Johanssen was the whitest park in the whitest neighborhood in the whitest town where Caitlin was living her whitest life, a shiny bubble of curated playground equipment and soft rubber chips in case of unexpected falls. No urgency from the outside world would ever drown out the giggles of toddlers clinging to swings, or the shouts from older children jostling skinned elbows on the basketball court. Caitlin hadn’t planned to live in a mostly white neighborhood—especially in Southern California, of all places—but here she was. In her mostly Cuban American high school in Miami, she’d been the minority and rolled with it by getting an A in AP Spanish. In grad school, she’d come close to marrying Debashish, but she’d steered clear of the family drama (in fairness, mostly from his father in Kolkata) and married Tad from IT at the boutique publishing house where she edited art books.
Here she was, a German-Irish white woman stranded on an island of whiteness.
Tad was the whitest name imaginable. When she tested Tad early on by praising Black Lives Matter, he’d said, “I understand what it’s like to stand out—I have red hair,” but she’d forgiven him and restrained herself from tweeting it out with a GIF of a head banging on a desk. God help her, maybe that drop of ginger exoticism had been one of the reasons she’d agreed to go to dinner and a Dodgers game with Tad and then ended up at the altar beside him two years later. That, and he was one of the few straight cis men she’d met in her dating life who wasn’t a transphobe and homophobe, and their shared passion for the environment and horror movies sealed it. Their daughter, Destiny, had inherited his bright red hair, and it was true Destiny got teased, mostly for the freckles spraying her nose.
Here she was, a German-Irish white woman stranded on an island of whiteness, and she had chosen this; she had chosen to live in a place that did not feel like the country where she had grown up. How hadn’t that mattered more when they bought their house? Sometimes Caitlin went days without seeing a black person (African American, she had been told by Latrice, her freshman roommate at UCLA, was a term used mostly by white people who did not have black friends). Sometimes she backed out of her driveway on Monday mornings without even noticing the silver-haired Latinx woman who had been cutting her grass for three years.
She didn’t wear the political T-shirts in her bottom drawer, even her ’08 Obama shirt, because her reputation as “fiery,” as an ex had once called her, only went so far. She was not “fiery” at Johannsen Park. She spent too much time fighting with trolls on Twitter, so when she took Destiny to the park, she did not want to know who had voted for whom, or who thought “Fake News” was a real thing, or accidentally land in a dueling T-shirt contest with Mr. Blue Lives Matter, who pushed his daughter beside hers on the swing.
But two black boys were at the park now. A whiff of hope at last.
Two black boys were at the park now. A whiff of hope at last.
The boys—one about eight, and one, his brother, she assumed, about seventeen or maybe younger, but tall—had just started coming to Johanssen two or three times a week, probably from the new apartment building near the railroad tracks. Caitlin fixed a ready smile whenever one of them passed, to the point where last week the older boy (Shaun, or DuShaun) had given her a mistrusting glance. Which was fair. Too much, maybe. She had offered the younger boy (Trey, Ray, or Dre) a juice box when he was standing at the periphery of Destiny’s birthday party this past weekend, but he had politely declined. Stranger Danger. Good for him.
The older brother was mostly babysitting; he walked his brother to the fenced skate park enclosure and said “You good?” and then went on to the basketball court with a ball pinned under his arm. He shot baskets while he waited; he missed some, but he hit most of them. Pickup games came and went around him, but no one invited him to play and he didn’t look interested in joining. He checked in on his younger brother every fifteen or twenty minutes, then an hour after they arrived, sometimes more, he told his brother to stop flying in the air and they walked toward home, the younger boy riding his bright red scooter around him in zigzags.
Caitlin sometimes noticed flashes of the younger brother’s skin in the skate park’s blur of motion. When she heard crying after a fall, she glanced to be sure it wasn’t him, since no black mother ever joined the row of parents waiting for wails or tears on the benches observing the playground and the skate park. These boys’ parents probably had to work. It was a luxury, Caitlin reminded herself, to be sitting at a park at three o’clock on a weekday afternoon.
Caitlin was the only mother at the park who noticed the police car.
She spotted the black-and-white pattern slowing beside the basketball court where the older boy, Shaun, was listlessly shooting baskets alone at a hoop a universe away from the group of white teenagers at the other end of the court. He was so far across the court that he was closer to the street than the rest of the park, flanked by tightly packed houses. A white man stood in his yard with his hands on his hips, watching the court. Watching Shaun.
A drab day snapped to Technicolor.
Caitlin sat straight up on the bench. She turned to an invisible person beside her, as if to touch her on the arm, some shared recognition, but she was alone. On the bench across from hers, a young couple with a fussy toddler did not see the police car. Same for the retired woman who always did tai chi under the oak tree, her thin limbs flowing with colorful batiks.
