Sticks and Stones
Words By Megan Catana, Art By Kyra_Starr
“Mom?”For the last half an hour, the magnetic building blocks spread across our living room floor have completely engrossed Kate. Now, she looks up from them as if snapping from a spell. “Can we go to the park?”
On the last day of preschool, I overheard a mom in a long, flowing sundress tell a mom in giant sunglasses, “I’m so excited for summer.” She said she planned to spend every day, every waking moment with her child, “soaking it up,” cherishing their time.
Giant Sunglasses nodded earnestly. “We just miss them so much when they’re at school.”
“So much.” Flowing Sundress closed her eyes halfway as she spoke. Her serenity awed me. “So this summer, I want to be really mindful in our time together. Really present, you know?”
It was with this inspiration, resolve, and vigor that I hustled my five-year-old home. I would fill our summer days with the delights of bike rides and art projects, puppet shows and tea parties, regular trips to the pool, the library, and the park. I would be present.
But preschool ended what seems like a thousand years ago. Kindergarten will not begin for what seems like another thousand years, and we have been to the park a thousand times. We are deep into July. I am Kate’s constant playmate.
I think of Flowing Sundress and wish I knew if her serenity endures. I’ve been dipped in a glaze that is hardening around me, dulling and slowing every sense.
I do not want to pack up Kate and stand around in a park in this cloying heat. I want to lie on the couch in our air conditioned house and watch TV that isn’t animated
“Mom?” She’s still waiting for an answer. And as I consider her hopeful expression, her slightly lopsided pigtails, the glistening patch on her shorts that is probably jelly, I take stock. She is an only child. She needs other kids. She needs exercise and fresh air and stimulation.
Only a terribly lazy, selfish mother would deny such a request. Only the guilt is more crushing than the boredom.
I let out a long breath through my nose. “Okay. Let’s go.”
As is her custom before any departure, even if just for a quick errand, she begins loading my enormous beach bag with anticipated needs: a shovel and bucket for the sandbox, a butterfly net, assorted toy vehicles for launching down slides, heart-shaped sunglasses and a cape from her dress-up box. Observation of this ritual always reminds me of Dumb and Dumber’s Lloyd, who includes a giant foam cowboy hat and a pinwheel among his essentials.
Stepping outside is like stepping into a hairdryer. Still, the parking lot is packed when we arrive. Kate heads for the closer of the two playscapes, an impressive, sprawling structure, its brightly colored plastic seemingly indestructible, its many tiers and towers connected by a complication of staircases. As we approach, we see another little girl on a bench, tearfully presenting a freshly scraped leg to her mom.
“Can I give that girl a fruit roll-up?” Kate asks me. I will never love anyone the way I love her.
“Absolutely.” She hunts for the fruit roll-up she knows is floating somewhere at the bottom of my purse, a deep and leathery cavern that used to hold lipstick and condoms. Now, it’s full of snacks.
I watch Kate, full of tender pride. She delivers the fruit roll-up to the crying girl. When she returns still holding it, I feel the ever-deepening crease between my eyebrows. “What happened?”
“The girl’s mom said no,” Kate reports. “She said the girl can’t have sugar.”
“Oh.” This information flusters me. I glance over at the mom, expecting a disapproving frown or a mouthing of thank you, perhaps an apologetic shrug. She doesn’t look at me.
I’m stung by the rebuff. I’m disproportionately indignant. I’m wondering if I should apologize for pressing sugar on her child. I’m wondering – my gaze flits back to Kate, assessing – if my child’s delicately budding empathies have been damaged by a stranger’s coarse handling.
Kate has seamlessly moved on. The fruit roll-up disappears into her mouth in one large, purple wad. She disappears into the playscape. I join the other parents, who form a watchful perimeter at the structure’s base.
Peering up into the structure, I think about summertime when I was a kid. In the morning, the parents in our neighborhood shooed us outside with the expectation that they would see us briefly at lunch time and then not again until dinner. Off we went, on our bikes without helmets, into the sun without sunscreen or giant water bottles, to entertain and fend for ourselves.
Now, we vigilantly orbit our kids, sure that allergens and predators lurk at every unsupervised turn. The parents around me collectively shield their eyes from the sun to perform an ongoing scan of the playscape.
