Story centers on perception, identity, and expectation. Our roles may not be authentic.
|Melanie Daniels wasn’t the whitest of white women. Her hair was more a dingy brown than blonde. Her eyes were almost the same shade of brown as Chris’s. And even though Chris tried to convince Melanie to stay out of the sun, her skin seemed to soak up ultraviolet rays and tan quickly.
But she was his and none of these flaws were deal breakers in Chris’s mind. He’d heard some Haitian writer—God knows how Chris ended up listening to anything some voodoo-worshiping Haitian refugee had to offer—joke that the two most famous white women in American history, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna, were both bottle blondes. That did put Melanie’s shortcomings into a more acceptable perspective. There really wasn’t anything wrong with Melanie that couldn’t be corrected after the wedding with a little peroxide and some colored contact lenses. How this would affect the appearance of their children was another story.
“Just try to smile, Chris.”
“I don’t see anything to smile about!” Chris wasn’t aware that his face had been knotted, but under the circumstances, embarrassing as they were, he did feel more than a little entitled to his frown.
“You can smile about us and the fact that we’re getting married Saturday.”
“I can’t believe I had to give up bodily fluids in order to get a marriage license. Am I supposed to smile at that too? It’s an indignity!”
“Well, I think it’s an odd law too, but I like to think I’m worth a poke with a needle. And the doctor was generous enough to say he’d rush and have the results for us this afternoon, instead of making us wait the usual 48 hours.”
Melanie leaned her head against Chris’s shoulder and played with the extra flesh at the back of Chris’s neck. Chris started to ask Melanie to stop. She knew he was self-conscious about his neck fat. No matter how much he jogged, or biked, or dieted, he always had that fold of skin back there, like some chicken-eating Baptist preacher. It was a deformity that went along with his condition, but it did feel nice when Melanie stroked it like she was doing.
“It’s undignified and demeaning,” was all that Chris could manage. Some of the wrath and righteousness had left his voice, drained by Melanie’s ministrations. “And not only has the entire office staff here been noticeably unwelcoming since the first time we walked in, but that receptionist keeps scowling at us.”
“I’ll make it all up to you when we’re on our honeymoon in Paris. And I promise she won’t be there. April in Paris. Isn’t that a jazz song, honey?”
“Melanie, you know I don’t listen to that low-brow, pool-hall music. The classics are the only music worthy of the name.”
“Yes Chris, I know. Wagner and Beethoven and the like. But don’t you ever want a break from all that, I don’t know, militarism. Let the valkyries ride without you for a change, and just be in a sentimental mood with me, over here on the sunny side of the street?”
Chris ignored the ludicrous offer, but returned Melanie’s look of affection. She didn’t understand his need to be vigilant and disciplined and to continually demonstrate good taste and breeding. Why should she? Melanie’s life was one of eternal summertime. Her father was rich. Melanie’s mother had passed away, but Melanie said she’d died in child birth, and Melanie had been raised not to miss what she had never known. But if Melanie’s clear skin and long hair were any indication, the mother had to have been beautiful. Melanie’s life had been one of privilege and opportunity, and that made it difficult for her to understand and appreciate Chris’s fastidiousness and sensitivity in light of his condition. Chris hoped that if they continued to move in the right social environments, that she would never have to understand, that as long as they stayed in her world, among the best people, Chris could continue to be judged not by his condition, but by the content of his character.
“It was nice of your father to arrange for the firm to allow me the time away for an excursion. I just feel guilty about taking it. April is our busiest month. I don’t want the other fellows at the office to think that I’m getting some kind of preferential treatment or special set aside.”
“Well, Chris, you are getting a special set aside…me. And what’s the point of marrying the only daughter of the senior partner if it doesn’t come with some perks? In our family, the month of April is about more than just money. My parents met in April, were married in April. I was born in April, mom…moved on in April.”
“And we met in April.”
“You do remember! I knew that gorgeous sable head of yours was good for more than just numbers.” Melanie gave Chris a peck on the mouth with pale lips that suddenly struck Chris as being unusually full now that they were in close proximity to his own.
Chris noticed that the receptionist was staring at them again, as if she were trying to transmit thoughts of disapproval with her eyes and grimace.
