Looking at the floor, his eyes trained on the tiny specks of dirt that glittered the subway lino, Jacob moved his mouth into a smile.
He had always been uncomfortable around people like him. ‘People like him’. Other black men. That’s who he meant. Other black men who laughed and gestured and let their natural selves echo around other people’s ears and assumptions, unapologetic. These three men on the subway, one older and two in their thirties, a combination of suits and sports wear, unashamedly entangled in conversation that made their mouths and arms move faster, wider.
It wasn’t like he was embarrassed about where he came from. He was proud of his African American family, his roots, who he was in society. But there was an expectation, or certainly, he felt like there was. When other black men were present, like present, their cackles and back-slaps breaking the air, he had to acknowledge this, appreciate it, even. He had to appreciate his fellow man, as if to say, ‘hey, I’m like you so I get your joke, I get your smile, I get your camaraderie’. But it wasn’t truthful. He could see all of this, but it wasn’t a part of him any more than it was a part of the elderly white woman sat opposite.
Growing up one of three, Jacob was different. He never disrespected or disappointed his parents, never let his little brother see him cringe when his aunt all but shouted her way through her birthday toast, permeating the ears, and attention, of every single other patron in the restaurant. He nodded quietly underneath the boom of his dad and his uncle’s voices, ricocheting across the lounge, as his nephews and nieces crawled and grabbed, creating their own noise. But he never felt comfortable. There, he said it. He wasn’t comfortable.
It wasn’t like he didn’t like a joke. He loved it when his dad used to gently rib him about the nature programs he watched. He loved it when his sister made a quick, witty remark and his parents’ faces moved into fake-stern expressions and everyone laughed because she was clever and they were too proud to be offended. He treasured those moments. But they weren’t him. They were just part of his life. Somewhere, along the way, he missed out on this sense of humour, confidence, that everyone around him seemed to have.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t manly or masculine, either. It wasn’t that he felt left out because he liked science more than sport. He had a solid job, he’d had girlfriends, he had a group of friends. And even though his dad referred to them as ‘buddies’ and ‘the boys’ even though they were more ‘friends’ than buddies, he had his shit together. He was a man.
Maybe that was what it all came down to – this awkwardness, this expectation, this feeling like he had to notice other black men – he didn’t feel like a black man, not in the traditional sense. Nature decided that Jacob’s voice would never have the capacity to ooze and fill and wrap people up in that loud, warm, loving timbre that came naturally to the men in his family. He didn’t have the upright stance or the firm handshake or the unbreakable eye contact. He couldn’t seem to locate the big gesturing arms and the throwaway ‘brother’s’ in animated conversation.
This expectation, looming over him in subway cars and in restaurants, and waiting in line for the cinema, came from jealousy, too. Why wasn’t he like these men? These honest, fearless men that his dad would smile at in the parking lot when a tyre had gone flat and the whole family was lifting out equipment and slamming doors. The men that would nod at him in the doctor’s waiting room at him, just because. He was nothing like these men. He had all the makings of what he understood to be a black man, but the parts, they just wouldn’t fit. So, on a daily basis, and especially when he was at home, he cobbled together what he could and put on a good front and nobody was any the wiser.
Well that’s what he hoped, as he smiled vacantly at the black men joking on the subway.