You walk by the flag twice every day. Once on your way to work and once on your way back home. You’ve only recently noticed that it affects your mood. It can be perfectly sunny, just the right amount of breeze to cool your skin and not to sweat out your edges. But there it is. The worst part is, it looks majestic, crinkled in the wind. The confident, aggressive contrast of the blue “x” on the red background. A color combination that says, “fuck you and your eyes.” It rebels against the idea of pleasurable aesthetics.
You’ve noticed that after seeing the flag, you’re irritable and easily annoyed by strangers on a bus. A blonde child incessantly telling knock-knock jokes to her mother—something you would usually laugh about—is suddenly just another example of how frustrating the world can be. You keep your grumpy thoughts to yourself. The world, especially this little blonde jester, don’t deserve all your hate. Does it? Usually, you forget about it by the time you sit down at your desk. Someone else does something more distracting. Today, Wendy the Manager calls you “articulate” and even though you cringe, you don’t say anything. You trust that if she knew better, she wouldn’t have those little slip-ups (what you call micro-aggressions when you’re in a forgiving mood). The good intentions coat the racism like the casing of a pill. You stay silent and swallow the discomfort. Let it go. Again.
On your way home, you wear your headphones. It’s hard to be angry about anything when the outside world is muted. But, today, your post-work soundtrack is interrupted by the carefree yells of children.
The annual end of summer fair takes place in the Capitol Building’s plaza. Booths sell everything from fried chicken to bedazzled “Proud to Be South Carolinian” t-shirts. You try to walk quickly and go unnoticed. These fairs are for families and knick-knack lovers. Your mom, bougie as ever, calls fairs and carnivals “germ pits.” Since you’ve moved to South Carolina last month, you’ve counted at least one county event each week. People are proud to live here in a way you’ve never experienced. You haven’t heard anyone use the word “stuck” yet.
A group of children spray each other with super soakers. They are different shades of brown like the assortment of candies in a box of chocolates. You take your headphones off. Sometimes you cut yourself off from the world.
“That’s how you miss the beauty of life,” your mom always said when you used to take your headphones everywhere in high school. She can be poetic. She still finds time to paint and send you handmade cards praising you for not going to that MFA program.
“Gotchu!” a tall boy squirts a shorter boy.
“Imma kill you,” the boy, whose entire front is wet, laughs. “Get him!” The three other boys take chase. They run in a circle and you laugh as you try to navigate through their game. This is how you would have normally felt about the child on the bus if you weren’t being such a grump. Consumed by the innocence and optimism only expressed by children and yellow labs. Excited about the future because for these beautiful children, the world is generously open to anything.
You say “excuse me” but they don’t seem capable of stopping. Good. You don’t want them to stop. They’re having too much fun. One boy even says “excuse me, ma’am” before he almost runs over your feet. You could live in this moment.
“When I get you,” the boy with the wet shirt huffs, “Imma beat you like Emmett Till!” He’s still smiling while he runs. You stop abruptly and one of the boys has to brake with his heels to avoid colliding into you. It doesn’t seem fair to blame Lil Wayne and his lyrics completely for this moment. Do they know who Emmett Till was? Do they have an image of his battered face, his features beaten into smudges? Or is he just another mythical childhood threat, a boogie man, Bloody Mary? Everything about the moment continues. The children are still laughing, effortlessly dodging in and out of the crowd. The fair attendees bargain in good faith over the price of necklaces and scarves. You stand dumbfounded and the boys run further down the plaza to an area where adults won’t get in the way.
The children are okay. The words didn’t seem to hurt anyone else but you. All four of them, now all wet and glimmering in the sun, yell and threaten each other gleefully. Above them, the flag bats in the wind. Who do you blame for this moment? Lil Wayne, painfully overt symbolism, your touchy sentimentality?
The flag blows on the pole like it belongs there and dares someone to challenge it. It looks as bright and natural in front of the Capitol Building as the sun looks in the sky. It does not look like it has only been there for forty years. It looks historic and permanent. Perhaps this is why you can walk by it every day, why the children can play under it without feeling weird. Questioning it would be like someone tilting their head up to the sky and challenging placement of the stars. You put your headphones back in and go home.
