The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Intersections, On the Anniversary of the Rodney King Rebellion


One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singin’
Then you’ll spread your wings, and you’ll take the sky,
But til that mornin’, there’s nothing can harm you…

Billie Holiday is wailing on a cassette in the warbly stereo system of my little blue Honda. Steven and I are both edgy and tired, and singing along with her quietly. We can feel each other’s vocal vibrations more than we hear each other’s actual tone. We’ve been listening to her obsessively all spring. We’re both trained as singers, and we sing phrases at each other, communicating through her images and intonation when we run out of words. My right hand is resting on the gearshift. Steven’s left hand is resting on mine, and he laces his fingers through my fingers.

We’re driving east across Los Angeles. The sky is hazy and thick with smoke and debris. A few days ago, the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King—the whole horrific attack caught on video and broadcast in an endless, nightmare loop—were acquitted. The city has risen up in response, and rebellion is taking many forms. The Coalition Against Police Brutality is having urgent and frequent community forums, which Steven and I, as members of ACT UP and Queer Nation, have participated in. Parts of the city have erupted in less formal and coordinated uprising, and a huge swath of Los Angeles is on fire not many miles south of us. The National Guard has been called in. All nonessential travel is discouraged. Even with the windows rolled up, our eyes and throats are burning from the smoke of the flaming city.

We see the flashing lights of police cars ahead of us, and the few cars that are traveling the usually busy street slow to a crawl. As we creep closer, we can see an LAPD checkpoint. Cars are pausing briefly before being waved through. None of the cars ahead of us has been pulled over. I can feel my nerves prickling as we get closer to the checkpoint. I glance at Steven. He’s staring straight ahead, and his jaw is set.

When we get to the checkpoint, the cop looks through the window at me, then at Steven, then back at me, and motions for me to roll down my window. The smoke is palpable on our faces.

“Where are you going?” The cop is talking to me but narrowing his eyes and looking at Steven who turns to look at him.

“Is there a problem, officer?” I ask, jumping in before the cop and Steven address each other. I keep my voice light and friendly, forcing myself to smile at him, trying to draw his attention away from Steven. My heart starts pounding louder and faster. I’m seeing us through his eyes: Steven’s tall frame folded into my car, dreadlocks standing up on the top of his head, the sides of his head shaved. His skin is dark, he’s broad shouldered, with a wide chest and thick biceps. He’s beautiful, his body is strong and lean, and he’s wearing jeans and a black ACT UP T-shirt with a neon pink triangle and white SILENCE=DEATH lettering. I’m wearing a blue sundress with thin straps and a low neckline. My eyes are lined in thick black kohl, my lips are coated in dark pink lipstick. My waist-length hair is loose and wild, floating around my head and bare shoulders and down my back. The officer can’t see that my feet are clad in bright purple lace-up Dr Marten boots that have a neon green Queer’N’Asian sticker on one toe, and a white ACT UP ACTION=LIFE sticker on the other, a photo-negative of Steven’s T-shirt.

The cop looks white. He looks young. At the last Coalition Against Police Brutality meeting, we had passionate conversations about the problems that arise when police patrol communities that they aren’t a part of. The cultural misattunements and misreadings of body language and affect. The ways that everyone is on guard. We know this. We live it. And it feels so much more complicated than that. How do we know which communities people participate in? Where each of us belongs? The options and experiences multiply, and multiply again when we come together. Even in our segregated city, the intersecting points are multiple and endless.

We’re just a few blocks from Steven’s house, in a neighborhood at the base of the Hollywood Hills. Wealthy families collide with their working-class neighbors at the public school just up the block where all of their children attend. Most of the wealthy families are white. But not all of them. Most of the working-class families are Latino and Asian. But not all of them. We rarely see other Black people in the neighborhood.

I live a few miles farther east, in Echo Park, a neighborhood just north of downtown L.A. that was nicknamed the “Red Hills” in the 1920s when communists and artists began moving there to make art and raise children. In the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s, neighboring downtown L.A. had a thriving Japanese-American community. Then in 1942, Executive Order 9066 was signed and the local police helped the military round up the Japanese community. The community was dispersed to Internment Camps throughout the West Coast, including Manzanar, where my mother was born. She was too young to remember much of Camp, but her brothers tell stories of running along the fence line under the watch of guards armed with rifles who tracked their every move.

