By Tim Boiteau
A perfect day. Not a cloud in the sky. Every window of every building and every vehicle dazzling with their own reflections of the sun. I sip my Green Tea Soy Frappuccino and look out the glass wall of the Starbucks, across Grand Elm Avenue and to the park, where children play on the jungle gym and in the sandbox. A wrought-iron fence separates the park and the road, but a bold explorer could find their way to the playground’s edge, step off the curb, and into oncoming traffic.
One girl attracts my attention, particularly. She’s a toddler in pink pants and Minnie Mouse T-shirt. All this time, she’s been plopped on her puffy, wet-diaper butt, tasting sand in the sandbox or sucking on the communal plastic shovel. Now, she grabs a fistful of sand and flings it into the air in a gorgeous, shimmering cloud that stings the eyes of the two other children playing nearby. Their parents scoop them up and direct them towards other attractions.
The girl? She looks up—finally—she looks up and blinks. She twists all around in a moment of confusion. Then starts to wail.
It’s an interesting moment. Normally, at this time, a parent would rush over and scoop the child up, something I’ve seen countless times at the playground, but for some reason, today, no one comes. Maybe her mother has other plans for her or is otherwise engaged. Maybe her mother has doubts about motherhood, about herself, and would rather be doing anything at all other than observing her playing in the sandbox. Like going for a coffee. But how could this little one know?
The girl turns and turns, screaming, frantic, tears streaming down. She stumbles out of the sandbox and onto the surrounding wood chips. The sound of her screams barely reaches inside this well-insulated, air-conditioned Starbucks, which is so muffled that no one pays any attention.
If you listen very intently, if you really study the child’s face, you can almost imagine feeling compassion; you can imagine pangs striking in the chests of all the other parents. You can imagine yourself stepping forward to console the child, to end her suffering. To stop her from reaching the road.
She leaves the wood chips, stepping onto the concrete path that leads out of the park. A mother pushing a stroller pauses. By now, the girl’s face looks bruised. It has turned a deep red, slick with tears and snot and dribble.
Eight more steps and she’ll make it. Eight more steps and her fragile body will be at the whim of the traffic.
I can almost hear the whack as the fender strikes her and can visualize her rag doll body dragged beneath the wheels. The screams and fretting of passersby. “Where the fuck were her parents?” the driver would say, tearing out his hair. “Where the fuck were they?”
Shouldn’t they have been watching? I mean, not in the same way I’m watching. Not like this. Not at all like this. No one would think of this. No one but me—glassed-off me.
The girl takes a few more steps.
I lift my eyes from her and scan the parents. Fifteen or so pairs of eyes dart and search, every individual brain in the crowd reading the facial expressions of everyone else, trying to determine where the parent is. Every pair of eyes in this park is wrinkled with worry.
Two more baby steps and she’ll be on the road. It’s going to happen. Those monsters out there are going to let it happen.
But then, the woman with the stroller lunges forward and catches hold of the Minnie Mouse T-shirt.
As she hoists the child into her arms, the girl flails and pummels, her little red lips quavering. If you can just watch the bizarre shape of those lips with everything else in the scene removed, it is hilarious. It will go viral. Or maybe it will upset you. It’s a fine line.
I down the rest of my Green Tea Soy Frappuccino—fuck, I said six pumps of sweetener; this tastes like five—then toss it in the trash, and leave the Starbucks. In the handful of seconds it takes me to reach the park, a crowd has gathered. Stroller Mom stoops in front of the screaming child.
“What the hell are you doing to my baby?” I shove my way into the sandbox.
“What? I…uh, she….”
I lift the baby into my arms and pull her close, nuzzling her like a mother should. Her little pudgy arms cling to me, but her crying persists, and though I feel nothing, I can almost picture what it would feel like to care—the warm glow of motherhood. I can imagine the moment of panic I should have felt watching my child as she left the safety of the park and blundered into the road.
Apologies. The crowd scatters—critical looks, disbelieving looks—some considering what exactly just happened and what exactly they should do about it. In the end, they’ll all mind their own business. We all have things to do, appointments to keep, even if they’re only pedicures.
As I carry the girl to my SUV, I whisper to her, “Do you know how fucking lucky you are?”