One day, my son befriends the nun.
It starts with voices in the yard. Through the glass kitchen doors where I stand chopping onions, I hear Sebastian’s voice and then a woman’s. Sebastian, woman—back and forth. Sebastian is five and when I come out to check on him, his face is pressed into the slats of the fence in the backyard.
This part of New Orleans is called Hollygrove—what Lil Wayne, who grew up here, refers to as “the Holy Mecca.” I’ve also heard it called Pigeon Town, Leonidas, or, in faintly more ominous tones, “the fruit streets”—a modest subset of what locals call Uptown, with its grand, columned houses and clothing boutiques. It’s working-class, mostly, with middle-class fringes: white, Black and Latinx. We’ve lived here since the summer of 2014, a month before our son was born, me and two friends unloading a U-Haul while my wife, hugely pregnant, supervised in the heat.
Hard to say what Sebastian and the woman are discussing. Immersive to him, something else to the woman—bemusing? Disarming? I really can’t say. But I hear traces of it, whatever it is, in the gentle up-speak of the fence-talker’s voice, the emphatic, reiterative questions she poses.
Beyond that fence reside the nuns—a whole nun condo—two stories tall and eggshell-blue. The nuns were there before we came. I imagined uncanny habits with shadows inside them, but these are chill, back-to-the-land nuns. Sometimes I see their lights at night, the mellow, anonymous squares of their windows.
The woman says, “You wait right here, I’ll be right back.”
I wait for Sebastian to turn, but he lingers, enraptured. I can see the tense shape of his young, restive body, the chicken wings flexing beneath his slight shoulders. I hear a shriek, but it’s only the mournful mating call of the urban peacock my neighbors keep in their yard a block away.
“Stand back,” says the sister when she returns. Sebastian takes a couple paces back. There’s a whirring. A circle in the wooden fence, roughly the size of a baseball, drops out of sight. The blade of a hole-saw retreats from the circle.
The hole reveals little of the woman who made it. Through its rawness I see her stoop to pick up the missing piece.
“Dad!” Sebastian spins around. “Sandy just drilled out a hole in the fence so Sandy and me can talk!” he says.
“I see that,” I say, coming forward warily. I hadn’t known her name was Sandy.
I hear the saw start up again. Sandy tosses half the fence circle through the hole and Sebastian picks it up. “I’ll keep half and you keep half,” she says.
For the nun and my son, this is just the beginning.
My wife, Darcy, takes the little half-moon that Sandy sawed out of the fence and puts it on Sebastian’s mantle between the picture of whales and the Bluebird of Happiness.
Over the next few weeks, then months, Sebastian’s and Sandy’s murmuring voices continue. Most days she’s out there in her yard, doing whatever she does in her garden, and whenever Sebastian is outside in ours I see him circling near the fence that isn’t a fence anymore, but a portal. Some days my son just goes to stand at the hole, yelling, “Sandy! Saaaaaandyyyyy!” with a mournful exuberance. It’s never summoned her outside, but she must hear him out there. Maybe Sandy is hiding. More likely, Sandy’s days are busy. She has that vibe, an alpha nun, keeping the other nuns humble and spiffy. I hear their voices in the garden, spectral as a summer breeze, shooting the shit on their way to do errands, mumbling about the heat. Youth groups arrive and embark cheerily upon team-building efforts, their college voices floating up, but none of these kids hold a candle to Sandy. Sebastian is a child transfixed.
Sandy is a pair of sandals, the yellow-blue hem of a tie-dye t-shirt advertising a marathon battling cancer.
Sandy is a stranger’s voice, burrowing through the nun-hole (as I’ve come to call it), rustling the magnolia blossoms, and traveling up the back steps to the kitchen where I so often make it my business to be—prepping dinner, washing dishes. Partly due to the fact that these hangouts with Sandy provide me with a short but welcome respite from imaginative play and fetching snacks, and partly because of an ear surgery I had six years before that rendered me partially deaf on one side, all I really get are snatches.
“We did watercolors today at my school.”
“Oh yeah?” Sandy asks him. “And what did you make?”
“I painted a monster,” says my son.
Or: “Wheeler and Jackson were playing football and they told me I couldn’t play.”
