“But I never let go of the stroller,” I said to our landlord (also proprietor of the drugstore) when he came running out.
He was angry as most people are when you give them a fright, but his assistant, a tall black man, came with water and a rag for my skinned knee.
The plunge had wakened my baby, and when he started crying, all my plans fell through: no sitting in the sun in the semicircle by the sandbox, where the other women loll with their feet up on their strollers, no eavesdropping, behind my preoccupations, on those conversations which shape the world: “He had a hundred and three on Friday, and I thought -”
“Boys are harder to train.”
Instead, with him crying, I had to go back up the steps, pulling the carriage behind me. Mr. Baum and his assistant went back into the drugstore, taking the rag and the cup of water.
Inside our door, Ralphie stopped crying and watched me fasten the double lock and attach the chain. He was sitting up against a piece of cardboard, taped to the back of the stroller; not exactly sitting up, since the jolting had jostled him to one side. At six months, he’s too young to sit, but I like him to see the world.
“Well, Ralphie,” I said, lifting him out. Fortunately, he needed changing. That occupied three minutes; and then it was only half past nine.
“Shall we start out again?” I asked him. “What do you think, young man?”
I always ask him things, and his eyes give me the answer I want; he is solemn and firm.
“We can’t stay here alone,” his eyes told me.
“Well, I know that. We only spend the nights here. Daytimes, we hit the street. Your stroller wheels are worn down to the rims; we must walk a hundred blocks a day.”
“Looking and never finding,” his solemn face replied; he had turned halfway around and found the edge of the cardboard and was gumming it hard.
“Even in the rain, we go out; you’ve got the stroller hood and I’ve got my boots.”
“That’s so.” He examined the melted cardboard with satisfaction.
“The department stores are best in bad weather. We’ve been in every section of every floor. They don’t like your stroller in the elevator, but I stare them down.”
“Looking, never finding,” he told me, examining the fingers of his left hand.
“Now that’s silly,” I said and realized we couldn’t go on like that all morning in the living room; the room was vague to me from time spent there unseeing, ears pricked, a book on my knee, but I knew that it was full of dust and high-hipped radiators, an ivy plant on the windowsill, store-bought shelves. Walls contain the past and in my case, the past is too short and simple to be easily accepted. I have lived in New York for five years, coming, like everyone else, from a big city in the midwest; my early days are preserved in a couple of museum posters and a frilly robe still hanging on the back of my bathroom door. Sex and culture. Actually there was more of both in the museum in my home town, where in the basement hall lined with glass cases, I once saw an old woman kiss a dog.
“Let us go then, you and I,” I said to Ralphie and pulled his sweater over his head. He fought it like a blind kitten, needle-clawed; he is a boy in his determination not to be contained. His face cleared, he was gasping. I remembered that he is usually not sex-linked for me; his little member is as unnecessary as an appendix. In the hospital, they told me to put the diaper thickness in front – “That’s the way for little boys” – but I definitely refused. Defined at the start? Tied to that image? He is only my life, and does my life have a gender?
“I was thinking about your daddy,” I explained my silence. “I was finishing an argument we had before you were born.”
We were on our way out again. I stopped to study the exact configuration of the pigeon-bespangled stairs, but could see no place worse than any other; a willful slip, it must have been. “You court danger.” “Now, who told me that?” I asked Ralphie, but we were on the sidewalk, and he didn’t answer.
Chill New York sidewalk, with its mica glitter; the cold penetrated the soles of my farmer boots. We stopped at the curb to admire the steam rising from a foul grate. Two people were waiting for the bus, crowded together against the cold; “If you refuse all my offers -” the man was saying.
In my case, it was not the offers I refused, but the man himself. I couldn’t stand his nearness, his clarity, his weight pressing down the sofa beside me, his coat over mine on the hook. Who has the courage to confess such coldness, before the birds begin to sing in Greek? Hating my loneliness, I hated his presence even more. And yet he was gentle, sensible, kind, even loving -all the androgynous qualities I’d been looking for; and not demanding, either.
“If you wince away like that, one more time-” Somehow I’d managed to put my words in his mouth.
It was only the baby I wanted. “Please leave me before I have the baby,” I begged him. “I want to go to the hospital alone.”
“And have that on my conscience?”
“You gave me the baby,” I told him gratefully, a pure shining drop of gratitude, the first one in my life. “Now you don’t have to worry about anything.” “You intend to bring him up alone?” “No, I’ll find other people for him, when the time comes. Friends, teachers, mentors, lovers – leave it to me. Everything but relatives.”
