A short story by AW Moore
I was sitting outside in a dingy, old lawn chair smoking a joint. There were four of us gathered around at the time talking. It was October and the night was cool. I could hardly believe I’d already been in college for two months. The music from inside was playing loudly, and for all of the white people there, I was surprised at how much hip hop was being played. It was the one thing about Yale that was just like home. I had always assumed that affluent, white people listened to artists like Taylor Swift and Coldplay, not Kendrick Lamar and Lil Uzi Vert.
Donald was sitting with us leading a conversation on institutional racism—he always got really philosophical and intellectual when he smoked. I was listening and trying to follow along when someone pulled up a chair next to me.
“Hi.” She said and smiled, giving birth to these small dimples in her checks. She had short, blonde hair and wore an oversized, white, button-down shirt with khaki pants. She resembled my interpretation of what an artist looked like. The kind of artist whose paintings were inspired by the world for which she has traveled, and the experiences for which she has had along the way. The kind of artist who sips wine and walks around introducing herself, along with her work, at some upscale gallery.
“Hi.” I said, and passed her the joint. For the longest time we just sat there smoking, not saying a word, listening to Donald’s speech.
“What kind of chance do poor, black people have in America? Let’s use Alton Sterling as an example. This is a guy who was making money selling CDs—fucking CDs people—selling them in front of a convenience store in Baton Rouge,” Donald stood up to explain himself, he had a beer in one hand and a joint in the other.
“It’s safe to assume the guy doesn’t make much money, but he does have cash on him, because he’s on the street making deals. Cash that people could steal, so therefore, he carries a gun for protection. You following me? Black man, selling CDs, has cash on him, has a gun on him, and then the cops show up. They tase Alton and pin him down on the ground. It was only after they had him pinned that they finally saw the gun, and that’s when the shots were fired. Fuck man, what chance did he have? What chance do my poor, black brothers have?”
Everyone sat silent for a moment and Donald stood gazing up towards the sky, as if having some grand thought. Then out of the silence, the front door of the house opened, amplifying the sound of the music for a moment, and three girls with two guys stepped out looking concerned. They put eyes on us and came over quickly. One of the girls was stumbling and fell to the ground on her way over. Her male companion picked her up looking annoyed at the inconvenience.
“There you are Emma; we’ve been looking for you.” The girl who hadn’t fallen said loudly.
“Your name is Emma?” I asked.
“Wow, he finally speaks.” Emma replied.
“Come on Emma, tell Eminem bye and let’s get out of here.” One of the two guys said.
“Hey, calm down Brock Turner.” I replied, and Donald started laughing.
“What did you say? That’s really offensive.”
“Calm down, Nathan” Emma replied.
“Hey Emma, what do you say you give me your number before you take off?” I asked drunkenly, knowing it sounded stupid, but not caring.
“Fuck off.” Nathan replied.
He grabbed Emma’s hand and she and her little crew walked away, but before they could get too far I yelled out, “Hey Emma, don’t let Brock mix you any drinks okay!” Donald spat out his beer he laughed so hard, and Nathan flipped me off as he left with Emma.
“Brock Turner, how did you come up with that so quick?” Donald asked.
“I just sat through a student awareness seminar last week about how we shouldn’t rape drunk girls.”
“That was brilliant.”
“Hey Donald, let me see the keys, I’ll get us back to campus.” I replied.
“My keys? You’re more drunk than I am.”
“Yeah, but I have more experience driving faded.”
“That is probably true, but first, let’s go inside and steal a bottle of something.”
Donald and I sat on the bed with our backs against the wall in his room, passing a bottle of spiced rum back and forth. We’d only known each other for a couple of months, but we’d already spent several nights just like this, getting drunk and spilling ourselves. Donald was the only person at Yale who knew my past, the only person who understood that just a few months ago, one of my favorite pastimes was stealing Hot Cheetos from the corner store across from my high school. He was the only person who knew that I filled out my college applications on a library issued laptop with the “e” key missing. He was the only person who knew that I studied for the SATs with the door to my room locked, as the smell of vaporized methamphetamine from the living room leeched its way through the vents.
