Words By Sean Enfield, Art By Mclelun Lee
We were driving to youth group when I first told Mandy that I liked her. Next to her, my peanut butter skin looked Kenyan dark, and, likewise, she was a sunless pale whenever I stood near. I glanced over to the passenger seat, briefly ignoring the empty country road before us. The sun washed out her dirty blonde hair. She was white and I was black and that wasn’t supposed to mean anything anymore because, you know, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton had already made it work like forty-some-odd years prior and all, and it didn’t mean anything, did it? We were just two clumsy, colorblind teenagers falling loins first into like with one another.
She placed her hand over mine, our clammy fingers not quite interlocking.
For high schoolers in the country suburbs of Wylie, TX, youth group served as Tinder. It wasn’t that Jesus stimulated our already volatile hormones, but given the dearth of social space in which to pursue our desires, He didn’t do much to quell them. We swiped left by switching seats whenever our potential partner turned out to be a dud; we swiped right by Frenching behind the dumpster.
I met Mandy at a church lock-in. From the moment I overheard her waxing poetic about John Hughes films, I started mentally placing our faces on Hughes’ best couples. We looked best as Molly and Judd, I thought. She was sixteen, halfway through her high school career, and I was eighteen, a month removed from graduation, from freedom. She said she thought it was cool that I’d be in college soon. “Yeah,” I choked out, “pretty cool.”
Somehow, I got ahold of the YouTube playlist soundtracking our lock-in with harmless Christian rock and Top 20 singles made pure for radio, and I dedicated Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” to her. She smiled as I pantomimed along, and her glasses tipped to the bottom of her nose. The song had played for about forty-five seconds before she darted behind the computer and turned it off. We studied the veins in each other’s eyes.
Despite the lamest attempt at courtship in the history of teenage libidos, we began exchanging flirtatious messages on Facebook, messages that grew more and more absurd as we began talking later and later into the night. At one point, we had envisioned ourselves as meth-addicted, future world leaders—a power couple. All of this culminated in plans to ride to youth group together. We both knew what those plans meant. Walking into youth group together was a symbolic gesture as definitive as sliding a wedding ring on a finger. You were officially an item then.
And we were. For a little while, anyway. I’d drive over to her place a couple hours before youth group commenced, and we would lose ourselves in inside jokes, becoming increasingly insular, until we realized we’d be late for service. We’d take her car because it had A/C and seat belts that weren’t a liability. Mine just had dents and a peculiar smell I never managed to conquer.
Her grandfather had given her the car. He was a ghost to me even then, even when alive. She spoke about him the past tense, and often, I had to remind myself that she was speaking about a living, breathing person. When she told stories about him, she talked the way you do when you have already prepared to lose someone: “He had done this…” or “He loved that…” In these stories he was a benefactor, someone the family relied on. A nice old man, it seemed, who’d properly distrust the shit out of my black ass. “A product of his generation,” she had said of him—a familiar euphemism for racist.
When she told me that her grandfather had given her the car, I remarked, “Oh, I wonder what he’d think about a negro driving it…”
She looked over at me as if to ask am I, y’know, in all my whiteness, allowed to participate in this joke?
I gave her a smirk as if to reply go for it, just don’t say “nigger,” cause, like, that’s our word.
“He’d probably pray that Reagan strike you dead.”
After our laughter subsided, I turned to her, confident that I could navigate the bends without looking, “I like you.”
“I like you too.”
All teenage boyfriends will inevitably have to hear a father inform them of the loaded shotgun located somewhere in the house. Some lucky few will have that gun presented before them, the threat made manifest. Typically, you giggle through these assertions and remark that you would never hurt their child, no matter what, though all involved parties know this to be a lie. You will hurt a good variety of people’s children, knowingly and unknowingly, but your intentions, hopefully, will be good. Or, at the very least, not bad.
I never met Mandy’s father. Her stepfather had been the one to brandish his rifle before me. “Don’t hurt her.” He chuckled and I chuckled too, then scampered away like a dog whose nose has just been forced into its own piss. After that, I decided I might never enter her father’s house. I mean, if stepdad was willing to unlock the gun safe, dad might be willing to demonstrate the gun’s power. Instead, I pulled up in front of the house, shot a text message, and waited patiently, some nervousness within me, manifesting itself as a separate consciousness. I could hear it shouting, “Don’t go in there! Don’t go in there!” I never knew how to explain this feeling until a friend of mine, several years later, described it as “black anxiety.” Suddenly, my whole life made sense.
