Hope Chest Turned Coffee Table

by Margaret Donovan Bauer

As I remove the glass top and open the large wooden trunk that serves as my coffee table, I remind myself that one of the hinges is not very secure, the heavy top has to be propped carefully after lifting. What has drawn me into the trunk this time is my recollection that the last time I looked inside, I noticed among souvenirs from my past I rarely visit or share, I’d stored my early efforts at creative writing in here. Emphasis on both early and efforts—short stories from my undergraduate creative writing classes at LSU over thirty years ago and, I discover today, the beginning of a novel I’d forgotten about entirely. I had vague memories of two of the stories I’d written and was looking for one of these, which had been inspired by a courageous couple I got to know during the courtship years with the man I married in the mid-1980s. Two former high school classmates of his, a black man and white woman who had secretly dated during high school and then married a few years after. In south Louisiana, where I grew up, interracial relationships were rare in the 1970s and ’80s. They probably still are, but I haven’t lived there since the end of the ’80s, so I don’t know if I would find there the numerous mixed-race couples I notice as I walk around the campus of the North Carolina university where I teach.

When I note to my Southern literature classes that I notice black and white couples on campus, I am pleased to learn they do not. I explain to them how taboo interracial dating was when I was growing up, where I grew up. And I sometimes relate a piece of the story of my friends Lizette and Emile*: how when they got married, her father disowned her and how Lizette’s mother had to sneak behind her husband’s back to see her “black” grandson. So yes, I notice, I tell them, when I see black and white students holding hands in public, and I notice when I see a parent with a baby of a different race. These sights make me smile. Progress in the South. Maybe not the Deep South; I don’t know about that anymore. But North Carolina is a Southern state, and its politics have certainly become more and more aligned with the Deep South in the years I’ve lived here. So change in attitude here regarding interracial relationships might well be found in my original home state, too. I hope so.

Actually, Emile was mixed race himself, almost as light-skinned as his Cajun wife, Lizette, his race detectable only by his 1970s-style afro and his family name. His family and other “mulattoes,” as they were called then, lived in a “black” village just outside of the small town we all went to school in (though I was several years behind them). This couple married and had a baby or got pregnant and married, I don’t remember the order. Probably the latter, a way to force a marriage her family would be adamantly against. Both families being Catholic, no one would consider abortion an option, even for an unplanned pregnancy. Girls who got pregnant got married. But white girls did not get pregnant with black boys’ babies. Except when they did. I always admired the courage of Emile and Lizette in defying social norms, even family, for love.

Fast forward almost forty years and in the world of social media I reconnect with Lizette, this brave woman, mother and now grandmother of mixed-race children in south Louisiana and still married to Emile. Good for them, I think. I see evidence in pictures on her Facebook page that her father eventually accepted her husband and children. Good for him, too, then. It appears also that my old friends have moved from the trailer I used to visit in the small village outside of town where his family was from, to a house in a neighborhood right in the heart of town, a neighborhood that was mostly, if not all white when I still lived in Louisiana. So good for my hometown, too, I say.

All that said, now that we are Facebook friends, I also find, to my surprise and dismay, that Lizette shares conservative posts, not unlike many of the people I know from Louisiana. This is shortly after the 2016 presidential election, and she even shares Trump-supporting posts. “He’s a racist!” I say to my screen (but I don’t comment—yet). Instead, I go into my coffee table/trunk to find the story I wrote about her and Emile during the time when we were all hanging out together, when their firstborn was a toddler whose cuteness, joyfulness, and affectionate nature made me want to have children, too.

