Playground Love

by Paloma Thoen

February 2014

“Elena’s gotta go,” my mom tells me as she hands me a piss cup.

I concentrate on the opposing wall so that I can pee. I wrap a strand of my hair around my finger until it rips from my scalp. I worry she’ll find the bottle of detox solution I spent fifty dollars on at Romantic Depot to flush every substance out of my body. 

“Elena can’t go, she has nowhere to stay,” I say.

I flush the toilet, run out of the bathroom, slam the door, and lock myself into the room that I share with Elena. My mom inhales and exhales deeply behind the door. She wants me to hear her. She enters the room moments later, holding the piss cup with a drug strip peeking out. 

“In order to live in this household, you have to accept a drug test. I can’t have two teenagers living here, using drugs and alcohol under my guidance. You know I do everything for you, Paloma. You know I woke up at five this morning to teach aerobics then worked my full-time job and afterwards had a private session, just so we can afford to live in this town. I do everything I can for you and your brother. Please, Paloma, please help me understand why Elena can’t take a drug test.” 

Elena’s belongings are minimal, spread across the bedroom floor. A Fleetwood Mac CD, a pack of Marlboro reds, the black high heeled boots that she thrifted, and a tube of drugstore lipstick. The rest of her belongings are also mine. I give Elena all of the clothes I grow tired of, and we share the rest. 

“I can’t explain why, but she can’t—Elena can’t go home,” I say. My mom watches me, all dour and sober, waiting for me to elaborate. “Her parents are not nice.” 

One evening during middle school, Elena told me that she moved from North Carolina to Hastings because her father tried to touch her. I still don’t understand the logic—maybe her mother was moving her closer to the side of the family in Westchester. What I do know is that her family forgave her father, using Jesus Christ as an alibi. 

Elena never brought this up again until I experienced feminine misfortunes of my own years later. But I never forgot. I thought about this each time she had an argument with her parents and each time she needed to leave her house. 

“Listen, Paloma. I can really only manage to take care of my own two children. That’s enough. I have to work as two parents combined now. If Elena refuses the rules of my house, then she can leave. Nice parents or not, I’m not responsible for what happens to her.”

She lifts the strip from the cup, looks at me, and says, “Clean.”

June 2016

 One late June afternoon, Elena asks her father for a ride to the city. He doesn’t know why she’s going or if she’s meeting friends or what’s inside her Jansport. He grabs his keys. Elena sits in the back of the family van. In her backpack is a notebook, a bottle of vodka, and a bottle of her mom’s painkillers. She stole them one day when her mom was sleeping off a chemotherapy treatment. 

Elena is dropped off near 125th in Harlem. She takes a long walk and stops at a bodega to pick up Diet Coke to mix with her liquor. She messages her friends on her phone to meet up with her. No one is available. 

She walks through streets with air so humid and thick it feels like you’re drowning in it. She walks through streets with hot dog stands, puddles of piss, and veterans lying in sleeping bags on the hard ground. She walks through streets where the ringing of ambulance trucks never ceases, and the honking of horns is as comforting as morning birds. She walks through streets with her eyes fixed forward, aware of how dangerous eye contact can peel into people. She feels the heat from these unknown streets and of these unknown people. 

She messages Tom and wonders how long it would take for him to see her texts. Tom is her boyfriend who she met in North Carolina. He is in the army and currently stationed in Georgia. They met on a dating app while she was living with her aunt. She texts Claire, she texts Alison, she texts me. 

“In the city” she writes. 

Elena finds a street corner that no one else has claimed and drinks and empties most of the contents of the pill bottle down her throat. She takes out a notebook and a pen. She flips through her old drawings⁠—sketches of women wearing intricately designed luxurious dresses. Elena always wanted to become the costume designer for the next James Bond movie. 

She flips to the next clean page. 

She writes, “I’ll miss my cats and I’ll miss Tom.” 

She tries to call me. I don’t answer. I’m at a concert with my boyfriend in Brooklyn, not checking my phone. 

Darkness overcomes her. Elena sits on the cement and closes her eyes, never to open again. 

Elena is a dead body on a street corner with a bottle of vodka in her hand. She can be anybody. People pass her on their way home from work. They think that she is sleeping, or on drugs, or maybe a mixture of the two. She is someone else’s lost daughter. She is not their problem. 

