A baby's birth and a time-traveling walk through Charles Village

West Baltimore Street near North Charles Street in 1912
West Baltimore Street near North Charles Street in 1912 (The Maryland Historical Society mc4817)

The other night I was walking home from the Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus where I occasionally teach, making my way across the mostly empty quad fringed with skeletal trees, down the marble steps at the edge of the library, through the wrought iron gates out into the bustle and streetlights of an unseasonably warm March evening in Baltimore City. I stopped, waiting for the light to change, next to a woman pushing a stroller. Instinctively, I glanced into the baby buggy.

For some reason, I always expect to see an ugly little monkey where the baby should be. Does Curious George commandeer a stroller in one of the books? Does Ronald Reagan push Bonzo in one in "Bedtime"? My mind scrambles to find the explanation for this trick my subconscious plays, but fails—and I am always relieved to see a baby sleeping where my thoughts have pasted a chimp. Freud would have fun with this, probably attributing it to some primal fear that I have regarding giving birth to a monster, but that's too facile; a chimp does not strike me as monstrous, only startlingly hairy for a child. More likely, I think, worrying about the sulky, withdrawn teen awaiting me at home—as I slow my pace to put off the oppressive pall his new anger casts on our home—it is a primal parental fear of another sort: It's not that I have given birth to a monster but rather, through years of painstaking parental mistakes, will I create a monster?


In the nurture v. nature argument, I have fallen insistently, stridently, all my life on the nurture side. This poses an intellectual—and very practical—problem for me. My thoughts drift to this debate that often preoccupies me. In fact, I have grappled with it so often, both with friends and in my writing, that I believe one running argument with my friend Sue spans 30 years. Recently, I was watching her fastidious pre-school aged son (adopted) carefully put his toys in the toy box in exact imitation of his compulsively tidy mother and had only to raise my eyebrows suggestively for her to intuit my meaning: Another check in my column, Nurture. Sometimes, as on this eerie night of warm fog and mist, this internal monologue on the topic—no, dialogue, well, really, chorus of voices—seems to come to life, peopled with ghostly figures in some timeless dreamscape. I hear unspoken conversations. I see imagined characters. Reality and fantasy, the present and the past, babies and chimps merge seamlessly.

As I drift along, habit, the same force that guides my distracted footsteps along the cobblestone to the grass median toward the intersection at Charles and 33rd Street, leads me to glance into the adjacent stroller. I have always checked strollers compulsively and, when pleasantly surprised to find human children within, can genuinely offer the beatific smile one mom offers another. "So cute," I say, always sincere, since, compared to the primate I was anticipating, the baby generally earns the compliment. Tonight, I peer at the twins sleeping in the buggy, knitted caps in the unfortunate shapes of eggplant and tomato on their respective heads. "What beautiful babies," I say.


The light changes and we both start to move across the street. "Ah, yes," she says. "When they're sleeping."

As we cross under the streetlight, I notice faint circles under her eyes. "Yes!" I laugh, suddenly thinking about one of my graduate students, Jim, who just announced in class that evening that he might miss the following session as his fiancé is having a baby in a week.

"You'll have to bring the baby in the following week for all of us to look at. Prove you've had a baby and this isn't a trumped-up excuse," I joke. "Bring in the evidence—at least pictures."

"Technically, I'm not having the baby," he says.


"Ahh, but you are," I insist.

I like saying that, "having a baby," even when it is a dad because it really is his baby, too. But people always correct me when I talk about men "having a baby."

"Well," they huff. "He is not really having a baby. His wife is having the baby." Okay.



And another thing.

I'm drawn to rant on this point. I figure part of shifting the dynamics of child-rearing in this country so that dads assume an equal share of the job means ceding dads equal responsibility from the start, even via this minor-league linguistic gesture. I say this—"He is having a baby"—because I wonder, If we change the words, will the behavior follow?

Or is it the other way around?

There are years of linguistic, psychoanalytic, semiotic, political, ideological, legal, ethical, practical, theoretical, constitutional, heated, thoughtful, convoluted debates devoted to this question. Well, not the question of "dads," (if anything, historically it is "moms" that have been put under the microscope the same way one would study diseased cells for a clue as to what ails you; the "aberrant," rather than the norm) but language and meaning and motivating impulse. I am thinking this, wading through the humid night as a train, about to barrel under the city through a nearby tunnel blows its whistle—long, plaintive, whining—and I can almost see Lacan and Derrida and deBeauvoir and Chomsky and MacKinnon and Heidegger and Holmes and their chums and mortal enemies on this same train as it loops around the Baltimore. The imaginary figures circle, around and around long into the dark night, smoking and talking and sharing a bottle of vodka in the yellow light of their shared cabin as the train speeds around the periphery and their words slur into butter—a café car of unmoored signifiers. They argue so heatedly, and I pick up a word here and there as they pass by and wonder: Can words lead us in the right direction if we shift them so that they properly point that way (or align them with our intent, somehow)?

