(Author’s Note: I wrote this last May but haven’t gotten around to putting it up until now.)
It’s the Spring of 2021 and more than a year into this whole mess, the pandemic is finally starting to come to an end. I am fully vaccinated and my wife will be two weeks from her last shot in another week and last night I went to pick up takeout from a restaurant in town and every table was filled with unmasked diners grinning and laughing and leaning in close and drinking and everything looking a heck of a lot like normal. I just hope when this is all over we’re still allowed to keep ordering takeout alcohol. What would be the problem there? There’s nothing like walking back to your car on Main Street with two massive blue margaritas.
My wife and I have been taking steps to start socializing again. Not long ago we agreed to meet another family we’re just getting to know with a toddler in my son’s class at daycare for an outdoor meal at a local restaurant. We should have known better, of course, but the excitement of getting out of the house got the better of us. The evening started out fine. Yes, those first three or four minutes were delightful: I ordered food, my son immediately fell in with a group of older kids over by the playscape. (He calls it the “play structure.” My son apparently loves jargon; when he pretends to drive, he’s not the driver, he’s the “operator.” Apparently he spent a whole day at daycare telling everyone, “I am the farmer, I am the worker!” which made it sound like we were raising him in a Communist setting. “I am the proletariat! I share my profits with my comrades!”). Things were working.
It didn’t take long, of course, until another child approached my son and made a reasonable, mature proposition: Give me that toy. My son said no, I tried to gently intervene, tears and screaming ensued. Lots of screaming. It was loud. You know how when something like that happens — your kid loses it — it feels like everyone is looking at you? They were. Right then I noticed with horror that the other parents starting to crane their necks were all tony-looking, tanned, well-dressed types, probably out-of-staters. The kind who look down on people who attended the lesser Ivies. Who were these people in their sundresses and collared shirts, clinking glasses and casting proud looks at their preternaturally well-behaved offspring, no doubt very same age as my own ruffian, yet who looked to be making polite conversation with the grown-ups about the joys of sailing and the whims of the stock market? To my horror, I actually recognized several of them — they were people I’d gone to college with! What must they be thinking? “Who is that awful child in the dirty clothes throwing a temper tantrum? What must be wrong with his parents? Who allowed their type in here, anyway?” I tried to pull my mask up so that it was covering as much of my face as possible.
It didn’t help matters that our would-be friends arrived just as we were making our hurried getaway, while their two children were being as well-behaved as possible. While my son had to retreat to the car for a while to cool off / refuse to eat anything / try to take off his pants, their two children ate peacefully. Here I was, the social outcast — surely these people would never be our friends — in fact, they were surely talking about us, using our plight to court new, worthier parent friends, networking, forming A-list play groups, discussing advanced placement pre-school classes, lining up job connections for their children. We made one more cautious foray out of the car and back into the arena, had another blissful few minutes, followed shortly by an even louder meltdown, and finally me scooping up my son and carrying him back to the car like one of those security guards hauling a hysterical woman off stage on the Jerry Springer Show.
Later that night our friends texted to say that they had not only enjoyed themselves, but that their children had stayed for the theatrical performance that had occurred on the green after dinner, a performance which they had paid attention to and enjoyed. These, I thought, are surely predominately accelerated children, soaking up cultural learning experiences and an appreciation for the dramatic arts that will surely take my son at least twenty-five years to accrue.
Our friends told us they planned to go out to this same event every week. In response I said that, for the time being, we were putting a hold on all events that involved “going out in public.”
It’s very strange when you have a member of your immediate family whose conduct in public you absolutely cannot predict. Especially when you are someone, like me, who dreads drawing attention to himself for any reason. But what can you do when you are now saddled for life to someone who, noticing a demure middle-aged lady minding her own business at the grocery store, will yell out, “What is that guy doing? Does he like monster trucks? Does he have a mustache? Why is he wearing a shirt?” Or when you are gently fastening his car seat straps in a crowded daycare parking lot: “Why are you choking me?!? Please don’t choke me, Daddy!” (Cue the same disapproving, upwardly mobile parents staring in horror.)
But maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re even suppressing a smile. Maybe they’ve been through the same thing. Maybe they’re not even looking at all. I guess this is something every parent has to learn: Not everyone is staring at you when your kid is screaming. Or if they do look over, it’s probably because they’ve been there too. Come to think of it, I can’t wait for my son’s first plane flight. I’m going to make sure we sit right behind some snobby-looking young couple on their way to a spa retreat in the mountains. A few minutes into the flight, as they are turning around in horror, I’ll just give them a knowing smile.
Get ready, your time will come soon.