We are on our own this weekend, my son and me, and tonight, we take a walk before dinner. It is still light and the air is crisp and cool. We head down to where the Blackstone River flows past Slater Mill and W. runs on ahead. “I’ll stop at the stop sign and wait for you,” he calls out behind him.
It’s been an anxious day for me, a kind of formless panic taking hold, persistent, unnerving. Certainly, there is much to find unsettling these days. I dread the morning newspaper and no longer leave the radio on in my car. Only when I am feeling strong enough can I listen in to the state of this union.
There is this, of course: the seething rage just below the surface of the way we live in this country. The confusion and anger, the desperation we all feel in one way or another. How everything feels broken and inadequate. How we all feel cheated and lied to. I don’t pretend to know how to begin to make sense of that. But I wonder, in this year leading up to 40, whether my own sense of dread isn’t the way mortality itself creeps up on you. For years, you are immortal: time is limitless, infinite. Until one day, you see that it is not.
Just outside the frame, in front of the library, a man sits on the low wall. He is wearing jeans, and even from here, I can tell there are too big, the legs hang loose from him. A green hooded sweatshirt, a brown baseball cap. As we come into his line of vision, he lets out a long, loud growl, like he has been wounded.
I usher my son past him quickly, and although I take this to be a kind of warning, I also think about approaching him, putting a reassuring hand on his shoulder – a way to say, “Yes. I hear your pain.” But fear has been cultivated in me for decades now, and in the end, I do nothing to comfort him. I just hurry us on to our meal.
We head to the restaurant through the parking lot, where there are men sitting in their cars, idling. It’s an old-school Chinese place, the kind I grew up with, on corner lots in suburban strip malls. These are not pan-Asian; they are Chinese, with salt and pepper shakers on the tables, and a bowl of artificial sugar packets for the tea. Chinese for the American palate.
As we are seated, there is a kerfuffle at the next table where three older women are pointing at their dishes. One of them is complaining loudly about the temperature of the food. “Tell him to put it on another plate, and put it in the microwave,” one of her companions says. “I can’t eat this like this,” she says, “it’s just too cold.” “I’m sure they have other plates back there. Just tell him.” “Waiter,” she calls over as he seats us. “Waiter.”
I order soup and dumplings that come to the table fat and greasy. I down cupfuls of hot flavorless tea.
W. is quiet. He draws in a small notebook I have brought and I feed him forkfuls of chicken that he accepts without comment. It seems we are both a little off tonight.
While in DC, I talk with E. about turning 40. She says, “If it’s any consolation, I never had any trouble with any birthdays except 40. That one hit me hard.“
"But,” she continues brightly, “on the upside, the forties were the best decade by far.”
“This is what I hear,” I say. “That is reassuring,” I say. But I don’t really know that it is.
E. herself seems a bit pale on this visit. A bit tired. It’s been a busy summer for everyone I know. I wonder how long we can all keep up this feverish pace. Everyone I know running at top speed, in all directions. Enough to engender a little panic in anyone.
As we leave, the place is filling up. There are groups of people waiting for friends and relatives to take the empty seats around the large tables.
It’s gotten colder. The sky is turning gray.
I’m carrying a brown paper bag that holds the few chicken skewers W. did not eat. I cut through the parking lot, thinking perhaps that the man is still there. If he is, I will offer him the chicken. It’s still warm. But there is no one in front of the library, or out on the streets at all. I think about leaving the bag somewhere downtown – near the bus stop or by the courtyard with the fountain. But I spend so much time thinking about where the best place to leave it would be that I hardly notice we are nearly home.
We cross over the highway and W. says, “Hey, I can see our house from here.”
The house is quiet and dark. I put the bag in the refrigerator and put the kettle on for tea. We take off our shoes. “We still have a few minutes before bedtime,” I say. “Do you want me to put the television on for you?”
He thinks for a moment, says, “No, thank you.” I turn back to the kitchen for the tea.
“Hey Mommy,” he says, padding down the hall after me. “Can we just sit for a minute?”
“Sure,” I say and he leads me back to the couch.
We sit for a few minutes in silence, his small body next to mine and I put my arm around him, draw him close. The sky gets darker. Through the open window we can hear the dull hum of the traffic on the highway.
"Hey Mommy,” he says, breaking the stillness, “remember when we went on the carousel?”
“Yes, I do remember that. Did you have fun?”
“Yeah. I had fun. Do you know why?” he asks. He puts his small hand on my leg, and I cover it with my own. “Why?”
“Because I was sitting on the giraffe and you were standing next to me.”
I turn to face him and he is smiling. My chest feels tight, like I’ve just run a very long way. In the kitchen, I hear the tea kettle whistling.
Let it whistle.