If I Were
Across from me, Mr. Vela sits with my daughter Madeleine. His tall body slouches to the side because he doesn’t fit under the second grade table. Madeleine, a “fluent reader,” reads aloud to him as he scans the classroom. I read with Melvin, an “emerging reader.” I would like to stare at Mr. Vela, the tan muscles of his forearm and his long slender fingers, but Melvin stumbles frequently. Mr. Vela does not allow me to work with Madeleine because others need more help. I volunteer in his classroom on my day off to keep up with the other mothers, not because I have special skills to offer, or can’t leave my daughter.
Melvin wears a shirt with navy stripes, a color that dulls his. He is small for his age, and no one oils his dark skin. He and I read about ants that walk in lines and work under the ground. These nonfiction readers are supposed to be more relevant than Dick and Jane. Melvin is not interested. Nor am I. Mr. Vela hears Melvin sigh and smiles. He makes a show of asking Melvin what the ants do. Melvin says, “Get in all the food.” Mr. Vela nods soberly, as though Melvin had illuminated a philosophical question. Melvin would appreciate the mother in Dick and Jane who bakes cookies. He and I watch for signs of home.
I catch sentences from the novel Madeleine reads Mr. Vela. He finds her fourth grade readers and third grade math books, because she is that far ahead. Each time I come to class, Mr. Vela tells me a Madeleine story. How she helped another child with his asthma inhaler, how she helped Melvin call his mother at work when he forgot his permission slip for the field trip. Mr. Vela offers me the stories for my pleasure. I repeat them to myself but not to my husband. At night, alone, I take the stories out and finger them. They grow more lustrous over time, like pearls.
There is wonderful light in this classroom, a whole bank of windows. The sunshine distracts me as much as Melvin. We are restless. But Madeleine is deep in her book, head bent. She started the morning with a neat pony tail. Now frizzy wisps escape the elastic.
Madeleine has her father’s coloring with my springy hair. The Little Orphan Annie look. When I met him, I was in school. I studied French, preparing myself for a life of nostalgia. We read Dickens and Balzac and listened to Baroque music played on original instruments. I thought of us as l’homme vanille and la femme caramelle. I was confident caramel was a stronger flavor than vanilla. I did not consider dilution and I preferred the unfamiliar. We sat in cafes and he smoked, because he was older. Children were as abstract and remote as physics.
My mother said my husband would not age well, and I dismissed her. I thought of wine and Camembert. Today, I wonder if she spoke literally, because his smooth blondness has wrinkled early. He puts in his time at the gym, but his face betrays him. I can’t ask her because she is gone. My mother was also the one who suggested social work to me. Something to fall back on, more solid than French literature. She was right about that, too, for me anyway. Madeleine, now, Madeleine would have forced Mother to rethink her approach. Madeleine doesn’t hedge her bets.
Melvin fidgets next to me and Mr. Vela moves across the room. Sometimes he calls Madeleine “mi’jita” and I imagine that she is our daughter, light brown like us. I ask Melvin if he has ever watched ants and he says only when he sprays Raid. Melvin and Madeleine are seven. When we have ants in our house, I spray an extract of orange peels. I don’t allow Madeleine in the room. I want to spare her even orange-scented death. Melvin sprays the Raid because he is the man of the house. I tell Melvin about ant farms. He looks incredulous. I will ask Mr. Vela if I can donate one to the classroom. I would like to buy one for Melvin, but that is not my place in his life.
My husband was surprised when I wanted a child, almost too late. I was, too. At the hospital where I work, the other social workers assumed that Madeleine was an accident. Now I wish that I were a younger mother, less solid, more girlish. I think that clients my age are older, because they are grandmothers and they waddle. For Mr. Vela, I walk as though a string were attached to the top of my head and I take stairs two at a time. Yet, in the bath, I count the tiny broken veins on my legs. I have to beat my flesh to contain it in these jeans, the way I pound meat thin when I cook.
Mr. Vela moves to Jorgito, in the corner by the Black History Month projects. On the wall are posters showing Martin Luther King, Jr. refracted through every possible lens. As seen by a spider, perhaps. Mr. Vela allows Jorgito to talk about las hormigas, although he must read about the ants in English.
I wonder if Mr. Vela dreams in Spanish or English. I have now learned some Spanish for my work, practical sentences. “Firma aqui.” “La oficina esta arriba.” I listen on the playground to mothers talking, but I catch very few words. My husband speaks no other languages. When he dreams, he dreams in money.
