The boy made a big entrance, talking about jungle fauna as he tripped over his shoelace and nearly felling his mother as they came onto the train together. His mother scooped him up, stood him straight, gently grabbed his hand and put it on the pole. She was short, only a head taller than her son, who could not have been older than six. She did not wear heels, but a giant pile of hair that balanced precariously on her head, like a bird’s nest in a windstorm.
The two were playing a guessing game. Tumbling on the subway floor did not faze the boy, who did not miss a beat as he rattled off his clues.
“I look like a spider and I’m small and I’m a monkey. What animal am I?” He looked at his mother, trying to determine if he had stumped her. His giant eyes were made even more giant by giant blue glasses that snapped around his head to hold them in place. His backpack was twice as big as his torso.
“Hmm,” the mother tapped her cheek with her index finger. “Are you a spider monkey?”
The boy was amazed at the depth of his mother’s zoological knowledge. “How did you know!”
“I know things.”
The boy placed a hand on his mother’s stomach. It was a taught stomach, but he tried to knead it anyway, like playdough.
“Is there a baby in there?”
The mother laughed.
“Are you calling me fat?”
“No, it just seems like there’s a baby in there.”
“Well, there’s not.”
“Why not? Can’t you put a baby in there?”
“Babies are a lot of work.”
“No they’re not!”
Another laugh from the mother, and from the depths of the tightly packed train came more laughter from random clusters of matronly folk who, in their collective mirth, became the mother’s de facto Greek chorus.
“What? Are you going to help me put it to bed? Feed it? Pay for it?”
The boy was not prepared for this line of questioning and looked at his untied shoes. “No.”
“But I want you to have a baby. Maybe daddy can help you?”
Even more laughter, even louder, from the mother and her chorus. “Hmmm, yeah, why don’t you bother Daddy about it?”
“But you’re the girl so it’s your job.”
The chorus quieted. The mother crossed her arms. Ever since he was born there was a bucket list of questions and issues that she knew she would have to eventually talk to her son about, like why there’s no women on any dollar bills, why men actually should cook and clean the dishes, why you have to wear a condom, what consent is. She knew this was a conversation that needed to be had, and she probably thought she’d get to it all in good time, but her son forced her hand and here she was, talking about it on a subway full of people.
“Who told you that?”
“The baby goes here, in your belly,” said the boy, keeping hand on his mother’s belly. “Is Daddy supposed to help?”
His mother laughed and rolled her eyes, as did her chorus. “Yes.”
“How? How does Daddy help? How are babies made? What happens?”
The mother looked around the train. Her chorus had dissipated and everyone else looked away, waiting to hear what she would say but pretending not to care. She smiled at her son, a forced smile but a smile nonetheless, and brought her hands together with a big clap.
The boy clapped his hands.
“Now what? Tell me all the instructions.”
Suddenly the chorus was back. They laughed even though the mother didn’t. She shook her head. Her pile of hair wobbled to and fro. “Oh lord. I can’t. I just can’t right now.”
The boy did not share in the laughter either.
“Later? Can you tell me later?”
“Someday you’ll know.”
“Okay. Let’s play the jungle animal guessing game now!”
The mother shared a conspiratorial sigh of relief with the chorus.
“That sounds like a great idea!”