacles, and a short-sleeved, white button-down shirt. His face is scrunched up, and I shudder.
          “Your mother’s looking for you!” he barks.
          “We’re playing house,” I say.
          “Go on,” he hisses at my friend. “You get home.”
          My friend stands, unfazed by my angry grandfather. We walk toward the house, through the wrought iron gate, and up to the sidewalk. Grandfather snatches my hand and leads me inside.
          I trot to keep up with my grandfather’s long strides. I look over my shoulder and watch my friend trot down the street to the stop sign, where he turns left and disappears.
          “I don’t want him around here anymore!” my grandfather growls, once we’re inside.
          Mommy overhears what’s happening and comes out of the kitchen. “What’s going on?”
          “She shouldn’t be playing with a retarded black kid!” my grandfather snaps.
          “He’s a sweet child, and she likes playing with him!”
          “I don’t care. I don’t want him up here.”
          Mommy gathers up our things. She yanks her coat off a hook near the door but doesn’t put it on. We climb into our car and leave, abruptly ending what was supposed to have been a nice afternoon visit.
          We return to see my grandparents a few weeks later.
          “Can I play with my friend?” I ask.
          “Yes,” Mommy answers. She and I walk hand in hand down the tree-lined street that’s bordered on both sides with the same red brick town homes as my grandparents’. One of the houses looks like a person—its top windows with half drawn shades resemble sleepy eyes.
          We arrive at a row home where several older kids are sprawled about on the porch and front steps. I see my friend. He stands behind a taller girl, an older sister. I wave, and he waves back. Mommy asks if he can play with me. One of the older boys says, “No,” his brother can’t play up at “that house” anymore. I catch the looks on the faces of my friend’s siblings. They are not smiling, and I think they don’t like me.
          “I apologize for how my father behaved,” says my mom. “But I understand.”
          We walk back to my grandparents’ house, and I follow Mom inside, to the kitchen paneled in knotty pine. Gran is at the counter snapping green beans, and braised pot roast permeates the air.
          I never see my little friend again.
          My grandfather develops a brain tumor and dies a few months later. This experience is my only memory of him.

***

          My grandmother moves out of the city because houses in her neighborhood are becoming “run down,” and she says she wants to be closer to us. She buys a one-bedroom, “luxury” condominium in Pike Creek. I spend many overnights with “Gran,” and together we share a love of food and cooking. We prepare meals like slippery dumplings and spaghetti and meatballs, made from scratch, not frozen from the grocery store like my mom usually buys. Gran teaches me to always use wooden spoons, because metal spoons heat up and interact with certain foods. They also scratch the bottoms of your pans.
          Gran demonstrates the proper way to sauté mushrooms, then insists I try some. At first, I am repulsed by the shriveled, brown fungi, but once I taste them, salty and buttery in my mouth, I’m hooked.
          “Try everything once!” Gran intones, and I hear this advice often years later.
          Once dinner is started, it’s our custom to watch old black and white movies, especially those starring Humphrey Bogart or Gran’s favorite actress, Greta Garbo. If we can’t find a movie, we watch the afternoon talk shows, like Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin.
          One afternoon, I’m snuggled up on the couch with Gran watching Merv when Sugar Ray Leonard is one of the guests.
          “He’s handsome,” I remark.
          Gran looks down at me. “You think so?”
          I look back at the TV, at Sugar Ray with his dimples and bright smile, full of straight, dazzling teeth. “Yes!”
          “I guess,” says Gran. “For a black man.”
          My stomach nosedives. At ten, I don’t challenge Gran’s opinion. I accept it as fact, like cooking with wooden spoons. But this is different. Something in my gut tells me her comment, her perspective is wrong.
          But she’s not as harsh as my paternal grandparents. They’re more vocal about their disdain for minorities and never hold back their opinions when it comes to those who are different. Especially black people.
          Grandpop and Grandmom come up for a visit from their home in Lewes, where they live in a trailer park community in the woods.
          We’re all watching TV when Grandpop speaks up. “Look at all them niggers runnin’ around.”
          After dinner, we sit out back in the screened porch. Grandmom smokes and tells a story about their drive north. “Some nigger got his car stuck…” The word slithers off her tongue.
          I’d recently learned the real meaning of the “N” word. When I’d heard kids at school use it, I thought it was another term for booger. I discuss it with Mom, who says, “We don’t use either of those words in our house.”
          “But Grandpop and Grandmom say it all the time.”
          Mom rolls her eyes and continues drying one of her Farberware pans. “I know they do. I’d better never hear you say it.”
          “Then why do they say it?”
          “It’s hard to explain. I think because they’re uneducated. It’s how they were raised, and they just don’t know any better. Grandpop had to drop out of school during the Depression, you know. He had to work to help make money for his family.”
          Grandpop dropped out of school in eighth grade. I can’t imagine leaving school in three years to get a real job, like a grownup.
          When my grandparents come for another visit, I try to teach Grandpop right from wrong, so he will know better.
          “You shouldn’t use the “N” word,” I say.
          “What ’N’ word?” he smiles. “Nigger?”
          “It’s not nice, Grandpop.”
          “Says who?”
          “Mom,” I say. “And my teachers at school. It’s a mean word.”
          Grandpop chuckles, and sucks on a Winston cigarette. “Aw, geez, Amy. You don’t know.”
          A few years later, my younger cousin Andrea, another of Grandpop’s granddaughters, gets pregnant by her black boyfriend. My cousin keeps her child, which makes her an unwed, single mom to a biracial baby.