Later, you call him to complain. Now that you’re broken up, midnight is too late to call, but you have spent the last few hours thinking about the kids and the flag by yourself. You tried to watch natural hair tutorials on YouTube but somehow ended up watching Stokely Carmichael clips and finishing Black Power Mixtape.
“Why are you calling?” he whispers. He answered though and that means something. You know better, but you always call him anyway. The first time you made this mistake, you panicked and thought of a lie that would make this decision seem less shameful.
“Something really got to me today,” you slur theatrically. No, this is not your first time doing this. It’s now your schtick.
“Christ,” he says, “you’re drunk, again?” You’re not drunk. You’re only pretending to be. He stays on the phone longer when he thinks you’re drunk. Missing him is not a good enough reason to call. Drunk means you can take it back. No accountability. It’s cliché and cheap, but you’re not above any of that. In ten years, you’ll use the excuse “I was so young and dumb in my twenties.”
You want to talk about the kids, the flag, the injustice and cruelty of the world. No one else really talks about that stuff with you. But the conversation doesn’t go that way. The man you thought you were going to love tells you you’re an alcoholic. Get help. Not because he loves you or because he is worried, but your drunk calls are getting old. Your voicemails and texts have woken up his new girl. Yeah, the light-skinned trick with the eyelashes in his profile picture.
“Trust me on this,” he says. His Beyoncé look-a-like is asleep next to him. “You need help.”
You were never able to trust him even when trusting him was the thing you wanted most in the world. Even when you were searching for reasons to trust him, sifting through your memories for the small glimmer that this man—despite his own words—is the right person to trust. Remember when he got you coffee that one time you were hungover (maybe you do drink too much) or when he said something about meeting your mother? Isn’t that how trustworthy people act?
You need help. Not even you can pretend the man ever cared about your needs.
“Okay,” you say.
Fuck him, you decide. And everyone else.
The important thing to remember when climbing a pole, a rope, a mountain is to not look down. It is classic elementary gym teacher advice, but it still holds true. Shimmy the red pole grip up, then the black one. Right foot, left foot. You repeat and to your amazement (and the growing crowd around you), you’re really climbing this pole.
“I can do all things through Christ,” you pray. You’re a Christian during bad airplane turbulence and apparently, when you’re climbing poles. It is only when you’re halfway up the pole that you start to fear that you aren’t doing any of this for yourself. What if it’s just a “fuck you” to your mom and the Dark and Lovely relaxer set she sent you for Christmas? Or, a theatrical attempt to show him that your world can be bigger than just him? Or, perhaps, you’re doing all this because the jolly Mall Santa Claus of a cashier said “Be careful using this, little lady” when you bought the climbing rental kit. How many different people control you? The flag is rough and flaps wildly in your grip. You thought it would be made of better material. Silk or satin or something.
“Ma’am!” a gruff voice shouts below. “Come down, now!”
“In a moment,” you answer.
How did a bundle of synthetic thread ever make you feel so powerless? On top of the pole, you are now the banner, the pride of the state.
You wave the flag in the air to a smattering of applause.
“Yes, sista,” a woman says with the type of warmth and camaraderie usually reserved for church sanctuaries. You right foot, left foot, slide until you reach the ground.
You’re another blip on the arrest report. The holding cell is a lack-luster seafoam green, and you stare at the concrete for twenty minutes before someone comes to speak to you. You are ready to fight the power, channel Soul Mother Davis, but you don’t have to.
“A bottle of water?” the guard asks.
“No, thank you.”
They don’t press charges and the guard even mumbles a lukewarm “take care” when you walk out with your climbing equipment bundled in your arms. The flag is back up by the time you walk home.
They call you a revolutionary. Someone else on the news call you a troublemaker. You think about that longer than you would like. You stop watching the news. He calls. He says you looked brave up there on that pole with the flag in your hands. You ask him where Beyoncé is and he is quiet. Even though you don’t want to, you apologize. You never liked people being mad at you. You blame society for that. He asks how you are and you say good with a little too much enthusiasm for it to sound natural.
“Oh,” he says. He sounds surprised. “Good.”
