Whitegirl: A Novel
by Kate Manning
Published by Dial Press
368 pages, 2002
Buy it online
As Kate Manning's debut novel begins, a 35-year-old white woman lies secluded in her home overlooking the Pacific, unable to speak, recovering from a violent assault that has nearly taken her life. Her husband, a famous black actor, is in jail for the crime. Is he guilty? She's not sure. She remembers nothing of the assault. Longing for answers, she drifts through the history of their life together, trying to determine how to people once so in love might find themselves so ruined.
Charlotte Halsey and Milo Robicheaux met briefly in college in the 1970s, where she was a beautiful, troubled girl hungry for freedom, and he was the star athlete with Olympic dreams. Years later, when she is a successful model and he a famous sports hero turned actor, their paths cross again in New York City and they fall in love.
But their marriage is soon fraught with tension. As Milo's celebrity skyrockets, motherhood ends Charlotte's career, leaving her increasingly alienated from the man she believed she knew so well. jealousy and mistrust grow between them even as they strive to build a life together against increasing odds.
A poignant anatomy of a marriage undone by the pressure of fame and the struggle for identity, Whitegirl is the arresting debut of a significant new voice in contemporary fiction.
I was not always a white girl. I used to be just Charlotte. A person named Charlotte Halsey. But when I met Milo, when I fell in love with him, I became White, like a lit lightbulb is white. In the mirror there is my skin the color of sand, hair the color of butter, eyes blue as seawater. Just so bleachy white I am practically clear. In a heavy snowfall you'd have trouble picking me out. Even in the photographs from my so-called glamour-puss career it's hard to tell which blond is me. There I am, with what they called my "trademark smile," square teeth like Chiclets, my "fresh" look; there's my "peaches-and-cream" complexion, more cream than peach, all of them talking about me as if I were food.
Milo is black, what they call "Black," only not to me. Brown skin, a shade the newer catalogues would call cinnamon stick or cocoa. The palms of his hands are pink as the lining of seashells, and his eyes are green like beer-bottle glass. You in your sunny kitchen, or your office cubicle, or your local shopping mall may not mind that the word black means "soiled and dirty," means "characterized by the absence of light" or "evil or wicked or gloomy." God knows, I could have cared less myself, before.
Look it up, Milo says, it's what you hear of black: blackmail, black magic, black sheep, black mark, black-hearted, et cetera. You see what I'm saying? When I argue about this, somebody white always says: "Get over it. It's a word. It describes a group. Why be technical about it?" It's not a word, I think now. It's sticks and stones.
My daughter is called black but I am called white, which has a different bag of definitions altogether.
Why we can't call everybody by their names -- Milo and Charlotte Robicheaux and their daughter, Hallie -- I don't know. I'm sick of it, the language of it. Names will never hurt you. Ha. Names like Black, like White, will break your heart, crack it open like a melon dropped on the pavement.
Milo is always preceded by Black, and trailed by it. He wakes up in the morning to "the first black Olympic skier," "the black athlete who..." and goes to bed at night with it, "the blond wife of black Olympian Milo Robicheaux." His skin, my hair. Our little piano key relationship.
To me he has mostly been just Milo. I stopped seeing skin a long time ago with him. They say lovers can find each other just by using the sense of smell; that we are all really animals in that way, no different from dogs or deer. I know it's true. I could find Milo blind in a room of men, would know him by the keloid lump of a vaccination scar on his left upper arm, would know by touch the large knees knotted from surgery, the smell of him like pine trees in a snowy wind. I could pick him out just by the slow rising of his breath while he slept. So no, until this happened, up to the time of the assault, he was not black, not to me. He was Milo. He was my husband; a man -- famous, okay -- who liked parties and dancing, fast music, high speed of any kind. We had fights that made me cry. And him, too, he cried, too. We had long weeks without talking. We had days of just fucking, all day in bed, eating and drinking and never getting dressed. He made me smile.
He cut a smile, they said, in my neck.
Tried to kill me with broken glass, a smashed wine bottle, one of a couple I emptied that night. But he botched it, mostly hitting the silver necklace, missing the important arteries and veins, which saved my life, but not my voice. Left me mute and bleeding on the marble tiles of our kitchen floor.
Or maybe he didn't. I don't know. Jesus, I just really don't know if he did, so get away from me please. Leave me alone with your questions.
