Close to the Bone
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I’d been waiting for my wife to come down the stairs to help with child caring. Our daughter woke up at 5:30 in the morning, and we had been downstairs in the living room ever since.
“I’m not feeling well.” She said as she opened the gate at the bottom of the stairs.
“Yeah,” she plopped onto the sofa. Our little daughter came over, hugged my wife, and said, “You okay, Mommy?”
“I’m okay, honey.”
I looked at my wife. Lying on the sofa that was handed down from her grandparents, forearm on her head, eyes closed, she breathed heavily. We had done our best caring for our little girl. Our families were in different states, and we both worked at the local college, my wife as an adjunct and I as a tenured professor. Before my morning class, I dropped my daughter off at the nursery school and my wife picked her up after her third class. Once we came home, there was no time to do any grading, reading, prepping, or just relaxing. All of our attention was geared toward our daughter. Except this Saturday morning, when I had the television on for my daughter, made coffee, and graded five papers before my wife came down the steps.
I said, “I’m going to take Anna to Central Park today, after breakfast.”
She was too exhausted to argue. Last time I took our daughter to Lyons Park, which was just a few blocks from where we lived, there were all these middle-aged white women sitting on the benches and checking their smart phones, leaving their children to run amok the playground, running up and down the slides, throwing sand at each other, and jumping off a moving merry go-round. I was also the only adult Asian in the park. Even after thirty-plus years of living in the States, I still felt self-conscious about such things.
I answered, “You know how I feel about the local park.”
After breakfast I put Anna in the car seat and we drove to Central Park, which was on the other side of the big road, about ten minutes away from our home. I had the Jesus and Mary Chains on while my daughter watched the houses in the car window changing into apartment buildings until finally all she saw were tree branches. I parked near the pond, took my daughter out, and gave her bread slices for the ducks. Afterward, we headed over to the park.
Anna said, “Park, park, Daddy.” I opened the gate and my daughter ran to the nearest slide. The playground was crowded, kids of different shades and colors running around and screaming. The diversity made me feel relaxed, less self-conscious. Parents milled about. Some sat on the bench checking their phones. Most kept to themselves. The coldness that parents seem to display astounded me. I’d thought that the mere fact of being parents would make them want to talk to one another, unburden themselves the burden of being parents.
Then I saw an old couple following a young boy as he ran up a platform and swung across the monkey bars. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. Maybe, as grandparents, they enjoyed being parents for the second time without the worry of money and the daily exhaustion that came with the lack of sleep and the constant vigilance of keeping watch over the young ones.
Hearing my daughter holler in delight as she came down the slide, I turned and watched her run to the bigger slide on the other side of the playground. I followed her. There were a few African American mothers sitting on the bench talking and laughing.
“Lord knows how many times I dropped little Ava when she was a baby.”
The women were laughing, sharing stories of their mishaps.
“The doc said to be careful with baby Michael. But you got so tired and sleepy, that your mind wasn’t clear and you left him to fall off the bed while you washed the bottle in the kitchen. You feel me?”
I felt self-conscious as I stood near them and overheard their private confessions. My daughter went down the big slide a few more times before she got bored and ran towards a long colorful tube. Relieved, I followed her. She climbed up the side of the long tube and sat at the top next to a small light-skinned black girl. The girl’s hair was braided. She had on a pink jacket and pink rain boots. I thought it was the father’s doing, dressing up his girl like that. I noticed the father standing not too far, keeping his eyes on his little girl. He was dark-skinned, about my height, and had what seemed like a security guard uniform, with blue shirt, grey denim pants, and black working boots. We both followed our daughters as they ran to the platform in the park’s center. My daughter followed every move made by the bigger girl. If she climbed the steps and went down the slide, my daughter did the same. If she swung from the monkey bar, my daughter tried the same even though she wouldn’t be able to hold her weight.
For some reason, I felt comfortable with him. “My daughter likes to follow older girls,” I finally said. “She’s an only child.”