“You did it man, you fucking got here. Cheers to you,” Donald lifted up the bottle and took a drink, then handed it to me, and I too, took a swig, “It was partially due to white privilege, but that’s alright.” Donald said.
I laughed and handed the bottle back, “Yeah, your probably right.” Donald nodded in approval, and I could see now just how drunk he was, his eyes were falling and his movements were slowed.
As we sat there drinking, I couldn’t stop thinking about Emma. Even though she had been there with a guy, I still felt that she was interested in me—something in the way she smiled, something in the way she spoke. Emma had been the first girl at Yale to actually notice me. Most days, I felt that I was simply too different from those that surrounded me to connect, but I learned later on that there was something irresistible about a guy sitting outside a party, lighting a joint.
“Man, did you see that girl Emma?” I asked, trying to point the conversation away from the heavy stuff Donald was continually discussing.
“She was cute.”
“She was more than cute.” I replied.
“I guess.” Donald said, and then he leaned over towards me, his eyes really glossed, and he smelt strongly of rum. He looked like he might pass out.
“That was really cool watching you talk shit to that asshole. What did he even mean by calling you Eminem?”
“I guess I look like Eminem.” I said smiling.
“No, he meant more than that, he was being an asshole.”
“It’s whatever, fuck that guy.” I handed the bottle back to Donald and he waved me off. I was really glad that he did. I took one final swig and put the bottle on a nearby end table.
“I’m sorry for when we first met. I kind of acted like an asshole too. You’re not a product of cultural appropriation at all, you’re real, unlike most of the other students here on campus.” Donald said.
“It’s cool, I know I probably look like white trash to the other Yalies, but it’s who I am and I—”
“Don’t say that David, you’re not white trash.” Donald paused, he put his hand around the back of my neck and I began to feel really uncomfortable. I leaned away, and he moved in closer.
“Alright dude, you’re really fuc—” And before I could finish the phrase, Donald leaned in to kiss me.
Back at my old school, kids got their asses kicked all the time for acting soft. Saying one too many nice things to another guy would result in being called a faggot or something else equally as awful. I had only been at Yale for two months but somewhere deep down, the overall culture of the students must have settled in, because I didn’t do what I would have done back at home.
Before his lips could land anywhere near my face, I stood up, freeing my neck from his grasp, and letting Donald fall to the bed in the process. He laid there with his face down in the covers for a moment. I thought he had passed out at first. I hadn’t realized that he carried those feelings, and I wondered later on, why someone from such a well-to-do family and background, would live his life as someone he is not. I was walking out the door when I heard crying.
“I’m sorry David, please don’t tell anyone.” Donald slurred, and until now, I never did.
It was early morning, the first of November, when I finally received a call from my Mother. I had called my Mom a few times since leaving home, but I hadn’t received any contact from her since the first week of school, when she called to make sure I had arrived in New Haven safe, and to inform me that I didn’t belong there.
That morning, I almost didn’t wake up to the ringing. I was passed out on the floor of some students’ parents’ home whom I’d never met. The home was an intimidating two-story in a suburb west of campus. The massive house had five bed rooms, a pool, a guest house, and a Range Rover in the garage. The entire place had been trashed pretty good by the time Halloween ended. There was something beautiful about the place being covered in plastic cups, with beer cans floating in the pool, and dried out shaving cream covering the family portrait above the fire place. I couldn’t help but laugh the night before at all the shocked faces as I pushed down on the trigger, drawing mustaches and devil horns on the smiling, perfect family in matching white button downs in the photo.
I was still in my costume—all black everything with a fake gold chain, my interpretation of a rap star—when I finally answered the phone. My mom had been arrested. She had been passed out at a party the night before that turned violent between some couple. My Mom got aggressive herself when one of the officers shook her awake in the early morning hours following the altercation. When she was searched, the police found a gram of pot on her. She was calling because she wanted some money for bail and possibly a lawyer. She asked me if I could send her some money by accessing my scholarship. This was something I could do, I paid for everything with my scholarship and financial aid dollars. I hit the campus ATM all the time, that’s how I bought my weed even. But she didn’t know anything about how my financial aid worked and so I told her that I wasn’t sure, but that I would figure something out for her if I could. She thanked me and told me she loved me, it sounded like she was speaking a foreign language. After we hung up, I hopped a bus back to campus and fell asleep in my dorm. I didn’t wake up until ten hours later.
