Troy Copeland

Myself That I Portray–Look Away

“Look Away, Look Away”
A Reflection in Three Acts
I

The stars streaked past the cockpit. The cargo we carried could turn the tide of the war. But the reptiles were on us. Damn those starships and their swarms of mecha! There was nowhere to hide. Not for long, anyway. As we snapped out of hyperspace, I hoped that the deflector shields would hold. They had to hold. I gripped the throttle and pulled hard. The engines roared. We were evasively looping and corkscrewing into the orbits of the Kavarus moons. Fire from the pursuing fighters raged around us in a hail of bolts. Come on…come on I thought. If we could just get to Kavarus, we could outmaneuver them. At the very least we could hide. And though we wouldn’t have long, maybe for a moment we could just settle down and talk things over. There were girls on board, after all. Maybe there would even be time to work out the complications of love and sex. Looking over to where she sat in the co-pilot’s seat, I saw Jenna flipping switches, pulling levers, checking gauges. She glanced in my direction once. Twice. Then, holding my gaze with those hazel eyes, she brushed her disheveled spill of blonde hair out of her face and smiled.

“Think you can get us there, boy?” She was in high school. Tenth grade. I wondered what classes she was taking. What was she doing right now? What would she think if she knew that in another galaxy—far, far away—she was helping me save the universe?

“I’ll get us there. You just keep those shields up and the engines roaring.” I laughed. “Blake, Chris…you boys keep those cannons blasting, will ya?”

No, wait. I didn’t laugh; I barked. Men barked in war. And I, well, I was in seventh grade. I was a man. Meanwhile, explosions rocked the Raptor, threatening to tear the bird apart. This was no journey for boys. No boy would survive it. Jenna shook her head, rolled her eyes. “You’re so silly.”

Or that’s what I thought she would have said.

She loved me, see. At least I hoped she did.

That’s why somewhere between then and the end of advanced mathematics, I was determined to save us. Save us all, not just Jenna. Well, especially Jenna. But, despite what Ali would say, that was another matter altogether. With characterization and conflict, setting and plot, I was going to get us through to ever after. At least we were going to get as far as the forested continents of Kavarus.

Pausing in my writing, I glanced up at Mrs. Harris, perched like a great snowy owl on her stool behind the podium. She scrutinized me for a moment, then looked away. She thought I was actually paying attention to my peers as they worked out their assigned equations at the chalk board. Textbook and notebook were open. A few equations had been hastily solved. But I had not done the homework. I almost never did the homework. For that I was going to earn a B+ for the year, probably. And while this was not good enough given my bitter rivalry with the top students in my grade, it was acceptable, given the more pressing matter of finding ways to save the world, the galaxy, the universe…Jenna. I gripped my pencil, concentrating.

Now, where was I? We were flying like hell to Kavarus…enemy mecha in fierce pursuit, their motherships not far behind. I was at the throttle—the pilot. Jenna, my co-pilot. Somewhere back in the hold, a talisman. It was that special something that the reptiles begrudged us. Something that could save humanity from annihilation.

“Troy!”

Her whisper cut through dimensions, snatching me back into the time and space of shared realities. Back to Manchester, Georgia, and the classroom. Ali Adams. She sat in the desk immediately ahead of mine. As usual, she’d been watching when I wasn’t looking. In fact, she was turned half way around in her seat. Her brownish legs crossed, she placed her notebook perpendicular to mine and pretended to peruse my equations. We played our roles well. So far as the great owl was concerned, we were collaborating academically.

Pretty, popular and powerful. That was the “Ali” she most often played. But quirky. While she was a part of the clique that was destined to inherit Manchester High School’s social dais—sure to claim the thrones that her older sister, Lauren, along with Jenna and their other friends, would first have to abdicate and bequeath—she was also kind of strange. I didn’t know how to define it, really. I just sort of understood and accepted it. When Blake and Chris and the other popular white guys gave her hell sometimes, called her “Bug” and claimed they would never date her or “give her the time of day,” it made sense. Then again, it didn’t. They were lying, I knew. It was what they were supposed to say. But I still didn’t understand why. I only pretended to know.

