At The Blue Dolphin: On Mothers and Sons

March 11, 2015 | 6 7 min read

I pick the place because it’s intimate, a silver train car turned diner, turned Italian restaurant. On the Monday night after Thanksgiving, the Blue Dolphin is chock full of Christmas. Tinsel and twinkling lights drip from the barrel roofed ceiling. Holiday music fills the bullet-shaped space in a cloud of pre-seasonal profusion.

My son, Nathaniel, swings his messenger bag into the booth beside him and tips his phone, checking the time. We have over an hour until his train arrives, to take him back to the city. The weekend was filled with aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, his younger sister who has now gone back to college, his new girlfriend who returned to New York the day before, and even his father who now lives out of state. I’ve waited through all the meals with all those people, followed by the slow steady parade of his high school friends. I’ve waited to sit with Nathaniel alone, to see what I’m still allowed. But in the car, on our way here, I nicked a nerve. I asked about a job prospect, a job for which he’d called a college mentor requesting a recommendation, and was in turn told by that mentor to write the letter himself, then forward it for signing. “Can’t anyone do what they’re supposed to fucking do in this world,” he’d yelled as we hurtled down the dark highway.

“I’m not really hungry,” he says now, running his eyes down the menu. Somehow I take this personally, as if I have been cooking all day, preparing every item on the long laminated menu just for him. I suggest we share something.

“Yeah,” he says. “I know I’ll be hungry later, and no one will be offering to buy me dinner then.”

The waiter comes with the two glasses of red wine we ordered. I ask Nathaniel what he wants for Hanukkah and Christmas. He tells me he needs new boots and a waterproof jacket for the winter. “New York is cold,” he says. “Colder than it should be.”

“The coldest place on earth, some days,” I say. I think of telling him about the apartment his father and I lived in when we were his age, how frequently we had no heat for weeks at a time. In the mornings, we’d warm water on the stove in a lobster pot, then take turns pouring it over one another in the shower. At night, the first one home would crank the stove to 400 and arrange two chairs around the opened oven door.

Instead, I say, “Hey, I know you’re upset about what happened with the job, but your anger…It didn’t seem confined to the subject at hand.” The table between us rocks. The post cards of Roman landmarks beneath the glass tabletop quake in rhythm with his tapping foot. I brace myself. Here it comes, I think. He’s going to let me have it. Tell me I’ve ruined his life by leaving is father.

“Sorry, Mum,” he says. His newly bearded face softens. Slowly he slips one arm then the other out of his jacket. He looks across at me. “I didn’t…It’s just such a fucking scramble, all the time, every day, money in, money out. I spend all my time chasing down day jobs.” He tells me how perilous it can feel trying to do theatre in New York. “The soundtrack is just a running tally of numbers from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep at night.”

As he talks, I think again of that apartment with the intermittent heat, and I try to rekindle how I felt at 22. What I remember best was a kind of fatigue, as if I were exhausting myself, literally canceling myself out, a botched equation in which my frustration was exactly as potent as my ambition, my hunger for the future equal to my devouring anxiety at its potential disappointment.

“I’m on the subway like hours and hours every day. There was one day, I hit every borough except for Staten Island. Sometimes, during hour three or four on the train, I’ll see a baby in a stroller, all bundled and sleeping, and I’ll have that split second envy, you know. There’s always one who makes it look so appealing.”

I reach across the untouched plate of calamari between us and pat his arm.

“The thing about the R train, though…Do you know this, Mum? Have you ever ridden the R from Brooklyn to Manhattan?”

I shake my head.

“God, you have to. When it emerges from underground as it crosses the East River…The view…It stuns me, every time. I never take it for granted, that view.”

This is what I’ve been waiting for, a glimpse of the pilot light we share. If I have given this child nothing else, I want to be sure I’ve instilled in him the top-hat, white-gloves thrill of what makes life exquisite.

