This essay is part of a collaborative project of Black history, continued† We invited readers and renowned writers to respond to the question “What is black love today?”
Two summers before Mary J. Blige complained soulfully about seeking a “true love,” I found mine. I was 11 years old.
I haven’t seen him since and I have no idea where he is now, so for our purposes I’ll use his initial: L. In the summer of 1989, my family had moved to South Jamaica, Queens, and entered a year later L. and his mother own a house across the street.
He rode into my life doing tricks on the wheels of a BMX bike, accented with a checkerboard frame and handlebar grips. I also had a bike, but I never tried the tricks L. did. I wasn’t that kind of boy. I was more inclined to read my mother’s novels or watch soap operas all day during school breaks. I was the kind of guy who was more likely to fall in love than to fall off a bike.
I was sitting on the porch reading a novel when L. turned the corner. He rode his bike up to me, stood on the pedals of the bike and towered over me as I read.
“Would you like to ride with me?” he asked.
“Uh, okay. Let me put this in the house,’ I said, stumbling to my feet.
Minutes later we were riding our bikes side by side.
For guys like us—black boys whose worlds can simultaneously seem big and terrifying and at the same time feel small and oppressive—getting on our bikes and going beyond our immediate surroundings was a freedom ride.
That first ride, taken amid the promise of a New York spring, turned into dozens of rides.
We started spending time together outside of cycling. We bundled up our allowances and went to the bodega to fill brown paper bags with Now & Laters, Lemonheads, Boston Baked Beans, and penny candy to share while we played with my Ninja Turtles action figures.
As summer ended and the day for school to start approached (a year where I would go to fifth grade and L. to sixth), I felt really sad. My stomach was upset. “Did I eat too many sweets?† I thought. It was then that I remembered how other people felt about it: the characters in those romantic novels and soap operas.
Almost immediately my stomach was straightened as I realized the answer was simple. I loved L. as much as my favorite soap opera heroine, Erica Kane, loved each of her husbands.
“I like you,” I told him.
“I like you too,” he replied.
“No me Like it you, like you,’ I said.
“Okay crazy. I know,” he said.
We stared at each other for a moment before playing with our action figures again, until my aunt said it was time for dinner.
During the last days of summer, he and I were together as usual. The night before the first day of school, he said, “I want to give you something.” He reached into his pocket and took out a ring, his mother’s. It was gold with a medium amber stone in an oval basket setting. The ring was so small that even as a child, although a chubby one, I could only fit it on my little finger.
The next day he and I walked to school together. Once at school, we went to our different classes, but I still wore the ring. I played with it all morning, waiting for lunch and a break. This would be the next time we would see each other.
I grabbed my lunch tray and sat down to eat, seeing L. in sixth grade. I waved at him from across the room. He smiled broadly, just enough to see a broken left incisor, and he gave me a soldier’s salute and sat down. I smiled and turned to my lunch.
As I picked up my spork to eat, I looked at the ring on my left little finger and began to daydream about our beautiful summer together. My daydream was interrupted by a classmate’s voice, the gossip at school. She was an adolescent black Barbara Walters, full of questions. Once she set her sights on you, there was no escaping it.
“Ooooh, that’s so niiiiice,” she said, pointing to the ring. “Is that your mother’s ring?”
“New.” I said. With her it was best to keep it short.
“Whose is it? Where did you get it?” she asked.
I told her who gave it to me.
‘Oh, in the sixth grade? That’s why you waved at him. Is he your friend?”
“Yes, I said.
“Ooooh, that’s so sweet. Boys like boys,” she said, rolling her eyes and walking away.
I grinned triumphantly, convinced she must be jealous. It never occurred to me that she would roll her eyes for any other reason.
After school I waited to walk home with him, but he didn’t show up. Nor was he on the doorstep of his house when I reached our street. I ran to my house, quickly did my homework and put on my play clothes.
I ran to L.’s house and knocked on the door. No answer. I sat on his stairs and waited. About fifteen minutes passed before I heard footsteps from the house. I jumped up; it was him. I smiled and said, “Do you want to drive?” But he didn’t smile back.
Before I could ask what was going on, he punched me in the eye.
My head was spinning, but I managed to restrain myself and say, “Why did you?!?” as he ran towards me. For a moment I thought he was coming to help me, but instead he hit me again.
At that point I did the only thing that made sense to me: I hit him back. Suddenly we were on the street, fighting like strangers.
“Aunt Truck!” my cousin shouted. “They’re fighting here!” Within seconds, my aunt rushed toward us to pull us apart.
“What happened? I thought you were all friends,” she said as soon as she and I got home.
I couldn’t even talk.
“Eric! What happened?”
Still nothing. Then finally, “I thought he liked me,” I said, looking down at the floor. “He said he liked me.” I burst into tears, an utterly ugly cry.
“Oh, Eric,” Aunt Lorry said, hugging me and making me sob against her chest.
L. and I haven’t seen each other for days. Then another cousin of mine, also in sixth grade at our school, told me she had a new boyfriend.
“Who is it?” someone asked.
She said his name. “You know, across the street.”
I walked away quietly.
Heartache, combined with confusion and anger, form a very specific pain. Add guilt and my despair took over everything. I felt guilty, because as I tried to make sense of everything, I remembered my gossip classmate’s rolling eyes and her toothless grin as she walked away from our conversation.
I remembered seeing that same grin on other occasions. It wasn’t a nice grin at all. It was “nice-dirty,” as my mother would say. I had given people a way to be “pretty mean” to L., and this must have hurt him.
I spent the rest of the day in my room staring at the ring. That evening I walked across the street to his house. I dropped the ring through the letterbox of the door. I immediately heard footsteps inside, so I ran back to my house and closed my door just as I saw L.’s mother open her door and look around, ring in hand.
Two months later, in November, I was sitting on the stairs reading a book when a van pulled up outside L.’s house. Within minutes, his mother was putting boxes in the trunk of the van.
It took me a while to realize that L. and his mother were moving. By the time it became clear to me, L. was walking down the stairs. When he got into the van, we made eye contact for the first time in what felt like a lifetime. He smiled wide enough to expose that broken left incisor, saluted me like a soldier again, climbed into the van and they drove off.
After all, L. left my life as abruptly as he entered it. I never saw or spoke to him again.
Through him I learned that love is never apolitical, even in adolescence. Love only works if all involved are accountable to that statement. As black guys, we lived in a world that wouldn’t let us love ourselves, let alone space to love each other.
But I still cherish the innocent and honest moments when we were just two boys who like Nice find each other, before the world came in and pulled us apart.