“Really? Is my story the last one in this series? The black guy goes last again?” Huey complained as they passed Maryland House driving south at high speed on I-95.
The driver, Hopper Tilley-Blandin, the ex-husband of Huey’s ex-girlfriend’s sister, responded, “At least you don’t have to do all the driving.”
“Idiot! Do you really want a black man driving this car right now?” Huey yelled. “You are about as white as a Klan bedsheet. Maryland still got plenty of racist crackers masquerading as state troopers looking to bust brothers for DWB.”
“I will grant you that, brother, but please try to remember that my story was told while I was sitting on the toilet,” Hopper replied.
“Just don’t call me ‘brother’ anymore and we’ll be fine,” Huey said. “Let’s stick to our birth names for the time being, otherwise I’ll be calling you ‘cuddle poodles.’”
“Fucking marriage made in heaven,” Hopper deadpanned.
Since March and until a few days ago, Huey, his ex-girlfriend Olympia Tilley-Blandin, Hopper, and his ex-wife Ingrid had been sheltering-in-place together on a 10-acre estate near the Delaware Water Gap that they had dubbed the Tilley-Blandin Fortress. Huey and Hopper had developed a pandemic bond, maybe even friendship, while living in the Fortress. They played made-up games and sports with Hopper’s eight-year old son Max and shared tips on teaching using Zoom. Huey taught math to students at Sidwell Friends in Washington DC and Hopper worked with graduate students in sociology at the University of Chicago.
When it was revealed on a blog [here, here, and here] that Hopper was sleeping with Ingrid, he was banished from the Fortress to live with his other sister Silver in Washington DC. However, it did not work out [here]. Huey learned while reading the same blog post that his girlfriend Olympia was planning to dump him…and she may have harbored racist thoughts and feelings toward black people. For instance, toward people like Huey, who was biracial. “America long ago decided that you are black even though you have a white mother,” his father told him on his seventh birthday. His father also chose that day to explain to him why he had been named after Huey Newton, one of the leaders of the Black Panthers. “Huey knew who he was,” his father told him. “He was comfortable in his own skin. I want you to like who you are because of your skin.” His father taught in the Black Studies Program at Swarthmore College. At home, he referred to his white students as crackers. “Most of the crackers in my classes will grow out of their worst racist tendencies by the time they graduate,” he said, “but when they are 19 or 20-years old, man, they are just insensitive and clueless about how other people live.” His mother taught the novels of Victorian England at nearby Haverford College. “I want you growing up with an empathetic sense of what girls and women go through in this country,” her mother told him on his twelfth birthday. “We aren’t taken seriously, or thoughts are ignored, and we can’t even complain about being raped because, as the boys say, ‘you must have wanted it for it to happen.’ I want you to be better than that, Huey.”
Hopper was in the process of moving out of his sister Silver’s duplex, where he had stayed for less than a week after being banished from the Fortress. He had driven back to the Fortress to pick up Huey (“because they were not about to lend me one of their four vehicles to the black man,” Huey explained on the phone with a hit of bitterness) and then return to Tenleytown, about four miles from Logan Circle, where Silver lived. Huey and Olympia Tilley-Blandin shared the apartment that Huey and Hopper would now share. On the drive, they set the Tilley-Blandin Refugee Rules: cleaning on Thursday night, laundry on Friday night, rotating duties for shared dinner every night, grocery shopping on Sunday night, and jogging together on Tuesdays and Sundays.
In addition, every night at dinner, Hopper was required to share some racist trope so that Huey could deconstruct the Tilley-Blandin form of racism that had been baked into Hopper. “You want to live in my apartment, you gonna get yourself woke,” Huey announced.
“Technically, it’s also my sister’s apartment,” Hopper responded.
“OK, that will be the first topic of discussion over dinner tonight,” Huey said. “How your sister used me to check off ‘slept with a black man’ on her list of Daring Deeds.”
“That’s not a thing,” Hopper said.
