“Hey, little girl, I can read your address,” said the heavyset woman at the end of the bench. She nodded at my four-year-old and said, “She got her skirt up over her head. Pretty panties, though.”
“Yeah! At least there’s that,” I said. “Tilly, get your skirt down! What are you doing?”
What Tilly was doing, in the middle of the shoe store, was inserting her arms into the elastic waist of her flouncy floral skirt and then raising her arms over her head. The whole bundle of skirt and T-shirt settled around her neck like a ruff, and she became a flower with a smiling face, the kind of unrealistic, hopeful flower that little girls draw. The smooth white skin of her perfect child’s body was briefly interrupted by her underpants, which had a black-and-white cow motif and pink trim.
The woman watched knowingly, calmly. Her feet, bursting from the straps of her sandals, seemed permanently lodged in the floor. Her legs rose in sturdy brown columns, but immediately disappeared under her printed summer dress. A large black purse sat ready on her lap like a doctor’s bag, and her bosom rested heavily on that. “Thomas, watch yourself,” she said to the little boy scrambling around her.
“He’s busy!” I said. She didn’t reply, just gazed at him. “Is he your son?” I asked, unable to judge her age and relationship to the boy, who was about five.
“He’s my grandson,” she replied, shifting her look back to Tilly. Was she amused, or disapproving?
“Really, Tilly, get it down, now,” I said. She did, but she didn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to walk around the shoe store naked, if she wanted, picking her way through the discarded boxes and tissues, the rejected shoes, the candy wrappers, the patient customers, the lackluster employees.
Jack had suggested I go to Soho for shoes, to some overpriced cutesy kids’ shop where the polished mothers would coo that they wanted the same exact shoes their daughters wore. But this store was right here and there was nothing wrong with it; why would I bypass it to take Tilly to Manhattan on the subway? I hated dragging her down all those stairs into the dank tunnel with its bleach-over-urine smell, its crowds of mothers and strollers, loud teenagers in headphones, lone travelers with their books and greasy bags of food. I’d have to explain everyone to her, their possible circumstances and the ways in which they were just like us. Once on the train, Tilly would probably reveal her address to the carful of impenetrable people and the panhandlers who passed through, singing.
The shoe store was crowded, and the sales help indifferent. Requesting a size was an imposition met with a sigh and a dragging of the feet. I had told Jack this store would serve just as well; better, even, for its unaffectedness, so I repressed my frustration. I was not the only customer being badly served; I was just the only one who expected any different. No one had noticed me at all, until Tilly exposed her address to the woman who sat like a Buddha statue at the end of the bench.
I had never heard that expression before, in the four years I’d lived in Brooklyn. The woman might have meant, “I can tell you don’t live around here,” even though we did. We lived here because here we could afford a big place, and enjoy a mix of people. Here was the opposite of the march-in-step suburb I grew up in, and fled. But it turned out not to be a Sesame Street of inclusion and respect; it was a struggling, grasping place. Most people were poor. They didn’t find their neighborhood diverse, except maybe for us. Whenever Tilly set out to meet a person, a doctor or a Music Together teacher, she asked, “Does she have light skin or dark skin?” I used to answer, “What difference does it make? That says nothing about who she is inside.” But Tilly didn’t understand “inside.” She believed in what she saw, as all children do. Eventually, I lost track of the lesson–were we all the same, underneath, or were we all unique?–and I just answered her questions. “Light skin. Medium skin. Dark skin.”
Tilly watched intently as a slightly older girl, with long dark ringlets and a denim jacket, modeled Nikes with a gold swoosh for the young man she was with. “I like those,” Tilly said. I flagged the salesman. Pointing at the Nikes, I shouted, “Do you have those in a size nine?” He shook his head and slid his eyes away from me, away from this job and this wasted time. Tilly chose shoe after shoe, and became more disappointed each time they didn’t have it.
“Let’s be honest,” Jack had said, with his new practicality. “We just want the big house. It’s an investment. We’re counting on this neighborhood improving over the years. Gentrifying.”
As if we were gentry. I did love the house, but if I had known Jack aspired to gentrification I might not have married him in such a rush. Recently, when I wanted to serve at the church soup kitchen on the next block, he said, “that’s great,” insomuch as I might actually be doing something productive with my day, but he went on to explain that most volunteerism was impurely motivated by guilt. He said he was waiting for the soup kitchen to go under, so the clients would go away and leave their broken down, subdivided townhouses for the gentry to renovate and make whole. And he didn’t want me bringing Tilly along, either.
“I think she should know there are hungry people in the world. People less lucky than her. I want her to know how to contribute to her community,” I said.
“Why should she have to know?” he said. “She’s four. What’s she going to do, besides annoy the hungry people? It’s not her problem. It’s not her community.”
