For Pete. Because perspectives from the white gaze still exist, and there’s a way for them to produce less harm. Because you are the best example I have found of this. Because we’ve had these discussions, even when they weren’t easy. Because I appreciate you.
The girl on the bridge is plain-faced. She wears overly round glasses and a middle part down bone-straight black hair. She hugs her arms to her chest, wearing a white baby tee and velvet black lounge pants, dangling her legs over the edge of the bridge when I join her.
“Hi.” She doesn’t look surprised to see me. In fact, she looks like she is somewhere else entirely. I slide into the seat next to her, and she jumps slightly when our elbows brush. “What are you doing out here?”
When she finally looks at me, I realize that she isn’t so plain-faced at all. There is a dusting of orange freckles across her light brown cheeks, and her eyes are espresso-colored and agonizingly open. By looking into her eyes for five seconds, I feel like I know her whole story. I see so much thought, so much anxiety, and so much pain. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, kicking her memory foam sneakers back and forth as cars pass on the highway beneath us. Her eyes return to the stretch of this pavement as if seeing it anew. “I always come here when I want to clear my mind.”
“To the bridge?” I ask her, concern laced under the sarcasm in my voice.
She narrows her eyes at me, bumping my shoulder slightly. “To the bridge, yes.” The girl is young. She is probably sixteen or seventeen, but her shoulders sag in defeat as if she has lived for an eternity.
“What are you running away from today?” It’s cold out. I see her breath when she blows out a heavy sigh. I stuff my hands into the pockets of my black jacket–the same color as her hair, a size too big, and not mine.
“I’m not running from anything.” She shrugs her shoulders, and her eyes travel to the jacket around me. I take the hint, shrugging it off and placing it around her shoulders.
“What are you running towards?” I revise my question.
As she looks at me, a single tear escapes her eyes, and everything around us seems to crumble. She gulps, scooting closer to me. “I knew a man like you, once.” When my eyebrows raise, she shakes her head. “No, no. He was nothing like you. You were only alike on the outside.” I look down at myself and take note of my own white skin. It’s strange to be so aware of it, and I immediately blush for thinking that. I nod, encouraging her to go on. “I met him on this bridge.”
She sniffs, and I struggle to consider what I can provide her at this moment. In the end, I choose to offer her a stick of gum from my pocket. She laughs hysterically for a beat too long, a beat in which my concern for her escalates, before she stops laughing abruptly and completely. She takes the stick of gum, opens it, and extends the wrapper toward me. In our two-second exchange, she folded the paper in the shape of a heart. “It’s the only thing I can make,” she explains. I look at the time on my watch discreetly. It’s almost time, but something about this moment with her feels important to me.
She looks at me again, and her face cycles through a myriad of emotions. “I hate you,” she says to me. She balls her hands into fists and covers her face with them as if she’s going to fight me. “I hate you. I hate you.” She closes her eyes and punches my shoulder weakly before falling into my chest.
I let her cry against the fabric of my old gray t-shirt and pat her back gently. There are things in life that seem to require some instruction, but no one tells you how to do them properly. Comforting someone is one of those things. Yet, somehow, we manage. She sniffs loudly, mumbling words into my chest. I pull back slightly. “I’m sorry. I can’t hear you.”
“I really didn’t want to hate you.” She wipes tears from her eyes in order to look at me evenly. She squints as if trying to see something that no one else can. “But it didn’t just happen once. It happened six times, and they all looked like you.”
Her words feel like a slap in the face. I consider the fact that maybe they should. “Okay.” I’m not sure if it’s the right thing to say. Who am I to comfort her? My sorries don’t mean anything.
She furrows her brows as if she didn’t expect this response. “They all judged me because of how I look. I don’t want to do the same thing to you, but aren’t I owed it? I mean… after everything people have done to me because they’ve assumed things, do I have some right to do the same? I don’t want to do the same. I just want some accountability.” Her ideas are beginning to sound less and less cohesive but more and more emotional.
I blink. “So, hate me.”
She narrows her eyes. “Are you serious?”
I shrug my shoulders, placing my hands on my lap. “I’m not sure that I can answer your question. What do reparations look like for inhumane acts? We can never put a price tag on dehumanizing other people. I don’t need to tell you that. Until we figure it out, hate me.”
She laughs, and it grows maniacal. I notice that she’s crying even as she chuckles. “That’s so silly.”
“It’s not silly.” I kick my legs over the side of the bridge, turning to face her. I hug my knees to my chest, the distance of my lower half between us. “But will this even help you? Having my permission to hate me? I’m still in this privileged position of allowing something to you. There’s no way to go about this where I don’t have the power.”
I shake my head. “It doesn’t really matter what you think of me. Take what you need. I just want to make sure you’re okay.”
The clock across the street ticks loudly, and the bell above it chimes.
This is the anniversary of the day my brother committed suicide.
She looks at me, and her features finally relax. “I don’t think I can be okay.”
I nod. “Okay.”
When she looks at me, she smiles. “How are you saying all the right things?”
I smile back at her, handing her the cell phone in my hand. Dialed in is a number that will connect her to resources far better than me–people that understand her and have more answers than me. As she looks at the phone skeptically, I shrug. “There are better things to say and better people than me.” I shake my head again, this time apologetically. Maybe a sorry can count for something–if you really mean it, if you know why you’re apologizing. Slowly, she takes the phone from my hand.
When I smile at her for the last time, my eyes glisten. “Take what you need.”