Usually, if I duck my head and walk briskly, I can make it past the playground at West Eighty-first Street. I start preparing in the elevator, my eyes on the long brass arrow as it ticks down from the seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth floor. Sometimes the elevator stops and one of my neighbors gets on, and I have no choice but to crack the carapace of my solitude, and pretend civility. If it's one of the younger ones, the guitar player with the brush of red hair and the peeling skin, say, or the movie executive in the rumpled jeans and the buttery leather coat, it's enough to muster a polite nod of the head. The older ones require more. The steel-haired women in the self-consciously bohemian dresses, folds of purple peeping from under the hems of black wool capes, demand conversation about the weather, or the spot of wear on the Oriental carpet runner in the lobby, or the front page of the arts section. That is quite nearly too much to bear, because don't they see that I am busy? Don't they realize that obsessive self-pity is an all-consuming activity that leaves no room for conversation? Don't they know that the entrance to the park lies right next to the Eighty-first Street playground and that if I am not completely prepared, if I do not clear my mind, stop my ears to all sounds other than my own breathing, it is entirely possible--likely even--that instead of striding boldly past the playground with my eyes on the bare gray branches of the trees, I will collapse outside the playground gate, the shrill voices of the children keening in my skull? Don't they understand, these ladies with their petitions and their dead banker husbands and bulky Tod's purses, that if I let them distract me with talk of Republicans stealing elections or whether Mrs. Katz from 2B saw Anthony the new doorman asleep behind the desk last Tuesday night, I will not make it past the playground to the refuge of the park beyond? Don't they get that the barbaric assault of their voices, the impatient thumping of their Lucite canes as they wait insistently for my mumbled replies, will prevent me from getting to the only place in the entire city where I am able to approximate serenity? They will force me instead to trudge along the Seventy-ninth Street Transverse, pressed against the grimy stone walls, inhaling exhaust fumes from crosstown buses all the way to the East Side. Or worse, they will force me to take a cab.
Today, thank God, the elevator is empty all the way to the lobby.
"Have a nice walk, Mrs. Woolf," Ivan says as he holds the door open for me.
That started the day after our wedding. The first few times I tried to explain that I was still Ms. Greenleaf. I know Ivan understood. He's not an idiot. But he merely smiled, nodded, and said, "Of course, Ms. Greenleaf," and then greeted me with a "Good morning, Mrs. Woolf," the next day. At least it was better than when I'd first moved in with Jack. Then I had muttered something like, "Oh, no, please call me Emilia." Ivan hadn't even bothered to smile and nod. He had stared at me from behind his thick black glasses, shaken his head as if he were my fifth-grade teacher and I'd disappointed him by forgetting my homework or, worse, using foul language in class. "No, Ms. Greenleaf," he had said. That was all. Not "I couldn't," or "I wouldn't feel right." Just, "No." Because of course he would never call someone in the building by her first name; it was appalling to have suggested it at all.
Today I smile, nod, and walk out the door and across the street to the park.
February is the longest month of the year.
Winter has been on us for so very long and spring seems like it might never come. The sky is gray and thick with clouds, the kind of clouds that menace the city, threatening not Christmas postcard snow, or a downpour of cold clean rain, but bitter needles that immediately melt the snow, so that it feels like what is coming down from the sky is actually yellow-gray slush. The sidewalks are banked by mounds of black-fringed snow and every step off the curb is a game of Russian roulette which might end with glacial black water sloshing around your ankle, soaking your sock and shoe. Normally I hunker down; I build fires in the fireplace, wrap myself in chenille throws and wool socks, reread Jane Austen, and will the short, dark days to creep by more quickly. This year, however, I long to embrace the unrelenting grimness of New York in February. This year I need February. Even now, at the end of January, it is as if the city has noticed my dejection and proceeded to prove its commiseration. The trees in the park seem particularly bare; they poke at the dreary sky with lifeless branches that have lost not just their leaves but the very hope of leaves. The grass has turned brown and been kicked away, leaving a mire covered by a scrim of dog-shit-spotted ice. The Bridle Path and the path along the Reservoir are muddy and have buckled in places, gnarled roots and knots marring the once smooth surfaces and tripping up the fleece-clad runners.
But the Diana Ross Playground is full of children. New York children will play outside in all weather, except the most inclement, their nannies and mothers desperate to escape the confines of even the most spacious apartments. On the dreariest winter day, when the swings are wet enough to soak water-repellent snow pants right through, when the expensive, cushiony ground cover is frozen to a bone-breaking hardness, when the last bit of metal left in the meticulously childproofed playground is cold enough to cause a plump pink tongue to stick fast to it, until an unflappable Dominican nanny pours the last inch of a Starbucks mocha over the joined bit of flesh and teeter-totter, the kids are there, screaming their little-kid screams and laughing their little-kid laughs. I quicken my step until I am galumphing along at an ungainly jog, my extra weight pounding into my widened hips, my bones aching with every jarring thump of heel to path.
I allow myself to slow to a gasping walk as soon as the children's voices fade into the background hum of the rest of the park. In the summer Central Park sounds like the countryside--or a version of the countryside where birdsong competes with the hiss of skateboard wheels on cement and with the flutes of Peruvian buskers playing Andean melodies as interpreted by Simon and Garfunkel. In the spring, when the cherry trees are in full blush and the hillocks around Sheep Meadow are covered in yellow daffodils, it is easy to love Central Park. In the summer, when the Shakespeare Garden is a tangle of blossoms and wedding ceremonies and you cannot walk two feet without stumbling over a bank of asters or a dog playing Frisbee, loving Central Park is a breeze. In the winter, though, the pigeons fly under the naked elms, keeping close to where the conscientious, lonely old ladies with their paper bags of bread crusts congregate on the snow-dampened benches of the Mall. In the winter, the park is left to those of us whose love is most true, those of us who don't need swags and fringes of wisteria, those of us for whom snow-heavy black locust trees, mud-covered hills, and the sound of the wind creaking through bare branches are enough. I have always understood that it is in the escape provided by these 843 acres that real beauty lies. The pastel Mardi Gras of spring and summer and the brilliant burnt reds and oranges of autumn are just foofaraw.