A woman finally notices Elena’s body hours later and calls an ambulance. Her parents are called. Elena’s cancer-stricken mother must identify her daughter. Her father says that he is shocked, that he couldn’t see any of this coming. He says that he does not understand why she would ever do such a thing. 

Her mother blames her friends.

February 10, 1996 

February 10, 1996 was the day that Elena Lucinda Perez was brought into the world. She was born maverick but constrained. The beginning to her life was bound to the walls of her.

Her kitchen windows were kept open in the summer and the laughter from children playing hopscotch outside would leak into the room. She used to place a bottle of nail polish and a fan on the dining table and set the kitchen stool next to the window. To pass the time she taught herself how to keep her hand steady. 

She painted her nails a new color each day until her technique was refined, each nail painted within the lines, glossy enough that they had a reflection. As she painted her nails she would look out at the forbidden street. She would watch with a concentration so intent that maybe she believed, if she was patient enough, that the walls that separated her from the ice cream truck chimes would disintegrate. 

Elena grew up in several kitchens, actually. She dealt with a rotation of inconsistency. She attended three different elementary schools before she moved to Hastings. During evenings of her childhood, Elena’s father would lay sleepless next to her mother, Valeria. He would pack his belongings in the middle of the night. Gone for days, sometimes weeks. Her mother would always follow. At an early age, Elena learned to adapt to locked bedroom doors, dark liquor breath, fear, and blind forgiveness. I still can’t piece together these early years. 

I do know that Elena clung to the extraordinary: antique costume jewelry and rich, worn-out clothes patched together again. Her mother taught Elena how to sew in that humid kitchen as Elvis played in the background. When she had time off from work, she educated little Elenita on the simple luxuries of life. She cooked traditional Dominican dishes. Cilantro and paprika always lingered in the air and hung on to the walls no matter where she lived. Her father was always seated in the room next door, watching television alone with a bottle of tequila. 

For Elena’s ninth birthday, her mom brought home a puppy. Elena always admired the innocence of dogs. She was given a beagle with a smooth coat of fur and a stubborn personality. For the first time in Elena’s life, she had a companion who was as curious about the world as she was. She was struck with unexpected joy and boundless love. 

One evening as Elena was asleep with her new best friend, her father drunkenly entered her bed.

The family then moved to Hastings and left the puppy behind.

No dogs were allowed in the new apartment.

This time it was to move away from her father, but he followed.

I met Elena at Hastings Elementary in the fifth grade, and I have loved her ever since.

July 21, 2016 

Elena’s parents dressed her up as Barbie-Hillary Clinton. In her bubble gum pink politician suit, she’s bloated around her face and her hands. Her hands are soft, well-preserved, with nails painted deep purple, almost black, fingers intertwined over her belly. She is almost unrecognizable aside from the beauty mark on her nose, that for so many years she tried to cover in photos. She would have hated her final look. I sit far away from the coffin; if I turn to the person next to me, the ghost is no longer in the room. 

The wake is segregated, her family on the right side and her friends on the left. It is not busy. There was no public announcement for the wake or for the funeral. Valeria was convinced that her daughter’s friends were involved in the death. She stopped letting girls come over to their apartment as Elena got older and started to come home smelling like cigarette smoke. In Valeria’s eyes, Elena’s friends were girls who lost their way on the path to salvation. We paved the way for Elena’s departure. We are to blame. 

“I bet it was a drug overdose. Do you remember what happened to that boy in Pleasantville High School? Big problem nowadays, let me tell you. I bet it was opiates! You know that’s hitting Westchester now? Would you believe it? Taking our kids now, too,” a Westchester soccer mom says to another sitting in front of me, with a sense of pride that it was not her own precious child’s death. 

I wonder who invited them and whether they had even met Elena before. These moms get up to walk around the room as if it is a game of musical chairs. 

I watch people, one by one, as they approach the casket. I consider what they all might be thinking about. Will they miss Elena’s homemade presents, her laugh, her beauty mark? 

One of Elena’s many aunts lets out a visceral cry upon witnessing the body. She cries not to protest God, but to acknowledge the pain of his mysterious ways. 

“My Elena… mi dulce sobrina…”  She wails for the entire room to hear. “I will see you again in heaven.” 

I wonder where she was when she found out about what Elena’s father did to her. 

