Field Guide to the Unraveling of Your Interracial Friendships
To start with, you need to accept that you are here because you and your white friend decided to talk about race. This choice produced problematic consequences. Otherwise this might merely be called a “Field Guide to the Unraveling of Your Friendships.” But you’re here. The topic of race has surfaced. You both engaged in discussions beyond the harmless acknowledgement of your different shades of skin.
You and your white friend tiptoed before leaping into talk about the presence of systematic racial injustice. Together you considered how society’s marred and sad history around race cast a troubling shadow over the present. You exchanged opinions about the shooting of unarmed black men, the riots in Cincinnati, the potential for the first black president.
No matter which white friend, when she said, “Give me examples of how race had an impact on your childhood,” you sliced open old hurts and shared stories of being a little black girl in a predominantly white environment.
Then you nodded when your friend said, “I’ve always wanted to be friends with black people.”
Since you liked the person you sat across the table from, since you discovered you wanted the friendship to develop, you chose to ignore it when she said, “I felt just like that once when I was around a group of really wealthy people,” in response to how you felt when all the little girls were doing hair at the slumber party, and you didn’t get to take part. You decided to overlook the time she told you, “I don’t see color,” because you believed—and why shouldn’t you have assumed the best?—that she didn’t mean she didn’t see you and your brown skin. Instead, you hoped she meant that she formed friendships based on character alone. Still, the statement made you feel like the wide sweep of the dominant culture wanted to brush away pieces of your identity. But you kept these things to yourself. You knew your words might make her uncomfortable and make this friendship falter.
What you couldn’t know is that overlooking something just means shoving your hurt inside, shoving it so far you don’t even know it exists. This, of course, will have its consequences too.
Which is why, one day, a conflict will develop between you and your friend. Not about race. About something petty like the fact that she doesn’t answer your emails or the way that you whine when you are sick. The issues will appear trivial to the outside world, but they will be thick rain clouds over your friendship. As you try to sort out these frustrations, you will both discover new things to be annoyed about until it just seems easier to not be friends.
Of course the real problem is your conversations about race, the way she made comments that made you shrivel, the way you felt it better to ignore statements than discuss them. This is what leads to irrational levels of irritation about the unimportant. However, you won’t yet recognize how the mind shifts conflict from the uncomfortable issues to the ones that seem easier to address.
And when your friend says, “I just don’t understand,” (which of course she will say since you’re both in conflict about a substitute conflict) you will sit and stew and rant and rage.
Still, somewhere deep within you, in an almost hidden place, you will wonder what you can do to fix this. Is there a way you both can once again sit across from each other over warm drinks and hear the air saturated with the sound of your laughter?
Field Guide to Reconciling in Your Interracial Friendships
One day when you are glancing at a burst of wildflowers along the highway or tugging towels from the hot cave of the dryer, your drifting mind will puzzle through the unraveling of your friendship. In that unexpected—perhaps even supernatural—moment, bright signs will point to the truth that this wasn’t just any friendship that unraveled. This was the unraveling of an interracial friendship. Only then will you recall the way your friend told you how her experience was so similar to yours. Only then will you remember the words your friend said that made you feel small. Only then will the memory of remarks that you overlooked in your effort to be gracious gush from your mind in the form of warm tears.
Now is when you start to understand all the conversations you had, all the easy thoughts you shared about injustice, in all this you missed the fact that with white friends who want to talk about race, you have a greater chance of sinking. You think everyone is fine and comfortable. Then you realize this friend who is your good, good friend can say things that hurt you, can make comments about race that burn. You see your mistakes. Maybe you should have just circled around the topic, never really stepping into that conversation, the same strategy you use with so many of your white friends. You could have talked about other topics like weekend plans or your children and thus remained in safer realms.
But the divine spark of recognition has found you, and now you know race is at the core of the problems with your friend. So consider your friendship. Think about her qualities that are wonderful. Think about if you want to keep the friend. Observe if you have some sort of nagging feeling that there might be something to preserve. As will sometimes happen, you may realize that you’re okay if this friendship slips away. If so, just embrace this truth as an unexpected gift.
If, however, you believe in preservation, now is when you can make several choices. You can continue to ignore the statements your friend made about race that bothered you and slap a Band-Aid over the relationship. Call your friend or write an email and apologize for your nutty behavior and anger over inconsequential issues. Then tell yourself that you need to check your responses and conjure up a bunch of gracious feelings that overflow from your soul in calm, quiet, and even conversation.
(It is important to note that if you choose this path, the path without rocks and bumps and large potholes, know that in the future you will again read the, “Field Guide to the Unraveling of Your Interracial Friendships.” You will then wonder how you got here once more. That’s okay. Repetition of experience may usher in greater understanding.)
