keeping up appearances

Mendi Lewis Obadike

i used to work for this fellow.under him. with him, you know.

he was a pretty nice guy. he was white, but i knew him from the church. this wonít make sense if you're thinking of my church home. there were no white people where i worshipped. we worked together at the board of the worldwide church. (the only place where we integrate.)

he was from a powerful family. he was also married to this sister. we were supposed to think he was therefore on our side or, you know, at least interesting.

so anyway, (itís best not to dwell on white peopleís miscalculations in public, even in invisible parentheticals) he showed me the ropes at work. he was a mentor to me. the only thing was, showing me the ropes often meant we had to be off somewhere alone together. the strangest things would happen in these moments, the first of which was when he reached inside my blouse to adjust my bra strap. he walked away, leaving me standing in the middle of the office floor, thinking about the two separate occasions in which a male had, without invitation, reached for my bra. the first time, the other kid and i were both around twelve years old. it was a little strange, but i was okay with it. he was a friend. this time, it felt creepy. on the one hand, there was the age difference. this guy was at least twenty years older than me. on the other hand, he was a peer.

i was, after all, eighteen. an adult now. maybe itís just like that when youíre an adult.

but then he turned around and came towards me: ďoh, donít think anything of that,Ē he said. ďi have a wife and kid, i would never . . .Ē i donít remember whether he let it trail off like that or i just stopped listening.

i never said anything to him about this. but of course i thought something of it. standing there, head pounding. there was the attempt to pull my thoughts together. looking at the faces of people now walking by or moving around in nearby rooms. busy in their cubicles. busy in the copy room. there was the desire to keep this from happening again, but bigger than that was the desire for this to be nothing.

this is a series of things i told myself i had forgotten: there was the chance he really meant nothing by it, wasnít there? and if i just made sure my bra strap didnít show again, there would be nothing to question, right? i could tell him about my discomfort and he could get better (and keep explaining how he meant nothing by it) or get worse. or i could act like it was nothing and things could get better (because nothing had happened) or get worse. worst case scenario: i could say stop and he could show himself to be as evil as i feared him to be. best case scenario: i could say nothing and nothing (else) would happen. i was an optimist.

in front of the closet the next morning, there was the hunt for something sufficiently unremarkable. a shirt that covered, fully, the shoulders and neck, but not a form-fitting shirt. a blouse. a bra with tight straps that didnít move.

i donít have to tell you that things got worse. you already know, donít you? i donít have to say anything, most likely, anything at all about those jokes or the other times he took liberties with a strap or hem. (how it was. the way muscles in the backs of other white men would tighten, as he did these things only in their presence. how their lips pursed, the wheeze of air escaping through their nostrils. the desire to accept friendship. the desire to see acts of aggression as something else. the theories that develop. if you donít acknowledge the bad feeling, it means the thing isnít what it feels like. the thing. all this had to be worked out in silence, in the head. words, you see, betray themselves.) but maybe you donít know how things can look better as they are getting worse.

he praised my work to my real boss all the time. i wanted things to be right and so, between wrong touches and wrong words, i held my breath. simultaneously added up every undesirable act and erased it from my short term memory. optimism has a way of dimming when you look some people directly in the eye. the longer things went on like this, the more important it became to keep up appearances. if you were to look in on us, at a meeting or in his office, you would often see us laughing together. somehow, i kept thinking, iím going to get out of here before i feel forced to confront him. if this is happening because he wants to hurt me, i donít want to know. he became smarmy. i became small. something i still wonder: how small could i have gotten before i felt forced to confront him?

he praised me and praised me. i didnít drink, smoke, eat meat, or take caffeine. i didnít seem to have, he kept saying, any vices. he held me up against his step-daughter, who was unwed and a new mother, my age. her baby was much lighter than she was. when she came to visit the office, he insulted her the entire time. after each insult, she would smile a resigned smile, shrug, and look to me . . .

copyright 2001 Mendi Lewis Obadike