On my right, stairs stretch up to tall narrow doorways set in sheer faces of red brick. In my back pocket is a glossy fold-out map of Antiques Row, and on the stroller-handle my knuckles are white.
I’m trying not to cry.
Ben is barely visible through the crush of passers-by, his broad back slipping around shoulders and past midsections as I heave the bulky stroller through the crowd. We’re on the shady side of the street and parked cars cram to the curbs, penning me onto a root-cracked sidewalk. On the sunny side, over sleek-gliding roofs and through prisms of plexiglass, more heads bump along against particolor awnings and curls of neon. At the corner, Ben leaps ahead over the gutter and I hurry the stroller across Thirteenth Street after him, past a wall of sweltering radiators impatient for green.
“Isn’t this great?” Ben beams as I tilt the stroller up onto the curb. “We can come here once a month! The east coast isn’t so bad, is it? We’ll get used to it.”
I nod because Ivan’s wide eyes are flitting between his father and me, and I try to smile.
“Let’s get some lunch. Check out this great bistro!” Ben points to a series of shiny windows framed in peeling green paint.
“No. I’m not hungry.”
“I am. So is Ivan.”
“He can have crackers.” I’m already leaning the stroller back toward Twelfth. “He’s fine.”
“I’m not. We’ve got to eat.”
I stab a finger at the menu in the window. “Look at those prices. It’s too expensive. Can’t you wait till we get home?”
“C’mon, one lunch isn’t going to break us.” He angles a cheerful smile at me and turns the corner. “Okay, we’ll check the next one.”
Spoken like someone who didn’t even cringe at the ten dollars we were gouged for parking, or the three-dollar bridge toll that ground my jaw for half an hour. Someone who doesn’t realize that the twenty dollars he plans to spend on lunch will bounce our very first payment to our new electric company.
The stroller rattles through sun and shadow while Ben bounds ahead to read menus taped in windows. The diaper bag suspended from the stroller-handle bumps my legs till I stumble. I walk straddle-legged to accommodate its trajectory. Traffic roars on one side, spewing warm exhaust into Ivan’s face. He coughs and squirms.
On my right, stairs stretch up to tall narrow doorways set in sheer faces of red brick. Row after row of anonymous doors, white frames set in red brick, some clean and well-kept and others with splintering paint and cracked molding. Doors marked only by dull gold numbers growing by two’s.
Ben comes back with a stuffed frog for Ivan. When I fling my hands out wide, Ben’s smile turns sheepish. Ivan pulls at the glassy eyes, then allows the frog to drop in favor of his ratty blanket.
“He’s not even two.” Ben is trying to apologize for toddler’s indifference, but I’m swallowing and crunching the glossy fold-out map against the stroller-handle. Ben’s forehead wrinkles as he stoops to retrieve the frog, then he pulls me toward another window on the shady side. It’s the window of an antique shop. A narrow panel of stained glass stripes across the top and glittery trinkets are scattered on an expanse of faded green velvet beneath.
“Go in,” he urges. “We’ll wait on lunch. You love these places.”
Right, I love looking at furniture I’ll never be able to afford before going back to my cookie-cutter condo in some soulless Jersey suburb sparsely furnished with pressboard junk made to ape its betters. Slick stickers with false woodgrains, corniced edges that tear when rubbed to reveal the base wood underneath. Thrift stores are what I like, but Ben doesn’t understand the difference.
But I go dutifully in, maneuvering the stroller around tenuous displays of linens draped over crates and stacks of fiesta-ware marked up to ridiculous amounts merely because they’re thirty years old. Ivan grabs for things as we pass, but I steer his small hands clear and survey the dark narrow shop with a cursory glance because Ben will ask.
On the back wall I spy a tall bookshelf and in spite of myself, I steer the stroller toward it. I would page through old books at a rock concert. The pitiful collection of dusty volumes are obscure titles with frayed cloth binding and double-digit prices. But right as Ivan begins to fuss, I see the row of old children’s books on the bottom shelf and drop to my knees to examine them.
