I took Martha’s scooter and helmet with me to pick her up, and she was excited when she saw me.
“I’m riding my scooter!” she told several older kids, sitting on the steps of the school having lunch. They smiled at her kindly. I can’t tell whether kids have gotten nicer since I was a child, or if we all remember childhood as more difficult than it actually was.
We were only three blocks from home when we saw the skateboarders, two boys maybe twelve or thirteen years old, one white and one black. They were on the sidewalk, weaving around each other with particular skill, maybe heading for the skate park on Fifth Street. I pulled Martha to the side to make room for them.
“No!” Martha said.
“Just wait,” I said. “Let them go by.”
“I don’t like brown people!” Martha screamed. The black kid stared at me, confused, as if he couldn’t tell where the words had come from. But the white kid jumped off his board, somehow flipping it up and catching it in one hand. He had a thin, handsome face, a lock of long dark hair falling over one eye, and was wearing a T-shirt with a mass of rhinestones on the front. Martha stared up at him, impressed, and I thought that when I was a child, no boy would wear a shirt with rhinestones on it, even if they were arranged, as I now saw these were, in the shape of a skull.
“Hey—that’s fucked up.”
His friend laughed. “You serious? C’mon, man. That’s a baby.”
“That’s even more fucked up!”
Asking them to watch their language, which I would normally have done, seemed inappropriate under the circumstances.
“You said a bad word,” Martha said.
“No!” I said to Martha. “You said a bad word. I mean—you can’t say that! You say you’re sorry!”
Martha stared at the ground. I’d read that eliciting apologies from small children is actually counterproductive, but I often find myself doing it for the sake of appearances.
“I’m sorry,” she said. I saw her eyes move from the boy’s face to his glittering shirt and back again.
“Tell him,” the white kid said, but his friend had stopped listening. He had one foot on his board and was madly texting. His shirt was less flashy, with simple block letters: some of my best friends are vampires. The white kid looked as if we had all disappointed him. He was a neighborhood type: he probably did shifts at the food co-op alongside his parents and volunteered on weekends cleaning up the park.
“I’m just telling you—she could be kicked out of kindergarten.”
This was, in fact, one of my and Ben’s chief worries: we talked about it all the time. What would Martha’s teachers think of us?
“Thanks,” I told him. “We’re working on it.”
“Come on,” said his friend, “or they’ll be gone,” and both boys pushed off down the sidewalk. Martha watched them go.
“That’s very bad,” I told her. “You’re not going to get dessert for a week.”
Martha’s mouth trembled in the way that it does, probably more at my tone than the threat. But she remounted the scooter and gave a shaky push in the direction of our house.
That night, Ben and I watched two episodes of our most recent show, sitting close together on the couch. Normally after this we would have sex, and I was vaguely aware of that eventuality as I watched CIA operatives evading peril on a soundstage meant to look like a luxury hotel in Tehran.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like sex anymore, or didn’t like it with Ben, but something had happened after the children were born. I thought it was a reaction to all the fluid that had left my body, not only liquid but jellied black clots, some the size of eggs, that had dropped afterward onto the pink tile of the hospital shower. Right around the time Martha was born, I had read about the disaster at Fukushima, how three of the five reactors there had gone into what the scientists called “cold shutdown condition” after the tsunami hit. This made sense to me. The children could climb on me; I could caress and hold them; but if anyone tried to penetrate deeper than that, they would hit a hard container that had formed to lock in all that mess.
That’s how it felt, although it didn’t seem like an analogy I could use with Ben.
We were climbing the stairs when he put his hand between my legs.
“Shh,” I said, although of course this activity wasn’t going to wake the children.
“What?” Ben said in his normal voice, immediately wary. I knew I would be unhappy if Ben never wanted to have sex with me, but I wondered whether he wanted it because he actually desired me or because he was physically designed to expel as much seed as possible and I was the most accessible receptacle.
Ben was taking off my clothes when his phone pinged.
“You can get it,” I said.
“I don’t want to get it.”
We closed our eyes and kissed each other, but the phone pinged a second time, since he hadn’t looked at it.
“I’ll just turn it off,” Ben said.
He looked for just a second, then put the phone face down on the nightstand.
“Who was that?”
“What?” Ben tried to kiss me again.
“Who just called?”
“It was a text.”
Ben sighed. “I’m not going to lie to you. But I know you’re going to take it the wrong way.”
“It was the hitchhiker, right?”
“You gave your number to a strange, twenty-something woman in workout clothes. That’s a fact. It’s not something I’m ‘taking’ one way or the other.”
“I gave her my number so she could get our address.”
“She said she wanted to send us a thank-you. Here—you can look at it.”
I knew I should decline the offer and pretend it didn’t matter. There was still time to turn it into a joke and go back to what we were doing. I held out my hand for the phone.
Hey Ben! Wanted to send a ty for the other day--u r a prince! Have something for u & family. Yr address pls?? xMya
I clicked back to look at the rest of the chain, but it was the first message. “What the hell does M-Y-A mean?”
“What? Oh—that’s her name. Mya.”
“With a y?”
“She changed it in college.” Ben was putting his T-shirt back on. “To
“Wow, you really know a lot about each other.”
“No,” Ben turned around. “Like I told you, it was a monologue. I didn’t tell her a fucking thing about us.”
“What’s the x for?”
“A lot of people sign—okay, you know what? I’m not talking about it anymore. You don’t trust me—even after you invade my privacy.”
“Would you have given anyone a ride?”
“That’s stupid,” Ben said.
“What if it had been a homeless person?”
“This is a stupid conversation,” Ben said. “I’m going to bed.” He turned off his light, pulled the sheet over his chest, and turned his back to me. The infuriating thing was that he could actually go to sleep after we fought.
“She did it again.”
Ben didn’t say anything, but the back of his neck was tight. When he relaxed there was a fold of skin there.
“Martha. To a kid on the street today.”
“A black kid?”
“Actually, his friend was more upset. His friend was white.”
“Of course,” Ben said, sitting up.
“You’re such a big authority?”
“And Jews are so well-known for their love of black people.”
“You’ve never experienced any kind of bias.”
“And because you’re two generations removed from people who spent World War II in London—”
“They were driven from their home.”
There was something about arguing in bed that was frightening. The sheet covered both sets of knees.
“You’re the one who’s with her.”
“You’re saying I’m racist?”
“I’m just asking where it comes from.”
“From TV. And books, from fairy tales—black forests and monsters with gaping black mouths. White lies and blond angels. From our language.”
Ben was quiet for a moment.
“You’re picking a fight to distract me because you don’t want to fuck. You never want it. That’s the reason you brought up Martha.”
I had brought up Martha, and so it was hard to counter that. I felt like my rib cage was contracting around my heart. My icy, black heart.
“Would you, if she were black?”
“How do you know she isn’t?”
“Because you would’ve mentioned it.”
“I can’t mention a fucking thing without you jumping all over me.”
“Okay. Is Mya black or white?”
“I’m not going to tell you,” Ben said. He took his pillow and went out. I heard him going down the stairs and opening the door to the kids’ room, where we have a mattress on the floor. Sometimes one of us will lie there when Sam is scared, until he falls asleep, but we’d never used it in this way until now.