In our neighborhood, if you are outside, you are open for business – and the children will get in your business. I was sitting on the front stoop like Baby John in West Side Story, trying to be tough but totally harmless. The children, on this day represented by Dreana, came tumbling towards me.

“I’m going to paint your nails,” Dreana announced.

“No you’re not.” I countered.

“It’s boy nail polish.”

“That doesn’t exist.”

And so Dreana began painting my nails with her spit. I was going to ask her to stop, but it didn’t seem important. The next day she was back with the boy nail polish. To her credit, it was blue; a bright blue that has never cried. She also brought a boy, Anthony, as if this might prove persuasive. Again she asked and again I refused, so she started painting the siding.

“Please don’t do that,” I said. She paused for a moment. Then continued.

“What did I just say?” I snapped.

“Yeah!” Anthony matched my tone and made a grab for the nail polish, and Dreana made a fist, and the bottle didn’t want to pick a side, so it fell, spilling the candy blueberry polish all over the porch. With a squeal the kids scattered. I muttered all the way upstairs for a rag and sighed all the way down. As I rubbed repeatedly, the polish gradually transferred from concrete to rag, until the rag appeared as though some blue-blooded cartoon animal had bled on it.

It was the same color I saw at the Ebony fashion exhibit, in a far outfit of swimsuit, coat, scarf and stockings that was not suitable for any occasion. My friend Althea and I wandered through the temple of black goddesses, who were wearing fabulous ensembles and arranged in rows, like ornate columns supporting a vision. “These mannequins must have DNA, they are so lifelike,” I said. “That one looks like Naomi Campbell.” We approached some casual wear that was too coordinated to be casual – every piece similarly patterned in blocks of black and blue and trimmed with white lines – and I pointed at it, declaring, “I could wear that.”

A week later I returned from work and tried to close the distance between the car door and the front door as quickly as possible. Anthony shouted from down the street. “Wait up!”

“I’m waiting,” I said, not slowing or stopping. As I was unlocking the door he limped up the steps, holding something under his arm. “I broke my leg,” he said.

“No you didn’t.”

“This is my crutch.”

“No, that’s a snow shovel handle without the shovel,” I pushed the front door open.

“Hey!” Anthony leaned down, grabbing my pant leg and pulling it up a little. “What shoes are you wearing?” He asked.

“Adidas,” I said.

“Those are for black people.”

“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.” And with that line, I exited inside, eager to be alone with my backpack, as it contained the love/hate letter Dear White People. It’s “a satire about being a black face in a white place,” but really it’s a chiaroscuro of characters at an Ivier-than-thou University. Among the students are Coco Conners, a black blogger with the nickname “blue eyes” because she prefers white men and helps one of their fraternities throw a blackface party so she can live blog the proceedings. “Tell me,” she mockingly implores the camera, “why are white folks so obsessed with being black? Hell, why are black folks addicted to blonde Barbie doll weaves? It’s a strange symbiosis that we’re here to investigate.”

“Can I destroy this terrible exegesis?” my roommate demanded the following morning, standing in the bathroom doorway, gripping a page torn from a Sunday School coloring book that had been taped on our refrigerator. I put down my toothbrush and examined the picture. The face of God floated in heaven, wearing a beard composed of the surrounding clouds. A child had bore a crayon back and forth across the face, likely Ultramarine, a shade which is based on Lapis lazuli, the semi-precious stone coveted since ancient times for its intensity. “Blue is fascinating,” according to Yale ornithologist Rick Prum, “because the vast majority of animals are incapable of making it with pigments. They have evolved a new kind of optical technology, if you will, to create this color.”

Handing the picture back to my roommate, I said, “let’s keep it,” and together we left for work. Despite a week of rain, the polish on the porch had not faded.

The Boys and Girls Next Door

The boys and girls next door come over for the first time on Friday night. They are from Chicago and the youngest girl informs us that it is better than Milwaukee. An older sibling glares at her and translates for us, “no it isn’t, we like Milwaukee,” as if we rule the city and will banish them for treason.

The middle brother admits he likes to draw and we bring out white paper. There is trash talking and telling us to bring more; it is now a game of Pictionary and each is determined to win. One doesn’t draw at all, but keeps writing our names in different fonts and sizes, as if to commit them to memory. Mine says “boy” on the left side, “Ben” in the middle and “man” on the right. I quite agree with the placement.

