In “Crown Heights, 2020” a Black woman who has been living in quarantine with her white partner recognizes a shift in their dynamic once the racial justice protests begin. In sharp incisive fragments, the narrator doesn’t hold back as she gives us the history of their relationship and the fetishization that she now realizes is at its heart.
We are sitting in our long, cramped kitchen. It’s dim in here, and the ancient fan is rattling, but we don’t hear it. Our ears are perked towards the helicopters outside. It has been ten minutes since we noted the latest ghostly siren: we recognize it as distinctly NYPD—not a fire truck, and not an ambulance.
We have been together six years, with a two-year break in between: a clean, dividing line between leave-it-all-on-the-field and the resigned, polite, march we are on now. Kiki and Ryan. In our first iteration together, we were not very experienced, and so we grew together awkwardly, fusing into something spindly and forlorn, like one of the sidewalk trees that made us hate Bushwick, and move out. In our second round together, we have bloomed a strange, hardy flower, an elusive indoor thing, but like nothing that exists in real life. We say we have too much history for this to ever really die. At the end of February, we moved across Brooklyn, to Crown Heights, right before the beginning. The timing is a marvel to us now.
We have returned to this—our history—a lot in the past three months, confined, emerging only for jaunts to the cleanest of the nearest mid-size supermarkets, or to push inside the delivery boxes that were for everything else. Our shared history is the mantle on which we have placed our fear, exhaustion, and anxiety. We realize the mantle is too big for the living room of our small apartment, however artfully carved it may be. We never knew quite what to do with it, really. A carved-up brownstone, a parlor one-bedroom, creaky hardwood floors. But there are worse places to shelter in place. We listen to the podcasts together, and read the commentaries, and drink the coffee we’ve now gotten used to making at home.
The lonely horror of March and April had since exploded into June’s righteous fury. Outside on the streets, Crown Heights is restless. Brooklyn is restless. The city is restless. And we imagine the circle as it widens outward, to the country, to the whole world.
Man, 2020, we say. A chuckle, a grimace, a shake of the head, a finger swiping across a screen.
You said that you liked black girls with big earrings (natural materials preferred). This was not a drop-down option on a dating website then, but like an obscenity, you knew me when you saw me. I remember laughing, relieved that you pointed me out to myself. No need for me to exert myself. My profile was witty, my pictures carefully chosen. I had read the study that showed that black women and Asian men got the least number of messages, and so had you.
So interesting how the data tracks, you said. I was 24, and since it was summer, I was alive and glowing, mischievous and vivacious in a way that made you thoroughly unprepared for my depression the first time you saw it. Black girls are so cool, Kiki.
My opinions, my friends, my clothes and my hair sat nicely alongside your bands, your recording sessions, your dimly lit warehouses, and my presence in social media photos was Brooklyn, away from the hills and clean lines of your parents’ life out West. Regardless, the pulse of my blues, its presence untagged, hummed along in the background.
You declared your love first. I did wonder what would have happened if I had listened to my insides earlier on in the timeline of our history, but I was 24 and eventually therapy became too expensive. It was easier to return your love, at first to coax you into security, then to say it again and again, the momentum building, until the habit stuck.
You were 26 when we met. Now, almost a decade later, your blonde hair is on the horizon of thinning. You still dismantle and install art installations in museums and galleries throughout the city. You still go on tours with the band. I remember in the beginning that I raved about your band’s music to my skeptical friends, the ones who fell off, the ones I only see now smiling benignly from my Instagram stream with their babies and their DIY home projects. All I can remember of it now is a sallow series of wails, weighted with banjo strums and other heritage instruments. I remember feeling unsure about my presence there, wondering if I could gesture from the sparse crowd that I even knew you. You didn’t acknowledge me from any of those stages then, no matter how low and slapdash they appeared. After a while, it was simply understood that we were together, as I became the regular brown face among your friends.
You say music is what you do, and money is no concern. For years I have scribbled and typed away on Saturday and Sunday, while pouring Monday through Friday energy into the vortex of non-profit work. So nothing is finished, and everything else hums along.
I was 26 when an old white man simultaneously unzipped his pants on the subway and called me chocolate. Oh, Kiki. Disgusting. I can’t believe some people, you said, after I arrived at your apartment. I said that I was okay, and I accepted you when you wrapped me in a hug. You did not mention my shame, but neither could I. Because I could believe some people. I could believe what they were capable of all the time.
A week later, we were having brunch together at a spot I had read about somewhere online a few months earlier. I recalled the small amusement I got from replacing all of the review’s instances of the word “hip” and “millennial” with the words “gentrified” and “gentrifiers.” Regardless, I insisted on paying for the lackluster food after the server left the thin strip of paper clipped to a thick, bright postcard at our table. The organization I worked for then had received a new grant, and I felt a small measure of power in adding a bit more to my credit statement that month. We were waiting for the server to return with my card—an oddly protracted amount of time—when you said, Hey Kiki, can we talk later?
My ears registered a car passing outside the wide open front windows, and my heart drummed against the vicious churning of my insides. For such a popular seeming restaurant, I realized that we were the only patrons when the server finally returned with her tiny plastic tray.
On the walk back to your apartment, your words cascaded quickly, becoming a waterfall of rationality and concise phrasing. You thought you were dating someone fun. Not happy, something lacking, not sure, but I think a break right now is best for us. When I woke up that morning in your bed, my back turned away from your sleeping face, I hadn’t foreseen this sort of conversation happening as we walked through Bushwick in the afternoon sun; I could not imagine my struggle to keep up with the gait of your skinny legs as I fingered the restaurant’s postcard in the pocket of my long skirt.
I decided to peel myself off at the next intersection and head back to my shared apartment, to reel and rage in the privacy of my own tiny room. We didn’t speak for two days. On day three, you rode over on your blue secondhand bike, to render your final verdict, the break you had so painstakingly outlined for us now joined with up, the little addition belying its abrupt severing of our past two years.
I had wanted you to say that you were sorry. I had craved a sorry, any sorry, after all this time. I hope we can be friends, you said instead, and I watched your lanky figure righteously mount your bike; I watched you speed off, but I felt relieved.
I tried personal growth in those years we spent apart, but clearly not enough. I tried to write, but the lure of sabotage often smiled at me, encouraging me to binge alcohol, men, and reading online think pieces I admonished myself for not having written first. It was early December when an unknown number lit up my phone. The nation had already veered onto an ominous path a few weeks earlier; At first, I ignored the buzz coming from my kitchen counter. But then I listened to the voicemail you left behind, turned over in my head and heart the uncertain quaver in your message when you asked if we might catch up. The verb you used was reconnect. Yes, America was crazy. I replayed that message three times that night. I should have called a friend, but instead, I called you back.
We are sitting in our long, cramped kitchen. Now I look at the backs of my hands resting on the kitchen table. I note their color. Walnut brown. I read that in a novel once, and the image stuck with me, a more dignified description than any variation on candy, less sensual and more serious.
I am always the more serious one, the most serious one, serious enough for both of us. The long credit history, the education, the shopping lists. The sense of time and place. Sometimes you load the dishwasher, but I remember to hit the button to begin.
This is really fucked you up, you say. All cops are bastards. Kiki, I can’t believe we still have to have this conversation in 2020.
But I can.
A knee, a neck, and a phone.
A noose, a neck, a postcard.
A collar, a neck, the sketch of the hold of a ship.
You take my hand. I pull it back and barely discern the drone of a distant helicopter. A new siren wails, and the sound is getting closer.