You lean back against your pillows. Being on the phone with him, you in your pajamas, him probably wearing those nylon basketball shorts, feels familiar. The feeling you get when you return to your apartment after work or when you get a care package from your mother. A blanket of relief. The universe still cares enough to create happy moments for you. Perhaps the world isn’t against you, after all.
“I should’ve never let you go,” he says. You are not young and dumb enough to not recognize the trap, but you are not old and wise enough to snub it. You want to be the woman who says she didn’t play into his games. That he tried to come back to you only to discover you were never waiting. But yesterday you went to the Whole Foods to read a book just because you missed the sound of people talking over plates of food. The couple next to you was arguing with their teenager son about his phone bill. The mother groaning between bites, the father huffing. Even the sound of the teenager sucking his teeth had a nice ring to it. You didn’t even get through Chapter One of your book because you had to hear how the argument ended. Yes, he is familiar, but the Whole Foods strangers made you feel a combination of familiar and happy. Comfortable.
“Hello?” he says.
“I’m seeing someone,” you say. You’re a liar, but at least you’re the type of woman Lauryn Hill sings about.
“Really?” He sounds more surprised than angry. Angry would have been good. Angry would have made something in you flutter. But surprise is just insulting. How did you find someone else, he really wanted to say.
You have practiced this moment. When you enact your revenge with the most eviscerating, verbal uppercut of the century. To the misfortune of your co-workers, you have practiced this at your desk. Sometimes you get carried away and say “not uh” to the responses you imagine he will say. You’ll tell him how shitty he treated you. How you felt like a side chick. Lower than a side chick. A one-night stand that you forget about until you see them at a singles’ bar two years later. That is how you felt with him. You’ll tell him about his communication issues and the suffocating ideas of toxic masculinity he inherited from his no-good father. You’ll make sure you say the part you rehearsed the most: his inability to be vulnerable will leave him empty for the rest of his life. You’ll sound like a robot but a kick-ass feminist robot.
You suck your teeth. “What do you mean really?” You notice how you sound like your mother and every other black woman ever. You embrace the stereotypical sass because you feel powerful. “You must not know ‘bout me.” He used to laugh when you worked song lyrics into your conversations. “You were the problem.”
There is the ceremonial silence that always follows a mic-drop-moment. You are about to start (no-good father, side chick spiel, inability to…) when he says, “See that’s your problem.” The power is shifting away from you, but you cannot think of how to get it back. It is already too late. “You think you’re rare or something.”
It feels like whatever has been keeping your brain in its place is now pushing against it. There are two hands on either side of your brain, squeezing it. This is what it always comes down to: your pride or him.
“Turn on your TV and tell me I’m not,” you say. Bam. You hang up the phone because courage like that is fleeting. You almost cry. You tell yourself that it is more important that it looked like a victory than felt like a victory.
Your mom calls and responds to your greeting with a sigh. “You know med school faculty own televisions, don’t you?” You tell her you’ll call her back later.
“Tomorrow,” she says. “I don’t have nothing else to say to you tonight.”
The reporters start to call the same night. You only answer questions from the liberal news outlets. One of them asks, “How did you become such a strong woman?” You’re not supposed to be insulted by that.
“What, you mean physically?” you say.
He laughs. You do three more interviews like that that night. One of them asks you to do a live interview for the local morning show. They love your story, the woman on the phone says twice.
“Sure, why not,” you say. She hesitates. It was not the response she was expecting. You smile to make her feel more comfortable, but then you remember you’re on the phone. “I’d love to,” you add. You’re pretty sure you hear her sigh, relieved.
“Great, we can’t wait to meet you,” she says.
For the show, you wear a black dress and a red scarf. The woman left a message last night saying not to be nervous. Just dress and act like the “authentic you,” she says. She seems surprised when she meets you, but she pulls it together quickly. She’s a professional.
“The red and black contrast may be a bit too harsh for the cameras. It doesn’t really match our set,” she says. You hesitate, but ultimately take off the scarf.
During the interview, you are sitting in a leather chair that makes uncomfortable sounds when you move. The woman sits across from you. The set looks like the living rooms you always admire in Pottery Barn. There is even a bookcase. With books. Fake books, you surmise bitterly.
The interview is about to start. She says don’t be nervous. You say you’re not. Why aren’t you nervous? She asks about you. You tell her about yourself: age, schooling, how well you get along with your mom.
