We’re lying on a pull-out mattress in the basement, windows covered with pillows to block any speck of sun that might summon the nerve to poke through. I am armed with my fly swatter to slap back whatever miniscule ray dares. It is 107 degrees outside. This cavern is our only escape from eyebrow-furrowing heat other than a public swimming pool so crowded the water is warm, and even with goggles, one could lose an eye to a wild elbow. There’s a movie playing on my laptop perched on a pillow, the only movie my four year-old will watch. We’re on our fifth run in five days, but I’ve made my peace since it buys me time to close my eyes. In my somnolence, as the credits roll, I’m entertaining what heavenly, cold treats some fair-armed goddess will deliver for dinner—cold crab? A sushi tray? Rolls of thinly sliced beef tongue with horseradish cream?
It is in this moment of half -presence that he cuddles in: “Mommy, I want you to be with me forever. Today and tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next…” “Monkey, that probably isn’t going to happen, but we can dream.” The love I feel for this forty-pound sand excavator is vaster than all the oceans of crappy pop songs, taller than all the mountaintops of old country. I love him so much we craft rockets out of paper and glue and psychedelic hot pink yarn, sometimes twice in one day. On the days we don’t, I take him to the river, the lake, the pool, the splash pad, the forest, the mountain, the playground. I take him anywhere I think we might find other kids to play with because what he needs is not forever with me but an hour with a friend. I would like him to find his place in the world of children. I worry.
“Don’t worry,” my mom, Queen Worrier, tells me. “Everyone is different. Some kids play alone for a long time before they seek out other kids.” I know she’s probably right, and what good is worrying, anyway, but I also know my dad never had a friend, not a real one, and I think maybe my son and my dad have a lot in common. On his fourth birthday, the monkey wanted us to read him books in bed while our invited guests ate grilled burgers and played with the toys he had just opened. Then, as a special treat for being 4, he asked if we would take him to the wastewater treatment plant. He wants to know how they get the poop out of the water. I’ll admit I am fascinated and will join the tour, but with fascination comes concern that maybe there is no school that is going to work for him.
“They’re not hot house tomatoes,” a California friend tells me, “they thrive in all weather.” Is this true? This is one of two pieces of purported wisdom I roll over in my mind again and again. The other: “Let him be a crappy American kid.” So we don’t do Thomas and Friends (I can’t!), but he does get to eat refried beans at Taco Del Mar when we go to launch bottle cars at the children’s museum. We let my sister buy him shirts with GAP across the front. If life is all about compromise, we are on the road to living! But then there are the minutes. It’s the minutes that test parental reserves. The days fly past, but those aching minutes when I just want to read ten pages of Americanah or a chapter of Optimizing Cognitive Rehabilitation or talk to another mom about race issues or how to tweak the world left through thoughtful consumerism. “Mommy, NO! I need you!”
And so six weeks from now I will be back to school full-time, crying in the car every time he latches onto my leg and won’t let go. I’ll say it’s necessary for us both. He’ll watch the preschool children play for hours. When I come home he’ll be deep into Get/Gotten with daddy; he’ll look up at me and politely say, “Mommy, you should go back to work.”