My son was away last summer at camp for four weeks, which was twice as long as he had ever been away before. He was twelve, and “away” in this case meant somewhere in the Berkshires, in Massachusetts, about three-and-a-half hours from New York. With or without us, he had not ever spent more than two consecutive weeks outside of our city, our neighborhood, nor even the building we returned to all those years ago from the hospital, imagining it was a temporary arrangement, all this living on top of each other, and getting on one another’s nerves, and listening to conversations we’d rather not hear, and ambulances, and lining up for the bathroom.
We could not have anticipated our never moving (in fact I think it would have seemed absurd), but anyway here we still are, and anyway there I stood waiting for that bus returning from Massachusetts to some apparently arbitrary coordinates in Brooklyn, wondering how much he might have grown since we last saw him, if I’d need to fashion some kind of extension to the bunk bed, or otherwise cantilever our living arrangements.
The bus was late, which gave me more time than I probably needed to contemplate these things, and polish off two, and then three of the donuts I had bought to welcome him back to reality (the camp that he went to was pretty earthy and favored lunches like couscous), all the while considering a recently posted map which listed, by color and category, each of the bike routes that was apparently available to me if I wasn’t especially worried about getting mowed down by taxis or delivery trucks or buses conveying children back from Massachusetts.
So there I was attempting to seem probably more absorbed than I was in that map, because I did not wish to talk to what were apparently other parents gathering in the vicinity, people I knew I’d probably never see again, and did not want to pretend to be interested in their names or faceless children, all of us peering occasionally down a cross-street where there was some god-awful unnecessary-looking construction crashing, and gasping, and conceivably further impeding our reunions.
It took awhile. Some people got on their phones, yammering inscrutably, and shaking their heads. Eventually one of those buses showed up, so tall it’s a wonder it does not regularly capsize, with its windows Darth-Vaderishly tinted so all you can do is imagine your child in one of the shadows, some urgent, some languorous, all the while keeping one eye on the exit for a flash of whatever familiar color – of T-shirt or hoodie - you expected to alert you to the completely different person he’s become.
He wasn’t. Still small. What a relief. As much attention as we are in the habit of lavishing on every extra inch, or tooth, or sign of progress, we kind of wish these things should happen when we don’t have to notice. So phew. He’s got the rest of his life to be big.
“Wow,” he said, or something like it, but it did not catch my attention as if it had been recently learned, like Jeepers. Or Dude. Or Bloody Hell.
“It feels so good to be here,” he said looking around him.
“Here?” I asked, incredulous. No building was very much taller than six or seven stories, but he looked like he was witnessing the Statue of Liberty for the very first time. It was really kind of a wasteland where we met, the sort of stop on the subway where you wonder why they even bothered. This was July, sometime in the early afternoon, the sun as hazy and noncommittal as ever. A jackhammer rattled nearby.
“Here?” I repeated. “You mean the city?”
“Well yeah,” he said – sighing! – and continued to take it all in. “What’d you think?”
Here is what I think: that the city can be ugly sometimes, and burdensome, and impassable, but it’s ours, and we have survived it, and often that seems like a miracle worth sustaining. That five hundred and twenty-seven years full of dueling ambitions, and jutting elbows, and mismatched neighbors, and people you don’t want to talk to, and collisions – glancing, horse-drawn, jet-fueled, flush - have somehow resulted in this living, still-growing and ever-more-colorful panorama, well, it sort of begs an explanation. Whether that is angels hovering where we cannot see them – planting our seeds or putting out fires or teaching us tolerance, music, consideration; or if it is only a matter of convenience (the Golden Rule never looks so practical as when your neighbor is living on top of you) or kinetic imperative, like that first flash of lightning in a puddle full of optimistic molecules: they had to be doing something right, yes? That is about as mystical as I get, but it feels good while I can manage it, and safe, like faith is probably supposed to feel. Trees are nice, and beaches, and prairies and exurban developments, but I think we’ll take our chances at this crossroads, which has a pretty good record for defying the odds.