I spent the first part of the cross-town ride enjoying the legs of the pretty girl in the denim skirt down at the far end of the car. I’m a leg man and they were a fabulous pair, nicely toned and tanned. A guy could rest his hand on one those legs and feel everything was right with the world.

She was completely engrossed in a book and didn’t notice me at all. I figured her for a student, twenty-two or twenty-three, tops, which meant if I was going to strike up a conversation with her, I had to do so before we rolled into the SDSU station and she disembarked.

The truth is, though, that while my body might have been into making a move, my heart and mind weren’t. I was freshly single after a relationship that had chewed up and spat out most of my twenties, and still in that phase of rebound where I fall madly in love for ten minutes with any attractive female who crosses my path. This is an emotional bear trap, one I’ve gotten snared in before, and I knew by now to avoid it.

Still, I probably should have gone to talk to her. Having been out of the singles game for so long my flirtation skills had likely atrophied sharply, and a little practice wouldn’t have hurt. But it was enough to see that something like that existed in the world, and to be able to enjoy it from a distance.

A rush hour crowd waited at the next stop, the glut of bodies filling the car obscuring my view of the girl and her nice legs. With a bit of reluctance I turned back to my own book.

After a few minutes I began to notice the woman who’d taken the seat opposite the aisle from me. There was nothing particularly remarkable about her, just your average American housewife type, but somehow she reminded me of a terrified woodland animal desperately trying to avoid being noticed. Where other passengers flipped the pages in their books or poked at their electronic gizmos she sat as still as possible, her gaze lowered to the floor. When she raised her face enough to give me a good look at it, I saw why.

Her face was a quilt of multi-colored bruises, the worst of them concentrated around the left side. The white of her right eye was stained red in places where the blood vessels had ruptured, and her lips were too unevenly swollen to close completely; through the space between them I glimpsed the surgical wiring holding her jaw together.

I’ve been a student of violence long enough to recognize the effects when I see them, and what I could see was that someone had given her one horrific beating, and very recently. Someone—a husband, maybe, or a boyfriend—who’d felt enough hate towards her to take away her ability to speak.

Her eyes flicked up for a second and met mine, a thin meniscus of tears coating them. I wish I knew what she saw—or thought she saw–in my face in the few seconds before she looked away again. Did she feel self-conscious or ashamed, knowing I’d recognized her injuries for what they were?

I tried to allow her what measure of privacy I could, but it was difficult not to look. I couldn’t escape the fact that everyone else in our immediate vicinity seemed to be concentrating as hard on not noticing her as she was on not being seen.  A minor injustice compared to what she had been through, but nevertheless one she shouldn’t have to bear.

I wanted to reach across the aisle, squeeze her hand, and say something nice, to offer some response other than the surrounding apathy, but the words died stillborn on my tongue. Finally I just offered her the handkerchief I keep for cleaning my glasses, feeling like a half-assed caricature of chivalry as I did so. She glanced at it as though I were trying to hand her a live rattlesnake, and shuffled sideways in her seat, away from me.

“It’s clean,” I said. For a moment it looked as though she might take it, but then the train rumbled in to the SDSU stop and she was out the doors before they’d even finished opening. Gone like she’d never even been there.

The train rolled on towards the last few stops before the end of the line, and as it did I felt unsettled by what I’d seen and done. She hadn’t asked for me to draw public attention to whatever private pain she endured; I’d created a narrative around a stranger’s life and written myself in as a character, and in doing so failed to help at all. I might’ve even made it worse.

I tried to read a few pages in my book but quit when I realized I had no idea what they said. I looked towards the far end of the car, hoping the girl with the nice legs might still be there. I wanted the sight of some pretty young skin to distract me from my own sense of futility. To my surprise, she still was.

There was a boy with her now, a skinny kid with a sandy blonde buzz cut who must’ve gotten on at the university stop. They held each other with absolute joy, like those couples you see at airports who’ve been apart for months, even though it’d probably only been hours since they’d walked the campus hand-in-hand. They shared kisses and whispered to each other, unconcerned with any eyes that might be watching.

By herself, she’d been pretty; together they were radiant. It was a celebration to see them. And really, what else could one do but admire them from afar, and hope the tiny sphere of their love kept the bad things of the world at bay, if just for a little while?

The obligatory social functions one is committed to once you have a child are difficult for shut-in’s like myself. If I was childless, younger and spoke completely off the cuff, no problem: my outbursts might be confused for joie de vivre and risqué spiritedness. Instead, I often feel I’m on the verge of ostracizing myself from the parental community. But worse, since he’s somewhat defenseless and completely at the mercy of elementary school rites and rituals, I fear at any given kid-centric event I just might put the nail in the coffin of any future social prospects for my son.

And because I have a distinct flair for standing out, this comes with a high amount probability. It’s for this reason that I need social hazard insurance: in case of social calamity my son will be protected in the future.

If I had such a policy, it would have come in handy the other day.

