She almost threw up on the way to Penn Station. Too many sites and too many late nights had taken their toll on my daughter, Eliana, a seasoned 9-year-old traveler, but it couldn’t be helped.
I’m a freelance writer and author. My daughter travels with me when I have to go on the road for speaking gigs. A few stops from Penn Station, where we were to catch our train home to Maine, she was fighting to keep her eyes open and trying not to gag. This is how I found myself sitting on a subway platform, my luggage serving as arm rests, while an overly tired child slept with her head on my lap.
I figured no one would assume we were one of the many homeless taking refuge in the covered subway platforms. What I had not prepared for was the story strangers were writing in their heads when they saw my face — with brilliantly red rashes and swollen cheeks — and the sleeping child.
It would be almost a year before I would learn that the rash was the result of allergies to gelatin, beef and pork. It would be nearly three before a doctor would diagnose me with a rare condition tied to my monthly cycle called autoimmune progesterone dermatitis, which causes myriad symptoms, one of which is painful, red welts. Makeup didn’t help, but my red lipstick made me feel better.
While we huddled on the cement floor, a woman stopped and offered me a phone number to call for help; the program she was recommending had helped her find the strength to leave her abusive lover, she said. I replied in halting Spanish with assurances that my husband doesn’t beat me; rather, I have extreme food allergies. I thanked her for caring enough to reach out, and I tried to wake up Eliana so we could escape public scrutiny.
The platform filled and emptied again and again. One man risked missing his train to run over and hand me a $5 bill. “You didn’t ask me,” he said. “But go buy yourself and your daughter something.” Before I could even say thank you — or insist he take his money back — the doors to the man’s train closed. Another dropped a $100 bill in my lap as he ran to catch his train.
I don’t know what to say to strangers like these because I don’t know what people see when they look at me. With my professional clothing and rash-filled face, I look down but not completely out. Those nice people who thought I needed saving probably figured I looked like a sure bet. Their acts of kindness probably wouldn’t be wasted, they figured, because I wore good leather boots and nice lipstick.
That’s when the police officers showed up. They only wanted to ask if I needed help, they said, because they had been told, by more than one person, that I might. Maybe I was fleeing a horrible situation with all I could carry. Maybe my little girl was the reason I found the strength to leave. Please … help that woman, I imagine the cops are told by people normally in too much of a hurry to see those who are actually in need of help.
I saw concern and compassion on their faces as I gave the quickest version of the truth, hoping it would be enough for them to leave. The officers smiled and wished me luck with the sleepy kid. I’m thankful she knew only what I told her, now that we were seated and comfortable on the train taking us north. Few things rattle a child more than seeing a parent cry. I told her pieces of the truth because she knows when I’m lying but not when I’m selectively eliminating parts of the story. I was tired and hungry, I told her, explaining away my puffy eyes and tear-streaked mascara. She nodded and hugged me and smiled, beautifully confident in herself and my love. She is my rock, this girl.
She squeezed me tighter for just a moment before asking if she could move across the aisle to spread out and play on her iPad. I nodded before closing my eyes. When I looked up a few moments later and our eyes locked, she giggled. She smiled at me and suddenly I could breathe easily again. In that moment, the subway station was forgotten. I saw myself through my daughters’ eyes, and I was no longer ashamed.