The Last Night Out

The Atlantic|June 2020

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The Last Night Out
The virus pulled back the curtain on our fraught relationships.
By Calvin Baker

The last night I went out in the city was in late February. I met my friend Grant (whose name has been changed) at the Standard, on Bowery, and we walked over to Bohemian, on Great Jones, to celebrate the 50th birthday of a Broadway producer. After dinner we went down the street to Acme, where a tech entrepreneur was having a dance party to celebrate his 40th. Grant sipped his tequila and began to grow irate because there were so few people of color around. It felt like the 1950s. We were talking to a beautiful Ghanaian woman whom I’d met once before, and when she mentioned a house party in Harlem that a mutual acquaintance was throwing, Grant and I invited ourselves. But as we glided up the FDR we heard the party was a bust. We dropped her off at home and headed to Koreatown, as though we knew it would be one of the last nights we could go out. We ended up in a bar on 34th Street, giving each other the kind of questionable advice that pours out after midnight when Grant started to thumb at one of his phones.

“It’s Fan,” he said. (Her name has also been changed.) “She’s been under strict quarantine for a month now, and is getting bored.” I shot him a skeptical look as they began to have a text war. They had one of those relationships that reminds you the root of passion is suffering. His parents were immigrants from Taiwan, and he believed he could only ever be happy with an Asian woman. I wasn’t sure I believed him. She wasn’t always as nice to him as she could be. He spoke of his own failings, explained that the friction between them was cultural, and insisted I’d never understand. When he visited China he felt seen and free of the constant weight of race. I couldn’t argue with that, so I shrugged the way you do when a friend in whom you have faith is navigating something complicated. He told me that weeks in isolation give you time to reflect. “With all that’s going on, though, who knows when I’ll see her.” Neither of us knew we would also go into isolation soon. But before the skylarking ended he told me he’d heard that the official numbers in China were underreported: “They say there were five crematoriums burning around the clock.”

In the United States, the virus was still mostly centered on the West Coast then, but when I spoke with Grant a few days later he told me three cabs had passed him as he was trying to get to a meeting. “I’ve seen it happen to my college roommate. I’ve just never experienced it directly,” he said. “Even an Asian guy looked into my face and kept going.” I wanted to say maybe the cabbie knew about his girlfriend in Sichuan province, but thought better of it. He was still in pain from the affront. Both Grant and his former roommate, who is African American, are Ivy League lawyers, held in high regard by corporate chiefs and presidents. They thought being brilliant, ethical, and successful would protect them. But no matter who you were, or what you had achieved, it could all collapse at any time into race.

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June 2020