When I go jogging, I take a long loop around the neighborhood; it's about 1.2 miles, although I refer to it as "around the block". About three-quarters of a mile into this loop is Nicole's house. As I came jogging down the street towards it, I saw her outside at the side of the street. She did kind of a doubletake, watching me coming, and I waved to her. She charged down the street towards me, arms flung wide, and we met in the road. Nicole held out a bag of microwave popcorn to me. "I knew you would come today!"
I took a few pieces of popcorn. "How did you know?"
"Because it's a nice day!" She laughed. "Let's get out of the road so we don't get run over by cars whipping around the corner. Come chat with me for a while?"
We sat on the bumper of the pickup parked in one of her house's two driveways. They have a gravel driveway to one side of the property, and a concrete one that abuts the house. Her mother, Elizabeth, was outside, tending to the lawn with a weedwhacker. I waved to her. "How're you doing?"
"All right," she said. "Just mowing the lawn with a weedwhacker." I chuckled.
Nicole ate popcorn, messily, dropping pieces on the ground. "It's a good thing you're eating outside."
"I'm dropping the pieces without butter on them," she told me.
"You should give them to me," I told her, taking some more from the bag. "You interrupted my jog and you're fattening me up with buttered popcorn."
"Then I definitely need the pieces without butter."
She started passing them to me instead of dropping them on the ground after that. The bed of the pickup truck was full of dead leaves, scrapwood, a rusting paint can, and other refuse. "Does this truck run?" I asked.
"Yes. I mean, no, it needs a new engine. That's why we're selling it."
About this time, I realized that Nicole's mother really was mowing her lawn with a weedwhacker, and not just joking. I got off the truck to walk over to her. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were serious about the weedwhacker. Would you like to borrow my lawnmower?"
She shook her head. "No, it's fine. I'm almost done anyway. I've got a lawnmower in back, I just can't get it started."
I went back to Nicole. This time, she tried to teach me clapping games. I hadn't been good at clapping games even as a kid. "You realize adults can't learn clapping games, right?"
"I taught my mother!"
"Well, okay. Maybe I can learn, then." I was game to try. I remembered clapping games being fun, in fact. So far as I know, only girls play them. They involve various patterns of clapping your hands against your partner's and your own, or against other parts of your body, while reciting clapping-game-rhymes. Clapping-game-rhymes are like jumprope rhymes, semi-nonsensical and sometimes going to a counting portion. She showed me two basic patterns while she did the reciting, since I can't even remember the one clapping-game-rhyme I'd managed to learn twenty-eight years ago. They'd've changed by now anyway. The easy pattern was: clap right hand to partner's right, clap own hands together, clap left hand to partner's left, clap own hands together, repeat. The harder one was: clap left hand down and right hand up to meet partner's, clap right to partner's left and left to partner's right straight across, clap own together, repeat. I kept messing that one up and clapping my hands together at the wrong point, which would make me laugh because, you know. So easy even a child can do it! Then there was a tremendously complex part at the end that involved tapping the side your left hand down your right arm and your right hand down your left and spinning around and some other stuff. I can't begin to remember the rhyme, except that it ended with "Freeze" and Nicole would say "You moved!" at which point I had, I presume, lost. I don't think the clapping games I played as a child ended with a competitive portion. Oh, and there was one game that ended with the players alternating saying names: "no hesitation, no repetition". I lost that one, too, by hesitating.
The nice thing about playing games with Nicole is that I don't care if I win or lose. I still play to win, because I believe games are more fun if everyone plays to win. But I don't actually care about the result. With my peers I've always been something of a sore loser, much to my chagrin, and despite years of trying to learn to lose gracefully I still too-often get surly when I lose. But somehow, when I'm playing with kids, I don't have the same need to prove myself by winning.
After several rounds of this, Nicole wanted to play hide and seek again. "With two people? You can't play hide and seek with two."
She tried to rope her mother into the game, but her mother was still whacking the lawn and didn't want to take a break. "If I stop now I'll never get back to it." I know how that feels, too.
Nicole talked me into playing with just her anyway. I didn't think this would work very well, but it would involve lots of running around and I did need the exercise, so I agreed. Elizabeth cautioned Nicole not to get her jeans ripped up, as apparently she was wearing one of the few hole-free pairs. Privately, I thought that changing to a pair of already-torn jeans was a better plan than "don't fall". The last time I'd played, every participant fell at least twice, including (or perhaps especially) me. I still have a big bruise on my thigh from the last series of games.
I lost the draw for It (deliberately) and then lost two games (while trying to win: kids are fast! Also, hide and seek is hard when you're It and there's only one other player.)
During the third game, Nicole slipped on a muddy patch of ground next to the gravel driveway. She rolled into a sitting position, and promptly burst into sobs. It was one of those startling moments, when an adolescent suddenly turns from "young adult" to "toddler" in an instant. Elizabeth and I came over to inspect the damage. I thought, at first, that Nicole was crying because she'd torn her jeans and she thought her mother would scold her. But Elizabeth didn't seem especially upset about that; she expressed an appropriate level of are-you-okay? concern for her daughter but only smiled and tsked a bit over the clothing. Poor Nicole was a mess: both knees a little skinned, one palm lightly scraped, and muddy all over. She didn't look hurt enough to be in significant pain, though -- not enough to justify sobbing. She refused to be helped up. "Just leave me alone!" she said to her mother.
