(3 years, 2 months)
I pick you up at Nani’s. It is the kind of perfect autumn day New England is famous for. The sky is bright blue with a few puffy white clouds, the temperature is moderate, and the trees are beginning to dress in red and gold for their annual color pageant. As we are driving through Nanuet I realize I have some extra time before my next appointment and we decide to visit Nanuet Park. It is one of your favorites.
We enter the park and see four children running on the wooden palisades. They are a blond boy of about five, named Conner, who we’ve seen before, a girl of four, a boy slightly younger, and another boy perhaps two and half who straggles after them.
This is the park of large wooden structures built of fat woodpiles on Church Street in Nanuet. Its various parts are connected by sling bridges and elevated walkways, or I should say runways, some open, some enclosed, that travel all over the playground. It has turreted towers and narrow spaces you have to wiggle through on many levels. There are lots of hidden intersections, clear runs and bridges of truck tires connected with chains. For you, who could be correctly named Running-Climbing Boy, this park is Jubilation City.
You love to run, and most especially, you love to chase. We do not get to this park often. The children are running on the constructions when we entered the park and you quickly join them and give chase. Conner is the leader. You all make a circuit of half the ramparts, and crossing to the other set the younger boy bumps his head and is out of the running.
His crying brings three women, who had been sitting at a picnic table on the park perimeter, closer to the action, where he is comforted with words and food. Conner continues his run with the older boy following, but the girl pulls up to observe the drama of the injured boy. The older boy breaks away from Conner and circles back to the women. He’s rewarded with food and a container of juice.
You watch for a moment and then take off for another circuit. The girl follows you. And on you go scrambling up steep steps, crossing bridges, climbing ladders, circling through convoluted passages of irregular levels in narrow spaces. When you realize the girl is following you, you run like a gale, your face an expression of contained glee, lips spread, mouth open, jaw moving, as if chewing your happiness. Watching you at times like these I feel my¬self grinning, you are the most beautiful thing I have ever experienced. You are Baryshnikov of the Palisades. Your happiness opens my heart like the sun causing a ripe tomato to burst its skin; I can feel the juice running through my limbs.
Skirt flying, the girl runs across the middle part of the construction. The boy, hampered by his juice container, follows her, but you quickly lap the pack and pass him. She chooses one of the paths you are most fond of, up several long steps, through a little house, out on to a platform and down a little slide into the sandbox. You are not too keen on slides, though sometimes they're okay. Now, when you come to the slide you take the alternate route, emerging on one side of the sandbox. Conner unexpectedly appears on the opposite side of the sandbox. The girl moves toward him. The boy emerges from the slide and follows her.
Speaking into some middle distance, but addressing the girl, Conner says, Why is that baby following you?
I feel it, as I know you were meant to feel it, like a blow to the heart, like a jackboot has squashed my tomato. But in this moment, I’m not exactly me. It is as you I feel the pain, as if I am you and me both. And it isn't my tomato; really, it is the perfectly open flower of your innocence I feel smashed. Crazily, I hope you haven’t heard it.
I’m nonplussed. I’m aching. I want revenge. I would never have imagined I could feel homicidal toward a five year old. Holy God, what the hell am I supposed to do? I understand right away I cannot follow my impulse and wring his filthy little neck. What? Cry to his parents? Even at that moment I know that would make me look foolish and accomplish nothing. I must have read fifty primers while you were preparing for your birth, and not a one mentioned what would be appropriate behavior in a situation like this. I do not for a moment, however, think I have stumbled onto a unique example of childhood deportment.
Strangely, or maybe not, I find myself frightened. I don’t hear any words, but the fear, I think it’s the fear, raises an impulse that cautions: Re-evaluate the stakes. Thank god for my training. I take a deep breath. I feel my belly; I feel the pressure of the earth against the soles of my feet. I pray not to fuck up.
The girl, steps out of the box to stand next to Conner. She immediately seizes his question and repeats it. I’m astonished. The boy, who is now on the periphery, is puzzled. He is about the same height as you. Who's the baby? he asks. The girl points to you and he instantly understands the game. Baby, he shouts at you. Conner and the girl run off and he chases them.
I'm not sure if you know what has happened. You hesitate, but then you run after them. Conner splits off to hang on a chinning bar, and the others mill around in a kind of distracted quandary near where the mothers sit chatting. You observe this dispersion and lack of activity for a moment, and then run off to the high palisades.
By the time you've returned to ground level, the three children are regrouped and you move to join them. Conner and the girl run up the tire pile and across a platform. You start after them. The boy, whom I hadn't been watching, appears on a platform five feet above you. Juice in one hand, a half eaten something in the other, he points at you, knees bent, body tense, arm and finger extended. His face is flushed, his voice loud, his mouth full of food. He jeers at you, There's the baby!
It is hard to accuse a four year old of being hateful. But if his act was played by an adult, no one would hesitate to supply the emotion of crazed accuser, shouting, There he goes, he’s the killer. And this time you get it. I wince as I see you receive it like a body blow, your shoulders hunch, you hang your head. Dear God I want to hurt this boy.
I am in the circle of benches next to the platform and above where you are now sitting on the lowest tire in the chain. I can feel your dejection and bewilderment. I start around the benches and am descending toward you when Conner and the girl run by me. They stop next to you. I stay a good six feet away, careful not to intrude on their space. I don't want them to feel threatened or run away. Conner swings from a post, looking out across the playground, but the girl looks right at you. You look up at her. I'm not a baby, you say in a sad voice, I'm a boy.
You're a baby, the girl says, looking right at you.
I call your name and you look up at me. I say, If you want to, you can tell her that she's being mean and nasty, and you don't like her.
You're being mean and nasty, you say, with very little inflection and no heat.
The girl, however, is shocked. She looks at me. That's a bad word, she says. I don’t know which word she is referring to. I say, It may be a bad word, but it's the truth. You are being mean and nasty.
She is aghast. Conner runs away and she follows. They ended up on the tire swing that hangs from one of the walkways.I tell you that they are being mean and you have done nothing to deserve their ridicule. Besides, they are really acting dumb.
You kind of nod and walk under the construction. I walk the other way to where I can observe the children on the swing. The boy has joined them.
You come around the construction and stop about fifteen feet from them. You pick up a handful of gravel and toss it at them, underhanded, with so little aggression it travels only a few feet. I step off the platform and start toward you. You throw another handful of gravel and this time it reaches them. I call to you across a bridge of chains. You come toward me with a fist full of gravel. I say, I know you want to throw the gravel, but it's not a good idea. I say, You're angry. And you nod. I say, I understand, it’s right for you to be angry. I say, You can say anything you want to these children, but you cannot throw gravel at them. It will get you in trouble, and they are the ones who deserve to get in trouble. You can say, You're not nice guys, and I don't want to play with you. So that is what you do. You turn to face them and say, You are not nice guys, and I don’t want to play with you. I was proud of you.
I take your hand. It is time to go anyway. We've done our usual fifteen minutes and you’re ready. We walk near the platform where the women are still sitting and chatting. I speak in a clear, moderate voice. I say, Are any of you related to these children? They all rise and as a chorus to let me know they are indeed connected to these children. I say, Are you aware that these three children have been tormenting this boy with the word baby? They have been doing their best to humiliate him, they have been jeering and taunting?
They respond like a chorus, but speak in a Babel of voices. One woman says, They are the same age as he is. Another says, They're only playing.
I don't get what the other is saying. I say, Ladies, we’d love to stay and chat, but we really must be going. Talk to your children.
I squeeze your hand we walk away.