Other People’s Kids
by Kristen Falso-Capaldi
Let me say this: Things were pretty bad. My mother had been dead six weeks. And my father? When I tried to remember him, I’d see a combination of his army photo (taken when he was an eighteen-year-old misanthrope from the south shore) and the man on the Wooly Willy game from when I was a kid. By dragging tiny metal fragments with a magnetic pen, you could add a mustache or a beard or an eye patch to Wooly Willy’s barren face. You could make him anyone you wanted him to be.
When my mother died, I fell into a crowd of drinking buddies. Fun people, but lacking the basic human concern required to keep me from running off down a Boston street at three a.m. with a stranger I met at a Halloween party. I suppose they probably couldn’t have stopped me from chasing after a boy with red horns fixed atop his head and whose face and hands were covered in black grease paint. I was twenty-one and newly released from my beige chair in the beige hospital room. I was up and running, recapturing the youth I felt I so deserved. Those finger-shaped black stains I had all over my face and my outgrown rag doll costume when I returned to the party were a source of laughter for weeks. I laughed too, but nobody bothered to look in my eyes.
It began the rainy Sunday morning after I woke up in a fraternity house, the devil snoring next to me; I was hung-over, black splotches still in my blonde hair and on my neck, my breasts. I hurried to the department store where I sold baby furniture and swaddling clothes to expectant parents, people who were just a few years older than me. I was crossing the already busy street, dreading another head-spinning and stomach-churning day of pretending to care about other people’s kids.
Rain came down in torrents. My ankle gave out, and I nearly fell headfirst into a massive puddle. Then I heard a man’s voice and felt a hand grab me under the arm.
“Whoa,” he said, stopping me from falling. “You’re ok.” It wasn’t a question. If he’d simply asked, Are you ok? I don’t think I would’ve given him a second thought. But such certainty—I wasn’t accustomed to it. And perhaps that’s why this story took the turn it did.
I didn’t know then that his name was Curt, and that he’d just run out to his car for his daughter’s toy, a stuffed Dalmatian in bright fuchsia with white spots. He was heading back into the store to join his pregnant wife who was standing impatiently in front of my empty register.
I just looked at him and sighed.
“I’m not ok,” I said to him; my voice caught and a tear rolled down my face.
His eyes, I swear, were full of genuine concern. I started crying in front of this strange man with a voice like a warm blanket. He put his arm around me for a split second and squeezed my shoulder.
“It’ll be ok,” he said. “I promise.” Then he walked ahead of me into the store.
I waited on Curt and his wife, my eyes still red from crying. They special-ordered an expensive cherry-finish rocking chair and a bright yellow seat cushion with ducks all over it. They bought their daughter, a toddler with red curls, another stuffed animal, an unnaturally orange giraffe this time. His wife was oblivious to me, but he kept his eyes level with mine. I swear once or twice he even mouthed the words, It’ll be ok. I promise. But maybe he didn’t.
“Have a nice day,” I said to them.
He glanced at the nametag pinned to my sweater. “Be well, Molly,” he said. I nodded.
I saved the receipt with his signature. At first I was just hoping he’d return. I couldn’t say what I wanted from him other than I just liked the sound of his voice and the authoritative way he’d spoken. There were days and nights that winter when the memory of his voice was all I had.
It’ll be ok. I promise.
Though I couldn’t really remember what color his eyes were, I remembered them focused on me, a witness to my tears on a rainy street.
I’d say his name sometimes, when I was on my break, picking at a bagel at the food court or standing in front of the ladies’ room mirror.
“Curt,” I’d say. “Do you really think it’ll be ok?”
I promise, Molly. His voice made me think of fireplaces and warm tea. Sometimes, he’d say other things:
You need to eat more, Molly. You’re wasting away, he’d say.
Or, Remember how you loved to dance?
Or sometimes, There are still real friends to be made.
If nothing else, he’d say, Be well, Molly.
