The Gray In Between
by Nicole Allen
I’ve always existed in the gray space… between black and white, between the hard lines. It was about so much more than the color of my skin. This “red-boned” girl with untamable curls had thoughts and feelings and an essence of being that drifted into places the hard-liners wouldn’t go. Everything and everyone around me was a hard line.
She was a high school dropout; a teenage runaway; a girl escaping the hand life dealt to her [a pocket-sized fireball mother, who was an abusive, alcoholic reservation brat… and a burly, racist, womanizing, European-bred farmhand father; neither of whom cared much for the multitude of children with which they populated the Midwest] in order to live by her own rules. Life abandoned and free, she forged new worlds into her reality. The imagination of a 15-year-old is limitless, and so was her determination. Unable to steal away her younger siblings for her voyage to the Golden State; in about a year’s time, she’d know for herself the struggles of being a young mother. She would be met with the responsibility of birthing a brown-skinned, curly-haired, mixed-race baby into the space between black and white. But, her hard line of freedom at any cost had been drawn and cemented into place.
He was a smooth-talking country Cajun; a star athlete; a ladies’ man in the making [his high school sweetheart, turned wife, had little use for him after he was stationed overseas for the war… even a baby-on-the-way couldn’t keep her faithful or them together], who turned young girls’ heads with his 6-foot, 2-inch athletic physique that he carried with authority as he exited whichever high-profile vehicle he was driving that day. By way of Baton Rouge, the Los Angeles inner-city became home to him and his matriarchs when his father decided to plant his next church there. A decade later, he was the sole provider; a hardworking construction manager, toiling through life’s rubble; lending his spare time to only mom and nana, until the day he saw her. The 4-foot, 9-inch narrow frame crossing the avenue in a canary mini-dress and white go-go boots would soon call the number he scribbled on a napkin. Not long after, he would rescue her from a violent beau, take her in, and gamble away his freedom in one night… the night he conceived me… the night his black and her white became gray. His hard line was opposite hers, so he wore a veil to keep the peace.
Here I am… exactly like both of my parents, and not. Free-spirited, strong-willed, earthy, imaginative, inclined to run away from what hurts… secluded, compromising, stately, disciplined, inclined to defend and fix the hurting. The Gemini zodiac sign wasn’t wasted on me. I was born into duality. It is my birthright. It is my gift. Between the hard lines, between the black and white; I am the conceding gray. It is my ticket to the glitz and glamour; as well as my pass through the slums and alleys. I am the proper among the poor, and the meek among the privileged; in neither case being disingenuous. Gray carries significant weight.
Some people consider life to be fated… a series of events beyond their control; a dishing out of servings they sometimes delight in devouring, but more often than not trumpet as an outpour of spoils dumped upon their heads, creating a stench they can do nothing about but cry “victim.” Others see life as a game of chance. One never knows what is around the corner… good or bad… lucky or unlucky. The roll of the dice keeps them teetering on the edge of life’s seat, and an ample supply of hearty superstitions may be just enough to bring more positives than negatives into play. Of course, neither perspective provides much ambition for the soul. Fate and chance are hard lines… with no relative influence of choice. If all is fated or left to chance… well, one must wonder – what’s the point of any of this. What’s the point of me?
She was not one to be tamed; she never was and never will be. The men she seduced served a purpose. They were part of her lifelong escape; just as the drugs and alcohol, which helped to coat her existence with a passing numbness that required frequent refills. Her motherly instincts, however haphazard, were strong. She never laid a hand on us when we were children [perhaps her childhood beatings granted us this favor], and one birthday meant presents for us both [though presents for any occasion were often returned to the store a few days later because we couldn’t really afford them]. Her laid back nature and long leash provided ample room for her life posture to be absorbed by my sponging spirit. From father’s perspective [once he removed his blinders], she was a harlot, a manipulator, a thief, an addict, and an unapologetically bad mother. From the wide accepting eyes of her firstborn, she was fun, creative, cunning, adventurous, real, unafraid, crazy (in a larger than life kind of way), and she gave us a freedom to evolve… even though this growth took place among prostitutes, thugs, perverts, and criminals, all of whom were usually high or wasted in their functional capacity as professional outcasts. But they all had stories… they all had pasts, which led me down paths of compassion and intrigue as I sat, often for hours, listening to their tales of “the good ol’ days,” before society abandoned them to the playgrounds of scum. They were my friends… at least the ones who didn’t attempt to violate me. Some of them had been gray, too; but migrated to the outer lines and commenced the waving of fate- and chance-ridden flags, once life had its way with them. I felt okay about it, though. Like hers, their hard lines were ones in which I could revel freely.
