There are days in mid-December when already, not long after lunch, the sky draws down so far that every reflected thing is shadowed, and from my steel-gated classroom windows, all the charcoal-etched glimmerings of the world outside—looming, spectral rows of city project buildings, horizonless rubble of wrecked and plundered cars, dingily curving swath of railroad tracks emerging from a sooten-crusted tunnel, and in the far distance, the forbidding, archaic, black iron footbridge to Ward's Island—all of this is caught in a wind-driven, swirling grit that seems to endow the whole dismal scene with the coal-smeared dusk of an earlier time. A haunting, deranged urban majesty pervades the desolate streets in this grim, pewter light—and, in its own way, is terrible and humbling, as if, forever uncannily sequestered somewhere in the harsh, high, scouring wind, are impassive, rebuking traces of all those from bygone generations whose lives in this city were foreshortened by bleakness.
Yet, out of just such a blustery, preternatural darkness one afternoon—in fact, tripping through it in an open-swinging, tangerine-and-hot-pink down jacket—came Marisol Delgado, by this time 15, dropping in, bopping in, for a Christmas visit. Usually, return visits by old students, always officially frowned on by the Midhattan Child Guidance Center, have about them such a desperate wistfulness that they are hard to sustain for very long. But whenever Marisol came back to visit, she would always have in hand something that she was so full of eagerness to show me, so bursting to display or discuss—an outfit she had put together for a party, a sheaf of favored new hairdo possibilities from hairstyling magazines—that within minutes, the classroom itself, and the younger children, at first only now and then allowing her a few noncommittal glances, would seem charged with her hard, ingenuous liveliness. Even when she arrived with a serious trouble on her mind—a razor fight among the girls in her group home, a duplicitous, out-of-the-blue abandonment by a boyfriend—she was able to confound the undertow of her life's stark givens with a mean streets show-and-tell so vibrant and infectious that you could easily lose sight of all the cheerless custodial transfers she'd been through, all those hurried, unpredictable, just-shove-everything-in-a-big-green-plastic-bag shifts from one place to another.
As it happened, I was in the midst of cleaning up the remains of the class Christmas party when she came in that afternoon, so she could see immediately that the school day was over. For a minute or so, she hung back in the doorway, in her nearly glowing down jacket, moodily taking in the seemingly simple scene: an empty elementary school classroom at Christmas time. Then, treading carefully around the sticky course of spilled soda and half-eaten candy canes, and the sad trail of rejected, donated Christmas gifts (year after year, so many of them somehow wrong), she said, with a kind of glum, low-grade, accusatory disappointment, "The kids—all your littu guys, they all went awready? And now you going home soon, too? . . . Oh, well! I'm just quick gonna show you what I might be wearing for New Year's Eve. Now remember—I oney said might. I could change my mind still, I hope you know."
There is a certain fashion category, a look you sometimes see talked about in fashion pages—"gamine chic"; and though I can't say I'm sure about all that it entails, I've always felt it could be that Marisol, with the necessarily rude charm of her catch-as-catch-can clothing swaps, and the ingenuity of her raffish, innately stylish combinations—Marisol might exemplify gamine chic in its purest form. So, for instance, on that miserable, raw midwinter afternoon when she threw aside her down jacket, it was to produce a longish, down-at-heels tuxedo jacket, its ratty sleeves elegantly rolled into cuffs; a bright red camp shirt with a flaring, raised collar; a pair of tight, black synthetic-leather pants; and yes, of course, boots—high black boots. The effect was a kind of slinky, playful, faintly rancid glamor—pure Marisol—and I began to smile.
"Now. First, one thing—just forget about the shirt. Don't think I ever gonna wear no stupid, littu red shirt like this for New Year's Eve!"
"You could, though, Marisol," I said. "I think it works." And as soon as I began to explain what I meant, bingo, we were that easily launched into a busy, familiar conversation, and her downcast mood of a little while before seemed absolutely to vanish. In fact, we were already more than halfway into a zesty comparative discussion of the dozen or so dressy white blouses within her borrowing or trading orbit, when the door of my classroom was abruptly poked open by the art therapist, Jessica, who called out in distinctly rattled tones, "Did you by any chance see my new fine-point Magic Markers? A whole humongous brand-new set I just got from Pearl Paint? With my own money!" But she was an officious young woman in her way, this Jessica, and catching sight of my unexpected visitor, she said, instantly, with the thoughtless, unmediated sanctimony of youth, of the newly professional, "You're not supposed to be here, Marisol. You know that. Patients are not encouraged to come back. You guys all know that when you leave here."
"Oh, hi! Jessica! Merry Christmas!" Marisol turned around to her with a high-wattage, dazzling smile and a silvery, cartoon-princess soprano. Then, as an absolute matter of course, casually, dispassionately looking over the young woman's clothing, she burst out in sudden, surprised admiration, "Ooh, I love your necklace, Jessica! . . . God, that is cute! Where you got it? The Village? SoHo?"