Ivan squirms against the restraint and leans out to pull my hair while squawking loud enough to raise dust on the shelves.
Next to a tattered Highlights magazine is a nineteenth-century Victorian primer packed with woodcuts. I run my hands lovingly over the leather cover, but flinch at the price.
Ivan is howling. He flings his new frog at a stack of faded tins and they topple with a crash that rattles the china.
I’m trying to stack the tins when I see the dealer wading through displays, frowning over wire-rim spectacles that seem to belong in one of his cases. I trace wistful fingers over the embossed title, then slowly reshelve the book.
While I apologize in litany to the angry dealer, I manhandle the stroller toward the exit. Ivan is still bawling when I hold the glass door open with my behind and shudder the stroller through. Ben is nowhere in sight, but I soon recognize him down the street, grinning and gesturing to an outdoor cafe table upon which sit two lemonades and a small cup with a protruding straw.
The stroller’s wheels creak with grit each time they turn. I put one foot in front of the other, and beneath them whip circles of old gum and cigarette butts.
Stairs stretch up to tall narrow doorways set in sheer faces of red brick. Row after row of anonymous doors, white frames set in red brick and flanked by tall narrow windows with splintered wooden sills. Getting a stroller up those stairs would be miserable. Places like those are not made for strollers.
Ben has quite possibly chosen the most expensive cafe in Philadelphia, but he doesn’t seem to notice that his sandwich has a double-digit price. When I say I’m not hungry and order a side salad, he tells the waitress I’ll have a brownie dessert with mounds of chocolate whipped cream.
Ivan mashes his frog’s nose in the ketchup that came with his four-dollar hot dog. He makes three fat dots with it on the glass tabletop before I wrestle it away and wipe up the mess. He begins to cry again and an elderly woman at the next table turns away, but not quite in time to hide a huff of pure disgust. Two businessmen scootch their chairs across the flagstones away from us. Ben asks why I haven’t eaten my dessert, but every bite tastes of red brick and hundred-year-old paper.
When we get up to go, he leaves the waitress a ten-dollar tip. Over my shoulder, strapped across by the diaper bag, I see her come to clear the table. She has dyed-black hair and red lipstick and a clutter of rings on the fingers of both hands.
She must live in one of these anonymous doorways set up steep stairs in a red-brick building. She wouldn’t have to worry about a stroller, and she could leave whatever she wanted on her coffee table without fear of small hands. She could buy some sheer curtains for her tall windows without having to worry about where the grocery money would come from if she did.
On my right, stairs stretch up to tall narrow doorways set in sheer faces of red brick. Row after row of anonymous doors, white frames set in red brick, some topped by a flourish of cornice or a Romanesque pediment, but others ornamented only with a dull patina of exhaust-blown soot.
So many in a city so big and indifferent, that no one would notice one more waitress walking up her own set of stone stairs toward her own anonymous door. No one would ask why her left ring finger had a faded line or why she whipped around at every baby’s cry. No one would even notice, and she could dye her hair black and put on red lipstick and those doors in red brick would take her in.
That girl with new-black hair could put on the Doc Martens so carefully stowed since that attempt at college and stride through the haze of traffic with her string purse over her shoulder, her hands free to carry bags and bags of books. She would smile at girls at her cafe who didn’t look old enough to be mothers, girls who shuffled stroller and cracker and studied the pattern in the glass tabletop when their husbands tipped too much. It would be quiet behind that anonymous white door, no endless drone of television or wee-hour howling. Behind that door would be a world all her own.
Ben drops back to where I plod behind the stroller. “What’s the matter? You look sad.”
“Oh, c’mon, tell me.”
I study my hands on the blue padded handle. “Well… there was a book in that shop I went into. A beautiful Victorian primer. Woodcuts and everything. But it was really expensive.”
“So put it on the credit card.”
“Ben, we’ve talked about that!”
“We have money coming in now. We can start having the things we want. We don’t have to go without.”
