Passing Judgment on the God-Fearing Family Next Door
The Catholics by Chaitali Sen
Sharmila and Laurie spent the Obama years renovating a blue two-story on Chestnut Street, a tall, narrow house with a covered front porch flanked by two giant pines. It was built in 1910 and had only one bathroom when they bought it. A steep slope down to the street made the path treacherous and presented a landscaping challenge. They weren’t able to solve the problem of the slope but now their house had two bathrooms and an extension off the back where they built their master bedroom.
They debated over moving so far from Cornell, which meant they would have to drive to work in their one car, but they couldn’t find anything affordable closer to campus. This was a mixed-income neighborhood with a small complex of rough-looking apartments further down the street. Next door to them was a charming red colonial which they’d thought to be as old as their own house, but according to the records it wasn’t built until 1989. When it went on the market in 2016, they had tried to get Pete and Mario, their close friends from New York City, to buy it as a second home in the country. They weren’t interested, and the people who ended up moving in were Catholic hipsters with seven children, going on eight. The father, Dave, was some kind of freelance computer guy and a drummer in a band. The mother, Kiki, was a long-limbed waif with a belly so swollen it was nauseating. They had their own live chickens and traveled in a school bus, painted sky blue.
Sharmila and Laurie had watched from an upstairs window as the blue bus rolled into the driveway and the brood of children burst out of it.
A few days later, they went over to introduce themselves to Kiki and Dave and their small army ranging in age from fourteen to two, not including the one in utero. Kiki gave them a tour of the property. The kids were polite, not in a creepy way, and their little four-year-old girl was particularly cute, but the many eclectic and colorful crucifixes going up on their living room wall raised some alarm bells. If it were not the twenty-first century, Laurie and Sharmila would have assumed that they were liberation theologists or something like that. But to be so stubbornly averse to birth control these days was suspiciously right-wing.
When they got home, Sharmila said Dave and Kiki were probably Trump supporters.
“Really? They just don’t seem like the type,” Laurie said.
“They’re totally the type,” Sharmila said.
Growing up in Brooklyn, and then spending her adult life among artists and academics, Laurie would not have had as much opportunity to encounter conservative hippies, but Sharmila grew up in Waco—a hellmouth of megachurches that vomited up Chip and Joanna Gaines (exhibit 1), Christian fundamentalists who dressed just like Dave and Kiki. Ostensibly they remodeled derelict houses on HGTV, harmless enough, but in reality they propagated a patriarchal domestication cult that Sharmila was convinced would bring on the apocalypse.
They started referring to the family next door as the Catholics. The kids, loud and raucous and doing fun things in the backyard, were homeschooled by Kiki. From the upstairs windows, Laurie and Sharmila could observe their progress on a large airy chicken coop, an elaborate multistory playscape, and a lush vegetable garden. Sometime in mid-September Kiki had the baby, which she kept strapped to her body as the rest of the kids swirled around her. Sometimes they caught her looking up, maybe at Laurie and Sharmila in the window or just at the sky. They hardly ever saw Dave, who went more often out into the world, even after the baby was born. Once Laurie and Sharmila spotted him on the Commons loading his drums into a bar for a gig. They looked at each other with matching grimaces of disgust. Whose life came to a halt to raise eight kids? Not his.
Nothing seemed to change for them after Election Day. Kiki and the kids were in the backyard continuing their work, building a veritable fortress of innocence and ignorance. On Inauguration Day, Laurie and Sharmila didn’t watch the news. Instead they drove to the city to pick up Pete and Mario and continued on to DC for the Women’s March, a communal event unlike anything they’d ever experienced before. That night, Laurie raised a glass at dinner and said, “This won’t take four years!”
Back in Ithaca, Sharmila remembered Laurie’s prediction as they watched the Muslim ban protests. With renewed hope, they watched the people defying the post-9/11 sanctity of airports, the lawyers hunkering down with their laptops, all the signs and footage circulating over Twitter and Facebook saying immigrants and refugees were welcome, and so soon after the inauguration! If there was a silver lining to Trump’s election, it was that the people were awakened. It was the people who would stop Trump, very soon, before he could even get started.
