Our Song

A Memoir of Love and Race.

Publication by She Writes Press July 12, 2022

The wildfire was coming.

It was blazing across the Southern California foothills with zero containment. I didn’t know how long I’d have before the knock on my door, the order to leave: “15 minutes to evacuate!”

Fourteen years in a high-fire-danger area had taught me a lot. I owned a fire safe where I kept jewelry, important papers, my few writing publications, and CDs of favorite old photos. I had replaced my composition roof with fire-resistant metal.

Now a serious fire was burning my way. There were things I hadn’t done, like protecting the plastic storage bins of memories still sitting in my garage. At 1:30 in the morning, I lugged one bin inside and opened it on my bed.

There were surprises. The card from my little sister that she’d been too young to realize had a sexual connotation (“Baby, you turn me on!”) Goofy notes passed with my best friend in high school. A nametag from a dance that still bore the faint scent of Jade East cologne from the boy who’d worn it.

I paused to think about those memories, but not for long. I was looking for one thing in particular, and it would break my heart if it were not there. But no, there it was, just like I thought, a nondescript paper bag starting to come apart at the sides. Inside were 22 hand-written letters dated 1972. His love letters, the most beautiful letters anyone had ever written to me. In a fit of jealousy, they had been torn into scraps. Later each one was painstakingly taped back together and placed inside its original envelope. It had long been my dream that I’d tell their story in a book someday.

For a moment I just held the bag and let flashes of that year wash over me—the seasons, the songs, his smile, his smell. I sniffed the bag to see if, like the other boy’s nametag, it still held any trace of him, but it did not. I knew I should keep sorting—the wildfire was coming! But I couldn’t resist pulling out his first letter and thinking back to when we’d first met…

At age 20 I had been a long-legged, long-haired college student. I’d made it there in spite of my disorganized childhood, nine different living situations by the time I was eleven. Although I was smart in some ways (English, not math) and not bad looking as I went from child to woman (deep brown eyes, olive skin, and a happy smile), I was still sensitive, insecure and introverted. I read literature and wrote poetry. I covered my shyness with a growing bravado—progressive politics and sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I’d chosen a school as far away as I could afford from my meddling mother and conservative town.

At 20 he was a tall African-American basketball player from the inner city. He’d been raised in poverty by his single mom and grandmother. Like a lot of city boys, he did OK in school but was more interested in playing pickup basketball at the local playground. He was still more potential than proof when he was recruited to play for a small white college in my home town in Pennsylvania. There his coach groomed him to become a top scorer and local sensation. That accomplishment still didn’t fill another, more private need: he curated the songs of Motown for their sweet soul sounds and poetic lyrics, as well as his deep longing for true love.

When we met in 1972, that love took off like a wildfire. One we didn’t know then would burn us both. Badly.And there were complications that would fan the flames.