The Science of Passing

Humanity is a learned species. It can calculate the curvature in the paths of celestial bodies, or decipher the meaning behind wheelbarrows and chickens with scratches of graphite. It goes as far as to explain its own many attributes with the help of karyotyping and Punnett Squares. We, humanity, divide ourselves into the havers of hitchhiker thumbs, the brunettes, the left-handed scissor-strugglers, and the unfortunate sunburners. Every characteristic has a biological explanation; there is no room for interpretation. Still, the nucleic acid in our cells cannot summarize the parade of humans who pass each other by on the street. Our species observes itself and sees what biology has bestowed upon it: curly hair, blue eyes, skin color. What it doesn’t see is what biology cannot explain: the inexplicable beauty in motivation, thought, and dream. Humanity may take one form as a struggling single father of three children, or another as a rags-to-riches businesswoman, and while science can measure their persons using the genetic code, there is no formula to tell the one craving pizza from the one reliving a children memory.

Thus, the human species has taken up the art of “passing;” we have decrypted our chemical makeup, but not our motivations. The ever rapidly-advancing technology that has offered us space travel, internet, and medical breakthroughs just isn’t certain about what goes on in those fantastic, intracranial organs we have. So we may have a disconnect between measurable facts and hypothetical assumptions, science and thought. In that space, passing emerged. Previous American societies, encouraged by humanity’s refusal to be restrained by limits, latched onto passing. The fragmentation of cell bars, bars that extend past biological prisons to include those of social status or wealth, is what passing embodies, and what gives it such enticing potential. It allows any passerby to wear a mask, and by doing so, enlarge their world. While it originally referred only to the subject of race, as it does in Nella Larsen’s Passing, in which antagonist Clare Kendry “passes” as Caucasian, the meaning of American passing has expanded. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, in his masquerading as a man born from wealth, represents the development of passing’s definition. As American culture gravitated toward self-reinvention, passing, in its expanding forms, took root in our society.  

Many of us might argue that we don’t “pass” at all. After all, doesn’t the very concept suggest that we aren’t satisfied with what we are? No, the human species cannot define passing just as a way of creating new identities for itself, because while we do have the power to dictate who we are, passing can be more than just that. Humans, as sentient beings, “pass” every time they tell a lie, keep a brave face, or pretend. We pass not to escape what we are, but to protect it. United States citizens, having lived in a country with an overall upwards trend in divorce rates over the past century, have come to use passing to protect themselves and their loved ones. In this form of passing, which has sprung from crumbled relationships, children of divorce take on the roles of the adults who look after them. While these role-reversals prompt children to mature early, they also represent an alternative form of passing rooted not in personal betterment, but in compassion.

The United States, as well as most of humankind, has only recently in its history become open to divorce. The revolutionary thought and development that makes our country unforgivingly American pulled the illicit subject out of the shadows of disgrace and blanketed it in modern values. Since 1870, national divorce ratings have surged from near-zero to 800,000 per year, a number representative of the fact that more Americans are unwilling to spend their lives dissatisfied with an irreconcilable spouse (Swanson). But, for Americans who are parents, their children remain a permanent obstacle that keeps them from cutting ties with their former spouse. For lucky children (and ex-spouses), parental contact remains cordial enough for the divorce not to disrupt the lives of the children. However, in many cases the “the less you have to do with your ex, the better” mentality takes over and leaves children stranded between two parents harboring negative emotions (Balduf).

When we’re kids, we read storybooks with anthropomorphic tigers that talk to us about prime numbers and how to tie our shoes. Once in a while, we play four-square at recess, or look through I–Spy books, or make domino chains at after-school. We’re children. We’re children, and forty-percent of us have divorced parents (32 Shocking). The most mild, even “pleasant” of divorces impact children. The human species’ brain continues developing into the twenty-fifth, twenty-sixth year of life – or beyond (GLOOM). Unsurprisingly, in comparison, the highly impressionable brains of children are even more succeptible to change, being at earlier stages of development (Hamilton). Children of divorce not only find that their allegiances are tested, but that their parents’ sporadic, unpredictable behavior starts to mirror their own. In place of mac ‘n’ cheese for dinner, children are fed nasty information about their other parent (Sedacca). Innocent and trusting, some find themselves confused when Daddy won’t make friends with Mommy.  