***

          In 1979 my father accepts a job transfer to Colorado. At first, we live in Aurora, a dusty, sprawling suburb of Denver considerably more diverse than the insulated bubble from which we’d emerged. There were no black children in my elementary school back in Delaware, not until the bussing laws had been enacted, and many of my friends’ parents pulled their kids out of the public school. My parents weren’t in favor of bussing, but they couldn’t afford private school. “We got out of there just in time,” I overheard my mom say once.
          In Aurora, not only are there more black kids but also Latinos, a group I never knew existed. The Colorado kids lump Hispanic people all together as “Mexicans.” It’s true, many have descended from Mexican immigrants, but not all of them are Mexican. I learn new words to describe this race of people: spic and wetback. I hear some black kids use these words, and it appears that Mexicans are lower on the social totem pole than black people. I’m amazed at how casually these derogatory terms are tossed around in Aurora. Before long, I notice these words slipping past my own lips.
          One night during dinner, I get a phone call. Mom answers, and I can tell by the look on her face, something isn’t right.
          “Um, yes she is,” she says. “One moment please.”
          “It’s for you,” she tilts the receiver in my direction. “It’s a boy.”
          I’m now in eighth grade, and we’ve been in Aurora for two years. This is the first phone call I’ve ever received from a member of the opposite sex, so I take the call upstairs, in the privacy of my parents’ bedroom. I sit on the edge of the bed and slow my breathing.
          Glen Johnson is on the other end of the line. I’d heard he liked me, and he did flirt with me in school: at our table in the cafeteria, in gym when we play dodge ball, and whenever we pass each other in the hallways. His attention is unsettling. No boy has ever liked me before much less a black one. If a white boy, say the popular Peter Nardone who lives three houses down, had been following me around and flirting with me, I’d be flattered and very much interested. But not Glen. I think of him as a friend only.
          We speak for a few minutes, then I tell him I have to get back to dinner, that I’ll see him in school tomorrow.
          I rejoin my family, and Mom is eager for the report. What did he want? Did he ask you out on a date? Is he a black boy?
          I hesitate. I know my parents, while not overtly racist, will disapprove of me dating anyone who isn’t white.
          “Yes,” I answer. “He’s black.”
          My dad’s eyes are down, looking at his plate, but he stops chewing his food and swallows hard.
          “Is that a problem?” I ask.
          “No,” says Mom, trying her best to sound cool. She glances at my dad. “Although I’m not sure Daddy and I would want you to date a black boy.”
          “I’m not going to date him,” I say, full of snip and snark, and a roll of my eyeballs. “He just called me to talk. It’s no big deal.”
          I bite into my bean burrito, a new dinner option since moving to Colorado. Shame and uncertainty consume me. It shouldn’t matter if he’s black, I think. He’s just a boy who likes a girl.
          I know other white girls at school who date black guys. I wonder if their parents are ok with that? I wonder what it feels like to kiss a black guy. And then I wonder what it feels like to not wonder at all, to just date and kiss a black boy.
          I long to have more of an open mind. I want to be like the white girls who date black guys without giving it a second thought, but a primal belief grips me: my parents and grandparents would disapprove. I don’t want to upset them. Even my close friends would be shocked to see me with Glen. I credit my parents for not using the “N” word in our home. But then why wouldn’t they like me dating a boy who’s black?
          Sound from the TV catches our attention. We turn to see a rocket blasting off as an electric guitar crunches out short, raucous notes. An astronaut stakes a flag on the moon, a flag of changing neon colors, sporting the letters “MTV.”
          Later that evening,  I ask Mom what she would do if I married a black man.
          “Well,” she says, “I just want you to be happy and have a husband who loves and respects you, no matter what color he is.” Without missing a breath, she continues, “I do think it’s important for you to have a lot in common with whomever you marry. I think coming from different backgrounds and cultures might pose a challenge, so I’d encourage you to strongly consider these issues before marrying someone so different.”
          The following year, when I’m a freshman in high school, I start dating a junior, Daniel Saperstein.
          “I like him very much!” my mom says, after meeting him.
          “I’m a bit surprised you’re going to let him take me out on a date…in his car,” I say.
          Up to this point, I’ve only been on dates where parents have chauffeured us around to the movies and the mall.
          “He seems mature and responsible,” says Mom.
          “Does it bother you that he’s Jewish?”
          “Jewish men make the best husbands. That’s what Gran says, anyway.”
          “Oh my gosh!” I say. “I’m not going to marry him. He’s just taking me to a hockey game!”
          “Still,” Mom says, “this one might be worth holding on to.”
          A year later, we move to Littleton, another suburb of Denver, in search of better schools. I am happier here. Littleton is the proverbial old shoe: comfortable, familiar, more like Delaware. There is only one black guy at my new high school, and he’s popular; it's not because he’s gregarious, but because on a canvas of white, your eye will be drawn to the one black dot.

