Based on a true story.
The party is crowded—you find yourself body to body, pushing through the hallway as a line of beaded sweat forms across your upper lip. You wipe it away with the stroke of your index finger as you make your way past the line for the bathroom—a slow procession of hot girls, tapping feet with crossed arms, almost in unison, as their jaw bones move right to left, like the carriage return of a typewriter.
The living room provides a welcome respite from the fray. You observe a smattering of vaguely familiar faces—people whose presence you’ve come to take solace in when you find yourself in an unfamiliar environment such as this. You look out over the scene, taking it all in from stem to stern—everyone is the same, and yet, no two are alike.
Most of the people, leaning against doorframes and slung haphazardly like dirty socks over armchairs, are embroiled in animated conversation—you overhear the in-depth analysis of rising rental prices, budding relationships, and doomed situationships alike as speaker and listener trade off fervent nods and sips from shiny plastic cups.
“Oh my God, hey!”
A high, saccharine voice brings your anthropological train of thought to a screeching, metallic halt—you turn to see a young woman’s beaming face. Ah, yes—you know her, but you can’t for the life of you remember where you met her or what her name is. No matter, you smile warmly in return and lean forward, limply clasping each other’s bodies in an insincere half hug.
“Hey! How are you? It’s been a minute—” You wince slightly—has it indeed been “a minute” or did you see her last weekend? You make a mental note to stick with one-size-fits-all greetings in the future that don’t come with a time stamp. You hope that you haven’t given yourself away, but much to your relief, she nods with an air of deep sincerity.
“I’m good, I’m good. I started a new job, it’s kind of like, my first big girl job. It’s a lot, but it’s uh, it’s good—it’s an adjustment for sure, but I’m really happy,” She laughs, tucking a lock of blonde hair behind her ear and smiling again broadly, like a flight attendant.
Your brain is already beginning to fatigue—you imagine a team of neurons like workers in a control room, fighting to stay conscious. You feel them straining, pulling at levers, and pushing blinking buttons in an effort to maintain this typical interaction without releasing the dead man’s handle, which you can only imagine would result in you opening and shutting your mouth wordlessly like a trout, before abruptly walking out of the room without explanation.
You decide to put in the work, asking thoughtful questions and dodging the ones directed at you. You wait for the conversation to reach a lull, a moment where you can excuse yourself without upsetting the delicate balance of social decorum—but it doesn’t come. The subject has changed to “the scene” at large—you both agree that something has shifted in the last few years, that the once bustling, hypnotic East Side of Los Angeles has somehow dulled.
This subject begins to pique your interest—you enjoy a social commentary, an analysis of people, places, and ideas more than talking about yourself or listening to her describe the difficulties of toilet training her twelve-week-old shelter puppy.
Suddenly a young man appears at her side—you both turn to greet him. Now, his name you know—it just escapes you at the moment, but you’re fairly certain that you’ve interacted at least a handful of times on social media and you’re sure that it will come to you.
“What’re we talkin’ about?” He asks, smiling at the pair of you as he lifts a drink to his lips.
“Oh, nothing really—just the decline and fall of vibe on the East Side.” They laugh at this too, like the studio audience of a sitcom. You’re winning, you’re a genius—you’re also a little drunk now.
“You think it’s dying—why?” The man asks you curiously. You believe his name may start with an “M,” or maybe a “T”—quite possibly a “D” but this puzzle only occupies you for a nanosecond. You’re becoming increasingly alert, and excited to engage in something more substantive.
You begin to detail why and how you think it all began, the great decline. You tell them that the pandemic obviously created an economic divide—on a local level, the former Echo Park freaks cosplaying poverty threw in the towel, forced to accept the trust funds they once so vehemently refused when their sincerely broke roommates had no choice but to cut their losses and move back to Wisconsin. The tastefully run-down cottages that once sheltered an eclectic mix of starving artists and semi-employed soul searchers, having been vacated, went back on the market—snapped up by married late-thirty-somethings with good jobs and good health care, who by their sheer numbers have transformed and sanitized the area even further. The original gentrifiers were out-gentrified—what’s left is corporate coffee and strange specialty shops, the kinds you joke about as you walk by, wondering if they’re really drug fronts in disguise.