“That wasn’t very nice,” says Sandy. “Did that hurt your feelings?”
“Yes?” says my son, in that way he has sometimes of answering a question and asking another one in the same breath.
“Did you let them know that?” says Sandy.
I can’t hear how he responds. A crackle of jealousy runs through me. When I get him from school at the end of the day, I’m always full of questions for him: “What did you do?” “Make any new friends?” Most of the time he’s taciturn; sometimes he’ll try to change the subject.
For the moment, I stand in the kitchen, eavesdropping.
Sebastian has been an extrovert since the day he was born. People delight and fascinate him. At restaurants, he makes the rounds, introducing himself to everyone and asking prying questions: “Where are you going?” “Who’s your favorite superhero?” “How old are you?” “Are you married?” “My name’s Sebastian, I was born here.” He takes after his mother this way. Darcy is a Unitarian Universalist minister and a reproductive rights activist—both inherently social pursuits—and being with people, in large part, sustains her. She and Sebastian fit easily into New Orleans, a self-aware city of extroverted oddballs. At three hundred years old, it’s unlikely to change.
My favorite pastime growing up was composing show-tune librettos based on 19th-century horror novels. “Every man has another side/Just take me/Jekyll and Hyde!” I played a sad game I called “roller-skate soccer,” which involved scoring unsteady goals on myself across the uneven terrain of our yard. Although I had a half-sister who lived elsewhere, I was raised an only child—if that wasn’t obvious to you already. We were a movie-and-book family—warm but secluded, alone together. Though, often, my parents’ need for solitude drove them to comical extremes. When neighbors rang our doorbell, my parents sometimes told me to keep my voice down so it would seem like we weren’t home. Then they hid together in the doorway, giggling as the caller gave up and left. My family liked it when it rained; we preferred it indoors.
But this sort of stuff wouldn’t fly in New Orleans. As it says on those custom-made signs in the shops here, as a warning and a welcome, “Be nice or leave.” In our neighborhood we pull each other’s trash cans in, keep tabs on each other’s pets, look out for each other’s kids, bake each other Christmas cookies, fix each other’s frozen pipes, and help each other get back inside when one of us is locked out.
When Sebastian wasn’t passing messages to Sandy, he enjoyed a river of playmates who deluged our house every day around 5 p.m. He was overjoyed that our house had become the neighborhood hangout, but sometimes the constant company left me feeling like Sebastian’s hamster, who never bargained on fifteen child owners. He was passed from hand to hand, and when he was finally put back in its cage he was wild-eyed, fur matted and sticky with ice cream and juice.
For nearly three years, I was Sebastian’s primary caretaker and—when Darcy traveled for work, sometimes as often as every other week—my main source of companionship. Though I longed for my wife abjectly, there was also something lovely in those solo-parent interludes. I read mountains of books to Sebastian on the living room couch, and took him to echoing, brightly lit museums in the mornings. Alone together.
Late winter of 2020, and the raucous visits of the neighbor children have stopped. Five p.m. is more than quiet. There’s a tension or longing that hangs in the air, reminding us of what we’re missing. Amidst it all, Sebastian and Sandy are friends. They not only keep chatting through the hole in the fence, they also exchange gifts. A kaleidoscope materializes, then a Hot Wheels car. It’s unclear what Sebastian gives Sandy in return.
We are in the early, anxious weeks of coronavirus, but we reluctantly let Sebastian keep trading a shared art project with Sandy, back and forth under a gap at the bottom of the fence, barehanded. More than the fact of their friendship alone, which my wife and I find wholly novel and charming, the nun that lives behind the fence is the first friend Sebastian has made on his own, and we like to think we’re the kind of caretakers who’d never deprive him of something like that.
They dig in the dirt on either side of the fence, pushing shells and fallen leaves that they’ve found through the hole. They ask and answer endless questions. Sometimes they sit in easy silence, Sebastian with his knees drawn up and his back to the fence while Sandy paces. They are doggedly learning the truth of each other.
When Sebastian runs inside one day and announces that Sandy has left something for him “too big for the hole” on the front porch, I follow him through the house. On the porch is a large cardboard box filled with knickknacks: sponge brushes and tubes of paint, wearable butterfly wings made of paper, a partial Hot Wheels racing track. It seems impossible to make these things safe. We decide he can keep the Hot Wheels track.
