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Authors: Lisa Gornick

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BOOK: Tinderbox
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“In a way,” Caro said, “my work with preschoolers is the applied version of yours
with your patients. I try to engineer for my children the outcomes—self-esteem, self-control,
a love of learning—that when missing send adults running to you.”

A few tables away, a man and a woman were trying to coax a toddler into a high chair.
The child squirmed, landing an impressive punch to the man’s jaw before she was forcibly
strapped into the seat.

“Ten seconds,” Caro said, “until that kid flings her plate onto the ground.”

Her mother glanced at the embarrassed and exasperated parents. “I had Adam and you
before the bring-your-kids-with-you-everywhere ethos. When your father was in medical
school, the fifties’ imperative of maintaining a baby’s schedule still ruled. He would
never have allowed either of you to go out to dinner with us at that age.”

The plate crashed to the ground.

“I don’t think of you as an engineer,” her mother continued. “That’s a bit Orwellian
for my taste.”

“I’m exaggerating. But don’t we need a vision of what we think would be optimal, me
for my three- and four-year-olds, you for your patients?”

Her mother leaned back in her chair and inhaled slowly, a sign, Caro has learned,
that she is mulling something over. “I hope I do better with my patients than I did
with you and Adam.” She glanced sideways, as though gathering her thoughts. “That
sounds terrible. I mean that I failed both of you in so many ways, not through lack
of love, but because I stifled you. Like all parents, I suppose, it was impossible
not to want for my children things I could not achieve. Because I don’t love my patients
in the same way, I can see them more clearly, let them unfold with less imposition.”

Caro walked her mother home. When they reached the brownstone, her mother took her
hand. “Coming back to your idea that you are the engineer, do you really think we
can do anything more than respond, encourage, discourage, what is already unfolding?
As I look back on my life, it seems like this series of tectonic plates, one layer
shifting into another, so that what I wanted at twenty hardly touches what I want
now. It makes me wonder if there’s some inevitability to it, something greater than
my own personal history.”

Her mother kissed her cheek. The kiss rested like dew. Two months passed before her
mother said anything about her project, which by then, with a little self-deprecating
smile, she described as the study of desire from conception to death.


At seven, Caro walks to her mother’s garage. Waiting for the attendant to bring down
the car, she studies the picture her mother left, which looks as if it was taken in
a photo booth. In it, Eva has dark recessed eyes, angry and scared, like an animal
encountered at night.

She crosses Central Park and drives north on Third Avenue. Beyond 100th Street, the
city changes, the surprise of a hill, the signs and voices all in Spanish. She parks
outside the building that houses the school, handing five dollars for watching the
car to Simon, the homeless man who, years ago, she tried to help get into a shelter
but who prefers his squat behind the steps of the bakery where every morning she buys
him a café con leche and a roll with melted cheese.

“Love, they have to take me out before anyone touch your car.” Simon makes a little
boxing move. It is already seventy degrees, but he is dressed in several layers of
clothes, one a hooded Harvard sweatshirt that was once hers.

When she first came to work at the school, twelve years ago, it was housed in the
basement of a church a block away. There were rats in the tiny yard where the children
played and peeling paint in the two classrooms. It took her a month to realize that
what she needed was a crash course in community politics and a grant writer. She invited
the city councilwoman and a friend who worked for the Ford Foundation to visit the
school. Minutes before they came, she opened the garbage cans in the courtyard so
the place stank and unscrewed two of the ceiling’s fluorescent lights. The city councilwoman
covered her nose and then told Caro about a nearby fire station that was being shut
down. The Ford Foundation friend offered to help Caro write the grants that led to
the station’s transformation into six light-filled classrooms with water tables and
sand tables and cozy book corners and an award-winning indoor playground in the former
fire truck garage.

Now, 120 children, ages three and four, attend the school. Hot lunches are served
family style. Because so few of the children have a pediatrician, Caro has organized
a liaison with Mount Sinai Hospital so that every week pediatric residents come to
the school. Vaccinations and flu shots are given on-site. Last year, Caro managed
to have the program extended to include the siblings of her little students. For five
years now, psych interns have run parenting groups for the mothers—groups that remained
empty until Caro thought to provide free coffee and doughnuts and to hire two college
students to watch the babies in tow.

