Mar 23 2010

The Shiner

We walked down the stairs to the metro platform, boarding the train while eating a gouter of peanut-butter and Nutella sandwiches. Two stops later, at Chatelet, we exited the train to make our way through the tunnels to the neighboring station of Les Halles and the entrance to the Conservatory. It’s not pleasant to be underground for so long, but it’s the most direct route and it avoids waiting at crosswalks and inclement weather.

Between the two stations there are two long tunnels, both with a moving walkway to assist commuters with what feels like an endless walk. The usual rules apply; stand to the right, walk to the left. The second walkway has a rather steep ramp just at the beginning, inspiring a game that has made the tunnel journeys a bit less boring. Singing a long steady note, we hold hands and jog down the ramp, making a funny noise that gives us a good giggle. It’s kind of silly, but we invent these things to distract our children – and ourselves – from the drudgery of such a commute.

This week De-facto has business out of town, so yesterday I had both girls in tow when I took Short-pants to her music theory class. Remarkably, both of them got out of school on time and at the same time, so our journey from the school to the conservatory was made, for a change, at a reasonable pace, contrasted with the usual press required to get there by 5:00.

As we approached the ramped moving walkway, Buddy-roo let go my hand and charged ahead. There were very few people on it, so I let her go. She ran down the ramp, gleefully singing. Short-pants and I followed, in harmony. Buddy-roo was speeding right along when I realized she might need help stopping. Usually I’d be holding her hand, but because she’d rushed ahead, I wasn’t there to steady her.

She grabbed on to the railing, a good instinct except for the railing on a moving walkway is perpetually in motion. Buddy-roo’s feet tried to stop, but her hand kept going, dragging her body with it and whipping her face against the metal siding. By the time she actually fell, I was there. But it was too late. Within seconds, the side of her face, just under her eye, was swelling. A black eye had been born.

Shrieking isn’t enough of a word to describe the noise coming from her. I pulled her over to the standing lane of the walkway, held her and let her wail – what else is there to do – and watched the small red bump under her eye protrude from her cheek and spread left and right. Short-pants made a college try at consoling Buddy-roo, except the things she was saying, like, “it’s getting very red,” or “your eye is hardly open now,” served only to upset Buddy-roo further, prompting me to ask Short-pants, as nicely as I could under the circumstances, if she could just be quiet, which I managed to do a bit too firmly, it seems, so that she, too, erupted into tears.

At the end of the walkway, I steered both girls off to the side of the corridor so we could calm down and have a better look at things. This is when Buddy-roo, by now in hysterical tears, managed to gasp, “and I’m still sad about Grammy.” Buddy-roo tends toward the dramatic, and lately, any time she gets hurt or reprimanded, she falls into tears and often invokes my mother’s death as a reason. De-facto says that sometimes when you get sad it makes you think of other sad things. That is true. Sotto voce: I’m just not sure if it’s always true for Buddy-roo.

What I told her: I miss Grammy, too. What I was thinking: If my mother could see me now, squatting like an idiot in the metro tunnel, with two bawling children and now I’m crying too and I feel lost and at a loss about what to do next. (This is a perfect occasion for missing your mother, whether she’s alive or not).

And then, it hit me: Get thee to a bar. That eye needs ice. Now.

I dragged my two crying children through the metro – you can’t imagine how many turnstiles and corridors and flapping doors and escalators there were before we could find sunlight – with people staring at us, all three of us in tears, one of us with a puffy eye. “No, I didn’t hit her,” I found myself muttering under my breath, wishing I could just undo that one tiny second. If only I hadn’t let her run down that ramp. Why do I always get it wrong? I end up scolding them when I should let them play, and here I was playing when I should have been prudent. It’s like I’ve been away so much the last few months, I’ve forgotten how to mother.

I managed to deliver Short-pants to the conservatory and then Buddy-roo and I limped over to a nearby café. The barman recognized me (this is why it’s good to have a local café in every arrondissement) and did his best to restrain his reaction to the swollen eye. We lay Buddy-roo down on one of the banquettes with a towel of ice against her face. I took a deep breath.

This morning the eye was swollen and purple. Buddy-roo slammed the toilet seat down and climbed up on it to examine herself in the mirror. The tears were unavoidable. It made me remember the day I got braces, the same day as the 7th grade dance, and how I stared at my reflection, horrified by my metallic smile. Nothing anyone could say made me feel better.

So I didn’t say a thing. I gave Buddy-roo the biggest hug I could and rocked her back and forth. Which is what my mother probably did for me, that day I got those ugly braces, knowing words offered no consolation. Which is what most mothers know to do, which is why when they’re not around to soothe us with that knowing, silent hug (which is all we really need anyway) we miss them that much more.