Rush of Longing
I’m sitting in the middle of a meeting at work when the sound of a baby wailing pierces the hallway outside. I’m in a small room, and we’ve left the door open so it won’t get too hot. Behind me, a wall length window is covered by slatted blinds. Sunlight peeks in. The baby lets out a howl.
I expect the people in the meeting to continue—this is a legal aid office and we see lots of crying babies throughout the day—but eventually my coworker puts her hand up. “I’m sorry, but I’m really worried about that baby.”
The room is quiet for a moment, then, “It’s been bothering me, too,” my boss says.
There are six of us in the meeting, all women. We ring a giant wooden table. My boss, my coworker and two others have children. I am childless. “I bet you someone went in for a consult and left the baby with Dad,” one says.
I frown. “Are dads really that bad at quieting babies?”
A silent look flickers around the faces of the women with children. Yes, the faces say. Clearly. My boss touches her chest, shifting in her seat. “God, that’s the kind of cry that makes your boobs hurt.”
I lean back in my seat, pressing closer to the window. I feel, like I often do with this group, like I have no place in this conversation. I love children, but I never pictured myself birthing one. When I was younger, I knew there were plenty of kids who might need fostering or adopting. But it’s been years since I let myself think about that possibility.
My coworker stands. “I’m going to go see what’s going on.”
She slips out into the hallway and the group dissolves into chatter. I sit quietly; it takes a lot for me to speak up at these meetings. I’m not a lawyer and have no experience in legal aid. While I can write a grant and am pretty good at marketing and PR, I’m only one doing these things at the organization. I spend most of my days working alone.
My coworker comes back, her mouth turned down in the corners, frowning.
“Problem solved?” I ask.
Two seconds later, the baby starts crying again.
Seven years before I started working at the legal aid organization, I was the director of an after-school program in inner city New Jersey. My kids ranged in age from seven to thirteen. Some were in gangs. Some had already picked up cigarette smoking and drinking. As the director, most of my time was allocated to dealing with fights and behavioral outbursts. Everyone needed me all the time. I was enmeshed; vital to the org.
One of my kids, an eight-year-old girl named Josie, had significant behavioral problems. Josie routinely got in trouble with her teachers. She was boisterous and struggled to pay attention. She was also inappropriate with her peers, touching them and being overly affectionate with them.
One day, she threw a tantrum in the program’s STEM class. The teacher asked her to participate in the building activity they were working on, but she refused. She crumpled up a paper and threw it at another student, then sat with her arms crossed, crying and yelling at the teacher. I was called in immediately after. I brought her back to my office, a cubicle in the library, and asked her to sit down.
“You know what’s got to happen,” I told her. “This is your third strike.”
“I didn’t want to do it,” she insisted. “I was just mad.”
“I’ve still got to talk to your dad about this, Josie.”
She leaned forward in the seat. She was barely tall enough for the chair. Her legs dangled above the floor. She swung them, her feet buckled into black, unpolished shoes. Her socks flared, like the brim of a blooming flower. Her eyes were big with panic and full of tears. “Don’t tell him,” she begged.
“You know my rules.”
She hopped out of the chair and came around the desk to grab my shirt. “Please, Miss. You can’t tell him.”
I removed her hands and re-directed, asking her to show me some of her math homework. I did it without hesitation. I was a good director. Confident in myself. Well-liked by staff and students. There was never a second of the day where I felt out of place.
Later that evening, I told Josie’s father what had happened. He was calm and didn’t yell, but Josie looked petrified. Still, I thought I’d done the right thing. Her father would deal with her and she’d come back tomorrow bashful and sorry.
Instead, she came in with a black eye. I noticed immediately when she walked into the cafeteria for check-in time and pulled her away from her group. “What happened?” I asked.
While avoiding my gaze, she told me she’d gotten it falling off a slide. A few days later, two of my teachers reported seeing bruising on her thighs after she put on shorts for rec time. I made a note of everything I’d seen and called the Division of Youth and Family Services a few days later. “I know it’s her father,” I said.
DYFS investigated. I could tell they’d been in the home; Josie’s father stopped speaking to me and looking me in the eye. But nothing else changed. Josie kept showing up with bruises. Her father continued to pick her up after school.
“Miss,” she said one afternoon, months later. “When are you gonna have babies?”
