Midnight Breakfast

Issue 16


Go Way Back

by Kelsey Norris

You’ve arrived, and here you are: on a couch in Laurel, Mississippi, in the living room of Jim and Sheila Murray—strangers to you besides the fact that they’ve raised the boy you’re here with, the young man who’s driven you across the state to meet his parents, though you’ve only been dating a short while, and though dating was a loose term at first for the thing you were doing until he’d called you his girlfriend at a party in someone’s off-campus apartment and you hadn’t corrected him. Your love story, perhaps, and it’s brought you here and now.

Carter isn’t sitting beside you. You think it’s unintentional, but it’s hard to say for sure. There’s a history between you. He’s settled into a recliner that has its own cup holder and is pivoted to face the television. His father is sitting in an identical chair on the other side, so that you and Carter’s mother sit wedged between them on a sofa without a cup holder of its own.

The TV is off in the room, but you have the sense that this is rarely the case, that it was, perhaps, cut off just before you arrived and still idles, half-hoping to be resurrected—that the men and the seating are primed for this very event to occur. It gives you the feeling that you’re intruding, or else have interrupted something. There could very well be a game on, because your sense of things is that there is almost always a game on. Carter can watch anything with such enthusiasm that you’d think he knew each of the players personally.

“Who’s your team?” you’d asked him once, and he’d responded, “Who’s playing?”

You should say that his parents seem nice. Carter honked as the two of you pulled up, and they came out to meet you in the driveway. His mother hugged him and then you, just beside the heat-soaked truck, the exhaust fan still panting into thickened air. His father lifted your bag out from the cab to carry it inside, though you’d told him not to worry about it.

“I’m stronger than I look,” he’d said. He patted you on the shoulder as he passed by, said, “Relax,” and you’d thought you’d better—sure, right, nothing here to worry about.

They’d picked at Carter’s driving on the way inside, said you were taking your life into your hands with him at the wheel. You said the drive was easy. You’d laughed along at their good-natured ribbing of their only son and deflected any fuss that came your way, politely—Sure, no thank you, I’m fine—until you found yourself beside his mother on the couch.

Above you, there’s a saying stickered to the wall that reads, Live, Laugh, & Love in God. This seems to encourage you to undertake these actions inside of God. You think of this saying, no doubt mass-produced and stickered to the walls of a million houses like this one, urging dwellers and believers to climb right into the body and blood of Christ. The glass of sweet tea beside you sweats into its coaster.

His mother asks what you’re studying, if you like it, how busy your semester is. You tell her that you’re technically undeclared—that your official major reads Undecided—but you’ve built up enough credits to switch over to something soon. Maybe English or psychology, philosophy. Art or a liberal art, which is a strange name for the category. You’re taking classes on all of it, for now. You’ve cried over your indecision in the quiet of your own dorm room, but here, you make it seem like the choice will happen any day. It’s only the rest of your life, you joke. Easy.

“Take your time,” his mother says. Then: “But not too much!”

Carter is studying engineering. Most of the people at your college are studying engineering. It seems, to them, a stable career. Your own father studied engineering. In your favorite class this semester, the latest assignment was to open the hood of your car and draw what you found there. The thin, wiry grad student teaching the class said that the act of drawing from observation meant simply telling the truth. Yours had turned out well and earned an A, though in the end, was only an accurate rendering of a car engine. You’d shown Carter and immediately felt embarrassed, though he’d praised you. You’ve tucked it away in a portfolio you won’t open again for years.

His mother asks where you’re from, if your parents still live there, if you have any siblings. She asks what your parents do.

You hesitate, thighs sticky against the sofa beneath you. You worry that you’ll leave a mark when you stand, that you’ll have sweat against the pleather. It’s an easy enough question—what they do—but you find yourself bristling.

Perhaps it’s only Carter’s choice of seating, or the fact that he’s talking across the room to his father now, asking about a family friend you don’t know. Or, that his mother doesn’t seem bothered by this, doesn’t seem distracted by the conversation volleyed over and around the two of you.

Perhaps it’s the decal on the wall and your worry that his mother will ask about what church you go to—what congregation—and you’ll have to say that you haven’t been to one in years, or else you’ll lie, which is probably worse.

