Bari Lynn Hein
Ian reaches for his keys, then remembers. This is no longer his door, no longer his apartment. He’ll be damned if Claudia will make him feel as if Axel and Paige are no longer his children.
He knocks louder than he’d intended to.
With each approaching footstep he raises his shoulders a little higher, squares his jaw a little firmer, squints. Gone is the man Claudia married, the man she deemed to be “too polite” (among many other apparent shortcomings). In his place stands the new, improved, more confident Ian.
Six-and-a-half-year-old Paige opens the door and unveils a smile Ian has never seen before, pink gums glistening where two front teeth had been. Eight-year-old Axel lunges toward him and now there are two blonde heads pressed just below his heart. Love pushes away anger, stands in Ian’s windpipe with its hands in his throat, making it impossible for him to speak.
Claudia emerges from the room in which Ian had slept for over a decade, in which he’d made love to her, listened over a baby monitor for sounds of soft breathing, called out to two gigglers to quiet down and go to sleep, dreamed of an infinite future. He’s no longer welcome in that room. Claudia has probably repainted the walls, thrown out the silk sheets and replaced them so she won’t be reminded of him.
She’s moved the part in her hair from the left to the right; her golden fringe has grown out and topples alluringly over her arched brow. It still smells like oranges and honeysuckle.
“Hi, Ian.” She smiles, weakening his resolve.
The children peel themselves off of Ian and step away, as if they expect their parents to hug, which they most certainly will not.
“How was London?” she says.
“Dorothy must’ve been happy to see you.”
“Yes. Of course.” Apparently, Claudia no longer calls her mother-in-law “Mom.” She turns and calls down the hall, reminds Paige not to forget her inhaler. She doesn’t ask about Dorothy’s reaction to the news of the separation. She doesn’t ask Ian how he has been handling the past two months.
Truth is, he’s been miserable. Returning to London did nothing but widen the distance between the kids and him. Revisiting his childhood home, his grammar school, the muddy bank beneath the aqueduct in Hyde Park from which he and his friends would skip stones, the sweet shop near Leicester Square where his mum used to take him when he was small, only heightened an awareness that his children weren’t beside him to see it all, to skip stones or eat sweets with him. Reminded him that he would miss out on day-to-day events in Axel and Paige’s lives.
From now on, they’ll always come to Claudia for homework help. She’ll be the one picking them up from school, comforting them and celebrating with them. She’ll get to know their teachers, their friends. In time, Axel and Paige will find excuses to forgo weekend visits; they’ll have tests to study for, birthday parties they won’t want to miss.
They have reappeared with shoes on their feet and packs on their backs. Under normal circumstances, one or both would be racing to the elevator by now. But today is different; the children have never spent a night away from their mother, let alone two.
Claudia tucks her fragrant fringe behind her ear. “You have an EpiPen on you?” she says, as if Ian will have forgotten Axel’s nut allergy.
He presses his hand against his shirt pocket and nods. Perhaps he glares.
“Stay close to them on the subway. New Yorkers aren’t as polite as you Brits.”
Has she forgotten the trip to London they took, about a year before Axel was born, the way they crammed themselves through the doors of the tube and held onto the railings and to each other for dear life so they wouldn’t tumble out at the stations? “I’m not new to the city, Claud.” Nor is he new to the needs of these children; he has always considered himself an active participant in their upbringing.
“You’ve been away for a while, is all,” she says. She bends down to embrace her children. “Have fun with Daddy. Be good.” They assure her they will be. “I’m going to miss you,” she adds; Ian detects a catch in her voice. She will be apart from them for two nights; how does she think he felt when he last said goodbye to them, when he knew he’d be apart from them for sixty?
By the time they reach the lobby, Ian has heard all about Axel’s science fair project and the student-of-the-week button that Paige earned. Upon learning that Ian met neither the queen nor the royal duchesses on his excursion to London, the children ask no further questions, and instead elaborate on their far more impressive feats of the past two months, as they step through leafy, blossomy shadows on Central Park West.
He has longed for this, to be walking between his children on a cool, early spring afternoon, listening to them talk over one another. Every day in the U.K., every time he rode the top tier of a double-decker bus or walked past a red telephone booth, he thought about how they’d react. Their absence became a visceral pain.
To his left is the path on which he taught Paige to ride a two-wheeler, and he can still hear her squeals. “Daddy, I’m doing it! I’m doing it!” Will she remember that? Will Axel remember sitting on his father’s lap on that park bench over there, feeding fries to pigeons?
In London, Ian found no memories of his father, who left when he was a year younger than Paige is now. Of his mother, he found many: the sweet shop, the stamp shop, the street corner where she looked on while a portrait artist sketched her young son in charcoal, the Natural History Museum.