When the pizza is ready, we become like flight attendants, giving instructions that they don’t quite listen to. We say: there is pizza with meat; with just cheese; these have marinara sauce; this has white sauce. They don’t understand the white sauce. We try to explain it to them. They don’t eat it.

After they lose interest in drawing, we are left to our own devices – iPhones and iPads. A housemate finds music videos of Willow Smith, who whips her hair into a fireball, dressed like Janet and Michael and dancing like neither of them. “Whether it’s black stars or black cars,” Willow sings, “I’m feeling it.”

One of the girls asks to “use it,” and on the way to the bathroom, passes the monolith photo album that also functions as a refrigerator. She sees a snapshot of Meldon, our former housemate. Mel is the type of phenomenal woman that Maya Angelou wrote about: smart, soulful, mischievous, gorgeous. “Why y’all friends with dark-skinned people?” The girl asks. “Why wouldn’t we be?” I ask back. “I don’t know,” she says.

As we reenter the living room, everyone is riding the roulette wheel of childish whims and YouTube suggestions, somehow arriving at Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” We all sing like we always will. I remember the people who said she didn’t have soul, and my mom, who said that to sing like Whitney Houston was her idea of heaven. As I watch one of the girls lean into my housemate for a hug, I think this might be something like mine.

Cardio Arrest

Let it be known that I am not a fat ass. I am on the treadmill for a half hour every night. I don’t mean just standing on it while I watch TV because the gym has cable. I mean walking on a moving treadmill while reading novels upward of 400 pages. I can feel my heart beating, not like a love song, like a psychological thriller, because if I don’t step lightly and balance the book, it will fall off the stand and I will trip over it, slamming my jaw on the hand bar, biting off my tongue and swallowing it as I gasp for breath, face planting on the treadmill and riding it like a backwards waterslide, until I splash into a pool of my own blood on the floor, surrounded by a gorgeous cloud of chiseled witnesses.

Disregarding my commitment to not dying prematurely – physically or socially – one of my friends, Beth, extended an invitation to a class at Diversity Fitness. I was afraid we would be the diversity. I was afraid that some black woman, like Isis in Bring it On, would say, “can’t even break a sweat without white people breakin’ it up.”

But upon entry, there were bodies of every shape and color – even shapeless and white. While I wasn’t inspired to give a scientific presentation defending white as a color, I wasn’t uncomfortable. Probably because we were joined by my subtly-but-definitely-Hispanic friend Brianna.

We found a spot near the back, by the vending machine stocked with vitamin water. I hadn’t brought any water with me. I wasn’t planning on sweating that much. The class was called Latin Cardio, and I thought it would be fun, exotic – not really exercise – exoticise. A little vacation from my normal workout.

Near the end of the first song, I began to understand there are benefits to a fat ass. When it’s kicked, it’s not as painful. And when it’s time to shake it, you got some salt in the shaker. And this was a class of Shakers – religiously bootylicious.

At one point we were ordered to engage in a dance-off, like West Side Story. That reference is perhaps not appropriate for Diversity Fitness. Or Latin Cardio. Nonetheless, we faced each other, Brianna and I, taking turns shaking our tukhuses. It was a bizarre sort of urban mating ritual, in which I was not the most flamboyant, and therefore not the man. This was a cause and effect to which I was totally unaccustomed.

The dictator – dominatrix – instructor – seemed to have no threshold. After a good threshing, I looked at the clock. “We’re not even halfway through,” I croaked. Seemingly in response to this, the instructor raised a finger to each cheek, coaching us to smile, like a stage mom. Scared, I smiled. Then there were more songs with a beat that my ass could not follow.

I’ve heard that many spouses share the bathroom during any of its myriad uses. A fitness class is a bit like that. You’re around these people during some rather compromising positions, and after awhile you really don’t care. Yeah, this is my ass. When’s the next movement?

Afterwards, as we all stood outside speculating whether we’d have to call in sick because our muscles would be hungover, the instructor walked by. “Thanks, guys,” she said. “Thank you,” I gushed, wondering if I was experiencing a kind of Stockholm syndrome. I had tried to move with her, tried to make myself work with her. She had almost killed me, but not quite, and – I remembered, as an October breeze cooled the sweat on my back – I was free.