Trying not to judge
We drive into the city in late October. We have to clean out the car first. And brush our teeth and hair. “You will not fight with each other today,” my father says. This is a variation of his “You will be kind” or my personal favorite, “You will be happy,” as though by the force of his will, he could make us be something we are not.
He drives an old pale blue Ford Falcon station wagon. There are no seat belts. We pass through a tollbooth and I lean in behind him and stick my head out of his window to watch him toss the money into the basket. I love to watch him throw the jumble of change while the car is still moving. He has quick hands and he doesn’t even have to look at the basket. He pulls away and cranks the window closed. Except he doesn’t realize that he has closed the window on my neck. As unbelievable as this would be for most fathers, it is completely believable for mine. I don’t panic at first thinking that it will momentary. Surely my father will see my head outside the car as he is driving. Adam makes no attempt to help. I imagine that he finds this funny. I can’t kick him anymore because I think I could die. My father is speeding across the Verrazano into Manhattan. He is unaware that my head is outside the car and my body is inside. I imagine Adam laughing. He changes lanes. Every time I move my arms my neck hurts even more. I begin to punch his seat. My father ignores the punching, probably thinking we are just fighting. Business as usual. The wind is causing a riot on my face and hair. I worry that if my head is still outside the car when we pass through another toll that my head will get crushed. I reach for my father, twisting and trying to touch him the best I can. This too he ignores. I try to yell. It comes out as a gurgle. I picture Adam in hysteria over my dilemma. I hate him. I punch my father in his head as hard as I can. He turns around, towards Adam, who must just point in my direction.
“Jesus K. Rist,” he yells. “What the hell?”
He cranks the window open, releasing me. I fall into the backseat. Adam kicks me.
“Are you crazy?” my father yells at me. This will not be the last time he asks me this.
I want to say that he was the one who closed the window. On my neck no less. But I know better than to accuse him of even the obvious. So I just stare at his eyes darting back at me in his rearview mirror.
“Jesus. You’re impossible,” he says.
We drive the rest of the way in silence. My father does not tell us where we are going. I rub my neck and glare at Adam. Manhattan is crowded. It is a symphony of honking horns. My father curses at the drivers who cut him off. “Son. Of. A. Bitch.” We open all the windows because we are stuck in traffic and let the smells of the city in. It is like all the smells you could ever smell, concentrated and released – metal, exhaust, Chinese food, buildings, people. We cannot move through an intersection because there are so many cars. My father looks at his watch and pounds his fist down, quick, once, on the dashboard and says this is gridlock. The car behind us honks. He leans out of his window and turns to the driver and yells, “Where would you like me to go?” Then to us, “Maybe he thinks the car can grow wings and fly.”
“Yeah, mister,” Adam sticks his head out of the window and yells to the man. “What do you think? We can fly?”
I close my eyes for a second and imagine how it would feel to be flying in a car with wings.
Adam sits back in his seat and raises his eyebrows at me, proud of himself. I roll my eyes at him. He then points at a man on the sidewalk under a tent of cardboard. I look over. The man has an old plaid shirt on and his dark whiskers look like ants against his pale skin. He is sitting cross-legged and in the nook where his ankles meet there is a white enamel bowl. People are walking by him like he is invisible. Adam must feel emboldened by his encounter with the honker because he leans out the window again and yells, “What a bum.”
“Don’t point. Don’t call him a bum,” my father says.
“But look.” Adam is still hanging out of the open window, his chin resting on the doorframe. The man and my brother are staring at each other. I move over to the window to watch. The man has glassy, wounded eyes. He looks defiant and sad, like he’s daring Adam to say something but tired of thinking that he will.
“Leave him alone,” my father says.
“But he’s sitting there waiting for people to give him money. Right in the middle of the sidewalk.”
“He needs a bath.” Adam, as usual, does not know when to stop.
My father puts his arm on the seat and twists around and looks Adam in the face and says again, “Stop.”
He turns to face forward again and says softly. “Things aren’t always so simple.”
He sounds so tired.
“Maybe he lost his job, or got sick. And then he couldn’t pay his rent. Or he has no one to help him.” We finally start to move. Adam is still watching the man as we drive away. “There can a lot of reasons why this man ended up on the sidewalk. None of them his fault. You can’t judge. You just can’t.”
