Wendy Bilen Seen (Los Veo)

I’m sitting on the couch watching a rerun of Wheel of Fortune when Dylan appears at the front door. His right sneaker, red, is untied, and he’s gripping a wrapped lollipop with his left hand. I see him before he rings the doorbell, so I ask him what’s going on.

‘I need a Band-Aid,’ he says, lifting his knee.

I wet a paper towel, retrieve my first-aid kit from the kitchen drawer, and meet him on the stoop. He sits down, knees up. I ask him what happened.

‘I fell down.’

His story checks out. The children next door have been romping around their yard for the last hour. Their family is hosting a party for the mom’s thirty-ninth birthday. Cousins, aunts and uncles are over. Meat is charring on the backyard grill.

I dab at his knee with the toweling and the cut emerges, a raw red line.

‘It hurts,’ he says.

‘I know.’

Though skinny and impish now, Dylan has a smile that will one day make girls blush. I open the first-aid kit. Seeing the Neosporin, I think that’s probably a good idea and squeeze a dab on his knee.

‘Minions or super heroes?’ I ask.

‘Super heroes.’

I sift through the bag of Band-Aids, trying to make out the pattern through the translucent wrappers. Finding one, I peel it open.

‘Captain America!’

‘Ooh, I like that one.’

The bandage covers nearly all of the cut, but he tells me he needs another one. The Avengers do the job. I kiss my finger and touch it to his knee.

‘Why you do that?’ he asks.

‘It helps it get better,’ I reply. ‘Okay, you’re all set.’

He gets up.

‘Tie your shoe.’

He clomps down the steps.

‘You’re welcome,’ I say, heading back into the house. Sometimes he says thank you, today he doesn’t. I remind him anyway.

Now that the weather has warmed, the neighbor kids have started relying on me again. I first met them a couple of years ago. I moved into this house in a largely Latino neighborhood just outside Washington, DC, after my second husband decided to move back to Chicago, and I decided not to. At the closing, the former owner, a young guy in a Terps t-shirt who had flipped the house in a matter of weeks, slid the keys across the table. He grinned and said, ‘There are some kids who are very excited you’re coming.’

That first day the children passed back and forth, back and forth, on their bikes, walking, their eyes on the moving truck, on me, on the chairs and boxes being carted into the house. They would argue later over who saw me first.

As I was installing five-dollar vinyl blinds in my upstairs window, the children stopped and stared up at me. I waved. They waved back.

That first week I discovered a fledgling Japanese maple being suffocated by an azalea in a flower bed along the fence. I took a shovel, clippers, and an axe to the roots of the bully. The two youngest children, Dylan and his brother Bruno, dragged lawn chairs to the chain link and sat down to watch as if I were a sporting event. The others rotated in.

I was a curiosity: a woman, by herself, in a house. They tracked my every move. I frequently looked at a neighbor’s house and noticed the blinds shift, the drapes flutter.

‘What are you doing?’ Bruno would ask. I might have in my hands a bag of garbage, a roll of tape, an empty box.

Or this: ‘Where are you going?’

‘To the shed.’

‘Why?’

‘I have to get something.’

‘Why?’

And so on.

As soon as I flung the screen door open and headed for the shed, they were at the fence, crouched and spying through a gap in the collection of wooden panels leaning there to resemble a privacy fence. ‘Hi,’ I said. They ran away giggling. Once I knelt down and started in on the soil, they returned.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Digging up these rocks.’

‘Why?’

‘So the flowers can grow.’

‘Can we help?’

I said sure, so the boys ran over, and I handed them trowels, shovels, and a crow bar. They dug up rocks and bricks, helped me tamp down the dirt around new bushes and give the flowers a drink. For Dylan, then three, I designated a special job: hauling dirt in a pail from here to there. We talked about worms and grubs and how to care for a plant. Afterward, we sat on the step and sucked on popsicles.

The next day: ‘Do you have any more rocks to dig up?’ And the next, and the next.