Twenty years after Internment, my Japanese-American mother and white Jewish father migrated to Echo Park as poor artists and social workers. Since then, the neighborhood has become home to a generation of refugees from every war the United States has perpetrated: a generation of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees in the 1970s. Salvadorans and Guatemalans in the 1980s. Slowly, the Japanese-American community is returning. And always, people cross the border from Mexico hoping for a better life.

In my neighborhood, my mixed-race family and my mixed-race self don’t stand out.

Now, sitting in the car with Steven, the white cop staring at us, I wonder what he sees. Who are the police that could patrol anywhere Steven and I go together, with whom we might share community affiliation? Would the officers need to be Black? Asian? Mixed? Dyke? Fag? Who would not see us as outsiders a few blocks from Steven’s home?

The cop motions for me to pull my car over to the curb. The stereo still on, Billie Holiday is beginning the opening lines of “Strange Fruit,” Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves, blood at the roots. Steven takes his hand off of mine and turns up the stereo. I pull my car over, put it in neutral, pull up the emergency brake, and reach over to turn off the stereo. I don’t look at Steven.

We hadn’t meant to be out this late. It’s still evening, still daylight, but with the thick ash, the light is struggling to get through the debris.

The cop approaches my rolled down window again. “Where are you going?”

“Home,” I say, scanning his chest, looking for an I.D. badge and not finding it. I can feel Steven scanning also.

“You’re not supposed to be out. Where are you coming from?” he asks.


We’ve just left Cedars-Sinai Hospital, on the other side of the city. We were visiting Robert, one of our dearest friends from ACT UP. Steven and I had finally said it out loud to each other as we left the hospital: Robert was dying.

We hadn’t admitted it before. But when Steven and I walked into Robert’s hospital room, the curtains were pulled shut. Thinking Robert was asleep, we crept in quietly.

“Why are you so quiet? I’m not dead yet.” Robert’s voice rose up, wobbly, from the hospital bed.

“Hey, girl, it’s dark in here,” said Steven, walking to the bed and kissing Robert.

I walked to the window to open the blinds. Just then Robert’s boyfriend Gabe came into the room. “Leave them,” Gabe said, coming over to me and kissing me hello. “The light is a little too bright.”

“Hurts my eyes. Can’t take it. Makes everything swim,” said Robert, stretching his hand toward me, and I bent to kiss him hello. His lips were dry and rough against mine.

“You’re not missing much,” I said, looking out the window through a crack in the blinds.

“Just the city in flames?”

“Just that. Just another smoggy day in the City of Angels,” said Steven, sitting down on the foot of the bed.

“Gabe, you’ll be late. Go.” I said.

“Where are you going?” Robert looked worried, reaching his hands out for his lover.

Gabe held Robert’s hands and kissed him, “Doctor’s office. I’ll be back in an hour. Steven and Keiko are going to hang out and keep you company. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Oh. Right. Doctor. Did you tell me that? Are you OK?” Robert looked confused.

“I’m fine,” Gabe said, carefully, patiently. “Just blood tests. I’ll be back soon.

“OK.” Robert took a deep breath. Steven, who was still sitting on the foot of the bed, started rubbing Robert’s feet. “That feels good.”

Gabe kissed Robert, then Steven, and picked up his backpack from the corner of the room. Headed toward the door, he nodded for me to come with him.

“Sweetie?” I held my hand out to Gabe, who leaned into me and let out a ragged breath.

“I don’t know. He’s been getting confused. Not about big things, but little things. Short-term things. This morning he was so excited that you were coming. Then an hour ago he had forgotten.”

I kissed Gabe, “Oh babe. And you?”

“Tired. Scared. Fine.” He shrugged, “I don’t know.”

“And your appointment?”

“It really is just blood work. I’ve been too busy to get to it. So thanks for coming to stay with him. I should be quick. Did you hit any checkpoints on the way here?”