Fingering the beaded, thin silver strands now herself, the art therapist, placated, answered a little less stiffly, "Well—it was a gift, actually. From my fianc—."
"Ooh, Jessica! For real? You engaged, you getting married? You got a ring? I could see it?"
"Are you kidding? I wouldn't wear it here. Am I crazy?" But she caught herself then, and finished, "I mean, I come by subway every day. How could I wear a ring like that on the train? I don't exactly feel like losing my finger."
Blandly, Marisol suggested, "All you gotta do is turn it when you get on the train." And she made an inward-turning gesture on her own finger, adding, "Just turn it so the diamond part don't show. Lotsa ladies be doing that on the train. You could see it evvey day, almost."
Jessica, from the time she had come into my room, had been pacing through it, searching in a haphazard way, over surfaces and inside desks, for her mislaid Magic Markers. Distractedly, she said, "Oh, great idea, really! I mean, if you can see it, Marisol, is there any reason some disgusting person out there couldn't?" And determining now to take her search elsewhere, she offered us both a preoccupied wave and headed toward the door, over her shoulder, calling, "By the way, Marisol, I don't know where you're going, but that definitely is one incredible little getup you've got there."
"Thank you, Jessica, Merry Christmas, Jessica," Marisol flutingly sang out in that chorus-of-angels voice she could pull out from somewhere.
But when we were alone again, her face seemed to collapse, and I saw suddenly how much she had had to crank herself up just to have this trivial conversation. Finally, I said, "What's wrong, Marisol?" and I dreaded the answer, because I knew that whatever it was, there was very little chance I'd be able to help.
She had been sitting on one of the children's desktops, more or less facing me as I continued straightening up the room; she got up now—a stylish, sweeping movement in her frayed tuxedo jacket, and turned away from me, her expression at once pained and evasive. Glancing from the blunt-scissored snowflakes Scotch-taped across the windows to the pipe-cleaner reindeer and Santa Clauses dangling on a lanyard coil from the soundproof ceiling tiles, she said in a thin, guarded voice, "It's hard. . . . It's just—I don't know—hard, this time of year . . . without my mother."
But this, I have to say, truly took me aback. Because in all the time I had known her, through all the different foster homes and living arrangements she'd been in and out of, I had almost never heard her mention her mother. And I knew then that I had colluded with her—perhaps because I admired her pluck, perhaps because I wished to believe that of the many kids I had taught over the years, there would inevitably be a few, some unusually resilient few, who would be able to come through. For reasons of my own, I had unwittingly conspired with her in the impossible fiction that she was a girl who could manage—scrape by, somehow—without mother or father or the most rickety ladder of support. As if I didn't know better. As if such a creature could really exist.
Fumbling now, I said, "Do you think your grandmother could help you get in touch with her? Just so you could call her, talk to her from time to time?"
Because really, all I knew for sure about Marisol's absent mother was that years before, partly as a result of a breakup with a boyfriend, and partly in response to advice from the spirits," she had gone off to stay with relatives in Puerto Rico; when she left, she took along only two of her six children; and somehow, then, she had simply remained there. About Marisol's father, who would turn up in her life every now and again with a gift of sorts or a bit of cash, I knew that he had been a drug addict and an alcoholic, and, past that, that he had another family.
In a spasm of irritation, my old student frowned at me saying, "My grandmother? . . . Oh, wait! You mean Grandma—the Cuban lady. She was nice, pretty nice. . . . But then, I don't know, they din tell us nothing, they just moved all the kids outta there." So "Grandma" was just another passing foster home, another salaried stranger's rooms—not a grandmother at all. "Anyway, I can't call my mother," she threw me a dug-in, misery-laden glance. "See, I can't call her over there."
I was just dense at this point and did not catch the hints in her code of despair. Stupidly, I said, "There's no phone nearby where she is in Puerto Rico? It's that deep in the country?"
From the music therapist's office two doors away, for some time now, there had come over and over again, on an electronic keyboard, the sounds of a child plunking out the first line, and only the first line, of "Jingle Bells." Beyond that, from somewhere in the hallway, or the clinic waiting area, above the jangling phones and nagging in-and-out door buzzes, the irregular thumps of angrily hurled-down toys and violently slammed doors, there was now also a baby crying—shrieking, really, in an ascending, perhaps unsoothable rage. It was against this screen of noise, in its way unremarkable to each of us, yet so deeply insinuated with narratives of woe, that Marisol dully answered, "She ain't in Puerto Rico no more. She back here now," and she stared unrelievedly at the floor. So I knew we had hit the outlines of a familiar minefield: what she wanted to tell me was wired precisely to what she did not really wish me to know. Finally, still avoiding my gaze, she said in dead, uninflected tones, "She upstate. In jail." And before I could think of an answer—any answer at all—she thrust me an anguished look, saying, "See, she was just doing a favor for this lady. The lady axed her if she could hold some credit cards for her? My mother din know nothing."
I was stunned, but I only said, "Is there some way you could get to visit her?"
