Ezra | The New Engagement

Ezra

By Patrick Clement James

We meet in a bar in Queens. It smells musty and old. From the wall, a giant photograph of Judy Garland stares at me. The bartender is a lesbian named Rosa. She says she’s from Puerto Rico. She calls me “baby.” She says, “Whatya havin’ baby?” I say, “Vodka tonic, please.” I sit on a stool in the center of the bar. Rosa plops the drink in front of me. She smashes a wedge of lime on the rim of the glass. I’m alone; I’m horny. All of a sudden, a group of guys burst through the door. They are loud, rambunctious and young. Moderately attractive. This excites me. One of them comes up to the bar to order a drink. He turns to me and says, “What’s your name?” I tell him my name. “My name is Ezra,” he says. We shake hands. He wears dark, baggy clothes. He has very dark eyes, heavy eyelids, and olive skin. He’s tall, and he moves slowly. Everything feels on purpose. Later that night, at his apartment, Ezra lights candles. They burn, sitting on a shelf along the wall. He asks me if I want to smoke some weed. I say, “sure,” even though I shouldn’t. We smoke his weed. We discuss abstractions: justice and beauty; I look at the books on the bookshelf. We undress. His body is hairy. He kisses me. Soft lips. Weak. Passive. He says he wants me. He says: “I want you. I want you. I want you.” But when he kisses me, it doesn’t feel like he wants me. It’s like he’s hesitating, unsure. But he holds me very tightly. It feels safe. I fall asleep next to him. This stranger. In the morning he tells me he has to go to rehearsal. I feel disappointed. I don’t want to leave. We grab a coffee and walk down 23rd Avenue. On the corner, while we wait for the light to change, he asks if he can call me. “Can I call you sometime?” He looks down at the ground. Some dirty, melting snow. I say, “sure,” and give him my number.

***

I work at an office on the Upper West Side. I don’t make very much money. I am bad with money. Everyday, I spend more than I make. I can’t help it. New York is expensive. Before I go to bed, I check the balance of my bank account on my phone. It really stresses me out. I don’t sleep well. The situation is getting worse. One day, while I’m working, my cell phone rings. The call is from an unknown number. I let it go to voicemail. After work, as the subway surfaces above ground in Queens, I listen to the message. It’s Ezra. In the message he asks me if I want to go to a party with him. Listening to him talk, I remember his voice—from that first night (“I want you I want you I want you”) to the next morning. I’m surprised at the invitation. I call him back. We make plans to meet. We go to a party. I stand in the corner. I feel awkward. I drink and it makes me feel better. Once I’m drunk, I can talk to strangers. I meet Ezra’s friend, a young, confident woman named Evelyn. She works at a museum and she has a boyfriend named Bunk. He’s from Alabama. She laughs at the irony of her mate. She’s Jewish. He’s Southern Baptist. She tells me this more than once. “Isn’t it crazy!” She screams. “His name is BUNK!” Evelyn looks smart and beautiful. She is thin. She smells like grapefruits. She is dressed in expensive clothes. She went to Vassar. She enjoys the party.

***

Ezra and I walk all over Astoria. Up Steinway Street, down toward the river, and along Shore Boulevard. I feel like I can talk to him. He listens. He understands. He’s an actor. He loves theater more than anything else. His favorite playwright is Sarah Ruhl. I ask him why. He lists the reasons. I love the sound of his voice; it relaxes me. Our walks help us slip into an easy rhythm. He tells me about his plans, where he wants to be in ten years. I listen. He’s not a star. He’s too normal looking. He’s an actor. He just wants to be a working actor. I admire this ambition. Its simple idealism. He goes to the theater. He will see anything. He says: “I believe in curiosity.” He emphasizes the word believe. “I believe in curiosity. And you are curious.” He says he likes this about me. But it’s also what I like about him. I like the idea of us being curious together. Learning about the world, side by side. On one of our walks, he says he wants to get to know me. He says he’s curious about me. He is serious. Not sad, but sober and practical. I love the way he lays on top of me. I feel his weight, bulky and dense, and I let the pressure of his body squeeze out all the air in my lungs. My back cracks. I fall in love. I make him tell me about his life. The same story—over and over again. He tells me he’s from Long Island. He tells me about his parents. They are immigrants. They are from Iraq. They are Iraqi Jews. We order sandwiches. We spend the weekend afternoons going to grocery stores. He lets me talk. I prattle constantly, not really censoring myself. I say stupid things. I ask inappropriate questions; he doesn’t mind. It’s good for me, to speak freely in another person’s presence. We buy store-bought cakes, apples, and granola. We eat them together, sitting on his couch. He takes my feet into his hands. I like it.

