This Halloween season Jasper has been to an unprecedented number of parties, which means that I have too. Sometimes I know a lot of parents at the party; sometimes I don't know any. Sometimes I see people I've been trying hard to avoid. On Monday a mom who'd just hosted a party introduced me to another mom. "Do you know my friend L?" S asked. "C's mom. She was at my house last night. The one in the blue wig."
"I noticed," I said, smiling…well, I was going to say slightly or politely but really I don't know how I was smiling. It could have been distantly, or coldly, or maybe the smile that I was attempting never made it all the way to my mouth, much less my eyes. What I do know is that as soon as it was decently possible I got as far away from L as I could.
It was true I had never met L, but I knew who she was. I knew her by the baby in a carrier on her chest. A baby boy with blue eyes and light brown hair standing on end like baby chick fluff. Which is bad enough. But it's worse than that. This is a baby who very soon will be seven months old. I don't know if he was born on April 2 or April 7; I was a little bit preoccupied then.
The world is full of babies and I know I have to get used to it. Mostly, it's fine. But this one…this baby shines on the edges of my life like a cruel sun on a house flattened by a tornado.
L didn't come to school much while she was pregnant but I talked to her husband several times about how close our due dates were. I said I was glad there would still be someone I knew at the elementary school in five years and he said that they were probably going to be moving. Too bad, I said.
I took Jasper to a birthday party on April 20 and the dad brought the newborn to the bowling alley. I remember the way my heart leaped when they walked in, the way your heart does when someone you are madly and unrequitedly in love with appears in the doorway.
Tomorrow is All Saint's Day. Or, depending on what culture you claim, the Day of the Dead.
If I were Catholic I would go to mass tomorrow. Since Protestants go to church once a week at most, this Sunday is when it's celebrated. Celebrated isn't really the right word. Commemorated is maybe better. Or observed. I have my own WASP-y All Saints tradition: I go to church and sing For All the Saints and cry. I have done this ever since my grandfather died on October 28, 1988 and was buried three days later. This year, if I go, I figure I'd better have a whole box of Kleenex with me.
On the way to school today I was trying to explain to Jasper what a saint is and I realized for the first time that it has two meanings. It's a person in the Catholic Church who has attained exceptional holiness, like St. Patrick or St. Boniface, but it also refers to the dead in a more general way. I guess technically it describes those who have died square with the Christian God and in the hope of the resurrection, but I have decided on a more inclusive interpretation. A saint is anyone you love who has died, I told Jasper. After he heard that he wanted to make sure that I include a photo of our old cat Gerty on our Day of the Dead altar, even though he didn't like her much, because he knows I did.
Before I met Jonathan I never celebrated the Day of the Dead. But he's an Angeleno and a Hispanophile and from him I picked up the tradition of making an altar with photographs, candles, food and drink. I've got lovely framed photos of my grandmother and her sister on their First Communions. I have one of my grandfather as a boy. Jonathan has one of his grandfather, once a member of the Canadian rifle team, pointing a pistol at the camera. I have snapshots of everyone else so that no one in my family is left unrepresented. Jonathan always tosses a group photo onto the table, one of people he knew in Mexico, many of whom are dead now.
Do we put Balthazar in an ornate frame in the middle, the prince of the dead? Or do we let his picture lie casually flat, one among the many?
When I watched the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the commentators made a big deal out of Pablo Morales's father. Pablo Morales was a world record-holding Cuban-American swimmer and Olympic medalist who was making a swimming comeback after a few years off. His mother had died the year before, and his father brought a picture of his late wife to the natatorium and faced it toward the pool when Pablo raced. The TV cameras couldn't get enough of it; every time Pablo swam they panned up into the stands where that tiny old man held the framed picture toward the water and pumped his fist. My adolescent and Protestant self was completely creeped out by what he was doing. It seemed primitive and fetishistic and I couldn't understand it. Did he understand that his wife was dead? That she couldn't really see her son? That the picture was just chemicals and pigment on paper?
I now appreciate that in Hispanic cultures they acknowledge that the dead remain in some way present with the living. Because of course the dead are with Anglo-Saxon Protestants too, we just try to pretend that we are more rational and scientific than that. I like it that families go to the graveyard on the Day of the Dead and decorate the gravestones and leave, not just flowers, but tamales and tequila and candy.
Pablo Morales's mother was the reason he began swimming, because as a girl in Cuba she had almost drowned. If she had been alive, she would have wanted to be in the stands in Barcelona. Why not make visible the belief that she was present in spirit?
If Balthazar were here he would want to see the lavender bushes outside the school, and the little yappy sweater-wearing dogs, and the bikes and the kids. He would startle at the bell, and smile when he saw Jasper.
At a Halloween party S found me and not-quite apologized.
"I totally forgot about the babies the same age thing," she said. "L reminded me."
"I wasn't even sure if she knew," I said. I had assumed they weren't aware of me. I was sure her husband didn't remember talking to me. My hyperawareness of their every move was my own thing. "I hope you don't think I'm a bitch," I went on, "but I just can't be around her." I said her, but I really meant him, didn't I? "I mean, never say never, but for now."
"Yeah, we talked about it and she said it's just going to be awkward," S said.
It's not awkward, I wanted to say. This isn't a job that we were both up for and she got and I didn't. This isn't a boy we both liked asking her out instead of me. It might be awkward for you, I thought, or for her, but I'd choose a different word, like devastating or intolerable. Maybe it's not fair of me to expect her to choose a better word, but I did.
It's intolerable and I'm not going to tolerate it. I'm going to flee every chance I get and not even feel bad about it. But it will burn from a distance. They did move, it turns out, but they're staying at the school.
Every time I see that boy I will think, that's how old Balthazar would be now. That's what Balthazar would be doing now.
Do I dare carry a picture of Balthazar around with me tomorrow? Would I pull it out and show it to someone? Would I show it to L, or to S, even if they thought I was unhinged, or pathetic? Would I hold the picture face out so that he could see the garden? Probably not. But maybe the picture will be in my pocket.