One afternoon I was sitting on my sofa reading when I heard the creak of the mail slot and saw the brass flap rise. I glanced over, waiting for the mail to drop, but nothing happened. I got up and walked to the door, bent over and looked into the slot. A pair of little eyes looked back.

Bruno. He was five, small and precocious, known then and now as Pelón, bald, because of his buzz cut and because he shares his father’s name. I told Bruno to stop looking through my mail slot and promptly ordered a pouch. Then he started shouting my name from his front yard. As I shuffled around the kitchen, sometimes I turned to see him at the back door. One night I pulled into the driveway at 9:30, shut off the ignition, grabbed my purse, and pivoted to open the door. I jumped. There he was, his face in the window.

Most of the time, they’re bored.

These are not the families of lessons and leagues, of school plays and play dates. These are not the families who plan birthday parties for school friends, with candy-colored balloons and streamers taped to bookshelves, or host sleepovers with silly games and big bowls of popcorn. These are not the families who spend days at the Smithsonian or curl up for movie night with homemade pizzas. These are the families of minimum wage and night shifts, of walking across deserts from Guatemala and El Salvador, of remaining in the shadows. These are the families of head-toe-head setups, of rooms rented to single men. These are the families where the parents are working or sleeping, and the children are on their own.

When they put the shovels back in the shed, they noticed I had a Frisbee and asked if they could play with it. Sure, I said. Later when I noticed a jumbo bottle of bubbles on sale, I remembered their laughter. The bin in the shed filled with rainbow balls, squirt guns, sidewalk chalk. Now they come over, and I hand them my keys.

Before I moved in, the children on either side were not permitted to play with each other. Sometimes they still are not allowed to go to each other’s house. One side claims lice, and the other, I don’t know. My yard has become the de facto DMZ.

Sometimes I don’t see the children for days. They are kept inside, or they come out to play after dark, at 9:30 or 10:00. Bruno and Dylan’s older sister Sofía appears then. Slender and pretty, she dons a t-shirt, sweatpants, and sneakers and plays one-on-one soccer with her cousin in the front yard or the street, yelling every profane word she knows. Sofía remains suspicious of me but has said she wants to be a vet. She has been driving her parents’ vehicles since age thirteen. Now sixteen, she just failed her driver’s test. ‘By one question,’ Bruno explains.

‘Get the fuckin’ ball!’ she hollers. The younger children run, squealing and laughing. The soccer ball strikes the fence. ‘Shit!’ a little voice yells.

These games can go on for a couple of hours, and sometimes the children are still outside playing on a school night at 10:30 or 11:00. Juana, from the house on the other side, tells me that Bruno has been falling asleep in class. ‘I overheard the teacher telling his mother,’ she whispers. Bruno’s mother says she will take care of it, but she is vacuuming an office building at the very time Bruno is playing soccer in the yard and shouting ‘Damn!’ when a particularly good shot is had. The elder Bruno, having risen for work at 4:30 am, is in bed.

When the children are allowed outside, they are confined to their yards, or mine. Sometimes a bike materializes. Gabriel generally has a fraying soccer ball that he kicks into the fence, which rattles like a tambourine. Kick, thump, rattle. Again. Again. Again.

We live across from a sprawling park, with a playground and soccer fields, and a creek perfect for rafts fashioned from sticks and leaves. I’ve seen an eight-point buck in those slim woods. I ask the children why their parents won’t let them play over there.

The reply: ‘They can’t see us.’

That first summer, when Dylan spoke very little English, he lifted his arm and showed me a constellation of tiny red blisters. Poison ivy. I had it, too, and stuck out my leg. I snapped off a stem of aloe from the plant I had dug up at my grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin, and smeared the cool gel on his arm. I later rubbed cortisone on the spot and bandaged it up.

Word spread. The children rang my doorbell or called to me over the fence, showing me new bruises, scrapes, cuts. They asked for Band-Aids even if they bumped but didn’t bleed. They asked for Band-Aids for kids I didn’t see, didn’t know.

