What I Know about Being Biracial
Jason Stroll looked like a male version of Snow White. His skin had the color and softness of an uncooked loaf of bread, and his hair was as black and as sleek as a vinyl record. He kept it short and flawless. It always looked as if he had just had it cut. There were his eyes, too, like drenched earth, encircled by lashes longer than my own. He had rosy cheeks, especially when he laughed or ran to catch a subway, and sometimes I’d tell him that he was wearing too much blush.
“I’m not a homosexual,” he’d say, in point of fact. Jason had nothing against consensual adult intercourse or minorities of any kind. In fact, he considered himself something of an expert on both, which is how he knew to tell me that black men liked checking out my ass.
“Him,” Jason said into my ear on the 1 train. We stood side by side, holding the same pole, tangoing as the train hurtled uptown. I was pretty sure Jason was referring to a twenty-something man in oversized jeans and a leather Yankees jacket so big and so brittle-looking, he appeared to be encased in an enormous black egg shell. His eyes were sad and serious and his hair was done in neat, ropey cornrows.
“No way,” I said. “He’s not looking at my–”
“Ass,” Jason said. “It’s about time you learn to say the word. And yes, Donna, he is.”
He gave me a gentle spank.
“Jason!” I squealed. Suddenly, half the subway car was looking at me. I lowered my voice to a rasp. “Don’t do that.”
The truth is, I liked when Jason pointed out my admirers. The approval of black men meant something to me. They were real men, not the pale, Napoleon-complex version of masculinity I had been used to. And Jason, even with his strawberries-and-cream skin, was a real man, too.
“I take twenty percent of my salary in stock options,” Jason said. “I didn’t come to New York City to sweep the streets, you know?” It was the first thing I heard Jason say, and it was so overtly obnoxious and dismissive of the majority of human life, that I respected his conviction. Only Jason, out of college and living in a free market, was able to say what he wanted. If anything, his honesty seemed more wholesome than what I had experienced among the thoughtful, Talmudic, newly registered Democrats, who skipped off to class every morning, eager to claim their membership among the over-privileged, their textbooks tucked into an Obama tote. I was only a freshman, and already I was sick of it.
“Is that why you’re bumming your Friday night dinner from a Hillel House?” I asked. “Because your net worth is tied up in stock options?”
“I care about my spirituality,” he said, reaching for his second piece of potato kugel. He was the only man in the room eating without a yarmulke. “No, really, I’m here for the girls. My mother says I have to marry Jewish. And she’d prefer a daughter-in-law from the Ivy League.” He shot me a wink. Everyone at the table smiled reflexively. They had, every single one of these Columbia students, ached to get into Harvard. But at least they played in the same league as the Crimson; at least some Wall Street schmuck bothered to crash their Friday night dinner to get laid by one of their classmates.
A few days later, I got a text message that read: You want to be my girlfriend. I am a fucking awesome boyfriend. Immediately, I knew it had to be from Jason. Although I had seen him on a Friday night, when I was observing Shabbat and wouldn’t have typed my number into his phone or written it on a paper napkin, he was the only person I knew who could dictate to me what I wanted while using the F-word. There was no one else like that in my life.
Jason picked me up for our first date in a shiny, silver sedan.
“This is your car?” I asked.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Jason held the passenger door open and looked hurt. I bent down and stuck my head inside the front of the car as if I were sniffing brownies baking in an oven. The interior smelled like leather and cough drops.
“Are you sure you’re not a chauffeur?” I said when we were both seated.
Jason didn’t laugh. I worried that I wasn’t being funny enough. I knew that I couldn’t possibly be sexy enough, but I wanted at least my wit to live up to Jason’s expectations, being that I was already, as the text message had instructed, his girlfriend.
“We’re going to Smoke,” he said.
“Oh, I don’t smoke. I’m pretty straight edge about those kinds of things.”
Jason looked at me like he hoped I was kidding. “Smoke is the name of a jazz club,” he said.
“Didn’t you say you’re an American Studies major?”