Perhaps it’s that you don’t drink sweet tea but are gulping yours now while she waits for an answer. You can feel the sugar on your teeth.

But there’s a part of you that feels protective—of your parents, your family. Of conjuring too many of their details into this room, which smells faintly of cinnamon and microwave popcorn. It’s the same part of you that noticed how the hands raised in greeting as you drove into the neighborhood were pale and pink; how all the kids playing in the cul-de-sac were white; how American flags waved from more than one front porch; that a house had a grinning lawn jockey out beside the mailbox, the statue’s face painted blacker than skin. It is possible to line these details up to say nothing about a place, or everything.

And yet, despite all of this, Carter’s parents didn’t flinch, didn’t turn to one another—even for a moment—when you climbed from the car. You must have been watching for it, but there was no quick jolt of panic quickly folded into cheer. You would have seen it. Would have noticed.

Instead, they rushed to greet you. To carry your bags inside.

And this is surely because they are kind people, and welcoming, or because they are excited to meet the girl their son’s been dating, however briefly. You think he must have told them something about you—must have told them a couple somethings about you, including, perhaps, that you’re Black, or else mixed. Maybe biracial—a word he’s learned to wrap his mouth around for you. You don’t want to think of it as a warning. A heads-up. Just a fact, a detail about you to go along with the others. You can’t be sure he told them at all.

But with every question his mother asks, you can feel yourself pulling back. Offering less. You feel like you are calling your family into the room for her to take a look at. To see, maybe, who’s responsible for the blend, though the answer, of course, is both of them. Hardly anyone ever asks which of your parents is white. You want to be sitting in the room with your boyfriend’s mother—impressing her, letting her get to know you. Instead, you are somewhere above the conversation, watching. Listening for cues and intentions of a thing she might not be after at all.

You consider the combinations that might give her clues—the things your parents might do, could do:

Dentist, Barber

Preacher, Doctor

Pilot, Custodian

“One’s a teacher,” you say aloud, “and the other works in a lab.” You keep things vague, and perhaps she senses this from you—a tiring out, or hardening up. She smiles and nods regardless.

If Carter’s listening, he doesn’t react, though he knows what your parents do—each of them, specifically. There is the slightest bit of blush creeping into his neck, though it could very well be the beginnings of a sunburn.

“I’m gettin hungry,” he announces, like it’s everyone’s problem. He pats his stomach for emphasis.

“Well,” says his mother, “sounds like that’s my cue.”

She gives your hand a little squeeze as she stands.

The men carry on talking, and she heads for the kitchen, and you wait a while longer than you would anywhere else—listen to the sink run and cabinets creak and dishes shuffle against each other—before you rise to help. As soon as you’ve crossed the threshold, the TV pings awake behind you, erupts with voice and noise.

Before this, Carter’s truck pulls into a gas station half an hour from his parents’ house. The station’s sign features a cartoon kangaroo beneath the words HOP AWAY. It’s dingy, and the grime has crept into the kangaroo’s smile, distorting it into a smirk. The marsupial’s paw rests on the trigger of the gas pump tucked into its pouch. The effect is strange—both vaguely threatening and threatened. As if the kangaroo wandered into backcountry Mississippi and found a way to survive.

You’d told Carter that you didn’t need to stop, that you could hold it. You’d told him that you could make it the rest of the way, but he said this would only make the problem worse. He said the bladder was a sponge that could only hold so much before it began to leak.

“Time to wring it out,” he says, tossing the shifter into park at a gas station in a town you don’t know the name of. Carter steps down from the cab of the truck and throws his arms wide when he lands on the pavement. He arches back, stretches his chest toward the sky. He preens in the sunlight and whoops. Actually whoops. A sliver of skin peeks from beneath his t-shirt, a line of hair marching into his jeans.

This is one of the things that drew you to him—the space that he takes up. How close he is to comfort in any given room, which runs counter to your instincts. Your own shyness, your caution. You imagine your relationship to be a balancing out, an attraction of opposites. The sweet spot somewhere at the middle between you. He heads for the doors of the Roo-Mart, and you yank down the passenger-side mirror before following him. You smooth the halo of wisps that have sprung up around your hairline: lick your fingertips, thread those baby hairs in tight against your scalp.

