In a family of activists, being the one who stayed home, who didn’t make signs and stand outside the state house and walk in marches and participate in protests, was like having a spotlight on you. You were the one who was careless and flippant, the one who was too dumb to watch the news and actually be able to understand and process what was happening.
The world was changing, I knew that, but I was also hyperaware of my powerlessness. I knew that standing outside the statehouse yelling at whatever politician happened to walk by wouldn’t do any good. It would be a waste of my time, and it was, I was sure of it, a waste of my mother’s and sister’s time.
The night before the first protest, they stayed up late into the night making signs. My sister Lila, always the artist, used her flair for making things beautiful and her perfect penmanship, and our mother tried to come up with catchy slogans for their posters. The words had to be simple, but also both powerful and peaceful, she said. “We’re not looters or rioters,” she said, but I detected a hint of doubt in her voice, and I knew that in the heat of the moment she didn’t feel responsible for her actions. She did it all out of passion for what’s right and good, and Lila followed in her footsteps. I made myself a cup of sleepytime tea and went to my room.
They never outwardly expressed their disappointment in my silence, but I always felt it. It was the elephant in the room, that I was the one who didn’t care. I knew what they thought, or rather, what I assumed they thought: that I was too selfish to care, too wrapped in my own personal whatever, to think about others. My brain didn’t have the capacity to think about the wellbeing of strangers. Plus, I had my own things going on. My own life. I had university classes to study for and a friend with benefits who I was secretly trying to turn into my boyfriend. It was hard to think about the entire world when my own world felt so delicate.
In my room, I scrolled through social media for awhile, but Instagram was black square after black square, and being a white girl made me feel like there was no way for me say anything, to feel anything. What right did I have? I was privileged. I was so privileged that I didn’t have to leave the house to stand up for people. I was free to watch from the window with my mug of hot tea in my hands. I knew that I’d never understand, so I didn’t try.
As usual, I kept my bedroom door cracked so that I could listen to my mother and Lila’s conversation as they made their signs. It was mostly benign. Mom came up with a witty phrase for her sign, and I pictured her watching with glee as Lila made Mom’s vision into reality. Occasionally they’d delve into the big, important topics, the ones that they were fighting for, their thoughts about it, and patting themselves on the back for being so righteous, for being part of The Resistance. I knew that they didn’t intend to be self-congratulatory, but I couldn’t hear them any other way.
When I went to bed, it was after midnight. They were still working, becoming louder and more passionate and giddy as they got more tired. I texted Charlie Hey and waited for him to respond and ask me to come over. I fell asleep listening to my mom and sister chanting “No justice, no peace!” in unison, like they had to practice the words before they said them for real, with meaning.
They left the next morning, late, closer to the afternoon, to disappear into the city with their signs and their passion. They wore sunscreen, because it was a beautiful spring day, finally, and sunglasses. Lila packed a backpack filled with snacks - granola bars and trail mix and bottles of water. I watched them drive away from the living room window. I texted one of my friends and asked if she wanted to go to Starbucks. She responded almost right away. Omg yes please I can’t with all of this happening right now it’s like all anyones talking abt.
Mom had asked me if I wanted to go with them before they left. She always did. I had to give her credit for that. She always tried to include me, but after years of me rejecting her, I was beginning to see her disappointment in me, as a person. As usual, I told her that I had a headache and I needed to study. Lila rolled her eyes at me because we hadn’t been in school for weeks because of the pandemic.
I’d spent god knows how many minutes wondering how much of Lila’s activism was her own and how much of it was to please my mother. I think she liked feeling like I was the bad one. I was the disappointment, the one my mother wished was better in that way, and after years of me being the older sister, the one with the good grades and perfect attendance, it was probably a relief to have this one thing. Sure, I was a good student, but she was a good person. I mean, in the real world, which mattered more?