He believed me or didn’t care. He wanted to be reasonably happy, which was impossible with me. “Better now than in twenty years,” he said, leaving. I know he’s right, I know I’m right: Ralphie is in between.
We were rolling towards the faint green trees in the park; the street ends completely at the edge of those trees. The river is beyond, and the sky opens out as though over a Kansas plain. I remembered the view from my high hospital window, a bleached farness, over Central Park. At five o’clock, the seagulls settled on the reservoir. “Let your knees fall apart,” the nurse told me, and my knees fell apart as they never had before. The love she inspired in me, with her capped, smiling face, planted confidence in my bones; I was limp, willing, the pain a spot her magic hadn’t reached yet. We were mothers together until the doctor came, and he was only the wolf in grandma’s nightie. “Now this might hurt a little.” I held my nurse’s hand and listened to her voice all through my labor. After Ralphie was born, I cried because my lovely nurse was leaving me, with a pat, her interest drained. “There’s a lady in 302 -”
“Husband’s name?” they asked, for the bill.
“I have none,” I said imperiously, and they wrote it down.
I pushed the stroller up the shallow steps to the promenade; bump, bump – my baby was sliding. I righted him and felt his shoulder through the sweater. Whenever I touch him, I get the whole picture: the shallow fold at the side of his chest that leads into his underarm, his tight hip joints, his round undefined knees. We came out at the top of the stairs on a cropped walk, an island on each side, iron-fenced, with a fruit tree in the middle. Three steps, and we were on the promenade where the cold wind always blows.
The river is wild here, whirling down from Hell’s Gate; the fence at the edge of the walk leans back as though in terror. I have seen a tire and a large tin tank tossed and mauled by the current. I do not like to go too near that fence, although there are benches there that catch the sun. The sandboxes are on the inland side. Surrounded by a semicircle of seats, the boxes themselves are raised and fenced as though for a dangerous performance; there is only one way to get in. I sat down.
Ralphie got his cookie, and I took out my knitting, a mitten that showed no sign of coming to an end. It was to be for Ralphie, but it grew and grew, a tiny thumb sprouting from a monstrous palm. I waited for the other mothers to join us.
It was not long before the first one came, a tiny mouse-wife, pushing a tiny pram; her face was as smooth as a baby’s belly, with two round eyes as simple as navels. She was wearing a blue cape which kept whipping up in the wind; she slapped it down with one hand imagining (I imagined) legs revealed or, worse, a pair of pink underpants.
“Cold,” she said, sitting a bench away.
“It’s this wind.”
She nodded, tilting her stroller hood. What a relief it was, for both of us, to know just what to say.
“Boy or girl?” I asked, craning to see inside the stroller.
“Boy,” she sighed. “We were both certain it would be a girl.”
“I don’t think I could take a girl,” I confessed.
She gave me a deep look. ”Don’t say that, you never know.”
“This is my only child,” I explained, “so I can afford to be prejudiced.”
“So is this one, but you never know,” she warned me again, giving rise, in my mind, to visions of a wicked man, ravishing her with girl seed.
“You see, my husband’s gone,” I told her, meek in the face of the loss she might imagine.
She sighed, nodding; it was an old familiar tune. “My cousin told me the same thing, Sunday. We were going to the movies, and she couldn’t face anything sad. They were an ideal couple – I don’t mean just the surface; I’ve seen them fight …” Her baby began to cry and she leaned down to tuck a pacifier into his mouth.
At the same time, Mrs. Edmonds, the old sitter, came flying along with her stroller; I saw that it held Emmy, her Wednesday girl. Mrs. Edmonds is shared by the neighborhood, like a childhood disease.
“Good morning, all,” she said, spreading herself upon the bench which she knew would receive the first ray of sun. Then she commenced to peel young Emmy, mittens, hat, and sweater. “This child is dressed for a blizzard.” Shucking the stroller last of all, she pressed the toy pail handle into the girl’s hand and shoved her towards the sandbox. “Lollypop later,” she said with a meaningful look. The girl went.
“That’s girls for you,” the mouse-wife told me quietly.
“Nothing’s wrong with the sand, it’s not wet, it’s not dirty,” Mrs. Edmonds called, and the child, who had been staring, crouched down and began to dig.
We don’t see men here often and when one arrived, with his newspaper, I felt as though our circle was complete. I imagined throwing a loop over his head. But he was holding his newspaper like a hurt bird in his lap; Mrs. Edmonds was the first to notice it. She stared at him for a while and then, gaping a little, turned to me.
“Have you seen that?” she muttered without moving her lips.