Dylan stared at me blankly when I attempted conversation, but he could say Imma do it (I want to do it) and Ion poscul (I want a popsicle). He also learned my name, calling it out cheerfully whenever he spotted me in the yard, sprinting down the sidewalk to greet me as I pulled into the driveway. He called out and ran to me even during the rare times his father was home and outside with him. He ran over as his mother left for work in the late afternoon, calling out, ‘Bye, Mommy!’ as her bottle-blond hair disappeared into a white SUV.

One day, as he hung off the chain link fence between our yards, he called me Mom.

His refrain became ‘Wendy, look!’ I would look, and he would hold up a half-eaten cookie, jump up one step, skip the length of the driveway, drive a Matchbox car along the fencepost. It didn’t matter what it was. He just wanted to be seen.

Here is what I know:

The children have parents.

The parents have jobs.

Those jobs give the children access to shelter, food, clothing, transportation, and sometimes the dentist, the doctor, or the hospital.

The children, most days, get to school.

Here is what else I know:

Most of the parents cannot speak enough English to have a conversation.

Not all are citizens. Some have green cards, and others don’t have any papers at all.

Some don’t have insurance, for themselves or their kids.

The children have no bedtime, no regular balanced meals.

Juana and her older sister get up for school by themselves.

At six, Dylan still cannot tie his shoes.

At eight, Bruno cannot read and shows early signs of mental illness.

At ten, Julieta cannot tell time, does not know her months or seasons.

Gabriel has been held back a grade.

The children come to me whenever they can.

After the Band-Aids, the shovels, the popsicles, and the toys, I could not retreat. I was Julie Andrews as Maria on the night of the thunderstorm, staring down a half-dozen scared kids, all waiting, waiting.

So I took them along. We walked to the playground, where they pumped their legs, swinging higher and higher, and they spun until dizzy, their hair whipping and the blood rushing to their cheeks. We hiked through the brush, through secret drinking spots littered with Modelo cans, to the creek. We cracked open Milkweed pods, thumbing the silky down and releasing it into the wind. We scaled boulders and bounced on a fallen tree. I pointed out minnows, river glass. We waded and splashed, and pried big stones from the mud and threw them into the water, pleased with the deep plunking sound. I showed them how to choose a flat rock and send it skittering across the surface, touching two, three, five times before sinking. When Gabriel received a new fishing rod from his uncle, we practiced casting. On the way home, I shook open a plastic bag and instructed everyone to pick up a piece of garbage. ‘I found one!’ they would shout, holding up an empty bottle or an old jug and dropping it in the bag.

At home, I lined the patio table with newspaper and squirted paint onto a plastic lid, and the children decorated the rocks they had found at the creek, smearing paintbrushes with turquoise, fuchsia, and gold. They strung beads on elastic for bracelets. They drew paper-bag puppets, colored canvases.

They kept coming. They came for birthday parties, shoving poop emoji cupcakes into their mouths, and Christmas parties, where they used frosting to glue graham crackers into tiny houses. They coated pumpkins with glitter and waved sparklers in the dark, etching their names into the night air. They mixed brownie batter and puzzled out math problems at the dining room table. They ran dripping through the sprinkler as it arched and waved overhead, slurped big swallows from the hose, and passed their hands through the little rainbows. I took them on the Metro, to see the monuments, the White House, the National Mall. At their request, they went with me to church.

We sat and talked about why reading matters, about how to write a book, about fights at school, about God. We talked about eating vegetables, brushing teeth, getting sleep. We talked about divorce. We talked about being kind, about why we shouldn’t make fun of people who are different, about how nigger and retard are not words to be used. I interpreted their report cards for them, told them they need to read more, loaned them books.

