This is Ixchel, the daughter of a professor and a poet, whom I nannied for 6 months in early 2006 in Los Angeles. In this picture I think she’s about 8 months old. Obviously, she’s beautiful, but for a baby she was especially quiet and thoughtful and didn’t smile or laugh very much. I was never sure how much she liked me, but maybe (probably!) that was just me projecting my post-undergrad insecurities onto Ixchel’s naturally introverted personality.
She did do this cute swishing thing with her hands against my arm all the time, just swish-swishing back and forth, a very gentle waving on my forearm. A casual little checking-in, a little brush of affection. It was charming. Swish swish. I still get a little swell of happiness recalling it.
Her mom gave me a picture of her (not the one above)—a standard, wallet-sized portrait from Sears. It is adorable, and I’ve kept it tucked into a pocket of my wallet ever since. I moved from LA to Maui, Maui to DC, DC to San Francisco. On the back her mom wrote, “Krista—thanks for taking such good care of me! Love, Ixchel.”
About a month after moving to San Francisco, I was commuting on a crowded bus one morning. My oversized purse had a large, open pocket on the side, where I stupidly, absentmindedly, dropped my wallet after paying the $2 bus fare.
After disembarking, I walked toward the office and stopped at a coffee shop, where I quickly realized my wallet was gone. It had been stolen, no doubt very easily, by someone on that crowded bus. After calling around and cancelling my cards (which had already been used for transactions at gas stations in South SF), I was reassured that all my money would be refunded and it wouldn’t cost me anything. I was mostly upset because the wallet that had been stolen 1) was a beautiful, classic HOBO wallet I had bought intending to use forever, a style of which was now discontinued and impossible to replace! and 2) I had lost my USC student ID, which had no expiration date and which I had no qualms about using even though the picture was taken when I was 17, and I was now approaching 30.
I told my friend my wallet had been stolen. "Did you have a baby picture in it?" he asked. "Um. Yes, actually," I said. "Maybe it will be returned," he said. "I read that wallets with pictures of babies are 75% more likely to be returned."
I mourned my wallet and Student ID for a few days and moved on. Slowly, replacement ATM cards and credit cards arrived in my mailbox. Life moved on.
Until one day, I opened my mailbox and found a white envelope from USPS with my address on it, wrapped with a rubber band. And inside. Was. My WALLET. And in it! MY USC ID. AND MY PICTURE OF IXCHEL.
Apparently the thief had taken the cash, credit, and ATM cards, and then dropped the wallet in a USPS mailbox on the street. USPS returned the wallet to the address on my driver’s license, which was, for the first time in literally nine years, was actually the same address where I was currently living.
I’m still using that wallet, three years later, and of course, Ixchel is still in there, even though she’s now close to seven years old and certainly wouldn’t recognize me now.
When I was 13 I traveled to Los Angeles with my best friend and her mom. We landed at LAX late at night, and as we were waiting for our bags to come careening out of the maw of the mysterious baggage tube, I noticed a blond man with a very familiar face at the other end of the baggage carousel. He was standing alone. I squinted.
“I think that’s my uncle,” I said to my friend’s mom. (My parents and I lived far away from our extended families, and my mom and dad each had five or six siblings or half-siblings, not to mention the many aunts and uncles by marriage. We very rarely saw any of them, so not being able to instantly recognize an uncle isn’t as crazy as it sounds, I promise.)
She looked at him, and looked at me. “Honey, I don’t think so.”
I was undeterred, stubborn, excited about this chance encounter bestowed upon me by fate. My uncle was going to be so surprised! “No, I think it is! I’m going to say hello before he leaves.”
Before she could stop me I walked confidently up to the blond man. “Uncle Randy?”
He turned to face me and my confidence waned. …Uncle Randy??? Maybe not. But he looked so familiar. He was struggling to get his bags together. His face displayed no hint of recognizing me, his long-lost niece.
“Excuse me?” he said.
“You’re my Uncle Randy, right?”
He paused. Politely, but curtly, he replied, “No, I’m an actor. I’m on television. You probably recognize me from the Wonder Years.”
A fog was lifted. In a moment, clarity. WAYNE. Kevin’s older brother, who constantly, like my dad, used the insult “butthead.” I loved The Wonder Years! I stood there like a dummy and said nothing, letting powerful waves of shame wash over me.
He wrangled his luggage and walked off alone. My shame turned into pity: I felt sad for him. Did I ruin his night? The Wonder Years was long off the air at that point but was being syndicated as reruns. He was older, no longer the jerk older brother famous for tormenting Kevin. Now, he was just famous enough to be recognized, but only as someone’s maybe uncle—not as an actor whose name people knew. That probably felt crummy. He was on the cusp of anonymity, but not quite there yet. He still had to strangers who thought they knew him who he was.
I walked back to my friend and her mom.
“It wasn’t my uncle. He was the brother on the Wonder Years.”
“Ohhhh,” said my friend’s mom. “I knew I recognized him.”
This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see beached skulls
the song nobody knows
because anyone who had heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical
with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.