On the Bridge


Georgia, a white woman with short silver hair, and Maya, a “traditionally built” black woman with dreadlocks halfway down her back, get out of Georgia’s car and head toward Waterfront Park. Maya says, “Now what is this event that we’re going to?”

Georgia smiles. She wants to take Maya’s hand but knows she dare not. Maya has made it abundantly clear that displays of affection in public are strictly off-limits. Maya has told her a bit about the racism she has experienced as a black woman in Portland. If Georgia ignored the added layers of homophobia and public fear of mixed-race relationships, she could do serious damage to their budding relationship. So Georgia contents herself with a smile that reflects how pleased she is to be introducing Maya into her activist world.

“I thought I told you about it last week. Didn’t I? Oh god. Did I just imagine I told you?”

“No, I remember you telling me some of the plan. It’s about protesting the military ships coming into Portland for the Rose Festival. Right?”

“That’s it. We want to draw attention to the cost of maintaining military forces and  the huge increase in rape and sexual abuse cases when the ships are in town. We’re going to hang a big sign off the Steele Bridge.”

 

Maya stops dead on the sidewalk. She hasn’t told Georgia about her fear of heights. She hasn’t told Georgia that she goes miles out of her way to avoid driving over the tall bridges that span the Willamette River. She hasn’t told Georgia she can’t stand to look down from windows that are more than two stories up. “You mean the demonstration is on the bridge?”

Georgia keeps on walking, not noticing that Maya is several steps behind her. “Mm-hmm. We’re going to hold up a big banner that says “Stop the War Machine” and link arms to form a human chain from one end of the bridge to the other so they won’t be able to open the bridge to let the ship come through.” She stops suddenly and turns. “Wait, where are you? Is there something wrong?”

Maya says nothing. She really likes Georgia and wants this new relationship to continue. Spending most of her life in reasonably flat Atlanta, she has never quite gotten used to the hills and bridges of Portland. She is glad she has moved here to Portland; her education at Lewis and Clark College has been much better than anything that was available in Atlanta. But it has been hard to leave her sisters and her daughter on the other side of the country. She appreciates Portland’s openness to sexual minorities, but the racism is even worse than she experienced in the deep South. Hoping for an idea, any shred of an idea, that will allow her to turn around and head for home without vomiting on the grass, she swallows, takes a deep breath and reaches for Georgia’s arm. “Wait. I… I need to tell you something.”

Georgia replies impatiently, “Can it wait? We’re due to meet the others at the west end of the bridge and we’re running late.”

“Well … no.” Maya tries to catch her breath. Her heart feels like it is about to jump out of her chest. “Sorry, but it has to do with the demonstration.”

Georgia stops and faces Maya. “I don’t understand. You said you were okay with protesting the military with me. I wanted to introduce you to all my Seriously Pissed-Off Granny friends.”

“It’s not that.” She takes a gulp of air. “I want to meet your friends. I admire all you to do to change the world. It’s just that…”

Georgia suddenly reads the look of fear on Maya’s face. “Maya, what is it?”

“I…I’m afraid of heights. There. I said it. I don’t want you to think I’m a wuss. But I don’t think I can walk over that bridge without losing my lunch. And I don’t want to embarrass you.”

“Oh, honey. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.” Georgia raises her hand to take Maya’s hand in hers but thinks better of it and pats her shoulder. “I don’t want you to be miserable. I thought this would be fun  for both of us. But it’s clearly not for you.”

“Is there some way I could meet your friends and then  – I don’t know – wait for you here in the park?”

“Well, let’s see if we can figure something out. How about you walk with me to meet the others and we’ll take it from there?”

“Yes. I like walking along the river. It’s just going up on the bridge that scares the shit out of me.” Maya grimaces and hangs her head. “I’m really sorry to put a damper on your plans.”

“No, it’s my fault for dragging you into something without checking out the details with you first,” says Georgia. She has been so smitten with her budding love for Maya that even her activism for peace has taken a back seat. It took her more than 40 years to admit to being a lesbian. Love relationships at her age are rare and precious and  she will sacrifice a lot to maintain this one.

Georgia reaches into her purse and pulls out a small digital camera. “I just thought of something. Could you take pictures with my camera? You could shoot us from different angles from the park and still keep your feet on the ground. Would that work?”

“Good idea,” says Maya with a sigh of relief. “I can do that.”

“Great. Let’s go then.”

 

Georgia approaches a group of women standing with a rolled-up banner and calls out to them. “Hi, Grannies. I brought along a new friend to join us.”

The group turns with curious smiles.

“This is my friend Maya. Maya, this is Alice, and Lucy and Nora and Tricia. They are the main organizers of this action.”

Maya is greeted with hellos and warm welcomes from the group. Georgia is pleased that she doesn’t see any signs that anyone in the group feels uncomfortable with Maya because she’s black. She knows the group is accepting of her sexual orientation. But in just a month of dating a black woman she is discovering that adding a person of color to an existing white group, no matter how liberal its politics, can get a bit dicey.

Georgia continues, “I need to be on this end of the bridge, actually, not on the bridge at all, if that’s possible. Do we have enough people to reach across to let me be on the end of the line?”

Alice speaks up, “It looks like there’s more people coming all the time. We can probably stretch out.”

Georgia adds, “And Maya can take photos and short videos that we can distribute to the media if no TV stations show up.”

Maya shoots a look at Georgia. She thinks, There she goes again with the assumptions. She asked if I could take photos. She didn’t say anything about short videos. We’re going to have to talk.

“That will work,” Lucy responds. “We can always use more photos. At our planning meeting last night – which you missed…” She rolls her eyes at Georgia and winks. “We decided that we wouldn’t actually shut down the bridge. Delaying the ship with our sign and our bodies will be enough to draw attention to our cause. Then we’ll just leave peacefully when the police ask us to.”

Georgia accepts the well-deserved dig. She knows she shouldn’t have missed the crucial final planning meeting before a demonstration, but last night she was just too warm, cuddled up in Maya’s arms. to break away.

 

The action comes off as planned. Two local TV stations arrive, summoned by Alice’s urgent tweet as soon as the military ship comes into view. They get some good footage of the sign and the Pissed-Off Grannies. A woman police officer, whom they met when they blocked the doors of the military recruiting station with their rocking chairs, smiles at them and gives them a surreptitious thumbs up.

 

As Maya and Georgia relax in the car after the demonstration, Maya sighs and says, “I surprised myself. That was fun.”

Georgia responds, “Were you okay with how it worked out? You didn’t have to go up on the bridge or do anything else too scary.”

“Right, but next time I’d like a bit of advance warning before you volunteer my services as a videographer when I’ve never even looked at your camera.”

“Uh-oh. I’m sorry. I do get carried away in my enthusiasm. I forget that not everyone is comfortable with 90-second response time.”

“Yes. As a stranger to your activist world, I need some advance planning, please.”

Georgia slaps herself in the forehead. “So, what do you think?” She grins. “Want to do it again next week?”

DeEtte Beghtol Waleed, is a proud member of the Seriously Pissed-Off Grannies. Her book Messengers of Peace, Inspiring Stories of Africans Creating Peace was published in 2011. Her nonfiction report of African women peacebuilders is published in Bite Not One Another, Selected Accounts of Non-Violent Struggle in Africa.

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