My mother over-cautioned me about leaving the house today to buy snowsuits for my sons at the mall. “It’s supposed to get bad,” she said. “Make sure you buy batteries for your flashlights.”
On the way to the mall, Johnny alternated between asking the world’s questions and bopping along with me to my mix CD, which was playing his anthem, “Don’t Stop” by Foster the People.
“Mom, why is it raining?” he asked.
“Because it has to rain some time,” I said.
“But why does it?” he asked.
“Because nothing would grow, and the oceans would dry up, and we’d have nothing to drink,” I said.
“And we’d be thirsty?” he asked.
“Yes. Very thirsty,” I said.
I had to admit, this morning, while watching the twenty-four hour news that is as constant in our house as breathing and blinking, in an election year, I fretted over the tsunami in Hawaii, the impending hurricane Sandy barreling towards NYC, and realized why I never watched the movie 2012. I just wanted it to be the day after Christmas to know we already had made it–regardless of the sad feeling that follows it–the limp, unblinking string lights, the empty stockings, brown snow, balled up wrapping paper, hunger.
The leaves were nearly off the trees, and Johnny had been asking me constantly, “Is it Halloween yet?” And then I heard him play this game after I told him no, it wasn’t Halloween. “It is. It is Halloween,” he said to himself. “And today, I will be Iron Man.”
I made him a paper chain to count down, but it hasn’t helped. Except this morning, when he told me, “Mom, I took the day off today,” I thought he was imitating Cory, that he had taken the day off from school, so I said, “Really? That’s amazing. How did you get Mrs. Johnson to let you have the day off?” and he said, “No, Mom. I reached up as high as I could, and I ripped the paper. I took the day off. Halloween is in three days.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling bad for thinking he was just playing, that he didn’t know what he was talking about. I thought that he’d probably gone beyond that point of mimicry, that now he only said what he knew he meant. But even I couldn’t say I did that.
At the mall, Johnny stared at the hats on the rack next to me while I picked out his new gloves. He tried on a furry bear hat that was too small for his head, already as large as an adults. Larger than mine. One of my friends told me I should be careful about Johnny, that he would be the type to bully others. I clenched my teeth at the thought, but it hadn’t left my mind. At the time, I didn’t know whether to be angry or scared.
In the store, he tried talking to children he obviously didn’t know, and they walked by him. I thought about last month, when I’d worried he was having a hard time making friends in pre-school, and spent hours awake at night imagining scenarios of him swinging by himself or chasing after kids, running in a line that he thought was just play, but felt sick that maybe the joke was on him, that they were running from him. But, no. That wasn’t the case. He was as social as they came.
I would not be a helicopter parent, I thought. I knew what that meant, I dealt with them in numbers throughout high school when parents spread rumors about me and my then-boyfriend, or when a college freshman’s mother called the bookstore three times to get the dollar amount of their textbook order, or when parents emailed to discuss students’ grades.
“I am controlling,” I’d said to Cory one night.
“Yes. You are,” he’d said.
“I am working on it,” I said. Still, the amount of times at the mall that I said, “Johnny.” and then, “John,” and then, just a minute later, “John Alexander, do not make me put back your Transformers truck,” piled on enough to make me wonder if the parents around me were as annoyed with me as I was.
I bought a book called Mess, a journal in which every page requested that you intentionally made a mess of it. Page 171 instructed the writer to bury the book, and then, three days later, dig it up. This was part of my reform.
At the checkout counter, the woman wrapped a frame while Johnny said, “My name is Johnny,” and when she didn’t respond, said, “My name is Johnny,” and then, a few seconds later, “My name is Johnny,” and again, “My name is Johnny,” until I looked at her and said, “He really is not going to stop.”
The woman behind us in line laughed hysterically, and said, “Hi, Johnny,” but he smiled at the woman behind us and turned around to the cashier.
And then he said, “My name is Johnny.”
“Hi, Johnny,” she said.
“See my Transformers truck?” he asked.
I’d promised him we’d go to Burger King if he’d been good. When we were in line, a man stepped in front of us, and Johnny pulled me forward.
“Mom, when am I going to get my chicken nuggets?”
“Johnny everyone has to wait in line,” I said.
“Yeah? But why?” he asked.
“So everyone can eat,” I said.
“But I’m so hungry,” he said, and pulled me again.
“Be patient,” I said, loud enough for the man in front of us to hear.
Johnny told me he loved me about twenty to thirty times a day–as many times as he asked me, “Why?” in response to any answer I gave him to anything, as though he needed more and more and more. I bought him a children’s encyclopedia a couple months ago, but then realized he couldn’t read yet.
The rain still came down, pounding the skylights of the mall’s food court. “Why is it still raining,” Johnny said. It wasn’t a question anymore.
“What is your name?” a woman came over to me as I sat next to Johnny. She was a small elderly lady, and pretty, with blond hair and bright skin.
“Sarah,” I said, looking up at her.
“My name’s Johnny,” Johnny said.
“Well, hi Johnny,” the lady said. “That’s a nice Spiderman hat you’re wearing.”
“It’s just a hat,” Johnny said. “I’m not Spiderman, I’m just a boy.”
The lady asked me to watch her things–a newspaper, a travel mug, an umbrella and a cloth tote bag.
“It’s so crazy in here,” she’d said.
“Oh I know,” I said, gesturing to the birds. “I still can’t figure out why it’s okay to have birds flying in a food court.”
“And this weather,” she said, almost as if my mom had sent her. “I’m nervous about it.”
“Well, I don’t think it will be as bad as New York City will get it,” I said. “Stock up on batteries.”
“Oh, but my husband dropped dead on our bedroom floor two years ago and I get so Oooooh nervous without him,” she said, raising her hands to her mouth.
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t know what to say, and for once, too busy chomping on his nuggets, Johnny wouldn’t interrupt.
On our way out to the car, after Johnny informed an old man we encountered in the food court that he ate his boogers, I let him splash in some puddles.
“Mom,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“What were you and daddy eating this morning again?”
“Bacon,” I said.
“Where does it come from?” he asked.
“Pigs,” I said.
“Noooo,” he said. “The piggies have to live!”
I went on at length about the food chain, talked about links–birds and mice and insects and cats, things I wasn’t sure about–and wished Mrs.Johnson had told me what to tell him when he insisted we shouldn’t eat animals. How could I justify that we would have pork chops for dinner?
Then, he changed the subject. “Is it my birthday?” he asked.
“Not until after Halloween,” I said, thinking about another paper chain, and all the days after, the days he had, one by one, to convince himself he could be whatever it was, Iron Man, the birthday boy, or whatever, at all, he wanted to be on that day.