Their optimism was tempered by a simultaneous and unnerving sense of doom. Sharmila worried about her students at the LGBT Center. It weighed heavily on her that this could be the only safe space these students would have for the next four years. And Laurie coped with her grief by sitting in her office and trying to meet the deadline on her biography of Jacob Lawrence; her progress was slow, as she felt utterly useless and self-indulgent making a career out of art history. In contrast, the Catholics were always outside, claiming the open air with their hammering and laughing and running around.
The only thing Laurie and Sharmila looked forward to was a visit from Pete and Mario, who usually came up to Ithaca once a season and had long planned a trip for the end of February. To get ready for the visit, Laurie cleaned the house and got a fire going while Sharmila made osso buco and apple tart. Pete and Mario would sleep upstairs in the guest room next to Laurie’s office. Sharmila never claimed a room upstairs, since she already had a perfectly good office at the LGBT Center, but if Laurie’s office door was open, it meant that Sharmila could sit in there while Laurie worked on her book. There was an armchair set up just for Sharmila, where sometimes all she would do was drink her tea and stare out the window at the view. She was in love with the geometry of this region, the line graph profile of the horizon, the sharp points of the trees, the dips and waves of the hills and valleys. Right from their house they could see the great unfurling of the Allegheny Plateau. She got the same euphoric feeling here that she got in New York City, rooted in her relief and gratitude that this was not Waco.
Pete and Mario got a late start leaving Manhattan and reached Ithaca around nine o’clock, bringing a case of wine in along with their suitcase. They quickly settled in to their old ways, as if they’d gone back to a year before all this, when they all felt as if they’d chosen to live their lives in accordance with their epoch, a time of progress to which each of them were making a small contribution—Laurie with her scholarly work, Sharmila with the LGBT Center, Pete with his curatorial vision, Mario . . . Mario was a corporate lawyer working on acquisitions and mergers, but as the son of a postal worker and a bus driver, his success provided tangible benefits for his family. They talked about art, about work, about the weather and every few minutes there was something that threw them into fits of laughter. After dinner, they cozied up in front of the fireplace with their glasses of wine and slices of apple tart. They tried to watch Mad Max: Fury Road, which they thought would keep them awake but didn’t.
The next morning, everyone was in a good mood. As she made a pot of coffee, Laurie remarked that she’d had so much fun last night, she’d almost forgotten who was president.
“Me too,” said Mario. “I don’t think his name came up once. It’s like we called a moratorium.”
Pete said, “Man, fuck that guy.”
But this broke the moratorium. Once they mentioned the unmentionable, they couldn’t let it go.
“Trump’s too stupid to be that much of a threat,” Mario offered.
“It doesn’t take a genius to burn down a house,” Pete said.
“But it’s the whole regime!” Laurie exclaimed, “It’s a vicious cabal!”
The boys cracked up. “Who talks like that? ‘Vicious cabal’?”
Laurie laughed with them. “It’s true though!”
After breakfast, Laurie and Sharmila took Pete and Mario to Cornell for a look around. They stopped at the art museum, a modern building next to the architecture school that always reminded Sharmila of a Polaroid camera. Laurie wanted to show Pete a participatory installation called Empathy Academy: Social Practice and the Problem of Objects. Students in the art department would be adding their own contributions to the exhibition later in the semester. Laurie loved the idea of a living exhibit and she wanted to curate a show like that with Pete one day, but Pete couldn’t conceive of when or where that would be possible. At the moment, he was a curatorial project assistant for the Whitney Biennial, a freelance position that Laurie had helped him get. She had connections because right out of undergrad she had worked for a brief time at the Whitney, back in 2001 during the last big national disaster.
They had lunch at a new farm-to-table restaurant downtown, then went home for some quiet time. Pete was disappointed that it wasn’t snowing. They always hoped for snow on their winter visits, but snow was not as reliable as it once was in Ithaca. Some years it was still abundant, but this winter was a disappointment. Old-timers could remember when it snowed from the end of October to the beginning of April. Then, suddenly the trees would blossom and a short spring would zip straight into a long, hot, humid summer. A fresh snowfall sculpted Ithaca into something magical, but there would be no chance of that this weekend.
