For Henry Augustine Tate
Andreas remembers Frankfurt as dull, filled with corporate shops. From the slow, grounded perspective of the walk, the shops all looked the same. They were manned by soulless men, suffocating in their unappealing ties. The ties, like the boring men who were tied by them, looked the same, as if they were lifted from the same stuffy magazine. Sometimes the men would look at Andreas. Some would look sympathetically. Some smiled. Some were utterly intrigued taking in his dark, supple skin, the early receding of his line of curly, black hair. Others were too harassed by life to pay much attention. They noticed, however, that an other was in their midst, and so they stared.
Thinking of Beirut, Andreas’ memory is washed by the deep Mediterranean Sea. He remembers waking up to the roar of cranes restoring the city that was ruined by war. It was five o’clock in the morning, and the city was awake. He rose, too, to see the city. Walking there was different than the orderly, sterile intersections of Frankfurt. Motorcycles, cars, buses, and people mercilessly passed at the same time. Courtesy was foreign, replaced by survival of the fittest and the fastest. The drivers would stick their necks out to curse from the top of their lungs. The motorcyclists danced around the traffic. Pedestrians dodged with sure hands and quick feet. A shaken Andreas was amused. But he would learn the command of the narrow streets. He waded into the traffic, the cars coming near enough to finish him. He weaved through the tiny unoccupied spaces as they opened and closed almost randomly. The taxi drivers were amazed. They actually smiled at Andreas for withstanding the chaos, for joining it himself.
That day, briefly, he had become a Beiruti. And so he walked on to the Mediterranean coast, the Corniche. There, he drank freedom. His eyes focused on the calm, pure, perfectly blue sea, reflecting the sword of the sun. He turned his back to the real world. His body was in the company of the sea. The waves danced in front of him. Andreas felt like jumping into the sea to count the waves, to touch them, to glare at them. He wanted to feel the salt water on his feet, his hot, tired feet that had walked him all the way to the sea. He wanted to reward his aching toes, his falling arches, his callused heels. They had brought him to this place. He soaked them not knowing that years later that his habit of walking, his joyous relationship with his feet would get him into more trouble than he could imagine.
It was a scorching hot day. One day in middle summer of 1995, in his mid-life. Andreas was walking from Boston University to Somerville. The heat had become unbearable. It had hit the one hundred-degree mark. The thirty-minute walk on memorial drive from BU to Harvard Square was always breathtaking. Andreas always took the bike paths, closely observing the scene at the Charles. When it is extremely hot, as it was that day, the walk is very quiet, almost lonely. Andreas almost never pays attention to Memorial Drive which runs along the quiet, green river. He did so only to cross. For no reason Andreas could see, a driver in an aging blue truck gave him the finger, and the passengers in the back called him names while they streaked by on the highway. But he didn’t even look back at the truck. He continued to look on into traffic. Andreas had long before developed the habit of prostitutes who know that they are being called names, but who have mastered the habit of not hearing them. That is how he fends for himself. A few minutes later, and Andreas found himself passing through Union Square, fast approaching his destination. He saw an old couple supported by their sturdy canes, carrying laundry baskets, and chatting away, happily. The woman dropped by a Laundromat and came back with cold drinks for her companion. He thanked her, gave her a gentle kiss, and sat by in the shade to enjoy it. Nearby, a young mother was struggling with a five-year-old, who was giving her grief. He was screaming, and Andreas heard him say, “Mom. I do not want to go to school. Never.”
“Why?” inquired his puzzled mother. He answered with quavering lips,
“Kathy told me that I cannot play with her toys. I am not allowed. Only white kids can play with those toys.”
The mother appeared shocked. She looked angry, but controlled herself. She saw Andreas through the corner of her eye. He too must have looked shocked, but pretended as if he did not hear it. He returned her look, with sympathy and understanding. He decided not to make contact, and proceeded toward Davis Square.
Soon he was at a corner, big, brown house situated between Beech and Elm streets in Somerville. Andreas was there in that square, admiring a street scene, fated by his feet to encounter an older man busily tending to his garden and painting the fence of the house. As soon as he arrived at that corner, some beautiful roses, newly bloomed, caught his eye. They invited him to see them before they withered in the hands of the unbearable heat.
Andreas tried to start a conversation and remarked, “I love these roses.”
No response from the busy gardener. No acknowledgment that he heard a sound. He continued painting.
Andreas repeated, “Oh. I love those beautiful roses.” Not a peep. Not a word.
He continued painting, even more vigorously. Andreas was preparing to leave. He thought an encounter had been missed, but shortly before he left, he saw the man abruptly discontinue his task, and quickly go into his house. He came back with a black spray. For a moment Andreas thought he was going to shoot him. He flinched, preparing for the worst. But he didn’t spray him. He remembers what he did, always, as the aborting of love, the spread of hate. He plucked a rose, painted it black, and gave it to him furtively.
“Here, here take a black rose.”
Andreas was stunned by his action. He threw his hands wildly into the air. He was scared of the change in his body. His eyes grew larger. His nose was puffed, like a tigers, ready for a fight. His ears were hot and tingly. His whole body trembled, and he threw himself on a nearby bench to calm down. That was when Andreas knew that he was in a rage, too hot to touch, like an iron. All that he did is stare back at the old man in spite of himself, and he flung the poor rose to the ground. The old man must have sensed fury hatching in Andreas?s red eyes, as he stood there staring him down. He retreated to the safety of his house. For a moment, Andreas felt like avenging physically. He thought of pursuing him back to that very room from which he emerged with that dark spray. He wanted to splash his face with paint. He stalked outside the gate making a huge fuss. Andreas hoped the old man would call the police, and he would have a chance to make a report; but what good, he thought, would that do in this city notorious for its hate? They probably would put him in jail for roughing up the old man, oblivious to the fact that he has been savaged. But in their eyes, nothing justifies for a dark skinned man to dare a white man, not matter what the cause. It had been this way for centuries. Very few things had changed. While Andreas was sadly thinking that way, he walked away quietly. For days after the event, Andreas could not clear the encounter from his heart. It kept burning there. He went over the event again and again. He could not find any comfort, from anywhere. He despaired, thinking that he had been defiled forever, only because he found a rose beautiful.
