Photo by our good friend and artist.
Toward the end of sixth grade, I took to wearing black shorts with matching knee-high socks, a white button-down shirt, black knit tie and blazer. While most kids were in Vans or sporting ball caps with the brims perched so high that tufts of sun-streaked hair poked through at the forehead, I was bringing a lint roller to class, turning to ask the classmate behind me for a little help with the blazer.
“Do you mind?”
At some point that year, my best friend relented and agreed to wear a similar get-up, but after one day he started showing up in blue jeans again.
“Where’s your sport coat?” I asked, “And your shorts?”
He shrugged and mentioned something about his mother and laundry, and while the excuses seemed vague and impromptu, it soon became clear. I was in charge of class couture.
It was difficult to put together this outfit, and that only served to make it more enjoyable. I played a lot of sports on our cul-de-sac — football, baseball, basketball — and so my closet was full of blue jeans and T-shirts, and yet some mornings I’d wake up and crave something more suitable for embarrassing myself. I’m still not sure what style I was going for, but if I had put any thought into it, I probably would have settled on English school boy meets Eddie Munster.
Frequently I caught my brother Jeff preening in front of our shared bathroom mirror, his hands deftly working back his thin blond hair into feathery streaks. I’d peek through the door opening, watching this display of teenage vanity with growing curiosity until he caught wind of my snooping and slammed the door on my nose. But I knew I had found a compatriot, someone who would appreciate good taste and the time it takes to get oneself ready for the day. One morning after hiking up my socks to just below the hem of my shorts and brushing the lint off the arms of my blazer, I presented myself at the closed bathroom door, waiting for Jeff to unlock it.
“What do you think?” I asked when he emerged.
“Think of what?”
He looked me up and down, before mumbling, “You’re not riding with me.”
I couldn’t help but smile and knew right away he was correct and that he couldn’t possibly be caught riding next to someone dressed as impeccably as myself. I’d only upstage him.
A few years previously, in fourth grade, a new boy transferred to our school and immediately the environment changed. Kids who hadn’t noticed the soup stains on their dirty T-shirts or the holes in their jeans suddenly started appraising themselves more closely. We started asking our moms for brand names and suspenders — which would not be worn over our shoulders but rather left to dangle at our knees. Who was this boy, we wondered. Where did he come from and how did he know that mixing the colors of your Converse was not something reserved only for Punky Brewster?
It was the beginning of a dangerous schism. Boys and girls who had played with each other since kindergarten, blind to anything but ability and maybe weird smells, suddenly began splitting into groups — forming cliques of the well-dressed and the clearly poor. Alliances were made, feelings dashed. By sixth grade, there was a developing pecking order of popularity and the kid who wore knit ties with short-sleeve button down collared shirts and black shorts was certainly at the top of it. By the end of the year, we were thinking of middle school and the change among the students was almost palpable. We were getting older. We were gaining independence. Some kids had actual money in their pockets on a regular basis and house keys around their necks, a sign of trust. And yet, we still answered the same recess bell as the kindergartners at the school, gleefully romping toward the kickball fields. We inhabited a curious middle-ground, a grade-school purgatory not so much between the earthly and the celestial but between childhood and pubescence. During a health class, our teacher, Mrs. Williams, urged the boys to start considering deodorant. This was on a 100-degree day when I had decided to wear a brown wool cardigan instead of the more seasonally appropriate linen blazer ensemble, and I had a feeling she was speaking directly to me.
A few weeks before the end of the year, I heard several of my friends discussing a trip to our local ice cream parlor after school. This was a place with white marble tables and chairs with wire frames, a long marble counter, glass ice cream cases and a contest that would let your entire table eat for free if anyone could finish off a 30-scoop sundae. I caught the conversation somewhere in the middle and it sounded as if they had assembled there before, some time in the recent past, although I didn’t remember being invited. I remember thinking that was odd. I had known these kids for years, been to sleepovers at their houses. I chalked it up to an oversight or maybe it just happened on a day when I was out sick.
When the conversation broke up, I pulled aside one of my friends, a boy named Kevin.
“What time are we meeting?” I asked.
Kevin paused, glancing toward the group that had just left. The group bubbled to another desk and in the air you could catch faint hints of conversation: something about a double scoop and did someone mention a kiss?
“Um,” Kevin stalled, “Meeting where?”
“The ice cream place” I said, “Can I come?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. The group must have caught wind of the mood and returned, floating back to the two of us and creating an impromptu audience.
“Well of course, I mean not now,” I replied, “We have school. I meant can I come later, after school?”
Kevin glanced at the group again, and although no one said anything or made a sudden movement, he must have received some silent approval. It brought to mind a flock of birds, shifting course at the same time. No one shouted commands or offered visible signals, but soon enough we were headed in different directions.