The short story I was looking for from one of my undergraduate writing classes was inspired by an incredible act of bravery: Emile was fixing a flat tire on the causeway that runs eighteen-plus miles over the Atchafalaya basin between Lafayette and Baton Rouge, and while Lizette waited, leaning against the guardrail, somehow the momentum of a passing eighteen-wheeler pushed her over the barrier into the swamp below. As I recall the incident, Emile ran down the causeway against traffic to the end (there were no exits, so this could have been miles), then waded through the dark swamp (again, perhaps miles) back to Lizette. But as I recount this memory here almost four decades later, I realize my younger self might have turned his rescue into a much more dramatic (and romantic) event than it was. If she fell over the guardrail, wouldn’t he have just jumped over to help her? I can’t imagine him leaving her down there alone for as long as the scenario of my memory would have required. If the fall knocked her out and she landed face-first in the water, he would need to turn her over right away, or she would drown. I am guessing my ex-husband, a man whose stories were more fiction than fact, exaggerated the details when he shared this story with me (back when we were dating). It is likely Emile did jump down (which is brave enough to do, not knowing what might be hiding under the dark water), but then there would be no way to climb back up; and depending on how far down the causeway they were when they had the flat tire, they may have had to make their way for miles to get out of the swamp. Whatever happened, I am sure it was harrowing for both of them. The horror certainly piqued my creative (and romantic) imagination at the time, inspiring my twenty-year-old self to write a short story in which the treacherous trip reveals to the young lovers how much they love each other—enough to defy her parents’ disapproval of their relationship.

It is very likely that almost none of what I recall being told about these events actually happened to Emile and Lizette following their flat tire on the causeway and her going over the rail and plunging into the swamp. I am amused by my youthful naïveté in accepting the story as told to me, and I do not wonder at my professor’s comment at the end of the short story typescript regarding my tendency toward the melodramatic. Fifty-plus-year-old me (a professor now myself) winces—and smiles at his kind diplomacy. The unbelievable details in my recollection of events that inspired my much younger writing self certainly do not matter these many years later. What does matter to me now is not this story but Lizette, whom I’ve reconnected with. How could she, a woman who defied the racism common in our community, not be completely turned off by the racism of Donald Trump, who is setting our country back to a time when her marriage was still taboo in our community?

I see on Facebook that this couple had at least one other child besides the boy I remember so fondly. I was gone by then, having left my husband for graduate school, leaving too a community that did not respond much better to women with ambition than they did to interracial marriage. Emile and Lizette’s daughter posts on her parents’ almost forty-year wedding anniversary her appreciation of their love “when the world was against [them],” and I cheer. But then I wonder, does this mixed-race daughter approve of her mother’s support of a president who asserted that there were some “very fine people” among the white nationalists marching for white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia?

I sought out this old short story of mine to remind myself of the younger, braver, free-spirited, non-judgmental Lizette I once knew, who I would not have imagined could ever support a white supremacist like Donald Trump. Lizette’s father refused to see his grandson for at least the first years of the boy’s life, but she had rejected that attitude for love, and now she has interracial children and grandchildren. Emile is, according to Louisiana, black, no matter the obvious dominance of white ancestors reflected in his complexion. Surely, this mixed-race couple would have celebrated the election of the first African American president. Or so I would have thought. But from the posts Lizette shares on her Facebook page, it is possible they did not, not even quietly, between just themselves, surrounded as they likely were in their new neighborhood by conservatives. It appears that she is now staunchly conservative. I can’t imagine she would post such views so publicly if they would offend her husband and his—their—family. How can it be that they are all conservative, given that the conservative agenda is so racist? I am baffled.

Eventually, I decide to respond to a story Lizette shares, which I’ve fact-checked and discovered to be false. I reply with the information I found that corrects the misinformation she shared. After a few times of replying to similar posts with links to the facts that discount her shared stories, I get a reply saying, “It’s Emile. I’m the one who shares the political posts on Lizette’s page.” He graciously adds his thanks for the information about his latest false story-share, yet I am still confused. He is African American. Why is he among those desperately defending a president who regularly expresses racist, xenophobic opinions? I still don’t ask, even when it seems that my regular challenges to the veracity of his postings might have prompted his suddenly getting his own Facebook page rather than posting on his wife’s. (Good for her, I think. “Get your own page, Emile.”)

