“Is that your son?”
The overly friendly woman leans over his shoulder to look at his phone. He's already regretting this job. He's never been good with petty niceties and false smiles. The best part is that this is an office job. He has a cubicle.
How the mighty have fallen
Six months, he tells himself. Six months, he promised.
This is for his mother, for abuela, for the kids paying penance for their parents’ mistakes. For the children hiding from the ICE raids. For every person sent back to a country they never knew because they didn't fill out the right paperwork at the right time. For the migrant workers forced to endure hell out in the fields because someone’s decided their immigration status supersedes their humanity.
For that look he still gets, sometimes, when he goes to certain corners of the city, falls into the wrong building, makes an odd turn. They don't always say it. They usually don't. They don't have to. It's in sideways glances and tensed shoulders, contained anger and broken rage at his merely being there.
Go back to your own country.
As if this isn't his country. As if he'd actually want to stay here if he had another option. As if being an immigrant should dictate where you can buy Hostess. Sometimes he thinks they don't know that his real crime isn't his perceived leech off the system. It's not even entirely about his color.
It's that he doesn't look like them. He doesn't feel like them.
As if we all should look and act like each other.
So yeah, he'll endure Joyce's nosiness for a few months to fix that. He knows he can't help all of it - systemic racism, institutional prejudice, all the buzz words Politico uses to dehumanize inaction - but he can fix some of it. He can try to fix some of it.
He can grin and bear it and drink terrible coffee and persevere through Chris’s third terrible story about his wife's terrible cooking. For the kids, for the dads, for the moms, for the abuelos.
For the kid he could have been, if things had gone a little more sideways. For the kid he probably is inside, just a little.
He leans back, constructs a smile as he looks up at Joyce. He tries not to notice she's wearing a blue gingham dress that hits her curves in the exact wrong places. She smiles back, motions to the picture of Noah with a dinosaur (It's a velociraptor Uncle Rafa! ).
Be nice. She's being nice.
“He is, but he's - ” he pauses for a second.
He doesn't honestly know what to call Liv right now. He hopes they're still friends after that dumb admission he made on the courthouse steps. Where he basically laid out his heart and told her not to ask. He hopes she's letting him still talk to Noah because she likes him and not just because it's too complicated to explain.
He shakes himself out of this line of thinking. This work isn’t about Liv. This work isn’t about Noah (or maybe it’s about the little boys Noah could have ended up like - the ones who get left behind).
Besides, Joyce doesn't care about this. Joyce likes pictures of cats and and probably has a sampler with “bless this mess” over her kitchen sink. Joyce likely lives a nice, quiet life out in a suburb he hasn’t bothered to learn the name of. She’s making polite conversation.
“He's my best friend's son.”
Joyce smiles back. Does this mean he successfully made small talk? Probably not. She’s probably already decided he’s closed off and uptight and he honestly doesn’t much care. She likely knows his whole sordid past. They’ve probably discussed him at length over the watercooler, made comments about not thinking that’s what a murderer looks like, talked about keeping their kids away from him.
They probably don’t think much of him at all. He’d prefer that. He’d like to have no conversations defending what he did, promising he’s not guilty, producing medical evidence and going on trial all over again in the court of public opinion and idle office gossip.
He’d prefer that he hadn’t actually done it, but every act has consequences, even if you didn’t think of them. Even if you’re not sure what you did was actually wrong. Even if you’re not sure there was a right act. Even if that’s the entire problem.
“My son likes dinosaurs too. His favorite is the T-Rex.”
He nods, slowly, curves his lips into a smile that doesn’t show teeth. Joyce goes back to her cubicle diagonal from his. He gets back to work. She goes back to hers.
They don’t talk the rest of the day. They both have things to do.
[I miss you.]
Olivia texts one day, out of the blue. He has to physically stop himself from reaching over and swiping the call button. He can’t call because he's at work and he's in his cubicle and he happens to share a wall with Kathleen the office gossip.
He can't call Liv because the minute he hears her voice he'll be on the next train back to New York. He's about to write back ( I miss you too. Five months. ) when the air leaves his lungs.
[ I don't like the new guy. He's boring. ]
So much for missing him. She misses their working relationship. He doesn't think she knows what she’s doing. He told her, but he's not sure she understands he meant that he's all in. Head first.
New guy. Which means he's just the old guy. Great.
