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American Boy

The First Time


We are climbing up through the dense grassy underbrush. I am in shorts, and long blades keep scratching at my ankles like tiny reminders. I bat away bugs from my face and try to keep up with your infinitely long strides. You are in sneakers and you are unruffled. We climb up, and up, and up. I walk behind you, because I have never been where you are taking us. I am panting slightly, but I do not allow the air to make noise when it escapes my body. American Boys do not pant, so I must not either.

We arrive at a ladder, but it is blocked off. A cold vertical sheet of metal hides the bottom half of its many rungs. The message here is clear—do not proceed, do not keep climbing, do not grip the cold metal deterrent and use it to effortlessly hoist yourself up the ladder’s sides, do not lift your endlessly tall body above and beyond its rungs. Yet you do, of course, as if you were placed on this earth solely to traverse smoothly and silently from one plane to the next.

I am still on the ground. 

“Come on.”

American Boys do not shirk from uninviting ladders, so I must not either. I gracelessly ascend, clanking and clambering my short wideness to the top in your wake. I reach the top—a quiet flash of pride from me, a silent nod from you. On the roof, a field of solar panels greet us, diagonal panes organized in meticulous rows that jut out from the flat roof. 

There are two American girls up here, whom you happen to know, of course, because you are an American Boy and you know everyone. They smile and wave and you chat with them. I smile and wave, too, but I remain a few steps away. They are smoking, carelessly, brazenly, and a few minutes later, so are we, on top of this roof as if we were always supposed to be here and the world was waiting for us to climb that blocked-off ladder and claim our territory this warm summer evening. 

We inhale, we exhale, we taste the smell and smell the taste. I look up at you—always up at you—and for a second, I forget myself. I love this feeling, this unapologetic feeling of freedom, of control, the feeling of life itself. A flash of envy runs through me, for I can already tell that I will only ever have this feeling when I am with you, American Boy, for you are the living and breathing embodiment of what I so desperately wish to attain.

We descend the ladder; you, perfectly, but when I do it I am clumsy. I make noise on my way down—a lot of noise, too much noise for this stealthy endeavor. A HUPD officer materializes from the air in front of us. I am scared, but I do not show it because American Boys are never scared. The officer asks us for our IDs, but just as quickly changes his mind, waving off our transgression as unworthy of his time and effort. “How’d you get up there?” he muses, irritated and befuddled. You tell him. I stand slightly behind you, and I say nothing. He sighs, wearily, and sends us on our way. If I were by myself, I know he would not have let me go so easily. I am glad to have you by my side, American Boy.



***



The Best Time


On this spring afternoon I see cherry blossoms everywhere. There are especially many today, as if Mother Gaia personally erupted extra trees from the dirt, chock-full of flowers just for us to admire and adorn ourselves with on our journey. You jam the flowers in the hinges of your glasses, I gently tuck them behind my ears. Both the color and the feeling of the day are pink. There is nothing but lightness; I am happy and confident and unabashed as we walk down the streets blasting our music, laughing as loudly and full-bellied-ly as we want. 

Today, I feel like an American Boy, and I am impenetrable. 

We find a shiny red car bumper abandoned on the street and we gravitate to it like crows. You pick it up, and we take turns hoisting it above our heads as the day’s trophy. We carry it with us until we grow tired of the load and then we lovingly re-abandon it in a grassy ditch. 

We walk in this pink day for hours, years, millennia, eons, yet before I know it we hear music and voices drifting towards us. We see jubilant bodies running around in the grass, we see a stage and trailers and we know we are here.

“Let’s scout out the area.”

I follow you as we circle the scene like vultures hungry for a drop of life. Today’s activity is right up your alley, American Boy, because you’ve snuck into music festivals before, and completely out of mine, because I never have. But today is so beautiful that I don’t even think of you as an American Boy. I can only see and smell and taste and hear and feel pink all around us, and that which is not pink fades away and ceases to exist—

Police cars drive up and down the road as you search for the best place to enter the festival.

“Here.”

It is comical for us to be sneaking through the bushes, bending our backs and creeping under the tree branches that are determined to thwart us on this pinkest of days. If I had known we would be creeping and crouching in the dirt, I would have worn brown or green or black, but we are both wearing brightly colored festival outfits as we try to make our way through this earthy obstacle course.