***

          In the spring of 1986 I’m a Biology major at Colorado State. I must take Anatomy and Physiology, where we get to work on two cadavers: an older, African-American female and a younger, white male. Having both genders allows us to view the different sex organs, inside and out. Unlike when I dissected a pig and cat in high school, seeing the human body open and splayed out in front of me is overwhelming. What strikes me most is how thin the epidermis is—the outer layer of skin which has wreaked havoc for hundreds of years. The issue of race has been confusing and muddy, an area of unease and discomfort my entire life, but seeing the actual one millimeter of flesh that separates the outside from the inside of our bodies has a profound effect on me. There’s no way to differentiate the inside of the black cadaver from the inside of the white one once the superficial layer of skin is peeled away. I consider how small one millimeter is—slightly larger than the thickness of a sheet of paper—and how such a minuscule parameter has caused centuries of physical and psychological damage. One millimeter has been the difference between freedom and bondage, acceptance and disdain, privilege and struggle.
          Towards the end of my college career, a famous sports commentator is fired from his job because he states, on air, that black people were “bred to be better athletes than whites.” I’m not as appalled by this statement as the rest of the world seems to be. I’m just more confused. Not because I believe what this man said but because most people make these kinds of comments in their homes, behind closed doors, don’t they? Didn’t he just say, out loud, what many people think?