I am a Southern literary scholar, and I have read, taught, and written about the fiction of Ernest Gaines, an African American writer the same age as my father and born and raised within a hundred miles of where he was born, in south Louisiana. In Gaines’s fiction, I’ve learned more about the African American Creoles of Louisiana than I understood about those I knew growing up. In many of his novels, Gaines writes about the racism of the nearly but not quite white Creoles, who disowned children who married “darker”—not unlike Lizette’s white father disowning her for marrying a “black” man. These Creole families’ goal, according to Gaines, was to lighten/whiten the family. Did Emile come from such a family? That would explain his ability to forgive his father-in-law’s bigotry, assuming I have discerned correctly that father and daughter eventually reconciled. I recall that Emile is one of five sons and that I’d heard that most if not all of them married white women (I did not know all of them well, and I likely heard this from my not always truthful ex-husband). This was all a long time ago, but as I remember it, my ex, former classmate of Emile, asserted these brothers had intentionally set out to marry white women.

I don’t remember what I thought of that notion then. I know mixed-race marriage did not bother me. My family is not Cajun, and I was not raised with the same racist attitudes about African Americans that I heard in some friends’ homes. In my home, using the “n-word” was equivalent to cursing, which was not tolerated; in several friends’ homes in the ’70s and ’80s, it was the word used to refer to African Americans, as casually as we would say “colored” and later “black.” I would learn from Gaines’s fiction, too, the history of the animosity between Cajuns and African Americans I witnessed growing up: the old story of how the aristocracy used racism to pit the two economically distressed groups against each other to avoid the majority coming together against the injustices of land distribution and work conditions after the Civil War. That race baiting had taken and remained vital at least throughout the twentieth-century.

It was not unusual when I was in high school in the 1970s for people to marry a year or so after graduating; many in our small, rural town did not go to college. These five “black” brothers went to our small town’s predominantly white Catholic school. Very few of their classmates would have been black. In contrast to the suggestion of intentional efforts to find white wives, I figured they just happened to fall in love with classmates who just happened to be white. Back then, I thought it romantic and courageous to defy social norms—certainly more courageous than my marriage, which came about largely because of social expectations for those of us who went to college: to marry immediately after. I realize that in contrast to this couple’s marriage around 1980, my own mid-’80s marriage was much more cowardly than courageous. I had dated the same man through college, and it was time to marry. So rather than acknowledge our incompatibility and suggest it was time we both moved on to find matches more suitable to our respective personalities and ambitions, I married him, knowing as I did so that our marriage was not likely to last.

Now, though, I perceive in what turns out to be Emile’s, not Lizette’s, political postings, if not a rejection of his African heritage, at least no allegiance to it, no concern about the incidents of violence against African American men that are not new but rather publicized more broadly in this era of social media. Photographs of his now grown son reveal that the young man is in no danger of being picked up for “driving while black” or fall to an even worse fate just for being black in the wrong place at the wrong time. This young man and Emile and Lizette’s grandson, with his light eyes and almost blonde curls, are safe from the policeman’s quick draw on African American men.

I’ve seen Emile share “Blue lives matter” memes but not “Black lives matter,” praise Ben Carson but not Barack Obama, mock Maxine Waters but not Ben Carson, all of which makes me wonder if my ex-husband was right, that Emile’s original attraction to Lizette was largely motivated by some family pact to “whiten” their line. It worked, if that was the intent. I see photographs of grandchildren on both of their Facebook pages, and no one would guess these children have what the nineteenth-century writer would have called “black blood.” My ex-husband’s explanation for Emile’s interest in Lizette is not as romantic as putting love over bigotry, but it is certainly understandable given how prejudiced Louisiana still was forty years ago: as I noted, Lizette’s father rejected his daughter and grandson, at least for a time, for marrying a n—– (he would have used the n-word, I am certain); her mother had to sneak behind her husband’s back to see her grandchild, at least for a time.