“Not yet. I’m only a freshman. But I’ve read everything by Toni Morrison.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you have. Why aren’t you wearing your shortest skirt?” he asked, giving my jeans a shove while he maneuvered the traffic. I kept my mouth closed so as not to embarrass myself by saying that I didn’t own miniskirts; that, conceptually, I found them offensive.
“Hey, Donna, don’t you have a black daddy?” Jason asked. “I thought you’re a regular Fly Girl.”
There was no obvious way for Jason to know this about me, just like there was no obvious way for him to get my phone number. My father’s skin is the same color as Denise Huxtable’s, I often explain now, but he did not have Bill Cosby’s ethic of sticking to black women. My father married a white, Jewish woman, whose own yogurt complexion bleached out whatever African genes my father had left, although his attempts to whitewash other things were less successful. Jason must have sat at his desk at his shady start-up and hacked his way deep into my personal information. This should have alarmed me, but I thought only about the activity of the pursuit itself, which was flattering. “My father is black,” I said, “but I’m a dork. I may as well be Pennsylvania Dutch.” Jason laughed, finally.
At Smoke, a waitress approached us immediately. She wore a crepe shirt with a dark bra and I could make out her nipples while she was taking our order. This was obviously deliberate, but I was still embarrassed for her.
“I’ll have a gin and tonic, honey,” Jason said to her. It rolled off his tongue so swiftly that it sounded like a single word: ginatonic.
“Coke, please,” I said. The waitress looked confused and there was a lot of noise.
“Is that a rum and Coke?” she asked.
“No, just Coke. I’m underage.” Jason rolled his eyes when she went to get our drinks.
A man sat down at the piano. He wore a crisp white shirt with the buttons open a little too far down. He looked slightly ill, like maybe he had just swallowed a mouthful of milk past its expiration date or had agreed to perform only on a dare that he couldn’t back out of. But as soon as his fingers got busy with the business of music, the color came back to his cheeks, and he swung his messy head of graying curls from side to side.
“That white guy thinks he’s fucking Thelonious Monk,” Jason whispered into my ear. He moved his chair close to mine curled my shoulder into his chest.
“You do know who Thelonious Monk is, don’t you?”
All I knew was that his was one of the names my father mentioned wistfully, when hora music started playing from a keyboard at a bar mitzvah. “Shhh,” I said. “This is so beautiful.”
I didn’t exactly enjoy spending time with Jason. It was more of a curiosity, like an elective course about mating rituals in faraway lands. We both worked crazy hours, he near South Street Seaport and me in Butler Library. I wouldn’t hear from him all week, and then, as the weekend approached, I’d get a call. “Donna, you still as hot as you were last week?” and we’d begin another wild-ish weekend. Jason always paid for our excursions, which I objected to philosophically but agreed to practically because he had a fulltime job and I did not, and besides, there was something thrilling about hearing him say, “I’ve got this one, babe.” Babe, honey, darling: He used these terms freely, as if Hillary Clinton were not the Secretary of State and the woman’s movement was a glorified Tupperware party.
I still observed Shabbat. The first time I explained this to Jason, he thought I was kidding. He thought it was a great big joke that a bunch of coeds got together to eat Friday night dinner. Until I explained to him that there are actually a lot of rules governing the sanctity of Shabbat and that I adhered to many of them myself – no igniting of fire, including electricity, including technology. His only knowledge of Judaism was his mother’s maniacal insistence that he marry Jewish. In fact, that was the reason that he had found himself at Columbia’s Hillel on a Friday night, which struck me as trite. Was it that different from a pious little Yid in Europe coming home to the shtetl so that his Mama and Papa could marry him off? I grew up in modern, metropolitan orthodoxy. I had very little reverence for my parents’ personal whims. Institutions were the authorities: Schools, synagogues, even summer camps. Texts were king: The Bible, the Talmud, the Jewish law as codified by Rabbi Joseph Karo.