“Oh, yes it is,” Huey responded. “You ask Olympia about that notebook she never discusses. The one called ‘Olympia’s List of Daring Deeds.’ I can count at least two other notebooks she keeps filled with other people’s secrets. If I were you, I would never trust another word out of your sister’s mouth.”
“It’s going to be weird sharing a Netflix account with Olympia,” Huey said.
“Ingrid and I have continued to share the same Hulu account we had even before we divorced,” Hopper replied, “My sisters and I share the HBO account with our parents.”
“On-demand is clearly thicker than blood,” Huey laughed.
Huey was deeply heartbroken that Olympia had grown bored with him. Olympia was the kind of women that every man wanted as a girlfriend. Not necessarily as a friend nor a wife, but she was the perfect girlfriend. Beautiful, charismatic, graceful. A swan. Whenever they walked into a room together, Huey could feel the jealous rage of other men directed at him. He liked their desire and resentment. He also liked making Olympia laugh. “Son, if you can make a woman laugh every day, you’ve got her,” his father had told him. His parents had sent him away to Milton Academy. “If you want to be successful, son, you have to learn how to be, how to act, and how to talk comfortably around white people,” his father had also told him. Prep school, followed by four years at Georgetown University, had given Huey all the skills he needed to glide through the world that revolved around Olympia. When Olympia and Huey met, they may not have had friends in common, but he was quite familiar with the folkways of the white, affluent, and expensively educated people circling around Olympia. “I like that you don’t stand out,” Olympia told him at the engagement party where they met. “I’m, like, the only black person here,” Huey responded. “Exactly,” Olympia told him.
Olympia taught English to high school students with great devotion. Her students loved her because she demonstrated a passion for the books they read together. “I want to be useful,” she told Huey, explaining why she chose to teach instead of more glamorous endeavors. As he and Hopper cleaned the apartment shortly after they arrived, he remembered those words ruefully.
“You know, I give your sister about two more years as a teacher,” he told Hopper while he used a Swiffer on the kitchen floor.
“Why do you say that?” Hopper asked as he cleaned the bathtub. “I think she likes teaching.”
“Sure, she likes it now, but what her her long-range plan?”
“I dunno,” Hopper answered. “I never thought of Olympia as a planning kind of person.”
“She has plans. She just doesn’t talk about them much,” Huey said. “Your sister wants to be a person other people admire.”
“I think a lot of people already admire Olympia.”
“I’m talking about being admired by strangers,” Huey continued. “That involves quitting the classroom and going out into the world. She wants to be famous. She gets close to her students to learn about their aspirations. One of these days, she is going to steal some girl’s dream, and that will be it for her teaching any longer. I believe that your sister will achieve her dream. Olympia Tilley-Blandin is going to be famous within 10 years.”
“More famous than my parents?” Hopper asked.
“Hopper, your parents are ARTnews and Variety famous,” Huey said. “Olympia is going to be Vanity Fair and New York Times Magazine famous.”
“Huh,” Hopper responded, before asking, “So, what are you doing teaching teenagers about trig and calculus? It’s noble and all, but I don’t see you teaching math in a prep school at age 40.”
“See, there’s the thing.”
“The way you and your family underestimate me,” Huey said. “Do you even know that I am working towards a doctorate in applied math at the University of Maryland?”
“Sure,” Hopper said.
“You’re right,” Hopper said. “I had no idea. You want to teach at the university level?”
“Fuck no!” Huey responded. “I am going to work at NASA and help put a man on Mars. I want to own a hybrid SUV with a bumper sticker that says ‘My other vehicle just landed on Mars.’ I won’t be famous like Olympia, but I will be a hella more interesting at your white-person cocktail and dinner parties.”
“Fuck yeah! First, have you actually listened to Olympia talk at a white-person cocktail party?” Huey asked. “That girl talks about other people or herself. One of those topics is called gossip, the other conversational narcissism. Even I space out, and I’m in love with her. But in about three years, when I walk back into that room filled with white people, all those white people will say, ‘Honey, there’s that black rocket scientist.’ They will want to touch me and have selfies taken with me. All that time I spent with Olympia, we never went to a black people’s party. I almost forgot how to do black-person stuff, but I sure know how to do white-person cocktail parties.”
