Every day, between 2 and 4 p.m., the mailman strolls around my neighborhood and the very knowledge of his closeness makes me feel like I am 13 again. My whole body becomes a tiny whirlwind, my insides spin with mild embarrassment and gladness. Somehow, he always seems to approach my apartment when I am most visible—as I accidentally throw the recycling into the garbage bin or dance wildly to Thundercat’s “Dragonball Durag” or fight off mosquitos during a midday porch break. Maybe it’s that I subconsciously want to be seen and make myself noticeable when I sense his arrival. Either way, our interactions, though expected, always feel coincidental and surprising, as if I’m meeting him for the first time every day.
It’s also possible that I’m just inventing this intimacy to make meaning, to cope. Because of quarantine, he is the only Black person I see non-digitally on a regular basis. It’s been weeks since I’ve embraced someone who looks like me. My roommates are white, my neighbors are white, a majority of the people in Austin, where I have lived for a year, are white. The prevalent whiteness of my surroundings only intensifies the acute adoration I have for him and other Black strangers I have witnessed during this period of social distancing. But even before the pandemic, I felt fond of him. Each day, he greets me with a familiar kindness, like that of a close friend. His walk, always skip-like. His demeanor, always refreshing.
At first, my relationship with him was an inside joke with friends. I’d tell them that the mailman delivering my body oil was the closest thing I had to physical intimacy. On walks with my neighbor, I’d dramatically pronounce him the love of my life and pretend to swoon. But after a few weeks, the joke evolved into something more serious: I couldn’t stop thinking about seeing him. What started as an ordinary interaction became a fascinating point of connection.
The very nature of the mailman’s job embodies what I consider to be the most romantic aspect of strangerhood—although we do not know anything about each other, we are reminded of our interconnection in the small, seemingly arbitrary ways that our lives intersect. For a few moments every day, the mailman holds my most intimate items: the overpriced panties I impulsively purchase, the student loan bills I never open, the letters from friends that I open quickly with delight, the cadmium yellow bed sheets I cry on when I feel small, the Ruby Woo lipstick I swipe on when I want to feel like the hottest girl in the world.
When he delivers my mail, all he sees are slightly bent envelopes and cardboard boxes, but inside the packaging are the personal artifacts that make up my rituals and routines, the things that contribute to who I am. This is not to say that bills and material items are my identity, but they are undeniably a fragment of it. And it feels significant and wondrous that a Black man who I barely know is a part of this fragment. He probably doesn’t have this romanticized perception of his role in my life. At the end of the day, I’m just one of the many people to whom he delivers mail. Still, I feel a tenderness that I need right now.
The murder and assault of Black people in America is not a new occurrence, of course. Our country was structured upon the blood of Black and Brown lives. Suffering, especially that of the Black community, is a part of the foundation of American history. We feel and see this history systemically and individually on a regular basis. All Black people can tell stories about racist encounters we’ve experienced throughout our lives. Some of these experiences are subtle, like racial gaslighting or invalidation, while other experiences are overtly abusive and life-threatening, like being killed by police.
Whether it’s micro- or macro-aggressive, racism is always traumatic and haunting. It shouldn’t have taken the deaths of Breonna and Tony and Ahmaud and George (and countless others) for non-Black people to realize this. Black bodies shouldn’t have to be slaughtered for society to make necessary changes. Sometimes, it feels as if white people need sacrifices for our livelihood to be considered and respected. Why must our blood be spilled? Why aren’t our words enough? Online, my Black friends and I exchange our frustrations via typo-ed tweets and DMs. It feels cathartic to join together digitally, giving each other the space for rage and heartache. However, eventually, I’m forced to put down my iPhone and reckon with the fact that I am alone, physically separated from the people who understand my pain the most.
Recently, while on a bike ride, I thought about a Black college acquaintance who was tackled, frisked, and arrested for cycling without a bike light. Though this incident wasn’t fatal, I considered that something similar could happen to me and I may not be as lucky to survive. I had taken the bike ride to soothe my anxieties, but these thoughts only heightened them. As I rode around downtown, past vacant bus stops and bushes of Texas sage, my brown skin illuminated by golden hour, I worried whether I would be America’s next unnecessary sacrifice in this fight for racial justice. I imagined the digital memorials my friends and family would craft in honor and defense of my life. I imagined the swarm of ignorant individuals who might plaster them with invalidating comments like #alllivesmatter. I visualized the life that I so badly desire to live being taken from me. As I thought through these horrific things, a police officer drove past and waved. The moment felt so ironic. I could only sigh in response.
Sometimes, I wonder if the mailman feels scared as he works—his Black body so visible as he approaches homes throughout my very white neighborhood. I’ve thought to ask him, but instead, I bring up superficial things like the weather. His kin-like warmth suggests that he knows I’m not really asking about the rising June heat. Amidst this national chaos, how could I be? The threat to Black life is the main thing on my mind and I assume that this is true for him too. We’ve never openly discussed this, but somehow our small talk feels as comforting as the difficult conversations about racial politics that I have with my companions during long FaceTime calls.
I adore him, I do. And I have reason to believe this adoration is at least somewhat mutual. There is always an instant camaraderie when Black strangers encounter each other, even if the exchange is brief and minimal. It’s felt in the head nods, in the grins, in the reciprocated hair compliments. As this country continues to neglect, violate, and assault us, it’s necessary to offer this kind of softness to each other, to share comfort through body language, to validate our collective weariness with just a few words. Compassion is the only thing we have.
Before quarantine, tragic events were more often processed communally. We could be together without masks and screens and moody wi-fi. We could weep in each other’s arms and share meals in each other’s homes. We could momentarily trade our grief for Saturday night sweat and flashy disco light. Now our togetherness, though undeniably strong, is compromised by COVID-19. Even the marches and protests are marked with a sense of pandemic anxiety.
It is incredibly overwhelming to grapple with this pain at distance from each other, to try to get by without the tangible presence of a brown-skinned body. In the midst of tragedy, all I want is to be engulfed by the soulfulness of Black folks, to be in a chorus of Black groanings and laughter. But, for now, every afternoon, I look out my open window and wave at the mailman, grinning wide as he tells me to stay safe.