[You didn't like me at first. Give him time.]
[Right, learn the ropes and all.]
There's nothing else. He moves on to researching this impact study. All this paperwork and blathering to try and get a congressman to care about people.
He always thought the law was cold. The people who make it are bathed in frost.
Maybe Liv really does hate the thing he did. Maybe they were never actually friends beyond a great working partnership that probably always develops after so long.
He tells himself none of that is actually true, he just likes feeling sorry for himself. He's pretty sure they were best friends. She wouldn't have let him spend time so much time with Noah if not. She wouldn’t still let him Skype and text with Noah if not.
It's just that it takes effort to maintain a relationship. He's not there every day and so some of that connection is going to fade off. She's probably still a little awkward about the whole confession. He'd tell her he doesn't need anything from her but then he'd have to hear her voice.
He wouldn't actually mean a word anyway. Why lie when you can evade?
At least Noah still likes him. At least that means he'll get an attachment with a blob that’s supposed to be a dinosaur every so often. At least that means he’s still doing something right, even if it's just listening.
He tries to eat lunch in his cubicle so no one bothers him. He doesn't understand why someone insists on making a decaf pot of coffee everyday when he's never seen anyone pour from it. He doesn't get why there are so many paperclips everywhere when all of their studies and reports and proposals are sent via email and Sharepoint.
He's trying to keep his head down. Contribute when necessary. Push through. He doesn't need connections.
He knows Kathleen has 4 boys and one of them is about ready for college. He resists offering advice. She only talks about how hard it will be to pay for it every minute of every day.
Susan is near retirement. Her daughter is living in California. She's going to live with her after she gets her 401k settled.
Grant is on the other side of his cubicle. He's some kind of expert on birds and plants. He'll pop over periodically. He loves telling Kathleen about all his bird sightings. Kathleen really doesn’t seem interested in this at all but she makes an effort. She’s as nice as he wants to be. She’s as nice as he can’t be.
Joyce never actually reveals much about herself. Mentions her son's name is Tyler. He likes dinosaurs. That's about it. He likes this about her.
He doesn't think they realize the kind of work they're contributing to. Otherwise he supposes they'd be a little more serious. They're mostly admin support. He's just sandwiched in here since he's basically a temp.
He starts looking for jobs in New York on his lunch breaks. He's not sure what would work for a former sex crimes prosecutor who resigned in disgrace. He's not sure what he’s looking for.
His mother calls him occasionally, asks him when he's coming back, tells him he didn't stay away this long even when he was at Harvard.
“I forgive you,” seeps out of her one day after she drones on about the latest drama at the school. He’s told her to retire. She never listens. As if either of them ever do anything other than exactly what they want. ( Rafi mind your own business)
He wasn’t asking for it. He’s not sure he deserves it, but he appreciates it nonetheless. Catholic guilt and all. Sins of the father, laid upon the children.
“Thank you,” he sighs. It’s all he can manage.
“Rafi you know that forgiveness is a gift for me more than you. That I can’t keep going on feeling this way”
“I know. I know Mami. I'm just trying to figure out how to forgive myself. How to let go.”
It’s an honest answer. Was what he did truly that wrong, was it all just his father’s voice in his head, screaming he’d never be good enough for anyone, for anything? If what he did was so wrong, why was he spared? Why was he offered absolution and now forgiveness?
Because we don’t have to bear our father’s sins, because it wasn’t a decision for the law.
Because ask, and ye shall receive.
“You don't have to punish yourself.”
“I'm really not… this work is for me.”
If he can get this through, if he can make some semblance of progress with DACA, or residency visas, or refugee programs, then maybe he’s still capable of making a difference. Maybe he’s still able to do some good.
Maybe he deserves to see his family after that.
“You don't have to cut yourself away from everyone to do good work mijo.”
“I know but - I promised. 4 more months.”
“I hope you find your forgiveness.”
He goes to a small cafe near the GWU campus on Saturday mornings. It’s odd having those completely free. No lingering cases, no new victims, no squabbling with Liv over nothing really. He realizes that deep down he had sort of hoped those feelings would go away. It’s only gotten stronger. Absence, heart fonder, all that nonsense from someone Bartlett probably misquoted. He realizes he’s only making it worse by staying away.