“Hopper, I like you, so I will keep it real with you,” Huey said. “This history of America is based on the exclusion of powerless black men in white society. When a black man acquires some power for himself through traditionally white routes, like my pops, white folk in polite society will fall over themselves to support him. My pops is a tenured, full professor living a good life. For white people, it’s an exercise in self-affirmation. Of course, the rest of white society will try to tear the powerful black man down. But polite society has all the money.”
In Logan Circle, Hopper’s sister Silver and her boyfriend Louis were sitting on the sofa, fighting about Hopper. This fight took place after Silver and Olympia had fought on a Zoom call over Hopper, which had been preceded by the fight with her parents over Hopper, which had been preceded by the fight with Ingrid and her sister Heidi over Hopper. Everyone but Silver seemed upset that Hopper was traveling about the Eastern Seaboard instead of sheltering-in-place amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, everyone tied Silver to the proverbial whipping post.
“Do you think Hopper will last very long with Huey?” Louis asked. It was not so much a question as an accusation.
“Hopper will be fine,” Silver said. “And I don’t like your tone. He is my brother and I know him. Hopper will always be fine. Sometimes, it’s just not healthy to be around him.”
“Healthy for him or you?”
“You don’t know the Tilley-Blandin’s very well,” she said. “You think you know me, but you will not know me until you know what my family is capable of. We are creatures that survey the land and seize its spoils for themselves. And you would never realize what monstrous acts we committed for those spoils because we have such…incredible…fucking…manners. Until you know where the oyster fork goes in the formal place setting while also knowing where the bodies and money are buried, you will never understand our folkways.”
“Silver, honey, I come from New Orleans,” Louis answered. “Everyone in New Orleans knows where the oyster fork goes. And everyone knows about the bodies and the money. Maybe you could say the same thing about the Guidry’s. We have had the adjectives ‘stately’ and ‘noble’ thrown at us going back two centuries. Only maybe my ancestors have a little more blood on their hands.”
“Louis,” Silver began, warming to her boyfriend, “we may have the basis for forming an understanding between us.”
Louis nodded in silent agreement and reached across the sofa for Silver.
Olympia and her parents sat at the dining room table in the Fortress, nursing Rooibos tea. Olympia had smuggled the tea from South Africa after she and Huey had visited Johannesburg, Cape Town, Kruger National Park, and the wine region in 2018. Neither had been to Africa. “I have never been around so many black people,” Olympia said on their second day. “Now you know how it feels, just a little bit, to walk in my shoes,” Huey said. Olympia brought back tea, clothes, tchotchkes for the apartment, and arranged for two cases of wine to be shipped. Huey estimated that he took 2,000 photos. “When I see the photos,” he explained to Olympia, “I remember everything I felt, saw, smelled, tasted, and heard. The emotions come rushing back through my veins.” He had a photo of them atop Table Mountain enlarged and framed for their living room.
In the Fortress, Olympia and her parents talked about how, just a few days earlier, there had been eight souls sheltered in the Fortress and now only the three of them.
“What happened?” her mother innocently asked.
“Mother, have you not been reading the blog posts about us?” Olympia asked.
“Well, yes, but I still don’t understand it.”
“Let me lay it out for you,” Olympia said. “And, dad, don’t you dare say a word.”
“Fine,” he said. “I am perfectly aware of my role.”
“I broke up with Huey,” Olympia said. “He was my boyfriend, not my husband. We had no children. There was nothing legal or familial tying us together. Whatever issues there may have been between us were just exacerbated by this whole situation.”
“So, your racist attitudes developed only since the outset of the pandemic?” her father asked rhetorically.
“Dad, just go fuck yourself,” Olympia responded.
“Olympia!” her mother protested.
