Was I supposed to study for this? It was another form to fill out, another list of check boxes. Just a few pages—a customs declaration and an airline survey dropped on my tray table during the last few minutes of flight, and though the questionnaires seemed simple enough, I would rather have been taking the SAT.
I never had a hard time with forms. Name, date of birth, eye color, weight… you could have asked me anything. I breezed right through to the big X on the bottom, scribbled my signature and went about my day. I knew all the answers.
I filled out my passport application in less than three minutes, and that included my pause for item 13, hair color. I considered graying or balding before simply writing brown. It was a passport application. I included two photographs with it; I thought the State Department could figure it out.
The passport application was a gift from a recent girlfriend. It came in the mail with a card and a CD of music she had played in her apartment. One of the songs came pre-packaged with emotion for me. I remembered it playing over an awkward, unrequited moment in the movie “Love Actually.”
It was a farewell package: a few reflections on our short romance ending with the line, “I thought I’d send you this passport application, just in case you decide to leave Brooklyn some day.”
The point of the note was to bid me adieu, but I couldn’t help seeing that one line and the passport application as an invitation.
I received the letter on a Tuesday and vowed that I would listen to the CD only until Saturday when I would throw it away. I wasn’t going to get lost in this breakup. I was going to breathe deeply, put one foot in front of the other and move on.
Saturday night at 7:30, as the CD played for the last time, the phone rang.
“I’d like to see you,” she said, and suggested a café where we could meet.
“OK,” I said. “I can be there in an hour.”
Varsha and I had met at a New Year’s Eve party.
“I’m supposed to leave in a little bit,” she said, picking at the buffet. “I’m heading into Manhattan to a meditation studio. I want to welcome the New Year in a peaceful meditative state.”
“I’ll walk you out,” I said. “I’ve got an early morning tomorrow. I’m going to meet some friends at Coney Island. We’re going to swim with the Polar Bears.”
I said goodnight to Varsha and her friend as they walked off to the subway. I turned my collar up and headed to my apartment. By the time I got home I had scrapped the Polar Bear idea and was in a far more meditative state. I breathed in. I breathed out. I began to whisper a mantra—a word I could repeat and focus on to clear my head of distractions. And the word was “Varsha.”
Varsha… what kind of name is that? Varsha… what could it mean? Varsha… who is this woman? Breathe in… where did she come from? Breathe out… why haven’t I met anyone like her before? She had long, straight black hair, big, dark eyes and full lips. And her skin, how would I describe it?
Here is where the needle screeches off the record. I cannot describe her skin.
I have never been comfortable talking about skin color. I owe part of this to a limited experience with racial diversity in my childhood. The neighborhood I grew up in consisted of only three distinct ethnic groups—the pale, the sunburned and the freckled. But the true source of my difficulty came from a childhood belief that I did not see colors the same way other people did.
In elementary school, I was the kid with horn-rimmed glasses and a patch taped over his eye. I was at least half blind, and I had no depth perception. It didn’t take much to convince me that I also registered color differently than everyone else.
I wasn’t completely outcast as the neighborhood freak, but the games other children played—chasing games, or hit-the-ball, catch-the-ball games—made me fall down a lot more than I liked, so I chose closer activities where I could squint my unpatched eye and try to make sense of a smaller portion of the world. A simple set of childhood art supplies—paper, a few pencils, a coloring book and the deluxe set of 64 Crayola crayons—kept me occupied from Kindergarten through the second grade.
I kneeled at the coffee table in the family room, my face hovering four inches above the page, rendering my impressions of childhood. I drew the normal scenes. The grass was green and the skies were blue. Back then, my hair was yellow and my skin was…
“What color am I?” I called out as children do to whoever is in earshot.
My mother, no doubt distracted by her more active children, playing bicycle tag or poking forks into electrical sockets, simply called back, “White. You’re white.” Compared to other questions children ask, that one was a breeze.
I fished through the old steel can recycled from Christmas butter cookies to find a white crayon. While most of the crayons were broken or worn into smaller pieces, the white crayon was pretty much intact, only slightly rounded at the tip.
I rubbed the crayon over the face of my portrait, but nothing seemed to happen. The page did not take on the color of my skin. Instead, my drawing was now somewhat ruined. It looked smudged, as if it had been dabbed by the frosting of a cupcake.
“Is this what other people see?” I wondered. “I see things differently.”
I didn’t dare tell anyone, for fear they would hang some other contraption on my face to color-correct my faulty vision. I reached back into the can. I pulled out crayons, scribbled on paper and inspected the marks through a squinty eye. When I found colors that looked closer to what I saw when I looked in the mirror, I placed them to the side. Collecting a handful of crayons, I took them to my sister, asking her to read the color names on the crayons’ paper wrappers.
I am apricot. I am peach. After I worked those crayons down to unusable nubs, I found that I could also be melon or even maize, but I wasn’t white.
If I had known Varsha as a child, and if she had moved slowly enough for me to capture in a crayon portrait through a blurry eye, I would have drawn her right next to me on the page—an apricot boy holding the hand of a raw sienna girl.
I bumped into Varsha the next day and asked her out to dinner.
“I want you to know,” she said on our way to the restaurant. “I don’t just meet people at parties and start dating them.”
“We’ve got friends in common,” I said. “This doesn’t have to be a date.”
“No,” she said dismissively. “This is a date.”
We had been dating only short time, about an hour and a half, when Varsha told me she was leaving me.
