The Beast and the Champ

At the end of the summer, the grief came up. It sputtered to the surface, gasping for air. Struggling under the wet weight, I was paralyzed by the dripping, livid beast. I fell flat on my back, resistant to resilience.

 

I woke up with a pain in my chest, the chronic kind of which I began to recognize as grief.  It colored everything that came afterwards, inviting one miniature catastrophe after the other.

 

It was Monday, the day I take my daughter to work.  She was refusing to eat breakfast because it was simply too early.  Her plump hand knocked the weaning spoon to the floor, sending pear, apple sauce and oatmeal flying onto the carpet and walls.  Bewildered eyes shot a furtive glance at my exasperated face, then cautiously broke into a smile.  I gritted my teeth, ran a towel under the sink and got on my knees.  “The last thing I need is to come home to a mess this afternoon,” I thought in silence.

 

The bed, however, would stay unmade, because there wasn’t time.  I hauled my little bundle to the changing table, gave her a new shirt and unraveled the baby sling.  It seemed infinitely long today and wouldn’t untangle.  When I finally slipped her in, my shoulders sagged under her twenty pounds.  Sighing, I knew I couldn’t go to work in anything less than heeled boots.   

 

I checked my bag for my bus ticket, commending myself for any presence of mind.  Pleading with my watch, I took a deep breath and made my way down the stairs.  She looked calm, very content to be close to me.  I tried to glean some of her peace.

 

I hollered up the stairs goodbye, unlocking the door with one hand.  My husband said he would come down to walk with us to the bus.  “I’m leaving now, or I’ll miss it,” I yelled back.  Without waiting, I stormed out and burned a trail on the sidewalk.

 

The stop was crowded, as it hadn’t been all summer.  This was the kind of detail only noticed in America by students who resumed public transit every fall.  In Holland, however, sixteen million people go away at the same time, so one tends to speak in terms of “the vacation period,” referring to a nationwide phenomenon.  The country suddenly felt too small, and I hated, this morning, how people here did things in droves.

 

I hated, too, how they took up the space on the bench, all twenty-two, young, strapping years of them.  I hated how they made it impossible to stand outside the glass by smoking in their tacky outfits. 

 

With baby in front and bag on my back, I squeezed into a space between the bench and some standing grandmas, insisting on shelter from the light rain.  Provincial conversation was exchanged around me, all complaints about the lateness of the bus.  When it finally arrived, I pulled my trusty ticket out, only to discover with horror that it had expired the week before.  The pain in my chest burst at the seams, and I looked up at the turbulent, gray sky as the grandmas scuttled forward.

 

“Okay, very funny.  What next?” 

 

My daughter watched the traffic, oblivious.

 

Every breath a prayer, I walked across the street.  Two broken bank machines later, I had some cash and a new ticket. 

 

We caught the tram connection, arriving at work just a few minutes after time.  At the stop closest to Carnegie’s Peace Palace, a horse-drawn carriage sauntered up alongside the tram.  Two men sat on the buggy up front and one in the hitch behind, all dressed in the century-old, red-lined, navy blue uniforms of the Royal Stables.  The man in the back bore ruddy, flushed cheeks from the cold.  He sat hunched forward, fighting sleep.  I whispered to my baby that this was the kind of thing Americans only saw at Disneyland in fully unauthentic form.  As the time travelers trotted off, a better glimpse revealed that the fellow in the back wasn’t sleeping at all, but leaning forward to read his cellular phone.  A smile broke across my face, the first of the morning.

 

When we came home that afternoon to the unmade bed and pile of unwashed dishes, I put my running shoes on and plopped my girl into the baby jogger.  We dashed outside to do what the Dutch call even uitwaaien — blow off steam.  Halfway through our route in the park, I saw my biggest fan cycling toward us with a wheelbarrow behind his bike.  He was dressed in his usual fluorescent orange vest, arms sleeveless and tan from the summer.  A pitchfork and rake bungled in the barrow.

 

As he drew closer, a hand raised in greeting.  I smiled, panting a little, and gasped hello.  He’d seen the jogger just once before, months after the first conversation we’d had about running.  I’d told him that I had just had a baby and was trying to get back on the horse.

 

“Hey!”  He nodded at the stroller, grinning from ear to ear. “You’re a real champ!  It’s tough, but it’ll make a trooper out of you.  You’re doing great!”

 

Elated, I thanked him, waving goodbye as I ran on past. 

 

Yeah, it’s tough.  But I’m a trooper and a champ.  Just ask my biggest fan.

 

 

© 2008 Anastasia Hacopian.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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