The children pulled on me, tirelessly, and I let them because I couldn’t stand to see them ignored. Maybe because I’m a teacher, and I am cursed by the need to help others learn, grow, see. When I once said to my colleagues that I’m just doing what anyone would do, they responded, uh, no, we’d just say hello and go in the house. But this wasn’t martyrdom. In the same way that I am fueled by the look of recognition that spreads across my students’ faces, I felt a surge of joy at seeing Dylan and Bruno, Julieta, Gabriel, Juana, and the other kids light up with curiosity and pride, to hear them brag of getting an A after we worked hard on their homework, of unfurling a new patrol belt, of turning a perfect cartwheel. I once walked outside with the dog and surveyed the mural they had drawn on the sidewalk with the chalk I had given them. They had left me a message: WENdy is the bEST! I smiled, feeling a flush of warmth I knew to be love.

I also let the children pull on me because I have no children of my own. My body refused to join egg with sperm, and the second husband who left thwarted attempts to adopt. I continue to try to be a little girl’s forever family, but at forty-eight, my hope has shrunk. My motherlessness is the one subject that consistently dredges up tears.

I imagine the neighbor kids’ mothers think that I should go get my own children, but then I think the same thing about them.

One night I invited five of the kids over to watch the latest Muppet movie. I had to disinvite the youngest two after Bruno vandalized another neighbor’s car during a tantrum.

At 7:00 only Gabriel and Juana show up. They are eleven, birthdays three days apart. When she wants to, Juana can easily dominate any room with her wit and her disarming dimples. Though she carries a great deal of extra weight—gordita, her mother calls her—her size does not seem to bother her. She pulls her tight spiral curls into a puff and caps it with a big bow, looking younger than she is. At school she is enrolled in the talented and gifted track but at home still plays with dolls. Gabriel, a handsome boy with long eyelashes, is thinning out, his hair growing into longer wisps that fall into his face. Guapo, Juana’s mom calls him. He laughs readily and even becomes silly when his cousins are not around. Soft-spoken and sometimes reserved, he tries to be good, to be kind.

‘Where’s Julieta?’ I ask.

‘She can’t come. She’s at her cousin’s.’

‘Can you see my lipstick?’ asks Juana.

‘Yes, it’s pretty.’

‘I made it. Guess how.’

‘From Vaseline?’

‘From crayons. And Vaseline. Want me to make you some?’

‘No, I’m all set, thanks.’

‘I can make eyeliner, too.’

‘Really, I’m fine.’

I hear Bruno and Dylan outside crying.

The kids climb onto the stools at the kitchen counter. Gabriel said that he wanted to learn how to make pie, so I sprinkle some flour on the surface, plop down the dough, and demonstrate how to use the rolling pin. They become so enamored with the softness of the flour that they lose interest in rolling. They run their fingers through it and spread it around the counter.

I ask them to open the cherry pie filling. Juana looks at the can opener and bangs it on the can, not sure what to do. Gabriel sort of gets it, makes it around, opens the thing up. I hand him a spatula and tell him to scoop it all into the pie. As he pours and scrapes, he says, ‘What are those?’

‘Those,’ I say, ‘are cherries.’

Somehow we get the pie in the oven, and I tell Gabriel to clean the flour off the floor using the DustBuster. He looks at it, and he and Juana ooh and ahh, calling it the Vacuum of the Future. (Just a few days earlier, Gabriel and his cousins watched me load my dishwasher, astonished, having never heard of such an appliance.)

We start watching the movie, but they are giggling—somehow each conversation circles back to farts and poop—and Gabriel asks every few minutes if the pie is done yet.

The doorbell rings. In walks Julieta, back from the cousin’s. Her long hair is wet.

‘Oh, did you go swimming?’ I ask.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I had lice.’

She assures me that she has washed her hair, but I flinch every time she flips it against my sofa.

There is more giggling and actual farting, and Gabriel says, ‘I hope I don’t have diary.’

‘Do you mean diarrhea?’

‘Yeah, that.’