November was a stressful month. My Mom was in jail, and while that worried me a little, I honestly had bigger problems. It was a critical time for me as a student; exams, projects, speeches, and papers were going into the grade book, and I was failing all but one class. I was losing the only game I had ever been good at: academics. In my mind, I was supposed to be that kid, the one who would succeed despite my growing up poor and having a drug-addicted mother. The one who would beat the odds and get out of the hood. Instead, I was two months away from being on academic probation. I was becoming a statistic, one that people of both high and low intellectual capability would use to support their argument: kids like me shouldn’t go to an ivy league school.
I had desperately wanted to go by Donald’s dorm and have a drink. I had really needed someone to talk with about everything, but I couldn’t. We never discussed that night after the party. We would still talk from time to time, but there were no more late-night hangouts or weekends together. Just the occasional pleasantries when we saw each other in class or around campus. I was alone in New Haven.
I was sitting outside of the YUAG, the Yale University Art Gallery, it was the Monday after receiving the call from my mother and I was catching up on some reading. Sunlight reflected off the white pages of On Inequality, the required reading for one of my seminars. The rays were splintering back towards me, the individual beams of sunlight artfully obscuring the text as I continued to read on that cold afternoon. I felt that the longer I sat outside the gallery, the more intelligent I became. Something about the architecture that surrounded me there, the masterful art sitting inside the building, and the enlightened students that whisked by me on their way to and from classes; there was power in that space. I was admiring the world when Emma entered the gallery.
She was standing across from a piece of painted pottery; a water pitcher is what it really was. Red, yellow, and blue paint covered the front of the sculpture. Emma was holding open a plain black notebook and biting the end of her pen as she observed.
I entered the building and stood beside her, “So, what do you think about it?”
Emma remained fixated on the pottery as if she hadn’t heard me at all and wrote, refusing to speak.
“There was this painting my high school art teacher loved. I can’t remember the artist but the name was something like, A Composition of Red, White, and Blue, I can’t remember the title exactly, but I always thought it was really cool, this reminds me a lot of that.” I said, trying to break the silence, trying to get her to notice me again.
“Composition II in Red, White, and Blue is the title, by Mondrian, primary colors is what he was using, and that’s what we are seeing here.” She replied. Emma shut her notebook, and finally, she turned to me.
“Hi, I’m so sorry, but how do I know you?” Emma asked.
“We met once at a party. My boy Donald was telling us all about Alton Sterling and,” I paused a moment, “we were smoking.”
“Oh my God, I remember now. That was fun, you called that guy I was with Brock.” Emma looked away at the ground, smiling, again giving birth to those dimples.
“I did; was he pissed?”
“It doesn’t matter, that was the last time I saw him.”
“Well that’s good to hear. Are you working on a project?” I asked.
“No, I’m here to get away from studying actually.”
“But you’re taking notes.”
“Yeah, I know, I take notes on everything.”
“I take notes on things I don’t want to forget.” She replied. I let that settle in as I walked along side of her, observing the different portraits and paintings that inhabited the museum. She jotted down her thoughts on every piece we stopped at, and it would have been impossible for me to know then, but she had made some notes on me as well. A few years later, while in our senior year, Emma and I crossed paths again. We were both in an upper level writing course. Emma was an essayist, a different kind of artist than I had originally assumed, and she frequently shared her work with the class. One particular piece was an endearing story detailing the first time she got stoned, in the essay she explained the irresistibility of us sitting outside, away from the party smoking, and I was happy to be a part of it. Another piece she shared towards the end of the course outlined another first of hers, and while Emma was a moving writer, I was really ashamed to be a part of that story. The title still embarrasses me every time I think about it: Yalie Trash.
As we walked the gallery I received two calls, one from my Mother and another from my Uncle. My Mom had been sitting in the local jail for three nights now and I’m sure they were wanting to know if I could get them some money. I asked Emma to give me a moment and I went to the bathroom to make a call to my Uncle. I carefully explained to him that despite my great effort, I was unable to acquire any money to send home and he understood. I knew that he would; how would he know any different?
