This is why you won’t give a damn about the story that I’m about to tell you.
Because I find myself having to explain to people why it’s wrong for a man to be pinned down and shot six times for selling CDs, or a small child to console her mother after witnessing murder. Because at the end of the day, if I have to convince you that another person’s life matters for whatever reason, my essay isn’t going to change your mind.
It’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new.- Ta-Nehisi Coates
It is two days after the Charleston church massacre, in which nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were gunned down during a prayer service in Charleston, South Carolina. A young white male killed nine people for no other reason than they were born with an ample amount of melanin. I am sitting in a writing seminar during my third MFA residency at Antioch University Los Angeles, it’s the last class of the day. I am wondering how much more of the monotone voice I’ll be subjected to before being able to listen to my fellow classmates read their work that evening. I look at my phone to check the time. Instead of seeing the background picture of my husband and me laughing, I see three missed calls, two voice mails and two text messages. No one leaves voicemails anymore. One is from my husband and the other, along with both text messages, are from his Uncle Bill who is visiting family in Alabama. My heart falls. I assume there is bad news about Justin’s family down south and Uncle Bill is trying to get ahold of Justin.
The text from Uncle Bill reads: “Justin was hurt at Chipotle located at 4550 West Pico Blvd. 90019.”
I jump over the cloth chairs and run out of the classroom. With trembling hands I try to plug my phone into the wall. It is almost out of battery. Tears burn like dry fire in my eyes and I cannot see the lines of the wall socket to plug in my charger. People walk around me, sprawled with my knees on the floor and shoulder leaning against the wall. I fear I am making a scene and keep my eyes down at my phone so as not to meet the eyes of any onlookers. “A car drove into the Chipotle at that address,” is the second text from Uncle Bill. I call Justin immediately, praying to God to hear his deep voice and light southern drawl on the other end of the phone.
I have to tell you about my love story, because otherwise he won’t matter to you. I have to tell you that Justin and I used to run into one another daily in the cafeteria during our undergrad; him with a plate of salad piled high and me with a grin shining with colorful braces. I have to tell you that Justin never smiled back at me, only ever raising his thick eyebrows and giving me a head nod. He isn’t a smiler, despite his perfect teeth and infectious grin. You must know that we began as good friends, and decided to take a whack at dating because we both had mutual feelings, while neither of us wanted to lose our friendship. I have to tell you that the day Justin asked me to be his girlfriend he said that he missed out on his first shot at love in high school. That he never told his best friend how he felt about her because he feared the outcome. He quickly changed the subject and told me he wanted to be married at the age of 25 and that I should be waiting at the aisle for him. I have to tell you all the mushy stuff, so then his life is important to you.
I finally reach Justin by phone.
“A woman ran her car into the building.”
“Are you okay?”
When Justin and I began dating, I felt flawed as a human. I was depressed, and although my therapist and other people who supported me told me that none of the negative things I believed about myself were true, I was still not convinced. I felt like I had too much baggage and inviting Justin into my mess was difficult. On the surface, I appeared to be doing very well- I was a cheerleader, ran cross-country, threw javelin, I wrote articles for the university newspaper and I had an awesome boyfriend. The truth was a lot stickier than I let on to most people. Justin offered to attend therapy sessions with me in order to understand depression and even called the police and paramedics on a night I contemplated suicide. That night, I was infuriated with him. I felt exposed and like my happy-facade was broken—by him. While the paramedics checked my vitals Justin peeked around the hallway of my dorm. When I glared down at him the officer said, “I know you probably don’t like him very much right now but I want you to know that, that young man down there loves you very much. He just wants to know you’re safe, okay?” No, one had ever stood by me in this way.
Justin showed me the kind of love I thought only existed in cliché movies. He debunked my fear that I was too broken to be loved. That was six years ago. And since then we got married, moved across the country to pursue our dreams, and fell in love with our attention-greedy chihuahua-poodle mix who sits on Justin’s shoulder as he calls her his parrot. Things are good.
