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I was not always a white girl. I used to be just Charlotte. A person named Charlotte Halsey. But when I met Milo, when I fell in love with him, I became White, like a lit lightbulb is white. In the mirror there is my skin the color of sand, hair the color of butter, eyes blue as seawater. Just so bleachy white I am practically clear. In a heavy snowfall you’d have trouble picking me out. Even in the photographs from my so-called glamour-puss career it’s hard to tell which blond is me. There I am, with what they called my “trademark smile,” square teeth like Chiclets, my “fresh” look; there’s my “peaches-and-cream” complexion, more cream than peach, all of them talking about me as if I were food.
Milo is black, what they call “Black,” only not to me. Brown skin, a shade the newer catalogues would call cinnamon stick or cocoa. The palms of his hands are pink as the lining of seashells, and his eyes are green like beer-bottle glass. You in your sunny kitchen, or your office cubicle, or your local shopping mall may not mind that the word black means “soiled and dirty,” means “characterized by the absence of light” or “evil or wicked or gloomy.” God knows, I could have cared less myself, before.
Look it up, Milo says, it’s what you hear of black: blackmail, black magic, black sheep, black mark, black-hearted, et cetera. You see what I’m saying? When I argue about this, somebody white always says: “Get over it. It’s a word. It describes a group. Why be technical about it?” It’s not a word, I think now. It’s sticks and stones.
My daughter is called black but I am called white, which has a different bag of definitions altogether.
Why we can’t call everybody by their names — Milo and Charlotte Robicheaux and their daughter, Hallie — I don’t know. I’m sick of it, the language of it. Names will never hurt you. Ha. Names like Black, like White, will break your heart, crack it open like a melon dropped on the pavement.
Milo is always preceded by Black, and trailed by it. He wakes up in the morning to “the first black Olympic skier,” “the black athlete who...” and goes to bed at night with it, “the blond wife of black Olympian Milo Robicheaux.” His skin, my hair. Our little piano key relationship.
To me he has mostly been just Milo. I stopped seeing skin a long time ago with him. They say lovers can find each other just by using the sense of smell; that we are all really animals in that way, no different from dogs or deer. I know it’s true. I could find Milo blind in a room of men, would know him by the keloid lump of a vaccination scar on his left upper arm, would know by touch the large knees knotted from surgery, the smell of him like pine trees in a snowy wind. I could pick him out just by the slow rising of his breath while he slept.
So no, until this happened, up to the time of the assault, he was not black, not to me. He was Milo. He was my husband; a man — famous, okay — who liked parties and dancing, fast music, high speed of any kind. We had fights that made me cry. And him, too, he cried, too. We had long weeks without talking. We had days of just fucking, all day in bed, eating and drinking and never getting dressed. He made me smile.
He cut a smile, they said, in my neck.
Tried to kill me with broken glass, a smashed wine bottle, one of a couple I emptied that night. But he botched it, mostly hitting the silver necklace, missing the important arteries and veins, which saved my life, but not my voice. Left me mute and bleeding on the marble tiles of our kitchen floor.
Or maybe he didn’t. I don’t know. Jesus, I just really don’t know if he did, so get away from me please. Leave me alone with your questions.
Milo loves me, I believe this. He loved me, he always said, more than he loved himself, more than he loved screwing, or skiing deep powder, or drinking dark cognac. Loved me. Despite her. I believe that. In his jail cell where he is now he writes to me: “Charlotte, please, please.” He wants me to come see him, says if I’ll only come, he knows I’ll see the truth. Will see, goddammit. But if I go — if I could go, if I would — would I find out anything new? Who would my eyes discover? Milo of my dreams, of my whole early life and up till now? My Milo? Or the man who cut me up? At this point, I don’t know if I’ve ever really been able to see him plain, underneath that skin on him, the man there, or for that matter, if he’s ever seen me. Perhaps it is true what they said all along, what Darryl Haynes said: that Milo saw my hair, period. For him I was just some fever dream of hair. Some ornament, like another statuette to put on the shelf next to his medals and his loving cups. And if that’s true, then was his friend Darryl right about me, too? That Milo was some kind of a taste, as he called it, of the forbidden fruit? “Just your Chocolate Fantasy,” he told me, laughing. “Just you on your Black Booty Quest.”
