New You in Old, Old America (or 1 Month & 2 Weeks in Shit Tons of Pain)
You are new to Georgetown when you arrive the first week of June. All you see are rainbows—flags of them, banners, geotags, advertisements, merchandise. Restaurants and clothing stores covered in streamers fluttering heavily in the thick humid air. It’s kind of South, you think, but Georgetown is so beautiful. Your mother had said, “Don’t walk alone here, people will wonder what you’re doing in this place.” She has already trained you to make a habit out of being very good. She thought it would protect your body from all the people who wanted to break it. But here in Georgetown, flags waving, colors streaming, you explore sidewalks in the daytime, awe-filled and fearless.
The museum you work at is only a few minutes away from your apartment. All the walking reminds you of Cambridge, blessed Cambridge, your real home; all the walking makes you feel good, like you can breathe again after the monotony of sleeping, eating, and staying awake. Long Island’s suburbs are wooded, bleak, and empty. When you step outside there is silence. When you sit inside you turn on the TV and leave it going for hours, even when you’ve gone downstairs, even when you’ve gone to bed. Only nature, disordered, suffocating the skies, motivates you to sometimes bask in the quiet.
The museum is surrounded by gardens. Google Maps doesn’t recognize any of them so they are unnavigable on the first and second tries. Your boss gives you a tour one evening after work, pointing at fountains and identifying trees as you lag behind, swatting at mosquitoes. He says, “The founder modeled this one after Eastern spirituality, all the rage at the time,” and you remember all the teenage Buddhists you fell in love with in high school. When he starts moving again you pause in the center, sigh inwardly and swear that someday you will marry someone interested in landscaping these kinds of things in white-fenced backyards. On your way home in the afternoons you see millennials jogging, parents walking children back from school. Whenever you pass people pushing baby strollers you conjure up a family here in D.C., with all its rainbow madness, and picture your rearranged future.
The citizens around are almost always neighbors, because the apartment building is about ten minutes away from 32nd Street. You love the apartment, its coziness, the biggest bed you’ve ever slept in alone. You like the ease but also the independence, and the proximity of the streets. They can be yours—as you take photos of decorations on shop windows, tripping over tourists and beggars and large groups of people—this can be your city.
But your streets black out beneath you in the nighttime, heading back to the apartment alone or on a muggy morning through an isolated walkway. Here in Georgetown proper, Blue Neighbourhood on repeat in your ears, the streets tell you to be scared of ghosts: men lurking on sidewalks darkened by trees, hiding behind bushes, smoking on their front steps. The streets tell you not to scare the woman walking her dog at nine p.m., because you are black in this background, so black and so frightening, all 5’5 of you wheezing uphill in Old Navy shorts and a three-dollar tank top. The revelations come in pieces, visions on your way to work in the morning: there are no black hands unlocking these doors, no black children skipping past the gardens, no black women taking their toddlers into the Dumbarton Park. On a daytrip to Howard the campus shows off its mecca of dark-skinned, thick-limbed girls and you want to sigh with all of them, bring them back to Georgetown, condemn the R street suffering together.
Thewaterfront is where you feel okay staring shamelessly in a way you have not since childhood. It is a boring place, full of wooden bridges and ducks in waves and festive people drinking coolers on speedboats. You lean longingly over the edge of the deck, imagining the kissing, drunken motions, Oh Wonder and The 1975 floating softly above the Potomac. Someday when you are rich enough to live in Georgetown you will take your family to eat seafood here and your children will play in the fountains. Someday the streets will not run so old under your feet, and the heat will feel like home, and your partner will fold their fingers into yours on the way, the softness of their smooth palm colliding with your aged, weather-beaten life lines. You will make space for them on the sidewalk, as you make space for all the upper class people of Georgetown with nothing to do in the heavy heat of summer. You will make yourself smaller so that you do not frighten the women by accidentally brushing against their shoulders, or stumbling beside them, or turning their way. Close your eyes and face another direction.
Mother’s sights are set on the boroughs. She calls from the Bronx and it’s almost like 9/11 in real time, a natural disaster you can actually remember, when she says, “Hillary Clinton paves the way for you.” You get goosebumps washing lettuce in the kitchen. Over the sink you tear up for your fourteen-year old self who somehow found meaning in the state of New York and slowly, desperately, wanted to be President.
