If You Come Softly, page 10
“They’d go crazy if they knew how much time we spent together. They’d have you over there down on your knees proposing to me.”
“I’d do that. Carlton be best man. We’d get one of your trillions of family members to be a bridesmaid. It could happen.”
I leaned against his shoulder and smiled.
“You know something, Miah?”
“I’d marry you tomorrow. Isn’t that crazy? How much... you know, how much I love you?”
He shook his head and hugged me. And we sat there quietly, watching the snow make its way to the ground.
THAT AFTERNOON, WHEN HE TOOK ELLIE HOME, HE kissed her good-bye at the corner. He had brought his basketball along for the ride and Ellie held it a moment as they stood in the snow.
“Your other girlfriend,” she said, bouncing it. It made a dull sound as it hit the thin layer of snow covering the sidewalk.
“Keeps me company on the long trip home,” Miah said, grabbing it from her and dribbling it quickly between his legs.
She watched him a moment. Then quietly, she pulled off her gloves, handed them to him, and reached for the back of her neck.
“Here,” she said. “Turn around.”
Jeremiah smiled, feeling the Star of David and the warm chain against his throat. “I’m not Jewish though,” he said, turning back toward her.
She took her gloves back, kissed him again and started heading backward down the block. “I’m going to tell them about you,” Ellie said. “You’re going to meet them. Get ready. I love you.” She threw him another kiss, then turned, ducked her head, and disappeared into the blanket of wind and snow.
Jeremiah watched her. He could still feel her hand on his neck. It felt good and warm and right. “Ellie,” he whispered, grinning. “My Ellie.”
He was too excited to get on the train right away and decided to cut through the park. He felt like he could run a hundred miles-like he could run to Brooklyn and keep going. Soon he’d meet her parents and know this whole other part of her. Of Ellie. His Ellie. Beautiful, beautiful Ellie. Who loved him.
He bounced his basketball slowly for a while, then started running with it, feeling as though he could lift up, fly.
Jeremiah didn’t know that they had been looking for a man. A tall, dark man. If he had known, he would have stopped when the shout came from behind him. But he was tangled up inside his thoughts. Deep inside himself. All around him, the park was white with snow and brilliant but quiet. Empty. And dribbling his basketball quickly along the snow-covered path, he realized how much he loved the quiet. How much he loved Ellie. Yes, he did love Ellie. He would always love Ellie. And now running along the park in the early evening, no one else mattered-not his father and Lois Ann, not his mother’s sometimes sadness, not even the layup he had missed at practice on Friday. Just Ellie. Just Ellie.
Miah bounced his basketball in front of him, his feet moving quickly along the path, so quickly he felt the hard ground inside his sneakers, heard his feet pounding, heard his own breath coming fast. Keep your body behind the ball, Coach had said. Keep your palm above it. Like Rodman. Like Julius Erving back in the day. You could be great, Jeremiah. You just have to concentrate. Keep your mind and your body in the game. And now he was in the game, dribbling fast through the park, the late afternoon sun almost gone now, the patches of snow moving quickly past him. And nothing else but the ball and the feel of his feet against ground. And in the distance, way off in the distance, Ellie smiling from the bleachers and the team waiting for him to score. He had to score.
But he couldn’t stop. He was too close. He was going for that layup again. This time he’d make it. Two points was all the team needed and he’d make those two points and be a hero, and Ellie would rush to the floor and throw her arms around him. Not caring who was watching. Not caring who saw.
Jeremiah grinned. And in another moment he felt his breath catch deep in the back of his throat. He felt a slow burn of something-something hot and hard against his side. And then he was falling, grabbing for the ball but falling, falling and losing control.
And in the yellow-gold light of the fading afternoon, Jeremiah remembered Ellie smiling up at him, and he remembered his father’s grin and his mother’s laughter. Already he was missing them. Like that afternoon alone in his mother’s room. Again, just like that day, Jeremiah felt a sudden, terrible sadness.
And then nothing at all.
OUTSIDE IT IS WINTER NOW AND BEYOND THESE stained-glass windows, the snow falls and falls. Gently. Now the sidewalk is almost covered. Snow for Christmas. The weatherman promises a white winter. Drape down over us, snow. Cover everything. Like a blanket. Like someone’s hand on my back. Cover my eyes, snow—like Miah always did.
Nope. Guess again.
Ahm ... Miah.
Yep. How’d you guess.
