J L Higgs is a recently retired financial services executive. His short stories focus on the lives of black Americans. In addition to writing short fiction, he spends his time drawing people and places both home and abroad. J L and his wife currently reside outside of Boston. Their adult son and daughter live nearby.
Paul was running. His goal within reach, he picked up his pace, as usual, dodging any obstacles in his path. Nothing could prevent him from getting there and seeing his shadow racing alongside him, he put on a burst of speed as if determined to even outrun it.
Before going to bed the prior night, he'd calculated the amount of time it would take for him to arrive at the meeting 10 minutes early. Then he'd set two alarms. He'd awakened before the first alarm had sounded, thrown on his running clothes, and dashed out of his apartment before the second alarm had even buzzed. The predawn streets had been empty, except for him and a bulky street sweeper machine, veering in and out of the parked cars, clearing dirt and debris from the city's gutter.
Paul looked up to the ceiling at the exact moment the time on the mounted LED board changed. He was going to be late. He shifted from side to side, leg to leg, his heels tapping against the platform. He leaned out over the trolley track, trying to will the pin prick of a trolley's headlight to appear in the deep darkness of the tunnel.
Paul hadn't expected to get the job when he'd interviewed for it two years ago. The moment the interviewer had laid eyes on him felt like deja vu. The attempt to mask shock. The subtle hesitation before the handshake. The too pronounced smile bordering on a grimace. He'd felt like announcing, surprise! It's me! Your job candidate is a black man.
Now, despite hurrying through his shower and skipping breakfast, he was going to be late. He could already envision the patronizing “it figures” kinds of looks he'd receive when he finally entered the meeting room. He'd worked too hard cultivating an image of responsibility and normality to have it undermined by a delinquent trolley car. But this was his life, fighting against the stereotypes, low expectations, and preconceived categorizations fostered upon him. He was certain that the name of the Ivy league school on his resume had been the key reason he'd landed the interview. The fact that he was black had never been readily apparent to anyone who hadn't met him in person. He didn't have a “black name” or “sound black” in conversation on the phone. His parents had named him and the way he spoke was just that, the way he spoke.
While he'd never denied being black, he had deliberately chosen to pursue a path that presented him as non-threatening. Sharpened through years of practice, he'd perfected all aspects of that approach, until it became a cornerstone of his existence, its one disconcerting result being a sort of invisibility or loss of essential self.
Through high school, college, and even his short professional career, he'd often been the lone black person many whites he interacted with had actually encountered. As a result, once they'd “gotten to know him”, they'd pummel him with endless questions about black people. To them, he seemed a combination exotic foreign country and spokesperson for all black people. He found their childlike curiosity and naivete mind boggling. But because he rarely fit their inaccurate preconceived notions of black people, they were always quick to assert that he “wasn't like most black people” or that he was an “exception.” So which was it? Was he the guide/spokesperson for a world and people they knew nothing about or not?
Finally, an anemic ding, ding, ding announced the arrival of the outbound trolley car. An old remnant from the past, struggling to prevent replacement by what was current and new, it stopped, sighing like a dying man clinging to his last breath.
Paul boarded the wheezing car taking consolation in knowing only two days of company meetings would be at this out of the way location.
At its next stop, the trolley's doors opened and the rush hour commuters flooded into the car. As they spread out, filling every available inch of space, Paul shifted to his right, stepping on a foot. “Sorry,” he said to the young woman seated facing him. She smiled. The smile caught him off guard, but he returned it all the same.
She appeared to be quite tall, about 5’10” or 5’11”. Model thin, her long legs were in tight fitting jeans that disappeared into well crafted reddish brown leather cowboy boots. A plain white shirt peeked out from beneath her tailored black leather jacket. A maroon scarf was tied loosely around her neck and atop her head sat a black beret.
Dressed in his gray business suit, her somewhat avant-garde appearance made Paul felt frumpy. He stared at her wondering if she was a student or perhaps an artist? She looked fragile, but there was something, something else about her that eluded him.
When the trolley arrived at his stop, Paul got off and hurried to his meeting. Throughout the long day of boring presentations, his mind frequently wandered back to the young woman on the trolley.