I walked downtown to meet up with Sara at Starbucks. We donned our face masks and went inside to order once we were given the okay. We both ordered iced skinny vanilla lattes, and I also bought a cranberry walnut muffin because I felt like the low calorie latte made the baked goods more okay to eat, like they canceled each other out. As the barista handed me my change, she said, “Are you guys heading to the protest?” She had streaks of blue in her hair and square black glasses.
“Oh, no,” Sara replied, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “That’s like way too much for me.”
I couldn’t see the barista’s mouth because it was covered by her mask, but something in her eyes changed. I sensed her disapproval, her judgment. Just a couple more basic white bitches, she was probably thinking. I thanked her and nudged Sara out the door.
“Dude, stop pushing,” Sara said once we were back outside on the street. “Can I have a piece of your muffin?”
“Why didn’t you get your own?”
“I only have five dollars on me. It’s all my mom would give me.”
“Ugh,” I said, taking a sip of my latte. “Being home blows.”
“It sucks. I can’t wait to go back to school.” Sara realized what she’d just said. “I never thought I’d say that in my life.”
I handed her the paper bag that held my muffin. She reached in and pulled off a chunk from the muffin top, the best part, and handed the bag back to me. We wandered down the street, our masks on but pulled down so that our mouths and noses were exposed. If we saw people coming, we quickly pulled them back up, but the sidewalks were mostly empty.
“Should we, like, be at this thing?” I said, needing someone’s approval, someone telling me that it was okay that I didn’t want to be there.
“Nah, there’s enough people there. What are two more bodies gonna do?” Sara replied.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. I took a long sip of my latte. “I just feel like I’m being judged for not being there.”
“By who, your mom?”
“By everyone.” I popped a piece of muffin in my mouth. “Like I’m a bad person for not being there.”
“It’s all for show, anyway,” Sara said. She paused on the sidewalk to take a picture of her latte and posted it on Instagram with a sepia toned filter. “People just want to look like they care. They don’t actually care. If anything, we’re the more honest ones.”
“Yeah,” I said, seeing her point and feeling slightly more justified and more righteous in my inaction. “Let’s go get pedicures.”
“Dude, I just told you, I just spent my five dollars. I’m broke,” Sara said.
“I’ll just use my mom’s credit card, it’s fine.”
The nail salon was empty, save for the nail techs and employees, who were all sitting down and chatting when we walked in, because everyone else was at the protest, so we got in right away. Once we were seated in our chairs and our feet were soaking in hot, bubbly water filled with fancy scented soap, Sara asked me how things were going with Charlie.
“Ugh. The same,” I said. “I texted him last night and he didn’t answer.”
“He’s probably at the protest,” Sara said, scrolling through her phone. “Oh, look. Yeah, he’s there.” She showed me Charlie’s latest Instagram post, from twenty-three minutes ago. It was a photo of the huge crowd of people downtown, captioned #blacklivesmatter #nojusticenopeace.
“Well, good for him,” I said. “Should I text him?”
“He’s gonna ask if you’re there,” Sara said knowingly.
“Because everyone else is there.” Sara sipped her latte and kept scrolling. Two nail techs came over and began working on our feet, removing the old chipped nail polish, scrubbing our toes clean, massaging lotion into our calves.
As our nails were getting painted (we’d both chosen hot pink), one of the other nail techs flipped the channel on TV to the local news. They all gathered around the TV to watch the coverage of the protest. I hadn’t intended to pay it any attention, but I was relieved that it seemed, for the most part, like people were protesting peacefully. My biggest fear, the one I never spoke out loud, was that something terrible would happen to my family, and I wouldn’t be there. Or, worse, I wouldn’t be there because I’d chosen not to be there with them. I’d chosen to isolate myself, to not be part of something bigger than me. On days that they were gone, to one protest or another, I either avoided the television entirely or I spent most of the day anxious and glued to news coverage wherever I could find it, either on TV or my phone. At the first sign of unrest, I would feel my heart pound in my chest, and my body became hot and cold at the same time. Eventually, the sun would set, and I’d get that familiar “We’re in the clear” feeling. My family would be home soon and we’d have a frozen pizza for dinner. Mom and Lila would tell me all about it and I’d smile and nod and say encouraging things.