Friday nights, Jason and I stayed in, eating a traditional dinner at the Columbia Hillel. Then we’d go to his apartment. He had a roommate, Stan, who was also bent on making and spending a lot of money. He was somewhere else and hammered on Friday nights, so we had the place to ourselves.
“Why Stan?” I asked Jason once, as we walked into his bedroom. “Do you think anyone really thinks: I’m going to name my son Stan because that’s such a beautiful name?”
“You talk too much, Donna,” he said, and kissed me full on the mouth.
We fell onto Jason’s bed, where we spent the next hour, being cozy and sweet to each other. This, too, had become part of our Shabbat routine. We never had sex. Not that night and not any other. The success of our relationship relied on it remaining unconsummated, unreal.
“You wouldn’t want blood stains on your sheets,” I had joked once, swatting Jason’s hand away from my crotch. “And besides, I’m saving myself for Denzel Washington.”
“It’s better this way,” Jason said, with surprising acceptance, “because once you lay with J., you’ll never be satisfied by another man.” We were so obviously posturing, we may as well have been wearing name tags. Hello my name is Chivalry. Hello my name is Funk.
Saturday nights, when Shabbat was over, we had fun. We barely talked about ourselves. As we stood in line to get into a club or waited for a band to come on stage, we shared little things, enough to cultivate inside jokes but not intimacy. Jason did impressions of his overbearing mother, nagging him in her Long Island accent. What ah those shoes yaw wearing? What ah they, docksidahs? Slippahs? You’ll break yaw neck! I contributed tales of my father’s ethnicity. I bragged that he was the only man in our shul with a decent pool game and that he made gumbo with kosher fish. Jason couldn’t get enough of these anecdotes.
“You know why black guys check you out, Donna?” he said to me once. “Because you’re their dream girl. You’re a white black-girl. Everything about you looks black. The shape of your face, the curve of your body. Believe me, brothers can see that from a mile away. It’s only your skin that’s white.”
“That and my upbringing,” I said, and I wondered if Jason liked me for the opposite reason. To him, I was a black white-girl.
Because it was so obvious to Jason that he wasn’t racist and the whole world knew it, he allowed himself to speak freely about whites, blacks, and everything in between.
“I don’t know about this saving yourself for marriage thing, Donna,” he said over a ginatonic. “Your ancestors were slaves for hundreds of years. I’d say you’re entitled to a black cock.”
“What makes you think I’m not going to marry a black cock?” I asked, and took a sip of Sprite. “They do come in Jewish varieties, you know?” It was another Saturday night. We were sitting in a tiny room in the Village, waiting for a spoken word performance.
“Donna, we both know you’re going to marry a white boy like me, and I’m going to marry a good Jewish girl like you.” He ran his clean fingers through his perfect black hair with supreme confidence.
Jason used the city as his visual aid for Black America 101. He liked the role of teacher because he liked roles that tipped the balance of power in his favor. Even though he patronized and even insulted me, I was relieved to finally be talking about race. It didn’t matter who Barack Hussein Obama’s mother was or how much money he was capable of raising, being biracial still felt awkward.
After one night of ginatonics and sodas, we slipped into a twenty-four hour Duane Reade to buy ice cream. The woman who rang up our Good Humor bars had complicated braids and long, blue fingernails. She couldn’t have been older than me, and looking at her taking our change, I was suddenly ashamed of myself. Had she heard Jason call me a sista? Did she think we were making fun of her? Here stood a real black woman, working at 2 a.m. I wanted to protect her. I wanted to ask her when her shift ended and then wait and walk her home.
Back on the street, Jason bit straight into his ice cream stick and said with a full mouth, “Black women with cornrows work minimum-wage jobs. White women with the same hairdo have just returned from their vacation in the Bahamas.”
I wasn’t in the mood, but I played along. “Am I going to be tested on this?”
“Nah, honey. I know you’re paying attention. That’s the white girl in you.” Jason grabbed my free hand and kissed it.
“What about Hispanics?” I asked, “Where do they fit in all of this?”
“It’s Latino,” Jason said, with a hard t. “And you know the answer to that question.”
