Congratulations to Sophia Veltfort, first place winner in the Mainstream/Literary Short Story category of the 89th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning story, "Schism, 1995."
Ida and her partner, Beth, were not sure they wanted to join the local Two Moms Group. It was true that, since the birth of their daughter, Vita, their social life had wizened into a pair of Dykes on Bikes tee shirts at the back of Ida’s closet and a stack of photo albums too racy for five-year-old eyes. They liked the idea of building community with other lesbian parents (and it will be good for Vita, Beth said, to meet other kids with two moms). But they had doubts about the Two Moms Group. It raised the specter of PTA small talk around tables of Family Sized potato chips. They were not sure that was who they could be.
Ida especially had reservations. She did not trust American lesbians. They were full of brash but foggy political resolution, like young people. The best she could say of them was that they wore pants. (In her last years in Havana, women had worn pants, too, but cautiously: unless you were doing agricultural work or on military guard, slacks suggested counterrevolutionary sympathies.) The winter she’d arrived in New York, twenty-seven and still weak from hepatitis, she bought two lengths of corduroy, traced out legs, boxed up her skirts. In the twenty years since, she had not once submitted to a skirt or a dress.
“They’re just people,” Beth said from the kitchen table. But the members of the Moms Group lived on the Upper West Side, sent their kids to private schools and orthodontists, took for granted that they could walk together down Broadway, if not hand in hand, then at least without being denounced or attacked. Their grievances were parochial: elementary school teachers who did not appreciate the apostrophe’s placement in finger-painted “Happy Mothers’ Day” cards,
camp counselors who could not fathom that drop-off and pick-up should be accomplished by different moms.
“They’re your people,” Ida said. She didn’t mean it. She knew the type of people with whom Beth had hung around when they’d met eight years ago: poets and writers who went to S&M clubs in the Meatpacking District and liked getting together in the evening over a roast chicken.
Beth did not look up from the stack of seventh-grade essays she was grading, but behind her red wire glasses, her eyes had stopped moving across the page. Ida could envision Beth’s ire spiral: 1) Beth would not like being lumped together with women Ida had made clear she did not like. 2) Beth always complained that when Ida felt nervous, she insulted Beth. 3) Beth would feel personally affronted by the negative attitude: Ida’s inexhaustible vitriol took Beth aback every day.
Ida had little patience for Beth’s unwavering, even self-righteous, positivity. Still, it was an integral part of Beth’s resilience; it mystified and drew Ida to her partner. In Beth’s eyes, the world brimmed with boundless cruelties: your college girlfriend explained that monogamy was a patriarchal construct and took off with your TA for a month at Lake Como; you didn’t speak to your father enough when he was alive and then, with a heart attack, he was gone; your immune system stripped your nerves of myelin and schooled you daily in pain’s capacity to warp and consume. Bodies failed you. To squander tranquility seemed to Beth unconscionably profligate. In Ida’s words, Beth would also have heard the faint warning knell of comparison: the sounding notes of who Ida’s people were and how they stacked up. But Beth negotiated Ida’s revenants like their one-eyed blind cat navigated their furniture. She had a sense of their shape and their layout; experience and miscalculation had taught her their heft. (We all have baggage, Beth said.)
But for now Beth said only, “They’re not Jewish.”
The Two Moms Group met every other Saturday at a different family’s apartment. Ida and Beth had heard about the group from the moms of a boy in Vita’s kindergarten class. The boy went to Shakespeare camp with the daughter of the group’s founders, a pair of women who turned photographs of their daughter’s performances into custom photo pillows commemorating each tour-de-force: their daughter in tights and a gold cape, as Duke Solinus; as the Earl of Westmoreland relaying news of Edmund Mortimer to King Henry IV. After founding the Group, they’d set about recruiting members: they scoured their daughter’s soccer league and modern dance school for suitable families. Ida thought of them, not fondly, as the Pillow Ladies.
