Summer 2020

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2021

Two former friends meet up for brunch after everything has changed. They sit and watch the divide.

“Yeah,” I sigh, “Yeah all right, obviously all lives matter.” She throws a little shrug as if to graciously accept my surrender. I hold up a forefinger – let me finish. Her limbs give way. “But all lives aren’t being snuffed out by cops kneeling on their goddamn necks!”

Katie’s expression dismisses me immediately. She raises her own forefinger when a waitress comes over, smiles and takes our coffee cups.

The waitress is Mexican. We’re silent. I pretend to fix my hair and glance at the protesters outside. Katie sees someone get out of the elevators.

Could she hear us? And fuck, why am I embarrassed? Plus she’s not even black. Still.

When she’s gone –

“You know that man was resisting arrest. Amy, he was intoxicated, he was talking back top the –”

“Jesus Christ, shut up! Christ. I don’t want to hear – just shut up!

Katie shuts up. She looks as exhausted as I am, and my raised voice has shaken us both out of it. We hold eye contact but after a little while it’s too much. I hope no-one’s listening.

The bar staff look either Asian or Indian or something. There was a white lady at the front desk, she had an accent. I guess hotels don’t pay too good. The restaurant staff are all super polite. This is why you have to tip.

I suddenly feel a little ill, being served. It was a mistake coming here.

It’s just – they serve real good brunch. Katie and I used to make our dates come along because the place was ours. Safe. We never rented a room, hell I don’t think we ever made reservations for dinner, but we had the place for brunch. Even when we moved out of town and it wasn’t practical, we kept coming back. Right until college.

The front of the ground floor restaurant is just a clean wall of glass, curling around to meet the concrete in five flat sheets at each end, like a geodesic dome. We used to people-watch from here.

I glance outside again. It’s really filling up out there. Young black folks, some whites among them – allies – cool-looking people. I should be there. I didn’t know about the protest. I knew they were going on across the country, I’ve seen the news. I didn’t know there’d be one here, today. Maybe I should get out there. Can you just show up and start chanting?

Lots of signs that look like ripped cardboard – the sides of packing boxes, stuff like that. Slogans on them in Sharpie or poster paint.

Black Lives Matter, obviously. I Can’t Breathe. He Mattered. Silence = Complicity. White Silence is White Violence. Let Me Breathe. Say Their Names. And the names.

George Floyd. David McAtee. Joy Gardner. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Kalief Browder. Ahmaud Arbery. Tamir Rice. Breonna Taylor. Laquan McDonald. Atatiana Jefferson. Mark Duggan. Sheku Bayoh. How Many More.

I hear Katie’s hands in her purse. I open the plastic wrapper of my biscotti, rather than say anything.

She mumbles, “Terrorists,” to herself, loud enough for me to hear. I just close my eyes.

This was a huge mistake. I knew our friendship had suffered. I knew it was my fault. And I knew that it was too late to get it all back once Trump had happened and we had gone our separate ways. Why did we bother meeting up?

We didn’t used to care about politics.

If Katie’s mom were still alive she’d slap her silly for that confederate statue shit on Facebook. What a night that was, reading that god-damn diatribe that just showed up on my phone. I had read a lot of it before I unfollowed. It sounded like someone else. There was so much glee in there. This was a high school bully asserting herself over younger kids, holding heads in toilets and laughing – getting off on the power as she out-argued friends and strangers, winning rightness by superior logic. Maybe she always had that inside her, waiting for the confidence to help it out, but I never saw it.

It’s not the woman who’s sitting across from me, who reached out to me to have brunch again and hugged me an hour ago, before it all started outside. We were just girls in our day. I don’t recognise her hair either. Or the heels.

There’s a loud thud from outside and everyone looks, tenses. There are so many people out there now. And cops. Someone is getting up off the floor – just tripped I think. So many protesters now you can hardly see the street. Should they be social distancing, with coronavirus and all? I don’t know. Maybe this is more important. I don’t know.

As if to mock me Katie speaks up. “Where did all this liberal shit come from, Ames?”

Hell, where did it come from? New friends, I guess. New talk show hosts. New tweets, new channels. Or whatever.

In a moment, the slow-marching river of people outside surges. Suddenly it’s not a march, it’s running, yelling, we can hear muffled voices. Cops on two sides, closing, shields.

And now the cops are running too. Mouths open. Some of them with arms out – trying to say something. Faster when no-one hears.

I wonder if my car is safe out back.

In the chaos, there’s a moment when a woman is shoved into the glass, hard enough to shake it in its translucent fixtures. Her skin is real dark, a varnish of sweat bringing out a kind of hot maroon in the glass, between her cornrows. Inside our hotel lobby, there’s a silence. This woman has a shield pressed into her back and her arms are sticking out at painful angles. She looks dazed – her head is what shook the glass – but she’s scanning all of our eyes.

I only notice that my body has frozen stiff when I try to move my neck. As I sit there with my biscotti between thumb and forefinger, wobbling a touch, I panic.

Everyone in the restaurant is fixed on this, but backing up. There’s a lot of murmuring, people getting scared.

I should –

The shield relents. The woman gets up and throws herself like a doll, between a white couple with a big sign – wood, not cardboard. They instinctively let her through the gap and brandish the sign like a shield of their own. She’s gone. Someone else is yelling something a few feet further up, but I can’t see them. By now the protesters are moving off of the high street and splitting up, spilling randomly into side streets. Faster and faster.

It just goes on, like the news, while we watch.

And then it eases. It’s passed us.

I relax my fingers once enough people have dispersed. The police are calming; they’re no longer giving chase.

Katie says my name.

“You wanna go home?”