“Checkpoints? Really? No. Just smoke and ash.” I said, “Be careful. And don’t rush. Do whatever you need. We’ll stay.”

We hugged and kissed again.

Steven was still at the foot of the bed, rubbing Robert’s feet. Robert patted the bed next to him, and I crawled on top of the blankets to join him. “You look all buttoned up,” Robert said, tugging at the white sweater I had on over my sundress. “Take it off.”

“OK,” I shrugged and pulled the sweater over my head, untwisting the straps of my sundress.

“Better,” Robert said. “Now take your hair down and bring me my bag.”

My hair was as I often wore it, tied up in a knot on top of my head to keep it out of my way. Robert often spent long ACT UP meetings with me sitting between his knees, braiding and brushing my hair. After one especially long meeting, I looked in the mirror to discover he had remade my hair into a beehive. I untwisted the knot and sat forward so he could run his fingers through it.

“Where’s Gabe?” Robert asked, suddenly looking around the room.

Steven and I looked at each other, raising our eyebrows.

“He has an appointment, sweetie, he’ll be back soon.” I said.

“Oh, right. OK.” Robert, still playing with my hair, untangled a snarl. “Did he tell me that?”

Steven bit down on his lip and looked away from us, taking a deep breath. I reached across Robert’s legs and held Steven’s hand in mine.

“I like this slumber party,” Robert said. “Now, let’s do your makeup.”

“Really?” I sighed. I rarely wear makeup unless Robert or one of the other Radical Faeries holds me down and applies it.

“Yes, even with my bad eyes I can see you look terrible. Pale and tired. There’s no excuse for that.” He squinted as he sorted through his bag. He found lipstick and black eyeliner and began to draw around my eyes. Steven lay across the foot of the bed and kept massaging Robert’s feet, watching us.

“Where is Gabe?” Robert asked suddenly, looking at the door.

Steven and I looked at each other. “He’s getting some blood tests, honey,” Steven said. “He’ll be back soon.”

“Oh,” Robert said. “Right. And how is your blood work? Are your numbers still fine?”

“I’m fine,” Steven said.

“Well, you look fine honey,” Robert camped at Steven, batting his eyelashes. Then he smiled, sad and sweet, and asked Steven in a more serious tone, “but really?”

“Viral load is low, T-cells are high.” Steven said, still massaging Robert’s feet and calves.

“Then I guess you are the lucky one of us, aren’t you?” Robert put down the eyeliner and picked up the lipstick and began coating my lips.

“Not too drag queen-y, please,” I said through pursed lips, though they weren’t really listening to me.

“Yeah. I guess I’m the lucky one,” Steven said, and scooted up to the top of the bed, next to Robert. Finished with my make-up, Robert lay back down against the pillows and leaned his head on Steven’s shoulder. He patted the pillow next to his head, and I curled up on the other side of him, my hair fanning out around us. We stayed like that, chatting, dozing, being quiet and gentle together, until Gabe came back. Then Steven and I left.


“I asked where you’re going.” The cop demands again. “Don’t you know there’s a curfew?”

“The curfew is after dark. It isn’t dark yet,” Steven’s voice is stiff, he’s leaning forward, across me, toward the cop.

The cop looks at Steven, and puts his hand on his gun, “I asked where you’re going.”

I turn my body toward the cop, blocking Steven, and forcing a smile at the cop, “We’re going home now, officer. We were visiting a friend in the hospital and we lost track of time. Sorry, officer.” I flip my hair back, and feel the ends of it tangle in Steven’s dreadlocks. The cop is looking down the front of my dress. My heart is beating so hard I’m sure he can see it under my skin. I force myself to keep smiling, to tolerate it and not turn away. I can sense Steven seething behind me.

“Give me your driver’s license,” the cop says. I turn around and grab my wallet from under my sweater on the back seat and hand the cop my license.

The cop walks back to his patrol car at the intersection, talking into his radio, looking at my license.

“Sorry? You’re apologizing to him? Don’t fucking apologize,” Steven’s voice is tense and low, hard and sharp. I feel my back stiffen against him.

“Don’t start with me,” I whisper back, still not turning toward him or looking at him. “Let me get us the fuck out of here. Hold it until we get home.”