Alternatively, you may decide that this friendship matters and that honesty should leave little room for Band-Aids and quick fixes. So now you need to wait for time to do the thing that time does best: pass. And have patience. Have lots and lots of patience because repair work can be slow. On both sides of the friendship, whatever hurt exists needs to soften. Even if you long for everything to resolve, value the silence that might stretch from weeks to months to beyond a year. Think how this gives you time to mull over the friendship and the casual way you both spoke about race. Be thankful for the space to sort through why you felt unable to tell your friend when her words hurt. Perhaps she will be doing the same thing. In these silent times, the friendships meant to last will separate from the chaff.
Remember patience. The waiting might give you hope that this story will find a way to continue. Still you should know that there is never a guarantee. If relationships are like wine, some get better with age and some become no better than vinegar. Keep praying yours becomes the one you want to drink.
Then just maybe one day, on a random Tuesday afternoon, in the near or distant future, one of you will decide to pick up the phone, sit down at the computer, or knock on the other person’s door. The air will smell fragrant. Time will reach an unexplainable point of being “right.” Contact will happen again. And you will both discover yourselves to be changed people.
Together you will begin talking, and this time you will embrace an uncomfortable authenticity, speaking the words you once hid. A conversation here. Another conversation later. Even later a longer conversation maybe stretching into the dark night. Together you will see how your friendship—your interracial friendship—began to unravel. You and the other person will accept that as much as you don’t want to be people who hurt their friends, you both wear the cloak of humanity. When it comes to discussing race, the risk of wounding each other becomes high.
Still you will remember why once upon a time you saw her cream skin, she saw your brown skin, and you both wanted to stay. As you talk over weeks or maybe months or even beyond a year, you will understand that racial reconciliation can’t be reduced to a list of what to say and what not to say. It might be the intentional journey to discover the experience of another person, another culture, another part of the human race. Woven in with all the mess, you and your friend will get to touch this profound beauty. If that happens, run your fingers across the fibers of this life, touching each unique thread, knowing your friend touches a different version of the same.
PATRICE GOPO’s recent essays have appeared in Gulf Coast and online in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in North Carolina, and she is currently at work on a collection of essays.
“I’ll take the big room in the back,” Marie announced after our host family waved good-bye, dust trailing their little red Fiat. “That way, you get the room by the front door,” she said to me, “so you can protect us.”
Marie and I hadn’t traveled together for years, and back when we did, it was usually in triple-sheeted luxury hotel rooms at resort destinations where booze and business mixed, and our corporate expense accounts picked up the tab. She’d been that go-to friend for over twenty-five years, even though time and distance and life meant that we sometimes went months—even years, a few times—without talking much. She was the anchor during my divorce over two decades ago, and I can still hear her laughing when I’d call, irate over my estranged husband’s latest transgression. “The only thing funny about it is that you’re so shocked and angry,” she’d say. “Let it go!” She was right, of course, and I’d been reminded of her sage counsel more than once in recent months. My second marriage was crumbling under the weight of deceit and abuse.
Here we were, together again, this time in Solanas, Sardinia—a tiny beach village along the island’s southern coast—in a home exchange arranged months earlier. It had been advertised as a “charming, rustic beachhouse”; it bore little resemblance to the luxury hotels of our traveling past, and, as far as we could tell, had no proximity to anything resembling a beach.
Marie had been my go-to source when Sardinia beckoned, not because she’d ever been there or had any special insight, but because her grandparents emigrated from Sicily over a hundred years ago and their Italian roots held firm, even if her passport proclaimed her an American. What is normally considered spaghetti bolognese, she calls macaroni with gravy, and her pasta lexicon is numeric, vaguely explaining those mysterious numbers on pasta boxes. She’s the diva of her Italian-loving Manhattan meet-up group, and I’m convinced that should someone cut off her hands, her tongue would fall out as well. For all things Italian, she’s my source.
And for that matter, maybe all things too hard to navigate alone.
We’d met back in our DC days, me a young lobbyist for the plastic bag industry, and her, the savvy insider, keeping safe the distilled spirits industry of America. She peddled Boodles gin, Moet champagne, Absolut vodka, and single malt scotch while I tried to convince the nation of plastic’s benefits. She drew the crowd, and I rode her coattails.
It was her DC apartment—its tiny galley kitchen, ten-foot ceilings, and Victorian molding—that was my respite during the drama of my first divorce. My then two-year-old, Owen, knew her as “Aunt Marie,” our wacky friend with the elegant apartment where we had pajama and movie parties, mostly when Mom seemed sad and needed a friend. It was a regular enough occurrence that Aunt Marie’s apartment came to be stocked with Owen’s own melamine bowl and plate and cup, and a can of Chef Boyardee, to be opened only in the event of dire emergency. It should be noted that the can was never opened, Marie horrified by its mere presence in her cupboard. She finally tossed it, declaring that no kid she loved would ever eat that junk.
