community, Parenting, Things I Can

48. Things I Can Shoot: A U-Turn

It’s topped 90 degrees. The last storm howled through only day before yesterday, but summer couldn’t care less. She just strode in, popped open her beach chair, and planted herself for the duration.

Six days left of school.

As the mercury rises and the countdown quickens, restraint flags. When I pick up Bug at the end of the day, the whole class is prickling. It’s as if the entire second grade has raced to the ragged wall of the calendar and slammed into it. They stand there chafing as the rest of us catch up. Every kid wilts in a 3-day-old T-shirt. Every kid marinates in last week’s sweat.

Today I arrive in time to catch the end of a nipping contest among a group of first and second graders. Who-said-what-when-how? In the four minutes I’m in the classroom, the alliances shift twice.

Buckling ourselves into the car, I ask Bug about his day. I barely get the question out.

“Will you STOP THAT!?” he roars.

“Stop what?”

“THAT! Just doing that TALKING!”

His response is so beyond rude that I actually laugh, which makes him shove the dog out of his lap and set his jaw.

“Wow, Bud. You’re having quite a day.”

A long pause. Very quietly from a ducked head in the back seat: “Can I stay at my dad’s tonight?”

Keep it light, lady. I put a smile in my voice. “Sorry, kiddo. Tonight you’re with me.”

“Well, can we at least make some lemonade and sit on the balcony?”

Where did this come from? We’ve never once made lemonade, and we brought the chairs in from outside weeks ago. Who would want to park it out there? Given the choice, even the garden would trade places. The pepper plants have shrunk to husks and the basil’s given up entirely. You can almost see the ambient poison that earned this afternoon its Code Orange.

“Geez,” I say. “We don’t even have lemons at home. How about orange juice? Or maybe I have a packet of Kool-Aid?” Someone was handing out rainbow envelopes of the stuff at the Pride parade last year. I think one is still crammed somewhere in a cabinet.

Bug just sags. “Lemonade is better,” he mutters.

If I don’t do something here, this kid is going to start crying. Which actually means screaming at me because in my kid’s 8-year-old world, that’s a more satisfying way to manage the misery eating at him.

It’s been a long damned year.

I snap on the blinker and pull into the nearest driveway, which happens to be directly across from ours. I swing around and watch as the neighborhood pool, the air conditioning, and the pile of books on the living room couch recede behind me. Those comforts may work for me, but my boy needs a different pacifier tonight.

“Where are we going?” He asks.

“To the supermarket.”

He perks up. “For lemons?”

“Yep.”

I can almost hear the energy buzzing back into his weary body. This is good. I’ll take a hit off him when I have to thread my way through the pack of rabid drivers at the intersection that stands between us and the store.

“Okay,” he says. “Only lemons, right? Nothing else? We won’t even get a basket, okay?”

“You’ve got it.”

But we do get a basket — the kind you carry — and we pick out a dozen small lemons that perfume our hands. The eastern peaches are just too cheap and cute, so we fill a bag. Bug dives into one in the car on the ride home. The flesh is hard but sweet, and he devours it down to the stone.

In our kitchen, we rinse the lime green pitcher and force the lemons inside-out. Bug ladles in sugar and sloshes in water, then stirs with a wooden spoon. He pours just enough for a taste. A pucker, a blink, more sugar, then we get it right and fill our cups for outside.

Only now it’s not balcony. It’s swim trunks and floaties, and we walk to the pool loaded with travel mugs and soft towels and plastic rings and chat-chat-chat, “Mom, look at this! See this?” He’s rolling the inner tube along the sidewalk, lemonade splashing, face bright and grinning. Then we hear voices, the trill and clang of children popping, slapping, fizzing. They call out, call to him, holler Bug’s name. They cling to the fence in a jumbled line, all the now-familiar faces. They jostle wet curls, flash neon swimsuits, bounce shouts off concrete.

Come on, come on!
The lifeguard just called a break!
Where have you been?
Hey look, he has pool stuff.
You brought pool stuff!
Come on!

My boy picks up his pace and speeds through the changing room, and the group of children swallows him up. The parents listen to my lemon saga because they all want to know where we’ve been. Hearing me, Bug takes a dramatic sip from his cup and grins. Then the kids cluster around and listen again about the lemons because they want to know too.

Where were you? Why weren’t you here?

As if they all knew to show up here at the pool on this very afternoon, and expected us too. As if someone called the opening meeting of some secret society.

As if our membership is a given.

As if this is exactly where we are supposed to be.

Children, community, Friends, Things I Can

37. Things I Can Escort: My Plus One

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.

Children, community, Friends, Things I Can

36. Things I Can Relax: The Borders

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?”

A pause.

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.