How prejudiced much of Louisiana still is, I realize after reconnecting with these and other old friends on social media. They don’t use the “n-word” anymore, of course, at least not on Facebook (though many do complain there about having to be politically correct). But I’ve seen more than one offensive Michelle Obama meme, to name just one example of outright, old-fashioned racism I’ve witnessed in the posts of people I know. It occurred to me during weeks of reflection following my notice of Emile’s ultra-conservative, largely xenophobic postings that he is in some sense “passing” now, with his pro-Trump politics, trying to prove he is just another working man who thinks just like his white friends. Once again, I find myself heartsick over how the current administration is undoing the progress I thought reflected in the election of an African American President. Or maybe the support for the Trump administration is just revealing how little progress was actually made during President Obama’s two terms—or how distasteful so many people found having a black president.

Social media’s revelation of how little has changed back home sent me back to my coffee table with its hidden secrets inside. It is an “oriental” trunk, the descriptor inspired by the engraving reflecting the early 1970s when it was placed in my bedroom, a gift from one of my dad’s first cousins, presumably to serve as a hope chest many years down the road, as my sisters and I were still small children at the time she brought them to us (we each got one). While I never stored in mine (and likely, neither did my sisters) the lingerie and linens traditionally put away in such vessels, I have placed it in home after home all these many years, stuffing pillows in it for moves so as not to make it much heavier than it already is, even while taking advantage of it as another storage source for the move. Once settled into a place I finally call home, a 1925 Craftsman house I bought for myself in my mid-thirties (and single), I had a piece of glass cut to fit on top of this trunk. Voila! Coffee table.

Inside, I put, not symbols of hope for a husband and home—I had a home now, in eastern North Carolina; I’d briefly had a husband in my native state, but that was a mistake. Rather, I store here those keepsakes I do not need or want to see often. The wedding album from that misguided marriage, for example, as well as the divorce decree, dated just four years later. Correspondence from subsequent bad relationships that for some reason I haven’t thrown away, even as the thought of reading any of it brings on a cold sweat. During that last visit to the trunk to find my old short story, I took a look at and then threw out the letters from the least innocuous of these former lovers, not sure why I’d saved these at all. Perhaps another time I will tackle the ones more likely to be painful to peruse.

My coffee table trunk once had a distinctive brass lock with a long key, a bar with short U-shape edges that slid into the lock and pushed it open. I did not see the lock and odd-looking key inside as I looked for the story. I have to admit, though, whenever I open this trunk, my vision becomes very selective as I try to hold some painful memories at bay by not seeing the relationship mementoes I did not part with, for whatever reason. So not seeing the lock and key doesn’t mean they aren’t there, under or inside one of the boxes I am not yet ready to open. I could easily buy some other lock, but Andrew, the man who eventually moved into this home with me, has no interest in digging into things I have not shared with him—and no need to, as I have, over the past fifteen-plus years with him, shared most of my secrets, including those buried in this trunk. Besides my reluctance to delve into the trunk except on rare occasions, the heavy piece of glass is all that locks these memorabilia in now.

When one of my cats died unexpectedly some fifteen or so years ago, not too long after I met Andrew but before we were living together, my friend Nicole came over to give solace. “Fix me a drink and show me your wedding album,” she ordered. “Let’s have a good laugh at your ex-husband’s expense to cheer you up.” Nicole had never met my husband. By the time she and I were colleagues, I had been divorced a dozen years, and he still lives in Louisiana. I’ve moved to four different states since leaving him. Her suggestion was all about distracting a friend from mourning her cat (and curiosity, of course, about my life before my career). So, glasses of bourbon on the rocks close at hand, we lift off the glass top, open the trunk, and pull out not only the four-inch thick, gold-edged formal wedding album, with its professional 8x10s and 5x7s, but also two other photograph albums of snapshots and other mementos. One holds the pictures from and invitations for the cookout and brunch hosted by friends of my parents in the weeks leading up to the wedding (south Louisiana weddings are not confined to a single day); photographs from the bachelorette weekend at the beach of the Florida panhandle a week or so before the wedding and from the rehearsal dinner the night before; newspaper clippings announcing the engagement then wedding. The other album, from our honeymoon cruise to the Bahamas, preserves pictures of people I don’t even remember—and that includes twenty-three-year-old me.