But, we are an African American couple in 2016. We have our routines and on the surface life appears normal. We kiss goodbye and remind our family we love them, all the while waiting for our turn. We are not safe wearing hoodies or playing with toy guns—at parks or at the stores who sell them to us. We are not safe swimming or praying. If we are not safe at church, why should I expect my husband to be safe at Chipotle?
“I’m fine.” Justin says, “My head is bleeding pretty badly. It hurts a lot. I am going to ride in the ambulance to the hospital.”
“No,” I tell him. “We can’t afford it Justin, I’m on my way.”
See, it’s not just the money. Truth is, I am afraid. Petrified in fact. Our men go into the backs of large vehicles and they don’t come out alive. Freddie Gray. Our men have strokes in their vehicles and instead of being offered help they are attacked first. The questions come later—“Get out of the car or I’m gonna fucking smoke you! Right now,” is what they say to our men after pepper spraying them when they’re barely conscious. David Washington. Our men are not safe. Why should my husband be any different? They don’t know that he is kind and sweet and funny and so very gentle with children. They do not know that his life matters. If to no one else, it matters to me. He is a black man and he is not safe.
As I drive down the highway, my mind races in too many directions. I fear that he will not be taken care of in the ambulance because he is big. He is big and he is black and not very smiley. I have to prompt him to smile before every selfie. He says, “I am smiling”, and proceeds to raise the thick eyebrows above his big kind brown eyes. To me, he has the body of a sculpted Greek god, but I know all that will be seen are his large, broad shoulders, strong arms and his dark complexion. He is black first. A man second.
“Carmalita, if I need medical attention will you be able to help me?”
He is hurt and I do not want to fight with him. He has a point, but he does not understand my fear. “Why would they help you, baby?” I want to ask him. Justin comes from a state where our men needed medical attention during the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment. Instead of giving them penicillin, doctors treated them like lab rats for 40 years to see what the disease would do to them. For 40 years they let those men’s lives deteriorate. What if you do need medical attention? History tells me that the only attention you will receive is unpleasant.
I cannot help him. I am coming from campus and am too far away to argue with him. “Okay, text me when you know what hospital they’re sending you to.”
I drove to the general area where I thought they’d send him. When I got the address I drove as fast as fear and safety allowed me to. Arriving to the emergency room entrance I leave my running car with the valet. Screw the eight bucks.
“It’s free for the ER ma’am. Just get it validated.”
I think of how silly an eight-dollar concern is as I almost smack into my husband’s bloodied body while I run through the parking lot. I arrived at the hospital the same time as his EMT truck and he had not yet made it into the ER. I do not recognize him with his head wrapped in a chin-strap helmet of gauze. Dried blood runs down his ear and splatters a reddish brown into his dusty black work clothes. One of his arms is wrapped, but the gauze is bloodied and red.
“Justin. What the hell!”
We sit together in the ER waiting to be seen. He looks at me with his sad large brown eyes and tells me the events of the last hour. He was last in line at Chipotle, about to watch Game of Thrones on his phone as he waited to order his salad. He heard a loud boom and was propelled to his knees. He thought it was a bomb. My chest threatens to collapse under the weight of the fear in his voice. My throat fails to let air through. He thought it was a bomb. His ears rang and in an attempt to stand, he felt the pain in his head. His shoulder pulsed, after reaching up to touch his head, the wetness of blood shone bright red in his palm. He decided against standing and instead slowly lay in the broken glass. It was not a bomb. Just a woman who drove her car into the entrance of Chipotle.
We wait in the ER hallway for an hour before anyone helps Justin to a room. When the male nurse finally comes in, I stand beside the nurse as he examines the large gash in my husband’s head. He pours some type of solution on the gash and dabs it with gauze. It does nothing to clean the clumps of dried blood out of Justin’s hair and around the exposed flesh.
