It was supposed to rain, but the sun was shining, so we decided to take the train up to Central Park after Max had his first nap. We took the Q to 57th Street, then walked two blocks to the park. Sara carried Max in the Ergo, I pushed Anya in the stroller. When we passed a playground, Anya wanted to stop. I tried to convince her it would be better to walk a little more, because I was enjoying the tree-lined paths, the breeze, getting a second to talk with my wife—we had so little time these days. But Anya was insistent, and I had learned to choose my battles carefully with her. I took her into the sandbox, and she blew bubbles for a little while, made pancakes out of wet sand, went down the slide. Sara looked after Max, who crawled around on the pavement, pointing at things, smiling. Cracker, cracker, he said. He pronounced it crah-cah. It was his one word. There wasn’t much shade in the playground, and I was thinking about sunburns. Let’s walk and find another playground, I said to Anya. Okay, she said. The park was crowded with joggers, bikers, dog walkers, sunbathers. Is that a statue? Anya asked. It’s a person pretending to be a statue, I said. I want to see, she said. But when we got close she turned her head away and refused to look. After a little while we came across the carousel, and Anya wanted to ride it. Sara and Max waited on a bench. Anya chose a big white horse. She didn’t like the figures on the inner wall, and I didn’t blame her. They were scary-looking clowns. I rode the horse next to hers. A woman came by and snapped our photo. After the ride was over, we got to look at it to see if we wanted to buy it, but it wasn’t a very good picture. I think we’ll pass, I told the woman. Anya wasn’t in a great mood after the ride. We went over and found Sara and Max. He was sitting in Sara’s lap, pointing at faces, trees, benches, saying, cracker, cracker, cracker. In the distance, we could see a crowd of people over by the bandstand. Let’s go see what’s going on, Sara said. I want to go on your shoulders, Anya said. All right, I said, and I hoisted her up. An Asian woman was onstage singing over house music. She had two dancers with her, one black, one white. Anya was on my shoulders, transfixed. I held onto her feet. The dancers were really good. Sara and Max went off to the side, away from the crowd. Pull my ears if you need to say anything, I told Anya between songs, because the music was too loud to hear over. There was a girl in a blue wig and another in a yellow wig standing near us and lots of people pointing cameras at the stage. We listened to a few songs, and then another singer came on. She was half-Japanese, half-American, she told the crowd. But all my songs are in Japanese, she said. The songs were very bad, painfully bad, the blandest pop songs ever, and I wanted to go over to where Sara and Max were sitting on a bench in the shade, but Anya wanted to watch the performance. One more song, I said. Okay, she said. When the song was finally over, we joined Sara and Max. Max was using the bench to support himself, sidestepping over to strangers and smiling at them till they stopped what they were doing and smiled back. As we walked toward the train station, Anya started complaining about the sun in her eyes, so Sara draped her sweater over the stroller’s sun visor. It hung down like a curtain. Don’t fall asleep in there, Sara told her. I won’t, Anya said, and Sara gave her some grapes. We passed a man using two pieces of string dipped in soapy water to make huge bubbles. Anya wanted to stop and watch. He was in a state of total concentration. Once in a while, he got one of the huge bubbles to float away from the string without popping immediately. It made its way shivering in the air across the path—it looked alive. Pop. Sara and I argued about which path to take. This is the wrong way, I said, as we took the path she wanted to take. But we came out of the park exactly where we needed to be. See, she said. You were right, I said. I had gotten turned around. My sense of direction had always been terrible. When we got to the train station, I carried the stroller down the steps. Anya walked next to me. My heart filled with tenderness as I watched her taking the steps so carefully. The train was waiting for us in the station with the doors open. It was that kind of day. We had a whole bench to ourselves. At Canal Street, a man with a leathery face and a Superman shirt got on. Speaking into a microphone attached to his head, he said he was a magician with a few magic tricks to do. He stuffed something into a little plastic ball and pulled something else out of the ball. It wasn’t very impressive. Then he came toward us with balloons, and I got my wallet out, but not because I wanted to. With quick precise movements, he twisted a long green balloon into a poodle and handed it to my daughter. His weather-beaten face would have been right at home in a medium-security prison or doing Three-card Monte rip-offs on the street. I gave the man two dollars. Why not just one? I wasn’t thinking. I remembered how when I was eighteen I’d lost the equivalent of about twenty dollars in a park in Quito, Ecuador. Not Three-card Monte, but a little ball, maybe a cherry pit, under three bottle caps. The man’s hands were too quick for my eyes. I kept guessing wrong. I had walked off feeling humiliated, back to the Hotel Viena where I had a little windowless room. I’d spend countless hours lying around that room, listening to cassettes of John Coltrane and Billie Holiday on a little black Dictaphone, filling the ashtray on the bedside table, a lost kid with a void inside me. Anya looked at the balloon dog she held in her hand. It looks like a butterfly, she said. She was happy. I put my arm around her. I got a photograph of the four of us, the subway map behind us. When we got off the train at Cortelyou Road, one of my old students was coming toward us. We stopped and said hello. I’d forgotten her name. I’m walking at the end of the month, she said, and I congratulated her. She’d been a mediocre student with a reactionary streak, but I had liked her anyway. I couldn’t believe another school year was over, they rolled by like waves. When I’d started teaching college students I’d been twenty-five, now I was thirty-seven. The day after I taught my second class the Twin Towers had fallen down. Look, my wife said, pointing down at our shadows, elongated on the pavement. There we were, the four of us. And there was something I’d never seen before: a bright green shadow glowing in the shadow of my daughter’s hand.
Gabriel Heller has published work in Fence, AGNI, The Gettysburg Review, and Inkwell. He teaches writing at NYU. (updated 5/2014)