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At the start of Toni Morrison's "Recitatif," Twyla becomes friends with Roberta in the shelter where their mother's leave them. Though it is easy to see when the mothers meet that the girls come from very different backgrounds, over time the two girls grow to be good friends.
I liked the way she understood things so fast. So for the moment it didn't matter that we looked like salt and pepper standing there and that's what the other kids called us sometimes.
When Twyla and Roberta meet years later, Twyla is waitressing at Howard Johnson's and Roberta is passing through. In an already awkward situation, things become worse as Roberta dismissively insults Twyla. However, Twyla has some spunk now, reminding Roberta where she comes from—and of their past—by mentioning Roberta's mother:
I was dismissed without anyone saying goodbye, so I thought I would do it for her.
"How's your mother?" I asked. Her grin cracked her whole face. She swallowed. "Fine," she said. "How's yours?"
"Pretty as a picture," I said and turned away.
By the time the women meet again, both are married. Roberta's antagonism is gone, but Twyla has a new edge. Life is changing. The old neighborhood is being bought and refurbished by "IBM people:" successful, middle-upper class families. When they meet, Roberta is friendly, dressed beautifully—with sleek hair and diamonds. There is nothing glamorous about Twyla's life, and she clearly feels the difference between them:
I was dying to know what happened to her, how she got...to Annandale, a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives. Easy, I thought. Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world.
However, as they sit in a restaurant, the years melt away. They had only spent four months in the shelter together, but the complete acceptance they found each from the other, allowed them to remember their time together fondly. However, when the two speak of Maggie, a mentally handicapped woman taunted by the older girls, Twyla does not remember the incident the same as Roberta—who says they were involved in the brutality too.
And then, when she asks why Roberta was so unkind when Twyla was waitressing, Roberta explains that it was a race thing: things were so "black-white." But Twyla does not remember this either: busloads of people came to the restaurant all the time, black and white together. It's a sobering moment for Twyla; the two part with empty promises to keep in touch.
"Racial strife" arrives with the bussing of students. Twyla sees Roberta picketing against it. Somehow, Twyla sees that it has, over time, become about race. Twyla has no deep-seated resentments, but Roberta seems to. As they both disagree, the other picketing women surround Twyla's car and begin to rock it. Twyla reaches out for Roberta, for support—like it had been at the shelter.
Automatically I reached for Roberta, like the old days…[when] neither would leave the other behind. My arm shot out of the car window but no receiving hand was there.
Another point of separation between them.
Years later, Roberta tells Twyla the truth of Maggie—they had done nothing. Both realize the powerless Maggie reminded each of her own mother. By the end, the differences adulthood placed between them really did not matter. Four months of fear and loneliness joined the two, and it was this experience that gave them more in common than what made them different.
Twyla understands that she and Roberta are very much the same.
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