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Beauty Through Broken Glass
Millie Ehrlich




It was 1971, when Americans were caught up in the Civil Rights March, the Vietnam War, protest songs and folk music at Woodstock, and psychedelic drugs.

I was 25 years old, unemployed, living in Brooklyn, NY with my parents, a quintessential alienated youth recently discharged from a hospital where I'd spent a year after a half-hearted suicide attempt. Now in therapy, I'd relapsed into depression after my boyfriend with the blonde slick-backed hair had stopped calling and made me feel like a cheap, used Woolworth comb with broken teeth.

My therapist advised me to get a job to have some sort of structure in my life. I answered an ad in The New York Times for a position as secretary at the Brooklyn Museum. My new supervisor, Margaret, was a political activist who was living with a Black man and did all she could to favor the Black children in the art program. This was the first time I'd ever encountered a Black community, because we’d all grown up in separate neighborhoods. Even in the "melting pot," the early seventies was a time of segregation.

When I first heard the expression "Black is beautiful," my ideas of beauty had gotten shaken up and rearranged like bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, because I was brought up to believe that the fairer you were, the more beautiful you were. But now, at the Brooklyn Museum, I was discovering a new kind of beauty...


On my first day as secretary at the Junior Membership Department at the Brooklyn Museum, I spent my lunch hour walking in the Botanical Gardens. I came to a cherry tree with its trunk divided into three parts, the branches twisting outward. While I looked through them, I saw a young Black man standing immediately on the other side of the tree. He was bending his body in a twisty fashion and looking at me with a quizzical expression on his face, as if he were studying me the way I was studying the tree. He was almost the same color as the trunk of the tree--a pinkish silvery light brown--but less pink and more light brown. He seemed to be frozen in a dance motion like a reflection of twisting branches. I appreciated his strange beauty, the way he was part of the scene, and even the joke he seemed to be playing on me.

I loved the word "strange." It tasted like a mango or an avocado in my mouth. I’d never heard the protest song, Strange Fruit, sung by Billy Holiday, nor could I have guessed what the words referred to–a man hanging from a tree after a lynching, because white racists found him too strange to live.

"Are you studying me or the tree?" I asked.

"Who, me?" he answered.

"Are you a student at the Brooklyn Museum?"

He didn’t answer and just continued his meditation. He was a mystery.

I spent the rest of the day with his image rooted in my mind--a man who resembled a tree. In the landscape of my imagination, this man was an exotic but plant-like being--an orchid that enticed me with its voluptuous color, but was indistinguishable from the earth and sky. I had discovered a living Rousseau painting where earthy figures blended with the scenery. I felt under the spell of the moon in the spatter of an enchanted circle of darkness within light.

The next day, I saw him in the museum cafeteria and said "Hi." He looked at me intently, but didn’t break the mystical connection between us with a casual smile. Apart from the grass and sky, he now looked like a regular person. He was about six foot tall but not very muscular, like a boy still developing into a man, dressed in black chinos, a white tee-shirt, and black sneakers that slapped the floor as he walked, had a large head that may have looked larger because of his explosive head of hair, and wore gold-rimmed glasses that gave him the look of an intellectual. He was much lighter than I remembered--hardly Black at all. As I met his eyes, I felt myself flush, as if he had lifted my skirt.

Later that day, he came up to my office in the tower and breathlessly introduced himself.

"Armand Rodriguez. I’m an art student here. Just walked up seven flights to see you."

"Why didn’t you take the elevator?"

He twisted his mouth, as if he had just tasted something bitter, and waved his hand dismissively. Then he suddenly smiled, turned his hand palm up and offered it to me. I took it and we held hands for a few seconds instead of really shaking.

I was no longer the botanist, and he, the man behind the tree. We had exchanged places. Though he didn’t seem to know what to say, his eyes explored my blushing face, long brown hair, yellow cotton blouse, and green corduroy skirt, as if I were an exotic flower. His eyes told me that he wanted to be close to me, to study me, to be inspired by me.

"I saw you this morning," he said.

"I remember. I saw you, too."

"You’re new here."


"Do you like it?" His eyes searched mine with curiosity.

"I like the watercolors on the second floor and the pottery on the first. I haven’t seen much of the rest of the building–except for the African exhibit on the main floor," I confessed, blushing again.

He shifted his eyes away from me for a second. Was it with embarrassment? If so, was he embarrassed for himself or for me? I felt it was now my turn to explore.

"Do you come here often?"

"Where?" he asked, startled.

"To the museum."

"Oh. I thought you meant here--to your office."

"Well, do you come here, too?"
"Now I will," he said, deepening his voice, his eyes dancing into mine.

I had never experienced such instant devotion--or any devotion at all, for that matter. Was I someone in a movie that was playing in his mind? Did he find me alluring simply because I was white? Swept away by his attention, I was caught up in excited confusion on the interplaying winds of romance and revolution. If he was flirting with me, I had never been flirted with so eloquently. I felt a sweet awakening, letting my questions drop like petals to the ground. It felt strange, special, and scary to be the object of someone else’s fantasies--a strange new nectar I drank in, even as he was drinking mine.


