I met Mario my sophomore year in high school; we had five of our six classes together. I was not arguing with that kind of fate, and I was going to know Mario. Our high school was ninety two percent Hispanic, with the remaining eight percent being African-American or White. I was white with blond pigtails, and Mario was black and always lugging a guitar... you couldn’t miss either one of us. Our friendship was destiny. But if you asked Mario, he wouldn’t remember me running up to him in the gym and asking him to be my friend. His response was a facial gesture that indicated he wanted nothing to do with me. I gave up on him for a couple of weeks after that. Then I incessantly asked him to “make-a me-a a pizza” in a very bad Super Mario accent. In the halls, I would scream, “Hey Mario... Make-a me-a a pizza!” I still don’t know if he found this more amusing or annoying, but after enough “make-a me-a a pizza” demands, we were friends.
At lunch one day, I asked him to teach me how to play the guitar, and he taught me some notes; I was hooked. I took guitar class with him the following two years in high school, and we were even in a band together. We went to homecoming together our junior year, as friends, but our anatomy teacher suggested we be a couple, saying we looked so cute together. We were lab partners in anatomy, but never romantic partners. He listened to me cry over boys who really weren’t that nice to me, and I asked him why I couldn’t be his best friend: was it only because I was a girl? His best friend was Nick. Nick was the bassist in our band. The summer before our senior year, I started dating Nick.
One night our senior year, I called Mario to see if he was going to a party that night, and he said his mom wasn’t letting him. Mario’s mom was strict with him, but it still seemed unusual why he couldn’t go that night. When I asked why, he said it was because a black man had shot a cop that day and his mom didn’t want him to be driving around at night. That was the first time I realized Mario was “black.” Mario is actually Jamaican. He moved to Miami with his little sister and mom when he was in middle school. But in America, Mario isn’t “Jamaican-American.” He’s “black,” and Mario’s mother didn’t want him to be driving while black that night. We were 17, it was 2005, and a young black man had shot a Miami cop during a standard pullover that day. My best friend couldn’t go out with me to that party that night, because his mom didn’t want him to be shot driving home. This was the first time imagining what it’s really like to be “black” in America had perforated my actual life. Before that night, it was just in my civics class or our African-American literature discussion moments in English.
Miami is a special place where a lot of different kinds of people mix together on the regular and it’s not abnormal. Our population is multi-cultural by nature. In my personal experiences, Miami is place where race isn’t a disqualifier. I didn’t fully appreciate growing up in that environment until I moved out of Miami to a small town in Central Florida where most of the population is white or black and they stay mostly separated. I realized that the town I moved to was a better overall representation of the rest of America, that America that I had heard about on the news, where being black is a disqualifier.
The first time Mario came up from Miami to visit me, I noticed people staring at us when we went out, and then I noticed that they were not staring at me, they were staring at Mario. We went to a café I liked and ordered mango teas and rum raisin ice cream cones. I looked around and noticed that Mario was the only black person in the place and that all of the white people were staring at him. After we left the café, I noticed that all the white people stared at him wherever we went. I didn’t like it. I asked Mario if he noticed, because it seemed like he didn’t. He explained matter-of-factly that he did notice, that it was more noticeable in my new residence, but that it happened in Miami too. It happened to him every day of his life everywhere he went. For him, this was existence. His every rum raisin licking American moment is watched upon with a captive (white) audience.
At some point, I had stopped caring about whether or not I was Mario’s best friend, because I knew that he was mine. He was always there for me. He never left. Life kept happening and he was always there. When Mario met my son and held him for the first time, I asked Mario how I could try to make sure that my son was like him when he grew up. Mario said that a lot of people actually ask him this: how can they be more like Mario? Mario’s answer is: to listen, just listen to people when they talk to you. The simplicity humbled me.
A couple years later, Mario got married and I got to be in his wedding on the groom’s side. I got to stand next to him in front of his family and friends while he recited his own vows to his now wife. Later that night, Mario’s mom gave a toast. She was talking about Mario and addressed all of the people there that night that really loved him, all of his friends and family. She said, “to know Mario... is to love Mario.” And I knew exactly what she meant. Mario was the boy that just played his guitar while he listened to you. He knew how to be calm if you were not. He knew what people really needed to hear or feel in that moment. He knew because he put everyone else ahead of himself. Mario is a good person, and you can’t know him without knowing that.
A few months ago, I was going through old pictures. I made a pile of pictures that made me feel happy when I looked at them. When I was done, I looked at my pile of pictures and noticed that about half of the pictures were of me and Mario in high school. I studied these pictures. I compared them. I realized that Mario was looking at me the same way in most of the pictures. He looked at me like he saw me. He saw me even when I didn’t see myself.
When Mario had his son, during a pandemic and the black lives matter protests, I went to Miami to meet his baby boy for the first time. I just wanted to hold him and look at him. I wanted the baby to know I was going to be there for him just like his dad was always there for me. I looked long into his eyes and told him with my soul that I would listen to him. For a moment, I wondered about him growing up black in America. Then I thought of Mario and his seemingly oblivious rum raisin ice cream licking in that café. Mario put me ahead of himself that day. He didn’t want me to think he wasn’t having a good time or be worried about the staring or have our visit ruined. Mario’s son will learn this from his father. He will learn what’s worth paying attention to; that audience is not worth your attention when you have a friend that wants nothing else but to see you too.