Sometime after my first marriage and two new kids into my second one, she was my pick to stay with my babies when my new husband and I secretly jetted off to Honolulu in search of schools, housing, and jobs, the next step in my plot to move my family from beltway politics to the beaches of Hawaii. She routinely questioned my logic, first on the new husband—whom she called Church Man because she never remembered his name and because we met at church—then on both my moving strategy and my common sense in choosing her to watch my kids. Unmarried, with no kids of her own and no tolerance for the suburbs, she looked bewildered as I handed her my house keys and a map to the preschool and waved goodbye.
She swears I never called to check on them, a point I contest, but maybe it’s true. But when I returned two weeks later, she’d become the Peter Pan in my children’s magical world. Five-year-old Austin introduced her to Thomas the Tank Engine, and she sat with him, transfixed, convinced that the show’s narrator, George Carlin, would surely revert to his stand-up calling of smut, that this children’s movie phase was purely hallucinogenic.
Like the actress glumly owning her box-office failures, she reported that two-year-old Emmi couldn’t be swayed by Coco Chanel’s timeless fashion wisdom about elegance and simplicity, insisting instead on prints plus stripes plus plaid—and the tiara—on a daily basis. “That’s okay, I guess,” Marie told me. “I did what I could. She’s young. There’s still time. And thank god the women at the preschool knew she wasn’t mine.”
Teenagers now, Austin and Emmi had not spent much time with her in the years since—just short visits whenever we passed through New York City, her home since retiring from her high-flying lobbying days—but time and distance hadn’t dulled her mystique. To them, Aunt Marie was a living, breathing, designer bottle of pixie dust. Me? I believed that bottle to be filled with truth serum and honesty. Exactly the potions I needed about now.
For our Sardinian adventure, we rendezvoused at the airport in Calgieri and giggled like schoolkids as we engineered the inclusion of my family’s meager carry-ons and backpacks in the rental car after stuffing it full with Marie’s steamer trunk, designer carry-on, and expensive leather satchel. There was none of the usual whining as Austin and Emmi crammed in on top of their bags, their feet settling for the cracks between the suitcases on the floorboard. Marie drove, while I navigated the nonsensical maze of narrow, twisting, scare-you-breathless roads between the capital city and our Solanas summerhouse.
While our hosts—Italian grandparents straight out of central casting—escorted us through the history and rustic nuances of their family home, I exchanged nervous glances with Austin and Emmi. Their eyes registered our common thought: the queen of luxury—with her designer bags, Chanel sunglasses, and perfectly manicured nails—is actually going to stay here?
The small, dated kitchen with the lean-to roof jutted off the covered porch, separated from the rest of the house as though an after-thought, behind the bougainvillea vines threatening to overtake the eaves. A wobbly table and chairs—circa 1950 with the formica top and metal frames—anchored the room. Rickety cupboards flanked the fireplace where a picture of the Virgin Mary leaned against the mantle, food splatters suggesting she’d enjoyed more than a few meals here.
Across the small porch, past the simple square table and two wooden straight chairs, Grandma guided us through three sparse bedrooms flanking a space that might have once been the entryway, before TVs demanded a room. Grandma pointed to the mismatched, folded sheets on each bed, miming that we could make our own beds as we wanted. She showed us where she’d cleared the closets so we had room for our belongings and shook her head forcefully when pointing to the closed bureau in the small master bedroom. Off limits. We got the translation. Ignoring our nervous glances, Marie smiled and tested her rusty Italian, chatting and miming with Grandma, conveying our understanding and appreciation.
Outside, Grandpa scurried around the property, showing us the fresh herbs in the garden. The basil and rosemary we recognized immediately, but the thick green leaf vines brought us to a bi-lingual, miming quandary. Crowns, the couple mimed, weaving the vines together and placing them on their heads. Plucking the leaves individually, they held them to their nose then pretended to drop them into a pot, their eyes pleading that we figure it out.
“Bay leaves!” Marie suddenly declared much to our collective relief, our American city-dwelling ignorance in full bloom. Our meager herb gardens never included bay leaves, and we reveled in the just-discovered truth that they weren’t brought forth as those dry, sad leaves in the McCormick jar.
Pulling a small, distressed plank of wood from his pocket, two old fashioned keys bound to it with baling wire, Grandpa tugged me, leading us to the rusty double-wide chain-link entry gate—the one at the end of the dirt path, off the dirt road that intersected the main road that led back to the house—then handed me the key and motioned that I demonstrate my ability to successfully lock and unlock our fortress. I struggled at first, then again. He demonstrated a second time. Marie giggled quietly over my shoulder; I knew better than to catch her eye. With Grandpa’s calloused hand guiding mine, I eventually maneuvered the key into the intricate lock, forced it open, then locked us back in the safety of the compound. Grandpa nodded with satisfaction.
In the kitchen, he pulled the bottle of Mirto from the refrigerator and pointed to the small glasses reserved for the occasion. More miming—berry picking, grinding with a pestle, cooking, stirring, tasting. A Sardinian specialty made from honey and myrtle berries, Mirto liqueur warms from the inside out and sucks the breath away with the first sip. His bottle was hand-labeled “Rosalba Mirto 2012.” He’d made it himself, and named it in honor of his wife, Rosalba. We nodded appreciatively and walked them to their car.
