The Five Stages

A Letter to You about Grief
(Or Displacement and Longing)
Jaysen-Henderson-Greenbey_The-Five-Stages_Fiction_AWC_Effy-Jiang_Brighton-England-2015

Brighton, England 2015 by Effy Jiang (BA 2016)

1. DENIAL AND ISOLATION

It was uncharacteristically dry for an October afternoon in Chennai, so my cousins, brother, and I ran inside earlier than usual to sit in front of a fan. From my spot lying directly in front of the fan with my stomach pressed against the floor, I glanced up every few seconds to watch my cousin, Mandeep, skip around our common area. I just wanted to go back outside and play basketball with my older cousins, who were big enough and strong enough to withstand the heat of the sun, but I was only six, and little six-year-old girls who spent too much time in the sun would turn the color of dirt (at least according to my North Indian aunt Vena, whom the rest of the family hated).

“Boy, stop running around!” My mother entered our common area, shouting in Hindi with her booming voice. She was not ladylike and quiet like her sisters, who were obedient to their commanding husbands. My mother was very much the ruler at our house, and it would continue to be that way even when we moved to the United States. She grabbed Mandeep’s collar and put her arm behind his knee, lifting him off the ground effortlessly. She flung Mandeep so that he went over her shoulder and placed a hand on his butt to keep him steady as she walked over to me in three quick strides. “And why are you letting your cousin get into trouble while your mother tries to cook dinner?”

I rolled my eyes and she snorted.

“Well, well, we have a sassy little one here!” She scooped me up with her free arm and rocked me back and forth, paying no mind to my two long black braids swinging back and forth and whipping against her knees.

“Put me down!” I said between giggles.

“Hey, Auntie, why does Avanti always answer you in English, huh?” Mandeep asked, tugging at my mother’s loose ponytail. “Doesn’t she know Hindi?”

My mother put us both down and I lay back on my stomach, closing my eyes. “You know she does, Mandeep,” my mother said, tone suddenly serious, “you’ve heard her speak to Grandmother. Avanti’s father is not from here, so he does not speak our language. He wants to make sure that Ava and her siblings practice English while they’re living here.”

Periodically, my mother informed me about my father and tried to explain how he was different than her and, by extension, me. My siblings and I spent the first years of our lives with my mother and her family in India. My father was still on the path to getting his doctorate when my brother and I were born, so he refused to leave the United States, and my mother missed her family dearly (or, as she explained to me later, she missed not being the only Indian person in the neighborhood). After spending her time in undergrad in London and completing her graduate degrees in the United States, she was ready to see her family again. This was the first time my parents nearly got a divorce. My father couldn’t possibly see why my mother wanted to relocate to another country and raise three children in a house she had to share with her parents, three of her sisters, and their families. My mother couldn’t possibly see why my father couldn’t just do his fellowship in India, or work for Doctors Without Borders, or anything other than keep her in the United States. This was before either of them had a high enough salary for her to travel back and forth as she pleased, so the only option was moving completely back to her home country, and eventually, my father relented. They knew they would be united again at some point, but by the time my brother and I were six, my father had a secure job in San José, and my mother was taking care of her sisters, her sisters’ children, her parents, and us.

“So, she speaks English because her father is a white man?” Mandeep asked, his gaze searching my mother’s face quite intensely, as if the smooth skin on her cheeks, her long eyelashes, or her brown lips, had the answers he was looking for.

“You’ve met him before, little one. Remember Aashi’s birthday last year? It was at the end of December, so he brought along presents for everyone as celebration for Christmas.” My mother squatted so that she was eye level with Mandeep. “I remember that day well because, you were being a stubborn boy who refused to understand that you do not know everything when I tried to explain to you the history of Christmas.”

I remembered that, too, but for different reason. At the dinner table, my cousin Anand whispered to his sister that my father was a ghost. She whispered it to our other cousin, Mahak, who whispered it to Mandeep. Soon enough, all the kids at the dinner table were whispering “boo” to my sibling and me, without any notice from the adults. That was the start of the jokes about me being a ghost that would carry on for years.

“Tim is different from us because he is not Indian. He has a different culture. He does not eat all of the same foods as us, does not do the same prayers, or speak the same language as us. Avanti, Aashi, and Ajit will learn and engage with his culture because they are part white, but they are still Indian, because they come from me. It makes sense?” She stood up, ruffled his thick dark hair, and went back to the kitchen without waiting for his answer.