“No, no,” she says. “Tell us about the real you,” she says.
You try not to look unnerved. Who does she think you were just talking about?
“I don’t understand,” you say, and you curse yourself and live TV. You’d do anything for a retake.
She is a natural. She’s loving this. “Well, we talked to some of your friends and family and so many people said the same thing. They were shocked!” Her emphasis and joy on the last word are Oprahtic. They almost knock you over like a gust of wind. “The good girl. Ivy League educated, med school bound. No one suspected you to climb on a pole and take the flag like a rebel.” The image of you on a pole annoys you when she says it, but not as much as the image of you as a rebel. Isn’t her job to choose words carefully?
“I don’t know,” you say, and she is less charmed by your confusion this time. She waits for an answer. “I guess the people you talked to don’t know me very well.”
“This is just a very bold move for someone with your pedigree. Threats have been made against your life,” she says. You know this. You made sure not to Google yourself, but you couldn’t ignore the phone calls, deep breathing, and hang-ups you received last night. The first time you answered the phone without looking because you thought it was him. “Your acquaintances said you never seemed like the rebel type.”
She smiles for her audience. Not for you. She is growing impatient with you. You don’t know if it’s the sanitized set or the unnatural whiteness of her smile, but you suddenly feel uneasy. Betrayed. This was a setup. You are being played as the good black girl turned rebel. They want the black Avril Lavigne, the suburban Nat Turner.
Why are you misbehaving? She wants to ask. We want to watch you misbehave and record the story, but why?
Why are you being this way with this woman? You agreed to this interview. You took off the red scarf and smiled into that camera, but you can’t shake the feeling that this is a trap. You will be thought of as the rebellious twenty-something who tore down the flag like a teenager who, frustrated with her parents, gets the red highlights anyway. You want to say: I’m tired of being reminded every day that people in this world hate me. That people want me dead. Felt strongly enough to fight and die in a war because they hated me that much. That they raised kids to hate and that even if their great-great-grandkids can’t admit it, sometimes they hate me, too. I want to walk to work and think about something dumb like my new Post-it notes or that email I don’t want to send. I can’t be mad every morning anymore.
All of that would be political (a word you know has somehow developed a poisonous connotation). You shouldn’t say any of that, should you?
“The flag is back up,” you say instead.
“Yes,” she says. She waits.
“I’m going to take it down. They’re going to keep putting it back up, and I’m going to keep taking it back down,” you say.
She looks at you with the spread smile and alarmed eyes of someone talking to a person who they just realized is crazy. “Okay,” she says, “but groups like the KKK are saying they are going to guard the flag at all costs. And you are—not to dismiss you in anyway—just one twenty-something. Are you scared?”
You lean back into the chair, a gesture that adds a dramatic effect you did not intend. It just works out that way. “I’m done being scared,” you say. “You tell the Klan all the scared niggers are dead.”
She is colorless as if someone has vacuumed all of the red from her cheeks. “Oh my god,” she says, seemingly without even realizing it. Someone is gesturing wildly in the corner. Commercial break, they mouth. “I—we have to—thank you for joining us, and after the break, sports with Larry Potowski.”
She doesn’t look at you at first. She folds her hands in her lap. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” she says. When you don’t move, she looks at you. “Leave now, please.” Her tone is painfully professional, the way you imagine she talks to her cleaning lady. The security guard moves slowly toward the set. You leave.
Outside your mom calls you. You told her to wake up early and watch the show. When you ignore it, she calls again. You ignore it. Now she’ll have two lectures prepared the next time she talks to you.
You take another way home, so you don’t have to walk by the Capitol Building. You listen to your mom’s voicemails. You count the word “crazy” eight times. She asks, too earnestly, if you’re on drugs. There is a text message from him. The preview on your lock screen says, “Holy shit…” He still thinks you’re friends. You won’t text him back.
You enter your apartment and the sun coming through the blinds is almost too bright. You took off from work for the interview and it’s rare that you get to be in your apartment in the height of the morning. You sit on your couch with a book. All the scared niggers are dead, you think to yourself and laugh. You have never liked yourself more.
Rumpus original art by Mike Tré.