by Leslie Pietrzyk
Everyone in your Northern Virginia neighborhood belongs to the list serve because everyone’s mission is finding a reasonably priced plumber willing to replace a busted garbage disposal at five-thirty p.m. the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Also on the list serve will be requests from people seeking vacation plant-waterers and cat-feeders and mail-fetchers that start, “Looking for college student/recent grad home for the summer….” Also: requests from neighbors with dandelions and pokeweed crowding their mulched flower beds: “Any high school students available for light weeding?” Pretend not to understand that those requests written in that exact way are code calling for “white people” to do the work. And pretend that you didn’t tweak the front curtain aside to glance out the window after seeing the list serve warning, “Aggressive door-to-door solicitor @ W Maple; black man selling candy bars from cardboard box but was nervous that my (big!) dog was barking. Reported him to the non-emergency police #. Where’s his permit!!?”
When you’re riding the Metro and land a double-seat to yourself because you board at the beginning of the line, watch the car fill up as you approach the city. But pretend you don’t see how the white-collar black men stand instead of slide next to you, sharing your seat. Pretend you think that’s because they’ll be sitting at a desk all day or they’re riding only a couple of stops. Pretend not to see the blue-collar black man alone on a double-seat, how no one sits next to him, until the train packs so full that commuters can’t breathe. Pretend you are “brave” when you sit next to him, especially if the train is only slightly crowded. On the way back home, at Gallery Place, when you’re descending on the escalator, pretend you don’t look to see if the people waiting on the platform are black, because if they are, you’ll know immediately that it’s the green line arriving next. Pretend you’re not hoping to see white people waiting because that means the incoming train will be yellow to suburban Virginia. Pretend you’re the only one pretending not to notice this. Pretend that the black people notice too so it’s okay. Pretend that sometimes you don’t walk a few extra blocks after 9 p.m. to the Archives station because fewer “rowdy” and “noisy” teenagers wait there to catch trains.
Pretend you’re also “brave” when you pass through a sprawl of black teenage boys clad in hoodies (winter) or tank tops (summer) or T-shirts imprinted with the face of a dead black man or boy (any season) on the street where you walk daily in your historic suburban town’s shopping district. Pretend that they bother noticing a drab, middle-aged white woman wearing lavender running shoes purchased with a coupon at a strip mall DSW. Pretend they’re examining you closely with the male gaze. Pretend you’re fine with that. Pretend your breathing doesn’t race just a tiny, tiny bit. Pretend you wanted to walk this fast for cardio.
Next time you’re in DC, notice a young, striking black woman’s jazzy natural hair as she stands next to you at a red light at McPherson Square, her paisley-patterned maxi dress billowing like she’s in a model shoot. Pretend that your desire to compliment her hair isn’t about you. Pretend she would be happy to hear how pretty you think she and her hair are, you in your shlumpy clothing because you’re headed to a cut-and-color appointment. Pretend you’re not practicing the exact phrasing of this compliment in your head to get it right. The light turns green and off she goes, swift in her platform sandals, and now you can pretend that you changed your mind. At the hair appointment, pretend you’re not over-tipping the bad shampoo girl who splashes soap in your eyes and grinds her knuckles into your temples though you ask her to stop; pretend you “asked” when really it was “told.” Pretend to understand it’s okay to maybe be a little tiny bit demanding if you are physically in pain; nevertheless, tuck a ten in her tip envelope. Pretend you have a clue how to spell her name, which you’re going to have to pretend to remember.
Pretend you’ve forgotten a certain conversation from fifteen years ago when you were a sweet young thing at a happy hour of up-and-coming lawyers with first mortgages and first babies, all complaining that their cleaning women didn’t dust the ceiling fans, “not even when I pointed right at it,” a woman whined. Pretend that you said—instead of merely thought—“Dust it yourself,” and now pretend that it’s not driving you just a little tiny bit crazy that the ceiling fan in your bedroom is layered with dust and that, honestly, just how hard would it be for her to lift the damn Swiffer up there?
When speaking of it, always say “Prince George’s County” so you can pretend you never think “P.G. County” in a dismissive way. Pretend it wasn’t a big deal when you drove all the way there that one Fourth of July for fried chicken because the place was written up in the Washington Post food section, and pretend the chicken was better than it turned out to be, and pretend you didn’t mind waiting forty-five minutes for your order at the bar, and definitely pretend you didn’t think that the kitchen staff (all eight of them) seemed maybe a little tiny bit disorganized, especially since plenty of people want take-out fried chicken on the Fourth of July so it’s no surprise the day will be busy, and pretend you didn’t think for even four seconds about how you’d run things if you were back there in the kitchen, frying those chicken pieces yourself. Pretend to forget that you used to fry the Fourth of July chicken at home but stopped because it’s one thousand percent easier buying it, and your kitchen, clothes, and hair don’t reek of grease when it’s take-out chicken that someone else makes. Pretend their clothes and hair don’t reek of grease, and pretend they get off in plenty of time to make it to the fireworks.
