Ellen Geist / Fiction
Every day I watch them. I park my car a block away from the school. They don't notice me, the boys. I could step out of the car, block their path. "Don't you remember me?" I could cry out. "Don't you know who I am?" But I remain mute, my navy blue man's winter coat pulled up around the collar to conceal me. Yet I have no need to fear. They never glance at the cars now anyway. They are too old to be picked up by their parents. And if they noticed me, they would not recall me from more than two years ago. I look different. I was never that important to them.
I park my battered 1977 BMW with the side moulding missing next to the real parents' 1992's. The legitimate parents have MD plates on their cars and are wearing grey flannel suits and those new rimless eyeglasses. They are fathers who can leave work early enough to pick up their children. I am distracted from watching the boys enough to notice onemy typewith a thick head of greying hair and crinkle lines around his eyes jumping out of the car to scoop his son onto his broad knee. The real mothers are wearing long skirts these days, and high-button soft leather boots, and have baby seats prominently displayed in their back seats.
The two boys are fifteen now. I have watched the fatter one slim down over the course of year. He is becoming more trendy. His hair is close-cropped to his head. He has begun wearing the new style of chinos and worn-out tennis shoes with laces that drag. One day I see him jump out of a cab, his little sister in proprietary tow. At this I avert my eyes. I cannot bear to see his kindness. I prefer to think of him as nearly worthless, with no greatness to contribute to society, nothing like my son Jesse, who is no longer alive.
The other one is more handsome. His last name is Stein; Sam Stein is his name. He is letting his curly brown hair grow past his ears. He was the one whom I spotted first, a year ago, walking with his mother past an outdoor cafe where I was having supper. He'd switched to a private schoolPlymouthin fifth grade and I hadn't seen him in some time, so I was shocked he had grown so tall, taller than his mother. His mother was one of the few of us: single parents at PS #39. The Stein boy appeared able to take such good care of his mother now, since he was so tall. When I saw him walk past, the pain of recognition overwhelmed me so that I couldn't finish my supper. I couldn't make polite conversation with my aunt, whom I had brought to the sidewalk cafe to try their pasta primavera. That was the first time I realized that other boys were growing up, growing older, taller, at a rapid rate. That was when I began parking by the Plymouth school every day.
That was when I found out the other boy went to Plymouth school, too, the one who used to be fat. His name I couldn't remember, but his Bar Mitzvah date is embedded in my mind. July 10, 1990. He was Bar Mitzvahed instead of my son. He took the date my son's death left open.
The boy said a few words in memory of Jesse at his Bar Mitzvah, Rabbi Ruben told me during one of our weekly bereavement discussions in his airy office in the Reform Synagogue. "That's hard for me to hear," I told Rabbi Ruben. "It's hard not to imagine what that day would have been like. I was going to make all the food myself, with my aunt's helpchopped liver in the shape of a fish, you know, the whole bit."
"What a day that would have been!" the Rabbi agreed. "Jesse sure wouldn't have worn a Brooks Brothers suit," he said, referring to the boy. Who knows what Jesse would have worn? I can only picture him in those roller skates he wore everywhere, with the baggy Hawaiian-print shorts I bought him from the Gap on our last shopping trip.
He looked so cool in that outfit. I never understood why the other boys called him a nerd, the Stein boy among them. Why did they tease him so? Because he was smarter than they, nicer than they?
"When you grow up, it will be different," I tried to explain to Jesse during our Gap shopping trip. "None of my friends were ever popular. I wasn't popular. We were all teased. It builds character," I told him, as we fingered the racks of clothes. "It will make you stronger, more creative, like my friends. Those popular ones, they will be nothing. Their day of glory will have passed. The cheerleaders from my school, where are they now? They aren't living in New York City playing viola in an orchestra with a national reputation. They are living in small towns in eastern Pennsylvania, just like the one I grew up in, eating Reeses Pieces until their skin breaks out and watching TV mini-series." I told him all this, but I didn't know if it helped. I regretted he had to bear this pain in his young life.