As instructed, I took the room by the door to the porch, the door that didn’t quite close completely, the door for which the only lock was a padlock. On the outside.
No cell service, no Internet, and definitely no three-sheeted luxury beds. A rusty old gate with an antique key that I’d successfully mastered once in my four attempts. A crossroads village with one restaurant, a couple of markets, and one gas station. A winding, indecipherable maze of switch-back, harrowing roads leading in all directions but with no maps or GPS to explain them. And absolutely no idea what we’d do for the next two weeks. We reached for the Mirto.
For the next fourteen days, over early morning coffee at the simple square table on that front porch, kids still sleeping, a catharsis unfolded. Always the first one up, I cut up some melon, made toast, brewed coffee, and retreated to my writing while the birds awoke and chattered in the surrounding trees. Marie joined me an hour or so later. In our faded pajamas, hair pulled back, no signs of make-up or any trappings of luxury, we sipped our coffee in silence until our brain waves fired with the first jolts of caffeine. Then the stories poured out. Each morning, a ceremonial ritual commenced, an exhalation, a release of the long-held weights that I’d not even acknowledged I’d been carrying.
“I never, ever expected to be twice divorced at fifty.”
She nodded and shrugged.
“I loved him, you know.”
She pursed her lips, shook her head ever so slightly, and locked her eyes onto mine. I knew the look all too well. It was the same one she gave me whenever I doubted my ability to get a job done. Or when I wore something she didn’t approve of, which happened so often that I took to planning my wardrobe around my plans to see her. A look of impatience, hoping I’ll eventually catch up and realize the error of my ways.
“I’ve supported myself and my kids all these years, but can I really do it again? Can I start over? Re-build a career?” Her eyebrows arched, the pshaw audible. “I’m a tired, fifty-year-old, overweight woman with rebuilt boobs cross-stitched by a freeway system of scars and no nipples because I never went back to have that done after the mastectomy. And I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m going to do next.”
Marie guffawed, the kind of belly laugh that she’d release whenever I complained about my first ex-husband.
“Really?” she said. “We’re here, facing all this, and we’re talking about your boobs?”
Once again, she was right. I laughed. “At least they’re all perky again. I don’t have to wear a bra, you know. They stand up all on their own.”
Over those mornings, on that porch in the wobbly chairs beneath the bougainvillea vines, along with the smell of fresh toast and a dwindling supply of coffee, I exhaled, letting go the months—years, maybe—of fear and destruction and failures that defined my marriage. That Marie never quite liked Church Man in the first place made it all the more poignant. She never reminded me she hadn’t liked him. She just listened.
I held back the lurid details: the slamming me against the walls, the forced sex after my chemo treatments—rape, I’d eventually come to understand—the monies stolen, hidden, and squandered. But in those mornings, those facts didn’t matter. I wasn’t quite ready to speak those truths out loud, preferring instead to write about them first.
With Marie, it wasn’t about the details of what had happened, but rather, what was happening with me. Now. Time and distance would sort out the past, I knew; my challenge now was the journey forward, what happens next, and she was my most trusted guide.
“How could I let my kids down like this? Will Emmi ever know what a healthy relationship looks like? Will Austin?”
“Yes,” she reassured me. “They will. Because you will teach them.”
“How could I have been so stupid? How did I rationalize it, ignore the obvious, let it keep happening? Am I really one of those women, the he-loves-me-no-matter-how-he-treats-me types?”
“You loved him,” she reminded me. “You believed what you wanted to believe.” Then she reminded me of her friend, the one whose husband was fired from his seven-figure post, and only after his failed suicide attempt did she know of his years of deceit and embezzlement—and that they were completely broke. “It happens,” she reminded me. “And we pick up the pieces and move on.”
I talked about my anger—the type that boils up from within and sticks to the tips of my fingers and the back of my tongue, tainting everything that passes through my hands or from my mouth. I talked, and she listened.
“Life never turns out like we think it will,” she said. “Who’d have thought I’d end up single, facing retirement in a 600-squarefoot mid-town apartment and loving it?” She told stories of her childhood, living in a walk-up apartment on East 5th, between Second and Bowery, raised by doting parents whose factory on Canal Street in Chinatown made Christmas stockings and aprons and hats, and doll dresses in the off season. “I remember we were the only ones of all my friends to have a shower and a sink in our bathroom,” she recalled, smiling. The teenager who always wore her best dress to visit the neighbors, apparently a fashionista even in the ’hood. The young lady who got a secretarial job and climbed the corporate ladder to eventually be the legislative voice of a multi-million dollar company. She’d defied tradition, expectation. And none of it had come easy.
“Remember your treks out to Staten Island?” I reminded her, giggling. Every weekend—even into her fifties—she’d retrieve her car from the garage to visit her dozens of cousins and ailing aunts, all of whom sent her home with fresh tomatoes and basil and pastas, because “you just can’t get good food in the city.”
