Fiction | March 01, 2002

Ellen Morgan drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, keeping them light, not gripping the hot vinyl because the very act of expressing the tension that this endless traffic generated in her would only augment it. All cities had traffic, but here in the crumbling streets of Rio, wending their way stubbornly between rock and sea, the roads seemed incapable of spitting their charges out. She had the frustrating sensation that she was blocked forever, a corpuscle trapped within the thickened walls of the city’s collapsing veins. The light ahead of her changed, but the traffic didn’t move. Up and down the line, drivers leaned on their horns. She inched forward.

In the back seat Ellen’s youngest child sat and cried. She cried the way she always cried, with very little sound and great stoicism, willing the tears not to come, willing the sobs back down her throat where no one could hear them. But Ellen had known even before they left the gymnastics class that her daughter would cry. The knowing was what disturbed Ellen so much; she didn’t want her child to be sad and herself felt an inexplicable grief over how completely she took her child’s sadness to heart. Being a mother was too great a burden when you bore your children’s pain in addition to your own. She wondered if all mothers felt this way. It was such a small incident, the cartwheel that was perfect yesterday and executed so poorly today. Ellen had known the minute the girl flopped to the ground that she was not hurt but that her frustration would overwhelm her. When Ellen’s daughter left the mat, Ellen had looked carefully at her face and could see already the darkening of the eyes, the flushed cheeks. The child would cry, and because she was so good and had to always be thought of as good, she would hold back as long as she could, increasing the intensity of her discomfiture until the missed cartwheel would become the symbol of everything she had never been able to master.

Ellen sighed. Sometimes she cried herself. When her older child, a son, once tried to arrange a sleepover and called five friends who all had other plans, she’d cried because she knew her son’s loneliness. Today she had no energy to respond to her daughter. She’d used up all her distracting stories and carefully chosen words of encouragement. Ellen at last came to the corner and was stopped at the red light. She looked down at the reassuringly constant lights on the dashboard, and when she looked up again, there was a young man directly in front of the car. He had a red plastic nose stuck on his face and was wearing brightly striped socks and outlandishly large shoes. He started to juggle.

“Marisa, look,” cried Ellen.

The little girl, cheeks hot and wet, skeptically stared, accustomed to her mother’s distraction ruse. Outside in the street the man was tossing bowling-pin-shaped missiles into the air. At first it was a fairly routine display, but then he tossed the pins higher and spun around while waiting for them to come down. Then he tossed two at once, then the third in the middle. He was mugging and wiggling his hips while he tossed. Marisa fell silent. Ellen glanced at her in the rearview mirror and saw the slightest of smiles creasing the corners of her mouth. The man was probably looking for money, Ellen thought, and indeed when he caught the last pin, he whipped off his beret with a grin and a bow and headed toward Ellen’s car. But he had become so involved in his routine that he misjudged the time, and the light had already turned green. Those drivers behind who had not caught the act were not charmed and pressed hard on their horns. Ellen frowned through the window at the man, who shrugged back and stepped onto the curb. The line of cars inched on.

The diversion had been enough. The disappointing cartwheel was now relegated to the pile of inconsequence where it belonged, and the rest of the afternoon proceeded calmly. Ellen fed her children, who, as they had been trained, placed their napkins in their laps and kept their elbows off the table. She was proud that even when no one was looking they were beautifully behaved. She also knew that to some people they must appear stifled and dull. Were her children old before their time? Had she done them a disservice to praise them so lavishly for being good? She was vaguely anxious all the time, wishing for a manual that explained exactly what happiness was and how to generate it. Discipline, education, experiences. They all seemed like fair avenues in the right direction but lacked the critical element of joy that other mothers seemed to effortlessly cultivate in their families.

Ellen’s husband, Jake, came home as usual long after the children were asleep. Ellen lay reading in bed, her empty tea mug still warm to the touch. She resented her husband’s freedom to continue doing what needed to be done until it was done, yet welcomed the buffer his long hours afforded her between dealing with her children’s needs and dealing with his. Although his needs were few. What he wanted was her company, the thing she felt least like offering at 10:30 at night, already lulled by Earl Grey and her book.

