Published on May 7th, 2020 | by Cheryl Klein0
Someone Else’s Kids
We met Jasmine* and Juanita* on a Sunday afternoon last May. Our son Dash was four then, grinding chalk into the sidewalk and making pastel dust. The girls from the duplex next door wandered over and started playing. I asked their names and ages (six and two then), and after their dad gave a nod of approval, they were in our living room. Dash performed a giddy show-and-tell: “Do you wanna see my monster truck? Do you know I have this big puzzle? Do you wanna see my mom’s car?”
We live in a gentrifying Los Angeles neighborhood. Our family rents, but my partner, C.C., and I have college educations and moved here after the dive bars started getting makeovers. Jasmine and Juanita’s parents speak Spanish. Juanita smiled with a mouth full of silver teeth. I fought the urge to say “The mini trampoline was a hand-me-down!” Jasmine and Juanita were too busy jumping and squealing to care.
Before that day, we hadn’t made much of an attempt to know any of our neighbors beyond friendly waves (social distancing, the old way). C.C. and I were busy urbanites with commutes and a Google calendar full of birthday parties and playdates and friends’ poetry readings and family trips. All the things that are gone now.
Dash loved the girls instantly and intensely, but we kept up our busy lives, and occasionally weeks would pass without a J&J fix. Then coronavirus became COVID-19, rumors became reality, and life as we knew it skidded to a stop.
But Jasmine and Juanita kept coming over. It was one of those non-decisions, initially. We were in the middle of caring for a baby we hoped to adopt and didn’t, and only a few things kept Dash occupied while we mixed bottles and debriefed with our adoption counselor: YouTube, string cheese, and Jasmine and Juanita.
Our world shrank, and shrank again when the baby returned to his birth parents. Suddenly Jasmine and Juanita were Dash’s only IRL friends.
I sent a long text to Flor*, the girls’ mother, and Jayson*, their fifteen-year-old brother, in hopes that he’d translate. I explained that we were working from home, not seeing anyone outside our immediate family and theirs, and washing our hands a lot. I hoped she would respond with reassurance that they were doing the same, and we could officially declare a pact. But she just said “Okay, gracias” and C.C. and I were left to speculate: We didn’t see people coming and going from their home, though it seemed Flor and her husband were still going to work. Fair enough. They ran a tight ship–a tidy house, food on the stove, the girls’ hair in matching French braids. They didn’t seem like scofflaws. But…were we?
C.C.’s Spanish isn’t much better than mine, but she’s bolder, and a couple of weeks into quarantine, she pieced together that Flor and her husband would be home for a month. We were relieved for the future of our collective health and playtime, and worried for their jobs, whatever they were.
Now, for at least a couple of hours every day, Jasmine, Dash, and Juanita play as C.C. and I take turns working in our tiny office with its bare changing table and nails holes marking the ghosts of nursery decorations. I look out on the driveway and watch our cat chase squirrels she will never catch, her bottlebrush tail twitching with anticipation.
The thing about this time–there are so many things about this time–is that we are all trapped inside with our inner landscapes. Without as many external forces distracting us and sending us pinballing in different directions, we can see how our own minds color our days, like the sun that makes our living room pale gray in the morning and golden in the late afternoons.
The world (by which, okay, I mean the internet) seems divided into factions. Team Sourdough meditates and does Zoom Zumba and fixes up the house. Team Shit Show posts memes and acknowledges collective depression and eats all the chocolate. Team Hero checks on older relatives and sews face masks. And of course there is Team Survival: the sick, the unemployed, every parent who isn’t quarantining with a nanny.
I start each day on Team Sourdough and end on Team Shit Show. I called an elderly family friend a few weeks ago, but that’s been the extent of my contribution to Team Hero. After the baby left, I was surprised not to be consumed by depression, at least not in its most recognizable form. But depression is a shape-shifter. If we didn’t know that before, we do now.
I am watching my relationship with the girls change from day to day, week to week, month to month. After the baby left, I was so full of anger that I joked to a friend, “Maybe I need to join a right-wing subreddit just to pick fights.”
Now that semi-weekly playdates had become daily, the girls were at home in our home. “Something smells like farts,” Jasmine announced when I cooked a pot of beans. Another day, the three of them chanted “Mac-a-ro-ni! Mac-a-ro-ni!” until I fed them. They were always hiding and demanding I search for them. I was mad at all three of them for taking up so much of my time, when wasn’t the whole point of having multiple children so they could entertain each other?
Sometimes the girls ganged up on Dash and shut him out while they played ten feet away. Other times, Jasmine and Dash ganged up on Juanita, the littlest. How was I supposed to treat them all fairly when their circumstances were so different? Dash always had the home turf advantage, the unspoken class advantage. But he was an only child and the only boy, and he often bumped up against the Elsa-and-Ana-ness of sisterhood.
When they weren’t fighting, the three kids seemed to take special delight in games where I was a monster or a mark, and I felt like a monster or a mark.
My temper flared when they acted entitled. This felt like a danger zone, because entitlement is the sort of thing that middle class people on right-wing subreddits accuse poor people of having.