I paid for our pedicures, then Sara and I said goodbye and went our separate ways. I slid my mom’s credit card, which was supposed to only be used for emergencies, back into the pocket of my Coach wristlet. She never looked at her credit card statements.
As I walked home, I sent Charlie another text. I wrote, Are u free tonite? and put my phone away.
To my surprise, he texted me back as I was unlocking the front door. I’m at the protest are you here?
No, I wrote back. I just feel like it’s not my place.
I waited for him to reply, but he never did.
Back at home, I changed into sweatpants, ate two bowls of cereal with skim milk, and waited for my mom and sister to come home. I turned on the TV and flicked back and forth between the news and the Kardashians. Once the sun went down, I went into the kitchen and preheated the oven.
Not long after, I heard Mom’s car pull into the driveway, and then she and Lila came in, bursting with post protest energy and excitement.
“How was it?” I said, sliding the pizza into the hot oven.
“Amazing,” Mom said. “Just…amazing.”
“It was a transformative experience,” Lila agreed. “Like I’m not the same person I was before I went.”
“Wow,” I said, skeptical but in no position to call her bluff.
“Yeah,” Lila said, sighing contently and sliding into a chair. “I’m so tired. My feet are killing me. But it’s worth it.”
Mom squeezed her shoulder. “It sure is.” She turned her attention to me. “How was your day?”
“Boring,” I said. “Sara and I got pedicures.”
“That’s nice,” Mom said, but Lila was shooting eye daggers at me.
After a brief pause, Lila said, “I really don’t get you, Ali.”
“What do you mean, you don’t get me?”
“Like, you’re totally cool to sit around here with your dumb friends while the country is on fire.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s not that big a deal. And it’s not on fire.”
“It’s a really big deal,” Lila said. “And I don’t understand how you can sit around here and do nothing all day every day. Like, do something with your life.”
“I am. I’m in school,” I said. It wasn’t my best argument, but it’s all I had.
“Please. School has been dead for months. You have all this time and you waste it shopping and going to Starbucks.”
“I just don’t see the point,” I said, louder now. “What good does it do for any of us to go downtown and yell at people?”
“Because we have a voice. A collective voice,” Lila said. “We can invoke change, if we all pull together and work together, as a city. As a country.”
Mom was silent, shuffling things around the in cupboard. She knew that she couldn’t defend either of us without hurting or alienating the other.
“Look,” I said. “I’m really proud of you and everything, but it’s just not for me.”
“Well, maybe you should reconsider who you are,” Lila said sharply.
The oven beeped, announcing that our pizza was done, and Mom pulled it out of the oven. “This looks good,” she said, forcing a smile. “Do we need extra parmesan?”
“I’m good,” I said, standing up. “You guys can have it. I’m really tired.”
“Ali,” Mom said to my back, but before she could continue I’d already closed my bedroom door.
The next morning, I slept in. When I woke up, my phone said that it was 10:32am. Mom and Lila were already gone, I didn’t know where because no one bothered to leave a note or text me. I ate some more cereal, and then, feeling guilty about my gluttony, I went to the gym, where I peddled away on the elliptical for thirty minutes while reading an old fashion magazine. I thought about how my jeans were feeling tight and quarantine was ruining my body, which wasn’t so hot to begin with.
The house was still empty when I got home. There were more protests going on downtown, so I assumed that’s where Mom and Lila were spending their day. I took a long, hot bath, conditioned my hair, painted my fingernails, used a sheet mask. I grew bored of my phone, which was just more and protest photos or public displays of support for minorities and people of color. So dull, I thought, wishing life would go back to normal already.
Around nightfall, I realized that I hadn’t heard back from Charlie. I decided to be brave and call him instead of texting him again. He didn’t answer, and I didn’t leave a voicemail.
An hour later, Charlie texted, You downtown?
No, I replied. I’m so over it. Want to come over?
A minute later, he replied, I think we should see other people.