This is something I want to believe. (So, if I align my words, can I make it so?) But is it true? Or is it reductive simplification, garden variety positive thinking in the Est-ian tradition?

I think about the way I have tried to coax my 15-year-old son in the right direction. "You're a good boy," I've repeatedly said as I've hugged him. It is not quite true—he is in fact often in trouble—but in that moment of sharing a hug, it is so and maybe, just maybe, a nudge in that direction might produce forward momentum toward the adjective, part of conceiving of oneself differently. Still, in my more honest moments, I hedge with caveats. "You're a good boy—most of the time," I add. Or, "when you choose to be."

"Why don't you love me?" he asks, on the heels of this comment or, more typically, apropos of nothing. "Why don't you love me?"

"I do," I always respond. "I love you too much." I sigh. "I have spoiled you."

"Humph," he says. He conjures up the usual threat: "Some day you will have a son who really is spoiled—"


"God, I hope not!" I always interject, to emphasize that he has worn me to the bone and, in any case, my childbearing days are thankfully past.


"—and then you'll see," he continues. "Then, you'll look back and miss me." At this point, he likes to adopt a dreamy-eyed expression of reflection and nostalgia. "Then you'll say, 'Ahh, Zack. Remember that nice kid, Zack? He was such a good one compared to this naughty chap!' Then, you'll appreciate me."

"You think?" I say.

"I know," he says.

I turn from 33rd onto St. Paul Street, considering the ways I exchanged similar scripted prattle with my dad as he greeted me each afternoon.

"How was school?"


"What'd you learn?"


"What kinds of things?"

"All sorts of things."

Funny the way such dialogue functions as filler in a family, checking in without having to think too much since you know your lines. Words here have lost their meaning, but still carry a connective value—kids who are moving forward but retaining a bridge back, verifying a parent's steadfastness with the comforting familiarity of a refrain.

Sometimes these scripts take an odd turn. Or perhaps they are destined to appear odd to all outsiders? My friend's teenaged daughter got obsessed for a while with ER shows on TV. The teen would go around regularly putting her hands on her mother's chest like a pair of defibrillators, shouting "Clear!" and then "Jooosh" (to emulate the sound of a shock), quite literally, and regularly, making sure she could bring her mom back to life should the need arise.

"Go away," her mother would shoo. "My heart is fine."

"No, no," the daughter would say, an imperious doctor with a recalcitrant patient. "I need to check."

What is it about this need to check? I ask, snapped out of my reverie as an ambulance tears down the street, pulls up in front of the Barnes and Noble, parks, and disgorges two EMTs. A little crowd begins to gather and people who, a few minutes ago, barely noticed each other, begin to talk to one another.

"What happened?"

"I don't know."

"Someone says a woman passed out."

The conversation, as if bumping over a scratch on an LP, repeats as newcomers arrive on the outer fringe.

"What happened?"

"Someone hurt?"

"They say a woman passed out."

I will not know what happens because I walk by, considering the woman who was probably just browsing through travel books, fantasizing about a trip to Barcelona that she would one day take, when a heart attack hit her—and what does it mean that she simply ran an errand (she was distracted by the travel books but, in fact, I suppose, she had come to Barnes & Noble with a purpose in mind, to pick out a book for her daughter to take to a chum's birthday party) when suddenly, while thumbing through Fodor's, reading about a quaint café and envisioning herself wandering that very Barcelona alley to duck into this close, dimly lit Spanish restaurant that served such exquisite Jamon Serrano, her heart just stopped. I'm wondering about the dead woman's family, how they will get the news, how her husband, having already tucked the kids into bed so she could run her errand, buy herself some peace on the sly with a Frappuccino and Fodor's, will debate whether or not to pick up the phone when it rings—he is in the middle of "House" and Cuddy's baby has swallowed a dime—and he lets it go into voicemail, checking it instead during the next commercial to find that Union Memorial Hospital has called to ask if he knows a woman named X ("We found your name above hers on the checkbook in her purse," they would say. "Would you please call immediately?"), but then I stop myself.