I tried to set a few boundaries–to cap playdates at two hours, to not honor every whim–and I tried to sort through the anger percolating inside me, searching for a reason to boil.
Why am I spending all my time taking care of kids who aren’t mine? I growled to myself.
And there it was. The root of my angst could be traced back to ancient times in early March. All that energy and love for a baby I didn’t get to keep. I was a right-wing subredditer after all, an investor demanding an ROI, a toilet paper hoarder in a world of heroes.
Of course, the ROI with Jasmine and Juanita was clear enough. They were keeping Dash sane. Every annoying fight over who got to push the baby stroller when we went on walks was teaching him how to have siblings, roommates, significant others, coworkers. Also, I loved them.
Juanita, age three: dark brown eyes that go wide whenever she spots a bird. Loves trains and cars. Has a toughness born from keeping up with older siblings. When she falls she doesn’t cry, though she demands bandaids for the most invisible scratch. She used to be the most agreeable of the bunch. Then she turned three, started preschool, and learned English. Now she wants me to push her on the swing “higher.” This high? “No! That not higher. Push me HIGHER!”
Jasmine, age seven: light brown eyes, almond-shaped, a nose that crinkles when she laughs, which is not enough. Reads at a fourth or fifth grade level, draws excellent tigers and rainbows. Does not want to be pushed higher on the swing. I have never been one of those parents to refer to my child as a “mini me,” but I see a lot of myself in Jasmine. She’s artistic and persistent and anxious. With a small stammer, she imagines too many “what ifs”: “Wha…what if Juanita’s hands get sweaty on the swing and she falls off?” She keeps score like only an older sibling can: not just whose turn it is now, but who went first yesterday and the day before. When her feelings are hurt, she nurses a pout.
She’s the most mature of the group, and sometimes I expect too much of her. She has explained coronavirus (which Dash calls “grownupvirus”) with more level-headedness than many adults: “There’s a kind of flu going around and they closed school so we don’t catch it, and that’s why we shouldn’t touch trash on the streets.” Then she talks in complete seriousness about how the Easter Bunny only comes after all the lights in the house are off, and I remember she is seven.
C.C. asked the girls what their Easter plans were, and would they hunt for eggs with us. “We’re not doing Easter this year because we don’t have any money,” Jasmine said.
A few days later, I watched their dad hoist a ladder up to an orange tree growing on a public strip of grass across the street. I didn’t know if he was picking oranges to eat or sell. I didn’t know where he went for a few hours every day. I hoped, for all of us, that it was somewhere safe.
We dyed eggs at our kitchen table, the three kids arguing over whose turn it was to dunk an egg in the pink bowl, the smell of vinegar taking me back to my own childhood Easters.
We filled baskets with peanut butter cups and coloring books, and I hid real eggs and plastic ones in our yard. Usually we spend holidays with extended family, so all of these things were firsts for me, and it was shockingly joyful. I had no illusions that a stuffed bunny and a stuffed duck would make up for lost or furloughed jobs, or that the Target gift card we slipped to their parents would make up for the systemic inequities that had landed my family on the easier side of a pandemic. I was not on Team Hero, but maybe I was on Team Easter Bunny.
I work for an educational nonprofit that was forced to close its doors in mid-March. Since then, our program staff has pivoted with breathtaking competence, phoning hundreds of students, families, and teachers to ask: How are you? What do you need?
My job is to write blog posts and fundraising materials. A coworker admonished me for talking about “fun” in the organization’s emails at a time when our high school students had abandoned their homework to sell face masks on the street. I squirmed in the spotlight of her call-out.
And also, I thought of the morning of our egg hunt. The kids tromping through the foggy morning, egg dye turning their fingertips blue. Squealing when I showed them the tiny teeth marks in the plastic egg that a squirrel found first. Jasmine’s razor-sharp count of just how many baby-animal finger puppets each kid got. It was all there in one basket, the inequity and the fun, the desperate now-more-than-ever need for it.
On a walk the other day, the kids took up residence on a patch of grass at the base of a palm tree. They crawled under a blanket and pretended to play video games. Soon, they were fighting over who had a bigger bit of blanket. Usually it was one of the younger kids who got excluded when they triangulated, but this time it was Jasmine who got pushed out.
“I…I think I won’t come over tomorrow,” she threatened, as she often did. “Juanita never shares.” This time it was her own little sister, her own too-small life she wanted to escape.
I have been longing for an hour to myself, not just so I can write or read or walk, but so I can be free of people asking for things and telling me what I do wrong. I sensed a version of this in Jasmine. She wanted a space for herself.
I couldn’t offer her that in any real sense. Another Thing About This Time is that it underscores how small we are, how interdependent and interconnected. The supply chains. The economy. Even the virus, cozying up to our cells and making itself at home.
“Or maybe,” Jasmine continued, “I will just play with you.”
“That would be nice,” I said.
I imagined us reading together in a patch of sun, at a moment when the light in the living room was just right, before it shifted again and grew dark.
*Names have been changed.