Concatenation

In March, my family goes to Universal Studios for spring break. While my siblings splash around our hotel’s pool, I lie on a slatted tanning chair and turn the brightness all the way up on my phone to read an email from Millsaps College. It says that, due to a highly contagious new virus I faintly remember hearing about back in November and dismissing as an Ebola-esque deadly but containable disease, we will have an extra week of spring break. I picture reading non-school books by the pool and hanging out with hometown friends, people whose idiosyncrasies my mind keeps threatening to dump despite how I don’t want to forget. I’m happy, relieved. The next day, I’m pointing to what I want in a sweetshop in Harry Potter world, the cashier telling me that everything is two for one. I get two “No-Melt Ice Creams,” and carry them—one in each hand—all the way back to the room before I consider why they’re giving things away. The opposite of giving: getting rid of things.

We leave hastily that night after the news mentions the possibility of a travel ban; Mom’s melodramatic mind conjures cops at the border ordering us back. We eat at Taco Bell on the way. I feel like everywhere we go people are talking about it. The talking will last. The feeling won’t. People will forget this fear. As we exit a gas station in Alabama, my brother doesn’t touch the silver horizontal door handle, instead twisting to lean against it. My youngest sister jokes in her sweet, slightly-Southern accent, “Now your back has the coronavirus.”

That comment sticks with me. For a couple of weeks, the uncertainty about what’s safe and what isn’t—all the places contagion may lie—renders me unable to eat. I can’t seem to forget the image of my brother’s back half eaten by many moving microscopic beings. In a meme, of all virtual places, I’ve seen anxiety described perfectly—in video-game-score metaphor, specifically: “hearing the music of the enemy but never seeing the enemy.” In a poem, I write,

Not never. Now.
A life spent overhearing hints of this symphony.
Death could be played on the triangle,
but loss is a climactic cymbal crash.

By April, my mother has attended a lot of virtual church. One day I am watching with her as our pixelated pastors tell us that according to the Jewish calendar, we are in a season of purging. I wonder, in the privacy of my own mind, who they will tell us sent this pestilence: our God or His enemy. Will they tell us we should purge ourselves of false idols in order to draw closer to God in a trying time, or will they give us permission to sit confidently within walls that also contain many Bibles and let screens show us that the world is being purged of many (sinful) people? Later, I tell Mom that if God’s ridding the world of wickedness, I’m scared I’ll stop believing in Him if I’m still here when He’s done. I find disapproval in her eyes, because seek and you shall.

On May 8th, I make a journal entry about “My favorite memory of 2020 so far,” which occurred on February 14th. I detail my Valentine’s Day endeavors, my night in New Orleans with my sister, seeing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the musical because a friend gave us free tickets, both of us becoming emotional at a line about how while other kids can’t stop eating or watching TV, Charlie can’t stop making something out of nothing even when he knows it means breaking the rules. Savanna and I had been sitting on the floor of a balcony outside the auditorium outlining an idea for a short film for an hour before the ushers opened the doors, because we’d accidentally arrived at the theater early. We saw ourselves in Charlie and discussed how desperately we wanted to make our livings by creating. I document this hopeful, pre-virus memory from within quarantine (that insidious abstract—what does it really mean?), writing, “it’d be a real shame to forget it.”

Then it’s June, and as protestors bunch like clinging bath bubbles in the streets and I fear for my friends of color for more reasons than there should ever be, I realize yes. It would be a real shame to lose touch with the good memories, the way I lost my keys at Universal Studios mere days before the pandemic shut it down: suddenly but irrevocably. That is to say, not quite the way a black mother finds out about her son’s death hours after it happens, so that she must feel retroactive grief. At least I imagine this is what my mother would do if she lost me. Figure out what she was doing the moment droplets of her son’s blood created the rhythm of begging against concrete, the miniature splashes sounding a lot like please please please. Calculate the hours between her child’s last heartbeat and the first she heard of it, measure each of those moments in regret, in polished apologies from people who wonder whether he did anything that might justify it—that which I cannot even write, that which renders this mother of color desperate for the chance to renounce her last few hours of innocence in exchange for having had his blood on her own hands, having pressed palms with the same amount of lines as mine against the dying body to which she donated DNA, having felt the throb of a much younger heart drain away.

July creeps in. Statues of Confederate soldiers fall, and white people are vocally pissed. They say we shouldn’t want to forget our own history, not knowing (because they’ve no way to know, or haven’t bothered to know) about all the history they were never given to forget, the history intentionally hidden behind a narrative of heroes and not-even-antiheroes, not-even-villains. Just bodies, either for sale or in the way.

I shared a post on Facebook all the way back in February (before anyone in the US had the virus, before cancellations, before the economy was set teetering, before riots but not before racists) about how both Anne Frank and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be Betty White’s age had they lived. Could be, if they had been allowed to live. Should be, because life should not be a privilege. As I write this on July 28th, 2020, Betty White is still alive. Alive as George Floyd’s neck decomposes more quickly than the rest of his cold corpse. Alive as Breonna Taylor’s friends and family’s eyes still whisper water to their pillowcases. Alive as protestors rage or don’t rage, alive as Catholic bishops call Floyd’s murder a “wake up call,” as if that wouldn’t mean they’ve been asleep for a long string of lifetimes longer than George’s, alive as tear gas crowds the lungs of the underpaid and underprivileged and underheard, because we never listen to the people we are currently calling essential and thanking on Facebook or with signs in crisp yards or hearts in wide windows. It sure would be a shame to forget.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Elise Smith

    Beautiful piece, Brailey – and I love to think of you and Savanna talking about “how desperately we wanted to make our livings by creating.” I have no doubt it will happen for both of you!

  2. Susan Womack

    Enjoyed this piece so much. Keep writing!

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