On a warm and windy afternoon (smell the spring air! Beth said) that inspired in Ida a nebulous and irritable anxiety, Ida, Beth, and Vita walked down Broadway to the Pillow Ladies’ building. Mostly they walked in silence. The day had not begun well. Vita had inherited Ida’s reluctance to leave the house. This morning Vita and her rubber forest creatures had embarked on an adventure whose consequence her parents, Vita made clear, had failed to grasp. That she would be forced not only to break off the game but also to brush her hair had seemed to her an unspeakable tyranny.
“But the judge is tomorrow?” Vita asked, as Ida considered the best exit strategy for the hairbrush from its knot below Vita’s left ear. “Not today?”
Ida did not answer immediately. Tomorrow Beth was adopting Vita. It was hard to tell what that meant to the five-year-old. Ida and Beth had wanted to get her excited without alerting her to the day’s precarity. It’s so Beth will be officially recognized as your mom, they’d told her. Not just by us but by the State of New York.
They’d explained the legal hoops to Vita to the degree that they involved her directly: the lawyer she’d met who had drawn up the paperwork; the social worker who’d had to interview Vita, Beth, and Ida; the judge at whose discretion a second-parent adoption might now be performed, and with whom they would meet tomorrow. They hadn’t mentioned that Beth needed to provide as part of her petition three letters of recommendation from friends and co-workers, a character witness, fingerprints, and a list of all her prior residences to the year and the month. They didn’t say how much the process had cost. Only privately did they tally up the months that went by as their lawyer kept advising that they wait a bit longer: their petition for adoption would be stronger, she said, once another second-parent adoption had been approved in New York.
Nor, obviously, did they tell Vita about the custody cases that rang in their ears as cautionary tales. They didn’t mention the lesbian mom whose own mother had sued her for custody of her son, and how a court ruled that the mom’s lifestyle (she had a girlfriend) was not in the “best interest” of her child. They did not tell Vita how Beth’s sister and brother-in-law had responded to news of Ida’s pregnancy: It’s not right to bring a child into a home like yours.
Vita wouldn’t know how easily she could give the judge the impression that she did not want Beth to adopt her. It would not be intentional: Vita loved Beth, loved how easily Beth transformed everyday objects like her mittens or the tub spout into characters with personalities, dreams, and desires. (Ida transformed nothing. Her stories were true: how Cuban rations did not cover cat food, so her cat shared her spaghetti; the many mortifying ways plumbing could go wrong; how when she arrived in New York, the only person she knew was the daughter of the woman with whom her grandfather had had an affair, and how this woman helped her find a place to live.) Vita loved the sandwiches Beth made every morning and the notes she slipped into Vita’s lunchbox every day.
But Vita was reserved, even taciturn. If her thoughts were elsewhere, she was liable to look through you like a smudged window blocking her view. Her silences unnerved her grandparents, who plotted ways to spend time with Vita without her parents always offering to shelter her from human interaction. (It’s not right that a child should be so undemonstrative and withdrawn, the grandparents whispered after a monosyllabic walk to ice cream.)
What if the judge thinks she doesn’t like me, Beth had asked once. Of course she likes you, Ida said. (Beth: I know that. That’s not what I meant.)
“Yes,” Ida told Vita, “that’s tomorrow.”
“Ozma will dress up,” Vita said, holding up the small stuffed octopus she carried everywhere.
“Sure she will,” Ida agreed. “We all will. It’s a special occasion.”
The Pillow Ladies’ building was bigger than Ida had expected, its lobby glossier. Mirrors caught the wrinkles in their slacks and the cat fur on their shirts, flinging back unpromising reflections Ida was not keen to send upstairs. She thought the doorman hesitated before ringing them up. She had never lived in a building with a doorman. In the elevator, she watched Beth take out a red pocket calendar and scribble a small note in the right-hand margin. Without her reading glasses, Beth pressed her face close to the page. It would never have occurred to Ida to do anything in an elevator but brace herself for the social encounters that loomed.