***

          If you’d asked me who I thought would be President of the United States first—a white woman or a black man—I would have chosen the woman, hands down. It was going to be a historical election no matter who won the Democratic nomination, but in November 2008 I learn just how out of sync I am with others in the U.S. I’ve been married since 1992 to my high school sweetheart, (no, not the aforementioned Daniel Saperstein) and we have two daughters, ages ten and seven. Thanks to my husband’s executive position with a large insurance company, we’ve moved five times in the last ten years. We are living outside of Cleveland, Ohio, when the people of the United States elect their first black president.
          On TV, thousands of people are crying tears of joy, jumping up and down, and waving banners in the air. Jubilance rules the day. Some white people are reveling in Barack Obama’s win. The people on TV look like the world finally “gets it,” like their world view has been accepted, like the tides are turning. Confusion and uncertainty swirl in my brain. What will life be like here in the U.S. without an older, white man in the White House? I’ve spent most of my life encapsulated in mostly-white communities. I’m out of touch with the rest of the populace. My foundation rumbles.
          When my youngest daughter, Sophie, is in eighth grade, she comes home from school one day, her normal air of  indifference replaced by exuberance. Her backpack doesn’t hit the floor with a heavy thud like it normally does, announcing a surly mood.
          “Mom, there’s this boy in school, and oh my gosh, he’s so cute!” she says.
          I put down the book I’m reading. “Ok. Tell me.”
          She gets a snack and begins. “He plays football, and he’s a Mathlete, which I know is important to you. But I’m afraid to let him know I like him.”
          My daughter pours herself a glass of milk and stops. “And—” She puts the carton on the counter, then looks at me. “He’s black.”
          I steady my facial expression as the remnants of my racist and not-so-racist ancestry flutter in my stomach. “Okay.”
          “You’re okay with that?”
          I don’t want to hurt my daughter, or continue old patterns. I love that she likes this boy without being deterred by skin color. She’s better than I was at her age, and maybe that has something to do with how she’s been raised.
          “I guess,” I say. “And you’re right…I do like the Mathlete part.”
          “Okay,” my daughter says, with a look that says I know you better than you think I do.
          “Besides,” I continue, “it’s not like you’re going to grow up and marry this kid.”
          “But what if I do grow up and marry a black guy?” she asks. “Then what?”
          “We’ll deal with it.”
          Deal with it?”
          “Accept it,” I correct myself. “It wouldn’t bother us.”
          My daughter brings her snack into the den, sits next to me on the couch, and turns on the TV.
          “The truth is, I don’t care who you marry. Just as long as you’re happy, and he respects you,” I say. “But I do think it’s important to have a lot in common with your husband. I think it helps to come from similar backgrounds—”
          I catch myself as I hear my mother’s words, my grandmother’s words dribble out of my mouth. The racist views of my ancestors are still theremore like grains of sand, scattered throughout the framework of who I am, burrowed into my DNA. Today I know better, so I’m trying to do better. Maya Angelou’s decades-old advice weighs heavily on my mind.
          “How did you feel when Aunt Carol married Uncle Nelson?” my daughter asks.
          I pause before answering. My mouth curves into a smile. I love Nelson. He’s kind, loving, open, funny, outgoing, well-educated, professional—everything I’d want for my own daughters. When my husband’s sister first introduced us to Nelson, I was shocked. I didn’t think my in-laws would be as accepting of Carol marrying a black man as they turned out to be. In fact, I later learned Nelson’s family wasn’t too thrilled with him marrying a white woman. I now have two biracial nephews, something I never could have imagined thirty or forty years ago. My cousin Andrea—the one who had a baby with her black boyfriend—ended up marrying a different black man and having a child with him. Despite my ancestors’ bigotry, black people have joined our family, and we’re all fine. We may even be better for it.
          “Mom,” my daughter says, drawing me out of the zone into which I’d slipped.
          “I was happy when Carol married Nelson,” I say. “I really was.”
          A report flashes on the TV. Another shooting of a black male by a white police officer, this time in St. Louis.
          “Oh my God!” Sophie yells at the screen. “This has got to stop!”
          “We don’t know what happened yet,” I say thinking of my cousins who are police officers. “We don’t know the whole story.”
          Sophie shakes her head and rolls her eyes, again.
          I think of the boy’s mother. I feel her pain; at least, I think I do.
          Thoughts turn to my little friend, from all those years ago in Delaware. I wonder if he’s still alive.
          My college Anatomy class rushes towards me like it always does when issues of race and racism arise. I consider the one millimeter of difference, between black and white, one millimeter that when pulled back, reveals nothing but similarity. One millimeter that means nothing and everything.


Amy’s work has appeared in an anthology of stories by Blue Cubicle Press, Six Sentences and Mothers Always Write. A former Labor and Delivery nurse, she now writes full time from northern New Jersey where she lives with her husband and daughters.