We went down to The Intervale tonight for Flatbread and Kids’ Circus fun. Last summer, this was a weekly Thursday night ritual, but this was our first time venturing down there this season. The last many weeks have been too hot, too chaotic, too too. As expected, we felt like we knew about half of the people there; it’s kind of like a mid-week version of the Farmers’ Market, where you pinch yourself for living somewhere so freakin’ idyllic on the one hand and feel slightly overwhelmed on the other.
Once they were full of flatbread and the red grapes we brought with us, Aviva and Pearl ventured off to wait in line for colorful twisty-balloon hats. I opened a bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, a fact slightly embarrassing to admit in a state with so many local brews, but the truth is I never have succeeded in cultivating a taste for beer. That said, I like a good buzz, and especially in the summertime I wind up feeling left out sometimes with no drink of my own to nurse. Greg squeezed a lime into his Corona, and we sat on the old green blanket spotting people. I scanned the grounds for familiar faces, a habit no matter where I go. I spaced out, looking at men and women, moms and dads, boys and girls, sisters and brothers, hula-hoopers and jugglers and the two belly dancers undulating and making eyes at anyone at all.
And then I spotted her, a Black woman with long dreads wearing sunglasses and an Ellis Island baseball hat. She looked like she was in her 50s maybe. “Is that Paige?” I thought, remembering a former colleague of mine from UVM many years back. And without even stopping to think, I did that thing every white Vermonter is afraid of doing.
She didn’t miss a beat. She lowered her shades, looked right at me, and said, “Do I look like Paige? No. I don’t. I am not Paige. I am Grace, I tell you. Someone comes up to me and says I look like Whoopi Goldberg and I will tell them to Kiss My Black Ass. See? You have to look at MY FACE. I know Paige. She’s five years older than me.”
I look at her eyes, her face, and see my mistake. She is not Paige. She is Grace. “You are Grace,” I say, in full agreement.
“And aren’t I beautiful?” she says, cracking a smile and going on to say that no, she’s not angry at me, but she gets so goddamn tired of that particular incident, which no doubt has happened on more than one occasion.
I apologize. Then I introduce myself. We hug, a real all-is-forgiven-we-are-friends-now hug. And then we stand there talking for another fifteen or so minutes, talking about Queens and the Bronx and the Old North End and the tired myth that there are no Black people in Vermont, talk of slave-hunters and stoop-sitters and sons and daughters and Jews and Arabs and weddings and bar mitzvahs and ignorance and the Holocaust.
She touches my hair. “See? You got some African-American in you I bet.”
I nod. I introduce her to Pearl, and tell her she’s named both after a white great-great grandmother on Greg’s side and after Pearl Primus, a dancer and scholar from Trinidad who has been called “the grandmother of African-American dance.”
I don’t even know what all else passes between us, something about the Goddess and how she doesn’t get enough credit. More nods all around. “You have no idea,” I tell her. Then I point Greg out across the grass.
“That man in the orange baseball hat, that’s my husband,” I say.
“Ooh, what’s his name? I’m gonna mess with him.”
I tell her and she walks over, sidles up close to him, slips her arm around his waist, and greets him by name. He looks surprised – and then they laugh and hug, too. I join them and she introduces us to her friend Kim, who’s celebrating her 37th birthday. I tell her she has six months on me and wish her a happy birthday. The kids wait in line for face paint. I think about the fact that off all the people we know here tonight, Grace and Kim are the ones I wind up spending the most time with. I realize I’m tired, ready to go home. We say goodbye, knowing we’ll probably bump into each other all over the place now, this being Burlington. We collect the girls with painted cheeks – a basketball and turtle for Pearl, butterflies and a rainbow for V, and walk to the car.
Back home, Greg puts the girls in the bath. I go for a run, listening to U2’s Vertigo album. Little sister, I’ve been sleeping in the street again… Bono intones in my ear. I turn the volume up all the way, thinking of all the “little sister” songs I know, pushing myself, running hard and fast, feeling powerful and also needing to just release the day. It feels good to sweat.
It was true. Grace didn’t really look a thing like Paige beyond her skin color and thick dreads. I don’t necessarily “look Jewish,” whatever that means. God knows my kids don’t, not by some Nazi-era standards anyway.
Grace is Grace. Look at my face, hers, see the lines around my eyes that nobody else has, or the fact that at 63, she doesn’t have any. Our stories are written on our faces, and until we lower our shades and take a closer look, it’s too easy, too pat, too too, to jump to conclusions, to leap to assumptions, to short-circuit ourselves, to not pause before hollering out someone’s name so enthusiastically.
On the other hand – because there’s always another hand, especially if you’re Jewish – I don’t regret it. Don’t regret hollering. Don’t regret fucking up, being ignorant, putting my foot in my mouth. Because you know what? It was sincere. And I made a new friend. I made a connection. I was Jena. And so wonderfully human.