“Don’t ‘Olympia’ me, mother!” Olympia said. “You engineered getting Ingrid to stay with us and your grandchildren. Who in their right minds discounted the probability that Ingrid and Hopper would end up sleeping together? That one is on you. If Ingrid had stayed in Illinois with Max and Alexis, Hopper would still be here.”
“You don’t think Hopper would have stayed in Chicago to be near his sons?” Olympia’s mother asked.
“In spite of all the bad history between them, Hopper trusts Ingrid with the kids,” Olympia said. “It’s you he worries about. He was always going to come East to be the knight in shining armor for his parents. But I am sure that Hopper never thought that his father would proposition his ex-wife on the very night that he left to move in with Silver.”
“That was just a misunderstanding,” her father said.
“Dad, we read the transcript,” Olympia said, “and it’s not like you don’t have a history with attractive younger women.”
“Mother, what did I say about the ‘Olympia’ thing?” Olympia answered. “You haven’t exactly been the portrait of fidelity in your marriage, either. It’s a wonder you two never became swingers.”
Her parents’ heads dropped, admitting a rare defeat at the hands of their middle child. Hopper had the highest winning percentage, Silver the worst.
“Do you think Hopper will come back, now that Ingrid has left?” her mother asked.
“Yes, mother, I do believe that Hopper will return to us to finish sitting out the pandemic,” Olympia answered. “He and Huey get along just fine. Huey may even ask him to stay, but Hopper won’t be able to help himself.”
In Woodside, Ingrid continued to see her patients through the telemedicine portal and her sister Heidi rambled around the house on Facetime while screaming at her partners at Sequoia Capital. Heidi was a welcome presence in the ongoing challenges of helping keep Max and Alexis up with schoolwork. They were being introduced to the concept of horses by one of the ranch hands. Five horses lived on Heidi’s ranch, and soon a sixth, one that was small enough for young children, would be added to the stable. The horses proved an effective incentive to get the two young boys to pay attention to their teachers via a screen.
Ingrid and Heidi had agreed on a schedule, whereby they would stop for 10-minute breaks throughout the day to check in. On the second break of the day, Heidi announced, “As predicted, Charlize Theron is ghosting your ex-husband.”
“How do you know?”
“She read about my prediction in the blog,” Heidi answered, “and called me this morning to confirm. She hopes that Hopper will read this conversation and get the hint to stop calling her. Maybe now that you’ve left that silly Tilley-Blandin Fortress and all its palace intrigue, he will return to the embrace of his family of terrorists.”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh?” Ingrid asked.
“Are you trying to tell me that you did not use that very term to describe them to Birgit and me two Christmases ago?”
“Is that what I said that night we drank all those White Christmas Martinis in that bar in San Francisco?”
“I remember nothing about that evening except the taste of those drinks,” Ingrid said. “Those three days we spent together without my kids or anyone else were the last three days where I did not feel the weight of responsibility and regret.”
“You’re home now, sis,” Heidi said. “Just talk to your patients, write your notes, raise your kids, and forget about the rest of it. And him.”
With masks and goggles, Huey and Hopper began jogging through Tenleytown. “I wish that I did not know why your family is getting all the attention,” Huey said, “but it’s obvious.”
Hopper said nothing in response.
They had an ambitious route chosen for the day, moving towards Mt. Pleasant, then down towards the Potomac River, across Georgetown, and then home via MacArthur Blvd. Out of curiosity, they agreed to see if there was anything interesting happening on 16th Street. Most days, there was some form of protest moving toward the White House. Mostly peaceful and different each day, depending on the outrage.
“If things get sploozy,” Hopper warned, “just start sprinting toward Dupont Circle and we’ll meet there.”
“What the fuck is ‘sploozy’?” Huey asked.
“Google it when we get home.”