“I want to make some big changes,” she said. “I want to take the next two years and travel through Asia.”
She was going to work for a school teaching English in foreign countries. She wanted to go to Nepal, South Korea, or Thailand and visit neighboring countries from there. Her application was already in.
What kind of fool was love trying to make of me this time? Didn’t it know that I was on to it, that I had watched the game tapes, that I knew its moves? Hadn’t I thoroughly explored the intricate relationship between romantic love and insanity in my third unfinished novel?
Love without pause. Care without caution. The heart will endure every madness. Love and lunacy are poured from the same pot.
Ah, breathe a sigh. Shed a tear for the devastating verse. It was a gorgeous novel, and after months of enjoying the cathartic stream of tears and vomit it pulled from my soul, I knew I could not release it to the world. I had exposed love too starkly. I would not be forgiven for shattering the illusion the human race clung to so tightly, that romantic love offered comfort. But at least I would live wisely when tempted the next time.
Heartbreak offers special deals for return customers. It never asks if you are ready or able to love, only if you are willing. Any fool could see the depth of what stood before me, and only a fool would agree to the inevitable heartbreak—cue the sucker-punch music from “Love Actually.”
I walked her to her door. I tilted my head to the side in the way that I do when I’m trying to let the woman I’m talking to know that I know how to move my nose out of the way in the event of a kiss. Varsha didn’t respond, so I pretended I had a slight crick in my neck. I rubbed my hand on the side of my neck and squeezed the back of my neck in my palm. The conversation slowed down a second time. I tried it again. This time I tilted my head and slowly leaned forward.
“You don’t think we’re going to kiss right now, do you?” she asked.
“You know,” I said. “I thought we might.”
“No,” she said. “This is a first date. There will be no kissing.”
“Oh,” I said. “OK. So, how do we say goodnight then? A handshake? A hug? A punch in the arm?”
“I think we just say goodnight.”
We took long walks on mild winter evenings. We went to a play and sat to hear a little jazz ensemble set Shaker hymns to the sounds of a Moog synthesizer. We ordered egg creams and Jell-O at Junior’s diner at odd hours when Varsha returned home late from work. We talked on the phone late into the night. We developed a walk that was from another age. She would wrap her arms around my bent elbow as we sauntered down the street.
Something was there and it was something that shouldn’t be rushed, but at the same time there was a schedule to be kept and Varsha was keeping it. I would arrive at her apartment to pick her up and see a Seoul travel guide on her kitchen counter or a passport application on her ottoman.
“I picked up a couple of extra applications,” she called from the bathroom. “If you want, you can take one.”
“That’s OK,” I called back. “I’m staying put for a little while.”
We had been together for five weeks. Surely there was no need to change plans, or to consider changing our lives. She was still so new to me. I would play a game with myself when I would ring her doorbell and she would buzz me in through the two front doors. I would try to picture her in my head in great detail—her hair, her eyes, her physical presence. Did I know her yet? Was I remembering her correctly, or was she partly my imagination? Was this new romance real or was it something I was inventing?
Varsha would open the door to her apartment and greet me. She wasn’t as tall as I remembered and her shoulders were more delicate than I had thought. Through the few times I had played this game with myself, my memory could not accurately recall the color of her skin. There was something substantial about her color that left me feeling insufficient as if she were written in permanent marker and I was a smudge of rubber and graphite left by a dirty eraser. I felt a thrilling, existential uneasiness as I moved toward her, feeling that I was becoming harder to see, translucent, transparent, invisible.
“So, you’re Catholic, right?” she asked me on the phone one night.
“Why,” I asked, “does that freak you out?”
“No, not really,” she said. “I went to a Jesuit school. Have you ever thought of becoming a Hindu?”
“I don’t know that much about it,” I admitted, “but if you dressed me up in one of those long white shirts and gave me one of those gorgeous Indian names that goes on forever, I’d think about it.”
“I’ll see about the shirt,” she said. “But for now, let’s call you Maharajah Rajkumar.”
I loved my new name. I looked it up on the Internet and found out that it repeatedly referred to royalty, the royal prince. I practiced saying it and would use it when leaving phone messages for Varsha. It was a private joke that we enjoyed. Most of what we shared was private. There didn’t seem to be any reason to get friends and family involved, but somehow it happened.
On Valentine’s Day I unwrapped a gift from Varsha. It was a beautiful long white shirt and matching pants.
“It’s called a kurta,” Varsha said. “And you wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to get it.”
I ran into the bedroom to try on my new clothes. “I’m listening,” I yelled into the living room as I pulled off my tee shirt.
“My parents have never met anyone I’ve ever dated, except my Prom date,” she explained. “I didn’t know where to get a kurta. Didn’t know how they were sized. I really didn’t even know what they were called. So, I asked my mother. She said she didn’t know how the sizes ran either and I’d have to ask my father.”
“You really didn’t have to go that far,” I said, peeking my head through the door.
“The word was out,” Varsha said. “I couldn’t stop now.”
“So, all I said to my father was, ‘I want to buy a kurta for a man and I need your help to figure out the right size.’”
“OK,” I said.
“So, he turns to me and says, ‘Will it be a Hindu wedding?’”
Well, I was dressed for it.
It was a little early to begin preparing guest lists or to pick out color patterns for table linens, but it was time to introduce Varsha to my family. When I mentioned to my mother that I had been seeing a woman since New Years, she invited us out for Easter dinner.