Her father teases her, calling her East Harlem’s Jane Addams. In one of the many articles
that have been written about the school, a radical education professor from Teachers
College was quoted in a way that implied that the school is a Band-Aid in the community,
something politicians can point to and say, See how much we’re doing, when in fact
it is just a drop in the bucket.

“What knee-jerk baloney,” her mother responded. “It’s a line of reasoning that can
be used with any good deed. It reminds me of one of my patients who gets enraged when
her parents do something nice for her because it’s evidence contrary to her theory
about what brutes they are. You could make the same argument about my work. I treat
perhaps thirty-five different patients in a year. But if half those patients truly
change, who knows how many people they’ll touch.”

Her mother brushed her hair from her eyes. “Hard to accept that we can’t part the
seas or turn water into wine.”


Walking into the light of the airport, Eva seems only scared, a girl dressed in nappy
black pants and chunky boots with a fake leather jacket and an L.A. Lakers duffel
bag. She stares straight ahead so that Caro has to tap her on the shoulder to get
her attention.

“Eva? Are you Eva?”

The girl stands perfectly still. When Caro first heard that Eva came from the Amazon,
she imagined a hut surrounded by toucans and monkeys. She was surprised when Adam
informed her that although Iquitos is landlocked, accessible only by boat or plane,
with a jungle market where you can buy everything from crocodile meat to the hallucinogenic
ayahuasca, it is, nonetheless, a modern city with Internet cafés and banks, the avenues
teeming with motorcycle-driven rickshaws.

A look of confusion passes over the girl’s face. For a moment Caro wonders if Eva
speaks English, as her mother was assured by Ursula. Or perhaps Eva is experiencing
the shock Caro can still recall from her first weeks in Paris, when her college French
seemed unrelated to what she was hearing, the words stuck together so she couldn’t
tell where one started and the next ended.

“I’m Caro, Myra’s daughter.”

Slowly, Eva’s face clears. “I know. I know the whole family. Mrs. Ursula explain everything
to me. There is your mother, Doctor M., and you and your brother. His wife is also
a doctor, and the child is Omar.” Eva smiles when she says Omar’s name, revealing
a front tooth with a little chip. “I love children! I have a present for him.”

She drops the duffel bag at her feet and digs inside. When she stands up, there is
a red stuffed animal that looks like a monkey under her arm.

“Mrs. Ursula tell me the child is six. When I work at the jungle lodge, I babysit
many children five, six, seven years of age.”

“That’s adorable. I’m sure he will love it,” Caro says, though, in truth, it is hard
to imagine Omar, whose phone conversations at four were about the extinction of dinosaurs
due to the climate change caused when a meteorite crashed into the earth, playing
with this toy.

“We have these monkeys nearby where I come from. They are called howler monkeys because
they scream all night. Me, I am used to it, but the Americans, when they stay in the
lodges, sometimes they complain they cannot sleep from all of the noise.”

“I’ve seen photos of them.” One of her teachers had come back from Belize with slides
of howler monkeys, no larger than cats, hidden in the upper branches of a thicket
of trees—too unlike the picture-book monkeys the children knew to capture their interest.
“Let’s get your luggage.”

Eva points at the duffel. “I have everything in here. Mrs. Ursula buy me two jeans
and this jacket. My friend, he give me the suitcase. You know the Lakers?”

“I’m not much of a sports fan.”

“You know Shaquille O’Neal? He is my favorite player.”

“I’ve heard of him.” Caro picks up the duffel and slings it over her shoulder. “With
traffic, it’s about an hour’s drive back to the city. Do you need to use the bathroom,
get a snack before we go?” She points at the food court ahead. “We could stop and
get a sandwich if you’d like.”

The frightened expression from when Caro tapped Eva’s shoulder returns to the girl’s
face. Eva lowers her chin, covering her nose and mouth with her hand. Caro can see
the oyster color of her scalp. “Are you okay?”