“Now come on Melanie, you know I’ve asked you not to make humor about my condition.” Chris pushed away from Melanie. “It’s not sporting to make fun of me for something that I can’t hide or change.”
Melanie dropped her smile somewhat, and contorted her face into an expression of exaggerated guilt.
“I’m sorry for being so insensitive Chris”, said Melanie as she went back to playing with his neck fat.
“And you know why I like numbers,” Chris added, his agitation once again decreasing. “They’re pure and unchanging. Fixed. Sometimes the untrained eye might interpret them wrong, conflate figure and calculate things that aren’t there, but that’s a result of ignorance and unenlightened human error. That’s not the fault of the numbers. The numbers themselves are authentic and unpolluted. They are always exactly on the inside as they appear to be on the outside.”
“Chris, you are an accounting zealot. I know that love for numbers is why daddy and his partners like you so. And I find that passionate side of you appealing too.”
Melanie began running her fingers through Chris’s coarse, close cut hair. Ordinarily, attention to his neck and scalp would produce a predictable response from Chris, but the receptionist was still beating them up with her eyes, and Chris couldn’t help but feel an uncomfortable guilt, as if he were a bad child caught playing in someone else’s yard and digging up mounds of sod and dirt right next to a sign that read “do not walk on the grass”.
Chris again felt obliged to pull away from Melanie, due in part to the heat of watchful eyes, made warmer by his own sense of public decorum.
“I still don’t see why your father, or the other partners, or some of their friends in government couldn’t have managed to find some way around all this.”
“You know daddy’s position on favors, especially when it comes to office holders. It’s always better to let them come to you for favors than to have it be the other way around. And he was the one who wanted us to be married someplace outside of the state, but I wanted us to have the wedding right here in Boston, at the same church where my parents walked down the aisle”
“They have me in here like I was livestock…like a cow that has to make it across the border.”
“I’m here with you too, Chris. And didn’t I promise before the shot that if you were my big strong bull, I’d be your milk cow.”
“That’s still not funny, Melanie. I’m serious here. This is offensive. I have half a mind to walk right—
Chris stopped short once he noticed that the doctor had joined them in the reception area. And unlike before, when the physician had worn the same look of distaste that was shared by all the office staff, now the doctor was smiling warmly, almost as if he were relieved.
“Christophe, Ms. Daniels. I’m sorry to have kept you for so long. I hope the wait wasn’t an uncomfortable one.”
“No doctor,” said Melanie. “We enjoyed the chance to sit and talk and take a break from all of our busy planning. Our service is this Saturday, so you can imagine how hectic the preparations have gotten. We both just want to thank you for taking the extra effort to get our results so quickly. Now our next stop can be the county clerk.”
“Speak for yourself, Melanie,” Chris interrupted. “I’m not only incensed that such an archaic law is still on the books, but I want the doctor to know that I resent having that…woman…behind the desk harassing us with her looks and insinuations the entire time we sat here waiting.”
The doctor continued smiling. Chris thought that the doctor must have an amazing bedside manner to still be grinning after his rebuke, when it dawned on him that the doctor was smiling as if he had just gotten the punchline to joke, an inside joke to which Chris and Melanie had not yet been included.
“Well Christophe,” the doctor began, “I know Boston is a big city, but in many ways we’re still a little old town with little town values. Family values. And Jeannie and the rest of my staff, they frown on interracial couples the same way I do. In fact, I started to turn the two of you away, until I saw Ms. Daniels name.” The doctor began to chuckle. “I was under the impression that she was the daughter of Melvin Daniels, the big time accountant. That was until I got through with the blood tests.”
Chris had a roll sheet of offenses he wanted to choke the doctor with, but he was too confused at this point to generate much anger.
“Look, doctor, I don’t see what Melanie’s father has to do with all this, or what business is it of yours what our race has to be. My skin color is just a previous condition of birth, and it’s un-American to use that as criterion to judge me or the purity of my love for Melanie. If I happen to want to love a woman and live my life with her, that’s no one’s concern save ours. And further more—“
“Chris, hush.” Melanie tugged on his sleeve, stopping his recitation just as he was preparing to misquote Martin King and Thomas Jefferson and then go into a discussion on the Christian brotherhood of all mankind. “I think the doctor’s trying to tell us something important.”