But his tenacity impressed me, far more than my own. Every morning, he would set his alarm, rise early, and leave the house as I was beginning to wake; go to the playground, not saying a word to the boys who wouldn't let him play football, who taunted him, just stand there, until one day, a few weeks before he died, they let him play.
I often wondered if it weren't my fault he was teased, if it weren't because of my marital status. At my first PTA meeting, when we moved to New York, I sat next to Sam Stein's mother. "I'm so glad to meet you," she said. "I was worried that Sam would feel stigmatized because I'm divorced. But then he came home and said there was a new boy at school, Jesse Powell, whose mother had been married six or seven times. How many times have you been married, actually?"
"Hmm," I muttered noncommittally, though the answer was two.
I hated PTA meetings. I always felt that I was posing, that a member of the school administration would at any moment begin shouting at me, "That one, she's not a real mother! Get her out! " Now, parked by the school, I no longer have even the requisite requirement for parenthoodmy son.
"You will always be a mother," Virginia, my friend I've known since I was seven, told me on Mother's Day. She was the only one who phoned me, calling from Pennsylvania. I thanked her gratefully, in tears. Now as I sit by the school I repeat her words over and over like a mantra. You will always be a mother, I say to myself. You will always have a son.
Everyone has left the school, gone home to do homework, to cook supper, so I leave and cruise down Court Street, stop in for a cup of coffee at a coffee shop. This one is set up in the old Chock-Full-O-Nuts decor with high stools and a bar. I drink coffee and eat a corn muffin for $2.50. Directly across from me hangs a poster illustrating the steps of the Heimlich maneuver. I stare at the poster, thinking of the details of Jesse's death, how the driver of the van passed the camp bus, as Jesse alighted.
One detail recurs. Virginia's daughter Nikki, who was on the same camp bus that day, told it to me. "Can I tell you something?," Nikki said after the funeral, as we sat together on the sofa at her mother's house. "I haven't told anyone. I haven't even told my mother. Is it OK if I tell you?"
"Tell me," I said.
"But it's horrible."
"Tell me," I repeated, knowing I would wish I hadn't heard, knowing I would never forget it once I had.
"He stood up after he was hit," she said. "Jesse stood up, put his hand on his stomach and vomited. Then he fell back down. I saw him from inside the bus. I haven't told anyone. Is it OK I told you?"
Over and over, I see my son, five feet tall, trying to erect himself, trying to survive, weaving in that Pennsylvania summer air familiar from my own childhood, vomiting with the effort, then falling. I wasn't there, in that moment he tried to stand to save himself. I was in a world concealed from him. I reach out for him, through all time, but I cannot get to him. He is weaving, faltering in that summer air. I was too far away in New York City. I was thinking of trivial, stupid things, nothing that matters now. In my mind I reach out again and again a million times, but I am too far away. "How to save someone from choking," I read on the Heimlich maneuver poster.
From the pay phone in the coffee shop I call my home number and press the two-digit code to hear my messages; there are two, but none from the date I had last week who I am hoping would call.
Lately I have begun going out with men, to be normal, to go on with my life. I save the discussion of Jesse's death for the end of the date, or even the second date, now. At first it was the first words out of my mouth. Sometimes I start off with a smaller tragedy, my mother's death seven years ago, for instance, just to ease them into the mood. I am getting better. I seem more well-adjusted. I don't tell my dates that there is a wall between me and everyone else, and that half the time I am not in this world at all, but another one, the concealed world spoken of in the Tanya, a Hasidic text I have begun studying with great fervor. I don't tell them I am often concealed in a world where I am with my son, where I can pull his still-unfamiliar tall shape toward me and hold his bony wrist in my hand and hear his hoarse voice in my ear saying, "Mommy, Mommyvisit me this summer?", as he is about to leave for summer camp at his father's house back in Pennsylvania.
This last date I liked more than the others. He was funny and smart, and he reacted better than most to the story of my son's death. We went to dinner, to the theatre. He was clever and had a gentle manner. I was so grateful when he took my hand in the theatre, glad to feel the charge, skin against skin, outside myself, connecting me to him. I drank more. I didn't know how to stop once I'd begun enjoying myself. I don't remember getting in the cab, his giving the driver directions to his apartment. I don't remember the build-up, only the act itself. I recall whispering, I love you, though this wasn't true. I remember telling him to impregnate me. "Now," I whispered, "Now, come, get me pregnant, now."
