“Even the best birth control fails sometimes,” the doctor says. “It’s a good thing you found out early, while you still have options.”
“I guess I won’t be showing for a while yet?”
“It varies. Maybe a month or two. Let me give you some literature.”
She starts pulling brochures off the rack on the wall.
I lean over and point. “Can I have that one?”
She gives me a knowing look and hands me the brochure.
On the front is a picture of a smiling baby—fair skin, blue eyes, and a tuft of corn silk hair—nestled in a pile of white linens. The title says, “What Will Your Baby Look Like?” It doesn’t mention plasmids until you look inside.
“If you want to go with this,” the doctor says, “you’ll have to decide right away.”
“Like, how soon?”
“It’s already kind of late, but the next few days should be okay. The longer you wait, the riskier it gets.”
I nod and shove the brochure into the hip pocket of my jeans. The doctor thinks she knows what’s going on—with the father’s race, I mean. She must see a lot of women with something to hide. If I do nothing, there’s a chance my child will look more like its father’s ancestors, and a chance it’ll look more like mine.
“Okay, boys. Ante up.”
The building manager comes up to us with a datafly. One at a time, the three men on my crew press their thumbs onto the print pad.
“You all understand it don’t matter to me,” the manager says. “But immigration’s been cracking down.”
The jefe‘s father came from Bogota, but Jorge and Rudy are my cousins—hometown boys for generations back. They’re all going to check out.
“Be right back,” the manager says, then leaves us standing in the office building’s lobby.
I meet Rudy’s eyes for a second. He looks troubled.
“You okay, meja?” he says.
Acutally, there’s nothing I’d rather do at the moment than go curl up in bed at home and cry. But that wouldn’t do anybody any good. Least of all me. I try my best to give Rudy a smile. I think it comes out okay.
“Sure,” I say.
“Elsa said you went to the doctor this morning,” he says.
The brochure is still in my hip pocket.
“It’s nothing,” I say. “Just a check up.”
He exchanges a glance with his brother Jorge, but lets it drop. They’ve always been protective of me. When they were teenagers and I was a little girl riding my bike around the streets in the old neighborhood, they watched out for me. They used to rescue me from fire ants and garter snakes in the vacant lot where the neighborhood kids played. They know part of the story of why I came back and asked for this job at the HVAC company their father owns. I can tell they’re troubled. I want to tell them that the familiarity of just being around them is helping me feel better. But I don’t think it would reassure them.
The manager comes back and says. “All right, then. Bring your truck around.” Then to me he says, “You can come through the building with me, missy.”
Technically, he’s supposed to offer the thumbprinter to me too. But he doesn’t.
“Dad, what are we?”
I’m riding in the car with my father. He picks me up every day after school on his way home from the community college where he’s a professor. At about twelve years old, I’m already at my full adult height of five-eight. I bump into everything. I’m too smart, and I’m persuaded none of the boys at school will ever find me interesting.
“What do you mean?”
“What race are we?”
He flinches, but doesn’t take his eyes off the road. He shifts his hands on the steering wheel.
“Well, your mother’s grandparents came from Mexico. That’s the easy one. My family, it’s hard to explain without a history lesson.”
I throw up my hands and flop back in the seat. “Why does every question always have to be so complicated?”
“We were already here,” he says, squinting down the road like he’s looking at something in the distance. “In North America, I mean.”
“So like Native American?”
He shakes his head. “We were on the wrong side of a map line when they handed out that label. When the Spaniards came, they called us Indios. When the Mexicans kicked out the Spanish, they called us Mexicans. When the whites came, they renamed the place ‘America,’ but they still call us ‘Mexicans.’ Why is this coming up now?”
“We took a state test today. We were supposed to bubble in our race on the form, and I didn’t know what to put.”
“You didn’t just put ‘white’?”
“I was going to, but Paul Gomez said I couldn’t.”
“And what was Paul Gomez’s reasoning?”
“He said I was a Zero Bar. What is that?”
My father mutters something about Paul’s father. When he speaks, his voice is clipped.
“It’s a kind of candy bar. I think you can still get them.”
“What does it mean?”
“A Zero Bar is white on the outside, and brown on the inside.”
I’m fifteen, and it’s my first day at the new school. Even though my mom has hinted about ‘fresh starts,’ I’m wearing my usual threadbare jeans and hoodie because—as I tell Mom to her dismay—I Don’t Care About Superficial Appearances.