I looked to the woman who had seen Tilly’s address. She might have been thirty-five, or fifty. In repose she seemed heavy and tired, but when speaking to Tilly, or to her grandson, she became animated and welcoming. I rolled my eyes and smiled, blowing a limp blonde curl off my shiny forehead, indicating the chaotic scene in the store, the heat. Her hair was cropped short, either defiant or practical. She nodded. “Mmm, hmm,” she said to herself. She looked back to her grandson, whose twiggy shins emerged from enormous white high top sneakers. He was demonstrating how high he could jump. She sat, serenely, as if on a sunny park bench. She had seen Tilly’s address. She had seen the whole smooth pale surface of her, but not beneath it.
Jack and I argued about Tilly regularly. “Don’t let her manipulate you; you’re the boss,” he often said. I saw nothing wrong with her trying to get what she needed. “Does she have to look like such a ragamuffin?” he’d ask. “Can’t you at least clean her face?” I couldn’t. I was nostalgic for the chocolate ice cream on four-year-old cheeks even while she ate. Everything about her was in danger of disappearing.
If Tilly had to go to kindergarten in the fall, which she did, I liked our local public school for her; within its scrappy chain link fence, on the asphalt playground, she would meet the neighborhood kids, and I would finally meet their moms. I had visions of play dates in Spanish-speaking households, invitations to exotic family functions–christenings, Kwanza dinners, Saint’s days. I imagined trading my lasagna secret–nutmeg–for other families’ food secrets, involving guava, coriander, puff pastry, yams.
“Those sneakers are so cool!” I said to the little girl as she walked up and down, up and down, watching the gold swoosh catch the light. “I bet you can run fast in those!” Tilly looked over, expecting action. “You can both run really fast, I bet!” The girl smiled, but didn’t say anything. Maybe she didn’t speak English.
“You’re forcing her into this multi-culti thing,” said Jack. “You want her to befriend someone just because they’re different. Doesn’t that defeat the point? I know you want her to have broad horizons; so do I, but that school down the street is really sub-par,” he said. “They have police guards, for Christ’s sake. You can’t pretend it’s the U.N. there.”
Tilly was losing patience. She asked for shoes that she didn’t like, just so we could buy something, anything. I craned my neck, looking for our salesman. He might have quit, for all I knew, quit and walked out without looking back. The young man stood up, and said to the girl with the ringlets, “Come on, mami. Let’s go.”
“If we stay here,” said Jack, “we’d have to do private school, and we could, but, you know, we could never take a vacation. We’d always be struggling. Why struggle?” he asked, as if struggling were not an engagement with life, but a nuisance. “When we don’t have to?”
In the end we settled on the only size nine sneakers they had and Tilly was satisfied. They were not pink or purple, nor did they light up or otherwise sparkle. They were modern and sleek, contoured to her foot without the aid of laces. She copied the little boy’s basketball jump shot. She wanted to wear them home.
Up at the cashier’s I felt around in my bag, a one-of-a-kind, brightly beaded tote I had bought from the designer herself, off a street table. I felt the baggie with wipes and extra panties for Tilly. I felt the bag of jellybeans I’d bought for Jack. I felt the cheap plastic sunglasses. I did not feel the expensive black patent leather wallet Jack had given me, optimistically I thought, with all the credit card compartments that I refused to fill, except for the one Visa. The wallet was gone. I jerked my head around, looked up, down, out the door at the indifferent crowds, injured again.
“The whole neighborhood is too risky,” Jack said. “It’s not catching on. The school is bad. Let’s start looking in New Jersey.”
What would suburban New Jersey offer to replace the vibrant life of our neighborhood? Family chain restaurants and sprinklers on the lawn? At my parents’ house, grass was sliced off the second it grew; insects were poisoned for wandering around in plain view. Lawns were overrated, and the little girls who played on them were empty-headed marketing targets with designer clothes and salon hair. In the city, Tilly could play with any one of a million kids whose parents were not all investment bankers and lawyers, but also artists, or office cleaners, or shopkeepers, or musicians; who came from faraway places; who were allowed to be different from each other. She could play with the little boy in the basketball shoes, or that other girl with the ringlets. She could, but so far, she hadn’t.
“There are places in New Jersey that are diverse and lively without all the crap we put up with here. Lots of nice people live in the suburbs. And really, do you have friends here? Not causes, but actual friends?”
“Now, wait a minute,” I said to the cashiers; there were two of them now, in matching referee style striped jerseys. “It’s got to be here somewhere.” The street noise was actually blaring, intruding on my search efforts, adding a movie soundtrack. Each store on this street, whether it peddled electronics, gold jewelry, cheap clothing or expensive sneakers, imposed its own musical contribution. Through the open door I saw a pack of teenagers, heard their shrieks of laughter and shouted insults, heavy with the threat of violence. Two Orthodox Jewish women marched past them wearing knee-covering skirts. The men, apart from the women as always, wore dark suits and beards as if from long ago, and bent forward as they walked, bracing themselves against possible adversaries, against the times.
