Matters of Emma’s Life

A Short Story by Balu Swami

Growing up, Emma’s world was confined to her neighborhood, a ten square block area 30 miles northwest of the city center. The neighborhood had everything: bank, grocery store, butcher shop, barbershop, nail salon. It even had a restaurant, usually not a permissible use in a residential zone. People came from afar to this nameless restaurant to taste Mama Elena’s meatballs. It was a must-stop on every Italian tour company’s itinerary. Also, the houses of Mrs. Caruso and Mrs. Romano whose homemade pasta had become famous first nationally and then internationally in the world of gastro tourism. It was a friendly neighborhood where it was customary for men to greet each other without expecting to be acknowledged. Typically, the greeter would say “how ya doon” and keep on walking. The greeted, in return, would say “how ya doon” and keep on walking. In the evenings, people walking by were treated to a clash of aromas since all the kitchens in the cookie-cutter row houses faced the street.

Photo by Daianne Gomes from Pexel

Emma (nee Emmanuelle) didn’t leave this world until she started high school. Yes, she did venture out to the mall that was a few miles east of the neighborhood. But, Emma being Emma, her life would have been complete without the mall experience. Emma’s father was a cop in the local precinct. He gave her two pieces of advice when she was about 12 or 13: Stay away from the goombahs in the neighborhood and study hard and become an engineer. The first piece of advice was easy to follow. She had an innate aversion to the goombah types – the bling and the swagger and the “look at me” narcissism were, for her, a total turn-off. As for becoming an engineer, well, that didn’t quite work out the way she had planned it. Her father had said to her: “I can fix any part in any automobile.  What I cannot do is design and develop an engine.” She promised her dad she would one day become an automotive engineer.

The truth is she didn’t really have to study hard. Math came easily to her. Quadratic equations, exponential functions, probability statistics – none of it posed a problem. She thoroughly enjoyed her classes and looked forward to school on days when school was on and days when school was off. It was on one of those happy days as she was getting ready for school, she heard the life-changing knock on the door. As soon as her father’s colleagues filed in one by one, she knew. Her father had been shot and killed early that morning attempting to foil a burglary attempt.

When she saw the killer’s mugshot, the hate-filled eyes frightened her. She hated that face. She saw that face in every Black man she saw – on tv, on the street, even in her classroom where she began to see some of her fellow students in a new light. For a long time, she wasn’t sure whether she should feel guilty or justified in her thoughts. One day, she recalled an incident that had happened several months before her dad died. Danny, her father’s best friend on the force, had come to their house late one evening. She ignored their conversation until she could hear Danny’s raised voice in her room. She stood at the top of the stairs and heard Danny say “so you are saying you are okay with a fucking nigger in the department?” She heard her father say calmly: “Danny, please, you know I don’t like that kind of language.”

She heard Danny shout “who the fuck do you think you are?” and slam the door shut behind him. Later that night, she heard her dad tell her mom about his problems with Danny and what was going on at work. She didn’t fully understand the problem until she started reading about it in the paper. The police chief, under pressure from the state, had decided to hire a Black patrolman to deal with issues relating to cut-through traffic involving inner-city kids. When the freeway backed up, traffic spilled onto the surface roads cutting through the neighborhood. The goombahs in the neighborhood didn’t have a problem with all spill-over traffic – only the ones involving inner-city, aka Black, kids. The racial tension was starting to get out of hand and state legislators wanted the local government to do something about it. The chief’s decision did not sit well with many in the department. Some, like Danny, were completely opposed to it and others welcomed it. The paper quoted an anonymous cop as saying “We’re not goombahs. We’re cops. Some of my colleagues are acting like goombahs.” She wondered if that anonymous person was her dad.

She recalled the incident with minor variations several times over the years. What stood out each time was her dad’s basic human decency. She had already begun to cleanse any feelings of prejudice from her system when she met Olu (nee Oluwatomi). She was in college working towards a degree in Artificial Intelligence – a field neither she nor her dad had heard of when he advised her to get an engineering degree. When Emma first met with the academic advisor, she knew exactly what she wanted: she wanted to learn everything about internal combustion engines, fuel injection, clutch assemblies, emission control, etc. The counselor assured her that, of course, she could take the relevant courses to become an automotive engineer, but he would recommend a future-driven focus. The car of the future was not going to look anything like the cars today. So there was no point in reengineering today’s car. The point, no longer, was to make cars that can run.

