Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban
I had grown, which was one of the only things I knew for certain about myself in the years since returning to Revere — but how I had grown, I was far less sure. As pretty as I had been the first time, it was a prettiness that belonged squarely to my twenties and was gone before I knew to mourn it. My body had dealt with the consequences of cancer and misery; every year I was streaked by new stretch marks; my weight was never consistent for long; but it was my face that had really changed, and yet it had never crossed my mind that Eleanna wouldn’t recognize me. Rather, I had only wondered if that face would still provoke feelings in her.
I was thinking about that, and variations on that theme, during the flight to Albany and on the shuttle to the college town where I was to give a keynote and where Eleanna would be on a panel about, as I had learned from the Revere Book Festival website, Loss and Grief in Memoir. The festival was in October, the same month that Eleanna’s memoir — Night’s End — had come out, with the publication date only a few days before. I’d schemed to receive a galley, and even though I sped through the book, reading the entire thing the day it arrived, certain images still bled into my dreams: not images from her grief, mind you, but images from her marriage, the tenderness of it.
I had a gin and tonic on the plane. I don’t normally have alcohol on airplanes, and with my illness it is best to not drink alcohol at all, but I made sure to drink a cup of water every time one was proffered by a passing flight attendant. A young couple in the row in front of me soothed their howling infant throughout the flight. The child didn’t stop until we were about to descend and started up again as soon as we tilted toward the ground. Meanwhile, I was occupying myself by reading a new essay by Eleanna in Vogue — one of those promotional essays that comes out around the debut of a new book, which may or may not have much to do with the content of the book itself. The essay’s first line was “I was twenty-four when I met Ramit, and my father had just died.”
I was reading the essay for the third time when the plane began to slide and bounce along the runway. The infant was still screaming. I slid the magazine into my large leather bag and looked out the window at the airport, which seemed familiar to me. Even the taxi that took me to Revere felt like a taxi I’d been in before, and the driver someone I’d met years before.
The festival had arranged for me a room in a bed-and-breakfast near the college, which meant that I was on high alert as soon as I opened the front door. It was a small literary festival, and although I doubted I could avoid Eleanna forever (as if I hadn’t come simply to see her), I was too exhausted from cross-country travel for such an immediate shock. But I was shown my room after not too long, and soon I was alone in the room, wondering why I’d made this terrible decision. I’d made it, of course, because I hadn’t seen Eleanna in ten years, and though I’d thought she would fade from my mind over time, I missed her as ferociously as I had when we first parted ways. I hadn’t been in a serious relationship since I’d met her at another, more long-ago book festival in Revere, when neither of us had yet published our first books — which is a vague way of saying that I may or may not have considered my brief relationship with her to have been “serious” — but either way, I hadn’t had a serious relationship with anyone since we’d stopped speaking to one another.
I unpacked my clothes and hung up my tasteful silk dresses. I skimmed the PDF of my itinerary that the festival had given me: my obligations were the keynote, a VIP cocktail party, and a small craft talk for the college’s writing students. Simple. I’d done this all a million times; I could do it in my sleep.
It was 6:30 p.m. I would have dinner somewhere nearby and get an early night’s rest. My keynote the next day would be at 10 a.m., delivered to whatever audience decided to be available at that time in the auditorium where I had once met Eleanna, but I’d given enough talks and speeches at that point to be unafraid of yet another one, and I’d practiced a few times at home to my dog, Miu, who had been so impressed by my deep thoughts that he’d yawned dramatically and went off in search of his ratty dog’s bed.
When Eleanna told me she loved me — this, despite her marriage — we’d only known one another for five days, the length of the book festival. Both of us had scammed passes from our respective MFA programs to go, and then we had met at — of course — the keynote, which was delivered by a 50-something white man with a reputation for fucking and dumping young women at the MFA program where he served as director. But we were too innocent to know about that then; we were only thrilled to be sharing the same airspace as that terrible man.
We sat next to one another because my friend at the festival refused to wake up so early, no matter who the speaker was, and Eleanna was alone because she had plenty of acquaintances but no actual friends. I barely noticed her as we sat through the man’s talk, which was about the folly of inspiration and the blood-sweat-tears of writerly pursuits, only worth it when one was willing to work for it. As he went on and on, I felt myself doubt my capacity to be a writer, and I was wrecked by the time we applauded and stood to leave. I heard the woman next to me gasp in alarm. I did not realize what had happened until I followed her horrified eyes to her padded, cloth-covered seat, now stained with, if not the sweat and tears of a writer, the blood of a menstruating one.
She immediately twisted to look at her skirt, which was maroon but not quite dark enough to hide the blot of blood on its seat. “Oh my God,” she said, and because I felt I had witnessed too much of her little drama to just leave, and because I didn’t have anywhere else to be, I said, “Let’s find a restroom. Here, borrow my sweater. Tie it around your waist,” and I thrust the navy wool at her. “But what about the chair?” she said, unable to stop looking. I said, “Forget the chair,” and grabbed her arm — the first time I ever touched Eleanna — so that I could lead her in the direction of a bathroom, wherever that might be.
Once in the bathroom, she lost some of her panic, and she immediately stripped off my sweater and her skirt at the sinks so that she was standing in her underwear. She handed me my sweater. With the lavender SoftSoap available on the washbasin, she scrubbed at the blood until it was gone, and then she wrung out the skirt before carrying it into the handicapped stall, where I presume she located a tampon in her purse and used it before emerging in a mostly wet skirt. I was, meanwhile, standing where she had left me.
“What a disaster,” she said. “A fucking Judy Blume character.” She began to wash her hands. Finally I really looked at her: tall, with an auburn Louise Brooks bob; muddy green eyes; a pink, un-lipsticked mouth that turned up at the corners. She caught my eye in the mirror.
And that is the moment I think of when I think of how I met Ellie — not the shock of blood, or the wet skirt that clung to her legs, but our reflections in the mirror when she looked, and how our eyes met when she saw me looking.
