My doppleganger lives at the opposite end of the hall. She is also a single working mom with a little boy, a squealing pup, and a sort-of-manageable custody arrangement. We both teach. We both have moms in the area who help us out but we both still struggle with childcare and doggy care. We both are juggling about 15 things too many.
We even share a first name.
And we are starting to like each other.
Back-to-school night for her son’s kindergarten class is this evening. Grownups only. What do we single parents do?
We invite our neighbor’s kiddo to come over and play.
The boys have never met. They are three years apart in age. As soon as her little one is in the door, Bug spirits him off to the bedroom to play snap circuits. And we go like this for a little while — legos, chatter — until a soft knock at the door rouses us. Bug climbs up to look through the peephole and sees one of his neighborhood buddies.
“Can you come out?” She asks.
In a flash, Bug snaps on his rollerblades and helmet. Our visitor declines an offered scooter and trots out after them.
“Run and catch up,” I shout.
He hollers back to me, “I can’t run in my flip-flops but it’s okay.”
Around the corner, the pack is waiting. One dad helps his boy balance on an ancient bicycle. The girls rock back and forth on scooters. Everyone gathers around toe-in for bubble-gum bubble-gum, and the 5th grade girl is the first It. She takes Noodle’s leash and starts to count.
With a screech, the rest of them run, roll, and flippty-flop off down the sidewalk.
Up the stairs, down the corridors. Up the elevators, between the landings. Around the courtyards, through the gardens, behind the bushes.
The littlest boy runs and runs in his oversized sandals. He’s tagged It within the first two minutes, and spends the next 30 in that role. Bug speeds past and I say, “You’ve got to let him catch you at least once. He’s smaller than everyone.”
“But he likes it!” Bug tells me.
The little It skies past and I call, “Do you like being It?”
He throws his fists in the air, scrunches up his pink face, lets out a kid-sized war-whoop. “I LIKE IT!” He shouts. He races past, splashing through a puddle and up the stairs.
I stand off the main drag and talk to a dad with the spring-loaded pitbull and two preschool boys. As I do, the big 6th grader shows up on his scooter.
“Everyone is that way,” I say.
“Everyone who?” He looks around and I realize the courtyard is empty.
“Bug and your sister and everyone. It’s an epic game of tag. I think they’re hiding up on the fourth floor.”
“Okay!” He turns and shoots off to the next courtyard. Ten seconds of silence, 15, then BAM! The entire red-faced pack comes galloping past us, Noodle panting in the middle of the herd. Little It howls in delight as he flip-floppy runs after them. The two preschoolers squeal and shriek, and the dad says, “Wow!”
On the next pass, I drag them all over to my place for an ice water break. One finds a fat slug on the way and carries it rolled up in a leaf while the rest jostle in to inspect it.
“I know!” the big sister cries. “We should have a fitness day here every week!”
We start with wall push-ups, squat-walks, jumping jacks. Bug asks me to get out my phone for a stopwatch, and they race up to the second floor landing then back down.
“Suicides!” Eliot commands. Big sister rolls her eyes and lays back on the steps in her Hawaiian flowered dress. The boys all pound past her. Up to the 2nd, down to the 1st. Up to the 3rd, down to the 1st. Up to the 4th, on and on. One of the boys is clutching his side and grimacing. Every one of them drips and heaves.
A neighbor mom comes, then another. They coax their whining children home for dinner. Bug and Little It tumble into our place, refill their glasses with ice and sparkling water, and collapse in the castle-fort. This morning before catching the bus, Bug built it out of blankets and chairs. It’s just the right size for two kiddos.
I stock their clubhouse with books then pop a bag of popcorn and heat up leftover whole-wheat pizza. The boys fortify their citadel with stools an chairs, blocking Noodle’s entry. She pushes herself between the wooden legs and gazes with glossed longing at their crusts. They giggle and stuff pillows in the gaps, then read together until my doppleganger knocks.
“Is that sweat all over you?” She asks, peering into the fort. He grins super big and nods.
“Awesome,” she says. She’s grinning too.
Little It is reluctant to go so I pack popcorn in a small butter tub and tell him he can come back anytime.
“I hope it wasn’t too much of a hassle,” she says.
“It was a blast,” I tell her. “We had so much fun!”
It was. We did.
And I learn all over again that lesson that prods at us through every human relationship: No matter how stretched and stingy you feel, give what you wish you were given.
If this collection of boxes is to grow into our community, then we get to be the neighbors we’d want to come knocking.