I understand Mr. Vela’s Spanish most of the time. He speaks slowly and uses simple words for the children. Madeleine is enchanted to learn that there is a Spanish word for every English word and comes home with lists of nouns, “la mesa, el dedo, la paloma.” There is no language instruction in the public school before junior high school. Mr. Vela scatters the words carelessly. When he saw that I understood some, he told me to practice with him in the classroom.
“Ants work hard.” Melvin reads. He looks up at me. “How do they know?”
“I think they mean that they work a lot. So they seem to work hard.”
He nods. I steal a glance at the clock but Melvin catches me.
“Time to go, lady?”
“No, no. Read some more.” I point to the line. I want to take him on my lap to apologize, hold his head with the fade haircut against my chest, but we are not supposed to touch the children.
I feel Mr. Vela cross behind us. I am conscious of where he stands, anywhere in the room. I feel his presence the same way I feel Madeleine’s. It’s not that way with my husband any more.
It has been harder than we imagined for my husband to find work as an architect. There are times between commissions that my salary matters. He has started to bring potential clients to our house, to see his work, so I can’t move anything. Madeleine and I hang out in the kitchen, like the help. Even in the kitchen, he objects to Madeleine’s artwork on the steel refrigerator door. I didn’t understand, years ago when I admired his style, that he found those clean lines by subtraction.
The night that I admitted that I wanted another child, he used the stories I had told him about my clients against me. Yes, twelve year olds have babies. Yes, there are teen-aged boys paralyzed from motorcycle accidents and gunshots in the ICU. I don’t share his concern, that Madeleine will go crazy as a teenager and bring us grief. And if I did think it likely, I would still want another. Things happen. You never know. I don’t trust the world to let her be.
In my family, it was not polite to complain about white people. They just were, like the weather. But once my great-aunt came back from a dinner and exploded, “They never put enough food on the table.” I thought of her, that night.
Mr. Vela sneezes. “Salud!” the children chorus.
Madeleine announced yesterday that Mr. Vela had a cold. This morning, I wanted to say that I hoped he would feel better. I used the wrong tense of “feel better.”
“Entiendo. Gracias,” he answered.
“But I have to use the subjunctive after hope,” I insisted.
“Not with me, you don’t.” There was the slightest extra weight on the “with me” and I blushed.
I want him to be my teacher. We could sit here alone in the classroom, after the children leave, arms close together on the desk. We would say “tu” to each other, because we are familiar.
I ask Melvin to show me his reading journal. The children are supposed to read at home with their parents, then write about what they read. Madeleine fills pages and pages, and I read every word. She shows her journal to her father, too, but he glances over and says “That’s great, honey.” She knows no one could read that fast. If Melvin read anything last week, he didn’t record it.
“What book are you reading at home, Melvin?” I ask.
“A space book, Star Trek. Like the movie.”
I don’t allow Madeleine to read books made from movies. “Well, you must write it down, so Mr. Vela can see.”
“Yeah, okay.” He shrugs his shoulders, as if to say, it doesn’t matter. He may be the man of the house, but he doesn’t believe he is the master of his fate. Social workers call Melvin “at risk.” The facts of his life — single-parent, poor, black, slow reader — are like gathering clouds. Who can stop the rain?
I’ve seen Mr. Vela’s wife. He’s told the children that his wife’s a vegetarian, that she teaches ice skating. She skated Snow White in an ice show once. The day Madeleine reported this news, she also asked for skating lessons.
“Of course. Every girl dreams of being a princess,” my husband said indulgently. “My sister was a ballerina.”
Not me, I wanted to say. I never imagined myself white.
I dropped by the rink one afternoon after work, to pick up a brochure about classes. It was a free skating time, and I saw Mr. Vela out on the ice with her. She was pale and slim, with no butt to mar the line of her flippy skirt. I hid behind a pillar and watched them circle, smooth, young. They held both hands, one in front, one in back, like the Olympics or the movies. I watched them until the music stopped and they cleared the ice for the Zamboni. Then I hurried off so they wouldn’t see me.
Melvin is dark and undefended. He and I are mired in this text. I wish I could convey to him, across our boundaries of age and gender and class, how much I understand about being stuck.
