Authors: Kaui Hart Hemmings
I slowed down, turned off the main road to the path that runs through the tree fern dell. I needed shade, cooler air, plants that hovered over us. Whenever I’m overwhelmed I come here. I like it better than the Conservatory of Flowers across the street, the rows so orderly. I prefer this chaotic feast of green, the wildness, the sound of birds. Everything will be okay because Ellie is here with me and the ferns are regal and gigantic.
“Is it okay if I bring someone to the wedding?” I asked.
Bobby blinked really fast while smiling, something he does sometimes when he doesn’t know the answer to something and another guy does.
“Of course,” he said. “Like a girlfriend?”
“No,” I said.
More blinking. I was beginning to feel better.
“Sure,” he said. “Sounds great. That’s great.” He reached out and plucked a leaf. “What’s his name? So I can fill out a seating thing.”
The ferns were so bold and elegant. Ellie unbuckled herself and ran toward the lily pond.
“Henry Hale,” I said.
* * *
Now I’m in a bit of a bind, but I like the bind—and the three-week deadline. It gives me something to solve. The task makes me nervous, but puts a spring in my step.
I forgot to really answer the question though.
Yes, my child’s father cooks, but for another woman, and I ended up getting them a cheese grater and a set of knives.
Beth. I will include a summary of everyone who appreciates what I said, excluding names. I saw you on LinkedIn and notice you change companies about every other year. I will file a complaint at your latest workplace if you continue to respond. My attorney friends are too busy to harass people like you did to me today.
Do people still really use LinkedIn?
—A.L., West Portal
My elimination specialist’s “potty party” totally backfired. Silas was yelling “No potty!” then went on to have a total sleep regression, waking up and asking to be rocked like a baby. Now when he has to go he just stands there naked and demands his diaper. When I don’t put one on he flaps his arms and bulges his eyes and won’t speak. I need to hire someone new.
—Overheard at Julius Kahn Playground
DINING WITH DELINQUENTS
ele drives to the daycare in the Inner Richmond to pick up Ellie. It’s always kind of like driving to an abusive husband. How will your child treat you? Will she make it to the car without making a scene?
When Mele gets out of the car and goes into the small railroad apartment that smells of urinals and clay, Ellie runs to her right away! They say good-bye to Mary and the other children, and then her child gets into the car! No meltdowns, no stalling, no stipulations or negotiations. If only kids could figure out that when things go smoothly, your parents don’t dread being with you.
Morning drop-off was easy, too, but it was because of the new departure method that would have to be updated. Ever since Ellie started to go to daycare twice a week, Mele has had to create little routines, but they always have to get updated, like Adobe or Windows. What worked then (sitting down with Little E at breakfast with the other kids and departing after she got her “milk kiss”) doesn’t work now. So
Mele started to read her a story before she left and then she’d wave at the gate. It worked at times, but still there were days when Ellie clung to her and cried, then howled with her face pressed between the bars of the gate, making Mele feel like the biggest asshole as she left to grab coffee and check Facebook.
But then one day, Ellie seemed to create her own routine, her own solution, which was to have a story, walk Mele to the gate, give her a hug, and then kiss her butt. Not just a peck, but a full-on, long kiss, like the kisses in old movies. Lots of head movement, no tongue, thank God. ’Cause that would be weird. This transition trick, the butt kiss, was created months ago, and it has stuck, and so every day Ellie walks to the gate with her face pushed into Mele’s ass.
“Ha ha,” Mele says when it happens and looks around nervously. Ellie just looks like she’s hugging her from behind, so she can get away with it most days, but sometimes Ellie will yell with crazed glee, “I’m going to kiss you on the butt!”
Mele has vowed to make it stop, but it works so well. When Ellie starts to cry, she whispers, “Come on, you can kiss my butt.”
This morning a parent overheard her and Mele imagined the woman calling Social Services. What parent tells her child to kiss her ass? They need a new routine. There are so many reasons Ellie should be sent away to Child and Family Services, Mele really doesn’t need another.
They drive down Fulton toward the Panhandle.
“We need to think of something else to do in the morning,” Mele says to Ellie in the backseat. “Maybe kiss my cheek or elbow.”
