“’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”Alfred Lord Tennyson—In Memoriam A.H.H, 1889
As I write this, I’m playing Earth, Wind & Fire singing, “We write a song of love, my dear…” and fighting back tears. We met in a grocery store near my Raleigh, North Carolina home. By chance, we both stopped in that grocery store at that precise time on that late summer afternoon in 1999.
As I headed toward the fruits and vegetables, a giant of a man walked by, smiling at me. He wants to sell me something, I thought, so I nodded and smiled back. Continuing to navigate the aisles, I mentally checked each item off my shopping list―chicken, pasta, ground beef, milk for my coffee… As I reached in to grab the milk at the dairy case, I noticed the same man walking toward me.
“Would you go out with someone like me?” he asked, smiling sheepishly.
I tend to be wary of strangers.
“Ah, well, yes, I guess so,” I said with some hesitation, not sure if I meant what I said. All five feet-three inches and one hundred pounds of me looked up at him and swallowed. “But I’m seeing someone.” I added, almost as an afterthought. He was fortyish and white. I was forty-six and black.
This was awkward, so I quickly went about my shopping and left the store. For the next few weeks, we kept running into each other at that Harris Teeter.
“Do you work here?” I asked on one of those encounters.
“No,” he said.
“Are you stalking me?” I asked. I was raped when I was in my twenties, and thus not trusting of strange men.
“Oh no. I live close by, and I hate to cook. I stop here most days to get stuff from the deli,” he said. “Are you still involved with someone?” he asked.
“No,” I answered truthfully. I had just ended another dead-end relationship.
At 46 I had a stream of failed relationships as well as two failed marriages. I moved to Raleigh After spending twenty years in the Navy. I enrolled in graduate school at a HBCU, North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina and focused on my dream of becoming a psychologist.
The lines in his forehead disappeared, and his eyes lit up. “Will you go out with me?” he asked.
“I don’t go out with strangers,” I said. There was something about him―his smile, his voice, his towering presence. The look in his eyes was resolute and calm, but animated. I was intrigued by the way his voice had quickened. I studied his eyes. There was an intensity, an honesty, a gentleness about him. As we walked slowly, pushing our grocery carts toward the front of the store, I thought to myself, What do I do now?
I paid for my groceries and looked around for him. He had already paid and was waiting for me at the exit. He gestured for me to walk out in front of him. I reached into my backpack for my pen and notepad. I wrote down my name and telephone number and handed the piece of paper to him. His face brightened, his eyes lit up again, and his mouth broke into a smile―a smile I liked.
“Oh, I need to run back into the store. I forgot something,” I lied. I wanted him to leave before me.
“Okay,” he said, looking crestfallen.
As I turned and walked away, my heart danced, and my lips curved into a heady, floating-in-the-clouds smile.
Two days passed. Then, one night after dinner, the phone rang.
“Hello, Sharon. This is Bryan from Harris Teeter.”
In the first few minutes I learned he was twice divorced, had an eight-year-old daughter, and was from Ohio.
“I’m twice divorced, too,” I said. “I have two adult sons and a thirteen-year-old daughter.”
“Can I ask you something?” he asked and waited for a response. This had to be important.
“Are you a Christian? Do you go to church?”
“Oh, yes, I believe in God.”
I heard a heavy sigh. “Can we meet?” he asked.
“How about Sunday morning? I can meet you at Starbucks for coffee, and if you’d like, you can go with me to my church.”
“Sure. I’ll be there,” he replied.
On Sunday morning, when I walked into Starbucks, he was there at a table, legs crossed. He stood up and walked toward me and a sudden stillness filled the room. Bryan spoke first.
“You look nice.” He smiled a smile that seemed so genuine. An unexpected warmth rushed through me.
“Thank you. I need coffee first. I was a sailor, so I need my bilge water to get started every morning.”
His eyes sparkled. “Were you in the Navy?”
“Yes, I spent 20 years.
“Me too―but not 20 years,” he answered, followed by a deep, throaty, laugh.
His question broke the ice. I would get to know that laugh well. We ordered our coffees, and I rushed to pay for both.
“You can pay for the next round after church.”
It felt magical as we walked into the sanctuary and took our seats. Bryan put his hand in mine. I noticed the stark difference in our skin tones. His skin was pale, juxtaposed against my brown skin. Still, it felt natural.
That was our first date―coffee and church.
After that, he called every night. We were getting to know each other. I told him I was a part-time graduate student and teaching assistant at my daughter’s private school. He told me his parents divorced when he was young. I told him I’d been raised a Baptist but mellowed into a Presbyterian when I was in the Navy. We talked about our children and our travels.
We laughed over dinner on our next date, then sat in his SUV and necked like teenagers in the parking lot in the rain. It was all so much fun. During another telephone call, Bryan started a new conversation.
“Have you ever dated a white guy before?” Bryan asked.
“Yes. How about you?”
“Have I ever dated a white guy? No. I haven’t dated any guys,” he joked.
“I meant a black woman.”
“Yes,” he laughed.
“You aren’t trying to fulfill any crazy fantasies about black women, are you?” I inquired curiously.
“What crazy fantasies are you talking about?”
“That we’re exotic or oversexed.”
Now he seemed curious. “Are you?” he asked.
“Not according to my second husband. He said I was frigid. I’ve dated both black and white decent men. You have to understand the kind of risk someone like me takes by letting my guard down to go out with a white guy.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Bryan, just because a white man sleeps with black women doesn’t mean he isn’t a white supremacist.”
“That’s not me.”
I believed him, but at this point, I stopped him before he said anything else. “Please, don’t tell me that you don’t see my color.”
“Okay, I won’t. Can I tell you that I like your hair?”
“You know I had nothing to do with my hair. My mother’s hair reached her waist.” I was told that my mother’s grandmother, Peggy, a former slave, was part Native American, though I’m inclined to believe she was more likely part white.
“Oh,” Bryan said with a yawn, which was his fallback when he had lost interest in the conversation and was ready to move on. “Is it okay to like your hair?” he asked in a soft voice.