Because parents can stoop to a level of adolescent pettiness and discourtesy, children of divorce must pick up the slack. In most cases, that doesn’t quite mean paying taxes or doing the dishes, but sacrificing their innocence and becoming an emotional pillar of support. Exposed to a fragile, even bitter side of adulthood that their parents never intended for them to see, children of divorce tumble out of their protective bubbles. There, in a more honest, shocking environment, they come face-to-face with real-world problems that many of their peers have never imagined. Because of these situations, it’s no surprise that “research has consistently shown that children from divorced families exhibit […] greater maturity and greater independence” (J Am). Children whose parents have divorced see that the world around them does not always lie on stable ground. They know that their parents are hurting, and so they learn not to bring up their other parent, not to show preference, or even – as a form of emotional support – to show preference only to the parent they’re with at the time. They make these sacrifices as they become attuned to the separate wavelengths their parents run on. Just like Robert Weiss suggests, their demonstrated maturity in learning at a young age to cope with problems that they have no tools to solve confirms that “divorce makes children ‘grow up a little faster’” (Kirkpatrick).

The word “divorce” has been circling in my head since I was ten. My dad moved out when I was in fourth grade, and it took a year for me to realize that he wasn’t coming back. There was a final piece of blissful ignorance still holding on inside me, helping me to overlook what I would have seen if I had let myself. I didn’t want change, but we all needed it. In the past eight years that I’ve lived two separate lives, in different homes, as disparate versions of myself, I’ve come to understand that my experience having divorced parents wasn’t unique; we all saw and felt and hurt. For each of us, divorce stained our childhood.

I don’t want to be angry with my mom and dad for what their divorce did to me and my little sister. I don’t want to be angry because I know that it was not meant to hurt us. I don’t want to be angry because I have thirteen years of pent-up anger, and the people around me have already soaked up enough of it. But I also know that a lot of who I am is because of the sacrifices that I made for my parents. When I was nine, I stopped mentioning my parents’ names. I saw a counselor as a part of my parents’ divorce agreement for five years, and each time that I went, I did it with a little voice in the back of my head, whispering to me that if I could set an example for them, maybe they would go too. It seemed crazy to me that they didn’t think they had any issues to solve in counseling, that it was just me. That outrage, of course, stayed quiet and confined in my head.

A lot of me stayed quiet and confined. Fear of a raising a touchy topic became a fear of speaking, and eventually manifested itself as stage fright. I was nine the first time that I danced in the Nutcracker at the Boston Opera House; I quit ballet before the end of elementary school. When I was thirteen, I would wake up at five every morning to bike between my parents houses for school supplies or track uniforms. I had started to notice how much they hated when I asked to be driven between the two homes, how they grimaced at the word “dad” or “mom.” At night, I held my mom’s hand while she cried on our kitchen floor, asking for her own mother. One blistering summer afternoon she told me that she didn’t know if she could do it anymore. Five years have passed since then, and I still don’t know whether she meant fighting in court to keep us in her life, or fighting for a reason to keep her life at all.

My form of passing is one that many people – many children – experience, have experienced, and will continue to experience. But, unlike Clare Kendry’s racial passing to live an upper-class lifestyle, or Jay Gatsby’s form of it to reunite with the love of his life, this type of passing isn’t something I chose. When I heard my parents’ ugly words, I gave up my blind trust in them. When they lashed out at me, I let my reliance on them disintegrate. When I saw them hurting, I disregarded my own problems. When they were small, I promised myself that I would be the bigger person for them. By safeguarding their feelings at the expense of my own, I surrendered the innocence that, as a child, I was owed. Still, while some of my actions may seem voluntary, I never consciously decided them. Even as kid, something in me was programmed to respond. Biology kicked in. The human species – amazing, sentient beings as we are – has an inherent compassion waiting on the sidelines, ready to trigger our protective instincts. The biological prison in which each of us lives may just be our greatest asset. It’s true, humanity is a learned species, but it hasn’t figured out everything. There’s a gap between decoding genes and solving the scientific puzzle behind motivation and thought. When we cross it, we might find that passing was inherent all along.

A Week in Lonely Eyes

Wednesday:

The girls on the corner gave him a hard time. He dropped his ice cream.

Thursday:

His mom made his brother’s favorite dinner. Saturday Night Live was on, but he didn’t watch.

Friday:

On the bus ride home, Tommy and Jess pulled up at the same red light in a dark blue SUV. He pretended not to see them.

Saturday:

He slept in to avoid everyone.