“You and the kids really have to come to New York at Christmas,” she insisted. “Come to my party. Matt and Jake put up the ten-foot tree and do all the cooking,” she explained, “and I only invite people I really, really like.” Her family—friends from a rich career and special people collected along the way—all gathered around for the holidays, and Marie holding court. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the season.
I listened to her stories of dinner and theatre dates with girlfriends she’s known for decades, and stories of the men she dates occasionally—nothing serious, just company, she assured me. I admired her strength—the same strength and charisma that drew me to her so many, many years ago. “You’re a great mom,” she said, abruptly changing the subject. “You’re going to be fine.” Her sudden turn shocked me. In that moment, somewhat surprised, I realized that she admired me, too.
Without the clutter of technology, under the birds’ chirping and flapping, in the company of that old friend rediscovered again, I found the acceptance to own my past. And the realization, as she put it, to rebuild and move on.
Eventually our mornings turned to afternoons, and breakfast gave way to a drive into Villisimius, the resort town seven kilometers away, where the waiters at La Lanterna held our favorite table and knew our favorite dishes. We wandered in and out of every tourist shop, jewelry store, and occasional boutique and made a point to try every gelato joint in town.
We managed to conquer the switchback roads, and even went exploring beyond Villisimius a few times, always getting lost, and always managing to eventually wind back to the summer house, our only landmark the blooming cactus that hung so low over the dirt road that I ducked every time we drove under it. I handed off my gate duties to Austin, who turned out to be far more talented at ancient key mastery than me.
Sunset always brought us home again, to those wobbly chairs and creaky table, where re-matches of “Name that Tune” would commence. The kids had thought it lame when Marie suggested it that first night after dinner, in those hours when TV and the web might otherwise fill the void. But when she cranked up her iPhone to sounds from Flo Rida and Emeli Sande in her first few challenges, they were hooked. It became their obsession, and over the two weeks, and countless challenges, Marie never missed a beat.
I wandered through the summerhouse garden, hanging our laundry on the clothesline strung between the trees, just past the rope swing where Emmi and Austin wiled away the early evenings. I marveled at the bay leaves, their strong vines weaving a maze amidst their small plot. They aren’t dried and wrinkly at all. Sometimes discovery is gradual. Sometimes, it comes all at once. No, my marriage couldn’t be saved, I realized. And what’s more, it shouldn’t be.
Our two weeks coming to a close, we reluctantly packed our things and headed to bed on our last night there. I drafted an email to Marie, to be sent once we finally had internet again, attaching a copy of the essay I’d been writing—the long, rambling, lurid story of my marriage, its collapse, and the truths too painful to share on that porch. “Here’s the entire story, including the stuff I couldn’t say on that porch,” I wrote. “Thanks for listening.”
Just then, Austin whispered, “Holy shit!” loudly in my direction as he looked out the window into our courtyard, just beyond the table where we sat every morning. “Come look at this, Mom!”
Emmi and I rushed to his side, adjusting our eyes to the dark garden, lit only by a glimmer of moonlight through the olive trees. Slinking along the wall of the shed, silently gliding towards the porch, it was unmistakable. The moonlight cast an eerie reflection off its beady eyes—a rat, far bigger and fatter than any housecat we knew, and it was headed straight for the house.
“Don’t tell Aunt Marie!” Austin and Emmi whispered in unison.
“No shit,” I said in return.
I slammed shut the door next to my room—the front door, the one onto the porch, the one without a lock—and slid a chair in front of it for extra measure. She’d put me in that room for protection. It was the least I could do.
POWELL BERGER is a freelance writer living in Honolulu with her two teenagers and two kittens, where she revels in their havoc and joy in equal measures. She is currently plotting to split her time between Honolulu and her other favorite city, Paris, where she spends every July as a Program Fellow at the Paris American Academy’s Creative Writing Workshop. Besides Full Grown People, for which this is her second essay,her work has appeared in various print and online publications, including Travelati, Hawaii Business, and Inside Out Hawaii. She hasn’t made it yet, but she still plans to eventually show up at Marie’s annual Christmas party. Her writing world is housed at www.powellberger.com.
This essay contains spoilers about Breaking Bad, so if that matters to you, bookmark this baby. —Ed.
I have something of dire importance to say to my wife, Sheryl, but she’s on the phone. So I grab a beer and mill about.
When she’s finally off, she tells me that she went to Zumba, how tired she is, how her cute dominatrix instructor from the Ukraine encouraged her to up her weight limit, what her dom wore to class, what she wore to class, what the other people wore. Sheryl knows I hate this kind of conversation, because it’s not really meant for me—unless, perhaps, as punishment.
When she’s done, I say, “There’s a new theory floating around about Breaking Bad.”
