My former true love, the mother of my child, has a mouth in the middle of her palm. When she covers my mouth with her hand it is like a kiss.
Her hand is warm as I trace the outline of that mouth, the beautiful, full lips slightly parted into a black tiny trapezoid. When she pulls her hand away I lose track of my own body.
I am on the F train between York Street and East Broadway. For a long moment I think about the way one tiny crack in the tunnel could fill the crawling car with cold early-morning river water.
I take off my glasses and rub my eyes. Swirling, filmy strands streak across my field of vision. I can see colors but I can’t see shapes, which confuses my daughter, who is on the train with me. She is seven years old and awed by her freshly-minted ability to read. Entire worlds of knowledge are no longer inaccessible to her.
She gently holds my glasses and asks me to read the ads along the top of the car. She is fascinated by my failure to see the shapes of the letters. I squeeze my eyes half-closed, straining to bring lumpy blocks of text into focus. Feeling sorry for my middle-aged eyes, my daughter quickly shifts the game so that I am identifying colors instead. She can only handle so much weakness in her father.
“What about the one closest to the doors?” she asks.
“Pink. Pink and whitish on top?”
“Yes. But, ok, gross. It’s a birthday cake. It says ‘Breathe easy. Blow out the candles on your next birthday. Get help to quit smoking now.’”
“Good job reading, kiddo,” I say. Glasses still off, I trust her.
“Can you see the candles on the cake, Daddy?”
“I see the whitish area on the top.”
“Wrong. They’re not candles, they’re cigarettes. Seriously, that is really gross.”
“Well, cigarettes are gross,” I say, reflexively falling into a parenting moment.
I put on my glasses and see my daughter curling and uncurling the corner of a drawing she made that morning while I brushed my teeth: two cats dancing under a smiley-faced rainbow. Across the top reads the message “Get Well Soon Mommy.” Her large-lettered wish had run out of room above the arched rainbow, so that the letters “on Mommy” are written separately, on a line just below “Get Well So.”
“Continued self-harm ideation,” my daughter said at a near whisper, her pronunciation clear.
I looked around, squinting through my glasses. “Is that on a poster somewhere?”
“No, I heard it a lot yesterday.”
“Do you want to ask about it when we get there?”
She doesn’t reply. Sleepy riders fill the subway car as we head further into Manhattan. I am thinking less about river water and more about the mouth in my former lover’s palm. The way it tensed to a taut line when I asked questions. How I would hold it up to my ear, hoping it would whisper to me.
At 14th Street I tell my daughter to stay still and I stand up. I start turning over the hands of people as they board the train, looking to see if anyone else has a mouth there. People are surprised, but nobody stops me. I don’t find any mouths. Only calluses. Rings. I pull at fingers curled around still-steaming coffee cups, cellphones clutched tight.
I see life lines and love lines like I’ve never seen them before. As I look, I know what they say. Suddenly I know how to read, like my daughter. This knowledge is no longer inaccessible to me.
Now I am tapping and tracing palms, following curved creases. I start telling people their futures. I see that everyone will have good fortune. “You will come into money,” I tell a frail, feathery woman who smiles. I tell a student, hunched under a hulking backpack, that he will marry and have many healthy, happy children. I tell a man my age, his close-cropped hair bleached white, that he will survive whatever losses he may experience in his life. Tears are streaming down my cheeks and neck and dripping into the collar of my shirt. People reach out, palms upturned, wanting to be next. All these hands are talking to me. But none of them tell me what I most want to hear.
My daughter and I are in the dark hospital room, her mother awake in her bed, which is inclined at 38 degrees, so it almost looks like she’s sitting up. The TV, on mute, is showing a decade-old episode of some supernatural-themed show. Young women wield silent, capable magic.
All around us machines tick and beep in repetitive patterns. One machine emits a single long tone that says “fear.” Another, quicker two-tone pattern insists, “worry, worry.” My daughter places her drawing onto her mother’s softening body.
I take her mother’s hand, which is warm, like I remember. I open the palm and am shocked see there is no mouth there. It’s back on her face where it belongs, pursed slightly, exhaling. But her mouth might as well be a tattoo for as much as it’s telling me. Her hooded eyes speak the same silence.
On the TV, the women are running away from a dark torrent of conjured water bounding towards them. As they run their muted footsteps land in sync with the machines around us: worry, worry, worry, worry.
I try to read her palm but my new ability is gone: her love line frowns and the message I trace says it’s time for the two visitors to get out, which reminds me of the night she told me to go because I never made her happy.
I can see colors but I can’t see shapes. The former love of my life is all shape and no color. She closes her eyes, exhausted by our visit. I look at my daughter and nod towards the door. It’s still morning and we have to get back on the train to Brooklyn so I can take her to second half of the school day. My daughter is reading at Level K and wants to get to L by the end of the month.