It was somewhere between coffee and cleaning up from a dinner party on Saturday night that I learned the verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial. I stood gawping and silent, coffee and kahlua still dancing on the palate, staring at the multiple Twitter streams telling me: Not Guilty.
There followed a restless, late night, one spent exchanging ideas across social media networks, listening to old soul songs, reading various articles, thinking about America and its founding ideals, about youth, about justice, about relationships near and far, about differing perceptions across different lives, in different places and in different circumstances. About the notion of “different-ness” itself.
The incident sent me back in a time machine somehow, to recall a childhood friend I hadn’t thought about in many, many years. Tanya and her family moved to my old neighborhood in suburban Toronto when I was in seventh grade. It was a strange time, of shifting hormones, changing tastes, swirling, sometimes intensely passionate feelings; my once-strong friendships were disintegrating, changing faster than my hairstyles.
My twelve-year-old self was experimenting with new tastes in music, in clothing, in food, in books, in ways of seeing and experiencing the world; Tanya seemed to show up at the exactly right time, helping me navigate through the terrible trauma of first periods, the weirdness of my single mother dating, the importance of forging notes for gym class (we were possibly the only non-sporty types in the whole school and hated the athletic mean girls), and the joys of hitting up the local record shop to scope out the latest dance records. I was introduced to Janet Jackson’s music through Tanya, and we’d spend hours dancing in my basement to “Nasty” and “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” as well as hits by both Michael Jackson and Duran Duran. It was refreshing to find a (female) friend who never put the two in competing camps, as so many around me already had. (Either you liked MJ or you liked DD; there was no in-between, which, to me, seemed absurd.) I introduced Tanya to the wonders of the Eurythmics. We’d go to the cinema Friday nights and laugh loud and hard, at whatever absurdity we’d paid our $7 for; sometimes people would try to shush us and throw dirty looks. Our response was to throw popcorn and quickly duck down, giggling.
Janet Jackson – Nasty by trashfan
We didn’t know about history, or what we did know, we barely cared about or paid much attention to. We were young girls being… well, young girls, whispering, giggling, sharing, crying, being loud and obnoxious one minute, weepy and dramatic the next. When I visited Tanya’s house, I just saw people getting along with life, their jobs, their kids, their responsibilities. Tanya’s parents seemed tired, and her father was older than I expected, but they were friendly and very welcoming, delighted their rambunctious daughter had found an ally in a quiet, bookish, then-shy piano-playing local girl, and perhaps pleased at my mother’s church-going habits. Her mother’s smile as my eyes bugged out trying jerk chicken for the first time, her younger brother excitedly dancing with us in the basement and acting out the scenes from the “Thriller” music video … it was the mid-80s, and suburban Canada felt about as far away from the racial boiling-pot of America as you could possibly get.
Very often Tanya and I would relate the way many young women do, talking about the strange weirdness of our changing bodies and the absolute, utter mystery of male bodies. Tanya used to do a hilariously vulgar sort of pelvic thrust walk, making a funny wakka-wakka-sound in her throat – I can’t remember why, or the circumstances for such a creation -but I do remember howling with laughter. Tanya was, to me, a very cool girl, with her perfectly filed, long fingernails, Chuck Taylor sneakers, light-heartedness with the whole mysterious s-e-x thing, and, of course, a very chic-casual purple cheerleader-style jacket. For all that, I never thought she was any different than me; it never occurred that she was a black girl from California with a very different set of life experiences to my own -hailing from a large family with many siblings, her parents having recently moved to Canada and settled in what was then a very Wonder Bread neighborhood. She was sometimes laughed at in the schoolyard, with more than a few sporty, slim girls rolled their eyes at her in gym class (when we went), what with her hole-speckled socks, baggy shirts, and dimpled knees. Again, I never noticed those things, and she was just my cool, funny friend. I remember how I felt when we were together, whether in-person or on the phone.
It was with more than a bit of surprise that I thought of Tanya when Rachel Jeantel was interviewed recently. Her awkwardness, her self-consciousness, her mannerliness, her sparkling, shy youth… Tanya’s face came flashing into my mind, particularly the moments when my friend used to interact with my mother or my mum’s church-going friends. There was, in retrospect, a weird over-compensating going on that I, in my fuzzy-cotton-shielded-from-everything upbringing, hadn’t noticed as a youngster. As Laura Beck wrote on Jezebel, “I don’t know how you watch this and see anything but an unfiltered, genuine teenager. One who suffered the tragic loss of a friend she spent hours and hours on the phone with each day.” Maybe that’s what set me off to write this blog post, madly typing out rough thoughts in the middle of another restless night recently. There is a truly real, touching core of deeply-felt friendship so extant in Jeantel’s reminiscences, it’s almost painful to watch. You feel like you’re intruding on the lives of two teenagers who are super-tight with each other -literally to the point of death.
I’m not sure why, or how, but Tanya and I stopped talking -a petulant tween fight, as I recall -and soon after she moved away. I ran into her a little while after that at the local mall, when she was visiting; Tanya had moved back to California, her parents had separated, she was living with her mother and siblings. She was, somehow, such a grown-up at sixteen. I often wonder where she is now. Tanya would be about the same age as me, and looking at the date of Trayvon Martin’s birth – 1995 -I wonder if she chose to have children. What would she tell them? What might be be telling them now? Can she – can we -possibly return to that beautiful place in childhood, of laughter and love and shared secrets and innocence? Perhaps Christy Moore says it best:
I want to meet you where you are
I don’t need you to surrender
There is no feeling so alone
As when the one you’re hurting is your own.
(Bottom photo: detail of Kenny Scharf mural, 2011; both top & bottom photos from my Flickr photostream)
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