He looks at old monuments to dead men with too much burden. Sits upon the ground and reminds himself of sad stories about the deaths of kings. Thinks of Washington and steadfastness in the face of upheaval. Gazes upon Jefferson’s memorial and realizes that a bad act (even multiple terrible decisions) does not erase your good deeds, not all of them anyway. Gets through his brain that even the men who started this terrible, beautiful, complicated idea of a country were just as terrible, beautiful, and complicated. They were only just men.
He stares at Lincoln in his mausoleum and reminds himself about responsibility and obligation. Resolves to finish what he started. Weeps over the second inaugural address on days when no one’s watching. Sometimes on days when everyone is watching. Endeavors to find peace within himself.
He’s still searching.
He’s tried not to make connections here but some can’t be helped. The doorman at the place he’s renting, the woman he makes eye contact with who rides the same Metro line he does every weekday, Arturo at the cafe. He must look like such a grump. He must look so sad. What with the looks they always give him.
Arturo is always trying to get him to go for fancier coffees ( Macchiato o americano? Nuevo opción sí ? ). Sometimes he springs for lattes instead of black coffee with one cream. Arturo seems to think he isn’t being adventurous enough. He means well. He must be getting soft in this aberration, this stop on his journey. The old Rafael Barba would have started going to a new cafe.
The old Rafael Barba would never have allowed himself time to sit in a cafe.
He’s still working on proposals on Saturdays. Chris told him not to. Said he had to allow himself some time to establish a work-life balance. He thinks Chris is kind of new age and honestly deluding himself if he thinks he’s going to stop this work. Eventually he quits asking how all of it got done between Friday afternoon and Monday morning and accepts it.
He likes to sit at the cafe and work on research. He finds it’s easier to think about the people this is for when he’s surrounded by them. He’s enthralled by a story about the families who try to swim across the Rio Grande when he feels his booth move.
It’s Joyce. Joyce apparently thinks they are friends enough that she can plop herself down across from him on a Saturday morning. She smiles, he tries to return it. He’s mostly kind of annoyed. She speaks to him.
“Arturo said he was glad you had a friend. Said you seem lonely.”
“You know Arturo?”
“Only since just now. I had an appointment this morning, and this place always looks nice so I decided to drop in. And look who I find.”
He imagines his face shows most of the exasperation he feels. He decides to stop being such a grouch and let her talk.
He doesn’t know what kinds of appointments are done on Saturday mornings. He wants it to be a haircut or some sort of manicure. He suspects it's something medical. He doesn't ask. If she wanted to share she would have said.
She drones about work. Smiles at Arturo. She's really quite sweet. He just has no intention of staying here. He can't make any more friends to disappoint.
“You're very private,” she states. As if it should be surprising to him that people think so, “The girls were all very interested and then Kathleen Googled you.”
It’s coming. The why did you do the thing , the what are you even doing here , the shouldn’t you be in jail?
He realizes he probably wouldn’t have done the thing had he thought about the consequence. Had he released himself from the burden of his own making, of his own choices. That’s his real sin - visiting his past bad deeds upon Baby Drew. Conflating his father’s death, his vengeance, with a child’s suffering.
“Ah so now you understand.”
“I knew you were familiar.”
Did she follow the case? He can’t imagine it making the news down here, but the Internet is a terrible thing.
“I don't - I’m sorry?”
Joyce does something he’s not expecting. She doesn’t ask him about his trial, his malfeasance. She reminds him of his old life, the good work he used to do.
“My friend Laura, she had a -- a situation a few years back.”
He knows what she means by “situation.” He doesn’t need to ask. He doesn't remember the case. There's too many. Too many missed opportunities, lost cases, failures at justice.
Sorry for what happened, sorry she was ever in that position, sorry he probably didn't do enough. He would remember if he felt like he did enough.
“She said you and and the head detective lady really helped her.”
Liv. Of course Liv did. He's happy they were able to do something.
“I'm glad. Tell her thank you for me?”
He knows this is painful. He’s had this conversation with too many people before. Sometimes he would get afraid this part would become routine, the caring part. It only ever got worse. He used to be able to see the law as cold, hard and biting - to be as detached from it as Senators are from their constituents. Now he feels used by it a little. He wanted to be a crusader like Liv and lost his ass trying.
“She didn't end up going to trial, said she couldn't handle it but she felt justice or something because you all listened, because you were willing to take to trial.”
“It was my job.”