Sunday:

He slept. There were birds outside his window in the afternoon.

Monday:

Five kids in Chemistry raised their hands to talk about the semi-formal dance they had gone to over the weekend.

Tuesday:

School skipped him over a day.

Wednesday:

Terra Unfirma

Hello, Mom, I’m scared.

I found                            yesterday –

something

by the red walkway.

I thought of you last year when I didn’t grind the coffee beans enough.

 

Daddy, I can’t find you.

The last time your face was your own, I was drawing flowers in sidewalk chalk.

 

Sister, I feel your back against mine.

We both            in opposite directions.

push

Your golden smile withered up.

 

Lady, the way back is over there.

Don’t help me –

the way back is weary.

The Color Red and a Russian Accent

Part One

 

He holds the door open for her. It smells, aside from coffee, like pine cones inside, and cloves and cinnamon, and a little like how he imagines frenzy would smell. A soothed frenzy. He does not have a nose for this sort of thing.

The room feels like some sort of lackluster indoor block party. Adults and their laptops line the café bar, neglecting their drinks, enthralled by the troubles of suburbia emblazoned across their web pages. Infrequent chats are wars about suffering: whose ink jet printer is broken, who scraped someone else’s BMW the other day.

He sees someone he’s noticed there before, and smiles to himself. The place is a community, however laughable. They are all here to enjoy the atmosphere, or ambience, as he would say, if he were speaking. It’s a word he likes.

“Two small green teas, please.” He takes out his wallet after she has left for the bathroom. Sometimes she hides from him when they are out. She shields her face with her hair, or lowers her eyes, or leaves altogether.

He spits out his gum and picks up their drinks from the bar. The cups get sleeved in cardboard and one gets a straw as a joke while he waits. He takes a couple seconds to notice her standing by the exit, waiting for him to join her. She holds the door open for him with the edge of her sneaker.

They walk by a nail salon and a Thai restaurant and a clothing store and two banks, one drive-through, on the way to the lake. They pass the music store he used to work at. They try to hold hands, but her fingers are cold, and the tea sloshes too much when they walk with their elbows hooked together. It has become a running joke that she always burns herself. When she does, he kisses the fleshy part of her hand, the L that runs from her thumb to the tip of her pointer finger.

 

She almost left him the past July. He was in France.

“It’s a good time.”

She was 3,500 miles away then.

“What do you mean?” All the wind in Nice was choking him.

“We’ll have the summer. You know…it will be easier.”

Then she was a thousand times further.

 

They come closer to the lake, and she asks him to speak Russian. She asks again, and he can’t say no. She wants him to translate what she says. Then she requests French instead. Then just the French accent, then the Russian one. Then Italian. “Baba di boopy,” he says. Then British. He watches her squeal, and he kisses her cheek until she squirms. Even then, he can’t stop.

It took him almost four years to speak to her. He’s told her that he has memories of her from before then, but she can’t say the same. He remembers a time in his yard when he saw her. Dana was a puppy. He was sitting on the grass tossing a ball into the air when she ran by. She had headphones in and her cheeks were red, as though some jealous giant had reached out of the sky and pinched them. Their eyes met through the trees and the palms of his hands felt her disgust drift across the foliage.

This is not something she remembers.

She was always leaving him. The first time was before he had even held her hand. He asked her to see Joy in theatres. They went ice skating a few days later, and then a blizzard kept her indoors, and then, before he had hardly realized it, she left to Europe for three weeks. It was as though they had never sat, shoulders pressed together, in front of an outdated projection screen before. Those two hours in the dark, breathing in popcorn, his heart hammered, and from it came possibility.

The possibility of Her was so close to reality. It had felt as though a gust of wind had blown toward him and paused for a moment. How inexplicable, this random, absurd, marvelous mistake on the part of Fortuna. It had all the open sky to choose from.

Looking at her, there was some drive pulsing through the id of his psyche that breathed in his subconscious, crying for him to reach out his limbs and capture her. She was next to him but she filled his thoughts. The scent of her skin cartwheeling in the October breeze. Shadows of her smile becoming bruises on his jaw. Her laugh, grimace, violent eyes, quiet and disquiet, absence, quirks, care, and distance rang in his chest. She had punctured his world and flood it with images of her.

Some days he’d start skipping alongside her and there would be no better moment than that one, with her hand in his, to be children together.

Her bliss was his drug.

