Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Pizza or chicken", a Subway Story

Life, it happens all around us, all around me, I should say, since mine is the only perception I am usually referring to.

On the New York City subway, life happens in a more dramatic fashion. Episode after episode, frame after frame, it's condensed into a fast moving reel: faces, strollers, canes, pains, disappointments, smiles, smells, iPods, books, eyes, newspapers, hair, coughs, beggars, souls....Everything and everyone blends into one generous serving of the soup of life with all its ingredients.

I am part of this soup. I find myself completely merged with all the people surrounding me and sometimes, if I allow myself to pay close attention, I get to “hear” their stories. Their stories are little bright tapestries made out of the spoken words and, more often, the unspoken ones. So, I read and hear between the lines…

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------The subway car was already full. A young man and his son found their seats right next to mine. It wasn’t hard to tell how they were related since the kid, who was about eight, was a spitting image of his father – freckles and all. As soon as they sat down, the father said, “Sit up straight”. Son,” Why I am tired”, slouching back into the seat. Father, sternly, but quietly, “I said sit up straight”. Son, begrudgingly, but obediently, “Okay, okay”

For some time, they rode in silence, but what I had noticed happening between them glued my attention to them for the rest of the ride. They wouldn’t openly look at each other. Meaning, when they kid lifted his eyes and glanced at his dad, he made sure that his dad was looking away at that moment. And visa versa. They were stealing glances, not wanting to be discovered. How odd, I thought.

This went on for a while. The son started playing handheld video games (for someone less technologically challenged them me, its identity would have been easy to guess, but that’s not the point). And then breaking their silent glances, I heard the kid saying, in a kind of pleading, child-like voice: “Agggh, I always mess up on this part. When the yellow ones bump into the red ones, they disappear and I can’t get them back”.

Father, taking the game in his hands, authoritatively, “That’s cause you are not doing it right. You have to turn the shields on. See?” And they both looked at the game attentively. The kid said “Wow, I get it. That’s cool”. Something in the way he said that made me believe that he already knew how to turn the shields on, even before this lesson.

The next few stops, the son continued his attempts to get his dad to speak with him. He asked all kinds of questions: How many more stops left? Why does it get dark so early? Will it rain tomorrow? In return, he got very brief answers, which clearly didn’t get the conversation flowing.

They weren’t sitting next to each other, but rather kind of diagonally from each other. The kid constantly stretched out his arm, touching one or the other part of his dad’s winter jacket. That didn’t really gain his dad’s attention either; except from time to time he’d warn his son to sit up straight.

With every stop, more and more people got off. Finally, there were two available seats next to each other.
Son: “Dad, dad, come sit next to me”
Dad: “Why, I am totally fine here”
Son, again in that child-like pleading voice: “Pleeeeeaaasee”
Dad: “Fine”

As soon as the two of them were next to each other, the kid said, “Now give me a hug”.
Dad: “What’s going on?”
Son: “Nothin’. Just give me a hug”.

Finally the kid negotiated to have his father’s arm around him. Then, with a barely noticeable smile of a child at peace (the kind that could only be gained by a physical closeness with a parent you love) he closed his eyes.

With his son’s eyes closed, the father turned his full attention to this kid, who was either pretending to or really sleeping next to him. This was a look of tenderness, the look of a father who doesn’t get to hug his son very often, I thought (catching myself immediately jumping to conclusions). There was some kind of longing in his look. A longing for something which is perhaps unattainable.

Suddenly, the kid picked up his head, looked around and said, “we didn’t miss the stop to your house, Daddy, did we?”

If this were a movie, I thought, there would have been some kind of melodramatic music playing now. Just two words “your house” began to identify for me what these two souls must be going through.

Dad: “Do you want pizza?”
Kid: “No, we had it last time”
Dad: “Well, how about KFC chicken?”
Kid: “Okay.” But not very enthusiastically.
Dad: “Look, my fridge is empty…so, you’ll just have to settle for whatever. Got it”
Kid: “Okay, okay. Chicken is good.”

Then, the father and son, settled back into the hug. In a barely noticeable gesture of tenderness, the father placed his hand on his son’s head, for just a moment. He looked tired. And of course, I may have been jumping to conclusions, but what I read in his eyes was an apology, “I am sorry, kid, that your mom and I screwed it up for you.”

I thought that every weekend, or however often the visitation days are, they have to literally re-learn how to be with each other. Hence the stolen glances and the difficulty with open hugs. There must be so many children and parents going through exactly the same thing, right this moment, I thought, but this pair was right here in front of me. And so, I couldn’t help but wonder, what this must be like for them.

My heart ached for them. I am not sure why this interaction touched me so deeply, I am not “a product of divorce”. Although, I suppose on some level it reminded me of my early childhood interactions with my father, always on the hunt for affirmation of his love for me, but that’s for another post.

I wanted to embrace both of them that moment. There was such innocence to their conversation, to their attempts to find their way back to each other. Love was definitely present, but she was a shy kind of love that only shows her face when no one is looking. But isn’t that the most important thing? As long as love is there, they will figure it out? Or will they? Could their circumstances allow them to build a real bond? What awaits them in the future? If even the “chicken or pizza” question wasn’t settled amicably, how will they manage?

Dad, getting up: “That’s our stop. Listen, maybe we’ll go to Burger King. I know you’d like that”.
Son, with an ear-to-ear smile: “Yes, YES!!!”.

Well, there you go, I thought. Burger King is the right answer. Of course. These two are going to be just fine…at least I sure wish them to be.


Anonymous said...

All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
-Leo Tolstoy

Rina Koshkina said...

I love that line. It sounds even more profound in Russian.

Zhi Jenni said...

You have the keenest eye of observation and yes what an insight into the diabolical consequence of divorce.

Thanks for making me the happiest desk lunch eater today :)

Rina Koshkina said...

You are so sweet, Jenni! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Rin, I almost cried when i read this story. I think the title of one of your books should be "Subway Stories" and this story should be one of the chapters...

Anna S

Rina Koshkina said...

It's interesting you say this because I have a whole series of stories that called "subway stories" :-)