It’s what he always says. He never did anything anyone else wouldn’t have. Except, he knows that’s not really true. He knows he was brash and would run circles around what was considered protocol if it got him a conviction. He knows he put his whole heart - his whole world into it sometimes.
Maybe he doesn’t exactly regret some of his choices.
It's not a small thing that she's not mentioning his case. He knows the trial is probably the first result with his name. She doesn't have to be nice about any of this.
He helped. He's been helping. He still is helping. If he succeeds or not the gestures stand. The effort stands.
He's received his forgiveness from his mother. He's been cleared by the courts. He thinks he's finally able to accept it.
Joyce doesn't owe him a thing. She's just offering kindness. She's reaching through a black hole and drawing him back into this world. She’s pulling him out of his self-induced penance for no other reason than he helped her friend by giving a crap.
She doesn't even know she's doing it. He didn't even know he helped her friend. The myriad petty sacrifices we make. The connections we push through. He's okay.
“I know you think we’re a bit ridiculous but we all really do like you. In spite of the fact that you sit back there and sigh at least once an hour.”
Maybe people notice more things than we think.
“I've come to actually like you all a bit too. Just don't tell anyone.”
He’s not even really lying. He’s not even really just being nice. The smile he gives her is actually sort of genuine. Maybe he is finally ready to go home. It’s just not time.
She asks him what he’s reading and she makes a sad face. Tells him the reason she works for the think tank is because she used to be a social worker and couldn’t take all the heartache any more. Tells him that she feels like she’s contributing to something just a little when Chris picks a good project. Tells him he can’t lose his head in this work or he’ll drown completely. He knows just exactly what she means.
Maybe we have more in common with people than we ever dared to give them credit for.
“Your friend, with the son?”
She reaches her hand over, squeezes his.
“Does she know you're in love with her?”
He sighs, laughs. He always was a little obvious with that. He's still obvious 200 some odd miles away. With Joyce who hasn't even met her. The kinds of faces he must be making at texts, the details he must have let slip, the thoughts he must be voicing.
Maybe Joyce is a little more incisive than he wants to give her credit for.
“Yeah. At least, I think she does,” he looks off and mentally tries to crawl under the table and into the carpet. Joyce is unforgiving.
“Well she's a moron. I'll call her and tell her you're a catch for you. If you want.”
He can’t help but give a half sort of smile at that one. Liv is not a moron. He is not a catch. Joyce is just sweet.
“She's not. She's just not interested. It's fine.”
He moves his hand, gestures some noncommittal semblance of it being okay. Joyce isn’t buying that.
“I'm not sure what part of you she's not interested in but I hope you can find somebody. Love is - it hurts but it's nice when you have somebody.”
He wants to ask about more of her life. Wants to let her open up a bit more, about things that aren’t her job or her past work, but he can't find the words. He doesn't actually care, just that Joyce is a nice person and they’ve both been through some shit and he's trying to be nice too.
This is just a stop, a waystation on whatever journey he's actually on. He doesn't think she wants to tell him. They're not really friends - just kindred spirits trying to stab at progress. His family is back in New York and he can't explain that without being an asshole.
“Yeah, it probably is. I'm glad you have your son.”
He opens up a little after that. The next three months aren't as horrifying. He still misses his family. The whole squad. His world still stops a little every time he gets a picture from Noah. Heart still skitters a few beats whenever he sees “Olivia” on his phone.
He thinks he should be able to fake it once he gets back. Pretend all he wants to be is the best friend and uncle in name only. He thinks he's built up enough scar tissue around his heart to survive it.
Chris offers him an extension about a month before his last day. Says he's a hothead but he's good at this. He thanks him but says he's got to get back to New York.
On his last day they all split a cake that he doesn't eat. He thinks this is just an excuse for cake.
He thinks they may actually miss him. He may actually miss them.
He finds he did make connections, in spite of his best efforts. Maybe he was always supposed to. Maybe it’s in the little nods and sighs. Maybe everyone has a bit more in common than we’d like to admit. Maybe more people give a crap than we realize.
Connection isn’t a bad thing. It’s time to lean into it and get his best friend back. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t love him. He’s fine being Uncle Rafa. He’ll give her away at her wedding or be her groomsmaid or whatever the trend is now.
He can pour himself into work like this again because he knows he can come out the other end without drowning.
It's time to move forward.
With malice toward none, and charity for all