When we left Maine for Washington, D.C. this spring, my wife and I worried how our 4-year-old son would adapt.
Seth had grown up in a farmhouse beside woods and a stream. He snow-shoed the open field up the road. He laughed at the wild turkeys that traipsed across our yard each fall and enticed the neighbor's horse to the paddock fence with fistfuls of carrots.
Seth was a dynamo, a kid who needed wide spaces to run and tumble and feel the wind against his cheeks. Now we were taking him to a tiny apartment in the District of Columbia, where we were moving for my new job.
Would he ever again know the thrill of inner-tubing down an icy hill (he had called it "the big whee")? Would he feel imprisoned in the city, with all its strictures on movement: the don't-walk signs, the narrow sidewalks, the rules about holding Mommy or Daddy's hand and looking both ways before crossing the street?
Our first few days in Washington were tough. He moved about our tiny apartment like a caged animal, leaping off the coffee table and somersaulting across the floor. A young woman in the apartment downstairs showed up in pajamas that first morning and complained, poetically, I thought, that his footfalls were "invading my dreams."
We told Seth that city rules were different from country rules. He'd nod and quiet down for a few minutes. Then the dynamo was back. I worried that the young woman would complain to the landlord. My wife questioned whether we should ever have moved.
Then something happened: Seth asked how I got to work without a car, and I told him about the trains that run beneath the city.
"They're called subways," I told him. "They go really fast."
"But where are they, Daddy?"
"Underground," I said.
We were on the futon in our third-floor apartment, and I saw something flash in his eyes. It was the same look, equal parts fear and wonder, he'd given me before rides down "the big whee."
"Daddy," he said.
"I want to be underground."
• • •
Our subway rides became a weekend ritual. "Where would you like to go? I'd ask. "I just want to ride," he'd say. All he needed was to descend the long escalators into the city's bowels and board the trains that roared out of those dark tunnels.
How fast are we going? he wanted to know, wriggling into the seat beside me and clutching my arm. What was this station called? How many stops are we going to make? How deep are we? Is the Metro Center station deeper underground than Federal Triangle? Is the track rising or falling?
He was soon insisting that we ride in the front car, in the pair of seats just behind the driver. Pressing his face against the tinted glass, he glimpsed the onrushing blur of tunnel lights.
Above ground, after a subway ride, as his eyes adjusted to the light, he'd grow despondent. When would Daddy have enough time to take him on another ride? he wanted to know.
"Not until next weekend," I said.
"I love being underground," he said, his voice edged with sadness. "I want to be underground all day."
To tide him over during the week, we posted a pocket-sized subway map on the wall above his bed. He sopped up the arcana of the D.C. Metro system: which train lines traveled for a stretch above ground, which stations were arch-shaped and which tube-shaped, which had the steepest escalators, which were "deep, deep underground" and which were merely underground.
Because he is small for his age and speaks with a bright, clear voice, weary riders often looked up from their newspapers when he turned to me with questions, as if in the presence of some carnival act.
"This is Metwo center, right, Daddy?" he asked, small fingers gripping the metal pole as the subway lurched to a stop. "Or is it Federal Twiangle?"
At the end of one such interrogation, a half dozen strangers – from the teenage boy in the seat ahead of us, to the middle-aged woman to our right – were in stitches.
"He's a genius," the woman said.
"He ought to be in the movies," said the man next to her.
We got off the Blue Line at Metro Center and were waiting on a higher platform, for the Red Line, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and saw a man with mussed long hair – possibly homeless – whom I had recognized from the earlier train.
"I just wanted to let you know," he said. "That young man has a lot of personality."
Whatever the merits of country over city living, Seth had found in the subways a new world of adventure, a different channel of locomotion. Washington would never be Maine. But the speed, the darkness, the maze of tracks seemed to fire the same regions of his imagination.
For the first time, I felt that Seth would be fine here. And that maybe I would be, too.
• • •
One night, after tucking him in, he said that our 12 subway stops that day were a record. I didn't know he'd been counting.
"That's even one more than Andrew," he said. Andrew had visited from Maryland the week before, and, by Seth's calculations, his friend had gone just 11 stops.
"That's cool, Seth," I said. "But now it's time to go to sleep, OK?"
"But, Daddy?" he said.
"Today you were special to me in two ways."
"Really? How's that?"
"One, because we went underground," he said, the night light glinting in his eyes.
"Two, because we went deep, deep underground."