Vlad as a child
By Johna Till Johnson
It’s 11:30 on a sweltering summer weekday. I’m on my way to a client meeting downtown. I step into the subway car, grateful there’s a seat and working air conditioning. The people in the car are the usual mix of ages, races, genders. We avoid eye contact.
At the next stop, a heavyset young man gets in, with a little boy, about three, in a stroller. The man settles into a seat across from me, and I glance at the little boy.
He’s adorable. There’s something hauntingly familiar about his expression: placid yet worried, with his brows drawn up in a look of concern. I smile at him and try to get his attention. Out of shyness or embarrassment he looks away, towards his father. Or maybe he’s put off by my unnatural hair color and the giant, bug-eyed sunglasses covering half my face.
“Can you wave hello?” the father asks, but the boy won’t turn towards me. “It’s ok,” I say, smiling, to the father. “He doesn’t have to wave at the strange lady.”
Then I suddenly realize, with a pang, why the child’s expression is so familiar.
I turn to the woman next to me, a kind-looking middle-aged Hispanic woman. She’s also smiling at the little boy.
“My husband has a photo of himself at about that age, with that same expression,” I say to her. “So sweet!” I notice I’m speaking of Vlad in the present tense, but don’t bother to correct myself.
“So sweet,” the lady agrees, and tries to get the boy to look at her, but he won’t.
The familiar wave of grief washes over me. I feel my eyes watering, and I’m grateful for the sunglasses hiding my face. To distract myself, I look at the people across from me. There’s a couple, sitting close together. Both are looking down at their phones, oblivious. The only way I know they’re a couple is how close they’re sitting. A couple. Another pang.
A few moments later, my stop is approaching. In preparation, I get up and head towards the door. As I do, I hear the people around me start to stir and murmur, but I’m not paying attention. Then the man who was across from me says, “Ma’am, look!”
I turn, and the boy is reaching out for me, his hand a starfish, his body straining against the stroller straps. He says nothing, but the beseeching look on his face is clear, and clearly directed at me.
“He doesn’t want you to leave!” the woman gasps in surprise. We all exchange looks of wonder.
The subway doors open. I step off the train, glad once again for the oversized sunglasses.