She smiled up at him. He removed his tie, unbuttoned his top button and leaned forward to kiss her. He had been chewing mints. His shirt smelled like smoke.
“How was your day, hon?” she asked. When she was much younger she would read in magazines or watch on television as scores and scores of attentive wives inquired after their husbands’ days, and it had seemed to her absurd. How was it possible that they all said the same thing? Did the husbands believe the wives really wanted to know? Did they? Sometimes it worried her that in truth she had no interest whatever in Jake’s day, as he had no interest in hers. She wanted his day to be interesting and productive. She assumed he wanted her day to run smoothly and pleasantly. But she did not care whether his meeting was two hours long or three, whether the new reorganization made Bill his boss or Tomas. And he did not care whether Marisa cartwheeled perfectly or whether she tumbled into a heap and grew bitter with frustration. He certainly would not care that acrobats had joined the hordes of windshield cleaners, skateboarders, maimed beggars and pushcarts in the mad jumble of roadway hazards to which they were all daily subjected.

“Fine, how was yours?” Jake nuzzled her neck, stroked her shoulder. She very much wanted to finish her chapter, and she had to pee from the tea, but she could never say no to Jake. He was always warm and tender with her. It was good to feel this love, whose impediments were things like full bladders, nothing more.

Ellen needed gas. It was not a long way to the school, but traffic was so often blocked that you always needed to be prepared to burn a quarter of a tank idling. At the fork that led to her favorite station, where the attendants knew her, she was stopped by a red light. Once again the plastic-nosed clown appeared in front of three lanes of cars, and once again he began to juggle. With great energy and apparent ease he threw and caught, smiling with pleasure as if he were alone in his backyard. Ellen could not help but smile, too, with envy, at the simple gift of being able to entertain oneself so effortlessly. This time the young man timed his bow better; he had his beret in hand to solicit his audience well before the light changed. Ellen gave him a bill and a smile. “Thank you,” he said cheerfully, with no hint of a beggar’s humility. He had an accent. That was new. Begging in a foreign country seemed perverse somehow, especially when the emigrant was from a richer country. Was there an etiquette consideration here? At any rate, for a small fee Ellen had been momentarily amused.

At the school she waited for the interminable line of cars to slither through the iron gates, past the armed security guards, up to the curb where the children gathered in their intricate, arcane rituals of social clustering. No hive or court had a more defined structure. She noticed her own children sitting against a wall together, breaking the cardinal rule of school acceptance: You don’t associate with children in another grade, especially when the child in question is your brother or sister. Marisa and Danny were talking to one another, leaning together, heads down, in a pose Ellen recognized. Since Marisa had been old enough to talk, Danny had communed with her, making her a part of his narrow world. Only Ellen fit into it, and only with one of them at a time. Marisa alone sent signals directly into Ellen’s heart. Danny’s eyes spoke to her as clearly as a documentary movie. But together they lived on a different plain.

Ellen did not understand their social isolation. She had read many books about children of peripatetic families, especially those relocated every two or three years to new countries. It was well known that the children tended to rely more on one another than in more stable families, which Ellen had always considered one of the benefits of moving. But they were also supposed to develop the social ease and self-assurance that would allow them to make friends easily, which Danny and Marisa had not. Why?

Her children saw the car and her little wave and turned to gather their gear. Ellen thought for a second that Marisa had never had a friend. Ever. And a little boy in Venezuela named Bill was the only child Danny had ever brought home.

“Mommy, what’s wrong?” said Marisa, struggling to heave her overstuffed backpack and assorted folders, lunchbox and raincoat into the back seat, tangling herself up in the seatbelt strap and landing face first in Danny’s lap.

“Nothing, darling.” Ellen pulled out of the driveway and back down the hill. “How was school?” she asked, again boring herself with the banal interactions of daily life. What she needed to ask them was, Are you happy? When you’re grown up, will you look back on today and say, “I was lonely then” or “I was free”?

“Fine,” they answered in unison, the same rote answer they gave to the same question every day. Later they would all talk. Ellen knew that she should be more patient. There were the routine exchanges that represented tradition and continuity; the real communication occurred later, when they saw an enormous black-and-white hummingbird guzzling from a hibiscus flower or a helicopter that sounded as if it were about to land on the balcony. From there she might learn of Marisa’s cruel classmate stomping a gecko to death or Danny’s band teacher losing his temper and smashing on a cymbal. The news would come. Ellen could wait. In the rearview mirror her children looked like brilliant points of light against a monotonous gray. Did all mothers feel this crushing weight of maternal love? Ellen thought they must, and that suicide to escape it must never be far from any of their minds.

