One of Them

And for a moment he is one of them.
His sable skin is dusted charcoal on winter mornings, but he smoothed the soft pink into the roughness and he is safe.
She asks him over lunch, over her phone too, as an afterthought that everyone seems to think because the silence is deafening, she smacks her gum and asks, “why are you white in winter? You’re whiter than I am!”
Briefly the silence endures, but his face cracks and a smile pours forth and he accepts her words and the compliment implied.
He is one of them.

His best friend has been so for years, but recently they are different. His friend takes up huntin’ fishin’ muddin’ and he has procured a flag for his truck that matches the flag on his belt.
He does not ask, but his friend offers anyway: heritage, not hate.
He accepts this and dons a flag of his own.
He is one of them.

Their skin is as his, charcoal in winter, earthy brown and deep and his heart catches in his throat when they pass him. He imagines they notice him, or worse, his friends will notice how similar they are, his friends will think he is one of them, but to his friends they are invisible.
They, his friends, watch them from the corners of their eyes all the same, exhaling heavily when they have passed.
Over the pop of her gum and her clicking phone she asks him, “why do y’all put grease in your hair?” And his heart stops then and he shakes his head fervently and denies denies. “I’ve never done that,” he insists. “That’s gross.”
He is one of them.

His mother refuses to listen to any melody with an artist still living, will not hear an artist that did not emerge from Motown. He hates this. When driving his music is loud past the point of discomfort, vaguely he wonders if the ringing in his ears signifies loss. But at the light next to the truck that could very well belong to his friend he turns his knob, the artist blonde even though the speakers and he doesn’t look but he imagines the approval.
He is one of them.

The party is new. These are not his friends. The taste of alcohol is still faintly metallic and far too warm for him, but he pretends. He does not hear the voices over the twang, but he feels the eyes.
He considers leaving, it is too hot and he has a paper due besides, but his friends make no move to leave and he arrived with them.
He swallows past the lump in his throat.
He doesn’t see them follow him up the stairs, he wonders if they can hear their own words. You are not one of us, they scream.

He speaks, softly, offering his name. A name that is his, a name given to ensure his success. A strong name. An American name. All the accolades a proper name implied.

Surely his voice–he is one of them. He is educated. Perhaps if they knew his friends–
He cranes his neck to find them but they are gone.

Later he will consider his folly. Even if he did not, they did. He should not have screamed, they said. Really people are stupid when they’re drunk. He could have handled it better, perhaps by leaving. Blame should be shared.
He is lost. He is naked and worse, exposed, his charcoal flesh laid bare, alone in a place that only he can belong, unable to move forward. He watches as they move past. He is stationary, can continue no further.
His degree hangs lifeless on the wall, his enunciated words thick on his tongue, his name spoken aloud to no one.

Staring down the barrel of a gun he is not asked his name or his accomplishments.
They are ash. They are useless.
He is not one of them.

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