Once I was captured by the reptiles, you see. My mind had been altered by their implants.

Besides, those were broader concerns. More immediately, I was irritated that Ali, like no other, strove often to wrangle my attention when I least wanted to be distracted. She had asked me earlier about the story I was writing. She knew that my stories almost always involved people I knew. “What are you writing, now? Am I in there?” Mischief lit her eyes.

“No!” I snapped. I lied. “Well, maybe.”

“Oh, but Jenna is most certainly in there, right?” She snickered.

“No!”

“Yes, she is. That’s her name right there.” Ali planted her tanned finger on Jenna’s name, giggling. “Troy loves Jen-na…”

“That’s not Jenna Polanski, though…” I lied again.

“Really? Then who is it?”

“Some girl I made up. You know…a character?”

“Then let me read it.”

“Wait until I’m finished!”

“Please!”

“No. Leave me alone.”

“It is Jenna. Jenna Polanski. You’re so in love. I’m telling her when I see her.”

“What? You don’t even know her. She’s in high school.”

“Are you crazy? Everybody knows her. Besides, my sister is in high school. And she knows her. They hang out.”

“So…I don’t care.” I frowned. Ali was up to something. She was always up to something. “Will you turn around? For crying out loud. Turn. Around.”

Here’s the thing. Of course, Ali was in the story. Ali was always in my stories. My cast of characters was never complete without her. Whatever I imagined of Jenna was the promise that marked the discovery of a new world. Broad sailed vessels had arrived, at last, upon the shores of puberty. But Ali? Ali was part of the very self upon which and through which I had made the voyage. I have recently found a passage in one of my old notebooks in which I referred to her as a princess. It appears that I imagined that she had signed her name to a journal entry: Princess Ali Adamson of Arus. The entry reads as if it was supposed to have been a prologue of sorts. In fact, it seemed that I imagined that it was her account of another interstellar epic that inspired the tale I was always trying to tell. And that’s fitting. Ali started it all, you see. If anyone is to blame for my vaguely preternatural, surreal sense of self, it is she.

It occurs to me that my last chance to be normal must have been way back in first grade. Ali shared her crayons with me. There’d been a moment of indescribable horror when I realized that I didn’t have my own. They were at home. You know how it is. You can’t color without your crayons. And coloring is quite simply the universal language of children. Before you can write, you color. It’s how you say who you are. It’s how you demonstrate your capacity to imitate and interpret the shared realities of the world. There before me was the white page drawn in bold black lines. And I could not perform. I could not enact the ritual and bring the dead blank spaces to life. I could not color. Not without Ali’s help. In those days, she had a sweet, deeply dimpled smile not yet acquainted with mischief. At least that’s the way I remember it though I can no longer imagine a time when Ali was not compelled by mischief. Regardless, she pushed herself closer to me, moving the big box of colors into the space between our hands. I remember she had a cookie dough complexion where others were pinkish or pale. I remembered that her hair was neither yellow nor brown nor black. She was a “dirty” blonde. She later told me herself, exasperated that I never knew how to describe her. And she was part Cherokee, she said, which accounted for her complexion. She always wanted me to get that part right, too.

The friendship that evolved between us bore the stamp of the paranormal. It was not right, they said. It was something about the way that we colored the world through play and laughter. With Lego blocks and sand, with walks around the playground at recess, with our conversations, we were always coloring—imitating and interpreting the shared realities of the adult world in our own way. Ours was a world within a world. I think it was that world and its origins that I was always trying to restore in my stories. It was the Eden of possibilities that marked both the genesis and apocalypse of narrative—the ouroboros of my growing facility with symbols and signifying, nothing less.

My love for storytelling grew out of it. Perhaps it was love itself that I sought to capture in all its unspeakable and inexpressible brilliance and travesty. Words both create and destroy spaces and distances. Where Ali gave me crayons, I gave her stories. In the exchange, we acknowledged that whoever and whatever we were or could be to one another was bound up in imagination and feeling.