The cop is still looking at my license, then at me through the window, then at Steven. Steven and I are both known by the LAPD for actions with ACT UP. I have an arrest record that spans several years, with both the LAPD and the federal police, for large, coordinated civil disobedience actions protesting homophobic AIDS policies, the Gulf War, and the U.S. militarization of El Salvador. I’m hoping the cop won’t come back and ask for Steven’s ID, revealing his address just a few blocks away.

I look ahead, up the block, and assess how quickly I could pull the car out and down the street. That would be worse for both of us. I look at the buildings we’re near, if there’s an escape route for Steven on foot. The nearest alley is a few buildings away. The cop starts walking back toward the car. Damn. And I know Steven won’t leave me. The cop approaches the car.

He hands the license back to me, “I don’t want to see you here again,” he says, looking past me at Steven. He puts his hand back on his gun.

“Yes, officer.” I put my hand on the gearshift, and look up at him. He’s still looking down my dress. I put my car in gear and release the emergency brake and he takes a step back. I pull my car out and start driving. I look in my rearview mirror. He’s still watching.

I turn right at the next intersection and drive a few blocks out of the way making several extra turns, check the rearview mirror, and then pull up in front of Steven’s house.

As soon as I park the car and we walk into Steven’s house, I’m aware of the adrenaline coursing through me. I imagine that Steven is feeling the same way. But we’re not touching each other, not holding hands the way we usually are. We aren’t looking at each other. Steven is pacing.

“What the fuck were you doing?” He’s angry, his voice absent of all the warmth I’m used to.

“Getting us out of there.” I’m shaking. My heart is racing.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Why? It worked.” We’re yelling, facing each other, pacing, circling each other, still not touching. Hard and ferocious and tired.

“It might not have.” He finally looks at me.

I stare back at Steven, “Then I would have done something else.”

“What? What could you have done?”

I turn away from him and walk into the bathroom. I close the door and turn on the hot water, grab a towel, hold it under the tap, and rub a layer of Robert’s black kohl from my eyes. Then I wipe off the sticky pink lipstick. I take a deep breath and look in the mirror. Without Robert’s makeup I look pale and tired again. I open the door and walk back to the living room.

Steven is standing by the window, and I’m overcome by relief seeing his intact body right in front of me. And I’m angry at everything, the cop, the rebellion, the jury, and Steven. “Right, so I’m supposed to let the white cop come after you just because he can? And I’m not supposed to stop that if I can?” Steven doesn’t respond. I keep yelling. “And don’t we make the perfect fucking target? Let’s see… Black queer HIV+ fag. Asian-American just-exotic-enough femme dyke.”

“That’s my point.” Steven yells at me.

“What? You think I don’t know that? You think I wasn’t aware of that every second? Distraction was the only thing I could do. What did you think was going to happen?”

“I can’t let anything happen to you.” He’s less loud now, and sits down.

“And I can’t let anything happen to you,” I quiet my yelling also. As I say it, I understand that this is our standoff. This will always be our standoff. “Besides, what’s going to happen to me?”

“Cut the arrogance. I know you were scared.”

“So what?” I gather my hair in my hands and twist it back into the knot that Robert had untied. “So what if I was scared? Don’t I get to…” I trail off, uncertain of what I’m about to say.

“Finish it.” Steven turns and finally looks at me, his eyes red-rimmed. “Don’t you get to what?”

“Don’t I get to save you, anyway?” As I say it out loud, I feel my legs trembling, and I sit down across from Steven.

“Save me? You think you can save me?” he laughs, bitter and sarcastic, turning away from me.

As soon as he says it, I hear the impossibility of it. My great hope. My great failure. And I can’t tolerate it, so I keep going. “If there’s a moment when I can, then yes.”

“I won’t pimp you out to do it.”

“That’s what you think? That you’re deciding what I’m allowed to do?”

“Today, yes.”

“Fucking macho ego.”

“What?” He’s yelling again.

“You heard me.” Now I’m yelling back, “You think it’s your call? How we get into or out of this? That it’s all up to you? All your responsibility?” Above the house the whirling of helicopters is getting louder. Sirens getting closer. I’m vaguely aware of smelling smoke, even with the windows and doors closed.