We emerge into a grassy area and follow the blades towards the sounds of crowds and music. Then, instantly, standing between us and the festival is a police officer. He looks amused to see us. Again, you handle the talking, your voice a perfect mixture of self-assuredness with a tinge of sheepishness. You know how to command respect at all times, American Boy, even when you are a transgressor being confronted by a punisher. You are now laughing and chatting with the officer. He tells us that the festival is swarming with police so we may as well give up, and that the artist we undertook this day-long pilgrimage to see has already played her set, anyways. He lets us go, even wishing us well on our next journey of the day. I am sure he would not have been so jovial towards me if I had not had you by my side. It seems you are both my friend and my talisman, American Boy.



***



Every Time


We fill our days like this—you striding confidently ahead, me half a pace behind with half the amount of confidence you hold. We do what we want, where and when we want to. Anyone who tries to thwart us is no match for your American Boyhood. I learn all about how glorious it is to be an American Boy and to live unhindered and unafraid. But there is always a nagging in the furthest recess of my heart that reminds me that I will never be like you. My skin will not allow me, my body will not allow me, my hair will not allow me, nothing about me permits me to experience life the way you do. Some days I wish I could trade places with you, but those days are few and far between because I know that being an American Boy means being as light as air. And though ignorance is bliss, I know no amount of bliss is worth the weight of the world I put on my shoulders before wearing my backpack every morning. 

Some days, many days, most days, every day, it is hard to be your friend, but I fight through those days with all that I have because love is supposed to conquer all and I do not want this world to conquer ours. 



***



The Worst Time 


During quarantine, I never hear from you. You hear from me, though. 

“Thanks for calling,” you say. “It’s good to hear your voice. I miss you. I love you.”

At first, these words make me smile, because who doesn’t want to be loved by an American Boy?

But then I realize—you hear from me. 

I never hear from you.

And then come the murders.

They were always there, but now, while we are all confined in our homes to our screens, they reverberate louder than ever.

They come hard and heavy and fast and endless and somehow each one hurts as much as, if not more than, the first.

Each reminds me that I am not wanted, I am not seen, I am not loved,

And that the American Self does not recognize the American Others.

I cry every day until I decide it’s time to stop crying and get to work. 

I organize and I educate and I teach and I share and I protest and I mourn and I grieve and I shout into the void and I decide that I will never stop. 

And then I beg, I beg, I beg. 

I beg the American Boys and the American Girls whom I think that I love to let me know they are here. I beg them to let me know that all the differences in the world cannot tear us apart. It is a futile, pitiful task, but one I engage in nevertheless in a desperate bid to bring me temporary comfort.

Their words come, like Band-Aids on bullet holes—ineffective, but marginally better than nothing.

There is one person that never offers a Band-Aid. It is you, American Boy, and yours was the only Band-Aid I ever really wanted.

You stop hearing from me. I continue not hearing from you. Silence begets silence begets silence that I, of course, have to be the one to break, because you don’t even realize that it’s there. 

We’ve had this conversation many times before, but I know in my aching bones that this time will be different. 

This time will be the last time. 

I cry when I realize that all along you showed me the truth; that you are an American Boy. 

You could never preoccupy yourself with my pain and sully your American Boyhood with my lack thereof. You could never stain your pale American skin with the dark shades of my Otherness.

I cry when I realize I always knew this, but I hung on anyway because I wanted to be like you—lighter than a gust of air, heavier than the force of law. 

Ignorance was bliss, but now it is our downfall, American Boy.

I tell you that I need more, that I am tired of the Sisyphean task of pushing our relationship up a doomed hill. You say you try to do your best, but you know that it's not enough.

Then fight for me, I scream inside my brain. Fight the way I do.

I do not vocalize these words because thinking them is pain enough and I do not need the inevitable excuses you will come up with as to why you will never fight like I do, or half as much or a tenth as much or an iota as much as I do. 

I do not vocalize these words because I see you, American Boy, and I know who you are. I always have. 

I know it is time and I let go.



***



I remember the pink days, the days where each breath felt exalted, where each ray of light that touched our skin felt like it was sent from the heavens just to kiss our bodies.

But when pink turns to black and red, American Boys are nowhere to be found. 


Graphic by Juliet Nwagu Ume-Ezeoke