Off to a Good Start
Today was the first day of kindergarten for Leila. Last night we picked out her clothes and she laid them on the foot of her bed like a flattened cartoon. She stuffed the socks into the sneakers herself. We blow-dried her hair. In the morning we all overslept and had to forgo breakfast. I hopped around putting together ensembles of snacks for Leila and her older brother, Christian. No matter how well I plan, there is always just one more thing I forget to do, or one less thing I have in supply. Christian still needed notebooks. I figured we could make a stop on the way to school. Too bad for me though, the convenience store didn’t open until eight and they had to be at school by then.
We arrived at their school and crossed the street in between parked cars, and were nearly hit. Someone called out of their window, “That’s what cross-walks are for!” as if I didn’t know that. But they couldn’t see what I saw: the hopeful grandparents across the street, waiting with their small dog and coffees in hand to see Leila off at her new school. Leila was joy in the flesh. Exuberant, proud of her family, the broken parts not so sharply in sight this day. Her daddy was not there as he promised to be, but almost everyone she loved in the world was. Where he was we couldn’t be sure. This was the latest episode of his being on what we called a run.
Christian said hello and hugged Leila’s grandmother—his own step-grandmother—but then just as quickly ran to the entrance of the school. We took photos. After saying good-bye to my ex’s parents we went into her new schoolyard where she recognized the boy from last weekend’s soccer game, when Leila had been dressed as a character she referred to as Jacob.
“Remember my brother? He had long hair? You played with him!” She raised her eyebrows, nodding her head at him as she said it. Recently, Leila had begun to dress in her brother’s clothes. Whenever she was in full garb she demanded with very serious tones that we refer to her only as Jacob, who was not Leila but instead an orphan whose parents died in a fire. I had read up on the coping mechanisms children develop when dealing with divorce and other family disruptions, so despite my mother’s evangelical horror at my possibly encouraging an alternate lifestyle, I let her be whomever she chose.
A small bell chimed and the children started to line up by their classroom door. Dozens of parents stood in a semi circle around them with cellphones and tablets aimed at their children. Just then, Leila stepped in front of all the others to be the first in line, and gently the teacher guided her behind another girl. Leila handed her teacher a magenta cloth bag with supplies for the classroom—a checklist I was only able to complete in time because my dear friend took it from me and bought everything herself.
“Mom! I made a friend!” Leila called out, now in her rightful place in line. A few parents turned and smiled at me in approval. None of the parents this year seem to be originally from Somerville, the small city outside of Boston that had been home to many first and second generation immigrants like myself: Brazilians, Portuguese, Haitians, the sizeable brood of Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and a mixture of the last two. I felt glad they were not from here. But I wondered—and only for a moment—what they thought of me, a young woman, alone, with two children in the world long before her thirtieth birthday approached. It may not have been a strange sight even ten years ago, but recently, as the prices of the homes increased in our city, so did the residents who did not start families until they were much older.
I made my way to leave, watching the whole time to see if the man who had once prided himself on being my husband and Leila’s father would appear, but he didn’t. It seemed even as he had recently become unrecognizable, I would always see my daughter’s father as the boy who courted me with poems. The same one who encouraged me to read authors I hadn’t heard of, and tried (and failed) to get me interested in Tai chi. And despite his addiction he was one of the greatest loves of my life. He was the type of friend that I could tell my serious woes and dreams to and knew he would never laugh or dismiss them. He helped care for my son that was not his son. We got married just a year after we started dating. We said vows to one another in the living room of a Justice of the Peace’s home in Winchester one snowy night in January. After that surreal moment of hearing the man, a stranger really, tell us that we stood before him and God as Man and Wife, I followed behind him back to his dilapidated Camry. I slipped and he caught me without ever looking back and I thought to myself, what a man I’ve got.
I drove to the nearest store for Christian’s school supplies. While I was browsing, I noticed to my right a man swaying on his feet as if his legs were cables to a bridge not quite steady from the traffic. He was probably in his late thirties, dressed in sweat pants and sneakers and a white hat with Nike dashed across. His hands moved like they were underwater; slowly, too slowly, he reached for something in front of him. I didn’t know this man but right at that moment I hated him. I knew what pooled in his blood so that he lost his spine. I knew with certainty that he was the way he was because, through a needle pressed into an open vein, he had let his soul pour out while venom made its way in. A classic, rudimentary junkie.
Back at the school, I carried the supplies in the CVS bag and debated with myself whether to take them out so that maybe the woman at the front desk would think my son forgot his things at home, rather than see that his mother was at fault for not having the foresight to buy a notebook or pencil before the first day of school.
“Do you have pencils?” I asked this morning when we made our first unsuccessful trip to the store.
“No, I’ll just borrow one from someone.”
“Christian! It’s the first day of school. You need a pencil of your own!” I stretched my neck to see him in the rear view mirror.
He chuckled softly but kept his eyes downcast in the backseat of the car. Despite my error, we were in high spirits this morning. While we drove we talked about the upcoming Brazilian Independence Day and the acquisition of the Portuguese language. When I started to say Portuguese explorers brought their language to many countries around the world he interrupted me to say, “I know, like Spain did for Costa Rica.”
Lately, he said Costa Rica whenever he could find a place for it in conversation. It was where I had taken him, this past summer, and it had been just the two of us. We had slept in the jungle in an open-air house, run by a couple who in a past life were Christmas tree farmers in Washington State. There in our rented jungle home, on matching hammocks, we read late into the night and squealed in fake terror at the frogs that would climb up the walls of our rainwater hot tub. We watched ants in long formations carrying impossibly large particles of leaves over their tiny bodies, and marveled at the furious rains that came at night without any foreshadowing during the hours of hot, tropical sunlight.
For the rest of our drive we talked about his soccer game this weekend and his need to be more aggressive on the offense, and he rebutted my argument, saying that defense was the most important part of the game. I was sorry the whole morning that I had forgotten his school supplies.
Back at my apartment, I fought my restlessness by trying to read a book. Then, I got the text message from a friend that made me have to stop everything. She told me in so many words that our mutual friend Mike had died from a drug overdose, adding to the long list of deaths that had already occurred in our circle of friends.
I packed a bowl; I used my fingers to disperse the feral scented bud into a hollowed-out apple. Taking deep breaths I let the smoke flatten along my lungs walls. When I was seventeen I made a vow to stop smoking weed. Ten years later I picked it up again, in the most casual sense. Not in the overwhelming burnout way I had first engaged with it, thrilled to go through the day stoned, leaving angsty-teenaged poems on the backs of menus at the mall food court. Now I respected its properties, understood that being under its influence for long periods was a way to make my world hazy, and that it would have the odd effect of making my faith go belly up.
I waited for it to reach my overworked mind. I made my way to the shower. Once under the water I smoothed thick layers of soap on my skin, like when I was small and tried to imagine what my skin would be like if it were white like my mother’s. I noticed my hands were clasped together at my heart. I tried to shake them free but still they came together over and over in an act that seemed like prayer.
Fabia Oliveria is a recent graduate from Lesley University’s MFA program with a focus in creative non-fiction. She is a first generation Brazilian American and the first in her family to pursue a bachelor’s and master’s degree. She works as a bartender on the weekends. She dreams of representing a population that has yet to be heard as effusively as any other represented people in the literary domain.