Alejandro Varela (b. 1979) is a Brooklyn-based artist born in Queens, NY. Varela is a writer and public health enthusiast who is aware of what his average life expectancy is and what it could be. He investigates the effects of race, class, gender, and sexuality on health and social cohesion, and he is currently working on a collection of short stories The First 200 Years of Eduardo and a collection of essays entitled Notes From a Quickly Gentrifying Foxhole. His pieces were published The New Republic (2014), The Southhampton Review (2015), Pariahs Anthology, SFA Press (2016), Blunderbuss Magazine (2017), andThe Offing (2017). Varela is a recipient of Glimmer Train Press May/June Short Story Award for New Writers, Honorable Mention (2016); NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Nonfiction (2017). Varela holds a MPH from University of Washington. He is an Associate Editor at Apogee Journal.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Courtesy of the artist
She and Her Kid and Me and Mine appeared on Blunderbuss Magazine’s website in 2017 (http://www.blunderbussmag.com/she-and-her-kid-and-me-and-mine/). It’s a short story about how a play date between two young children is also a fraught social interaction between their parents.
She and Her Kid and Me and Mine
“Are you sure?” she asks as we trot down the tree-lined street, barely able to keep up with our kids.
“No problem at all,” I respond. A tight-lipped smile widens my face. “I prefer him to be entertained with someone his age than drive me crazy.”
“I know how that is,” she says as we approach my apartment building, a pre-war five-story brownstone tucked seamlessly between other pre-war five-story brownstones. The block is a set of antique encyclopedias, and she lives only a few shelves away. I thought she was walking us to my place to acquaint herself with where I live, and from where she’d have to pick up her son—that’s what I would do. But she makes no mention of leaving and, instead, is now waiting for me to dig keys out of my pocket.
I’m to blame. We were fine outside, in the public playground, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, standing on rubber turf. But then I went and got cold and gave my kid an it’s-almost-time nod, which led him, an intrepid four-year-old, to ask his pre-K buddy, another intrepid four-year-old, over for a play date. All of which was still fine because it was a semi-private conversation that I was tracking from across a jungle gym, but before long, the conversation spilled over and grew louder, culminating in a full-on assault on two under-prepared parents. “Daddy, I never have a play date! Please, a play date!” The stress on “never” was exaggerated and infuriating.
It’s not that this other parent is a particularly unpleasant person, but if I can avoid an awkward hour with someone who inspires complete apathy in me, and in the process secure some time for myself, I will. If she’d offered up her place, I would have handed off my kid and taken advantage of the free childcare. But now here she is following me up the stairs, asking me about how long I’ve lived here.
“Almost twenty years,” I say.
“Oh, wow. You’ve really seen the neighborhood change,” she responds.
“Yeah. I guess we have.”
“We’ve only been here eight,” she continues nonchalantly, as if eight years isn’t twice as long as the most recent wave of new people. “It’s improved plenty even in that short time. I can’t imagine…” Her voice trails off. Her face rises with her eyebrows.
If she were one of my students, I would ask her to define “improved.” I would ask her who benefited from the improvements, and who didn’t. I would ask if there is a human cost to gentrification. I would ask her where the displacement and racism and suffering end up. Are they merely clouds that blow further east and dissipate? Or do they eventually rain down on all of us? But she’s not one of my students, and I speak public health all week long, and sometimes I just want to speak plain English. “Yeah, it’s a very different neighborhood,” I say, “some good things, some not-so-good things.”
She, too, doesn’t want to engage in this conversation. She slips her hand from her glove and pulls her phone from her bag. “Bobby, we have one hour before we have to go home. I’m going to set a timer.” She helps Bobby out of his coat and shoes, and tucks them into the mess of coats and shoes in the hallway outside of the apartment. He disappears before I can offer him water or a snack.
I don’t mind Bobby. He’s high energy, like my son. Together, they’re two fugitive electrons escaped from a Ken Kesey novel. They talk over each other, run into each other at full speed, cry and scream within an inch of each others’ faces, never balking, only feeding off each other, a nuclear disaster constantly threatening to happen. I also like Bobby because his name does nothing to my limbic system. With all the Thors, Lakes, and Birches running around town, I am grateful for a solid, working-class, Irish name. In my Catholic youth, he would have been Bobby for short. But this Bobby’s mom and this Bobby’s dad certainly didn’t name their kid Robert. Not a chance. He was Bobby in the placenta and on the birth certificate.