Not all my childhood narratives were set in outer space. However, most of them took place in other realms. Davaar, for example, was not so much “out there” as in a different dimension altogether. Davaar was always my version of Middle Earth or Narnia. Steeped in Medieval and Renaissance European culture, its humans were an integrated, multi-racial people united in their struggle to survive against goblins, trolls, orcs and dragons. There was always a dark lord—not a “black” lord, mind you, but a “dark” lord—who was figuratively or literally inhuman. This lord always threatened to raise an army of fell creatures to conquer Davaar, to enslave or massacre its people. Only my friends and I, armed with magical talismans forged when the world was young, could defy him. Through a portal conjured by a wise old wizard, we were usually torn out of Manchester, Georgia, and thrown into the midst of these violent fairytales.

In Davaar, I often cast Ali as a thief. Interesting. According to my notes and drafts, I always imagined her with a cloak and hood, knee high boots and lots of concealed daggers. Stealthy, swift, devious, covert, mysterious. Sometimes, in the style of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, I fancied that she could pull her hood over her head and literally disappear altogether, walking the world like a wondrous wraith who might just materialize at my side when I thought I was otherwise alone. In my dreamlike worlds, she most personified the very essence of the dream. And why not? Somewhere in my string theory multiverse of epics, there must have been a big bang. There must have been a psychic expansion of potentials that were still swirling, settling into realities construed through the gravity of my experiences. And while Ali was neither the catalyst nor the explosion, she and others like her were the cosmic artifacts of the event.

I don’t remember whether I got us to Kavarus that day. I have found nothing in my old notebooks to suggest it. If so, I don’t remember how. And I don’t remember if Ali actually turned around as I bade her. If she did, it wasn’t for long. By the time we were teenagers, she had a vested interest in doing whatever I did not want her to do. And I never had any choice but to respond exactly the way she wanted me to respond. This is probably why Mrs. Harris, far more astute than she seemed, eventually moved me across the classroom…away from Ali. To save me from myself.

And then again, that might not have been it at all. Perhaps Mrs. Harris hoped to save Ali.

I still remember the field trip that Blake Hughes’s mother chaperoned. Blake Hughes lived down the street from Ali. The summer before first grade, she had been his “girlfriend.” Blake and his best friend Chris Faulk were blonde-haired and blue-eyed little league baseball players. And while they respected and even admired my athletic second and third cousins, they were absolutely contemptuous of me. Besides, Ali didn’t color with my cousins. Roughly ten years after the state of Georgia finally desegregated public schools in compliance with a Supreme Court decision that was almost twenty-six years old, that made me the apocalyptic sign for which they had been told to watch. I was the villain.

I’m fascinated by the fact that in all the stories that were actually set in Manchester, in all my most realistic attempts at fiction—I imagined myself the “black lord” against whom these would-be heroes arrayed themselves. An imminent conqueror. I was the enemy…the adversary. But that wasn’t until after fourth grade. By then, I had been ruined by knowledge. Drawn inexorably into history by the tractor beam of shared realities, I’d donned the armor and helmet of blackness. Thus, I began to unwittingly understand why Blake’s mother had spoken harshly to Ali when she plucked a brilliant yellow wildflower from a rolling wave of April lawn and placed it decorously in my afro. “Stop that!” Mrs. Hughes said. “Stop!”

I remember that Ali seemed hurt and confused for a moment. But then she smiled. It was strange, that smile of Ali’s. Even then. We were often hurt and confused. And often she just smiled at the joke she so precociously understood but could not share. All I know is that in our world it made sense to color that way…in our world our God was not going to burn us in Hell for playing together on swing sets and jungle gyms. But that’s not what Blake, Chris, Todd, Jay and that crowd said. That’s not what they told us that their parents said. If not the tone itself, it was the look on Blake’s mother’s face. She was insulted. She was disgusted.

I wish I could forget some things. I wish I could forget that in 1980’s Manchester, Georgia, there was still a privately owned recreational center next door to the public elementary school. Blacks weren’t allowed there. When the final bell rang at three o’clock, the game of integration was over. The white kids walked over to the recreational center to play until their parents picked them up. Sometimes Ali would go with them. I wish I didn’t remember how those boys chided me, then. “See…you can’t go with us. You can’t go with her. We’re white and you’re not. Why can’t you understand that?”

