I had not seen a person with numbers for years. I had almost forgotten they existed.
Even though our new Los Angeles neighborhood is residential, it is bordered by commercial streets. For reasons unclear to J and me, we seem to have five fabric stores within a two-block radius, and there are three nail salons visible from the corner at the end of our street. Nonetheless, many of the businesses are incredibly useful, and we can walk to the pharmacy, the bank, a Coldstone Creamery, a burger joint that has been around so long it is a Los Angeles fixture, and a fantastic children’s bookstore. We can also walk to the mall in under two minutes.
This is one of those mid-level malls that has a Gymboree play center, a Motherhood Maternity, and a Payless. No fancy men’s clothing stores, but a Macy’s on one end and a Nordstrom on the other, so I guess we could get fancy things if we knew what to do with them. There is a soft-play area in the food court, so on a hot day kids can let off some steam before purchasing a hot dog on a stick.
I was there with only Zachary (almost four) one afternoon, a rare luxury because J had the day off and he was watching Trouble (2). We were checking out a new store where children (and I suppose adults) can make their own books and then have them turned into hard-covers or board books. Since Zach spends the better part of every afternoon in his room making books, I thought this would be a lovely place for us to spend some time alone together.
It turned out to be more lovely time than I had bargained for. No one can rush my son when he has a job to do, and the task at hand apparently required a good deal of attention to detail. I was concerned we would be there around the time they started polishing the floors at the end of the night.
But, Zach finally finished, and we left the store in a very good mood. He has been almost impossible with me lately, perhaps due to the complete lack of control he feels. I am guessing that feeling comes from either the transatlantic move, the second move to a new house, the entirely new school and then the new class within that school a few months later, his father working absurd hours, his mother pregnant, or the guys endlessly finishing the work on our back garage. Since Mommy is the Complaints Department, he is perfect in school and then maniacal when he gets home. Hence, the afternoon of special time.
We had a stroller with us, so we headed for the elevators, first having to go up and then down to get a spot inside. Up on the top floor, by the food court and the soft play area, an elderly woman stepped partway in. She held the doors open and called for someone to come. We waited. And waited. And I started to get annoyed because she was holding us up for someone who was taking his sweet time.
It turned out to be her husband, a man in his eighties or early nineties, who clearly had needed to sit on a bench until the elevator came. He slowly made his way over with a cane and finally we were on our way down.
He smiled at Zachary, who smiled back. Noting our double stroller, he asked, “Do you have a brother?”
“Yes,” Zach replied.
“Where is he?”
“He’s at home with my Daddy.”
“And show him where your sister is,” I told Zach, who obligingly pointed to my belly.
And, just as the man said something else to my almost-four-year-old about the wealth of siblings he seems to have, I noticed it. His arm. Six numbers, starting with 111. I froze momentarily, catching my breath. It was a little like when I see celebrities and start talking to them before I realize who they are. Somehow, I felt like I should have known, like I was wrong to be talking to him without acknowledging who he was.
There are fewer and fewer survivors. They are getting older and dying. This man would have been in his mid-twenties when the last of the camps were liberated, younger than I am now. He had lived an entire lifetime since then, with a wife and probably children and perhaps great-grandchildren. He had worked in jobs and read newspapers and bought socks and retired and learned a new language. Those numbers on his arm, they are just one part of his history, despite all they represent.
He walks around with those numbers on his arm, but he is not defined by them. He has conversations with small children in elevators.
I walked out and wanted to sob, partly because I was struck by how lucky we are, no matter how stressed I am, and partly because I have rivers of hormones racing through my veins. But also, partly, because I could not speak to him about it, could not bring myself to define him by the same number they had once used to define him. I wanted to show him I knew, but that was not my place.
I stepped out into the sunlight and called J to let him know we were on our way.
“Did you make it to the grocery store?” I asked.
“Yep. And we saw Tori Spelling in the bread aisle,” he replied.
Edited to add: You might want to read this post that joins in this conversation.