He, on occasion, would carry me off before daylight in his chariot. The deep orange streak above the hills fought vigorously to push up its navy nightcap as we scurried to work at the construction site. At the time, I didn’t know why I’d get to spend the day frolicking in the dingy warehouse among rolled up industrial rugs, cold metallic machinery, and endless mountains of bits and pieces that didn’t make the cut. But it was dark and vast and I could play with the old desk phones, if I liked. Daddy knew my imagination would keep me quietly stowed away until he could find a place for me to go while he worked. It was one of those days when she didn’t come home the night before. It was also one of the treasured glimpses I had into his mysterious life when I was young. He was always working. I imagine the way she taunted him made him want to work more. He wasn’t a violent man, though very intimidating. He was the king of his castle, and no one could tell him otherwise. Well, she could, but anyone else might live to regret it. He was proud, strong, and quite full of himself; although, two failed marriages proved his outlook to be slightly inflated. She often said he was a liar, cheater, abuser, neglecter, and a self-righteous hypocrite who always made her out to be the bad guy because he was better at keeping his secrets. He must’ve been really good with secrets. All I saw was a giant, gentle, mysterious man of integrity; who never smoked, drank or said much because there weren’t a lot of good things to say. I revered his hard line, seeing little less than perfection. [He wasn’t always fair, though. I knew if I bet a dollar against the Lakers and they lost, he would not pay me my winnings. One time I inquired and learned it is very disrespectful to ask a parent to pay a debt. To this day, I’ve never asked for any remittance of any sort from any family member. It was a good lesson.] What’s more, he loved Asian artifacts and bear rugs, Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee, and only I knew where he kept his gun… because I loved these things too, which made me special. I was the responsible one. And when he was especially proud of me, he would pat me on the shoulder gruffly and say that I was his favorite son. I knew he was being funny, but couldn’t help but wonder how my older brother would feel if he heard such a thing.
Grandmother was my abiding cornerstone. When parental care was reduced to Wednesday night sleepovers at dad’s and Sunday visits with mom, my heart rebelled. I had grown accustomed to instability. Being grounded was boring; spending three days a week in church was frustrating [as Southern Baptists rarely complete the moral of the story once they are captured in the throes of the Holy Ghost, selfishly leaving the rest of us searching for the closing point that the adults somehow already knew]; and grandmother was always suspicious of everyone’s intent, which made her over-protective, over-bearing, and not gullible enough for my alibis. Often, I mumbled my wishes for her immediate demise. Within moments, however, I would quickly recant my desires, believing that somehow that would be the one prayer God granted and I would be forever vexed by my evil tongue. I did not cry at her funeral. I’m still not sure why. She was my everything. I remember crying for my father’s pain when he heard the news. I remember being angry when I found out my uncle pulled the plug without my father’s consent. I remember empathizing with the grieving elders of our church, whom I’d grown to love as my extended family. I remember despising neighbors and friends who had a field day rummaging through my grandmother’s treasures; as though they had any claim to her belongings [I polished her jewelry. I brushed her wigs. I clipped and polished her nails. I applied the fancy Oil of Olay cream to her supple cheeks every night before I “accidentally” fell asleep in her bed. She belonged to me, making me by default the executor of all her things. Still, no one consulted my authority on the matter. They likely underestimated the sophistication of my twelve years of life]. But I did not shed a tear for her, and that always weighed heavily on my heart. Perhaps, this first loss of a loved one began the shaping of how I respond to disappointments. Little things tend to unnerve me, but big things… the tragedies that shake people at their core… well, those are the times when I am a rock of comfort and understanding, when my feelings sink to the bottom of the well and I’m flooded with the conviction to make things better for everyone else. Or maybe I just don’t know how to deal with tragedy, so I don’t. There was nothing iffy about grandmother’s line. I knew it and I knew it well. It planted the seed for my salvation.
There’s a third way of considering life. Those with any type of faith base tend to receive life as a gift. Any realized circumstance is acceptable, as something grander can be gleaned from it, adding to the shaping of character, the building up of wisdom. Breath and experience are to be valued and only questioned from the perspective of perennial growth.
Today, my step-mother is as two-faced and bitter as she was the day she promised my grandmother [on her deathbed] that she would take care of us girls. I don’t have much to say about her, as my views are pretty much the same now as they were then, and I prefer to speak in terms of evolution. I will say, she harangued my dad into non-existence during our teenage years, when she reigned as tyrant and passive-aggressive overlord over us all. We spritely ones escaped with notable scarring. Unfortunately, father remains a prisoner of war, waiting to see who will outlive the other. On the upside, the passcode to higher education was her gracious contribution to my wellbeing. As an educator and patriot, two non-negotiables in “her” household were a college education and respect for our nation. I might not have benefitted from either had it not been for her utter commitment to emasculating my father. As such, her hard line granted me the tree of knowledge [and -yes- this is a pun referencing both Eve and the serpent].
