The car was idling at the curb. The cats were screaming. I was crying. I bent over and spoke softly to Elijah, who was grinning beatifically at me, and then I turned away. “Just hug him!” snapped Alana, frustrated. “You can hug him!” I wasn’t sure he understood; Elijah is very emotive but was very sick as a young child, which means he has a hard time with verbal language. And though he had seen me off to the airport many times before, this was different. All of it. The car service was different: This time it was a large SUV — an Uber XL, they called it — and the windows had all been rolled down. The cargo was different: Besides the two cats, I had four suitcases, three carry-on bags, and a tote.
The vibe on the street was markedly different: People were walking quickly past one another, their heads turned down or to the side. The day before, I’d watched, numb, as a well-off white family packed up the trunk of their luxury SUV on Pierrepont Street. So, yes, this time it was different, and I wasn’t sure he understood the finality of what was about to happen. And when I bent down to hug him, I did it quickly and cautiously, without much of my usual demonstrative abandon, and with my head turned away from his. I felt ashamed of myself for fearing that he might be sick — I even held my breath when I got near him — but I was also terrified. And even though I’m sure Elijah felt the marked difference in my manner towards him, he kept smiling at me, even after I climbed into the SUV, sobbing — even after I pulled away from the curb for what I believed would probably be forever.
I didn’t think I’d miss Elijah — or his half-siblings, Susannah and Ben, or any of the other kids in my New York circle, like Felix, Henrietta, Emmett, Ronan, Edgar, Lois, and Javier — as terribly as I do. When, last fall, I decided to leave New York for a new life in my native California, I hadn’t predicted that a pandemic would widen what would be an easily traversed (by airplane, at least) chasm between the West and East into a maw that I might never be able to navigate again. On that day, March 14 — gripped by the terror of witnessing my great city wracked by the first visible spasms of the virus outbreak — I was not just leaving New York but leaving everyone in it behind for good. I might never be back. I might not be alive. They might not either.
I realized I might never get to see some of my best friends grow up.
There hadn’t been any sort of goodbye party — too much attention makes me feel uncomfortable — and by the time folks started inquiring about one, there were already dozens of cases in New Rochelle, a suburb north of New York City where the outbreak in the tristate area appeared to have begun. People still weren’t wearing masks when I embarked on my grand multiday goodbye tour of the friends and children I love in my home borough of Brooklyn. On March 1, I went to see Emmett and Ronan at their apartment a few blocks away from mine; at one point, Ronan, the more mischievous of the twin 7-year-old boys, whom I’d known since birth, tried to tape the door shut to prevent me from moving. A comment from a friend under the picture I posted of Ronan’s attempt reads, “Bah when are you moving? If you have time for a drink before you go let me know!” Twelve days later, I was standing on the Brooklyn Promenade with Felix, Henrietta, and their parents, my face distorted with despair not just because of the exploding pandemic but because I realized I might never get to see some of my best friends grow up.
I’ve always had a way with kids, which is to say I’ve always liked them — and liked them more sometimes than my adult peers. Invite me to a crowded weekend afternoon party in someone’s backyard — remember those? — and within 10 or 15 minutes I’ll be sitting with one or more of the kids, engaging in play with whatever toys they happen to have, or, more likely, I’ll be a participant in an imaginary scenario or world they have brilliantly summoned to the surface. I like children because I feel both similar to them and envious of them at the same time — their ability to ask questions, even “stupid” ones, without judgment, their hunger and curiosity, the delightful randomness and detail of their observations, the way they wear their emotions on their sleeves. You know, the usual reasons why people who like kids actually like kids — and also have them.
But I don’t have kids; I don’t want them. Never really did. And so my relationship with them is both simpler and very different than that of, say, my friends with kids. It’s not so much that, unlike an actual parent, I can walk away from the children in my life whenever I need to, though I can ALSO do that; it’s that these kids represent both the traits I once loved in myself and the ones I later lost, sometimes for good reason. A parent’s job, as a friend once told me, is first and foremost to keep the kid alive. I see my job, such as it is, to mirror (and, in the process, be reminded of) the joys of being alive.
The fact that I love kids but don’t want them seems to some people to represent a contradiction. I agree that it feels complicated — but I am in no mood to explain or litigate it any more than I already have, at least not now. Another thing I’m not in the mood to litigate — or relitigate — is the showdown of summer 2020, when people, bored and frustrated by months of quarantine and federal dysfunction, began scrapping with one another on social media as to who has it worse during the pandemic: single people or folks with kids. Though I can sympathize with those arguing from both sides, what feels most important personally is not only how we help ourselves and young people process and survive what seems to be an ever-widening, slow-motion disaster — at least in the United States — but how the children in our lives can resituate us in the present and even the future…how (and I know this sounds corny) they represent, on an emotional and spiritual level, our very survival.
“When the germs go away…” is a phrase I hear a lot from my friends’ kids. When the germs go away, they explain, I will be able to go back to school. To my best friend’s house. To grandma and grandpa’s. To the park down the street. To the library. To my favorite restaurant. Maybe even to Disneyland. As spoken, these sentences are less wistful as they are declarative. The germs WILL go away. Life WILL go on. People WILL be hugged and kissed. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter WILL be experienced. For parents, perhaps, this is just more of the same cacophony that makes up their uniquely chaotic pandemic-era lives; for me, it’s a reminder that it’s not so much a question of if or how life will go on, but when.
