Excerpts from “Tidal Wave” by Matthew Morris

My high school friends and I—college seniors now—left Buffalo Wild Wings after midnight. We had laser-tagged that evening, and then we had caroused. At the bar, Peter ordered a Sweet Baby Jesus. And I learned people sometimes fry pickles.

In the minivan, we groped for sound. I sat in back, ducking furniture. Jeremy handed me a cable, which I was to plug in, which I did. We drove into the night.

Jeremy put on Drake’s “Legend.” He sang along—each and every word.

Drake says n— in “Legend” and so Jeremy (white) did too.

I didn’t feel weightless, unburdened anymore. Maybe I should’ve had a couple beers at the bar, instead of water.

Jeremy handed me a Sour Patch Kid. I don’t remember when.

Before the Sour Patch Kid, Jeremy asked me if he could say n— when Jay Z does.

That’s fine, I said. I did not mean this.

Jeremy said his other black friends said yes or no. He said yes made him feel honored.

Jeremy said he loved me, and I laughed: it’s a reflex.

Jeremy said he meant it, he was being serious, I shouldn’t laugh.

Inside the van, darkness obscured. We—my (white) friends and I—breathed behind veils.

I reached out, found Jeremy’s shoulder.

I never said to Jeremy, I love you. But I touched his shoulder in the dark.

Jeremy said I’d never done something so warm. He might’ve been right.

I ate the Sour Patch Kid, felt white sugar against my tongue. And we—my (white) friends and I—pushed farther into black.


In high school Spanish, Genevieve says, Tiene fiebre de la jungla. She is talking about somebody white who loves somebody black. When she says, He has jungle fever, Profe laughs; he knows what she means. I don’t understand—¿Fiebre de la jungla? But then I do. Jungle fever: a lusting after the exotic, the bestial. Genevieve is blond, athletic; she dates Todd, who’s killer at hoops. Her words stun me—my body tenses. Fiebre de la jungla. Because my father is a chimp, a fucking big cat, and Mom’s running a temperature of 103. Now I am reminded: people talk this way. And that means they think like this. This is when I would leave class. But I do not—I sit, blasted, eyes open, brow creased.


I am half black, half white, but look at me: what do you see? Unless I’m mistaken, not what I wish you would. I’ve always been half and half; this is nothing new. I’m tired of surprise, sick of disbelief. I know my skin, just slightly tanned. I’d make it darker if I could, avoid the confusion. Like I said, I know my skin: I live in it. Call it a house. Not haunted, not charmed.

My father is black. His graying hair curls. He sported a mean afro as a teen. His great-grandfather was a slave and then a professor of math. His grandfather preached and his father taught the law.

My mother is white. She has blue-green eyes and straight, not-quite-shoulder-length hair—brown. Her ancestors went west in covered wagons. Her grandfather could’ve played pro baseball; her mother worked three jobs, and her father just left.

I can say my father is black and my mother white because we propagate such labels, but my father is far lighter than ash, my mother far more toned than the clouds. I can hardly say I am black-white, white-black. In conventional terms, I can say mulatto or mixed or biracial, the last two lacking in specifics.

My sister is a lighter black-white/white-black than me. Imagine that.

My hair is dark brown, straight; it waves when long but does not curl. My eyes are brown and also bad; I wear glasses like both my parents. I’ve never been in a tanning booth, but I’d say I look like a white guy who’s been under some rays.

Like Birdie in Caucasia, I’ve been called several names. Jewish? Latino? Middle Eastern, maybe Indian? White: that’s the working assumption. Nothing derogatory; I’m not someone most racists would call a n—.

I hate the term jungle fever. I hate that miscegenation sounds dirty. I hate that I can be told I’m not black-white/white-black because What? No, that can’t be true.

I hate that I can pick up Angry Black White Boy thinking it’s about me.


Something a boy said about me, when we were both pretty young, and which I’ll never forget: that I could play basketball because of my dad, and that I did well in school because of my mom. So I could run and shoot because I’m half black but had some brains because I’m half white. Because black folks can play sports, and white folks can think—but I’d struck gold.

The funny (?) thing is that my dad’s family has the college professors, and that my mom—and both her brothers, and her dad—played college sports. The funny (?) thing is that my dad’s family is always reading and writing and intellectualizing, and that my mom’s hikes and plays Thanksgiving Day football and serious Ping-Pong. The funny (?) thing is that my dad’s family indeed can play sports, while my mom’s indeed can think.

Well, I’d say the really funny (?) thing is what that boy told me. But it’s hard to laugh when you’re disheartened, confused. It’s hard to laugh when you stop and think: if he’s saying that at nine or ten, who told him, and how old—how adult—are they?


I would like this essay to take the shape of a Pollock painting—a splatter here, a splatter there, colors thrown this way and that, but comprehensible as a mosaic, as a collage, as something that maintains its form. These bits and pieces make a mess of me and heal me both.

Or maybe, my thesis adviser suggests, what I am working with is a prism, where white light breaks up into its components: the colors of the rainbow. Just days after she says this, I am sitting in Astronomy, where my professor introduces this very concept in his discussion of matter and energy, and I can’t help believing this more than coincidence. And so, yes, maybe I’d like this essay to be prismatic, and for light (but also darkness: yes, also darkness) to pulse through me.


Read the rest of “Tidal Wave” in the ninth print issue of aptavailable now.



Matthew Morris is a writer from Arlington, Virginia. He received a B.A. in English from the University of Virginia. He studies creative writing at the University of Arizona.




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