By Reni Roxas
I suppose none of this would have happened had it not been for my two teenage boys fighting in the car.
As soon as my oldest son, Eric, a high school senior, joined us in the parking lot he said, “I’m not going. Not unless the idiot rides in the backseat, where he belongs.”
We were going on a college campus tour. The so-called “idiot” was Eric’s fourteen-year-old brother, Paolo, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, his crutches thrown in the back seat. A month before, Paolo had broken his leg during freshman basketball tryouts and was given a pair of crutches with doctor’s orders to stretch his leg on car trips. It forced Eric to give up the coveted front passenger seat to his injured brother.
I am the Filipina mother of these two boys. When Eric and Paolo were younger I watched them tumble and tangle, a Rubix cube of locked arms, elbows, and knees that not even Henry Kissinger could disengage. As they grew older and less physical with each other, I watched their rivalry mature into a battle of wills. Now here we were, in the parking lot of an apartment complex where we lived in a three-bedroom apartment. Two years before, we had migrated to Edmonds, Washington, from the Philippines. Apart from a widowed Filipina-American who lived on the third floor, my sons and I were the only Asians in the entire apartment complex.
“I don’t have to put up with this,” Paolo muttered, climbing out of the car.
“Where are you going?” I said, alarmed.
Paolo had opened the back door and grabbed his crutches. Before I could say another word, Paolo hobbled back inside our apartment building.
“Paolo!” I hollered.
He was gone.
What was it about boys? Half the time I was talking to the back of a T-shirt.
Eric slid triumphantly into the seat next to me.
“I’ll deal with you later,” I hissed, grabbing my cell phone and dialing Paolo’s number.
Although Paolo was only a freshman, I wanted him to see a college campus. I managed to get through on the third try.
“Paolo, get back in the car, please.”
“Okaaaayyyy,” my younger son mumbled.
The two parking spaces next to our car were empty. I decided to use the extra room to turn the car around to make it easier for Paolo to get back in the car.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a green pickup cruise by. The truck slowed down as it passed us before continuing down the driveway.
I was about to shift gears.
“Mom, what are you doing?”
It was Paolo, appearing with his crutches by my window.
How did he get here so fast?
“I was—never mind,” I sighed. “Just get in.”
By this time our car was straddling three parking spaces.
I craned my neck to see down to the bottom of the driveway. The pickup had made a U turn. Strange. The driver had the engine on idle. Was he waiting for me to back up? I stuck my hand out the window and waved him on to indicate that he had first rights to the driveway.
As soon as Paolo got in the car his brother said, “If you think I’m going to put your crutches in the trunk, you’ve got another thing coming.”
“One more word out of you, Eric,” I said, ” and I’m going to—”
SCREAM. Great. My Monday morning was falling apart and we hadn’t even left the parking lot. There was no time to argue, not when my car was occupying three parking spots. I yanked my door open, got out, grabbed the crutches from Paolo, and tossed them in the trunk. Before shutting the trunk closed, I waved again to the pickup driver to signal that he could proceed.
The truck didn’t move.
When I got back behind the wheel, the boys were in the middle of a full-blown quarrel. “Stop it, you boneheads!” I yelled. But my words did little good. My boys had a mind of their own at this impossible age, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
Suddenly we heard a rumbling. A diesel engine had fired up. The idle green pickup had roared to life. It was now thundering toward our car, screeching to a full stop next to us.
A young Caucasian man got out of the truck, yelling, “Goddamn mother——.” I thought he was going to come after us with a crowbar. Instead, he disappeared into one of the ground floor apartments, slamming the door behind him.
“Oh, God,” I whispered.
I recognized him. The truck driver was our neighbor! It was his parking space I was occupying.
For the rest of the drive the boys were quiet. It was as if our neighbor’s anger had dwarfed—and in a strange way quelled—any animosity they felt for each other.
After the campus tour, my friend Rick, the university professor who hosted the tour, took us to Chinatown for lunch.
“I feel terrible,” I told him, recounting the morning’s incident. “How can I make it up to my neighbor?”
Rick smiled, his chopsticks diving into a bowl of chow mein.
“Ah,” he said, between mouthfuls. “Just kill him with kindness.”
“What’s that?” asked Eric.
He was watching me tie an orange ribbon around a coffee cake I bought at the grocery for twelve bucks.
“It’s for our neighbor,” I said.
“It’s a peace offering,” I said.
“You’re wasting your time and money, Mom.”
I pretended not to hear him.
“Guess what,” I said, trying to act cheerful. “We’re going to pay him a visit. And you’re coming with me.”
