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Without Empathy

Short story By: Helene Lepee
Memoir



This is an assignment I finished tonight for creative writing. It still needs to be tweaked some, but it is based on a real event, and is largely nonfiction. I appreciate any comments, particularly constructive criticism or a suggestion for a real title (the other is essentially a placeholder.


Edit-
After three and a half hours of painstaking editing with my uncle, who is no less attentive to word choice than I, here is what I have. Certainly improved, but how much is not so clear.


Submitted:Jan 26, 2008    Reads: 234    Comments: 4    Likes: 5   


After:
The cash register in lane 11 bleeped monotonously, its timing not unlike that of a metronome. Slowly, our cart full of eggs, apples, paper towels, light bulbs, bologna and a little girl with tufts of curly brown hair hugging her cheeks floated toward the sullen clerk. He mindlessly siphoned the tide of impatient customers through his line.
The man who appeared behind my mother was unlike any I'd ever seen. I stared over her shoulder in unabashed awe. "Look Mom," I blurted "a big, shiny, black man!"
Sure enough, he had rich dark skin and a bald head that gleamed in the fluorescent lights. His face lit up with a smile as broad as his frame; in stark contrast to my mom's suddenly uneasy expression. She pivoted to face him, and offered a mortified look as she measured his reaction. To me, he resembled a big teddy bear with his warm grin and coffee-colored eyes.
He asked me my name. "Helen Noel Catanese," I told him, slowly enunciating every syllable with practiced clarity, "Not Shirley Temple." His eyebrow popped up the same way my father's would when I did something he thought was funny. With an emphatic scowl, I said, "Everyone calls me that! It's not fair. I don't even like her." This explanation inevitably accompanied each and every introduction I made. I was obsessed with detaching my identity from that of a "has-been" child star.
He beamed his massive smile at me, "Okay, Helen Noel Catanese," and I beamed back.

It was about ten years later, when I reconsidered this incident in an entirely different light. Two of my closest friends, my mom and I were sitting around our glass patio table chatting on that new year's eve.
"Oh, you'd never believe what Helen yelled out in the middle of Publix when she was little," my mom said, trying to speak without giggling. We watched her intently as she recalled my awkward, at least for her, encounter. When she finished the story, my friend Amy wrinkled up her nose in puzzlement.
"How old was she?"
"Oh, four, I think."
"And she'd never seen a black person before?"
"Well... no. We never really watched TV, and... her father had some pretty weird ideas about who we could associate with. Honestly, I think he was just afraid." She looked considerably more solemn after that statement, and I noticed her glance at me out of the corner of her eye. I suddenly felt cheated that I had been left oblivious; I had been cordoned off from racial diversity in my earliest years, and sheltered from the knowledge that such unjustifiable intolerance existed.
Though I'd had the opportunity to observe all the same behaviors, I had never put two and two together. I love my father, and it has never been natural for me to pick out his shortcomings. The only thing left for me to wonder was how such an intelligent man, which he is, could fail to look past something so inconsequential as A man's outward appearance and fail to consider his character. That was how it hit me, like a brick though the window overlooking my understanding of the world. Individuals, astute and vacuous alike, will only overcome prejudice with empathy.


Before:
The cash register in lane 11 bleeped monotonously, its timing not unlike a that of a metronome. Slowly, our cart full of eggs, lettuce, paper towels, light bulbs, bologna and a little girl with tufts of curly brown hair hugging her cheeks floated toward the sales associate. He sullenly siphoned the sea of impatient customers through his line.
The man who approached behind my mother was unlike any I'd ever seen. I stared over her shoulder in unobstructed awe. "Look Mom," I announced, in excited haste, "a big, shiny, black man!"
Sure enough, he had deep rich skin and a bald head that gleaned in the fluorescent lights. His face lit up with a smile as broad as his frame; just as cheerful as my mom's expression had snapped grim, for just a split second. She pivoted to face him, and offered a mortified look as she saw his countenance. To me, he vaguely resembled a big teddy bear, with his disproportionately large grin and coffee-colored eyes.
He asked me my name. "I am Helen Noel Catanese," I told him, slowly enunciating every syllable with precise clarity, "Not Shirley Temple." His eyebrow popped up the same way my father's would when I did something he thought was funny. My defiant scowl asserted my vexation. "Everyone calls me that! It's not fair. I don't even like her." This explanation inevitably accompanied each and every introduction I made. I was devoted to the cause of detaching my identity from that of the child star.
He beamed his massive smile at me, "Okay, Helen Noel Catanese," and I beamed back.

It was about ten years later, when I reconsidered this incidence in an entirely new light.
Two of my closest friends, myself and my mom were sitting around the glass table on my patio chatting that new year's eve.
"Oh, you'd never believe what Helen yelled out in the middle of Publix when she was little," my mom said, struggling to speak over a giggle. We watched her intently as she shared my awkward, at least for her, epiphany. When she finished, my friend Amy squelched up her nose in puzzlement.
"How old was she?"
"Oh, four, I think."
"And she'd never seen a black person before?"
"Well... no. We never really watched TV, and, well, Tony was pretty weird about that. Honestly, I think he was afraid of them." She looked considerably more solemn after that statement, and I noticed her glance at me out of the corner of her eye. Until that moment I had been as sheltered from racial intolerance, as, in my earliest years, I had been cordoned off from racial diversity. At the time, I felt cheated, somehow, that the world had been treading along without me.
Though, perhaps, without the same clarity, I remembered it as well, but I guess I had never really put two and two together. I love my father, and it has never been natural for me to pick out his shortcomings. The only thing left for me to wonder, was how such an intelligent man, and he is, could fail to look past something so inconsequential as a man's facade. That was how it hit me, like a brick though the window overlooking my understanding of the world. Individuals, astute and vapid alike will never overcome their own prejudices without empathy.




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