Last week I rode the subway home as I normally do. I got off at the last stop on the line and inattentively worked my way toward the escalator. Waiting for the two messy rows of people to merge into one, an elderly woman stopped and let the family in front of me board. I, still dazed from the long ride home, waited for the elderly couple to move ahead in line, when I was jolted into awareness by her kind voice, saying, “Oh you go ahead, dear. We like to keep the family together.”
My head lurched, “Oh, no, we’re n…..” I was momentarily flabbergasted, and before I could finish correcting her, I blinked. She thought we were together.
That blink lasted somewhere between a millisecond and a thousand years, and in it I made an instantaneous calculation. While I wanted her to know that this family, a father with two children, was not mine, it didn’t really matter. The only thing that might have made any difference to her at all was knowing that she had been kind to a tired mother and her offspring.
As I was not a tired mother, the offer wasn’t really extended to me, but holding up traffic would get me nowhere. And so instead I smiled, quickly thanking her before taking my place in line. Carefully, I put a stair between myself and the little girl in front of me. I looked at the children and their dark, handsome father. The chatty little boy, maybe nine years old, was holding his dad’s hand (there was no mistaking that this attentive man was his father). Below them, the quiet girl shared their face, but instead had blonde hair, with light eyes looking up at me. My breath stopped in my chest as I realized how we had looked to the ordinary passerby. It had been an easy mistake, to assume we were together. It was uncanny.
We reached the top of the escalator, and I hurried past them, no longer concerned with letting the elderly woman feel as though she had done a good deed. No matter how it might have appeared, we were merely beautiful strangers; nothing less, and nothing more.
As I walked home in the snow, it continued to haunt me; in another reality, these beautiful children could have been mine. This darling little girl, her face now emblazoned across my memory, could have been my daughter; this precocious little boy, my son. He could have been my husband, and we could have been going home together.
But, alas, we were only strangers on a subway.