“It’s getting dark.” Steven says, “You should go before it gets any worse.”

I slam the front door behind me, but I can hardly hear it over the helicopter hovering above the next block. I open the car door and pull my sweater over my sundress.

Instead of driving my usual route across the hills and through the quiet residential neighborhoods, I make a sharp U-turn and gun the engine. When I near the now-busy intersection, I can see the checkpoint still operating, the cops slowing and waving through cars. I look in the rearview mirror. There are no cars behind me. My hair is tied up, Robert’s makeup gone, my sweater covering my chest. It’s a different cop checking traffic in this direction, but this one is also white, also young. I drive my car toward him and he motions for me to slow down. He glances at me, glances into my passengerless car, and waves me through.

Past the checkpoint, I turn the stereo back on. It doesn’t drown the helicopters or the sirens, but somehow Billie Holiday sings over them, with them, in mournful call and response.

Back in Echo Park, I wait at the light to turn left from Sunset Blvd. onto Echo Park Ave. National Guard tanks are parked in the lot of the corner market. I look at the roof of the market and see two army green-clad men with rifles. One of them is aimed toward the houses set into the hillside above the street. My heart starts racing again. I look at the hill, then at the rifles, panicking. They’re aimed at Cory’s house. Behind me a car honks. The light is green and there is no oncoming traffic. I turn left and drive the mile up Echo Park Ave. toward my house.

I pick up the phone and dial Cory as soon as I walk in the door. He answers on the first ring.

I’m shaking. I yell at him through the phone, “Why are there sharpshooters aimed at you?”

“Hello to you, too, love. Nice to hear from you. I’m fine, thanks for asking. My day was great. How was your day?” He’s laughing at me.

“Cory?!? What’s happening?” I’m still yelling.

“Isn’t it fabulous?” He’s taunting me, laughing at my panic.

I take a deep breath and slow down, “Seriously, what’s going on?”

“Oh.” He calms down also, sounding disappointed. “You can’t see it from the street?”

“See what?”

“The banner. We put a banner on the roof that says “U.S. Out of Echo Park.” That’s why they’re aimed at us. They don’t know what else we’re up to. They think we’re plotting revolutionary action.”

I start laughing. I can’t help it. I can just see it, Cory and our friends from Queer Nation who live in the halves of the little duplex on the hill making the banner, probably an old sheet, and tying it to the roof. Cory is one of the long-time organizers of ACT UP and Queer Nation, where he, Steven and I met. He’s Puerto Rican, light skinned, HIV+, and along with another friend, the co-creator and editor of the ’zine Infected Faggot Perspectives.

“What else are you up to?” I ask.

“Nothing. Really. I just want to see how long they focus on us until they get bored and move on to something else.”

“Or storm the house.”

“Either way,” he says. I can hear him shrugging. “Anyway, why do you sound so crazed? Honey? What happened?”

I take a deep breath and tell him about the day. About Robert and Gabe, about Steven and the checkpoint, about the fight with Steven.

“You blew it,” Cory says to me at the end of my story.

“What? I’m the one who blew it?”

“Yes.” He sounds like it’s obvious.

“But we face off with the LAPD all the time.” I can hear the edge of frustration creeping back into my voice.

“Right. We do. In coordinated actions with legal teams and photographers. Who knew where you were? Who would know to go looking for you and Steven?”

I’m silent, listening to Cory.

“Did Gabe know what route you were taking home? How long would it have taken for any of us to know something was wrong?”


“You are the scariest form of naïve. I love you, but you’re reckless and your ego is in the way. I know you love him, but you can’t stop any of this and you don’t understand how bad it can actually get.”

“I do know.” I say, walking over to the couch and sitting down. I can see smoke in the distance and helicopters circling the next hill.

“No, you don’t. You’re calling me from the little cottage on a hill that you grew up in, in the neighborhood where your family blended in. You drove back through the intersection? And you didn’t get stopped. You think it’s your girlness that saved him? Maybe. But it’s also your whiteness.”