Police drove past the park’s basketball court often—too often, Caitlin had decided—but they rarely parked except when teenagers congregated at the curb, sometimes vaping. A kid had revved up his motorcycle too loudly and gotten sharp words from a passing officer during Destiny’s birthday party, but that was as exciting as the park got.
Caitlin had never seen the police car door open, or a uniformed cop step out.
A white cop, she couldn’t help noticing.
When he turned to chase his ball, he saw the cop coming toward him and stopped.
Shaun, if that was his name, was so absorbed in shooting baskets that he didn’t seem to hear the snap of the cop’s car door closing despite the echo in the cracks between the neighbors’ houses. He stayed poised for his shot, measuring the distance. His basketball sailed and hit the rim, bouncing rogue. When he turned to chase his ball, he saw the cop coming toward him and stopped. His ball rolled to the sidewalk.
The cop, who was shorter, already had his hand poised over his gun.
“What?” Caitlin whispered. She stood up, fumbling in her back pocket for her cell phone.
The afternoon looked like a police video she had already seen, except in color instead of grainy and gray. The other teenagers stopped their game to stare where they stood, watching.
“I need to walk over there and see what’s going on,” Caitlin said to herself, and was disappointed when she realized she was not, in fact, walking over there. But she did manage to will her trembling fingers to find her phone’s camera app, and then she was staring at the image on the screen of her feet standing still on the gum-stained sidewalk.
She was too far away to shoot video. She would have to move closer.
Yet, she wasn’t moving. Her breathing quickened as she stared at their interaction from a helpless distance. The cop and Shaun were talking back and forth, so she filled in the blanks:
—What’s wrong, officer?
—Can I ask what you’re doing here?
—Shooting baskets. Clearly.
—Can I see some ID?
—I’m a kid, so I don’t really have ID.
—OK, well, watch yourself for existing out here in Whiteytown.
Caitlin prayed the officer would walk back to his car and Shaun would retrieve his basketball, unbothered, but it didn’t seem to be playing out that way. Shaun was frustrated, arms outstretched, and the officer’s hand was still close to his gun.
Watch yourself for existing out here in Whiteytown.
The officer made a sudden motion with his hand, and Caitlin was sure she was about to watch this child get shot—adrenaline showered her in a way she had only experienced her senior year in high school, when she almost drowned at the beach. But the cop brought out gleaming handcuffs instead. Caitlin read Shaun’s body language from a distance: What for? What did I do?
Caitlin had already taken her first steps toward the basketball court before she remembered to glance back at Destiny, who was taking turns sailing down the slide with her friend from kindergarten, Katie, whose mom was reading her Kindle on a bench on the other side of the playground. Caitlin waved to Katie’s mom (Cynthia? Sarah?). Nothing. She waved again, and Katie’s mom looked up from her reading. Caitlin gestured she was stepping away. Katie’s mom nodded and put her Kindle down, vigilant.
Mothers looked out for each other’s children at the park. That was the custom.
On the basketball court, Shaun’s arms were posed behind his head. The cop was doing all of the talking now. Caitlin glanced at the skate park and hoped to see little Ray, or Dre, oblivious and happy on his scooter. But Ray was standing at the skate park entrance staring wide-eyed toward the basketball court. “Isn’t that your brother?” she heard a girl behind him say.
Ray made a start as if to run, and Caitlin spoke to him more sharply than she’d intended. “No,” she said, and he froze. “You stay here. I’ll check it out.”
Because not only had the police murdered Tamir Rice while he was playing at the park, they’d arrested his distraught sister too. Caitlin doubted that anyone else at Johanssen Park had heard of Tamir in Cleveland, dead for five years. But she had.
“Wonder what he did,” Caitlin heard the tai chi lady mutter behind her.
Little Dre, or Ray, made a decision, dropping his scooter on its side. He took running steps toward the basketball court.
“Ray!” she called, and he turned mid-stride, confused. She’d probably called him by the wrong name. “Take my hand. I’ll go with you. Don’t go by yourself.”
Stranger Danger forgotten, the child slipped his sweaty palm into hers, his heartbeat thrumming through his skin. He might be closer to six than eight. Closer to Destiny’s age. Caitlin’s heart was pounding too, but she hoped he couldn’t feel it.
“What’s your name?” she said as they fast-walked to the basketball court’s asphalt past the huddle of watching teenagers. The smell of their sharp perspiration stung her nose.
“Trey.” She almost couldn’t hear him, his voice was so soft.
“What’s your brother’s name, Trey?”
Trey didn’t answer, perhaps suspecting that he had misplaced his trust in this wild-eyed white woman who was interrogating him like the police. But he did not let go of her hand.
The cop had pulled Shaun’s hands behind his back, snapping the handcuffs in place. Shaun was two inches taller than the cop, and she wondered if maybe he had done something and she just hadn’t seen it. Was he a neighborhood drug dealer like in all the shows on TV? Was Trey an Amber Alert abducted by his older brother? Caitlin felt foolish, her face flushing with hot blood. Only her promise kept her walking.