It was just the two of us. I’d taken her outside after a tantrum, wanting her to burn off whatever miserable energy was surging through her. It was spring in New Jersey, still cold but not like it had been, and around the small basketball court where we played hopscotch, the trees were perking, the flowers and weeds springing forth against chain-linked fences. “I’m not,” I say.
I hesitated. “Because I have you all. You’re my kids.”
She laughed. Hopped. “You’re funny, Miss.”
By then, I was a good year into my time at the afterschool job and I no longer wore the same confidence. I kept losing kids; one of them was hit by a car. Another was found with a knife and drugs in his backpack and expelled from school. Their families moved frequently. I’d show up one day and they’d be gone. No goodbyes.
“You’re my school mom,” Josie said, finishing her turn at hopscotch. She turned to look at me. She wore a puffy, turquoise coat. Her hair had been tied back into braids by another child and hung unevenly on either side of her face. “You’re a good school mom.”
I lined up at the base of the chalk hopscotch drawing, zipping my leather jacket. My throat was tight. I loved her so much; I wanted to take her home with me, to be her mom. But I also knew I had failed her. That she deserved better. “A school mom who’s about to kick your butt in hopscotch,” I said.
I spent the first semester of my senior year in high school living in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I worked five hours a day in an orphanage downtown, where I taught orphans aged two through eight. My kids were mostly indigenous. Guatemala had recently faced extreme political unrest and governmental corruption, leading to the “disappearances” of many indigenous individuals living in rural areas. Los Desaparecidos were well known throughout the country. Many children were left with nothing and no one.
My favorite of the children I worked with was a two-and-a-half-year-old named Ingrid. She had long black hair that the nuns tied back into pigtails. She still held her baby fat in her cheeks and wore her shirts tucked into her pants. She also had a line of cigarette burns scarred into her forearms.
Ingrid frequently threw tantrums. She would launch herself across the room, kicking and screaming and rolling and spitting. The other kids didn’t like her. She would offer them her snacks, then snatch them away last minute, laughing when they got upset.
Ingrid and I spent a lot of time together. I thought giving her extra love might mitigate the tantrums and bad behavior but it didn’t. She would kiss my face and cheeks, then turn around and rage and scream against the world. There was nothing I could do to fix it.
One day, I took her for a walk through the orphanage. It was an old stone building with an open courtyard in the middle. Carrying her on my hip, we walked around the courtyard with the sun shining down on us and a cool breeze lifting the plants that grew along the stone walls, reviewing our numbers and colors.
One of the nuns called Ingrid’s name from across the room. She held a baby who was, from what I could tell, no older than five or six months. We met next to a pillar. “Inge,” she said. “Esta es tu hermanita. Josephina.”
Her little sister. Josephine.
I looked down at Ingrid. She had this look that I’d never seen before. She was intensely focused on the baby, her mouth frozen in the beginnings of a smile. Her eyes were completely alight, like she’d never seen anything so beautiful before. She reached out, touching Josephine’s cheeks and nose. The moment was so intense, so raw, I could barely breathe. Belonging, I realized. Ingrid looked at her baby sister and saw something that was part of her. That was hers, for the first time in her life.
Being in that moment with Ingrid was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. For two whole minutes, I was encased in nothing but love and acceptance. I realized this was what she needed most, what would help with the tantrums and bad behavior. But her family, I found out later, was gone – her father was one of Los Desaparecidos. Her mother died during childbirth with Josephina.
The day I left the orphanage, I saved my goodbye with Ingrid for last. I held her in the classroom, thirty other kids playing around us. I pressed my face to her face, my nose to her nose. She sat with her hands in my hair. She smelled like the syrup from the fruit cup she’d eaten.
We sat like that for a very long time. Everything in my being wanted to stay. I belonged here, more than I’d belonged anywhere else. My only regret was that I could not give Ingrid that same sense of belonging.
“Me voy,” I said. I’m leaving.
“Te vas,” she replied. “Hasta mañana.” Until tomorrow.
A friend of mine has a teenage son that I’ve recently grown fond of. He is tall and gangly, cool in that aloof, teenage way. When we’re together, he tells me about the drama at school and where he wants to live and what music is cool now.
On the day of his most recent birthday, he didn’t celebrate with a cake; he and his siblings were at band and soccer and chess practice, all the things that teens want to do besides celebrate birthdays with their families. But that Saturday, I went home with his mom to see him. She brought out a cake and placed it in front of him. “We never sang happy birthday,” she said. “Can we? Please?”