Aside from four years of cranial refinement, social networking and emergent independence; from university, I netted a husband with whom, in total, I spent twelve years of my life. With those twelve years came emotional and psychological abuses, along with lesser doses of physical exploitations, both externally and upon my own person. Anyone interested in those sordid details is free to peruse my poetry to deduce which belong to this muse. Amazingly, the greatest gift in all creation [through the eyes of any true mother] came from our collision of courses, and the resulting salvage is an even deeper shade of gray than I.
[He is the dragon to my ox, and we both flow deeply like water, filling up the containers we encounter in our lives and washing out that which shouldn’t stick to our souls. He is everything I am not, but also am. I am sure his aptitude surpasses mine. But then, he does not have the forty plus years of experience I have, which – he admits – puts me at a superior ranking of mad genius than he. I accept this glowing compliment from my jovial teen; knowing, despite my sheltering, that he will soon catch up to me.]
Someone as fuzzy and fluffy as I (per my step-mother), with an exceedingly stupid heart (per my father), inevitably had many knight in shining armor dreams; which stubbornly persisted from the time I was very young to sometime before yesterday. Words, music and pictures crafted the most magnificent representations of romance that my lofty mind could compose; as I was sure that love looked nothing like what I saw growing up. I suppose the unpredictable nature of my parents’ relationships caused me to be charged with a desire to plan a much better course for my impending love life. As it were, a series of dead-end fairytales [beginning with my divorce] effectively snuffed out the breathing room of my heart, and it seized with fear of being permanently annihilated.
Then there’s that fourth posture towards life: life is a trust given to us from God. Whatever portion we are granted, we are intended to multiply and, subsequently, bear fruit. Every experience is a deposit into one’s spiritual wealth; it is an opportunity to plant, nurture, harvest and feed… expanding our capacity to relate and develop intimate relationships with God and one another. He promises abundance to those who manage His trust with hope, compassion, love and authority.
From there [infancy] to here [maturity], I can overload the airwaves of the universe with jaw-dropping parables, gnawing soundbites and perplexing parodies that most would cast off as imaginings, if I didn’t claim them as testimonies. The groundwork was sufficiently laid by my family, which constructed these cross wires of breeding and circumstance, forming the hard lines all around me. One line shouted I was never good enough, perfect enough, or exemplary enough for his standards; making me timid and filled with humility, always questioning my worth. Another line snickered and taunted that I was too well-behaved, a miss goody two-shoes, and a challenge to accept because my looks and personality didn’t fit in with her revolving door of sketchy situations; making me increasingly loyal and socially adaptable, determined to be whatever I needed to be. The third line framed my conscience and all of my early beliefs and concepts of God, which were unquestionable; making me afraid to fully commit my life as a Christian, for fear of imminent damnation at my first failure following baptism. One more line taught me that every privilege has a price, as nothing is freely given from one person to another without consequence [usually a painful one]; making me immensely independent throughout life, intent on accomplishing what is needed by my own accord, but also being that person who does give freely from the heart… because I should treat others better than I’ve been treated. Finally, with the escape route of my hopeful fantasies severed, the last hard line dropped upon the others, roofing the walls I spent half of my life trying to climb over. The culmination of all the black and white lines of this world, the hard places that rejected everything I was and wasn’t, closed in on me. I became trapped within the confines of all the conditions which eventually broke my spirit.
At ground zero, God entered and breathed life back into me. He lifted the pieces of my heart, my worth and my understanding, and began to reveal greater purposes for my life. Were it not for everything I’ve been through, I would not be so centrally positioned to love with my mind and think with my heart. I wouldn’t be able to sit, walk, talk, laugh, cry, work, play, serve and pray with anyone of any station in life, of any faith, creed, race, gender, age and belief. I can do this because I embrace being gray. I own the messy composition of my life. I appreciate the jagged edges as much as the smooth ones. And because I’m this hodgepodge of all the hard questions and even harder answers… I love the hard lines, and everything in between. In this rigid, hateful, segregated world; I am blessed to be in the gray space… the malleable, forgiving, encompassing freeform that is only seeking to multiply the portion God has given to me.
Before the sunset, I was the rose that emerged from the crack in the concrete, with my parents serving as both the concrete and the crack. Hard and broken, solid and open, earth gave birth to me. Gemini – twin of the universe – living in duplicity.