I am the only one who brings her kid to this year’s spring celebration. At least half my doctoral students are parents, but they all let their children sit this one out. Bug has the great (mis)fortune to be an only child of divorced parents. No matter where the ride is headed, he’s along for it. Some say this will teach him to be adaptable. It certainly forces him to make his own entertainment.
Someone has boiled a bucket of crayfish. Bug lets me crack one open for him to try. His eyes open wide and he begs for more. He and a student spar with a couple of disembodied claws. My boy pours himself lemonade, slices a piece of rum cake, pulls up a chair, and regales the crowd with stories of 2nd-grade troublemakers.
On the long drive across town to get home, I tell Bug he should be proud of himself for being a part of the gathering. Fading, he stares out the window into the deepening dusk. He doesn’t answer. We haul ourselves up the stairs to our condo. Music and voices tumble along the corridor under a current of cigarette smoke, perfume, charred meat. Kids scramble through bushes edging the stairwell.
“Someone’s having a party,” I say.
In our house, I leash the frantic Noodle. “Come on,” I tell Bug. “Let’s go see what’s going on.”
He hesitates. The couch is compelling, yet the noise outside wins. He follows me over. I knock on the door across from ours. A stranger answers, two more peek out, faces bright and buzzing. Someone hollers for my neighbor. She comes to the door with a big hello. “It’s my birthday!” she says. “Come in!”
“We hear children,” I tell her. She grins, puts her arm around Bug, and leads him right into the house. The pack of nieces, nephews, grandchildren opens up to absorb him. He disappears into it and the door closes.
I walk Noodle around the block then come back to check on my boy. My neighbor’s husband comes to the door and ushers me in. A dozen Brazilian, European, and Iranian kin are whooping it up in the living room, on the patio. One-by-one, I shake hands and learn everyone’s place on the family tree. Someone flips open a laptop to show photos. We sing the English happy birthday song and clap with the sped-up Portugese version. We eat cake and mango, pork and clams. Bug runs over to our house and comes back with markers, paper, scissors. He and the kids sequester themselves in a bedroom. We hear squeals, then the door opens and they pound through the living room and out to the small back yard.
It is two hours past bedtime when we finally collapse on the blankets. I tell my boy he should be proud of himself for playing with kids he’d never met before. I tell him he’s practicing being courageous and creative. I tell him he’s becoming a good friend.
He asks me to read Inkspell. As Fenoglio and Meggie and Dustfinger fight their way into the Adderhead’s darkest dreams, my boy chooses yellow from the tin of colored pencils and draws himself quiet.
He’s an only child of divorced parents.
He’s also just one cool kid.