Thursday, January 19, 2017

My American Cousin

By Rita Bailey

It was one of those big American cars, an Impala or something, chrome flashing in the summer sun. The door opened and my cousin Jimmy waved from the back seat, then scooted over to make room. His dad grunted a greeting and pulled away from the curb, but his mother turned and smiled, her neatly permed hair looking glued in place.
     “We sure are glad you could come,” she said. “You can keep Jimmy from being bored.”
      Technically, Jimmy was my second cousin, his father one of an endless procession of Cleveland relatives who took turns visiting every summer. They had names like Beanie and Buddy and Kitty, and they all drove flashy cars. It was as if the American economy depended on the Connors family to stay afloat.
      I slid in, my bare legs making a smooshing sound against the vinyl upholstery. The seat was so wide I could have stretched out full length if I was alone, but Jimmy hadn’t left me much room. Until that moment he’d been nothing more than a shadowy figure in my imagination, away at summer camp on his parents’ previous visits. Now here he was beside me, in all his fifteen-year-old glory. His long legs almost brushing mine, his broad shoulders alarmingly close. Our fingers would have touched if my hands weren’t so tightly clasped on my knees, palms sweating slightly. 
     “So you’re our tour guide,” he said. He tossed his sandy blonde hair out of his eyes—eyes the colour of the summer sky—and looked at me. It was as if my fourteen-year-old brain had been zapped with frozen lightning. Hot and cold currents flooded my body, leaving me unable to speak.
     Somehow I managed to nod. When my brain thawed out I found myself wondering if you were allowed to marry your second cousin. Your first cousin was out of the question—it was a sin or a crime, I couldn’t remember which—and all your kids would end up cross-eyed and dull-witted. But your second cousin? Surely that was okay.
     Since I’d been struck dumb, Jimmy had to carry the conversation but he didn’t seem to mind. He talked about music—Roy Orbison and the Beach Boys, I think—but nothing he said registered with me. He could have spoken in tongues for all I cared. My mind was busy committing his features to memory: that lopsided smile, a tan so brown and smooth I wanted to touch it, those laughing blue eyes. I don’t even remember where we went that day—probably to visit some other cousins. I was in a trance.
     But I do remember the trip home. Somehow the conversation turned to school.
      “My high school is integrated now,” Jimmy said, his lopsided grin gone.
     I nodded. I knew all about Martin Luther King and the March on Washington—we’d learned about civil rights in history class.
     “I heard about that,” I said. “It’s about time, isn’t it?”
     “No, it’s not!” His eyes flared. They were grey more than blue, I decided, a cold, hard grey. “It’s the worse thing that’s ever happened. Our school isn’t safe anymore.” His face flushed a blotchy red, his tan mysteriously faded. “Girls are getting raped all over the place. They’re like animals, those people.”
      I stared at him, stunned. He sounded like a character out of To Kill A Mockingbird.
     “Really?” I said. “Are you sure?” My protest was feeble, but at fourteen I wasn’t up to confronting racism in my own relatives, especially when I was a passenger in their car, a dozen miles from home.
     In the front seat, both his parents nodded.
     “You don’t have the problem up here,” his father said. “You still have good neighbourhoods, so you wouldn’t understand. We’ve got black people moving in a block away.”
      Jimmy’s mother turned, nodding to reinforce his words.
     “As soon as Bud retires, we’re moving south. Arizona maybe.”
     I wanted to tell them about John Howard Griffin, about how he dyed his skin black and traveled the American south. How he only lasted a month because he couldn’t take the hatred any longer. How his family received death threats after he published his book Black Like Me.
     But I didn’t say anything. Instead I moved toward the door and pressed my face against the window, feeling like a coward. The suburban landscape flew past, endless stretches of concrete, bleak and white.

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