This boy, now a man, and I had forged a bond out of 6,000 or 7,000 days together, the first thousand without his younger sister. I was not an athletic mother, nor was I much of a game player. I hadn’t been those things when I was a child, either. Rather, my chief pleasure as a kid had been dwelling in the parallel universe of my imagination, a world so complete and so comforting I often had trouble leaving it. My initial entry into that realm had been through the stories my father read to me. Knowing what had made me happy as a child, I tried to do the same for my son. And it just happened that his joy was not unlike mine. The world of the books I read to him — at first the ones with more pictures than words — became a space in which we existed together. It wasn’t just that I was reading him a story and we were each relating back to that mediating experience, it was as if we’d both entered the same conjured notion, as palpable as the room in which we sat. It was this agreed upon real unreality, outfitted similarly for us with sounds and sights, flavors and textures. It was like meeting someone whose sense of the Divine matches up with yours, and the agreement itself serves as a corroboration.

Then he got older, and he read on his own and went to movies with his friends. Tucking him in at night, or driving him home from the multiplex, or talking with him over the phone once he was in college, I would listen as he related, in vivid detail, the stories he’d encountered. If it was a book or film I was unfamiliar with, I’d nod, envisioning what he was describing, almost as if I’d read it or seen it myself. If it was something I, too, had known, perhaps an Eugene O’Neill or Tom Stoppard play he was reading for his theater major, one I’d read years before, there might be a vagueness on my part until I uncovered some moment of emotion or meaning. “Right?” he would affirm, his generation’s “Amen.” And we were back, clicked into place, into that shared space.

I pay the bill and we grab his bags, though he won’t let me carry anything. Outside it is raining. We walk the two blocks from the restaurant to the train station. He wants to say goodbye before he climbs the stairs that will allow him to cross over to the platform on the other side.

“Don’t wait,” he says.

When we hug, I can feel his heart pounding through both our jackets. Anxiety or merely the strain of carrying heavy luggage?

I do what he wants and head back down the street to my car. Even as I reach into my coat pocket for the keys, I turn in the direction of the station, trying for a glimpse at the track. There’s something I need before he goes, something I am slightly desperate to gather in, to harvest and horde. It is the boy. Somewhere hidden beneath the beard and the deep voice and the earnestness with which he’s thrown himself at this story of his life, is a remnant of my boy. It is dark and cold and the street is wet, and I begin to run. Some part of me thinks I won’t survive this leave-taking, as if it is the final rehearsal for the ultimate separation, intimated in the first cry, then reproduced in every misunderstanding, in all isolation, in each rejection, and in the very planing down of the mystery of love to something I too often have tried to measure.

When Nathaniel was only a few months old, I remember riding with him in the back seat of my parents’ car. It was nighttime, and my father was driving. I stared down into the rear-facing infant car seat beside me and silently pleaded with the baby staring back at me to forgive me. I understood the deal. I understood that I was supposed to be the mother. I wanted to be the mother, but I did not have the least idea of how to do that. This is the love I have, I told him. It feels big and powerful, but there’s no way to know if it, if I, will be worthy of you.

The position of the little station house obscures my view of the platform, so I keep walking, through ankle deep wet leaves, beyond where the parking meters end. I find that if I press my left cheek flush against the metal of the wrought iron fence guarding the tracks, I can see Nathaniel on the inbound side. He’s under a light. He moves back and forth from where he’s dropped his bags to the yellow painted line on the platform. He keeps looking down the track for the train, though he’s looking in the wrong direction. I think to yell out to him, but this is stupid. He’s traveled to other continents by himself, and now lives in a city where, as he just told me, he routinely takes three or five subways a day. He knows about trains and tracks, schedules, and maps. I have never known him to get lost.

I am watching him as if I were watching a film, a young man on a cold, rainy night all alone on a train platform. What do I think will be revealed to me? I know what I want, some proof that what we experienced together mattered, that it had, has, value, that my love for him, for life, is not unrequited. I want to know that I was able to do it, that I succeeded at the thing I feared I could not do, that I have loved him enough for him to know it.

His back is to me as he walks, then stops. And when he turns around I see that he has lit a cigarette. The smoke and the fog and the sodium lights, all a kind of theatre from where I stand on the far side of the platform in the dark.

Image Credit: Pexels/Kristina Paukshtite.

is the author of The Passion of Reverend Nash (named one of the five best novels of 2003 by The Christian Science Monitor), Degrees of Love, and The Listener, out now from Pegasus Books. She currently teaches in Fairfield University’s MFA Program and in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Wesleyan University.