“Of course. A Latino will never be the starting center for the NY Knicks, but Latinos are more black than white. They talk to their neighbors and eat good food. Why do you think I live on 112th and Amsterdam? If I lived on the real Upper West Side, surrounded by members of the tribe, would anyone ring my doorbell at midnight to offer me leftover quesadillas? White people are lame, Donna. I mean, where do you think you get all your spunk from? Not from your Uncle Shlomo, who came to Ellis Island.” Of course, I was a lot more like Great Uncle Shlomo than I was like Mary J. Blige. I understood from Jason that being black meant your life was a warm mix of food, music, and sexuality. The only problem was, most black people didn’t make enough money, and that wasn’t for Jason long term.
“You drink too much,” I said to Jason. It was a Saturday night, and we were sitting at Vabene, a kosher Italian restaurant for people who want to forget they’re Jewish. Jason had just ordered a bottle of red, and he knew I wasn’t going to drink any of it.
“That’s an unusual criticism from a college kid,” he said.
I encouraged him to take me places where the alcohol flowed freely, and I implied, as much as was believable, that I was a completely cool person. But even in my role play, my conscience did not allow me to stand idly by while another person lost his free will and his future. “I want you to cut back,” I said.
“So my mom is right, you are marriage material.” Jason took another bite of pasta and swallowed thoughtfully. “I’m not an alcoholic, if that’s what you’re worried about.” I hadn’t told him that I suspected that my father was, but I hadn’t needed to. Jason assumed that everyone’s father was an alcoholic or at least addicted to something. “If it means that much to you, fine,” he said. “You’re worth it, you know that? You’re the smartest and the nicest girl I’ve ever dated.” I raised my eyebrows for a second. “And the hottest,” he added, “definitely the hottest.” He squinted his eyes as if her were trying to look through my clothes. “But seriously, you’re the sweetest thing.”
A waiter with a white bowtie brought over Jason’s wine and set it at our table with two glasses. We watched in silence until he finished uncorking the bottle.
“And the smoking, too,” I said.
“Jason, whenever we hear live music you always have to have a cigarette.”
“That doesn’t count, Donna.” He waited for me to smile but I didn’t. “What? No booze, no blow jobs, and no cigarettes?” He exhaled loudly and took a sip of his wine. “You’re a real bitch, you know that?” he said, smiling. He leaned across the table and gave me a tender kiss on the cheek.
During reading week, I holed up in Butler library studying American history. My exam was within forty-eight hours and I was doing my best to speed through everything from the Founding Fathers until George W. Bush. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the World Wars: It seemed that there was always something worthy to die for. It hit me as I sat there, reading about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, that I was an adult. People my age had been caught up in history and changed it. They had fought wars, raised children, and planted wheat crops. And what was I doing? Gallivanting around the city as if my hedonism were some form of cultural expedition?
My phone vibrated on the library desk. It was Jason. It was Wednesday, and he never called this early in the week. I stepped out to answer it.
For the first time, Jason sounded un-macho, whiny.
“Why did they fire you?” I asked.
“They didn’t fire me. When a company is going through cutbacks it’s called getting laid off.”
“But why you? I mean, why not let the janitor go first?” I was curious what it was about Jason that made him expendable, but I tried to sound compassionate, as if I were outraged that Jason was so undervalued by his boss.
“I don’t know, Donna. Maybe they kept the janitor because the CEO doesn’t know how to toilet-brush his own crap.” He was talking to me from his apartment. “Look, could you just come over?”
I felt odd walking to Jason’s apartment. I had never been there on a weekday. I carried with me an impromptu card, an imprint of my foot done with Crayola watercolors and the message, Sorry they kicked you to the curb. I’m sure you’ll get back on your feet in no time. I wanted things to stay light.
I saw Jason standing in front of his building, checking and rechecking the sidewalk like he was waiting for the mafia. The second he saw me, he gave me a long, swaddling hug.
When he finally let go, I said, “This is for you,” and handed him the card. He read the message and smiled.
“Thanks, Donna, that’s nice.”