***

Ezra and I drink. Or we get high. Or sometimes I drink and Ezra gets high. We spend a lot of time in his small, cool apartment. Candles burn on a shelf. We get stoned. We talk about stuff. Mostly, abstract ideas we don’t really understand. In the morning, when we wake up together, he won’t kiss me. I try to kiss him, but he avoids my mouth. I feel embarrassed. I ask him if my breath smells bad. He says, “No. No worse than normal.” Sometimes I fantasize about raising kids with Ezra. It’s nonsense. I imagine the things we would teach our children. Arts and crafts; baseball; how to use the toilet. I imagine us doing things as a family. Painting walls a bright yellow color. A weekly game night. I imagine two kids. We would name the first born after him. His name would be Ezra too.

***

My job at the office is bad. My boss cuts my hours and I get more and more poor. I need money. I get drunk, and I create a profile for a Nanny website called A Spoon Full of Sugar. A Spoon Full of Sugar is like a dating website. It matches potential nannies with employers. Clearly geared towards women—college girls, mostly, looking to make part-time money—the website is all shades of pink and purple, ornate cursive text. The penmanship of a princess. I create a profile late at night, listing my more maternal qualities. I lie extensively. This is probably not the right decision. But, I end up getting an interview with a family on the Upper West Side, near the park. Liz, the mother, is a social worker. She has two daughters—strangely graceful, with light brown hair. One is named Bella and the other is named Rachel. I immediately intrigue Rachel, the older of the two. She’s ten, on the verge of adolescence. Rachel knows something is off because I am a man; it’s out of the ordinary. Bella, the younger one, doesn’t seem to care. During the interview, their mother Liz enjoys her exercise in liberal tolerance. She says she wants her daughters to “exercise agency and choose their own nanny.” She says this phrase multiple times during the interview. “Basically what you would do is pick them up at school, bring them home, and stay with them until I get home from work. That should be around five. That’s it. They will usually play in their room, or watch TV, or just eat a snack.” Liz’s voice has a thin, grainy quality, rife with vocal fry. She rarely looks me in the eye, and I can’t tell if it’s because I’m insignificant to her or if she’s afraid of me—truly afraid of leaving me alone with her daughters; but she can’t reconcile her left-leaning bourgeois values with these unacknowledged fears. Men, in general, probably frighten her. Even gay men. This is something I understand. Men are frightening. And sometimes they’re dangerous. Often, they’re disgusting. They are certainly not to be trusted. “Unless!” Liz interrupts her own train of thought, “Oh my god I forgot! Rachel is starting ballet class this fall. Right Rach?” She looks over at her daughter, who seems confused. “Which means after school you’ll have to take them both to the East Side. Oh God, I completely forgot about that!” Liz looks at me with this dumbfounded, shocked expression on her face, like she can’t believe she forgot she signed Rachel up for ballet class. I find it perfectly normal, but she is utterly astounded. “Well,” she says, “we can figure that out later. Anyway...”

As Liz rattles off the job description, Bella and Rachel sit across from me, one next to the other. Even though Rachel is older and taller than Bella, they remind me of the twin sisters from The Shining, the ones who appear to the little boy Danny in the hallway, intercut with images of them murdered with an axe.  “Hello Danny,” they seem to beckon me telepathically. “Come play with us. Forever. And ever. And ever…” Bella and Rachel stare. I stare. We aren’t listening to Liz, who seems lost in her words. Bella looks docile, placid, detached—perhaps medicated. And Rachel smiles. After Liz finishes talking, she asks me if I have any questions. I say, “no.” Liz says “OK!” gesturing toward the girls. Her face lights up. And she says, “Do you have any questions?” For a second I’m confused about who she’s talking to, and then it dawns on me that she’s speaking to her daughters. Bella and Rachel. I smile and look over at the girls. “Yeah! Do you have any questions for me?” I ask, feigning enthusiasm and interest. They don’t say anything for a few seconds, and then Rachel pipes up: “Um, yeah. I have a question.” I hate precocious children, so I brace myself for what’s about to come. I say, “hit me with it,” trying to seem casual and friendly. Rachel takes a breath, as if she’s about to say something really important. “Do you have a girlfriend?” she asks. Liz laughs, uncomfortable, and puts her hands over her face. “No,” I say. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”

