I come from a town where the locals can be a bit territorial.
In my mid-twenties, I went home and decided to finish college. Throughout this period, I moved around a lot between shared quarters of various kinds. At one point, I rented a backyard bungalow from a divorcee with two school-age kids.
Jenna was a petite blond in her early forties whose ex-husband was a schoolteacher. She took good care of herself. Apparently, it had occurred to her rather late that her sexual power was never fully realized, so she rebelled against this weak-chinned fellow to live the independent life of her dreams, in his house, on half his salary, with some strange renter sharing a bathroom with her poor kids—though I wasn’t around much, and it was only a two-month sublet anyway.
She devoted herself to jiu-jitsu, and would invite the whole staff of Brazilian instructors and other students over for wild parties. She had turned her living room into a salon, and whenever I got back from campus there’d be a gaggle of gibbering yentas all getting their hair and nails done. And she seemed to be dating quite a bit, with numerous types of guys. There was an uptight, white attorney who’d come for dinners after work in a suit. One of the Brazilians was definitely getting in there. Also, a high school classmate of mine who played bass for a local fixture rock-reggae band. And a couple of times I noticed a short-statured but muscular, intense looking black dude.
I was in very good shape back then. I had a weight set and a tower with dip handles and a pull-up bar, and in the afternoons I would lift in the backyard. It was springtime. One day while I was working out, I came through the back porch to the kitchen for some water. No one was home, so I had my shirt off. Just as I finished washing my glass and putting it on the dishrack, Jenna came in with this black fellow. Like me, he was shirtless, in basketball shorts. I was feeling friendly and self-satisfied. I greeted the two of them warmly and chatted with her a bit, but I could sense him sizing me up as competition.
When you’re from a place, you can just tell who’s local and who isn’t. Black people are no exception; in my town, I knew all of them, and he wasn’t one of the ones I knew. On the other hand, a part of me despises not just provincialism, but territoriality where no territory has really been earned. Out of both a cosmopolitan impulse and a certain penitence over my past, teenage life of petty robbery, I liked to be open and cordial to transplants, tourists, and students. One can learn a lot in this manner, without making any real compromises. So I extended my hand and introduced myself to this guy. He seemed a bit on edge, which was understandable. I assume it’s not pleasant to be brought home by a woman, only to encounter a shirtless, sweating bodybuilder when you arrive there. Immediately after learning the man’s name and telling him mine, I asked where he was from. He wasn’t from there, after all.
My question pushed him over the edge. He glared at me with intense hostility. “What do you mean, ‘where am I from?’” White people normally like to retreat when put in such a position. Whether they’re intimidated, or simply keeping their powder dry, the aggressor makes of it what he will. But not only was I not intimidated; I was in a good mood. And it would be incorrect to say that I wasn’t going to let my good mood be dampened, because I was in such a good mood that that would have been impossible. In other words, it was beyond my control. I felt great about myself. It just wasn’t a matter of what I was going to let or not let happen.
“What do I mean, ‘where are you from?’” I smiled calmly, but with a look indicating that I regarded the question as ridiculous. “I guess I mean, where are you from?” I uttered this last part with slight but zesty sarcasm, making direct eye contact all the while. This whole thing was going to go my way. I could feel it.
“Yeah, what’s the problem?” Jenna asked him. “I don’t get it.” If he was mad before, now he was positively steaming. It was no longer a matter of whether I wanted to offend him, but of how far he wanted to take his own counter-productive bullshit. He was the houseguest of a loose woman, after all. Such encounters should be carefree. And although he was clearly in good shape, I did not look like anybody he wanted to fight.
I went back out and resumed my weight routine. Though I couldn’t make out the words, they were bickering in the kitchen—he in a strained, frustrated tone and she in a calmer, uncomprehending one. Frankly, I understood exactly what he objected to about my question. She, however, did not. He was trying to explain it to her, and having no success. By and by, the two of them came out back with a couple of beers. Her backyard was pretty big, so this wasn’t an imposition on my workout. She had a koi pond with a little bench. I was on my back in the grass, doing chest presses.
The two of them sat down. He was visibly perturbed. I stood up and started a set of curls. After what appeared to be some deliberation, he craned his neck my direction. “Hey Sam.” The use of my name signaled a painful concession to civilized mores. “How old are you man?” This was his attempt to shift gears from intimidation to condescension, but the fact that he was older than me only made things worse for him. Try as he might to tone it down, there was considerable edge in his voice. Not even bothering to turn my head his direction, I continued my set of curls. “It doesn’t make a difference and it’s none of your concern.” This was a devastating blow. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t something Jenna could hold against me. I hadn’t started anything with him and I didn’t need to reciprocate his softening up.
“You know, I don’t think you understand what it means when you say certain things to people.” He sounded more agitated this time. It was an impotent threat wrapped in an unsolicited lesson. “I don’t give a fuck what your issue is” I snapped back. “It’s your problem.” I got down and started a set of push ups. When I got back up, they were gone. Jenna later apologized profusely. She told me they’d argued more in the house, and she eventually kicked him out. It was a beautiful little triumph over the forces of arrogance and entitlement. Later that summer, I transferred to a university out of state, and I haven’t been back since.