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Beauty Through Broken Glass

James' House

Millie Ehrlich

Previous installment: Williamsburg

After living together for a month, Armand and I were getting to know each other's worlds. A week ago, I'd tentatively taken him home to meet my slightly uptight parents, and last weekend, I'd met his sociable mother, grandmother, and only cousin.

His mother had presented me with a pair of gold earrings with amethysts–an expensive present from anyone, let alone someone so poor. It seemed somehow fitting that I should receive a warmer welcome in Armand's world than he did in mine.

Now Armand was taking me to the home of his Black friend, James.

In spite of his tawny skin, full lips, broad nose, and streetwise manner, Armand himself didn't actually belong to the Black world, because he was Hispanic. He'd told me how sometimes American Negroes had dissed him because he was so light.

Knowing that he didn't fit completely into either world, Black or white, had made me feel a peculiar kind of bond with him, since I'd always been an outsider, too. But though I felt a great physical desire for him, on an emotional level, I avoided the sense that something was amiss. This was 1969, and as an artist and a hippie, I prided myself on being avant-garde enough to have an interracial relationship. But 25 years of conventional, Jewish, middle-class conditioning lay, cramped and kicking, just below the surface…

Armand's friend James lived in Bedford Stuyvesant, which all my life I'd heard was the worst neighborhood in Brooklyn–a Black ghetto. I shunted aside any fears I might have felt by telling myself this was going to be an exotic adventure. And besides, I'd always been lucky and never gotten myself killed before, and probably wouldn't this time either–even by a mob of angry Black strangers who might resent my guilty, lily-white presence on their turf.

I thought Bed Stuy was supposed to be a slum where people shot each other in the street, so I was surprised to see the streets were pretty and clean with a lot of well-kept private houses.

We rang the bell at the side entrance of James' house, and an old man with gray hair greeted us at the door.

"Hello, Armand. James isn't here. Go in and see Clyde."

We entered a room that was either a living room or some kind of den. The furniture was upholstered and modestly elegant. An elaborate brick fireplace–I couldn't tell if it were real or artificial–was built into the far wall, and mounted over it was an elk's head with antlers that made me shudder. A rug made out of some kind of animal skin–possibly goat–made a small white splash in the middle of the dark wood floor.

Otherwise, it looked very much like a Jewish middle-class living room. For the second time that week, I was struck by how solidly middle-class a Black man's home appeared. I was painstakingly learning that Black people, too, had to have sofas and coffee tables, lamp tables and lampshades, curtains and upholstered chairs…

This was where James' brother Clyde stored his artwork in wooden crates, though some of his finished canvases were leaning against the walls. He was in the room now and had a short Afro and was wearing a black tee-shirt and black chinos.

That's what Armand was wearing, too. Were they aspiring Black Panthers, I wondered? Had I just stepped into the middle of a revolution? Armand, who loved Van Gogh and Vermeer, had never spoken of wanting to overthrow the white establishment, but maybe his mind was tainted with the new Black ideology. Or were these Afros and black clothes purely a fashion? Like wearing a gun on your body--even if it wasn't loaded?

"Hi Clyde," Armand called cheerfully. What are you up to?"

"Workin'" Clyde answered.

"Show us some of your latest stuff."

Clyde gestured to some paintings of dream-like seascapes on the floor all done in shades of aqua--towering waves of water crashing against cliffs, islands with gothic castles, and small marble discs of moon in the sky.

"Are these oils?" I asked, to call attention to myself, since Armand hadn't introduced me, and also to try to say something that sounded intelligent.

"No, I did them in acrylic," he said.

There were also a couple of charcoal portraits of Black people with blue or green highlights on their skin and hair. I thought they looked garish.

"And these were done in pastel?"

"No. Cray-pas," he said.

We looked admiringly at his work. I envied Clyde his active art life, and dimly wondered why neither Armand nor I had done any painting since we'd been together. Had our passion for one another somehow canceled us both out as artists?