“Did you tell your mother that the girlfriend you are bringing to dinner is a woman of color?”
“Would you like me to?” I asked. “I don’t think it makes any difference.”
“Yeah, it makes a difference,” Varsha said. “I doubt you’ve ever brought home a dark skinned woman before.”
“To tell you the truth,” I said. “I don’t even know if one has ever been in the house.”
What exactly was I supposed to say? I never provided my mother with genealogical or ethnic information about any of the women I’ve dated before. I didn’t know how to frame it. I didn’t know how to put it into a context that would fall normally into conversation.
I called my mother to let her know to expect us for dinner.
“Guess who’s coming to dinner,” I said.
“Well,” my mother said. “I thought you said you were bringing your girlfriend.”
“Right,” I said. “But what if I told you she was Sidney Poitier?”
We didn’t go to my mother’s house. We got into an argument a few days before. I had said something cheeky in mixed company that made Varsha angry. It was the type of argument that couples have in the first few months of getting to know each other. It is the type of disagreement that is usually resolved without too much trouble, but I had looked at the calendar. It was already April. Varsha was planning to leave in July. I was already in way too deep. The options seemed clear: break up with her now or continue to get closer to her and set myself up for total annihilation.
That had been two weeks ago. Now I scanned the shop signs as I walked up the block, looking for the café she mentioned on the phone.
She sat at a table in the open store front. I stepped in and sat across from her.
“You look great,” I said. “I’m glad you called.”
She raised her eyebrows and smiled.
“Thank you for your card,” I said. “I already sent in the passport application. I knew all of the answers.”
Varsha took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She looked me straight in the eye. “I’m pregnant,” she said.
That was the last time I knew all of the answers.
“Do you know what you’d like to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I never wanted to have a baby with my ex-boyfriend.”
“I don’t have to be your ex-boyfriend,” I said.
“We’re going to have a lot to talk about,” she said. “And whatever we decide, it’s going to be big. I think it would help if you found a therapist to talk to.”
A week later I was having a staring contest across a small room on the twenty-seventh floor of a downtown Brooklyn office building. Everything I knew about psychology was from the intro to psych class I took in college and scenes from TV shows like Bob Newhart and the Sopranos. I wanted to jump right in, bare my soul, blame my parents and cry like I was on a Barbara Walters special, but I had a hard time finding the words to begin. That was it. There were just no words for it.
“I… me… my girlfriend and I… my ex-girlfriend, that is… she’s pregnant. I’m the father and we are deciding what we should do.”
“How do you feel about that?” the therapist asked.
“I feel OK,” I said. “I’m excited by the possibility. I’m anxious that in the end the decision isn’t mine to make. I think what bothers me the most is how difficult it is to talk about. It is the most natural thing in the world—a woman, a man, a pregnancy, but the language is lacking. That’s what makes it confusing. That’s what makes it feel like I’m hiding something.
“It’s strange to me that one of the big ideas in western culture is based on this gift of an unexpected child. ‘And a host of heavenly angels sings hallelujah.’ But when it happens to me, I can’t find a word to describe the relationship between me and the woman I’m experiencing it with. Girlfriend isn’t right. She’s not my wife…”
“Partner is acceptable,” he suggested.
“What am I, a cowboy?” I griped. “Partner is too vague and its use for an intimate relationship has been co-opted by the gay community. I want to be able to speak clearly and succinctly, not raise more questions.”
“Our time is just about up for today,” the therapist looked at his watch. “Something I want to leave you with to consider is that women’s feet change a lot during pregnancy. You might want to buy your partner a new pair of shoes.”
I considered the shoes and other articles of clothing. We considered our living situations, our cultures and our bank accounts. We considered our histories and our dreams. Then we would go back to the beginning and start all over again. Sometimes it was fun and playful. We would talk about what holidays we would celebrate, if there would be Christmas and Santa Claus. Sometimes it was rough and all of our fears would spill out on the table in front of us. Once in a while it was spiritual. She prayed a novena to Saint Jude. She framed a picture of Sri Ganesh. One night when we couldn’t sleep I whispered that if anyone knew what it was like to be unexpectedly pregnant, it was the Blessed Mother and that she would listen. We knew we didn’t have all the time in the world, but if we used the time we had right, we had enough time to make a good decision. There was no reason to rush. At least I didn’t think so.
“I told my mother,” Varsha said.
“What do you mean you told your mother?” I asked. “I thought we were going to wait.”
“I know,” she said. “But I told her.”
Her parents were willing to marry her off at the mere mention of a boyfriend. Now they knew she was pregnant.
“How did she handle it?” I asked.
“Not well,” Varsha said.
“‘Bring this man to me,’ my father said. ‘I want to meet him.’”
“And your mother?” I asked.
“My mother asked, ‘What kind of white is he?’”
“I haven’t given that much thought,” I said. “What kind of white am I?”
“Imperial white,” Varsha said. “That’s what I told her, that you are good old fashion Colonial slave trader white.”
“Wow,” I said. “What an introduction.”
“That’s nothing,” Varsha said. “We’re having dinner with them on Saturday.”
We were having a baby. And that baby would need a family. And it was time to let the family know.
“Have you spoken to Mom yet?” my brother asked.
“No, I haven’t,” I cringed.
“I don’t know how she’s going to react to it,” he said.
“I know,” I whispered.
