Independence Day
Sally Bunch
Through an observation window at the MiniGym, we watch our offspring bounce on miniature trampolines and tumble over primary-colored cushions.
My son Trevor, a blur of stripes and uncuttable hair, has found heaven. He waves and smacks a rubber ball against the Plexiglas, opaque in spots from the smudges of hands grubby from Goldfish and sliced peaches. This causes a collective jolt in the waiting area. Feeling the cold breezes of silent judgment, I acknowledge him with a feeble smile as he repeats his fastball with more intensity, not to annoy but to appreciate the hollow timbre. I kick off my sneakers to intervene again, but a "party ambassador" redirects Trevor to a balance beam away from the others and relieves me.
Since we are the last to arrive, the child-size bright orange molded plastic chairs are the only seating available. I know from prior experiences that they are not designed for my increasing size, so I choose to stand, even though it draws more attention to the contrast of my baggy T and drawstring shorts to the other parents' sundresses, fitted polos and cropped jeans.
My only acquaintance is Aidan's mother. Whenever our eyes meet, she smiles benevolently but remains rooted in her circle of friends. Barbara and Trevor live next door, she explains with each introduction. No, it's just the two of them, she clarifies to one woman. And Sara, before I forget, she continues with the deftness of a diplomat, which weeks are you down on the Cape?
I should regard Trevor's inclusion as a social victory, but when the parents trade notes about their children's ballet classes, soccer and the elementary school they'll soon attend, like they do on play dates to which we are rarely invited, I keep Trevor's early intervention sessions to myself.
I can't wait til I can drop Cameron and go, says one. Drop him at parties, drop him at school, drop him at camp, drop him at college. I nod dumbly as if I were included.
I can't wait to drop Trevor in his self-contained class. But after that? I may wait forever.
We are reunited in the party room. Aidan's real birthday is tomorrow, July 4, hence the red paper plates and napkins, white plastic spoons, navy tablecloth festooned with white stars, and tiny paper flags glued onto toothpicks inserted in each cupcake.
"Look, Mommy! Flags!" Trevor squeals.
"Yes, everyone gets one," I say to him.
Trevor and I take comfort in this fairness. Feeling light, I turn my back to fill my Styrofoam cup with coffee and powdered creamer.
Trevor licks icing off his toothpick and eyes a bouquet of balloons tied to Aidan's chair. Making connections is one of his strengths, so he must associate them with the bubble wrap that calms him. I realize then that I have subjected my son to yet another naïve attempt at integration. Whom is it meant to serve?
I put down my coffee and brace myself, but the familiar numbness dissipates after Trevor pops the first balloon. Okay, that's enough, a father declares after the second, but the remark bounces off Trevor, and he continues. Can't you stop him, a mother barks, rocking her inconsolable toddler. The girl's feral wails add to the symphony of balloons popping and kids shouting. Each pop kneads a tired muscle and transports me to the beach, where I'm running in a size 6 bikini again, waves crashing.
But I'm really still at the MiniGym, and a boy of about seven has pinned my son down. He backs off in deference as I pull Trevor up. I feel little resistance, and as Trevor presses the toothpick into my hand and closes my fingers around it, I understand. We have to finish the job, and only I can reach the balloons taped to the top of the mirror and windows. Each pop ushers a release. Trevor's father leaving us— pop. My demotion at the firm— pop. Expulsion from two pre-schools— pop pop. The sitters who quit— pop pop pop.
We work our way back through the waiting room, through each injustice. In the parking lot, we're still shoeless, but there's no turning back. Hand in sticky hand, I'm not sure where he ends and I begin.
Sally Bunch is a Boston-based freelance writer whose articles on education, parenting, and other topics have been published in print and online. In addition to her short fiction, she is working on a novel.