They nod and scrunch their eyes in a performance of active listening at the mention of gentrification—both being of the Caucasian persuasion, they seem to hunger for flagellation at the hands of someone who looks like you, even though in moving here five years ago, you brought the rent-raising smallpox with you just like they did. You enjoy their rapt attention and don’t bother to correct them.
By now, you’ve drained your drink and the edges of your vision have gone warm and blurry like watercolors. You feel close to your companions—whatever their names are—and you feel emboldened.
“I think the pandemic created a lot of ideological schisms too,” You begin cautiously at first. “I mean politically—”
“Oh yeah, of course,” The man interrupts—you can feel the heat radiating from him as he too becomes excited in the presence of a real meat and potatoes conversation.
“Most of my family moved back to Florida, they just watch Fox News all day and parrot whatever they see. I don’t even speak to any of them anymore. I think the pandemic really brought the crazy out and divided a lot of people, but I guess it’s a good thing—now we know. We’re definitely fortunate to be in kind of a bubble over here.”
You feel a slight tickle—this is the moment. You can choose to skirt the subject, contribute to the ever-homogenous thought landscape—or you can engage. You want to make an educated decision, but the friend who poured this now bone-dry cup of vodka soda earlier in the kitchen was rather heavy-handed, and it seems you may no longer have a choice in the matter.
“I understand that—but I guess I’m of another school of thought when it comes to ideological differences. I don’t like being in a bubble. My parents are on different sides of the political spectrum—my father is very by-the-party-lines left, while my mother—” You pause, watching their still curious eyes and wondering if you should turn back.
“My mom has always been very holistic. She was fairly a-political but started to lean a little more right during the pandemic when her ideas about health and medicine made her untouchable to much of her formerly liberal circle. It broke her heart—people who always regarded her as being a little eccentric began to see her as something dangerous. I remember there was a time when infographics on social media were even calling people to cut off their family members with those ‘alternative beliefs’—the idea was that if you didn’t, you were party to their perceived terrorism. I was scared back then that I would be swept up in some mass cancellation due to my—affiliation with her. With my own mother.”
The woman stares as if to bore a hole into you with her mind. The man has stiffened—he’s waiting for you to reach your story’s zenith—the part where you harrowingly denounce the correct parent and prove yourself a hero.
“I agree and disagree with both of my parents on a lot of issues. We debate—I think it’s healthy. I personally reject this post-Covidian culture that urges people not to engage with opinions that differ from their own, as if the ideas themselves pose a risk of infection. The art of discourse is dying—no one knows how to disagree anymore. An echo chamber makes you good at sermonizing—your audience is already indoctrinated, they’re with you. However, when you step into a space with a chance for debate, there’s also an opportunity to expand both parties’ minds. If no accord can be reached, at the very least, you can sharpen your personal philosophy against the whetstone of opposition. I think dismissing anyone who sees the world differently as ‘crazy’ or ‘stupid’ cheapens the experience. Do you want to dominate or do you want to be heard and maybe even understood?”
It feels as if the air has left the room. The woman looks at you, almost pitying—you can’t tell if it’s compassion for the players in your tale or sadness for you, the lost soul. The man’s countenance has changed as well—a thin, tight smile, a feigned puzzled look on his face—you smell his condescension.
“I don’t necessarily think anyone is saying that words are inherently dangerous—but at the same time, do you really think that allowing people like your mother—like my uneducated, backwards family in Florida—to circulate those kinds of beliefs is okay? You guys love to talk about ‘freedom of speech’ but there are limits when speech is used to espouse hate, bigotry or dangerous misinformation.”