Well, a person can't imagine a life played out every time an ambulance rips by on the streets of Baltimore—and the streets of the city tonight are insistently alive as I pass the Subway, the Starbucks, the Cold Stone Creamery. It is the first week in March and there has been a freakish thaw in the weather, one of those days when, as a salt mist creeps through the streets bearing a whiff of seaside air, it is startling to recall that Baltimore is a harbor town—so far are the docks, the Chesapeake, and the Atlantic removed from our daily life of brick and formstone and cement.

People are out. An old man sits smoking on his stoop. A woman, still in her work clothes—hounds-tooth trousers, black blazer, leather loafers—has stepped out to walk her aging retriever, moving slowly, perhaps adding an extra block to the routine as the slow breeze coaxes the pair along. Everywhere, college students have spilled out of their dorms in Sponge-Bob and Scooby-Doo and Stewie pajama bottoms, T-shirts and flip-flops to wander the avenue on trumped-up errands.

The yellow street lamps cast sharp cones of light and it is easy to slide along with the current of those who now drift through the streets of Baltimore, who have ever drifted through the streets of Baltimore, flowing back through the decades to imagine this city of row houses, once new in a new century, with women in dark skirts and white blouses gliding along the sidewalks with their oversized perambulators carrying one, sometimes two children (Irish twins) at once. Maybe because I recently happened upon a strange, obscure, turn-of-the-century travelogue in a local secondhand bookshop and it has captured my imagination—so odd for a woman of this period to set off for Africa on her own, I muse, thinking of Mary Kingsley's "Travels in West Africa"—but these apparitions tonight emerge from the fog almost fully formed, a curious confusion of contemporary pedestrians at my back in the commercial heart of the neighborhood and the ghostly figures that once populated these empty streets sauntering along in front of me. One of these women, I see her in my mind's eye as sharply etched as an image on a silver daguerreotype, surely pauses at the corner as I do. She waits for a horse and cart to pass. The wagon is piled high with root vegetables, turnips, and sweet potatoes, and smells faintly of damp soil and rotting hay. She inhales deeply, reveling in the scent of raw earth, as she tries to decide whether to continue toward her narrow row house to the slew of housework that awaits, or to heed the siren's call of the bookstore one block up, with carts of used books lining the sidewalk out front, to browse through, say, Kingsley's "Travels in West Africa." What was it like for a woman to read, contemporaneously, a passage from this 1897 memoir of a life differently lived, exotic and full?

Does this turn-of-the-century Baltimore woman who stands reading on the sidewalk, on a weirdly mild spring night, catch a snatch of conversation from the now-drunk linguists I had earlier imagined on the train? How is it that Derrida, Lacan, Chomsky, Holmes, MacKinnon & Co. mingle in this a-historical dreamscape, their arguments growing so heated and loud as they circle the city of Baltimore on this misty evening that they echo and bounce off the walls of the city's canyoned streets, plummeting through the decades till the place is suffused, as it has ever been, in a question of whether words drive action, whether possibility precedes realization, whether the rhapsodic poetry of city fathers can sing a fine city into being from the crowded, crumbling tenements of the impoverished masses. This turn-of-the-century Baltimore woman considers whether she too might take a train and then a ship and then a canoe to make her way to an African village some day, absently keeping the buggy rolling back and forth with her foot to lull the babies as she stands outside, basking in the warmth, reading, considering. She rifles through the pages of Kingsley's peculiar book asking herself, If I imagine myself in Africa, will I one day arrive there? Can saying it aloud—"I will travel to Africa"—help make it so?

She pauses, absorbed, and falls into a passage on "fetishes," forgetting momentarily her habitual rocking of the buggy with her foot, forgetting the babies, who in any case are finally sleeping, as the buggy's squeaking springs whine down into silence. She reads, and reads. What captures her attention? I cast back to a passage on women and their babies. Yes, she would be interested in this: Kingsley's detailed, near anthropological dissertation on what happens to babies in the Okyon tribes if their mothers die, how the intense link between the breast-feeding mother and her baby led to a supernatural, religious ritual to keep the baby alive. Trying to prevent the spirit of the mother from coming back to take her baby with her into the land of death, relatives held the newborn before the mother's corpse, poking the child to make it cry and announce to the mother, see, your baby is right here with you. Wouldn't this woman standing on the streets of Baltimore one hundred years ago find this interesting? Surely, she would read on, as I did, fascinated to discover how the women secreted the baby out of the room and placed in the dead mother's arms a bundle of plantains instead, bound it together with her in funeral cloth and buried the woman cradling plantains in her arms, reassuring her all the while that her baby traveled with her into Death.


