My former husband used to turn the NPR station on every morning, drink his coffee to it and then go to work, leaving the radio on. One morning, I was listening to his radio the only way you can when bent over your chair tying your sneakers at the kitchen table. It was an in-and-out kind of listening, until something grabbed my attention.
A journalist who had visited South Africa to cover the AIDS crisis in the late 1990’s was being interviewed. The journalist, who was white, talked about how he met this eight year-old black, South African boy who had AIDS. The journalist became taken with this boy, for his bravery, wisdom, and advocacy for local AIDS victims. He was especially taken by a speech the boy was preparing for an International AIDS Conference in South Africa.
I stopped tying my other sneaker when I heard an excerpt of the boy’s speech read aloud. “We are all the same. We are not different from one another. We all belong to one family. We love and we laugh. We hurt and we cry, we live and we die…We are all the same.”
Images flashed one after the other in my head. A doctor checking the time on his Rolex—a woman smoking crack on a motel bed—a man laying bricks—a middle-aged woman in a fur coat rapping her Saks Fifth Avenue credit card against a jewelry counter. Then, it clicked into focus.
I’m seventeen again, and flicking off my sneakers to lay on the couch with my Cape Verdean boyfriend, Yukie. When my sister called from college to say, “I heard from Mom you’re dating a black guy,” I corrected her by saying, “No, he’s black Portuguese,” while smugly accepting her “Oh, cool,” response. And, I think I am cool for dating someone Cape Verdean, that it’s more hip than being merely black; more exotic by virtue of its’ ties to European roots.
I lean into Yukie on the black leather couch in my parent’s den. He puts his arm around my waist, and pulls the heavy, mod crocheted blanket over us.
We are watching gymnastics; the 1979 World games. The Women’s uneven parallel bars are up.
I feel so cozy lying there with him. He is dressed like college Yukie–which I favor over the more regular appearance of street smart disco Yukie–in faded jeans and grey hooded sweatshirt. I massage the short, loose curls of his good hair as I reach back to stroke his head and simultaneously receive a kiss on my forehead.
“Boo, you’re leaning on my leg and pinching it,” he winces, sliding his hand down to push my thigh slightly forward.
“Sorry,” I squirm forward just a bit so I won’t hurt him, but stay close enough to feel the warmth of his body envelop me.
He inches back closer.
“Ouch, now you’re on my hair,” I said. I hold my head at the nape of my neck and grab my waist length hair from underneath Yukie’s side.
We watch together the Russian gymnast take flight, soar from high bar to low bar again and again, and then together we watch her…drop.
She gets up. She is fine.
“Oh, my God!” I cover my mouth.
“Damn, she just went down like that,” Yukie says.
And then I feel it. We both break out laughing uncontrollably. My head on Yukie’s chest rattles as laughter fills him up and then releases itself. We can’t stop. He hugs me tighter and I lace my arms around his, glowing in his embrace and our laughter.
And I am so happy for the world. And I think, wow, you are black and you are laughing at the fallen gymnast, and I am white and I am laughing at the fallen gymnast and isn’t that so cool. We are connected, you, me, our laughter, the world.
As I turned off the radio that morning, I smiled at my seventeen year-old self. The one who equated laughing at someone’s misfortune to a wise beyond his years boy who knew the truth about humanity. Yet, also the one who said so simply and unashamedly, what I still believe, and work on every day—making connections with people different than me, in order to remind myself that we are all the same.