Much to my surprise, I get an email from Liz offering me the job. At the end of the message, she asks if I can spend a few hours on Saturday watching the girls. “That way you three can get to know each other!” That Saturday, while Rachel plays computer games in her room, I watch Bella try to build a tower of blocks in the living room. I ask her if I can help—mostly out of boredom, and an overall sense that that is what I’m supposed to do as her nanny. She doesn’t say anything, so I start to help anyway, placing a block on top of the tower. We are pleasantly playing with the blocks when Bella starts to boss me around. “Don’t put that there!” she snaps at one point. “What?” I say. “Don’t do that! What’s wrong with you?” She snatches the block from my hand. She puts it where she wants it to go. “Are you stupid or something?” she sarcastically asks. I find this quite rude, but I don’t say anything. Then, halfway through our construction of the tower, Bella smashes it, destroying all the work we’ve done. “Bella!” I gasp. “Why did you do that?” I look down at our small pile of rubble. Her response: “It was an accident.”

***

That fall I begin picking the girls up from school. Every day, in the early afternoon, I use a set of keys Liz has given me to get into the family’s apartment on 90th Street. There, I find a large shoulder bag full of things Liz has packed that morning, stuff the girls will need over the course of their afternoon with me. There are sliced apples, grapes, and carrots (each in different plastic baggies). There is a pack of tissues, and non-BPA water bottles filled with water. Chapstick and sunblock. Also—and this is really important—Bella’s iPad and her Fur Buddies.

Bella needs the iPad because she loves to play two games on it: Tetris and Angry Birds. I think her proclivity for these games speaks a great deal to her character. Bella is interested in constructing order, as well as destroying it. She has high standards, and there is a stubborn, rigid streak braided through her personality. She requires cleanliness and organization, square pegs in square holes, but at the same time she enjoys the freedom to wipe the world clean if it displeases her—in this sense, she reminds me of God looking down on humankind, just before Noah’s flood. If something does not suit her, she chooses to destroy it and start again, but this time according to new rules and regulations. Antisocial. Maybe, even, sociopathic. Like the block of towers on that first Saturday afternoon—everything is up for destruction; everything is replaceable. Which is to say: nothing is sacred.

While her iPad seems oriented to her ego—the power to create, the power to destroy—the Fur Buddies act as more of a brace for the complicated, untrustworthy world in which Bella moves. They are a doorway into fantasy and comfort. The Fur Buddies are a lot like Beany Babies, but they have different branding. They are small beanbags made to look like animals. Bella likes to collect them. She names them, and she speaks to them as if they are conscious beings. She speaks for them. This offers a peek into Bella’s rich interior life, her tendency toward drama and fantasy, her own solipsistic universe. She gives these Fur Buddies different voices and characteristics. She attributes a kind of morality to them: complicated, flawed creatures who ultimately seek to do good, though their various hijinks often lead to zany disaster and mayhem. Her play with them is dramatic play. She constructs scenarios in which to place these invented personalities, and their narratives unfold according to the logics of plot, or according to the whims of her mood. Bella enacts horrible, catastrophic situations on these Fur Buddies, pitting them against the elements in order to see if they’ll survive. Often they don’t. Earthquakes, car crashes, plane crashes, floods, riots, fires, tornadoes. I have watched her mourn for these creatures, celebrate with them, destroy them, resurrect them.

***

Once I pick up the bag at the apartment, with it’s precious cargo, I go to meet the girls at school. I get there at 2:15pm and wait with a bunch of high-strung parents in the hall. These parents get on my nerves. They care a lot about their children—too much. Like every little thing matters. They carry around bottles of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer, and sunblock, and they ask their kids all these annoying questions as the little ones come marching out of the classroom. “What did you learn today? Did you have a good day? HOW WAS YOUR DAY?!” They are hysterical, practically foaming at the mouth. But one of the parents is different from the rest. He’s a father waiting for his daughter. And he’s really sexy. He has dark wavy hair. I am very preoccupied with his relationship to his daughter, a blonde doll-like child in the same class as Bella. When the door opens, she rushes out and screams “DADDY!” She is consistently excited to see him, and I feel like he’s probably a good dad. I assume this about him. The daughter’s name is Kayleigh—spelled K-A-Y-L-E-I-G-H. I think this is a stupid name. I see it written, along with the names of the other students, on cut-out construction paper taped to the hallway outside the classroom. I know her name because I hear her father say it all the time. “Kayleigh!” he says, as he scoops her up into his big strong arms. “I love you.”  I listen for him to say it, her name. “I love you.” And she calls him Daddy. Daddy wears expensive clothes. I imagine he smells like leather and honeysuckle.