They were right. I should have understood, but I didn’t. It was Ali’s fault. She was my learning disability. Had I not been so stupid, I might have saved us both some pain. However, I was stupid and Ali was weird. Obviously. There was something wild about her, even then. Infected with the revolutionary qualities of her much older, countercultural siblings, there was something that would never be tamed in this girl. As we walked she sometimes told me, “Don’t listen to them! They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“But what are they talking about?” I asked her.

She shook her head. “They want to make me go with Blake, and I don’t want to.”

“What does it mean to ‘go’ with someone?” I imagined some fantastic journey.

She looked at me and smiled. There, see? It was that smile again. “They think we go together.”

“Well, is that why they say we’re going to hell? I don’t want to.”

“Of course, not, silly. Let’s play.”

II

White girls. Bah. At some point, I had to face it. Ali was a white girl. Whatever else might have blended into her ancestry—Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw or Seminole—she was a white girl. Plain and simple. Together, we were a mythical chimera outside of a history we were too young to fully appreciate. It seems we were trying to escape that history and enter it at the same time. Like we were trying to be real through make believe. Costumed minstrels singing and dancing our way through the circus of culture.

If not for Ali, I would have been someone else. I would have been a different, less complicated me. I would have better understood my place, accepting the world for what it seems—performing societal roles like a flat character without appreciation for all the contradictions and ironies in the script. I would have grown up in the South without becoming a Southerner.

I could be wrong, though, for blaming her. Maybe it wasn’t entirely Ali’s fault. I think I must have been a victim from the beginning. That’s what Blaze told me when I was older. He was a Vietnam veteran, Blaze. A self-styled Black Muslim, Rastafarian, Nationalist Militant. A little league coach. A mentor.

“Firing ranges…,” he said once, pacing the floor of the crowded barbershop. “We need to organize the community to build more tutoring programs, recreational centers andfiring ranges!” There was a war coming, he told me in confidence, when my father wasn’t around to censor him. A race war was coming if not already upon us. And I was already a casualty of the white devil’s brainwashing if I didn’t eschew the seductive, mind numbing evil of the white female. He explained that I had been envenomed by the white devil’s media from earliest childhood.

If Blaze was right, the fault might largely lie with Marcia Davis and whatever I was watching on television back in kindergarten. Marcia was ethereal. A complexion like cream. Long dark straight hair. Big blue eyes. A sprite, a fairy, an elf. And I was distinctly honored to be the boy with whom Marcia chose to spend the vast majority of her time. So honored that, at our kindergarten graduation ceremony, she wanted me to escort her. It was only natural, she said. And I agreed. Who else belonged at her side but her knight, her champion, her best friend? But it wasn’t to be. Our parents said no for reasons they would not explain no matter how much we cried in our childish absurdity, demanding explanations. It wasn’t normal. That was the gist of it. In fact, I can’t remember now whether it was before or after we were told how abnormal we were that she took my hands one day, turned them this way and that, and said, “See? Your palms are white. Just like me. We’re not so different. We’re the same, really.”

Actually, I had never noticed that there was anything extraordinary about the palms of my hands or Marcia’s complexion. She was beautiful, to me, though I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I still didn’t know what it meant when I met Ali a year later. I have to wonder whether I know what I mean even now. They were both simply…beautiful. No disrespect to Blaze, but that wasn’t true of every white girl I knew. And it’s been true of many black, Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern girls since. Somehow, the brainwashing schemes of the evil media scientists had partially failed. Likewise, to some extent, the traditionalist parents of the integrated white kids were wrong about the utter depravity of my soul. There was hope! As I recall, beauty was more of a feeling than anything else. More deeply personal than fun.