“Is there nothing more you can do to clean him off?” I ask.
The nurse nonchalantly lightly dabs his head with the gauze again and says, “No, not really.”
I hover over the nurse as he staples the thick skin of my husband’s head together. Justin is fine, they are taking care of him. It is a mediocre job, but they are patching him up. He is safe.
He has four staples, a concussion and a badly cut arm but here is here with me. Blood pumping through his veins, air in his lungs, his heart—my heart, is beating. It is not our turn. The horrifying knowing part of getting bad news while having a black husband is over –for now. He tells me to take a picture of him and advise our friends and family why they shouldn’t text and drive, which is what we assume the lady driving the car had been doing.
I Google the address of the Chipotle to see if anything has been posted online about the accident. There was one picture of an aerial view of the Mercedes-Benz with its front bumper collided into the front door of Chipotle. The first car parked to the right, is Justin’s gold Impala. I screenshot the picture and upload it to Facebook and Instagram, along with Justin’s bloodied and gauze-wrapped head with a warning. Don’t text and drive. Friends and family flood our phones with calls and texts to see if Justin is okay. Some of the responses are heartbreaking and for the first time in my life it becomes painfully clear that other people share the same fear I have.
During a phone call with a friend she said, “I thought he got shot!”
“You know with what happened in South Carolina, we weren’t sure…”
My friend says that she finally gets it. She is white, and initially thought the reporting of racially motivated deaths and police brutality was a result simply of more media access and the fact that it’s a trending topic. Until the body count continued to grow. She now understands what it means to have a person close to her who is a target by the color of their skin. Another friend has a cousin in Pittsburgh who is paralyzed as a result of being shot during a minor traffic stop. She immediately thought Justin’s accident was racially motivated as well. A male friend called with a similar concern. “I was just checking on him. You know the police be on some bullshit. It’s rough out here.”
In our lives, a freak accident isn’t always just that. The fear that rushed through me is far-too-common, a fear I am ashamed to claim. This is the world that I live in. My sweet America tucks me into bed at night with the fear that because of the color (and shade) of my husband’s skin, he just might not make it home to me. I wasn’t surprised by the news that, “Justin’s been hurt.” Not because my husband is a tyrant. Not because he is a thug or menace to society. I expect the worst because I live in a country where the worst news to get while dozing off in class is not that a car happened to drive into the very Chipotle where my husband was standing last in line. No, the worst part is that I and those people closest to us share the same fear. That because he is black he is a target of so much unwarranted hate.
The possibility that I could have lost him hit me a day later as I burst into tears while watching a movie trailer. The scene of a dog laying in front of its owner’s casket could have been my reality. Xena could have been that dog, whining and waiting for Justin’s return.
Will this be my constant fear? When I have little brown-skinned babies that grow up to be brown-skinned men and women who are not safe walking home –Trayvon Martin— or walking through Wal Mart –John Crawford— or going to a kid’s pool party –Dajerria Becton— or having their hands up –Michael Brown– or praying in a church –Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton, Clementa C. Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman and Myra Thompson. Our black and brown people can’t even make simple traffic violations without our lives being in danger –Sandra Bland, Philando Castile. When and where are we safe?
I cannot send my husband off every day with a picture of his bachelor’s degree or marriage license or a picture of our six-pound dog taped to his big strong chest so they will know that he is safe and harmless and beautifully important in my life.
We live this threat every single day. And there are countless families who live the nightmare of absence every day. Yes, I’m pissed off at the person who recklessly drove her car into Chipotle. She could have cost me my husband’s life and taken away my dream of having beautiful big-eyed babies that grow up with big teeth just like us. She could have ended the life of the person I am only six years into forever with. We haven’t even truly lived yet and she could have taken all of that away.
The thing is, she’s not who I’m afraid of. She’s not who I fear. My country is who scares the shit out of me.
My dear America is what goes thump in the night.
Originally Published on Huffington Post
Photo: Getty Images