I knew I had to break the news gently to my mother. Not the news about the pregnancy; that was nothing to the mother of eight and the grandmother of another nine. My mother knew where babies and grandbabies came from. My brother’s comment was about skin color and we both knew it.
The women in my family are what is known as Black Irish, as opposed to the men who are bald Irish. My mother was a Black Irish beach mommy. Throughout the heat waves of the 1970s, she loaded us into a wood-paneled station wagon and drove to Jones Beach. She wouldn’t apply sun screen on us until we were bright red—a good base color. We would burn, peel, freckle and head back to the beach a few days later. She hoped our freckles would protect us the way hers did.
At some time in her late adolescence, my mother’s freckles fused into a giant single freckle that covered her entire body. Within the first few days of late May or early June, my mother’s complexion glowed in a beautiful mahogany while the rest of us scratched and molted layer after stinging red-orange layer. And now, I had to tell her.
“Well, you see mom, Varsha’s family is from Guyana.” I said. “Do you know where that is?”
“Don’t worry, nobody usually knows where it is,” I said. “It was a former British colony, like Canada.”
“Oh,” she said.
“But you know how Sue’s Canadian cousins are really Scottish?” I led in slowly.
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, Guyanese people are from somewhere else too,” I was almost there. “Varsha’s family is originally from India.”
“Oh, I see,” my mother said. “Well, that sounds fine.”
I knew she wasn’t getting it. I slowed down for the next pass.
“So the baby will be half Indian,” I said.
“I understand,” she said. “Those children are beautiful.”
“OK Mom, but what I’m trying to ease you into is that you’re probably not going to have the best tan in the family anymore.”
“Do you want to talk to your father?” my mother asked, and then passed the phone.
At work I filled out forms that the Human Resources Department sent me to extend my health benefits to Varsha and eventually our baby. The forms asked for information I didn’t know. I called Varsha so we could step through the questions together. She rattled off her social security number, her mother’s maiden name and the hospital where she was born. The standard check boxes followed. I thought I could answer them unassisted. I gave the form one good look before letting Varsha off the phone. Something caught my eye.
“What do you usually check off for ethnicity?” I asked.
“That’s a weird one, isn’t it?” she said. “I’m never really sure what I should put.”
Ethnicity questions are handled differently depending upon the form you are filling out. They usually break down into two parts. First, there is the disclaimer stating that the section of questions referring to ethnicity is completely optional and that the information gathered through it isn’t used for anything at all. Second is the list of choices:
□ Caucasian □ Asian or Pacific Islander
□ Black □ Native American or Eskimo
□ Hispanic □ Other, please specify__________
I got into the habit of answering optional questions in high school, where optional meant extra credit. So, I usually checked off the first box and went about my business.
Looking at the choices analytically, I was tempted to check the box next to “Asian or Pacific Islander,” but how could that be right? Seeing that choice placed so closely to Eskimo sent my mind into a crisis of competing scales.
Have you ever looked at a map? Have you ever seen the size of the Asian continent and the Pacific Ocean? Have you ever heard the quips about the populations of Asian countries like China and India? Have you ever heard anything comparable about Eskimos?
If the world’s population fit on a field that was fifty yards wide and a mile long—roughly seventeen and a half football fields stretching end to end, the Asians and Pacific Islanders would take up all but six of the football fields. They would be standing there, milling about, not really knowing why they were there. At first glance, you wouldn’t be able to tell that they were all the same ethnicity—the Afghans, the Samoans, the Bengalis and the Vietnamese… In fact, no matter how many times you look at them, you still won’t see them as one homogenous people.
The area of six football fields is all that would be needed to hold everyone else—the Caucasians, Blacks, Hispanics and the Native Americans.
The Eskimos would take up an eighth of an inch.
If two-thirds of the world’s population, everyone from Istanbul to Catalina Island, people as diverse as Himalayan Sherpas, Maori wave riders and Japanese Geishas can fit within a single category, how helpful can the categories be? It begs the larger question, What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks?!!!
I checked the box next to “Other, please specify,” and wrote “off-white” on the line provided.
“The king of clubs has been showing up a lot for me lately,” I said. “I wonder if it means something.”
Varsha had been having a hard time falling asleep, so we played cards into the night. It didn’t matter that I mentioned the king of clubs. She seemed to know the cards I held any way.
“What are you talking about?” she peeked over her hand.
“Cards are used for divination,” I said. “Tarot cards and playing cards come from the same traditions. I’ve seen the king of clubs five times tonight, so it makes me wonder if the cards are trying to tell me something.”
We called the game we played Gin. Really, we just called it cards, but we both thought we were playing Gin. We had started a few weeks before with seven cards each and some basic rules about threes-of-a-kind and straight-flushes being of value. Now we had ten cards a piece and just about every hand called for a challenge to or a negotiation of the rules.
We differed in our playing styles—I would look at my hand and remember a segment I had seen on the History Channel and wonder what each card said about my future. Varsha would look at her hand and decide how to use the cards to humiliate me. It wasn’t pretty to watch.
I designed the scoring system. At the end of each hand, we would adjust the net score from all of the games. It didn’t matter how many points we each accumulated, only the number of points by which the winner was ahead. When you were ahead by five hundred points, you won and could demand a prize.
In theory, the net score idea would provide us with long tournaments where the score would ebb and flow and only occasionally reach the pay-out amount. In practice, it hardly slowed Varsha down at all.
“This guy at work has a picture of his family on his desk,” I said. “His wife looks dark, but his kids are light.”