Inside, there is a line for the women’s restroom. There is always a line for the women’s restroom. You trace lazy paths through the aisles of the shop, trying to distract your thickened bladder. You don’t pick anything up. When you were young, your mother would pull you aside at the threshold of every store.

We look with our eyes…, she’d say.

Not our hands, you’d finish, eyes already roaming the space. The words play through your head like a mantra now. You were a clumsy child, prone to accidents. You’d broken things. Surely that was the reason why.

A cowboy hat bobs through the row ahead of you. A dull bushel of hair, blow-dried stiff and sticky, leans on the register. Some kids argue in Spanish over which kind of candy to pick, and the lighting buzzes a thin, dull tone.

There’s a rotating display in the corner that features items emblazoned with the Confederate flag: key chains, lanyards, a stuffed general in uniform with a handlebar mustache. For this, you make an exception to the rule. You take a hand from behind your back and spin the rack. There are bumper stickers and sunglasses and hats. A toddler’s onesie, stamped with the stars and bars.

You wish you were the kind of girl to pull something from the rack and walk it to the register. To hold the cashier’s eye as he rings you up, takes your change, all the while wondering why you’d want it at all. You could throw it away, then. Or else wear it, turn back so they could see you in it—a thing meant against you made yours. But you don’t pick anything out. You leave the items on the rack untouched, like they’d sting you if they could.

You can feel someone’s attention. Eyes on you, climbing your back. It’s remainder instinct: a caveman’s protection for recognizing attack, even if it’s coming from behind you. A sense leftover from when the world was dark and always hostile.

But when you look up and turn around, no one’s looking at you. There is only the static buzz of the lighting, a murmur of conversation near the soda machine. Somewhere, a security camera plays your image across a screen. In the car, Carter will say, No one was watching you in there but me, babe. He’s in good spirits and almost home. He’ll say you’re just being paranoid, and maybe you are. But by the time the toilet flushes and the door to the restroom shoves open, your body has momentarily forgotten the urge to empty itself out.

Before this, Carter swats at the hand raised to your mouth. You’ve told him that your mother thinks nail-biting is a nasty habit, and now Carter has picked up the torch, though you haven’t asked him to, and though riding in a car is one of the activities most likely to lead your mind to wander, and your fingers too. You’ve torn the nail of your right thumb ragged, but it feels unfinished. You keep picking at it, hand down low beside the seat where he can’t see it.

The Red Bull buzz rushes through you from the now-empty can in the cup holder. What does taurine do for a body, to a body?

You channel the energy toward the scenes passing through your window. Dilapidated little shacks lean in close to the road, eaten through with weeds. Further back stand the sort of houses one might call estates, with white picket fencing stretched over wide and rolling lawns. A few of them have horses. Fields of tufted plants, picked-over and tired, line the country road.

When you were younger, you’d taken a field trip to a history museum. The sign beneath one display read, Eli Whitney Invented the Cotton Gin. You don’t have a mind for dates or names, but the fact lodged somewhere deep.

The docent held up a cotton boll for your class’s inspection, showed you the raw material that fed the machine. He pointed to the leaves at the base of the plant, warned about the sharp spines standing guard within the fluff. You passed around a neutered version—a stretched cloud to press and feel for the seeds inside. The man took the boll and dropped it into the mouth of the machine, cranked a lever round and round until the seeds spat out at the bottom. He pulled the flattened fiber from the gin, held it up to show how it had been made useful.

“Do you know who invented the cotton gin?” you ask Carter now. Too softly. He doesn’t hear you over the radio.

“Do you know who invented the cotton gin?” you ask again, throwing your voice over the music. Carter shakes his head, then nods along with the song. He beats out a drum solo with fingers across the steering wheel, eyes ahead. You think that when Carter sees cotton, it is maybe only a plant. Landscape. Or he doesn’t see it at all.

You look out the window again, try to hold one telephone pole in your vision until it’s gone. You did not learn about the cotton gin at the same time you learned about slavery. History was taught in terms of heroes: slavery had Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth; the Industrial Revolution had Eli Whitney—a great inventor, mechanizing mass production. Whitney made cotton king, but there’s no hurt tied up in those lessons for you. No memory of attaching that history to your skin, of linking one event to another. History a series of disjointed happenings, devoid of cause or consequence.

