Nerd Romance—Race and Religion

“Dad doesn’t wear a prayer beanie.” “A what?”

Not my high school home room. But typical for the time and area.

This is yet another chapter in a series I “finished” last year, but my characters kept talking to me. Then Roz Warren convinced me into fill out the series into a book, so now I’m working on that. Most of what I’ve been doing lately has been filling in gaps or adding to existing material, but this chapter felt like it could stand without the reader having just finished the one before.

Short summary of the story to date:

The series covers two academic over-achievers with limited social skills (aka “nerds”) in the last semester of their junior year in high school in the 1970s. They call each other by their initials, so she is “E” and he is “K.” They are engaging in a “practice” relationship, working from an agreed upon list of goals, trying to learn to be more like regular people before they head off to college. Both kids agreed that this is a mutually beneficial partnership, and not in any way a romantic association. Part of any relationship, of course, is learning about each other. Even—or especially—if some of the knowledge is unexpected.

K met E at her locker after their last period, ready to walk home with her so they could study together. On their way out the front, as they passed a small group of Afro-Americans, K nodded in the kids’ direction. None of the kids, all male, took any notice. E gave the group a surreptitious scan. Other than “dressing hip,” there didn’t seem to be anything of note about them.

“You know those guys?” she asked her practice boyfriend. I can’t imagine how K could get to know hip kids, never mind Afro-American hip kids.

“Hmm? Oh, them, no, just Nate. He’s in my homeroom. I don’t have him in classes or anything, we just chat sometimes in homeroom. He likes pulp ‘zines, and you know me, I read Analog sometimes, so we talked about that.” K shrugged. “Nothing much.”

“He mad at you or something? He didn’t seem to acknowledge you.” And sometimes K can get people mad at him without realizing why. Or even that they are.

“No, that’s… He’s just in Afro-American mode. With the guys he knows. There was one time, freshman year I think, where I passed him when he was with a bunch of Afro-American guys, and I didn’t even know it was him at first because they were talking all hip and everything, and Nate always just talked to me like he was a regular guy. Well, at the time that’s how I thought of it — now I guess you could say he talks like a white suburban guy when he’s in homeroom. Anyway, I said hi to him, and he looked kind of embarrassed, like he didn’t want anyone to know he knew me. At the time I just thought he didn’t want anyone to know he knew a top-track dork like me, but later I realized he just was trying to fit in with that Afro-American group.” He gave E a quick look. “It’s just another way that the rules are different in high school.”

E cocked her head at him. “You didn’t have Afro-American kids in your grade school? I mean, I know it was small, but — ”

“Oh, we had Afro-American kids. Two. One was Wally, I’ve known him since kindergarten; the other was Wally’s sister. My parents told me, growing up, that Afro-Americans were the same as us. And I knew it was true, because I had Wally as a classmate. And yup, he was the same as me. And then, I got to high school. And there were, in absolute numbers, more Afro-American kids. Who were not, it turns out, ‘just like me’.” K paused while they waited for traffic to clear so they could cross the street. “Although, I found out very quickly, white kids weren’t like me, either. I was just weird. But when I spent kindergarten through eighth grade with mostly the same kids, I didn’t know that, and neither did they. I was just me, to them. And then I got to high school, and I found I was not like anybody, and I was fun to pick on, and…” K shrugged. “Anyway, Nate wants to be Afro-American with his Afro-American friends, and he wants to act white with his white friends, that’s cool. And hey, maybe Wally has new Afro-American friends now, and he acts different with them. I hope so. I hope nobody picks on him because he’s too white, or something.”

They walked on in silence. “So Nate is the only Afro-American in your home room?”

“Yup.” They walked a few more steps before K laughed. “No. A bunch of us from our grade school are in the same home room. Including Wally. Who I apparently still think of as being just like me.” He looked at E and shrugged. “Told you I was weird.”

She took his hand. “Then you’re my kind of weird, doofus. Thank you.” They held hands the rest of the way.

When they got to E’s house, they said hello to E’s mom, helped themselves to cookies from the cookie jar and ate them in the kitchen (“No, we’re not taking them to my room, I’m still finding crumbs from the last time you snuck some up!”), then headed up to E’s bedroom. As they settled into their normal spots on the floor (K) and the bed propped on pillows (E), K remembered something.

“Hey! Since your mom’s home, you can ask her — want to come to church with us on Sunday?”

E looked over her glasses at him. Her expression was highly critical.

Uh-oh. What did I do? Was I wrong to think she’d need to talk to her parents? Should I have just asked her, and let her work out the details? Should I have been more specific? “Um, Dad thought I should ask you. We usually go to the 9:15 service. We could, um, pick you up on the way there?” I messed up something. What did I mess up this time? It’s just church!

E took a breath. “So. Church. I believe this is the first time we’ve talked about church. Or religion. Of any sort. And to which church does my family go?”

I… have absolutely no idea. It wasn’t something that came up. If Dad hadn’t said, ‘Why don’t you ask your girlfriend if she wants to come to Saint John’s with us on Sunday?’, it probably still would not have come up. Is she Catholic? She goes to Saint Mark’s? She’s not allowed to go to a Protestant church or something? “Um, Saint Mark’s?”

E sighed. “Okay. Hard as this may be for a goyisherkopf like you to know, not everybody in the world — or even in our high school — is a flavor of Christian. My mom grew up Reform Jewish, Dad is agnostic. So, more or less, I’m Jewish. Kind of. I’ve never been to temple, never been bat mitzvahed, so I’m more Jewish by descent than observance. And I’ve never been to church. Or anything.”

K was working on it. “But… we’ve had ham sandwiches here. And pork roast.”

E nodded. “And you’ve eaten meat on Friday.”

“Yeah, but we’re not Catholic! We’re Episcopalian!”

“And we’re not observant Jews. See how that works?”

Okay, but I’ve been to guy’s houses and they had menorahs on the mantle or something. Wendy wore a gold Star of David around her neck that she was very proud of. I don’t see —

E nudged him gently with her stockinged foot. “I know you and that look. You’re mentally walking around the house looking for things that say we’re Jewish, right? No mezuzah on the door frame. Dad doesn’t wear a prayer beanie — ”

“A what?”

“Yarmulke. My father, being two generations away from attending temple, lacks a certain respect for the Jewish faith that can be embarrassing at times. And occasionally horrifies my mother. Anyway, my point is, while I’m sure it would delight your father if I attended your church service, I feel it would show disrespect both to my mother’s roots and my father’s agnosticism. Capice?

Capice.Wait. I thought that was —

“Yes, K, ‘capice’ is Italian, I got that from TV. My Yiddish stinks, sorry.”

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