We were at a birthday party in a gymnasium. The kids were thundering about, and the parents took refuge away from flying balls and the high velocity scooter-derby by huddling en masse by the coats, making chit-chat. Those honed in the art of chit-chat know the unwritten rules: be funny but not too bawdy; and leave no ammo for others to use against you later. For those of us who are not artful in following these simple rules, every social exchange becomes fraught with the potential for disaster.

As acquaintances known to each other only through hallway encounters while waiting to pick up our kids from school, we often reminisce about parental misadventures. At this particular birthday party, we swapped stories about our wicked, wicked tongues, cases of dropping F-bombs in front of the kids. I have a particularly keen awareness of this problem since “Fuck” was one of our son’s first words. Each parent shared a gem of parental folly. We laughed and commiserated. We bonded over our shared experience. All was right with the world.

•  •  •

When my son was about three, the depth of his obsession with transportation began to make itself clear. He taught himself to read, not because we helped him, not because we gave him reading aids, but because he loved trucks. Before he could read the logo, the “X” in FedEx was the first letter at his disposal. “X!” he would shout from the back seat as we drove through town. “Ecccccccckkkkkkkkkks!!!!” flinging his arms wildly to get our attention. “X! X! X!” in case we hadn’t seen it yet. When FedEx pulled up to our house, it was as though heaven reached down and blessed him, his eyes traveling over the logo with piety and beatitude.

And we’re indulgent of his passions, so even though my husband and I don’t know anything about vehicles other than how to drive them, we encouraged his interest.

It was his love of conveyances which inspired a little journey to the zoo. But this time, rather than drive we were going to take the MAX train, the special highlight of the trip. We would park the car and have a lovely day at the zoo after experiencing the wonders of train travel. A trip on the MAX? It was ideal. There was even an “X” in its name.

Armed with snacks, distractions and a stroller, we began our journey.

It became evident that I was unprepared for this trip as soon as we approached the stop. The train was already there, and I was pushing the empty stroller while encouraging our son to keep up. But he had spied a public fountain which was far more enchanting. The train came and went, our son transfixed by the jumping arcs of water near the homeless wanderers and early-morning winos.

It was just as well since I hadn’t figured out how to use the inscrutable ticket kiosk and the map of train stops. It would be a poor start to the day if we were to make our first stop in the wrong direction, and then get the boot for not having a ticket. Keeping a hairy eyeball on our son and our stuff, which I had to set down while struggling with the bills and change I needed, I finally conquered the kiosk and we were armed with correct fare.

And we waited.

The train we had missed was the last one for twenty more minutes. I had a bunch of crap, a stroller, and a curious son wandering back to the fountain surrounded by homeless men sleeping on the benches. I struggled desperately to make him less interested in the water, which he would soon be wearing, surrounded by the sleepers who he would soon be waking. If this was the set-up for anyone else, they might have taken the hint: Today is not the day.

But I do not take hints; I soldier forward. And eventually the train came, its sliding doors opening wide to ferry us to our destination, that mystical pixie land called “Zoo.”

It was a nice trip, I suppose. We probably saw some animals. But because this story has less to do with the destination than the journey itself, I remember none of it except the moment when I realized we needed to leave. Immediately. For my son has the same curse as myself: low blood sugar-insanity in extremis.

We all get a little tetchy now and then when we’re hungry, but my son and I turn into Class A certifiable nutjobs. And once the horse has left the stable, we’re in it deep. All my snacks and baubles and happy-MAX plans were now hanging in the balance at the tips of the extremely frayed nerved endings of a crotchety three-year-old. He was over it. He wanted to go home.

But we had to take the damned train back.

Now my plans revealed themselves for what they truly were: Beelzebub’s secret designs to make my life more interesting. I stuck this fire-brand of a tot back in the stroller and ran to the MAX stop, praying that no matter which train came first it was the one that would magically transport us back to our parking spot all the way across town. My shoulder bag was falling while I was inexpertly folding the stroller to load on the train which had just pulled into the station. It was crammed with passengers, and I was unable to work the stroller up the steps while holding my son. I was fumbling wildly, the pressure of hasty passengers around me, and practically threw the stroller under the train just to get rid of it while flinging the angry three-year-old Grumpasaurus up the steps. Feeling utterly inadequate to rise to my task, somehow I not only kept a hold of the stroller and my bag, but my son too. Somebody, perhaps recognizing the desperation in my face, gave us their seat.

I sat down, tried to pull the stroller close to my feet to leave enough room for the standing passengers, and hoped that the train trip alone was enough to soothe the savage in my lap until we reached our car, thirty minutes away across town. And it seemed to work. The train worked its mojo upon him, becalming this cross wild thing with the manifold pleasures of public transportation, which, through his eyes, I saw in a whole new light.

