This is an excerpt from Thomas G. Fiffer’s upcoming book. It previously appeared in Westport’s HamletHub.
Now I waited, a few blocks from Washington Square Park, outside the entrance to the Parsons School of Design where J’s seventeen year-old daughter B had come for a prospective student visit. I stood on the street, with my own two boys, aged nine and five, thinking not only of the long road ahead of them, but of the road behind B, a road I had not traveled with her or with her mother. There was a whole life from which I’d been absent, except in J’s thoughts when they turned to me, and in the place in her heart where she kept me hidden over the years. Now our lives had collided, or as I liked to believe, been guided back towards each other, and I was shepherding B through New York while J attended her high school reunion in Croton.
Earlier in the day, I had taken my boys to the High Line, a horizontal strip of park stretching above the city’s lower west side, reclaimed from abandoned elevated train tracks. We stopped for shaved ice, grated on the spot and flavored with watermelon syrup, sat for a few minutes in the oversized wooden lounge chairs overlooking the Hudson, and played war games in a slanted seating area separated from 10th Avenue by a wall of glass, popping up and down from behind the built-in benches. Every twenty yards or so, I stopped to take a picture, much to the annoyance of my sons. “Come on, Dad, another one?” I couldn’t explain to them how being up here changed my perspective, how seeing the Empire State Building from an open-air park thirty feet up was different from looking at it at ground level. Or how looking down at the streets from this height felt more urban than taking them in from a skyscraper’s observation deck. Karrie Jacobs, writing in Metropolis Magazine, described the effect as “just enough to alter your point of view. It’s voyeur height rather than spectacle height. It immerses you in the city instead of elevating you above it.”
I thought of J as she must have thought of me, looking down from the tower of “no further contact” in which I had placed her more than twenty years ago when I bowed to the fierce ultimatum of my jealous wife. With that craven act, I had not risen to defend my marriage but rather fallen into a hole of loneliness and sacrificed my favorite friend. I must have grown small in her eyes when she received my letter. I know I felt tiny and insignificant in my own. I knew my love for her, though I could no longer show it, would never diminish. What I hadn’t known was that hers for me would survive the blow, that her curiosity would continue, that her intense interest would never fade. When I began writing, she began reading, becoming a voyeur on my blog, transfixed by the shipwreck of my first marriage, holding her tongue as I embarked on my second ill-fated voyage, and waiting until I was beached, alone, and finally available to sail back over twenty years and in and out of weeks and through a day to reach out to me.
Now I was immersed in her life, and her children’s lives, and as I waited for her daughter, I found myself thinking about another girl. A girl whose name also began with B. Bronwyn. The unborn. Bronwyn was the name J and I had chosen for the daughter we were sure would be our first child. Suddenly, I felt something fly through me. A force inhabited my being for a moment, and then it was gone. I turned. Nothing. Just the walls of the buildings, the gum-studded sidewalk, the endless lines of cars rolling down Fifth Avenue. But she, Bronwyn, had been there. Her ghost had floated through the thin fabric that separates the here and now from the there and then. And in the instant while that curtain remained permeable, I floated through the other way. To where she’d come from. I imagined, no, I was standing there, no longer B’s shepherd but Bronwyn’s father, looking impatiently at a watch I no longer wore, dressed in different clothing, wondering not only if she liked the school but if she’d asked all the questions I had carefully written down for her. I looked around. This was me but it was not me. My boys were gone. On the other side of the curtain. I felt the panic every parent feels when a child has wandered off out of sight in the park, the bookstore, the museum. I screamed their names. “S! J!” This was New York, and I feared the worst. I had taken my eyes off them for no more than 10 seconds, and … “We’re right here, Dad. What’s wrong with you?” I looked at them. Touched them, smelled them, then hugged them both hard. Right here. I breathed. The death grip that had seized my lungs loosened. My body, which had gone numb, started to tingle. I could feel my toes again. I could also feel the sadness of Bronwyn’s ghost, lingering in the imagination of the life she might have led, and for the first time I understood that no pain we experience here can compare with the pain of not being here at all, the pain of not existing. I couldn’t follow my ghost daughter back to the other side of the curtain. I couldn’t abandon my own real sons. But I could love her, as I loved her mother, and offer my unending love as a kind of solace. And the love of the imagined, well, the love of the imagined is the language of the angels, isn’t it?
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