I cut north to the trail along the Reservoir. There is one more playground in my path, but it is far enough away that I can keep my eyes averted from the Lincoln Log play structure and the red-and-yellow slide. It is late for the mommies with jogging strollers, and if my luck holds I will miss them entirely. Last Wednesday I left a couple of hours early, to meet a friend who had decided that a morning of shoe shopping would bounce me out of my despondency, would turn me back into someone whose company she enjoyed. Mindy did not, of course, say that. Mindy said that her husband had given her a pair of Manolo Blahniks for her birthday in the size she had led him to believe that she wore, and she needed to see if the store carried the shoe in a ten and a half.
On that day, I came upon a whole row of new mothers crouched down in back of their strollers, their postpartum-padded behinds thrust out, their hands gripping the handles as they rose up to their toes and then squatted back down, cooing all the while to their well-bundled infants who squawked, laughed, or slept in $750 strollers, Bugaboo Frogs just like the one parked in the hallway outside our apartment, next to the spindly table with the silk orchids. The blue denim Bugaboo that kicks me in the gut every time I stand waiting for the elevator. They squatted and rose in unison, this group of mommies, and none of them said a word when I stopped in front of them and grunted as if I'd been punched. They looked at me, and then back at each other, but no one spoke, not when I started to cry, and not when I turned and ran, back along the path, past the first playground and then the second, and then back out onto Central Park West.
Today I am lucky. The mommies have stayed in, or are sharing a post-workout latte. I don't see one until I am on the Bridle Path on the East Side. She runs by me so fast that I barely have time to register the taut balls of her calves pumping in shiny pink running pants, her ears covered in matching fur earmuffs. The babies in her double jogging stroller are tiny purple mounds, pink noses, and then gone. Too fast to cause me anything but a momentary blaze of pain.
At Ninetieth Street, having made it safely and sanely across the park, I look at my watch. Shit. I am late, again, with only five minutes to make it up to Ninety-second and then all the way across to Lex. I quicken my pace, pinching my waist against the stitch in my side. The tails of my long coat flap against my legs, and with my other hand I do my best to hold the coat closed. I can button it now, but it looks dreadful, my thick torso straining against the buttons, causing the fabric to gape. While I'm not vain enough to buy a new winter coat--I will not spend hundreds of dollars on a piece of clothing I am bound and determined not to need a month from now--I am sufficiently self-conscious to leave the coat open, counting on a thick scarf to keep out the bitter damp.
It is not until I run around the white fence barriers and the cement planters, show my ID card at the security desk, pass through the metal detector, and am shifting from foot to foot in front of the bank of elevators that I remember that I have set my watch forward fifteen minutes for this very reason, so I will not be late again, so that Carolyn will not have yet another reason to call Jack and berate him for my capricious negligence, my disregard for her and all she holds sacred. I feel myself deflate, as if the only thing keeping me buoyant was my agitation and anxiety. By the time the elevator arrives I am tiny, I am shrunken to the size of a mouse, I am the smallest person in the 92nd Street Y.
A claque of women follows me into the elevator. Two are pregnant; one holds a baby strapped to her chest in a black leather Baby Bjšrn infant carrier. The last pushes a Bugaboo stroller identical to the one parked outside my apartment. Because of course the irony is that for all my expertise as the preeminent cartographer of a childfree Central Park, my very destination is into the belly of the beast. My goal, my journey's end, is the 92nd Street Y Nursery School.
All this fecundity would have stopped me dead in my tracks had I stumbled upon it in the park. Central Park is my refuge, and its invasion by the baby brigade enrages and devastates me. At the preschool, however, I am used to a certain quality and quantity of misery. I have never been anything but uncomfortable and unhappy here. To be reduced to tears in the elevator by the milk-drunk flush of an infant's cheek is pretty much par for the course.
The women in the elevator acknowledge my presence with the barest nod, precisely the nod I give those of my neighbors who permit me this coldness. I respond in kind and affix my eyes to the lighted buttons over the elevator door, clocking our progress up through the building to the sixth floor.
The hallway of the preschool is decorated, as always, in brilliantly colored children's artwork that changes with every Jewish holiday. Now it is Tu B'Shevat that we are celebrating, and the children have painted various kinds of trees. The hallway trumpets the school's celebrated student-teacher ratio. It evidences sure and patient guidance, a wellspring of inventive and carefully educated creativity, and an art supply budget rivaling that of the School of Visual Arts. I scan the paintings, looking to see if William has done one. He is an adept artist for his age, is William. He has inherited his mother's agile and delicate fingers. He draws mostly seascapes: fish and octopi, multi-fanged sharks and moray eels. His latest is displayed outside his classroom. William, it turns out, is the only child who has failed to honor the birthday of the trees. At first I think his picture is nothing more than a huge scribble of red crayon, but when I lean in to take a closer look I see that on the bottom of the page William has drawn a rainbow-colored parrot fish. The parrot fish is lying on its side because a swordfish has torn a hole in its belly. The red overlying the scene is blood spurting from the fish's wounds. Perhaps the picture is meant to be an allegory, and the parrot fish to symbolize the Jewish people should they fail to recognize their connection to the land. But I doubt it.
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits