He didn't look like my dad, not at all, really. He had a full head of white curly hair, no beard or mustache and a completely different style of glasses.
But he was reading a Kindle.
The older kind, like the one I bought for my dad before he got seriously sick but when he was already not well. He needed extra large-print books — hard to find at the library, my mom said, at least the ones he wanted — and even the act of holding up a large heavy hardcover was getting hard on his wrists and hands. So I bought him a Kindle. He was reading it the last time I saw him, or at least the last time I really saw him, before the final sudden and rapid decline.
The Metro was crowded and I had to lean away from the people standing in the aisle lest I wanted a messenger bag to the face. I glanced over at his Kindle and noticed he also had the text set fairly large. I didn't intend to be nosy but I immediately recognized what he was reading:
Act I, Scene I: Elsinore. A platform before the Castle.
"Hamlet!" I blurted out.
He looked up, a little startled, then smiled. He hadn't read it in years, but had recently seen a production of it at the Folger Theatre downtown and decided to give it another go. He asked if I'd read much Shakespeare.
I explained that my father had taught Shakespeare for many, many years. So yes.
"He passed away last year," I added, then paused to silently check my math. Last year? The year before? It feels like forever ago, most days.
We continued chatting about this and that. Kindles are great, love that you can get the classics for free, etc. He asked if I'd followed in my dad's footsteps and I explained that while I wasn't a teacher, I'd minored in English and was now a writer.
"Just online," I clarified. A weird compulsion, something I've done ever since a conversation I had with my dad in which he expressed his disappointment that I was wasting my "talents" on the little "web site thing" instead of focusing on getting published for real.
He apologized for that later, admitting that he didn't understand what I was doing at the time. He probably went on to tell me how proud he was of me and my writing accomplishments at least a dozen times, but still. "Just" online. A verbal tic that stuck.
He asked about my children's ages, and if any of them had inherited the knack for English and writing. I immediately boasted about Noah's book about the Scary Teacher from the Black Lagoon, a Frankenstein's monster type villain who frightens his students before being ultimately defeated by a single karate punch.
I suddenly realized I was openly using this poor man as a stand-in, having a conversation with a surrogate PopPop and expecting a total stranger to be proud of my kid and the funny little book he wrote — but he WROTE it! he's WRITING! he's READING! he's just doing so GREAT, Dad, GREAT! if you could only SEE! — and was seized with a weird sort of panic when I realized we were at our stop.
It was also his stop. He got up and left the train car. He immediately vanished into the crowd on the platform and I never saw him again.
I started choking back the sobs while still on the escalator. Jason was momentarily confused and then surmised that I'd been reminded of my dad, though I couldn't even dare explain the actual crazy thoughts rushing through my head at that moment — I wanted that man to come back. I wanted to talk to him some more. I wanted him to say goodbye to me. He should at least have said goodbye to me. Instead he just. Got up. And left. He left me.
Come back. Come back!
He's not coming back.
I know this. I knew this. But apparently I had to re-learn it on Friday night, through hours of ugly, raw sobbing until I had no tears left, but the grief kept rising and crashing, hitting me harder than even the night I got the phone call. I'd been expecting that phone call.
I didn't expect to meet a nice older man on the Metro, reading Hamlet on his Kindle.