The true reach of Elizabeth
SHE was black and 17. I was white and middle-aged. I saw her coming through the door of my office carrying a mound of books and a can of some kind of health food. She wore leg warmers and a coat. It was summer. ``Hi!'' I said. ``I'm Mary.''Skip to next paragraph
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``Hi!'' she answered, rubbing her nose and looking away. ``I'm Elizabeth.''
There had been many other student interns in our office. There had once been an Asian intern and another from Lebanon. All were young and interesting, but Elizabeth was special to me from the beginning, for she brought herself in vivid colors.
Looking at her outfits I remembered going on an acting audition when I was very young and having the director ask me where I got my costume. It wasn't a costume! It was my clothes! It was me! That's the way it was with Elizabeth.
We started to talk, little exchanges, observations, thoughts. One day Elizabeth brought me several poems she had written. Some were awkward, but all burned with feeling. I reached over and grabbed Elizabeth's hand. ``They're good,'' I said. Later when two of her poems were selected for publication in her school's literary magazine, I bought three copies. Elizabeth and I were becoming friends.
Elizabeth's life had not been easy. Twenty schools in 18 years, evictions, homelessness, a sensitive mother searching for a place in a world filled with shadows, but she had persevered, studying as best she could when the utilities were turned off, sleeping on the floor of a relative's home, made to feel unwelcome, and often alone. She told me of her history casually, always as we were involved in other things, and sometimes she laughed in remembering her escapades on the streets. When the stories had a magical texture all their own, I would exclaim, ``There's such a story in that!'' We would both pause then, savoring the moment.
One day Elizabeth appeared at work and her eyes were bright.
``I know where I want to go to college,'' she said, showing me the brochure of a prestigious Eastern women's college. ``A black woman came to my school. She suggested I apply.''
Foreign-born and raised an American, I had attended an Eastern women's college for one year, and I suddenly remembered the anguish of that year. The student who was always apart, alone, unfamiliar with the humor, the music, the rhythm of the place.
``Are you sure?'' I asked Elizabeth. ``Are you sure that's what you want?''
``I'm sure,'' Elizabeth responded. ``I'm going to do it.''
Later I found myself defending her decision to apply. ``She's so smart, so gifted,'' I said more than once. ``They'll be lucky to get her.''
``My child could never get a scholarship to that school,'' a white woman said bitterly. ``It's not fair!''
Elizabeth was accepted to the college on a scholarship. ``They only took me because I'm black,'' she said. ``That's the only reason.''
``Lots of black girls applied,'' I answered. ``They chose you.''
``I'm scared,'' Elizabeth said.
``Sure,'' I responded. ``I'm scared sometimes, too. It's OK to be scared.'' A month later we attended the orientation tea in Beverly Hills.
The tea was held at the home of an archaeologist. The magnificent living room walls were covered with African artifacts: masks, spears, an imposing carving of an African face. Except for Elizabeth, everyone in the room was white. A young waiter came over and asked us if we wanted some tea. I said yes and Elizabeth said no.
``Horrible!'' she whispered to me. ``Imagine how he must feel!''
``The waiter. Wearing an apron and waiting on all these women.''
``He's probably an actor making a hundred bucks for the afternoon.''
``Well, I'm not having anything,'' Elizabeth said, and she didn't. Later a pretty young girl moved to sit beside her. ``What sports do you play?'' the young girl asked.
``None,'' Elizabeth answered. ``I hurt my knee in seventh grade. I can barely run.''
``Oh?'' the young girl murmured, biting her lip and looking silently off into space.
One day as we were shopping for school clothes Elizabeth said: ``I don't feel I belong anywhere. I never felt comfortable with blacks or whites. I just don't belong anywhere at all.''
``I guess you're a citizen of the world,'' I said slowly, looking at my hands. ``Maybe that's the best way to be.''
One evening I pulled out my stories, stories written long ago, and Elizabeth read them. When she finally looked up, her eyes were ablaze.
``What are you doing?'' she asked angrily.
``What do you mean?''
``You're letting your talent go. I won't have it! Don't do it!'' That night for the first time in a long time, I sat alone and tried to write.
Elizabeth went to college and she lived and she grew. Never having a best friend, a girlfriend, she found one and then the girl moved on, and she wept for a friend found and gone. She went to London and she learned. The family she stayed with did not like Americans, feeling them to be gross and without culture, but when ``Dallas'' came on the tube they all stayed home to watch.
There was the boy who made Elizabeth's hands perspire, the teacher who excited her spirit, and there was the loneliness, that gray cloud that seems to take form as it moves inside. But she persevered through one year, two, working as many as three jobs to help defray expenses. She worked in the East again last summer and is now in her junior year. She comes home only briefly for visits, for she says she has no real home. She is finding her own home, building her own place. And when I think of her, I send my love.
``It's not age or color which binds us together in this world, honey. It's listening and being friends. It's love. That's all there is.''