I was standing idiotically in the overdecorated front room of the bed-and-breakfast, waiting for the owner to show up so that I could ask her about a place to eat, when the door opened and a compact, dark-haired man walked in. He had no bags and stood a few feet from the front door, looking around. I guessed he was in his early to mid-twenties.
“Where’s the owner?” he asked me.
“I don’t know. I was looking for her myself.”
He looked at me more closely, inspecting. Then he went through a side hall. I heard doors opening and closing. “Mom!” he shouted.
He came back into the front room before going up the stairs. The bed-and-breakfast had three stories, and he shouted for his mother on every one. He clattered back down and walked into the sitting room, where there was no one, and fell into one of the overstuffed velvet chairs.
It seemed like a good time to leave, as I didn’t want to spend any more time around this man, the owner’s son, than I had to. But as I approached the door, preparing to exit, he said, “Hold on a second.”
I turned. He was sitting more upright than I’d expected. “How long’ve you been staying here?” he asked.
“I just got here today.”
“Have you talked to the owner?”
“Only to check in.”
“How’d she seem to you?” he asked.
“Fine, I guess,” I said, though I honestly hadn’t been paying much attention to the owner, whose name I didn’t remember. I’d been thinking about Eleanna. Regardless, I added, “She might have been a little tired,” because I did remember that about her in that moment — she had seemed like someone who hadn’t slept well in a while.
“Huh,” the man said. There was a sourness to his voice that I didn’t like.
“Is there anywhere to eat around here?” I asked.
“There’s only one place to eat if you don’t have a car,” he said. “Taxis don’t like to come here unless you’re going to the airport. On the corner going that way, there’s a tavern. Reasonable fish and chips. Local beer on tap. It’s a two-minute walk.”
“Thanks,” I said. I could see through the pane of glass in the door that it had started to snow.
“If you just want something to eat, though,” he said, “I’m going to make something in the kitchen. You’re welcome to join me.”
I watched the snow come down. It was blowing sideways in the wind. I felt lonely, and the idea of heading out into the cold was not appealing. Being invited to eat a home-cooked meal sounded like a benediction under these circumstances — the nature of the food itself didn’t matter, only that it had been cooked by two hands for my sake. It was a greedy want, but I said yes and let him lead me into one of the side rooms, which was light green and gifted with decorative wainscoting and a Wedgewood stove. He began to fuss with the ingredients, and I leaned against the counter, performing insouciance where I felt none.
“Why are you in town?” he asked. He had eggs, red bell peppers, a hunk of cheese, a chef’s knife, and three Celtic stars tattooed near his right elbow that emerged halfway from his rolled-up sleeve, reminding me of all the terrible men I had known in the early ’00s with similar tattoos. Now he was making me uncomfortable again. I tried to decide whether I was uncomfortable enough to make up an excuse and leave. I told him that I was in town because of work, and he didn’t ask anything further. He began to make what seemed like an omelet. Without warning — without a flicker or a sudden, mechanical buzz — all the lights went out, and I screamed.
“Jesus,” he said. “Relax. It’s just a blackout.”
The burners were still flaming on the gas stove, suffusing the room with its warm glow. He continued to cook, sliding the omelets onto two plates. The room smelled good. My mouth watered in spite of myself.
“Hello?” It was another man’s voice and the creaking of the stairs. I could see this new man, elderly, standing in front of a white-haired woman. Both were in dark pajamas with white piping.
“Seems like there’s a party down here,” the woman said.
“I’m just making some food,” said the owner’s son.
More people began to come down the stairs, confused and bewildered and excited by the sudden darkness, which many guessed was caused by the snowstorm building strength outside. It seemed like a certainty that Eleanna would appear and that I would have to contend with her appearance. I was jazzed and anxious for this to happen. I had been waiting for years to see her again, and now it was going to happen — the blackout would draw her into the open, down into the kitchen, where we would act as though this was always meant to happen.
I tell this story not because Eleanna and I reunited but because I never saw her — not at that bed-and-breakfast, and not at the literary festival I had taken such great pains to attend. She was absent from the Loss and Grief in Memoir panel, with the empty seat like a black hole swallowing everything around it. I stood in the back of the room, waiting for her to show up late, waiting, waiting, until eventually the moderator of the panel announced that she was sorry but that Eleanna, due to a personal emergency, could not make it to the festival.
I did give my keynote. I had to, of course; I was being paid, and people were eager to hear what I had to say. I spoke into the microphone and heard my own voice sounding through the giant room. “Literature is a gift,” I said. “We must keep giving that gift.”
On the last day of the festival, I wandered through the book fair. I bought some books and postcards. I filled a tote bag. A pretty young woman approached me. She was in an MFA program, she told me, and she loved my work. She taught one of my stories to her undergraduates, she said. Shyly, she asked if we could take a selfie together. I watched my own face next to hers as she held the phone out at arm’s length, her own bright smile perfected from hundreds of selfies. My disappointment was obvious to myself, exuding from every pore. I didn’t recognize my own face on the rectangular screen. The one person who could recognize it was somewhere else, perhaps hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away.
Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of the novel The Border of Paradise, was named by Granta one of the Best of Young American Novelists in 2017, and is the recipient of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for her forthcoming essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias. Her Twitter is @esmewang.
Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban
Detroit’s assault on me started at the airport, where two unreasonably cheerful airline employees said my suitcase was lost. By the time they found it, I’d overdosed on their accent. My old accent. The nasal honk I ditched the second I arrived in New York City and spent seven years pretending I never had. I called myself the man from nowhere, and if pressed on my birthplace, I’d say “a small town,” which always worked. New Yorkers don’t give a shit about your small town.
Whenever someone got me to name the fucking state — the state that reluctantly tolerated my birth and stood by in its silently judgmental way the walls of my parents' house were filled with holes — they’d ask why I lacked the accent, which is famous for sounding backward, with vowels the speaker had to pinch their nose to say or risk being hit with the stink of rotting lettuce. I’d say the Internet told me accents are partly formed by how much you want to resemble the people around you, so I’d picked people to imitate who weren’t the fucks I’d grown up with.