There was no shortage of things to poke or pull. The bell to request a stop beckoned him with its brightly colored tape. The bars overhead with their jolly handles enticed him to stand and jump for them, though they were tantalizingly out of reach. The passengers didn’t look at me with parental recognition and compassion, they glared at me as though I was a terrible mother who couldn’t keep control of her brat. Then they looked away to gaze impassively out the window.

The doors opened and closed, picking up more and more riders as we approached downtown Portland. The passengers became more interesting. The train car was filled, people pressed together hugger-mugger, all looking up and away from each other trying to maintain that polite symbolic distance we’re all fond of. I was struggling to give them more room, sitting on my bag, mashing up my stroller, grasping my son.

I was distracted momentarily by the stroller having been kicked into the aisle when I felt the eyes of all the passengers fall on me with a new intensity. I looked around to divine what they were looking at, but couldn’t find the source of their interest. I puzzled at them to find some clue to the mystery while a voice was speaking over the intercom. I couldn’t understand what was being said.

Do you need help, ma’am?” I whipped my head around looking for someone who needed aid. I gazed up at the operator, perched in a little glass enclosure above us. He was looking directly at me, scowling. “Do. You. Need. HELP, ma’am.”

My son had found the emergency button and was pressing it with delight. And why not? It was bright red, right above his sweet little face. It reached out and beckoned him like a siren’s song, “Come to me, little boy, come play among my bells and warnings, let’s play together and laugh…”

I bowed my head in humiliation. “No, sir, I’m sorry, sir.” I begged in my expression for everyone to forgive me my scandalous inattention to the basic tenets of public transportation, pleaded through my eyes that I was a novice, a rank amateur, lost in the jungle of rush hour traffic. There was little compassion staring back at me; the train had stopped for me alone during rush hour on a hot, packed afternoon.

Thankfully, a distraction offered itself once the train started moving again and the passengers went about their business of looking anywhere else but each other: a woman started babbling incoherently across the aisle from us. She was in her forties and wore her age in the rough lines etched into her face. She was edgy and twitchy, mumbling angrily to no-one in particular, which was fitting since everyone was doing their best to ignore her.

Everyone except my son.

Because he had not been educated in the Art of Public Transportation, he was unaware of the subtle rules and regulations of ridership and did not know the cardinal rule: Do Not Engage the Crazy Person. For him, she was by far the most interesting thing on the train. He stared at her with open-faced, earnest curiosity as she mumbled and sizzled, waves of crazy juice oozing from every pore. She was other-worldly to him, and it showed on every inch of his sweet innocent face.

She must have felt the beta-waves from Universe Number 10 beaming from my son, because she turned to face him…

•   •   •

I was recounting this tale to the parents at the gymnasium birthday party. We had reached the crescendo, the high point of the story.

“She must have felt him look at her,” I continued. “She was getting louder and louder as she looked for her audience. She turned around, looked him in the eye and said…”

I paused for effect, pointing into my tiny audience with a menacing finger, recapturing the moment with Oscar Award conviction.

“‘Yeah, I killed my whole fucking family, and I’d do it again, too!'”

But I was pointing directly at a newcomer who had just stepped into our group, and her expression was devolving precipitously from sincere interest as she approached to see what all the fuss was about, to sincere shock as I my final words trailed off and I lowered my finger from threatening her further.

A blanket of abstract embarrassment fell upon the faces of my parental audience, much like those of the people on the train who could no longer ignore the wacko menacing my three-year-old. Except now I was the wacko, verbally assaulting an acquaintance, a woman I already struggle to make polite conversation with because we have so little in common, a woman who is a leading member of the PTA and, of course, the gatekeeper to all social engagements with her son, who is my son’s friend.

“She was describing an encounter on the MAX,” someone explained after a long two seconds of silence began to oppress us all equally.

“Oh,” the woman said.

Someone else volunteered, “We were talking about dropping F-bombs…”

I looked sheepish. “I was talking about a crazy person who was yelling at my son,” I said. “I didn’t mean to point, um, at you.” I paused. “Or threaten anybody, of course.”


Conversation stuttered a bit, choking along while our group foundered about looking for the new thread of shared experience. Our latest member, who I had just terrified by threatening the murder of my whole family, gamely came up with some unsurprisingly tame story about her son using “damn” for the first time. Then, in some silent compact, we all agreed to move on to some other subject.

•   •   •

For people like us, those of us only comfortable in our own skins with the people who know us best, who guarantee a level of forgiveness that we just can’t expect from the greater society, these innocuous child-centered events fill us with terror. Birthday parties are always another opportunity for me to inadvertently threaten bodily harm to someone, or out myself as a complete social basket-case by saying exactly what I think to exactly the wrong person.

So when you meet “me” at your next school event or child’s birthday party, that person who is funny right up until the point when they raise the stakes just a little too high, have mercy on them and realize that they suffer far more greatly than you. You will laugh at their antics, and be embarrassed on their behalf, but they will go home and wonder when anyone will invite their kid to anything ever again.

And when they can invest heavily in social hazard insurance.