Mothers looked out for each other’s children at the park. That was the custom.
A few feet away, she could hear Shaun, deep-voiced and angry on the surface but whining with childish fright underneath: “ . . . that’s B.S. Just tell me why.” A second police car pulled up behind the first. The lights flashed, spraying red across the houses.
Trey was crying as he walked beside Caitlin, but she didn’t have time to soothe him.
“Nice attitude,” the cop said to Trey’s brother. “Just keep talking.”
Before she remembered to slow down so she wouldn’t startle him, the cop looked up and saw her. He was young, maybe not even twenty-five, with a Marine-style buzz of light brown hair. He looked from Trey back up to her, puzzling over them. His face was soft until he saw the cell phone in her other hand. She didn’t raise it to record his face. Not yet.
“Step back,” he said the way he might have in Kabul, as if her phone were a weapon. The cop from the second car was moving in fast to back him up, hand also near his gun. He was Asian, at least, which was a relief, but what if most cops were blue first?
“That’s my brother!” Shaun said, objecting more to Caitlin than the police. He must think she was a social worker.
Caitlin released Trey’s hand and took a step away from him like a hostage negotiation was underway. And wasn’t it? This might be the most foolish thing she had ever done, rushing so close to this scared armed man and a scared teenager this way. More foolish than wading to that sand bar so close to high tide when she was a high school senior. With so many guns, this already felt like drowning.
“Trey asked me to see what’s going on here, officer,” Caitlin said, trying to match the cop’s authority despite her pounding heart and the way the basketball hoop seemed to wheel overhead. “Can you please tell me that? What’s going on—exactly?”
The Asian cop waited, watching. He didn’t know what was going on either. In a dreadful moment’s silence, she wondered if any of them knew.
“We got a call from a neighbor,” the first cop said. He didn’t gesture, but when Caitlin looked at the shirtless man staring from his sun-browned little yard across the street, he moved to the protective shadow of his porch. He was afraid of her phone too.
“A call about what?” Caitlin heard herself say. “He’s just playing basketball. He comes here with his brother all the time.”
“You know him?” the Asian cop said.
“Yes,” Caitlin said, and it was true enough to her. She knew enough. “He’s just a kid. Why are you putting a kid in handcuffs? This feels like profiling. Isn’t that what this is called?”
With so many guns, this already felt like drowning.
Caitlin had expected to approach with yes, sir and no, sir, but she had never been so angry at a stranger. With a trembling hand, she realized her phone wasn’t recording, not even sound. She must have forgotten to press the record button, and the screen had gone black.
But the cop didn’t know that. She raised her camera as if she were taping.
“Calm down,” the first cop said, although he sounded uncertain now.
“You need to take these off me,” Shaun said. “I told you. Profiling.”
The cops shared a glance and communicated in silence. Then the first cop unlocked the handcuffs. Trey shook his hands as if they dripped with acid.
“A neighbor reported a suspicious person, and he gave me attitude,” the first cop said. He was explaining his side to her, trying to shift the blame to Shaun as if he should not be apologizing to him instead.
A lecture blistered behind Caitlin’s tongue on how anyone would be upset at being harassed by a cop and handcuffed for no reason, but instead she said, “I can tell you for a fact that he wasn’t doing anything wrong,” Caitlin said. “A fact.”
The cop shrugged. “You know what they say: ‘See something, say something.’”
“Yes. Exactly.” For the sake of peace, she didn’t say more.
The cop pursed his lips, annoyed. He glanced at her prop phone and decided to let it go, motioning to his colleague. They went back to their cars without looking back. The neighbor across the street slipped back into his house.
Trey ran to his brother and slipped into his arms like he was wrapping himself in the branches of a tall and mighty tree.
“I’m sorry that happened,” Caitlin said. “Do you mind if I ask your name?”
Wrong again. And he was tall, but his face had baby fat. Maybe he was only fifteen.
“Are you okay, Ron?”
Ron nodded, rubbing his violated wrist. He seemed dazed, avoiding her eyes.
“If you ever have any problems here, you can look for me,” she said. “I’m Caitlin.”
He nodded again. “Thanks,” he said. “Thanks for that. I was like, what?” He seemed to consider telling her more, but the memory already made his shoulders droop.
“I wanna go home,” Trey said, muffled by the folds of his brother’s jersey.
Ron’s voice grew tender. “Where’s your scooter? Let’s go get it.” He was eager to move away from a stranger’s eyes, away from the moment.
As the two brothers walked back toward the skate park, the basketball sang against the concrete as the boys who had not been handcuffed resumed their raucous game. Under the old oak tree, tai chi lady was lost in her slow dance.
“Mommy, look!” Destiny called from the top of the slide, waving to Caitlin before she launched herself down its spiral, her red hair flying behind her.
Caitlin never saw Trey or Ron at Johanssen Park again.