One day Daddy shows up at school with another man. He’s about my age. I watch them approach the classroom door, ambling about with the other anxious parents. The man with him wears expensive clothes too. I watch them talking to each other. They’re really engaged in conversation as we wait in the hallway. I wonder about their relationship—what do they mean to one another? Is this mysterious stranger a relative, a brother come to surprise his niece at school? I stand next to another mother, and I pretend to read a book. The book I’m pretending to read is The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Ezra lent it to me, because it’s one of his favorite books. The mother next to me turns and says, “That’s a really great book.” Another mother says, “It looks really long and boring.” The first mother interjects, “No, it’s a page-turner!” I surreptitiously watch Daddy and his handsome companion talk to each other. I ignore the two mothers arguing about John Fowles’ book. Daddy and the young man are really engaged in their conversation. They seem to listen to one another with intense degrees of concentration. And then I hear Daddy say: “I love you.” And he kisses the younger man on the lips. I’m shocked. I should not be shocked. Daddy is a daddy. They’re a gay couple. They live on the Upper West Side. They have a beautiful, blond daughter named Kayleigh. The classroom door opens, and she comes sprinting into the hallway and into her father’s arms.

***

I tell Ezra the story of Kayleigh and Daddy, but he seems distracted. He’s in a play, and he’s more preoccupied with memorizing a script. We get high at his apartment. He’s an excellent pot smoker. I’m not. I always feel very self-conscious. Then, we fuck. After that, Ezra tells me that he bought serapes at a thrift store in Williamsburg. He’s really excited about this. So we try on the serapes, pulling them over our naked bodies. This delights him. The wool scratches my bare shoulders and chest, but I start laughing: mostly because I’m high, but also because Ezra looks so sweet and funny in his serape. He has this really big smile on his face. The serapes really do make him happy.

***

The thing that makes me happy is getting drunk alone while watching YouTube. I usually buy a six-pack of Pabst and drink it by myself. I watch videos of Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland. I identify most with Judy Garland. This is probably because I’m a gay man. I especially love when Judy sings “Old Man River.” The footage on YouTube comes from her TV show, from back in the early 60s. I get emotional when she sings: “I’m tired of livin’ but scared of dyin’.” She looks completely disoriented, her hair frazzled, her eyes wild and unfocused. She’s wasted. I know how she feels. Her singing is perfect. Throaty, weary, thickly grained. I watch the video over and over again. When I wake up in the morning, hung-over and aching, the tune is in my head. It follows me for the rest of the day. This becomes normal. Getting drunk. Watching Judy. Humming the tune of “Old Man River” the following day. I take to speaking the lyrics to Rachel and Bella whenever they ask me questions. For example: “Why can’t we get ice cream on the way home?” Because I’m tired of livin’ but scared of dyin’. “Why doesn’t mommy watch us after school?” Because she don’t plant tatters and she don’t plant cotton. “Why are there only fruits and vegetables in the bag? Why can’t we have candy?” Because old man river, well, he just keeps rollin’ along… Rachel and Bella do not appreciate this. They look up at me with searching, frustrated eyes—they want answers, but all I can offer them is lyrical black-folk talk. The racial implications of this are reprehensible, tantamount to a slur. I know this, and yet I do it anyway. I’m ashamed, but there’s something in me that can’t stop from doing it. Not out of a desire to hurt anybody. But out of a kind of laziness. When the girls ask me complicated questions, I’m not good at giving them a straight answer. I turn instead to the song in my head. And that’s what they get. There are no reasons.