“Do you like it?”
“Of course I like it.”
“Does it feel like a present?” I was turning into my high-school self, analytical and detached.
“Oh, I don’t know. What do you mean?”
“Well, because it didn’t cost money?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” He looked confused. “You didn’t come here to get advice on gift giving, did you?”
I softened the expression on my face, took Jason’s hand, and led him up the stairwell to his apartment. Inside, I parked us in front on the TV, where we spent the next couple of hours. At some point, Stan, of the famously terrible first name, walked by in his underwear to scramble eggs in the tiny Manhattan kitchen. Jason ordered us kosher-certified pizza. We didn’t say much to each other. We stared at beautiful people on the screen, held hands, and shook hot pepper flakes on our slices.
When my eyes felt like they were growing cataracts, I got up to go. “No, Donna, you have to stay,” Jason said. He grabbed my hand and I fell back on the couch. The force of his grip surprised us both.
“I mean, I really need you here,” he said in a whisper. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“You’re going to find another job, Jason.” I stood up again, this time successfully. I had to get to the street. Crises were not in the scope of our relationship. Jason’s vulnerability was making me claustrophobic.
“And what am I supposed to do until then? I’ve got rent and car payments, and let’s not forget this month’s credit card bill.” Jason sounded worried, not mean, but still I felt he was accusing me of something.
“How would my staying help with any of that?”
Jason sat on the couch and looked up at me with supplicant eyes. “You make me feel better, Donna.”
This was the first time I got a clear idea of why Jason kept seeing me. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll stay over, but I’m sleeping in my jeans.”
I woke up alone to the sound of the shower, having slept terribly. I had never shared a bed with a living being before, and I was surprised by the movement and sound another person could produce in sleep. It was like sleeping next to a cicada, not to mention the fact that sleepovers were against my policies and I spent the whole night wondering if my mother had called my dorm room, gotten no answer, and sent the cops out to get me.
Jason came out of the shower with his mood markedly improved. He walked into the bedroom with a towel around his waist, the lines of his comb still in his black, vinyl record hair, and as he reached for his can of deodorant he started to whistle.
“I’m glad to see you’re doing better,” I said, still blinking myself awake.
Jason sprayed two puffs of Arrid Extra Dry into each armpit in time with his whistling. “It’s you, babe,” he said. He put down the can and shot his two index fingers at me, smooth as Barry White. “You’re magic. Come give me some sugar.”
I rolled over in bed. “I haven’t brushed my teeth yet.”
Jason didn’t care. He gripped his towel, jumped on the bed, and enveloped me in a haze of talcum powder. I allowed him a peck, but when tried for more, I pulled back, at first because of my morning breath, but then because I was trying to focus on another, fainter smell as the talc was settling.
“Why are you always pulling away?” Jason said. “Why won’t Donna Otis ever let me in?” He poked a finger at my chest like a toddler trying to nudge his way into his mommy’s heart. Then he moved his feet as if her were trying to scratch a mosquito bite on one foot with the toes of the other and, suddenly, his towel was off and pushed to the edge of the bed. It took me a second to understand what I was seeing. I had never seen this before.
“It’s nice, Donna, isn’t it?” Jason said, looking down at himself.
I jumped from the bed and Jason just laughed, as if my sudden burst of energy had confirmed his point.
“Didn’t I tell you I was a fucking awesome boyfriend?” he said.
While I was freaking out, I made every effort to calm the flow of oxygen going in and out of my lungs by reminding myself of all the articles of Jewish law that would qualify my virginity.
“Huh?” I said, patting down my clothes as if to make sure that I was still fully dressed.
“Come on, girl, you knew this was coming,” he said, sprawled out on the bed like he was full-body tanning under his bedroom light bulb. “You’ve seen this movie, Donna, and you know how it ends.”
“Put on your towel!”
“Oh, all right,” he said, as if I were a stick-in-the mud teacher who had asked him to spit out his gum. “If you say so.” He stood up, fastened his loin towel, and started to whistle again. He hugged me from behind, leaned his waist into my back, and started to whisper into my ear. “Aw, poor Donna. You’re not afraid of a little nooky nooky, are you?”