You pause to collect yourself—is this what you asked for? It’s a chess match of sorts, but your opponent is not concerned with the art of the game. Despite your best efforts, you’ve been bagged and tagged as one of “them”—at best, a traitor to your own kind, at worst, a toothless, swamp-dwelling hate monger. This is not the Socratic method for the sake of authentic discovery, it’s the inquiry you waste on a dog that’s soiled the rug as you hold its face to the stain and say, “Did you do this?”
“I can understand your perspective. I don’t think that engaging in a conversation with someone is an endorsement of their beliefs. Existing in a world comprised solely of allies and opponents, it’s easy to feel that you are constantly at war. I believe that in dialogue with others—with the genuine desire to pull the thread and understand how they arrived at their conclusions—you can better understand and maybe even reach someone”
“Just out of curiosity—your mother is White, right?” His sudden question disarms you, but you smile back.
“No—but why is that relevant?”
You must look like a pair of grinning crocodiles—the woman remains fixed, watching you both like a quiet capybara, observing the scene from her position of safety on the banks.
“Well, you’re talking about understanding a system of beliefs—I just think that governmental and medical mistrust makes sense for Black people. You think about the history this country has with experimenting on people of color, that generational trauma is ingrained—and valid,” He pauses as if searching for the most delicate words available to say whatever comes next.
“But when White people hold those beliefs, I’m sorry, I just think it boils down to privilege and some kind of mental illness. It's Karen-ism at its finest—you have no real problems so you make something up.”
“Huh, that’s—an interesting perspective.” You reply, swallowing hard in an effort to use the last available moisture in your mouth to rehydrate a few dry, desiccated words. He shrugs and gives you a tight smile, like the kind exchanged between hikers passing on a trail.
“You know, I see my friend over there looking for me,” He says abruptly, scanning the room for someone who isn’t there.
“No worries, of course—go to your friend. We can agree to disagree.” You say with a small nod of your head, indicating in the direction of his imaginary companion.
He touches the woman on the shoulder before walking away—a gesture of apology for leaving her in his wake with the likes of you. Now, you’re alone with her again—the air between you is thick with everything you’ve revealed. You want to release your hostage.
“I think I’m going to get another drink,” You announce, looking around the room yourself. You’ll go to the kitchen and out the back door—an Irish goodbye is definitely the code of conduct here. You notice the man across the room, he’s talking to a small, mixed huddle of people—they’re speaking in hushed tones and looking at you.
“I just wanted to say, I completely agree with you,” The woman’s voice brings you out of your trance state—you blink dumbly at her in confusion as she smiles, sheepishly. Your head has started hurting—the expenditure of intellectual energy seems to have brought you clean through inebriation and jump-started a premature hangover. You feel bitter and impatient.
“Yeah? Maybe next time you'll say something.” You say more gruffly than intended.
“I know, I know,” Her tone is tinged with a surprising fire you haven’t experienced from her yet. “But I’m a straight, White girl with family money—you think I have any social currency, especially here? I mean, you’re a Black woman,” She pauses, continuing at an even lower level of volume.
“If you’re getting reamed for speaking your mind—imagine what would happen to me.”
An hour later, having fled the scene of your social disgrace, you lie in bed, illuminated by the blue light of your phone screen. The Instagram app beckons—stroking the smooth glass, you navigate through a series of would-be mutuals and sleuthing maneuvers until you find the man from the party. You tap the message button and wait as a series of text bubbles load—a barrage of largely unanswered story responses and heart eyes spanning several years.
“Where is this?”
On and on, punctuated with an occasional lackluster note of appreciation on your part. Suddenly, a standalone paragraph catches your eye—a response to an emotional piece you wrote at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We don’t know each other well, but I just wanted to say that I really enjoy your writing and your perspective. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need anything and please keep sharing. Your voice is so powerful.”
The Tower of Babel - Pieter Bruegel the Elder(1563)