We let the weight of this man’s predicament enter the back seat of the car. I feel vaguely guilty even though I was not the one who made fun of him. Adam looks properly chastened.
We are on the Lower East Side. The sidewalks are jammed up with people. There are men in prayer shawls weaving their way through the crowds with stainless steel racks of full of clothes. We drive down a long avenue and my father is craning his neck looking towards the sidewalk. I wonder what he is looking for.
“Where are we going?” I ask him.
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll find out soon enough,” he says.
There are a lot of clothing stores here but I am pretty sure he is not taking us shopping. We could fight if we were only going shopping. I look at the park we are passing – this one more has more concrete than grass. Some older men are hunched over playing chess in a long line along the fence. Some older women are walking dogs smaller than their pocketbooks. There are some teenagers sitting on the metal bicycle racks laughing with each other. My father is still obviously looking for something. In amongst all the commotion there is one woman standing still.
“There. There she is,” my father says.
We don’t ask who she is. We have learned not to question him too much. We will find out soon enough.
I watch her. She is serene, not at all like someone who has been kept waiting but more like a person who is sure that someone is coming for her. She is lovely.
My father manages to pull the car over. The woman and my father are smiling at each other. No, smiling isn’t big enough a word. They are beaming, shafts of light are pouring down upon them, they are the only two people on the planet, and they are full to the brim with joy. She walks over to the curb and puts her forearms down on the passenger side open window. We can’t really see the whole of her face because she is wearing sunglasses, tortoise shell with round lenses like two suns. Adam pokes me in the leg and gives me a puzzled look. I shrug and keep my eyes on them.
“Traffic,” my dad says.
She nods that it is okay. She is wearing a thick woolen sweater. It is mostly beige. There are thin blue strands of yarn woven through it. She slides into the front seat and pushes her sunglasses up onto her head. My father sweeps his arm towards the back seat and says, “Here’s the kids.”
She says, “I recognize them from the picture.”
Adam’s eyes open wide as he turns to look at me. I wonder which photograph my father has shown her. I guess it is the one taken at Sears: Adam sitting in front of me, my hands on his shoulders. Instead of looking into the camera, we are staring off to the side as if there was some prize dangling just left of the camera lens. We look happy, not just happy, but beaming. There is not enough room in my mouth for all my teeth. Adam has dirty blonde hair and a wicked smile. I am the plainer version of my beautiful brother.
She doesn’t turn around to talk to us. The others always did. Singsong voices like we were babies. She stares straight ahead like she has got to watch where my father is driving. Her hair is hanging over the back seat. It is swinging like windshield wipers. Adam is staring at it.
The inquisition begins. I lay my head down sideways on the front seat and start.
“You have nice hair.”
“Why is it so long?”
“How old are you?”
“Do you have a dog?”
“Are you going to be our new mother?”
I’ve asked this before, although my father doesn’t like me to. I like getting to the point, though.
My father groans and shakes his head.
She doesn’t answer. She is still making sure my father is driving right.
We began to see a lot of her. She came late at night and they stayed in my father’s bedroom. I wanted to like her. I think she wanted to like us. And although I like to think we welcomed her, I cannot be sure. It could not have been easy for her. I see that now, but I did not see it then. She slowly began to seem as brittle to me as the pages in my father’s old books. Which came first – her hesitation or mine? I truly do not know. Maybe it was mutual, maybe no one could have filled the emptiness, maybe it was unfair of me to expect and need her to, maybe the sheer enormity of my desire doomed her. I believe that she tried to love us in her own way. She was not one of those women for whom being with children is as natural as taking a breath, their bodies meld with them, they run their fingers absentmindedly through their hair, kiss the tops of their heads just to inhale their scents. She simply was not. I’ve wondered if this because we weren’t hers, although I see adoptive mothers hold their children as though they birthed them, there is no difference for some. Is it the nature of the woman and not the circumstance? Perhaps it is useless to speculate, but the questions have since caused me to spend a lot of time watching mothers with their daughters. I think of it as my part time job. I watch the small moments of connection, moments they are so accustomed to having they don’t even know they are having them. The sweeping of stray hair out of eyes, the squeezing of a hand in the supermarket, the way they look at their daughters like they are full of grace, and they are blessed to know them. These moments make my arms ache.