The Root of The Root

I heard it from the top of the staircase: that recording of the pleasant female voice all New Yorkers know so well. “This is a Brooklyn-bound F local train. The next stop is West 4th Street – Washington Square.”

“No no no!” I said, rushing headlong down to the platform, against the rising tide of commuters. I nearly tripped at the bottom, but righted myself just in time.

The recording switched to the more stern, male voice that the MTA uses for safety announcements. “Stand clear of the closing doors, please!”

“NO!” I dove forward through the crowd as the train dinged twice. It was the final warning before the doors started to close. Pushing between two people, I stuck my forearm in the narrowing gap.

Subway car doors are not like elevator doors. There’s no sensor in them. They will try to close on anything obstructing them, and go on trying until directed otherwise. At the moment, the thing obstructing them was my unprotected arm. I gasped and hissed with pain as they dug into my flesh for a few seconds before parting again.

And then I gasped because Quint was standing there, just inside the train, looking half as surprised as I was and a whole lot more disapproving.

My gravestone will probably read ‘Here lies Theo Calhoun. He was running late.’

“Dude, are you getting on or what?” asked one of the other passengers.

Um, actually, how about I catch the next one?

Quint reached out, took my elbow, and pulled me in. Behind me, the doors dinged and closed again. He didn’t let go of my arm as the train started to move, either. That, combined with the fact that it was pretty crowded, meant I couldn’t reach a pole to hold onto. I swayed off-balance before grabbing his waist with my other hand to steady myself. He was frowning at the faint red lines the doors had made on my skin.

“Hi!” I said, going for cheerfully innocent. “How was work today?”

That got me a Look that suggested my butt would already be stinging if we were alone. Distracting him clearly was not the way to go. I decided to shut up before I dug myself in any deeper.

Quint didn’t say anything either, so we rode the three stops to our station in silence. Thank the patron saint of Brats everywhere for the blind obliviousness that all people have on public transportation, because I was sure if anyone took a second glance at us they’d know I was in major trouble.

He kept quietly radiating Unhappy Top at me as we walked the couple of blocks from the station to our building, too. By the time we got inside the apartment, my stomach was doing backflips. Even Jagger coming to greet us couldn’t make me smile.

“Okay, I know I shouldn’t have done that,” I said, trying to head Quint off.

“No, you shouldn’t have,” he replied, smoothly. “Take your shoes off and go to the corner, please.”

“Jagger needs to be walked.” At my feet, the dog wriggled his tail and looked from me to Quint in excitement.

“I will take him, and when I get back, I expect you to be waiting in the corner. Is that clear, young man?”

I met his steel-blue eyes and nodded. “Yes, sir.”

He took the leash off the hook, clipped it to Jagger’s collar, and went out again, leaving me to contemplate my fate.

The thing is, I truly hadn’t considered putting my arm in the door to be that big a deal. Everyone does it. There’s a pre-recorded announcement just for telling people not to do it, and it gets played more often than any of the others. But I knew ‘everyone does it’ was not going to fly with Quint, especially since he probably considered this a safety issue. I only hoped he wouldn’t think it was serious enough for the belt. In all the years we’ve been together, I could still count the number of times I’ve been belted on one hand, and I wanted to keep it that way, thank you very much.

Our new apartment has almost the same layout as the old one. My corner is still to the right of the living room window, and it has the same boring white paint, with its mysterious power to slow time to an absolute crawl when I’m sent to look at it close-up. It seemed like Quint took way longer than usual to walk Jagger. I caught myself fidgeting more than he would’ve allowed, had he been there to supervise.

Eventually, though, I heard him come in. When I looked over my shoulder to gauge his mood, he raised his eyebrow and twirled a finger at me without a word. That wasn’t good. I quickly turned back to the corner as he walked past behind me, shutting Jagger in the office, and then I heard him settle down on the couch and his quiet, firm voice. “Come here, please, Theodore.”

I summoned my courage and went to sit on the coffee table in front of him. Before he could start the lecture, I said, “Quint, I know it’s against the rules, but it’s not like it’s really that unsafe. My arm is fine now, see?”

He didn’t even glance at it.

“Theodore William, are you suggesting that deliberately getting caught in the door of a vehicle that weighs several thousand pounds and is about to start moving away from you, at a high speed, is not dangerous?”

Well, when he put it that way….

“Yeah, but the conductors always check and open the doors before they start moving,” I protested. “So I knew it was safe. I wasn’t being reckless or anything.” That was the key distinction, in my mind. Recklessly putting myself in danger is a one-way ticket to a belting.

Leaning forward, Quint set his hand on my knee. “Angel, what are you more concerned with at the moment?” he asked. “The fact that you could have been seriously injured, or even killed, in front of my eyes, had a single, overworked MTA employee stopped paying attention for five seconds? Or convincing me not to use my belt?”

As gently as he said it, it hit like a punch to the gut.

“That’s… that’s not fair,” I said, blinking back tears. “I wasn’t thinking about it like that.”

“Which is exactly the problem. Do you see what I mean?”

I felt awful. “I’m sorry. I’ll get the belt.”

“No.” He squeezed my knee, stopping me from standing up, his eyes unfocused as he thought. Finally, he said, “Bring me a notepad and a pen from my desk, please. And you can let Jagger out.”

I blinked. Lines? After all that, I was getting lines?

“Really? But I deserve the belt, I agree–”

“Theodore,” Quint interrupted. “Do as I asked.”

It didn’t make any sense, but I fetched them for him. Jagger followed me back out and jumped up into my lap as I sat down on the couch, in the spot Quint had made for me by moving over. I passed him the pad and pen and watched him start writing, thinking this had to be some kind of trick, despite the fact that he’s not the type to pull them. “So… I’m not getting a spanking?”

He paused in whatever he was printing out and looked up at me. “I could spank you for this, Theo, and I could make you promise never to hold those doors open again, and then I could spank you for any one of another million dangerous things you might do, and extract promises not to do them as well, but ultimately, that isn’t getting to the root of the issue, is it?”

I looked down and rubbed Jagger behind the ear. “What if I just promise to be more careful in general?”

“General promises have never worked well for you,” he said, which was true, “and that’s still not the root of it.”

That confused me again. “What is?”

Why I want you to be careful,” he said. Then he finished writing and handed the pad and pen back to me. “This is why. Copy it out, please.”

I read it, and immediately had to wipe away tears before they fell onto the paper and made the words run. “How many times?”

“I’m not sure yet,” he replied. “I’ll let you know when I think you’re done.”

That was fair. I balanced the pad on Jagger’s back and started to write.

‘i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)’

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