I do it, too, so that the other parents don’t think I’m negligent.
Some of them are directing or mildly threatening their kids. One mom calls, “Margot. Margot! That’s one, Margot.” Others are chatting amongst themselves, like the two women beside me. Their banter is such a quick-moving stream that I’m sure they came here together.
Summer is wearing her out, one tells the other. Between Kinsley’s dance camps and soccer camps and the family vacations, “We just haven’t been home at all.”
“Same,” the other moans. Her Preston is taking tennis. And with his piano lessons, Spanish lessons, and math tutoring besides, “We practically live in the car.”
I twist and knot my fingers together, thinking of the overpriced swim class Kate attends twice a week. Every time I muscle her there through the crush of rush hour traffic, I feel heroic. Now, I wonder if I’m a terrible parent who, in leaving my child’s summer resoundingly, echoingly unstructured, has deprived her of opportunities and experiences.
“And how old is Kinsley?”
“And where does Preston go to school?”
These women just met today, I realize. They remind me of the moms I observed at Kate’s preschool, who slid immediately and easily into conversation on the first day. Their shared social aptitudes brought to life a sort of sorority as the year progressed, and I pretended not to hear them planning play dates.
Maybe they held Kate responsible for having a mom who always stood silently outside their circle. Maybe Kate has inherited my awkwardness, making the kids in her class steer away from her. Either way, her lack of play date invitations throughout the year was most certainly my fault.
One parent here at the park today, a stocky, bearded man with a stroller, is a member of my tribe. I can tell by the way he stands apart from the group, his gaze passing between the playscape, the stroller, and his phone. It never lands on the other parents.
An ambulance wails into the park and rumbles to a stop in front of one of the many pavilions. The kids gawk in that direction and strain to get a better look, their play coming to an abrupt halt.
One small boy’s alarm rings out from a tower above us. “Someone’s sick, Mommy.”
The woman who responds is the only one among us not wearing shorts and a t-shirt, whose hair is not frizzing in the heat and resignedly yanked into an elastic. A small pink swoosh decorates the breast of her pristine white tennis dress. Her hair curls gracefully down her back. “Mommy’s here, Yale.”
I immediately, intensely hate her.
Again the boy calls out, his concern not yet assuaged. “Maybe someone got hurt, Mommy.”
We’re all listening now. She repeats, “Mommy’s here.” Then, even louder for everyone’s benefit, “We’ll pray for them.”
The ambulance leaves without lights and sirens. Disappointed, the kids return to their play. I fan my shirt to keep it from sticking to my back, and nearby, wayward Margot receives another warning. “That’s two, Margot.” I locate my daughter in the playscape.
She has been absorbed into the plans of a boy who looks roughly six years old. As he animatedly talks and issues instructions and leads her by the hand from tower to tower, I see the quizzical little scrunch of her face. She is dumbfounded by any acknowledgment from an older member of the opposite sex, so this place at the center of one’s attention is highly irregular. However, her eager smile says that she is a willing participant.
“Excuse me? Excuse me?”
I turn. Here is Yale’s mom, marching directly toward me.
“Excuse me?” she says loudly. “Your son –?”
“I don’t have a son,” I interrupt her.
“Your son? He’s up in the top tower?” Everything she says turns up at the end like a question. “I thought you should know? He’s spitting down through the floor onto other children?”
I repeat, “I don’t have a son.”
She stands there for a moment, derailed and grieved. Then she says almost plaintively, “Well, a boy is spitting.”
I stare at her, wondering why she selected me, in this sea of parents, as the most likely parent of the offender. I almost ask her. Before I can, she stalks away in search of justice.
Beads of sweat are forming in the angles of my arms and knees. Fury and the onset of a nasty headache pulsate dully behind my eyes. “Come down, Kate!” I call, emphasizing her name to reinforce the point to everyone around me that I don’t have a son. We’re leaving.
My plan is thwarted when she emerges still hand in hand with the boy she’s calling Milo, both of them red-faced and sweaty. A united front now, they beg to be allowed to go to the swings, which are part of the other playscape on the other side of the park.
“It’s just about time to go,” I balk. It’s harder to be mean in front of another kid. Up close now, I see that Milo has a beachy, golden tan and unusually cool hair for a six-year-old, long and floppy in just the right way like a surfer’s. He will be popular in high school. “Plus we don’t know if it’s okay with Milo’s parents.”