“Did you hear that, Ricardo?” I ask as he takes off after his friend. “One hour. I don’t want to hear any crying or screaming. I’m setting a timer too.” Timers. Jesus Christ. In some ways, I’ve already failed as a parent. Forty years ago, my parents set timers with the backs of their hands. Sometimes the timers were made of leather. But those were different times, I hear people say. I assume they mean different income brackets.
“Ricardo. What is that?” she asks as she makes her way to the couch.
Are you serious? It’s a password. It’s the beginning of a sonnet whose words I’ve forgotten. “What do you mean?” I ask.
“Oh, sorry. I meant—I have a co-worker named Ricardo; he’s from Puerto Rico.”
“It’s my great grandfather’s name, on my mother’s side, Salvadorian, and a cousin, on my father’s side, Colombian—Would you like something to drink?” I don’t feel like having the Spanish colonialism conversation. I lock the front door and walk toward the kitchen. “I have water, milk, beer, or whiskey.”
Alice’s or Betsy’s or Carolyn’s eyebrows perk up a bit, and she grins. I never forget a face, but I have no idea what her name is, and by this point, we’ve known each other for too long—months—for me to ask. She’ll be Alice. And I can tell Alice is a whiskey drinker. Something about the preserved streak of gray in her reddish, Bonnie Raitt hair tells me she enjoys sitting at a bar by herself from time to time.
I stand in the archway between the living room and kitchen, a half-empty bottle of spirits in my hand. At least this, I think to myself. No ulterior motives. No suspicion. I could offer her absinthe and a speedball, and she wouldn’t wonder if I was trying to seduce her. This is, as far as I can tell, the only magic in the much-ballyhooed relationship between gay men and straight women. “I shouldn’t,” she replies. “I have to make dinner and then get some work done tonight. Just water, please.”
“Remind me, what do you do?” I ask on my way to the faucet. I know she’s a lawyer, something to do with international human rights, but I ask anyway because I sense she’s about to ask me what I do for a living, even though I’ve told her several times before. I get tired of having to repeat myself. It gives away the upper hand.
“I’m a lawyer,” she says.
I hand her the water. “Right, of course. International…”
“We’re suing the current administration over its use of drones.”
“Interesting,” I say. I mean it. It does interest me.
She digs her hand into the large purse at her feet and pulls out a phone. The seconds on the timer continue racing but are still a long way from this is over. “And you’re in public administration—”
“Health. Public health,” I say. “I teach graduate students.”
“Oh.” She doesn’t pretend to remember. “And do they all go work at the health department afterward?”
“Many of them do, but not all. Some work in hospitals, some in nonprofits.”
Just then, Bobby’s voice pierces the small-talk balloon expanding through the apartment. “Mommy!” His elephant stomps follow, loud, then louder, until the leader of the pack reaches us: “Ricardo hit me. Will you tell his mom?”
Alice looks at me and then goes down on one knee toward Bobby, whose left nostril is exhibiting either last or next week’s cold. “Honey, we talked about this. Ricardo has two daddies.” Alice looks up again, but not nervously, more self-important. Poor thing, I think.
“Where is his mommy?” Bobby presses. A brief but unmistakable silence follows. It occurs to me that I’ve invited the playground and the PTA meeting into my living room because, outside of those spaces, I rarely have to witness or participate in this type of conversation. My small, insulated world is about forty years in the future.
“Bobby!” Alice reroutes the subject. “You must have done something to get Ricardo so upset.”
As if on cue, my little wombat skulks into the room with a guilty but also aggrieved turbulence in his eyes and brow. He looks nothing like me, not his hair, not his teeth, not his marshmallow face, but he is me, almost more so than I am. “Why did you hit Bobby?” I ask.
Ricardo’s face goes blank, and he offers nothing. My jaw tightens. He notices. “He said he didn’t want to play with me anymore.”
“C’mon, is that a good reason to hit someone?” I ask.
