WINTER 2013 (Issue 77)

David Michael Kaplan

The Other Life

It almost happened when they were on vacation in Rimini, he and his wife and toddler son, as they were walking down the Via della Regina toward the church whose mosaics he had wanted to see. The street was narrow and heavily cobbled, no wider than an alley really, hardly affording passage to the pedestrians on either side and the cars and motorinos which crept slowly by, cramping them closer to the walls as they passed. He was pushing his son in the stroller, his wife behind, since it was impossible to walk two abreast, when suddenly one of the stroller wheels slipped between two cobblestones and caught, and it tipped into the street and fell, just as a black Lancia was looming upon them, and he watched in horror as his son strapped in the stroller fell with it onto the street, and he heard his wife shout a warning, almost a scream. He was holding desperately onto the stroller as it fell, but still his son’s head came within no more than an inch of the wheels of the passing car, which unknowingly lumbered on by. For a moment he felt underwater, drowning, then his breath, his heartbeat, his life, flowed back, and he hurriedly set the stroller upright, the other pedestrians seemingly oblivious of the near catastrophe, his son babbling merrily, as if the fall had been a great delight. And then his wife is there, her face white with anxiety, asking what happened, what happened, to which he can only reply that he doesn’t know, the stroller overturned, but everything is all right, their son unhurt, and they continue on their way to the church where he is flooded with gratitude, he even offers a little prayer of thanks though he’s not a religious man, and that might be that, except that later at the hotel, after their son is asleep and his wife is in the bathroom applying her face and hand creams, he remembers how close it really had been, how the wheels of the huge car had come within an inch, maybe less, of his son’s small skull, so close that if the stroller had tipped just slightly more, or if the driver had made only the slightest turn of the wheel, to avoid a motorino perhaps, or a pedestrian on the other side …and he feels light-headed, almost faint, and again feels his soul almost leave his body as it did this afternoon as he imagines how different everything would be if his son’s skull had been crushed beneath the wheels of the Lancia—how he and his wife would not be readying for bed after a day of sightseeing and a pleasant dinner, but would now be blind and hysterical with grief, how he would be endlessly replaying the scene in his mind, the details frozen in a slow-motion which he can do nothing to stop…and he feels the chill of a different future, an other life, a feeling which never really leaves him in the days to come as they continue their Italian holiday, nor does it leave him when they return home, nor in the months and years to come, this other life that might have been. He can’t help it—it impresses itself grimly upon his soul, a dark touchstone of possibility, so that as the years pass, even in the midst of moments of contentment or pleasure, he can always be caught short, can feel its presence like a cloud passing in front of the sun on an otherwise balmy day and chilling the air, impending, inescapable…as at his son’s birthday parties where the boy would be sitting with a little cone cap on his head, clapping his hands and staring with delight at the cake and candles and gifts…or at the park, pushing him on the swings while he kicked delightedly and squealed, Higher, Daddy, higher!…and only a few years later, watching his son’s first steps into a school building, turning and waving bravely to him, his backpack almost as big as he is, struggling to adjust its weight as he mounts the steps of what must seem to him an impossibly long staircase…or years later, when they would go on hikes together through the forest preserve near their home, his son a budding naturalist, trying to identify as many trees as they could from their leaves and then eating lunch on a sun-warmed rock by the stream…or more years later, when he waved good-bye to his son as he drove away, the car packed full with boxes and bags and suitcases, to a first apartment and a first job in another city…in all these moments and many more as his son grows into a young man he thinks how none of these might have happened, instead there would only be years passing by like waves in a gray sea through which he and his wife are rowing ever more tiredly. And although his wife wouldn’t say so, she is too kind, or too weary, he knows she must blame him, even though there was nothing he could have done. Or could he have? he asks himself. It is the crow that alights in his thoughts to stare at him with a baleful, remorseful eye…if only he could’ve held on a little harder, or walked just a little closer to the side of the building they were passing, although he was almost hugging it…or was he?...maybe he had moved slightly more into the street, distracted by thoughts of the drive tomorrow to Urbino, and how they might get lost as so frequently seemed to happen, his sense of direction not the best, a joke between him and his wife… Yes, she must blame him, but what could he have done, who can ever be so vigilant, so ready

The years passing by like razors…

They would not have other children, of course, their infertility almost a cold memorial to their dead son…they are left to watch their friends’ children grow into their lives, to attend with others the school plays and concerts and confirmations and graduations, and later those children’s weddings, and the inevitable grandchildren…none of this to be theirs, and in the midst of gaiety and celebration a look would always pass between him and his wife, a look of desperation—no, terror—and later his wife slipping into silence, sitting on the edge of the bed, hands on her knees, staring at the wall, at nothing, and he mute and helpless to say anything, but nothing to say, nothing to do but be a ghost in his house, in his life…until finally the silence between them cracks, like an iceberg calving, and one day his wife announces she is leaving, to which he foolishly asks Where? as if she were going to the dry cleaners or post office, and she looks at him more with pity than blame, and says, No, I’m leaving, and he understands that it is over, their marriage, with a finality no less than his son’s death, it too died on that street in Rimini. And maybe he did too, he thinks later after she’s gone, not much left of his heart, ashes and twigs, and he thinks maybe this is better for both of them and should have been done a long time ago, instead of those years standing as choked witnesses to one another’s grief. Now he can truly be alone with his thoughts, can indulge more and more his imaginings of the other life that might have been his if only the stroller hadn’t slipped, if only he had been more watchful, more careful, that life other than this one sitting in the hotel room where he has moved after the sale of the house and all they owned, or sitting on a park bench looking at the swings where a lifetime ago he had pushed his delighted son, staring now at the young mothers pushing their children in strollers while other young husbands push their sons and daughters on the swings, the life that might have been his, that sweeter life, that other life.