By Tom Nussbaum
“Why don’t I like to play with dolls, Jeremy?” nine-year-old Michelle Klein asked the lanky teenager sitting on the window seat in her bedroom as she pushed a red toy race car across the desk sitting next to the window.
“I don’t know, Michelle,” Jeremy, the Klein’s neighbor, answered. “But it’s OK. Besides, you do play with dolls.”
“They’re not dolls. Jeremy. They’re action figures and superheroes,” Michelle argued as she raced the car across the desk again. The car stopped at the edge of the pale pink desk, where the pink-and-white checked ribbon border had been attached. Michelle looked over Jeremy’s shoulder and through the curved window into the claustrophobic backyard. “It’s really raining,” she observed. Somber classical music, so quiet it could barely be heard, wafted across the room from a radio resting on a nightstand matching the desk.
“I know that. But they are dolls, sorta.” Jeremy turned to look out the window. “Hey,” he said, “look way out there, Michelle. There’s a thin ray of light breaking through the clouds. It’s kinda cool.”
“And didn’t I tell you to stop calling me Michelle?” The child looked up from the toy and at Jeremy for only a moment, but the distraction caused the red car to slip from her fingertips and shatter on the floor like splattered blood.
“But that’s what I’ve called you since you moved next door, ever since I helped you guys unload that moving van, ever since I became your ‘big brother.’” Jeremy bounced the basketball he had held cradled in his lap. On the third bounce, it brushed the side of a large black Michael Jordan basketball shoe and shot cross the floor, stopping at the closet door that stood ajar across the room. “Anyway, I don’t know what else to call you. Have you decided? Is it Mitchell or Marshall?”
“I don’t know. I can’t decide. This is so hard, Jeremy.” Michele suddenly lurched forward, falling face first on the desk, and began to cry. Before her second painful sob dribbled onto the desk, the tall teenager leaped from his perch to her side and rested a comforting hand on her shoulder. Michelle looked up. “Why don’t you decide for me?” she pleaded.
“Oh, I can’t do that,” Jeremy rebuffed the request. “Only you can define who you are. Don’t ever let anyone else do that. Don’t ever let someone else slap labels or expectations on you.” He patted Michelle’s head and returned to his window seat perch.“ If you are a boy named Mitchell or Marshall, then that is who you are. If you like classical music and pro football, don’t let anyone convince you that that is a weird combination.” He leaned forward and touched his young neighbor on the forearm.“ Look at me. I’m the only Black dude on my basketball team and I listen to country music. The White guys are all like ‘Whoa.’ But I don’t care what they think or that they like rap.”
Michelle sat up, wiped her cheek with the long sleeve of her black Oakland Raider football jersey, and fingered the desk’s pink-and-white trim. “I hate this trim.”
“I know,” Jeremy said, as if he had heard the complaint a hundred times.
“Why couldn’t it be orange and blue like the Denver Broncos or silver and black like the Raiders?”
Ignoring the question, Jeremy made a request.“ Promise me something?”
“That you will never let anyone tell you who you are, that you will not let anyone label you or define you.”
The rapid tapping sounds of a woman’s heels on a wooden hallway floor interrupted the conversation. It stopped at the doorway of the bedroom. “It’s time, Sweetie,” Rachel Kline announced in a whisper. “ Jeremy’s funeral will be in half an hour. Are you ready?”
Michelle rose from the chair and turned toward her mother. “Yeah,” she sighed. She wore black dress slacks, a white button-down collar long-sleeve shirt and a sportyblack Raider V-neck sweater-vest with the team’s foreboding logo resting over her broken heart. “I’m trying not to hate that Dawaine guy for hitting Jeremy with his car. But why did he have to be driving so fast? It was night. It was dark. And this is a quiet street, Mom. Didn’t he see that?”
“I know,” Rachel said in a voice as soothing as steaming chicken soup in January. But before she finished the two-word sentence, Michelle cut her off.
“Why was he so afraid of the police anyway, Mom?”
“It’s complicated, Sweetie. You’ll understand better when you are a little older. Besides, you have enough grownup things to think about.”
Michelle put her hands in her pants pockets and looked down for a moment. Her shoulders drooped as if they supported the weight of another person. She half-heartedly kicked an imaginary football with her white Nike. Suddenly, Michelle stood tall, as if she had shed that crippling weight. She looked directly at Rachel and smiled. “I’ve figured it out, Mom. I finally know who I am.” She paused, pride taking over her posture. “My name is Jeremy now.”
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