Some of us don’t.
Stairs stretch up to tall narrow doorways set in sheer faces of red brick. Row after row of anonymous doors flanked by tall narrow windows. In the corner of one of those tall windows draped with lace curtains is a hand-written sign: FOR RENT.
I look at it for a long time, even after I have to crane my neck passing it by. In the jelly jar deep in my closet is close to two hundred dollars, and the diamond-chip ring on my third finger must be worth two hundred more. Deposits on anonymous doors must be double that, but with a hand-written sign might be a hand-written deal where the hand that did the writing might be moved by a piteous tale.
It wouldn’t even be hard.
A single duffle bag, some believable story about the gym or the library, a kiss on the cheek for each of them and a trip to the bank before ending up on the commuter train platform. And I would be gone, and two hours later one more black-haired, red-lipped girl would climb the steep stairs and disappear through a white door set in red brick. She would sail down them again toward the café with her string-purse over her shoulder, carrying books and resumes and applications of all kinds.
She could flirt with men who could quote Chaucer and liked chamber music, but part company with them in the bar or coffeehouse and return to her own door, her own silence, and her own things carefully arranged.
She could smile at small children when she brought them their overpriced hot dogs, but then she could go home to her silent, pristine door set in red brick and have no more work to do. Nothing but a plant to water, or maybe a cat to feed.
She could duck into the narrowest shops without fear of accidental destruction and buy whatever books she wanted. Maybe she could save up enough to go back to college.
Ben tries to tempt me into going into other antique stores, but I shake my head blindly, forcing the stroller over bumps and cracks and trying not to look to my right. Finally, he folds his arms and narrows his eyes.
“Why are you being this way? We came here for you, because you like this stuff. Now you won’t even go in and look.”
“Coming to the city was your idea. I wish I would have stayed home.”
“Let’s go back and buy that book. That would make you happy, right?”
I turn from Ben, from Ivan, from both of them. I turn and face the sheer red brick soaring at my right. Softly I say, “No. It wouldn’t.”
We walk on, but I see that waitress everywhere now in every size and shape. Tall, slight, dumpy, hair spiked, flowing, swishing about the ears, made up, scrubbed clean, but none pushing a stroller behind a two-years husband who is even now looking for a place to have coffee. They throw purses, bags, backpacks over carefree shoulders that have never felt a toddler’s backside, and they go unburdened up stairs to solitude behind red-brick doors.
They are all women I could have been, once.
Ivan smiles up at me over his shoulder while twisting in his stroller. I’m trying to smile back when he heaves the toy frog flipper over warts into the middle of Pine Street. A tire sends it spinning, blackened, into a puddle near the curb. Ivan giggles. I close my eyes, seeing a pack of diapers lying there wasted in the gutter, or maybe a tank of gas. Then I steer the stroller away, after Ben.
Ivan whimpers and strains to reach the ruined toy. He points when I stop the stroller, his eyes wide and anxious.
“Sorry, kiddo,” I tell him, “but you were the one who threw it away.”
Ivan’s face crumples and he screams like he’s being killed. He continues to strain, contorting till he nearly tumbles over the side but for the strap across his lap.
With a puzzled frown, Ben retraces his steps back to us. He bends to unbuckle the wailing Ivan and hoists the child to his shoulder till the baby’s cries peter to snuffled giggles. Together they stride ahead, a strange tiny-headed hulk of a creature, while I follow behind with the stroller sailing in great leaps unhampered by the excess weight.
By the time they reach the corner, Ivan is giggling and pulling his father’s hair. He has already forgotten the thing he so carelessly threw away.
If only it were that easy for the rest of us.
But I was the one who threw my Doc Martens into steaming traffic, laughing to see the laces dance and hear the clatter of soles on pavement. But when I reached for them again, they were ruined beyond salvage and so was I, barely nineteen sitting on that cold tub-lip clutching the plastic strip slashed across with two pink lines.
