"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.
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.
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.