But he didn’t return to the store. I waited weeks, and I kept my eye on the door, the one he’d walked through carrying his daughter’s stuffed dog. I even took a few of my coworkers’ shifts; sometimes I’d work open to close, always waiting for him to show. It got me out of that apartment I had. That cold little room with just a closet and small kitchen. The lonely war vet who had loud sex across the hall. The old woman downstairs who used to bang on the ceiling when I walked around in the mornings. The thirtyish pimple-faced guy who leered at me all the time.
It wasn’t that hard to figure out where Curt lived. It was a nice street of brownstones and clean sidewalks, tiny front yards. Sometimes one of his daughter’s toys would sit on the front stoop, a set of big plastic blocks or a fantastically colored stuffed animal. I’d drive by on the way home from a bar or some party, the sun coming up over his neighborhood. I’d park outside and just watch his house. It wasn’t something I’d ever done before. Or anything I’ve ever done since.
A few times, I hate to admit this, but I took his daughter’s toys. I can’t explain why I did it. I would sit there in my car, feeling mechanical and heavy from tequila shots and pills, and I’d see a splash of color on the front stoop or on the small green lawn – red or bright pink or yellow – and I’d be overcome with a need I couldn’t name. I’d pop open the driver’s side door and run, my legs stiff and wobbly, begging me for sleep, and I’d scoop up whatever she’d left behind. Sometimes I’d take one of her brightly colored jumbo blocks, sometimes a blue elephant or a purple raccoon. I’d drive away, whatever stolen toy I’d procured riding shotgun. But I never kept them. I’d toss the item out the car window a block or so from my apartment, then I’d start sobbing like a little kid.
Later as I drifted to sleep in my cold apartment, I’d hear his voice again. You’re ok, he’d whisper.
“No,” I’d whisper back into the darkness. “I’m not.”
It’ll be ok. I promise. Sometimes I’d pretend his arms were around me; not like we were a couple, but not exactly like we weren’t a couple either. I was starting to forget what he looked like, but I estimated he was about two decades my senior.
He could’ve been my dad.
Sometimes, on the nights when insomnia kept me hovering just above sleep, the words he used became more profound, poetic. Once he said, Grief is like trudging across a swamp. Like soldiers in a war. No way around it, so it’s boots on and you start walking slowly to the other side.
But soldiers have their friends, the rest of their platoon,” I’d say. “I’m alone.”
You’re not alone.
I knew none of this was real, but I pulled his imaginary arm around me, clasped his imaginary hand and squeezed till I fell asleep.
I saw him again. I was sitting outside his house just after sunrise. He had come outside to pick something up – another discarded toy – and he stopped and watched me as I drove away. Even as I turned the corner several houses down the road, he was still standing there, growing smaller in my rear view mirror. A few weeks later, somewhere after two a.m., he was standing in the window of his house when I pulled up. He seemed to be watching me. I thought of the concern he’d shown me on that Sunday. I don’t know what came over me, but I leaned on the horn, pressing against it with all my weight for as long as I could stand the sound. A light went on in the room above where he was standing. I drove away.
The last time I heard his voice was on the night my drinking buddies left me at a party over near BU.
“You going to be ok if we leave?” one of them asked, her eyes already following the rest of our crowd out the door.
“Hell, yeah,” I said. “I’m a big girl.”
I found myself pressed against a washing machine in a laundry room by a guy wearing a Superman t-shirt. I don’t even remember how I ended up alone with the guy, but then his hands seemed to be everywhere at once, under my shirt and entangled in my hair, cupping my ass. Some kind of panic attack grabbed hold of me and I shoved him away, but he kept coming at me, all hands and mouth and heavy breathing and half-closed eyes that didn’t seem to see. I ended up punching him in the stomach with all my might. He turned from me and threw up on the floor.
“What a little girl,” he said, his voice slurring and bitter. “What a child.”
Later I took some pills and drank until I couldn’t see straight. I tried to drive to Curt’s house that night.
I will knock on the door this time, I thought. I will break down the fucking door if I have to. I need to hear him say it.
But I couldn’t remember how to get there. I just drove and drove. All these years later, when I think of that night, I still feel the terror I felt, circling the city, trying so hard to make myself think clearly. Go home! Go home! But I couldn’t remember how to get to my apartment either. Somehow I ended up in the visitor’s parking lot at the hospital, the one with the beige chair. Then I blacked out.