“Did you ask him where his wife is from?” Varsha asked and picked up my last discard.
“I can’t ask that,” I said.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You can ask that,” I explained. “You can say something like, ‘Are you from the islands?’ and it’s wonderful. It’s a party. It’s a big celebration of diversity. But me, looking the way I do, if I say something like that, I’ll be assigned to six weeks of sensitivity training.”
I am in a demographic that is discouraged from celebrating diversity and encouraged to ignore it. I’m asked to wallow in my ignorance of other cultures and I feel like an idiot the whole time I’m doing it. “Grenada? Is that much different from the islands we have around here? I’m from Long Island.”
Everything progressed nicely.
“I can’t believe how accurate the pregnancy books are,” I told my therapist. “They predict how Varsha feels with split-second accuracy. Yesterday we had a sonogram and the fetus looked exactly like the picture in the book.”
“You just called it a fetus,” the therapist said.
“Right,” I nodded.
“Isn’t that a little detached?” he asked.
“No,” I defended. “We’re very proud of our fetus. It just became a fetus two days ago. Before that, it was an embryo. But we loved our embryo too.”
“OK,” he cautioned. “But you understand that there is a human being forming… that in a number of months there is going to be a real baby?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’ll love the infant, the toddler, the child, and the teenager, but right now we are trying not to get ahead of ourselves. We have a fetus. And we love our fetus.”
The therapist considered this for a moment. “Does the book mention anything about the mother’s feet?” he asked.
The risky first trimester had passed and both of our families knew that the baby was on the way. We began to share the news with a wider circle of friends. I called my old roommate Frank to tell him how our bachelor pad was being transformed into a family home.
“So how are you arranging everything?” Frank asked.
“The bedroom is now lavender,” I said. “And I’m going to paint an elephant mural in the office room for the baby.”
“What office room?” Frank asked. “There’s no office room. That apartment has five rooms—the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, your room and my room. Did you turn your room into an office?”
“No, Frank, I didn’t”
“So, this office room you are talking about, are you talking about my room? Are you turning Frank’s room into the baby’s room?”
“Yes, Frank’s room is now the baby’s room.”
“That’s all?” he asked. “We’re not going to have a conversation about it? You just start painting elephants and hand my room over to someone I’ve never even met?”
“I thought it would be OK, Frank.” I said. “You moved out, and stopped paying rent over eleven years ago.”
“I don’t know,” Frank said. “I’m going to have to come check this out.”
Shortly after getting married, Frank and his wife bought into a co-op a few blocks away from me in Brooklyn—the right place at the right time. Within a few years a real estate agent knocked on the door offering a free appraisal. After a tour of the home he whispered an astronomical number in Frank’s ear.
“You’re out of you mind,” Frank said. “But if you think you can sell this apartment for that price, go ahead and sell it.”
A month later, the apartment had been sold and Frank, his wife and child packed up and moved to Westchester. Following his windfall, Frank liked to volunteer his advice on the Brooklyn real estate market.
The coffee machine wheezed and gasped as Frank, Varsha and I sat at the kitchen table. “OK, so you have the baby and you live here for a little while. Not bad,” Frank said. “But you don’t want to raise a family right on Atlantic Avenue. So, are you looking at other neighborhoods?”
“We like Cobble Hill,” I said.
“A Trader Joe’s is moving in on the corner.” Varsha added. “It just keeps getting better.”
“Cobble Hill,” he savored the words. “I like Cobble Hill. I miss the old neighborhood. Of course, it’s hard for me to come back. I feel like I got away with murder, and someone is going to catch me.”
“We like Park Slope too,” I said.
“Park Slope’s good,” Frank said. “But now you’re getting into the interior. You’re far away from the BQE and the Belt, and it’s a little hard if you are trying to get anywhere.”
“I love my place over in Fort Greene,” Varsha said.
“Hmmm, Fort Greene,” Frank moved items around on the kitchen table like a commander strategizing over a battle map. “Fort Greene is nice. You’ve got the park, and you are close to the Manhattan Bridge.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of nice over there,” I conceded.
Frank cornered his paper napkin within a triangle marked by the sugar bowl, the creamer and his coffee cup. “The problem with Fort Greene is that it is surrounded on three sides by public housing projects.”
I pulled the carafe from the coffee machine and poured us each a cup. “So, what are you saying Frank, that when the revolution begins, you don’t want to be caught in Fort Greene?”
“I don’t know?” Frank said.
“Do you think that matters?” I asked.
“What do you mean, does it matter?” Frank asked.
“I mean, I’m not exactly white anymore, Frank.” I said. “I’m the father in a multi-racial family.”
“So,” Frank said. “When the revolution comes, you think that gives you a pass?”
Varsha lifted the lid from the sugar bowl, which, if I had interpreted Frank’s map correctly, represented the Walt Whitman housing projects along Myrtle Avenue. She dipped her spoon in. “Frank,” she said in a soft voice, stirring her cup. “We are the revolution.”
I had heard about the revolution through whispers in the college dining hall and drunken sermons shouted on subway platforms. It was a revolt against the man. Not the man as in, “you’re the man,” but the man as in, “working for the man” and “the man is keeping me down.” I never thought the revolution included me. A hush would fall as I passed the students in the cafeteria. They didn’t want me privy to the details.