The next morning, as Paul stood waiting for the train, he began thinking about the young woman. He scanned the crowded platform: transit police in bright yellow windbreakers, briefcase carrying business men and women, backpack-toting college students, tourists with maps and suitcases, and... there standing apart from the crowd was the young woman. Her height lent her a regal bearing that reminded him of an ancient statue he'd seen of a Nubian Queen.
One long strand of light brown hair hung down each side of her face. The rest of her hair was swept up and coiled at the back of her head. She was wearing a body hugging white dress and woven into it was a gold thread, that created a border around the dress's high neckline, short sleeves, and hemline. Draped around her shoulders was a satin shawl accented in gold and brown. The contrasting whiteness of the dress against her beautiful brown skin was eye catching.
To get a better look, Paul moved until he had a completely unobstructed view of her. Now, he could see the delicate softness of her perfectly balanced features: flawless skin, high cheekbones, thin straight nose, and full lips. The way her black eyeliner curved around her long lashed almond shaped eyes before ending in a smooth upward sweep.
With a painful screech, a struggling trolley car made its way around the bend and stopped at the platform. Paul boarded along with the other passengers. As he stood in the overcrowded car, he searched for the woman, but his attention was immediately snared by three teenage boys. Each sported earplugs with thin wires connected to handheld music devices. Intermittently, one of the boys would burst into song. In response, his friends shoved and elbowed him to make him stop singing. As they engaged in their horseplay, passengers they banged into shot them angry looks but no one said anything to the boys.
Through a narrow space, Paul could see the young woman. Seated, with her eyes closed, she looked like she was wishing the boys would disappear. Paul continued watching the boys, who at times exchanged looks and gestured toward the young woman with their heads. Finally, as the trolley reached a station and the doors opened, the boys got off. Just before the doors closed, the windows behind the young woman began violently shaking.
“Freak! You fucking freak!” the boys screamed at her.
They pounded on the glass with such force it seemed destined to break. Then they ran off, continuing to shout, their cruel words echoing in the underground tunnel.
Everyone stared at the young woman. She was crying. No one said anything or offered her any aid. At that moment, Paul realized what about her had eluded him. She was a transgender person.
Anger immediately welled up inside him. Why hadn't anyone confronted the boys while they were misbehaving on the train? Why hadn't he? Now it was too late. The damage had been done. At the train's next stop, above ground, Paul edged his way to the car's doors. As he reached where the young woman was sitting, he softly said, “sorry.” She lifted her mascara streaked face toward him but said nothing in reply.
As he cut across the blacktopped parking lot on the way to his meeting, Paul told himself there was nothing he could have done. But despite the assurances he gave himself, her tear stained face haunted him.
With one speaker after another droning on, Paul sat in his meeting, the image of the young girl in tears, disrupting his ability to focus on the presentations. Though her tears revealed her pain, eventually they and the pain would subside. What would then remain, would be her, existing courageously true to herself despite everything.
Unlike her path, the one Paul had chosen had resulted in invisibility and loss of self. He'd sacrificed freely and fearlessly expressing his thoughts and feelings, instead, always carefully calculating the most expeditiously advantageous position to adopt, leaving aside sincerity or honesty. While the strategy had been sound and the tactics affective, each decision he'd made had weighed more and more heavily upon him until he felt his knees buckling in surrender, his mind and body exhausted, unhappy, and unable to endure relentlessly being on guard anymore.
“Paul, is there anything you'd like to contribute at this time?” asked his boss, startling him.
Paul got to his feet and slowly looked around the room, momentarily making eye contact with each person seated at the meeting.
“I quit,” he said, turning and walking out the door, taking nothing with him, leaving everything behind.
As he stepped out of the building, into the bright sunlight of the day, he envisioned himself running, but he was no longer trying to outrun his shadow. Instead, its presence alongside him was a comfort. Though he was running, no goal in mind, and no idea where his feet would take him, that didn't matter. It was worth any price to feel so completely free to finally be himself.
~J. L. Higgs
~J. L. Higgs