Huey loved Olympia because she was so easy to love. She drew people to her, and she had chosen him. Huey Newton Wallace. She inspired him to be a better person, to be a more generous person. He worked harder on his graduate studies. He wanted to impress her with his hybrid SUV with the bumper sticker that read “My other vehicle just landed on Mars.” He loved the way she looked at him when they lay in bed in the morning. When it was just them, he believed, they could shut out the whole world and just be. Olympia’s parents were unfailingly polite to him, even to the point of trying too hard. With Olympia’s parents, though, there were signals: including collard greens for dinner with great fanfare, bringing up Lebron James in conversation when neither of them could tell whether he played for the Cavs or the Lakers, and making sure that Huey knew that Michelle Obama had introduced Hopper and Ingrid. He had seen a lot of this behavior from the parents of his white classmates at Milton Academy and Georgetown. They wanted Huey to like them. He was never sure if they actually liked him. He thought Hopper and Silver were an odd pair of siblings, alternately warm and affectionate or aloof and disdainful. They seemed so focused on their own demons to even really notice anyone not related to them by blood. Maybe Ingrid fell into that trap, believing that Hopper would make an exception for her. It would ensure that Hopper could be a good roommate, because he would not invest any of his emotional or spiritual self into his relationship with Huey. It would be a purely transactional relationship, not affected by Hopper’s casual racism or Huey’s reactions.
As they approached 16th Street at Columbia Road, everything seemed copacetic. The presence of churches had a calming effect on the neighborhood. They turned south, towards the White House. They caught up to a group of protestors around S Street.
“I think this is one of the pro-mask, pro-science marches,” Huey said. “How about we take a break and join in for a few blocks and peel off at P Street?”
“Works for me,” Hopper answered. “I actually like what these people are trying to accomplish.”
Huey thought for a moment, then asked, “What do you think they are trying to accomplish?”
“Well, to encourage more people to wear masks, of course.”
“I’m not sure you are right about that, Hopper,” Huey said. “Look around. These are almost all white folks. They are marching to make themselves feel good about wearing masks. The throng is endorsing their choices. Soothing their spirits. Buoying their hopes. Letting them know they are not alone. This is like going to church. They are not going to change anyone’s mind nor are they going to affect any government policies. This is a feel-good moment for these people. I’ll give it to them: at least they got off their asses. And because we all need feel-good moments.”
Huey looked across the street from where they were walking. “Hey, Hopper, isn’t that your sister Silver over there?” He pointed towards a woman and a man sheathed in PPE. “I’d recognize those shoes she’s wearing anywhere,” he said, pointing as a vintage pair of white Stan Smith tennis shoes that had been customized with tiny, painted ghosts. Like, Casper the Ghost. “Is that the boyfriend with her?”
“Yep,” Hopper said. “That’s the boyfriend.”
Hopper walked close enough by Silver and Louis so that they could clearly see him. They nodded their heads. He returned the nod and walked back to Huey.
“Man, that’s cold,” Huey said. “Not even a ‘hello, how are you doing?’”
“It’s not the Tilley-Blandin way, Huey. You should know that by now. If we have anything to say to each other, we know how to reach each other.”
That night over dinner, for the second day in a row, Hopper could not think of a racist trope in his mind for Huey to deconstruct despite Huey’s instructions to do so.
“I’m sorry, but I just don’t think of myself as a racist,” Hopper said.
“Don’t think too hard about it, Hopper. If you are a white person in America, you are a racist,” Huey said. “But you’re one of the good ones.”
“Thanks for that vote of confidence,” Hopper said. “What are we going to talk about? The weather?”
“No,” said Huey, “Please pass the salad. Thanks. We are going to talk about what your family and your media have been describing as the ‘catastrophe’ that happened on the Fourth of July.”
“What’s to discuss?” Hopper asked. “Half a million dead. I think that qualifies as a catastrophe.”
‘Hopper, half a million dead is obviously a catastrophe, but it had nothing to do with the celebration of your Independence Day,” Huey said. “Do you remember way back when Trump started having those indoor campaign rallies? And all those Republican governors started opening up their states for business? And all those white people who just could not control their selfish impulses one more second went out in public and rubbed up against each other without masks? Do you remember when all that happened?”
“That’s right, June,” Huey said. “And two or three weeks later, the number of infections and deaths started to shoot up. Well, it was just coincidence that infections and deaths started spiking around the Fourth of July, but it could just as easily have been July 3rd or July 5th. But you know what was different from March and April?”