There was a morning when the world rolled out of its star-studded sea and was hung, unmoving at the outskirts of its universe, so that he could spread a single minute over hours. He met her early, like every other day, only on this one, when she saw him she tossed off her jacket and bags and barreled toward him like some cannonball out of a falconet. Her fingers met the back of his neck and her arms, his shoulders, and her legs enveloped him, but where his hands held her at the small of her back, she was air. He carried her for days, unmoving, hardly breathing, until she became conscious of herself, disentangled from him, and left him.

He stops short. Some minutes ago, they had started jogging, but he can’t remember why. The air is thick, picking up, preparing to carry over to some nearby town. He leans against a fence lining the lake to catch his breath. His lungs are several paces behind his legs.

When he first met her he had developed a plan, or more a strategy. He wouldn’t approach her unless she hinted it was alright. He wouldn’t touch her, hold her hand, unless she told him she wanted him to. He slaved over his effort not to embarrass her. There were topics he learned not to discuss and people he learned not to bring up. Each joke was a risk.

She was unmovable, so he practiced flexibility.

“I’m coming, wait a second,” he stretches his arms over his head and jogs over to her, trembling in the wind. The cuff of her sleeve is soaked with tea.

A year ago it would have been everything to stand next to her.

They round the corner and he has his breath back. He takes her hands and rubs them between his. She curls her palm around his pointer finger like an infant, and they walk. His airway burns from the wind, but it’s becoming more of a deep cleaning than pain. He walks with her, letting her hold onto him, and knowing that he could run, if he wanted to.

 

Part Two

 

It hurts, having him order for her, pay for her. Her dad would make her order by herself if he were here, just because he knows she doesn’t like to. She’s a child.

“I’ll be right back. Bathroom.” Her feet trail away from the smell of coffee.

She presses down on the door handle to the bathroom, covering by her sleeve. What a relief that it doesn’t stick. She locks it behind her, and then checks it. Twice. There’s a bucket with Lysol and a roll of paper towels on a stool next to her. The soft kind of paper too.

She puts the bucket next to the wall and stands up on the stool. The mirror watches her fingers slide down her waist, over the curve of her hips. It eyes her hands lingering over her pelvic bone. She turns sideways and lifts up her shirt. Her jeans don’t have loop holes for a belt. She has started to fold them down from the top. First once, now two times. Her doppelganger meets her eyes. What would her doctor say if she couldn’t explain her weight loss? No dieting, no eating disorder. No excessive exercise.

Strange, how thrilling it is to pretend there’s something wrong.

The toilet flushes. Three gallons of wasted matter drain back into the universe. But washing her hands is better. Cleanliness is better. Her fingers shake in the water.

 

“Damn it, damn it! Get in here!”

Every time, his tone was the indicator.  Like any tone could be. Tone in poetry. Analysis of the author. The way an elderly couple says, “I love you.” Someone’s snarky comment in Calculus. The condescending whines in a household of adolescents.

Or her father’s voice three years ago.

“Do you know who made this?” Dinner.

His face was also an indicator.

Red was love. Confidence strutting out of a successful job interview. Action, the drive of a body in motion, and lust. The most visually stimulating color. Passion.

“Yeah,” his tongue curled against his teeth, “me, and who helped?”

Was it just heat, in that moment? Or intensity?

“I cannot get you girls to do a single thing without asking. Nothing! What, do I have to start fucking paying you to do the dishes?”

Anger.

“Goddamn this house.”

More of it.

She cut her finger picking up the wine glass he had broken. Funny, how her pulse had slowed, seeing blood flicker in the water under the faucet. The only red brighter than his face had been.

Her sister learned how to put a door back on its hinges that night. What pride.

Violence? Brutishness.

Her father came back when she was asleep, fished an “I love you” and an “I’m sorry” out of his mouth, and then left.

 

Was red love?

 

She dries her hands with the paper towels from the bucket. A little girl in a blue tutu sprints by her when she opens the door.

The café seems emptier than it was before. Maybe the lighting dimmed, or someone left the door to the outside propped open. Most of the warm smells have wandered off.

She stops herself from calling out to him. He’s struggling with his wallet. The dollar change he keeps, the coins he leaves as a tip. Every time. Every place he goes.

He might be a miracle.

She watches him put cardboard heat protectors around the cups and pick up a straw. Every person in the room must be falling in love with the smile on his face, his careful hands, the aura diffusing off of him. The room is fuller again.