Alice again looks up at me. But now her eyes are wide and barely white, as if her brain can no longer contain its thoughts and her pupils have become the primary egress. I’m not certain of what she is trying to communicate, but I suspect she doesn’t approve of my rhetorical question. She probably wants to tell me there is never a good reason to hit anyone. If that is, in fact, what she is thinking, I hope she doesn’t say it because I completely disagree. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I hate physical violence—I can barely stand to catch a glimpse of a boxing match—but there are degrees and root causes to everything. And sometimes, bringing someone to the brink of violence and then feigning displeasure when they commit the act is a bit, well, artful. Like when Andy Cohen eggs on the Real Housewives.
But I don’t want to be the one to explain this. Not right now. This is not the kind of conversation one pre-K parent, male and brown, should have with another, female and white, and definitely not in a place without cameras and audio recording. You see, Alice strikes me as the kind of a person who clutches her purse. The kind of person who makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong, when all I’m doing is commuting. The kind who makes my cortisol levels spike and makes me rehearse soliloquys that I want to deliver in a full-throated kinda way as I walk briskly beside and then past her on my way home—I truly don’t understand how black men survive as long as they do. But I can’t say these things to Alice because she also strikes me as a good person. Someone who uses words like community and peace and diversity—probably cares about them too—and who would surely lecture me for not understanding what it’s like to be a woman in this world. She’s someone who probably knows the exact inequality in wages between men and women, down to the cent. Someone who knows intimately the feeling of walking into a room full of male colleagues, where expectations and judgment hang in the air, like pollen at the height of spring. Someone who has experienced violence in ways, big and small, that I’ll never know firsthand. But I don’t want to have those conversations with Bobby’s mom, not in my living room, and maybe never. Not because she’s wrong, but because there’d be no wiggle room to discuss solidarity and no space to strategize how we should wrest power from white men, who seem to walk away from all of our situations unscathed, their cortisol levels unchanged, whistling, even. To further complicate matters, we are both married to white men.
It dawns on me all of a sudden that Alice’s wide eyes might not be taking issue with my rhetorical question but, instead, with its delivery. She doesn’t like that I raised my voice at Ricardo. My working class lilt. To the outsider, it paints me as angry. I’m not. It’s just that I know my son, and I know chaos, and I know what works and what doesn’t. And if my voice stays soft and saccharine, Ricardo’s energy will become a singularity that swallows us whole—me, Bobby, Alice, and the complete set of encyclopedias. Not raising my voice is not an option. It’s worth mentioning, however, that I didn’t actually raise my voice, so much as played with its tenor. Regardless, it would be odd for Alice to be communicating disappointment or alarm at the volume of my voice because only seconds ago, she raised her voice at Bobby. She’s done it before too—more than once. In fact, I recall one morning drop-off when Bobby refused to put his socks and shoes on. He was running up and down the school’s halls like Huck Finn—there is no way around it; Bobby is a subatomic particle taking full advantage of his pathless existence—and Alice was forced to give his arm a good, WASP-y squeeze. And it never—ever—crossed my mind to tell her that she should chill or handle the situation in a more upper-middle-class sort of way. Honestly, those real moments are the few when I want to extend a fist bump and say, Yes, I want to know you better. So I truly hope Alice just has some dust or some of Bobby’s spittle in her eyes and that she’s not being one of those terrible people who project all of their personal failings—if lilts and squeezes are failures—onto others. Or worse, one of those people who throw the scent. After all, Alice and I may be the sum totals of different experiences, but surely we can imagine and add and multiply and empathize and give each other room. I hope we both know this because I do not want to have to say it in my living room.
She returns her gaze to her son. I ask mine to apologize; she asks hers to reciprocate. Their high-pitched sorrys drag out, long and inauthentic, but still an evolution. The boys waste no time barreling back toward the walk-in closet that my husband and I have converted into a play space.
“I’ll take you up on that whiskey,” Alice says, and then ties her long, loose curls into a ponytail. I notice, for the first time, that she has piercings in her ears. Many. At least five pieces of jewelry run along the ridge of each ear. How have I never noticed that before? Her hair up isn’t unfamiliar, but the earrings are. If a few of these piercings are new, I would feel better about not being as observant as I pride myself on being. But they aren’t all new, and I hadn’t noticed them. Is this me aging in place?