“I’ll go ask.” Milo bounds away.
Please not Fruit Roll-Up or Yale’s mom. Please not Fruit Roll-Up or Yale’s mom. Mercifully, he runs to the bearded man, who’s agitatedly wiping at streaks of sweat. He will definitely say no.
Milo returns, crowing, “He says yes!”
I shift my weight. Kate sees me waver and moves in for the kill. “Please, Mommy.” Her eyes are big and damp and soulful like a doe’s.
“Okay,” I say reluctantly. “But just for a couple minutes. I have to make dinner.” I don’t know why I feel the need to lie.
Kate and Milo race toward the swings. Milo’s dad and I trail after them, pretending to be unaware that we’re following the same kids. The occupant of the stroller issues a series of screeches that may be joy or distress. Behind us, Margot’s mom tries again to assert her authority. “That’s three, Margot.”
Kate waves off my attempt to push her on the swing. “I can do it myself, Mom.” She and Milo, side by side, legs pumping, resume an intense conversation about a video game. His dad and I, unable now to deny that we’ve been thrust into the same shared space, exchange a perfunctory “How ya doin?” Then we move into position.
He finds a small patch of shade on one side of the swing set, where he rhythmically rolls the stroller back and forth in place. I move to the other side and try to lean casually against a large wooden cutout of a tractor. The sticky sheet of sweat on my back blooms into a field of individualized droplets. Shunned by Kate and with nothing else to do, I look around.
Right away, another pair of kids catches my eye. One is a tiny girl about Kate’s age, slightly reclined in a high-backed wheelchair. The other, the one pushing the wheelchair, looks about seven and is clearly her brother. He races her through the playscape, her squeals of laughter and small shrieks egging him on. I look around and see no adult in their vicinity.
The boy’s obvious confidence and command indicate that he is her regular companion and driver. The girl seems equally comfortable as his charge and accustomed to his speeding. In particularly harrowing moments, her face shows the same mixture of terror and delight I saw on Kate’s on the kiddie rollercoaster at a recent carnival.
But this playscape is much older than the other one, ancient by comparison, and made entirely of wood. It has a couple ramps but many more steps, steep and splintery, which the boy fearlessly attacks. Each one rattles and jostles the girl’s small body so hard that I cringe.
Where are their parents? I look around again and see no one. Another full throttle rush at a wooden step nearly launches the girl from the wheelchair. Anxiety knits my shoulders.
I’m relieved when the boy maneuvers the girl toward the swing set for what seems like a calmer interlude. But apprehension surges again when he wraps his arms around her. I instinctively move closer. When he clumsily hoists her from the wheelchair, her arms and legs hang limply, unable to return his grasp.
No, no, no, no. I move closer still. Kate and Milo watch with interest. Milo’s dad glances over. He’s going to drop her. Poised to pounce, I watch the boy struggle to boost the girl onto a swing. It sways uncooperatively out of place beneath her. Only with panting exertion is he able to land her in a precarious, semi-seated position.
She can’t hold herself upright. She can’t grab the chains. She is dead weight, suspended helplessly in the air. And though she is small, so is he. His seven-year-old arms shake as he tries to secure her by the waist.
God damn it. Desperately, I look around one more time. I see no one. And when my attention snaps back to the brother and sister, her eyes are dinner plates. The delight is gone, leaving only terror. She is about to fall, and I am about to commit the gravest of all parenting sins.
I swoop, lift her away from her brother, and gingerly set her in the wheelchair. She smiles so sweetly at me that I nearly split in two.
Then she turns to her brother. “I did not like that,” she says accusingly.
He mumbles his remorse and rolls her away, this time at a more reasonable speed. Kate and Milo continue to swing, and Milo’s dad checks his phone. The moment is over. But it isn’t, because suddenly, now that the brother and sister are gone, a woman appears out of nowhere, charging at me.
“Did you touch my kid?” she yells. She is pale and freckled, as slight as a stick.
Kate’s and Milo’s mouths drop open. The single drop of sweat waiting at the top of my spine releases and begins its descent. “Here’s what happened,” I begin. “They were trying –”
‘I don’t care what they were doing,” she snarls. Her shorts sag from hips so sharp and narrow that I can’t imagine them accommodating childbirth. “You touched my kid. I saw you.”