***

One night, while Ezra is fucking me, my desire to tell the truth exceeds my desire to be cool. It comes spilling out. I say: “I LOVE YOU!” really loudly. It’s inappropriate. He pauses. A long, awkward moment, his cock still inside me. My confession reverberates through the silence. Ezra pretends I didn’t say it. He begins fucking me again. I try to bite my tongue, but it just comes out. Again: “I LOVE YOU!” I give in. I say it again, but this time Ezra doesn’t stop to consider the implications: he continues to fuck me; I say it again, recalcitrant, “I love you.” Again and again and again, with each thrust Ezra makes inside of me: “I love you. I love you. I love you.” He shuts me up by shoving my face into the pillow. He comes. Then, he asks me if I want to come too? I don’t say anything. I just roll over. Staring up at the ceiling, I feel as if something has snapped. Ezra says, “No, you don’t.” We fall asleep. The next morning, after I’ve left his apartment, I get a text message from Ezra, and he says he thinks we should “just be friends.” He says that he “appreciates me,” that he wants to be friends with me, but he believes “we should stop sleeping together.” As I read the text, I burst into tears. I cry not so much for Ezra. I cry because I feel stupid.

***

After I pick the girls up from school, we walk to the bus stop on 96th street and catch the crosstown bus to Lexington Avenue, where Rachel has ballet class. On the East Side, Bella and I sit on a bench and wait for Rachel to finish. The glass-cased area in which we wait is packed with women. They are mostly caricatures of themselves. Mom’s with masters degrees in art history or sociology; they have given up their careers; they wear yoga pants. They remind me of the kind of women one sees in yogurt commercials. “SINFULLY delicious!”—licking the spoon, rhapsodizing about probiotics. In the waiting room, I stick out like a sore thumb. I’m the only man here. Usually I read to pass the time. But sometimes I watch Rachel standing at the barre, huffing and puffing through her exercises. She looks exceptionally pretty. Like a little Alice in Wonderland, her quizzical face starring up at the stern Russian instructor.

While Bella and I wait during the ballet class, I sometimes try to engage her in conversation. Mostly because I’m bored, tired of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and because I need something to help the time go faster. Bella has no interest in speaking to me. She would rather play on her iPad. Or, she would rather spend time with her Fur Buddies, conversing with them, discussing the day’s events. At first this doesn’t bother me. But eventually I get really annoyed with Bella for ignoring me. Sometimes I wish she would just grow up. I ask her questions about her life, but she has no interest in answering these questions. I ask her questions anyway and they usually center around three general ideas:

1) “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

2) “How was school today?”

3) “If I could wave a magic wand over you, and make one specific thing happen, what would it be?”

Bella’s response? A wall of silence. I expect this from Bella, but still I ask the questions anyway, hoping for something to change. Because of her taciturn, withholding nature, I begin to resent Bella. And I begin to resent our time together. This goes on for weeks. Silence from Bella. Questions posed to her, attempts to engage her. A strange aggression. Nothing in response. I start to get angry. I plot revenge. I do inappropriate things, such as:

1) I show up five minutes late to school on purpose, so that Bella is the last child to be picked up. I swing by Rachel’s classroom first, and then Bella’s second—just to make it worse. When I arrive, Bella looks up at me with fear in her eyes, standing next to her teacher, Veronica. “I’m so sorry,” I say to both Bella and Veronica. “I’ll never do it again.” But I do it again. I can’t help it. I do it every day. Bella, the last one left, wondering if she’s been forgotten.

2) On the way home from Ballet, I buy Rachel ice cream from an ice cream truck on the corner of their block. I don’t buy any for Bella. After I hand the ice cream cone to Rachel, Bella bluntly says, “I want vanilla with chocolate sprinkles.” And I say, “Who said I was going to buy you ice cream?” Bella looks really confused. “But—” she says, “Rachel got ice cream. Why can’t I have ice cream?” I sigh, and act like I’m about to explain something very complicated to Bella. I say, “Because I’m tired of livin’ but scared of dyin.” I watch her little head short-circuit. She doesn’t stand a chance. “But, what do you mean?” She says. “I ran out of money,” I say. “That’s not true, you just gave the man twenty dollars, and he gave you change,” she counters. “Well,” I say, “maybe if you had spoken to me at least once during Rachel’s ballet class, you might have some ice cream now.” “But--,” she says, starting to get upset. “Listen Bella!” I turn on her, “Why should I spend my hard-earned money on you? Why do you feel so entitled to ice cream? Don’t be such a brat.” This shuts her up. Much like the late pickup, this too becomes a daily occurrence. It gets to the point where Rachel gets ice cream everyday. She’s grateful for it; she scarfs it down, famished after her long ballet class. Bella gets nothing. For a while she continues to ask me why, each day, and I give her the same non-answer. “Because he must know somethin’, but don’t say nothin’.” Eventually, Bella stops asking me about the ice cream. She watches the transaction, her eyes glazed over. Money to the man in the truck. An ice cream cone to Rachel. Nothing to Bella.