“Neat or on the rocks?” I ask.
“Neat,” she calls out.
“You know, I have the ingredients for a Manhattan, if you prefer.”
Alice meets me in the kitchen. “Yeah, sure. What a treat.” She smiles.
I fill the glasses with ice and water to chill them and then grab the other ingredients from the pantry. “You know, Gus and I have a sitter tonight. I was going to make mac and cheese for Ricardo. If you want, I can make it now, so that both of them can eat.”
“Sure. Thanks. Can I help?”
I hand her a pot. She fills it up with water and then hands it back to me. It’s heavier than I expect, and I fumble for a second, accidentally grazing her hand in the process. “Sorry,” I say almost involuntarily. Immediately, I regret being so deferential. She doesn’t respond, but instead scans the box of pasta. I notice she’s wearing a gold band, but no engagement ring. I’m relieved. Literate women who wear engagement rings destabilize all my notions of feminism. I’m grateful this tradition seems to be falling by the wayside. I cover the pot on the stove. The splatters of tomato sauce on the white enamel are egregious all of a sudden. If she sees them, she’ll deduce those stains have been there since at least the previous night’s dinner because I’ve been at work all day. She’ll think we’re slobs. Truth is the stains have been there since Monday. It’s Wednesday.
I shake the drinks. She turns to the three small plants resting on the window shelf. “You should trim this basil. It’ll flourish,” she says.
I’ve been meaning to, but I don’t tell her that. I just thank her for the suggestion. Then it crosses my mind that if she ever comes back to our place again and sees how much the basil has grown, she’ll feel pretty good about herself, as if she saved the linchpin in our urban herb garden. She’ll tell her husband or another mother that our home is missing a woman’s touch. In her mind, this, along with the splattered red sauce, constitutes an unloving environment for Ricardo. I’ve had that basil plant for three years, and now I feel overwhelmed by the need to tell her that. Doing so will communicate that I must know what I’m doing because a basil plant doesn’t grow easily indoors in the window of a Brooklyn apartment. I’m certain of this because this is my fourth such plant. But I don’t want to just announce the hardy plant’s age in a way that will make me sound defensive. Maybe something like, Wow, I can’t believe how long that thing has survived. Then she’ll ask, How long? But instead, I wait too long, and she tells me that she likes our apartment.
“Thank you,” I respond.
“Small, New York City apartments are the best,” she says.
Huh, I think, that’s the best backhanded compliment I’ve heard in a while. Our apartment is small, but more so because her place is twice as big. She and her husband bought their home before they moved into the neighborhood. They’re about the same age as Gus and I, and neither practices a particularly lucrative profession. Her husband does some sort of eco-friendly design work, mostly consulting. That’s what he told me when we visited their place for Bobby’s birthday at the beginning of the school year. The husband was perfectly friendly, but also tense in a way that made me tense. Whenever I left the center of the party to grab a beer or use the restroom, he’d follow. It crossed my mind that he was interested in me. If we’d been in a gay bar, I’d have been certain of it. But last fall, I think he was just uncomfortable. I was the only non-white parent at the party—and maybe the only one ever to set foot in their home—apart from the Japanese mom who was there for all of twenty minutes before leaving her white husband at the party with both of their kids. I wished I’d done the same, but Gus and I have this rule about both of us being present in situations where LGBT families are underrepresented. We both try to be there. That’s the rule. Come to think of it, the Japanese mom probably had a similar arrangement with her husband, with respect to multiracial families, and Gus and I were her exit strategy. Anyway, Alice’s husband kept following me around their tremendous apartment and asking if I needed anything, and it was stressing me out, so I drank more, until the stress was submerged, and the fear that everyone at the party thought I was too much of an unfit lush to be parenting—never mind same-sex parenting—floated to the top. And yet, from my many brief conversations with Alice’s husband that day, I was able to retain that they received financial help from their parents to buy their massive place—too big, in my opinion. This is, in part, why I don’t care for Alice very much. It rankles me dearly to meet so many white people who use their inheritances and no-interest loans to buy homes in previously black and brown neighborhoods and then probably secretly question—or allow their parents and drunk uncles to—the spending habits of poor black and brown people, as if legacies don’t work both ways, as if slavery and Jim Crow and wage-law chicanery and redlining aren’t still lurking, as if poor white people don’t also buy wide-screen TV sets and phones and sneakers.