The turn-of-the-century woman glances reflexively into the buggy—as I've reflexively checked for chimps—to see the babies—she, wondering if someone had slipped in a bundle of plantains—and then goes on reading, for Kingsley's story has surely seduced her, too. What to make of the brutal murder of all Okyon children who have not arrived in this world in a way considered orthodox or whose behavior or appearance is aberrant, she likely wonders. She thumbs through the pages—learns that twins and their mothers are typically killed outright—and then falls into Kingsley's lengthy narrative of a single day, of her journey down the Niger River on a rickety raft, how she disembarked in a small village to meet up with another white woman she had heard of who had settled among the Okyon natives years ago.

As she flips rapidly through the pages of the travelogue, she discovers that on the very day that Kingsley arrived at the white woman named Slessor's house in Okyon, she was engaged in a fierce battle to save the life of a set of twins and their mother from immolation. Wouldn't all mothers be drawn to this birth story about this woman, beaten for bringing these monsters into the world, her newborns roughly shoved into a wooden crate along with her frying pan and two market calabashes as she was driven out as an unclean thing? Kingsley writes, and the woman in the streets of Baltimore reads—fascinated, falling into the story—that I try to recall, as I walk through the streets, crossing 31st and then 30th, and then 29th, adding "Miss Slessor" to the cast of characters peopling my mind.

Miss Slessor saw the procession of villagers beating and chasing the woman and her babies into the bush, as I remember it, and rescued them bringing them to her home, carrying the newborns herself, for no one would touch them. Her home was full of such children she'd rescued in the past, and Kingsley finds the whole situation so peculiar, explaining that Miss Slessor had even made some villagers cut a new path to her house to carry the newborns along, knowing that otherwise they would never again use the main path to the market because it had been tainted by these newborn twin monsters.

Kingsley reports that she arrived in the middle of this affair, shortly after everyone got home, and says the household was all a-flutter trying to tend to everyone's urgent needs. Still, she writes—and the woman on the Baltimore street reads—all was not well. The villagers who had crammed the babies into a crate had crushed the boy's head; the girl was injured but survived. She would join the collection of children that Miss Slessor had taken in to raise.

Imagine, all of those children rescued by a single woman, I think, meandering through the mist that clouds St. Paul Street, reluctant to get home too fast. How is it that we shape our children, consciously and inadvertently, and how much blame will we assume or credit will we take for the way they turn out? I step off the curb, over the drainage grate and cast a backward glance, suddenly alert to the sound of a skateboard rattling through the intersection—is it my son? No, someone else's. I pick up my pace to cross the street and correct myself. No, it's not just about taking credit or accepting blame, it is the desire for a deeper understanding and, I suppose, a somewhat simplistic desire to believe in cause and effect. How many times we revisit and revise our own travelogues, journeying back in time to tweak the narratives of our children's lives, unearthing old evidence to explain the present. We find facts—in photographs, letters, conversations, memories—that we somehow misplaced years ago and haul them to fore, putting these facts to new use in service to the story we're constructing. How to explain the contemporary reality of their lives? In particular, we are drawn to birth stories, revisiting them in our thoughts and conversations with other mothers—specifically, I've noticed, we dust them off for new mothers who offer up their own still-vivid tales of delivery and post-partum as the price of entry to this club. We tell the stories repeatedly searching for new evidence of the signs we missed, the signs that will help us make sense of who they are—messy, complicated, unruly little creatures who won't stay put in our minds—I suppose.

I find myself humming, my heels clicking on the sidewalk in time to the tinny sound of the ice cream truck—premature, indecorously early—that plays a haunting, too-slow "All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel." I know the "pop" is coming, but still I jump. As does a girl who comes racing around the corner with a few crumpled bills in her hands, slamming into me, startled. We had both jumped. The night is eerie. We apologize to each other. She walks at a more sedate gait toward the ice cream truck. I continue down the road, glancing up at an open window to see a woman—the girl's mother?—leaning out, watching the child as she passes through the circle of light cast by a street lamp and disappears into the dark of night. The woman inhales on a cigarette and then exhales, settling back in the chair she has brought to the closest edge of the window. She is still. Smoking. Thinking.

