Gates

At first, I didn’t see you, as I walked uphill from the Spuyten Duyvil station under the early darkening five o’ clock skies. A large woman stood by the playground gates, bellowing over horns that honked in and out of unison, waving her arms wildly towards the road. I couldn’t recognize her words, only the chaos; it took a few moments to pull me out of the calm of left foot right foot left foot right foot up Independence Avenue, thighs tired and thoughts swirling, settling after a long day’s work.

… but I knew what you had seen and why you cried and so I hugged you tighter, crying with you, for the fear I couldn’t rid you of, the relief in his darting eyes, and all the playground gates that have stayed closed and locked around my children.”

When the scene came into focus, you appeared: plain ponytail, legs kicking inside a maxi dress as your little boy waddled just out of reach. And then, your nightmare swelled before me as he made his way onto the crosswalk, the gap between your bodies amplified with honks and screams. I couldn’t see your eyes, but I watched your arms, how they turned into reaching miracles as they lifted him up just before the brown sedan could meet his tiny frame.

And when you scurried to the sidewalk holding him hard and close like a bag of groceries with ripped handles, I couldn’t make out your words, but I watched the way you pressed his head into the space above your shoulder, elbows shaking as you sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I didn’t know your name, so I’m sorry I came so close and held you as you held him, your neck the scent of soap and sweat — my limbs became extensions, and there you were with everything you could have lost: his tiny jeans, his Velcro shoes, the heat of his pulsing, pristine skin. I hugged you to give comfort, and to try and take some too, to help me wade among the sea of what those seconds had exposed. The savage secret that I try each day to bury, mash down deep. It whispers: this is fleeting. They can leave. As simply as an unlocked gate, a broken tree branch or unassuming drive to the other side of town.

It’s okay, I told you, he’s okay. Over and over and over, the black skirt of your dress now ballooning in the wind. And he was, but I knew what you had seen and why you cried and so I hugged you tighter, crying with you, for the fear I couldn’t rid you of, the relief in his darting eyes, and all the playground gates that have stayed closed and locked around my children. But mostly for the future days with doors I’ll try and fail to shut, when their hands no longer reach for mine at the lip of a busy road, their legs strong and tall and walking in their own direction. And all the nights I’ll sit at home, open-eyed among the quiet of a midnight house, hoping to hear a garage door growl, hoping they’ll come home.

When I left you and continued walking, I saw my little girls atop the hill, and they began to tumble towards me, all squeals and bulky helmets strapped beneath their chins, and I did not tell them to be careful, I did not tell them to slow down. I let their legs fly like spokes on wobbly wheels and stood salty-faced and grinning among the wind-blown leaves, my arms outstretched and ready for their bodies to bang and fall into my knees, to collapse into my desperate grip – the only moment I knew I owned. And when the dark skies released into thunder and light rain, wetting our scalps and lashes, we held each other’s waists and laughed and rocked and squeezed. And I thought of you, not knowing I will always think of you, as we tried to make our six feet heavy on that stormy sidewalk, to keep rooted on the ground.

Emily James is a teacher and writer in New York City. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Guernica, River Teeth, CHEAP POP, Pithead Chapel, Pidgeonholes, Hippocampus, the Atticus Review, The Rumpus, JMWW Journal and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2019 Bechtel Prize from Teachers and Writers’ Magazine. 
Photo by Aaron Burden

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