“Seriously?” I’m angry at him now. “My whiteness?”

“Yes, and don’t think I don’t know what I’m talking about it. It doesn’t matter that you’re hapa and I’m Puerto Rican. We’re both light. Our people can spot us in a crowd. We can find each other. But white people? They don’t see us. Anyway, even if the cop did clock you, what did he see? Think about it. He would have seen Asian. Boring model minority. Or exotic sextoy. But no one who looks like you has been considered a threat in the cultural unconscious since your family was in Internment. You didn’t get stopped. Steven got stopped. Go apologize. Fix it.”

“But Steven—” I start to argue.

“I don’t care. You will never know what just happened for him.”

I’m quiet for a few moments, listening to Cory breathe, thinking about driving back through the intersection. What was I testing? Or daring? I wasn’t stopped. Cory is right. Steven was stopped. Finally, I ask Cory, “What would have happened if Steven was driving and I wasn’t there?”

Cory sighs, “But it isn’t just that he was stopped for being a Black man in his own neighborhood. A Black faggot, albeit a gorgeous, butch one. And he could have been stopped for that. But he was stopped for being a Black man in a car with a white woman. Memory is long and history is short. Strange fruit, love. This is what lynching looks like now. You think your white woman-ness saved him, and maybe it did, but it was also the bait.”

I want to argue with Cory. And I know he’s right.

That night I can’t sleep. I toss and turn and listen to the helicopters and sirens around the city echoing off the hills.

The next afternoon I drop something off at a friend’s apartment then decide to cut across town on the freeway and head toward Cedars Sinai to visit Robert before going to see Steven. When I get on the freeway there isn’t much traffic. Some of the smoke is starting to clear, but people are still told to avoid traveling across town.

I’m in the second lane from the right. All of a sudden a black sedan barrels up right behind me. Too fast. Too close. I look in the rear view mirror and see the dark tinted windows, the extra mirrors, the domed dash lights turned off. Unmarked police car, I think. They show up most weeks at ACT UP meetings. We walk out to the parking lot at the end of the night and they’re circling slowing, taking photos of our cars and through the tinted front windows we can see them writing down our license plate numbers. We make jokes with one other about why they even bother with the unmarked cars. As though we don’t recognize the same officers every week. I look around. There’s no one to joke with.

Only a few cars are ahead of me, none in my lane or the next lane on either side. I check my speedometer and make sure I’m not speeding. The sedan is still on my ass. I lock my doors then I signal right and pull into the slow lane, hoping it will pass. It changes lanes, following me. I’m now in the far right lane and it’s still riding me. If I speed up I’ll cross the speed limit and it will have an excuse to pull me over. None of the other drivers on the road seem to notice. Or at least they aren’t looking my way. I think back to the day before, to the cop holding on to my driver’s license, studying me, studying the car. The sedan swings to the left and pulls into the lane next to me, pulling along side of me. I look over, but through the tinted windows I can’t see the driver’s face. The cop’s face. I can only see the outline of a man’s face, a flash of light hair, dark glasses.

I tap my brakes, slowing down and hoping he’ll pass. He keeps the sedan paced to my car. I’m starting to panic. My heart is racing and I’m breathing in short, quick bursts. I have almost a mile until the next exit. My fingers are a vise around the steering wheel, and my knuckles are white. I look to my left as the sedan veers toward me and I turn the steering wheel to the right to dodge the sedan as it crosses into my lane. I feel the bumping change in asphalt as I’m pushed onto the shoulder. I hear Cory’s voice in my head: How long would it be until we knew you were missing? How long would it take us before we started looking? The sedan moves back into its lane and I pull off the shoulder back into my lane. Again, he turns hard and fast toward me and I pull onto the shoulder. I hear my arrogance, arguing with Steven yesterday: What could possibly happen to me? This is intentional, the thought that comes to my mind. No witnesses. And then I wonder if this is really happening. It feels as surreal as a movie scene. I’m afraid to stop. I keep looking back and forth: speedometer-road ahead-shoulder-sedan-speedometer-road ahead-shoulder-sedan. Again the sedan veers and I’m pushed onto the shoulder. Again.