There’s a commercial that plays at nearly every other break on TV. The actors wear cotton sundresses, blouses and pants. They ride bicycles and chase after their pets. The actors are white and black and shades between. They’re cheery, the graphics bright. The tagline sings, Cotton: the fabric of our lives. The jingle is catchy, and sometimes you sing it in the shower. It’s not advertising for a certain store—just the material itself, the crop: the fabric of our lives.

A tractor rolls by in the lane beside you and you raise your hand as you pass like it might wave back.

Forty miles before this, you take an exit for the backroads. The GPS estimates two hours and thirteen minutes until your final destination, but you’ve learned not to rely on it. The countdown and directions waver. The machine’s harried voice cuts through the cab, sighing, urging you both to turn back. It offers U-turns, then alternate routes that wind and scissor back toward the highway. Carter mutes the volume and you watch the screen twitch in silence, offering advice he won’t heed.

“This way’s nicer,” he says. “You’ll see.”

Eventually, the machine accepts the backroads, too.

You’re asking what he’s told his parents about you when a squirrel darts onto the road ahead. It freezes in the middle of the lane, hesitates. Carter is flicking between radio stations, eyes down so that he doesn’t see it, and you spot the plush, white belly of the thing before it’s beneath you.

You wince in preparation for the bump that will signal its fate, but there’s nothing. You twist to look out the back window to catch a sighting of the creature, for its squashed silhouette on the road or its frantic form hopping away, crossing its tiny squirrel heart at its luck. But there’s no trace of it at all.

You consider asking Carter to pull over. Telling him to. Taking the wheel and pulling the truck to the shoulder, letting the tires skip and grip across the asphalt until you’re stopped. Then, climbing out and running, back to the spot where you saw the squirrel last. Bare feet slapping over the glass and gravel they’re tough enough to bear.

And if there’s nothing there in the road where its flattened form should be—nothing besides empty cans of Skoal and torn shopping bags caught still in the hot, stale air—you’d run back to the truck. Ignore Carter, now standing beside the truck. Ignore the look he’s giving you and instead, drop down to your belly to look underneath, to see if the creature—now carcass—is caught up in the undercarriage, all blood and fur and limbs. You’d need to know where the body had gone. It would be important to know.

And then, you might push up from the road. Shrug and say, Overreaction. You’d take the points of Carter’s elbows into your palms and rise up on your toes to kiss him. Then climb back into the truck to buckle up, waiting until he climbs in too and pulls off. And he’d forgive you. He’d chalk it up to your oversensitivity, to your tender heart for animals. Every Sunday morning, you drive to the animal shelter to walk the stray, lonely dogs there. The barkers and jumpers and good-boys caged up and waiting. You always come back filthy.

Instead, you stay seated, stay still. You might have imagined the squirrel in the first place. The scene shrinks in your side-view mirror, and you let it fade.

You fall quiet mid-sentence so that Carter asks, “Babe, you still with me? Hello?”

You reach up to unmute the GPS, and the mechanical voice breaks through the silence of the cab between you, gasping like you’ve been holding her underwater. You have two hours and twenty-seven minutes left to go.

Before this, Carter pulls into the campus parking lot. You mount the step up to the passenger door and pull it open. How good can the gas mileage be for a car that needs a stepladder?

You ask Carter if your hair is cooperating, if you look all right.

He says, “Shorts?”

The correct answer was: Yes, perfect.

You say, “Something wrong with that?” It’s summertime in Mississippi, the type of weather your father calls the air you can wear.

He says that you look great. “Let’s get on the road, kid, we’re runnin late.”

He’s shaved down the scruff he nurses across his cheeks and neck. You find it startling to see him look so young when he shaves, his lips emerging baby-pink and smooth. You’ve told him before that it doesn’t look bad—that you like the fresh look—though in truth, you prefer the beard.

Carter plugs the address into the GPS, tucks your bag into the cab, squeezed behind the seat. You have packed enough snacks for the trip ahead, too little water.

Two nights before this, you’re watching a movie together, sprawled out on your extra-long twin mattress. Carter’s favorite genre is Action. Blood and love flash across the screen in the same hour—the body hurt and then repaired.