“What d’you say we visit the Museum of Natural History tomorrow?” He inadvertently interrupts Axel’s animated retelling of a movie he recently saw, but his son doesn’t seem to mind; he shouts “yes” right away, and Paige quickly echoes his assent.
It’s been over a year since Ian took them there; he wants them to remember.
The station is about twice as crowded as it was when he arrived on the uptown platform an hour ago. Passengers stand pressed together on both sides of the tracks, heads tilted toward trash-strewn rails and mobile screens. Ian tries to imagine the messages they’re reading. I miss you… Can’t wait to see you… On my way… Please pick up milk on the way home. If Ian had service underground – which he has never had – he would happily settle for any one of those messages. Claudia used to send emojis throughout the day to describe her moods. His favorite was the kissing face she would occasionally send on his commute home; that emoji will never appear on his screen again.
The children have managed to squeeze their small bodies through the throng. Arms and shoulders and handbags prevent Ian from being able to reach out and grab them. The clatter of an oncoming train prevents Axel and Paige from hearing their father when he calls out to them to wait.
Suddenly the D train is there, a massive silver beast roaring its arrival, concealing the passengers on the uptown platform and snapping the passengers on the downtown platform into action. Their shuffling bodies form an impenetrable barricade between Ian and his children. Directly in front of Ian stand an emaciated old man and a woman with a toddler sleeping against her shoulder. He can push neither aside without being rude, so he calls out again. “Axel! Paige!”
The doors slide open and Axel and Paige continue to advance and Ian continues to squirm helplessly in place. The silver beast expels and swallows swarming commuters for all of twenty seconds, just long enough for Ian’s children to climb aboard. The doors slide shut. The train starts to pull away.
Two small, shocked faces appear in the windows of the door.
Ian holds his index finger high and hopes that somehow, magically, his children will know he is telling them to get off at the next station and wait for him there.
This can’t be happening.
Ian, whose perfect manners have led him to this nightmarish moment, stands in the center of a mobbed subway platform and yells, “Fuck!”
The emaciated old man and several other waiting passengers glance over and then return to their own thoughts.
“My children got on that train,” he says at a slightly less attention-getting volume. A vein on the side of his neck throbs.
The woman with the sleeping toddler pivots around; she lifts her brows. “How old?”
“Eight and six.”
“You should tell the attendant.” Walking over to a uniformed man by the steps will only take Ian further from the rails and jeopardize his chances of catching the next train. He pulls out his mobile, wondering if this emergency warrants a call to 9-1-1. No Service mocks him from the corner of the screen.
He hears an echo in the tunnel, as if someone is hammering steel. He says, “Excuse me” and wedges himself between the emaciated old man and the woman with the sleeping toddler. He continues to excuse himself and push through. If only he had done this in the first place.
The A-Express hurtles out of the tunnel and tears past the passengers. If Axel and Paige are standing on the platform at the next station, it will pass them by as well, and they’ll wonder why their father isn’t getting off and they’ll think they misunderstood his hand signal.
Then again, they’ve been living in New York their entire lives. They know how express trains operate.
Maybe he should call Claudia.
Maybe the children have already called her. Claudia will take them away from Ian, but at least they’ll be safe.
“Does anyone have phone service?” he shouts, looking around. “Anyone have a cellphone I can borrow?”
This is the same man who shouted “Fuck” moments ago. No one is going to loan him a mobile. They advance en masse toward the tracks, staking out positions because another train is clanging in the distance.
It’s another D train. Not an express. Ian is mumbling to himself, giving himself words of encouragement as he works his way toward the doors; this has the benefit of making him seem even crazier and creating a narrow channel through which he can clear the platform and place his shoes firmly onto the shiny blue floor of a center car. He grabs the pole closest to the door and looks around with an expression that defies anyone to try to displace him.
No one is paying attention to him anyway. They are sequestered by electronic devices and earbuds and the occasional conversation. Through the doors separating Ian’s car from the next some type of dance performance is taking place, and for those whose seats face forward that is far more interesting than a mumbling man clinging to a pole.
The train that the children boarded had taken off in less than half a minute, but the doors of this train stay open for an inexplicably long time. This operator has far more patience, waits for stragglers.
Then comes a recorded voice, well-mannered: “Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”
And finally, slowly at first but eventually gaining momentum, the train moves toward the children who were whisked away from Ian a full fifteen minutes ago.
He turns to the recessed lights that bisect the ceiling and mumbles, “Please let them be there. Please.” One elderly woman seated sideways looks up at him with mild interest; no one else takes notice.
Through the dark tunnel the train rattles, bringing Ian closer to the moment of truth. He will either be overjoyed or devastated when the train plunges into light again. There is nothing in between.
