We’re walkers, your dad and I – fast walkers. We pound along at twice the speed of most people, often breaking apart to flow around the sidewalk slowpokes without breaking stride or conversation.
A flashing crosswalk signal is like a red flag we can’t resist charging; if the light is green and we’re thirty feet from the corner we’ll break into a simultaneous run as if the signal light emits some sort of warning siren that only we can hear. We never jaywalk, preferring instead to jayrun, something I can do as expertly in high heels as flats.
You always demand that I skip with you and I always cheerfully oblige, and so we are seen all over the Castro, skipping past crowds of men clustered on the sidewalks outside of the gay bars, skipping past the cafes and restaurants and the BDSM shops with their window mannequins dressed in leather codpieces and studded dog collars.
“We’re getting milk” you say to the mustachioed and the muscle tee’d men, and they laugh and tell us to go, girls.
You have kids of your own, right? People often ask, assuming the easiness we’ve found together is attributable to experience. I always snort at this, because it irritates me to no end, this idea that one cannot fully appreciate something unless they have personal experience with it.
They are always surprised at my ‘no, I have no other children’. What I do have is a good imagination, and with you, it serves me well. I am always able to think up something to do, or something to talk about. Lacking that, we skip.
Recently you realized you could crack us up with your version of speedwalking, your skinny little legs (and when did they get so long?) scissoring along, your tiny butt switching back and forth, a perfect genetic blue print of your daddy in miniature.
The first time you reached for my hand you were only following the oft-repeated parental dictum: never cross the street without holding someone’s hand. Reaching for my hand symbolized nothing more than my adult status. Still, I was surprised – and touched – that I fell into a category where trust was automatically conferred. I have never thought of myself that way, though perhaps I should – after all my name is derived from the Greek, and means “Defender of mankind.”
But somewhere along the line, you began reaching for my hand as a matter of course. Was it the weekend when your daddy left for a bike race, and I was solely responsible not just for your street crossing safety, but everything else as well? I was anxious about that weekend –what if you cried and wanted your mom? (she was out of town).
So I kept us busy – we drew chalk flowers on the sidewalk, and we colored the giant Strawberry Shortcake coloring book, me being careful to put each of the magic markers back in their designated slots under your watchful eye.
In the evening we skipped to dinner – a pasta place a few blocks away. We skipped home, and in a truly hilarious and utterly unconscious mimicry of your daddy, the “Walk” sign began flashing and you skip-raced to beat it. You did, too, but tripped on the curb and fell and hit your forehead and cried. We sat on a low stone wall while I examined your smooth pink forehead, which bore a small but definite scratch.
Should I kiss it, I asked you hesitantly, and you nodded, tears streaming. I hugged you and worried that your mom might think I couldn’t be responsible for you – and maybe you worried about that too because you hugged back and surprised me by saying in a practical voice, “We don’t have to tell anyone.”
Well, I told you, if anyone asks, I think you should, and you agreed. “But I’m OK,” you amplified, which was my first lesson in how my anxious heart might be more visible to you than I perhaps realized.
Maybe it was the weekend we became ski buddies. Your daddy likes to hang with his girls, but he also likes to hit the back country, sometimes spending hours hiking with skis on his back in order to reach the top of some impossibly high, mist-draped peak, where he’ll launch himself face-first down a run of intermittent rock and powder.
It’s not a place I can follow or deny him, so I volunteered to watch after you on the slopes for the day – a day that turned out to be surprisingly fun.
Walking back to the car, your daddy asked how our day went. “I was fast! We’re ski partners,” you responded, clomping along in your black ninja ski boots. Then, taking my hand (and my heart) “Aren’t we?!”
Maybe it goes back all the way to that weekend in London when you were visiting your grandparents. Your daddy and I chose to vacation in Paris at the same time, just so we could take the train through the Chunnel to visit you for the day.
We arrived in time to have some tea and toast with you, and then off we went, and to this day when I think of that visit, it is always with a circus music soundtrack: we went to the park, and a museum, and to lunch, and to another museum, then a ride on the London Eye, then a walk along the Thames, then to Harrod’s for tea, and then another park.
We took the tube everywhere, and you loved the conveyors and escalators, grabbing my hand and shouting “Run!” because that was the game, for me and you to beat daddy – at age 4, you were newly socialized by preschool into the concept o f girls vs. boy.
At the end of the day we raced into the final train, now filled with commuters who scowled disapprovingly at our raucous American fun. Snoots, I thought…. right up until the moment you suddenly began to cry, hiccupping “Whee Daddy! Whee!”
“What?” he asked, picking you up, and you answered by spraying all of us with a powerful stream of warm (and very yellow) wee wee.
Now four years later we are still up to the same tricks, this time in New York, skip-racing down Madison Avenue to Zibottos, an Italian style coffee bar. “I’m in the mood for an espresso,” your daddy said, to which you responded “Yes, I’d like a nice iced coffee,” the kind of thing that you sometimes come up with that makes us wonder, who is this little person, anyway?
We skipped to M&M World (a rip off, we all agreed) and speedwalked through the late-night throngs of Times Square to see Toy Story 3 one night, The Karate Kid another.
“I don’t know, it ends pretty late,” daddy said doubtfully, and you said reasonably “But its summer vacation, we can sleep in!”
Which movie did you like better, you wanted to know, and for me it was no contest: Toy Story. “Me too,” you said, taking my hand, and we skipped back to the hotel, past the garbage bags piled on the curb and the street food vendor stalls of sizzling chicken and warm cones of nuts.
The church steps are crowded with men sleeping on cardboard, many uncovered in the mild air, and your daddy and I exchange a glance that is a conversation unto itself. It is hard times in the city.
“Is that a boy, or a girl” you asked of the androgynously pretty 11-year old star of Karate Kid, and I smile because you are unsure of the cues – braided longish hair equals girl, but skateboard equals boy; the character’s name (Dre) provides no further clues.
I think that your question is one that John Irving would appreciate, he the author of The World According To Garp in which Garp encounters a child who, in her same smooth pink sexless perfection Garp describes as “she was only a Child, not yet Boy or Girl”.
I’ve always loved John Irving’s novels which I suppose is not surprising – if there is novelist equivalent of circus music, he is it (maybe he even agrees, hence his story “Son of the Circus.“)
I sometimes think of an interview I read, one in which Irving tells of being asked, did you have a child that died – are you Garp? His answer resonated with me – at the time I thought of it as a writer’s answer. But skipping through these last years with you, I find that the resonance has undergone a quiet but nonetheless deep sea change.: