You get up on Sunday, April 29 and you put on your clothes. You start walking west to the subway. You take an A train to Canal and then a series of Soho back streets to your destination. You pay $13 for a piece of french toast and a matcha-and-chocolate iced drink because sometimes you just want to know what the hype is about even if you spend most of your time pretending to be above it.
Your friend arrives and gives you a hug and two kisses -- the French style, as she is a Parisian on an extended visit to the US. You've never met before (this part of the story is a bit complicated) because you're meeting at the request of a mutual friend. You dive into the normal New York questions, you ask her where she's staying. You know that New York real estate is a puzzle filled with bad turns and you feel bad for her that she's had to move so often because of this or that. She's now in Harlem.
"But," she says. "I am so sick of the Harlem attitude."
You know that maybe there's a cultural barrier or sorts, and you ask her to explain what she means. She tells you a story from a week or two back when she was riding the train and saw an African American mother being mean to her child. She told the woman to stop, and that the boy "just needs love." A bunch of people came to the woman's defense and everyone applauded him for his response to her. She told them that they needed to "be educated" and when she got off at her stop the man said "I see you're getting off in Harlem." She shakes her head at the end of the story. "How racist!" she says.
You immediately turn red with anger. Not your whole face, but at least your ears do. Your own personal belief on the matter is that if you respond in anger you'll lose the moment to teach someone about something. But inside you are battling, you are filled with emotion. You want to start at the beginning and tell her all about the black experience in America. You want to say, "Well, let's start at the 18th century..." and then go to present day.
But you realize that maybe that's not the best way? So you clear your throat, you stir your drink.
You essentially skip all of that and tell her that how a white person telling a black person to get an education was always going to be insulting. "Some of us haven't been able to, and mostly because of the way we've been treated by white people. So to hear it from you, it's like a double insult."
"But can't the government pay for them to go to college?" she asks.
"Well, it's a lot harder than that," you say.
And for the rest of the day you exist in deep anger at yourself for not being able to explain. You consider loaning her a book but you don't know which book. You sigh your way home on the A train feeling as if you've failed at something. If only you could make her feel what you've felt all her lives and relate it to her in a way that she could understand. Even now, you still feel this pit in your stomach.
On Monday, at the end of a workday, you get on a train and sit your favorite spot. The email you have been waiting on arrives in your inbox: Ancestry.com DNA results. The week before your father had told you what two tribes his family was from, and this small information alone made you feel more complete and whole inside.
You spent most of your life assuming that you'd never know, and that you'd have to rely on rumor. You never imagined that technology would advanced enough to really tell you your background, and the idea thrills you. On your mothers side, the rumor is that she is part Scottish, but beyond that, you know nothing.
You gasp on the train and open the email: 31% Cameroon/Congo, 13% Mali, 13% Benin/Togo, 11% Ivory Coast/Ghana, 8% Ireland/Scotland/Wales.
"But that doesn't equal 100%," your father says to you that night on the phone, while the family chats excitedly in the background, reading and re-reading the results.
You send them the other "low percentages" that make up the rest of you: less than 4% of Scandinavia, 4% Iberian Peninsula and 4% African Southeastern Bantu. The rest were all less than 3% and 2%: Europe South, Nigeria, Great Britain, Europe West, Senegal, and Europe East.
"That's...a lot..." your father says.
All that certainty you got from learning those tribes has deflated. Now you feel like a nothing, even if you rationally remind yourself that the concept of nationality is a construct, it still leaves you feeling like the answer is no answer at all. That night you flip through the list of "third and fourth cousins" on Ancestry, a list generated from people who share the same DNA match. It's a bunch of smiling profile pics with usernames. You search a few on Facebook and in a weird, voyeuristic way, you enjoy looking at their posts: memes, births, celebrations. You wonder if you have anything in common.
A lot of the girls look like much prettier versions of you.
On Wednesday evening you go to Alistair's apartment to roast him a chicken. He's been away on business, and you're storing up all the news from the past five days to tell him. You've roasted a chicken so many times you know exactly what to do without the recipe and only consult it for the cooking temperature. You flop on his sofa to watch a season of "Father Brown." You hear his gate latch fall and rush to the window where he's coming up the stoop stairs smiling. You love seeing that face.
Over dinner you relay to him the pitfalls of the week -- among them, the creeps that the warm weather has brought out now that men can see butts and legs instead of puffy black coats coming towards them in the subway station.
"A nearly seventy year old man told me to 'send him a photo on his phone,'" you laugh together.
By Friday you feel a little like you're barely making it. You play rap music through your earbuds on the walk from the train to the office and realize that you outsource all your self-esteem through hip hop. You can't get a swagger without it.
That evening you reunite with Alistair for drinks with his friends. "Your cranky, I can tell," he says, "please tell me what is wrong?"
You feel ugly and poor. You're having those "naked in public" type of dreams every night. And maybe you just don't know? You take his hand and squeeze it and say, "nothing."