“I didn’t think you’d want to know.”
This was how my boyfriend of three years told me that he was leaving me for a different girl. A white girl.
As I watched him struggle with what to say, I remembered that I had seen them together around campus before, but had figured it was nothing; a harmless friendship that might be a little flirtatious, but not serious. Standing there on the sidewalk, I slowly began to understand that despite immersing myself in years of stolen glances, goodnight calls and sun-kissed smiles, it was all over. And even more shocking was the realization that he had always known it would have to end.
In spite of all of the laughter and secrets we had breathed to each other in the night, he had been lying to his entire family about who I was and what I meant to him. Why? Because he was embarrassed of my dark skin. As a Muslim man coming from a strict religious family, he was afraid of their disapproval and so figured the easiest solution was just to leave me for a woman with Blake Lively’s complexion. I don’t know what was worse: The fact that I was blindsided by this or that all of his whispered reassurances over the years that his parents would love me had meant nothing. He had to make a clean cut from me and he had to do it without thought for how it would make me feel.
When I first met Harvey, I fell in love with his eyes and his skin before I fell for him (I couldn’t help being attracted to him and his beautiful smile—and when we finally did speak? Wow). Even though ours wasn’t a groundbreaking love story, I don’t think I’ll ever forget how we met at the beginning of the semester. Sitting at the back of the classroom, I remember laughing in his face when he tripped over his own feet and landed headfirst in the seat next to me. He made a look of indignation that turned into what I’d come to know as his signature smirk, and then jumped smoothly into conversation as if he hadn’t just made a tremendous fool of himself. After that, we ran into each other at every turn. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something about the way that he carried himself across a room that made me want to get to know him. Maybe it was his shy smile or his penchant for sarcasm, but just like that, I stumbled into his love headfirst and with abandon.
From the stories he shared with me, I knew that Harvey came from a small Egyptian family who practiced Islam. He confided in me that he didn’t really consider himself that religious and would often get frustrated pretending to be just to appease his mother. I loved hearing him speak about his family’s culture and the customs that they followed. Being of Haitian descent (with a tight knit Catholic family of my own), I couldn’t say that I shared the same struggle as him, but I understood what it meant to feel so disconnected from what was supposed to be your identity. Growing up, I was subject to a running joke among my friends that I would marry someone outside of my nationality and race because I always had crushes on guys who were not black. It eventually started to catch on to the point that my classmates teased me constantly, making comments like, “Cassandra probably wishes she was a white girl with the way she’s chasing after those white boys!” and “Why can’t you like someone in your own race for once?” I hated their bullying, and so stopped confiding in them (and really anyone else) about my romantic interests for years. Those days I felt like I was drowning.
But Harvey was different. Slowly, I found myself becoming more comfortable with the idea of us after seeing how open Harvey was when it came to sharing his family stories with me.
What Harvey wasn’t open about was whether I’d ever fit into one of his stories. He never introduced me to his family or brought me to his house, and he refused to take any of my relationship questions seriously. When I would try to ask what he thought about interracial dating, he laughed and told me to “Relax. Stop thinking so hard.” I did not push back on him and demand that he answer me; in fact, I let myself fall even deeper into this relationship, which we never defined or named.
With every subsequent conversation, I stumbled just a little bit harder; I was secretly counting the days until I would get to meet his brothers that he spoke so fondly of and his parents that he could never mention without grinning. Of course, I was nervous about what they’d think of me and whether they would accept me as a Catholic, but I never shared my concerns with him because I was afraid of making him uncomfortable. Even though we were already two years into this relationship, I didn’t know where we stood. I began to fear that he wasn’t all in the relationship and that I was possibly falling too hard too fast.
So when he finally announced that he wanted me to meet his brothers, I couldn’t wipe the stupid smile off of my face for weeks. He decided that we would all attend a football game together and the thought of us having concrete plans laid all of my insecurities to rest. I couldn’t wait for the pieces of his story to fall into place and to put a face to the names he spoke about so lovingly and which I had committed to memory.
Of course, I was completely terrified at what the outcome of our date would be. Would his brothers like me? Did they already know everything about me? Did they share his dry sense of humor?
I never ended up getting the answers to any of those questions. On that brisk and rainy autumn day in November, I waited for him outside of the stadium for hours, with no missed calls, texts or voice mails. I could not imagine why he did not show up and left me standing in the rain like an idiot. My only conclusion was that his brothers weren’t interested in getting to know me. It was at this moment — after we had been seeing each other for two years — that I started wondering whether this relationship would really work. He called me that night with simple apologies for missing the game and I had nothing to say except “OK.”
It wasn’t until he broke up with me a year later that I learned that his parents had decided to tag along to the game after overhearing his brothers teasing him about the date; in a panic, he changed his mind about going and didn’t think to tell me.
We were stuck in an awkward tango of me taking two steps forward with what I thought was a budding relationship and he vehemently taking two steps back. But it wasn’t until things completely fell apart that I realized how far behind me he actually was.
That Christmas Eve, I woke up in the early morning to the sounds of my mother’s screaming and a screeching siren. Jumping out of bed, I didn’t understand what was going on or where I was until I saw my mother and brother hysterical on the floor, caged in by policemen. I pushed my way through…and then pushed the bile back when all I saw was red.
Just two short weeks after his 21st birthday, my oldest brother had died in his sleep. I was lost, confused and set adrift; I haven’t been able to find my footing ever since.
Harvey was there for me until he wasn’t. He would offer to listen to me as I poured out my heart to him, but I never felt as if he gave anything back. He had no idea what to say when I told him that I would never be able to let go of the feeling of being buried alive. I was lost and I needed more than his little apologies and awkward silences. In all of the time we spent together, we’d never had anything like this come between us. Our calls were shorter and he started to pull away; we’d sit in silence and the distance was suffocating. It was pretty easy to see that my anxiety became a hurdle he just couldn’t handle.
But it wasn’t until the one year anniversary of my brother’s death that he was finally honest with me. That day on the sidewalk, he told me that he was never planning on telling his parents about us because of my race and that he would rather take his chances with a white woman than risk upsetting his family. In our three years together, he had never shared this concern with me.
In a way, hearing that my Christianity had nothing to do with his breaking up with me was almost worse. I could control my beliefs but I couldn’t change my race. I was so utterly ashamed that I hid the embarrassment from my face and – once again – said, “OK.”. Because of my dark skin, whatever this was between us had an expiration date that only he was aware of from the beginning.
I laughed it off like it didn’t mean anything, as if I knew all along that we were never meant to be serious. We never put a label on it anyway so why should I care who he dated, right? Why should I give a damn about a guy who wasn’t brave enough to even try to face his family to defend my complexion?
Four years have passed since that day and I still carry that shame with me. For a while, I hated myself for not standing up for what I deserved and for letting the fear of it happening again get to me. Whenever I feel a connection with someone new, I can’t get rid of the voice in the back of my head that wonders whether my race is something that I’m always going to have to be cautious about. It’s gotten to the point that I expect any guy I’m interested in to just pick up and leave.
I never knew where I stood when I was with Harvey and I don’t really know where I stand now that we’re no longer together. I’m not inexperienced with relationships, but I’m also not clear on what I should expect from future ones. The break from him was sudden, but the repair was not; he left me adrift on a sea of uncertainty and I’m still searching for land.