At home Danny needed help with his science report. Marisa volunteered to help him, and it was only much later, after she had sliced the bell peppers and red onion to saute for dinner, folded the laundry and emptied the dishwasher, that Ellen looked at what they had done. The two children were huddled at the kitchen table, surrounded by an array of colored pencils, scissors, stencils and manila paper.

“Look, Mom,” said Danny, obviously delighted with their accomplishment. In the center of the table was a beautifully accurate, full-color diagram of a penis, artfully shaded, meticulously labeled and pasted onto construction paper. Marisa was adding the finishing touches on the testicles while Danny cleaned up the scraps of paper left over from cutting out the diagram. The lines leading from the parts of the penis to their names had been drawn using a ruler and a thin black marker. The words were written with a stencil. Marisa was the artist, the expert with the colored pencils, which explained the delicate flesh tones and detailed attention to skin folds.

“What did you use for a guide?” asked Ellen. The diagram in Danny’s science book was not nearly as graphic as the illustration on the kitchen table.

Gray’s Anatomy,” said Danny.

“Only we made it more colorful,” said Marisa.

Ellen went back to the stove. Later that night, when Jake came home, she was sitting in the living room.

“What is it?” he said. Ellen pointed to the science illustration lying on the coffee table.

Jake picked up the picture, examined it for a moment and started to laugh. “This is fantastic!” he said. “Did Marisa help with the artwork? She must have.” He was bursting all over with pride and amusement.

“But Jake,” said Ellen impatiently, “what will his teacher think when he sees this? He’ll think we’re perverts, that he drew this from a photograph or something. None of the other kids will have drawings like this.”

“That’s for sure.” Jake laughed again. “Kid’s a genius.”

Ellen was pretty sure her children were not geniuses, but she knew they were different and that different is a burden for a child. She could often foresee her children’s most difficult moments, and they filled her with dread. “The other kids will tease him.”

Jake sat next to her on the sofa, the drawing still in his hand. “You don’t know that. They’ll be awed. They’ll be jealous.”

“Whatever their real reactions, or whatever their reactions stem from, they’ll tease him. It will kill him. It’s like leading lambs to the slaughter every time. These kids are geniuses in this house and pariahs at school. Don’t you think we should at least try to condition them?”

They had had this conversation before. Ellen knew that Jake did not see the lowered eyes and burning cheeks that followed every rejection, every slight. He saw Marisa and Danny at home, where they had each other to impress. Jake put his arm around her, pulled her toward him to kiss the top of her head. “Relax,” he whispered. “They’ll be fine.”

They might, but would she? She decided to take the drawing to school herself and explain it to the science teacher. If he objected, she would have Danny redo it.

On the way to school she noticed three young boys, barefoot and wearing only shorts, hanging around the traffic light near the gas station. They had several green tennis balls at their feet and more in their hands that they hesitantly tossed up with one hand and caught with the other, one ball at a time. It wasn’t quite juggling, and the boys were concentrating so hard, their bodies stiff and alert, that it wasn’t exactly entertaining either. Why aren’t you in school? Ellen wanted to shout at them. Where are their mothers? she asked the dashboard. Just as the light changed, one of the boys dropped a ball and dove for it as it rolled between lanes. Terrified that he might be struck, Ellen stayed where she was and was forced to endure the almost instantaneous outburst of horn-blowing from the line of cars behind her. Her annoyance at the boys grew. The lost ball was retrieved, and the three boys scampered to the safety of the median strip, but Ellen was rattled. Where were the mothers?

Danny’s seventh grade science teacher, Pat Angell, had the same reaction to the penis as Jake.

“Mrs. Morgan, I have to tell you, your son is extraordinary. It’s been a delight to have him in class,” said Pat. He and Ellen had met before, during open house.

“You don’t think the other kids will make fun of him?”

Pat grimaced, just enough for Ellen to see that he knew what she had meant. “Danny has a special role in this class,” he said. “The kids all think he’s the smartest one in here, and he probably is, and that leads to a certain amount of, well, jealousy.”