The house smells of baking pie, and when the timer beeps, I slice them each a steaming piece, finishing it off with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which melts and pools on the plate. They stab the cherries with their forks and gush over their accomplishment.

The clock inches past 9:30, and I tell them it’s time to go. It takes a good ten minutes to get their shoes on and usher them out the door. Juana keeps calling me Mom and then smacking her forehead. They carry containers of pie and brownies, Julieta and Gabriel fighting over who will transport and eat what. I tell them that if they don’t cooperate, I’ll eat it all. They work it out.

The little ones are still waiting outside, and the first thing they ask is when they can come over and watch the movie.

‘Another day,’ I reply, exhausted but secretly pleased. ‘Another day.’

Often my days look like this:

I come home. I change. I go outside to mow the lawn. The neighbor dog appears in my yard. Then neighbor child 1. Then neighbor child 2. They are swearing at each other. I tell them to quit it. Neighbor child 3 appears and wants help with his homework. He has lost one of the books I loaned him. I tell him he can’t just lose things he borrows. Neighbor child 4 starts scribbling on child 3’s homework. I tell him to quit it. Neighbor child 5 wants help with his homework and climbs over the fence. He doesn’t understand the basic math concepts although we have done them before. This frustrates me. Child 3 wants to come over but only if my dog is tied up. I ask child 1 to tie up the dog, and she is sassy and disrespectful on multiple levels, so I send her and her sister home. She basically says that’s it, forever, good-bye. Fine, I say. The other two still need help, and it’s getting dark. We go inside. I tell child 3 to remove his cleats. He holds the door open while doing so, letting in every kind of mosquito and fly. As soon as we begin, the children are called home.

Rules became necessary. When Dylan returns from three weeks in El Salvador, he saunters into my yard, looks at me, and says, ‘What’s up, bitch?’

Rule 1: no swearing.

One day, the entire entourage has congregated in the front yard, and Gabriel is holding a remote-control car. He says that the batteries don’t work. I grab some AA’s from inside, and the car starts right up, headlights blazing, and zooms around my driveway, under the gate, down the sidewalk. Everyone wants a turn. Everyone will get a turn, I say.

Dylan doesn’t want to wait. He grabs the car as it races by him. Gabriel attempts to take it back, and Dylan slaps him, hard. Then Dylan’s middle finger shoots up, and the other kids say, ‘Ooh, he swore.’

Rule 2: no hitting.

I ask Juana to translate.

The play resumes, and not two minutes later, Dylan clubs Julieta. I tell Dylan to go home and Julieta to take him. He swats and yells at the air, and at her, and by the time they reach the sidewalk, he is wailing. I tell her that he can come back when he is ready to play nicely. Translate. She says he is sorry. That’s good, but he can come back when he’s ready to play nicely. Translate.

Rule 3: be respectful.

A couple of minutes later, Bruno hits Gabriel, and I say that Bruno has to go home. He whines a long no and sits down, crying and refusing to move. Everyone has to leave, I say, and stomp into the house, sure they will never talk to me again and not sure I would mind. Two hours later, they’re back as if nothing happened.

Then I tried a flag system. I cut and stitched a rectangle from fabric patterned with bright yellow zigzags and threaded it onto a dowel. I explained to the children that I was not their playmate, that just because I was home didn’t mean I was available. When the flag was flying, they could come over. When it wasn’t, they should let me work.

On the first morning, I carry my laptop out onto the porch, where I hope to write a few pages before the humid air heats and sends me inside. Faces appear at the fence.

Dylan shouts, ‘We can come to your house?’

‘Is the flag out?’

‘No,’ he says, smiling his toothless smile. He keeps talking. I remind him I have to work. He runs off.

A few minutes later, Bruno appears.

‘We can come to your house?’

‘Is the flag out?’

He leaves.

Dylan returns, balancing atop the fence.

‘What are you doing?’ he asks.

‘What does it look like I’m doing?’

‘Can you put the flag out?’

‘No.’

Gabriel peers around the panels.

