IT WAS early March, which doesn’t mean much to LA. When most sane cities are welcoming spring’s first fragile blossoms as they struggle through the muddy snow, his was hot and heavy with a layer of grime and sunshine that coated everything it kissed with a sort of murky expectancy. Had I been single, this would have driven me forty kinds of crazy, but I was in love. The best kind of love, when everything is new and there’s not yet any smog on the petals. He was driving because the 110 scared me, because he liked my feet in his lap. We stopped for gas and I’d gotten out to keep him company and barter for a bag of Skittles. The lights in the stop-and-shop beckoned me and the bugs,and I’d bounced over with a fistful of sweaty nickels. Love had made me a bouncing, twirling thing. Well, life had. But love allowed it.
With his brooding drawl and milky whippet cheekbones, Robert Pattinson was the kind of tabloid darling who made girls who had never even been kissed want to drop their panties. Their hysteria had peaked into a frothy fever pitch frenzy when he’d dated his Twilight co-star, Kristen Stewart. Like the trite characters they embodied onscreen, theirs was a romance that seemed perfect and dull. The best-loved fairy tales usually are. They’d graced the streets with their heroin-chic royalty presence in hundred-dollar flannels and weary smiles, and their fans rejoiced momentarily. The average age of the franchise’s horde of devotees hovered around thirteen-and-a-half. As such, they can be forgiven for putting their happiness in the hands of someone else’s heart.
I’d waited in line at the register for my candy, feeling like I always did with him, the way I imagined balloons must. Bouyant and light, emboldened by my tether, the gentle hand wrapped around my loose ends allowing me the freedom to fly. I’d waved at him and smiled, was scanning the shelves and contemplating the merits of Original vs Tropical, when a car pulled up outside. Rust-ravaged, low to the ground and vibrating to an unfamiliar, angry-sounding bass line, it spat out a tall, imposing man who swaggered into the store. I was jarred from my drifting, and felt suddenly foolish. Bright lights and laughter and the arms of the one I loved had robbed me of caution, and until then I’d been seeing South Central at midnight as nothing more than a Mardi Gras backdrop for my infatuation. It would be disingenuous to pretend that the color of the man’s skin had nothing to do with this. His aggressive demeanor, the way he snapped at the clerk, the sagging waistband of his jeans contributed, of course, but would have frightened me less- – almost seven months later, it still smarts to confess — had he been white.
Nothing gold can stay, and “Robsten,” as People magazine had christened them, was no exception. When the vampire dream-team disbanded, their fans lost it. Twitter and Facebook and freshly-minted teenaged hearts pulsed with a collective “Now what?” Were they simply devastated to see their beloved Robert alone or did each secretly fancy herself a worthy replacement? I’ll pretend to know nothing of the wild dreams of young girls and leave that open to interpretation. But whatever the case, when Robert stepped out recently with British songstress FKA Twigs, they responded with an ugliness that left me reeling. “She’s an ugly monkey!” topped their list of grievances against Twigs, which would be less inflammatory if she weren’t black. I’ve lost any semblance of patience for these Twihards. Ignorance is not an acceptable alibi, and even so I find it hard to believe that they’re unaware of the context and implications of that insult. Cyberbullying is never excusable, but there’s a special circle of social media hell reserved for those who bring race into their vitriol. Who flagrantly thumb their noses at centuries of inequality, their own inborn privilege, for the sake of their own petty digital pageantry? Who speak ugliness into existence with their cowardly keyboards and cast shadows on a love they know nothing of?
Back in his car, I’d tried to take deep breaths, suck back my tears, but shame twisted me into a soggy taffy of self-loathing. Clutching the hand I’d traced novels upon since our very first date, his criss-crossed fingers looked darker than ever against my own. How could I fear the same shade of skin that tucked me in every night, that turned me to liquid bliss every time it pressed up against mine? I’d never counted ‘racist’ among my myriad flaws, never identified with the sort of small minds who would make snap judgments on something as simultaneously irrelevant and historically significant as the color of someone’s skin. I was liberal and educated and enlightened and… head over heels in love with a black man, for f**k’s sake. Did that count for nothing? Did my lofty ideals, or even my love, simply pale in the face of the awful, prejudiced knee-jerk fear that had always been inside of me, coiled in wait like a hooded separatist snake?
If I’d known how many tears I’d cry since that night, I might have paced myself. You can’t stave off smog forever; time marches on, chilly and insistent. But the recent accounts of hatred leveled at Twigs have brought me to my knees, catapulted back to that moment. She’s risen above it with a breed of elegance and grace I can only imagine possessing. But surely she is hurt, surely she is scarred. I know nothing of celebrity, of spotlight. I will never meet either Pattinson or Twigs. But I know racism and I know love, and if you’d told me they could exist side by side within me I wouldn’t have believed you. I can only hope he is holding her, like my man held me. Assuring her this is nothing compared to the force of their feeling. Whispering those words in her ear until colors blur and fade. Until all she can see is starlight and sound.