“But will they like you?” somebody had asked you, and still today you’re not sure what that means.
The wonderful people working with you are well-liked and they are all from other states: Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Texas. They don’t care about Long Island. They coax you in front of laptops and squish together with you on tiny couches and lead you on the rocky trail towards the beautiful parts of the gardens. Your foreignness isn’t hefty all the time. The sun goes down but 30th rustles life, sound of cars about to crash, and your hands, cupping aimlessly at fireflies on the window screen, bleeding all the world’s ambitions down against the waving branches.
Here slammed into fact [you are too new here] and history [they say you built Washington underground], you visit museums with the wonderful people and everything you know and love becomes invisible. You become invisible when you can’t find your stories in captions, when your face is rubbed out of black and white photographs. At the museum you fall centuries behind, nauseated by the sight of the original American flag and the thought of taking your children to see it. Over the weekend one person murders forty-nine people and your mother on the phone says, “Nobody ever really accepts the deviants.” You are tolerated by Abraham Lincoln on his throne, casting shadows on the lawn, and by the soldiers who keep giving themselves; you trace plaques and think, For what? any time the cameras flash. You are tolerated by the people of Georgetown, glancing up for proof of your existence with their bare eyes, afraid to touch with their bare hands. A homeless black man shouts, “Hey gorgeous, hey gorgeous,” and you remember standing in front of the mirror in the museum bathroom, witness to your own emasculation, hating the flimsy nature of bodies. M Street sneaks through you. M Street calls you Little Girl and Woman all at the same time. M Street violates you. Swallows your spouse whole in its cobblestones.
In the gardens, dry-eyed among the gods and the angels, you get tired so fast worrying about being broke and unloved. There are fancy grownups drinking wine out of plastic cups, elegant ladies sitting on the grass against their husbands, bees swarming the flowers behind them. Evening sets. You go back to good friends, food in the apartment, love on the opposite side of the coast. Mother calls, says, “Find a Catholic church.” She wouldn’t understand why you take photos of political posters on Sunday mornings, tiptoeing alongside the highway underneath the pride flags fluttering over the Hilton hotel. June is coming to an end and you are waiting for everyone to shatter; you snap a picture of hydrangeas tumbling over a gate top and learn that this house costs six million dollars. Will I, you wonder, at this moment, get arrested for Possession of Otherworldly Image?
At the station a black woman is crying, weave in a bandana, makeup smearing. Rare on this block, new in this city, which is old as the world. You do not want to be her but you do not know what to think of your hair, hidden beneath smoldering twists, or your naked cheeks and forehead, charcoaling by the minute. She can’t see your eyes through your very tinted glasses. Instead of watching her you swivel to stare up at a statue of Gandhi: “I’ve been to India,” you’d joked. “Where’s the geotag for the Embassy?”
But again, within the Circle, you shove in your earphones, blast The Life of Pablo, and remember the museum fences glinting under the sunlight. The wonderful people like listening to pop. The wonderful people sit beside you in an Uber as you discuss Chance the Rapper with the black driver who talks too much. He brings up gentrification, as the two of you exist only incidentally in this country, reminded to make space for other people—rich lives, blue lives, all lives. He mentions Freddie Gray, as your bodies are so prone to breakage.
“Yes,” you respond. A fact of life, this unfortunate condition.
Another fact: the death.
When Alton Sterling is killed and you can’t bear to look at the monuments any longer, bleeding for “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW,” bleeding for your unborn sons and daughters who will be black because of you, Georgetown keeps on shining in the morning. Black nannies fixing pigtails on the sidewalk. Black security guards staring at you when you walk into stores. Black women huddled in corners, distraught like the crying woman in DuPont Circle, begging bare-backed on the street. Your masculinity is a kind that still leaves you enchained and so you no longer know how to cry when you need to. The tears fail to come a thousand times, reading Huffington Post at work, taking snap chats of the Library of Congress. They shoot Philando Castile the next day. It is a Thursday. You worry that someday God will give you a son.
Once you step out onto 30th you are back in Georgetown and making everyone uncomfortable with your quiet grief. Illegal, even when you’re not on these streets. Painfully new, again.