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Today on the Train

Today on the train a man gave my son, Mac, a white teddy bear, really it was a girl’s teddy bear, and why did he give it to us? He had been watching us. We were in the back of the car on the Red Line, all underground, just a tunnel, no sights, just sounds, and smells and rumbling and sad looking city folks, not like the sunshine and panoramic views of the Gold Line, but we were there, an expedition to North Hollywood, where we never arrived, because we turned back two stops into the Red Line once we realized there were to be no views. What’s the point of a forty-five minute ride if it’s going to be underground in a tunnel? So there we were, on the Red Line, heading back, when I kept noticing out of the corner of my eye, a big, burly man with work boots and jeans, stealing glances me and Mac. Or was it just Mac? Anyway, he kept flipping us over in his mind and then coming back for more, I’d catch his eye then he’d catch mine and I would look away out the window at nothing: the sides of the tunnel, dark, or at Mac, and I don’t recall exactly what Mac and I were saying—probably we were saying something about getting back on the Gold Line. And I was carrying my Virgin de Guadeloupe yellow bag and wondering if people might think I was Hispanic, and maybe even Mac’s nanny, because Mac is so white, so very, truly, undeniably white—blond hair and blue eyes, and so on—whereas my hair is quite dark. And I was thinking, how would such a woman be sitting? At what angle would she hold her head, her chin? Where would she place her eyes? And where would she place them knowing that at times, like every twenty seconds or so, a man was examining her and her son in quick glances and that occasionally, she, too, was casting her eyes back on him, that they had even locked eyes once (twice now?) and that, while she was fully aware of his attention, she had chosen to look away from him, not dramatically, but casually, perhaps even scientifically, so that the man got as much attention as the window of the train, the same amount of attention as her reflection in it, the same amount of attention that she gives her own son. And it occurred to me that the Hispanic woman that I was, and also was not, would use a little less tension in the eyes than I normally would—that the eyes would possibly even be somewhat hooded, not out of malice or rejection, but self-respect, self-preservation. Whereas I normally go around with darts in my eyes, staring at things until they freeze and crack around the edges, this lady that I was, and also was not, not really, although I was her for the moment, had eyes that softened everything. And this man, the presence of this man, for some strange reason, had transformed me quite suddenly and mysteriously into this particular Hispanic woman. A woman with a blond two year old boy on a train who might be—no, who definitely was her son, perhaps by a very light-skinned man, not a light-skinned white man but a light-skinned Hispanic man—Brazilian, perhaps. I have seen every color of the rainbow come out of Brazil so perhaps we were Brazilian now, but how could that be? My Hispanic woman, the one I was and also was not, was not Brazilian. She was Mexican. Maybe Guatemalan. Salvadorean? Actually, now that I am trying to pinpoint a specific country, it seems ridiculous that I would ever even have proposed to be mistaken for a Latina, I look about as Latin as Rosie O’Donnell—but that’s not true because the other day when I was teaching the kids I rolled up my hair in a twist on the side of my head, and my student Victoria said to me, Kerry, you look Spanish, and just last week the lady who was moving into one of the bungalows on the property where we rent came over to ask if she could borrow my phone so she could call the phone company, and when I opened the door she stepped back, as if jolted. I half-expected her to back away, as if I were an apparition. She said, Who are you? even though we had talked at length in the back yard only the day before, when she was smoking on her back porch and talking to me and flirting with Mac and I was picking up dog poop in a plastic bag. Some of the poop stuck to the sides of the bag so I shook the bag so the poop would go down to the bottom, and when I shook the poop in the bag, she said in her husky smoker’s voice, like one of Bart Simpson’s aunts, Could you not do that please? I have allergies. And I said, To poop? And she said, To everything, and took a long, hard drag on her cigarette, and at that moment I realized that she was totally insane and that I must not have prolonged contact with her, and neither should my son, in the future, ever again, not if I could help it. But anyway. The next day she came to my front door to use the phone and said, Who are you? And I squinted at her in such a way she was able to read my mind, the thought in my mind being, Is this person on drugs? And she said, Are you the lady I talked to yesterday? And when I nodded, she said, Oh, Yesterday when I talked to you I thought you were Hispanic, but now that I’m up close to you, I’m thinking, ‘No.’ And I shrugged and smiled and said, No, not me. Then she asked me for the use of my phone. Or something. The point being, I suppose, that from a certain distance, perhaps I could pass. As Hispanic. And perhaps this man on the Red Line saw me from a distance (he was about a third of a Metro car down) and pegged me as Hispanic. We were in downtown L.A., where whites are the minority, and I had my Virgin de Guadeloupe bag, and he couldn’t stare, couldn’t look that closely, or he chose not to, was the kind of man who would choose not to as it is not appropriate to stare, to look with unflinching scrutiny, and so, because he looked in snips and snatches, he assumed I was Hispanic. And perhaps because of this perception, because he saw a woman who was Hispanic, I suddenly felt that picture, that impression, and so I became it. That’s all I’m saying. And as Mac and I were walking hand and hand toward the subway doors so that we could transfer to the Gold Line and see sunshine once again, and as we were trying to walk and not to fall over while the train was slowing down as it entered station, the man said, How old? And I replied, Two and a half, and he nodded in this inward and knowing way, and I wondered what he was thinking about. And he said, I have four at home. And I nodded and we both looked down at the ground. And I thought, He looks kind. Very big and kind. And with that, he opened his back pack, and in it was something fluffy and white. A teddy bear. A pink ribbon around its neck. Big. Plush. Expensive. New. A blank gift tag around its neck. And he pulled it out of the pack. And I said, Oh my, or something, because it was clear he would give it to Mac, and Mac was looking up, already wanting the bear, which was twice the size of his own head. And I said, But what about your kids? Don’t they want it? And he said, I have two girls, they’ll fight over it. And he gave Mac the bear, and I said, Oh, thank you so much and Happy New Year, because the train was slowing down and soon the doors would open and I would never see him again, Have a really happy New Year, and then I bent over to Mac and whispered in his ear, What do you say? and Mac looked up at the man and said Thank Lu, and just as he said it the doors hissed open and the hiss of the doors overshadowed his words so that nobody but me could hear what he said, but the man was watching and waiting for Mac’s thank you and I suppose he could read Mac’s lips, because he nodded and looked back at me and I said Goodbye! and Thank you! again, and we bumbled out of the train, Mac clutching this snowy white bear, so plush and pristine and so very, brightly, unnaturally white on the dirty platform of the dark subway tunnel, where we made our way past every person and tile and banister and trash can and escalator railing awash in dust and soot and grime, Mac holding onto this white teddy bear, so plush, so un-sooty, so bright and dazzling against everything dingy and tired, holding it like a cloud like a promise like a dream, like something untouched, and everywhere we went people smiled at the sight of this boy holding onto a bear so strange and white it practically glowed in the tunnels beneath Los Angeles.