So Ellen had been right. “Jealousy?”

Pat smiled and reached out to lay a hand on Ellen’s forearm. “Look, it’s nothing. The kids admire Danny; they’re just a little intimidated, so they don’t hang out with him that much.”

Leaving the school, Ellen felt as if nothing much had been accomplished. Every time she spoke to someone about her children she hoped for a great insight, a peek into the other side that would allow her to relax and stop fretting. But more often than not she heard the same story in carefully buffed words: Your children are odd, and they have no friends.

The following week, Jake and Ellen were in the car returning from a small dinner party at which Jake had alluded no fewer than three times to the fact that Ellen was afraid. “Afraid of what?” one of the guests had asked. Jake, anticipating the question, relished supplying his answer: “Everything!”

It was not like Jake. He had seemed to exult in the chance to declare this great weakness of hers. She suspected he wanted her to see the guests’ reactions so she could know just how absurd she was to fear life’s endless choices. She was thinking about this, wondering whether to bring up his comment now that they were on their way home and hours had passed since he had issued it, when they hit a red light at the spot she had come to think of as the jugglers’ strip. Instantly a band of children hurled themselves into the street. Even in her dismay at all these young children in the street at night, she couldn’t help but be amazed at their progress. She recognized a couple of them who just the week before had struggled with bitten lips to keep two balls in the air and who now were gracefully and effortlessly tossing and catching three. Much younger children had joined the band. A little girl, four years old at most, was clearly just learning and concentrated on the one dirty ball that she hesitantly threw up a foot and caught with two hands. Within minutes tennis balls percolated high and low, children diving across lanes of traffic to snatch at errant balls or scramble between the wheels of the cars to retrieve their equipment.

“Jesus!” said Jake. Ellen realized this was the first time he had seen the juggling phenomenon. “When did they quit cleaning windshields and selling gum?”

In the weeks that followed, Ellen came to look forward to but also to dread the string of corners where the children, whose numbers and territory had expanded, juggled. She respected their perseverance at an art form that they seemed to believe would be more lucrative than windshield-cleaning. But she refused to give them a penny in her stubborn belief that you should not encourage small children to play in traffic. One Friday, on her way up the hill to the school, she braked in time for a young boy, maybe seven, to step carefully and importantly into the street. He had meticulously painted half of his face white. His lips were painted red, and the unpainted side of his face was smeared with blue glitter in approximation of a butterfly. An older brother, or maybe a strong-willed neighbor, had initiated him into a gang and had bleached his hair to prove it. With his worried eyes and single-minded concentration, he reminded Ellen of Danny. He was, inexplicably, alone. Up went one ball, two, three, four times. The fifth time he reached into his outsized pants and pulled out another ball. This he incorporated into the circuit of the first ball. After another four or five tosses he drew a third ball from his pocket and added it to the circle. Just then Ellen, who had been mesmerized by the balls’ motion, noticed that he was smiling, a shy, self-congratulatory smile that creased his make-up and showed his big white teeth. His body had become more fluid as his routine proceeded flawlessly. Toward the end he added a subtle samba shuffle, without taking his eyes off the balls whose path circumscribed his face.

When at last he snatched his balls from the air and looked up at the line of traffic before him, Ellen couldn’t refrain from applauding inside her car. He came to her window, and she handed him a bill, which he took shyly and turned to go.

“Hey, what’s your name?” she asked him. “Waldemir.”

Ellen reached out her window and held on to the boy’s wrist. It was gritty and sweaty, like the wrist of any boy who had been outside playing. “Waldemir,” she said quickly, before he had a chance to yank his arm away, “go back to school.”

Back home she listened from the kitchen to her children talking in the living room. Marisa had decided to run for president of the student council. Ellen heard, mortified, that she was planning a campaign, had enlisted Danny’s help in the design and preparation of posters. She was feeling out his reaction to her potential slogans.

“How about ‘Marisa Morgan, someone you can trust’?”

“I don’t know. What does that really mean? I mean, do they not usually trust the student council president?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s like, you have to say something everyone will remember, because they don’t know you at all. At all,” said Danny. Danny clearly felt the same way as Ellen. Because he was kind and loved his sister he wouldn’t dismiss her plan as painfully misguided, but he, too, was aware of the potential for disappointment.