Neurons erupt in her brain.

“The lake, maybe?” Her offer as she holds the door open on the way out.

Her drink is green tea. Coffee is nauseating. Caffeine, actually, which includes black tea. She knows that he knows.

 

Subject: The reason why

July 6, 2013 at 4:38 PM

Found in Inbox

You asked me why I love you a few minutes ago. It’s a difficult question, not because the answer is unclear or vague, but because the real answer is simply that I don’t have motives or reasons for loving you. That’s not how it works. Obviously I don’t love any old passer-by on the street, so I’ll try to give a better explanation.

I think the biggest cause is the time I’ve spent and the experiences I’ve had with you. Just remembering times like the MFA, sitting with you by the lake, kissing you for the first time, eating melted ice-cream bars with you, walking around the Rose Kennedy Greenway with allergies (and still loving it), or meeting you in the break during my math class at night overwhelms me with how much I love you.

The memories don’t even have to be big things. Something like going to Whole Foods with you that time we didn’t buy anything, or waiting in the airport for you to come online (and the feeling of absolute happiness when you did), or meeting you instead during a “lunch break” at work can make me feel that way.

Also, I think a subclause is how comfortable you make me feel when I’m with you. Or how well you complement and counterbalance my personality with yours. I love you, and I also love your temperament and your personality and the aspect of you that some people might call “straight-edge.”

I don’t think I even skimmed the surface of all my reasons for loving you, but I can’t explain it any better. This email was difficult to write just because it is such an impossible thing to examine for me. I hope it helps.

I can’t wait to see you. I miss you. I love you.

 

They make it to the lake in five seconds. That’s how time works with him.

With him, she’s younger. She can be eight, before she was conscious of her body. Eleven, when she wasn’t afraid to dress up in her mom’s work tights and scream along to Dancing Queen in her room. Four, when all it took to make her happy was someone’s smile. Or six, when her dad was her superhero.

He’s leaning over the fence trying to slow his breathing. Her cup is empty. Most of the tea has spilled over her arm. The stain runs down her elbow and the chill in the air steals away her heat.

Once he rejoins her, she holds onto his finger. It’s something they’ve laughed about, how his hands dwarf hers. Her eyes flicker across his raincoat, the slope of his shoulders, his jeans, down to his red laces, and hopes that she hasn’t stained him.

Nick at the Window – An Imagined Great Gatsby Moment

It wasn’t curiosity that inclined my ear towards the two bodies inside; I was doubtful that, after my time on West Egg, I would ever find myself ravenous in that sense again. It was by the window that feverish day that the first breeze in hours rose up from the beach and grazed past the brushwood and white flora to coax me closer. Even from inside Daisy seemed startled by the stirring in the air  – for a moment she drew her hand away from Tom’s and peered outward into the balmy darkness, her expression searching for something I could not detect.

“What is it?” Tom demanded.

“Just some air.” Her response wafted out to me on the fragile breath that she had produced.

“I’d rather something other than this,” he gestured towards the bottle in front of him. “It’s sweating almost as much as I am.”

“Tom–”

“Alright, one for her too,” he called.

“No, it isn’t that,” she murmured. Tom and I both sensed the unusual depth in her words, sad and insubstantial though they were. It was the first time that I saw Daisy tethered. Even her speech, the weightless form it took after leaving her lips, could not keep her aloft. Rather, it may have been those four words that drew her back towards Earth. “It’s that… it’s about today–”

“We won’t get into that.”

“But Tom…” This time it was her hand that was outstretched across the table, even harboring hesitancy.

“Daisy,” his voice rattled out from between his teeth.

“I think it’s worth discussing…I want to discuss it and…” her mouth fell open, twitching at the corners at she gazed fearfully past her husband, grasping for words. Daisy must have felt the absence of the breeze in that moment just as I did. There was a second that I thought that Tom, his breath hot with liquor, might chuckle. It occurred to me that he knew his wife well in spite of the fact that he had known so many others during their five years together, and that what he had ascertained during those years was that Daisy was not the defiant sort, and never would be. Neither would she be worth the effort – however slight – that it would take to distress her, although that is not to say that Tom never indulged in that effort. Perhaps that is why he eased out of his chair, finished off his drink with an extended gulp, and strode out of the room with the two untouched bottles of ale, leaving Daisy’s unfinished sentence swirling in the stagnant air.