“We don’t see color, we see each other,” I said back, and believed smugly that we had gotten past that, blind to it, besotted as sweethearts no matter what, mad for him, and he just always needing me, Charlotte. Until he didn’t. Until he tried to kill me. They say he did it.
They say. It’s certainly possible. It’s certainly something he might have resorted to, what with all those green algae blooms of jealousy between us, the he-said, she-said of it, not to mention living through all our fucked-up, zebra-stripe, history-book history played out right here in the spotlight of our breakneck lives.
The police say: no question. They run down the evidence: My blood on his hands. Cuts on his hands. Glass on his shoes. The fact that he resisted arrest. Punched a cop. They found him leaning over me where I lay bleeding.
He says: He was trying to save me, breathe some air back into my lungs, kiss of life, mouth to mouth. So did he try to kill me? I don’t know. Maybe. If he didn’t, though, who did? It was dark when it happened, and I was out of it, messed up, messed up.
“You clean up this mess!” my mother would say to me, and I would try, and never get it right, crumbs all over the couch, smears of jelly on the linoleum. I’d have to go get the hairbrush, have to stand commanded to be still while she whacked my backside with the brush. She hated a mess. We had plastic covers on all our furniture. We had plastic lining the walls of the staircase, vinyl sheets of it, protecting the paint job from our hands. “There now,” she’d say, smack smack smack. “Now you’ll remember.”
I wish I did remember. They come and ask me questions. I meet with the detectives, mouthing words, forcing whispers through my smashed larynx, or writing notes. I meet with the prosecutors, telling them what I know, going back to the beginning, over and over. They lay it out on the table, in a time line, all their evidence, pictures, stains, things the neighbors heard in the night: Mrs. Deraney across the street said there was loud music. But there was always loud music. John Cipriani, making out with his girlfriend in the parked car, heard shouting. Nothing new there, either. Not lately anyway. Blood, music, shouting, mouth to mouth, et cetera. Fill in the blanks. Find the missing clue.
Piece by piece, my daddy used to say, putting together the weekly jigsaw puzzle on our glass coffee table. Piece by piece, Sunshine, he said, coming home from work, snapping a male piece into a female, lifting a section into place after church. My sister and I peeled off our white gloves to help him, the boys rolled up their shirt cuffs, and we all took off our painful shoes. We did a big round one once, called “Little Red Riding Hood’s Hood.” It was a solid red circle, nearly impossible to put together. Find the edges first, Sunshine, my daddy would tell me, start there. While we worked he started telling us about how puzzles are made, some jigsaw technique to it, when my little sister Diana said she had to go to the bathroom. “Don’t you interrupt me!” he shouted at her out of nowhere. He dumped the whole puzzle on the ground, swept it right off the table in a big dramatic brush of his big arm. “I was talking,” he said through his teeth, and his arm flew in one fell swoop. The puzzle was broken on the floor. I think of it any time I hear the words one fell swoop. We four had to pick it up and finish the whole thing before we could go to bed. We cried and he said, “Go ahead, cry.” He said, “On your knees, then, and pray to be sorry.” We got down and prayed. Prayed to figure it out, put it together. We picked up the red pieces and our tears dripped on them. We finished past midnight, all our fingers red from the wet red cardboard.
It was all one color, all the pieces of Red Riding Hood’s Hood were red. Whereas, I don’t need to be told now, this puzzle, mine, is two noncolors, black and white. Negro and Caucasian. Much trickier, more treacherous.
