The day is hot. Our car is a work in progress with only two functioning windows and no air conditioner, but we’ve piled in for the half hour drive north to the next town. Only a woman who is seriously stir crazy would cram two active little boys into a hot car in the middle of an August day, even for a chance at companionship and fresh farm vegetables.
We moved away from our community recently, and a streak of extreme heat and humidity isn’t making the transition any easier. I have been cooped up with Luke and Henry for days, but today we have been offered free veggies if we can simply pick up the farm share for an online friend. It is in a posh suburb with a park and shaded fountains for kids to splash in. So we head out, into air that feels lush and heavy with possibility.
By the time we arrive at the park, Luke and Henry have removed their shirts and all of our hair is matted to our scalps with sweat, the longer parts tangled in masses from the wind. Two open windows can produce a lot of warm bluster it turns out. Our water bottle is empty and we are all on edge. The walk across the asphalt and then through the grass to the fountains seems too long, but we make it.
Luke has difficulty overcoming this sticky start to our outing, and immediately begins to harass another boy his age. He takes aim at him with the giant water gun component of the fountain. The boy tries walking away, but Luke shadows him across the park.
“Why is this boy bothering me?” the kid calls to his mom, who shoots me a sharp look.
“Luke, leave him alone. Come over here and play,” I offer, more to the little boy and his mom than to Luke. Seldom able to recover from a bad start, especially when the day is topping out at 97 degrees, Luke is probably a lost cause at this point. Henry is begging–quite vocally now, at age two–to nurse.
I decide that we should head into the air-conditioned changing rooms–we need to cool off in more ways than one.
Luke changes into his homemade, batik, bug-and-butterfly print pants. They were a hand-me-down from one of his best friends in our old town, and he cherishes them. The pants are everything I look for in boys’ clothes: colorful, quirky, gender-neutral. We’re about to get back into the car, so Luke foregoes a shirt.
I glance into the mirror before we head back out into the heat. As if feeling like a bad mom weren’t enough, I now notice how wild my hair really looks and the heat rash that’s broken out across my face.
Our old neighborhood was a quirky, urban academic community where I almost always fit in and had a friend or ally on every corner. I’m feeling particularly offensive in this fancy suburb: I’m the mom with the weird car, the misbehaving kid with the odd pants, the nursing toddler (who has been able to ask for it for some time now, thank you very much), the ugly hair, and strange rash.
At Luke’s Waldorf school, in our old community, he was one of the more mainstream kids. He lusted after Spider-Man fruit snacks, and I sometimes let him have them. He asked for PBS Kids by name. But he didn’t look odd in his crazy get-ups. Bug pants were nothing. He once went to school in a home-fashioned Peter Pan outfit, complete with green tights and a jaunty blue sash. Now Luke is about to enter public kindergarten, and I know things are going to shift for him. As we leave the changing room, we see the boy Luke has been bothering.
“Are you wearing your pajamas?” he asks Luke. “And why aren’t you wearing a shirt?”
I feel myself stiffen. Luke still rides a pink and purple bike, and I’ll be damned if I want this or anything else about his self-expression to change now, at barely age five.
Self-expression clearly intact, Luke covers his ears and shouts, for the little boy and everyone else to hear, “Don’t you say another word! Don’t you say another word! Don’t you say another word!”
I usher the boys into the car, and we drive as quickly as we can to the farm share drop off point. We are dripping with sweat when we arrive. The boys get out and sit under the shade of a tree as I stand in line. I sigh when I see that the mother from the park has lined up behind me. She leaves her kids strapped into her air-conditioned car.
I can’t remember the name of my online friend. I tell the farmer I’m here to pick up the share for a friend whose name I cannot remember. He looks at me–the heat rash, the hair, the loud and shirtless boys who have begun to throw dirt clods in their boredom–and skeptically gives me a few vegetables before sending me on my way.
Next weekend, we will visit our old community. It will be achingly familiar, sweet and comforting. No one will look twice when Luke wears his vertically striped rainbow pants with his horizontally striped sweater in fall colors. I will nurse Henry beside an acquaintance who is nursing her preschooler and her infant, the older child cradling the baby.
As time goes on, we will visit less and less often. Luke will graduate to a red boys bike. Henry will stop nursing. Now that we have a garage, my husband might just finish working on the car. We will welcome the air conditioning. And now that we have a house and a yard–a far cry from our tiny apartment in the city–we will begin to fill this space. Our bikes, our projects, our shifting ideas and interests, will find a place where they belong. I’ll save the Peter Pan costume in a box in the basement.
Years from now, when Luke and Henry are nearly men, maybe I’ll find that box. We’ll look at the costume and I’ll tell them this story. But how we get to that distant day is another story, one we’ll all have to write together.