The point was to make cars that can also think. So he directed her towards AI and she ended up in the school of computer science instead of engineering. Olu was in the same program. She hated programming and he loved it. She enjoyed machine learning and the courses in math and statistics – classes where he was barely making the grade. So, of course, they bonded. Romance came later. First, she had to get past what she thought was his unattractive physique. He was rotund, bald-headed, and pot-bellied. But he had this laugh – boisterous, belly laugh. And he was cheerful. Always. He wished everyone good morning or evening. Even those mad-faced “leave me alone” types whose frown asked, “what’s so good about it?” She knew she was falling in love when even his accent started to sound cute. Within months, they were inseparable. He wanted so much for her to meet his “moda” and “fada” in Lagos.

All of that came crashing down when she discovered there were other women who loved Olu’s belly laugh and his “cute” accent. He was probably making plans for them too to meet his “moda” and “fada”. All she did was cry and write programs for weeks. That two Black men had brought immense sadness to her life was not lost on her. Yet, this time, the bitterness was directed towards the man, not the race.

Soon after graduation, she got a job in the AI Institute at the university. She began dating again, making friends, and having fun. She was looking forward to the trip to Italy she had planned with her mother and was oblivious to life outside her inner orbit. The first intrusion into her happy life was the traffic backups. Evening traffic was getting worse due to “downtown protests”’. Like everyone else she knew, she found the disruptions a huge nuisance. She vaguely knew the protests related to the shooting of a Black doctor by a white police officer. But then the public prosecutor had assured everyone that the investigation revealed no wrongdoing, standard operating procedures were followed, and established protocols were honored. All that changed when someone within the PD leaked a body cam video.

Emma couldn’t believe it when she saw it being played in a loop on every channel. The video showed a sports car being stopped by a patrol car in what appears to be a swanky neighborhood. One officer walks up to the car while the other stands guard. The officer walks back towards the patrol car telling the other officer, “it’s okay. he lives in the neighborhood.” The officer standing guard is heard saying, “I don’t care, I’m taking him in.” He pulls out his gun and shoots at the driver to step out of the car. The driver is heard saying “I’m staying in the car.” The officer is heard shouting “get out of the car asshole.” The driver asks “what’s your name, officer?” The officer says, “you want to know my name?” and fires a number of rounds at the driver.

That night, protests erupted everywhere. What was a minor protest involving inner-city residents and African American clergy turned into a national movement? Young people – Black, white, Asian – poured into the streets in their thousands. In Emma’s city, the mayor declared a curfew. Protesters defiantly stayed on the streets past the start of the curfew and there were clashes between the police and protesters in many parts of the city. Emma watched everything transfixed. Most of the protesters were her age and she wondered if she should join them. When she heard about the planned march that weekend, she decided to go.

The march from the city center to Washington Park was exuberant and even joyous – something she hadn’t expected given the solemness of the occasion. Soon she got caught up in the energy and excitement and became part of the crowd. The march was five miles long, but she didn’t feel any exhaustion. At the park, officers from the city police, the county police, state police, park police, military police, the national guard, ICE, and a number of heavily armed plainclothes officers were waiting for them. At 6 pm, the start of the curfew, the crowd was told to disperse and at 6.02, a phalanx of officers started pushing the protesters on the frontline. The crowd that spilled onto the side streets were pushed back into the park by bicycle cops and mounted police only to be met by, in quick succession, smoke canisters, flash-bang grenades, tear gas, pepper balls, and rubber bullets. Battered and bruised, Emma escaped the mayhem and made it home crying most of the way.

As she sat in the hot tub tending to her bruises, she decided activism was not for her. She did not have the mettle or the steely resolve to take the abuse she had endured. Monday she went to work and stayed busy all day. Around 5, she left work and was headed towards the subway station when she heard the din coming from a few blocks away. Protesters. She wondered how many of them had returned in spite of their Saturday experience. She kept walking towards the subway and the din was getting fainter. She was almost at the station when she turned around and walked the other way. As the din got louder and louder, her excitement grew stronger and stronger and the pace got quicker and quicker.

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