I’ve just cruised home from the metro and dumped my bike in the foyer. Someone knocks at the door. On the doorstep, the brother and sister whose names I don’t know balance on their scooters and ask if Bug is home.
“In about 10 minutes,” I say. “I’m going to get him right now.” The pair wheels off.
I’ve taken half a breath, grabbed the keys, harnessed the dog. Someone knocks on the door. The girl with the hair down to her waist steps off her scooter and asks if Bug is home.
“About 8 minutes,” I say. “I’m on my way.”
When I return with my boy, he heads to the kitchen and pulls tortillas and cheese from the fridge. Someone knocks on the door. I hear a mumbled conversation. Bug says, “I can’t,” and closes the door. He nukes a quesadilla and wolfs it down. He’s running the pizza cutter through the second and telling me about the new kid in his class.
Someone knocks on the door.
He stands in the two inches of threshold. Another muffled exchange passes across the narrow crack. He murmurs, “I can’t right now.”
The girl on the other side says, “Why not?”
When will he ask these kids in? Does he want to keep the line firm between home and outside, between what’s his own and the world of everything else? When I ask if he’d like to have someone over, he just says, “I don’t know, I guess,” or “Maybe later.” He may have reasons — perhaps unconscious reasons — for barring access. He may also simply have formed the habit. After all, he has been living half his life with a walking suit of armor.
He’s at the door, half his face out, the rest of him in. The girl is waiting. Maybe I should tell him it’s okay to go out? Or I could invite her in? I could go over and help him explain what he wants.
I stay put. My boy is 8 years old. I’ve done enough translating for him. He can negotiate his own relationships now. He decides what to say, and how, and when.
In the kitchen, I putter with the dishes and groceries. I listen but pretend I’m not. I’ll throw him a rope when he asks for one. Only then.
Bug finally tells her, “I have to finish my snack.”
She’s undeterred. “Will you come out after?”
He shrugs, “Sure,” and closes the door. He folds the last of the quesadilla into his mouth then pushes his feet into his shoes. “Bye, mom,” he hollers. The door opens again then slams.
I leash Noodle and wander out behind Bug. He is in the courtyard with the pack. I’ve seen them all at the bus stop, at the pool, on skateboards around the complex. When we approach, the girls coo and stroke Noodle. She quivers, caught between terror and ecstasy.
The brother and sister whose names I haven’t yet learned are looping in circles around the posts. I introduce myself, extending my hand. “I know everyone else here, but I haven’t met you yet.” They take my hand in turn, shaking it softly, ducking their gaze. They tell me their names and I ask if they live in that unit there, and they nod then roll off. The big boy at the end of the corridor says, “What about me? Have you met me?”
We’ve played at the pool and park with him for two years. His dad has one of the most welcoming smiles in the neighborhood. “Of course I know you!”
“Say my name!” He says.
I laugh and call it out.
The kids all tear off, wheels and shouts and pounding feet. I walk after them. The distance between us grows as Noodle pauses to catalog every molecule in the cracks of the sidewalk. Around the corner, two women sit on the patio where the brother and sister live. One is older, one is closer to my age. I walk up and introduce myself, tell them I’m Bug’s mom. “I just met your kids. They’re lots of fun.”
“Yes, yes,” the younger one says. She shakes my hand. I tell her my name, tell her the dog’s name. She pets Noodle, nods some more. “Yes, nice to meet you.” The phrase is careful, like one she needs to practice. The woman next to her smiles, nods. They don’t tell me their names. I say how much fun Bug has playing with her son and daughter, how happy I am that the kids are all out together. “Yes, it is nice,” she says. Nod, nod, smile. I wave goodbye and walk off again. The sound of wheels and sneakers on concrete tumbles from around the next building.
I double back towards my place and see a giant box leaning against the wall outside my neighbor’s door. Now, she and her husband are laughing as they try — and fail — to lift the giant cardboard monstrosity over the threshold.
“You need six hands for that,” I say. I deposit Noodle in my house and go back to help them heft the thing inside.
“It’s a new headboard. The old one was getting creaky,” she tells me. “I didn’t realize it was so heavy.”
Her husband drops his end on the floor and drags it the rest of the way to rest it against the side of the sofa. He takes a few gulps of breath.”That’s good. We can leave it for now.” His face is flushed.
“Well,” I say, “if you need some more muscle to set it up, you know where to find me.”
“Nah, we got it,” he says. He smacks his wobbling biceps then flexes. She rolls her eyes.
Back outside, I listen for the kids. Somewhere in the next courtyard, feet race up — or down? — an open stairwell. Someone shouts, “Not it!”
My boy has a place in that game, a place all his own. I step over a discarded scooter and head in to start dinner.