(my new novel, first chapter)
Carl and I met because Marissa was black. Or so Neil said.
Normally I would have smiled and ignored such a silly comment– I was a nice white girl from Ohio, I wasn’t groomed for confrontation–but Neil was Carl’s father. The next day he would be my father-in-law. Also, Carl and his brother both worked with Neil in the family manufacturing business. Tomorrow I’d be an official member of the Humm family. I needed to fit in. So I said: “Really? How interesting!”
Marissa was my friend as well as my landlord, and Carl and I had indeed met through her.
“It was me,” Neil said. “I did it! I hooked up us Humms with Marissa and then Carl met you and now you and Carl are getting married. And Marissa’s one of your bridesmaids. Isn’t that a great story?”
Neil and I—together with my future mother-in-law, Natalie–were standing with drinks at Carl’s and my rehearsal dinner. ““Great story,” I agreed. “But something I don’t understand: how does the black part fit in?”
Well, Neil had wanted the best real estate agent possible for the Lake Humm property, and one day he was looking through the Parade of Homes section of the Midburg paper and saw an ad including a headshot of Marissa in her dress-for-success suit and hair. “Whoa,” Neil had thought. “No one handed her anything.” So he phoned her.
Natalie said to her husband, “Neil, you’re like… who’s that matchmaker? Yentl.”
“Yenta,” I said. “Yentl is Barbra Streisand.”
“Ugh.” Neil made a face. “Great voice, but…”
For this dinner, Carl and I had decided that I would handle Carl’s family and he would handle mine. Families, we’d noticed, improved their behavior for outsiders. Of the two of us, Carl had the harder job. The Humm world was largely a peaceful one, but Carl had to deal with my four siblings and my mother. He had already trailed my mother out of our private dining room, and I could see my siblings clustered together casting worried, mildly hostile glances toward the door. Maybe they thought Mom’s behavior was Carl’s fault.
“You know Marissa grew up on one on those horse farms in Kentucky,” Neil said. I nodded. I knew pretty much everything about Marissa. She was twelve years my senior, and I’d met her back when she married my big brother, when I was only nine.
Natalie chimed in, “Her mom was a maid and her dad was a handyman!” I winced, glancing around to be sure Marissa wasn’t near us, but she was in a corner talking with the other bridesmaids.
“She grew up in an apartment above the garage,” Neil said, his eyes darting briefly to a passing tray of mini-quiches. He patted his belly and shook his head before rolling his eyes to indicate the tallest and oldest of my siblings—Marvin, Marissa’s ex-husband. Neil dropped his voice: “How’d your parents take it?”
It took me an instant to understand this question, and then I glanced at Natalie expecting her to look embarrassed. But she looked eager.
“My father loved Marissa,” I said. “He was devastated when she and Marvin got divorced. Especially because by then they’d had Daniece.”
“Your father must have been such a gentleman,” Natalie said. “We’re so sorry we never got to meet him.”
“It’s been ten years,” I said. “But he’d love Carl.”
“We love Carl, too!” The creaky, emphatic voice of Carl’s grandmother made the hair on my neck stand on end. Her skinny arm zagged like a bolt of lightning between Neil and Natalie and me. All three of us stepped back—what on earth was she doing? oh, a tray of bite-sized meatballs…–and I felt oddly pleased that Baba’s son and daughter-in-law were as leery of her as I was. As far as I could see, Baba scared everyone. In fact, Neil’s big brother, who had flown in from Mexico for the wedding, refused to stay with Baba at her cabin and was parked at a hotel.
“I adore these.” Baba held up her meatball like a head on a spear. She marched off.
Carl would protect me. Despite their recent difficulties, Carl loved his Baba beyond reason, and Baba loved him back. “Doesn’t Carl have a perfect head?” Baba had said when I first met her. She’d stretched out her hand to clutch the back of it, and Carl beamed.
“When Marvin first brought home Marissa,” I told Neil and Natalie, “I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t Miss America. I wanted to grow up and look just like her.”
Neil and Natalie’s faces softened. I flushed, realizing I’d said something endearing. “Vive la difference,” Neil said with a smile, pronouncing the first two words in Midwestern Spanish and the last one in Midwestern English.
“I do think you and Marissa have similar earlobes,” Natalie said in a cozy tone, and it took me a moment—wait, weren’t Marissa’s earlobes longer than mine?– to realize she was joking.
So: “Carl and you met because Marissa was black.” Technically true. But the line made me uneasy. I never repeated it to Marissa, and not just out of fear of her thinking Neil was a fool. Partly I wanted to protect her from Neil’s obvious self-congratulation. The bright young daughter of the former Humm Industries janitor had grown up to become the company accountant, and Neil loved to tell people how he’d sent home his sons’ leftover books for her and paid for her SAT. The story was sweet, in its way, but Neil’s inserting himself in it seemed insulting. On top of this, Neil’s line, like any attention-grabber, left out a lot. That Marissa was more my big sister than my big sister was. That one morning just four years before, escaping from my mother’s house, I had mistaken Marissa for a figure in a fairy tale, and that moment had changed my life.
Still, the real injustice of Neil’s claim—the dismissive pain of it, which Neil himself might never see–didn’t hit me until years later, when I woke up in the ICU to see Marissa and my husband and Baba having their party in the air above me. Marissa, Carl, Baba and myself: we were indeed an odd group. But on that night, in that dark room, our origins and encasements didn’t matter. To us, we were nothing but people, waving our little soul-hands at each other.
Years later. That knowledge took me years.