When I arrived back from the restroom Emma explained that she had to leave but that her friend was a throwing a last-minute party tonight in celebration of her recent acceptance to study overseas in London, and that she would like me to go with her. I really needed to get focused if I was going to bring my grades up, but I couldn’t pass on the invite, so much of my love for Yale stemmed from the girls who walked the campus, and the possibility of hooking up with someone just like Emma. We exchanged numbers and promised to text each other later that night.
The party wasn’t so much a party, but rather, a small get together. There was wine and there was cheese, there was small talk about life at Yale and what Emma’s friend, Morgan, would be doing in London. There wasn’t any Kendrick Lamar or vodka, just about ten of us sitting around in a living room the size of my Mom’s entire trailer. Morgan’s parents had actually checked into a hotel outside of town so that she could host the get together. With a glass of dark, red wine, a variety I had never heard of, and with a plate of cheese, a variety I couldn’t pronounce, I wondered what it was like to be Morgan. I wondered what it was like to have two successful parents who celebrated your accomplishments with a party like the one I was at.
As the night carried on, and as the trashcan began to overflow with empty bottles, I learned that while wine in a crystal glass felt more refined, it got you no less drunk. Everyone eventually loosened up and Morgan even broke out a Bluetooth speaker, our talking grew louder and our drinking grew faster, it was finally a party. While in the kitchen, I grabbed Emma’s hand and snuck her outside to the back porch. The moment I closed the door she kissed me. Finally, I’ve made a connection.
Emma stepped back, “I’m sorry, I’ve just really been wanting to do that,” And we kissed again. I guided Emma to the porch swing and showed her the joint. Earlier in my dorm, I had rolled it with care, knowing who I would be sharing it with. I sparked my lighter, and as the flame blew in the breeze, I brought it to the twist of paper and puffed. I passed it to Emma and asked, “What’s your story?”
“Yeah, who are you? Where are you from? What’s your story?” Emma inhaled, exhaled, and gave a brief account of her life leading up to Yale. Emma told me all about the community of Bettendorf, Ohio and how her Dad had worked at the local aluminum factory while her Mom stayed home with the kids. Years ago, Emma’s oldest brother had tragically died hunting, somehow his boat flipped while crossing a lake, leaving her brother and friends trapped underneath in freezing temperatures. The loss of those young men changed the community, Emma explained, and a large group still gathers every year at a local church to remember them. The year following the death, Emma’s next-oldest brother joined the Navy, and had been deployed overseas. Emma’s older sister went to Eastern Iowa Community College and now works as a nurse in their hometown of Bettendorf, living not too far from her parents. Emma was the youngest of the children, and her parents had yelled a lot when she accepted her invite to Yale.
We killed the first joint and I flicked the roach into the grass. Emma’s eyes met mine, she was smiling really big, and I could tell she was stoned, “Now tell me your story.”
I lit another joint but I didn’t bother offering her any, she was already too stoned. I sat in silence smoking, trying to find the words to explain myself, trying to find the right words that would be honest enough to be real, but dishonest enough to keep her from walking away.
I kept my story simple, she didn’t need to know the situation with my Mother, or her issues with drugs. She did need to know, however, where I came from and how I got to Yale; I was honest about that. I told Emma a few stories about the stupid things I did in high school. She found my stories of life in the trailer park to be captivating—especially the one’s about us poor kids sneaking out and getting faded on rooftops—and she later went on to romanticize them in her writing.
Back inside, the party was winding down, most everyone had left, and one couple had actually retired to a bedroom in the back. Morgan came out and grabbed Emma by the hand, “We have to talk for a minute.” She said and walked away pulling Emma. I could see the girls inside talking, laughing, and glancing my way. I broke out my phone and did my best to pretend that I didn’t give a shit about what they were talking about.
Emma poked her head outside the door, “Hey, put that out and come inside please.”
I didn’t even take another puff, just tossed the thing. Emma grabbed my hand and led me upstairs to one of the rooms. She flicked the lamp on in the corner, but the room was still quite dark. Pictures covered the wall behind the dresser; Morgan in a bikini with other girls by the pool, Morgan with her parents in Disney Land, Morgan in front of a limousine wearing a sparkling, pink dress. What did I do for my prom? I wondered.