A voice from behind us boomed out, "Hello Armand! Hello Millie!"


Armand whirled around. I turned to see a tall, stout, bearded man with chestnut colored skin in a yellow and orange plaid dashiki. My immediate impression was of some kind of king. Maybe it was the beard or his girth or his bearing or his air of confidence. He appeared to be glowing from whatever it was he exuded. I'd met him once before, in the confused and hurried jumble of our house party a few months back, but I'd seen him only as an anonymous Black man then. One of us had obviously changed! Could it have been me?

"I've just been out shopping," he said, patting a bulging brown paper bag in his arms. "Would you like a beer?"

"Right on, Bro'!" Armand said.

"How about you, Millie?"

"Okay," I said.


"No thanks. I'm in the middle of something."

"Come upstairs," he said, and with a flourish of his dashiki, led the way up a staircase in the hall.

We came to a spacious living room with more upholstered furniture and walked into the doorway of a walk-in kitchen where a small group of people were sitting at the table, talking and eating. The old fashioned fixtures and long pipes protruding from behind the sink, bending like elbows and knees, and the dark faces, arms, and bodies of the men and women at the table had a certain lyrical quality that reminded me of paintings by Thomas Hart Benton. And like people in a painting, they seemed to be in a separate, self-contained world.

"Hello, Armand," one of the men said, emerging from the painting.

"Hi, William," Armand answered.

So they were real people, after all.

While Armand and I waited near the doorway, James walked over to a cabinet above the sink and poured out three glasses of beer. Pressing the glasses together, he carried them over and gestured with his eyes and chin for Armand to take one, while continuing to hold the other two.

As we exited the kitchen, following James, he said, "It's all right. We can bring our drinks in here."

We walked into a small side room that had a wooden stool, two wooden chairs, and a small table against a wall.

"This is where I come to write," James said. "This is my ivory tower." And he handed me my glass of beer.

Something about the way he said that made me laugh, even though I wasn't sure I was supposed to. There was something funny about James. He wasn't all dignity, and it was easy to laugh around him.

James and Armand straddled the chairs, and I sat on the stool which was kind of high so that my feet didn't reach the floor. That made me feel like a child and not on a par in some sense with James and Armand, and it was a bit disorienting.

"Armand tells me you write, too," James said to me.

"Just some poetry," I said.

"I know a place in the Village where they recite poetry to jazz. Maybe you'd like to check it out sometime."

"Maybe," I said.

"They play a mean sax there, too," he said to Armand. Then, smiling at us over the rim of his glass, he tilted it and guzzled down his beer.

Armand did the same.

"So did you like Clyde's stuff?" James asked us, looking from one to the other with big searching eyes.

"He's really getting it on," Armand said.

"It was nice," I said.

"He exhibited in Greenwich Village last summer and he's trying to get a collection together to show in a gallery next spring. He's done over a hundred paintings.

"Wow!" Armand said.

"He keeps changing his style. Now he's getting more abstract and stylized. What did you think of his portraits?"

"The colors were unusual," I said.

"He challenges reality," James said. "Wait here a minute. I have to go to the bathroom. I'll be right back."

"I have to go, too," Armand said, following him out of the room.

I swiveled on the stool and looked around the room for anything of interest and rested my eyes on the golden body of a distorted nude on the wall. She was neither black nor white, and I saw her neutrality of color as a relief.

Armand came running back, slightly out of breath.

"Millie, James' family wants to meet you. Come out and say 'hello.'"

I suddenly felt frightened. It was one thing to pass through the rooms of James' house anonymously, as Armand's white girlfriend. But to have to meet a group of strangers who would ogle me as a curiosity and be expected to make normal conversation was beyond what I could do--especially at this late hour, when I didn't want to hear anything but soft voices or be with anybody but familiar friends.

"I don't want to."

"That's disrespectful, Millie. They're nice people. They want to meet you."

"I'm sorry. I don't want to. I'd rather stay here."

"I don't want you to stay here. You have to go meet them."


