My old elementary school, in addition to being just a quarter mile from my house, also has a paved track on which I run sometimes. Today was a gorgeous, breezy sunny day so I decided to forego the gym and make that track a part of my route.
Five laps equal a mile, so it’s a nice way to keep track of my progress. It was that upon which I was concentrating, and I was also rocking out to this, so I did not hear or see the little girl when she addressed me.
“Hey you! Hey you!” Her shouted words eventually filtered through the music.
I don’t react when cars honk at me anymore. I’m not startled when I get catcalled or shouted at. I don’t jump when people come tearing up behind me on bikes or cars.
But I jumped clear out of my skin when I saw this little towheaded girl running beside me. I even yipped a little.
“How are you doin’?” She asked without ceremony or prelude.
My heart, having slammed to a stop and then leapt forward at a gallop, robbed me of my breath. Which was good, because I needed a moment to collect myself. I was already shaken by her presence, but when she took it upon herself to strike up a conversation like we’d known each other for, well, as long as she’d been alive… imagine you’re a goldfish in a plastic bag. You’ve just been won as a prize by a young boy for tossing a ring around a stick in the ground. You are handed to him. He proceeds to jump with joy, swinging his arms, caring naught for you in your rubber-banded prison. I was trying to work through the mental equivalent of that. I spluttered to a walk, stuttered, “I’m doing well. How are you?”
She grinned a baby-toothed grin. “I’m doin’ jus’ fine.”
Dear Yankees, your children will never be as cute as ours. They don’t have adorable Southern accents. Love, North Carolinians.
“How are the girls doing?” she asked.
The few times I’ve been addressed that way, the phrase “the girls” has always referred to my boobs. Such as: “The girls are looking great today, Kate” or “Looks like the girls are trying to come out and play”, etc. This is what first crossed my mind. I glanced down. No, I told myself. She couldn’t POSSIBLY mean those.
But I had my doubts. She was an outgoing, precocious child, and if TV and the internet have taught me anything, it’s that kids these days are growing up WAY faster than they should. I couldn’t assume she wasn’t talking about my tits. Remember the fish and the boy? Well, the boy just dropped the bag and there I go, rolling merrily down a hill.
I let my mouth hang open like a village idiot for a little bit, then gathered wits enough to ask, “To which girls are you referring?”
For some reason, Grammatically-Correct Mode engages when I’m speaking to small children. I think it’s a defense mechanism.
The little girl pointed ahead of us to an eye-searingly colorful plastic jungle gym, where two other little girls, one younger and one her age, were monkeying around. “Those girls,” she announced. “Are they yours?”
We’re past the fish-in-a-bag metaphor. It’s amazing how far such a small piece of humanity can chuck me outside of my comfort zone. I did some more gaping and some more stammering, trying to form my words so they didn’t sound like me being affronted that she thought I was that old, which I was. Affronted. Not old.
“No,” I ended up with. “No, they’re not mine.”
“Oh. Which ones’re yours?”
I blinked at her. Those big, pretty blue eyes and that big, face-eating smile she had on disarmed me and flustered me at the same time. There were so many things I wanted to say (“Do I look THAT old?”), so many snappy, sarcastic jibes I wanted to make (“None. Mine disobeyed so I ate them.”), but… that face…
After furiously asking myself what the hell I was supposed to say or do, I committed. Words came, halting and piecemeal, like passing a large kidneystone. The psychological pain and strain were about the same too. “None of them are mine. I don’t have any children. I’m here by myself.”
Her face changed, as if an image of it had gone through a CG morphing machine. A comically-exaggerated expression of confusion now sat on her face, making her furrowed brow positively thunderous.
“But you looked like such a cute mom!”
My brain, spinning so fast smoke came out my ears, threw its hands up in defeat. All thought ceased. I sagged. “Thank you.”
“Well, I’ve gotta go to the car. Have a good day. Bye!” The girl launched into a sprint toward the parking lot, tossing a goodbye-wave back over her shoulder. I lifted a limp hand, but she didn’t see it.
Needless to say, it took me a long time to work up the energy to start running again.
On one level, I enjoyed her guileless, unaffected honesty and curiosity. I’ve known kids her age who have already lost a measure of their innocence and it’s just about as depressing as when people are dumber than their dogs.
But that same innocence threw my thoughts into disarray because it’s been so alien to me for so long. Call it a function of the world we live in and the hardships of the past few years, but a great many of the people in my pack are jaded, cynical, misanthropic and/or pessimistic about the future. Some, including me, are all of the above.
Lesson learned: be more like that girl before you really are as old as she thinks you are.