Kids can be eerily perceptive sometimes, even when they miss the point entirely.
They must smell her energy on me today. How else can you explain it? Weeks go by with no mention of Miss Marisol, then today she pops up at the forefront of their minds. Why? In their effortless wisdom, are they picking up some leftover traces of her presence in the air around my head?
Since the breakup, I rarely mention Miss Marisol, and the girls are bringing her name up less and less often. But just last night I saw her again, for the first time in weeks. There are all of the accounts to settle still– the retirement savings and the insurance plans and all the small intricacies of married life that feel not-at-all-intimate until you take the sledgehammer to them at the end. Last night we met to share that sledgehammer, as well as one last meal together.
We got Bon Mi and ate them on the floor of my apartment before booting up the screens to split the numbers. Her place has furniture; it might have been a nicer place to meet than mine if it did not also have Natalia inside it. The new woman quit her job and moved in before my smell wore off the bed that had been mine.
Nine hours ago, my ex-wife-to-be and I hugged goodbye on my stoop, arms opposing the way friends hug but gripping each other just a little too tight, a little too long. This morning, I’ve barely been inside their house ten minutes when the girls hunker down over a tall stack of paper at their craft table, scattering crayons over the surface as the big sister proudly announces, “We’re drawing you and Miss Marisol!”
Squeezing the baby in my arms, I look down over their shoulders. I notice the colors that they choose– the big sister going for realism as she renders Miss Mari in brown and me in orange, while the little one scrawls wide swaths of pink and purple and green, typical of a preschooler’s interpretative take.
“That’s awesome, you guys!” I tell them. These two are both around that age where parents and teachers tend to greet everything they do with trills of “Oh, how beautiful!” and “You’re so smart!” Lucky for me, they’re convinced enough of their own awesomeness that when I praise them now, they can’t tell I don’t mean it.
The girls noticed right away when Miss Marisol stopped driving me to work. Before, they would wait at the door in the morning to guess after my method of conveyance.
“Bike?” they would say, pressing their noses to the glass to look for it in the driveway. “Roller skates? Car?” The phrasing of their most frequent guess cracked me up each time they said it: “Wife ride?” they would ask, craning at the window to look for Miss Marisol in the driver’s seat of our shared car, waving at them as she turned out of their driveway, heading home.
By now, they have stopped guessing. It has been long enough since they’ve seen me hobble into their mudroom on rollerblades or zip past their door on my bike that they’ve lost interest in guessing. The routine is constant now that I live two towns away. I park the car that’s just mine now in the same spot every day, and nobody watches at the window anymore.
They still ask questions sometimes, wondering when Miss Mari be back again to wave hello. When they do ask, I lie. I pretend that my wife could turn up any day now, kissing me goodbye as I hop out of the car, popping inside in the afternoon to greet the parents and comment on how big all the little ones are getting.
The parents, my bosses– they know. They’ve shown me great care over the past months, covering me with the kids at a moment’s notice so that I could go to apartment showings, asking whether I needed help of any kind, and assuring me that they understand if I’m a little less efficient, a little more distracted during my transition.
But the children still don’t know. They are aware that I’ve moved to a new apartment but they don’t know why, and they have no idea that I left Miss Marisol behind when I did so.
My life outside of work is not their business. For the most part, the after-hours me is an enigma to the families who know the 9-5 version so well. A totally normal professional boundary, but in my case, it’s especially critical- it might not play too well if my employers knew about my sugar-dating married men, for example. Given the suspicion that lingers around home caregivers (see The Caregiver Threat for my take on the trope of the husband-stealing nanny), it works well for me to allow my employers to believe that I’m a married lesbian, and therefore a safe entity to keep around the house.
No, I don’t feel the need to keep the families in my care abreast of my love life. But the seismic impact of a marriage’s end places this romantic development in a different category from all the others.
I am not a safe, married lesbian anymore. I’m grateful that I’ve had enough time to earn this family’s trust before I lost that protective set of labels.
And I’m grateful that these babies didn’t know Mari for long enough, didn’t get to spend enough time with her, to grow attached to her. Her wholesale exit from their lives will be no real loss.
But it is a happening of some kind. A novelty.
I’m not sure these kiddos know that marriages can end.
The drawings keep on coming. The older child is whipping through them now, quality giving way to quantity completely as she slaps down page after page of paired-up stick figures, inscribing a “P” above one circle-head and an “M” above the other and linking up the stick-arms in a 2D rendition of the joining of lovers’ hands. She piles them on my backpack, telling me not to forget to take them home, to share them with Miss Mari at the end of the day. I give her my solemn word; I will remember. Eight drawings for me, nine for Miss Mari. Two from the little sister, fifteen from the firstborn. I reassure her that I’ve got the tally down, and promise to inform Miss Mari of which ones are her sister’s, which are hers. I validate her giddy forecast of just how much Miss Marisol will love them.
I take a deep breath as I gather up the stack. I even hug the pile of papers to my chest, turning a wide smile towards the girls to demonstrate just how precious their creations are to me. They bounce in unison with pleasure at the sight.
I turn my face away from the two small artists, taking a little longer than necessary to tuck the drawings away into my bag. I keep the deep breaths going.
I do not cry.
For most of the children with whom I work, mine is their closest example of a gay partnership. I would have liked it to be an example of a life lived together in enduring joy. But that isn’t how my story went.
Years ago I read the novel Living at Night by Mariana Romo-Carmona, about a young Puerto Rican lesbian coming of age in a small New England town. Most of the content escapes me now, but there is one moment in the book that has stayed with me, that continues to return to me these days as I mull over the task of telling the kids that Miss Marisol is never coming back.
In this scene, the main character, Erica, arrives at her sister’s house and is greeted by her sister’s young daughter, who immediately asks after her auntie’s girlfriend. When Erica tells her that they broke up, the child is confused and angry. (The little niece’s name is Marisol– an uncanny coincidence.) Here, Marisol has just informed her auntie that girls do not break up, and Erica is challenging that notion.
“Why don’t girls break up?” Marisol stared up at me with serious brown eyes. She had grown tall for her age.
“Because,” she gave me her hand-on-hip explanation. “Because they love each other.”Mariana Romo-Carmona, Living at Night (1997)
Teaching kids about the world around them is a part of my job. I try to do so with an honesty that honors that perceptiveness that all children have. I try to encourage their open-mindedness, to offer more questions than answers, to respond to their thoughts without judgment, and not to flinch away from discussing some of the harder realities that they might encounter in their innocent years. All of this happens in communication with the parents; when big-ticket subjects come up, I do my best to align my teaching with the family’s values. I make sure to inform the parents of my conversations with their kids and to seek guidance around any questions that I’m not sure how to answer.
But I’ve never had to talk to kids about divorce. It hasn’t come up with any of my families. Now that the subject is upon us, I don’t want to be the one to tell these babies that some marriages fall short of til-death-do-us-part.
When I’m ready, I think I’ll ask my bosses to take their kids aside and let them know that Miss Marisol won’t be coming back to pick their nanny up again. I’ll let them be the ones to have that conversation with their own children, to break the news to their own kids that marriage doesn’t always last forever. It feels more appropriate. And it spares me the burden, too.
There will be more questions later, I know. Most of them, I still won’t want to answer.
I want the children in my care to believe that girls don’t break up. That we can’t, that we wouldn’t.
Because we love each other.