"You Think You White"

How my Jamaican mother came to terms with my American assimilation.

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"Are you ashamed of me?" my boyfriend asked me in bed one night. He'd introduced me to his parents after we'd been dating for months, and then he'd expected to meet mine. "You'll meet them," I promised, trying to sound enthusiastic to hide my own doubt.

Three months turned into six, and we decided to move in together.

"Do your parents even know I live here? Do they even know I exist?" he said, searching my eyes for an answer that would no longer leave him baffled.

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He and I are surprisingly compatible despite having entirely different childhoods. He grew up in a white middle-class family in one of the wealthiest towns in Bergen County, New Jersey, where he spent his youth doing things I never did: playing tennis, cooling off by the town pool, going on family vacations, having birthday parties.

I grew up in a poor immigrant family in Queens. When I was five, I came to America from Jamaica with my mother and brother. My father had come a few years earlier, but by the time we reunited, his visa had expired and he was living undocumented. When I was young, I hardly ever mentioned him to people outside our family.

From my parents, I learned that you protect your family by isolating them, guarding them fiercely from the people outside your world. They couldn't seem to forget their life in Jamaica, where they'd lived in homes with verandas enclosed in iron grillwork that barricaded their families in each night.

When I talked boys with my parents, it was always as part of an inquisition or an accusation. "You have a boyfriend!" my mother shouted at me, the red blood vessels showing in her eyes, when a female friend gave me flowers for my birthday in ninth grade. If I complained about why I couldn't do something all my friends did, her response was, "You think you white." When I got accepted into a magnet school in Manhattan, my experiences started diverging more and more from those of my parents. My mother, rolling her eyes and sucking her teeth simultaneously, turned to my brother and said, "She think she white," when I asked to join the volleyball team. It was her way of reeling me back in, reminding me to check myself and keep my guard up.Eventually, I just learned to lie or hide evidence, not to tell them anything about my life away from their own.

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When I dated my only high-school boyfriend for a month, he gave me a long-stemmed rose for Valentine's Day. I tore the stem in half on the walk home from the subway. I thought if it was small I could sneak it in, but my mother, brother, and I slept in one room; there were no private spaces. I ended up throwing the rest of the flower out in a stranger's trash can a few blocks from my apartment. It just wasn't worth the trouble.

***

Six months became nine and I still hadn't brought my boyfriend up to my mother, but I knew I couldn't get away with it for much longer. His parents were starting to learn more about me than my own parents knew. His mother read one of my short stories. His aunt did too. I never told my parents about my writing, afraid of what they'd say.

"I mentioned you to my sister," I told Karl.

My sister was sixteen at the time. She'd been born my junior year of high school and was the person in my family to whom I felt closest. Technically, she was my half-sister — and unlike me, she was born in America. She had a different father, who was American, and perhaps because of that, she could say things to my mother that would have gotten me broomed.

Every summer, since she was in elementary school, she'd come to my apartment to spend a few weeks. When she returned home, I knew my mother pumped her for information about me.

"Mommy asked me if your apartment was clean," she'd said once.

"What did you say?" I asked, steeling myself for betrayal.

"Not really," she mumbled, followed by a guilty snicker.

When I told my sister I had a boyfriend, I gave her as much information as I could and waited for it to disseminate to my mother. This was how we communicated, like spies passing notes. I was no better. The only thing I knew about my older brother's personal life I'd learned from accidentally finding his OKCupid profile.

A few days later, unnerved by the silence, I called my sister.

"Did you tell her?"

"Yeah."

"What did she say?"

"Nothing."

"She didn't say anything?" I asked, skeptical.

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"Oh, yeah … she said you think you're white."

***

Nine months became a year, and I started to become sick at monthly intervals. My doctor scheduled a surgery at the end of summer.

"I better not meet your parents for the first time in the hospital," Karl said.

"No," I said. "I won't let that happen."

They couldn't seem to forget their life in Jamaica, where they'd lived in homes with verandas enclosed in iron grillwork that barricaded their families in each night.

My sister came to visit over the summer, met my boyfriend, and carried information back to my mother. I spoke to my mother on the phone a few times, waiting for her to mention it. After a few phone calls without her betraying any knowledge, I asked.

"You know I live with someone, right?"

"Yes, I heard," she said, her voice uncharacteristically sing-song, a sign that she was uncomfortable.

That was all I was getting from her, but it was better than nothing.

"My mother knows you exist," I said to him.

"When I am I going to meet her?"

I had not even attempted to tell my father yet, assuming once I told my mother she would somehow pass the information on. My surgery date was drawing closer, and I knew I should make a better effort, but something was stopping me, an internal block.

***

I never invited any of my friends over to my apartment in middle school or high school. I knew most of them were middle class or had money, and I just assumed that they wouldn't understand. But at the end of senior year, just after graduation, I let my two closest friends come over. I was nervous as they followed me into our dark tenement apartment. The hallways always smelled like urine. All our windows faced an empty lot filled with garbage because our upstairs neighbors threw trash out of their windows. But my friends didn't judge me and acted like it was a privilege to see a piece of me that they'd never seen before. Later, when I asked my mother if I could go to the mall with them to buy stuff for college, it was as if I'd just told her I was going to hitchhike across the whole of America.

"You going back out to walk the street this time of night?"

It was 5 p.m. If I had been alone, she would have blocked me, but with my two friends standing there, she let me go. An hour later, a taxi ran a red light and collided with another car, causing it to jump the curb and hit us where we stood. I remember after they brought me out of the ambulance and onto a gurney, I begged the attending nurse not to call my mother.

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The first word my mother uttered when she saw me fully conscious and alive was "See!"

***

I wasn't present when Karl met my mother for the first time in the waiting room. I had already been ushered into surgery before she arrived.

When I was sent to recovery and he came in with my sister, only two visitors were allowed at a time. He said my first words, still groggy from anesthesia were "Was my mother mean to you?"

My father didn't come for the surgery but arrived at the end to drive us back to New Jersey. Karl struggled to make conversation with him, unaware that he is naturally laconic. My throat hurt from the breathing tube they'd inserted, so I couldn't speak, couldn't lean over and whisper, You're wasting your time, he won't open up to you after twenty minutes in a car. It has taken me years to learn how to have a conversation with my father.

A few days later, I called my sister.

"What did she say about Karl?"

"Nothing bad."

"I don't believe you."

"She just said he looked really worried while you were in the operating room."

***

My mother called me on Christmas Eve.

"What Karl doing today?" she asked. I was surprised because months had passed since their meeting and she hadn't mentioned him to me.

"He's going over to his parents' house."

"Well … tell him I said merry Christmas. Or is happy Hanukkah for him?"

"Merry Christmas is fine," I said.

I turned to him. "My mother says merry Christmas."

"I told him," I said.

"He's there?"

"Yeah. He's next to me."

"Let me talk to him."

"What for?"

"Just to say hello."

I handed him the phone.

Maisy Card is a librarian and writer living in Newark, New Jersey.

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