Sometimes when I see people out in the world, I imagine them as characters in a story. This story was inspired by a stranger I saw on the 2 train bound for Brooklyn around 4pm on workday. He was about 40 years old, slim, and well-dressed.
The train car was only a quarter full so he took a seat next to a woman sitting with a large baby stroller.
I couldn’t see the baby but I could hear her laughing. Her mother was dipping her head in and out of the stroller and the baby found that to be the most hilarious joke in the world.
He could not contain his joy watching this baby laugh her brains out. He told the mother how cute she was and he took part in his own game of peek a boo with the child.
He reached his stop at Clark St. and exited the train car with his suitcase. He turned to wave goodbye to the child as he stepped off the car.
I imagine his story continued this way:
Roger returns home from work early, happy to start his weekend off on a high note. Bill is sitting at the small kitchen table to the left of the front door when he walks in. Bill, a screenwriter, is in the middle of re-writes for a television show that has yet to be greenlit. Roger can tell by the hunched shoulders and the hand clenching the thin grey hair on the top his head that Bill has not had much luck today.
“Hi honey.” he says as he gingerly places his suitcase on the table across from Bill.
He receives a grunt in reply.
“I’ll order some food. Did you even eat at all today?”
Bill gestures to the half empty coffee cup beside his laptop.
“Right. Chinese ok?”
Bill nods but doesn’t look up.
Roger moves to stand behind Bill and places his hand on Bill’s shoulder. “I’ll order the food now. When it arrives, the laptop will close for the rest of the night.”
Bill sighs and finally stops typing. “Fine.” he says as he taps Roger’s hand lightly before resuming his typing.
When the food arrives, Bill closes the laptop as promised and trudges into the living room to join Roger on the couch. The smell of Kung Pao chicken is overwhelming and both of their stomachs growl in appreciation.
Once Bill’s plate is half empty, Roger ventures into the topic he’s been wanting to discuss ever since he stepped off the train that afternoon.
“So have you thought any more about the adoption agency?”
Bill visibly tenses and puts his fork down. “No sorry, I haven’t really had the chance.”
“Well let’s talk about it now then.” Roger says, laying his plate down on the table in front them and shifting his body to face Bill.
“If I’m being honest,” Bill says, “I haven’t changed my mind. I just don’t see how I could have time for a kid.”
“You make time. That’s part of the deal if you want a family.”
Bill sighs. “I like our family.” he says, reaching for Roger’s hand. “Our little two-person family.”
Roger squeezes his hand and looks into Bill’s eyes. “It’s not enough for me. It’s just…not enough.”
Bill looks genuinely surprised even though Roger has been saying those words in a hundred different ways ever since the topic of adoption had come up three years ago.
“So what are you saying then? Is this like an ultimatum?”
“I’m just being honest. I want a child. I want a child more than I want. A relationship.”
“More than you me, you mean.” Bill is standing now and his surprise has turned to a smoldering anger. Roger hasn’t registered any hurt or sadness yet and that makes his heart break.
“I love you Bill. I do. But if we don’t want the same things. How can we possibly make this work?”
“It’s been five years! It’s been working for five years!”
“Calm down, please. Just sit.” Bill doesn’t move. He is hovering over Roger like the dark shadow of a tree. Roger gets up to face him.
“It hasn’t been working. Not for me. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” It’s with these words the Roger thinks Bill’s anger will melt away and they’ll be able to discuss this with cool heads. Instead, Roger walks to the kitchen and grabs his laptop. He goes out the front door and it quietly clicks behind him.
Bill slumps down on the couch. His hands are shaking and he places them on his legs to steady them. He breathes deeply and closes his eyes.
He imagines the little girl on the train and tries to remember a time when Bill made him feel as happy as the sound of her little laugh. No. Her comically large laugh. He searches for that memory, all the way back five years ago but he keeps coming up empty.
Happy times, hard times, sad times, they are all there in his memory, filed away into their different categories. But none as strong as the little girl’s laughter. He opens his eyes and his hands aren’t shaking anymore.