At my old school on the west side, everything looked like it had been beaten up, patched, and then the patches beaten up again. Where the paint chipped, you could see layers of institutional pastel colors underneath. I was afraid to go into the girls room or touch a banister for fear of catching something.
But here, the halls have bright lights. The door handles work. The windows don’t have steel mesh. I go to class, and there are enough dataflys for everyone, and they’re not even leashed to the desks. And there’s something else bugging me—something I can’t place. Then finally I get it. Everybody is white. From the back of the class, I’m looking out over rows of blond heads. Instead of giving us a worksheet and then sitting at her desk, the English teacher stands at the front and asks us what we think. The kids raise their hands and answer, like they’re used to this.
Years later, I look back at my class pictures. Through eighth grade, it’s always easy to find myself, one of a handful of white faces in the sea of brown. Then after the move, my face is lost in the crowd. I had always looked whiter than anybody in my class. Now, among real white people, I’m the ethnic one.
“They’re hard workers,” the manager says, opening the utility room door so I can go through. “You know what I mean?”
“I mean, I can’t get the teenagers in my neighborhood to mow my lawn.”
“Oh,” I say. “Yeah, kids don’t want to work.”
“But these guys, they come up here, they know how to put in a day’s labor.”
I don’t say anything.
“I admire it,” he says. “I really do.”
I still don’t say anything. We’re at the back door now, and the manager pauses with his thumb over the door button.
“I apologize in advance if I’m saying something bad here, but a lot of people been coming to this country for a long time. All kinds, you know? But at least the blacks learned to speak English.”
My cousin Jesse screams. He’s about three years old—I’m a year older. I’m watching him scream, his mouth an inverted bean shape, his face purple. My mother rushes over, picks him up in her arms. She’s babysitting while my Aunt is out of town.
“Why did you hit him?” she says.
“He won’t speak English.”
“He can’t speak English.”
I don’t know what to say. I never thought of this before. My cousin pauses long enough to take a breath, then howls again.
I say, “Well then I don’t want to play with him.”
The door opens, and the heat from outside washes the utility room. The guys use a hand truck to wheel in the crate, over to the spot the manager indicates. I want to say something to him. Do I say something to him? I’m missing my chance. I’ve never been good at this kind of thing.
The guys start to unbox the unit. The manager’s job is done at this point and he could just leave us to work. But he lingers.
When I took over this job from my cousin Elsa so she could go back to reception, she told me that my main responsibility was keeping the clients out of the way so that the guys could work. She said hated the job because she felt like nobody respected her as a foreman.
“But you won’t have that problem,” she said.
It’s because of the new school that I find out what’s been done to me. Because of sophomore biology class where we actually do things, instead of reading silently at our desks and answering the questions at the end of the chapter.
We’re studying genetic inheritance, drawing Punnett Squares of our hair and eye color for two generations back. My father’s grandparents both had brown eyes and hair. My mother’s grandparents both had brown eyes and hair. So that means that I should have. . .
I raise my hand. “Mr. Kreiger? Am I doing this right?”
He comes over and looks at my datafly. “Hmm, that’s all correct. Human eye and hair color is actually more complicated than Mendel’s peas—” He stops suddenly. I get the feeling he’s realizing something. Connecting the dots.
His eyes shift away from me. “Recessive genes can sometimes lie dormant for generations.”
My father picks me up after school and I tell him what happened. He doesn’t look at me until I get to the end and say, “So I should have brown hair and brown eyes, right?”
“Yes,” he says, “And brown skin. You have the genes for those. And from your mother’s Spanish ancestors you also have genes for green eyes, fair hair and white skin, which are actually expressed.”
“We were wondering when to tell you. It had just been approved by the FDA when you were—you know, before you were born.”
“What had been approved?”
“A way to swap—or not actually to swap out genes—they can’t do that yet. But a way to control which genes are expressed by inserting an extra piece of DNA. A ‘plasmid’.” He glances at me. “So you would have brown hair and eyes, and darker skin. But those genes were switched off.” He looks back at the road. I take a moment to figure out what to say.
“You messed with my genes? To make me look white?”
“You gotta understand, Zoe. As a parent, you want your child to have every possible advantage.”
