On the train I stood with the back of my head pressed against the wall where I could feel it there, round and solid, and I tried to turn my face in a direction that people wouldn’t see the way my eyes had become hot and red and stinging all of a sudden. If anyone had seen they might have thought it was because we’d had an argument, Alice and me, the way mothers and daughters do when they’ve been together too long or it’s oppressively muggy outside, or they’re on a train without any breakfast. They might have thought that was it or maybe they imagined I was having marriage trouble, or I’d lost my job, or woke up to find my cat dead. Or maybe they didn’t see me crying, or if they did see, they weren’t thinking anything about it at all because they were too busy thinking their own thoughts or listening to music or thinking nothing. And even if they had been there at Journal Square at the same time as us, as you, they couldn’t have known that I was still picturing you lying there and composing this letter to you in my head. And I was also thinking, because she’d seen it too, Alice saw the same as I did, that maybe that was wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t have let her, I should have protected her, she is my daughter. But even so we didn’t move to comfort each other We stood away from one another on the train. Alice had taken out her new earphones and plugged herself in, to block out her own thinking or maybe to let in other noise. And she was taking the peanuts out of a bag of trail mix and putting them in her mouth, even though it said No Person Shall Eat Any Food Or Drink Any Beverage On The Station Platforms Or While Aboard Any Rail Car Operated By PATH. From where I was standing Alice wouldn’t have seen the way the tears were rolling like beads down my face and I wouldn’t have known how to explain it to her if she had. And while I was composing this letter and picturing you in my head I was also thinking about the other guy, the stammering man, and I was thinking that it was really for him I wanted to stay when I was struggling to get the words out myself, to Alice, on the station platform. She’s right, I couldn’t have helped or done any good but it seemed to me like his life might have stopped there and then at the same time yours did and I couldn’t help wondering if he felt responsible in a way. If he had said something to you on the stairs for no reason, or maybe just because you were black or you had said something to him because he was white, or maybe because you were in a hurry like everyone is in this city and you needed to get somewhere just like he did and there simply wasn’t room enough on the stairs for both of you to get past at the same time and…And I was thinking that even if it had happened that way, even if he had thought something or said something or you had that wasn’t fair or wasn’t right or wasn’t nice. Even if that’s the way it went before you fell it wasn’t going to change anything now and either way, if he was blamed or told it wasn’t his fault it wouldn’t matter because the life had gone out of you and him both now and no amount of blaming or defending is going to bring that back. And then I started thinking the way mothers do about the kids, kids he might have or kids you probably had at home waiting for you and how all their lives now will be about waiting for people to come home who are never going to or, or at least not the way the kids might need you to, and kids who will carry on waiting to get to places they are never going to get to either, at least not the way they need to get there with you by their side and even though the air conditioning was working fine inside the train compartment, by the time the train made it to Grove Street my cheeks were hot and wet and I couldn’t do anything about it. More people got on the train, all of them with busy lives and places to go and there wasn’t room for me to reach into my bag and get my notebook and pen out even if I had wanted to start writing all this down in my letter to you. I thought I should write it down while I was still thinking it and feeling it because the real danger in situations like these is how fast you stop thinking and how fast you stop feeling and how fast everything else moves on anyway. By the time we got back to Journal Square station that evening there would be nothing lying at the foot of the stairs, no pool of blood or maybe not even a mark where you had been, no woman waving her hands, and no stammering ghost of a man. The station man would have finished his shift and already changed out of his uniform and into his jeans and maybe eating a pizza somewhere with his friends or at home watching the TV with his kids and not even talking about the things he’d seen that day. You falling down the stairs, me and Alice getting from Jersey City to 9th
Street and into the Broadway café where we had breakfast—two poached eggs on a muffin for Alice and scrambled eggs and home fries with toast and Welch’s grape jelly for me. All of it happens so quickly and so fast that it’s gone in an instant and everything moves on. We pay our bill and go across to Urban Outfitters to see if there are any must-have clothes to be found on the sale rails and the two guys who sat opposite us at the café, looking at the menu and maps, are still there planning what to eat and where to go for fun in this big city and just now it seems that they will never know that they are just a hair’s breadth from something that could change them forever. A hair’s breadth from falling down the stairs at the Path station or being there when someone else does. A hair’s breadth. We all are and even as I write this letter to you and know that I will probably now not ever find a way of finishing it, I am ashamed to say that less than an hour after I watched your life blood spill away from the back of your cracked head I had dried my eyes and ordered three scrambled eggs, home fried potatoes and toast and jelly at the Broadway Café on 9th
and all I could think of as we left the café, Alice and me, was how good it was to have food in my belly, my beautiful grown-up daughter on my arm and the warmth on my back of the late August sun.