I do most of my talking with my best kid friends over FaceTime, which is the absolute best (they take me on shaky video tours of their latest creations) and often comedic. (I am sometimes in competition with other digital screens nearby…and occasionally I will be hung up on or abruptly abandoned until my squawks attract the attention of an exhausted-looking parent.) A few months into the pandemic, during what I began to call FaceTime with Kid Friends, I began taking screenshots as we talked; I wanted to preserve, in my own little piece of iPhone amber, a bit of the goofiness and laughter and absurdity and openness — the life! — of the kids I love. They were not aware I was taking screengrabs — neither were their parents, whoops — and, to be honest, neither was I, by which I mean I was not, like so many of us who take selfies, posing, performing, or really being anything but in the present moment, save for the movement of my forefingers on my smartphone buttons. The results were illuminating not just for what was captured in the kids’ faces as they talked — ”Let me tell you about the awesome fort we just made!” “Did you know I just watched Totoro for the seventh time?” — but what was captured in mine: unselfconsciousness, curiosity, and delight that was almost, dare I say it, kidlike. (To be clear: with the infants and babies of friends I just tend to simply make stupid faces and coo.)
I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t say these video sessions don’t create a certain sort of grief, a grief of both distance and time. My kid friends are simply growing up and doing so “without” me, and nowhere is that more evident than in the FaceTime sessions I try to schedule with some regularity but which underscore again and again just how rapidly time moves at the same moment in history when the coronavirus has seemed to slow it down to a fugue-like crawl. Which is why, when my friend Troy announced, via text, that his shy 9-year-old son, Felix, was staying up past midnight and had begun to sprout dark hairs on his calves and shins, I wrote back:
“No NO NONO.”
In early August, I made the difficult and scary decision to fly back to the East Coast for a few weeks. The occasion was a vacation: As we always do in the summer, my friend Lizzie and I had rented a cottage on an island in Maine for 10 days, where we would visit rocky beaches and roadside food stands, skip stones in lakes and ponds, and eat a year’s worth of ice cream, preferably soft serve. (Per Maine’s mandate, I’d gotten a negative result from a COVID-19 test within three days before my arrival.) I wasn’t willing to give up my vacation (or my security deposit). But I also wanted to see Lizzie’s son, Javier, an energetic, somewhat feral 6-year-old at whom I often holler (he puts himself in physically dangerous situations) and always begin missing terribly about five days before our annual vacations ended.
A parent’s job, as a friend once told me, is first and foremost to keep the kid alive. I see my job, such as it is, to mirror (and, in the process, be reminded of) the joys of being alive.
I wanted to see other kids too, especially Elijah, whom I have known since he was born in a hospital on the Upper East Side and then brought home to an apartment just 12 feet above mine. I needed in some way not to just to see for myself not just that they were alive, but that they were continuing to thrive. Also: Would the kids remember me? Would they care? As I was driving up and around the hills of coastal Maine, Javier explained 6-year-old things about mathematics and physics that I didn’t know (or had forgotten over the decades). In another part of Maine, I got to spend a few hours with Rosie and her younger sister, Bella, who were staying at their grandmother’s childhood farm and had obviously really taken to it: they were healthy, happy, tan and in pigtails, like something straight out of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
In Hudson, New York, Edgar chattered and brought me toys while his baby sister, Lois, watched suspiciously. Emmett and Ronan had moved houses since I’d last seen them, and now in Bushwick they had a backyard fort — a real one with wood walls and a ceiling — they were anxious to show me. I told them about a new friend I’d made in Los Angeles, a spunky, whip-smart little girl their age named Goldie who lived above me in a house on a quiet street and liked to practice handstands and make pitchers of Country Time pink lemonade.
On a rooftop in Park Slope, I met Sam, just a few weeks old, who was held up and silhouetted by the sun going down over the skyline of Manhattan to the west. There was another newborn, Malka, in Ridgewood, Queens; despite the 6-foot distance I kept, I could see she had her mother’s eyes. On the evening before my departure, Susannah and her brother Ben took an awkward walk with me around my old neighborhood. (I’m weirdly nervous with older kids, perhaps a little bit the way I was weirdly nervous AS an older kid.) They told me about their plans for sixth and 10th grade, and I tried my best not to burst into tears in front of them while also emphasizing how much I missed them, how sad I had been to leave them, and how scared I had been for them…and for us.
And then there was Elijah. I went upstate to spend two days with him and his family. They had left Brooklyn for a farmhouse a few weeks after I did, right as the coronavirus really began to explode in the city. I’d had a hard time after I left New York and an even harder time after I heard the news that Elijah and his family had made the decision to leave. (Ben and Susannah would shuttle between their mom’s house in Brooklyn Heights and the farmhouse upstate.) Our family had broken up; now with their departure from New York, the place they’d lived their entire lives and fully committed to, it felt like the world truly was falling apart.
When I pulled up the gravel driveway in my rented Chevrolet, Alana emerged from a white, two-story Victorian farmhouse perched on the top of a knoll, and motioned to her left. There, on the side of the house, was Elijah, entranced by the gyrations of a garden hose turned on full blast. The ground around him was absolutely soaked and muddy; so was he, for that matter. I called his name; at first, there wasn’t much of a reaction when he saw me — a tiny glimmer of interest (was it recognition?) quickly thwarted by something he spied in the mud at his feet. (Turned out to be a worm.) I moved closer, calling his name, feeling almost uncertain and tentative as I had the day I’d last seen him in person, almost exactly five months earlier. He put down the hose and stumbled, drenched in water, toward me and moved to show me a turtle-filled pond on the property, grabbing my hand as if I had never left. ●
Correction: Felix is 9 years old. His age was misstated in an earlier version of this story.