My daughter, Amanda, graduated from NYU in May; the ceremony took place in Yankee Stadium. In attendance, along with 15,000 students, their families, their friends and a pug dog smuggled in under a student's purple graduation gown (at least, I think it was a pug dog) was myself, two sons, daughter's boyfriend, my ex-wife, Arlene, and her boyfriend, Dennis, with whom she has lived with for almost a decade. Did you get that? Almost a decade (put that fact in your pocket, you're going to need it later).
Once the ceremony concluded, we desperately tried to find my purple-cap-and-gowned daughter amongst this sea of purple-cap-and-gowns randomly swimming about outside the stadium (it's what I'd imagine Barney's sperm would look like under a microscope). Once connected, we made our way to the PATH train because we have planned a luncheon at a restaurant in Jersey City. It's only while waiting for the train that I learn that Amanda needed to go back to her apartment in the city for a few things since she will be coming home to Jersey for a couple of days. We all board the train. After one stop, Amanda, her boyfriend, whom we'll call 'Paul' (because that's his name), and my youngest son get off, leaving myself, my other son, my ex-wife and her boyfriend behind to finish the journey. The doors close, and we are off to Jersey City.
At least, that was the plan.
I always stand in subway cars, regardless of whether they are full or not. I hang onto the strap handle and just lazily sway back and forth with the rhythm of the car, soberly drunk while standing still, going 60 miles an hour. At the 9th street station, the train stopped and the doors opened. I looked over at a very pretty woman with dark hair who is standing at the other end of the car. Oddly, there appears to be something hovering in the air between us. I easily attributed this to my age and poor eyesight (I equate my vision with someone who has spent hours in a heavily chlorinated pool, underwater, with eyes open). That thought is wiped clean when I turned and looked out the open train door; the station is filled, from floor to ceiling, with white smoke.
A disembodied, unintelligible voice comes over the loudspeaker, but we don't need to be told what to do next. Arlene (that's my ex-wife in case you have lost track -- or interest) sees the smoke, jumps up from her seat, says something just as unintelligible as the loudspeaker, then disappears, like a magician's trick, into the white. Alexander (my son), Dennis, myself and the others on the subway casually walked out onto the platform, and headed for the exit.
It is a long walk from the platform to the street exit. There is a tunnel that ends with a right turn into another tunnel that turns left that leads to stairs that take you up onto the street. As we moved through the smoke in the first tunnel, a sound came echoing towards us; it was someone screaming, yet we could not make out the words. My son, Alexander, turns to me and asks, "Is that Mom?" We wait a heartbeat, we hear another scream.
"Yeah," he said, "that's Mom."
We call our son Alexander. His mother and I never call him Al. My name is Al, so it was a little odd when we finally made out what Arlene, my ex-wife, was screaming.
"AL!!! GET OUT OF THERE!! AL!!"
"I don't know who this Al is," I said to anyone within earshot, "but he sure must be embarrassed."
We continued to move through the smoke, towards this hysterical voice that fills the tunnel with dire warnings.
"AL, YOU NEED TO GET OUT OF THERE!!! HURRY UP!!!!"
Initially funny, I started to wonder, what is waiting for us on the other side? Should we not be so cavalier? Should we be worried? Does Armageddon wait for us just beyond the smoke?
We reached the stairs and looked up. Arlene is slumped against the wall just outside the exit, her hand clutching her shirt at the collar, her eyes red from crying, her knees bent, ready to collapse. Everyone else? They are texting, talking on cell phones, looking at their watches wondering how late they will be for their next appointment. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, all is right with the world.
Once up on the sidewalk I spotted the pretty woman with the dark hair again, and walked over to her.
"That was exciting," I said. "Now you have a story to tell."
"This?" She smiles. "We're New Yorkers, this doesn't bother us."
She looked around, finds Arlene now pacing the sidewalk, back and forth, a tin rabbit in an arcade (three shots for a dollar, win a stuffed animal). The woman motions toward her with her cell phone. "Except for that woman."
"Oh," I say, pointing to Alexander. "You mean his mother?" (Sorry, son.)
The Fire Department comes, the Fire Department goes. Small fire on the track, happens all the time. A man in a blue shirt tells us we can go back down and wait for the next train.
"I'm not going in there," Arlene said, much as I imagine a cat would say when being coaxed back into a cold bath.
I told her that I'm not spending a hundred dollars for a cab to go over the bridge, and that we have people waiting for us at the restaurant. No one else seemed to mind the residual smoke that hung in the air. One by one the passengers descended the stairs, old and young alike; they vanished, like Alice, into the hole in the ground.
After much debate Arlene is persuaded to return. We need to jump over the turnstile since I had already used up my metro card on the initial trip. A train comes along, but now that we are the fourth stop on the line, it is crowded and we need to push our way in. I grabbed a strap handle and tried to position myself between the door jam and the seat bench. Alexander settled in near me, leaning against a metal pole. Arlene slid herself into a small wedge next to a young couple, landing just on the edge of the seat, her hands rubbing her knees, feet shuffling, waiting for that next starter pistol to go off (on your mark, get set...).
Last to find a place is Dennis. He maneuvers carefully through the crowd, and then grabs a strap handle and hovers above Arlene. At this point we are all quiet. We felt that initial jolt as the train left the station, then settled in as it serpentines under the city streets and heads for the Hudson River. Dennis (check your pocket -- almost a decade), who has not said a word this entire time, looks down at Arlene, who is still pretty shaken from the events of the day.
"Funny," he said, glasses riding low on his nose. "That whole time, I never heard you call my name."