Just after 9am, I slide into the fourth car of the southbound red line train, between, what I quickly realize, is a quiet lull in her screams. Headachy, tired, energy and thoughts focused on the day ahead, I sink into the first available forward-facing seat (motion sickness is never what I need) and pull a slim paperback from my tote.
As we roll away from the station, the child begins howling again, guttural, high-pitched wails that reverberate throughout our car. Such screams would always be dissonant, but they are especially so in this sleepy time, in this dim place.
The screams are near, and as I click my head from twelve o'clock to ten, hoping my left peripheral can grasp some evidence of source, I see her. Two rows back, hair in tiny, ramrod straight pigtails, body sheathed in a turquoise winter coat. There is another parka-clad child -a sibling?- with similarly styled hair, and a shadow of a person attempting to corral them. English is interlaced with a language I cannot place.
Throughout the car, mostly full of solo voyagers in various stages of dress and wakefulness, eyes cast, subtly and obviously, towards the trio two rows behind me. Gawking. Avoiding. Disdaining. Worrying. Wondering.
The woman- I gather she is she from the tenor of her voice- is so tall and thin she resembles a scarecrow. Her short-cropped hair is sheathed in a knit winter cap. She has given one child her phone, but that has provoked warfare.
One child beats the other -I don't use the word 'beat' irresponsibly- with the gifted phone about the face and brow. The woman screams and issues seating placements. "You here, you there." Always she keeps one encircled in a bony arm. The child forced from the embrace resists exile and screams louder. Frustration, anger, sadness, desire all wrapped into a vocal vortex emanating from her tiny throat.
The tension in the car mounts.
The woman changes tack- she begs, pleads, embraces both children, one gaunt arm per one robust child. Peace is not established.
I have put away my book. I am aware that my heart is beating rapidly and that my mouth is dry. I want desperately to intervene, but can I? Would some foray into their trio be welcome? Offensive? Rebuffed? Based, simplistically, on the foreign tongue dancing around me, still I cannot place it, would I be making a giant cultural misstep? And anyway, what would I do, and how?
I scan the car and take in others' coping mechanisms. Louder, perkier conversation with seat mates, ear buds quietly plunged atop pounding drums, baleful looks, disparaging glances.
My stop is approaching, and the children have not calmed. I swivel over my left shoulder, and without thinking, look directly at the source of most of the screams. I smile at her, whisper "hi sweetie," and wave. As I'm sure my children would have, she pauses, musters a jagged inhale, overcomes her suspicion, and smiles back.
She is beautiful. Face full, pigtails standing at attention, most recent tears drying on lashes and cheeks.
"Would you like an orange?" I hold up a fresh satsuma, glistening with produce wax, and hold it out to her across the empty row between us.
The woman sighs, "Take it," she says with a fatigue I recognize. "Take it."
Gently, I move back, erasing the separative space. Cautiously, I lean toward the woman. Cautiously I ask if she is OK.
"They are twins. They do this to me all the time. Fighting, screaming. I am so tired. My blood pressure is high. I am a single mother to these girls. We are heading out."
Her hollow eyes, her willingness to share with me. She is on the precipice of bursting. Of not being able to handle even one more straw.
I know this place. I have been there. More than once. If one doesn't have reason to be fully dressed and riding into the city at 9am, the drive is desperation.
"You must be exhausted," I tell her, putting my arm around her shoulders gently. "You must be so tired. I have two as well. It is so hard."
The little girls are making sweet eyes at me, and I at them. One tense moment has been diffused. I have always been grateful for those moments of dissolution. Those moments of reprieve when I can take a full breath. I hope this mother feels she can breathe a bit.
The four of us get off at the same stop. I will head to a conference that thrills my soul. I don't know where this family is going.
I kneel down and hold the hand of the one to whom I offered the orange. I look into their eyes and smile. "Sweet girls, will you be kind to your mother? She is such a good mom. No hitting, just hugs, ok? Can you do that?" They smile and nod, and one peels a bit more rind from the orange.
I stand and look at the mother and take in her shell shock and exhaustion. I hug her tight to me. "I know you must be so very tired. Good luck, ok?"
They walk toward one exit. Mine is in the opposite direction. I watch them for just a moment, brightly-colored parkas and orange peel and the halting gait of a stretched mother moving farther and farther away.
I exit at 9th and G and think of them during the half-mile to my destination. Where were they going? What will they do today? Will they be OK?