Jason wasn’t usually into baby talk. I was surprised by how stupid he sounded and, with his mouth so close to my nose, I figured out what it was I had smelled.
“Did you just smoke?” I asked, turning around and looking into Jason’s eyes.
“Smoke what?” he asked, like he had no idea what I could possibly be talking about.
“Marijuana.” I stared Jason down with my tired, crusty eyes. “Were you hoping I’d say cigarette so that your answer could be no?”
“It was a gift, Donna,” he said, like he was being perfectly reasonable. “My roommate left it rolled for me next to the eucalyptus with a note: Take this, you need it.” During Jason’s explanation, my anger finally kicked in and I didn’t know what had set it off—the nudity, the pot, or the inherent crudeness of our relationship—but rather than explain my feelings, I marched out of Jason’s bedroom and headed to the front door of the apartment. He followed me into the living room, where the empty pizza box from the night before lay open and grimy.
“What?!” he yelled, and he threw his arms in the air as if he were protesting an umpire’s call.
“That’s it, Jason,” I said. “I’m not your parole officer.” The line just popped out of my mouth. It was something my mother said to my father when she thought I wasn’t listening.
“Donna,” Jason said, “I don’t want you to be my parole officer. I want you be my girlfriend. For fuck’s sake,” he said, pointing to the bulge in his crotch that threatened to undo his towel, “I’d call this a compliment.” Then his voice softened. “Listen,” he said. “I got fired yesterday, okay? And I’m a little stoned and a little horny, but I love you. And seriously, that’s not something I really tell girls.” Jason looked at his bare feet and gently kicked the edge of the pizza box, suddenly bashful. “I’m willing to do without sex and drugs if it’s that’s important to you, but you’ve got to stop acting like I’m some sort of threat, like if you let me into your life something terrible will happen.” It was a generous declaration and I felt guilty letting him make it. “I’m sorry, okay?”
I kept my arms crossed and didn’t say anything.
“Come on!” he said. He threw back his head. “Everybody does this.”
“Really? You don’t?” Jason asked, with the same righteous indignation he used to mock the pianist at Smoke. The color came into his cheeks and made him look like an evil china doll. “You don’t like shaking your ass and getting looked at? You don’t like it when I grab your tits? You talk about your black daddy’s gumbo like that makes you some kind of bad-ass, but if I act like a normal twenty-five year old I’m not good enough for Little Miss Perfect over here.”
Jason was trying to challenge me, to engage with me, to have a conversation. These were the only honest moments in our months together, and I knew that if I allowed myself to be a partner to this conflict, my feelings would be so intense that I’d never be able to leave. And I’d always wanted to leave. If not before the salsa dancing then certainly after it. Wasn’t that the whole point? To get the chance to play Betty Crocker to someone else’s Dennis Rodman, just like my mother always had, but actually be able to walk away?
I said something purposely irrelevant. “I guess you’re saying that I’m supposed to just put out and live with addiction because I’m half black, right?”
“Donna, what are you talking about?” Jason said. “This doesn’t have to do with your father. This has to do with you.”
“Goodbye, Jason.” I said. I opened the front door and headed for the elevator. Jason followed me, standing in the hallway of his building in nothing but a towel.
“Why did you ask me to stop drinking? If you were just using me to get corrupted, why did you care about that?”
I pressed the down button. “Weren’t you the one who told me that black women like to control their men?”
Jason looked hurt. He didn’t believe me and couldn’t understand why I’d use something he’d taught me against him. But I just kept my finger on down button, until I saw the elevator wasn’t going to come. Then I ran down the hall and took the emergency stairs.
Bracha Hermon has a BA in Bible from Bar-Ilan University and an MA in Jewish education from Yeshiva University. After several years of teaching in New York, she returned to Bar-Ilan to study writing. Bracha currently lives in Jerusalem with her husband and two children, where she works as a freelance editor.