“Don’t you get it,” he said, stiffening almost imperceptibly and speaking louder, as if on a stage.
“Listen,” he said, “You’re not invited.”
The group shuffled away, Kevin joining at the rear, glancing back at one point with what appeared to be a sort of pity and a helpless shrug. I looked down for a moment, appraising my selection of a black tie over a blue tie that day. Was that it, I wondered? Was it the color choice? I wanted to shout out that I could remedy that before the final school bell — doesn’t everyone keep an extra tie in their desk? — but I had a feeling, deep down, that was not it. I had a feeling that this was a crucial moment, that all these small, almost imperceptible changes over the years — the new clothes, the cliques, the personal care products — had finally coalesced into big changes.
Later, when I got home, I found Jeff in front of the bathroom again, preparing to go out. He must have sensed something was different and instead of closing the door on me, he opened it just enough for me to fit through.
“What’s up?” he asked, and when I filled him in he stopped messing with his hair and put his comb down on the fake marble counter.
“Listen,” he finally said, “You’re so fucking awesome what does it matter?”
I thought about the group bouncing away, floating out of the door toward the ice cream parlor. Jeff had already brushed past me, leaving me alone in front of the mirror. I considered the tie hanging from my collar and smiled, suddenly glad I decided against changing a thing.
Later that night, on the couch, Dana and I were talking about the incident. Emmeline was asleep in her room, blissfully unaware of our concern.
“Rabbit food?” Dana asked. “That’s what they said?”
“Rabbit food,” I repeated.
I wasn’t aware her preschool had come into a rabbit, but when one of Emme’s friends mentioned rabbit food, I immediately thought of an adorable woodland creature and a bounty of crisp lettuces, maybe a ripe tomato or a stray carrot. In the wild, rabbits probably eat all manner of delicious foodstuffs, gathering root vegetables and foraged nuts into their dens for the winter. IÂ had fixated on this quaint image, forgetting altogether the actual cuisine of caged cottontails.
“Have you ever eaten rabbit food?” Dana asked after a few moments of silence. I appraised her as if she had developed a third arm.
“Of course!” I said, still pondering the woods, “You haven’t?”
“Well … no.”
“But we eat lettuce practically every night!”
Dana jokingly punched me on the shoulder.
“No really,” she said, “I’m serious. I mean actual rabbit food.”
My blank stare gave it away. It was clear we were thinking of two different foodstuffs and when Dana reminded me that pet rabbits aren’t treated to delectable butter lettuces or fragrant radishes, I paused for a moment, recalling all the hard green vegetable-scented pellets scattered around every rabbit cage in America.
When the kids had said Emme ate rabbit food, I barely gave it a second thought. “Who wouldn’t?” I wondered. But actual rabbit food? Hard, mealy pellets of processed whatever? It finally made sense.
“Oh,” I admitted, “Well, that is kind of odd.”
Usually when I pick up Emme from school, her friends tap her on the shoulder and happily call out, “Emme! Emme! Your dad is here!” She turns and smiles, and if she’s in a particularly good mood, she’ll bolt toward the door and give me a hug. A few of her friends scream over each other, one constantly reminding me of the princess costume she is forced to leave behind every morning and the other telling me about a pending vacation that has apparently been months in the works. Emme sits on my lap and we chat with her friends for a few minutes. Occasionally one of the girls will give me a hug or come lean against my shoulder, ready for a nap.
But on this day, I happily strolled into class to be greeted by a fusillade of finger pointing and shouts. The moment I entered the room, two of Emme’s best friends bolted from their seats, confronting me at the pint-sized lunch table, their tiny wooden chairs pushed out of the way. They looked like angry sprites, buzzing from flower to flower to berate the bees, and I had to cover my face with a hand to stifle a laugh, while I pretended to nod in all seriousness. It was the most adorable thing I had ever seen.
“Emme ate rabbit food!” one of them screamed, wagging a finger.
“Emme ate the rabbit food,” the other shouted, “And we didn’t like it one bit!”
I played along with their game, feigning shock. “She did?” I asked, “No!”
The girls nodded and took to shouting again, pointing fingers and lambasting the heavens above. If there was ever a capital offense in Girl Land, it apparently involved pilfering foodstuffs from the petting zoo. I watched in silence for a few more seconds as the girls continued to point and shout. Tears of laughter were beginning to form in my eyes and my hand no longer did anything to conceal the laughter.
I turned as if to jokingly nudge Emme on the shoulder, “Hey, kid, get these two!”
Her body was doubled over, her head nearly touching her knees. Hands covered her face. The girls continued to scream and shout, and it appeared as if Emme was going to crawl under the table.