Ben, pale as mourning, leaned against the old cracked sink with his thumbnail between his teeth and tears in his eyes. He would take that job, he told me. Even though he would have to cut his hair and quit the band and buy a tie, he would take the job. Because he had to, now.
Ivan pulls at Ben’s new gold watch. Ben slides it off and hands it to Ivan to inspect. Ben does not seem to mind or even notice the smears of ketchup smudging down the shoulder of his lucky shirt. He smiles to see Ivan happy and tosses him to hear him giggle. When the watch slips from Ivan’s fingers and shatters on the sidewalk, I’m the only one who winces and muffles a moan. Ben merely stoops to pick up the shards, Ivan clinging to his shoulder like a baby monkey, and pitches them basketball-style into a nearby trash can.
My husband strides away down Pine whistling some old hair-band song, our son perched atop his shoulders. They are silhouetted against the endless rows of red brick and the doors set within.
It would not even be hard.
But every step I took up to my own white door would sit heavier than red brick in my belly. Ghosts of train engines and talking books would haunt the careful silence that filled my own pristine space occupied only by elegantly poised antiques.
There would not pass a September that I would not think of Ben in his borrowed suit putting the pawn-shop ring on my finger, my belly hidden by a empire-waisted dress while our families looked on with forced smiles.
There would not pass a January when I wouldn’t think about that darkened hospital room, my veins bursting to protest the IV and nurses fluttering all around, Ben with round eyes clinging to my free hand while I thrashed on sweaty linen.
There would not pass one day when I would not think of Ivan and wonder how big he was. If he was out of diapers. If he had any memories at all of a auburn-haired woman who’d once sung old folk songs when he cried.
There was not enough hair dye in the world to cover that, not in all the red-brick of Philadelphia.
When I threw my Docs away, I threw them myself. They were neither taken, nor demanded. Now that they were ruined beyond reclaim, I couldn’t take someone else’s and try them on till I found a pair that suited. The time for making that choice had long passed. I’d made it at barely nineteen sitting on that tub-rail, and I hadn’t chosen the sophisticated urban whirlwind of the girl with the dyed-black hair and clutter of silver rings, waiting tables and going up into red-brick doors. I’d chosen tract housing and bland pressboard suburbia. I’d chosen Ivan.
Ben comes galloping back, Ivan squealing with joy and clinging with tiny clenched fingers. My husband kneels, swings the giggling child off his shoulders and bounces Ivan into the stroller. He tells me he left something at the cafe and bounds off down the street to reclaim it, leaving Ivan and me on the sunny side while traffic lurches past in bursts of hazy exhaust.
I kneel to strap Ivan in. He touches my cheek with his damp stubby palm and I cringe at the black-haired me who wanted to abandon this small person who loves without condition, indifferent to where he is or what he has. From my back pocket, I remove the crumpled glossy map of Antiques Row and together we count the attractions numbered in purple circles.
We get up to eleven before a stocky figure threads through the crowd toward us with a carefree stride undimmed by two years in bland grey cube farms. Ben is smiling, and something wrapped in brown paper is tucked beneath his arm. As he nears, I rise, trying to recall what Ben even had of that shape to leave at the cafe. His grin widens as he approaches, and I give in to Ivan’s clamor and hand over the glossy map.
“Here.” Ben’s smile animates his whole posture till he wiggles like a puppy. He holds out the wrapped package.
The package is so heavy that I nearly fumble it. Behind me, glossy paper crumbles and crunches beneath sweaty little fists. I look from the package to Ben in growing confusion, but he only gestures for me to open it.
I slide a finger beneath the tape and unfold the brown paper, but already the smell of leather skids my heart downward. The last of the wrapping paper falls off in my hands. Behind me, map-paper tears and a glossy shard whips past me on a warm waft of exhaust.
In my hands is the nineteenth-century Victorian primer from the antique shop. Over the top of the book, just above the triple-digit price sticker, Ben’s pleased grin shines at me with full wattage.
I sink down on the sidewalk and cry.