The theft of my wallet was a slap in the face. It was a reprimand for trying to live this life here, trying to mix in. I was unwanted; Tilly was unwanted.
Tilly started to walk out the door in the new shoes.
“Tilly!” I shrieked, as if she’d just run in front of the 61 bus. I grabbed her wrist and yanked her back in before her shoes could touch the sidewalk. Before both shoes did, anyway. “Take them off. I can’t get them now.”
“It’s OK,” Jack had said. “It’s OK to just live, to raise children. Tilly is a job; I appreciate that and so should you. You don’t have to take up causes and kick yourself all the time. We can have a nice life in New Jersey. We can buy a car and go places. We’ll be close to your family and Tilly can ride a bike and just be a happy suburban kid.”
“Tilly, I’m sorry I shouted,” I said into her hair as she wept, clinging to my leg. “I was afraid you’d get hurt, and I guess I just shouted. Mommy shouldn’t shout and I’m so sorry.” I held her while she cried, while I fought back tears myself. One of these people had stolen my wallet.
“I’m sorry, I guess I don’t have my wallet,” I said to the referees.
“You gotta pay for them shoes,” said the one who hadn’t said two words the whole time he was bringing us shoes. “She wore them out the store.” Tilly, recovered, twirled around in front of the slanted mirror on the foot stool, trying to see herself. “Tilly honey, look around for Mommy’s wallet, all right? Maybe it fell out of my bag.”
It was possible. She enthusiastically headed off to a section we hadn’t even been to, disappearing into a jungle of enormous shirts hanging from racks taller than she was. I couldn’t see her.
“No, no she didn’t! I mean, you’re right, she did go right to the door, but I’m pretty sure she stayed inside. Please, my wallet’s been stolen and I just can’t pay for them right now.” My voice warbled over the lump in my throat. “Maybe you could just put them aside here, and I’ll come back tomorrow.” I rooted through my bag again, getting lint under my nails as all the useless items slid and bumped across my hand.
If the wallet were truly gone, so would be the last shred of my resistance. I would really be moving to New Jersey, and I would accept that it’s the best place to live, the safest, the pleasantest. I would accept that pleasant safety was our family’s primary goal. Jack was pulling Tilly and me there, as if we were both his children, both in need of safe harbor in green lawns. I was no longer the independent, world-changing young activist I’d been when he met me. I spent a lot more time with Tilly than with adults. But if life’s paths were inviolable, their ends inevitable, how could I go on? What would be the point of trying to help people, trying to inject a little good will into the grind? I would continue my return trip and end up in my mother’s womb.
The little boy who’d been trying on basketball shoes came over to me.
“She say I should give you this.” He didn’t look at me but held out the gleaming black wallet. “This yours?”
“Oh my God, thank you! Where did you find it?”
“She say I should give it to you.”
“Did you…?” But he made a fast break back to the woman, who now stared at me, expressionless, still.
I opened the wallet, and saw everything there. It hadn’t been stolen. Or maybe that little boy stole it but his grandmother caught him. I jiggered out the Visa card, and held it out with shaking hand. The little girl with the ringlets? Her teenage brother? Maybe that was her father! Maybe they had a whole scheme going that just failed in the execution. No, I told myself reflexively, my bag must have just leaked its contents.
Tilly had lost all her bounce and was now clinging to my leg, trying to hang off my knee. I had an impulse to kick her off. She slid down to the floor and lay on her side.
“Get up, Tilly. Get off the floor.” I nudged her with my foot. She played dead. “Tilly!” I shouted, too loud. I had to get out of there, but now the cashier was changing the receipt tape.
The grandmother got up heavily, walked slowly to the register and asked for a specific shoe in a specific size.
“Take off them shoes, Thomas,” she said. “We ain’t getting those.” Thomas continued his basketball footwork. “Thomas. Take them off.” Thomas sat down, took off the shoes, left them in a pile of leather and shoelaces, and stood by his grandmother.
“Thank God he found my wallet!” I said to her.
“I don’t know about God,” she said. She approved the plain sneakers–they hadn’t even been on display; how had she known to request them?–that were offered for her inspection. She handed some bills, exact change seemingly prepared in advance, to the cashier. “I seen her whole address,” she said again. “I seen everything but her zip code.”
I had the wallet back. I had Tilly and some new sneakers. Nothing had happened to leave my heart gulping so hard at the rushing blood. The store resumed its activity; people went on their way. We would move out of the city, live cleanly and productively, and my heart would continue to guzzle and swig, until it didn’t anymore. It was a question of acquiescence.