Nelia stands tall and beautiful, her face calm behind a thin black veil. And at the podium, Miah but older, much older, lighter, and with someone else’s eyes. Where are Miah’s eyes? And then, I look back at Nelia and see them, looking at me, light brown, almost green eyes calm inside a dark face, so smooth. Smooth like Miah‘s, her head tilting toward me as if to say, You loved him too, Ellie. I know.
All around us—the sad dark faces with traces of Miah in them. Who are they? Cousins? Uncles? Aunts? Nelia’s face is a familiar one. And the man speaking—his face familiar but vague-not Miah’s face but a face from a newspaper, a television screen. Unflawed. So sure of himself, so calm and poised but the hands—shaking hands, hands with Miah’s fingers.
And in the back, Carlton sitting with a girl who looks like him, but taller, older. A pale woman beside them and on the other side, a tall black man.
Beside me, Marion squeezes my hand. And on the other side, my father, sitting straight, looking straight ahead. Once I asked Miah if he ever forgot he was black. No. I never forget, he said. But sometimes it doesn’t matter-like I just am. Then he asked me if I ever forgot I was white.
Sometimes, I said.
And when you’re forgetting, what color are you?
Then Miah looked away from me and said, We’re different that way.
And now, sitting between my pale mother and father, I cannot forget I am white with so many brown and black and gold faces around us.
This part-this gathering was for family, those close to Miah. But Nelia called me—had found my number in Miah’s notebook, with the hearts drawn all around it. “We would like you to come,” she said, her voice choking back tears.
Outside, journalists and photographers wait, wait to catch them—us—Miah’s family—catch us in our sadness. I swallow. This is my life at fifteen, I am thinking, staring down at my hands. Please world, stop this. I am only fifteen.
His father is telling a story about Miah as a small boy. But I can’t listen. All around us there are pictures—Miah in his Percy uniform, Miah with Carlton, smiling, a basketball on the ground between them. Miah with his team from Brooklyn Tech, with his mother and father. Even a small one—Miah with me. The two of us side by side on Percy’s stairs, looking uncomfortable in our uniforms. But I don’t remember who took it. I can’t remember that day.
Someone blows their nose, hard. Beside me, Marion dabs at her eyes. There is no boy, Marion. Not now. Not anymore.
Marion offers me a tissue, but I shake my head. Let the tears come however they come, Norman is saying. I wipe my hand across my eyes, but they keep coming.
Now Nelia is singing, soft and beautifully about a sparrow somewhere watching over Miah. And, for the quickest moment, I see it-that bird. Coming softly toward me.
Nor speak harsh words to you.
I will not ask you why, now.
Or how, or what you do.
We shall sit here, softly
Beneath two different years
And the rich earth between us
Shall drink our tears.
THIS IS HOW THE TIME MOVES. IT IS JUNE NOW. IN A week, I’ll be eighteen. In the halls and out on the stairs at lunchtime, other kids are making plans for prom and graduation. Prom. Graduation. Then Swarthmore in the fall. Marion and my father had been right—Percy Academy did get me into a good college. When the letter came, Marion held it up proudly. “A thick envelope,” she said. “You know what that means.” Yes, I knew what it meant. All spring the envelopes had been coming-thin ones meant one-page rejections. Thick ones meant acceptances and more paperwork.
There is a plaque outside the gym at Percy. It reads In Memory of Jeremiah Roselind. Somewhere someone will always be calling your name.
I think only once in your life do you find someone that you say, “Hey, this is the person I want to spend the rest of my time on this earth with.” And if you miss it, or walk away from it, or even maybe, hlink—it’s gone.
In our yearbook, there is a picture of me and Miah—sitting in Central Park—Miah has his lips poked out and is about to kiss me on my cheek. And I’m looking straight into the camera laughing. Two and a half years have passed, and still, this is how I remember us. This is how I will always remember us. And I know when I look at that picture, when I think back to those few months with Miah, that I did not miss the moment.
Marc and Susan are coming for graduation. Ruben is already here. And tonight, we drive out to Kennedy Airport to meet Anne and Stacey’s plane. Then I’ll return with them to California for the summer. And maybe one day Anne and I will talk about that evening on the phone. The first and last time we talked about Miah. That evening—a long, long time ago. When we were friends. When we were close. And maybe, once we talk about it, we’ll begin to understand who we were then. Maybe we’ll move toward each other again. Maybe.
Later, I will go to Nelia’s. She’ll read pages of her latest book to me. In the quiet afternoon, we’ll drink tea and eat cookies and leave the room when we need to cry.
This is how the time moves-an hour here, a day somewhere, and then it’s night and then it’s morning. A clock ticking on a shelf. A small child running to school, a father coming home.