3) I tell Liz that Bella had a terrible day at school, that her teacher Veronica is really disappointed in her behavior, even though this isn’t remotely true. Bella is doing fine in school. Her behavior is practically saint-like. “Oh my gosh,” Liz says, concerned. “Really?” At first, Bella refutes these claims: “That’s a lie mom!” she squeals in her bright, squeaky voice. “Veronica said I was good today! I was!” I look at Liz and shake my head. I fake a paternalistic concern. “She’s probably just embarrassed,” I say to Liz, indicating that this is all no big deal; I’ve seen this kind of thing before. “Kids do these things.” I pat her hand. Liz sighs, overwhelmed. “I’ve got to talk to Veronica,” she says, mostly to herself. “Thing’s are so crazy.” Much like the ice cream, Bella eventually gives up and grows silent. She doesn’t defend herself. And Liz takes to punishing her. “Bella!” she cracks one day, after I once again report her fictive bad behavior. “No TV for the weekend!” And Bella just nods her head. She doesn’t contradict me; she accepts her fate.

And yet, nothing changes Bella. She’s as stubborn as ever. She refuses to speak to me during the ballet class. In fact things grow worse. She barely acknowledges my existence. We come to an impasse. And I decide to ratchet up my efforts. Whereupon, I deny Bella both her emotional blankets: one day, in late October, the Fur Buddies and the iPad go missing from the afternoon bag. I leave them at the apartment. When I arrive to pick Bella and Rachel up at school, Bella has no idea. It’s only when we get to the bus that she asks for the iPad in the first place. At this point, I pretend that I’m texting something really important on my phone. “Hold on a second, Bella, I have to text your mother.” I display my concern by furrowing my brow and staring intensely into my phone. The truth is that I’m not texting anybody anything. I don’t have anything to say to Liz, and this is all just a ruse to fool Bella, to distract her from the iPad. I’m only gesturing as if I’m texting. This goes on for the whole bus ride. “Can I have my iPad?!” she asks as the bus sails through Central Park. Her anxiety rises. She’s exasperated with waiting, but I fend off her questions by pretending that my phone is totally absorbing my attention. “Hold on a sec…” I say, absentmindedly. Bella can’t care less. She wants the iPad now, and the fact that I’m not dropping everything to tend to this concern is really upsetting her. By the time we arrive at the ballet class, she has had it. As Rachel runs into the studio to begin her warm up, Bella demands that I give her the iPad right that very moment. “Stop what you’re doing!” she says. I look up at her from my phone, on which I’ve been playing a game of Angry Birds. (The irony is not lost on me.) “Give me my iPad right now,” she demands, her small brown eyes narrowing into sharp slits. Then she begins to claw at the bag. That’s when I spring it on her. “Bella, I don’t have your iPad,” I say, super cool and collected, as if this is something both of us should have known all along—as if she’s stupid for even asking. Her eyes suddenly get really wide. “What!” she gasps. “Why not!?” She’s completely confused. She starts rifling through the bag, desperately looking, her brain foggy with shock. I can hear her breath quicken. She starts throwing items from the bag out on the floor. The crackers. The apple slices Liz cut that morning. Tissues. When the bag is empty, she stares into it blankly, as if she’s peering right into a black hole. And then it happens. She has a meltdown in front of all the parents at the Upper East Side ballet class.

She screams and yells. She throws herself on the floor. “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” She cries. “WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?” A cri de coeur. She lies prostrate on the ground, kicking and screaming. Again: “WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?!” It hurts. The screaming. The horror. The humiliation. The acute shock and confusion. This is not what I expected. I don’t know what I expected. Some kind of sense of triumph or victory? A teaching moment? A Tipping point? AHA! like Oprah? I think I thought Bella was going to look up and say, “Now I see why you’ve been upset with me. I’m sorry.” But that’s not what happens at all. It is the complete opposite. Her screams are blood curdling. I try to soothe her, but since I didn’t pack her Fur Buddies there is nothing with which to sooth her. I offer her my phone, to play Angry Birds on it, but she throws it saying: “I DON’T WANT YOUR STUPID PHONE! I WANT MY IPAD!” And she couldn’t care less about the apple slices. Thankfully I have the tissues. She is beyond negotiation. This is entirely my fault. She is rolling around on the floor, like a fallen penguin. “YOU’RE A MONSTER!” she screams. “I HATE YOU AND YOU’RE A MONSTER! I HATE YOU!” I admire her use of words. Monster is particularly ruthless. But her delivery is garbled with tears and snot, so her epithets don’t really land the way they should. Too bad. I try to sooth her, but nothing makes her quiet. Rachel, from the barre in the dance studio, can hear Bella crying and she looks over toward the glassed-in waiting area to see what’s going on. “It’s fine!” I mouth to her, since she can’t hear me over Bella’s screams. “She’s fine,” I mouth again. Rachel looks even more concerned. But then Nadja, the Russian instructor snaps her shoulder and leg into place, forcing her attention back on to the tasks at the barre.

