A Valentine’s Story
by Allison Burley
It was to be a dinner party at Bill and Janet Coburn’s. We had been to their home several times before, but this was the first that involved a Valentine theme. All that I could think of was Cupid, hearts, and a quiver of arrows. Yet, I knew that Bronson would think that it was pretentious and insulting. He hated when racially mixed couples were so carefully selected to make some kind of statement about freedom and independence. We had been doing that for 26 years. Wasn’t it enough that our marriage had survived so many slurs and slanders already?
Bronson and I had met Bill and Janet at a Pentagon party shortly after Bill had been named to an important post by President Clinton. Of all things, they had been married in the Capitol building on Valentine’s Day in 1996, and now they were going to commemorate their marriage of 18 years with a party at their home. Since Bronson worked for Hampton Gregory, Bill Coburn’s Chief of Staff, it was inevitable that sooner or later we would meet. Interracial marriages in Washington are about as novel as record albums by Rush Limbaugh.
I put the mail away after having read through the invitation. I still had to run out to pick up the dry cleaning and I was going to try to stop off at Aaronhoff’s to pick up the wrist-watch that Bronson had taken in to be repaired. I wondered if I would even have enough time to stop at Marie Lanson’s Dress Shop to look around in case I needed a new dress for the Coburn’s party. Most likely I would have to see how Bronson felt about going before I should spend any time trying to find something to wear.
As I drove the car out of the garage, I felt the exhilaration that always seems to overtake me when I have a mission to go on; in this case, several. I pushed a CD by Marc Brous-sard into the dashboard player to keep my energy up, and soon the thump of drums and the twang of that guitar from the first cut, “Home”, propelled me through the neighbor-hood and out into traffic.
Normally, when I’m at home, I listen to Alicia Keys or Nadia Ali; even some old Motown classics. But when I need energy and perseverance, Marc Broussard reaches down into that bayou soul of his and serves up a platter of boiled crawfish with jambalaya; fresh, spicy, and full of flavor. Bronson is really the one who showed me that country music could be fun. I used to be all rhythm & blues or jazz until he opened some new doors for me. Although it was my influence on him that gave him enough rhythm to shake loose with some Aretha Franklin or Jeffrey Osborne.
But, our lives have now pretty much intertwined so that both of us have influenced each other. Food, music, movies, books, even sports teams are mixed in a kind of racial bouil-labaisse that brings in the richness of our backgrounds and cultures. I think that couldn’t be made any clearer than in our daughter, Danielle.
Such a beautiful girl of 22, just starting graduate school at Mississippi Southern after having finished her undergraduate studies in Political Science there. She wants to go into diplomatic work at the State Department so she’s studying Public Relations, although she is a relentless political junky. Much of that is Bronson’s influence, I’m sure, but she seems to come by it naturally. Fond of public speaking, a formidable debater with a gifted memory for facts and references, and the hair, posture, and beautiful skin that only a mother could take credit for, she was the proud and stunning achievement that Bronson and I conceived.
I turned onto Commercial Blvd. just as the heavy blues of Marc Broussard’s “Come Around” stirred through my reverie. There was a space in front of the dry cleaners where I was able to pull in without much difficulty. I was dressed in a short black waistcoat with a belt, a gray cashmere scarf, a little woolen beret atop my head, slim corduroy pants and side zipper black boots with a modest heel that gave me a little more height than my 5’6”. Mr. Dretchman greeted me as I stepped inside from the cold winter weather.
“Hi, there, Ms. Hargrove. Let me get your dry cleaning,” he said as he recognized me right away. He looked up my name on the computerized screen at the cash register, then stepped into the back room for a minute or two. When he reappeared, he was carrying two plastic garment bags with suits that had been cleaned, and a cardboard box of Bron-son’s folded and lightly starched shirts.
“I’ll put that on your bill, Ms. Hargrove,” he said politely, and handed me the cleaning. “Need any help with that?”
“I hate to have you go outside, Emmit, but could you help me with the shirts?”
“Sure, Ms. Hargrove. You’re just out front.”
I took Bronson’s suits and hung them from the clothes hook in the back seat, then opened the front door so that Mr. Dretchman could slide the box of shirts onto the front seat. I told him thank you, then he closed the door and hurried back inside. It was a clear day, but the temperature was only in the mid-twenties. I turned the heater fan a little higher as I pulled back onto the street and went about doing my errands.
As I finished the last of things, and headed back home, Danielle called on my cell phone. She and two girlfriends were going to be coming to stay with us this weekend. She wanted to know if I would make my die-to-be-famous chocolate wedge cake. I told her I would, and promised that I would make some room in the guest room for her friends. She also quickly inserted the point that “They’re lesbians. Does that make a difference?”
I admit that it shot through my thoughts like a lightning bolt, but I had to see it from her point of view, too. If it was alright with her, why shouldn’t it be alright with us? Or was this the time to impose some parental guidance between that wayward college tolerance for all things liberal and permissive and the mores of a society that still insisted upon some restraint for these kind of aberrant choices?