She doesn’t respond, just stares at me. This is significant because, for the past several years, the one thing we could agree on, without fail, was that show. Following the saga of Walter White—the cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who transforms into a drug kingpin—was inexplicably therapeutic for us. The rule was we had to watch every episode together, without cheating, or there would be serious hell to pay from the other. Afterwards, we would discuss.
We got married, in fact, because we liked talking to each other.
Here’s the gist for those uninitiated into the series: Walt needs to earn money for his family before he dies, so he enlists the help of one of his former students, Jesse, and together they secretly cook meth in an RV out in the desert. But Walt’s plan is complicated by the fact that he excels at his new cottage industry. His blue meth is the purest around, which puts him both in competition, and in league, with some of the most ruthless members of the criminal underworld. Ultimately, his megalomania endangers the lives of everyone he loves, including his wife Skyler, his teenage son Walt Jr. and his newborn Holly.
“The theory,” I continue, “is that what we saw wasn’t the real way the show ended, and that the last episode was all in Walt’s head.”
Sheryl looks around the room, at the color of the walls that she’s not satisfied with, at a stinkbug pioneering a stretch of molding.
“The idea goes that as the police close in on Walt in the snow-covered car he’s trying to hotwire, he changes up the game in his head. The cops pass him, he magically finds a set of spare keys behind the visor, and rejuvenated by his sudden good fortune, returns to New Mexico to settle his final scores.”
She stares at me again. At least it approximates eye contact. “But what does it matter?” she asks. “He dies anyway.”
Her comment feels like a kick in the nads, but I catch my breath and soldier on. “Well, it’s important because it determines whether he’s able to die on his own terms. It’s about being a man, you know? And then you’re left to ask: Well, is that just after all he’s done? Is that right?”
But she persists in her take—which is not to have a take, I guess.
“I’m just saying, what’s the point of even talking about it? The show’s over now.”
“You’re right,” I say, deflated. “What’s the point?”
Sheryl and I met as undergrads at the University of Georgia, reunited on Facebook twenty years later, flirted by phone for several months, and then finally began our bi-coastal dating relationship.
Jet-setting between my home in Los Angeles—the entertainment capital of the world—and her home in Charlottesville, Virginia—where nothing much happens but the weather—was super-romantic. She was the one who wooed me. She sent me handwritten love notes and little gifts (including a cast iron skillet) that evoked pleasant thoughts of domesticity.
When we were together, we were always on vacation.
When we were apart, we talked on the phone almost every night, about the old times, the status of mutual friends, the unspooling of our lives. Unspoken was how she became more conservative with the birth of her son, how I became more liberal from my five years of living on the Left Coast.
What didn’t seem like a match two decades earlier gradually came to seem do-able.
The difference in time between Eastern and Pacific meant my stories were often bedtime stories for her, and I could tell by the long pauses between affirmations when she was nodding off. Neither of us minded so much that I didn’t always get to the ending, though.
Some stories—the ones we truly love—we don’t want to end.
I never meditated too long on why the writers chose the name “Heisenberg” for Walt’s alter ego. I knew his namesake was a scientist and that it had something to do with the atomic bomb, but I figured they would either explain it more or I could look it up later. Well, I finally looked it up.
Warner Heisenberg was one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which not only led humanity down the road to atomic weaponry, but it also led us down the road of quantum theory in general, which includes quantum chemistry and quantum physics.
Just like with Walt, good intentions could be viewed as having gone astray (although in the real Heisenberg’s case, it was a more complicated matter). The real Heisenberg had terminal cancer, too.
Subsequent theories in the quantum realm express similar dualities. Just like that old chestnut about the Deep South, it’s all relative, right? The truth and how well it can be defined are sometimes dependent on your perspective.
At least two realities exist in Breaking Bad. One is the TV ending we can live with. Walt finds a way to transfer his ill-gotten gains to his son, exacts his revenge on those who crossed him (who were conveniently more evil than he was), and rescues Jesse from the meth dungeon, where he had been forced to cook for the thugs that Walt had previously allied with.
I still need that ending. It may not be quite as logical, as “real,” but I cannot live in a world in which Jesse at least doesn’t get away. He doesn’t deserve that fate.
But I’ve also come to accept the implicit ending, that what Walt thinks he experiences is actually a fantasy he concocts in his own rotting brain. He’s still aware, of course, of the logic of how people will react to him, based on how they’ve reacted to him in the past, and this knowledge keeps him from spoiling his own illusion that he has continued forward, even though he has really gone nowhere.
With a generous nod to postmodern film criticism, which counts viewer interpretation as being as valid as the filmmaker’s conscious or stated intent, it simply feels more like real life.
In reality, bad things happen to good people, and some mistakes can’t be taken back.
One of the reasons Sheryl and I fight is sleep. If one of us sleeps well, the other can’t seem to get a wink. Sleep is the aspect of a loving relationship you can’t really work on. It’s a zero-sum game, and we are both greedy in bed in that respect.