Bella is still on the floor, screaming and yelling. I decide to take the bull by the horns. So, I go to pick her up. I grasp her around the rib cage, in an effort to lift her up off the ground, as if we are dancers too, doing our own Pas de Deux. However, at my touch, she starts screaming even louder; and this time she pulls out her trump card: “YOU’RE HURTING ME YOU’RE HURTING ME HE’S HURTING ME DON’T TOUCH ME YOU’RE HURTING ME.” Now this is an insult. I release my grasp and drop her on the floor. I feel acute humiliation. And then she makes it worse: she implores her audience to get involved, to intervene, to help right the injustices she’s suffering: “DO SOMETHING!” she screams to the passive adults waiting all around us. “HELP ME! HELP ME! HELP ME! DO SOMETHING! HE’S HURTING ME!” The mothers stare, their mouths open in shock and concern. They are embarrassed for me. They know they should help, but they don’t. They’d rather not get involved. Some of them even smirk, judging me for the incident. This enrages me, because every child has thrown a temper tantrum. Just because their kids are placid and quiet, with their iPads and their Fur Buddies in hand (not to mention, probably medicated beyond recognition), it doesn’t mean their kid has never thrown a temper tantrum. It’s just that this child, Bella, is throwing one under my watch. I am incredibly angry. So I begin shouting at the mothers in the waiting room, bellowing over Bella’s continuous screams: “DON’T YOU JUDGE ME! HOW DARE YOU! DON’T YOU JUDGE ME! YES, SHE’S THROWING A TEMPER TANTRUM! YES SHE CLAIMS THAT I’VE HURT HER! BUT THIS IS AMERICA AND I’M INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY!” As I make this final claim to my shamed and embarrassed audience, I realize it’s probably not helping my case. But, I’m at a loss for words. I don’t know what to do, and so I let Bella cry it out on the floor. Despite my mortification, I surrender to the situation. Beads of sweat form on my forehead and run down my face. “Can’t you get her to be quiet?” a thin, blond woman snarls at me. She holds a cell phone to her ear. “I’m trying to make an important phone call.” “Cry me a fucking river” I hurl back, “and go outside.” To which she replies: “You’re so immature. No wonder your daughter is a nightmare.” She thinks Bella is my daughter, and it fills me with dread. “DIE IN A FIRE!” I scream at her. Bella cries and cries and cries. And the barre exercises continue, despite the screams of bloody murder. But once the exercises conclude, I step into the studio and tell Rachel that we have to go. “But, the class isn’t over…” she says. Nadja is not pleased either. I point to Bella, who is still crying—snot all over her face by this point. Rachel gathers her stuff. Faced with no other option, I pick Bella up off the floor, despite her protestations: “YOU’RE HURTING ME YOU’RE HURTING ME! DON’T LET HIM TOUCH ME!” At this point, there’s nothing I can do. I just march out of the waiting room, with Bella’s writhing, wiry body twisting in my arms. On the street, I force her into a cab, along with Rachel and myself.

