elissa ely

Never far from vigilance

Istock photo

In the light of a late afternoon, I drive several teenage girls to a playground. It’s empty, as they had hoped, with the time and space for very private conversation. I remember the intimacy of slow-moving swings in summer, where so much can be settled without going anywhere.

The girls slam their doors and head toward the back of the park, where the swing set is enclosed in a gated area. They latch the gate behind them.

A solitary driver has followed us. He pulls up and parks at a distance. He turns off his engine. In my rearview mirror, I see him. He seems to be looking out his own rearview mirror.


I start to drive away, around the corner, down the hill. The transporting part of the trip is over; a different mother will give them a ride home. Then I make a three-point turn and reverse direction. There’s no other choice. I pull in on the other side of the street, half a block down from the park.

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The man is still looking at the swings. He gets out of the car and walks around the trunk, tugging his baseball cap. I can’t read the team name on its visor. He opens the back door, and reaches into the seat for something I can’t make out, but can imagine. We are never far from instinct.

He leans in farther, tugging at this something. It takes a minute to come free. Then he pulls an infant out from what must have been its car seat below my view. I couldn’t see it before. He reaches in again and pulls out what looks like a diaper bag. He makes a face at the baby, who is making faces back. Both of them are smiling. He hoists the bag over a shoulder, slams the door with a hip, and turns towards the playground. His arms are full. Everyone is happy. Everyone is safe.

We are going mad with vigilance.

Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.