He deserves better than me. I can’t keep my mind on the ants. Once a week is not enough for me to invest in him, to get past the stale chalk-mildew smell of the room. The school brags about how many parents volunteer, but any grown up is not as good as the right grown up. I don’t know the routine; I don’t know phonics. Melvin is patient with me because I am better than nothing.
What did Mr. Vela’s mother say when he brought home his wife? My Spanish vocabulary isn’t wide enough to guess those words. Does his wife speak Spanish? Will her grandchildren call her Abuelita? Of course, pale is better. My husband’s mother told him I was beautiful, because I was so much lighter than she had feared, hearing he had a black girlfriend.
Madeleine has already noticed that her skin color is like her father’s. She hates her curly hair.
“Look, Mom.” Madeleine leans over to show me an illustration in her book, of a boy and a girl walking down a country road. They could be on their way to Oz or Middle Earth.
“Show Madeleine the picture in our book,” I tell Melvin. He holds up a glossy enlarged photo of army ants on parade, undeterred by a pebble that interrupts the column.
Mr. Vela glances over and I catch his eye. I feel flushed, and I’m sure that he can see the sweat bead on my forehead. In the middle of a conversation with another student, he strides casually over to the bank of windows and cranks one open. I want to tell him that it won’t help, that the heat rises within me, but I am embarrassed. I don’t know how old he is, and I don’t want him to know that I am old enough to have hot flashes. I want to be a woman within the realm of his possibilities. My husband says that he must be gay, a man who stays teaching elementary school.
I understand that it is all in my head, that Mr. Vela is polite, not flirting. Still. He told me once that pink was my color, so I buy pink shirts and scarves. I used to have work clothes and sweats. Now I wear jeans that fit, and earrings on my day off. Madeleine says that I am the most beautiful Mommy, despite my hair.
After that last, worst, fight about another baby, my husband brought home a sweet potato pie. He had found an old Danish bakery, isolated when the ghetto flowed around it. They still baked Swedish Rye bread and little butter cookies. But they had added sweet potato pie to their repertoire. My mother used to make sweet potato pie, made it for him when we were dating. It’s not that he can’t see me, when he focuses. I am not his ideal wife, either. She would have bigger breasts, like the women in the magazines in his closet. She would be tall enough, exotic enough to wear the long sculptural earrings he buys me. She would be his African princess.
Mr. Vela can see Madeleine and Melvin and twenty other children and still notice me, with his peripheral vision. What would it feel like to have his full attention? When I am here in his room, I am crazed, exhausted with the effort of sitting still, of keeping quiet, just like the kids. I feel capable of any transgression. I want to embrace him, feed him carnitas and arroz con leche.
Mr. Vela stoops between Melvin and Madeleine, with his hand on her book. I smell the floral note of his shampoo. His glossy curls attract Melvin, too. He puts his hand on his teacher’s head. At least Melvin reaches for what he loves. I touch Melvin’s shoulder, to redirect him to the ants. The four of us are linked until Mr. Vela straightens up.
When Mr. Vela says that it is time to stop, the chemical bonds in every molecule relax. Melvin snaps the book closed and gives me a high five. Mr. Vela moves to the front of the room and we pivot to face him. He points to the homework assignment on the board and lists what should be in everyone’s pack. The kids line up at the door, restless as puppies. The bell rings and they are off.
I walk with Mr. Vela, until we reach the outside door. I blink at the harsh light reflected from the asphalt and he is gone. Other mothers swarm over him. They ask about the field trip scheduled next week, they ask about the math homework, but I suspect, like me, they crave the quality of his attention. I move past, detached, and take deep breaths to expel him from my system. It is a struggle that crosses consciousness, like waking from anesthesia. I wave good-bye to Melvin, who boards a school bus back to his neighborhood. On the climbing structure, Madeleine already dangles from a cross bar, waving her legs.
I glance back at Mr. Vela, and feel a little shaky, hung-over. When I turn to Madeleine again, I notice a man in a suit watching her. He is outside the fence, but there is a gate between them. She is oblivious, climbing high, high on the play structure. I shiver before I run, afraid to call out and startle her because she might fall.
She looks up and sees him. “DADDY!” she cries. Surprise. He is off early. I am close enough to see now. Madeleine whizzes down the slide, and runs out to him. He waves to me walking toward them, then turns to take her hand. They walk ahead, my family. She’s at that stage now, all Daddy, and he doesn’t think to wait. I could hustle to catch up to them, but it feels too hard right now.