It was the summer of Leiby Kletzy, the eight-year-old Hasidic boy kidnapped from his Brooklyn neighborhood in broad daylight and brutally murdered. It was also the summer I almost lost my seven-year-old daughter Camille on a Toronto subway platform.
When I turned, from inside the train, to see my daughter—outside, standing alone—my feet became bricks of indecision. The doors chimed and began closing. A stranger jumped to pry them open, and I pulled her inside, smothering her small body to my chest. She didn’t even know our phone number.
Six years later, I am preparing Camille to ride the subway unaccompanied for the first time. Almost thirteen, she is the happy new owner of a cell phone. “You’re going to have to look for the stairs that say ‘Northbound’ on the way home,” I say, rehearsing the route she will take home alone.
The train rumbles in as we stand several feet behind the thickly painted yellow line that portends the sheer drop onto the tracks. I imagine the accident, the surprise violence that sends us, unprepared, over its edge.
We board a near empty car. Several stops later, a large man boards, muttering under his breath. The doors close, and when he shuffles past, I see and hear him in vague outline—thick parka, wool hat, noisy feet. His wily, unpredictable body brushes past, and I pull Camille’s girlness—pencil frame and prairie chest—against me. She watches out the window, resting her head on my shoulder. Warily, I watch him.
He sets a coffee at his feet, pulling a muffin from a paper bag and smearing it with cream cheese. He tips his head back, licks the knife. He turns it over and licks again, worrying it like a bone.
I watch him, suddenly remembering the day that we had been a gaggle of bosoming high school girls, unapologetically loud and conspicuously American in the bowels of Paris. Though we had been warned about pickpockets, we hadn’t noticed him approaching from behind. And after he had put his hand up my friend’s skirt, we were too stunned to take record of his disappearing face.
That had been the first time I knew the subway as arousal and drunken breath, violence and vulnerability. It was the first time I’d learned to be afraid.
The city bobs in and out of view. We sway silently with the train. Then the man suddenly howls. Camille startles upright. It is a wounded sound: a lament, guttural and anguished. He lurches to his feet, begins pacing the car. I pull Camille closer. We brace for another outburst, clutching our bags tightly against us and casting our eyes to the floor. I tick the remaining minutes of our ride.
That’s when I see it: the muddy river of coffee running under his seat, toward the front of the train, its tributaries, sweet and creamy, filling the car with the smell of accident. On the one hand, it is the mishap of one ordinary morning, the crisis of one inadvertent kick of the foot. On the other, it is sign of betrayal—this world’s crushing inhospitality.
“You sit down for dinner, and life as you know it ends,” writes Joan Didion, describing the moment of her husband’s fatal heart attack. If the man’s sob of grief could seem utterly disproportionate, I find it exactly right.
Six years ago, Leiby Kletsky’s parents sent their son to day camp with a backpack and a lunch box, kissing him at the door. He didn’t come home. When the sun stood hot and bright over the city, he was stolen from them, the most reliable and familiar of places having given him up. Death came on an ordinary Monday.
More than twenty years ago, my father unexpectedly died, dressed in an overcoat with a briefcase at his side. March had just burst into bloom. Several years later, my only brother left a wordless, cold goodbye in the garage.
Isn’t this the cruelty of suffering: not just that it’s hard and heavy, but that it’s always so extemporaneous?
I notice silent tears falling on Camille’s cheeks and squeeze her shoulder. “If you want, you can offer him some money to buy a new cup of coffee.” She nods, and when the subway slows, Camille approaches the man to offer him a $2 coin. He takes it, his mouth broadening into a wide smile. He gives her a thumbs-up.
Two dollars buys another cup of coffee, but it does not repair the world. Like the ancient prophets and psalmists, I want to know: how long till justice rolls on like a river? If faith is the act of imagining the world other than it is, then call me a doubter some days. Because I can feel it to be a slow kingdom coming. Especially on Mondays.
The train stops. The doors open and close. Camille and I emerge into an unusually bright February day.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Jen Pollock Michel
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place. She lives in Toronto with her husband and five children.