Fun was physical. It was dirty, sweaty, wild, sometimes—if not often—violent. Fun was dangerous. You could fall and scrape yourself bloody having fun. Ah, that’s where we were all the same. White, black, boy or girl—we all bled red blood. And, if while having fun, you didn’t bleed, you came out of it coated with dust sealed to a greasy grime by sweat that you tried to take to bed with you unless your mother made you bathe it off. Fun. It was all that snaggle-toothed, tomboyish, wild and corn-silk haired Deanne wanted. I could never push her high enough on the swings or fast enough on the carousel. She wore me out that little girl.

“Push!” She screamed. “Give it all you’ve got! Push! Faster!! Harder!! Come on, boy!!” I found myself avoiding Deanne. In retrospect, I don’t think that I considered her very “civilized.” But no matter how I avoided her, she was ever the huntress scouring the playground for me. “Troy! I want you to push!!”

I perceived no beauty in my relationship with Deanne. So, I think that what I meant by beautiful is that my time with Marcia was surreal. It was beyond the ordinary. Special. Magical. The stuff of swords drawn from stones, sea faring vessels sailing on clouds. Fantasy.

Even so, I asked my dad about the palms of my hands. He shook his head, “She’s wrong. Your palms are tan. Light brown. And that’s because it’s the side of your hands you use. Just like the bottoms of your feet.”

These were, perhaps, early signs of my mental disability. I only dimly understood that I had asked a question I shouldn’t have asked. I knew that Marcia and I were talking about things we shouldn’t have been talking about—things that weren’t normal. And no explanation could assuage that deep hurt and anger I felt when my rival, an action figure of a boy, escorted my angel into that auditorium the evening of kindergarten graduation. Had I known that was the last time I would ever see her, that she would move away and I would only vaguely remember anything of our having been children together, I might have done more to treasure that moment—our brief and shining instance of perversity—when she turned to look for me in the procession, found my wounded expression and smiled a sad, sweet smile. As I was beginning to discover, it was beautiful.

So, there, I’ve located it. It was Marcia’s fault. But I’m still not sure. The history of my abomination might be older still. My big sisters used to sit for this blonde girl named Dawn. Dawn was eight or nine when I was four or five. Imagine that. I don’t remember much about her. To my mind, boys and girls weren’t really different, yet. Anyway, she spent two of the first memorable summers at my house. Thus, I once associated summers with her. Long, bright, hot, humid days. A season of water hoses, pools, bees, birds”fun. In a neighborhood in which I was beginning to discover the world—a neighborhood full of pretty, tough, rambunctious girls—Dawn was a pretty tomboy. She fit right in.

Part genie, part protector, she followed me around the house, the yard and, when I wasn’t feuding with my friends, the neighborhood. I don’t remember much beyond that. Always imagining things, I’m almost certain, now, that I did more of the following and that she was simply smart enough to convince me that I was leading. Given the fact that my sisters were responsible for us both, the job of keeping an eye on me had probably been delegated to her. Either way, she was my partner, my cohort, my sidekick. I do remember that. A blonde, female Jim and her afroed Huck.

The very last time I ever recall playing with Dawn I was holding her hostage with a water gun. We had been having fun. The battle spent, the spoils won, she had allowed herself to be captured. Sometimes, she withdrew into a pensive, self-absorbed state. It was as if she would retreat into some hidden, mysterious place she couldn’t trick me into thinking I had led her. But that day she did. Sort of. It was strange. It’s still strange when I think about it. She directed me to a hole in the cement of the brick wall of my parents’ house.

“Squirt it in here,” she said.

I didn’t understand. It seemed pointless.

She sighed. “Let me show you.” She took the gun from me and placed the barrel right up to the hole. She pulled the trigger. “See? It’s fun. Let’s stuff the hole with stuff and squirt water in.” She seemed truly proud of herself and I, perhaps for reasons I still don’t understand, could not get enough of firing that pistol into the hole as she giggled.

“Why?” I asked her. I remember that much.

“Whaddaya mean? Because it’s fun,” she grinned. I might have told my family about what we had done in passing. I’m not sure. Maybe she told hers. In any case, Dawn quite suddenly stopped coming over. Go figure.