The rest of her family members kiss her hands and cheeks, cross themselves, then walk back to their seat. When her friends get a turn, they just stand there, numb, unaware of what they should do or say. They spend less time than the family. Perhaps the family isn’t as emotionally impacted because of their religion. Does it sting less for them because of the certainty that they will meet Elena again in heaven? They moralize the death of this young girl because she was “saved” and baptized, but do they have any uncertainties? After years of letting her live with us, giving her all that we could, loving her as our own family, we’re repaid with an open casket. One part of me considers leaving early but I feel obligated to stay. I loved her more than anyone else in this room. 

When Elena’s friends decide that it is time to take their seats again, they walk down the middle aisle and glance at me. They must be considering what I am thinking about. 

“How are you?”

I flinch. I turn around to see my mom sitting next to me, wearing her work clothes. She looks out of place in a gray blazer and a yellow skirt amongst a room of black. 

“Mom, I told you not to come.” 

“Why wouldn’t I come? Of course, I’m here. I wouldn’t let you sit through all of this on your own.” 

“Elena wouldn’t have wanted you here,” I say this hushed, hoping that no one else is listening in on our conversation. 

The room goes silent. The grief floats over our heads and takes up any space left for sound. 

Elena would have wanted us to be drinking red wine and playing her favorite songs, the way she liked celebrating special occasions like New Year’s or her birthday. Elena would have wanted us to go in a circle and, one by one, share our favorite memories with her. I would talk about the time in the seventh grade when it started raining and the two of us ran down Cedar Street as fast as our legs would let us, stopping only to get candy from the store next to Gould Park, picking up a box of Nerds, unafraid of how we might appear to others, joyful in the cooling after. 

The park’s pool was closed but the chlorine tainted water looked too tempting. We crawled under its gate to have it to ourselves, taking off our sneakers then diving in wearing our normal clothes. We did not consider having to crawl back under, covering our dripping bodies in dirt. The rain had stopped so we had to walk a mile back to my house covered in mud. Elena would have wanted us to laugh and to dance, to cry only at the end when we had to go home for the night. 

“Paloma, I’m a mom too. I must give my condolences to Valeria,” my mom says. 

Elena’s mother sits in the corner surrounded by her sisters. She is starting to bald from the chemo and has a cane for support. She got sick a few months before Elena died. After the death, Valeria told the public that her daughter was hit by a car. Her daughter’s suicide became a “tragic accident.” The family somehow still believes this, even upon looking at the pristine body, perhaps a miracle of Jesus Christ himself. Only a few of us know what really happened.

 “I’m allowed to mourn too. She lived in our house for crying out loud. I watched her grow up.”

My mom gets up, so I do too. I walk to Elena. Sweat builds up under my clothes. At any moment I could collapse on top of her. I close my eyes. I open them. I notice the crescent on my wrist and realize that the other half of my matching tattoo will soon be underground. I look at Elena one last time, and then return to my seat. Deep breath in, deep breath out. I must repeat this all again tomorrow at the burial. 

June 29, 2016 

I drive a bright red 1997 Honda Civic. It is the same age that I am. Nineteen. It’s a two-door hatchback. It’s clean and still working, but hardly. The breaks sometimes give out and the air conditioning always gives out. I drive with all my windows down in the summer. I treat the car with a lot of respect, but that doesn’t stop my friends from leaving their shit in the front seat. I look to my right and count the collection of water bottles on the floor and see Elena’s lipstick in the cupholder. I hope that she won’t remember that she left it because it’s a nice shade of red. As I emerge onto the Sawmill Parkway, the shift of air pressure bothers my ears, so I put the volume all the way up on my radio. Elliot Smith sings, “Oh man, what a plan, suicide,” and I get goosebumps.

At a red light I text Elena: “Hey, sorry I didn’t get back to you last night. I was at a show with Max. We should hang soon!”  

My phone vibrates, but it’s not her. I’ve got a friend request and two new messages from someone named Jose Perez. 

The first message reads: “Hey, do you know what caused Elena to do what she did?” 

The second reads: “I’m her big brother.” 

Elena did have an estranged half-brother that I met before, but this was years ago. Elena must’ve gotten caught with some painkillers, or it’s possible that she left to live in North Carolina again. She kept it a secret even to me last time, leaving only with one week’s notice. 