For me, she is just a silhouette, backlit in the framed window. She could be any woman, singular or composite, of the present or of the past, maybe just a mother in a window trying to make sense of her shape-shifting child disappearing into the fog. She studies the empty street and I turn to follow her gaze, wondering what she sees. Though no one is visible, or perhaps specifically because no on is visible, I conjure up the picture of that turn-of-the-century woman dawdling over the book cart on the sidewalk, pressing the book closed finally with a sigh of resignation, putting her hands on the buggy, beginning her walk home. She, like I, is haunted by the parting shot of the heroic woman Slessor, who as the chapter ended sat looking over the cradle of the surviving newborn girl and, as I imagine, staring out her window at the scenes of busy life proceeding there in the broiling sun of West Africa, as if the world would insistently continue on its way—oblivious to this stark tragedy—and wondering at the baby Okyon girl's birth story, how it will be told to the child as the years pass, and whether the narrative will be recast to fit with her as the girl grows, always tweaked and twisted slightly in order to serve as retrospective confirmation of behavior, a predictor. "It is no wonder she has turned out stubborn," the Okyon elders will say, remembering her birth story. Or, if she is too docile, they will explain, "Of course, she is a timid woman given the way she arrived in this world." They will emphasize how she stubbornly clung to life when her brother gave up or recast the birth story to play up the newborn's early ostracizing, telling how the baby was beaten down and cast out so early on this first day of her life. Miss Slessor, the protector, who perhaps absently rocks the cradle with the tip of her bare left foot as she thinks about these things, will wonder at the value of a birth story, will think about whether she can craft an empowering one from this sequence of events and, hearing the echo of the train riders as they circle Baltimore, now so fierce and combative six vodka shots into the night that a whiff of their battles carry across the sea—the way infectious ideas do sometimes travel on the wind—will wonder, If she tells this child her birth story just right, can it be so? Do words precede action? Is it essential for her to string together a compelling series of words, a perfect narrative, in order to help the girl imagine another way of being? Can she will good character into being with words alone, Slessor wonders, true words, but words presented just so?


Slessor wonders and Kinsley watches and the turn-of-the-century Baltimore woman reads about them both, as I imagine—while in fact, the ground vibrates beneath my feet and I realize I am nearly home. The freight train passing on the tracks a half block south of my house sends out its warning shiver as it tears by; an aggressive clattering of metal wheels banging metal tracks interrupts the night's stillness.

The iron garden gate squeaks on its rusty hinges, sticking slightly so I nudge it hard with my hip to enter my front yard. I am home now. Twenty-six, forty-three North Calvert Street, Baltimore, Maryland. I am back in the present, but time plays tricks, I know this.

Because of these tricks, I want to extend a warning to my student who is having a baby. I wish to remind him, this aspiring writer, to gather in and record all that he experiences around the birth of his child—because soon time will play tricks on him and the city's sea mist will surround him in a fog and soften the focus until it erases altogether the essence that he was so sure he would always remember.

Not that it matters, I suppose, since I am constructing—with the language of my thoughts—histories that may or may not exist. Maybe my personal history is too slim, inadequate for the task of properly explaining the present so I must draw in other stories, other figures? And alas, such flimsiness is irrefutable when it comes to a child's birth.

As I slide the gate to the yard closed, I admit to myself that my own son's arrival is actually hard to conjure up. (The specifics of his birth trip me up every time, so I revisit the scene in my head, scouring for details I may have misplaced, and then resort to the familiar narrative.) I stumble on one of the slate tiles on the walkway. Several months ago, mysteriously, this particular tile cracked into seven pieces. I bend down, set my backpack next to me, scrape a bit at the sand beneath the tile to level the ground. The ground is finally thawed enough—and I work at it a few moments, happy to prolong my time outside on this balmy night.

Seven broken pieces of tile. I move them around to make them fit, and consider the elements of the story I tell of my own son's birth. My mother gave me a book to give to him when he was born called "The Day You Were Born." It is full of joyful, wonderful, beautiful pictures but the reality differs slightly. When I tell the story, I like to explain that my husband and my friend, Jennifer, were in the room when I had my baby. When nurses and the doctor had slipped away and my husband was bathing our newborn in another room, Jen pointed out that they'd left my placenta in a nearby metal tray. I was horrified that this veined lump of purple flesh had emerged from my own body. (I was, I admit, similarly aghast at the appearance of my baby, with his severely misshapen head. He lingered excessively in the birth canal and came out looking like a cross between an alien and a Shriner, his skull elongated, an old man wearing a fez. "The lump on his head will go down," the doctor promised me. "Good," I say, looking at this peculiar, chimp-like creature, "I should hate to have to give him to the zoo.") But Jennifer was mesmerized. She picked up the placenta with a pair of tongs left lying about and flipped it over. She peered at it, poked at it, took photographs of it, made me hold the tray beside me for a kind of paired portrait. Later that year for my birthday, she gave me a replica of it that she had sewn into a velvet cushion, silken upholstery cord veins zigzagging in and out of the lumps. "It's a placenta pillow!" she said.

