Neighborhood: Manhattan, Subway

Last month on the subway, somewhere near the Rockefeller Center / 47th-50th Street stop, I looked up from my phone and saw, across the aisle in the mirror seat of mine, a woman, maybe in her late 60s, whose style was startlingly close to my stepmother’s. She had the same short, tousled haircut—although her hair was grey, while my stepmother’s was various shades of honey—the same round James Joyce glasses, and the same kind of layered, chic-bohemian-artist clothing. I tried not to stare, but since the woman was reading, I kept stealing looks. 

My stepmother has been dead for eleven years—news that I found out only recently. I had not been in contact with her since shortly after my father died, in 1989. As happens sometimes when there are inheritance surprises for adult children and later-in-life second wives, my stepmother and I had fallen out over my father’s distribution of property. The specifics are involved and not worth describing, but both of us believed ourselves wronged by his will and by each other. Our mutual frustration reached such a level that it drowned our access to the truly deep affection we had for each other, and she eventually cut off all communication with me. At the time, that was fine with me. Or so I told myself and anyone who asked. 

In truth, though, I never felt comfortable about the estrangement; my stepmother was a lovely person and had loved my extremely difficult father, giving him someone other than me to look to for the bolstering he needed so badly always, and especially after my mother left him. I was a teenager by the time they started seeing each other and an adult by the time they married, so our relationship hadn’t been mother/daughter-y. She was more like a dear friend of the family whom I could always count on for commiseration, fun dinner parties, beautiful hand-me-downs, and, above all, a sense of being welcome. When my father and mother briefly reunited as I was heading off to college, I had rallied to my then future-stepmother’s side, assuring her that the reunion would be short-lived (it was) and that I would tell my father that he was being an idiot for risking their relationship (I did). I thought of us as allies.

So our falling out, following so closely on my father’s death, left me doubly bereft, but too angry to admit it to myself. I did, for years, imagine running into her, though, and a possible reconciliation. How would that go, I wondered. Who would speak first? Would there be apologies, or would we just move on, letting the past be past? I caught a glimpse of her once at the shiva for the friend who had introduced her and my father, but she had walked out the door before I realized it was her. That must have been in the early aughts, and was the last time I saw her.

And then, two months ago, a casual, procrastination-inspired Google led me to her obituary, dated 2010. I had spent so many years thinking about her, and she wasn’t even in the world anymore; no reconciliation had been possible.

The woman across the way didn’t have exactly my stepmother’s style—she was a little shaggier. Her shoes were a little banged up, and I could see a thread hanging off the cuff of her pants. My stepmother’s bohemian clothing was pristine—her air more European than this woman’s.

But still, the overall impression was eerily similar. I aimed my phone as subtly as I could and took a photo. I wanted to have it to show my best friend, who had known my stepmother well; I wanted to share this weird moment with someone who would understand how spooky it was—my stepmother reincarnated on the D train.

And then a thought: Could that be her daughter?

My stepmother had two children, a daughter and a son. The son was six years older than me and had never been particularly friendly (he did not love my father’s difficultness at all), but the daughter was only three years older, and, like her mother, was warm and inclusive, inviting me to parties and gatherings with her artist friends, and to her wedding, just a year or two before my father’s death from lung cancer. The last time I’d seen her was when she, her mother, and I had had a ladies lunch not long after my father died, and just before the will shit hit the fan.

Could that be her? The woman’s mask covered most of her face, of course, so I looked at her eyes—my stepsister had beautiful large brown eyes—but the woman’s glasses reflected too much. And she looked older than my stepsister would be, I thought. But then I wondered about that; I regularly forget how old I am and how old I look—I’m frozen at about 35 in my mental picture of myself. I looked down at my own hands to see the veins that I always forget show now, and then at her hands, to see if they were any more veiny than mine. Maybe a little. Which would make sense. I tried to Google my stepsister, to see if there was a recent photo online, but we were between stations, and there was no service.

And then the train was pulling into Bryant Park/42nd Street, and I saw the F, which I needed, across the track, out the door that she was sitting next to. I decided that I wouldn’t be able to figure it out, that it was too long a shot anyway, and got up to leave, but, as I was about to pass her to go out the door, I stopped and said, “Excuse me. Is your name Hilary?”

She looked up at me, startled.  And there were those brown eyes behind the lenses. “Yes, it is.” 

I couldn’t find my voice, so I took off my mask. She said, “Oh, my God,” and stood up. We hugged as the train doors closed. 

We sat down. I don’t remember what we said. I guess, where are you going, where do you live, how are you. I remember we were both teary and disbelieving. I think we held hands. When we got to West 4th Street, we together switched for the F (she was heading to Brooklyn), and there was more talk. She has two children —“Photos?”—and they look just like she and her brother did at that age. “And you?” I showed her a picture of my son. She somehow seemed to know about him and about my mother’s death last year; I don’t know how. I forgot to ask. 

My stop was coming up and there was so much to talk about. Right before I got off, she said, “We just got caught up in all that trouble,” and I said, “Yes, but I always loved you,” and I left the car. She waved to me out the window, and I waved back, thinking that maybe that was the wrong thing to say, maybe it sounded like I was pitting her against her mother. “I always loved your mother, too,” I wished I’d said.


Kate Neuman is a writer and actor. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Iowa Review, The Independent (UK), Juxtaprose, The Citron Review, and The Village Sun. She was born in New York City and has never lived anywhere else for long.

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§ 5 Responses to “Apparition”

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    This is a wonderful piece, Kate—moving and wonderfully crafted. Thanks so much. Jeff Loeb

  • Ann White says:

    A very engaging story, well-paced and moving with its examination of the past. Thank you!

  • Brian Harlin says:

    Thoughtful and interesting as always.

  • David Donihue says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. It’s a wonderful example of how seemingly-routine moments can unexpectedly form meaningful connections with our past.

  • Alyson Schacherer says:

    So beautiful, with the simultaneous movement and stillness of riding that D train. You got me at the part when you couldn’t find your voice and so took off your mask. And after reading I leapt off the cliff into how beautiful NYC and LIFE is. Thank you for this.

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