The water boils, and Alice accommodates the colander inside of the sink. I put on an insulated glove because the pot has gotten pretty hot, including the handle. Whenever I do this, I’m reminded that I’ve never seen my mother or my aunt prepare for heat in this way. Their tolerance is frightening. I don’t know if it’s a Central American thing or a woman thing or an age thing. A part of me thinks García Márquez is to blame.
“Phil and I haven’t been to the movies in ages. When was the last time you saw one?” she asks as she backs away from the rising steam. Phil! Of course! That was certainly his name. Of course. If she hadn’t said it just now, his name would have remained forever captive in an inaccessible fold of my gray matter. Phil’s semi-attractive face, however, is effortlessly clear and present. This is a special ability I have. I’m the anti-Oliver Sacks. It’s even crossed my mind to find someone who does this type of research: facility with facial recognition. But what use would I be? And to whom? Besides, it should be said, I am inclined to remember a man’s face more clearly than a woman’s. I could give a sketch artist a pretty accurate description of Phil, for example—beleaguered chin, hapless jowls—but Alice’s would be broader. Even now, with my back to her, I’m hard-pressed. Soft, rounded face; green, maybe blue, eyes. That’s the best I can do. But I’d know her if I saw her. That’s for sure.
I can’t quite isolate it, but I start to feel as if there’s a strain of misogyny in my analysis of Alice. Why should she, after all, carry the brunt of my disdain for one couple, or generation, or entire racial category? I take a swig of my Manhattan and try to engage meaningfully. “Hmm… The last movie we saw… It was the most recent Star Wars. Gus is a huge sci-fi and fantasy nerd. And every year around his birthday, they release one of these big-budget crack pipes. We take the day off work, and make the most of it.”
“Gosh. That’s great. You guys have better relationships than we do.”
Now, apart from the party at their place months before and all the half-hearted smiles in the hallways of the school, this is the first time that Alice and I have truly socialized, so I’m not sure what she means by “you guys.” I assume she means gays. And maybe she meant just that, “you gays,” but the Manhattan had gone to her head and tongue, and she slipped.
“I mean, my brother and his husband are the same way,” she continues, matter of fact. “They enjoy each other and do romantic things like that. How long have you and Gus been together?”
I have no problem answering these types of questions, but since I don’t know where this conversation is headed, I’m feeling like I don’t have control, and so I pause a moment to take another swig. “We just celebrated twenty-one years,” I say.
“Incredible. That’s the longest of all my friends. In fact,” she says “only my parents have been together longer.”
“Mine too,” escapes my lips.
“I think it’s the lack of gender differences,” she says.
I’ve heard this before. I’ve even read an article about it. But I can’t recall it with any detail. And besides, this strikes me as an example of common-sense research. Of course Gus and I have fewer negotiations because we both identify as male. And of course, Alice and Phil have more, some of it mundane, some of it, no doubt, virulently patriarchal. I quibble, however, with Alice’s assertion that there are no gender differences between us gays because I see gender as a spectrum, and Gus and I aren’t exactly on the same peg. Then again, we’re even further apart on race and class scales, which might explain the differences in our temperaments and sensibilities that I’ve long attributed to gender variation. Who knows. No relationship is impenetrable to the world, I think, but I also know Alice is right: women have it tough.
“Could be,” I respond.
I mix in the powdered cheese. We call the kids to eat and float behind our respective children, like boxing coaches, offering water and milk, and reminding them to chew carefully and to wipe their faces before getting up. I’m grateful for Bobby’s healthy appetite because Ricardo mimics everything he sees, and if Bobby had eaten one shell of macaroni, Ricardo would have too. They clean their plates. Again they run off.
“Five more minutes,” Alice calls out to Bobby after his footsteps have disappeared.
“Did you hear that?” I bellow toward Ricardo, but nothing is returned.