You are working on a theory. You’ve written thesis paper after thesis paper this year, and it helps to be working on a theory almost always, to be prepared with one and ready to defend it. You think that all the violence onscreen intends to be preventative. By showing the ways a body can be undone and maimed and ruined, they are trying to satisfy an audience’s curiosity. By showing us the ways to wreck one another, you say to Carter, they’re keeping us from trying it ourselves.

“Wreck each other, huh?” he says. He reaches under your shirt to cup your breast.

Despite everything, this works. You roll into him. Later on, you’ll revise your theory. Perhaps violence feeds the interest, but doesn’t sate it. All that blood and gore, only for the sake of blood and gore. For now, your skin jumps under the heat from Carter’s palm, and your body rises to meet it.

Two weeks before, Carter says, “Come home with me.”

You don’t ask him if it’s too early. You don’t ask how many girlfriends his parents have met before. The toothy grins of these girls still grace his old profile pictures, which doesn’t bother you. Doesn’t bother you. The girlfriends favor Carter. They have dark hair like his, and freckles. You think of how seamlessly they’d fit tucked into family photos on the beach: the girls grinning in white button-ups and khaki shorts amidst the dunes.

You agree to it. You kiss Carter like he’s given you something.

You’ve never met a boyfriend’s parents. You have had very few boyfriends. In all the rom-coms, meeting the parents weighs heavy. It’s a make or break. You fall asleep in his bed with your arm thrown across his chest, his heart beating against your pulse.

Last month, his fraternity planned a decades party. You hate his fraternity. You hate the stained, dingy house. The scent of half-empty beer cans. The bare rooms with pool tables in the middle and holes punched along the walls. You dread walking ahead of him there, feeling the edge of a high-five passed behind your back.

Once, you sat in his frat brother’s room for hours, watching the boys play video games. He’d introduced himself as Boomer—no telling if it was a nickname or really his. But it fit him.

A rebel flag stretched across one wall of Boomer’s room, emblazoned with the words Heritage Not Hate in camo-printed lettering. Hideous, even without the idea behind it. You’d felt their eyes on you when you’d first walked in and saw it: Boomer’s eyes and Carter’s. Neither of them mentioning the flag or moving to take it down: a stranger who believed the argument enough to decorate with it; your boyfriend who invited you knowing it hung there, or else not knowing—perhaps not even seeing it, really, until you and the flag were in the same room together.

Later, Carter will say that it must’ve been new. He tells you he’ll say something about it to Boomer, and you tell him don’t bother on your account. There’s no point in trying to save the hard-headed, and a boy named Boomer is already lost. But there in Boomer’s room, the decision laid with you: how much fit to pitch, or fuss to raise. You could’ve turned and walked right out. Instead, you sat down in a busted office chair with yellow foam poking from the seat, with your back to the wall and the banner. You felt the pressure of held breath slip out, and the boys played on. And you’d let them.

For the decades party, Carter considers going dressed as a hippie, as a cowboy. He settles on an ‘80s aerobics instructor, dons a neon windbreaker and short shorts that show the bulged muscles near his knees, the line where the bright, virgin skin of his thighs shows through.

You’d found pictures of flappers. Images of afro’d disco queens and afro’d Black Panther-ettes. You’d need to pick your hair out to pull off the look. When Carter comes to pick you up, you’re not in costume. You tell him you’re not feeling well, so he kisses your forehead and goes alone. He tells you later that the costumes were hilarious. Hilarious, he said.

Nostalgia for the past is a white preoccupation. It’s something you heard from a boy on the campus lawn. A boy with dark skin like spent coffee grounds, talking to other Black kids sprawled out on the lawn with him—who’d laughed and said, Okay, Mr. Professor. Mr. Critical Race Theory. Calm down. You’d kept walking, nervous they’d see you watching. You are your whitest in a Black crowd.

But you find yourself repeating the phrase. You put the emphasis in different places—now white now past. You chew the line on your walk to class, to the gym and back. You try to draw the marrow out.

Sometime before this, you nod at a stranger on the street. When the man has passed by, Carter asks if you know him.

You consider telling him the truth of it: that you have nodded and the man has nodded because you are keeping tabs on one another, letting the other know you’re there. In any given restaurant or shop, you know exactly how many Black people are there with you. You consider explaining this to your boyfriend, whose neck would grow tired from a similar task. You consider how it might sound: like conspiracy theory, or agenda. Some secret, tight thread running underneath.