So, yeah. Maybe it was Dawn’s fault. I might have been normal if not for her. But for all I know, Dawn was yet another symptom. The sickness might be traceable to the fact that my oldest sister was co-captain of the high school cheerleaders. When a certain, long haired, long legged, bright smiling best friend and co-captain showed up at our house to practice from time to time, I was absolutely charmed. By what, I don’t know. Well, maybe I do. Now that I think about it, sometimes when they would practice a cheer—just because it was “so cute”—the friend would look directly at me, holding my gaze in a hypnotic trance as she performed. See? White girls. Devils. That’s what she was, too. A Manchester High School Blue Devil. Soon enough, my sister sent me away to play somewhere else. When you’re that young, you’re drawn by something other than sex—an inherited configuration of actions and reactions, perhaps, that is deeper than conscious thought—something closer to instinct that contains what we can later label according to socially constructed experiences and performances such as sex and love, fun and beauty. Race.

One windy day I followed my father’s gaze to two flags streaming and rustling against the sky over downtown Manchester. “That one represents the United States of America,” he said, pointing. “You’re an American, of course. America is the greatest nation on Earth. The stripes represent the thirteen original colonies of England. Those colonies rebelled and became the first thirteen of the fifty United States. Georgia was one of those. Our family has been Georgian for, oh, over a hundred years.”

He paused there. “That other flag. It’s the state flag. It’s Georgia’s own flag. See? It’s a cross that looks like a sideways X? That’s the battle flag of the old Confederacy. Georgia was part of another nation, too. That nation was the Confederate States of America. There was a war between the United States and the Confederate States.” He seemed to be talking more to himself than to me at this point. “The United States were in the North. The Confederate states were in the South. So, in a lot of ways, it was a war between Northerners and Southerners. The Northerners won. They burned Atlanta to the ground.”

“Why? Why were they fighting?” I asked.

“Long story. But the short of it was that the Southerners owned slaves. When the Northerners won the war, the Southern slaves were freed.”

“What’s a slave?”

“Someone who can’t do what he wants to do. Someone who can only do what he’s told.”

“Why?”

“But black is a color. We’re not black.”

“No, we’re not. And they’re not really white, either. It’s like we’re all these shades of brown if you think about it. Black and white were colors that meant someone was from Europe or Africa a long time ago.”

“So, are we Africans?”

“No, not anymore. Our ancestors—our great, great, great grandparents were Africans. And white people aren’t Europeans anymore, either. We’re all Americans. We’re Southerners. We’re Georgians.”

“But we’re black and they’re white?”

“Why, of course we are.”

“What does that mean?”

Most of our wars were waged outside, in the grass and dirt. Beneath the sun. For most of them were not exceptionally smart. I could beat them in the classroom, too, and I did. Often. In fact, among the most popular white dudes, only Blake and Chris aced the IQ tests as I did. Whatever their parents told them after that, whatever they thought they understood about me and where I belonged, things changed. We stopped fighting each other. Fierce competitors, we formed an alliance. We were special. We committed ourselves to doing everything better than everyone else. Among the white boys of our grade, we were kings.

Well, they were white. I was the black guy.

I saw less and less of Ali. She melted away. Meanwhile the treaty between Black, Chris and me transformed the social dynamics of the playground. In addition to intelligence quotients and grades, we were bound by dust and sweat and blood and triumph. Whom one hated, we all hated. Whom one bullied, we all bullied. An axis of sorts. The less “smart,” the weaker, those who could not catch or throw or kick or tackle—those who could not punch or wrestle. Some of them became fans, literally following us around in entourage.

Blake invented a game called “Trip.” The rules were simple. Within a small, four- sided boundary, all who dared enter had to try knocking or throwing everyone else to the ground. Because the one left standing “won,” Blake, Chris and I, and those closest to us, always arranged it so that one of us remained standing. We eliminated everyone else, then took dives, basically, for the chosen winner. It was the game that most reified status among the lions at recess. We were ridiculous. We were kids. And in our own way, we were just imitating and interpreting the world. Coloring.

