“Look up,” you say.
My house sits below the flight path to O’Hare. On a clear evening, I can see planes forming orderly lines in the sky.
This plane is different. One wing has a red light on its tip, and the other has a green light. You say, “It must be coming from Mexico. They always have the Mexican colors on the wings.” You have spent the evening with my daughter, who you call mi niña, and now we stand outside in the still-warm August air, with the desperation of women who know that winter is coming. You tell me about tu viejo’s ailing back, about your son’s fear of taking the subway to his new school. And then I say, “Those are your people in that plane,” mistaking your observation for sentiment, for longing for a home you’ll never see again. You say, “Those aren’t my people. My people are here.” You point to the ground below us, to the battered concrete roadway of our Chicago alley, the place where our neighbors leave stained mattresses, worn sofas, old strollers.
On winter weekends, you shed your bleach-stained school uniform. You wear a sleeveless shirt, sneakers with no socks, tight dresses that are stretched over your stomach. You navigate the icy sidewalks on stilettos. I call Chicago an existentially cold place, but I don’t know how to say this in Spanish. So instead I tell you Odio el frio. In the winter, the sky in Chicago falls—the entire city is contained under a low ceiling as if a heavy bowl is pressed tightly over our heads. I fear that if I stay here too long, the gray will seep into my skin, into my bones. You survive the cold by flouting it; you ignore how the tips of your damp hair turn to ice in the January air. You walk faster from school to your car. You spend the winter telling me it’s almost summer.
This place is more your home than mine, even though I moved here by choice—for a job that delivered on its promise of upward mobility, an office with a view of the lake—and you moved here to escape a small town in Mexico, a job as a bimbo girl pushing a cart selling bread. I pass through this place like a ghost, finding a home in a few cafes, in a Pilates studio, in my too-quiet office. You throw a birthday party for your son and ninety-five people come. You spend the last bit of your savings on pizza, a birthday cake in the shape of a rocket, and a DJ who plays loud music in the corner of the soccer arena where your son is perfecting his skills as a goalie. You always invite me to these parties. I don’t know anyone there except for you and your husband, your two children. Your friends stare at me—at my unadorned face, my utilitarian shoes, my broken Spanish—but you don’t seem to notice. My time here is marked by plotting to leave. Your time here is marked by plotting to stay. I long for a house in a warm place with a big garden. You long for a house with a porch here in this cold city—you want to grow your basil outside.
There are only two people in my daughter’s school who have their own offices: you and the school’s director. I call your space—the kitchen—tu oficina because I know you like the officialness of this title, the way it transforms the makeshift kitchen into something grand. You have decorated the closet-sized space with ceramic elephants and leggy plants, pictures of former teachers and a small radio with a gangly antenna. This lets you forget the oven in the corner that was badly installed, the one that you burnt your leg on earlier this year, the soft pink flesh of your calf left with a deep purple scar. From tu oficina, you manage the school: shaming teachers who fail to return their snack trays on time, and directing el lechero to neatly line up the gallons of milk on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.
We become friends because my daughter is a picky eater. Her classmates happily eat the school lunch—hush puppies and sloppy joes. But my daughter eats only rice, apples, and grapes. She is at an age where she prides herself on refusal, so each morning I deliver her brown lunchbox to you in the kitchen, and each afternoon I come to recover it. In the mornings, you tell me about your husband’s sexual appetites, and about the internecine conflicts between preschool classrooms. In the afternoons, my daughter comes with me to collect her box, to request snacks: Cheerios, crackers, a glass of water, and to insist that you give her a besito, a word she learns from you. Twice a day for three years, ten times a week, we have passed her brown lunchbox back and forth. After the school management discovers our friendship, they alert you to a policy that bars anyone from entering the kitchen. Now we talk over a door that comes up to our hips. We joke—in my broken Spanish, in your broken English—that the door is like Trump’s wall, it carries the pretense of keeping us apart.
You watch over my daughter. I call you la maestra. The school has a policy that if a child is sent home with a fever, that child cannot return the next day. If you hear that my daughter is even a bit warm, you text me. Amiga, come fast. I speed the few blocks to daycare, before the school’s director touches her forehead again. She can come the next day, which means that I can go to work. Which means that I can be free. When my daughter won’t share with her friends, you report it to me later that day. No thank you, mi niña! you say. When it is my daughter’s third birthday, you take a picture and send it to me. She is wearing a paper crown, holding up three small fingers, smiling. You teach me the word comadre, and when I ask you what it means, you tell me it is someone who stays.
