When my four-year-old son wanders off to play with other children at the playground, I wish for spontaneous combustion to deliver me from awkward conversations. But my skin never catches fire. And the attention-starved parents lie in wait. With fanny packs and diaper bags, wet wipes and sippy cups, they circle like buzzards eyeing a carcass.
The public charade is unbearable. To feign interest in the eating habits or adorable quirks of another person’s child is unjust. To bear the burden of an unsolicited monologue about school districts is worse. In these scenarios, as I keep one eye on my son at all times, talk of anything more than the weather upsets me. But I quietly listen, then instantly try to forget.
What do you do for a living? How interesting. These little guys are my job. Now Tyler, he’s lactose intolerant, can’t even get near the dairy section at a grocery store or his eyes will swell out of the sockets. And John, he’s a busy beaver, always into something. Yesterday I found him rooting through the trashcan, eating old coffee grinds and smearing kitty litter in his hair. Not to mention the poor kid had a discarded panty liner stuck to his cheek. It’s always something, you know?
Blinding myself with spoons heated red on an open flame would only solve half the problem. Exploding my eardrums would tune out the rest. But then they would start tapping messages on my skull in Morse code.
The only common trait I share with these people is the capacity to procreate. I want to inform them that we are not alike. That they should move away from me if the concept of compassion exists in their destructive world. But I know the answer.
These people are predators dressed in Crocs, sweating coffee and cologne. Strangers dressed head-to-toe in sports jerseys and pleated Dockers jeans, leaking halitosis and useless opinions from their dirty mouths. Garden variety bottom feeders sent to disrupt the fragile harmony of the universe. I want to beat them away with a stick. Blot their faces and voices from my memory with a screwdriver to my frontal lobe. All I want is peace. But here it doesn’t exist.
Without fail the parents lumber toward me, their dead eyes locked on me like tetanus. My pale face a beacon of terror and confusion in a sea of multi-colored playground equipment. It draws them in. They can smell my fear and they devour it like free samples of Pepperidge Farm cheese cubes at Sam’s Club. One is never enough. More is always better. It’s a waking nightmare:
Hey buddy, you come here often? Haven’t seen you before. That’s my kid over there, the one wearing the Triple H shirt and doing crotch chops. Can’t believe the Steelers lost yesterday. At least my fantasy team is kickin’ ass. Without football, I don’t know what I’d do. Is that your little girl right there? She’s cute.
He’s not a girl. But who cares. Loud strangers ramble without care or pause. And machine-gun rants have consequences. Usually it results in the total evaporation of all saliva. You can hear the spit drying up in their mouth, tongue getting stuck to places it shouldn’t. Their lips start to click and that look in their eyes acknowledges the problem. It is gross. But it doesn’t deter them. They soldier on, uninterrupted. And still my eyes are locked on my son.
It’s rare that he wanders for long, but when he does I encourage him. It would be unfair to instill the same antisocial tendencies that have ruined me. Still I can’t help but feel lost when he leaves. And when he turns to look back and wave, it twists a knot in my throat.
There is laughter and squeaking metal and cool rushing wind and the white noise of overheard conversations all around us. This playground is where I came as a child. Back then we called it Crazy Park. I don’t know why. Its most attractive feature is a large blue concrete slide built into a steep hillside. Cast across the rest of the playground are multiple jungle gyms and swingsets, basketballs courts and a baseball diamond. The place is always thick with human traffic.
Packs of Orthodox Jewish women in long black dresses talk to one another. They wrinkle their noses at me when I look in their direction, or at least I imagine they do. A father dressed in hospital scrubs talks loudly with another man about politics and money market funds as he pushes his young child on a swing. He periodically checks the beeper clipped to the blue drawstring waistband of his scrubs. Another father, Bluetooth technology spilling from his ear canal, talks incessantly. He’s a pug-faced businessman dressed in grease-dotted khakis and a three-button polo, talking corporate while his six-year-old son stomps on toddlers.
Young mothers distracted by cell phones wrapped in bedazzled hot pink cases ignore their children. Fathers with stringy puberty mustaches smoke cigarettes and say fuck too much. A rotating cast of families convenes at the playground’s battered picnic tables. Some come prepared with homemade meals. Others bring large white bags of deep-fried food and gray hamburgers murdered in ketchup and mayonnaise. They all leave trash behind. Some lose track of their children. Fathers scream for no discernible reason. Mothers give their children one more chance before counting to three. Traffic whirs past on the street. A can of oil is needed on the swing nearest my face. There is no beginning or end. There is no escape.
My son looks back in my direction and smiles. His expression is honest. He walks toward me from the jungle gym where he was playing. His long blond hair sweeps across his delicate skin, slightly obscuring his lightning blue eyes. The kids he was playing with wave goodbye. I don’t know their names. Chances are we’ll never see them again. He looks happy and tired. I ask how it went. He tells me he had fun. I pick him up and give him a hug. We walk away, leaving the chaos behind.