Nicole’s curiosity was likely inspired by my occasional anecdotes about my previous life in Louisiana. My friends here in North Carolina would not recognize the me inside the woman in those photographs either.

Hilarity ensues as Nicole and I marvel at ’80s perms and mullets, shoulder pads (large), earrings (big) and shoes (high), everything color-coordinated. “Your accessories are still always matchy matchy,” Nicole tells me. “The curse of the ’80s,” I respond, but Nicole, who is Canadian, thinks it is a Southern thing.

“You look so happy,” she says as she flips through pages of the wedding album featuring the bride and groom posed as brides and grooms have always posed for such photographs—at the altar, walking down the aisle after the ceremony, behind the cake, with our families and our attendants.

“It was all a façade,” I respond, not able to remember loving him, not even when I walked down the aisle towards him. I might have thought I did, but I admit now that I knew even then the marriage would not last.

Drinking bourbon with Nicole that night, it all seems comically ridiculous, but I still feel responsible for my poor mother’s fever blister before the cookout party. She gets fever blisters when stressed, and this was the first time she would have to socialize with friends who had shunned if not also bad-mouthed her after she and Dad split up seven years before my wedding. I felt guilty for inspiring the fever blister by compelling her presence at this cookout, only the first of several gatherings she would have to attend with old “friends” because of me. And I was only the first of her four children to get married.

As we proceed through the album of pre-wedding parties, I tell Nicole about the backed-up toilet in the powder room at the brunch, held at the plantation home of an old fraternity brother of my dad. I point the host out in one photograph and tell Nicole that a decade later, he would become Governor of “Who’s your Daddy Land,” as another Louisiana “expatriate” friend referred to our home state the first time we talked on the phone after we both moved away. Back then, I tell Nicole, I would not have guessed that the man with the toilet plunger directing guests to another bathroom would one day run the state—in spite of his wealth and his grandfather having once served in that office. We laugh at the obvious symbolism of the full-of-shit toilet at a celebration of my pending nuptials. I wonder if people there noted the irony that was lost on me then. I imagine my parents might have.

And speaking of being full of shit, my groom gave ridiculously inappropriate remarks at our rehearsal dinner, alluding to “someone” (it was Emile) who was upset that he had not been invited to be a groomsman or usher. Apparently, Emile let his disappointment in being left out be known, and my fiancé didn’t know better than to bring up rumored discord with an absent friend during his rehearsal dinner toast. He always did lack any sense of decorum. It was not the first and would not be the last time I was embarrassed by him. I would learn, probably the last time I saw Lizette, sometime within a couple of years after my marriage ended, that to make amends with Emile, my by then ex-husband told him my father wouldn’t let us include him in the wedding party because Emile was part black. Lizette assured me then that she knew that neither race nor my dad had anything to do with the men chosen for the wedding party (and that Emile probably knew too, deep down). I relayed what I’d heard from Lizette to my father when he tried to tell me once that my ex was a nice man, just not right for me. “No, Dad, he was not a nice man,” I said and illustrated with my ex’s mendacious means of getting back in Emile’s good graces, in spite of the slander against my father’s reputation. The truth was simply that my fiancé had brothers and male cousins he was close to, plus my brother and stepbrother, and he had several close friends, too many to include them all in the wedding party. And that he wasn’t beyond maligning my father in order to make up with the friend whose feelings were hurt.

The groom’s indecorous rehearsal dinner remarks were not the only breach of decorum during the wedding weekend. We married in a Catholic church since my fiancé was Catholic, and I had not been much of a church-goer since high school. I had grown up attending Mass on Fridays with my schoolmates and thus felt at least as comfortable in the Catholic church as any. For us, however, I saw no need for a Mass during our wedding, given that I was not Catholic, and, except for our friends’ weddings, my fiancé had not been to Mass in the almost five years we’d been together. I did not foresee that the priest would not know what to do with a seven-minute (Protestant-like) wedding. To take up more time he somehow felt needed filling, the priest told a sexist joke that reminded me of my grandmother nagging my grandfather (the former there at the wedding, the latter resting in peace for a few years by then). I don’t recall being overly offended, just distracted by wondering if my grandmother would recognize herself in the joke and how appalled my mother must be by the inappropriateness of telling jokes at a wedding. For me, I knew deep down, the wedding was largely about the pageantry, and it was impressive. So, what did I care about an off-color joke that likely few, if any, would remember? Over thirty years later, I find it interesting that I never forgot.

