The obligatory social functions one is committed to once you have a child are difficult for shut-in's like myself. If I was childless, younger and spoke completely off the cuff, no problem: my outbursts might be confused for joie de vivre and risqué spiritedness. Instead, I often feel I'm on the verge of ostracizing myself from the parental community. But worse, since he's somewhat defenseless and completely at the mercy of elementary school rites and rituals, I fear at any given kid-centric event I just might put the nail in the coffin of any future social prospects for my son. And because I have a distinct flair for standing out, this comes with a high amount probability. It's for this reason that I need social hazard insurance: in case of social calamity my son will be protected in the future.
If I had had such a policy, it would have come in handy the other day.
We were at a birthday party in a gymnasium. The kids were scrabbling about, and the parents took refuge away from flying balls and the high velocity scooter-derby by huddling en masse by the coats, making chit-chat. Those honed in the art of chit-chat know the unwritten rules: be funny but not too bawdy or challenging; and: leave no evidence for others to use against you later. For those of us who are not artful in following these simple rules, every social exchange becomes fraught with the potential for disaster.
As acquaintances known to each other only through hallway encounters while waiting to pick up our kids from school, we parents often reminisce about parental misadventures. At this particular birthday party, we swapped stories about our wicked, wicked tongues, cases of dropping F-bombs in front of the kids. I have a particularly keen awareness of this problem since "Fuck" was one of our son's first words. Each parent shared a gem of parental folly. We laughed and commiserated. We bonded over our shared experience. All was right with the world.
• • •
I'm what you could identify as a hopeless optimist. Hopeless because no matter how often it's proven that something is a bad idea, I'm optimistic that it will really work out. This is a contradiction which works in mysterious ways in my life: On the one hand it convinces me that I can learn how to design and build chicken coops which would stand up to the most rigorous building inspection (and succeed), while on the other it convinces me that I can make things happen which, no matter their nostalgic, romantic, tender-hearted nucleus, are destined to meet some comic demise.
With this fatal flaw in mind, you will perhaps be kindly when I recount this tale.
When my son was about three, the depth of his obsession with transportation began to make itself clear. He taught himself to read, not because we helped him, not because we gave him reading aids, but because he loved trucks. Before he could read the logo, the "X" in FedEx was the first letter at his disposal. "X!" he would shout from the back seat as we drove through town. "Ecccccccckkkkkkkkkks!!!!" flinging his arms wildly to get our attention. "X! X! X!" in case we hadn't seen it yet. When FedEx pulled up to our house, it was as though heaven reached down and blessed him, his eyes traveling over each logo with piety and amazement.
And we're indulgent of his passions, so even though my husband and I don't know anything about vehicles other than how to drive them (it was a near thing for me; I didn't learn until I was 25), we encouraged his interest.
It was his love of conveyances which inspired a little journey to the zoo. But this time, rather than drive there we were going to go on the MAX train, which was the special highlight of the trip. We would park the car, toodle to the zoo via MAX and have a lovely day after experiencing the wondrous joys of train travel. A trip on the MAX? It was ideal. There was even an "X" in its name.
Armed with snacks, distractions and a stroller, we began our journey.
It became evident that I was unprepared for this trip as soon as we approached the stop. The train was already there, and I was pushing the empty stroller while encouraging our son to keep up. But he had spied a public fountain which was far more enchanting. The train came and went, our son transfixed by the jumping arcs of water near the homeless wanderers and early-morning winos.
It was just as well since I hadn't figured out how to use the inscrutable ticket kiosk and the map of train stops. It would be a poor start to the day if we were to make our first stop in the wrong direction, and then get the boot for not having a ticket. Keeping a hairy eyeball on our son and our stuff, which I had to set down while struggling with the bills and change I needed, I finally conquered the beast and we were armed with correct fare.
And we waited.
Apparently, the train we had missed was the last one for twenty more minutes. I had a bunch of crap, a stroller, and a curious son wandering back to the fountain surrounded by men sleeping on the benches. I struggled desperately to make him less interested in the water, which he would soon be wearing, surrounded by the men who he would soon be waking. If this was the set-up for anyone else, they might have taken the hint: Today is not the day.
But I do not take hints; I soldier forward. And eventually the train came, its sliding doors opening wide to ferry us to our destination, that mystical pixie land called "Zoo."
It was a nice trip, I suppose. We probably saw some animals. But because this story has less to do with the destination than the journey itself, I remember none of it. Except the moment when I realized we needed to leave. Immediately. For my son has the same curse as myself: low blood sugar-insanity in extremis.
We all get a little tetchy now and then when we're hungry, but my son and I turn into Class A certifiable nutjobs. And once the horse has left the stable, we're in it deep. All my snacks and baubles and happy-MAX plans were now hanging in the balance at the tips of the extremely frayed nerved endings of a crotchety three-year-old. He was over it. He wanted to go home.
But we had to take the damned train back.
Now my plans revealed themselves for what they truly were: Beelzebub's secret designs to make my life more interesting. I stuck this fire-brand of a tot back in the stroller and ran to the Max stop, praying that no matter which train came first it was the one that would magically transport us back to our parking spot all the way across town. I was dropping my shoulder bag while folding up the stroller to load on the train which had just pulled into the station. It was crammed with passengers, and I was unable to work the stroller up the steps while holding my son. I was fumbling wildly, the pressure of hasty passengers around me, and practically threw the stroller under the train just to get rid of it while flinging the angry three-year-old Grumpasaurus up the steps. Feeling utterly inadequate to rise to my task, somehow I not only kept a hold of the stroller and my bag, but my son too. Somebody, perhaps recognizing the desperation in my face, gave us their seat.