Would I allow a boy and girl, for instance, to do the same thing? If not, why would I allow two girls to stay in the guest room? Did it really make a difference that they were lovers? Did it really make a difference just because I knew?
I struggled for a moment to know how to respond. Could a black woman married to a white man really be judgmental about two lesbians finding solace in each other’s company? Wasn’t that just as aberrant and unacceptable as interracial marriages had been only a short time ago? Although, who could say that interracial marriages weren’t still unacceptable to many people? Yet, were these the kind of people, and attitudes, that should determine social outcomes like this?
“Danielle... honey? I don’t want this to become an issue, but I just don’t know how to respond to this.”
“You mean, to my friends being lesbians?”
“Yes, of course. It puts us in such a difficult position.”
“How? You were all ‘sure I’ll fix up the guest room’ before I told you. Why does that make a difference?”
“You see, that’s the hard part. Should it make a difference? Does it make a difference? And, of course, it does. I don’t know if it should, but it does.”
There was a long silence on the phones as I pressed the garage door opener and pulled into the spacious garage of my home.
“Danielle? Are you still there, honey?”
“I just got home and I have to bring some things into the house. Can I call you back a little later? Maybe after I’ve talked with your father.”
“Oh sure. Talk to Mr. Straight-arrow. That’ll be like asking the Pope.”
“Honey. He married me, didn’t he? I don’t think you can call your father a straight-arrow or the Pope. In fact, you’ve always had such a good relationship with your father, maybe it’s really him you should be talking to, anyway.”
“Mom... It’s not ‘them’ who are in love. It’s me. It’s me and Christina.”
I was just flattened by this revelation. As I was pulling the dry cleaning out of the Rav, it stopped me dead in my tracks. What was she telling me? “You mean... You and Christina... are... lovers?”
“Yes, mom. And, I want you and dad to meet her. Turleen is just a friend of ours.”
My day was suddenly getting more ominous.
“You mean... honey... you’ve become a lesbian?”
“Not ‘become’, mom. I am one... I’ve always been one. I’m just now discovering it.”
“Well... how do you know, sweetheart? How do you know you’re just not going through a phase? I love... like... lots of women, too. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Mom, it’s more than that. I know. I can tell. There’s just something much different about being with Christina. She understands me. She makes me feel... more complete.”
I was able to grab up the dry cleaning, shut the door of the car, and make my way to the door of the house. I inserted the key and entered. Setting down the dry cleaning and my purse, I was able to make my way into the living room so that I could sit down.
“Danielle... Maybe you should just come home by yourself and talk to me about this. You know I’ll listen. You know I care about you.”
“Mom, there isn’t really anything to talk about. You think I just woke up one morning and decided to become a lesbian?”
“Honey... Isn’t there another word we can use? Lesbian just sounds so... extreme.”
“Extreme? What do you want me to call it? Girl-lover? Fem-Friend? When we’re to-gether, we don’t even talk about it... call it anything. It’s just a natural love we have for each other.”
“But, you’re so young, sweetheart. You’ve just barely had a chance to start your life. Don’t you think you should wait a little longer to make a decision like this?”
“Mom... I’ve been out with boys. It’s not like I haven’t tried other relationships. It’s just that they never worked out. They were always so awkward. I wasn’t as interested in them as I am in Christina. Something just clicks between us.” She paused a minute to see if there would be a response, then chose to continue, to get it out. “She makes me laugh, and she understands me. She cares about me in a way that no one ever has before. It’s such a mature and strong relationship. We love so many of the same things. She’s even interested in politics. I know you and dad will like her, too, if you just give her a chance.”
It was paralyzing to listen to her. She was actually a grown woman, an accomplished woman, our little girl whom we had always been proud of who now was taking steps in her own direction. How could I abandon her when we had always preached just the opposite? That love and respect were always the most important values; skin color and nationality were just categories not aspects of your character. Now, was sexuality an even bigger concern?
“Danielle?” I said gently. I paused because I could tell that she was vulnerable to my words. She was a woman, but she was also my child. She wanted me to support her. She had taken such a big step in even admitting her feelings. Now she hoped for my trust and confidence. “Of course I will support you, honey. You and Christina. Bring her home with you. We want to meet anyone who’s important to you. I’ll tell your father and we’ll plan to have dinner together. Will you be bringing your other friend, too?”
“Oh, mom, I don’t know how to tell you how wonderful that sounds! You’ve made me feel so good! I knew I could count on you!... No, I think we’ll just come without Turleen. Maybe she can come another time.”
“Well, I don’t know why I should think of this any differently than I would bringing a boy home. But, I will hope that Christina will sleep in the guest room. Will that be alright?”
“Sure, mom. She’ll like it in there.”
“Alright. We’ll see you when you get here. Call if you have any problems.”
“I will, mom. And, thanks again – for understanding. I wasn’t sure how you’d react when I finally told you. It was a big thing to me. But, you were even better than I hoped.”
“Thank you, sweetheart. Even parents like to be told that they’re loved.”