On the altar, one of my male high school classmates, who had become a good friend of my fiancé and did make the cut to be a groomsman, was also joking around, and I remarked later that I ended up saying my vows more to him than to my intended because of the distracting clowning. In truth, my unrequited crush on this guy since high school was probably stronger than whatever attraction I still felt for the man I was marrying almost five years into our relationship by then, and I would bet that if this guy had stopped the wedding and said, “Marry me instead,” I would have, though he would have been no better match—just a more charming guy and one my dad at least liked better than the man I married. My point is that even on the altar, I knew deep down that I was not in love enough to be getting married. But marry is was what you did after college, and it was a year since my graduation. It was my turn to be the bride after being a bridesmaid in several friends’ weddings already.

After months of meticulous wedding-planning on my part (so much so that I got several job offers while making arrangements with florists, caterers, dressmakers, and the like), I was disappointed that I did not have much chance to eat the food I had so carefully selected. And the cake had a lemon-tinged icing, in spite of the fact that I’d specifically excluded lemon when picking various flavors for the many layers. I am sure I remarked aloud that I do not like lemon dessert. Why didn’t they tell me their standard icing was lemon? I thought, as my husband fed me the requisite bite for the traditional cake-eating photograph—without mashing it into my face, a ridiculous custom I’d warned him in advance we would not indulge. We saved the top of the cake, as per another tradition, to eat on our first anniversary, but I have no recollection of doing so. With that icing, I know I would not have looked forward to it. And by the time of that first wedding anniversary, I knew that our marriage was not going to last very long at all.

Back in my North Carolina living room, as Nicole and I come to the end of the wedding album, there I am in my going away dress, and I smile to remember my mother and stepmother trying to help drunken me change out of my wedding gown, both women gasping “Noooooooo” as I peeled off white pantyhose to change into off-white for the going away dress. They were not sure at this point if I could maneuver putting on pantyhose in my inebriated state. I liked that they were in there together, and I’ve always liked their ease with each other in the many, many years since, as they have come together often for family occasions, neither ever bothered by the other.

Less humorous and with negative foreboding, I remember crying on the plane on the way to Miami, where my new husband and I would board a Royal Caribbean ship for a honeymoon cruise. After months of planning, the wedding was all over so quickly. Too quickly, I thought. “Crying on the way to our honeymoon does not bode well,” my husband joked, though I already knew deep down, he was more right than he knew. Still, the honeymoon photo album does continue the façade of wedded bliss Nicole saw in the wedding photographs. In truth, he was seasick through most of the cruising part of the cruise, which didn’t bother me at all, as it gave me some much-needed alone time to just read on the deck after all the hectic planning and partying.

But, “Wow, you were hot!” Nicole responds to my twenty-three-year-old, tanned body in a bikini stretched out on a beach during one of our island stops. Hmmm, I think, looking anew with her at this photograph. I never felt hot. Or I’ve forgotten. Or so were most of the other twenty-three-year-olds I hung out with. I study my slim but not too skinny tanned body in a 1980s Charlie’s Angels–style powder blue bikini that glistened in the sun even more than my oil-slicked body. In the photograph, I am at least ten pounds heavier than I am on the evening spent with Nicole, when I am significantly underweight (a consequence of one of my most toxic relationships before I met Andrew), and I realize turning the pages of the honeymoon album that some of the pounds I’ve lost were in my breasts. I sigh, missing the days of cleavage and long, smooth legs. I will sigh like this in a few years as I notice Andrew’s daughter’s legs when she reaches her teens, and I will tell her to stop and appreciate them. She doesn’t, of course, but I know that one day she will miss them.

