“Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”
Neil Levitt ducked between the closing steel doors a moment before they met in the middle to seal him out of the car and into waiting another twenty minutes for the next train.
He was thinking that maybe it would have been better to wait, because now he’d be home twenty minutes faster; and perhaps that was something he was trying to prevent. But after years of catching trains just in the nick of time with his mind usually running with thoughts like ‘please please please don’t close’, he’d fallen into the habit of hopping through sliding steel doors when he saw them. It was his cadence, practically.
But today was different- his daily routine felt jarred off it’s track, and it wasn’t just because it was his first day back to work after a two-week break. It also wasn’t just because it was the hottest day recorded this spring so far, or even that he’d been promoted to manager of the small hardware store in which he’d been working as a faithful stocker for the past twenty years.
It was because he had lost his wife Jeanie, the love of his life for so long that he could hardly remember a time when he hadn’t loved her.
It had only been two weeks, but Neil was back to sitting on the neon orange seats of the subway car that were both reassuringly familiar and uncomfortably hard-backed. These seats told him in the clearest way that your entire world could be ripped apart by the seams, everything that was held within it could be ruined or stolen away but nevertheless, life went on all around you. You were only an insignificant rock in a rushing stream; the water smoothly splitting then rejoining to move past and around you.
The train pulled out of the station in a clean whoosh and the wonted scenery of tall, glassy buildings and busy streets teeming with life rushed by. He barely registered it, though. What he saw in the fleeting couples walking on the sidewalk was what he had lost, and irrevocably. He saw in the faded billboards not what they were advertising but what he and Jeanie once joked about early on in their marriage; a dumb idea cooked up in their desperation for financial security, something about posting Neil’s resume on every billboard on the highway replete with his most attractive picture.
“Maybe you should wear a bathing suit,” Jeanie had suggested, giggling. “It would definitely be eye-catching.”
Neil kept on a straight face. “It would have to be a professional looking bathing suit though,” he told her without taking his eyes off the road, “or else no one would hire me.”
“I think that one with the American flag would be good, no?”
“Oh, definitely. But I wonder what expression I should have. I was going for stoicism, but now I’m not sure if it’s charismatic enough…”
The train slowed at the next platform, jolting him out of his reverie. People were streaming into the car, filling up the seats around him.
“Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”
The doors came together with a resounding thud, and Neil stared at them. He could recall the first time he and Jeanie had ridden the New York subway together, when they were both young and full of hope for the future. They had held hands tightly and kept sneaking shy smiles at each other, bursting with the joy and novelty of it all. It had been their first date, a long and dreamy day at the beach. They’d laid their blankets on the sun-baked sand and ate sandwiches and talked until the sun sank beyond the endless horizon, sucking the blue out of the sky and spitting back a tremendous expanse of blackness, with glittering stars that were akin to an upturned bowl of glitter.
A young child was tugging at Neil’s pant leg, and he startled. He tried for a small smile that reciprocated in a gummy grin from the toddler, and more enthusiastic pulling.
“I’m so sorry,” the mother apologized, scooping the kid up and onto her lap. “It’s okay,” Neil said.
The kid reminded him of his own children. Adam, his oldest, was twenty-three and lived in a small flat with his wife. Neil had spent the past two weeks in the tiny guestroom, kept awake at night by the happy murmur of Adam and Mia, a sound that was so lovely and achingly familiar that it broke his heart. After fourteen days, Neil decided it was time to man up and pack his things to face his new reality. The idea of returning to the house that Jeanie and he had furnished, decorated, and made into a home together terrified him, but staying with his son was a different kind of torture.
Neil and Jeanie’s second child, Lindsey, had been a precocious girl and a difficult teenager. Her large brown eyes always held a secret, something she was holding back, or something she was holding against you. She rarely smiled, but when she did, something in Neil burst to life like a flower unfurling under the blinding luminescence of the sun.
And then Lindsey had run away. She was sixteen. No amount of police investigation or detective work could find their sweet girl; she had seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. The only thing she’d left for them was a small handwritten note that said ‘I’ll be safe, don’t look for me. -L’.
Adam, to his parent’s shock, admitted that he’d known she’d been doing all kinds of drugs and hanging with the wrong crowd for a while before she vanished. Jeanie cried for days. Neil was numb, unable to comfort his wife and unable to help himself, so drowned was he in the endless depths of his grief. Lindsey, with her long dark hair and mysterious eyes, stealthy as a cat and a thousandfold wittier, gone. Maybe dead. No one knew.
The train was stopping again. More people entered, some people exited. The child that had been tugging at Neil’s pants waved at him as he stepped through those doors, clutching his mother’s hand.
There were only two more stops until Neil’s. He tried not to think about what awaited him there- or more precisely, the lack of what awaited him in the cozy two-floored house.
Would Jeanie’s smell, a mixed scent of clean laundry and vanilla shampoo, still linger in their bedroom? Would her various possessions that she’d treasured in her lifetime reduce him to tears? They were scattered around the house like Easter eggs, or landmines; it really depended on how you looked at it.
Neil thought of the coffee mug she drank from every morning that said ‘Gangsta and Gorgeous’, which he had bought for her on a whim as he was buying antibiotics for Adam at the pharmacy. He thought of the wood brush she’d used to tame her short curly hair that frizzed out at her temples when it was humid, and all the non-glamorous and ordinary clothes like tank tops and shapeless tees and jeans that she’d made to look extraordinary. The paisley scarf from her mom that she always wore. Her kind, blue eyes. Her sweet laugh. Her dimples. Her sensitivity.
God, Neil could go on and on and on, sinking deeper into the memories, falling back into Jeanie, but he stopped himself. It was no use wallowing in the nostalgia, and he hated how sappy he sounded in his own head. And anyway, it was easier to forget.
“Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”
One stop left. Neil watched those formidable doors, hoping they held the answers to his questions. He thought of the power those doors possessed, the way they could quicken a person’s day or delay it, with just a powerful swish of air. He thought of the doors as one great metaphor, where the doors were a medium to control the equilibrium of awful things and great things in people’s lives, and those things equated to the people constantly moving in and out. The give and take. The push and pull.
Here, the doors told him. You got to marry this beautiful woman who loved you for some inexplicable reason, but now we have to take her away from you. Yes, we know you’re only forty-six. It’s only fair this way. Must not upset the balance!
Then they said, Here’s this beautiful baby girl. You can enjoy her brilliant repartee and her wide brown eyes, but now she must leave you. No more time with this beautiful, tortured little girl.
Neil watched the buildings in the window give way to smaller condominiums, then to even smaller houses with neat yards and parks filled with children. He was nearing his neighborhood.
Here is this great life- a safe home, a good job, a family- but you can’t have it all, could you? It wasn’t allowed, to be so perfect.
“Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”
Neil stood stiffly, slinging his work bag over his shoulder and walking through the mighty steel doors of the train car.
He had no epiphany, passing through them. He had no life lessons to take home as a keepsake, a souvenir, a token, or anything to give him strength. He walked like a man who felt the pain of a million men, and one that was not afraid to show his suffering.
When Neil reached his house, just three blocks from the train station, it had started to rain. The humid air had finally given way to a soft mist that made everything seem ethereal and sprinkled with fairy dust.
He made his way to the front door, unlocking it with a key from his pocket, and pushed inside.
The house was dim but clean. It felt emptier than a cave, as if he screamed the echo would be endless, the sound never sinking into the pale peach walls.
Neil was dropping his bag on the sofa when he noticed the girl sitting at the dining room table, eating ramen noodles. The girl looked up at him. His heart froze in his ribcage.
“Hey, Dad,” Lindsey said. “It’s been a while.”
Neil said nothing, just stared. Just absorbed the sight of his daughter, who had to be nineteen by now, sitting and eating like it was an ordinary Monday. She was getting up, his daughter, the one with the long dark hair that he remembered so well, and the mysterious eyes that now seemed just a tad softer.
“Lindsey,” Neil said, something hard in his throat, preventing him from proper speech. They hugged tightly, like an affirmation. Physical proof of her return.
“Where have you been?” he asked, trying to stop the hysterical sobs that were rising in his chest. He didn’t want to scare Lindsey, and he was an ugly crier.
“Oh, around. I was figuring myself out.”
“Why didn’t you call? Why didn’t you let us know where you were?”
“I was mad, Dad. I was a stupid teen and I didn’t want to talk to you. I didn’t want you to find me.”
“We thought you were dead, Lindsey.”
“I wanted you to think that.”
“It’s over, Dad. I’m back. I’m safe. I was a stupid kid but I’m here now, okay?”
Neil wanted to yell that it wasn’t okay, that she had given her parents the special kind of terror that was reserved for parents worrying for their children. But Neil was too tired, and frankly, too relieved. He pulled his daughter back to him and stroked her hair. She smelled earthy and sun-bathed, a smell that was foreign to him.
“Dad, I’ve brought someone with me.”
Neil frowned. Had his daughter actually brought her unknown boyfriend to meet him? The idea peeved him. This reunion was for just the two of them, and the only other person that he would have wanted to be there could not.
But instead of a strange man in Neil’s kitchen was a black baby carriage. And sleeping in that carriage, with a red pacifier tucked into her soft pink mouth, was a baby girl. For the second time today, Neil’s heart seemed to stop beating. The baby was so perfect, with raven black tufts of hair and tiny hands that grasped the fabric of her blanket.
“You’re a granddad, Dad,” Lindsey said softly, smiling.
“I just wish Jeanie could see her,” was all he could respond with.
“I know. Me too. I came home because I saw the listing in the newspaper that she’d passed away. I became so furious with myself that I wasn’t here to say goodbye... I was like, what kind of daughter finds out her mother is dead from a freaking newspaper?”
She swiped at her eyes furiously, and Neil recalled that Lindsey despised crying with a passion. “And that dumb driver… It serves him right that he’s also dead. Why would you drive if you’re so drunk? You put so many people at risk.”
Neil nodded, because he didn’t trust himself to speak.
“I’m sorry I made you guys so crazy,” his daughter told him, her nose runny. “I was just in a lot of pain. Dumb pain, a teenager’s pain, but I’m sorry.”
“If you were in pain it wasn’t dumb, Lindsey. And I’m sorry too. Maybe Jeanie and I were not good enough to you.”
A silence fell then, and they both stared at the peaceful baby swaddled in pink. “Her name’s Belle,” Lindsey said gently.
“Belle. That’s a beautiful name.”
“Yup. I really, really wish Mom was here to see her.”
“Me too, baby. Me too.”
Neil didn’t ask her who the father was, he didn’t particularly care in that moment. He would find out later. For now, he put his arm around his daughter and took a deep breath.
He thought of those doors. The granting of a gift and the snatching away. The homeostasis. The ebb and flow.
Jeanie was not here, and she would never be again; at least in a physical sense. But their daughter was- and so was their granddaughter- as well as their son, who was happy with his wife in that small flat, and it made Neil happy, too.
We must take your wife for mysterious reasons only the universe knows, the doors proclaimed. But your oldest child is content. And here is your daughter back- and here is your granddaughter, who is perfect; and don’t forget that you’ve been promoted to manager.
Here is your life, Neil Levitt, and you may go on living it from here. Have a nice trip.