It didn’t make sense to him. I could tell by the look on his face, but I couldn’t make sense of it either. I was not part Indian. I was entirely Indian. I did not like speaking English, and I only got used to occasionally doing so because it pleased my mother to know that I remembered it. I did not understand her life before my birth, how she went to school in the United States and married a white man, and had three children with him, all varying levels of brown. When he came to visit, my grandmother did not come over to make us biryani for dinner, my uncles did not come for shisha, my aunts did not come to gossip over chai. I did not understand that my family hated my father—even more than they hated auntie Vena, my mother’s sister-in-law who was light-skinned and Northern—and his family hated us.

I did not understand that my mother longed to live with this man again, and would take us with her all the way to America.

2. ANGER

My sister, who was older than me by a year, had more friends in high school than I had articles of clothing. When we first moved to the United States, she adjusted the most easily to our new life in San José, California. We moved into a six bedroom, four bathroom, two-story home with a gigantic backyard and a ranch that we shared with our neighbors, containing our five horses and their six. Our neighbors on either side of us were white and, in fact, our entire neighborhood was white, which confused Ajit and me. I questioned why their skin was so white in comparison to ours, just as Mandeep had done with my father’s. Ajit took after our father and was lighter than I was, but still dark enough to understand that there was a difference between us and them, at least in terms of our color.

My mother was determined to get me to bond with my father when we first moved to San José. My father loved to give us presents, and my brother loved to receive them, so it was easy for my father to warm up to him. Aashi could already speak and walk before my mother moved us to India, so whenever my father came to visit us when we still lived there, he latched onto Aashi as the only familiarity in the house full of brown faces. I was the real challenge.

Tim Rogers was an unassuming man, who simply desired the devotion of his middle child. He wanted me to latch onto him the way that I did with my mother. He wanted me to hide behind his legs or climb in his lap and bury my face in his shirt when I was tired of facing reality. He wanted me to accept the unconditional love that he tried to shower me with. He wanted me to speak to him in English right away, instead of accidentally starting in Hindi before remembering that he couldn’t understand it.  He wanted me to stop hesitating before I referred to him as “Dad”.”

But I was not willing to do all of that yet.

At the tender age of seven, the only thing I knew about him was that he was the reason my cousins called me Casper, the Not-So-Friendly Ghost. I told my mother this one day when she sat me down and questioned me about why I never hugged my father.

“You feel like you don’t know him,” my mother said. Her eyes were on me, but it felt like she was looking through me, rather than at me. I nodded, my hands folded onto the table politely.

“It’s not what I feel. It’s more of a fact.”

“You scare me,” you’re too much like your grandmother. There’s an old lad stuck in that tiny body of yours,” my mother laughed and put her hand on top of mine, “but listen, Ava. You must try to learn to get along with your father. He loves you and would like to get to know you.”

A few days later, my father drove me to Disneyland without Ajit or Aashi. I knew this was my mother’s doing, but I entertained it.

“It’s not as crowded as it tends to be,” my father told me once we got our tickets. “I take my nieces here sometimes. You’ll meet them soon. My siblings and I all grow up around here. None of us could bring ourselves to leave California permanently.”

“Everyone’s at school,” I answered and stared up at him. His skin was so white, with the exception of his cheek, nose, and neck, which were as pink as salmons. He looked confused. “That’s why it’s not crowded,” I clarified, “everyone’s at school.”

“Ah.” He nodded, staring straight ahead. “That sounds about right. Yeah. That’s right.”

We spent the day going on as many rides as my height would allow. He would tell me stories while we rode, about his life when he was my age. I knew my mother had something to do with this, but he was trying his best so I engaged anyway. Our last ride was King Arthur Carousel.

“That was good, but nothing beats the real thing,” he told me once we got off. “Ever ride a horse?”

“Nope.” We had no use for horses in India. We lived in the city, and my only experience with animals was when my grandmother made me ride a camel to visit her friend once.

“There’s nothing quite like it, kiddo.”

Two months later, he brought my siblings and me our first horse.

Never did I think that my father, the strange white man who forced me out of my comfortable life in Chennai, would be the one who introduced me to the first two loves of my life: horses and Disneyland.

I ended up going to school with one of my father’s nieces, a cheerleader named Sarah. She was loud, clapped often, and liked to drape herself all over me despite my constant reminders that I did not like to be touched. She was obsessed with my hair and loved to unravel the braid it was always tightly tied in so that she could run her fingers through it. We were complete opposites. I was a bulky, brown kid with dark hair and equally dark eyes, a triangular frame, and a low tolerance for being annoyed. She was a petite, blonde-haired, green-eyed Irish girl who loved parties and hugging people. No one could ever believe that we were related by blood.