But you’re never supposed to admit you hate where you’re from — not if it’s a small town. Oh, you’re allowed to have a mild distaste for your suburb. You can admit to liking big-box houses and identically square backyards and streets people never appear on if they’re not getting into or out of their cars, but it’s also OK to say a lifestyle based on buying shit to stockpile in a house among empty porches and quiet yards is a form of death. If you need to turn people against a city, mention crime, and people’s heads will fill with rape and murder, whether those acts occur in large numbers in the city you named or not. The city can be demonized any way you want. It can be the blackness to the suburban white; a devil, even if your city stories are full of warmth and light.
But small towns form the backbone of a romanticized America. Abandoned factory towns like the one I grew up in, which had traded self-love for an ever-expanding hate against whomever we blamed for taking the factories away. If I closed my eyes, I could see my native dose of small-town hate as a training regimen and pretended that shit had turned me tough, like an experimental medicine too rough for the general market; but really, I blamed my hometown for wrecking my family. If we’d lived someplace bigger, we would have had something more entertaining to do than resent one another.
I accepted my suitcase and told the airline people that our whole band was from New York before anyone could volunteer a Midwestern hometown that would draw questions about the origins of the only half-faded Midwestern accents that Wesley and Ethan and Natal had, but the fucking airline employees wrecked the moment by saying NYC was “very nice,” with the tone they’d use to praise a rice pilaf. Wesley knew to drag me outside before I could argue them from rice pilaf to bloody steak. His gentle hand clutched my shirt hem and dropped me into the backseat of his dad’s gold, ’70s Cadillac, a car large enough to masquerade as a boat in a pinch.
We left the airport and took a highway lined with polite billboards for plumbing and locksmithery. I missed Williamsburg already, where people had ditched politeness for silence or a generously offered warmth, where small talk might become a story about a building super who had saved enough money to buy a burger chain in New Mexico or a quest to drink out the night together. I hated the Midwest, but I’d loved it once, too, at seventeen, as a tan guy who felt like talking to Natal, the other tan guy at school. I had zero idea that we’d talk our way into our first band in his parents’ basement, where I lived when living at home proved impossible; the band was a rap-rock hybrid that deserved to die, just like all other unholy combinations of two genres of music that sounded less tragic on their own. But we couldn’t live without our take on the sound: harsh, fake drums and the lyrics that slashed across them until our ears rang. For a while, our sound satisfied us for being new. I believed in our mistakes because they taught us how to come up with lyrics and mix them with music, so later, when we wrote better songs, we knew how to perform and record them.
Signs of my piece-of-shit hometown sprung up on the drive, especially in the other drivers, who aimed a hostility at us that I remembered from growing up in Wisconsin: the cold sideways glance, the mild grimace that meant Why the fuck are you driving next to me, as if interstates were meant to hold only one car at a time.
I understood Midwestern hostility. What was there to like about the Midwest? The people, who only inched through small talk with you until life ordered them to dash off and purchase mildly discounted ground beef at the grocery store? The blankness of the land left behind when manufacturing turned its tail? The truck-sized portions of meat and potatoes that kept you exhausted and on edge? The casual racism dumber white bigots assumed they and I shared? Smarter Midwesterners protected themselves with an extra beat of unfriendly eye contact to keep others at a distance, and a house with a fence that physically blocked them from their enemies.
If I had to sink our next album, Detroit was the place to do it. Failure felt more attainable in a city where the preeminent vibe was death. We passed a hipster coffee shop, the kind people thought proved a city had gotten back on its feet because a handful of white people with enough money for half-sleeve tattoos could afford to open a shop with clean glass and five-dollar coffee that no one who lived near the shop could afford. Unless the coffee shop attracted another coffee shop, like two magnets snapping together, and enough new neighbors who’d shell out eight bucks for coffee if you spelled out each detail of the brewing machines, and the bean fields, and the farmer’s background, because knowing that he’d taken in his sister’s kids made coffee taste better.
At home, once in a great while, I allowed myself to be mystified by the view into a cup of five-dollar coffee, since I sure as hell wasn’t ever going to sock away enough money to buy a house. But expensive coffee couldn’t stave off the city’s death. The gaps between coffee shops commanded more attention than the shops themselves. The empty lots were filled with overgrown dead grass that lay lumped under snow like a bad haircut.
Everyone else in the car talked about things too unexciting to distract me from my album-sinking plan: the acoustics of Wesley’s parents’ basement, no doubt deficient despite Wesley’s assurances that his parents had money and sound-assessment skill too; the cheap recording studio we had booked in case the basement sucked, a wooden-walled, dimly lit upper-midwestern hellhole more suited for guys who needed to grunt after an ice-fishing trip than record an album. Everyone else spoke of Detroit food, as if we’d come here to eat, and our flight, because people are legally required to explain every minute of being up in the air upon landing. You need to relive minute 37 of my flight, all recently landed people said to their hostages, the minute where someone almost kicked me.
We arrived at Wesley’s parents’ estate: two floors of tan-colored money with Greek columns that would look awfully showy had the house not been located in Detroit, the showiest of Midwestern cities, the city that fatalist residents said had been allowed to fail because of the scale of its ambition.
If Detroiters hadn’t built a sweeping colossus of a city complete with car plants the aliens might have landed in, there’d be 2 million Detroiters instead of 700,000. It was stupid to expect a city’s worth of black people to live on top of one another in tiny-ass neighborhoods next to white ones as they had before the ’67 riots, the match-up against the powder keg of all that black confinement, the explosion still detonating decades later, because god forbid the two sides of me live together in a city, much less a single person.
“Welcome,” Wesley’s mother said from the porch.
She was a lawyer, and she shook my hand like one, deadly and clean, one yank down, one up, leaving me hypnotized, like she’d flipped a switch and my arm now operated according to her instructions. Their maid stepped outside, too, a younger black woman in a starched blue uniform. I wondered for the millionth time how Wesley’s family had gotten fucked up enough to employ a uniformed maid and entertained the question that always followed any encounter with Wesley’s family: Was this real blackness?