The Pillow Ladies lived on the twelfth floor in a spacious three-bedroom that overlooked Riverside Park. Parenting books with bright orange and yellow covers lined their walls. What looked like a small Rothko hung above the couch. Six or seven sets of moms sat on plush cushions, ottomans, and folding chairs around a glass coffee table bearing an assortment of soft cheeses, crackers, carrots, and grapes. One mother held a baby whom Ida recognized as the younger brother of the beautiful but heartless seven-year-old who had once asked to see Vita’s rubber anteater only to place it delicately on the ground and grind her toe into its neck.
“The kids are in the back,” one of the Pillow Ladies leaned down to tell Vita. Her bottle-blond hair grazed her shoulders and swung forward as she leaned. Vita stared gravely back. Ida recognized that her daughter’s misanthropy should probably have embarrassed her, but still she felt pride. (She’s just like you, Beth often said. But they had made sure to pick a donor most similar to Beth.) Slowly the Pillow Lady straightened, glanced at Ida and Beth, and turned away.
As Beth greeted the other parents, Ida walked Vita towards the clamor of kids’ voices and what sounded like the striking of wood. Through a hallway lined with framed photographs—the Pillow Ladies’ daughter on a camel; meeting a politician; receiving a trophy Ida suspected was for participation only—they came to a large room overflowing with toys: the beanbag-like stuffed animals Vita was always requesting, a remote-controlled gymnast doll with her own parallel bars, a host of electronic gadgets Ida could not identify. Inside, a motley group of three- to-nine-year-olds looked on without much enthusiasm as the girl who had crushed Vita’s anteater played the Pillow Ladies’ daughter in table hockey. Each girl struck her small plastic stick at the wooden puck in the middle of the board. For months Vita had requested her very own table hockey board, but the thing was the size of their kitchen, loud, gratuitous, and surely the fastest route to a black eye. Vita looked balefully at Ida.
“Are we having fun yet?” Ida whispered.
At the back of the room, a boy in green tights and a fireman’s jacket and helmet nodded a greeting to Vita. His parents had invited Ida and Beth to join the group. He and Vita never asked to make plans outside of school but had an easy rapport when brought together. It was perhaps too easy: last week, their teacher had called to say that they’d been caught nonchalantly showing each other their little girl and boy parts behind the fort they had constructed on the play deck during recess.
Ida had been proud to discover Vita’s capacity for deviance. Vita was usually an overly decorous child. Until the episode behind the fort last week, her greatest schoolyard infraction had been to wait to retie her shoelaces—violating the teacher’s edict of stop, drop, and tie!—until she could remove herself to the side of the play deck, away from the fray. When the teacher had reprimanded her, she had burst into tears.
Ida hoped Vita’s self-exposure was an act of personal freedom, not the harbinger of an adolescent penchant for kowtowing to the male gaze. At home she scrutinized her daughter’s doll games for traces of unhealthy gender dynamics. Sometimes the female dolls circled the few males in legions. Ida could not tell whether they were being deferential or predatory.
Reluctantly Ida returned to the living room. Behind the Pillow Ladies’ framed photographs and beneath their accent rugs, she felt stir, briefly, the alternate reality in which her Cuban friends had had kids: in the living room, instead of the Pillow Ladies, would be her Escuela de Letras classmates Luís and Antonio: Luís probably reading a book on her couch, Antonio standing by her hotplate, boiling water for coffee. Instead of another pair of moms would be Ida’s cat. And then there would be Isabel.
It would not have been impossible for the four of them to have kids. Often she and Isabel had gone out with Luís and Antonio. Together the two gay couples had masqueraded as a straight double date. Isabel and Luís had even married to quell the suspicions their parents and peers alike had begun to express (they had reason to be nervous after the government began “purifying the university of counterrevolutionary homosexuals” in 1965). Isabel wore white for the ceremony, red for the party, and for three days the four of them ate toasted cheese sandwiches by the pool of the Hotel Habana Libre, a collective luna de miel. Ida could have married Antonio. The four of them could have had babies, a full life together, if Ida had not chosen to leave, if Isabel had not had to stay. The daisy chain of counterfactuals could carry you anywhere.
