After almost three years with no kids in the neighborhood, a new family moved in next door. Their son, whom I’ll call Luke, is one month older than Jack.
The boys met early in the summer. One evening we were in our front yard discussing landscaping ideas and playing with Jack when Luke approached us, stopped about twenty feet away, then turned and bolted. Jack, intrigued upon seeing a boy his age, took the bait and followed Luke back to his yard, where we parents met for the first time. His mom was also a teacher; his dad and my husband discovered they were fans of the same football team. Our dogs sniffed each other and played. Before the evening was over, Jack and Luke had kicked around a soccer ball, hid out in a cove of pine trees, and stood side-by-side with penises out, pissing on said pine trees. In other words, they’d bonded.
I allowed myself to be as optimistic about the new relationship as a misanthrope can be. I thought lovingly of my own childhood, of Kate, the girl who lived next door to me. She became my best friend, and my memories of carefree summer evenings in the space between our houses are still so vivid. The “bridge” her father built underneath her Russian olive tree, where we’d aimlessly weave blades of grass together as we talked about our classmates and Nancy Drew. Our My Little Pony parades and pageants. Our endless attempts at cartwheels and handstands. The detective radio programs, gymnastic acts, and plays we’d concoct and perform. Those are some of my happiest memories. She’s the only friend from my childhood I regularly keep in touch with, partly because she’s a person of real substance and character. And perhaps because she knows my center, the person I was before my teens and twenties started pushing me this way and that.
There’s something timeless, something elemental about people, places, and things from our childhood. Maybe we think if we can hold on to them, we can recapture childhood itself. All I know is, my best friend from childhood makes me feel more like me.
I wondered if Jack would feel that way about Luke one day, if he’d look back and be unable to imagine a childhood without his best friend.
The two boys began playing together a couple of nights a week, and sometimes when they were outside, they’d call for each other through the fence. Whenever that happened, my heart got melty. I hadn’t thought of it in years, but Kate and I used to “call” for each other, too. In the summer, when our windows were open, one of us would bang the metal swing set as the “signal” for the other to come outside. I also hadn’t remembered, for longer than I want to admit, the simple happiness of looking forward to playing with my best friend.
A few days went by without Luke coming by, and whenever Jack mentioned him, I texted his mother to see if he could come play. Sometimes they were busy; sometimes I didn’t get a response until much later. Getting together just didn’t work out. We stopped texting when we deemed it time to let them make the next move. Jack would get intolerably whiny when he wanted to play with Luke. We tried to explain that the families should take turns initiating, but we knew he was too young to understand such intricacies. And why should he have to? He’s three. He’s so beautifully driven by pure emotion. The last time Luke had come to the door, Jack had lit up and proclaimed, “I love you, Luke!”
After a few weeks of no play dates, my husband and I began to wonder if we’d done something wrong.
“Do you think I did something?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “And you need to keep it together. Assuming that people hate me is my thing. Both of us can’t do it. I need you to be the voice of reason here.”
The next day, he said, “Do you think I shouldn’t have wiped Luke’s butt?”
“I don’t think that’s it,” I said. “What were you supposed to do? Let him walk around with shit on his butt?”
“No, I mean, maybe we should have let you do it.”
I shrugged. “I don’t really see where it makes a difference. There was poop; an adult had to get it off. Is it somehow better if a woman does it?”
We began to muse aloud about how we’d feel if various individuals assisted Jack in the bathroom, which led to a twenty-minute discussion of the sexual politics of ass-wiping. Next my husband proposed that Jack didn’t behave properly when he was at their house. We didn’t think that was it, but we couldn’t rule it out. All this fretting was starting to ramp up my own ridiculously heightened self-consciousness.
“I can’t think of anything I did wrong,” I said. “I asked her if she wanted some cherry tomatoes from the garden. Is that weird? Is ‘cherry tomatoes’ like, sexual slang? Is it a code for something? Does it mean we’re swingers?”
“Do you think it’s a gay thing? Should I call Ray?”