In downtown DC, always have a dollar in a pocket that’s easily accessible so you can quickly pass it to a panhandler without breaking stride. Pretend you’re doing something principled, and explain to your friends walking with you, “I don’t care what he spends it on. Food, liquor, drugs. All I know is that it would be hard to live on the streets, so whatever he needs.” Pretend you’re not royally pissed when you don’t hear “thank you” or “god bless” immediately upon handing over your crumpled dollar. Pretend you don’t save the clean, crisp bills for your wallet. Pretend you’ve never walked into a NJ Turnpike McDonald’s and thought, “See, the Dollar Menu. So people can buy food for a dollar.” You also support Street Sense, the newspaper about and sold by the homeless, but pretend you’re not a little tiny bit pissed that they jacked the price from one dollar to two. Pretend that reading the poetry written by Street Sense vendors, filled with clichés and optimism and God, doesn’t make you feel impotently sad. Pretend you don’t imagine posting one of those poems on Facebook or Twitter and being heroically responsible for it going viral. Pretend a dollar will save someone’s life.
Pretend those canned vegetables you donate to the food bank would be right at home on your dinner table, that your husband would happily say, “Hey, hon, please pass over the bowl of delicious canned corn because I would really love me a second serving.” Pretend that you eat beans or tuna every night for dinner because you’re grateful for protein. Pretend that you prefer the store brands, and maybe even pretend that the people getting the food won’t notice that nothing is Del Monte, nothing is Jif, nothing is organic, nothing is bought at full-price. Pretend you would be bursting with appreciation for this bounty. Pretend that when you do eat canned black beans that you don’t shake on fancy hot sauce from Miami for flavor. Pretend you’re noble because you’d never grab expired crap from the back of your cabinets; you’re noble to throw that shit away. Pretend not to mind dropping off a bag of (unwrapped) toys from Target to a holiday gift drive, and that it’s okay to take your donation to a box in a busy realtor’s office, and pretend you don’t wish someone there or anywhere would thank you to your face and/or (but really and) pop a handwritten note with a real stamp into the mail. Pretend not to be pleased with yourself for imagining the smile of the black teenage boy enchanted by your gift on Christmas Day, a regulation basketball, and then pretend you don’t see the dozen or so basketballs already filling the box at the realtor’s office.
Pretend that you never notice that there is maybe one black couple at the parties you go to. Pretend not to feel instant relief when you see that couple there, clutching their glasses of Trader Joe wine. Pretend to have no idea that everyone around you is equally relieved, that the host of the party is thinking, “Look, I have black friends.” In a different conversation at a different time, maybe over brunch with women, pretend that you’ve been invited to a party at a black couple’s house. Or an Asian couple’s house. Or a Latinx couple’s house, and pretend you know how to use Latinx properly, without feeling nervous about screwing it up.
Pretend that when someone mentions “a professor,” the image in your mind is of a black person wearing tweed. Pretend this of lawyers and lobbyists, of CEOs and hipster entrepreneurs, of PhD students and research librarians and all scientists. Pretend that when someone mentions “African-American,” that athletes and musicians and Oprah aren’t in your mind at all, and neither are the homeless or single moms or “The Wire” or prison or a dead boy in the street. Pretend you’ve always seen “black man” when you think president or Santa Claus.
Pretend that the Washington Redskins honestly is a perfectly normal and excellent name for a professional football team worth 1.5 billion dollars, even though one simple google search shows online dictionaries calling that word dated, offensive, derogatory, contemptuous, and a racial slur. Shout, “Go, Skins,” at your large-screen TV, and pretend that’s acceptable. Pretend that if your burgundy and gold T-shirt doesn’t have the Indian’s face printed on it, then it’s okay to wear it in public; but pretend you don’t actually want to wear that shirt in public because it’s “lucky” and that’s why you only wear it at home. Pretend you’re not looking forward to the December 17th game against the Cardinals and your friend’s season ticket seats. Pretend you believe that one day the team’s owner will magically come to his senses and change Redskins to “Pigskins” and that doing so will undo all the damage of rooting for a team named after a racial slur. Pretend you don’t type #HTTR on Twitter during a tense overtime when the passing game has been sucking and the QB nails it.
Pretend there’s nothing more to say. Pretend this is the end. Pretend you admitted to all of it.
Read this, and pretend that it’s not about you.
Publish it under “fiction.”
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of SILVER GIRL, a novel, and THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, a collection of unconventionally linked stories that received the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. More info: www.lesliepietrzyk.com