“Hey now,” I muttered, “Hold on. Wait a second.”
You don’t forget the first time your baby smiles. Or walks. You don’t forget that look of pride that spreads across her face when she tackles an obstacle by herself for the first time, whether it’s climbing all the way up the slide or simply steadying herself against the edge of the couch. And you don’t forget the first time she looks up at you with a look that is all at once hopeful and guilty, as if her heart is breaking for reasons unknown.
The kids didn’t know any better, of course. They are three. It is nothing personal. Things happen and they point them out. Sometimes loudly and repeatedly. This is what kids do. Dana was on a bus with Emme one day when the kid looked across the seats, pointed at a woman and said, “That woman, right there, has small boobs.” Dana turned pink while the lady laughed, agreeing with the assessment. But I was still unprepared. Whenever I thought of Emme having trouble with friends, I pictured her as a mopey teenager, her nose pocked with acne and metal rings. I imagined her slamming her bedroom door, as Morrissey drifted into the hallway. I was not prepared for friends to have such an impact on her at such a young age. It immediately filled me with dread for what was to come, when the kids grew older and the screams became filled with actual malice.
As the shouting continued, Emme’s hands came unglued from her face and she peeked through her fingers to assess the air. Her eyes settled on mine with a pleading, hopeful look, as if they had reached some tentative middle ground between waiting for punishment and being told it was all OK.
“Emme,” I asked, patting her back, “Did you eat the rabbit food?”
She nodded her head and cast her eyes on the ground. I gathered her in my arms, pulling her head close to my chest.
“Was it delicious?”
She looked up and smiled, relief flooding into her eyes. The girls stopped shouting, cocking their heads like puppies.
“I bet it was,” I said, “Rabbit food is the best!”
I didn’t stop the shouting of course, but it made the situation two against two. I pretended there was a giant pile of rabbit food on the small wooden table and I gulped pretend handfuls, rubbing my belly in delight and offering bites to everyone. At the time, I was still fixated on lettuces and radishes, but I’d like to think I would have done the same with a pile of real pellets. I’d like to think I’ll have her back no matter what.
As soon as we burst out of the front door, Emme grabbed my hand and started skipping toward the bus stop, apparently having forgotten about the whole thing.
“Come on, daddy, let’s skip together.”
I grabbed her hand and started hopping on one foot.
“No, no, silly,” she said, “Like this.”
Emme skipped ahead a few paces while I put my feet together and hopped straight into the air.
“No, no, silly daddy! Watch this, watch this.”
She showed me again and I pretended to do some jumping jacks.
“Daddy,” she said, “Take my hand. I’ll show you.”
We skipped downhill, turned onto Fillmore and skipped another block toward our bus stop.
“You’re a good skipper,” she told me, “But you need more practice. You have to work hard. OK?”
I nodded my head.
At the bus stop, we sat on a low stoop together, her legs stretched out in front of her, and my knees pulled against my chest. She rested her head on my shoulder and then let it fall into my lap.
“Daddy?” she said.
“Daddy I didn’t like preschool today.”
“No,” she said, burying her face in her hands again. The words were muffled and came out with a sigh that seemed too heavy for a child of three.
“My friends were mean,” she said.
We had a kid in my school who dressed in shorts and sport coats — a real odd ball. Emme was apparently the kid who ate rabbit food. What have I done to her, I wondered. And what could I do for her in the future? This was innocent. I knew what might loom ahead. Everyone says you can’t protect them all the time — that kids will be kids and sometimes kids are mean. But I suddenly remembered a few miraculous, healing words uttered long ago in a cramped bathroom and wondered if that was really so.
“Listen to me,” I whispered, “I want you to listen close, OK?”
“OK daddy,” she said, gathering herself up and looking me in the eye.
“I love you so fucking much it hurts my heart.”
I hadn’t meant to curse but it just came out, some irrepressible echo from a distant memory that had filled my heart with joy. Emme’s eyes went wide and she whispered, “Daddy that’s a bad word.”
“I love you no matter what,” I continued, “No matter what.”
Emme smiled but didn’t say a word. She settled her head into my lap again and I continued to stroke her hair. After a moment she looked up.
“Daddy?” she said.
“I won’t tell mommy.”
I looked down the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of our bus. People on lunch breaks strode by. A jogger rounded a corner across the street. At the intersection, a taxi honked. We sat in silence for a long while before I felt a hand slip around my back and squeeze.
“Daddy?” she said again.
If it were another moment, I would have given her a timeout for what she said, but of course I knew where she had picked up the term. It didn’t seem right to reprimand her, and so I let it go, leaning down to kiss her cheek.
“Me too,” I whispered, “No matter what.”