Emma wrapped her arms around me and brought my attention back to the present. We kissed the entire walk to the bed, and the entire distance down, until she was laying on her back.
Emma unbuttoned her pants and removed her shirt. We continued to kiss and touch until Emma was ready, “Do you have a condom?” She asked.
“Yeah.” I replied. I checked the pants pocket of my discarded jeans, knowing I didn’t have one, and climbed back into bed, under the covers, and on top of Emma. For our short time of connection, everything in my mind was at peace. I didn’t worry about my grades or my Mom, I didn’t worry about anything. But then, Emma’s touch stopped me, it stopped everything.
“David, are you wearing a condom?” She asked. I hesitated to answer and she pushed me off of her, “Why aren’t you wearing a condom David?”
“I’m sorry, Emma, I don’t have one.”
“Okay, so you don’t have one. Why didn’t you tell me when I asked you?”
“I don’t know; I guess I thought you wouldn’t mind.”
“You didn’t think I would mind? What about STDs? What about getting me pregnant?
What about refusing my request to be protected during sex?” Emma was getting upset.
“I don’t have any STDs and I wouldn’t,”
“How do you know? When was your last test?”
I sighed, “I’ve never been tested.”
“You have sex without condoms and you’ve never been tested? You’re fucking disgusting.”
“Emma, I’m really sorry, I honestly didn’t think it was a big deal, I don’t even know anyone who uses condoms.” I said, trying to help her understand.
“You don’t know anyone who uses condoms David? That’s probably because everyone you know lives in a fucking trailer park. God, what the hell was I thinking?”
“I’m sorry, I’m just really stoned okay, I’m not thinking clearly.”
“You have to go, David. Just grab your stuff and get out of here.” Emma replied. My eyes felt hot as I sat there on the bed with her standing over me. I quickly got dressed and left. I really did like Emma.
I took a break from the parties and quickly learned that it’s not too difficult to make good grades, even at Yale. I took a biology exam that resulted in my first A of the year. I was so elated with the feeling of success that I actually texted Donald, I had to brag to someone. To my surprise, he immediately texted back and offered me a slice of pizza off campus to celebrate.
We sat across from each other eating Neapolitan style pepperoni pizza and drinking Cokes from plastic cups. I had never had pizza that good before, and it got me wondering about all the other great things New Haven had to offer that I hadn’t yet experienced. Donald and I talked and laughed like old friends, just like we had before. I wanted to tell him about Emma, but I didn’t. We finished our slices and he congratulated me again on my exam before explaining that he needed to get back to campus, and I explained that I wanted to walk the city for a bit. We gave each other an inner-city style hand clasp and even a sideways bro-hug. I was really happy to be talking again, I think Donald was too.
I walked the city for a while with my ear buds in. The night was cold and I had my jacket pulled tight. Those words Emma used, “fucking disgusting” really did hurt and I kept hearing her say them over and over in my mind. I walked until I couldn’t stand the cold anymore and then I got on a bus heading back to campus.
I wished I had somewhere else to go, a home in New Haven would have been nice, one just like Morgan’s. I could throw my things on the floor and fall asleep on the couch. My Mom could wake me up in the morning to the smell of bacon and eggs, with orange juice and pancakes already on the table. I could tell her all about school, all about my struggles, and all about my recent success. I could finish my breakfast, eating every bite from the plate. I could fall back asleep, happy and full, but this time in my own bed. I wished for a home like this.
On the ride to campus I thought about how December wasn’t far away, and how all the Yalies would be flying off to different parts of the country, to homes not much different than the one I so desired. Where would I go? I wondered.
That night I dreamt about my Mother. I dreamt about how happy she would be to see me come back home for the holidays. I dreamt that we were both sitting on the couch. There was a small, plastic tree in the corner, the same tree we put up every year. I dreamt that my Mother put her arm around me and pulled me close, she didn’t say anything, but she felt warm, the entire place felt warm actually.
The next morning, I sent my Uncle the money he needed for my Mom. I hopped it was enough to keep her out of trouble. It hurt to admit but I needed a home, and I hoped it would be waiting for me when I left New Haven, and thankfully, it was.