She almost threw up on the way to Penn Station. Too many sites and too many late nights had taken their toll on my seasoned little traveler, but it couldn’t be helped. My work in the city meant 50 minute train rides to my friend’s place in the Bronx and by the time her head hit the pillow the day of my speaking gig, we were well past normal bedtime hours. Seven more stops before our stop, but the she was swaying on her feet, fighting to keep her eyes open and trying not to gag. We got out at the next stop.
This is how I found myself sitting on a subway platform, back to the wall, and my luggage serving as arm rests while an overly tired and extremely nauseous child slept with her head on my lap. We sat with my legs wrapped around her and I waited while she slept because I could always catch a later train home. It was that, or figure out how to carry the girl who didn’t complain once about how far we had to walk or how much she had to carry no matter how tired and hungry she was. Growing six inches in a summer and losing four baby molars in about as many weeks is enough to kick anyone’s ass.
I yawned because I was tired, too, but I had my badass lipstick painted on and my clothes clearly stated that I don’t often find myself sitting on the floor of a subway station so my child could rest because it was that or aiming for the cheapest pair of shoes on the train.
No one wants to be that mom.
I didn’t make a lot of eye contact with anyone. They were in a rush and I was tweeting and Facebooking and taking far too many selfies for the blog post I knew I would be writing later. “Hey, remember that funny story about the time I almost fell asleep on the train to Penn Station. mama?” I imagine Eliana slapping her thigh and laughing just a bit loudly in that way that will remind me that she is only seven going on 17. It will be funny later, I figure. Most likely starting from the moment I sit my ass down in coach the train ride home. The stories worth telling are never funny during.
There is something magical about New York, unlike anything I have ever experienced elsewhere in that you could find yourself sitting on the cold cement platform watching the 2 trains stop and go and pick up and drop off. It’s a novel kind of privacy I actually enjoy during my short visits. I might live in the backwoods of Northern Maine but I’m originally from Detroit. I know how the game is played and the first rule is to avoid eye contact if you want to avoid conversations about the weather and why you don’t speak better Spanish. Truth be told, I didn’t feel like answering questions about my face or swollen knuckles. There’s something to be said for regularly exposing my body to an allergen that I didn’t know was an allergen for seven years straight. For a moment, I marvel at the fact that I didn’t kill myself by accident tripping over a random coconut a long time ago.
I knew I looked like hell. But I thought it didn’t matter because I was (mostly ) having a good day and I was wearing my badass lipstick and I wasn’t ashamed to be seen. Until A woman offered me a phone number for help me because the program she was recommending had helprd her to find the strength to leave her abusive lover. I wanted to cover my face. Instead, I replied in halting Spanish with assurances that my husband doesn’t beat me and that the face she was eying doubtfully looked the way it did because of extreme food allergies. I thanked her for caring enough to reach out while silently screaming at her inside of my head for stepping out of the cultural norm calling for everyone to pretend the bride at the latest family wedding isn’t already six months pregnant. We play the game and talk behind each others backs because it would be rude to point out the baby born just three months later isn’t some kind of miracle premie. This is what I ecxpected, but I’m instead being sized up by an elderly Latina who doesn’t give a shit about societal norms or why so many of them suck.
I’m too busy being embarrassed by the face I forget other people will ask me about to press further about my domestic “situation” to take the card she was offering me. I think we could have become friends. The woman looked doubtful and gently stroked her own nose, as if she could feel the discomfort she saw and this was how to soothe the hurt. Raw and red with inflammation, I briefly wondered if Rudolph maybe has the same allergy and if Santa carries his epi pen … just in case.
The woman left On her train. And then I made $105.
The platform filled and emptied again and again and I waited my little girl out because a week in NYC is enough to kick anyone’s ass and she did it with growing pains and visits from the Traveling Tooth Fairy. One man risked missing his train to run to me and hand me a $5 bill. You didn’t ask me, he said. But go but yourself and your daughter something. And I said thank you to the closing doors of the man’s train because he was handing me money one moment and on the train in a blink and I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t know what it was exactly that people saw when they looked at me.