I text Elena again with a screenshot of her brother’s messages and write, “Hey, your brother messaged me. Are you okay?” 

The car behind me honks, the light is green. I take the next exit and park in a strip mall parking lot. I call Elena, she doesn’t answer. 


“What are you talking about?” 

“Yes, my little sister passed.” 

“Excuse me, I’m not really sure what you’re talking about.” 

“My little sister passed away last night in Manhattan.” 

I reverse my car and head on to the highway. I am not sure where I am headed.
August 2016

I drag myself under the gate as soon as there are no cars in sight. My girls, Alison and Claire, already made it to the other side, passing tequila and orange juice back and forth. 

 “Guys, I think I’m stuck—” I say.

The gate has caught on to the back pocket of my jeans. As I lay beneath the gate, a bright light cuts the almost dusk sky. Alison has Claire hold her drink then runs towards me. She holds out her hand then pulls me through, but the gate tears my pants in the process. We both run to Claire who is hiding behind a tree. Together we blend into the shadows of the cemetery. The car passes and I realize it was just a Manhattan commuter heading home for the evening. 

 “—It wasn’t even a fucking cop. I just ripped my favorite jeans for no reason,” I say, as I look at the hole and the exposed flesh on my ass. Alison and Claire laugh, which forces a smile out of me. “You gotta admit, that’s pretty fucked up.” 

 We tread through freshly mowed grass crammed with headstones, centerpieces, and grave houses. Cemeteries are myopic inventions for grief. What a waste of space. I wonder how long it will take for them to become extinct.

“I think it’s the next left,” Alison says as soon as we reach a fork in the road.

“No, I think that’s the long way. I really think we should just go right” Claire argues, taking another sip of her warm mixed drink. “Paloma, it’s your call.” 

We have a vague concept of the direction we should be headed but our memories are foggy when combined between the three of us and a half empty bottle of tequila.                      

“I remember it was all the way up.” 

I point to the highest point in the graveyard, about half a mile uphill. As we walk further up the hill, the tombstones are fresher. Nowadays, when someone dies you are given the option to engrave the face of the individual who has passed away. Some faces have become eerily distorted from the rain and I hope that Elena’s parents opted out of that decision. We notice someone, probably someone working the nightshift, but they’re far enough away that they cannot see us. We run until we make it to the top. There is a small clearing of ground for newcomers, the cemetery has almost reached capacity. 

“Do you remember if she was on the left or right side?” Claire asks. 

“She was the far left, I remember because I parked next to that bush for the burial,” Alison responds. 

We walk through the aisles looking for Elena. We read first names, last names, dates of birth, dates of death, and a simple dash in between the two. Words that might have meant something to someone once but are inconsequential to us. We come up with stories for some of them, especially the ones who died at a young age. 

Jane Eskin, 1980-2002. Beloved daughter and sister. 

“Died young, maybe it was a tragic car accident,” Claire tells us.

Pete Wolff, 1950-2011. The Greatest Gift in Life is Love. 

I love the ones with cheesy quotes inscribed. 

“Fascinating that people think a sentence or two can summarize an entire life,” I say.

I take note of who has the freshest flowers, who has the cleanest grave, who was the least forgotten. One day New York, the menacing and beautiful, will raise someone else. One day my childhood house will belong to another child and the sidewalks I grew up walking down will pave the way for someone else. New York won’t exist for me the way it no longer exists for Elena. One day I will no longer be able to visit Elena’s grave. One day someone will visit mine. One day “Paloma Thoen” will also become a name on a stone. One day Paloma Thoen will also exist solely through the language of memory.
August 2018 

“—And please don’t forget your sneakers. You know you’re going to be walking a lot.” 

“And if you need anything at all, I’m just a phone call away. Be careful, there’s a huge pickpocketing problem in France. Even when you’re sitting down at a restaurant, keep your pocketbook on your lap.” 

I reopen my book to end the conversation. My mom sits next to me on the couch.

“You know that’s where our honeymoon was, right? Me and your father?” 

“Yes,” I sigh and say, “You’ve already told me.” 

“Okay, but did you know that Anne met us there?” she asks. 

Anne was my mom’s best friend who died before I was born. I shake my head and put my book down on the coffee table. I understand that the encounter has grown into a conversation. 