While Mario worked on a brief and Pete went into Laurie’s office so they could talk about her book, Sharmila combed through recipes on Sam Sifton’s blog, What to Cook This Week. She hoped Pete would give Laurie the motivation she needed to finish that damn book. Laurie had a virtual vault full of research, interviews, and digital photographs, and had developed a close relationship with several members of Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence’s extended family. Laurie owed it to them to get this story out into the world, but Sharmila gave up trying to speed things along. Every time she nudged, however gently, Laurie would have a panic attack and stop writing for days.
Early in the evening, Sharmila was in the kitchen pulling out ingredients to make a roast chicken with wild mushrooms. If this house were nothing but the kitchen, Sharmila would not mind. It was huge, even larger than what she was used to in Texas, fitting a long solid wood farmhouse table that the rest of the house, with its tight corners, could not have accommodated. The kitchen was chic and rustic, modern and vintage, masculine and feminine. It was the last room they did after months of deliberating, finally settling on white quartz countertops with black custom cabinets, dark oak flooring, red brocade chairs, and one magnificent crystal chandelier over the table.
Mario came in, opened a bottle of wine, and watched Sharmila arrange a tray of soft cheese, sliced baguette, and olives. This was the first Pete and Mario visit in years that Laurie and Sharmila didn’t have people over for Saturday dinner. All of their friends in Ithaca loved Pete and Mario. Some of the wealthier liberal types went on too much about how genuine and fun and uncomplicated and “authentic” they were. Laurie and Sharmila did not feel up for all that this time, and even Pete and Mario had said they just wanted to watch movies and relax.
Yet this cheese tray cried out for a more festive atmosphere. The house felt too quiet, too dark. True to form, Mario figured out how to lift the mood. He paired his phone with Laurie’s surprisingly robust little speaker and blasted their dance song “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by Beyoncé. Sharmila and Mario had been practicing the moves to this song for years now. The music shook Pete out of his slumber and Laurie out of her office. Now it felt like a party, and everyone remembered that this was a weekend for fun and happiness. Sharmila could remember them all dancing like this in their tiny apartment in Washington Heights. She couldn’t believe how young they were then, and how lucky she was to have found love so easily.
During dinner, they were mellowed by the wine and Sharmila’s succulent chicken and Ella Fitzgerald playing on the speaker. It had been such a perfect day. Then they cleaned up and sat on the couch to binge-watch the Aziz Ansari show Master of None. They were each annoyed by something different yet no one was in favor of stopping it.
“He is so not sexy,” Laurie said.
“His pining after white women is so boring,” Sharmila said.
In the middle of the fifth episode, someone rang their doorbell. It was past nine, later than they’d ever had unannounced visitors. Laurie and Sharmila went together to the door and saw Kiki standing there, jumping up and down in a parka, perhaps in some kind of trouble. Immediately, Laurie swung the door open.
Kiki smiled and said “Sorry to bother you” with utmost cheer. For once there was no baby hammocked to her chest. The temperature outside had dropped and a blast of cold air flew into the house. “Come in, come in,” Laurie said.
“Is everything okay?” Sharmila asked. Kiki looked so young without her kids, like a college student.
Kiki noticed Pete and Mario in the living room and waved at them. The boys waved back, looking intensely curious and somewhat amused, as if they’d been waiting for something unexpected to happen.
“Do you need something?” Sharmila asked. She was not raised to be rude to visitors but she tried to put a little clip in her voice. They’d successfully avoided the Catholics for months now. She could not believe their streak was coming to an end on their one weekend with Pete and Mario.
“Umm, what am I doing here? Argh, mommy brain. Oh, I was wondering if you have anything for a headache? I’d drive into town, but it’s so late and Dave’s not here.”
“Sure,” Laurie said. “What are you allowed to take?”
“Just over-the-counter stuff. The usual.”
Laurie vanished down the hallway to go look in the master bathroom. Pete and Mario emerged from the living room, like animal cubs coming out of their dens. Mario was empathetic and hospitable. “Are you not feeling well? Do you want a drink? A glass of wine?”
“She probably can’t have a drink if she’s nursing,” Sharmila said.
Kiki rushed to say, “I can have a little.”
“It’ll help you with your headache,” Mario said. With that absurd statement, Mario and Pete were co-conspirators. Kiki was marched to the kitchen, seated at the head of the table, and given not only a glass of wine but some French bread and Brie cheese and grapes. She took off her parka, which Pete whisked away to hang on the coat rack.