At the next exit I turn hard as late as I can and get off the freeway. The sedan doesn’t follow. The whole exchange took no more than two minutes. My hands are cramped around the steering wheel. I feel crazy. Was it the cop from yesterday? There is no reason for a cop in an unmarked car to be playing chicken with me. He either doesn’t know who I am, or he does. I can’t stop shaking.

I pull off of main roads before I get to Steven’s neighborhood and drive along small residential streets. I keep looking in my rear-view mirror, scanning for cop cars. I don’t see any. I’m thinking about the checkpoint, the freeway. About danger and profiling, trying to make sense of it. When I’m with Steven, he’s more at risk, targeted, the cultural myth invoked that I must be saved from him. Saving the perceived white woman from the Black man. But when I’m alone, I’m the perfect target. A woman alone. Or could it have been the same cop? Was I being targeted for my alliance with a Black man? I’m safer with him. He’s safer without me. Is that how this works?

I park in front of Steven’s house and sit in the car for a few minutes, still thinking it through. Then I walk up the front steps and let myself into the house through the cracked-open front door.

When I walk in he’s sitting in the living room scribbling in a notebook. “Hey, babygirl,” he says without looking up, as though nothing has happened.

“If you’re working, I can come back later,” I say, closing the door behind me but still standing in the doorway. I take a deep breath, steadying my breathing. The sight of him soothes me. The light falling across his cheek and the notebook in his lap, illuminating his hands.

“Why do you sound formal?” He looks up and pushes his dreadlocks out of his eyes. “Get in here, I want to show you something.”

He reaches for my hand and pulls me to him and onto his lap. “I’m sorry,” he says.

“Don’t.” I say, “I’m sorry.” I take a breath, “It’s just that I don’t know how to make sense of it, how to reconcile it.”

He shakes his head, sighing, “Can’t we both just be sorry. Can’t that be it? Do we have to talk about it?”

“Yes. We have to talk about it.” I slip off of his lap, and sit on a chair opposite from him so I can look at his face.

“Here’s the thing. Mostly, I’d do anything—we’d do anything. We throw our bodies at the FDA for drug approval, at the state building against insane policy. We sit in for hospice funding. I don’t care what it is, I’ll do any of it.”

“Do you think I don’t know that?” he asks.

“Let me finish,” I say, “It’s symbolic. That’s the problem.” I’m watching the shadows of a tree outside the window dance across the floor between us.

“You don’t think it makes a difference?”

“Maybe. Maybe eventually. Maybe a cure someday. Maybe drugs someday. Maybe something. But no,” I take a deep, shaky breath, “I’m not going to save Robert. We’re not going to save Robert. I can’t save…” I can’t look at Steven. I can’t bring myself to say I can’t save you. I close my eyes and keep talking, “If there is any moment where I can use my body as a buffer to save your body, do you really think I won’t do it? If I’m there and I’m the reason they come after you, shouldn’t I get in the way? That’s what you do for me. I can’t not try.”

He shakes his head, laughing a little at my stubbornness. Then he looks up at my face and sees the tears in my eyes. “Babygirl, did something else happen?”

“No. Nothing else.”

“Did you just figure it out? That Robert is… that we can’t save him?” Steven has buried lovers and friends. I’m just now watching the first wave of my close friends getting closer to the edge.

“I thought, maybe…” I don’t finish. He knows. He wants to save him, too.

I don’t know why I don’t tell him about the freeway, the unmarked car. I think there will be time, or a reason to later, or maybe there won’t ever be a reason to. I understand that in his fear about Robert is also his fear about himself. And I can’t bear to add to his pain, to make him worry about me. That’s also how we tend to each other. How we try.

They’re complicated, these intersections. They’re not even intersections, not really, not singular moments of crosshatched experience. They’re braids. We cross and cross again, from different angles. Different tensions.

We’re quiet. I take his hand in mine and lace my fingers through his. The helicopters and sirens are quieter today. There’s more space between them.

“What did you want to show me?” I ask, looking across at his notebook. I expect it to be a chapter from his next novel, but it looks like music.

Steven smiles. “Come sing with me, I want to try something.”