In time, I gained status I didn’t seek. From third grade on, particularly to the white kids in my grade and younger, I was “cool.” I didn’t do anything to deserve it. However, largely because of Carl Weathers, Billy D. Williams, Mr.T, Eddie Murphy, Michael Jackson and Prince—and later because of hip hop—I simply could not be a mere nerd no matter how hard I tried. Always one of only three or four blacks assigned to those accelerated elementary school classes, I seemed to enjoy a Calvinist sort of predestined acceptance. This changed me.

Ali, however, did not tolerate my transformation. Besides the fact that the school placed her in another accelerated class, I think maybe this is one reason she disappeared. I’d see her sometimes in passing. I’d remember the coloring books, Lego blocks, and swing sets. Still, between third grade and seventh grade, she and I rarely, if ever, spoke. The one notable time we did, we were alone in a fifth grade hallway. As we passed each other, I assumed the mocking, derisive tone of my fellows. “Why, if it ain’t Ali Anne Appleseed?” She looked up at me with genuine hurt in her eyes—none of her typical mischief this time. This was not the kind of clowning that she understood or cared to understand. So, she turned and ran away from me. She ran. I didn’t sleep well for days.

I don’t know if Blake and Chris ever forgave Ali for being herself. But eventually, Whitley, Mallory, Ami—the white belles–seduced her into their exclusive coven. She was pretty, after all. They feared her, though. They never really trusted her. She was smarter than they. She was more imaginative. She was only playing a role—always playing a role–and they knew it. She never thought culture was anything other than theater. A waking dream.

That’s why she laughed so much, I suspect. Ali had never been a slave. I sometimes mused that, according to whatever it was supposed to mean to be Black, some days she might have been as “Black” as me. I think that many of my friends and relatives of African descent would have agreed with that assessment. Ali, though, had never been a slave. She never did anything that she did not want to do. I did. So did Blake and Chris and those other guys. Certainly Whitley, Mallory and Ami did. Increasingly obsessed with power and popularity, we all paid close attention to what it meant to be normal. That’s why Chris and Blake insisted that she was weird. A kid could be relatively fat—as I was. He could wear glasses—as I did. He could be a nerd, even. And if he and his friends were committed to being the best at everything they did—neither one necessarily the best at all things so long as they were all collectively “superior”—he could even be “Black.” He could be different. The other. Unique. In fact, if he did so, his “Blackness” became his gift, his boon, the signifying quality of his justly earned “individuality”—his right to idiosyncrasy and eccentricity. He could be both a person and Black.

Imagine the possibilities.

III

Ali didn’t care. That was the thing. Her physical attractiveness and her parents’ socioeconomic status allowed her to be weird if she so chose. But she didn’t choose to do that, either. She was never predictable. There is a pattern to being weird in any socially recognizable way, see. That’s why so many people so wholeheartedly embrace it. For them, it’s simply another way to be normal. In fact, for many, they talk of their “weirdness” in terms of that which makes them more normal than anyone else. But Ali refused to be a part of anything that language could define. She was always playing. And surreal though it was, she was always having fun.

I think that’s why she was so interested in whatever I was writing. In my world of invented realities, I did with words what she did with living. I was creating and recreating spaces to live out the impossibilities of being me. But she had a way of calling bullshit on that, too. Science fiction, fantasy, epic adventures? She endured it, found it interesting or she laughed, “Whatever you’re writing, make me that girl in the magazine you guys were looking at the other day. Write a story about the swimsuit model. I want to play her.”

I lacked the skill to write parts for Ali. The person she actually was? I couldn’t make that stuff up.

I still remember that bright, hot, September day that she walked out of the windblown middle school recreational field and forced herself into tears. I was standing with the guys. The guys. There were as many of us black as white by then. And not all the Blacks were of African descent and not all the Whites were of European descent. After fighting and competing through years of recess, P.E. and report cards, our hierarchies were established. Like I said, I had somehow become “cool.” And I still don’t know what that meant. But there I stood with the fellas. And Ali, bored with whatever Whitley and Ami and all of them were doing, was in tears, whimpering about how some really squat, unattractive, goblin of a dude was “bothering” her, “following her around,” making her feel “uncomfortable.” The fellas stalked off looking for this guy. I didn’t move. I spun a football in my hands, watching Ali. When “my boys” were out of hearing, she dried her tears, and stepped a bit closer. She colored the distance between us with suggestion and innuendo. “See, Troy,” she grinned. “Boys do things for me.”