We’ve been in isolation for a month when I see Sandy in person.
The day is any other day, as we’ve come to perceive time since COVID-19 began: Sebastian is hunting around near the fence while I attempt some yard work.
Strangler weeds work their way up the trunk of our prized Meyer lemon tree, felled in a storm and then staked back in place, where it is slowly regenerating. The obscene banana tree is flowering, and its blooms vomit gooey yellow seeds on the concrete. Every time I turn around, something new and uninvited has taken root.
I hear Sandy’s voice floating over the top of the fence with the hole. “I thought maybe Sebastian could come for a play date. I’ve got some bricks here and they need painting yellow.”
I’m not sure what to do at first, but my wife wants to go and so does Sebastian. We ring the bell on Sandy’s porch. This is before the mask mandate and Sandy’s yard is sweet with the smell of flowers; tulip and rose bushes bloom at the edges. I hadn’t noticed, but the sisters seem to have repainted the house: cream, with navy blue trim.
The first thing Sandy does when she answers the door is point to a row of wedge-shaped concrete blocks she’s spaced out in front of the curb to her house. She’s a middle-aged white woman with brown hair cut in a pageboy. Her eyes are squinty, foxed with mirth, a spray of freckles on her nose. She wears sandals with cuffed up jeans, her t-shirt tucked into the waist. She’s shorter than I thought she’d be. She explains that she’s tired of the whole neighborhood blocking the path to her door with their cars. It delights me that Sandy, a woman of God, is irritated with her neighbors for parking their cars legally on the street; there’s something transparently cranky about it, like the people with lights off on Halloween night. The barricade of wedge-shaped blocks, Sandy explains, is what needs painting yellow.
“How you doing, Mom?” says Sandy, gesturing at Darcy’s stomach.
Darcy is seven months pregnant. We’re checking COVID-19 numbers hourly. Our state of mind isn’t what you’d call relaxed. Still, there’s something momentous about being here, a midday sojourn with our son’s adult friend, as chatty and warm as she is enigmatic.
We’ve suddenly passed through the hole in the fence; we have to learn to breathe the air.
Darcy lightly rubs her belly. “Getting there, all right,” she says.
A month later, Sandy leaves for good.
We never expected this to happen. In regretful, low tones, we say these very words, “I never expected her to leave!” as though if we say it enough, she won’t leave and our son won’t be heartbroken, robbed of her magic.
From the nun Sandy sends to the nun-hole to break the news to us, we learn that she has left suddenly to care for her mother, who lives in Kansas. The other nun says Sandy looked for Sebastian but couldn’t find him in time; her transfer came through faster than she’d expected. Sandy left behind another box of presents: a coloring book, some sidewalk chalk, the missing orange segment in the Hot Wheels racing track. When I look at Sebastian, he’s looking down at his shoes. Something rattles loose inside me like the kaleidoscope that kicks around Sebastian’s room, the decorative paper now stripped from the tube.
The nun slides a piece of paper under the fence with Sandy’s address on it.
Surprising my wife and I, they write. They are proper pen pals: they write frequently, warmly. Sebastian writes of a summer indoors. He writes to “tell her that he loves her.” Sandy writes of her new life in Kansas. “God loves you, Sebastian,” she signs every postcard. I think of the handful of friends in my life who still write me postcards. It’s been months, a year, since I’ve written back.
Our second son is born in the spring. The baby is healthy, and in two days, Darcy and he are home. We walk in a twilight delirium, drunk on fontanel scent, counting diapers and feedings. The backyard grows unregulated. Some alien species of tall grass is thriving. The weeds that crown with purple flowers are coiling up the gas shutoff. Beauty breeds with fecundity, here where we live. It sneaks in while your back is turned.
Sebastian adores his baby brother, but inevitably he wanders down the backyard steps, goes to stand in the magnolia leaves by the fence. Instead of calling, “Sandy!” he cries, “Hello! Helloooooo!” through the hole in the wood. Sometimes the nun who gave him Sandy’s address comes for desultory chats. He is starting over, unflagging, from the beginning. On days no one comes, he sits patiently, waiting.