Even now, Ida was the only one of the four to have started a family. The others had nieces and nephews, some even grandnieces by now. They fawned over the babies, teased them, passed them back to their parents. They remarked at the photos Ida sent of Vita.
Beth had pushed over a pile of pillows bearing blow-up stills of the Pillow Ladies’ daughter on a soccer field, on a horse, in a black leotard on a stage. On Beth’s left and right, women leaned towards each other, laughing and hooting. Beth smiled slightly, her thumb moving back and forth along the cuff of her sleeve. Briefly, Ida remembered the shock of Beth’s laughter at the party where they’d met, how people had surrounded her in the kitchen and smiled at her jokes.
Gradually the Pillow Ladies’ conversation subsumed all side talk: today they wanted to talk about the names a child used to address each of her mothers. The other moms listened, made notes of how the Pillow Ladies’ daughter called them Mommy and Mama, never anything different, and how this was best, they said. Did other mothers have similar systems in place?
The anteater-crusher and her baby brother called both of their moms “Mommy.” The Pillow Ladies frowned, unconvinced. The baby’s mothers glanced at each other. “We haven’t noticed any problems,” the one holding the baby said.
“Not yet,” a Pillow Lady said. “Just wait until Arabella is a teenager.”
“Do you have a teenager?”
“We’ve read the research.”
The Pillow Ladies gestured to their bookshelves. They turned to Ida and Beth. “What does your daughter call the two of you?”
“She calls us different things,” Beth said. “It always changes.”
“Mostly she calls us Ida and Beth,” Ida said.
The Pillow Ladies sucked in their breath. “Why would she do that?”
Ida and Beth had offered Vita alternatives. As a baby, she had cooed mashed-up versions of their names (Idama, BeeBee) that they sometimes recalled when signing birthday cards and notes they packed with Vita’s lunch. But mostly Vita insisted on calling them as they called each other: Ida and Beth.
The other moms agreed that was not a good system.
Isabel would hate them. Knowing the contempt with which Isabel would look at these bourgeois American faces was Ida’s secret talisman, untouchable and unknown. How easily she would dismiss them, as she and Ida had dismissed the teachers who spied for the government, the peers eager to establish themselves as standup revolutionaries, the policies that disappeared young men, the mothers and fathers who watched with official eyes. Even when it became clear that Isabel would not be able to meet Ida in New York—even then Isabel had spat at them. Que me quiten lo bailado. Let them try to take from me what I’ve danced.
With the sudden vertigo of a missed step, the world came to Ida refracted through Isabel’s eyes. Not just this apartment and these people, but her own home, her own life, the many dresses hanging in Vita’s side of the closet they shared, Vita’s easy acquisitiveness, her nativity in this material world.
Isabel resented Vita. Ida had not realized this at first. As soon as she’d left Havana, she and Isabel were over, if not all at once, then piece by piece. Isabel could not leave Cuba, and Ida did not go back. Isabel was the first to find someone new, a soft-spoken translator Ida could not even bring herself to dislike. Ida and Isabel had been friends before they’d gotten together, and they continued as friends. Isabel kept her apprised of their classmates and her teaching; Ida told her how cold New York was in winter, how her art history degree from the Universidad de la Habana meant nothing here, how even in this land of plenty, she was still always hungry. Isabel drank more, grew meaner. Ida sent money when she could.
And then, after eight years Ida could barely recall, there was Beth. Laughing in the kitchen at a mutual friend’s party, speaking animatedly about the Rimbaud poems Ida and Isabel had read in Spanish in school. Within six months, they were living together. Ida knew that it could not have been easy to live with her long-distance phone calls, her boxes of saved photos, her unutterable sense that her life had already played out. And yet, unreservedly, Beth had reviewed the numbers for rent, electricity, and groceries, had found ways they could save and amounts they could send to Luís, Antonio, and Isabel. She did this still.
It had been the year the Berlin Wall came down, the week of Ida’s first ultrasound, that Isabel called, said, Guess where I am. She’d made it to Mexico. When Ida told her about Vita, Isabel had understood: if the government had not beaten them already, a child would.
“Are any of you considering second-parent adoption?” Beth asked the group.
