We are running late, my daughter and I, on our way to school. She dawdled too long on the block where all the townhouses have artful gardens beside their stoops. We’ve just reached the wide downtown street, the courthouses and government aid offices. There’s a fruit stand on the corner and she asks for a banana.
We stop, I fumble for change and start testing the bananas with gentle squeezes. The vendor chuckles, he thinks I am looking for a fresh one. He tells me I should go to Ecuador. That’s where they grow, he says.
“Oh, are you from Ecuador?” I keep pinching bananas. I still haven’t looked at him, though I don’t realize that yet.
“No,” he says. “From India.”
Now I look up. His skin is brown, I knew that much from walking toward the cart. And that’s really all I saw before. The look on his face is a few degrees shy of friendly.
“Which part of India,” I ask quickly, without thinking about it. But I hear what I’m doing, I’m trying to slide past what just happened.
“Not really India, Bangladesh.”
I take a deep breath. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t look at your face.” Right then I think this is the right thing to do. Own up to it, name it. But maybe I’m just whipping myself over the shoulder with a bundle of lashes. The real question, the one I have the decency not to ask, is whether my apology made it better or worse for him that he had been so profoundly not-seen.
“That’s ok,” he swats it away like a fly.
“Mo-mmm, can I please have my banana now? I’m so hungry,” she draws out that last syllable for miles. I peel it, she grabs it from my hand, and the man and I stand there, not knowing what to say. The kid is tugging on me.
After a while, he says “I’m from Dhaka. It’s a city. It’s the capital. That’s where I’m from.” It’s a concession, let’s pretend you’re really interested and not just covering up that you saw a dark face out of the corner of your eye and for a moment you were everything you were raised not to be, a person to whom all dark skin looks alike.
“Let’s get a banana again there tomorrow,” my kid says. “Let’s get one there every day. It can be our thing we do.”