Time moves over us and past us, and the feeling of lips pressed against lips fades into memory. A picture yellows at its edges. A phone rings in an empty room.
And somewhere, somewhere there is this moment—me, opening the door to my apartment, calling to Marion and my father. They are in the living room—Marion is reading a book, my father the New York Times. When I walk in, I kiss them each hello, then sit down on the floor, my back against the fireplace.
“I want to tell you both something,” I say, my voice shaking. “Today, I wasn’t studying with friends. I was in Brooklyn. I was with a boy. His name is Jeremiah. He wants to meet you. Tomorrow.”
Time comes to us softly, slowly. It sits beside us for a while.
Then, long before we are ready, it moves on.
Many thanks to the friends and family who helped me get this story on the page including Kathryn Haber, Nancy Paulsen, Patti Sullivan, Toshi Reagon, Teresa Calabrese, Catherine Saalfield, Susie Hobart, Elisha Hobart, Reiko and Miyako, Linda Villarosa, and Charlotte Sheedy.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
• Describe Ellie’s relationship with her mother and her father. How have her relationships been influenced by things that happened in the past? How is Ellie’s life different from her older siblings’?
• Ellie expected Anne to understand about Miah. Describe their relationship when they were younger. Why did Anne react the way she did? What change did this cause between Ellie and Anne?
• Why does Ellie fear her parents’ reactions to Miah?
• How do Miah’s famous parents impact his life? How does he handle the reactions of his peers when they learn about his father? What happens when Ellie learns about them? Should he have told her earlier? Why or why not?
• Miah is close to both of his parents. How have they tried to build his self-image? What characteristics does he get from each of them? How is he affected by their separation?
• How do teachers and students attempt to stereotype Miah? How does he handle these incidents?
• Ellie doesn’t have any close girlfriends from her old school or at Percy Academy. What do you think a girlfriend would have said about her relationship with Miah? What advice would you have given Ellie and why?
• Miah has a friend, Carlton, who is mixed racially but considers himself African American. What issues do biracial and mixed racial people face?
• If You Come Softly deals with a classic theme of the challenge of loving someone outside of your own group. Name some other well-known couples that faced similar challenges.
• The story begins and ends nearly three years after Miah’s death. What has happened in Ellie’s life? How do you think she handled the tragedy?
Turn the page for a look at JACQUELINE WOODSON’s moving story of her childhood.
Winner of the National Book Award
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2014
“This is a book full of poems that cry out to be learned by heart. These are poems that will, for years to come, be stored in our bloodstream.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Moving and resonant . . . captivating.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“A radiantly warm memoir.”
—The Washington Post
february 12, 1963
I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
a country caught
between Black and White.
I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
worked the deep rich land
dawn till dusk
drank cool water from scooped-out gourds
looked up and followed
the sky’s mirrored constellation
I am born as the South explodes,
too many people too many years
enslaved, then emancipated
but not free, the people
who look like me
and getting killed
so that today—
February 12, 1963
and every day from this moment on,
brown children like me can grow up
free. Can grow up
learning and voting and walking and riding
wherever we want.
I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
through my veins.
second daughter’s second day on earth
My birth certificate says: Female Negro
Mother: Mary Anne Irby, 22, Negro
Father: Jack Austin Woodson, 25, Negro
In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr.
is planning a march on Washington, where
John F. Kennedy is president.
In Harlem, Malcolm X is standing on a soapbox
talking about a revolution.
Outside the window of University Hospital,
snow is slowly falling. So much already
covers this vast Ohio ground.
since Rosa Parks refused
to give up
her seat on a city bus.
I am born brown-skinned, black-haired
I am born Negro here and Colored there
and somewhere else,
the Freedom Singers have linked arms,
their protests rising into song:
Deep in my heart, I do believe
that we shall overcome someday.
and somewhere else, James Baldwin
is writing about injustice, each novel,
each essay, changing the world.
I do not yet know who I’ll be
what I’ll say
how I’ll say it . . .
Not even three years have passed since a brown girl
named Ruby Bridges
walked into an all-white school.
Armed guards surrounded her while hundreds
of white people spat and called her names.
She was six years old.
I do not know if I’ll be strong like Ruby.
I do not know what the world will look like
when I am finally able to walk, speak, write . . .
the nurse says to my mother.
Already, I am being named for this place.
Ohio. The Buckeye State.
My fingers curl into fists, automatically
This is the way, my mother said,
of every baby’s hand.
I do not know if these hands will become
Malcolm’s—raised and fisted
or Martin’s—open and asking
or James’s—curled around a pen.
I do not know if these hands will be
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