With a dejected nod, her nervously sucked lips becoming puffy and very pink, she said, "I been. Twice. My social worker hafta take me. But I got a new one now, a diffen one, and I don't now if she gonna wanna do it. . . . Plus, I don't know, my littu twin sisters, the babies? I'm afraid they ain't even gonna know me or nothing."
Oh, but this was such an old, sad story, the senseless scattering of brothers and sisters to foster homes from one end of the city to the other. As it happened, around that time there had been a flurry of publicity for some so-called innovative infant homes that had only recently been opened in Queens. These were what I had in mind when I asked, "Exactly where would you have to get to, Marisol? How far away is their foster home?"
"Uhuh," she shook her head, and unhappily began pulling at the gold-chain initial "M" around her neck. "They ain't in a foster home. They up there with my mother. Upstate."
"In jail? The babies?" This cry came out of my throat with such raw and startled horror that it took me a while to realize that tears had sprung up in my eyes.
"No, no—Wait, it ain't like that. It ain't that bad." The girl, her dolefully blunted expression stung back into anxious mobility, hastened to provide me the tattered comfort of her own experience. "See, those littu girls, they born up there. It's like—kinda like a place. Like a Center. . . . Sorta like a program, maybe. Oney you can't go nowhere. See, that's the problem." She suddenly sank down onto a desktop as if the air had been squeezed out of her. "You really can't go nowhere never."
This grim survey—her naive précis of tolerable misfortune—sent a true shudder through me. Because she had just enumerated every public embodiment of care, every mercifully intended social arrangement she had ever been shuttled through—a placement, a Center, a program: all these which had determined so many of the ordinary moments, the subtle, enduring, sun-and-shadow shapes of her childhood. Now, quickly casting her mind back, she had passed again through the jumble of reeking, overlit corridors, shout-echoing rooms, and comfortless long tables, only to find that each of them, all of them, could be likened to prison—itself so oddly familiar—feeling for her that, in the end, the clanging-door brutality of incarceration could seem neither alien nor alarming, just simply reminiscent.
Right then, I heard at my door the loud tattoo of knocks that signaled the start of the weekly staff conference. I knew, of course, that this summons was coming, and I really did have to go; but because I was not prepared to dispatch Marisol out into the streets at this point—in this state of unhappiness, blandly wave her off into the winter darkness—I said, "Wait for me, Marisol. The meeting'll be over soon, and then we'll go out for a quick Christmas treat. Pizza, Chinese, you name it." Not quite the moon, but anyway, what I could offer.
She gave me a pleased but surprisingly uneasy nod, at last guardedly saying, as her eyes traveled through the room, "I could fix your shelfs, your closets?"
I knew this request: I had seen it bring Marisol a kind of comfort, relief, pleasure even, to create from the perpetual hodgepodge of books, tapes, records, games, puzzle pieces, and arts and crafts materials that spilled helter-skelter out of my shelves a miraculously right-angled, ingeniously stacked showpiece of order. I sympathized with the wellsprings of the wish, when you are in turmoil, to wrest order from any accessible example of chaos; but to empty out the mess of my closets could take hours, and I had to get home. Already halfway out the door, I said, "Please, Marisol. Just one shelf—any one shelf, either closet," and I ran down the hall to the airless little conference room with a ragged, oppressed feeling I did not like in myself: I had to go to the dreary, pointless meeting, I had to take Marisol out for a treat, I had to rush home in order to begin a tedious round of overdue chores and errands.
Predictably, of course, the meeting was only pro forma that last afternoon before vacation, so after a quick run-through of each child's current-status summary, and the dutiful, dubiously festive passage around the table of a bag of Stella D'Oro cookies, I was back in my classroom. But even before I had entered it, even as I approached from the hallway, I could see that the lights were turned off and the classroom was empty. At first, I thought of asking Nilsa, the center receptionist, if she had happened to see a girl in a very bright-colored down jacket, but of course Nilsa was accustomed to people constantly going in and out, and moreover, the way the politics of the place worked, I knew it would only get back that I was encouraging "visitors."
So Marisol had just decided to take off—without a word without even a hint of explanation. I was standing there puzzling over this—my coat and scarf already on, my bus fare to hand in my pocket—when I noticed, on the lip of an open shelf that all of a sudden announced itself to my eye for its neatness, a scrap of green construction paper folded into a card, a sketchily crayoned, thin-branched little Christmas tree on its cover.
"Merry Chrissmas, But I had to run away from my place. Things was much two messed up there. If sombody ask you just act like you dont know, I did't went you get in trobble. Nex time I come over I cold bring some Make up, you cold look just like Babra Streisan. Beutyfull just like her.
But there wasn't a next time. She didn't come back again. And I couldn't look like Barbra Streisand even if I wanted to.
Maybe there is such a thing somewhere as a childhood that stands apart from the buffeting world—that can wind on in its own private sphere, even if that is imperfect. I've lived in this city all my life, and taught over a generation of its children: I have to keep that possibility in mind.