Armand was what southern Blacks call "high yallah"–a Black person so light-skinned, he almost looked white. He had hair that was not quite kinky enough to be an Afro but stood out of his head with a wild, uncombed look. His lips were thick and his lower lip consistently drooped open, and one of his eyebrows was perpetually raised in a questioning manner. His cheeks were so smooth, I didn’t think he shaved, but he had the merest trace of a mustache--just a few stray hairs--reminiscent of the whiskers of a catfish. You might say he was handsome in an offbeat sort of way. Was he a mulatto--possibly from the Carribean? I always liked to know who people’s ancestors were, even if I had to learn they were slaves. I returned his gaze as he stood before me in the office of the Junior Membership Department.

"What is your background?" I asked him.

"My mother came from Cuba and my father was from Honduras, but I grew up without my father."

"Were you born in this country?"


"How old are you?"

"Nineteen. And you?"

"I’m twenty-five."

"That’s all right. I like older women," he said with an inviting smile.

I had to answer the phone, as flustered as I felt, and Armand discreetly left the office. Other young people came and went, but for the rest of the day, I was haunted by his dark eyes, full lips, broad nose, and buttercream face.

I had always been fascinated, while looking at photographs of Malcolm X, to see how light-skinned he was. It was the African in the features of both Armand and this most radical Black man that made them Black. Armand was American, but he looked like a foreigner to me. I wanted to get to know him and hoped that, in time, what I now found odd about his looks would grow familiar. I trusted that love would smooth away our facial differences, as well as our cultural ones–because, in the urgent unfolding of our glances, words and unspoken needs, I sensed he was the shining prince who had finally come to rescue me from my loneliness.

When it was time to go home, I turned off the lights and locked the door to the office behind me, taking his image with me. Suddenly, my vague daydreaming yielded to reality. He was there waiting for me in the hall. We slowly approached each other like prize-fighters in a boxing ring or bug-eyed ostriches about to begin a mating dance. I smiled in confusion, unable to look away, not knowing which way to move. Before I could turn to go down the steps that led from the tower to the elevator, he gently pushed me into a corner, and I not unwillingly received his kiss. His tongue filled my mouth before I knew if I wanted it.

When we separated, we searched each other’s faces for a sign of how much we liked each other, but saw only the questions in each other’s eyes.

The keys were still in my hand, so I said, "Come back into the office."

"Why?" he asked.

"I want to show you something."

It was after hours, but the office in the tower was now more than just my place of work. I opened the door to the office, and then--the door to another world.

"Wow!" he said. "I had no idea this was here!"

"If there’s a dome outside," I said, as if he might not know, "it has to have an inside to it."

"Yeah, I realize that. But I didn’t think you could enter it."

A forbidden sanctuary. An inner sanctum. We were standing on the edge of a cliff, looking at the concave, moon-colored vault of an indoor sky. Space all around us and a foothold of refuge. Our bodies insignificant, absorbed by the darkness, our souls clamped in shells of heavy silence. A musty smell of stone, dust, wood, and burning lamps permeated the air.

The catwalk looked shakier than ever, swaying with the barely noticeable wind that came through the open door. I led the way and Armand followed tentatively, no doubt afraid of falling as I had been the first time, but lifting his chest and trying to look brave. Sweat poured out of my armpits and trickled down my sides. I was still afraid--not only of falling, but also of the dark–and felt a rush of excitement between my legs. Though we could barely see each other and had to walk single file, leaving space between us to balance the catwalk, I felt as close to Armand now as when we had kissed.

"Hello!" I yelled, so that Armand could hear the echo.


"Millie, where are you leading me?"

........................."Leading me?"

I don’t know," I answered.

........................."No," echoed back.

"Are you afraid?"

........................."Afraid? Afraid?"

Then we laughed, trying not to rock too hard, and listened to the oceanic echo of our laughter.

........................."Ha ha ha ho ho ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!"

The danger and darkness of the secret place created an intimacy between us that we could never have known if we had merely gone out on a date together. Already, I could taste the words "date" and "boyfriend." I felt privileged to have access to the inner mysteries of the museum. and share them with this wild and poetic young man. I could feel the word "privileged" rolling on my tongue where his tongue had touched a few moments before. And inside the dome of my head, as if I had shouted it, without even realizing I had been thinking it, I heard the echo:



I was lying on a black leather couch, as usual, looking up at the ceiling, playing with my hair, dressed in one of my vintage-antique, thrift-shop dresses, while Dr. Goldberg sat behind me, as he always did, taking notes. I didn’t know if he was looking at me. I could hear him listening, his soft, middle-aged body shifting its position in his armchair. I pictured him lifting his eyes from his notebook and staring into space, or tugging at his short, kinky brown beard, in unconscious imitation of Freud.

