I was shopping with my son a few days ago. It was a Saturday, and the aisles at Carrefour were full of the full range--the careful elderly, goofball university students, young couples with strollers, the stolidly middle-aged. Nicholas, being the cute and gregarious kid he is, was eliciting smiles and waves from everyone. I noticed one particularly pretty young woman smiling and making goo-goo eyes at him from across the onions and potatoes. Then I noticed the stroller she was pushing, and the little girl inside. The whole side of the girl's face was one huge bruise.
This would stun anyone, but I have my own set of issues with this. Abuse of a child or animal is the biggest, reddest button on my control panel. My whole body clenched as I watched them move away. I wondered. The woman seemed genuinely sweet and gentle--and unselfconscious-- as she bent down to speak to her daughter. Yes, appearances can be deceptive, but, intuitively, it didn't add up. Had I jumped to a very wrong conclusion?
Then the father appeared. He was tough guy. Shaved head, bunchy arms, punchy face, squinty eyes, what looked like a perpetual sneer. My hackles were up again, the alarm bells clanging. He and the woman had paused, talking closely. Then she raised her head and looked over at me; they both looked, and walked my way. I waited.
"How old is your son?" The guy's English was good, almost perfect. My mental gears jammed for a second before they changed and I answered, "One year and a nine months."
"He's so big!" said the woman. They both smiled approvingly down at Nicholas, who smiled back.
I looked again at their girl, sleeping now. The whole side of her face was, in fact, bruise-colored. But the edges of the color were clean, sharply defined. No swelling. She had the same discoloration on her thigh, a big patch the shape of Greenland. It was a birthmark.
The couple and I talked for a few minutes. The man was interested when I said I had many spent years in New York. He had lived in Queens himself, during and after university. It was a pleasant chat. Before leaving, he gave me his card. They ran a restaurant in the city.
When does one intervene? How much evidence is enough? Wasn't this Hamlet's quandary?
And: those poor people. How many others had made the same mistake? How many never realized it was a mistake?
Three months ago, a week before his brother was born, Nicholas, being his usual fearless self, took a dive off the bed and landed flat on his face on the floor. The sound--flesh, bone and cartilage in a losing contest with hardwood--knotted my guts, before I turned him over and saw, through the tears, that there wasn't much damage. Just a brief nosebleed and what promised to be quite a shiner.
The little brawler
Over the next few days, Nicholas, outgoing as always, continued attracting attention. But I couldn't help wondering, at the supermarket, at the pharmacy, on the train: was there something else now in people's looks, in their whispers? What were they thinking when they looked from him to me and back again?
It's nothing, I told myself, kids fall down all the time. People must realize that.