So this is what I have as a memory of my son's birth, a pillow of magenta placenta. It lays with the other throw pillows at the top of my bed, tumbling over the years from sacred symbol to mundane bolster, an extra prop for leverage when reading at night.

In any case, the placenta—weirdly—was the more acceptable of the two things emerging from my body. Aghast at the appearance of my baby, this misshapen being emerging from within me, we fell into a hush. My husband was struck, I was struck, Jennifer was struck—indeed, Jen slumped down onto the floor in a near-faint at the foot of the bed, thinking we had somehow permanently damaged this strange creature in the process of trying to eject him from my body—as we simultaneously realized that, in our attentiveness to the pregnancy and process of birth, we had forgotten there was this separate, independent, other being making his entrance. I looked at him—hideous creature—and was inexplicably fond of him at the same time, I struggled with a shocking realization: This baby is not me. And I remember this moment vividly—or do I simply think I remember it?—as I settle the seventh piece of broken slate into the riddle of my sidewalk, resigned to this temporary solution; things are sure to shift in the days ahead since I have not cemented in all the rearranged bits. I stand, and with my heel, grind the segments deeper into the soft ground knowing that this idea—he is not me—is one I still struggle with and so this version of the birth narrative carries proper resonance for me. Now.


I recognize it is absurd to suggest to my graduate student that he quickly record the experience of his son's birth because his proximity to the actual event will make it somehow truer. How do we know what is true unless we are looking at events retrospectively, when we can see for the first time the signs that we always chide ourselves should have been obvious, but never are, from the start?

I dust off my hands, pick up my backpack, and climb the stairs to go inside.

The next day, we are leaving the house. Zack clatters down the wooden steps in his cleats, flying off the third step to land with a thud onto the broken slate tile on the walkway—ah ha!—and attracts the attention of a woman passing on the sidewalk with an infant strapped to her chest in a Baby Bjorn. She smiles at Zack and absently pats what must be the baby's bum, though slumped down as the baby is inside the Bjorn, it seems no more than a bundle of plantains. I look at her and read her mind: She is thinking about her little newborn as a teenager someday clattering down the steps in his baseball gear and trying to wrap her head around the idea of this tiny bundle bursting onto the scene as a giant being who plays baseball and saunters in long strides down the sidewalk with his baseball cap jammed on backward, tilting off the back of his head like a yarmulke, cheek puffed out with the mouthful of apple he has just bitten off, shouting for his mom over his shoulder, "Hurry up, we're late."

This requires a huge imaginative leap for her and she lingers for a moment on the corner, waiting for the light to change and looking at us. "Look at that woman with her baby," I say to Zack as we settle in the car, putting on our seat belts.

"Yeah," he says, studying her. "Do you remember when I was that size?"

I nod, amused by the calculated comment. He is trying to get me to remember how small and cute he once was, how much he loved me and I loved him when he was so sweetly dependent (and still lacked language and the ability to talk back). He knows my connection to the present is always fragile, that I am always happy to slide back and forth in time. He is trying to get me to forget that we are in the middle of a lecture about smoking weed. The night before, I discovered a pipe spilling out of his friend's backpack, when the boy, who was sleeping over, pulled out his toothbrush. This was a first. He seemed too young. We were having a serious conversation about this and he was about to have to endure 20 more minutes of it while trapped in the car with me on the way to baseball practice.

"I do," I say, wondering if she is looking at us with the same nostalgia—in her case for the future, ours, the past—that we gaze at her. "Do you think she is looking at us, too, thinking, 'Ahh, soon I too will be having conversations with my teenage son about the dangers of marijuana use'?"

Smile from Zack. "Funny." Then a sigh.

Smile from me. "Yeah." Then a sigh.

I turn the key in the ignition—how did we get cast in these opposing roles, I wonder—and, pressing on the gas, we move past the woman and her baby on the corner, her form receding in the rear view mirror, growing smaller as we move forward, watching her watching us.

This essay, written in 2013, is part of a forthcoming book, "Reading, Interrupted."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun