Writers in Wonderland

Author Achy Obejas and doctoral student Megan Bayles spend two years in the wooded paradise of Oakland’s Mills College.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SMEETA MAHANTI

The rattle of creek water over dried eucalyptus leaves is a world away from the South Side neighborhood that Megan Bayles and Achy Obejas occupied in Chicago until last summer. Here, on the sylvan campus of Mills College, a women’s university in east Oakland, the couple can practically let their two-and-a-half-year old son Ilan range free behind their house in the faculty village. Within moments, the brother and sister pair that lives next door magically appear through a green tunnel made of ivy. With an old hammock strung above the raspberry brambles and a trampoline and toys scattered all over the place, it’s a child’s gypsy paradise.

Contrast that with the home that Achy, 58, owns in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, a charming but gritty area where she and Megan, 31, lived together until recently. It’s where they brought Ilan on his first day home from the birthing center. Back then, neither imagined living in this forested retreat tucked between Interstate 580 and the Oakland A’s stadium in the East Bay, but when they met, they also never imagined they’d be building a family together. But if they’re anything, this couple is proficient at adapting to life’s twists and turns.

Achy Obejas and Megan Bayles

Achy, left, and Megan, right, finally find a way to make Ilan cooperate for this portrait, photographed on the Mills College campus.

Their study in contrast begins on the day they met nearly seven years ago in a Chicago bookstore. Achy, a writer and translator, had just wrapped the launch party for her most recent publication, a collection of Cuban crime stories called Havana Noir. She walked up to Megan, who was snacking at the cash register, and delivered a major clunker of an opening line. “She goes, ’Wow, you’re really shoveling it in,’” says Megan, whose response is unprintable in a family magazine.

Yet somehow—starting with emailed apologies the following day—the two struck up a whirlwind romance. Within months of getting together, they were talking babies. It was an unexpected turn for Achy, who had had a hysterectomy a couple of years earlier, and had also tried unsuccessfully to have a baby with a former partner. She had already come to terms with never having children. “I’d given up the idea,” Achy says. “I’d already worked through the process and done the grieving and the loss, and had come around to genuinely believe that it was fine. So when Megan brought started bringing up the idea of having kids, it was hard because I didn’t want to get into all that it if wasn’t going to be real.”

There were also obvious hurdles to having a kid together. “It wasn’t just that we were so new,” says Achy. “We had a massive, 26-year age gap, and she was getting ready to go off to grad school.” Achy, then a visiting writer at DePaul University on Chicago’s North Side, had no plans to leave the city, and Megan was headed to a Ph.D. program in cultural studies at University of California Davis. But despite the prospect of a bicoastal relationship, they went for it.

“In terms of baby-making, there wasn’t a lot of decision-making,” says Megan, who carried Ilan. “We were committed to having a Cuban sperm donor, and there were maybe like six Cuban donors in the whole county,” she says. A midwife performed an insemination at their home, and Megan moved back to Chicago fulltime three years ago, just before she gave birth to Ilan.

Megan Bayles and Ilan at Mills College

Megan pushes Ilan up the hill outside their house in the campus faculty village, which backs up to a small creek and a grove of eucalyptus trees.

A swift change came in the form of a professional opportunity for Achy last year, when she accepted a two-year post as a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills. For nine months of each year, the entire family resides in a tiny, Mission-style apartment that backs up to a creek and eucalyptus grove behind the faculty village. For the first time since before Megan got pregnant, both women were finally living and working in the same city at the same time.

Their productivity shot up when Ilan started daycare at the Mills College Children’s School just a three-minute walk from their home, allowing Megan to concentrate on her dissertation, and to begin work as a birth doula. This year, she’s also adjunct faculty at San Francisco Art Institute. And Achy is working nearby from her campus office for the first time, rather than in a home office. “It’s pretty perfect,” Achy says. As a pair, Megan and Achy recently edited a collection of stories called Immigrant Voices: 21st Century Stories.

The move coincided with a marked difference in the couple’s home life, as well. Shortly after they came out to Oakland, they weaned Ilan off bedtime nursing sessions, and Achy was suddenly able to take over new domestic routines. It relieved pent-up pressure in their scheduling situation, and the pair have relaxed willingly into the pace of life as Bay Area scholars.

Yet when asked what they’re doing next year, when their post in paradise is over, they’re predictably disinclined to predict the future. “No idea,” says Megan.