“Or butt!” Ellie says.
“Or my mouth. Why can’t you just kiss me on the lips like the other kids?”
“The other kids don’t kiss you on the lips.”
“Well, you should.”
“I should kiss your butt!”
“Or my belly, or my foot.”
“A foot is dirty!” Ellie says.
“So is a butt,” Mele counters.
“But a butt has clothes on it.”
“Right,” Mele says. “Anyway, you shouldn’t do it anymore, okay?”
“But I just want to kiss your butt all the time!”
Mele thinks about this. “I understand,” she says. “It is something people ought to want to do.”
It is settled then. Her daughter made a good argument. She often does, and sometimes it makes Mele really proud. Other times she wishes Ellie were one of those dumb kids she sees all the time—malleable and silent.
“Want to go to the park?” Mele asks. Why did she ask that! She needed to state: We’re going to the park. No choices. Please say yes. She wants to see Henry. She has been telling herself all day that she didn’t want to see Henry—she just wanted to go to the park, like always, but why lie to herself? It’s impossible, and it’s such a better feeling than wanting to see Bobby. Plus, Georgia said she had a story for her.
“The park!” Ellie says.
“The park!” Mele says. Everything has been so easy. And yet, there are many more hours left in the day. Mele always pencils in “some kind of conflict” into her mental calendar, so that she’s not disappointed if it comes. It’s expected, a fact of life. It’s right there in the calendar.
* * *
The Panhandle is not a dreamy playground. The equipment is old and somewhat dangerous. The wooden structure with the slides has a sign on it that says,
WASH HANDS. WOOD CONTAINS ARSENIC.
Parents are always finding cigarette butts in the dirty, gritty, not-really-sand sand. Georgia once found a Bud Light bottle cap in Gabe’s mouth, Gabe, who just the other day made an unfortunate voyage into the bushes,
where he stepped into a pile of shit that (because of the corn) was most likely human. Mele sees Georgia on the bench.
“Hey,” Mele says, looking around to see who else is here.
“Hi there,” Georgia says. Her nose is red and she looks like she’s in a sitting savasana—dead man’s pose. Ellie runs to play with Gabe. Mele puts a sweater on over her sweater. Clouds and a chill usually hover above the Panhandle as though it’s an ogre’s castle.
“Cold,” Georgia says. “I don’t know why we come here.”
Georgia lives near Dolores Park but likes the playground’s proximity to Ben & Jerry’s and a little organic market where she buys things she can’t afford. She carries her produce in her hands and the crook of her arm, showing off her squash and bitter melons.
“Here you are,” Georgia says, pulling down her shirt to nurse, not her newborn, who is swaddled in the stroller, but Gabe, her almost three-year-old son.
“Oh God,” Mele mumbles. It disturbs Mele to see a little boy nurse when he’s able to walk and talk, too. Gabe is tall enough that he could probably stand to nurse if Georgia sat down and leaned over. It’s like she’s the water boy on the sidelines, or that person in a boxing ring that squirts water into the fighter’s mouth. The poor gal seems constantly overwhelmed. Her life is stuffed in the lower compartment of Zoë’s stroller. And three kids, boy. That’s just asking for it. Although, Henry has three kids. Mele recalculates: three kids + no money = asking for it.
“Is anyone else coming today?” Mele asks. It’s always a bit awkward with just Georgia. They never seem to have a lot to talk about.
“I think so,” Georgia says. “It’s early.” Gabe wipes his mouth and heads back out to play.
“George,” Mele says and gestures to Georgia’s huge, hard breast she forgot to fully tuck back in.
“Oh!” she says, then plucks Zoë out of her stroller. “While it’s out . . .”
She presses her daughter’s mouth to her breast, which still has fuel in it. She kisses her baby on the top of her head while Zoë pulls at her nipple.
“So something happened the other day?” Georgia says. “I thought you could make a recipe out of it.”
“Great,” Mele says. “Ready when you are.” She has no idea what Georgia inspires or what a woman like her needs. She’s never negative. She never gossips or says bad things about people, which is a barrier to them truly becoming good friends. Maybe pound cake? Basic and pure. Mele smiles, feeling guilty. Georgia is nice, and Mele needs to start valuing niceness even though it bores her so.