Looking down now at the threadline of waves breaking below our window, by habit I search for Milo’s wetsuit shape on his surfboard out there, riding fast, standing in a crouch, finding the wild ride in. He likes so much to go fast, the drug of unchecked speed. It must be hard for him in that small cell, holding still. I think he thinks about me, and I miss him, who I thought he was, and I hate him, my fingers wandering up, tracing the pink itchy ridges of scar necklacing my throat. I would like just to push him off a high building, except that he would drop so fast, and death by flying would of course be his choice of death, and why would I give him even that pleasure now? Better just to let him sit with no windows in the tiny, tiny cell, caged up like a beast. Although, you know, you’re not supposed to compare a black man to an animal. Not if you’re me, anyway, you can’t. It’s racist. Everything is, you know, for me. All this trying to talk about race; it’s like being in a leghold trap, where the caught creature has to gnaw off her own leg to get out of it.
I met Milo in the middle of the night. He woke me up out of a beery sleep, out of my hard and narrow college-dorm bed. I was lying there with my hands folded across my heart. Freshman Repose: 1974. My best friend of nine weeks, my unhappy roommate, Claire, slept in an identical bed across from mine, blotto, a curl of knees and sheets and clothing. The air of our room was close and hot, the breath of cigarettes and beer rising up from us drunken girls, mingling with the scent of our shampoo and our lotions and wet winter socks drying. Outside our door, the corridors of the big granite dormitory were quiet, but in certain rooms there were lights burning, gusts of wild laughter, the throb of music, husky whispers.
I woke to shouting, pounding on doors, our door.
“Let me in!” a guy was hollering, drunk. “Angela, open up, you hear?” He was hammering his fists, maybe kicking his boots, so the slim mirror on the back of our door rattled. I staggered up half sleeping, with my nightgown trailing behind like a ghost costume. “Who are you looking for?” I whispered.
“Angela Williams, goddammit,” said the man outside.
The square-headed frat boys with their hard muscles and their hyena laughter were having a school-night party in one of the houses across the quadrangle. This would be a drunken pledge, I thought, looking for his date.
“This is not her room,” I said, resting my head on the back of the door. “She doesn’t live here.”
“Excuse me. I’m sorry. Pardon me,” said the voice. “Sorry, sorry, excuse me, please, my sincere apologies.”
“It’s okay,” I said, and watched my reflection talking in close-up, breath misting on the mirror. “You’ve got the wrong room.”
“Again, my regrets,” he said. “What’s your name, so I may apologize properly?” His face must have been close up to the doorjamb, right opposite mine. He was whispering now, through the crack, so I put my lips there.
“Charlotte,” I said, “I’m Charlotte Halsey.”
“Well, well,” he said. “Call me Embarrassed. Call me Chagrined to disturb you. Call me Mortified.”
“Hey, Mortified.” The word made me laugh. “Mortified who?”
“Mortified Milo Robicheaux,” he said, with a husk of flirtation or possibly humor in his tone, it was hard to tell. His voice made me picture an elegant, white-tied, English gent, tipping a top hat. “Forgive me for disturbing you.”
“Good night then,” I said, but stayed with my lips by the door crack, curious, woozy from beer.
“Sweet dreams, Charlotte Halsey.”
I heard him clomp down the hall, whistling. Back in bed, I dreamed somebody was gliding on runners into the valley, sliding through the leafless woods and climbing up the fire escape outside, creeping like Spider-Man along the window ledge to shatter the cold glass over my head. I cried out and opened my eyes and it was late morning. Claire laughed at me and ice cracked off the branches, tinkling to the ground with the sound of fairy bells.
This college, Cabot College, sits among the Green Mountains of Vermont, and is always in a state of heartbreaking and extreme beauty: the bulk of hills rounding up into skies the color of swimming pools; the fur of snow trimming the black tree branches; a glare of sun off the white landscape that gilds the buildings and people at the same time it blinds you.
I loved it. It terrified me. I walked the paths of the campus with my lungs full of sharp air, wondering was I far enough away now, for happiness to be possible? I did not miss my Napa County hometown of Conestoga, California, where anyone looking at me saw Beauty Pageant Charlotte, or Christian Charlotte, or Drunk-Driving Charlotte; where my parents saw the thread hanging from my hem, the smudge on my term paper, the blot on my reputation, the mud on the back of my sweater from lying down in the grass with Dave Mueller.