Prospect Park, Q Train

by

03/05/2023

Neighborhood: Prospect Park, Subway

At the Prospect Park station, I sit across from a Hasidic couple on a three-seater bench on the Q train. Parallel to them, in a wheel-locked stroller, is a toddler with unshorn blonde hair, dark eyes that reflect no light, and a suckling baby mouth. He has been dressed in a Canadian tuxedo of many layers: a miniature pair of jeans and a shearling lined denim jacket over another denim jacket, buttoned to the collar. I am late for class. It’s 1 pm, and as the train trundles slowly onto the bridge, particles of sun suddenly stream into the train car, like a sudden inhalation. When visions adjusts, everyone is backlit, competing with the kind of midday light that, with its stippled, whitewashed brilliance, strains eyes and threatens to blot out the immediate surrounding entirely.

The child’s mother is beautiful. Small sharp nose, full berry lips perched over the perfect symmetry of teeth, working together to form an uninterrupted line. She wears flesh colored stockings and sandals with myriad straps—faux crocodile grayscale that terminate in a toe so pointy it makes my own curl into themselves in empathetic response. I think of the day’s November weather.

The woman’s outfit is pressed and coordinated. Her wig protrudes slightly at the crown of her head, presumably the locus of her real hair, pinned flat against her skull. Her skin is flawless and covered in an inch of beige makeup. She seems to be around my age—a spring-chicken at twenty-two—and I find myself, without much thought, mirroring the subtle posture of her body. I become acutely aware of my own features, an obviously bulbous nose and a head of coarse hair ruled tyrannically by that evil dictator called frizz, and gaze inward at a lazy womb that has never before housed a tenant.

The toddler squirms. His mother plays recordings of morning prayers on her simple phone with its large buttons, holding the speaker up to her son’s ear for optimal listening. Her son does not react and is not moved by the phone’s tinny appeal to god’s primacy. The boy withholds reaction some more. His mother seems sure this must be a technical failure and brings the phone up to her own ear to ensure it’s working. The child wants no soothing that his mother has to offer; he knows precisely what he wants and stares fixedly at his father.

I am ashamed when I realize the father’s face reminds me of a World War II liberation photograph: the man’s taut layer of skin and tawny fuzz cover a protruding face of high bones. He is starting to bald at the temples and has gaunt cheeks and inner-tube lips. The father is remarkably thin save for a slightly distended paunch of stomach, like that of a hungry child. The man wears a neat white shirt. He pays no attention to his wife and ignores his son’s gaze entirely, looking instead at a phone in his palm (smarter than his wife’s), while pinching in and out to zoom, scrolling, tapping, and doing god knows what in an above-ground pocket of cell-service.

The child wants attention, so the child starts to scream. His mother picks him up and struggles against his fledgling weight for a minute or two, trying with difficulty to constrain her son and his kicking legs to her narrow lap. Her husband continues to scroll, turning his body away from the family scene. After too much time, his wife leans over and whispers something in his ear, sweetly, in reverent apology, as I watch, enraged and overly invested in this domestic drama and the scarce economy of the husband’s affection. My thoughts drift to the bum fathers I have known and a former boss of mine from a high school retail job who posts text message screenshots of her “son’s father” canceling court mandated visitation on major holidays and the hordes of friends who swarm her comment sections with commiserating shouts of “deadbeat” and murmurs of “I know this all too well.” I think of the abuse and the abandonment of friends who grew up entirely without dads and of the mothers who were always expected to pick up the pieces.

The gaunt man nods in response to his wife and picks his son up, kissing him on his plump florid cheek. The cries stop immediately. I notice when I look at them next, the woman intercepts my stare with disgust, a kind of fierce protectiveness over her family’s fragile happiness, and perhaps a fear that if I look too closely I’ll cast some kind of evil eye, leaving her to clean up shop. I wonder, who am I to interfere with any of that? I fumble with my Star of David ring and get off at the next stop.

***

Penina Warren is a student who lives in Brooklyn. When she grows up she would like to be a writer.

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