At my former nonprofit job about three years ago, I came to know a younger female colleague, one whom I really grew to like in that I-can-see-her-future-through-my-past kind of way. But there was a part of me that felt uneasy about our conversations about pop culture and, invariably, about race. Admittedly, some of that had to do with me. I was and am a married man, after all, and more than a decade older at that. This wasn’t about those typical issues of attraction or temptation. For me, it was ultimately about authenticity. My understanding of authenticity, and my former colleague’s search for it.
Over the years I’ve gotten used to being around folks — male and female, Black, White, Latino, Asian, gay or straight, attracted to me or vice-versa or not — who ask questions and make comments that could be off-putting if I were, say, Ron Artest or Joe Pesci’s character in GoodFellas. I’ve spent time with acquaintances and friends who’ve questioned my Blackness or thought that I tend to overthink the things that are going on in the world. I’ve been around many a person who’s been surprised by my diction (and how it can or can’t change depending on my mood and location), my music, and my views on everything from the use of the term African American (I prefer it without the hyphen) to my disdain for Black urban romantic fiction (including Zane). It can be hard being different, following your own path instead of following the pack, especially when a part of you would like to take the easier option.
One of my first conversations with this former work colleague was about the music I played at work. I played it often and played it relatively loud — mostly to drown out the noise of my next door office mates. I also had about half of my total collection on my computer at work, which leaned disproportionately to the ’80s and early ’90s. Most people I worked with gave me weird looks, laughed with, ignored or actually stopped by to listen to my music. My colleague, who happened to be doing some work in a nearby cubicle one day, complimented me, saying that my music was “eclectic.” It took a couple of seconds for her to find that word, but once she did, she kept using it.
Eclectic. It can be like the way academicians use the word “interesting,” which can also mean “exotic,” “esoteric,” “bizarre,” “usual,” “weird,” “complicated,” “dense,” “off-center,” “eccentric,” “crazy,” “stupid,” “dumb,” or “interesting.” In my colleague’s case, I came to the conclusion that she simply didn’t know what else to say. I think that it was well beyond her experience to be working in proximity to a Black male who liked listening to U2, Journey and Phil Collins at the same time listening to Eminem, Maxwell and Luther. So I became a curiosity piece, not good or bad, I guess, but a curio nevertheless. Over the next few months, our handful of conversations covered various aspects of pop culture, particularly more recent and Black aspects of music and culture. I probed at times to find out more about why she seemed so interested, but to no avail.
At some point I decided that my former colleague’s interest in discussing these issues with me was because I was a safe person to talk to about these issues. I’m a married man with a kid, about ten years older and with a high intellectual bent. It was unlikely that I would hit on her or come on to her in some way or get pissed at her for asking me what some would consider inane questions. It was certainly much safer to talk to me three years ago than it would’ve been if I’d been in my late-twenties. Of course, if she had known me in my asexual teens, she could’ve used me as a sounding board.
But I also sensed a bit of desperation in her, one of needing to know how to relate to herself, to embrace herself and others in this world not like her. If they knew the full story, some might argue that she was merely looking for a man. I don’t think so. I’ve been there, maybe not as obviously desperate, but been there. There are times in our lives that we desire to have nothing to do with how things actually are in our lives, where we shut ourselves off to the parts of ourselves that we see as ugly, or too difficult to deal with, or want to embrace something new and different.
I did that to the Boy At The Window years of my life once the ’80s came to an end. For the better part of twelve years, I generally did not talk or think about those lonely and heartsick days except when I talked with my wife or with one of my closest friends. I certainly gave little thought to how out of sorts I felt in high school, or my steep learning curve in terms of my social skills once I started college. I might not have been desperate, but I was conflicted. I wanted to be myself, but I hadn’t figured out who I was yet. I also wanted to be part of a social circle, one that at least understood me, if not in agreement with everything I thought or believed. It took putting my misery-ridden past aside to achieve what I needed to happen while at Pitt. It was likely a key to me maintaining my sanity.
Funny thing is, I had just begun working on the Boy At The Window manuscript when I met this colleague. I was working on the second chapter, the one about my first crush, the one about our relative issues of desperation and my own issues of domestic violence at home. Maybe my getting to know this person helped me think a bit harder about what I wanted to say about my first crush and how I wanted to say it. I must admit, the chapter on my first crush and my abuse would’ve been far gushier if I hadn’t seen some similarities between her and my former colleague.
As for my former colleague, I may be overthinking things like I normally do. Maybe her interests in my music and my understanding of pop culture was just that. Maybe for a brief moment, she was interested in me. I do think, though, that she was and may still be in search for a place where she can belong, to herself, to a circle of sane, eclectic individuals, a place of peace. In the end, isn’t that what we’re all looking for, a place where we can be our authentic selves without also tearing ourselves apart in the process?