“I smell something burning. There is something burning over there.”

Caro inhales. There is the slightest scent of cooking meat. “I think that’s hamburgers
on a grill. Would you like to get something?”

Eva bolts ahead so that Caro, weighed down with the duffel, has to struggle to catch
up with her. There is a bead of sweat at Eva’s hairline. Caro shifts the duffel to
her other shoulder and takes Eva’s elbow. “Slow down. You’re going to lose me.”

“I don’t like the smell…”

Caro points to the coffee stand on their right, the candy kiosk on their left. “There
are plenty of other places. Are you hungry?”

“Hungry?” Eva tilts her head. It is hard to tell if she is contemplating the meaning
of the word or the state of her gut.

“Yes,” she whispers. “I am very, very hungry.”


By the time Caro arrives at the brownstone with Eva, her mother has finished with
her afternoon patients. She double-parks as her mother comes down the steps. Eva reaches
in back for her bag and opens the car door. She stands still as Myra holds out her
hand and then, not receiving a hand in return, touches Eva lightly on the arm.

Myra leans over to kiss Caro through the open window.

“Will you be okay?” Caro asks softly.

“Of course—and thank you.”

Caro returns her mother’s car to the garage, and then walks home. Reaching her building,
she gives a half smile to her doorman, who, after seventeen years at the job, can
distinguish the residents’ personalities and moods: who wants to chat, who wants to
pass through the lobby without intrusion. A man who knows that during the twelve years
she has owned her apartment, she has never brought anyone home or unexpectedly failed
to return for a night.

She unlocks her front door and takes off her shoes. She finds it comforting that when
she comes back in the evening, nothing inside her apartment is ever altered. It is
the panorama outside her windows that changes: a cityscape of water towers and rooftops
with the Hudson River beyond, steel gray and white-capped in winter, a palate of blues
in summer. At night, the lights of Edgewater across the water; mornings, the buildings
brushed with pink from the eastern light.

Eva’s disorientation this afternoon had brought back her own experience as a foreigner
during the semester she’d spent in Paris. Eager to save money to travel, she’d eschewed
the dorms offered by the study program, taking instead a job as an au pair for two
children, five and seven. The mother had been a concert pianist who wore her hair
severely pulled back from her face and did not hesitate to pinch either Caro or the
children when she was displeased. Her chubby engineer husband escaped the pinches
by strategic retreats to a little workshop off the kitchen where he made birdcages.
The children would torment Caro by bounding ahead of her in the street and pulling
their mouths horizontally until their eyes looked as if they would pop. She had been
so miserable she lost her appetite, unable to swallow the celery rémoulade and boeuf
bourguignon the pianist made each Sunday, the buttery gratins and smelly cheeses she
served in the evenings. For the first time, her collarbones emerged. Misery gave her
a waistline. No longer overshadowed by belly and hips, her breasts seemed enormous.
The engineer took to watching her as she leaned over to tie the children’s shoes.

One night, she was awakened by a sound in the keyhole of the maid’s room where she
slept. The chubby engineer stood over her bed, an enormous erection pointing at her
face. She wanted to scream, but she was afraid of waking the children and receiving
a vicious pinch from the pianist. The engineer smiled at her. Even in the dark, his
teeth appeared brown. He offered her a chocolate truffle. Too scared to refuse, she
put it in her mouth. He locked the door and gently pulled back her covers. He massaged
the crotch of her white cotton underwear. She felt humiliated that her pelvis arched
toward his fingers and the crotch of her underwear grew wet. Chocolate drooled out
of her mouth. It was her first orgasm, though she’d not understood that at the time.
The engineer laughed. Afterward, she felt something warm and sticky on the tops of
her thighs. In the morning, when the children had left for school and the pianist
had disappeared behind the glass doors of the salon to practice, he handed her an
envelope with two thousand francs and told her to leave before
le déjeuner

Ma petite putain
, the engineer had called her. My little whore.

BOOK: Tinderbox
10.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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