“Wow, I haven’t been this spoiled in forever. Are you some kind of angels?”
“So where’s Dave?” Sharmila asked.
Kiki washed her bite down with a glug of wine and explained that Dave was in Europe on tour with his band.
“Is he famous?” Pete asked.
Kiki laughed. “I love the way you’ve done this kitchen.”
Just then Laurie appeared, unfazed by the domestic scene at the dinner table. She set down Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, and Motrin. Kiki took two Motrins and smiled at everyone, incredibly alert and lively. She kept fixing her eyes on different parts of the kitchen, the backsplash, the range, the cabinets, the chandelier.
“Dave’s in Europe,” Sharmila announced for Laurie’s benefit.
With more prompting from the boys, Kiki began to talk about Dave’s tour, what kind of music he played and where he was at the moment—Amsterdam.
Pete interrupted. “I have to ask you, your man is in Amsterdam and you are in Ithaca New York, with . . . you have kids, right?”
Kiki blushed. “Yeah, I have eight.”
“No!” Mario exclaimed as if he were hearing this for the first time. “You don’t look like you could have eight kids.”
“Thank you,” she said, “But I do. Ocho.”
“Ocho niños, dios mío,” said Mario.
“That’s actually what Dave calls our baby. Ocho.”
“Doesn’t it bother you that he gets to be in Europe while you’re stuck here with all your kids?” Pete asked.
“I could have gone if I wanted to. I could have left my kids with my parents and just taken the baby. But why would I want to leave my kids? They’re cool people. I like hanging out with them.”
You’re not hanging out with them now, Sharmila thought. Kiki went on to say that her oldest was fourteen and helped a lot, that the baby was sleeping but could sleep until three or four in the morning now. She also said the wine and food and Motrin were really helping her with her headache. By then, they all had glasses of wine. Mario took out his phone and asked if Dave’s band was on Facebook.
“They’re more on Instagram,” Kiki said, sharing their handle, which Mario was able to pull up easily. There was a band picture that he passed around, Dave and three other hipsters in wool hats sitting by a canal in Amsterdam. Pete asked her details about the kids. Names, ages, did they go to school? Kiki explained that she was homeschooling them. When Pete asked her why, she said she thought school was too confining, too institutional. She wanted her kids to be free to explore things at their own pace. If she had any objection to a public, secular education, she didn’t express it here.
“Can I ask if you did this kitchen yourselves? It’s amazing.”
“We did most of it ourselves,” Laurie answered. “We hired people to pull up the linoleum and install hardwood.”
“God, I hate the linoleum. I started pulling it up myself but now there’s just a big sticky mess in the corner of the kitchen.”
“I can give you the name of our guy.”
“I’d love to get a tour of the house one day. We’re planning to renovate next summer.”
“Why don’t you show her the house now?” Pete asked. “You don’t have to rush back, right?”
Kiki clapped with delight. “I would love that.”
Laurie and Sharmila were both raised to keep their house ready for company. They both knew it would have been rude to say no.
Laurie led the way, with Pete, Mario, and Sharmila trailing behind. Kiki relished the tour, taking her time in each room, asking about fixtures and colors and where they got their ideas from. When they got upstairs to Laurie’s office, the least orderly room in the house because the walls were covered with photographs and prints and notes, Laurie explained that she was working on a book about Jacob Lawrence. Kiki’s enthusiasm seemed genuine, though she admitted to not knowing who Jacob Lawrence was. “Who writes an actual book, that’s fucking awesome!”
She went to a different set of pictures on the opposite wall, a triptych that Laurie was writing a paper on for the Arts in Society Conference in Paris. The first picture was a close-up of a group of white people turning their gaze to their right toward the camera, sometime in the 1920s. A different version of that picture could be found on the internet, revealing in the background the charred body of a Black boy hanging from a tree. The next picture was from Nazi Germany, a crowd of thousands on what seemed to be a sunny day, tens of thousands, facing a stage punctuated with towering outsized swastikas. The final photograph was from a Trump rally, resplendent with reds and whites and blues and the rapturous florid faces of his supporters looking at their savior.
Kiki looked closely at the pictures, peering into each one for a long time.
