Darlene Showed Me the Way

For some reason, I've been running into my past lately -- people I thought were long gone from my life. It's a little unnerving at times as it brings back some memories I'd just as soon forget, but

For some reason, I've been running into my past lately — people I thought were long gone from my life. It's a little unnerving at times as it brings back some memories I'd just as soon forget, but I don't feel that way about Darlene.

I didn't expect to run into her at CVS Pharmacy downtown one afternoon last week. It's been more than 30 years.

She's a little older and her black hair has some gray in it now, but she's still slender, still has those big brown eyes and that cute laugh.

We went to college and took a lot of business courses together. We would often go to lunch or the library or cut up with one another in a study hall at Xavier. We were good friends.

Darlene and I stood in CVS on that afternoon and caught up with one another as best we could in the short period of time we had.

She's been married for 25 years, has five adult children and three grandchildren.

She works as a legal assistant downtown and lives in Avondale. As we talked, I could tell she has a happy life.

I told her about myself, my kids and my work as a writer. Probably the most important thing I said was something I wanted to tell her long ago.

"Darlene, I always had a crush on you," I said. "I think actually I was in love with you."

She laughed and looked at me with those big brown eyes.

"I know that, Larry Gross," she said, "but you never did anything about it!"

This was true. Thirty years ago, I thought of her all the time and wanted to be with her, but I always kept my feelings to myself.

I don't think it was because of race — I think I simply put her on too high a pedestal — but, still, I'm white and Darlene is black.

Our friendship started in the early 1970s. I was a young country boy feeling my way around in the big city of Cincinnati.

I grew up near a small town in East Enterprise, Ind., about an hour and a half from here. I was ignorant when it came to race relations. There was no diversity at all in East Enterprise, and to this day it's still lily white. I had no idea how to respond to a "black person."

Darlene and I were assigned desks next to each other in a business management class. I don't remember what I thought of this, don't know if I was scared of the color of her skin or what — but I kept my distance for the first several days. I think she could tell I was uncomfortable and decided to have a little fun with me.

One afternoon, we both arrived at class early. Darlene was already at her desk doing some homework, and I very quietly put my books down, sat at my desk and started to get out my homework assignment.

I looked over at her. She turned to me and yelled, "Boo!"

I probably jumped. She laughed, I laughed and the ice was broken.

"I don't bite, you know," she said.

I replied something back about feeling embarrassed, but from that point on we started to become friends. In the weeks that followed, I told her about East Enterprise, its lack of diversity and how I didn't know much about race relations. She'd often look at me in amazement.

"You seem so innocent," she once told me in the McDonald's that used to be downtown. "We're no different than you. Just stayed in the oven a little longer."

The friendship continued. I had dinner at her house several times, and her parents were great people. I became friends with her friends, who were a mixture of white, black, Mexican, male, female and so on and so forth. She loved everyone.

In the months and years during this friendship, I became aware that I really had no race issues and couldn't understand those who did. Maybe living in the country and being ignorant of these prejudices somehow made me rise above that kind of bullshit. I don't know any of this for sure — I just know I had Darlene to show me the way.

After college, I got a demanding job and so did she. Our visits together became few and far between, and then the visits turned into phone calls. After some time, these also came to an end and our lives went in different directions.

Before we parted company that afternoon, we exchanged phone numbers and promised each other that we'd have lunch together soon. Darlene then flashed her beautiful smile and put her arms around me.

"You still that good old country boy, Larry Gross?" she asked while giving me a tight hug.

I didn't know what to say. I've lived in the city for a long time now, and I'm not the innocent kid she once knew. After the hug, I looked into her eyes for a long time.

"I'm a little country and a little city now, too, I guess," I said. "You showed me the way, Darlene. You know that."

She looked at me and smiled before kissing me on the cheek.

CONTACT LARRY GROSS: [email protected]

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