‘When are you going to put the flag out?’

He kicks the soccer ball into my yard and climbs over to retrieve it.

‘Later.’

Dylan returns to the fence.

‘Can I have juice?

‘No.

‘You can put the flag out?’

‘No.’

Bruno is back.

‘I’m hurt.’

‘You’re fine.’

He leaves.

One of their kittens sneaks through the fence.

Bruno, or Dylan says, ‘Wendy!’

‘What?’

‘Look what I got!’

‘Oh, wow,’ I say, glancing, or not.

They go away.

A few minutes later the boys sneak into my yard.

Bruno shows me an arm, a finger, or a leg. ‘I’m hurt.’

I inspect. ‘You’re fine.’

Finger kiss.

Juana’s Chihuahua sneaks through the fence.

Juana leans over. ‘Do you have paint?’

I engage, starting an unnecessarily long conversation about paint types and colors and uses, and picking said paints.

Soccer ball, Chihuahua.

Dylan, Bruno, Julieta, and Gabriel stand at the fence, pleading, ‘Can we come to your house?’

Mix, match, and repeat all day.

The children had been seen. They would not be unseen.

On Sundays, Bruno the elder polishes his pickup trucks. One is white, the other silver, emblazoned with a black skull on the side. Mammoth, they are. The children can squat and shuffle between the tires. Bruno is a burly man with an easy smile, tall and not unattractive. I see the way the boys look at him, race to grab him a towel, a bottle of water. When he disappears during the day, he works on cars, I think. In addition to the two trucks, the driveway and backyard are crowded with a Cadillac SUV, a BMW SUV, a BMW sedan, others.

He has a soft spot for animals, grinning widely at my dog or picking up and cradling the kittens that mew and scamper around his house. Once he brought home a black and white puppy for his wife, but she didn’t want it.

Just before I moved in, he had an affair with the single neighbor on the other side. He left for nine months, but he came back. Now, on Sundays, his wife babysits the little boy born of that infidelity.

I try not to judge.

I try not to judge when I see a driveway full of luxury vehicles and then child after child knocks on my door asking for glue sticks or pencils or notebooks. I try not to judge when I survey their yard, cluttered with old car parts and boxes and wires, and when the children report fleas and lice, and when they tell me they want to play at my house because it’s clean. I try not to judge when the kittens, unvaccinated, unneutered, unspayed, unfed, are left outside only to birth more kittens and die from fights, exposure, illness.

I try not to judge when Julieta is hospitalized, twice, because she can’t breathe at her house.

I look at this man, and the other parents, and I try to remember how hard it is for me to learn Spanish—mi Español es muy mal. I try to tell myself that Gabriel’s mother has a reason when she makes him stay inside and babysit the kids she is paid to watch. I try to remember when the children tell me the refrigerator is empty, when they seem to be supplementing their meals from what they purchase from the ice cream truck, that I don’t know what goes on in that house, that children exaggerate.

I try to check my ethnocentric arrogance, to set aside my ideas of what a home should look like, of what kids need. I try to set aside the void created by my infertility, to still the thoughts of cosmic injustice. I try to tell myself that love comes in many forms. I try, but still the anger rises, and still the children come. I want to shake these adults, yanking their faces toward their kids, and say look, or at least try.

I try to remember that I am not afraid of ICE, not working a low-paying job, or two, that I am white, literate, educated, privileged. I try to remember that I had parents who went to college, who understood for the most part how to educate and develop children. That I had parents who understood Girl Scouts and the Y, camp and pogo sticks and roller skates, who understood how to read labels at the grocery store and placed a full home-cooked dinner on the table every night, who taught me to say please and thank you and got me to the dentist twice a year. That I had parents who shuffled me around to youth group and piano lessons and softball games, who asked me about my homework, who took me to the library and made me read, who instilled the idea of college from the time I could talk and made sure I got there.

I try to remember that I am not learning enough Spanish to communicate well with these adults, to ask them what they need. I am not inviting them over for pie. I am not holding reading sessions with Bruno.

