My older son won’t give his recent school photo to the girl who adores him. No one does that, he says, and I suppress the astonishment and dismay in my tone when I answer: Oh. I suppress plots to slip her one. I could sneak it into her backpack pocket, or slide it into her rain boot in the cubby room. But I won’t. For it is in the job of parent, to realize these 3 or 6 or 10 or 17 year-olds—yours and their companions—aren’t you. Still, I hold the sheet of his photos carefully, nervous and in awe, as though I am holding the first run of counterfeit hundred dollar bills. Do I dare cut them apart, or will the scissors shake crazy curves into their borders?
Always when the school photos come home I find myself digging out the second grade class picture of the boy I loved. I set it on the edge of the desk, peering down at him. In it he’s dressed as he was most every day, with a moon of white T-shirt rising in the open V of his button-down shirt. It is still all there, in that 2 x 3 inch square: not just a boy but the love I felt, and the ways I couldn’t love. I was a tough and confident tomboy, but the sight of this boy caused a lump of pre-defeat to lodge in my throat. I began hiding in the shadows of the cubby-room, to better spy on him. I started turning into myself, you might say. At the least you could say I learned how a single hanging coat, when it belongs to the right person, can spark or purr in your hand.
The boy and I. He and I. Because I learned this also somehow, that a love story has to include this pronoun formation if it is to believed. So he and I. We built an elaborate village with blocks on the classroom carpet. We both knew, even as we threw ourselves into the construction, that our real job was to make each other laugh. The clock above the teacher’s desk stopped clucking. At one point we got into a little metal matchbox car together, and cruised through the streets of our half-built village. Our wheels snagged on the yellow carpet. When the bell rang for recess we pretended not to hear it.
At the end of the year, the boy moved away.
Kansas City became like Oz to me, because he lived there. I learned to draw Missouri’s shape and decided I would go there, first thing, on the day I learned to drive. At a Reds game I convinced my dad—it was quite difficult—to buy me a Kansas City Royals cap. I wore it so much the inner white band turned grey. The Royals sucked that year.
My friend had a school photo of the boy, from before he moved away. He said he would trade it for my cap-gun. I loved my cap-gun in the more normal, active, mingling way that healthy people associate with the word love. It was silver with cur-le-cues etched in the handle. I polished it every day with the tail of my shirt. I could twirl it round and round on my finger and then grab it in perfect shooting position. If I had a photograph of my cap-gun I would attach it here with the boy’s, so you could gauge for yourself the magnitude of that trade. But since I don’t I will attach the school photo of myself from the time. I think I look exactly like that cap-gun.
The boy’s school photo kept me company. The smile he’s hiding in it—but not well enough you can’t see it coming—made me proud of my choice. I used to cover half his face with one small hand, and then slide it over to cover the other half. On and on like this, trying to decide which side of him was more handsome (usually his right). I would also spin the photo, in increments, to all angles—twirling it in a flatter, slower way than I had my cap-gun. it always amazed me what a completely different boy he looked like when he was upside-down. Around this time I kept asking my mom if she would part my hair to the side. And she tried, but none of the parts looked right. Which is to say, none of them started in the crazy place I wanted, which was the crazy place where his did.
So much of being a parent is playing Let’s Pretend. I know this; and yet every year when my sons arrive home with their school photos I seem to play the game harder. As in: Let’s Pretend my heart is fine. Let’s Pretend love means action, and I only love who’s here. Let’s Pretend these 2 x 3 images of my son aren’t gold. Let’s Pretend no paralyzed girl would ever carry one around with her into other continents, into other lives. Let’s Pretend they’re just after-thoughts I will slip into the relatives’ Christmas cards. And it goes on. Let’s Pretend cap-guns are dangerous, that even loose rolls of caps are dangerous. Let’s pretend I’m not cheering for the Royals. Let’s Pretend I have nothing to do with what my sons choose to wear. And Let’s Pretend, when my younger son allows me to button his shirt, that it’s just another morning task. Let’s Pretend, as my hands fiddle up his front, that I don’t feel wounded, healed—or so unbelievably lucky—to be knocking my knuckles against the white moon of his T-shirt.