My daughter’s life has been made possible by the love of Black and Brown women who have fed her, sang her to sleep, pulled her hair into two tight ponytails, painted her nails, taught her Spanish. The first time I talk to you, you tell me that you have two sons, but your life is missing a daughter, a little girl you can dress in elaborate blouses and skirts. Three years later, you tell me this desire is gone. You get a prescription for birth control, and you detail how regular your cycle has become, how fearless your sex life has become. You tell me you don’t want anymore children, anyway, because you have mi niña.
Along the way, we become keepers of each other’s secrets. Mostly you tell me your secrets, because there are so many to tell. You will tell me about your friends, your husband’s infidelity, your earlier attempts to come to the US, your fears that your eldest son won’t be able to go to college. I will tell you that the only thing I like about Chicago is the food. I ask if you want to go to Argyle Street and eat pho. You tell me you have never heard of Argyle Street. “It’s down the street, amiga. We can go and get hot soup.” “Why would I want that?” you ask. “Why would I go to that street?”
I wait three months to tell you that we are leaving. When I finally tell you, we are in the elevator heading to your car. You have watched mi niña again, and I can feel my stomach tossing. The elevator ride is short, and I know it is just enough time for me to blurt out the news. Vamos a mudar en septiembre. A Boston. Para mi trabajo. You know how to bear pain. Your face gives nothing away. You simply nod. You hate sentimentality of any sort, and so you simply say Ni modo. That’s just how it is.
Two weeks before I leave, your husband falls down a flight of stairs. He is part of a crew of Mexican men who work for a building super—he installs appliances, rips down walls, prepares apartments that he could never afford to rent. He was carrying two microwaves up a flight of stairs and lost his footing. He lands on his back, crumpled, and you spend the evening in the Cook County emergency room only to learn that his hip is fractured. You take three days off from work. The kitchen is dark. I leave my daughter’s lunchbox with her teacher. When you return, you complain about the condition of tu oficina. No one watered your basil plant. No one cleaned la estufa. We don’t talk about the fact that your husband can’t work, that his boss won’t pay him for the five weeks he will spend at home recovering. I ask Qué vas a hacer amiga? You tell me that you are going to move to a bigger apartment, with three bedrooms and a porch for your basil plant, that everything will be fine.
You can’t travel. You will never leave Illinois, except to drive to Wisconsin Dells on a vacation that nearly bankrupts you, because you want, just once, to sit by the edge of a pool and to sun yourself. You talk about visiting your sister in Washington for Thanksgiving, a trip that you will have to make by car. You save your money—for gas, for an oil change, for tolls—but that money always seems to go on a chipped tooth, a birthday party, your son’s school uniforms. We both know that you won’t make the trip, but you like to tell me “In November, I take two weeks off and drive.”
In a few days, we will get on a plane: me, my husband, my daughter. We will feel a sense of freedom we haven’t known since we moved here, the feeling of leaving. We will shed this place like an animal leaving behind its desiccated skin, like creatures about to be born again. From the plane, it will be easy to see the street we lived on for three years, one block from the Lake, at the very spot where Lake Shore Drive empties into quieter two-lane streets. Our plane won’t have red and green lights, only ordinary white ones. I will hope you are looking up.
Jennifer C. Nash is the Jean Fox O’Barr Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. She is the author of The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography and Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality, both from Duke University Press.
Cynthia Weiss is studio artist, public artist, and arts educator. She has directed public mosaic projects throughout Chicago transforming neglected spaces into local landmarks. She has exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center, Uptown Art Center, Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, and Woman Made Gallery, among other spaces. Cynthia facilitates workshops in the arts and literacy, including with Habla: The Center for Language and Culture, in Merida, Mexico. She has been a Ragdale artist fellow and holds an MFA in Painting from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a member of the Chicago Public Art Group. In her paintings, collages, and cut paper installations, Cynthia explores themes of ecosystems at risk, and the need for sanctuary in the human and natural world.