“My daughter does the same. She follows older cousins whenever they visit.”
We watched our daughters run to the sand pit. I usually didn’t like Anna getting sand in her socks because I had to clean her up afterward. Putting her in the car seat was a struggle as it was. But I didn’t mind this time. We walked over to the sandpit together.
“What’s her name?” I was surprised at my boldness.
“You have family around?” Again, I asked.
“My parents live close by us. I grew up here, met my wife in high school, and had our daughter right after graduation.”
“It’s cool you have parents around. Ours live in different states. Our daughter only sees the grandparents and cousins during the holidays. And you know, we have no one but ourselves to take care of her. It can be exhausting.”
“Yeah, I hear you. Even though I have my parents close by, they are usually busy taking care of my sister’s children. After that, they’re tired. No time for our daughter.”
I watched my daughter try to build a sand castle, emulating the older girl, but all she ended up with were little mounds of sand, which she destroyed with her hands afterward in frustration.
I asked, “What do you do then?”
“We do what other parents do. We sacrifice sleep and take turns caring for our daughter. I work night, and my wife works during the day. I’d be home sleeping on the couch and let my daughter play by herself or have the TV on. When you’re trying to survive, you don’t care what those studies say about children needing constant attention. She knows we love her by how hard we work to keep her warm and feed her.”
After a while, he asked me, “How old is your daughter?”
I said, “Two.”
“Mine is three. You know, there’s this program, a daycare center that takes in your children for half of the day. It’s free babysitting, man.”
I nodded. “That sounds good.”
He said, “It’s on the corner of Washington and Lee, not far from that Indian corner store.”
I didn’t know the store or the intersection. But I nodded anyway.
“You have to live in the area and your income must be in a certain bracket to qualify.”
I felt embarrassed, almost ashamed of where I lived and what I did for a living. Still, though both my wife and I worked at the local college, we weren’t rich enough to hire a baby sitter. And something else about him reminded me of an old friend from high school. His name was Vibol. We were both Cambodian refugees. But I had my uncles, aunts, and grandparents to care for me. Vibol had his mother who couldn’t speak a word of English and his two younger sisters in the third and fifth grades. He worked after school and on weekends. I had no idea how he had time for homework. He showed up in class looking bedraggled all the time. He always said to me, “It must be done. There isn’t any other way.”
He smiled, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if your daughter goes to the same daycare center that mine goes to?”
I said, “Yeah, it sure would.” I watched my daughter run after his daughter.
Then he did something that took me off guard. He reached inside his coat pocket, took out a notebook and pen, and wrote something quickly. He tore the page and handed it to me. “My name and number,” he said.
I quickly read the paper, looked up, and said, “Thanks, James. My name is Rithy. Hopefully Anna and Rochelle can have a play date in the near future.”
He said, “It’s almost lunch time. Gotta get Rochelle home to eat.”
He called his daughter, but I didn’t have to call mine, as Anna was following Rochelle back. We made the kids say goodbye to each other. I said, “See you, man.” I reached out, and he took my hand, shook it, and smiled. Then, my daughter and I watched them walk up a grassy hill. We walked to our car in the parking lot. I lifted my daughter into the car seat, tightened the seat belt, and gave her a kiss on the forehead. I got into the front seat, reached into my jeans pocket, and fished out the keys when the piece of paper fell out. I looked at it, thought about him and his wife, how hard they worked, but no matter how hard they worked, they’d make just enough to scrape by. I put the paper in the glove compartment, looked in the rearview mirror to see my daughter already falling asleep, and thought about her future. I turned on the ignition, drove out of the lot, away from the park, towards the neighborhood of single-family houses with large manicured lawns and backyards connected to a hiking trail, the neighborhood without sidewalks, the neighborhood without much color, one where I would never feel comfortable walking alone.
Bunkong Tuon: "I am a Cambodian-American writer, critic, and professor at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. I am a contributor to Cultural Weekly, as well as the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books."