A quick visit to the Urban Dictionary revealed that “cherry tomato” has meanings both as a noun and a verb, with the noun meaning being “a giant hemorrhoid.” Since Luke’s mom and I had talked at length about our gardens, I was fairly sure that she had interpreted my offer of cherry tomatoes as an offer of actual tomatoes, and not, in fact, a bowl of hemorrhoids. Besides, anybody can write entries in the Urban Dictionary, so “Jon Craptree” is probably the only person who says that.
Last night, Jack and I were taking a walk, and Luke happened to be playing basketball in the driveway with his dad. The boys ran toward each other happily, but it wasn’t long before I discovered that while I’d been exchanging pleasantries with Luke’s dad, Jack had gone missing. I found him in the garage, ripping out every motorized riding toy he could find, riding on each one for only a few seconds before abandoning it and going for another. I scolded him. He ignored me. I started to do the counting thing. He ignored me. I threatened him with, “Little boys who are not good listeners don’t get the new Transformer they’re supposed to get tomorrow.” That got his attention, but not enough for him to actually stop plundering Luke’s toys. I had to wrench his arm, hiss menacingly in his ear, and physically lift him off the Batcycle before he demonstrated any compliance.
Luke and his dad watched this scene uncomfortably. Their lack of response, coupled with their lack of response to our invitations over the past few weeks, made me almost sure we were unwelcome. I wanted to disappear into the asphalt, but Jack guaranteed we wouldn’t be able to slink ignominiously back down the street. Nope. He would have to be carried while crying and screaming about how much he wanted to play with Luke (interspersed with commentary about what “mean,” “bad,” and “not nice” mommy I was). I neglected to mention that the whole time this was happening, I was wrangling a Schnauzer who was intent on sniffing the neighbor dog’s ass and running around in circles until the leash was wound in a configuration I can only describe as “clusterfuck.” So I had to extricate my hand from the leash clusterfuck before padding back toward the street carrying a recalcitrant preschooler with strings of snot waving through the air. That moment made it obvious: just when you reach the point of adulthood when you stop worrying about embarrassing yourself in front of others, you have kids who will gladly do it for you.
We didn’t even make it to our driveway before Jack threw himself down in the street and began to convulse with anger. That’s when I whipped out the mom-ism I’d been trying to avoid saying these past (almost) four years: “You! Are! Em-BARRASSING! Me!”
I don’t know what Luke’s dad said when we walked away. Maybe nothing. Even though I make a twisted hobby out of imagining all the horrible things people say about me when I walk away from my interactions with them, rationally I know that most of the time, people’s behavior isn’t about me. It’s human nature to ascribe meaning and causality, but it’s not always there. Maybe their family had been busy. Or maybe they just don’t like cherry tomatoes.
After I dragged a wailing Jack into our house and explained why we don’t tear into other people’s belongings without asking, I thought about how weird the whole thing was. Come to think of it, the last few times the boys played, they hadn’t played much with each other at all. Jack was mostly interested in checking out Luke’s toys. I thought he was out of the “parallel play” stage. Had Kate and I been like that? I tried to remember, but I couldn’t remember much about our relationship until at least the age of seven or eight.
What I do remember: As beautiful as it was, our friendship was messy. I adored her, but I also got mad at her, competed with her, and tried to make her jealous. One time I think I even threw a kid-sized lawn chair at her. And that was all before middle school, when I made fun of her and spurned her in favor of “cooler” friends. (NB: They weren’t that cool.) Was I expecting Jack’s budding friendship with Luke to be any less messy? If so, then I certainly had a case of rosy retrospection.
Friendships are messy. Friendships involve usurped toys and screaming and crying and flying snot.
So, incidentally, does parenting.
It’s strange to go through childhood again, this time vicariously, as a parent. You want to shape and to change things, but it’s like a bad dream where your mouth moves and no sound comes out. You realize you have to let the drama that is your child’s life play out as it will. You don’t know what you’re in for, I want to say as I watch Jack mope about the window like a puppy, waiting for Luke’s family to come home.
But I don’t. This isn’t my show.