Mandy informed me that her father did not approve of our relationship early on, even though I hadn’t met the man. Over the phone, she let that news slip. “Oh,” I said. “Yeah,” she said. “Something I did?” I asked. “Probably not,” she said. “I haven’t even been in his car,” I said. “Yeah, but you have been in his daughter,” she said.
“But who knows which one he values more?”
I sometimes thought about what noise would escape my throat if ever a father followed through on his threat and peppered my light-brown skin with buckshot.
Her grandpa died about two months into our short relationship and about seven decades into his long life. We were on our way to church when she told me. She cried, I wanted to cry, we both thought about our own fleeting mortality. The empty country road turned a corner, and we were halfway to the Lord’s house. All her rhetorical preparation for loss and still the death shook her.
During the altar call, she wept on my shoulder. I grabbed tissues from the front of the stage and wiped away all that I could. Wrapped around one another, we fantasized about to what part of heaven he’d gone and if our shared warmth could mend loss. I had never seen the man, so I envisioned him as Mr. Rogers with a few of Mandy’s facial features. I cried when she cried. There was nothing else to do.
Later, we climbed into her car, some strange presence pressing against us both.
“I just can’t believe it,” she said.
“At least, we’re down one less racist,” I joked, “and I no longer have to worry about your driving your car” I stopped chuckling when I realized she had never started. The tears kept streaming. Here it came, the first fight. I braced myself.
Previous relationships had taught me that this moment would be a threshold—the moment that would determine whether what Mandy and I had was a fling or something more. In the first few months of a relationship, that fling period, no one says, “I love you,” even though those are perhaps the most thrilling, most infatuated months of any given tandem. Not until a couple moves beyond their first fight—like, spit-flying, fist-clenching fight—do they finally squeeze out two “I love yous” which suggest that maybe, maybe, maybe we can stretch this thing out a little while longer.
I have yet to make it past the first fight.
I wasn’t ready.
Two days after the funeral, we gathered in her living room to watch Pretty in Pink. She quoted the parts of the film that moved her most, and I laughed whenever she did so. We survived, I thought, despite all odds.
She had a sister who kept making excuses to enter the room. They got worse and worse as the night progressed. At one point, she came in to grab a “thing somewhere.” I now recognize this as a bad omen. Then, I just figured that she was a spy under the parents’ employ, ready to inform Mr. Stepdad when to brandish the trusty shotgun.
We kept our bodies near, as near as a couple who met at youth group would allow themselves to get, trying to kindle that warmth from the altar call as if it might somehow save us. Her sister eventually dropped all pretense and sat on an adjoining couch. The anxious parts of me kept looking over at her. I can’t say how that room felt then, but in memory it had all the vitality of a hospital waiting room. And yet the movie ended as it always did and always would, happy—with Andie kissing her new, wealthy beau and, hell, even Duckie gets invited to dance with a cute girl across the way. This is when the young couple watching should snuggle up to one another and dream of Hollywood perfection, imagine a life in which all Molly Ringwalds find their happy ending, all other circumstances be damned. Mandy didn’t even wait for the credits to finish to start walking me out.
On the way out of the house, she grabbed a Bible. It sat solemnly on a dresser near the door, a bookmark protruding from its pages. “I’ve really enjoyed this,” she said, “us.” There was that familiar past tense. Us was a corpse in waiting.
She flipped the good book open to the bookmark and started reading a verse. I didn’t hear much through the clamor of my subconscious. Something about our relationship existing in defiance of her parents’ wishes and that being against the Lord’s wishes and me not being too bad despite all that—but it just wasn’t going to work and it had nothing to do with anything I said or did and so we could still ride to youth group together if I wanted but we, of course, could probably find our own way.
With my arms wrapped around her, one last time, I apologized but didn’t say what for. She shook her head and let it hang as she returned to the house. As we walked away from one another, the distance between was already beginning to feel comfortable, normal. Neither of us looked back or, at least, not where the other could see. We were drivers with the agency of passengers, belonging to our time just as much as we didn’t.