Several moms shifted in their seats. A woman Ida didn’t know glanced at her partner, who looked studiously at the tray of soft cheese. “We don’t need to,” she said. “My son’s donor is my partner’s brother, so she’s already connected to our son biologically. It’s enough.”
“That sort of imbalance is precisely why we adopted Jeanine from Romania,” one of the Pillow Ladies said. “But you’ll remember that today’s discussion considers how a child addresses her parents—”
“Just because you’re writing a book,” the woman holding the baby said, “doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t have our own questions and comments.”
“You’re writing a book?” Beth asked.
“Just a few notes,” a Pillow Lady said, “about our experience parenting.”
“And our experiences,” the woman with the baby said swiftly. “Isn’t that what these discussions are for? Raw material for your study?”
“Of course we’re grateful,” a Pillow Lady said.
“Are we your research subjects?” Beth asked. The Pillow Ladies hesitated.
As the conversation escalated, Ida knew she had strayed too deep before. She could feel Isabel blazing in her head, in her throat, an infection she couldn’t shake. Counterfactuals stretched forward, too, into tomorrow.
Even knowing that she and Isabel would not have worked out—they wouldn’t have; knowing them both, she knew this—did not dull the roar in her ears, the heat behind her eyes, the nausea of the palimpsest of world upon world. No matter what you did, it was a betrayal. Something was always lost. For a moment Ida let herself sink into it, feeling herself drift too close to the fire but unable just yet to pull back.
At first, they walked home in silence. In front of Vita’s favorite pizza place was a vending machine that held toy capsules. Vita asked for a quarter: she wanted to get a ring. Ida and Beth both shook their heads. Glumly Vita scanned the ground for spare change or lost jewelry; once she had found a gold bracelet. Since then she had become vigilant not to miss anything.
They would take it easy tonight, Ida thought, and go to bed early. In the morning, Vita would put on her blue velvet dress and her sparkling red Dorothy shoes. She would outfit her toy octopus in something pink. Beth would wear lipstick, her favorite earrings, probably her purple interview clothes; she would have on, as she always did, Ida’s grandmother’s ring with its two rubies and a pearl. Ida would remember drawing Beth over to her jewelry box shortly after they’d moved in together, saying, Here, let me show you something. The ring had looked small and bright on Beth’s palm. I was wondering if you might like to wear it, Ida had said to her. Beth had worn it ever since.
They would take the C train to Canal Street. Ida hoped they would not have to wait long on the platform. Vita always tried to wander off to look at the mosaics on the station’s walls. She loved the one of Straus Park, with its Statue of Memory, the tiles of the mosaic so much greener than the real-life bronze statue they always passed when they walked home from school.
On the subway, Vita, seated between Beth and Ida, would trace her finger along the graffiti scratched into the car’s windows. Ida would feign ignorance when Vita pointed out obscenities and asked what they meant. Silently, she and Beth would think about the families whose second-parent adoptions had paved the way for their own; they would wonder how many petitions for adoption had been denied. They would marvel how much had changed in five years.
There had been other changes, too: Luís and Antonio were no longer speaking. Luís worked for a government-run arts foundation that held functions every weekend at different rooftop bars; they distributed custom drink stirrers bearing the company logo. Antonio had moved in with his cousin, who made him cook for her every night and clean her house. Isabel’s health was not what it was. The woman with whom she lived in Mexico took care of her. Beth, Vita, and Ida had visited once. There was a photo of Isabel holding a naked baby Vita on a picnic blanket; Ida could not make sense of the image. No one mentioned getting together again.
Almost back at their apartment, Vita took each of her moms’ hands in her own, lifted her legs from the ground, and let herself swing between her parents’ steps. Ida and Beth tightened their grips and raised their wrists to keep Vita from scraping the pavement.
“I can’t believe they had a secret agenda,” Beth said.
“Monstrous Pillow Ladies,” Ida agreed. “So domineering.”
“We won’t go back. Unless some families would want to split off and form a new group.”
“A schism,” Ida said. “Yes.”