“Demographics don’t lie. Race and poverty are still correlated for Latinos almost as strongly as for African Americans. So we do everything we can. Good nutrition. A safe neighborhood. Strong schools. So when we had the chance to do this—you understand, right? “
“So tell me about this,” the manager says.
“The fuel cells are in there,” I say, pointing to the chromed box about the size of a mini-fridge that the guys are levering into position.
“That little thing gonna power the whole building? All the offices?”
“Yep, it’ll cut in when the grid goes out, like any emergency generator, but this—” I point to a little box on the side, “—monitors the price of electricity, and cuts the generator in automatically when natural gas is cheaper.”
The manager looks worried. “They’re gonna tap the gas line?”
Jorge is a state-certified gas fitter. Rudy is a master electrician. They’re probably the two most skilled tradesmen in this business within a hundred miles. But when the manager looks at them, all he sees is some Mexicans.
I really want to smack him right then.
But I remind myself–this is for the family. Assault charges are bad for business. I’m going to knuckle under, do whatever it takes to get through today.
I say, “So how about we go take care of the invoicing?”
“Yeah, okay,” he says. He gives the guys a final eyeballing, then leads me back through the fire door to the lobby.
“I didn’t want Dad to find out about this,” I say. “He would have a meltdown.”
I’m eighteen, in my bedroom with my mom, and the stack of papers in her lap is my acceptance forms from a school in Massachusetts.
“It’s a lot of money,” she says, looking at the forms. “But how did you apply for this?”
“I’m not sure.”
I go to the window to make sure the driveway is empty. Dad’s still at work.
I say, “I’m never sure what bubbles to fill in. I guess whatever combination I put down got me in for this minority student thing.”
I sit on the bed next to my mom.
“I can’t take the money, right? I mean, I’m basically white in some ways–“
She shakes her head so hard that her dark curls flop into her face. “Listen, you don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”
“But isn’t this what Dad always says? The whole problem is people accepting privileges that they didn’t earn themselves?”
She sighs. “This, from the man who gets pulled over all the time for driving in his own neighborhood in a car that’s too fancy. He knows even when he says it–all this ‘post-racial’ stuff is nonsense. People see brown skin, they act the same way as always.”
“So I can take the money?”
She tucks the papers back into the envelope. “Listen, my mother always used to tell me that we don’t know how much longer this stuff is going to be around. Any day somebody could decide that the problem is over and take it all away. So I say, take advantage of it while it’s here.”
She shrugs. “We just won’t tell him.”
Whereabouts you from?” the manager asks.
“I grew up here, but I went to school in Massachusetts.”
He hitches up his belt as we walk through the lobby. “My nephew had an offer from a school up north once. He could of gone on a football scholarship.”
“Yup. Come to find out they give the football scholarship to a black boy. I mean, I reckon they can do what they want with their money,” he says. “But that don’t seem quite fair to me.”
“Must have been a while ago,” I say.
“Maybe ten years?”
“They took away the last of those programs a couple of years ago,” I say. “That’s all gone now.”
We arrive at his office door. He fumbles with his keys.
“So you came all the way back here for the summer?”
“I graduated,” I say. “I’m here to stay.”
“Just a home town gal, eh?”
My gut twinges. Sometimes it’s possible to nearly forget for a little while.
“Something like that,” I say.
It’s the usual story. We meet in history class, senior year, a group project together. He makes a corny joke. I laugh. He impresses me by actually doing his share of the work. Afterward, he calls me for a date. He’s into music, has actually heard of Timba and Conjunto. We share a bottle of Martini & Rossi Bianco one night. He reads me Bukowski; I read him Zinn. We go to a bad art film and laugh, annoying everyone else in the theater.
I warn Jeff early-on about my quirks, my old-fashioned affection for actual paper books, the way I never really learned how to use the features of my cell phone, don’t really use the social media nets. He isn’t scared away. He’s comfortable with it. With my boyfriends before, everything was drama. But Jeff is easy to be with.
A white guy I think at first, and then I hate that I’ve thought it. I decide to be post-racial, to go with it. When spring comes and he wears shorts, I tell him it reminds me of middle school gym class, where we all had to dress out and the other kids would make fun and call me “leche legs.”
To see such an expanse of white skin, with its fine, fair hair, on someone else is a new experience. Even his junk is white. That takes some getting used to.
I’m nervous telling him about my heritage. I give him the complete version, with the history lesson. He says I’m exotic. I like him even more.
