We live in Malibu now. After seven years in the middle of Los Angeles, my husband and I decided it was time. Time to find a place where we could see a few stars and hear something other than the hum of the freeway in the quiet of the night.
So here we are now, looking out at the ocean and up at the stars, but still the idea that my kids are growing up in this too perfectly perfect place feels uncomfortable to my Midwestern psyche. The endless ocean is even visible from the top of the slide at the local elementary school. I often wonder how my life would have been different if I could have glimpsed the ocean from my elementary school playground.
On my playground in Minnesota in the seventies, I sat by a red brick building in the snow with the freezing cold creeping through my pink snowpants and my Lee jeans and my flowered thermal long underwear. The wind chill factor and real temperature had to combine in some mystical way to equal something less than zero degrees Fahrenheit before we were allowed to stay inside for recess. I gathered my knees to my chest, watching the activity before me. A group of teachers huddled underneath the monkey bars that nobody could use in winter because it was too easy to slip and fall with mittened hands. Bundled blobs of kids skidded around the ice playing broomball, but I felt awkward inside my body. I wasn’t too big or too small, or particularly clumsy or unskilled, but I watched the girls like Angie Lindstrom perform a straight legged cartwheel in a full-body snowmobile suit and then jump up with a smile, her hands reaching to the grey sky, and I knew my body would never cooperate with me that way, especially under the watchful, appraising eyes of all those third graders. The physical games hashed out on the playground felt like infinitely more work than the long division I knew was ahead of us when Mrs. Anderson finally blew into the whistle that hung from an elastic band around her neck.
It’s a Malibu winter now, and I’m an adult, or so they tell me, but I find I’m still sitting along the sidelines watching the action with my knees gathered to my chest. Today, it’s a soccer game and my son. He runs lagging behind a pack of four and five-year-old boys clamoring for the ball. His gait is casual. He’s not trying to get to the ball first; he’s just jogging along. And, then, he stops. The rest of the game keeps going. The ball and the other boys struggle in a mass of energy, but my boy is alone midfield. He bends forward, crouching near the ground.
I hear the other moms shouting, “Go Charlie.” “Kick it, Jack.” “Get that ball, Nathan.”
But I’m totally silent in my place on the blanket next to them. I want to be supportive, but not pushy, so I watch; I smile, and I say nothing.
My son’s pant legs are grass stained and dirty, his greenish sweatshirt hangs outside the red mesh shirt he wears to show what team he’s playing for. The noon sun shines on my head, so I have to shield my eyes to get a better look at what he’s doing alone in the center of the field. He straightens up and turns his body toward me. He’s holding a stick high above his head, as if locating that stick were the object of the game, and he’s just won. His face is bright and alert with a smile; it’s the kind of look I don’t see when he’s faced with the soccer ball. Quinlan begins to run again, but he’s not running toward the ball and the pack of boys fighting to put it into the blue team’s goal. He’s running off the field. His blue eyes look right at me, and his curly blond hair sticks up in a few places that didn’t get trimmed last time we went to the barber. He holds the stick out to me.
“Look what I found. Can you hold it? Don’t lose it, okay.”
He turns toward the soccer field again, but not before he casts a long glance at the magnolia tree behind me. It sits on a little mound of dirt, and I know he’s thinking about the stick gathering possibilities under that tree. He hesitates, but the coach calls his name.
“Quinlan. Come on. Your team needs you.”
Quinlan looks at the ground and jogs back to the field with the same unhurried pace.
I look over my shoulder and see a triangle fin pointing out of the ocean. My heart jumps with the excitement of a girl raised thousands of miles from an ocean. Fins and backs peek into the air, and then splash back into the water. The smell of the sea wind fills my nose. I look over at Quinlan, and see he has planted one heel in the dirt, and he’s using the other to push off and spin around and around. The other team just scored a goal, and the blue team boys have thrown their fists in the air letting out a collective whoop of triumph. Quinlan hasn’t even realized it yet.
Two red team boys run across the field to where Quinlan is still spinning. The bigger of the two boys puts a hand to Quinlan’s shoulder and shoves. Quinlan rocks backward a bit, but doesn’t fall over. He looks into their faces, and his eyebrows scrunch together for a second. Then, he looks my way with a nervous smile. I wave my hand in the air and smile back with a nod of my head. It’s supposed to mean, “I know you can hold your own. I don’t have to come and rescue you because I know you can do it yourself.” But I think of how much I would have liked someone to rescue me from that cold playground in Minnesota.
He jogs my way, his face folding into pre-cry mode and a million thought fragments fly through my head.
I don’t know what any of it means. I don’t know what’s going to happen in his life. I don’t know what his lack of interest in soccer means. I don’t know if he’s going to sit along the sidelines or if he’s going to be competitive and athletic, and I don’t know if it matters. I don’t know what will make him happy. I just know I ache for him all the time. I ache with love for him. I ache for all of the pain he hasn’t felt yet, and I ache for its inevitability.
I reach for his waist and put my arm around it. I point out at the ocean and the dolphins disappearing southward.
He smiles and puts his arm around my neck.