“I’m not saying all boys are the same, but all the boys I’ve met are a handful,” she says.
“They’re insane,” I respond. “Although, I’ve met some pretty amped up girls too.”
Alice offers to wash the dishes, but I point to the dishwasher and make up something about how filling it is one of my favorite things to do. I tack on a passing, joke-y reference about OCD. But then I wonder if she or someone she knows has OCD. It’s no joke. I regret saying it.
“Would you like another drink?” I ask almost instinctually. In this way, I am exactly like my mother, who doesn’t like people but is an irreproachable host.
“Oh, no, I really shouldn’t. But thank you.”
We both go silent. We’ve officially run out of things to say to each other. She scans our coffee table. A collection of short stories by Raymond Carver is front and center. Gus rescued it from a box on a nearby stoop over the weekend. I wish Gary Fisher’s diary or Arenas’s Before Night Falls was visible instead of stacked perfectly beneath Carver’s Cathedral. She asks me if I’ve read Adichie’s most recent novel. I haven’t. She says she can lend me her copy. I don’t want to commit to anything. I smile and attempt a head sway that ends up looking like a drunken bobble. I hope she sees No, Thank you, without me having to say it. I notice the button fly is half-way undone on her business slacks—flowing material, loose then tapered, an imperfect gray, like spent charcoal. I say nothing. The moment passes.
“I better start gathering—Bobby!” she calls out, interrupting herself. It’s only been forty minutes. “It may not be pretty when we try to leave. He can get… Well, let’s just say, loud.”
“Ricardo is the same.”
“This was fun,” she announces on her way to the door. “Let’s do it again.”
I don’t know that I would have classified this as fun, but it certainly wasn’t as miserable as I’d feared. “Sure,” I say. But all I can think is that I’ve been worried Ricardo is having most of his play dates with white children. This is a cause for concern because his ideas of self, of normal, and of beauty are forming, and it matters who surrounds him now, lest he spend a lifetime undoing. It’s difficult enough compiling a canon of children’s books and TV shows that reflect our real world.
“Great. I work half-days every Wednesday,” Alice tells me as she scans the calendar app on her phone. “We can start in the playground and then move to one of our places if the weather turns.” She sits on a short stool in the hallway and zips up her leather boots. They’re nice boots, a worn, but regal brown leather.
I wasn’t prepared for these problems. I’d spent years comforted that, if we ever had children, they would grow up around a diversity of races and ethnicities, but now, playgrounds once full of black and brown children are almost exclusively white. And most of the remaining non-white families are at least one generation away from flexible schedules. I didn’t think it would happen so quickly. “Cool,” I say, already imagining how I can get out of at least a few of these pre-planned play dates.
“Bobby!” she calls out again. We hear nothing in response. I know they’re hiding. She smiles at me, but I can see the frost spreading across the muscles in her face. “Robert Walden Hayes!” she booms. Walden? Hayes? Robert? Bobby Hayes had the ring of a scrappy 1950s high school football player or a fallen Black Panther, but Robert Walden Hayes is a future president of the United States, and possibly related to a previous one. Her family’s ambitions are suddenly palpable. They fill the room. I realize the road before us is quite long. I start to miss an innocence I’ve probably never known.
Alice is on one foot, leaning, a forward slash inside the doorframe. She starts to remove her boots. “Please don’t,” I say. “I’ll go grab him.” Truth is, I enjoy getting other people’s kids to leave my house. It’s simple, and I’m good at it. I aim for their fears. I take on a low whisper and a deep stare and tell them their parent is leaving without them. Even for a child who is hell-bent on staying, this is an alarming declaration. This works well with Bobby, who bolts for the front door.
We exchange thank yous while the boys squeeze in a few more seconds of imaginary play. And then, it’s all over.
“Eduardo, are you going to the PTA meeting tomorrow?” Almost out of sight, Alice calls up from the stairwell.
I walk back into the hallway. Ricardo follows and squeezes into a space too small between the railing and me. He resumes waving at Bobby. “I hadn’t planned on it.”
“You should,” she says. “We need more dads.”
“I’ll see if Gus or I can,” I respond.
“Okay. Great,” she says.