“So you don’t consider yourself to be basically just white?”
I look across the bed at Jeff in surprise. His roommate is off studying somewhere, so we have the room to ourselves. The sun slants through the blinds with that honey-colored New England afternoon light that I never got used to.
“I guess I spent a lot of time avoiding the issue,” I say. “I never learned Spanish. My mom wouldn’t teach me because of the trouble she had, going to school not knowing English. My dad wanted me to learn, but he was working his way through school with three jobs.”
“So you’re kind of white by default?”
I frown. “Well it’s mostly about the attitudes now. I mean, the ‘No Mexicans’ water fountains and bathrooms are gone—”
“I thought that was blacks.”
“Uhhhh, no. There’s a whole history of the same segregation against Latinos in the southwest.” I poke him in the chest. “Y’all Yankees just don’t read about it.”
He laughs and leans back on the pillows. I lean back beside him.
I say, “That’s why we get touchy when people say Latinos are white. Until the supreme court told them no, Texas laws said it was okay to segregate us because anti-segregation laws didn’t apply to ‘Mexicans.’ Because we’re white.”
He thinks for a minute. Then he says, “History.”
I stare at the sunlight on the ceiling. I want to tell him about how, even now, my father is careful to meet his white female students in the college cafeteria instead of his office because of what any accusation, however false, could do to his career. Or about how, still today, when people knock on the door of our big house in the nice neighborhood and my mother answers it, they ask to talk to her employer.
But I don’t want him to think I’m creating drama. I don’t say anything.
Jeff tells me he’s interested in marriage, in kids. I’ve already been thinking the same things. The American Dream—someone you love, a house of your own, kids growing up safe and happy. Doing better than your parents.
I tell my friends that I think he might be The One. They’re envious. When I go home for winter break, we text every day and exchange silly phone pictures. In the spring, with graduation coming, we talk about the future. He gives me a ring tucked between the dog-eared pages of my copy of A People’s History. I say yes. We make plans.
The manager’s office is a tiny closet off the lobby mostly filled by a huge cluttered desk. Photos of his family in mismatched frames. Last year’s calender on the wall still open to December. He uses a lot of paper—writes me out a physical check, tears it out of the binder and hands it over.
“So what’s it like up north?”
I shrug. “Like on TV. Leaves in the fall, snow in winter. Liberals.”
He does one of those belly laughs. “Surprised you didn’t stay up there. My kids can’t wait to get out of the Texas heat. The 30-year drought, the economy. . .” He shakes his head.
“Nothing open in my field right now. This is the family business, so I’m mostly doing it just to help out.”
“Pretty close with your family, eh?”
I shrug. “I guess.”
“You don’t understand,” I say. “Moving would be a big deal for me. My whole family lives within a few dozen miles of each other.”
“You don’t think maybe it’s time to branch out?” Jeff says.
We’re walking on a beach—a New England beach, so rocks under our boots and we’re bundled up against the wind. A late cold snap has turned the sky gray, and the ocean is like rippled slate.
I say “Moving away to set up your own nuclear family is a middle-class white American thing. I had kind of planned to move back after graduation.”
“Really?” he says. “You’d want to be that close to your family?”
“What’s wrong with staying near your family?”
He picks up a pebble without breaking stride, tosses it out into the water. “Connecticut has really good schools. We want all the possible advantages for our kids, right?”
We walk. I find the courage to say what I’m thinking.
“Speaking of advantages, you know there’s a chance any kids we have will resemble my family? Physically, I mean.”
“Connecticut isn’t exactly the most diverse place on earth.”
“Maybe it won’t matter.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. Maybe race won’t matter as much anymore, now that anybody can be any color.”
I hesitate. Then I say, “You mean now that everybody can be white.”
“What parents would choose to make their children black? Or Latino? Would you?”
He doesn’t answer.
“And anyway,” I say, “if I’m proof of anything, it’s that having white skin doesn’t make you white.”
A seagull glides down and fixes us with one red-ringed eye to see if we have anything to eat. When neither of us takes our hands out of our coat pockets, it loses interest and banks away.
I say, “So everything is arranged with your parents?”
“They’re really looking forward to meeting you,” he says.
“I’ve never been to a country club.”
“Wow, the meeting of the parents.” I punch him in the arm. “So how does your mom feel about you bringing home a Latin girl?”
