china dispatch #14 - christi
Christi was one of those people who drew people to her. We were members of a generation in which girls could show up in traditionally girly clothes one day, rolled-down socks and Mary Janes and high-waisted dresses, and jeans and red-striped Izods and sneakers the next. I passingly note how glad I am that the sneakers of our youth are again recognized as cool.
Christi did just this, but mostly kept to the jeans side of things. She showed up in the parade of hairstyles available to African-American girls of the seventies: giant zeppelin pigtails, tight braids, bows here, barettes there. In the eighties, she went for the styled look that Janet Jackson (girlfriend on Diff'rent Strokes) brought back modified from its sixties form. African-American women know best that there's no such thing as apolitical hair. Every choice makes a statement, and there's no such thing as no choice. One day, in high school, she showed up with a simple fro, not too closely shorn, and it mirrored an awakening, in her and in our society, regarding beauty and identity. I smirked. Then I liked it. Several years ago after one of our periodic catch-ups I checked her out online and noted her dreadlocks. Coolest prof at Howard Law. Recently I saw her, and noted that her simple not-too-short-not-too-long fro underlined the fact that she hasn't aged a bit since high school.
She branded herself as a Brain. Children of a media age, we all had logos in elementary school. Chris Besch had a cartoony kick-butt animal of some sort; mine was a stylized clock showing midnight (which within a decade would become, as it is to this day, my most productive hour); Christi's was a light bulb burning bright with the legend CC THE BRAIN. It was with a shock that I first heard, in middle school, someone synecdochizing that word as an insult. (Yes, I used the word "synecdochizing," because I, too, am a Brain.) So she went from Christi to CC, one of the first people I knew who insisted that she got to decide what you call her. Now she answers to e. christi cunningham. I got frogged in sixth grade for pointing out what only I and Chris Besch knew: that the E stood for Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Christi Cunningham! Has there ever been anyone so aptly named? Queenly, Christlike, whip-smart, and never out of the spotlight if she could help it, she lived up to every part. She beat me to a spot in the talent show (already a pretty dang good player, I tossed out a killer version of "El Choclo,") by playing an original song that was not much but a series of arpeggios — played, though, with such theatrical flourish, hand over hand, who could resist? The crowd loved her. They always did, and she loved them back, and they loved her back-back.
I remember sitting with her at lunch as I always did. The cafeteria was, with the perversely abusive logic that was School, placed directly next to the music classroom, and the cafeteria's inhabitants were made to be silent as they ate together. Between that and McDonald's, it's a wonder any of us ever grew to desire the Feast of the Lamb. Christi and Chris and I regularly ran afoul of Mrs. Schaeffer, the enforcer of the Silence Rule.
In fourth or fifth grade, she broke her arm. For an entire week during Christi's rehabilitation, she forced me, with physical pain as a threat, to eat left-handed as she had to do, frogging me (left-handedly, but still), every time I descended into mockery.
Well, I was a mocker. It's a wonder I never got beaten to a pulp in grade school; I certainly asked for it. I certainly mouthed off then, saying things I now recognize as overtly and covertly racist, displaying attitudes I now blanch at. Christi — christi, I apologize. I mentioned that she was Christlike: she certainly was, and remained, a model of grace and forgiveness and reconciliation. I remember once in tenth grade when I made a ten-dollar bet against our football team in a game every one deep-down knew we'd lose. I figured there was no way not to win, because if we beat 'em after all then I'd be happy our team won, and if we lost then I'd at least get ten bucks. I was verbally (though, thankfully, not physically) flayed for this when word got out; I realized that I had neglected to calculate that there was also no way not to lose. I got called things, I got threatened with stuff, I got blamed for and demanded of, I got called more things. In general, I had a crappy day. (We lost.) That afternoon, I was alone in my room when I got a call. It was christi, who had engaged in some of those words. She said she was sorry, and that she'd been wrong to be so publicly harsh, and that I was a dear friend, and that she wanted me to know that. I choked out a thank-you and burst into tears. She was the only person who called that day.
So. Why do I tell you these things? Because I wanted you to have a small catalog of knowledge when I mention a lightning-quick flash of the synapses I had the other evening. I was sitting there in our little noodle place near Dawanglu station eating gorgeous thick ribbons of food in a richly meaty bouillion, for a buck-fifty — miraculous! — and, as always, having a bit of trouble negotiating the noodles with chopsticks. I tried to hold them the real way instead of the just-getting-along way I usually do. They slipped out. If you'd been a Beijing resident sitting in that restaurant fooping away at your noodles without a care, you might have looked over and seen the only white guy in the place (maybe you'd been staring at him all along), awkwardly and comically poking around with his food; then stopping, looking up at nothing, smiling asymmetrically — and switching hands. More comical and awkward than ever. Continuing left-handed through the rest of the meal.
You'd have no idea why he was in Beijing, or how he was gently and not-gently taught to see things through the eyes of the other, or how those lessons had fermented in him. You'd have no idea that he was actually proposing a toast, though with a bowl rather than a cup, or whom he was toasting.