"You met Clyde. You talked to Clyde."

"That's different. He's an artist."

"And these are just ordinary Black folks..."

"It's not because they're Black. I don't like meeting relatives. I wouldn't want to meet my own relatives. I'd rather stay just with you and James."

"I'm going out to be with James' family."

"Then I'll stay here by myself."

"You're making me ashamed. They'll wonder what's wrong with you. I'll have to tell them you're sick or something."

"I'm sorry. I can't help how I feel."

"Yeah. And you don't care how anybody else feels!"

Armand was wrong. He thought I was prejudiced and rude. Maybe I was prejudiced. But I was just being who I was. It wasn't in my nature to meet strangers late at night.

I had assumed that, because Armand and I were lovers and had become intimate with every part of each other's bodies, that we would also automatically cherish every idiosyncrasy of each other's personalities. At least, I had expected him to understand and accept my assertion of will, even as I had often, however wrongly, expected my family to. It never occurred to me that there might sometimes be occasions for sacrifice or compromise. I only knew that I had to do what I had to do. And I thought Armand would cradle me in his arms through my emotional jitters. Armand wasn't living up to his role as my lover and protector. He didn't seem to understand me. In short, I was confused.

When I was left alone in the little room, I just sat still on the stool and waited. I felt alert and a little nervous and aware of being in a strange place. James had said it was his ivory tower, but I thought it was too narrow and austere, and seemed like an uncomfortable sort of place. It made me think of a room that police or soldiers put people to interrogate them or leave them alone to get them to confess to a crime.

Had I committed a crime by not wanting to meet somebody's Black relatives? Was my real crime that I was prejudiced? I knew I would never do anything deliberately to hurt a Black person, but on a gut level, I was always aware of that person's color. I had not yet learned to relate to any human being spiritually, so I was forever caught up in superficial distractions, among which race always reared its worrisome head. Was my whole relationship with Armand, I wondered, based on a lie?

Here, in my self-interrogation room, there were no books or magazines lying around. Nothing to do but sit and wait. I finished my beer and soon began to feel drowsy. The moon was shining on and off through a slit in the window shade that flapped against the window, and shadows kept passing across my field of vision, but I couldn't make out what they were. I felt heavy with sleep and weighted down with a kind of paralysis.

Armand walked in and said "Okay, let's go." I was relieved that it was time to go home and cheerfully wished goodnight to everyone we passed on our way out. As long as I was leaving, I could smile at James' relatives and be friendly.

"Do you feel better, honey?" a woman whose mouth was twisted into a tragic mask asked me, but I couldn't tell if she meant it or was being sarcastic.

James materialized in the hallway and walked us to the door.

"Come back again, Millie," he said. "My house is your house."

I knew Armand was upset with me, but James was being nice. It didn't occur to me that I might have offended him, too.

Outside, the night air was cool and the street was so quiet it was almost like being in the country. After we had walked a few blocks in silence, Armand addressed me.

"James says a relationship has to have integrity. The trouble with our relationship is there is no integrity."

I thought about this for a while and then asked, "What does 'integrity' mean?"

"You don't know?"

"No. That's why I'm asking you."

"Look it up in the dictionary!"

"I don't have a dictionary with me, so I'd appreciate it if you could just tell me what it means."

"I'm not going to explain it. You either understand it or you don't."

"You don't know what it means either!"

"You're just surprised I know a word that you don't know."

"No. I'd just like to understand what it is we're supposed to have that we don't have."

"You should've come out to meet James' family when I asked you to!"

I felt as if a warm blanket were being eaten away, and worse, that I was going to be exposed. Armand was going to find out I was prejudiced. I couldn't hide it any more. He was going to prove me guilty. He was going to take away the illusion of our beautiful, innocent love for each other.

This can't be happening. Let's go back to where we were before.

"I'm sorry, Armand. I told you how I felt. Do we have to keep talking about it?"

"That's what I mean. No integrity."

I don't remember if we slept in the same bed that night.