Nothing about my girlfriend led me to imagine the reason we'd break up.
My online-dating profile was an exercise in what I hoped was witty sarcasm; I opened by noting that people usually just click on the pictures of people they find attractive and hope to find an interesting profile behind them. It was an approach that got me a couple of hate e-mails, but it also helped me meet Taren. Taren opened her e-mail by asking me if I had any additional pictures because, "I'm not sure you're cute enough to be that much of a smart-ass."
I sent her back an e-mail asking if she came from a "wholesome-Midwestern-girl breeding program." (Mind you, I wasn't being that sarcastic with my response; she did have the air of the farmer's daughter who's hidden in the basement when strangers come a-callin'.) We wound up exchanging four or five e-mails that day, chuckling to ourselves while we sent e-mails from our boring meetings.
The funny thing about my "breeding program" comment is that she really was the farmer's daughter. "I grew up on a small farm in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin."
"So you're the girl who all the jokes come from."
"Right down to the overprotective dad and four older brothers."
Calling someone you met online can feel awkward, because you've never talked to them in person, don't really know what they look like, can't see facial expressions. But my first call with Taren was easy. We both ran track in college — I ran sprints and she ran distance — and we wound up sharing all sorts of war stories of great races and brutal workouts.
"I hated it when we had to run hills with the girls from the cross-country team in the pre-season. It was horrible."
"Sprinters are such wimps."
"No, we just know that God gave men cars so there'd be no need to run four miles at once."
"I bet you liked checking out the girls though."
"Doesn't everyone on the track team do that? It's a co-ed team of practically naked people in spandex who are in amazing shape."
"Well, I don't think I've ever complained about seeing muscular dudes in spandex. I was always dating the sprinters."
"So you have a type?"
She hesitated. "Let's just say my college boyfriend was probably your height and weight."
We ended up talking about our days; she'd mowed the lawn of an elderly neighbor who she often looked out for. "Do you know your neighbors?" she asked.
I didn't know what to say. I tend to ignore my neighbors, but I didn't want her to think that I was a jerk. "Not really. I talk to the lady who lives next door to me every now and then, but that's about it."
"You really should talk to them more. I think it's great to know your neighbors."
Our first date was easier than our first phone call — we hit it off even better in person, and what was supposed to be a quick afternoon meet and greet led to more. She had picked the place and I got lost and drove by it several times, so she was giving me the business before we even walked in.
"Dude, if we ever go on a road trip, you're definitely not in charge of navigation."
"You gave bad directions."
"You drove by four times. You couldn't read the sign?"
I was already attracted to Taren just from our phone conversations and from seeing her pictures online, but I was pleasantly surprised that she was a lot better-looking in person. Her hair was longer in her pictures, but the pixie haircut she'd gotten since really suited her, and her legs looked as if her last race had been five minutes ago, not twelve years.
After we had brunch we wound up walking all over Seattle, stopping at random places, exploring and finally settling in at a bar in Belltown where we amused ourselves by guessing whether the couples around us were going to hook up or not. The fact that we were in the same situation was not lost on us.
We ended up hanging out until 1:30 a.m. After that first date a relationship quickly clicked into place.
Thinking back, I remember two distinct images of her. One is of her dressed to the nines for work, and the other is of her just walking around the house in a hoodie and not much else. There were two distinct sides of her — the sophisticated urban professional woman and the tomboy from Wisconsin, and I was crazy about both of them.
Taren was a really intelligent woman with a really serious job, yet she was also silly and goofy. She was one of those people who it's impossible to feel grumpy around. Once, when I was feeling pretty down about some family drama, she threw herself into cheering me up, playing pranks on me and leaving little notes around my apartment. I adored her for her compassion. She had two dogs and a cat, and they all had medical problems. Even though it broke her heart when they passed away, she always adopted older, sicker animals, because she wanted to make the last years of their lives happy.
The first hiccup was so innocuous that it only revealed itself to be a hiccup with the benefit of hindsight. We'd been dating for a few weeks when she asked, "How were you even single? You're a good-looking black man with a really good job. You should've had a girl in every city."
"I don't know. I guess I'm just not that smooth."
"Not the smoothest, but smooth enough to be trouble."
"Girl, I'm not trouble. I'm innocent. Can't you see my halo?" The conversation pretty much descended into laughter at that point. At the time I didn't interpret the question as being particularly racial. I was ten years younger than my peers at work, and I rarely encountered any other black people of any age with a similar position.
But my interpretation of that conversation changed when I received a forward from her a few months later. Her forwards were nearly always dirty jokes, so when the comment was "you'll really like this," I presumed it either just another dirty joke or more "shoppers of Wal-Mart" pictures.
What it actually was was a list of stereotypes and grossly exaggerated statistics about black people and education, intelligence, criminality, and laziness. It wrapped up by noting that black people "enjoy" life like this. As in "what people need to understand is that the problems black people have aren't a product of racism, they're the product of being from an inferior culture."
I struggled to grasp why she'd sent this to me. Was this some sort of weird congratulations for having "transcended" my race, or a messed-up way to break up with me?
When I got to her place to discuss the e-mail I wasn't in the best of moods. When she tried to kiss me, I pulled away from her, and we wound up arguing in her kitchen.
"I really just don't understand how you could send something that racist to me. Did you really think I wouldn't find that e-mail offensive? How can you even say you care for me with a straight face if you're sending me stuff like that?"
"Don't say that! You know I love you. The e-mail wasn't offensive — it was sad. Black people don't have to live like that, they could choose…"
I cut her off and held up my hand, wiggling my fingers at her. "Um, you do know I'm black, right?"
"I know, but you're different. You're educated and you have a good job. I don't really see you as black."
That was a twist of the knife. I'd been told all my life (by blacks and whites) that I wasn't "really black," either due to my clothes, the way I speak, the way I grew up. Was this the inevitable conclusion? I wind up dating women who are racist, but don't see me as black? Just a white guy with curly hair who doesn't need sunscreen?
"That's nonsense," I snapped. "Black is the color of my skin, not my education and income. Either way, I don't understand why you thought you could send me something like that."
"I wasn't trying to hurt you. The e-mail wasn't racist — it was just stating facts."
"You do realize this is the same kind of garbage that the KKK would say, right? The same type of language and everything?"
"Come on, you know I'm not like that! It may be similar language, but you know I'm not a racist."
Her last statement threw me for a few beats, not because of her words, but because of the look in her eyes. She looked hurt. It was a bizarre thing to process — the racist girlfriend is supposed to be the one who doesn't want people to know, someone who gets off on the fetish or taboo aspect of the situation. You're not supposed to see hurt in her eyes when you confront her. She's not supposed to be afraid of losing you.
"No matter how you spin it, calling people inferior because of their race — not to mention saying I'm not black because I'm educated — is racist, period. I don't think I can be with someone like you. I can't be in a situation like this."
She tried to reach out to me. "Please don't say that. You know how I feel about you — can't we just forget…"
"No, I can't do this. I just can't."
She started to cry, and I instinctively reached out to comfort her. But she backed away from me and shook her head, walking over to the stove and turning away from me so I couldn't see her face.
I had always thought that if I wound up in a situation like this it would be easy to leave, but people are complicated, and it's hard to separate the layers we love from the layers that repulse us. I'd wanted us to have a bitter confrontation that would confirm my worst fears about our relationship, reduce her to a racist caricature, and end with my triumphant exit. Instead, I found myself standing awkwardly in her kitchen, struggling to reconcile the fact that this racist person was also a kind woman who loved me. Taren had one of the biggest hearts I've ever seen on anyone. But I still wasn't going to compromise myself for her, no matter how much it hurt to lose the side of her that I cared about.
I hate admitting this, but I took two steps towards her, stopped myself, and then turned around and let myself out.