Her boyfriend didn’t like me. This didn’t bother me because I did not like him either. Sarah was no different from many of the other white cheerleaders at my school, and her boyfriend was no different than many of the white jocks, but for some reason, he irritated me more than she ever could.

Late October, it was getting chillier out and darker earlier, but I agreed to go with Sarah to the Halloween party her boyfriend, Oliver, was throwing. I didn’t particularly care for Halloween, or many of the other holidays celebrated in America, but I agreed to go along.

“Who are you supposed to be?” Sarah asked, giving me the once over, as she stood in the doorway of Oliver’s house with her hand on her hip. I pointed to the cheap cat ears on my head.

“Catwoman, duh.”

She rolled her eyes.

“And what do you think of my outfit?” She put one hand on the doorframe and the other on her hip.  She wore a tight, faux leather leotard, plastic wings, a headband with tiny horns attached, and thigh-high leather boots. The entire outfit was a disgusting bright red color.

“Are you supposed to be a devil? You could’ve just worn your normal clothes for that.” I grinned playfully and she slammed the door in my face. I waited about four seconds before she opened the door again and let me in. There were a few people in the living room with cans of beer in their hands, but most of the crowd hadn’t showed up yet.

“Come on, Oli is in the kitchen.”

I had no choice but to follow her as she pulled on my arm and led me further inside the house, and into the kitchen. Oliver turned around, a plate in his hands, and grinned.

He wore a cheap, baggy, satirical Halloween costume that he likely paid twenty dollars for at Party City. A fake turban covered his head, he wore a thick, fake mustache, and what looked like an all-white sari.

“Yo, Avanti, do I look like one of your uncles?”

I stood, frozen in place for what could’ve been hours. Sarah put her hand on my elbow but I moved away. I laughed, dry and noncommittal. Oliver stared into my eyes like he had just won a war, and I took that as my queue to leave. I kept going until I was out of the house, ignoring Sarah calling behind me.

“You’re back early,” my mother said once I slammed the front door and stepped inside. She was sitting on the couch with her hands folded in her lap, as if she were waiting for me. “Something bad happened, I can see it on your face. What?”

When I first told you this story, you said that I should have told her what happened. You said that I should’ve told her how yet again, some white person blatantly insulted the culture that was a part of me. The culture that was me. But I was fifteen, and not big enough or strong enough to not be ashamed of my mother, who was so dark compared to Sarah’s mother, who made food that stank, who spoke in a language that I wished I didn’t understand.

Instead, I glared at her with eyes full of hate,  ran up the stairs to my bedroom, and didn’t come out.

My mother and I never talked about things like race when we were in the United Sates, these conversations only came up when we were back in Chennai for the summer. I never asked her how she felt around the other mothers of the neighborhood, who were all white moms who didn’t like to leave the comfort of San José, and she didn’t ask me about the overt and covert racism I dealt with in school and outside of it. These were conversations that were too complex to have in English. Not even whispered Hindi after my father went to sleep was enough to talk about this. The air in America just wasn’t right for carrying such heavy words.

The exception to this was when my father’s aunt was getting remarried. I was thirteen at the time, and my form of teenage rebellion consisted of ignoring my family as much as possible. There was no way I could’ve gotten out of attending this wedding, though, because it was the first large gathering that my father’s side of the family invited us to. There was no dress code for my siblings, my mother, and me because we were simply attending, so my mother insisted that we wear colorful saris.

“Don’t you think the vibrancy and jewels on Aashi and Avanti’s dresses will distract from the bride?” My father asked one day, when my mother was helping me into a sky blue sari. I already reached a point in my life when I rejected things that could be perceived feminine, including dresses and the color pink, but I made an exception for our cultural garb.

“What else should they wear?” My mother asked. “This is specifically to be worn at the weddings of other people. Ava looks wonderful, yes?”

“Yes, but—“

“But nothing, Timothy. I have nothing else for her or for Aashi. This is what she will wear and Ajit will wear a nice sherwani. I don’t want to discuss it again.”

“Look, Kamala, this isn’t one of your Indian arranged marriages!” My father snapped back. This was both the first time I heard him raise his voice at my mother, and also the first time I heard him say something like to her. I could tell she was unused to it, too because she put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed it hard.