It was in a bar later that night that he finally felt calm enough to tell the story. His friend Joseph, one of whom he confided the story to said, “Oh, that story made me cringe. It is sickening on the one hand. But, I wonder if it might not have had a local meaning for the old guy. Maybe he is Irish. And this was a way of giving you something that fit your skin color.” The table considered it briefly. But they knew better.
“I know, I know, it is a terrible way of otherizing people.” He stopped, and fell into thought, by covering his face and staring at the wall.
Andrew joined in, “Yes, people. God knows why they do what they do. If he meant well by it, why did he not say so? He got me confused. I don’t know what to think. Why the anger, if he meant well?”
Andreas goes over this idea again and again, whenever he remembers the black rose. In one of his walks, he was overtaken by thought about the incident. The heat was a major factor that day. But it does not explain everything. In spite of the heat, he was drawn towards nature: its beeches, its roses and its people, lovingly and wondrously. Andreas wondered about himself. Was he bragging, declaring himself superior to whites? Was he saying that they were incapable of his kind of love? No, he knew better. Knew that they loved also, but only what they understood. He could not force acceptance. They were doing nothing wrong, at least in their minds. Andreas continued to talk about his experience. A middle-aged woman who overheard broke in one day to say that the frail man had passed away recently, and added that she knew him.
“Perhaps,” she said, “the black rose had a meaning in Irish culture, since he is Irish.”
She was the second person to make the point about his Irishness. Andreas could sense that she almost wanted to tell him that he was a nice person.
Andreas learned that the old man was found dead, one Sunday afternoon, exactly a year after he last saw him with his roses. He was seventy. He had survived three massive heart attacks. The fourth killed him. He came to the US, from Ireland like all other immigrants, just hoping to make a better living. He was nineteen when he arrived and began his career as a bus boy in South Boston putting in long, sweltering hours. Eventually, he was made a waiter, and a few years later assistant manager, and then manager. A picture kept on his mantle shows him celebrating that final promotion in a dark suit and bow tie. Extremely thin with an elegant frame almost lost in the ill-tailored suit, his freckled face, red hair, green eyes, and sharply sculpted nose sit atop the padded shoulders of the suit like the belong to another body. Even until his death, the old man drank massively and ate generously.
Andrew, Andreas discovered, played baseball briefly but professionally; excelled at chess; and thanks to his thin frame, moved elegantly on the dance floor. But that was Andrew in his sweet twenties. The thirties treated him worse. In his late thirties he began his struggle with heart disease. A year before the first heart attack, he had bought a nice restaurant in South Boston, in which he worked much too hard. Most nights, he slept on a cot in the back of the restaurant. He thought of marriage. It never happened. Before he knew it, he was nearing sixty still battling his heart. He sold the restaurant, and was finally confined to his home. His front door on Elm Street was shielded by a huge beech tree, located in the center of a large lawn, richly garnished by roses and a healthy spread of sunflowers, his labor of love. They say he was nice to his own kind, a little shy, a loner. Andreas guesses that people like Andrew are typically that way. They love within their circle. Andreas loves that way, too. Included in that love are all those things he needs to continue loving himself. Andreas is nice to a cashier, so that she might give him a break when he needs it. He is even nicer to a parking lot attendant so that he will charge him less. He is unbelievably charming at parties to the right people so that he can use them. Once he secures his needs, he forgets them all. The cashier calls him, and suddenly, he is out of the country. The parking lot attendant inquires about him and he cannot even recall his name. The people he met at parties invite him again.
He suddenly loses interest. Can Andreas hate? No. He cannot. For the same reason that he cannot love: a steadfast refusal to forget what he has seen. The old man is dead. Andrew is dead, and yet Andreas cannot forget. Nor can he seem to walk down the side streets of his home city the way he once could. Each time, he is struck by his anger. Then ashamed of it. Is he so right? Is the old man so wrong? He is afraid that he is right this time. He feels compelled to forgive, is driven to forgive, but he cannot forget. He must always remember. Remembering is hard, he thinks. Forgetting is easy.
Many years later, as an old man, Andreas has a winter dream. He sees the frail man somewhere in a crowded walk of a Mediterranean coast. The frail man is walking alone, and struggling to make his way through a deafening crowd of slow strollers, where hundreds breathe in the sea breeze and admire the delicious sunset. He too had come to do the same. And there was Andrew in the middle of the crowd, uncomfortably, trying to watch the sunset. He stood out in the crowd. He was a shining piece of the scene. In the company of the bronze and copper skins burned by the sun, his pale white color, his blushed red cheeks newly exposed to the sun, were an amazing presence. The natives took many secrets gazes at him. Some appeared envious. Others, simply awe struck by his whiteness. But he intrigued all of them. Many would have liked to touch him. But they did not dare. He shifted his weight in the attention bestowed on him. He nervously leaned on one foot, then another, then his cane while they looked on. And so he missed the final moments of the sunset as the lip of the sea curved and parted to take in the flattening edges of the sun. And as suddenly as the crowd appeared, it dispersed. Some off to a late evening to work. Some to home. But all of them were leaving. The show was over.