I grew up in a white town as a member of a culture everyone there claimed to understand better than me. I’d heard so many opinions on black people by the time I left that my head spun whenever I remembered them. The stereotypes. The generalizations that seemed only a little less vicious: Your people don’t play hockey. You don’t swim. The Cosby Show era, when people asked if my black side had a doctor and a lawyer in it, as if black families were entirely composed of money.
But since I’d left my hometown and entered a world where I could define myself by who I was instead of what kind of fights white people picked with me, I’d become convinced I wasn’t doing blackness right. So many black people in New York had an ease I associated with having grown up with black friends in their lives. An idea of how long to extend a handshake, a comfort with dropping the word “nigga” into everyday conversation, a sense of exactly how woke to be, a mental database of bougie shit, Jack and Jill and the black fraternities and college-football allegiances that gave them a more respectable kind of blackness than mine. I remained obsessed with people who’d grown up with a broader relationship to blackness. Since Wesley was my first black friend, my obsession started with him and spun outward into his Detroit.
Wesley grew up within a pure, unadulterated version of blackness. His high school and college friends were black, and his family’s friends were too — all soft-spoken and moneyed in a way that made their blackness utopian to me, in that whatever problems they faced seemed to be cushioned by cash. White people eyed them with suspicion, but they lived in peaceful houses where college tuitions got paid by check and spoke in the gentle tones I associated with safety.
They had their shit, too: divorces and discrimination and alcoholics they hid from view. And I always needed to remind myself to chill before I hit the mental level that made the upscaleness of their words feel like ants crawling up the sleeves of my shirts. Wesley’s family seemed to have replaced their blood with money and starched polos and updates on professions that made them rich enough to permanently milden their voices. They should have made enough money to outwardly appear comfortable but not so much that I couldn’t picture myself as their fifth member.
Wesley’s parents led us down to the basement with its spotless white tile and pure-white shag rug. Rich people’s shit quietly demands to be kept pristine enough to stick in a museum. The fucking rug gave off ten times as much of that vibe by being the only white rug I’d spotted on a floor in years. Its whiteness demanded that we never track a dirty toe across it.
Kashana Cauley is a former staff writer for The Daily Show With Trevor Noah whose writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Esquire, The New Yorker, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone.
Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban
The night of Karen Kleiner’s 40th-birthday party, the sky was a silky blue and the cold lid was finally lifting off the city. I wore no tights under a dress that Karen had given me — a gauzy sack that she had purchased on final sale and we couldn’t send back. It was unclear whether I was meant to ring the bell or use my key, so I stopped a few houses short and inspected my shoe until a couple started up the Kleiners’ steps.
Karen came to the door looking like a magical butterfly in her jade jumpsuit with wing sleeves. She took her time greeting the other people first.
“You made it,” she addressed me in a funny tone, and I wondered if she’d been expecting me to arrive early. I handed over the tiny pink cactus I’d brought as a gift.
“It reminded me of Louise,” I told her.
Karen cupped the pot in her palm and blinked as if she were having trouble computing something, then motioned for us all to come inside.
The place was filled with a different kind of chaos than I was used to when I arrived in the mornings. Colorful piñatas and delicate paper flowers hung from every corner, and a duo in matching red striped sailor shirts was over by the loveseat performing Mexican folk songs. Karen and Jonathan used to live together in Puebla before they had kids. That was their thing: Mexico.
Out on the patio, the crowd swarmed around tiki torches. Notes from disparate perfumes dotted the night air. Somebody had fastened a rope across the top of the iron stairs, confining the party to the Kleiners’ deck, which jutted out of the townhouse like a metal tongue. The land below was a patchwork of overgrowth and bald spots. I’d helped Karen fill the patio’s perimeter of planters with tall grasses to obscure the sight of this space that nobody ever used, just the downstairs dog when the neighbors let him out to pee.
The guy manning the bar was your standard Boston hipster with rounded shoulders and black skinny jeans. He was sniffing me out with his eyes, and I sensed he’d detected my in-between status.
“Lana?” It spooked me to hear him say my name. Then I noticed the gold stamp on the cocktail napkins and realized we must have overlapped at the restaurant. Jonathan owned an upscale Oaxacan place in the South End, and I’d worked there as a hostess the summer after I graduated music school. That’s where Karen had found me.
“Mona,” I corrected him.
“Sorry. I’m better at faces.” There was a loaded pause, which I was probably supposed to fill. “Russell,” he said at last. There was something cocky about his delivery, like he was not going to let the fact that I didn’t remember him come between us. “You had that hickey.”
I raised my fingers to the spot below my left ear where I used to rest my violin six hours a day. Now I spent my musical energy singing about inchworms and fire trucks with Max and Louise.
“It’s gone,” I told him. “I’m here full time, as the nanny.”
Russell’s lips twitched, as if my ending up with the Kleiners and not at Boston Symphony Hall were some grand travesty. At least I wasn’t muddling limes for a living.
“I’ll have mine with salt,” I said, savoring the fact that only one of us was allowed to drink at Karen’s party. My privileges didn’t just apply tonight; I’d started having wine with the Kleiners whenever I stayed for dinner. Only one glass, but still. Russell took an irritating amount of care with my margarita, shaving jalapenos with an X-Acto blade. When he finally handed it over I took it down in four gulps and left the empty glass on the table.
I cut through the crowd, avoiding linking eyes with anyone but Karen, who held her delicate body at an angle away from me. Upstairs, I found the kids in their jammies, watching an episode of vintage Sesame Street on the iPad. “Mac and Cheese,” I said. My nickname for the kids immediately evaporated. Their focus was outstanding.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. Louise smelled sweet and dirty, like palm sweat and peanut butter.
“Do you guys want to go downstairs and say hi to the grown-ups?” I asked. Max raised a finger and told me to give them two minutes, which we both knew meant until the show was over. I kicked off my shoes and checked my phone. There wasn’t much to look at, just some Tinder garbage, and one of my sister Amelia’s passive-aggressive emails. “Your niece misses you!” she wrote above a picture of her Maine coon, Gloria. The poor cat was wearing a headband with Easter bunny ears. I wondered if Amelia would take her to the church service again this year.
I must have sat there with the kids for twenty minutes, admiring Louise’s wild curls and half-watching the show along with them. I didn’t mind. If my musical training had been good for anything, it was teaching me to be stronger than my boredom.
When we came back down, the crowd had migrated indoors and steam clung to the front windows. I spotted my cactus sitting on the console, dwarfed by all the wine bottles other guests had brought. The children let go of my hands and ran over to their mother.
“Yo-Mo Ma,” said a male voice. I looked up and found Eli, Jonathan’s younger brother, giving me his hungry little grin. Last time I had seen Eli, it was from the back row of a Bieber versus Jagger class he was teaching at the Copley Square SoulCycle studio. He’d had on a tank top with armholes down to his waist that showed his full-body tattoo art, including an enormous peace sign that clamped around the left side of his torso. Now he was sporting a tweedy blazer and an unfortunate neck rash. Eli was by all measures repulsive. I found him weirdly hot.
“How’s the body?” he asked me in his nasal voice. I’d met Eli enough times to know this was just trainer talk for “How are you?” Still, I felt my cheeks burn.
“Super,” I mustered, forcing myself not to cross my arms over my sizable breasts and let him see how itchy I felt around him. Inches away, one of the fathers from Max’s school was telling another guy about a golf course in Montenegro. A couple of women by the fireplace were squealing over a game of pin the tail on the donkey. I looked back up at Eli and wondered if he had this effect on anybody else, or everybody else.
“My brother had better be paying you handsomely for being here on a Saturday night,” Eli said.
I saw Karen cut a look at us and mutter something to her husband. It was like she could read my thoughts, and I felt a twist of shame.
“Everything OK over here?” Jonathan asked us when he sidled over. He appeared anything but interested in his task, his gaze flicking around the crowd.
“Fiesta muy buena,” Eli teased his brother, seemingly unaware of what Jonathan was really asking. “I dig the vibe. All you need is a mariachi band.”
“They’re coming in a bit,” Jonathan replied, and I couldn’t tell if he was kidding. My gaze drifted back to Karen, and my heart gave a nervous flutter. She was now chatting with an older man, or rather nodding while he moved his mouth.
Karen helped run a foundation that did something with immigrant rights, and a big part of her job was going out at night and rubbing shoulders with potential donors. Karen had once referred to herself as a highly paid conversational prostitute, back when she and I used to joke around with each other. She’d been acting stiffer lately. And I’d been giving every little interaction too much thought, all of which only served to put a greater strain on things between us.
My roommate, Seung, accused me of having mommy issues. She’d said it a while ago and hadn’t been talking about Karen but about my maestro, Rorianne, a regular on the international violin circuit. I’d been Rorianne’s favorite student, which was not to say her most talented one. Once I graduated, she began embroiling me in hour-long phone calls about her career insecurities and had me trek out to Jamaica Plain and water her plants when she went out of town. We’d gotten into a massive fight a year ago, when I blew off an audition she’d set up for me for a highly sought after Montreal composer’s chamber piece. It was a part that I’d known I had no chance of getting, and I’d stayed out the night before with a heartless man twice my age. I should have just told Rorianne the truth — that I’d been waylaid by self-disgust and a hangover. Instead, I made up a story about a family emergency.
Karen and Jonathan knew hardly anything of what was going on back home, just that my mother lived with my older sister and that I used to play in the variety show at the Magic Kingdom. I didn’t tell them how my during junior year of high school, my mother had gotten Lyme disease and decided she was too sick to do anything except lie on the couch with the curtains drawn. I could barely stand to go down to visit, even for a weekend. When I heard my family talking about vitamins and inconclusive results and healers, I almost wished my mom would go back to bothering me about my weight.
I met Karen two years ago at Jonathan’s restaurant. She was so pretty, with her pale eyes and lips that stretched across her face like a steamed hot-dog bun. When she asked to see Jonathan, I said she could leave her résumé, which seemed to greatly amuse her.
“I’m his wife,” Karen said, and asked me if I’d watch the stroller while she used the bathroom. When she came back out, Karen managed to get more out of me in those few minutes than any of the waiters had in an entire month — Mona, central Florida, electric violin. Louise was still a legitimate baby, and she stayed asleep the whole time. Karen called the restaurant the next day and asked if I had any experience with diapers. “Changing them,” she was quick to clarify, and we laughed.
I started out as the night sitter. Karen would have me show up half an hour earlier than she planned to leave. This was to create an overlap that made the transition easier for Max and Louise, she explained. I’d hang out in the living room with the kids and Karen would bring her makeup bag downstairs and apply her mascara and perfume in the tiny bathroom with the door open. We’d alternate between going over the kids’ dinner plan and gossiping. She complained a little about the characters in her life — the tight-fisted donors, the kids’ regular nanny, Rosa, who’d gotten pregnant and was considering moving to Chicago to be close to her sister. She also asked all about me. I’d tell her about gigs that paid in pitchers of beer and riding the T out to Cambridge to teach violin lessons to faculty kids who were interested only in my ability to hook them up with weed. She’d throw her head back and laugh and tell me to enjoy it while I could.
Lately Karen didn’t seem to be enjoying much of anything. She was going on insanely long runs and had started inserting “Now that I’m 40” into any available sentence. She was working from home more often, too, sitting at the kitchen table in front of her computer, her folders spread out around her like the control panels in a cockpit. The other nannies I knew hated when their bosses stayed home and they had to tiptoe around them. But I liked the days Karen was around and I could feel the warm invisible strings connecting us through the floorboards.
Karen must have sensed me watching her across the room — she caught my eye and mouthed something I couldn’t make out. I felt prickles of heat under my arms. She didn’t appear to be happy, and I could tell what she wanted before I was close enough to hear her.
“I’ll find them,” I said, and darted through the home as fast as I could. It wasn’t the kids’ well-being I was worried about. I just needed Karen to ease up on me, to take me back in.
The only people upstairs were a couple hovering over the edge of Karen and Jonathan’s bed, arguing in clipped whispers. “It’s not the same,” I heard the man say.
That’s when Louise’s yowl ripped through the air. I ran downstairs and found her in the kitchen, by the back door. Her face was mottled, the way it instantly got whenever she cried. Karen was down on her knees, running her hands up and down her daughter’s bare legs, her party tights and underwear bunched around her ankles. A little wave of pride passed over me as I recalled how I’d potty-trained Louise. Karen’s arms were moving about jaggedly, a little desperately. One of the guests, a woman who looked like Andy Warhol, asked about vaccination records in a low, fluty voice.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He bit me!” Louise was barely capable of breathing.
I looked at her brother in disbelief. “You what?”
Max shook his head. “The dog,” he said. “It wasn’t a bite. It was just a lick.”
“Are you sure?” Karen sounded shaky. Max nodded, and his mother sighed and pulled back. There was nothing on Louise’s legs, just a scrape from a tumble we’d had in the playground the other day.
“She’s just scared of dogs,” I added. “It’s OK, honey.”
Karen’s expression turned to disappointment when she looked up at me. “They went down to the garden while you were talking to Eli,” she said.
“I thought they were safe in the house.” Shame spread through my body. “Come on, Cheese, let’s get you and your brother ready for bed.”
“I’ll do it,” Karen said sharply. “You can go home. Or go out, I guess.” She wrapped her arms around her children and added, in an even tone, “We should speak tomorrow.”
I understood what would come next. Karen would call me and say what we both knew: this wasn’t working out. She would go back to the first kind of nanny, a woman like Rosa who knew how to do her job, who wasn’t one of us girls with creative spirits that were supposed to rub off on the children but who weren’t worth the inexperience and poor judgment that we brought to the job.
I took my jean jacket down from the hook by the front door and worked at inserting my arms into the sleeves. They were too small, my body too big and clumsy. The entryway felt strangely empty without the delivery boxes that came most days. I’d break them down for Karen and put them in front of other people’s houses down the street, so Jonathan didn’t give her a hard time about all her online shopping. I advanced toward the door and then thought better of it and slipped into a shadow.
“You’re still here,” Karen said when she creaked down the stairs. She didn’t raise her voice, but I could feel something coming with my entire body, the way I sensed storms when I was back home.
“I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“Let’s do this later.”
“I should have been paying better attention to the kids. I can do that.”
Karen let off a tiny sigh and reached for the doorknob. “Everything’s fine! We’ll talk later.”
“Why do I always feel like I’m in trouble? Or, like we’re in trouble?” It came out sounding weirder than I’d meant, and Karen buried her face in her hands, the way she did when she was working and getting tired at the end of the day. “Come,” she said, looking over her shoulder.
Outside, the air felt cold on my legs. “Please don’t fire me,” I said desperately.
“That’s not it,” she said. “It’s time for you to move on.”
“I can’t … move on to what?”
“There you go again, asking me another one of your inappropriate questions.”
My lower lip trembled. “What questions?”
“‘Have you ever dated a significantly older man?’ ‘How do you think having children affects your marriage?’ ‘Do you think Eli’s drug problem impacted Jonathan?’”
“You’re the one who told me all about Eli in the first place,” I said. “Karen, I lost track of the kids and one of them got licked by a dog. Inside your house!”
“It was outside,” she corrected me. “This is all too much. I thought you could use some money while you worked on your music. But you’re not even playing anymore.”
“It’s just a break,” I told her, looking down the stoop and onto the street. “Boston’s brutal. Everyone here would be considered a prodigy anywhere else.”
“Then why do you have to be in Boston?” Her words robbed me of something vital, and I felt as if I were at equal risk of tipping over the railing or simply floating away. “I’m sorry,” Karen said. “It’s probably my fault for asking you to commit to this. That wasn’t fair.”
I glanced into the parlor-floor window. Behind Eli’s bobbing head, I could make out the bookshelves that were crammed with worldly artifacts and framed snapshots. I’d committed them to memory while Louise napped: There was one of young Karen and Jonathan next to a beach hut on their honeymoon, and a recent one of the gang dressed up for Jonathan’s parents’ wedding anniversary on Cape Cod. I’d gone out there with the Kleiners over Labor Day weekend when Jonathan had had to stay in the city for a party at the restaurant. The four of us had gone swimming in Duck Pond, and the light had been so brilliant, the sky had been like a big halo.
“But I like this,” I said quietly.
“But it’s not yours,” Karen said, offering a smile. “You’ll thank me later, Mona.”
The door clicked open, and Jonathan’s head poked out like a mangy hand puppet.
“We’re waiting for her Lyft,” Karen told her husband. She pivoted her torso toward the blur of traffic on Gloucester Street, as if a car that neither of us had ordered might materialize. Standing there, all I could do was try to stop the hurt that was pouring in. Soon enough, the Kleiner kids would have somebody else to snack on organic mango strips and make collages with. My head went hot and filled with a vision of my sister’s cat, her amber eyes flashing like warning lights.
“Cake time,” Jonathan said in his clueless way. “You sure you don’t want to stay, Mo?”
I shook my head and watched Jonathan place his hand on the small of Karen’s back and guide her through the door. “I’ll call you soon,” she said with a quick look over the shoulder.
I dug my hands deep in my pockets and wrapped my fist around the Kleiners’ keys, squeezing until I could feel welts forming on my palm. The next time Karen and I spoke, it would be about references and visitation rights. From now on, I was going to watch Max and Louise grow up in staggered bursts. These were things I knew yet could not absorb. I started down the stoop, my eyes still adjusting to the dark.
Lauren Mechling’s debut novel is forthcoming from Viking.
Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban
“Mommy ’ave some good news!” Patsy says to Tru at the Tastees Restaurant in Cross Roads where Patsy takes her after picking her up from school. Workers from nearby businesses sit on benches near them, devouring beef patties and cocoa bread. Tru and Patsy sit at one of the plastic tables that face the road. Tru is looking at her, blinking as though there is dust in her eyes from the construction work at the gas station. Her eyes are a lighter brown than her skin, with the sun at their centers. She has been studying Patsy like this lately — like she’s years older with the wizened observation of a woman with experience. Miss Gains has suggested that she skip a grade. Patsy has given it much thought, fearful that her daughter might be too small to exist among the bigger children, though her intelligence is the same as theirs, if not higher. But that is all Patsy fears. Deep down, she welcomes the idea of Tru’s skipping a grade. It will only make her mature faster, frog-leaping over milestones that will relieve Patsy of the burden of raising her. But she’s quickly overcome by guilt for feeling this way. Her daughter’s face holds within it a conviction — a darkness and a mystery that Patsy fears, which sometimes causes her to look away or fix what doesn’t need fixing. Like now. Patsy reaches her hand across the table to wipe the patty crumbs from her daughter’s mouth. For good measure, she smooths Tru’s bushy eyebrows with a finger and tugs at the tips of her plaited pigtail, held by white bubbles and clips shaped like bows. When she runs out of things to fix and touch, Patsy’s movement slows.
“What is it yuh want to tell me, Mommy?” Tru asks, chewing with her mouth open, the space where her two front teeth used to be visible.
“Is a surprise.”
“Yuh got me a football to play wid so I can be like di Reggae Boyz?” Tru asks, her eyes getting larger.
“No. Is a biggah surprise.”
“Albino Ricky say dat nothing is biggah than di Reggae Boyz,” Tru counters.
“Dat’s Ricky’s opinion. And how many times I tell yuh not to call di dundus boy dat? Dat’s not nice. I hope yuh don’t call him dat to him face.”
“And I hope yuh not letting nobody tell you what to think.”
“I want you to grow out of dat tomboy ways of yours. Good girls keep dem self neat an’ clean. Like those Wilhampton High School girls. Dey don’t play wid boys an’ dirty up their nice white uniforms. Dey are well-behaved an’ obedient. Can you promise me dat? Promise me dat you’ll—” She catches herself when she notices her daughter’s eyes fall away from hers. Patsy takes a deep breath and changes the subject. “All right. If I tell you my secret, promise me dat yuh won’t seh anyt’ing to Grandma.”
“I promise!” Tru says, animated again, bobbing up and down in her seat with the excitement of holding a big secret.
“Yuh sure?” Patsy asks, half-smiling.
Tru nods with such vigor that her plaits shake.
“I don’t t’ink yuh big enough to handle secrets.” Patsy leans back and playfully folds her arms across her chest. “Only big girls keep secrets,” she says, echoing what her Uncle Curtis used to say to her when she was Tru’s age.
“I’m a big girl!” Tru shouts.
Patsy laughs despite the uneasiness knotting inside her stomach. “All right. I’m going to America,” Patsy says finally, crushing the napkin in her palm. But something else small yet significant slips from her grasp.
“I got my visa today …” Her voice trails.
Tru’s eyes widen. She springs from her seat and comes around the table to hug Patsy tightly. “We going to America!” Tru shouts, drawing the attention of people who stop their conversations to stare at them. Some grudgingly turn their heads and shrug, their voices lowering to whispers; others raise their brows and smile with admiration. Patsy lowers her gaze, embarrassed yet proud — two feelings she has never felt simultaneously. She allows herself to sit with her daughter’s arms around her — her daughter whose only glimpse of America is through the Walt Disney fairy tales she watches on television when Mama G is not around to talk about the devil in cartoons, or the ones she reads in books Cicely sends her. Also, there was that snow globe Patsy picked up once from the Woolworth downtown — an unusual treasure amid the Virgin Mary and Jesus figurines that sit on the whatnot inside the living room. Tru, like Patsy, delighted in shaking the thing to see flurries of snow fill the glass and settle on the beautiful two-story house and the surrounding pine trees inside it. “Snow!” Tru would say, giggling while tilting her head back and fluttering her eyelids as if she could feel the the flakes on her face.
One day, the globe disappeared. Tru admitted to having taken it to school to show her friends, and she had somehow misplaced it. Patsy almost fell on her knees the moment her daughter confessed. She grabbed her daughter then and gave her two big slaps on her buttocks. “Me did tell yuh to tek it to school?” But it was Patsy’s eyes that were hot with tears that rolled out of them. “How much time me warn yuh to be careful wid it!”
Inside the globe was the picturesque beauty of a place that offered a secret promise of a life without worry or care or want. When Tru lost it, Patsy felt like she had lost her fairy tale — something her daughter didn’t understand at the time since her eyes brimmed with hurt and questioning; her cheeks dry while Patsy’s were wet.
Closing her eyes in this moment — the sun on her lids creating a yellow void inside of her — Patsy regrets the scolding. She squeezes her daughter in a tight embrace, wishing she could be satisfied with the simple pleasure of feeling the sun on her eyelids and being bound to her daughter in their circle. But as she inhales the smell of the Blue Magic hair oil she uses in Tru’s hair, which mingles with the smell of beef patties and exhaust fumes from traffic, and as she listens to the sounds of rush hour on Half-Way Tree Road clamoring around them, Patsy only feels her secret yearning for more deepening.
Truth be told, she never loved her daughter like she’s supposed to, or like her daughter loves her. Tru’s love for her — an unconditional love that Patsy doesn’t have to work hard to earn or deserve — seems unfair. Everything Patsy does and says to her is taken with wide-eyed acceptance. Sometimes Patsy wants to crush the image of herself that she sees at the center of her daughter’s eyes. The day Tru lost the snow globe, Patsy struck her hard, finding for a moment a reprieve in her daughter’s anger and hoping the frozen image would drown in her daughter’s tears. But Tru didn’t cry, coming to Patsy moments later with those wide brown eyes that seem to take up her whole face — bottomless wells Patsy is careful not to look into for too long. For if she looks, she might lose the penny that the wells beg of her, and lose, therefore, herself.
