Our girlchild burst in the door last week in as close to a dither as I think I’ve seen her. She’d been at the neighborhood toddler playground. “Baba, Baba! I made a new friend at the playground today!”
Which of course put me in a dither, because our daughter is — how can I put this diplomatically? — she’s a touch eccentric. Not so much anti-social as, well, a-social. Like, if she needs other kids her age, it’s a little hard to tell sometimes. Let’s put it this way: at preschool, for the first half year, we would find ways to casually ask her which kids at school she was making friends with, and she’d usually say something along the lines of, “I don’t so much play with the other kids. But I do talk with the teachers.” Eventually she seemed to actually develop friendships with other kids at preschool. I was nearly as grateful as I was when she started peeing into the toilet.
Still, even recently, when I nudged the old “any people you especially enjoy spending time with at school?” topic, she mentioned a gal who’d left the school last fall for Kindergarten. Sigh. I followed up with another question, and she said, “I usually play with myself. It’s less rowdy and more mellow that way.” She accompanied this with a little nod, and a sort of a studied, thoughtfully-knit brow.
I can’t say that she doesn’t seem contented. Her downstairs cousins supply gobs of kid play time for her around our shared yard, which may well account for her regarding time at preschool as “down” time, socially speaking. And her two imaginary friends, Sally and Mary, continue to have a stunningly wide array of hair colors, animals at home, and life experiences, all of which enrich the lil’ monkey’s life no end.
But you can see now how thrilled I was that she was thrilled to have met someone. Since “meeting someone,” in the sense that one might ordinarily think of the term, just doesn’t happen that much for her.
I asked her to tell me about “Aclaudia,” and was met with enthusiasm, but not a ton of detail.
“We have so much in common! We both love macadamia nuts. We both have younger brothers. Except her younger brother is just one year old, and mine is two. And she has brown skin and brown hair, and I have light skin and light hair.”
“What did you guys do?”
“Played. For a long time.”
I looked to the beloved, who had been with her for part of the time. She nodded, and corroborated the story, fleshing out a few more specifics. Such as, Aclaudia was our girl’s same age, but was littler.
We pledged to search for her again, and yesterday was the day. It was the same day of the week, to be exact, at the same time as the last sighting. The previous sighting happened when the lil’ monkey and her brother were at the playground while their downstairs girl cousin was taking an art class in a small building on site. The logic was, maybe Aclaudia’s play at the tot lot wasn’t random, but conformed to a weekly schedule. She may even have had an older sibling in the art class there. If so, Tuesday afternoons would be our time.
As soon as we all arrived, the lil’ monkey was riveted on the job. She looped her downstairs boy cousin into touring the playground with her, since he’d eyeballed Aclaudia the week before, and might be of better use tracking her down. They made a thorough tour, and came back empty-handed. The girlie was looking down at the grass, shivering just a little. It was cold.
“Are you cold, honey?” I asked.
Without meeting my eyes, she responded with a sobriety and deliberation better suited to a cabinet secretary’s confirmation hearing. “The shivering and the cold are separate.”
Then she went off to a nearby patch of dirt and commenced to kneel down, and gather up small handfuls of it. “I’m getting some brown fairy dust, and I’m going to sprinkle it at the base of the tree where we met,” she informed me. “That might help make her appear.”
Several cycles of fairy dust collection and distribution didn’t materialize Aclaudia, but I was relieved to see the shivering abate, and hear the girlie singing random original songs to herself under her breath. The rest of the kids in my charge floated back and forth across the playground like the tide, as kids are wont to do. Out of the corner of one eye I had to continually track the littlest among us, the girlie’s brother, who was being lovingly escorted hither and yon by his downstairs girl cousin as she awaited the start of her class. Baba was smart enough to park a yellow hat on him, for just this very eventuality. Bob-bob-bob would go his little head as he trotted back and forth at the edge of my peripheral vision.
After the last sprinkling of fairy dust, the lil’ monkey set herself at the base of the tree, and began to write out what she said was a “secret message” for Aclaudia. In row after row, she wrote her name, alternating with three big hearts. Her name, then three hearts, then her name again, then three hearts. Then at the bottom, two little dots, and the number one and the number two. She explained: the two dots “represent macadamia nuts, which we love,” and the numbers “represent the age of our siblings.” Then she asked me how to spell out “What age are you?” That she spelled out in ALL CAPS. It had a dramatic impact.
Though still no Aclaudia.
The downstairs boy cousin was cheery, and offered that maybe Aclaudia would see the note if she came to the playground another day. He was solicitous of the whole process, not only because he loves his cousin very well, but perhaps also because he has been plowing through the Hardy Boys volumes for months now, and recognized an intriguing mini-plot-line when he saw one. The Mystery of the Playground Moppet!
As each (fruitless) minute of the conjuring session led to the next, I wracked my brain for ways to spin an Aclaudia-free playground visit as a success. Or at least as not a dismal failure. After the lil’ monkey seemed to have exhausted her store of “secret message” ideas, I suggested that maybe when we got home we could draw up some sort of sign, maybe use a picture of the lil’ monkey, and post it at the tree so that the next time Aclaudia came by, she’d know that the lil’ monkey was on the lookout for her. That seemed to be a very practical sounding idea, and worked well enough to punctuate the quest, at least for the time being.
For the rest of our time at the playground, she skipped and traipsed and sang to herself, perfectly content. Not me. I stood there at the base of the tree, baseball hat in hand, scratching my head and shaking it, wondering how in the hell I will be able to survive her first real-live broken heart.