I try to remember that we’re all broken.

I try not to judge, and I try to remember, but then I see those children and it all goes out the window. Because here, it starts. Love doesn’t have to go to the National Gallery or pay for expensive dance classes, but love makes damn sure that a kid has a chance.

I walk into the fellowship hall. Everywhere, purple: dark, light, draped on tables and across chairs. Faux flower petals, vases of illuminated beads, clusters of balloons swaying gently—all purple. The family has gone all-out for Sofía’s quinceañera. I sit at one of the round tables lining the walls. Around me, families laugh and share cans of orange soda. Women rush in and out. Children hurry to the candy table, treating it like a buffet, heaping palms and cups with M&Ms, gumballs, twists of licorice. I sip on a Diet Coke and smile at people who look over at me, offer my best bueños tardes. Though I practiced felicitaciones, congratulations, on the ride over, I’m sure I will forget the word and blurt out something unintended.

When the door opens, I spot the children and step out to say hello. A tía is gathering them for their big moment. Julieta smiles through bright pink lip gloss, swiveling on her glittery kitten heels to show off her rhinestone necklace and sparkly fuchsia dress. Her hair has been curled and sprayed. Too often, with help from Sofía, she is preened into a look much older than her years, a look that makes me fear for her, but today I see the little girl in dress-up. She gives me a thumbs-up. The boys have been shoehorned into pinstriped pants and matching vests, dark purple shirts and striped purple ties. Their hair is shaved close, with some detailing, and Gabriel’s is slicked into a slight Mohawk. Each child carries something: a padded album, a doll wrapped in cellophane, a tiara, an embroidered satin pillow, a basket brimming with more faux petals. I take their picture, gushing with compliments (que bonita! que guapo!). Their sheepish grins communicate a swelling sense of importance that, just like their fancy clothes, feels strange and wonderful.

When it’s time, they process into the hall to hand the symbolic presents to Sofía. As the children pass, the partygoers chuckle and snap photos. Sofía sits shyly on a chair in a strapless dress, a wrap pulled around her shoulders. Her mother, fetching in a fitted blue sheath, fusses over her, placing the tiara on her daughter’s head. When a slow Latin beat pulses from the speakers, Sofía stands and takes her father’s hand for the dance. Shoulders now exposed, she hunches slightly, self-consciously, unaccustomed to all this attention. She looks down at her feet, which move woodenly, but she is lovely and no one cares. Every eye is on her.

Such moments exist, moments when these parents slather their children with attention. I have heard reports of birthday afternoons at Chuck E. Cheese, seen the kids pile out of the car red-faced and wind-blown from a day at the beach. These occasions matter, however infrequent they may be, but how long can they sustain a child? How long can Bruno remember what his father’s pride looks like? How long can Julieta recall the feeling of being cherished? How long can these children cling to a moment when they knew without doubt that they were wanted, enjoyed, loved? I wonder, too, how far an afternoon of ball pits and video games will take a child who cannot read.

I don’t know what the answer is. Many of the problems that need fixing extend far into thickets of social injustice. Some don’t. For the children—here, now—I want more. I want their parents to see what I see: children who desperately crave their parents’ eye and embrace. I want the parents to recognize that their children are the linchpin, not the obstacle, to joy. I want the parents to grasp that their children need more. I want this, even if it means the children no longer see me.

I open the door, let the dog out, and step into the evening. The children are outside, alone. Julieta circles the yard on her little pink bicycle, a green cardboard box as a makeshift helmet. I pumped up her tires a couple of days ago. She had been riding on rims. Pedaling with inflated tires was so foreign to her that for the first few minutes she wobbled and crashed.

The boys are playing with sticks, beating on bushes, on the fence, waving them in the air. Gabriel kicks his ball against the fence. Kick, thud, rattle. Dylan calls out, ‘Wendy, look!’

Now, and for as long as it takes, I look.


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