"You're barking up the wrong tree," he said, dryly. In the morning I chastised him for not having safe sex and didn't tell him that since Jesse died, I haven't had my period anyway.
I try my message machine again to make sure I haven't dialed wrong, or that he hasn't left a message in the three minutes since I called. Oh, well, that's the way guys are, I tell myself. It has nothing to do with what I said. I wonder if I am, in fact, pregnant. I will name the baby Jacob after my father. He'll have sea brown eyes, like the date, like Jesse.
And now I drive past the park and stop at a diner for hamburger and chips for supper, and now at the Orthodox synagogue in Boro Park for evening service, and now I see the formerly fat Bar Mitzvah boy again, in new oversize blue jeans and a rap style baseball cap worn backwards on his head, walking down on the street on this far side of Brooklyn where I don't expect him to be.
"Alive, alive, oh," I whisper, the words of a song in my head. I used to lull Jesse to sleep when he was a baby with this song, the same one my mother sang to me. I loved it as he did, though I don't know why. It's a gruesome song: sweet Molly Malone, who died of a fever and no one could cure her, and now her ghost wheels her barrow through the streets broad and narrow, crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh.
At night instead of typing resumes to find a new job, since I have lost mine, I sort through old pictures. I put them into two stacks. The ones that were taken after Jesse died, I discard. The others I study again. This way there will be no record of a time where he doesn't exist. I feel better after I do this.
The house is very quiet tonight. I used to have many friends but they no longer call. I don't mind. It cuts down on that call-waiting problem I used to have. They used to call me daily at first. I would tell each one of them how I was faring in detail, how I was feeling. After a while, they no longer asked. Nothing was changing. Jesse wasn't coming back. Tragedy can only entertain people for so long except for the bearer of it. Other people get bored after a time.
The date still hasn't called. Then the phone rings. "This is Miriam Stein," a voice says.
" Who?" I can't place her at first. "Miriam, who?"
"I don't know how to explain who I am," she says. "Your son Jesse knew my son Sam--" she starts.
"I know who you are," I interrupt. "I know exactly who you are." I think she is on to me. I think I have been caught. She is giving me one chance before she calls the police.
"I should have phoned long ago," she says.
"Yes," I reply.
"But I saw you in front of the school yesterday," she says. "It reminded me. Were you waiting for someone? I just wanted to express my sympathy. You know how much we all cared for Jesse, how Sam loved him. If there is ever anything I can dolet me know." She gives me her phone number. "Maybe we can have you over to dinner," she says. I write the number down. Sam Stein's mother, I write beside it, so I remember.
I examine my stomach in the mirror. It's not fat in the right spot, but I poof it out, pretend. I imagine telling the date in the coffee shop the news. "It's not that I want to sue you for child support," I will say, "but I don't have a choice. I wish I could just support this child on my own, but I can't." He will be relieved that I am not asking him to marry me. Maybe, later on, he will regret this and fall in love with me. But for now, I only ask for money. I can do it all myself. I will walk down the street with my belly protruding. I will pass Mrs. Stein. "When are you due?" she will ask me. And I'll believe in miracles; I'll believe that life continues.
I take out the pictures again. I want to study Jesse's baby pictures planning for the new one. I want to look at his baby book. I tucked in that last photo of him in those Gap shorts standing by the playground wall. Already they are out of style. I wish I could buy him new clothes. All the parental tasks I dreadedhow I wish I could do any one of them. For instance, I worried if he should have plastic seals put on his molars; I hated deciding things like that, making the dentist appointment. I would give anything to take him to the dentist again.
Oh, and now here he is in his striped baby sleeper, and here in his pumpkin seat. I used to turn up the volume on the stereo and rock him at high speed in that pumpkin seat, to ease his colic. There is a close-up of him learning to crawl toward a bright dandelion. Now here is his bracelet from the hospital with his name on it, and the list of baby gifts, and look, here is his footprint.
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