“What did you say?” In that moment, she was uncharacteristically small. I know she heard him—my brother probably could’ve heard from his bedroom on the second floor. My father took a step back and shook his head.

“I’m . . . I didn’t mean that.”

My mother said nothing, just turned to look at my reflection in the mirror. I put my hand on top of hers, which still held onto my shoulder, and looked to the floor. I couldn’t stand to see my mother with a look in her eyes that represented a feeling I was struggling with, too.

Shame.

3. BARGAINING

Magically, I got more friends in my final two years of high school. I think some of it had to do with my sister, Aashi, who started to force me to hang out with her and her friends, who dragged me to parties thrown by boys who attended nearby universities. This was partly because she was worried about me becoming a hermit, and partly because her car was broken in a repair shop for two months at the start of my junior year and she needed to use mine. Either way, I got friends, which was a miracle, because rumor quickly spread that I was the “weird curry dyke who couldn’t take a joke” after Oliver’s Halloween party the year prior. Of course, all these friends were white kids who either failed to dispel the rumors, or thought of themselves as cool for befriending one of the only three non-whites in the school.

As I hung out more with these kids—particularly Erik, Rosie, and Carmen—I began to assimilate. I didn’t realize this at the time. My refusal to eat any of the ethnic foods my mother made or speak Hindi to her anymore all seemed like a coincidence to me. I got quiet when people brought up visiting other countries or extended family. I stopped watching my mother’s soaps with her, and started watching Once Upon a Time and Gotham instead—shows with mostly white people in them. I stopped handling the horses on the ranch as often, because being in the sun meant getting even darker than I already was.

Erik latched onto me more than Rosie or Carmen did. I actually preferred to spend most of my time around Carmen, but she was in a boy-crazy period, desperately looking for a boyfriend. I had no interest in boys, or shopping, or anything except horseback-riding and going to the gym.  I assumed that’s why Erik liked me so much, because I could spot him when we were doing bench presses.

“You’re not like Rosie or Carmen or any of the other girls at school,” he told me once when we were switching machines in between sets. I frowned and slowed down lifting the barbell, placing it back in its resting position. I didn’t really like when he tried talking to me while we worked out.

“Um . . . thanks?” My discomfort went undetected and he continued.

“I’ll admit, I was a little afraid of you when we first met. I mean, I was actually at Oliver’s party, Sarah told me about how you left after Oliver said that thing about your uncles,” he paused and took a sip of his water. “And I was like, uh-oh, she’s one of . . . those, who, like, gets offended at everything. I mean, Oliver is a major dick, but, it would suck because y’know, I slip up sometimes, too, it’s natural. We just aren’t used to . . . you know . . . around here.”

I sat up and stared him straight in the face. “No, I don’t know. Do you mean people who aren’t white?”

“Yeah, yeah . . . I mean, there’s Cheyenne, but no one really talks to her because she gets so mad at every little thing. I’m pretty sure she hates white people or something,” he said. I laughed, more because I felt I had to than because I thought it was funny. “But you’re not like her. I mean, you’re pretty much white.”

I laughed again, and he stared at me and shook his head. It took a few seconds for me to realize that he wasn’t joking. The teasing my cousins used to do to me before I moved, saying how living with my father would turn me into a white person, had come true.

4. DEPRESSION

Like my father, I went to New York University for college. My roommate was a quiet girl from Ohio, but I mostly hung around with Carmen my freshman year. I started dating Ellie, Carmen’s roommate, and settled into university life very much the same way I settled into high school life. I didn’t have Aashi to make friends for me, but I did have Carmen. Once again, I was the bulky, brown kid surrounded by petite white girls. There were other people of color now, in my classes, in my dorm building, in the dining halls, but they seemed so far away too, always hanging out in small groups that didn’t include any white people. After spending so many years being the mixed one, or the only one who was only part white, I didn’t want to deal with how others would treat me as the only one who was part brown.

Three times a week, my mother would call me to ask how I was doing. She nagged me about visiting, asked if I’d met another South Indian yet, and always ended by saying I sounded so much happier now. Gradually, our back and forth in Hindi started to become back and forth in English. Gradually, our conversations got shorter and shorter. In mid-October, I would stop answering altogether, instead texting her that I was busy and I would call later. I would never call later.

Carmen also said how I seemed “much better” than I did in high school, because I had “more people to talk to.” Why was I the only one who felt like I was doing much worse?

A week before my first Halloween at NYU, I was lying on Ellie’s bed in the room she shared with Carmen. She was sitting at her desk, talking to Ellie. Ellie was in her bed and would occasionally look at me, as if trying to include me in the conversation.

“I heard that Jasmyn might be going to Crista’s party on Saturday,” Carmen said, more to me than Ellie. “She’s that film major that’s in your Developmental Psych class.”

“Oh,” I said. Jasmyn was a timid girl who always tied her incredibly curly hair into a bun; she would undo and re-do the bun constantly when she got nervous about something in class, as a means to do something with her hands. It obstructed my vision from the board and my professor much of the time, but I didn’t mind because she wasn’t doing it on purpose. She was black and wore colored contacts, just like I did. Every once in a while, she would come into class with glasses on instead, which I thought was cuter, but I never told her that. I spent more of my time psychoanalyzing her than paying attention to my professor, but it occupied my time. I thought she was nice.

“She seems so scary,” Ellie added, faking a shiver. “She’s in our screenwriting class and, I dunno, it seems like she could snap on you at any second.”

“I get that,” Carmen nodded. “Once she yelled at this dude, George, over his script. She said that he was stereotyping by making this other black kid in our class play the thug in his script. And, like, honestly, he was one of the few people who even had any black people in his script, so I don’t know why she was so upset.”

“I remember that!” Ellie exclaimed. She chuckled, and ran her fingers through her orange hair. “I mean, like, it’s whatever, but like . . . I don’t know, I don’t think it was that bad.”

I wanted to say that it didn’t matter what she thought, because she wasn’t the one who was being insulted. I wanted to say that in a different circumstance, I could’ve been the Jasmyn that called out a white boy for stereotyping, but I just knew that wasn’t true. I was so trapped in this world of being accepted by Carmen, and Ellie, and all the other white faces I saw on a daily basis that I did nothing while they disparaged the feelings of a sweet, quiet girl who was justifiably upset over her classmate’s actions. I was so stuck pretending that only half of me mattered that I just laughed along as they continued to mock this girl for her “ridiculous” antics.

I went back home during winter break. My father picked me up from the airport and let me drive the hour and a half back to our house. As soon as I got inside, I was greeted by three of my cats and the smell of murgh makhani. I rolled my suitcase over to the wall and walked further into the home I had spent months away from. My mother came out of the kitchen, wearing an apron I got her for Mother’s Day when I was in middle school, and ran over to engulf me in a hug.

“Avanti, look at you!” She exclaimed, pinching and kissing my cheeks. “Oh, you have such dark bags underneath your eyes! Haven’t you been getting any sleep? You spend too much time hanging out with friends and studying! Make time for yourself!”

“Mom, I don’t really do either of those things.”

She patted my butt and turned away from me. “We’ll talk about that later—come eat! I made your favorite.”

When the rest of my family went to sleep, my mother and I lay together on the couch. She sat up with her legs crossed, and I lay out on my stomach, my forehead pressed against her thigh. She stroked my hair—the first time she was seeing it as a grown-out, dyed purple Mohawk instead of the long, black braid she was used to. I mumbled into her leg in Hindi about how lonely I felt, even surrounded by other people, even with a girlfriend (“I always knew you were gay. Your father just didn’t believe me!”), even with Carmen.

“Maybe these people aren’t exactly right for you, Avanti. They’re fun to hang around and pass your boredom with, just like those people you hung out with in high school, but there’s no real connection, you see. You have to find someone, anyone that you have a connection with, and you’ll be happy.”

I sighed, in a way similar to when I did when my horse messed up jumps—pure disappointment. “Who can I find to connect with? I’m surrounded by white people. No offense to Dad or anything, but they just don’t get it sometimes.”

“Oh, none taken. Your father does his fair share of not getting it,” she laughed. “But . . . you mean to tell me, out of all eight million people in New York City, you can’t find a single person of color? It’s your own fault. Ever since we came to the United States, you’ve latched onto one aspect of yourself and have ignored the rest. When we were in India, you only cared about that portion of you, and you ignored every bit of you that came from your father. Stop living as a half and start living as a whole, for once in your life.”

5. ACCEPTANCE

I met you in the beginning of my junior year. Australia wasn’t nearly as white as I thought it would be—I actually spent more time with Indian people there than I had in my first year and a half in New York, but it wasn’t fabulous. The other NYU students were fine, but I received a lot of strange looks from some of the white people in Sydney (sometimes, people would shout abo or fabo at me but I never bothered to find out what those meant). Prior to going to Australia, I never bothered to disguise my accent, but once there, I had to put effort into sounding American, otherwise, people got confused, or disgusted.