She placed the cake on the kitchen countertop and stabbed it with birthday candles. I sat at the kitchen table behind them. The lights were dim and it was difficult for me to see between them, but I caught the flicker as she lit the candles.
The kids began to sing. The moment stretched long, hung there, like the moment with Ingrid. One of the girls took a video. They were all smiling, the glow of the candles on their faces, the joy that only kids have, and it struck me in the chest, this longing I thought I’d tucked away after saying goodbye to Ingrid, after leaving the school job and Josie.
They finished the song and he blew out the candles. The spell broke. The smell of extinguished candle flamed the air. For a while it was all voices rising and the scrape of plates and utensils and me there, still at the table, among the din and noise, suddenly feeling so out of place, like I’d been privy to a moment that didn’t belong to me.
It reminded me of a grocery store trip I took with another friend’s daughter once. I was fonder of her than just about anyone else and volunteered to babysit whenever her parents wanted a night out. That night, we bought chocolate and marshmallows for s’mores and were standing in the check-out line. She was reading through a magazine when an older woman behind me leaned in and said, “Goodness, she is beautiful. You must be so proud.”
I looked down at the girl. She was oblivious, her nose just inches from the surface of the magazine, her wild hair poking out of a hairband. I brushed a strand of it back. I liked that I could pretend, even for just a moment, that we belonged to one another. “She’s amazing,” I finally said. “I’m so lucky.”
The baby keeps crying. We’ve shut the door to the conference room now, but still her cries echo through. Now that it’s been pointed out, it’s almost impossible to ignore. And the kid is really wailing now – a throaty screaming.
“If Mom’s in a consult, I’ll go and find her,” one of the attorneys says. “That baby needs to be fed.” She rises, leaves the room, and the rest of the women break into chatter again. I sit there, my muscles taut. I want to help, but I can’t. I am not like the women around me. I am not a person who fixes things. I am not a person who knows how to make it better.
“This is why I don’t like babies,” I say. “They can’t communicate and it’s too stressful.”
My boss leans back in her chair. “It’s really three things. Either they need their diaper changed, they need a nap, or they’re hungry.”
“Yeah,” I say, “but how do you know which one it is?”
“After doing it long enough, you just know.”
I’m not sure I could ever distinguish a baby’s cries. But then, I knew when Ingrid hadn’t slept well. I knew that when she was tired, she had accidents, which she tried to cover up by using paper towels to blot at the stains in her pants. And then she would cry and deny it with vigorous shakes of her head when I asked her, even though I never got mad.
I knew things my kids couldn’t voice. I knew when they needed hugs, when they needed a snack break, when they needed to go outside and just be themselves for a while. I wasn’t their mom, but they wrote me books, drew me pictures, made me friendship bracelets. They bit and kicked and screamed at me. I cleaned up their vomit and held them when they were bleeding.
A few more moments pass, and then the crying stops. “Oh, thank God,” my boss says. “Jena to the rescue.”
I try to imagine what Jena must’ve done to pacify the baby. Offer him a bottle? A pacifier? Did she hold him in a way that made him feel safer? Relief spreads through the room, though my own tension lingers. I want to leave. I want to be with Ingrid and Josie. I want to be part of a family that sings happy birthday over cake in a dimly lit kitchen, knowing I am exactly where I belong.
We discuss some staffing issues before Jena finally returns. “Mom was in a consult,” she says. “And in this case, I think it was good to interrupt.” She settles at the table and we continue. Everyone rambles on about staff time and timesheets. Grants. New offices opening. I’m barely listening.
It has been seven years since I resigned from the school job and I can still picture Josie perfectly. I can still hear her voice and the way she used to cry when she got scared. It has been thirteen years since I left Ingrid in that orphanage and I can still remember the texture of the scars on her arms. How delicately she turned the pages of her books. How her hair smelled like baby oil when she leaned into my chest.
Chelsea Catherine is a native Vermonter living in St. Petersburg, FL. Most recently, she won the Mary C Mohr nonfiction award through the Southern Indiana Review and her book, Summer of the Cicadas, won the Quill Prose Award through Red Hen Press, set for publication in 2020. You can find her at chelseacatherinewriter.com.