When she sleeps, she sprawls diagonally, points her long legs all the way down to her big toes, and kicks like the professional dancer she aspires to be in her next life. I’ve often suspected, though, she doesn’t do her Rockettes performance in my absence, and that she’s passive aggressive even in REM state.
But I admit that I am more disruptive. I scream unexpectedly in the middle of the night, for example. It isn’t always a nightmare. Sometimes I simply fall asleep on my arm, and my arm follows, and the alarm in my subconscious goes off, bleating its warning from the murky depths that a part of me is dying.
This all led to Sheryl’s decision to finish the basement. It would give us more space, she explained, and we could move her son down there, freeing up a bedroom for when we both really needed our sleep.
My stepson T. is fifteen and already six-foot-two. His haircuts alternate from Ziggy Stardust, to hippy-dippy, to high-and-tight. He’s currently trying to grow a mustache, and so far, he’s already doing better than I’m able. He’s a good human being. Better than me on that front as well. He’s also quite possibly a genius—just ask his mother.
So she drew up plans—she once dreamed of becoming an architect—and oversaw the contractor. She did all of the finishing touches herself. Throughout the process, I was supposed to praise every new wall erected, every sign of progress, but to me it felt like we were going backwards.
The pending change in our sleeping arrangements felt like the demise of our romance.
Suspense, of course, is essential to telling a good story, and one aspect of Breaking Bad that fascinated us both is that it jerked you around in time. An unexpected flashback or flash forward would create a tantalizing mystery that begged to be solved. Like the pink teddy bear with one eye that ended up in Walt’s pool.
The puzzle pieces didn’t always make sense right away, but you knew by end they would all fit together.
The bear, we learn, was a result of the fictional Wayfarer 515 air collision, in which a bereaved air traffic controller accidentally sends a commercial airliner into the path of a chartered plane, killing 167 people. One act of un-kindness—in this case, Walt letting Jesse’s girlfriend die—kicks the next domino, which is her father, the air traffic controller, whose distraction leads to the mid-air collision.
With so many lives affected by the tragedy, your imagination is left to extrapolate how bad energy will just keep multiplying.
The flight from Los Angeles to Virginia is about seven hours. If you fly non-stop. Plus, you have to take into consideration the three hours you lose. My flight was further complicated by a stop-over and a bump, which meant staying in the Philadelphia airport an entire sleepless night.
Walter White did many unforgivable things over the course of the show. He even poisoned a child. All I did was try to get some sleep.
For my first official day home, Sheryl planned a party for all of her friends to welcome me. But as the time crept closer for her to trot me out, I was still in bed, which was still “our bed” then. She rudely shook me awake.
“Would you stop?” I begged. “A man needs his sleep!”
“A man needs his sleep?” she repeated, outraged—as if my exhaustion was an affront not just to her and her own need for sleep, but to all women’s need for sleep.
“A human being!” I said and covered my eyes with a pillow. “Now go away!”
She left in a huff, telling me I had five more minutes and then I’d better get up. When she returned, she brought her son in to double-team me. He was much littler then, but together they were a force of nature.
“Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” they yelled as they jumped on me and bounced the bed.
I bolted upward and threw out my hands in self-defense. Once I remembered where I was again, I was not amused.
“You’re lucky I didn’t hit you!” I snarled and rolled over.
Despite the obviousness of the context, I knew that didn’t come out quite right. Sheryl confirmed as much when she responded, “If you ever hit me or my son…”
Unfortunately, that fight stretched out for several days. The welcome-home party took on a turd-in-the-punch-bowl vibe when I hardly spoke to anyone, inviting retaliation from my wife afterward. The drama culminated with me on my cell phone in tears on the Downtown Mall, still trying to explain myself, but needing to be anywhere else but in the same house with her.
As teenagers rubber-necked, that’s when I said it. That thing you can never take back.
After the never-ending home construction project was over, I finally had that sleep study done, the idea for which had originated months earlier at Sheryl’s request.
It was awkward. The tests are conducted in a hotel, which seems to me more tawdry than medical. The technicians put electrodes all over your body, they let you watch a little television until you’re sleepy—I caught a repeat of Breaking Bad—then they observe you while you sleep. You really can’t move around much. You’re tethered.
I didn’t feel like I slept much during the testing. I kept going under and then resurfacing. They call these “arousals.” I was relieved to learn that they didn’t mean the other kind, because they said I had a lot of them during the night.
In the morning, they fed me a sumptuous breakfast in the hotel lobby. I ate second helpings, with the assumption that I had no obligation to tip.
I felt good about that decision because the bill from the test was a killer. Another source of animosity between us. At first she said she would pay a portion of the damage, but then she reneged. Choosing to have the test done was ultimately my decision, she said.
At my follow-up appointment, the doctor said there wasn’t anything dangerous about my sleep. I didn’t need to strap on one of those S&M space masks—an assortment of which he had on Styrofoam heads all around his office—but I could still get one if I wanted. He would just have to make up an excuse for insurance purposes.
I returned home triumphantly from the doctor with test results that proved I fell “within a range of normal.” To which she only sneered.