“It really wasn’t like that,” I try again, my voice unsteady. “I was just standing here, and the boy was trying to put the girl on the swing –”
“And you touched her.” She is wearing a Winnie the Pooh t-shirt. I can’t make sense of the bear’s smiling face positioned directly below hers, twisted as it is by hatred. Her eyes flash blackly.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Her voice arcs upward and outward, seeming to echo through the park. “Who the hell are you? What kind of person puts their hands on someone else’s kid?”
Kate and Milo gape, thunderstruck. I am shrinking, shrinking, disappearing into an inferno of horror and shame. My mouth opens and closes like a fish’s.
“Hey.” The sharp bark from Milo’s dad surprises us both. We turn.
He glares at the woman. “What are you yelling at her for? Your kid needed help, so she helped her.”
“You don’t understand,” the woman spits. “She touched –”
“I understand,” he interrupts her. “I saw the whole thing. I was right here. Where the hell were you?”
She looks like she’s been slapped.
He uses his forearm to wipe sweat from his forehead. “You should be watching your kids.”
She looks like she might cry. The worst part of me hopes she does. Vindicated, I draw myself up and fold my arms across my chest.
For the second time in an hour, a fellow mom stomps away from me. I force myself to engage Milo’s dad. “Thanks for that.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He looks embarrassed. “Lady was crazy.”
Turning to our kids, we say almost in unison, “It’s time to go.” And Milo says yes, yes, okay, but that he has to show Kate the duck pond first. It will only take a second.
“I have to see it, Mom,” echoes Kate, who’s been to this duck pond countless times. This time, they just go without waiting for a response.
Milo’s dad and I trudge after them. He’s off-roading now with the stroller, the occupant of which is voicing unmistakable displeasure. When Kate and Milo reach the top of the hill overlooking the duck pond, they glance back at us.
Their look is the same, though one I’ve never seen on Kate before. It is a request for privacy.
Milo’s dad and I stop, unsure, and hover at a respectful distance. We watch our kids as they stand side by side, gazing at the duck pond. We watch as Milo puts his arm around Kate.
Milo’s dad says sheepishly, “I think my kid’s about to drop down on one knee here.”
A surprised, sputtering laugh escapes me.
He came to my aid. He’s wearing a t-shirt advertising a local brewery I like. Our kids are apparently soul mates. I almost turn toward him to forge a friendship.
Instead, I turn my gaze to the horizon as if looking for something I lost there. One snub, two confrontations, and this heat, swaddling me like a heavy, wet, wool blanket, have sapped any congenial impulse I might have mustered.
Herding the kids to the parking lot, he is also defeated. I can tell by the grim set of his jaw as he wrestles the baby into a car seat, the near violence with which he collapses and tosses the stroller into the back of his mini-van, the visible threat of heat stroke as he mops his face with his shirt, his terse termination of Milo’s relentless questions. When they drive away, I see his bumper sticker. I used to be cool.
I solemnly buckle in Kate. I used to be cool, too.
As I drive, not home to make dinner but to a fast food drive thru, Kate gazes out her window. “Mom?”
“That lady was mean to you.”
I grip the steering wheel. “Yeah.”
She considers this. “Mom?”
“Milo and I will marry.”
This turn of phrase startles me. “You will marry?”
“Yes,” she says gravely. “But only if he’ll wear glasses.”
Glasses? Who wears –?
I exhale noisily. “What?”
“Can we come back tomorrow?”
“No,” I say flatly. We will not come back to this park, or any park, tomorrow or ever again. Kate can sit in our house forever, deprived of Vitamin D and the company of other kids. She can be one of those hardly human kids that never leaves her room or looks up from her Smartphone.
I glance in my rearview. A cloud of disappointment swiftly crosses her face and is gone. The gentle kicks she administers to the front passenger seat make her tennis shoes light up. The soft gold down on her bare legs glints in the sun.
“Maybe we can come back tomorrow,” I amend. “We’ll see.”
Her face breaks into a smile. She settles back against the seat. Her pensive gaze returns to the window, to the landscape rushing by, to a world wondrous and glittering.