She began to plan and dream without Tru, writing letters to Cicely about staying with her in Brooklyn, applying for a passport and a visa. The rest she’ll consider when she gets to America — a place where, she hears, jobs and opportunities are abundant. Cicely told her that they have things like job agencies to help people find work. “An’ good jobs, too! Yuh can mek triple what yuh making at di Ministry in one week!” She didn’t tell Mama G or Roy at first, because she wanted to see if she would get the visa. Now that she has it, she wants to give herself some time to figure out a way to tell Tru that she’s going to America without her. As if Tru already knows this but is sparing Patsy the energy to muster up an explanation, she holds on to Patsy tighter. A lump rises steadily in Patsy’s throat. “God nuh ’ave no room in him army fah di coward at heart,” Mama G always says. Patsy swallows.
The night Patsy tells Tru that she isn’t taking her with her to America, there’s a power cut. Mama G went to a night service, leaving them alone. It’s one week before Patsy’s departure, which means she cannot delay telling Tru any longer. She holds her dream in a tight clasp at the dining table as the child peers at her in the dimness of the flame inside the kerosene lamp. Patsy can vaguely make out the expression on her daughter’s face. “It will only be for a few months,” she says to Tru, unable to look straight at her.
“Why?” Tru asks. “Why yuh going without me?”
Patsy sighs. She quietly praises JPS in this moment — something she never does, always cursing the unreliable power company for its constant outages. The darkness is helpful as she struggles to find the words behind the veil; however, her shoulders are enhanced by the shadows on the walls when she shrugs, guilt and helplessness rising in a grandiose gesture. What can a young woman on the brink of defeat say to the questioning face of her six-year-old daughter? Where is the honor in her daughter knowing she owns nothing? Not her dreams. Not her life. Not herself. Most important, what can she give her? What could her repression of desires, which she has resisted for so long, achieve other than resentment that could potentially destroy Tru?
So, it is with common courtesy that Patsy raises her head to meet her daughter’s querying gaze, fidgety as she readies herself to hand in this very important resignation. To say to Tru what she has always known — I cannot raise you. You’re better off without me.
But the words stall in the back of her throat.
The night is still. Not even the sounds of gunshots crackling in a distance can be heard to fill the silent void. Pennyfield was once a middle-class neighborhood until the original owners, with some means, fled in the 1970s, thinking Jamaica was on its way to becoming a Communist country, like its neighbor Cuba. Panicked, they leaped back into the arms of Mother England. They left faded colonial houses, stripped of paint and stature. They left mango trees, pear trees, ackee trees, and guava trees susceptible to the stones of hungry children. Each house now stands weighted with the burdens of economic strife and Mother Nature. Pennyfield, which is positioned under the foot of the hills and spreads all the way to the sandy gully, got its name from the Englishmen who once buried pennies in the area for good luck, according to Ras’ Norbert, the old Rasta man who lives in a shack down the road. He says the Englishmen buried generous amounts of gold coins. “Believe me, believe me not!” the old man would holler before beginning his tale, his one good eye roaming to find the steady pair of anyone who would listen. This supposedly happened before the upper-middle-class Jamaicans flew away like exotic birds to seek refuge. And certainly way before Mama G’s gaze moved heavenward. And before trigger-happy young boys drew invisible lines across the gully, marking their turfs with sanguine spray paint, their cryptic crab-toe writing scrawled across buildings and walls: PNP versus JLP; ONLY BATTY MAN WEAR ORANGE; KEEP JAMAICA CLEAN, VOTE GREEN; WE WANT FREEDUM.
Sometimes, during turf wars, the night gives way to the sound of gunshots. Patsy likes to think of those sounds as resonating firecrackers — fleet and bright, like those at National Stadium on Independence Day — never aiming for a permanent silence that lingers over the land for days. From her bedroom at nights, she hears the shots firing. But in a place like Pennyfield where these sounds are common, people are unastonished, hardly bracing for attack, though they will never sleep with doors and windows wide open or without burglar bars. And quiet as it’s kept, they can be at ease because of Pope. Patsy knew Pope as Peter Permell, when they were schoolmates at Pennyfield Primary — the oldest of Miss Babsy’s three sons, who grew up on Melrose Lane. He became Pope when he was deported from America. Presently, he presides like God himself over Pennyfield, more powerful than any crooked policeman or politician.
A moth hits the lampshade and falls on the table. Patsy watches it wiggle its way across the wooden surface. It’s easier for her to rest her gaze on the fluttering wings of the insect. Tru is quietly watching her, waiting for a response. Their day had begun simply, with shopping for school supplies for Tru at Woolworth, promisingly with Tru picking out fruits and vegetables from the market downtown and correctly citing the change she was owed from the vendor. “Good girl!” Patsy had said, caressing Tru’s shoulder.
“I will send nice t’ings. You will have dat football yuh always wanted an’ more,” Patsy tells her, unable to disguise the crack in her voice. “Yuh like pretty t’ings too, don’t? Girls like pretty t’ings. I’ll send yuh so many pretty t’ings dat you won’t know what to do wid dem.”
Patsy’s tears come when she sees the soft trust in her daughter’s eyes dim. It might have been the kerosene flame playing tricks on her. When she blinks again, it’s completely gone. Tru starts to cry, her little body trembling. “Ah don’t want pretty t’ings! You lied to me! Yuh tell me I could come!”
Patsy moves toward her to comfort her, but Tru shoots up from the table and dashes inside the bedroom. At that cry, Patsy’s blind desire becomes outrageously asinine. For there is a part of her that wonders if she’s a coward, a part of her that wants the maternal side — whatever ounce of it she can muster — to win. But when she saw the trust in her daughter’s eyes fade, her strength collapsed with its departure and the familiar apprehension gripped her again: Patsy has no comprehension of what this relationship with her daughter should be. It’s not like she had a guide. She has been raising herself since she was nine years old, accepting that the dying woman who was responsible for her had given up less valiantly. Patsy has never felt such defeat against herself. She lowers her head in her arms on the table, and sobs.
Nicole Dennis Benn’s first novel, Here Comes the Sun (Liveright, 2016), won a Lambda Literary Award and was named a Best Book of 2016 by the New York Times, NPR, BuzzFeed, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Root, BookRiot, Kirkus, Amazon, WBUR’s “On Point,” and Barnes & Noble. Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, she lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York. This story is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel Patsy.