You tell Carter you don’t know the man. Only that.

And perhaps the space that lies between you, that stretches out and grows, is at least half your fault.

At winter break, you pick through your parents’ attic. You dig through the boxes of old clothes to find anything vintage. Vintage is a word for old made new, and the girls at school are crazy for it. Everyone is thrifting now. Every new thing mimics something older.

You sweat through the stiffness of the attic. You find a leather bag with flowers pressed into the skin like burns, a sweatshirt with the schematics of a fighter jet printed across it. There’s a letter in your mother’s handwriting tucked into the purse.

You wear the sweatshirt on the drive back to campus, in class, to sleep. In a month, you’ve stretched the neck wide enough to fit your hair without mussing it.

You leave the purse buried deep in the box, inside your parents’ attic—the letter refolded and tucked inside.

I know this has been hard for you and Dad, it reads in your mother’s handwriting, but this is my family.

Your new granddaughter is beautiful.

Come see her?

Before this, Carter says, “I love you.”

You say it right back, because you might. You are testing out the sound and the feeling behind it. There is a rush in your stomach when you hear it. A rush when you say it too.

You suspect that neither of you mean it quite yet, that instead you are almost-loving one another, now and each time you wake up together, each time he brings you coffee in the library, and when you cut his hair and shave a patch too close to the scalp. He is maybe-there and you are approaching the feeling, which is enough to say it anyway. It will hurt him if you don’t say it, so you do: over the phone, at the high window of his truck, at parties. You both say it when you part, like it’s the last time, every time.

I love you, I love you, you say a little too often. You worry you’ll wear the meaning thin.

Before this, you learn about the Stanford prison experiment. Impersonation leads to belief, your professor says. You write that down. You are considering majoring in sociology. The study of human society seems to cover so much, though you’re not sure what a degree in it could do. The professor plays video clips from the study while he lectures about perceived power and abuse, about group-think and oppression. You’re listening too closely and you forget to write most of it down.

At midterm, you borrow Carter’s notes to compare and find that he has only recorded names and dates—broad terms and few details—even though you have the class together, were sitting in the same lecture hall. There is nothing in Carter’s cramped writing about the torture the students called guards inflicted upon the students called inmates—no forced nudity, no brimming waste buckets, no insistence on calling them by number rather than by name. There is nothing about the way the prisoners banded together to stage hunger strikes. Nothing about the way they begged for parole, which in this case meant a bad grade, and then returned to the same classroom after—the same now-tainted space. The experiment was terminated early, called off after only six days.

You find that you remember the lesson well enough, without his notes or yours.

Before this, you are panting beside one another, your bodies sweating where they touch. You are still learning to catch the rhythm of thrusts, to move your hips against Carter’s. When you lose the pattern, there’s a stutter like the double-jump of a trampoline. When you were younger, this was a good thing.

He tells you he’s never dated a Black girl before, never been with anyone of color. You hate the phrase of color, though you’ll wear it your whole life.

You admit to him that you’ve only ever dated white boys—boys who look like him, sound like him. Boys who look at you like he does. It’s a pattern you’re not proud of, though it might be something learned: this attraction to the Other, inherited.

You wonder what your bodies mean together, say together. What you might unravel with just the press of skin.

Because, of course, before this, people who looked like him owned people who looked like you—like your father and your father’s mother; unlike your mother and hers. Worked, lashed, beat people who looked like you. Maimed, built, broke people who looked like you. Hanged them; sold and raped them. And then, a little later, despised you. Kept clear—raised up and free—until some of them stole close.

And it is not his fault or yours. Not either of your doing. But there it lies beside you, tangled up in cotton sheets, and you are doing all you can to recover from what came before this—the history between you—but you are not sure if any of it is enough.

Kelsey Norris is a writer and editor from Alabama. Her work has been published in the Oxford American, The Georgia Review, The Offing, and The Rumpus, and she was a 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop attendee. She earned an MFA from Vanderbilt University, and is currently at work on a story collection. More of her writing can be found at kelseynorris.com.

Illustration by Vivian Shih

Issue 16