 Spending eight months away from everyone I knew meant everything changed. Dynamics were different, friendships were altered, relationships were ended (including mine with Ellie, but that actually came two years prior, at the end of my freshman year).

We were sitting in a common area of campus together, and you were talking to Ruth, this curly-haired, ginger Jewish theater major. Ruth and I weren’t that close, but they decided to introduce me to you anyway.

You know this part of the story well. We bonded immediately over a new music artist that we both loved because she was queer and biracial, just like the both of us (though, I wouldn’t find out until much later that you were biracial, because the Black in you was so much more visible that you felt the Native American part was not worth mentioning).

“She’s white-passing, just like me, and I dig that,” I said as we walked to the building that both our classes were held in. You stopped walking when I said that, completely ignoring the people behind you that were expecting you to go through the revolving doors.

“Sorry, what?” You had your hand up as if you were frozen in time and space and you stared at me for several seconds before saying another word. “You’re like . . . not white-passing at all.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’ve had people think I’m white all the time since I moved here fourteen years ago.”

“And were these people of color?” You asked once we continued walking. I shook my head. “Exactly.” You pressed your arm against my own and compared us. “You’re not as dark as I am, obviously, but, like, you don’t even look like you could remotely pass for white, dude. Look, I don’t fault you for this.” You patted my arm and shrugged your shoulders. “White people think the only three races are Black, White, and Chinese, and if you don’t visibly fit into one of those categories, they get stumped, y’know?”

Before that moment, I never considered such a thing, but it suddenly made sense. Erik telling me how I wasn’t one of those. Ellie and Carmen feeling comfortable enough to complain about Jasmyn right in front of me. Me, allowing my cousins to call me a ghost, rather than fighting back like my sister. Me trying to choose between being Indian and being white. All of these things happened as a result of me feeling like I don’t belong to a category, and I only felt like that because other people made me feel like that.

“Uh, I hope I didn’t, like, offend you or anything. I’m used to making generalizations about white people with, y’know, my mom, and brother, for laughs and stuff, but I should’ve made sure that was cool with you,” You began to apologize when I was silent for too long.

“Its fine,” I said, waving my hand as if the words were physical things that I could push out of the elevator. “It’s more than fine. My mom and I did the same thing when I first moved here. She would tell me silly myths she heard about white people in college, which, I now realize that some people might call racial stereotypes.”

“Hey, I’ll take innocent stereotypes to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and segregation any day,” you responded coolly. I chuckled, and saw the corners of your lips turn up into a smile at the sound.

You and I became practically inseparable after our elevator ride together. You still lived in Brooklyn with your parents and, every so often, you would complain about how hard it was to commute. There were days when you didn’t get home until after midnight, but you had to wake up at six in the morning to make it to your 9:30 class. For a while, I just listened to you complain, but eventually, I started using this as an excuse to invite you over, hoping you would take the hint and spend the night when I never kicked you out. Unfortunately for me, you were uncharacteristically polite when it came to dealing with people’s living spaces, so you would leave on your own even though that was always the opposite of what I wanted.

“I’m going to bed, now,” I said once, early into Spring semester, your fifth time hanging out in my dorm. I never usually announced it like that, but I was going to get you to stay this time.

“Is that true, because last time I came over, you got ready for bed and turned off your computer but continued to text me after I left, until like, three in the morning,” You responded without looking up.

“I don’t want you to leave.”

You stopped reading The Iliad and stared up at me. “Um . . . okay.” You paused, looked at the wall, then back to me. That pensive look you always got when we talked about something serious appeared on your face. “Do you have an air mattress?”

“No, but you can sleep on my bed.” A beat. “With me.”

“Okay,” You said after a few moments. “Why, though?”

“You make me feel bigger . . . and stronger.” I had a feeling that you knew this already, but it was my first time saying it to you out loud. We often talked about how I spent less time with Carmen and my other white friends after I met you, and I once drunkenly admitted that you were the reason I finally felt like I could embrace a part of me that I kept bottled up for so long, but the two of us never really talked about or feelings when we were sober.

“Well, don’t get too big or too strong, or I won’t be able to beat you in a fight anymore,” You said back with a laugh. “Do you have pajamas I can borrow?”

“I could shrink, and you still wouldn’t be able to do anything that even closely resembles beating me up,” I said back. You shook your head and laughed, and it was one of the most beautiful sounds I ever heard.