The phone rings with a subliminal tone begging me to answer it instead of letting it go to the machine as usual. It’s Thing 2’s teacher.
“I need to talk to you about an incident that happened at lunch today.”
The first warning sign came in the autumn under a canopy of decaying leaves and bitterly cold drizzle. Thing 2’s class came to tour the local arboretum. I played chaperone while they learned about the circle of life in the vegetative world.
Instead I witnessed the embryos of birds and bees.
Thing 2 was holding hands with a girl.
Well, it was really more the other way around. I saw her make the grab, and she saw me see it, giving me a coy smile before she turned away.
She was his assigned “buddy” for the day. Maggie. A stick with a blonde ponytail. She had been giving him the googly eyes since that first day she joined his class, mid-semester, last year. I know. I helped out in the classroom that day.
“The children were playing a game of spin of the bottle.”
A month or so later, while I helped sell pencils, erasers and things of far more plastic and far less essential nature at a school function, a teacher passed on a sighting of the second warning sign.
“Oh, your son is so cute. And with the girls! Thing 2 and Libby are always together on the playground. They are best friends.”
Libby? Who’s Libby?
“When I asked, Thing 2 quickly owned up that it was his idea and he was the one leading the game.”
Libby is a classmate. In February, while others were passing around glossy index-card Valentines from the drugstore that featured the latest hip cartoon character or superhero on them, Libby presented my son with this 9-by-12-inch homemade beauty:
“He said when the bottle landed on someone …”
“… you had to dare that person …”
“… to tell someone that he or she loved them.”
“So,” I say into the receiver. “You’re saying that no spit was swapped?”
His teacher laughs.
“Yes, that’s correct. … Tomorrow at lunch, some of the assigned seats will be rearranged.”
* * *
Thing 2 clamors into the minivan that afternoon. He vibrates with the unharnessed energy of the nearly 8-year-old boy he is.
“Hey, buddy,” I say over my shoulder from the driver’s seat. “Anything interesting happen at school today.”
I catch his expression from the corner of my eye. No fear, no deception, just pre-adolescent exuberance. “Nope. Is it taco night?”
“Yep. Taco night.”
* * *
Thing 2 sits at the counter and asks a question of no consequence.
“I don’t know,” I say, the corners of my mouth rising to devilish points. “Maybe will should spin a bottle for it?”
“OK,” he says. His expression and body language stays unchanged.
As opposed to My Love’s. She has been apprised of the phone call and her eyes speak to me in deafening volumes.
“Not now,” she pushes through gritted teeth that sharpens each letter before it hurtles toward me. Her head motions to big sister, Thing 1, snacking at the other end of the counter.
I duck, roll my eyes and mouth “I know” because I do know.
Geez. Let a dad have a little fun, woman.
A short while later, when big sister is miles away at dance class, My Love and I flip on the klieg lights. We don shades, fold arms, tilt heads all David Caruso like.
We confront. He confesses. Rubber hoses limp back to their lockers.
“Don’t sweat it,” I say. “Just understand that that game is not appropriate for school, OK? No biggie.”
But My Love, she wants more. She wants details. Nay, she wants …
“Who else was playing?”
They spill forward monosyllabically. I know most of them, if not by sight, by reputation. But of the girls in his list, conspicuous by their absence, are two.
* * *
The day after.
The sun creeps over the backyard tree line, bathing the kitchen counter in tangerine and lemon just to Thing 2’s left. He polishes off his bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch then hurries down to his laboratory.
He’s been cutting and pasting and taping off and on since Tuesday afternoon. He has a project of the highest importance on the second-grade Richter scale due this morning.
“Two’s still asleep!” falsely tattles Thing 1 when she arrives in the kitchen half an hour later.
“No, he’s not,” I say. “He was up before you and he’s downstairs putting the final touches on his lid. Today’s Crazy Hat Day at school.”
“Oh,” she says. “How was I to know?”
Minutes later, as I scrape the plates, from the basement, my son arises. This is what he looked like:
Overnight, my son has transformed from stud to pimp.