The closed Venetian blinds, keeping our secrets in the room, the muted buzz of traffic from the street, the imposing mahogany desk beside the window, its glass top reflecting the glare of a small light bulb at the end of a desk lamp arm--were all reminders that we were physically present. But as we spoke into the air without looking at each other, I thought of us as disembodied voices in a vacuum.

"I met someone," I said after a silence.

"Are you telling me you have a boyfriend?"

"I think so."

"I know this is not your first."

"He’s the first one who’s Black."

"How do you feel about that?"

"I don’t care. I mean I like him. A lot. I’ve always been interested in meeting foreign people, but Armand seems more different than a foreigner."

"How so?"

"I was brought up to believe that Black people were on the other side of a dividing line. I’ve never been afraid of crossing lines before. So why should this be any different? I feel eager to take the step with my conscious mind."

"But you feel your unconscious mind doesn’t go along?"

"Sex is a dirty thing."

"It is?"

"I’m telling you my associations."


"If I’m going to do something dirty, what would be better than to do it in the dark, with a person who was of the dark? But in a part of me I can’t control, I’m still afraid of the dark."

"Tell me about your fear of the dark."

"It goes back to childhood. When my sister and I were little, we both used to beg our mother to leave the little light on when we went to bed, because we were afraid of the dark. You couldn’t see anything in the room, not even your own arms and legs, so how would you know if you were still there or if anything else was?"

"You couldn’t see and felt a lack of control."

"Once in the middle of the night, when I wasn’t sure if I was awake or asleep, I thought my parents had become gorillas in the next room. It was scary that there wasn’t anyone left to turn to and tell that I was afraid."

"You may have been frightened by your parents having sex, and associated the dark with animal fantasies about your parents. Anything else?"

"My grandmother’s house where I grew up was next door to a hospital, but my sister and I never thought of the sick people inside. It was just a building with a brick wall that was covered with soot. In between my grandmother’s house and the hospital, there was a narrow alley and a side entrance to the house that nobody used except the man who went down into the cellar to deliver the coal, who Cindy and I called the bogey man. Whenever he came, we would run out of the alley, screaming, ‘The bogey man! The bogey man! The alley was a blurry zone between scary stories and reality. It was dark, the coal cellar was dark, and we didn’t like to touch the hospital wall because it was contaminated by the bogey man."

"Was the man dark?"

"He was olive skinned, I think. But the bogey man was more than just this man whose presence frightened us. He was also an invisible ghost who was there all the time, hanging about the alley, and who might appear in it at any moment. He was someone from the world of darkness who could slip over into the daytime. It was the threat of his appearance that was so terrifying to us. If he came, his shape would fill all the space around us and would instantly obliterate us if it touched us."

"So you were afraid of the bogey man. I think that’s very common among children. Did you associate this bogey man with Black people?"

"No. I don’t think so. I had never seen any Black people. Not till I got a little older and traveled on the bus with my parents. Grandma Riva, my father’s mother, lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and we had to pass through a Black neighborhood to get to her house. When I looked out the bus window, it was odd to see the people on the street dressed just like white people, only they had dark faces looking out from under their hats, and dark hands and arms sticking out from their sleeves. The only other people I knew who looked like them were the lady on the Aunt Jemima pancake box, the boy in my Little Black Sambo book, and Amos and Andy on T.V., who the grownups found so funny, though I couldn’t tell why."

"They were a comedy team, weren’t they?

"I guess so. But I didn’t think they were funny. I think the grownups just liked to laugh at them."

"Uh huh."

"My Aunt Hannah and Uncle Yitzak, who were also on my father’s side of the family and lived in a faraway part of Brooklyn, sometimes visited my Grandma Riva at the same time we did. Every time they talked to my parents, the conversation seemed to be about the same thing. First they would talk about the news. After that, they would make a face and say, ‘The neighborhood is changing.’ I was beginning to understand that meant that Negroes were moving in, though I couldn’t understand why my relatives should mind if they knew about Abraham Lincoln and the freeing of the slaves, which we learned about in school."

"So your family disapproved of Back people, but you felt differently. You had a positive feeling about them."

"Yes. There was an opera on television by Gian Carlo Menotti called The Medium. It was the first opera I ever saw. I was surprised that it was in English and different from the kinds of screaming I sometimes heard on the radio. There was a girl with long golden hair who had a servant friend who was Black and mute. I think the girl wasn’t allowed to go outside, so she invented all kinds of indoor games to play with the servant. They played with scarves of different colors, wrapping them around each other and twirling in and out, dancing under each other’s arms, and never letting go of the scarves. At one point, she said to him, ‘If only you could speak.’ I felt so close to them in their games and thought the scarves were so beautiful, like something out of a dream. I wanted a silent friend I could play with, too. Someone who totally understood my ideas without a word being said. I wanted us to be able to read each other’s minds."

"So you had a fantasy about an ideal friend," said Dr. Goldberg.

"Who was Black," I said.

"And mute," he added.



In the next issue, Millie and Armand spend a weekend in the country together but don’t bother to make hotel reservations. After this experience, Millie meets with her therapist again and decides to break off – with her therapist? With Armand? Read on and find out.


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