I have no doubt that the man exists. Too much money and influence is in the hands of too few people with too little color in their cheeks, but to keep the details of the revolution secret from me is a waste of counter espionage resources. I don’t have access to the man. I don’t have his ear. I can’t sidle up to him and warn him about the plot I overheard, “Look out. A fella on the subway is looking to F you up.”
All I had ever known about the revolution was a simple statement that had been imbedded in my consciousness without question or qualification with my earliest memories—the revolution will not be televised. It was a given, like the first few lines of a geometry theorem. Only now did I begin to wonder what it meant.
The prophets of the revolution that I had overheard on college campuses and MTA stairwells spoke of jaw-clenched protests, venomous rhetoric and a critical mass that would lead a mob to erupt in riot. How would you keep that off TV?
What about the demonstrations we have already seen—the violence in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, the Million Man March on Washington? If they were on the tube, they are not part of the revolution.
Maybe Varsha was right. Maybe the revolution is something kinder and more approachable. Maybe the revolution will indeed glide beneath the radar of TV producers. Maybe the revolution is mundane—diapers, skinned knees and report cards. Perhaps it is something simple and loving and truly revolutionary.
I knew that one day I would throw my hat into the ring and take sides in a cause. At times it seemed like any cause would suffice. I could take my pick. College kids with clip boards paced in front of book stores and coffee shops offering me issues to care about on a weekly basis—save the whales, save the children, human rights, gay rights. A tri-fold glossy brochure, a minute of your time and a small donation was all that was needed to fight the good fight.
I never surrendered the minute for the conversation; never gave up the signature for the petition. Had I become too cynical to push against the status quo? No, my time had not yet come. Not until that afternoon in the kitchen had it became clear that I had taken sides. My place in the revolution was revealed.
I would be a father in the revolution. Not a founding father. Nothing of an elevated or celebrated status. The revolution began way before I got involved. In fact, what we failed to realize is that each time we turned on the TV and did not see the revolution, the revolution was moving forward, taking ground. A father plays a small part, a mother, perhaps a bit more, but the brighter day we hope for will be delivered by the children of the revolution.
What will the children of the revolution be like? Will they be strong, growing beneath the expectations of separate cultures? Will they be balanced, toddling gingerly along a tightrope? Will they be embraced or will they be rejected? Will they celebrate their abundant history and thank us for our revolution, or will their existence be harder than we can imagine and will they struggle all their lives trying to forgive us?
It is my hope that, looking upon the variety of faces and complexions nurturing them from their earliest days, they will bless our world with open hearts and lead us to a greater capacity to love. Can you imagine having a greater capacity to love? Welcome to the revolution.
The more immediate question on our minds was, “What would the children of the revolution look like?” It gives us pause. It is in contemplating the answer to this question where we stumble, where we drop our fife and drum and decide that the revolution can go on without us, that we will wave the banner for another cause. We’ll slap bumper stickers on our cars and support equal pay for gay whales.
We don’t know the exact answer to the question, but we are almost certain about one thing—the children of the revolution will not look like us, particularly if we are apricot, peach, melon or maize. Darker pigment in skin, hair color and eyes are the dominant genetic traits in human beings. Our children will most likely reach for different colored crayons than we did—sepia, sienna, umber.
Will I be able to recognize any part of myself in the face of my child? This question haunted me throughout the pregnancy. Though I looked forward to taking part in the delivery and being helpful to Varsha through her labor, it was the question of recognizing my child that made it vital for me to be present at the birth. I had to see the baby’s face, study it, memorize it. I could not risk being elsewhere, and later being led to a nursery window to have my child pointed out to me because I could not recognize her.
I think I’m the first member of my family to ever have such a thought. We knew what our babies would look like. For as far back as there are photographs, there is a continuous record of bald, white Hawkins babies. With color photography, home movies and video a greater degree of detail has emerged. Babies are born into my family so white that they are blue—the blood in their veins shows through their translucent flesh.
Will my children look through family photo albums and recognize the bald, blue babies as some part of who they are, or will they and their children look upon us as strangers?
I was pouring coffee from an urn at a community meeting in the basement of a neighborhood church. A guy I was friendly with, Jared, nodded at me as he approached.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” he juggled his words. “Where’s Varsha’s family from?”
I looked at his blue eyes and wavy blonde hair. What the Hell kind of question was that? I thought. Didn’t this guy know the rules? I wanted to see where he was going, so I answered him.
“I thought so,” he smiled. “That’s where my wife is from.”
Blonde hair, blue eyes, and a Guyanese wife, maybe Jared could provide the key to my nagging questions.
“You have kids, right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Jared laughed, “I know what you’re thinking. You know it doesn’t matter, right? I mean, your kids are your kids,” he said. “We think they’re supposed to be like us, but they’re not. They’re going to be who they are.”
That night, Varsha dealt the cards and I told her about Jared’s family. “The oldest, the boy, he’s about four or five. Jared said he’s like a little Guyanese man.”
“Oh perfect!” Varsha said. “Are you ready for that, a little baby boy who looks just like my father?”
“The little girl takes after Jared,” I said. “She has lighter skin and her hair is lighter too.”
“How does Jared’s wife feel about that?” Varsha asked.
“She doesn’t like it,” I said, peeking over my cards.
Varsha was intent on her hand. “I wouldn’t like it either,” she said. “I’d want my little girl to look like me, not like you.”
“That’s not it really,” I said. “What she doesn’t like is that the other mothers at the playground don’t talk to her because they think she is her daughter’s West Indian nanny.”