When we get out of the cab, on the other side of town, there is the ice cream truck on the corner of their block. Bella is still crying. Rachel says, “Bella! Do you want some ice cream? Will that make you feel better?” She looks up at me, assuming I’ll pay for it. I resentfully resign myself to the suggestion. Once I’ve paid the taxi driver, I pull Bella out of the car and bring her to the ice cream truck. I buy a vanilla cone with chocolate sprinkles. I hand it to Bella. She holds it, unsure of what to do, as if eating is not an option. She’s too upset. She looks like a small, pathetic Statue of Liberty, bearing her strange melting torch. We wait. She cries. We watch. Nothing happens. “Bella! Eat the fucking ice cream!” I shout at her. She doesn’t. She just continues to hold it, to cry, and Rachel and I watch as it starts to melt down her hand. “Bella,” Rachel says calmly, like her mother, “don’t you want the ice cream? Eat it. It’s yours.” She cajoles her, but nothing happens. Bella’s crying is still hysterical. I’m impressed with her emotional endurance, but Rachel is starting to lose her patience. “Bella!” Rachel says, “Eat it!” For Bella, this is the last straw, and so she turns on her sister, her final ally, and screams “YOU EAT IT!” Bella takes the ice cream cone and shoves it in her sister’s face. Rachel, caught unaware, doesn’t even lift her hands to block it. It splats right on her nose, sprinkles and all, and runs over her mouth and down her chin. I find the image slightly funny, and so I have to stifle my laughter. But Rachel does not think this is funny at all. She bursts into tears. And so the two girls stand on the sidewalk crying hysterically. One with ice cream all over her face. The other with snot.

It’s only when we get home, and the missing iPad and Fur Buddies have been accounted for, that Bella’s finally able to stop crying. Rachel goes into the bathroom and washes her face. Once she’s patted herself dry, she seems to settle down too. When Liz gets home later that afternoon, I tell her about what happened. I let my emotions get away from me: “I have NEVER, in all my life, experienced something quite like this! It was IMPOSSIBLE, and I didn’t know what to do! I had to pay thirty bucks for the cab fare, just to get her back here. And then I tried to buy her ice cream, and she smashed it in Rachel’s face! Yes, I forgot the iPad and the Fur Buddies, but her reaction was really OVERBLOWN. She OBVIOUSLY has no control of her emotions. Have you ever thought of taking her to a PSYCHOLOGIST to be EVALUATED!?” I even start to cry a little, maybe to distract Liz from asking why the iPad and Fur Buddies were missing from the bag in the first place. Admittedly, this is super crazy. It’s so crazy, that even I feel a little embarrassed for myself. Liz is concerned, and she goes into the bedroom to find Bella playing placidly with her Fur Buddies. The tears are gone. Instead the drama, the Sturm und Drang, of the Fur Buddies universe is in full swing. “Mr. Winkles! Don’t do that!” I hear Bella squeaking in a high-pitched character voice. “Mrs. Rosewater does NOT appreciate it!”

I follow Liz into Bella’s bedroom. “Bella! Is he telling the truth?” she asks. And Bella nods, unashamed, agreeing with the way I’ve described our day together. Her excuse: “I did it by mistake.” She returns to her Fur Buddies. Liz turns back to me. “I’m so sorry,” she says. “Don’t worry, it won’t happen again.” Liz hands me an extra forty dollars as I step out the front door of their apartment. “Here, this is for your efforts today. Again, I’m so sorry. Kids are so hard sometimes.” Her face starts to crinkle a little. “What with this, and the reports you’ve been giving me about her behavior at school—I’ve got to talk to Veronica…” And then Liz starts crying. Her tears break something in me. I stare at her in her skinny jeans, her shiny blond hair like curtains framing her oval face. She’s crying, and I can tell she’s overwhelmed—with children, her husband, her work. I hand back the forty bucks. “Take this,” I say. “I don’t need it. It’s just a part of the job.” She whimpers and puts the money back in her wallet. “Thanks,” she says. “You’re the best.” She hugs me and it feels super uncomfortable. I can feel her breasts against my chest. I can smell her hair, and it smells like coconut and sweat. Then she releases me from her embrace, and I turn toward the elevator. I hear the apartment door shut, and the locks click into place.

***

Later that night, I get a call from Ezra. He says he’s high. He asks me if I want to come over to his place. I will go to Ezra’s apartment. I will get drunk with him, and then he’ll get me high, and we’ll end up having sex. I will stay quiet this time, when he fucks me. I will not run my fingers through his hair. I will not finger his ear lobe. I will not even look him in the eye. I will think of nothing else besides the pleasure of his body in my body. I will not try to make him love me. I will be good and silent. I will eschew the honesty of my inner life. When he is finished, I will not try to sleep over. I will not try to wake with him in the morning. I will not ask for eggs and coffee. I will go home that night—later, walking down Steinway Street.

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Contests & Prizes

Flash Fiction Contest
On May 1st, we announced the winners of our Flash Fiction Contest: Thomas Garcia (1st), Rick Krizman (2nd), and Rios de la Luz (3rd). Read more.

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It is with great pleasure that we announce the winner of The James Baldwin Literature Prize of $1,000 to Hafsa Musa. Read more.

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