Read the stories
One afternoon, I was reading a book on the bus and suddenly smelled something strange. I looked up and saw a baby, a few seats down, had spit up on himself. He was stuffed into a too-tight snowsuit, the hood close to his round face. He looked absolutely mortified. He squirmed on his mother’s lap and made panicked eye contact with all the other passengers before looking down at the front of his soiled jacket, defeated. Trying to rescue his dignity, he shifted his gaze and stared out the window.
The one person on the bus who was not mortified? The woman sitting beside me who unwrapped a candy bar and began eating it as if the whole bus weren’t filling with the smell of baby sick.
When I got home, I texted my sister about it. “Don’t you wish you had these adventures?” I wrote her. “Don’t you wish you lived here too?” She wrote back “NO.”
My sister still lives in Boston, a town that considers itself New York’s mortal enemy and which New York rarely considers at all. Sometimes when I go home to visit her and my family, I’m struck by something I haven’t experienced in a long time. “What’s wrong with you?” my sister will say, as I freeze on a busy sidewalk in Davis Square. “I just haven’t smelled clean air in a while,” I’ll reply.
“How can you live there?” is the question she asks me again and again, and I cannot answer it. I only know that I think about that baby and the sick and the candy bar, and it makes me laugh. It hasn’t shocked me yet. But I know it will someday.
His mother asleep in the seat next to him, Peter slides over and peeks out of the taxi’s window, watching the tippy-tops of hotels and skyscrapers and hospitals, all looming up behind the bridge in the night. It rained during the birthday party, and droplets of water on the window are transforming the city lights into tiny circles of yellow and white and red. Fog glides around the Empire State Building. Its lights gleam blue and pink in the darkness. Pressing his face directly against the cold glass, Peter sees cars out there on other highways, going other places. They look like tiny pearls in a strand around the city. Here and there flashes a ruby or an emerald from a traffic light. He thinks of a picture of heaven he saw in a book at Mrs. Russo’s house. The book belonged to her sister, a Jehovah’s Witness. When he’d asked what that was, Mrs. Russo said she didn’t want to get into it. That it was “a whole thing.”
Then the outside begins to sound different as they rise up onto the bridge that, he hopes, is taking them across the East River to the Bronx, where they live. Peter can’t see the driver’s face in the rearview mirror, so he is pretty sure that the driver can’t see him. And if that’s so, he wonders if the man even remembers he’s there at all. And with his mother being asleep, therefore not counting, no one in the whole city, or even the entire world, or the entire universe knows, that he is there in the back seat of this cab, seeing all of this. He wonders if this is what it is like to not exist at all.
I am a very normal-looking person. There is nothing grotesque about me. That day, like all days, I dressed myself in pants and a shirt after my extremely respectable shower, during which I used soap and shampoo to clean myself. There is nothing wrong with my teeth. They are neither yellow nor brown nor pointy. They are perfectly reasonable teeth. I floss them regularly. I groom my hair. I drink water; I eat bran cereal. I am just like anyone else. Nothing about me could be interpreted as terrifying. My eyes are not particularly bloodshot. The only thing that distinguishes me, perhaps, is how orderly I am.
I left my apartment feeling quite genial. I had effectively moved my bowels and was enjoying that clean, pure feeling. Perhaps I was smiling slightly. Mine is a mild smile. While it may not be heartwarming, it is certainly not threatening.
When the subway arrived, it was unusually crowded. There was no place to sit, so I clung to a pole. I thought of how pleasantly my bowels had evacuated themselves and understood that it was too much to expect both that pleasure and the pleasure of a seat. Beneath me sat a father and his child. The child was perhaps four years old, though I’m no judge. Gazing downward, I noted its matted, gummy hair. The child turned up to face me.
Then it let out a terrible scream. Howling, it stared at me with enormous, frantic eyes. Its father tried to do something, but the child twisted away. It desperately wanted to look at me and desperately wanted to shriek at me. I stood frozen, horrified. It was just me and that child, face to face. Finally I turned and moved away and felt awful for a very long time.
A secret: Once, while riding a train with my father as a child, I noticed a very normal-looking person standing above us. This person called to mind certain possibilities, and I could not help myself: I began to scream and scream.