The paper stirred a little and the pink tip of his penis looked out.
Meanwhile, facetiously, he smiled at the river, not a tramp or a maniac but an ordinary man in a beige poplin raincoat.
“Oh, my,” the mouse-wife gasped. We all stared, transfixed, at the pink bud in his lap until Mrs. Edmonds gathered herself and breathed, “Of all the – ”
Meanwhile, his smile at the river was enraging me. I didn’t care if he pulled his pants down to his knees as long as he looked at us and did not disguise his malevolence by smiling at the water.
“I’m going home,” the mouse-wife gulped, seizing her stroller handle.
Mrs. Edmonds was also heaving herself up.
Rage, and a determination not to lose my friends prodded me to my feet. “Wait,” I told them and then, gathering fire, I advanced one step towards the man. He hastily shifted his paper and a look of guilty surprise swept the smile off his face.
“I’ll call the police if you don’t go away this minute.”
Like a trumpet, a call to arms, my voice echoed across the promenade.
He stood up, pulling at his zipper, respectable, outraged. “It’s a free country!” he shouted, striding off.
Mrs. Edmonds was clapping; the mouse-wife was nearly in tears. “Let me give you some of my coffee,” she said, unscrewing the thermos with shaking hands.
“That was very bold,” Mrs. Edmonds warned, chagrined at missing the coffee. “You never know when they’re armed.”
I took the red plastic cup and sipped the coffee, hot, piercingly sweet, pale with milk. Triumph in my life has been rare, but it is still recognizable.
“It’s got honey in it,” my new friend told me. “My name is Rachel Tompson. How did you have the nerve?”
“It wasn’t nerve. I didn’t want to go back and spend the rest of the morning alone in my apartment.”
“Have a cracker,” Mrs. Edmonds said, extracting a flattened packet from her pocket.
“Those are mine,” Emmy called from the sandbox.
“That child ought to be in school,” I said.
“Mother doesn’t believe in it before six years old,” Mrs. Edmonds explained tartly.
I accepted the cracker and ate it as my due. Ralph was beginning to fuss, and I took him onto my lap.
“What a beautiful boy,” Rachel said; she was still trembling and close to tears. As consolation, she took her own baby out, and we sat, side by side, with our sons on our laps. Mrs. Edmonds found a magazine; Emmy dug listlessly; and the sun at last, crept onto my bench.
“Now tell me about yourself. Do you live in one of the big buildings?” Rachel asked. Intimacy, willed and generous, began to spin between us. “Do you know,” she added hastily, as though to explain, “I wouldn’t have been able to come back here for weeks if you hadn’t done that!”
She said it solemnly, not to have me disagree. I waited a moment, then said, “We have two rooms over the drugstore.”
“Have you been living alone for long?”
“Since before Ralphie was born.” As though alerted by his name, Ralphie grabbed one of my coat buttons.
“When I think how scared I was-” she reverted, laughing. “If all women were like you, we wouldn’t need men!”
“What would we lose?” I asked grandiloquently. Her image of my strength rose up between us, a genie from a shared bottle.
“Well, I don’t know,” she said, considering. “You see. I’ve never lived without men. Father, brother, boyfriends, and now, of course – Ronald!”
I smiled at her, remembering my time as a sister, climbing walls, fences, trees, trying to match my brother’s crow on the treehouse top-deck, “I’m the king of the castle!” But I also remembered, as I looked at her plain little face, stubbornly organized against depression, stubbornly insisting on a bearable life made out of broken perceptions, fatigue, and the rare odds and ends of her husband’s time – I also remembered the hospital nurse, and the discounted sweetness of women.
“I am so happy to have met you,” Rachel said, getting up, as though I had disconcerted her with my focusing glance. “I have to go home now to put a load in the dryer. But we’ll meet again – our protector!” And she smiled, still dewy.
Mrs. Edmonds, gathering up Emmy’s clothes, thanked me also. “They have no business driving decent people out of the park; I’d have told him so, myself!”
Standing, we all remembered that we had stared, and buried the recollection in mutual congratulations.
I started home, thinking about cooking a hamburger. Ralphie was dozing, and I missed his company. I had not been alone all morning, and now the vacuum, renewing, sucked in my own particular bats; leather-winged, not in the belfry but in the uninhabited pit of my stomach.
“I should have asked when we would see her again,” I told Ralphie, but it’s no use talking to him when he’s asleep; his face was as closed as an egg.
I know if I search my mind I can find something good about men.
[This story originally appeared in Playgirl magazine, May 1974. For more about this story, please see my post, Playgirl.]