I was the well-groomed stray cat sticking out in a sea of the dirty and streetwise. I obviously Belonged to Somebody and maybe the $100 bill another man just handed me would help me be found. Lord knows I wouldn’t hand a nickel to the outstretched hand attached to the toothless begger reeking of filth and whiskey just hours later. Maybe a sandwich. Maybe two, if he would smile in appreciation like the last homeless person I have my lunch to, because there’s a difference in asking for help and asking for a boost to get drunk and stay there. I’m betting those nice people who thought I needed saving figured I looked like a sure bet. Their act of kindness wouldn’t be wasted because I wore good leather boots and $16 per tube lipstick and took too many selfies with my new smartphone, just so I could delete all but 4 when I finally found the words I needed to write this out.
I know I was exhausted. Adhd doesn’t lend to restful nights when traveling and no sleep. Having only minimal safe foods to eat until back on my own turf didn’t help in the clarity of mind department and my attempts to shrink into myself so as to avoid a total breakdown should one more good Samaritan dropping money in my lap were a total and obvious fail.
I was looking down at the very platform on which I sat, holding my kid and trying to figure out why I couldn’t process how I felt when two pair of black boots appeared within the frame of my lashes. The police officers only wanted to ask if I needed help because they had been told, by more than one person, that I might. I can’t say if they mentioned my face and the history they imagined went with it. Maybe I was fleeing from a hell I’ve never lived with all I could carry. Maybe my little girl was the reason I found the strength to leave. Please … help that woman, I imagine the cops are told by people normally too in a hurry to see the roses they’ve stepped on, much less stopping to smell them. She doesn’t belong down there, they might say. She can be saved.
They smiled down at me. I saw concern and compassion and I tripped on my words as I gave the fastest version I could of the truth, hoping it would be enough for them to leave because I was about to break from the weight of concerned questions and the pitying glances that made me wonder if I’ll believe myself the next time I say something inspirational like You Define Your Own Worth and Ignore the Haters because self-perception is only half of the equation that makes up our own realities. The cops smile and wish me luck with the sleepy kid because I was believable because it was my truth and not a well-meaning stranger’s misplaced kindess. I am grateful. The bits of dignity I have left are so close to fraying. I need them whole. I need me whole. We have a train to catch to Penn Station, and if she wakes up right about…now… I see lashes fluttering … we won’t even have to run with our Too Much Luggage and tired legs and feet.
And then she was up and standing and a bit wonder-struck because she is the girl who gave up napping at 12 months old who today was so tired she slept on her mama’s lap on the platform for the 2 train.
I’m thankful she will only know what i tell her, after we are seated on the train taking us north, because few things rattle a child more than seeing a parent cry. I will tell her pieces of truth because she knows when I’m lying but not when I’m selectively eliminating truth from that which I share with her. I’m tired and hungry, and that I just needed a minute and I’ll be just fine. She nodded and hugged me close, reassuring herself more than me, but I didn’t mind because one day she won’t want me to hold her close. She is smiling at me, beautifully self-assured and confident in herself in my love. She is my rock, this girl is, and I wondered which one of us is actually teaching the other to celebrate our Chingona spirit and owning our worth.
She squeezed me tighter for just a moment before asking if she could move across the isle to spread out and play on her iPad. I nodded before closing my eyes. When I looked up a few moments later and our eyes locked, she giggled. I know I am loved. She smiled at me and suddenly I could breathe because I can see myself through my daiughters eyes and I am beautuful and strong and her everything. Because she sees me, I am no longer ashamed.
I wanted to add a note here at the end to tell you that I still have the $105 in my wallet. I’m not quite sure what to do with it. The logical first step is to determine if the hundred dollar bill is real. If it proves to be, I’m going to pay the kindness forward. I’m not sure how yet, but I am sure this will all play out just as it is meant to. I promise to share more later. For now, the story is shared, the words free from the cramped space in my skull, and I’ve got a date with a turkey needing to be stuffed. Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for validating me and the words I share.