Tamar took the picture after she dropped her bag of trash. She knew exactly whose sign it was: Iris Overton, first floor, front apartment. Old Iris, who cracked her door open every time someone came in. Old Iris, who cooked with eighteen cloves of garlic, shouted on the phone to her brother, and went to off her Department of Ed job each morning with a grand slam of her lock-festooned door. Iris came original with the building, it seems, and she had what Tamar thought of as a classic case of tooth-grinding liberalism.
The sign, now folded over and somewhat crumpled, said “Jesus Had Two Fathers and He Turned Out Fine,” replete with three exclamation points. Tamar studied it briefly and then spent her walk to the train contemplating what demonstration Iris had attended for which such a message would be appropriate. Gay Pride was weeks away. The AIDS walk was over. She knew Iris had once slept at the original Occupy Wall Street, but stopped not long after getting into an argument with a youngster in charge of camping equipment. The camping incident was learned because Tamar had the unfortunate timing to be letting herself in just as Iris was shouting the story to her older brother. Taking a quick pause to listen, Tamar was caught red-handed by Iris, who threw open the door and, still holding the phone, shouted: “Yes?!” The ambush so took Tamar by surprise that she gasped and nearly fell backward. Spluttering and stumbling, she did her best not to drop the mail or trip running up the stairs. Once she reached the shelter of her fifth floor studio, Tamar threw her mail down and let the red-rush of shame fill her. Iris looked so much like her great Aunt Sylvie, and Sylvie caught Tamar, too.
Getting off the train and treading lightly, Tamar headed straight to her place of work, bypassing the deli where she usually picked up a yogurt and banana. Hitting floor fourteen, she soon found herself behind her p.c., posting the picture to Facebook. “Evil Neighbor with a Heart of Pale Gold,” she wrote. “Park Slopers unite in liberal confusion! Snapped 28 may 12, approximately 8:50am.” Thus complete, Tamar picked up the phone to order a bagel and scrambled egg sandwich with a side of home fries. Her smile was vague, perhaps because she was calculating the cash in her wallet, or perhaps Aunt Sylvie was haunting her. No, it was this: the post was way too benign. How about a picture of Iris as she leaves for work, accompanied by a sound clip of the nightly brother chat? Yes, yes, and Tamar had just the app to do the deed. A delighted grin appeared. Ten minutes to a greasy mess and twenty-four hours to neighbor-nasty revenge.
They were fat and loud and talking politics they barely understood. Basically? They were the aural, gum-cracking, fingernails-on-the-chalkboard variety, falling over their belts and making declarative eviscerations of Mitt Romney and the Tea Party. He wore a porkpie hat, straw and dented, and a faded, white t-shirt. She had on a thin belt that held a thankless, broad, heart-attack-waist. A heart attack in fifteen, maybe twenty years. We were all on the G train, Queens-bound.
Oh. Oh! They wouldn’t shut up, so I gave in and listened. No, I didn’t listen, I let their blowhardiness waft over me and fill rest of the car. I knew, darn, I KNEW, darn again, that they were destined to get off at my stop, Greenpoint Avenue, which they did. Seems they followed me (all right, they didn’t) for a block and only shut down their politi-speak in order to pull mobile devices and check the restaurant’s address.
It was all over quicker than I could get a headache. They were two twentysomethings, they work for nonprofits or sell subscriptions, and all it is? They’re desperate to be what they’re not, shouting over their upbringings, which took place in sturdy states like Wisconsin or Delaware. Underneath, past the stylin’ mismatches and declarative statements, they were meekly plying their wares, trailing heft that will never leave them, whether or not they lose weight.
I write them well, hmmm? Isn’t that the tellingest thing, considering I’m just one generation on, an Iowa upbringing, now thin and quieter, but oh so grim in the jaw. I quit eating everything, including raw words. I quit arguing just so I could hear my voice. I commenced to settle, to step aside, to stand clear of ambitious destruction. In other words, proving my point became a tiresome occupation. I match, I don’t dent, and I pluck my eyebrows now.
Jules was too late to retrieve his tea. He was on the train before he realized what had happened. He’d only meant to leave it for a second, just enough to adjust his son, who was strapped to his chest. The baby was getting too big for the sling, but Jules was a tall, broad gentleman and the contraption still had some mileage left. It had been perfectly made, that tea. Jules went out of his way to the corner grocery for that particular brand, whole milk, and his favorite sweetener.
Now inside the car, clutching a pole, Jules looked up, then down, and tried his level best not to grind his teeth. He didn’t have any reading material unpacked, because he was going to spend five stops DRINKING TEA. Oswald, Os, their son, was sleeping like a stone. All this valuable time, wasted. He shouldn’t feel this way. He should be smiling and carrying on like a blowsy father. He and Mags had been trying for three years to conceive. Os was such a gift, he knew that, he did. At least his shoes were comfortable.
From the opposite end of the car, a small, wiry man wearing slacks, a light windbreaker and a bent Mets baseball cap, waved excitedly at Jules. Standing slightly and pointing toward his behind, the man indicated he was ready to give up his seat. This was subway math: keep guard over where you’re sitting until you make eye contact with the individual you’ve designated to take your place. Jules shook his head and the wiry man acknowledged the turn-down, smiled harder, and sat. Os fussed a little. Jules began to rub his back and sway.
“You look tired,” the Mets man shouted at Jules, breaking the silence in the car, which was quite full, but with mournful morning commuters. Jules shook his head no. It was not worth wading through bodies, bags, newspapers and e-readers. The Mets fan kept looking at Jules, though. He still had something to convey.
“God bless you, sir,” he called as if he were trying to sing. “ Your baby is beautiful. You are beautiful. It’s a beautiful day.”
Jules took a pause and then curtly smiled. “Thank you,” he said as businesslike as he was able. “Have a nice day.”
“Oh, I will! I’m seeing my daughter today. She’s twelve. We’re going to a Mets game.”
The car was stopping, thankfully. Jules decided this was the day to be late to the office, to trip across time, to pretend he always got off at this stop. This was the day when everything was off by one note. He leapt off the car and took the stairs two at a time, on a hopeful search for English Breakfast tea. A smile had overcome his face. His jaw was relaxed. An astute, vibrating Mets fan had changed his day.
This is entirely their point.
My girls yesterday were probably fifteen years old . Their conversation was full of lumps. They’d gathered a few recipes for adulthood, but were combining them in ways that just added up to a sticky mess. Tall, strong and physically looking like women, each girl was yet tentative and neither listened to the other. Statements were declared by the first and the second clicked and nodded, but was mostly waiting for her turn to speak. True to high school form, they’d review evidence, make pronouncements and assign pass-fail grades based on dress and appropriate humor. Speaking in still awkward slang, they were in effect running down a list of compatriots and pronouncing each as “pretty.”
That evening I was reminded of a young person’s initial tools of assessment: outward appearance, which, if you are fifteen, is a true North indicator of social and human worth. (And even if it isn’t true, that she’s not really pretty, you can at least relax a little, having united with another using the same ingredients.) These girls may be loud and mumbly, but they know hair, they know pretty, and they know what works in the hallway.
Being still young and reluctant, this is why the girls firmly planted themselves at a distance from each other. They needed to rope in the grown-ups. From such a position, they could draw from our energy, even if it was mostly annoyance, impatience and frustration over not getting to concentrate on solitaire. Triggering grown-ups is the crux of the equation, especially before 10pm. It’s also a safe way to feel protected. When you’re fifteen years old and conducting tests, you still court adult supervision. Not directly, mind you; but nearby enough, just in case something gets burned.