“What do you think of those?” Sharmila asked.
Kiki exhaled. “I mean, yeah, I guess, God, this is so intense.”
For a minute no one said anything. The question of Kiki’s politics went conspicuously unanswered.
“Well,” Laurie said, “that’s the house.”
“It’s awesome. Your house is beautiful.”
They all went back down the stairs. At the bottom, Sharmila planted her feet by the front door. Kiki got the hint. She said she’d better get home before one of her kids woke up and called the cops to file a missing person’s report. She grabbed her parka off the coat rack. But just as Sharmila opened the front door and Kiki stepped toward it, she stopped and faced everyone.
“I don’t know who needs to hear this,” she began. “This may be way out of line. But my heart is telling me just to come out and say it.” She put both her hands over her heart for a brief pause, making eye contact with Laurie and Sharmila. “I just see that you two are so stressed out all the time and I hate that you feel like you have to worry so much. You’re so lucky, you know, and your lives are so great—I mean you made this life that’s so great. No one can take what you have away from you. No one!”
Sharmila smiled and opened the door wider, but Laurie stopped Kiki from leaving. “I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.”
Kiki looked at Pete and Mario for backup. “Just say what you mean,” Mario said.
“I mean, I know, or I can imagine, I’m reading the signs that you feel vulnerable right now, like the world is out to get you.”
“Not the world,” Laurie said. “Just America.”
“But that’s what I’m saying. I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you. Neither would Dave. Neither would my kids, for that matter. But I don’t think you’ll need us. I promise you in four or eight years or whatever this will all be over and you’ll be fine. You’ll be better than fine.”
“And you’ll have four more kids,” Sharmila said. She thought it would sound more jocular than it did. A smile froze on Kiki’s face, and everyone else looked at Sharmila like she’d gone too far, like she’d made motherhood the enemy.
“Okay, I hope I haven’t made a total fool of myself,” Kiki said, and Sharmila, to make up for her flippant comment, told her to be careful on the walkway, realizing too late that anything she said now, even out of genuine concern for Kiki’s safety, would sound sarcastic.
As soon as Kiki stepped outside, Laurie grabbed Sharmila’s hand and squeezed. They’d put off working on the front path because it was not an exciting renovation, but one day someone was going to fall and sue their asses. Thankfully, Kiki made it to the sidewalk and ran the rest of the way home.
After Laurie closed the door, Pete said, “That got weird.”
“What do you think she was trying to say?” Sharmila asked. “That she voted for Trump?”
“I didn’t get that,” Mario said. “That’s not what I got.”
“She never said they didn’t vote for Trump,” Sharmila said. “Instead she lectured us on how lucky we are.”
“That was some bullshit,” Pete said.
Laurie was quiet for a few minutes. When she spoke again, it was an impersonation of Kiki saying four or eight years or whatever, and it was so uncanny they couldn’t stop laughing. They didn’t turn the TV back on, but stayed up late talking about Kiki’s visit. They started going around in circles. Was disengaging a way of fighting, or was it just capitulation? Could they not feel the little gears clicking inside their consciences, making frequent, tiny adjustments until nothing was shocking or outrageous anymore? Were they right to be so afraid, or would they, in fact, be fine?
The next day felt especially melancholy. Pete and Mario were going back to the city where there were at least many diversions and the appearance of a robust world more immune to the vicissitudes of the rest of the country. Sharmila and Laurie did not feel so comfortable up in Ithaca, and three days later, when an Indian immigrant was shot dead in a Kansas bar, they wondered what to do, how much meaning they should cull from it. Then there were stabbings in May—a Black college student in Maryland and three white men defending Muslim girls in Portland.
Wanting to escape, Laurie and Sharmila left the country for the summer. They watched the riot in Charlottesville on French TV just days before their flight back to the US and they didn’t want to come home, even to their friends or to the house they’d spent so much time fixing up.
But soon enough, the semester began and they were busy again. On a Saturday in September when the whole neighborhood seemed to be outside, Laurie and Sharmila went out to the porch with their cups of coffee. A landscaper was coming to show them some designs for their front lawn and walkway. From across their yards, the Catholics looked up from their chores and waved, and Laurie and Sharmila, feeling fine, waved back.