Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In the Time of the Butterflies

We huddled together on the platform, waiting in the relentless wind, as the dark-clad scarf-wrapped crowd swelled, gradual, silent.  Shifting their feet.  We could see only their eyes.

My daughter whined softly, nesting closer, asking when the train would come.  I told her again that we would have to be patient, that all of these people were waiting, too, that the train would come, that it would be warm.  My son leaned over the tracks, peering down the tunnel, looking for the lights, stamping his feet to keep from freezing.

It seemed like hours, even for me.

Finally, the train rattled up, sounding as cold as we felt, and pshhhhhhh came to a stop, squealing a little as it did.  The crowd drew closer, gathering around the doors, which remained shut.  A tall woman in a light brown coat pushed past us, determined to be closest to the door, muttering that she wasn't going to stand in the back.  I let her go, deciding that it was easier not to protest, but saying softly, so that my children could hear: "that wasn't necessary."  We all wanted a seat, but it was hard to be angry when my ears and fingertips felt numb.

I watched her lean impatiently from leg to leg, maybe feeling sorry for her.

"Why aren't the doors opening, mama?" asked my daughter, the words freezing and dropping to the ground as she spoke.

Hearing the small voice, the woman turned, backed up, gestured us forward.  "You go ahead," she said. "I didn't see you had the baby.  Go, it's okay."

"Oh, it's fine," I lied, holding my daughter to me, adjusting her Hello Kitty hat, making her look impossibly young, just because.

"No, no," she insisted, nudging us to the door.  "You should have a seat."

I thanked her, and moved closer to the door, which remained shut, looking at the empty seats inside and trying to imagine how warm it would be, if we ever got in.

At last, after several long moments of complete silence, the hydraulics hissed, and the doors tried to open, failed, tried again, and slid apart.  The crowd from the platform poured into the train as if a liquid, we at the front, oozing into the seats opposite the entryway.  The woman from the platform sat down next to us, realized that she'd had a seat, and said, by way of both apology and self-reassurance: "see that? We both got what we needed."

I nodded, pulling my legs in to make room for the man in the leg brace who declined my offer of a seat.

"And they wonder why I'm always late," she added, "they all live there, they don't know."

I nodded again, sympathetically, and looked away.  As we jerked forward, the kids commented on the scenery, on the fact that we were on a train, on anything that came to mind.  "She's cute," said the woman, now perhaps trying to strike up conversation.  She rummaged through her bag.  "Gotta put on my makeup," she said.  "Cause I didn't do it at home, and my boss makes us all wear it, you know," she trailed away, waving her hand dismissively, "fashion work."

"Mama," my daughter asked, watching all of this, fascinated, "what is she doing?"

"Makeup," the woman said, leaning in conspiratorially to tell her: "To make myself pretty.  You won't need any.  Not with those eyes."

"You're always pretty," my daughter replied, thoughtfully, as I'd taught her, "we're always pretty."

"Yes," I agreed, looking at the woman's slight age marks, her lovely nose, her dark eyes, her drawn caramel-colored skin with small brown pigment marks, to which she was now (unfortunately, in my opinion) applying a light powder, "she is pretty."  Because she was.

"I don't wear makeup at home," she said, "just for work.  I wouldn't do it if they didn't make me."

I wondered briefly where she worked, decided it was better not to know.

"What's your name," asked my daughter.  She does this to strangers routinely.

"Ima," said the woman.  "Can you say that?  Actually ..." she hesitated.  "Ima-coLAta.  Can you say that?  Ima-coLAta."  My daughter, under her breath, mouths this word, delighting the woman, who turns to me.  "Do you know what that means?" she asks.  "Immaculate.  I'm named after the Immaculate Conception.  Half Argentinian, half Italian."

My daughter, now mouthing the foreign word, begins thinking about other foreign words, starts to sing a counting song in Spanish, then "Una Paloma Blanca."  The woman closes her eyes.  "It's like a lullaby," she says. "You're going to put me to sleep."  She starts to line her eyes.  "Where are you going today?"

"The museum," my daughter tells her, unafraid of strangers.  "To see the butterflies."

"The butterflies," the woman responds, stopping.  "In the winter.  Yes, that will be nice, won't it.  To think about spring."

I think about the fact that we are going to spend more time on the train today than we are in the museum, wonder if my children know that this is an important part of the trip, not just the arrival, but the getting there.

"What's your favorite color?" my daughter asks.  This is another of her standard getting-to-know-you pick up lines.

"Well," woman says, thinking, "I wear a lot of black.  But I'm trying to break it up today with brown."  She looks down, fingering her coat.  "But you know," she says, pointing, "my favorite colors are really more like what you're wearing" -- she touches my daughter's bright jacket, a stand-out in the train full of dark blue and black -- "purple.  And your brother's, blue.  And your mama's is my son's favorite, orange.  He's an artist.  At Cooper.  He gets off where you will, at 9th street."

It's our stop.  Before we get off, the woman puts her arm on mine.  "Wait," she says.  "What are their names?"  I ask my daughter to answer the question, and the woman smiles.

"Goodbye, N. and I.," she says.  "Enjoy the butterflies."

You too, I think, pulling my children onto the platform.  You, too.
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  1. A wonderful slice of a day. You captured it well.

    I wonder where she works, too. And what I would do if I worked there. I don't own makeup. Would I buy some to keep the job? Argue with my boss that I shouldn't be told that I have to wear makeup? Quit and find a new job?

  2. "I think about the fact that we are going to spend more time on the train today than we are in the museum, wonder if my children know that this is an important part of the trip, not just the arrival, but the getting there." Robert Pirsig immediately comes to mind. His story about hiking to a mountain but stopping midway when he realizes he's negated the journey to the top. Isn't it amazing how often it's not the destination, but the journey that impacts us the most?

  3. What a beautiful recounting.

    I love Una Paloma Blanca even more now, and every tie I hear it, I'll recall this moment on the train to see the butterflies.

  4. I love this post. I took the subway to work for five years when I was first married, and then the commuter train for another 25, so I can easily envision the scene you described, right down to the woman applying her makeup and the conversation.


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