Elizabeth stood with me, and we waited patiently. I thought, She's not crying because she's hurt. She's crying because she knows she'll have to go inside now and get the cuts cleaned and change, and I'll leave while that happens.
"I still want to play," Nicole sniffed.
Yeah. I know how that feels, too.
Elizabeth negotiated that Nicole needed to get cleaned up and take a bath. "Wait for me?" Nicole said, pleading.
"I'll just finish my jog around the block." I told her. "I'll be back in 15, 20 minutes, when you get out."
"Which way are you gonna go?"
"My usual way," I said, gesturing south and west.
"Jog around that way," she told me, pointing to the road east.
"Why does it matter which way she jogs?" Elizabeth asked.
Because my usual route goes past my house, and she thinks if I go that way I won't come back, I thought, and didn't say.
"Go that way!" Nicole ordered.
"Don't give her orders, young lady."
"I'll be back," I told Nicole. "I'm going to jog around this way and then I'll be back. Fifteen minutes."
"I promise." Do adults lie so much to children?
She went inside, and I jogged my usual mile and a quarter circuit. I came back before she was outside again, and I walked along the street before their house to cool down while I waited. Elizabeth came outside. "She just got out of the bath. She'll be out in a few minutes."
We didn't play hide and seek again, which was just as well because I'd now jogged about two miles that day and I probably couldn't catch even an injured Nicole at this point. She was pretty walking stiffly, though; bruises in addition to scrapes. Instead, she braided my hair, in three braids, including one that kept flopping in my face. "Now I look like an eleven year-old," I said, laughing at my reflection in the Saturn window.
Then we played Charades. Nicole didn't play Charades with the "three words -- first word -- two syllables" rules. Instead, you had to act out whatever you were trying to do, then point to the other person to guess. I did easy ones at first: jogging (okay, that was way too easy), bowling, and bicycling. Nicole's were harder. She did an action-film sequence -- shooting at someone ("Pi-koo! Pi-koo!), then getting into a car and driving off -- that I never did figure out what it referenced specifically. She pranced around the lawn with her arms at her side, then mimed taking something from the basket of one of the lawn statues, and mimed falling over afterwards. "Snow White!" I exclaimed.
For her next, she mimed putting something on the porch, made a hissing noise, then ran away with her fingers in her ears. As she cowered, the baseball stadium nearby set off fireworks after a homerun. I laughed. "Wow! That was really convincing! How'd you do those exploding noises? That was awesome!"
I tried to do "Bambi's Mom"; she made me repeat it once but couldn't figure it out. Then she mimed collecting a bouquet of flowers, and flitting around the lawn, in a really good imitation of a Disney princess. But I couldn't tell which one until she vocalized part of a wordless song: "ahhh-ah-ah-AHHHH!" "The princess from Enchanted!"
Nicole wanted me to come up with "Something hard this time!" and I couldn't think of anything. "Scratching your nose!" she guessed while I thought.
Then her mother came out to take her to get something to eat. Nicole complained and tried to convince her mother to leave her there, or to convince me that they'd be right back, neither with any success. I thought it was probably getting close to Nicole's bedtime anyway.
"Do you want a ride home?" Elizabeth asked me.
"No, I'm fine," I told her, thinking why would I need a ride? I walk this way for exercise all the time.
"It's no trouble," she assured me.
"Oh, come!" Nicole said. "Pleeeease?"
Then I realized that Elizabeth probably wanted to see where I lived; to reassure herself that I was someone local and not some child molester. Not that living nearby disproves the latter, but knowing where someone lives gives you a kind of leverage. It means you can find them if something happens, and that something is less likely to happen because they know they're not anonymous any more. "OK," I said.
So they dropped me off at my house, and Elizabeth got to see me walk into the house I'd identified as my own so she'd know I wasn't making it up.
I don't know if that was really her motivation. It would have been mine, if I'd been Nicole's mother.
It's something that I think about, when I'm playing with Nicole: I need to make sure no one thinks I'm a child molester. Because normal adults don't play with strange kids. It's okay for kids to play with other kids who are total strangers. But adults? Adults don't play with children unless they have kids of their own who are friends, or they're related, or they're friends with the parents. Not just because they were jogging past the kid's house and the kid asked them. That's not normal. Is it?
Because I'm a woman, I can get away with it, but it's not something I'm unaware of. I feel the weight of it, of the assumption that i must have some motive beyond "Nicole is nice, and I like playing games, and I don't, actually, have anything better to do."
If I were male, though, this could not happen at all in America. Had I been male, Nicole would not have asked me to walk her home that one night; I'm sure of it. Young girls Do Not talk to strange men in this country. If Nicole had been a boy, I doubt he would have asked anyone to walk him home, because boys aren't supposed to be scared and certainly aren't allowed to admit that they are. Maybe a boy would be allowed to play with a male stranger -- I don't know for sure. But a male stranger playing games with a girl? Ha. No. Maybe in some other country. Not in mine.
And that makes me sad, and angry. It's self-fulfilling, isn't it? "This is unusual behavior, only a child molester would do it" -- so of course only child molesters do it, because you've just told all the decent people they can't.
I don't yet know if I'm allowed to be friends with an eleven year-old girl. It's a strange kind of dance, making friends. I wasn't any good at making friends with eleven year-olds when I was one. I don't know that I'm any better now. We'll see.