I was jogging around the block when Nicole accosted me. She was playing with a bunch of other kids, so I figured she'd say hi and go back to playing. Instead, she said, "Will you walk back to my house with me?"
"Okay! Just a minute. Hey, watch this!" She dashed over to one of a trampoline where a couple of older girls were lying. "Come race me, Anna!"
Anna was eventually persuaded to race. There was a brief debate amongst bystanders whether this would be shoeless or not, as Anna kicked off her flipflops and Nicole left her crocs on. "Where's Mary? You could wear her shoes," Nicole said.
"I want to run barefoot," Anna answered, with an unconcern that settled the discussion.
A little girl, maybe six, counted off for the race with enthusiasm, one arm flailing to represent a flag: "... Ready! ... Set! ... GO!" Several times, because the racers were neither ready nor set when she reached "go" the first handful of times. A couple of kids on foot-powered scooters looked on. Just before the race started, the runners agreed to a two-dollar wager on the outcome.
Anna was behind at first, so I cheered for her. At the end, the race was close: I called it for Nicole and a kid on the other side called it for Anna.
Nicole looked pleased with herself. "Be sure to give it to me next time, Anna!" she called as she walked away. To me, she continued, "Isn't that amazing? She's -- what grade are you in, Anna?"
"Eighth. Going on ninth."
"And I'm in fifth, going on sixth!" Nicole said to me. "Let's see if Gregori can play. Can we cut through your yard, Leo?"
"No," Leo said. "My mom hates that."
Nicole led me down the street. "Can I use your phone to call my mom?" I dialed the number for her, and Nicole told her mother, "I'm on my way home now. Rowyn's walking with me. I'll be there in five minutes." This seemed an unrealistic estimate given that we were headed the wrong way.
The little girl who'd called the race tagged along as Nicole pulled me into a yard. "Wait," I said, "Why are we trespassing?"
"It's a shortcut. It's okay, it's my friend's yard."
"The one who just said 'don't go in it'?"
"He didn't mean it. He was just joking." Halfway across the yard, Nicole clutched at my arm. "Okay, he wasn't joking." She looked around nervously, then pulled me forward faster. "Run." At the next yard, she slowed again. "This one's all right. She gave me permission."
"You asked her?"
"Uh huh. I asked everyone around here if it was okay to cut through their yards. She's the only one who said yes, though." Nicole looked sour at that.
She led me to the steps of an adjacent house. "Wait here." She and the little girl, Autumn, went to the door. Nicole initiated negotiations with Gregori's mother for his release, but she was unsuccessful. A related toddler made a break for it, but Nicole picked him up and set him down inside before closing the door again.
"I have to go home," Autumn announced afterwards.
"All right, but I'm not trespassing again," I said. "We can go the long way around." It wasn't much farther, perhaps a few hundred yards.
"I can't walk that far!" Autumn protested.
"Oh, right, you're barefoot." I was briefly stymied, unsure how to resolve this conundrum.
Nicole solved it. "Just go, Autumn. You can run across, we'll watch you." Once the little girl was safely across, Nicole turned back to me, gesturing north. "Can we walk up the street this way?"
I agreed, and Nicole borrowed my phone again to let her mother know "We're on our way now. We'll be -- 10 minutes."
As we walked, Nicole chatted about one thing and then another, and clutched at my arm again when a couple of loose dogs spooked her by barking. "Do you know this old woman who lives up the street? She has really nice dogs. They're well trained and do what they're told. Can we go see her?"
"Um. Okay?" I followed along in Nicole's wake, like the bemused tail of a kite.
"She's got a farm!" Nicole told me. "Kind of."
"She does? Oh, look, a cat. Two cats. Three cats!"
"Four cats!" Nicole announced, pointing. "Oh! Five cats!"
"I wonder if there are more inside?" At this house, I waited by the door with Nicole as she knocked. Several times.
A neighbor working in his yard called out to us. "She takes a few minutes to get to the door if she's in back."
We waited another minute. "Did he say 'in back', like in the house, or in the backyard?" I asked Nicole.
She didn't know either. She wandered hesitantly partway to the backyard, then stopped and talked to the neighboring man to ask if the woman was in her backyard.
He came to the house, grinning, and pounded on the door. "She has a hard time hearing, sometimes," he said jovially, then opened the door. "Lorie? You've got visitors!" he called. I didn't hear the response, but he laughed. "Yes, more than just me."
He left us waiting there. A few moments later, an older woman came to the door. "Hello?"
"Do you remember me?" Nicole asked.
She peered at Nicole. "You look familiar ... I've seen you while out walking the dogs? Shannon?"
About now, I realized that we had knocked repeatedly at the door of a woman that didn't actually know Nicole and whose name I wasn't sure Nicole had known. But Lorie let us into her house anyway, and I introduced myself. She brought out Jubilee, one of her dogs, to play with Nicole, and checked on her dinner. "It's not ready yet. Would you like to peek through the fence at the chickens?"
"You have chicken?"
She led us outside, where she also had coconuts, six in a row on the lawn. "Coconuts?"
"I get food from a farmshare." Apparently, more than she could eat. She took some spoiling cherry tomatoes in a big bucket and brought them to the chicken coop. Chickens swarmed out.
"Wow. How many do you have?"
She laughed. "An illegal amount. About ... 30, I think."
"How many cats? We saw five."
"I'm feeding ... around 20." Her backyard was an extensive food garden, with a couple more dogs wagging tails hopefully by the fence as they watched us. I saw what Nicole meant about "kind of a farm".
Lorie pointed out the roosters to us, and identified the several different species of chickens she had. And explained chicken mating habits. It was pretty neat, except that we were supposed to have Nicole home by ... about five minutes ago. We made our excuses and headed off.
"Can I stop by Matt's house?" Nicole asked. "It's right on the way."
"You're gonna need to call your mother again," I predicted. But I didn't stop her. I waited at the end of the walkway again. This time, Nicole negotiated her way inside, then beckoned to me. I followed into the enclosed porch. "You can come in here," she said, then withdrew deeper into the house to continue negotiations. A tiny dog with one leg encased in a cast rushed forth to entertain me in the interim.
Matt was allowed out for no more than an hour, which Nicole ultimately spun into an hour and a half. ("Time being up doesn't mean you have to go home! You just have to check in! Here, give me that phone.") We played hide-and-seek, and something they called "flush tag", and various variants on charades. My favorite part was watching Matt and Nicole play a tie-breaker game Nicole invented: "We'll make faces at each other. First one to laugh loses."
When I finally headed home, I was left marvelling at Nicole's fearlessness in social interactions. Partly at her willingness to call uninvited at the houses of friends, but what really caught me was her confidence that it would be all right to knock on a near-stranger's door and ask to play with her dogs. I couldn't do that. I couldn't even show up at Lorie's house again, not without some convincing pretext. You just don't do that sort of thing when you're a grown-up. It's not acceptable: you're inconveniencing them, imposing, intruding.
Except that Lorie'd been happy to see us. She didn't look imposed-upon at all.
How do normal people make friends? I still don't know.