“Maybe you should wait until next year when we’ve been in the school longer,” said Danny.

“But then I’ll be in sixth grade, and no one will elect a sixth grader to the middle school student council,” said Marisa, the strategist.

“But you might not win,” said Danny gently.

“But I might, right?” said Marisa. “Mom,” she called out, knowing, the way children do, that her mother was nearby – though Ellen had stayed conspicuously quiet throughout the discussion. “Don’t you think I might win?”

Ellen, leaning against the kitchen countertop, took a deep breath. “Mom?”

Ellen took two shallow breaths. “Yes, darling?”

Marisa’s face peered around the corner. She was a pretty child, finefeatured with dark eyes and a delicate chin. Her eyebrows rose when she saw her mother supporting herself against the countertop. “You think I could win, don’t you?” An invisible fiber of love and trust connected Marisa’s eyes to Ellen’s. In the child’s face a universe of expectation waited for the signal of approval to be transmitted across the transparent bond. Ellen closed her eyes until the flush of hot love she felt for this precious child passed. She opened her eyes and bent near her daughter, put her hands on Marisa’s shoulders.

“Of course you might win. Somebody will win, and it might as well be you.”

Marisa and Danny made posters. They spent an entire weekend with their supplies arrayed around them on the floor, scissors, glue, paper scraps and poster board, and as the hours progressed the stack of posters grew, each one slightly different, each one declaring in radiant bubble letters, Marisa Morgan, The Best Choice for President. Marisa practiced her speech in front of the family. They all had suggestions for when she should inflect her voice, when she should gesticulate. Jake read her passages from the manual he had used during a brief bout with Toastmasters. Danny added a joke to the speech that was later cut when they found that Marisa lacked comedic timing entirely. Ellen bit her lips till they bled. The family shouldered on as if on Monday morning Marisa’s spirit wouldn’t be crushed.

On voting day Marisa dressed carefully. Ellen brushed her hair longer than was necessary and, per Marisa’s instructions, carefully wove two perfect French braids. When she was done she hesitated at the girl’s back, running her finger along the irregular hairline at the nape of her daughter’s neck. Since Marisa was born she had had these faint swirls of baby hair, and even now Ellen, because she was her mother and knew where to look, could find these remnants of the baby in her daughter. Marisa was pale and nervous as she left for school. Danny was grim.

The day passed slowly. Ellen resisted the temptation to call the school and ask about the elections outcome. She wondered why her pride at her daughter’s courage was overshadowed by her dread of the inevitable outcome.

Driving to the school was excruciating; Ellen wanted to never arrive. As she pulled into the driveway she saw her two children sitting crosslegged together the way they always did, bent over a book, heads nearly touching. She could gain no insight through their body language. Was Marisa’s head drooping, or was she merely scrutinizing her book? Was Danny pressing against her more protectively than usual? Just then a boy walked in front of her children. They both looked up and the boy spoke to them, though Ellen could not see the boy’s face. Marisa smiled broadly and gave the boy a thumbs-up. Ellen was stunned. Was it possible she had won?

Ellen was trembling with anticipation by the time the children tumbled into the car.

“So?” she demanded, twisting around to inspect their faces. Their eyes were bright on her, teasing her, trammeling her maternal anxieties. “I lost,” said Marisa cheerfully. Ellen looked at Danny for confirmation and an explanation. He nodded.

“She lost,” said Danny.

“But my speech was great,” said Marisa.

“Everyone was talking about her speech,” said Danny.

Marisa squirmed with pleasure in the back seat. “Daniela won because she’s the most popular girl in fifth grade. But her speech stank,” said Marisa. “Everyone said mine was much better.”

On the way home they drove past the jugglers’ strip. The light was green, but traffic was slow, and as they rolled by, Ellen caught a glimpse of the original clown, the foreign monarch of the street circus, at curbside readying himself to launch his act. But instead of bowling pins he had in his hands a dowel of sorts, padded on one end with a wad of rags. He poured something onto the padded end, struck a match and ignited the tip of his stick. As Ellen drove slowly past he sauntered into the street, raised the flaming stick in an arc above his head, and she realized with a start that he was preparing to swallow fire.

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