Milo loves me, I believe this. He loved me, he always said, more than he loved himself, more than he loved screwing, or skiing deep powder, or drinking dark cognac. Loved me. Despite her. I believe that. In his jail cell where he is now he writes to me: "Charlotte, please, please." He wants me to come see him, says if I'll only come, he knows I'll see the truth. Will see, goddammit. But if I go -- if I could go, if I would -- would I find out anything new? Who would my eyes discover? Milo of my dreams, of my whole early life and up till now? My Milo? Or the man who cut me up? At this point, I don't know if I've ever really been able to see him plain, underneath that skin on him, the man there, or for that matter, if he's ever seen me. Perhaps it is true what they said all along, what Darryl Haynes said: that Milo saw my hair, period. For him I was just some fever dream of hair. Some ornament, like another statuette to put on the shelf next to his medals and his loving cups. And if that's true, then was his friend Darryl right about me, too? That Milo was some kind of a taste, as he called it, of the forbidden fruit? "Just your Chocolate Fantasy," he told me, laughing. "Just you on your Black Booty Quest."
"We don't see color, we see each other," I said back, and believed smugly that we had gotten past that, blind to it, besotted as sweethearts no matter what, mad for him, and he just always needing me, Charlotte. Until he didn't. Until he tried to kill me. They say he did it.
It was all one color, all the pieces of Red Riding Hood's Hood were red. Whereas, I don't need to be told now, this puzzle, mine, is two noncolors, black and white. Negro and Caucasian. Much trickier, more treacherous.
Looking down now at the threadline of waves breaking below our window, by habit I search for Milo's wetsuit shape on his surfboard out there, riding fast, standing in a crouch, finding the wild ride in. He likes so much to go fast, the drug of unchecked speed. It must be hard for him in that small cell, holding still. I think he thinks about me, and I miss him, who I thought he was, and I hate him, my fingers wandering up, tracing the pink itchy ridges of scar necklacing my throat. I would like just to push him off a high building, except that he would drop so fast, and death by flying would of course be his choice of death, and why would I give him even that pleasure now? Better just to let him sit with no windows in the tiny, tiny cell, caged up like a beast. Although, you know, you're not supposed to compare a black man to an animal. Not if you're me, anyway, you can't. It's racist. Everything is, you know, for me. All this trying to talk about race; it's like being in a leghold trap, where the caught creature has to gnaw off her own leg to get out of it.
I woke to shouting, pounding on doors, our door.
"Let me in!" a guy was hollering, drunk. "Angela, open up, you hear?" He was hammering his fists, maybe kicking his boots, so the slim mirror on the back of our door rattled. I staggered up half sleeping, with my nightgown trailing behind like a ghost costume. "Who are you looking for?" I whispered.
"Angela Williams, goddammit," said the man outside.
The square-headed frat boys with their hard muscles and their hyena laughter were having a school-night party in one of the houses across the quadrangle. This would be a drunken pledge, I thought, looking for his date.
"This is not her room," I said, resting my head on the back of the door. "She doesn't live here."
"Excuse me. I'm sorry. Pardon me," said the voice. "Sorry, sorry, excuse me, please, my sincere apologies."
"It's okay," I said, and watched my reflection talking in close-up, breath misting on the mirror. "You've got the wrong room."
"Again, my regrets," he said. "What's your name, so I may apologize properly?" His face must have been close up to the doorjamb, right opposite mine. He was whispering now, through the crack, so I put my lips there.
"Charlotte," I said, "I'm Charlotte Halsey."
"Well, well," he said. "Call me Embarrassed. Call me Chagrined to disturb you. Call me Mortified."
"Hey, Mortified." The word made me laugh. "Mortified who?"
"Mortified Milo Robicheaux," he said, with a husk of flirtation or possibly humor in his tone, it was hard to tell. His voice made me picture an elegant, white-tied, English gent, tipping a top hat. "Forgive me for disturbing you."
"Good night then," I said, but stayed with my lips by the door crack, curious, woozy from beer.
"Sweet dreams, Charlotte Halsey."
I heard him clomp down the hall, whistling. Back in bed, I dreamed somebody was gliding on runners into the valley, sliding through the leafless woods and climbing up the fire escape outside, creeping like Spider-Man along the window ledge to shatter the cold glass over my head. I cried out and opened my eyes and it was late morning. Claire laughed at me and ice cracked off the branches, tinkling to the ground with the sound of fairy bells.
This college, Cabot College, sits among the Green Mountains of Vermont, and is always in a state of heartbreaking and extreme beauty: the bulk of hills rounding up into skies the color of swimming pools; the fur of snow trimming the black tree branches; a glare of sun off the white landscape that gilds the buildings and people at the same time it blinds you.
Copyright © 2002 Kate Manning
Kate Manning is a former journalist and television producer. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.