But I had done what she wanted, and I asked, “Can I come back to our bedroom and sleep?”
“Now that we’re in separate rooms, I feel like the problem has been solved in my mind,” she said. “I’m getting the best sleep of my life. But maybe you can visit once a week?”
I think a part of her wanted me to beg, as penance for some past sin. But I was too proud.
As our standoff unfolded, she actually faulted me for not being more loving, for not catering more to her needs. She grew increasingly confrontational, and she justified her actions with the non sequitur that she could behave that way because she was the girl in the relationship.
Silently, though, I agreed with Sheryl. I believe that all girls should be told they hang the moon. They should be told that they are pretty and smart and that they are loved, without condition. But that’s not what happens in every girl’s childhood.
And that’s not how I responded. What came out of my mouth instead was, “I can be just as much of a girl as you can.”
So here we are. Breaking Bad is over, and the only show that even comes close to replacing it for us is The Walking Dead—a metaphor I’d prefer not to contemplate.
What happens now that we can’t offload our marital tensions vicariously through Walt and Skyler anymore? What happens now that we know the whole story—that Walt Jr. won’t become a meth addict, as we once feared, and that poor Jesse indeed makes it out alive, if not unscathed?
What happens now that we’ve reached an end?
We have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for months now, with fans to knock out any impromptu noises in the night. During this particular night, which is actually early morning, I’m so mired in the old lumpy futon mattress I sleep on that my arms get pinned to my sides and one of them falls asleep. By instinct, I cry out and wake myself. It’s loud, but maybe she didn’t hear?
A few seconds later, the hall light shines in through the door cracks. It’s 3:30-ish a.m.
I fall back to sleep and get up at my normal time. When I peek into Sheryl’s bedroom, she’s already downstairs. Her bed is made. And I verify the situation with our wedding pictures is status quo; she’d taken them down, despite the therapy we both agreed was helping.
I have to hand it to her. This is her passive aggressive masterpiece.
You take for granted the images you see all of the time, until they’re gone. I’m trying my best to picture the cluster of three 11 x 14 photos, but it’s a challenge. All three portraits are of the two of us at the ocean in our wedding clothes—a destination wedding in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
In the picture that comes most readily to mind, Sheryl stands on the black rocks in her red cotton Victoria’s Secret dress, looking statuesque. I sit in diminutive silhouette, staring up at her like a child might.
The second-easiest to recall is the one of us prone in the volcanic sand, and you can see us both clearly in this one. I wear a white shirt and have my tan britches from Old Navy rolled up mid-calf as I nest in her arms. We both look stupidly happy as we stare off towards the ocean, like a scene from our remake of From Here to Eternity, the last blush of sunset still clinging to the bottoms of the clouds.
But the third picture is the hardest to remember. It doesn’t come to me right away, but it will later. It’s a close-up of us in silhouette. Our arms are entwined yet free-flowing, like some statue from a Hindu temple. A beast or a deity with a shared torso and two distinct heads. Even in shadow, both of us are clearly recognizable as our individual selves.
That’s the one I’ve always liked best.
I had waited a while before calling her out on taking the photos down. She claimed it was because I referred to her clustering of art as “junky,” which isn’t quite right, because she also removed the stand-alones of us propped up around the house.
Who was wrong first? I don’t know. Sheryl’s always had her fears, and she’s always made them a reality. I’ve always reacted in knee-jerk fashion, turned tail and ran, but being married isn’t about that. It’s about sticking.
Yes, technically, I was the first to cry uncle on the bricks of the Downtown Mall. To say in a fit of anger that I wanted a divorce. I’m ashamed to say I’ve said it more than once, but I’ve always taken it back. And she’s taken me back.
Finally, she said it, too. And while she also took her words back, the photos are still down.
But we are not over yet. In part, because I don’t want us to be. I’m still hopeful she feels the same.
As I get ready to take my morning shower, I overhear a conversation between mother and son. He apologizes for having been grumpy the night before—he lost his favorite calculator.
“It’s all right,” she tells him. “We’re all working on becoming better persons.”
Soon after, T. leaves for school. Sheryl sips coffee on the couch and writes in her journal. I eat a quick breakfast and throw together my lunch, all in purposeful silence. My episode of night terror still hangs over us like blimp.
But before I leave the house, like she does for me each weekday morning, she rises from the couch to give me a goodbye kiss. Sometimes it’s not a real kiss. Sometimes she only receives, on her cheek or on her forehead. But it’s something, and probably more than I deserve.
This morning, just like always, she meets me half way at the barrier that separates “shoes on” from “shoes off.”
Suddenly, with her right hand, she balls up her fist and rears back like she’s about to hit me.
But with her left hand, Sheryl pulls me forward and kisses me on the lips. Which tells me that an ending isn’t always an ending, and that we might just be okay.
ERIC WILLIAMSON is a journalist and communications professional who has recently begun exploring personal essay.