Following my father’s death almost ten years after my evening with Nicole, when I realized how few photographs I have of just the two of us (he was often behind the camera), I venture again into the trunk-turned-coffee table. Is this when I discover the broken hinge? I am looking for the photographs of Dad and me among the wedding pictures. In spite of how much he disapproved of the marriage (and justifiably so), he was all in for making it my special day. I treasure the photographs of the two of us that day—one in the limo on the way to the church, one walking from the limo to the church, one of us embracing before I left after the reception, both of us tearful in that one. Given my wedding dress in the smiling photographs, I don’t put these out for all to see, but I keep them handy, just to look at Dad in his early fifties, still himself, healthy and happy with his life. I realize now, he knew back then that this stupid mistake I was making was not permanent. When I was ready, he could help me get out of it—which he did. So let’s party!—which we did.

I remembered from looking for those photographs of Dad and me that my early creative writing was stored in my hope chest turned coffee table. So, after reconnecting with Lizette and Emile, I opened up the trunk again, carefully, mindful of the broken hinge, to find the short story inspired by my old friends. I did, but it was another week or so before I finally read my story. Though I typically resist, even avoid reading my early writing, in this case, I felt the need to remind myself of the details of the flat tire on the causeway and Emile’s heroic rescue of Lizette from the swamp below. I wanted to find out if my recollection was faulty or if the details of the heroics I recounted in my story were as far-fetched as they seem to me in recollection these decades later. I did not find much more in my short story about the causeway incident than what I remembered being told, but I did discover that in my story’s recasting of events into fiction, the lovers are not interracial but rather a daughter of wealthy parents who disapprove of her working-class beau. Now that is interesting, I say to myself, surprised that I had forgotten this entirely. And although the Sandra Dee-sounding description means the female character in my story looks nothing like me, and the only thing the male character has in common with my ex-husband is being athletic, I do realize I had put my undergraduate self and my boyfriend-to-turn-husband into the roles of Lizette and Emile. My parents, like Lizette’s, certainly did not approve of my choice, but they had a much stronger case against him than Lizette’s parents’ objection to Emile’s race. Unlike the disapproving parents in my story, my parents were right to question my choice, for I did, in fact, marry a complete ne’er-do-well who liked my dad’s money much more than he liked me. And if I am going to be honest, more appealing to me than my boyfriend actually was after our first year together was that, by joining his big Cajun family, I would finally become part of the community I’d grown up in but just outside of my whole life. So, who am I to judge either my ex for his motives or Emile for his assimilation? I was trying to assimilate too when I lived there. I had to leave to break free of the pressure to just let go, give in, and join the crowd. Emile has to live there.

Other short stories I find in the folders from my creative writing classes hidden away in my trunk-turned-coffee table I don’t remember writing at all. I glance through them and realize that my new writing thirty years later, memoir no longer disguised as fiction, is covering territory I tried to write about then, when I thought I would be a novelist, issues I did write about during much of the three decades in between my fiction and memoir writing, in my scholarship on the fiction of other writers who have explored race, gender, and oppression in their writing. Now, I am trying to understand what I witnessed then, in my own hometown, not just in books, what I am witnessing now, with people I know (or once knew), not characters in a story, and without the rose-colored glasses of my romantic youthful self who wanted to believe in love trumping hate.

A native of Louisiana, MARGARET DONOVAN BAUER divides her time between her home in Greenville, NC, where she teaches at East Carolina University, and her sanctuary home on the Pamlico River. She has served as the editor of the North Carolina Literary Review for going on twenty-five years, and her service as such has been recognized by the North Carolina Award for Literature and the John Tyler Caldwell Award in the Humanities. The author of four books of literary criticism, including A Study of Scarletts: Scarlett O’Hara and Her Literary Daughters, she is now writing memoir and other creative nonfiction, and thanks Philip Gerard for reading this essay and encouraging her to set the academic writing aside and write more like it.