Georgia begins some story about dropping off her older son at Leroy’s house in San Bruno. She talks about what time it was, what street they were on, all this pointlessness. The story’s accents are clearly in all the wrong places, but Mele watches her daughter on the purple slides while patiently wading through the junk, thinking of stews and other sludge-like recipes, and is startled when Georgia leads her to this: “And then I had to pick him up in jail all the way down in San Jose.”
“Jail!” Mele says
. Bread and water. Bruschetta!
Zoë begins to cry, and Georgia tucks her into a sling. She stands, bounces, and begins to hum. When Zoë settles, Georgia sits back down and Mele looks away and listens.
GEORGIA’S WAR BABY
hey are almost to their destination. Georgia tries to find a song on the radio that matches her mood, which is nearing elation. She and her two children have made it from point A to point B without traffic, tantrums, or barf. She finds a tune, but it’s fading out. The DJ comes on and makes a joke about teenage sexting and then gang initiations, which Georgia doesn’t find amusing at all. In the past few months men have been clubbing unsuspecting women with pillowcases filled with jars of artichoke hearts. The media always says “unsuspecting,” as if any woman out there would suspect she’d get clubbed with marinated vegetables. It is truly bizarre, and a most undignified way to go to a hospital or a grave.
She hopes to God Chris isn’t involved in a gang, but that seems too ambitious for him. Even sexting would require too much energy for a seventeen-year-old boy whose only passion seems to be sitting on the couch, watching
Wheel of Fortune,
and yelling things at the contestants like “Can I get a ‘Who fuckin’ cares?’ ”
“Chris trash can?” Gabe asks. Georgia takes a quick glance back at him and his sister. His car seat straps seem a little loose.
“No,” Georgia says. “He’s at
a police station. Police keep people safe. They’re keeping Chris safe.”
“Tickle me homo?”
“No. Not that.”
“Okay!” he sings. “Okay!”
She should try to find out what he means by
tickle me homo
but doesn’t want to intimidate him or do anything that would restrict his imagination or keep him from talking. He’s two and nine months and hardly says anything that makes sense.
“We’re almost there!” Georgia says. “Can you believe it? Are you doing okay back there, Zoë?”
She turns onto a wide road lined with trees. The sky is slowly darkening. Men and women are walking out of what seems to be a courthouse. They’re all looking at their phones, every single one of them—they’re doing something important. When Chris was a baby everyone who walked out of workplaces would light up a cigarette, now it’s phones. She can’t imagine her husband, Eric, walking out of a building, holding a briefcase, wearing a suit. God, she would love that. She’d take a picture. Annie complains that her husband is always working, but how Georgia longs for that. She’s thankful he’s not here, even if he’s at the Kabuki film festival, from which he will come home angry and jealous of all the other filmmakers who use “conformist plots” and “unadventurous structures.”
She will keep this a secret from him, not so much because it would create a greater distance between father and son but because Eric would try to draw a correlation between her son’s experience and the sorry state of California’s public school system. Ever since quitting his job in sales for 24/7 Alarm, he has had way too much time to complain, mope, and focus on his “shorts”—abstract little films with close-ups of things like a fly in a glass of milk, which is somehow supposed to illustrate the conflict between North and
South Korea. Georgia very much wants this to be about her son and nothing else. She envisions the problem as a real thing, a small flame in her belly—not necessarily a negative image: a flame. She is sustaining something, keeping it lit. What is she doing that gives this flame life? How can she convert this fire into a more productive form of energy?
She takes a right onto another wide boulevard and sees the squat building lit up like a small casino.
“We’re here!” she sings and pulls into the parking lot, quickly choosing a spot and smiling to herself. It feels good to park so quickly. Whenever she’s without Eric or Chris, or any adult, she can make decisions, but if someone else had been in the car she would have driven around, trying to divine somehow where her passenger would like her to park. She realizes this about herself and for the first time understands it to be an irritating versus a thoughtful quality.
She gets out, puts Zoë in her sling, then takes Gabe out of his car seat and holds his hand. Zoë looks up at her and stares, wide-eyed, and Georgia knows she’s pooping.