The folks next door have a young granddaughter who’s just a week older than Marcus. The two have occasionally played when she’s been visiting, spontaneous playtimes that happened because they and we happened to be out back at the same time and we encouraged the two children to interact. They’re usually shy with each other at first, and then start giggling and running around like little buddies.
These days, they’re both a bit more outgoing, so when we stepped onto the patio recently, there was the little girl (I’ll call her Arlene) swinging in her little swing, waiting for some fun. She hollered out, “Hi, Marcus!” And he looked back at me, a shy, embarrassed smile on his face. I told him he could go ahead and say hello to her, and he did.
“Do you want to go over there and say hello?” I asked him.
“No, not right now.” But he kept looking down at her to see what she was doing.
“Do you want to ask her if she wants to play in the sandbox with you?”
“Okay, but you come with me.” I agreed and we strolled down the slight hill between our yards toward the tree that houses the swing. Arlene had obviously been hoping he’d come over to chat, and she slid out of the swing and took a few steps toward him. She’s a pretty little thing, a slim miss with soft brown hair and lovely hazel eyes; as soon as Marcus put the invitation out there, she said yes and started over toward our yard.
“Arlene, why don’t you let your mom know where you’ll be so she doesn’t worry when she doesn’t see you swinging?” Arlene hurried up the back steps to alert the adults inside. A minute later, she popped back out, followed by Grandma, who looked concerned—had she been invited? Would she be a bother? No, no, we’d asked her to come over, I assured her.
The two of them began playing in the sand, then with trucks, then chalk, and finally they were riding around like mad on two of the bevy of huge plastic riding toys that have infiltrated the perimeters of my home. She stayed for nearly an hour, but then we needed to eat lunch. I thought of inviting her to stay, but decided that the excitement would be too great and Marcus wouldn’t touch a bite—not good, since we still had more visiting to come later that day, and I needed him to get some food in him. We walked Arlene to her grandparents’ door and explained that we were eating lunch now. We thanked her for visiting and said we’d see her later.
Of course, Marcus turned shy again and, after lunch, declined to go outside even though he could see Arlene on the swing, patiently waiting for more fun. When Daddy popped outside for something, I heard her immediately ask about Marcus’ whereabouts. Was he coming back out? Daddy explained that Marcus preferred to stay in just now, but perhaps he’d come out later. I let Marcus know that Arlene was hoping to play again, and that I wanted to go out but I knew she would ask about him… After some wheedling, the boy finally agreed to go back out. He decided he would take the puppets that he’d been playing with.
As soon as he was out the door, he yelled down to Arlene, “Wanna play with puppets?” She nodded vigorously and ran up to the back door, out of our sight, to again alert parents and grandparents. And then, she did not come back. And she did not come back. He waited, and watched for her return, and began to set up the puppet show, all the while glancing over. “Wonder where she is?” he asked. I explained that perhaps she had not been allowed to come over. Maybe they were eating now. Maybe there were other folks visiting who wanted to see her. Minutes passed, and no Arlene appeared.
And then I heard giggles, kid voices. He did too, and we both looked over at the house, but to no avail—no child in sight. “That was probably the other neighbors down the street,” I said. He agreed. As he manipulated a puppet, I stood, grabbed the broom, and began to sweep the patio, simultaneously attempting a covert look over at the neighbors’ yard. What?! I saw a flash of pink three doors up from us. On the other neighbor boy’s swingset. I quickly averted my gaze so as not to arouse interest from Marcus. I changed the subject, too: “Maybe you could use the back of the patio chair as your puppet platform? Then you can hide behind it?”
While he tried that out, I continued sweeping, moving closer to the patio’s edge to find a better view. That smidge of pink was Arlene, all right—the little minx had gone three doors up to see the boy with the full-size swingset and slide combo. There they were, sliding and swinging away, while my sweet, unsuspecting child played puppets all alone. Even as they frolicked just out of his view, he turned to me and motioned with his head and eyes to the house next door: “Probably asking her mom if it’s okay to come over.” He had no idea she was a traitor; he was giving her every benefit of the doubt.
I wanted to weep a little. I smiled instead, and said, “Probably.” And then I hunkered down to play puppets with him. And I thought, Oh Lord, how will this look 10 years from now, when he’s got a crush on the traitorous little girl? What will it be like when it’s his best friend who’s having another pal sleep over, or going with a different buddy to get pizza? How will I handle all his disappointments to come? After awhile I didn’t hear any kid noises, and I assumed the coast was clear, while he assumed aloud that his friend had not been allowed to come over to play. Life went on.
I wish I could protect him—from reality, from little and big hurts, from the inevitable letdowns of friends. But I can’t. I suppose it’s only going to get rougher from here on out.