Eric rolled his eyes, but I was on a mission “to do the noble thing,” and he knew better than to try and stop me.
At 5:00 that afternoon Eric and I left our second floor apartment, took the elevator to the ground level, and walked out into the parking lot. The green pickup was there, a sign that the owner was home.
I knocked on my neighbor’s door.
The door opened to reveal the same young man from the day before.
“Hi. Are you, um, the owner of the green pickup?”
I felt stupid for asking a question to which I knew the answer.
The man leaned on the door frame and gave a slight nod.
He wore a thin cotton T-shirt and torn blue jeans. His brown hair had begun to recede and a five o’clock shadow was settling on his chin. He couldn’t have been older than thirty.
After clearing my throat I said, “I’m the neighbor who accidentally used your parking space yesterday. I’m sorry. My boys were misbehaving. You know how it is with children—”
I stopped and waited for a reaction.
There wasn’t any.
My neighbor’s face was vacant.
Over his shoulder I could see inside their living room. A plump young woman was on the couch watching TV with a bowl of popcorn on her lap.
I gestured toward the gift in my hands and said, “We brought you a cake—”
“That won’t be necessary,” the young man interrupted, “I don’t eat cake.”
Again the expression on his face was vacant. It struck me that his voice was completely devoid of tone, as if he had deleted himself from our conversation.
I stared at him then had to look away.
Clearly, this man didn’t want me standing at his door. This man would not be killed with kindness. I had seen that “vacant” and indifferent look before. I have seen it when a human being is racially “profiled” and instinctively dismissed by another for being “different.” Standing in the threshold of my neighbor’s apartment, I was cognizant of the fact that he was white and I was brown. I became painfully aware, that my hair was black; my nose was snubbed and flat, my lips were thick, and that my old life was an ocean away. I realized that a barrier had been erected long before I knocked on his door. He had seen my sons and me on the apartment grounds before. I imagined that in the courtroom of his mind we were guilty without a trial. It didn’t matter that I had to deal with two squabbling teenagers, and that my son was on crutches. We were “Asian” and we all looked alike to him. I had certainly lived up to the stereotype of the “bad Asian driver.” We were all the same to him, and we were different from him. I felt small. No, in his eyes I was less than small. I was reduced to that voiceless, weightless state to which prejudice diminishes a human being. I could not be seen. I was invisible.
Still, I made one last attempt. “Well, if it’s not something for you, perhaps your wife might enjoy it?”
The young man shifted his weight off the doorframe and leaned forward slightly, his steel-blue eyes drilling through mine.
“She won’t eat that,” he said, quietly.
And just like that, he closed the door on us.
I turned to Eric, stunned.
The coffee cake in my hands felt like a millstone.
“What did I tell you, Mom,” Eric said. “You just wasted your money.”
I looked at him and said, “If you saw this as an act of kindness, then it isn’t a waste of money to me.”
But I was talking to the back of a T-shirt again. Eric was five paces ahead of me hurrying to his video game.
Bewildered, I did not head upstairs. I walked outside, through the parking lot under the clear, starry night sky. A light evening breeze ruffled the orange ribbon on my coffee cake. I felt grateful for the fresh Pacific Northwest air, yet a trifle lost and adrift to be in this great land of plenty where a neighbor would turn down a peace offering. In the Filipino culture, his behavior would have been unthinkable; only the most grievous offense, like if I had insulted his mother, would have merited this type of rejection.
Two years before, I uprooted my children from the Philippines to give them independence, a backbone, and a better life. Even though we had separated, their American father had given our children the precious gift of birthright——to be part of what was once described as the “least imperfect society in the world,” citizenship to the United States of America—the land of milk, honey…and walls.
The parking lot was quiet; no trace of the human outburst from the day before. All the cars were parked neatly in a row, separated by thick white painted lines. Everything demarcated, as it should be, everything in its place. I recalled a greeting card I once picked up in a store. To me the words echoed the anthem of the immigrant:
We didn’t come here to fit in.
We came here to live our dreams.
I walked back to my apartment and opened the door. Both boys were on the couch with their laptops, lost in a world of their own. They weren’t fighting. I went into the kitchen, the coffee cake still in my hands.
A head popped from around the kitchen wall.
“Need help, Mom?” Eric offered. There was a new gentleness in his voice.
I set the coffee cake on the kitchen counter, feeling a burden lift inside. I hadn’t made a fool of myself. It was there in my son’s voice. His concern showed me that the kindness my neighbor refused to accept had not been wasted.