I woke up in a hospital bed. There was a blackish red stain on the beige blanket where I’d thrown up liquor and pills and the charcoal they used to save me.
Molly, I was sure he was whispering my name. You’re ok, Molly.
“No. I’m not,” I said. The beige chair by my bed was empty. I stared at the tape on the back of my hand, shiny over the yellowish stain and the single drop of blood. The tip of the needle under my skin.
“No,” I said again. I dug my fingernails under the tape and pulled it off; the needle slipped out. “This place—it’s scary to me.”
Well I should think so.
I got up on shaky legs. I was so cold. I pulled the hospital gown around me; its rough fabric scratched my skin. I walked down familiar beige corridors toward a set of double doors. It was in the early morning light of the windows in the waiting room where I found him.
I stood watching him as he looked through the window. He turned around at the exact moment my legs gave out and I started to slip to the floor. In an instant, he had his hand under my arm. He helped me stay standing. We looked at each other in silence.
“Are you ok?” he asked. “Should I get someone?”
I stared at him. He looked at me, but his eyes were distant, distracted; he kept glancing toward a set of double doors on the other side of the waiting area.
“I think—“ I said. I felt I had to talk quickly or he’d vanish. “I have a theory that you are my guardian angel.”
His smile was brief. Something flashed through his eyes. Fear? He glanced around me at the doors I’d walked through as if willing someone – anyone else – to walk through.
“I keep falling when you’re around,” I said.
“I don’t think—I don’t know you,” he said. I started to cry, but I clamped my mouth shut, for fear that I’d start howling like a kid just knocked off her bike. He sighed. “Do you fall when I’m not around?”
I nodded my head.
“Who picks you up then?”
I looked down at myself in the worn hospital gown; there were faded flowers all over it and the name of the hospital stitched into the fabric. I shrugged.
“You walked out here on your own, didn’t you?”
I was still so out of it, so I reached up and touched his face with my cold fingers.
“Don’t do that,” he said. “Don’t. You’re just sad, and I was just standing here.”
“I hear your voice in my head sometimes,” I said. “I mean, not like—I mean, I’m not crazy.”
He ran his hands through his hair and rubbed at his face, then he leveled his eyes at me. They were a pale shade of green.
“Does it help?” he asked. “Hearing my voice?”
“I think it does.”
He looked at me for a long time, then he glanced at the street outside, at the people moving around below us. He cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry,” he said, but I wasn’t sure if he was sorry for not remembering me or for what a mess I was.
“I took her toys,” I said. “Your little girl’s.”
He nodded. “I’m not your guardian angel.”
“I’m sorry about the toys,” I said.
“I don’t know if I believe in guardian angels.”
“I can pay you back.”
He shook his head. “She’ll always get more,” he said. “They’ll always be plenty for her.”
I looked around the vacant waiting room. The morning sun from the tall windows made long stripes across the empty chairs and the scuffed tile, stopping just as it crossed the gooseflesh on my bare calves and the leg of Curt’s jeans. The warmth spread through my body.
“Why are you here? What would make you come to this awful place?” I asked him.
“My wife went into labor.” I noticed then he held a cup of ice chips in his hand, and he shook them as if they held an excuse for his leaving her bedside.
“That’s a happy thing,” I said. I wiped at my eyes with the back of my hand. The bruise from the IV stung. “It’s good.”
“Yeah,” he said. I’ll always remember the smile on his face. It was so real I felt an ache in my chest.
“You’ll have another child after today.”
He shook the cup of ice chips again.
“I have to go,” he said. “Do you think—you will be ok, won’t you?”
I always felt badly that I didn’t answer him. He waited several moments for me to respond, while he needed to be somewhere else, taking care of the people he loved, the people who belonged to him. But I just stood there, shivering and half-naked, unable then to muster up that kind of certainty. Unable even to lie to him. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders and sighed, then turned and walked toward the other set of double-doors. And I felt bad. Because Curt didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t do anything except stop a poor, grieving girl from falling. After he left I sat down on a beige chair, pulled the hospital gown around me and watched the sun ascend over the city.