I sat down, tried to pull the stroller in close to my feet to leave enough room for the standing passengers, and hoped that the train trip alone was enough to soothe the savage in my lap until we reached our car, thirty minutes away across town. And it seemed to work. The train worked its mojo upon him, becalming this cross wild thing with the manifold pleasures of public transportation, which, through his eyes, I saw in a whole new light.
There was no shortage of things to poke or pull. The bell to request a stop beckoned him with its brightly colored tape. The bars overhead with their jolly handles enticed him to stand and jump for them, though they were tantalizingly out of reach. The passengers around me didn't look at me with parental recognition and compassion, they glared at me as though I was a terrible mother who couldn't keep control of her brat. Then they looked away to gaze impassively out the window.
The doors opened and closed, picking up more and more riders as we approached downtown Portland. The passengers became more interesting. The train car was filled, people pressed together hugger-mugger, all looking up and away from each other trying to maintain that polite symbolic distance we're all fond of. I was struggling to give them more room, sitting on my bag, mashing up my stroller, grasping my son.
I was distracted momentarily by the stroller having been kicked into the aisle when I felt the eyes of all the passengers fall on me with a new intensity. I looked around to divine what they were looking at, but couldn't find the source of their interest. I puzzled at the faces of the passengers to find some clue to the mystery while a voice was speaking over the intercom. I couldn't understand what was being said.
"Do you need help, ma'am?" I finally heard it, and whipped my head around looking for someone who needed aid. I gazed up at the operator, perched in a little glass enclosure above us. He was looking directly at me, scowling. "Do. You. Need. HELP, ma'am."
My son had found the emergency button and was pressing it with delight. And why not? It was bright red, right in reach above his sweet little face. It practically called his name it was so perfect. It reached out and beckoned him like a siren's song, "Come to me, little boy, come play among my bells and warnings, let's play together and laugh..."
I bowed my head in humiliation. "No, sir, I'm sorry, sir." I begged in my expression for everyone to forgive me my scandalous inattention to the basic tenets of public transportation, pleaded through my eyes that I was a novice, a rank amateur, lost in the jungle of rush hour traffic. There was little compassion staring back at me; the train had stopped for me and me alone during rush hour on a hot, packed afternoon.
Thankfully, a blessed distraction offered itself once the train started moving again and the passengers went about their business of looking anywhere else but each other: a woman started babbling incoherently across the aisle from us. She was in her forties and wore her age in the rough lines etched into her face. She was edgy and twitchy, mumbling angrily to no-one in particular, which was fitting since everyone was doing their best to ignore her.
Everyone except my son.
Because he had not been educated in the Art of Public Transportation, he was unaware of the subtle rules and regulations of ridership and did not know the cardinal rule: Do Not Engage the Crazy Person. For him, she was by far the most interesting thing on the train. He stared at her with open-faced, earnest curiosity as she mumbled and sizzled, waves of crazy juice oozing from every pore. She was other-worldly to him, and it showed on every inch of his sweet innocent face.
She must have felt the beta-waves from Universe Number 10 beaming from my son, because she turned to face him...
• • •
I was recounting this tale to the parents at the gymnasium birthday party. We had reached the crescendo, the high point of the story.
"She must have felt him look at her," I continued. "She was getting louder and louder as she looked for her audience. She turned around, looked him in the eye and said..."
I paused for effect, pointing into my tiny audience with a menacing finger, recapturing the moment with Oscar Award conviction. "'Yeah, I killed my whole fucking family, and I'd do it again, too!'"
But I was pointing directly at a newcomer who had just stepped into our group, and her expression was devolving precipitously from sincere interest as she approached to see what all the fuss was about, to sincere shock as I my final words trailed off and I lowered my finger from threatening her further.
A blanket of abstract embarrassment fell upon the faces of my audience, much like those of the people on the train who could no longer ignore the wacko menacing my three-year-old. Except now I was the wacko, verbally assaulting an acquaintance, a woman I already struggle to make polite conversation with because we have so little in common, a woman who is a leading member of the PTA and, of course, the gatekeeper to all social engagements with her son, who is my son's good buddy.
"She was describing an encounter on the MAX," a friend explained after a long two seconds of silence began to oppress us all equally.
"Oh," the woman said.
Someone else volunteered, "We were talking about dropping F-bombs..."
I looked sheepish. "I was talking about a crazy person who was yelling at my son," I said. "I didn't mean to point, um, at you." I paused. "Or threaten anybody, of course."
Conversation stuttered a bit, choking along while our group foundered about looking for the new thread of shared experience. Our latest member, who I had just terrified by threatening the murder of my whole family, gamely came up with some unsurprisingly tame story about her son using "damn" for the first time. Then, in some silent compact, we all agreed to move on to some other subject.
• • •
For people like us, those of us only comfortable in our own skins with the people closest to us, who guarantee a level of forgiveness that we just can't expect from the greater society, these innocuous child-centered events fill us with terror. Birthday parties are always another opportunity for me to publicly but inadvertently threaten bodily harm to someone, or out myself as a complete social basket-case by saying exactly what I think to exactly the wrong person.
So when you meet "me" at your next school event or child's birthday party, that person who is funny right up until the point when they raise the stakes just a little too high, have mercy on them and realize that they suffer far more greatly than you. You will laugh at their antics, and be embarrassed on their behalf, but they will go home and wonder when anyone will invite their kid to anything ever again.
And when they can invest heavily in social hazard insurance.