“The weather was warmer.”
“No, dumbshit!” Huey shouted. “Two things. First, George Floyd was murdered by some cracker masquerading as a cop in Minneapolis and a lot of black people took to the streets to protest. And all the white pearl clutchers started fretting about how black people were going to spread COVID. But, you know, Hopper, black people respect the science. We wore our masks. The demonstrations were out-of-fucking-doors. When everyone wears a mask, the risk of spreading COVID is, like, 1.5 percent. However, in July, it was white people who weren’t wearing masks who were getting infected and dying instead of black people, brown people, and the elderly of all colors who had been discarded into shitty nursing homes. White people, so goddamned entitled to getting your way at every turn, who have not been asked to make any kind of sacrifice for this country since World War II, and who have begun to take their cues from the undisciplined orangutan in the White House, decided that they didn’t have to wear their masks anymore. How many times did you hear ‘only a pussy wears a mask’?”
“Don’t ‘Huey’ me Hopper!” Huey said. “Do you forget that the virus kept mutating, starting to make younger people more vulnerable to its worst effects? COVID started to overwhelm new demographics. The number of the people dying were now younger and white. Your family and the media had to create some kind of catastrophe to explain it away, absolving you and the rest of whitedom of your cognitive dissonance, for your stupid and reckless behavior, and your fucking inability to pass the Marshmallow Test. And so, your media created the narrative that Black Live Matter protesters spread COVID to white people on the Fourth of July, as if it was some kind of plot. Do you want any more pasta?”
“No. Wait, yes,” Hopper answered. “So, you’re telling me there was no Fourth of July event?”
“That’s right. No so-called ‘explosion,’ no sudden and widespread mania, no one-time event,” Huey explained. “Look at the charts. Infections and deaths started to rise in the middle of June, then accelerated in early July, peaked in early August, and have plateaued since without relief. White people under the age of 50 have continued to ignore advice from health experts and your white people in power are afraid to make unpopular decisions so close to an election. If anything, it’s not the Fourth of July catastrophe, it’s a Third of November catastrophe. The election has frightened all the white people in power from actually using the power to protect white people. And white people are blaming black people. Which is nothing new.”
“That sounds a bit—”
“Hopper, just stop right there. I want you to think about things from my perspective.”
“And that would be?”
“Wait, do you think that you and I are the same?”
“Don’t even try the ‘I don’t see color’ thing,” Huey said. “We may have a lot in common, but there is one very huge, gaping difference.”
“Because you’re black.”
“Do you even have any idea what it’s like to be black in America?” Huey asked.
Hopper paused a moment to think. “I don’t know how to answer that question,” he said.
“That’s an honest answer. I can respect that,” Huey said. “Ice cream or fruit for dessert?”
“Ice cream,” Hopper said. “Let’s use the fruit for breakfast tomorrow.”
“Sounds good,” Huey said. “About being black? Let me quote James Baldwin: ‘To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’ I think about this almost every day. Now, you tell me, Hopper, are you in a rage almost all the time?”
“No, not a rage,” Hopper answered. “Mostly just a sense of ennui, but not rage.”
“How privileged you are to be able to feel ennui,” Huey said. “Such a First World malaise.”
“Huey, do you feel rage all the time?”
“Not that you can see, Hopper,” Huey said. If you saw the rage of black men and women, you would not be weary. You would be frightened. You would be frightened for yourselves, your families, your institutions, and your monuments. You would not sleep. You would spend your nights guarding the door against the judgment of history.”
“If you were gripped in that fear, Hopper, it would be dangerous for me, for my father, for every black man, woman, and child I know and love,” Huey continued. “So, to protect myself and my loved ones, I hide that rage. In my unguarded moments, not even Olympia could detect that rage.”
“And to whoever is writing this blog,” Huey said, “thank you for helping me see the truth about Olympia, but fuck you for creating that false narrative around the Fourth of July.”