He doesn’t say anything for a minute. Then he says, “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
I’m crying, and the fact that I can’t stop just makes me angrier until I can feel myself shaking. Jeff crosses the lawn to where I am in the gazebo and puts a hand on my elbow.
“I told them you’re not feeling well. Are you okay?”
“No,” I say. I twitch his hand off my elbow.
He says, “I’m really sorry.”
“I don’t know how to answer that.”
“It’s just talk. They don’t know what they’re saying.”
I look up the hill at the white pavilion where they sit, their expressions faint in the distance: Jeff’s parents and uncle and aunt, pale khakis, pastel polo shirts, summer dresses.
“Really? A casual lunch conversation about how the Rodney King rioters got what they deserved, about shooting Mexicans before they get across the river. And that crap about ‘the Values that Made this Country Great—'”
“They usually never talk like this,” he says. “They’re just repeating back stuff they’ve heard.”
“But you didn’t even stand up for me!” I turn toward him. “How can they say all that stuff right to my face?”
He looks down. It dawns on me, and I have to hold my fist across my mouth until I get enough control to speak.
“You didn’t tell them. They think I’m white.”
He starts toward me, but stops when he sees my look.
“You need to take me home,” I say.
“What am I going to say to them?”
“Take me home, or I’m calling a taxi.”
He goes back up the hill and talks to them. The uncle gets up, as if to come over, but Jeff gestures him back down. I can’t hear what he’s telling them. He comes back and we get in the car and drive. It’s a long time before he speaks.
“I told them you weren’t feeling well,” he says.
I don’t answer.
He says, “Sometimes it’s hard to remember. You know.”
I look out the window.
“I don’t understand why you’re getting worked up about this,” he says. “What difference does it make?”
“Were you trying to hide it?” I say.
“What? No. I just though it would be easier.”
“Easier for who?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Did you think they wouldn’t figure it out?” I say. “What about the wedding? Were you going to tell them I was adopted or something?”
“Forget my family. We’ll only see them a couple of times a year anyway.”
“Is this why you wanted to move?”
“Look, it’s good to have ideals and everything, but we’re graduating pretty soon. You’re going to need to get over this.”
“Over this?” I say. “Stop treating my race like a disease.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Who did you think you were marrying?”
“Lets just stick to the plan.”
We ride past the entrance to campus without saying anything. I’m understanding something new. I see myself and Jeff in our two-storey, four-and-a-half-bath colonial outside Hartford or wherever. I teach history or work for a museum part time. He commutes to the city. I do Yoga three times a week. He golfs on weekends. Our kids make good grades. I take them to dance class, hockey, tutoring, lacrosse. They grow up and get good jobs. We retire to Florida, and none of our friends ever suspects.
I feel like the ground is opening up under my feet. Not because it would be wrong, but because it terrifies me that it would be so easy.
When Jeff pulls up outside my dorm, I get out of the car. I leave the ring on the seat.
That night I dream we’re were married and I’m washing his shirts for him, but I can’t get them clean.
“They’re not white!” I keep saying.
And in the dream, he pats my arm and says, “Yes they are. Yes they are.”
The manager walks me back out through the utility room, past the new generator, now all hooked up and running, and to the back door. He shakes my hand.
“Pleasure doing business with your family, young lady.”
I nod and step out into the heat. The guys are packing the last of the stuff back into the truck, closing the door on the cap. I’m pretty sure the manager sees the name of the HVAC company on the side panel—family business, family name. He gives me a funny look. I feel a tiny sense of triumph.
At home, dinner is ready, and Mom and Dad are waiting. I tell them I’ll be down in a minute and run upstairs. In my room, there’s all my childhood stuff: the battered furniture, the old paper books, the academic trophies that my mom dusts religiously. When I first got back, feeling numb and bewildered, it was comforting. But now it all looks different to me, like stuff that belongs to another childhood. The stuff of a girl who never had to think about “What Will Your Baby Look Like?”
I take the brochure out of my pocket and look at it. I didn’t think I would ever even consider this. But now that it’s me—my child—it’s different. My father was right. You do want all the advantages.
I think about the building manager, and about Jeff’s parents. I think about Paul Gomez and his ‘Zero Bar,’ and the world my child is going to have to live in.
I crumple the brochure and drop it in the trash, then go downstairs for dinner.