I used to say that I never fictionalized the romance between Ali and me because there was no romance. We never dated. But that didn’t matter with any of the others. From Dawn to Jenna and beyond, I never dated any of them. In time, the mere appearance was enough to upset a lot of adults, mind you. But we never dated. Even so, I contrived romantic scenes with Jenna and her friends—the older girls for whom my overtures of romance were never remotely possible and most purely fantastical. I dressed up in GAP, Izod, Members Only, Ralph Lauren, etc. and attended high school football games half hoping to impress Jenna when I never had to impress Ali. And by that time it was okay, really. Most people didn’t know that Jenna wrote me letters, too. And no one would have cared, particularly. It was all a game. Nothing “real” was going to come of it except a somewhat farcical imitation of the social play of courtship. A play within a play. Furthermore, by then I was more than just “one of the Black guys” even as being “the Black guy” had afforded me the distinction of being “more than Black.” Irony. Paradox. I was, perhaps, one of the many wheels within wheels of a story that ultimately satirizes itself.

By the time I was a freshman in high school, the senior clique of popular, wealthy white girls knew me. Jenna’s friends, they greeted me with hugs, told everyone I was their friend. Imagine that. And while some of their reptilian boyfriends hated me and sometimes threatened to hurt me, none of my friends and I really believed that they would. Hurt me for what, after all? Playing?

We weren’t entirely right about that. The town was still highly segregated. Racially charged. The masquerades of history and the masks of discourse still precipitated dangerous turns in the game. To harass me, the occasional redneck stole my book bag or slashed my tires. By the time I was a senior, the father of a friend pulled me aside and warned me to be careful, to watch my step, because he had overheard “certain parents” of some of the younger girls in the area discussing me as an ongoing problem that had to be “solved” by any means.

“Be careful,” he told me. “These people are dangerous. I wouldn’t want you to have an unexplained accident down some stretch of country road, if you know what I mean.”

That still awes and numbs me. By then I’d won every class and student body election for which I’d campaigned. I was both Senior and Student Body President. In fact, by then I’d been voted “Mr. MHS” by the faculty.

The “Black Lord,” indeed.

You see, for all the real tragedy and travesty of it all, there was a powerful, unshakable fantasy at work. Like a spell, I sometimes imagine that it grew out of the soil—something older and stronger than the geo-political region spiraling through dynamic hoops of antithesis and synthesis in each and all of us. In more ways than I was ready to understand as a child, it was my own self-delusion that sustained it all. But it was also theirs. And none of us was particularly responsible for all that happened when the wizardry of wonder tore us out of history’s continuum and propelled us into colorful absurdities that were no less meaningful than the “realities” that plagued us.

So, as inveterately “colored” as I am, I’ll make this claim: Deep in the heart of Dixie, we are dreamers all. And our dreams breed realities that are both definitively and only tenuously black and white, male and female, straight and gay, God fearing and Godless—Southern. We don’t begin to become real people until we know and love the surreal composition of jarring juxtapositions and blurred distinctions by which we are compelled to be inherently imaginative—spiritual. Living contradictions.

That’s why I wrote. Now, I know. I fought to tame and ride that dragon of inconsistencies which embodied all that I would ever be. Through fictional worlds, I more fully engaged the contradictions of the real.

Ali always knew that I was at least as weird as she. Recognizing a kindred spirit, she issued the call to adventure—one child to another–and I joined the dream.

Kevin LeTroy Copeland grew up in Manchester—a small, rural, textile and railroad town in middle Georgia. Having spent all his adult life teaching literature and composition, he is currently employed as a full­time Lecturer at the University of North Georgia. He resides, reads, and writes in nearby Athens, Georgia.