It was a week after the student protests at Yale, and I knew better than to engage in even the most minor form of cultural appropriation, so I passed on both the pilgrim hat and the Indian headdress in favor of a Thanksgiving turkey that I traced in the shape of my hand and cut from a sheet of construction paper before circling around my head.
There were about twenty of us crammed into the combined living room-kitchen of the Crown Heights apartment. It was a lively affair, with scores of strangers vaulting over and between one another for food, and when the couches and chairs finally ran out, Krista turned the bookshelf on its side and told us to sit on that.
The guy sitting next to me was a fellow alum, though we had never met at grad school. He and Krista were old acquaintances, who for a brief period that her friends liked to describe as “rock bottom,” also used to see each other naked. He brushed aside the pilgrim hat that Krista handed him at the door, but the girl he brought with him, waif-thin and holding an Urban Outfitters tote bag, gleefully donned the Indian headdress and sat at the head of the bookshelf.
Trish, like most of the people in the room, was a Manhattan transplant; she had spent most of her life in Tampa and moved to the city after graduation. She was wearing a cut-off graphic tee and a generous amount of eye shadow, and seemed to be one of those rare individuals who could chew gum and eat food simultaneously. She carefully opened her bag and slid her foil-covered dessert to the center of the table.
“Kevin and I met on JDate,” she said proudly, as if she had even lower expectations of the dating service than the rest of our generation.
“They just make everything so convenient,” Kevin said with a smile, clearing his plate of the last bites of mashed potatoes. “It’s like Seamless, but for dating.”
I mentioned that I met my girlfriend in New Haven during speed dating, a relic in the matchmaking arena by today’s standards, and Kevin cut me off, brandishing his fork in the air.
“Can you believe the race riots that are happening on campus right now?” he said, indignant. “It’s amazing what a goddamn thing people won’t do for attention.”
Kevin was tall and handsome, with the braggadocio of an ex-college athlete; I didn’t know whether I should hate him or want to be more like him. The desserts had begun to circulate around the table, and Trish’s pie was already on its second helpings.
“What is in this pie?” someone bellowed from across the room. “It’s angelic. I simply must have the recipe.”
“It’s nothing special,” Trish piped up, sporting a wide grin, “just an old recipe.”
“Whatever it is, it’s delicious,” she said again, to a chorus of nods. The pie was golden yellow and nested in a flaky crust that looked like it could have been a stock photo in a Betty Crocker cookbook. I sliced off half of what was left and lopped it onto my plate.
“They’re not riots, they’re protests,” I said, correcting him. “No one’s burning down buildings or anything.”
“Whatever it is, I just think it’s ridiculous that so many people could get offended over a Halloween costume,” Kevin said.
I looked around the table at the guests in gold-buckled hats and multi-colored feather headbands, and realized that I was both the most politically correct and also the most absurd: a paper turkey bristling with goose feathers flapping at the back of my head.
“It wasn’t just the costumes,” I tried to explain. “It’s the insensitivity of the administration, the institutional racism that people of color have had to endure for generations.”
I wanted to stop before I got too much on my soapbox. More than anything, I suddenly wished there was enough room to make an excuse about switching seats or getting up to use the bathroom. Instead, I took a bite from the piece of pie on my plate.
“It’s true,” I blurted out, looking at Trish. “This is really good, what’s in it?”
Trish looked up from her phone, her eyes like two wide saucers gazing at the ceiling, desperately seeking to be anywhere else.
“Either way, you gotta admit,” Kevin countered, steering the conversation back, “the right girl would look damn sexy in a Pocahontas get-up.”
For a minute, I pictured Trish in the full-on Pocahontas garb: braided black hair, frilled mid-drift, cloth skirt, fake tribal markings. Was it really all that different, I thought, than the versions of ourselves we already choose to portray.
“I’m stuffed,” Trish said, placing two hands on her non-existent stomach. And then, whispering to Kevin: “Can we go now?”
They both stood up from their seats and began to motion for their coats. I got up too, shaking both of their hands. Kevin said how nice it was to meet me before turning to say goodbye to the host.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Trish asked, lips still smacking against the chewing gum. I nodded my head, and she leaned her body in close.
“It’s pudding,” she whispered, pointing down at the dessert. “The whole thing is just JELL-O and pie crust.” She flashed a tight smile. “All you have to do is add milk.”