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Traveling With Children

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The train had been standing there at Belmont, seats full and doors open, long enough that we had learned a few names. Lucas, who had been squirming in his seat, finally announced to no one special, "I'm going to go over and kiss that baby." And he did, clambering over his seatmate to plant an audible one atop the curls of a toddler in a stroller.

He excused himself as he stepped again in front of Corrie to resume his seat. Corrie rolled her eyes, sighed, and said, "If you kiss and kiss that baby you will be married to her, Lucas." The baby is Corrie's sister.

Lucas looks sheepishly into the evening, into his bright reflection in the train window. His whole small body works to shrug off Corrie's comment, one in a series of rebukes she's leveled against him as the train waits. He struggles, too, against the urge betrayed in a glance back toward the stroller. Suddenly all his limbs move to satisfy that urge. He puts words to it as he propels himself: "I want to kiss that baby," he says, and the baby is kissed once more.

Corrie gets up, too, and they confer spiritedly. Corrie's mother and Lucas's mother sit together on the sideways seat next to the doors and the stroller. They spin short filaments of what for them must be rare, precious adult conversation. They break to murmur things to the children: "Take turns talking" (Lucas is the chief offender), and, "Quiet now."

But it doesn't matter. Their kids' voices are bright welcome bells this night. They ring out and the people in the car attend most willingly, discarding along the way their annoyance and the potential to form a mob cursing the train.

Instead, my fellow passengers sit entranced; I am not. They smile beneficent smiles when they learn that the baby's name is Maia. In this post-rush hour I have a creepy yearning for something else, for an incident, for some three-card-monte artists to take charge. None appear.

The doors stay open, but every face in the car remains composed and attentive. How long can this last? Then an announcement pops over the speaker, "People, we're going to [something] a while longer. We ask your patience [something] some trouble with the [something] . . ."

There are no complaints; destinations will wait while we listen in. Lucas inquires sensibly, "Did the man say we're having trouble with the tower or the power?"

"Let's fix the train," Corrie suggests, and Lucas joins her in the aisle for pantomime. To fix the train, from what we can tell, requires vigorous motion, pumping up and down from bent knees, turning pretend faucets on and off.

Soon exhausted, mission accomplished, Corrie and Lucas collapse back in their seats, groaning loudly, for one instant. Then they turn around toward me, backward in their seats on their knees. Great.

"We go to the same school together. We be four," Corrie hastens to explain to me as Lucas drops his baseball cap in my lap for safekeeping. Safekeeping! I don't know how to reply to Corrie or to Lucas's nonchalance; I descend from a line of grim maiden aunts. The kids turn around and sit back down, being good.

Kids. The ones in transit are usually the worst, arguably slapable: the one who kicks the back of your airplane seat all the way to Newark, or those private-school urchins with the high voices yapping materialistic nonsense on the express bus. I, the barren traveler, am generally annoyed.

Babies too. Where do they all come from? They are incontinent, inarticulate, forced into your arms; I can proudly step over the odd baby crawling in my path without braking to pay obeisance. Those who go in for that sort of thing are still having them, new babies, despite the times, despite the shameless, inarticulate, kinder and gentler zeitgeist thing blowing across the landscape like a dung cloud. Who applies the salve to whom in such baby-parent alliances as are being worked out these days?

I think of my friend Joel, who agonizes briefly but magnificently before saying yes every step of the way, yes to the world's safest marriage, the good position, the house in a hallowed enclave, and the baby named Hannah. He's my age, but I couldn't be that well organized if I had three lifetimes to get it right. I think of embarrassed-looking pregnant women downtown on the loose, huge and dutiful in their business clothes. You read about babies. I know about poor girls having babies like warning flares aimed at the future. I look at my useless hands fingering Lucas's cap. Oh you kid.

Just now the doors close smoothly and the train takes off. Corrie and her mom, with Maia in tow, prepare to get off at Sheridan. "You'll be glad to be done with these little voices," Corrie's mom declares to some of us as she exits in grace.

Station by station we're losing our quorum on this train. Lucas knows I'm wondering. "My stop is Berwyn," he says. "And I go to school at North and Clybourn Clark and Division West Washington Chicago and State."

The train rolls into the Berwyn stop. I hand Lucas his cap and he and his mother are on their way as good-byes go around. He's on to the next thing. Kids, they don't pay the freight. I look toward the door and a stray thought flies out into the mid-evening: I want to kiss that baby. I'm almost there, for comfort.

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