On the Subway as an Express Line to the Dreams of Our Past

14Oct07

It was the sight of a civil war hat — blue wool, with the truncated black rim and a small leather band across the front — on a fellow C-train passenger that made us think of the time, almost twenty years earlier, when we had last worn such a hat (yes, it is called a “kepi”); it was a surprise masquerade/costume party for our father’s sixtieth birthday party and we had decided to go as an enlisted man from the North. A hall had been rented and as with the great Venetian galas of the 18th century, there was a dress rehearsal, notable for an incident in which Mr. ___ (in drag as Marie Antoinette)’s wig had been knocked off by the entrance chandelier and rolled down a flight of adjacent stairs into the kitchen where upon encountering a blast of hot air from the oven it had erupted into a ball of fire (leaving the poor Mr. ____ no choice but to alter his costume to a more Elizabethan vintage).

But the actual event was flawless: the guests arrived and arranged themselves, followed a few minutes later by our father. Under the impression that he was arriving for someone else’s party, he began his walk down the promenade, nodding and waving until the masks fell away and it slowly dawned on him that he knew every one of these guests, including his many children, each one of whom had made the trip, in the case of our brother coming all the way from ___ . The shock of recognition was too much; he fell to his knees, where after a moment he raised his tear-streaked face to the silvery light. A hush crossed the room and the band lurched to a stop: “My god, ___!” our mother cried, as she too knelt down beside him, “what’s wrong?”

“Sixty years,” he whispered as he put his hand to his chest and staggered to his feet. “Isn’t it profane?”

“It is,” our mother agreed as she steadied him, “but some girls are bigger than others.”

Nobody moved as he slowly turned in a circle. “Friends, children, colleagues,” he finally managed, “tonight we are here to forget.”

Our mother — dressed in sequins — waved at the band, which on the count of four began a somewhat-tortured-but-nevertheless-touching waltz; there was a tremendous shout as if from a claque, followed by a fusillade of champagne bottles being uncorked. The wool of our hat — which we had removed from our head as we watched our father fall to his knees — began to itch our hands and we did not resist the impulse to throw it into the air, where it disappeared into the hazy dim space above the rafters.

Though we had presumed it lost forever, as we looked at the passenger on the train, we suddenly knew that this was the same hat, for why else would this man return our glance with such an intense stare? And weren’t his eyes slightly too bloodshot and teary? As the train slowed, we took a tentative step toward him — our mind reeling with questions — but by the time we reached our destination, the doors were open and he had already melted into the throngs pouring out onto the platform.

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