“Yes, well, she happened to be there at the same time. We all got together and explored the city. She really loved that place⁠—” 

She appears older as she says this. She pauses mid-sentence, as if lost somewhere in Paris. After years of avoiding eye contact with my mother, I realize how her face has aged. I must have been a child the last time I noticed any details. I can picture a basic outline of my mother, an attractive white, tall, middle aged woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, though I can’t recall how the features of her face are assembled. The distance of her nose from her chin, the length of her forehead, the wrinkles that appeared after my father’s death between her red-penciled eyebrows and the corners of her mouth. 

“—It ended up being the last time I saw her,” my mom says.

Her nose reddens as she goes on to tell me about the cobblestone streets, the tiny balconies, the boulangeries. Anne died at age thirty-two from cancer. “I named my own daughter after her. Paloma Anne Marie Thoen. Look at her now, on her own journey to France.” 

“That’s me.” 

“I still think about her after all of these years. We met each other around the same age that you are now. She used to work at this restaurant near our college that used to give out free postcards and she mailed one to my dorm down the road. It said, ‘having fun, wish you were here’ which was silly because we saw each other nearly every day. After that, I really knew she was my best friend⁠—”

 I think about the last birthday card that Elena ever sent to me. A homemade card made with construction paper and a crayon, sent from North Carolina to New York. It now sits in the alcove above my bed behind a glass frame. 

 “⁠—I’ve never had a friendship like that again,” she says, “We could use a single word or facial expression and intuitively know what we were referring to, a single wink could say it all. There are just some things that you never get over.”
April 2016

 Elena and I pass a joint back and forth in the Honda Civic. I take a hit then pass it back to Elena, unapologetically coughing. Now I am breathless, between the golden and naked pastoral of the Hudson Valley flying by the windows of my Honda and the quiet happiness I have for Elena by my side, as breathless as Jean-Paul Belmondo and his deep sunglasses. Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy” blasts in the background. 

To the gypsy that remains, her face says freedom with a little fear. 

We crank the windows up when we see cops. 

“When do you think your mom’s gonna find out we’re still friends?” Elena asks me. 

I scratch the skin above and below the bandage wrapped around the fresh tattoo on my wrist. Elena and I are headed back downstate but my mom thinks I’m making flashcards for some exam on Monday. 

“I’m not too sure,” I say and pause, “I guess when I get married. When my mom walks me down the aisle, she’ll see you beside me at the altar as my bridesmaid.”

 Elena will be dressed in an 80s prom ensemble, accessorized with fishnet stockings and a pair of hot pink heels. She will be wearing eyeliner inspired by Edie Sedgwick, a thick cat eye. Elena always pays attention to detail. As I walk down the aisle next to my mother, I will glance at my spouse. A symbol of stability to my callow youth, a face that grew with me in love. He will be proud, smiling at how beautiful I look in my wedding gown. I will look at Elena right afterwards. She will wink at me, and I will laugh. 

 Elena and I can both sense some change in the wind for the two of us, but we don’t speak of it. Joyrides have become part of the foundation to our friendship. I used to steal the keys to my mom’s old Toyota and drive around the village with Elena before I had a license. All we wanted was to drive in a car and play music with the windows rolled down so that we could feel free. 

 “Marriage is for losers though,” I remind her, biting my nails.

 “Yeah,” she agrees, then asks, “Can I see it?” 

I hold my arm out. She unwraps the bandage and lightly traces the raised skin with her index finger. At age sixteen, Elena made me a choker with a crescent moon for my birthday. At age seventeen, Elena tattooed a crescent moon on her right arm with a bottle of India ink and a sewing pin. I decided to get a matching one today. 

 I wanted to celebrate her escape from our tiny town of Hastings. Next week Elena is moving to North Carolina to live with her aunt. When you grow up in a small town you might not know where you want to go but you certainly know that you want to get out. She’ll be far from her parents, but I’m still stuck back here. We feel free but we have a little fear. 

“I don’t know how I’m gonna explain it to my mom,” I tell Elena. 

“Just wear long sleeve shirts for a while. If you don’t tell her, it’ll be like it doesn’t exist.”

Paloma Thoen is an essayist from New York interested in discussing pop culture, suburban living, and disenchanted youth. Her writing has appeared in Angime, Free Press, and Halston Media.