If the children did get off at the next station and are not careening further downtown, that still does not guarantee their safety. Barring an abduction or one of them falling onto the tracks – two scenarios too horrific to contemplate for more than a second – there is the possibility that Paige had an asthma attack or Axel went into anaphylactic shock. Ian shakes his head violently to rid himself of such thoughts. A woman who’d risen from her seat and had started to walk toward him takes a step back.
The train slows and Ian’s pulse accelerates. He grips the metal pole tighter and clenches his jaw. The dance performance draws loud applause from the next car and this, along with the screech of brakes against rails, prompts a couple seated behind Ian to turn up the volume of their conversation.
Suddenly the world outside the subway car is as bright as the interior. White tiled walls drift by, the words COLUMBUS CIRCLE contained within decorative embellishments Ian never noticed before. In dense clusters, passengers stand poised to pounce.
When the train comes to a full stop, he sees them, Axel and Paige and a youngish woman with silver hair. They are gazing beyond the window through which Ian is looking out, so he calls out to them.
As soon as the doors open, he leaps onto the platform and they see him and they run to him, throw their small arms around him, sob.
For a long time Ian feels nothing but his children’s heads against his ribcage, their fingers on his back, warm tears on his cheeks. Gradually, he becomes aware of people pushing past, an announcement over the P.A. system, a silver-haired woman standing a few feet away, smiling.
“I offered to call your wife,” she says, “but the children insisted we wait for the next train to arrive.”
“You two are very clever,” he says, wiping his cheeks with his shirtsleeve.
“I was afraid we’d never see you again,” Paige says, hiccupping and sniffing.
“Oh, now.” Ian draws in a deep breath, swallows. “Of course we would’ve found each other again.” But the same fear had crept obstinately into Ian’s mind. “Thank you so much for looking after them,” he says to the silver-haired stranger.
She extends a hand. “My pleasure. They’re good children. I’m glad you’ve been reunited.”
“Don’t leave us again, Daddy,” Axel says, as if his father had been the one to board the train without them.
Before Ian can ask the woman her name, she’s boarding the Number 3 train that has arrived without him noticing. She waves from the window.
“She was so nice,” Paige says. She’s looking up at him with that precious new smile of hers, but her eyes are red and he knows she’s in no mood to board another train right away. None of them are.
There’s an ice cream shop about a block away from Columbus Circle; Ian took the children there once, when they were very little. They may not remember. “What d’you say we get some ice cream?”
Two children who had been crying moments ago are now jumping and cheering. The threesome mounts the steps in a chaotic motion of swinging arms and swirling legs. The moment they reach daylight, Ian’s mobile rings.
“Hello, Claud.” He’s not going to tell her.
“I forgot to tell you,” she says, “Axel was having trouble with some math problems this week and I promised you’d help him. Hopefully he remembered to pack it.”
Ian smiles. “I’ll check on that this weekend.”
“You’re already downtown?”
“We stopped off for some ice cream first.” He winks at the children, who have managed to wrap their arms around his waist again.
“Watch that they use separate scoops for the nut flavors and… have a good weekend with them.” There’s that catch in her voice again.
He’s not going to tell her. She’ll say, “What is wrong with you? I told you to stay close!” She’ll get her attorney involved, will find a way to withhold all weekend visits. She’ll demand the children be returned immediately.
Best for him to leave this conversation for Sunday.
An annoying little tattle-tale who lurks inside Ian and has caused him great distress on more than one occasion speaks up. “The children ran ahead of me and got on the train before I could catch up to them. They’re fine, though. Everyone is fine. I held up one finger and they figured out that meant to wait for me at the next station and we were reunited within minutes.”
Ian can hear his heartbeat echoing in the mobile.
Finally, her voice comes through, much softer and less accusatory than he had expected. “Same thing happened to me once. With Axel.”
He releases his suspended breath. “Really?”
“Couple of years ago. When Axel was six. We had a long talk afterward, the children and I, and I told them if it ever happens again, they should wait for me at the next station. That’s why they knew to do that.” While he processes this, she adds, “I’m sorry I never told you.”
There are many things he can say now. He can chastise her, but given that he too had considered withholding the truth, that would be unfair. He can empathize, and maybe this will bring them a bit closer together.
And then there’s a third option.
He clears his throat. “Claud… in July, when I have them for those three weeks… I want to take them to London. I want to show them where I grew up.”
He waits, raises his shoulders, squares his jaw, squints, braces himself for a rejection.
Then he looks down at two blonde heads pressed just below his heart.
Bari Lynn Hein’s stories have been published in The Saturday Evening Post (awarded runner-up in the Great American Fiction contest, 2018), daCunha (Editor’s Choice, 2016) and HCE Review, as well as two anthologies. While she works on a manuscript set in a Russian shtetl at the turn of the twentieth century, two debut novels are on submission. Learn more on her author website: barilynnhein.com