Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children. — George Bernard Shaw
Bella was the first to notice me. She waved one hand high above her head and used the other to pull her mother away from the koi pond. Jane’s eyes were hidden behind a giant pair of dark glasses, but when she did see me, recognition was apparent in her upturned lips and quickened pace. It was a gorgeous day in the park — a perfect 75 degrees in the shade. When they reached my side, I greeted my niece with a hug that lifted her into the air and gave my sister a kiss on each cheek.
“Do you have everything?”
Jane gestured to the prodigious red purse balanced on her back. “Yes, of course I do. That’s why the huge bag.”
“Right,” I said. Jane rolled her eyes and repeated for the umpteenth time that she had it covered. I should have known it wasn’t necessary to check; if there’s anyone I can rely on to deliver on a promise, it’s my sister Jane. Even so, on the off-chance that she’d been overwhelmed while bustling her daughter out the door that morning, I’d stashed a baggie full of nail-polish remover and cotton balls in my purse before heading out to meet her.
Every good salesperson knows the key to closing a deal is to correctly answer the one and only question about which every buyer cares: What’s in it for me? Jane, a woman who understands this basic tenet of sales, had proffered a pedicure as a way to lure me to the park for the hour and a half she’d have to kill while Bella attended Junior Theatre. But Jane was wasting her people-reading skills on me. Sure, I was looking forward to applying that 1950s-red polish of hers to my toes, but I would have agreed with just as much alacrity had she simply asked me to keep her company. Balboa Park is down the street from my place, and Jane is one of the few people in my life for whom I’m always game.
Before retiring to a shady spot on the grass with our coffee and grooming implements, all we had to do was deposit Bella safely in her class. Jane’s eldest daughter is two months into her fifth year of life, and this was her first day attending “big girl class” for five-to-seven-year-olds. As Jane explained, after attending this course called “Annie” each Saturday for ten weeks, the children should be able to perform a number from the hit show.
Due to lifestyle choices, I rarely find myself in the company of children. When I do interact with the human sprouts, it is always with my sisters’ pipsqueaks. It’s fun for me to play the part of shrewd aunt, doling out truth in small and mysterious bits so as to leave them hungering for more. Things such as “No, Liam, mascara is not only for girls” and “You know, Bella, not everyone believes in God.” I have so much wisdom to impart that I sometimes find it difficult to contain myself.
Because I had entered into that sunny afternoon uncaffeinated, I decided to engage Bella in a more innocuous way. “Hey, Bella Boo, are you excited about your class?” I took the up-down shaking of her flaxen curls as an affirmative. Before I could ask a follow-up question, a little girl in an Annie-emblazoned shirt approached us, followed closely by a woman carrying a toddler. Bella’s entire demeanor changed — the appearance of a peer transformed her from indifferent to engaged. As the girl drew nearer, Bella struck little poses (a hand on the hip, a toss of the hair), the way I’ve seen birds on National Geographic flash their plumage as warning or welcome to other creatures of the forest.
“Hi, I’m Sarah,” said the newcomer. “I’m here for ‘Annie.’” She pointed at her shirt. Bella reacted in a peculiar fashion — she fake-fell on the cement and said, “When you fall, it’s good to land on your tukas.” Jane laughed.
“What’s a tukas?” the child asked her mother.
“It’s another word for rear, honey,” answered the woman.
“Bella, introduce yourself,” Jane said. But Bella instead dropped to her bum again in an attempt to elicit more laughs; when that didn’t satisfy, she hopped back to her feet and rattled off random fragments she thought might be of interest to her new cohort. Things such as “I have a fish named Sarah.”
Two more girls appeared outside the classroom, one whose head was a conflagration of red-orange curls. They both wore Annie shirts. In a bright, clear voice, the redhead announced that she’d also seen the play. I could tell by Jane’s horrified smile that she believed she’d failed her daughter by not taking her to the production that had just come and gone at the San Diego Civic Theater. Also, to look at these children, the girls with their Annie shirts and their beaming smiles, their maturity, their “Annie-ness,” it was apparent to all that if casting were done on the spot, the little outgoing girl on her tukas was the least likely to play the lead role. She had the energy and the flair, but not the dedication. Annie wasn’t even one of her favorite shows — Jane had only just bought the movie that week.
But my mind soon wandered from Bella’s potential devastation at not being front and center, as I was suddenly up to my knees in Annies. It’s one thing to hang out with my sisters’ kids at my mother’s house, quite another to see them gathered together, backed by their handlers, awkwardly interfacing with their own kind. It pained me to witness the unintentional displays of arrogance or offense as each vied for his or her place in the hubbub. There was more social ineptitude in that little cluster of kids than in all of Comic-Con. The reticent children, their stoic faces slowly roaming through the crowd, were more unnerving than the talkative ones. I’ve seen too many horror movies featuring kids like that. Silent, staring children give me the creeps.
Shrieking voices reverberated off the plaster arches of Balboa Park. Jane chatted with the other parents who quacked away like ducks while herding their chicks into the pond. It was imperative that I get away at once, before I had some kind of “episode,” during which I might exclaim something inappropriate. I was backing away when the first woman we’d encountered, now holding her toddler’s hand as the child squirmed at her feet, stepped in front of me, a sociable smile on her face. “Do you have a kid in the class?”
I stared back at her for an uncomfortably long time, a wide-eyed, perplexed expression on my face. When her smile began to waiver, I blurted, “I don’t have kids.” Then, following in my niece’s footsteps, I offered up some random facts: “Don’t want ’em. Like the role of aunt. Okay, now, bye.” While she was probably trying to figure out from which mental disorder I was suffering, I absconded to a quiet, shady space about 20 feet away and waited for my sister, wondering if I should have tried falling on my tukas.