Varsha dropped her cards. “They’re going to think I’m the nanny?”
“No,” I assured her. “They’re not.”
“Yes they are,” she said. “They’re going to see me with a white baby and they’re going to think, ‘that baby doesn’t belong to her.’ I don’t want to be my baby’s nanny.”
“Well, what do you think it will be like for me?” I asked. “If the baby’s dark, do you think anyone will know I’m the father?”
“They won’t call you nanny,” she shot back.
“What will they call me?” I asked.
It’s funny. When emotions are running hot in our house, the phrase “slave trader” is never out of reach.
So, what do you get when you cross a white slave trader with a West Indian nanny? It didn’t matter how you chose to word it. It was a course question. Sure, everyone wonders what their children will look like, but our query hung in the air, like a set up for a hack comedian.
One day we thought we stumbled upon the answer.
We had decided to take a late summer vacation in Nova Scotia—after Labor Day, to avoid the crowds, and off the beaten path, to avoid them even more. As we walked around our neighborhood, we discussed the details of the trip—what we should pack, and who would watch our dog.
Both Varsha and I noticed them almost at the same time. We fell silent and began to walk slowly like observers on TV nature programs. We didn’t want to rustle any leaves and risk scaring off our quarry. Just ahead of us, walking in our direction, was a young family. The man was of northern European stock—thin, dark hair, high forehead—close enough. The woman was Indian, or of Indian descent. Her clothing hinted at the traditional sari. The child was invisible, hidden behind a stroller. The couple walked slowly, watching the child as it pushed the stroller. Varsha and I traded looks with each other as the anticipation built. We knew we might only have a moment. As we passed the couple, only a brief glimpse of the child might be revealed to us. We slowed our walk even more, trying to assess the best angle for our pass. Just then the child popped a wheelie, pulling down on the stroller’s handle bars. The parents lunged forward to balance the stroller. We were glad for their distraction. They didn’t see our surprise as we looked upon the face of their beautiful adopted Chinese baby.
“Passports, please.” The request was delivered in a French Canadian accent.
I handed our passports over the counter to the uniformed official. The uniform was bulky, like a commando sweater. I knew we were in Canada, but it seemed a little much for a desk job inside an airport.
The official took a quick look at the passports and then back at us. He didn’t seem thrown at all that I still considered my hair to be brown. He flipped the first few pages of the passports back and forth, really taking in that new passport feel. I thought for a moment he was going to smell them. He directed his gaze back at us.
“And what is your relationship with each other?” He asked.
Here I was again, falling somewhere inconveniently between checkboxes on a questionnaire.
Surely, there was a word for it, I thought. I could understand tripping over the concept in English, with its prudish Victorian hangover, but surely, in a romantic language like French, there must be a word for it. It is the boy meets girl story. It is a force of nature.
“Well, you see,” I said. I moved my hands back and forth in front of me like I was offering him a warm loaf of bread.
“We are,” I searched the vocabulary of my high school French class. Somehow this was one of the scenarios we neglected to cover in our make-believe dialogues. All I could think to say was bibliothèque, and I knew it wasn’t bibliothèque.
“She’s my ex-girlfriend,” I blurted out.
Varsha smiled and rubbed her hands over her belly. “I’m carrying his genetic material.”
“Oh, yes,” the official said. He folded our passports and handed them back to me.
We grabbed some snacks and headed to our gate.
We placed our bags on the conveyor belt with our wallets, belts and shoes. We walked through the metal detectors and turned to collect our personal items from the x-ray machine.
“Hold it,” a guard said. “Is this your bag?”
“Yes,” Varsha said. “It is.”
“Please stand back,” the guard said. “We need to physically search your bag.”
The guard opened the flap to find a bottle of water Varsha had been sipping from as we browsed through the airport shops.
“Step to the side,” the guard commanded. “We need to search you.”
Had the search been initiated because of the questionable bottle on the x-ray display or had Varsha fallen victim to racial profiling? Usually I am the one picked out at security check points and subway stations for the “random search.” I serve as a sort of racial profiling placebo. Police departments and security agencies need to provide mountains of reporting to illustrate in the end that they have not racially profiled subjects through their searches. As I approach their tables I hear them whisper to each other, “get the bald, white imperialist.”
“Actually,” I say, “I work for a non-profit.”
“Even better,” they smirk. They search through my bag and scratch a hash mark next to “white liberal” on their daily report.
The guard stood close to Varsha while another guard traced the contours of her body with a paddle shaped sensor—gliding it over her head, past her shoulders and over her ripe belly.
Had I been duped like a character in a T.V. movie? Was I the unassuming boyfriend—the cover story for an international smuggler or terrorist? She could have been carrying anything along with my genetic material and I would go along for the ride and play the patsy.
To my horror, the guard snapped on a pair of latex gloves. I looked away. What now? What would happen to me, my terrorist ex-girlfriend, and our poor, innocent, unborn Chinese baby?
“I can’t believe you didn’t do anything,” Varsha slapped at me as we cruised along the people mover to our gate. “You didn’t even say anything,” she scowled. “They put their latex gloves on and felt to see if I was hiding something in my hair. They touched my hair! They touched my hair and you didn’t do anything!”
“What did you want me to do?” I pleaded. “They didn’t hurt you. If you mess with airport security, you end up on a watch list. Is that what you want? You want me to end up on a ‘No-Fly’ list over a bottle of water and a little hair mussing?”
We sat down at our departure gate.
“I want to beat you.” Varsha said. “I’m going to beat you so bad. The cards are in the front pocket of my bag. I’ll be back in a minute to deliver your punishment.” Varsha walked off to the ladies’ room.
The “front pocket” clue was little help to me as I searched for the cards. I knew Varsha’s bag well. I had carried it on my shoulder for the last six months. In all of that time, not once had I been able to reach into it and retrieve what I was looking for. Varsha was fond of directing me—front pocket, back pocket, port, starboard and stern. To me, the bag looked the same from every angle. It had outside pockets and inside pockets and pockets within pockets. On any other day I would have abandoned my search by now and handed the bag back to Varsha, but she was still in the ladies’ room, and I was already in enough trouble.
I placed the bag on the seat next to me. I gathered a few inches of material in my fingers and pressed it against the seat, feeling for the rectangular shape of a deck of playing cards. On my first attempt, I felt a small tube that I thought might be lip balm and something soft, like a stick of gum. I moved my fingers along the bag and pressed down again. This time I felt a cylinder—larger than the lip balm, more like a travel size shampoo bottle. I picked up the bag, looking for a zipper or a flap that I might open to expose what I was holding. I tugged apart a Velcro opening and pulled out a small aerosol can. Holy Crap!
“I don’t see the cards,” Varsha said, returning to where I sat. “I hope you’re not trying to avoid the beating you have coming, because I’ll just have to beat you twice a bad then.”
“Yeah,” I said. That was me being nonchalant. “So, they touched your hair right, and you’re upset about it?” The rhetorical questions poured from my lips. “It was unprovoked. There was no reason for them to search you and I should have stopped them, right?”
“You didn’t do anything,” she growled.
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, I couldn’t find the cards in your bag, but I found this!” I flashed her a quick glimpse into the lining pocket.
It wasn’t something she had to see twice. The words “TEAR GAS” in bold print got their meaning across on first reading.
“My pepper spray,” she gasped. “I swear I didn’t know that was in there.”
“Why are you carrying around pepper spray?” I demanded.
“A friend of mine gave it to me when I first moved to Brooklyn. He was afraid of me being out alone at night.”
“Great,” I said. “How does your hair feel now?”
“What should we do?” Varsha surveyed our surroundings. “Should we throw it out?”
“No,” I said. “We’re past security now; I think we should hold on to it. I don’t want to be picked up on a camera ditching the can in the trash. Anyway, I think it’s a little irresponsible to abandon a chemical weapon in an international airport.” I pressed the Velcro tabs together and gently dropped the bag in Varsha’s lap. “Let’s just play a couple of hands of card. You deal.”
Our vacation now had an element of international intrigue. The adrenaline raced through my veins. We were like characters from a movie, racing around the sheer cliffs of the Riviera in a foreign sports car—a Maserati or an Aston Martin—cars I’ve heard of, but never actually seen. In truth, the trip was more chowder than caviar. Instead of the Riviera we drove around Nova Scotia’s Bra d’Or. Instead of a Maserati, we drove a rented Toyota Echo, a car that drives like a terrier begging at the kitchen table, though its limitations didn’t keep us from being pulled over twice for speeding.
Before turning into the woods to find the retreat cabin we had rented, we stopped in the town of Beddeck to get our bearing and to pick up a few things. On our walk through the tourist shops, Varsha relayed her inventory of aches and pains brought on by airline travel, the mattress in the hotel by the airport, and the long morning car ride, I felt it was finally time to employ the advice I had acquired through twenty sessions with a psychologist.
“You’re up five hundred points in cards,” I said. “So, I think it’s time you had a pay-out.”
“Really,” Varsha perked up. “What do I get?”
“I want to buy you a comfortable pair of shoes,” I said.
We stayed in an A-framed retreat house in the Canadian woods. A guest book on the front table logged notes from the people who had previously stayed there. They wrote on how they came to these woods to be silent for a while, to transcend the ten thousand things, and commune with the One.
The night before we left, I scribbled a note in the guest book for future retreating souls to read. I told them how we watched the sun set over the pines, that we saw two bald eagles and a moose. I told them that we came to Nova Scotia to take a dip in the North Atlantic, to whisper baby names to each other, and to buy a pair of shoes. I warned them about the speed limits and the Royal Canadian Police.
“In the morning, we return to New York,” I wrote, “to continue preparations for the baby we are expecting in December.”
I forgot to write, “Pray for us,” but it was the guest book in a retreat house, they probably knew that without being asked.
I don’t remember much about the trip home, except for a bad cup of coffee in the Montreal airport as we switched planes. We both dozed off on the connecting flight. I found Varsha’s head on my shoulder when the flight attendant woke me up to give me a customs declaration and an airline survey to fill out. I pulled out a pen and filled out the form as best I could. I don’t know what any of the questions mean anymore. I don’t know why anyone is asking them. I no longer fit neatly within the check boxes. I’m not married, but I’m no longer single and my family falls somewhere between white and the rest of the world.
I heard the unwinding sound of the landing gear lowering into position. I stroked my fingers through Varsha’s hair and kissed her lightly on the left temple. As the plane straightened out for its final approach, I remembered something Varsha had said in our kitchen in a soft voice. “We are the revolution.”
We are the revolution and we are wheels down in eight minutes. We have a belly full of baby, and hearts full of love. And if that is not enough, we have a small cache of chemical weapons.