He walked head down, chin tucked low, eyes riveted to the sidewalk, hardly aware of the people—a clutch of teenage girls, a woman talking on her phone, a stony-faced man dragging a shrieking girl—who were making wide circles around him.
Heartless monster??? It happened almost a year ago. Eleven months to the day. Time enough for…what? … shock and grief, yes, regret and shame, certainly. But not to reconcile, he thought bitterly, no, not that. He pulled the note, already fraying at the folds, from his pocket and examined it again.
We’ve been over this SO many times, I just can’t go over it again, I don’t have the strength. Time to start over. And no, not because of the phone business, whoever it was you were texting, Sophie-Ann Bimbo Slut or someone. I don’t care about that, not anymore. I just care about peace of mind, about sleeping again (though not with me, he thought), about that serenity the shrink says we should struggle to find. But I don’t want to struggle, not anymore. It’s over. I’m done. You say it wasn’t your fault. But whose fault was it? You say you need me more than ever, but then you cheat on me. You say it’s time to forgive. But it’s too late for that. Because here’s the thing: YOU NEVER CRIED, NEVER EVER SHED A FUCKING TEAR, NOT ONE DROP! HEARTLESS MONSTER. What more can I say??? I’m so very tired of being sorry.
Written in her hurried, looping script, like a sixth grader’s. Ripped from a notepad, little edges asplay. Sitting on the kitchen counter when he came home last night, when he found her things gone, when he found his marriage crushed.
He turned the corner and almost bumped into a large man with a furry hat and a long thick beard—an Orthodox rabbi?—and the man barked something at him in heavily accented English and he laughed.
“Look buddy, I’m having a bad day myself, OK?” he said, and proceeded south, weaving through passersby, a clutch of grade school kids led by two teachers, more teens, and two cops at the corner, helping someone with directions. He wanted them all to go away, just disappear, afraid that if someone so much as brushed his shoulder he’d explode.
He pulled out his phone and tried her again. It went right to voice mail. “Listen, honey, we can still manage through this. I know we can. That thing on my cell phone, it wasn’t what you think. Just someone from work helping me out. Because I can’t do this alone. I can’t do it without you. I need you more than ever. Listen, sweetie, I know how…” he paused, tried to find a better word, couldn’t… “upset you are. But you’ve got to believe it. It wasn’t my fault. It was just…” he hesitated again…“chance, like getting hit by lightning. Not something we could have controlled. No one to blame, that’s what the shrink said. It could’ve happened to anyone, so random, so, so…” The phone went to a dial tone, and he looked at it and said quietly, “Unfair.”
Up ahead he heard some noise and saw a crowd of people at the foot of a building yelling and pointing. A child—a baby, evidently unattended—was crawling along a third-floor window ledge.
“Where’s the mother?” someone yelled and someone else shouted at the window, “Grab the kid!” A few people were screaming incoherently, a woman near him was crying, and another woman, pulling out her phone, said to no one, “I’m calling 911.”
He tried skirting the crowd, he was already late to see Sophie-Ann, something he should have done months ago. But there were too many people, they were spilling off the sidewalk onto the street, and their agitation and hysteria somehow pulled him back, and he stopped at the edge of the crowd and heard himself yell with the others, “Get back!” as if the child, still unattended, wailing uncontrollably, naked and crawling on all fours perilously close to the edge, could understand and take heed.
He remembered the cops and spun around to call them, but they were gone.
It was then he felt a push, a shove from behind, but when he turned to complain no one was there, just the surge of the crowd, like some law of physics propelling him forward into their midst.
“Hey, watch it,” someone objected and others nearby turned to stare up at him. But he had a fearsome look from lack of sleep and the roiling grief and guilt, churning in his stomach like hot lava, so they gave way and he found himself at the foot of the building.
From up the block he heard car horns shrieking in alarm. The same blaring sound he heard 335 days ago, after Bailey had toddled outside that first fine day of spring. “Where’s Mommy?” she had asked. He looked up from his book. She had on her Abby Cadabby T-shirt over a pink onesie. She was barefoot. “Look Daddy,” she said and bent over to show him her little pink toenails. Her hair was still mussed from the bed, to which she had graduated only the week before.
“Out front, sweetie, she’s out front,” he said, taking a sip of his merlot. Bailey smiled at him, the gaps in her teeth the last thing he observed, and toddled off. Were there alarm bells? Later he tried to imagine being vaguely concerned, but really, he just went back to his book.
Mommy wasn’t out front. She had gone inside. Seconds later he heard the sound of the car horn and the terrible screech of the tires.
Looking up he saw the baby slip and start to fall. Its arms and legs twisted in the air. He held up his hands, as if getting ready to pull in a football. He could hear shrieks, a siren around the block, people yelling, “Look out!” There was a general high-pitched keening sound, the collective wail of the crowd.
But then the sound dimmed, his stomach settled, his mind cleared, his eyes fixed, all his senses focused on the one thing, the baby, watching it like he had never watched anything before, followed it tumbling and turning, a little asteroid, falling free, faster, larger, closer.
He set his feet firmly in the sidewalk, set his hips and anchored his back to take the force, reached up, grabbed at an outstretched leg.
The baby slammed against his chest and caromed away. He staggered but managed to lunge and pull it back. People were closing in on them, arms reaching around, but he shrugged them off so he could look at the baby’s face. They locked eyes. A spark of recognition flew between them, as sharp and hot as an electric current.
Then another arm reached around and a woman in uniform, a policewoman or paramedic, said, “Sir, I’ll take him now.” He didn’t move. “Sir,” she said gently, and almost reluctantly he handed over the baby.
The crowd noise roared back into his ears. He heard a woman yell, “He’s OK, unhurt,” and for a second he thought she meant him. But no, others were screaming, “The baby’s safe!” and surged off toward the ambulance.
How do you know, he said quietly, almost a little resentfully. My baby. How do you know it’s OK? But no one could hear him.
His back ached and his legs began to wobble and he thought he might collapse, so he lowered himself to the ground and sat on the pavement, below a sign that read LOOK NO FURTHER BAGELS, BIALYS, LOX, CREAM CHEESE, and put his head in his hands to shield the hot tears that he couldn’t stop streaming down his cheeks.