“You might not be Melvin Daniel’s daughter, but you do have a good head on your shoulders, especially in light of your background. Yes, I do have something to say, but it’s more of a sincere apology. The State of Massachusetts is one of the few states that still require couples to submit to a blood test before marriage. That strikes most folks as odd for a state that is perceived as being so liberal. But that’s because most folks don’t realize that our state has always been a hotbed for eugenics. Through the years, with different amounts of legislative support, we’ve tried to get the bloodlines pure and unpolluted, working to keep the retarded and the criminal minded from intermarrying with decent society.”
Chris realized that the doctor had begun speaking more slowly, in a Mister Rogers Neighborhood kind of way.
“I still don’t see what this has to do with the behavior we’ve had to put up with.” Chris tried to inflect his voice with indignation and outrage, but his voice cracked as he spoke, and his sense of self felt oddly splinted as well.
“I know this is a lot of information for you all at once. Maybe more big fancy words than you’re used to. Let’s just say that it wasn’t too long ago that we sent folks with low IQs to their own school and facility, to prevent them from accidentally having babies with red-blooded, strong-minded Americans. Kind of keeping like with like, if you will. I mean, I’m as liberal as the next man, but you have to have community standards, otherwise you can’t have much of a community. Instead you have entropy. Sodam and Gommorah. Like Shakespeare wrote, things fall apart and the center cannot hold. We all have to do our part.”
Chris looked at Melanie, but saw that she seemed to be a world away from him, listening to the doctor’s words with an intensity that suggested hypnotism or conjure.
“So when you two came in for your test, at first all of us were rather upset. I mean, we saw the two of you and, well, I hope you can see how we might have made assumptions. And I must confess, I offered to test your blood ahead of schedule, right here in my lab, since I felt it was my Christian duty to see if I could find some genetic basis to have the state refuse your marriage license. You’d be surprised how easy the whole thing is. After all, I’m a doctor. I get paid to find illness and disease. If you pay police to find crime, they will eventually invent criminals. If you pay soldiers to defend against an unknown foe, at some point, they are going to choose somebody to point their weapon at. Doctors are no different. We just get better pay for our efforts.”
The doctor chuckled at the wit and insight of his own humor, until he looked up and saw that he was the only person laughing.
“But imagine my surprise when I started looking closely at Ms. Daniels Rh numbers. They were consistent with Negroid blood characteristics, which I have to admit confused the hell out of me at first. But that’s because I was under the mistaken impression that she was a white woman.”
Chris felt the floor waver underneath him. He started to hold Melanie’s arm for balance, but then pulled his hand away without touching her. His dress shirt was sticking to him and his forehead was damp with perspiration.
“Doctor, you keep us waiting in this oven you call a waiting room, and now you come out here and insult us and make these wild accusations. Is this what you call good medicine?”
“I’m sorry, Christophe, I know I must sound like an old fool. You two must get these kinds of embarrassing encounters all the time. By now you’re probably bored by them. It’s just that, Ms. Daniels, when I saw you, I didn’t realize. But the lab results don’t lie. You might not look it, but you are as Black as Aunt Jemima. As Black as Cain.”
Melanie had been silent throughout the doctor’s words. Processing what he was saying. Holding it up to the fluorescent light and looking for holes where rays of artificial untruths might pierce the dark and escape through. She thought about the mother she never knew, and the servants that had always been with her family growing up. And she reflected how much resemblance there was between those servants and the lone picture she had of her mother, one that was kept under her pillow and away from her father’s disapproving eyes. These and other thoughts began to run together, to congeal and form a new realization to fit around the doctor’s words. Melanie thought about how her father spoke with a crispness and precision that melted to a syrupy drawl when they were home together. And how he insisted that she get her hair done every week by the same Black beautician that would come to the house and put strong smelling chemicals on her head. And how they had a large pool on the grounds of their home that she had never been allowed to swim in. And how everyone in the house had always kept her head covered and out of the rain, claiming that she had inherited her mother’s delicate constitution.
“Well, doctor, it seems that I’ve been wading in assumptions and misperceptions all my life. It’s just something I’ll learn to get accustomed to. Something Chris and our children will…”
Melanie turned and reached out for Chris, but he was no longer standing next to her. She heard the ding of an elevator and caught a last glimpse of Chris as he stepped through the doors.