“What?” I reach for the notebook.

“I’m trying to arrange it for two voices,” he says, handing it to me.

I look down at the music. “‘Strange Fruit’? I don’t sing ‘Strange Fruit.’”

“Yes you do,” he says.

“But isn’t this what we were talking about yesterday? This experience isn’t mine. Adjacent. But not quite… And there’s a big space between the experience and the possibility. When I’m clocked, it’s model-minority, exotic bullshit. Not a noose.”

“Stop fighting with me. I though you came over today to stop fighting.” He leans forward and kisses my forehead. “Here’s my idea. It’s a duet. A conversation. And it isn’t a song from inside the experience of lynching. It’s a song of witness. After yesterday, it’s your song as much as mine.”

“So what’s your idea?” I’m still looking at the sheet music, his notes scribbled in the margins.

“Let’s try trading verses and see what happens,” he suggests, and we hum at each other to find the right key.

He sings the first verse, full voice, full force:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit.
Blood at the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Then I jump in with the second verse, more air in my tone, more breath legible in the words:

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

We stop after the second verse. “That was terrible,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “Why?”

“I think it’s the rhythm,” I say. “You’re pushing it, fast, syncopated right up against the beat. You run at it, starting full and hard, and there’s no place left to build. It creates this urgent anxiety.”

“Yes. I was thinking full on and relentless for all the verses. But you’re pacing it slow. A dirge, mournful.”

“Yeah,” I say, “my plan was to build in intensity but not pacing. And the transition between the two doesn’t work.”

“But they’re both right. Both interpretations make sense, so shouldn’t they both work?” he asks.

“At the same time?” I’m laughing.

“Why not? What if they’re not traded off? What if they’re overlaid?”

“The mournful and the fury? At the same time? You’re serious?” I try to hear it in my head.

“Let’s try.”

And so we do. We count out a time signature, and I hold the slow end of the beat. We’re singing on top of each other, then he’s pulling ahead, pushing the beat to the front end, and I’m struggling not to get pulled along with him. I get lost in his energy halfway through the second verse.

“Let me try something else,” he says. “You just hold steady.”

“You say that like it’s so easy,” I say. But we’re laughing a little, finally, and he reaches toward me and squeezes my hand.

We try again: I hold the time, and he shifts into a dizzying scat, then into double-time so that by the time I’m into the second verse he’s starting over again, and the layering of words is a complicated, overlapping jumble.

Blood at the leaves and blood at the root
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

I’m still struggling not to get caught in the urgency of his rhythm. The thumping of his heartbeat against my fingers is pulling me off of my rhythm, and I let go of his hand. He slips out of double-time and settles back into the time signature I’m working within. He’s still pushing the front end forward. I’m still lengthening the back end of the beat.

Finally, we find it. We both hear it as soon as it happens. The braid of our voices. The intersection of breath and form. We’re singing. Again and again. The last verse looping back to the first. Following not each other’s utterance as it enters the space as sound, but each other’s breath. That deep resonance. The unsaid pull. Eyes closed we hear it. We feel the rise and fall, rise and fall. He’s pulling us forward. I’m following behind. Just slightly. Or maybe I’m pushing. Together we hold the tension of the only frame we have. The breathing. The witnessing. The wailing.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit.
Blood at the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.


Image credits: Feature photo © Karen Ocamb, photo 2 © Jeff Schuerholz, photo 3 © unknown, photo 4 © Sonia Slutsky.

(Strange Fruit © 1940 by Edward B Marks Music Company)

Keiko Lane lives in Berkeley, CA where she maintains a private psychotherapy practice and teaches graduate and post-graduate psychology and cultural studies. In addition to her literary writing which has been published in journals and anthologies including Calyx, Americas Review, Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly, The Feminist Porn Book, Queering Sexual Violence, and Here Come the Brides, she writes essays for numerous publications about the intersections of queer culture, racial and gender justice, oppression resistance, and liberation psychology. Her website is "Intersections: On the Anniversary of the Rodney King Rebellion" is a chapter from her memoir "Blood/Loss: Toward a Queer Poetics of Embodied Memory (a love story)." More from this author →