The rain lets up. In the kitchen, the skillet heats. I press shredded cheese into pockets of moist masa harina. Bug peels himself from the couch and kicks his feet into his sneakers. “I’m going out,” he tells me.
He wheels off through the courtyard on his scooter. I toss the first pupusa onto popping oil. A few minutes later, he’s back.
“No one’s home,” he says. The rain cleared the swimming pool deck, and the girls upstairs have flown off to Japan for the week. I step out to point across the breezeway, reminding him where his two new friends live. He jets off down the sidewalk.
Inside, the patties have warmed to gold. I open the blinds. The smiling man who drives the tiny sports car pauses inches from the window to leaf through his circulars. A couple passes behind him and takes the stairs, bickering about who was supposed to remember to check their mail.
Our unit sits at the top of the steps from the parking lot. Our door opens onto an alcove of community mailboxes. The mere act of leashing Noodle or loading schoolbags opens our living room to all curious eyes. We are friendly and brazen now. It took some time. The only alternative is armor and I got tired of lugging it around.
Neighbors buzz by with groceries and dogs. They unlock their mailboxes. They crack jokes, bark at their children, duck their heads and pretend they don’t see in. They plant earbuds, jingle keys, tap on their phones, bump into us. I say hello to everyone. I try to remember names.
Bug is back. He’s riding solo, looping around the concrete walkways. I see him pause at the adjacent condo, the one that houses the Portuguese couple whose children are grown. When we leave town, they water our plants and bring in the paper. Bug knows he is safe to go there if anything happens to me. Now he is knocking on their door. Now he has gone into their house. Now his scooter leans against the wall and, for the moment, my boy inhabits someone else’s world.
This kid astounds me. His classmates are all in for the evening? No problem. Just go say hello to someone else you like. Instead of waiting for change, he turns boredom into community. Instead of lamenting absent friends, he seeks out the ones on hand.
I step back to the stove and slip the first batch onto a rack. The oil is smoking so I click the heat to low. A moment later, he stomps inside. “I’m going next door,” he hollers. “Is the car unlocked?”
“Are there kids there?” I ask. “And what do you need in the car?”
“Just my skateboard,” he says. “No, no kids.”
“Who are you going to play with?” The cornflour is paste on my hands. I walk out to the foyer, patting the cheese flat into my palms. I peel, flip, pat, peel. It sticks anyway.
Bug paws through the keys on the hooks in the entryway. “Just some teenager.” He grabs a key. “Bye.” He pounds off down the stairs.
Now my antennae are up. Who is this mystery adolescent? And what sort of activity is my 8-year-old going to share with a teenager? I drop the pupusa onto the skillet and invert the others to keep them from burning. A sliver of cheese escapes and toasts to a crisp.
I hear Bug mount the stairs. I meet him there as he’s snapping on his helmet. A girl is waiting for him in the alcove. The soft shyness of her face makes her age hard to guess. She has dark hair in barrettes, glasses, a nervous smile, down syndrome. I put out my hand and introduce myself. She shakes my hand and tells me her name and explains that our neighbor is “my — um, my mother’s — um.” She thinks for a minute. “I’m her niece.”
“Oh, your mother is her sister. She’s your aunt.”
She lights up and nods. “That’s it!”
“I met so many people in your family at the birthday party,” I say. “How do you keep track of everyone?” She shrugs and grins. Bug adjusts his helmet and steps onto his deck.
“Do you have a skateboard too?” I ask her. “Are you going to ride?”
“I used to have one but it’s not here.”
“Do you want to use our scooter?”
“Yes, I would like to use the scooter.” I drag it out. Bug is already halfway down the corridor. She balances on the narrow base and pushes off after him. “Stay off the road and in the complex,” I holler.
Bug shouts back to me or maybe to her, “That’s okay because the complex is HUGE.”
It is dusk now. The pupusas sit in a limp mountain on a rack on the stove. I’ve made far too many for us. A dozen, more. The table is set with salsa, watermelon, carrots, silverware. My boy is still out there somewhere.
Do I trust their judgment?
The whispers begin. I wash the mixing bowl.
What if he catches sight of friends at the park? What if she wants to climb out on the railing? What if the ice cream truck is parked down the road?
The whispers hiss and jostle. I fold the cloth napkins.
Who will talk the other into holding back? Who will egg the other into jumping?
The whispers turn up the heat. I fill the water glasses.
Am I an idiot to trust my neighbors. Do I know this girl?
Do I know my son?
This is how the illusion of control worms its way in and cripples nascent independence. It chokes out any breath of fellowship. This is doubt at its most insidious.
This is why I let him go.
It is also why I wipe the counter. Make tomorrow’s lunch. Stay near the window but inside the house.
And maybe they are still out there wheeling around the neighborhood.
Or maybe they only needed to survey the perimeter of their shared territory once to satisfy their curiosity.
And maybe it was the vent fan whisking away the scorched oil that muffled their return.
Or maybe it was the internal chatter clanging louder than their homebound feet.
Out the window, I see now the helmets and wheels strewn along the wall. I find them parked on the neighbor’s couch, sipping Sprite and giggling at a Disney teen sitcom. The neighbors are puzzling over real estate listings. A baby nephew fusses in his carrier until someone picks him up. The husband comes in dripping sweat from a run. On their stovetop, a pressure cooker bubbles and shrieks.
I nudge Bug out the door. He calls a thank-you back over his shoulder. He bounces the five steps to our door and the six more to our table where downs half the pupusas and all the watermelon.