I promised to pick her up from school, and unlike all of my own commitments, this one made my heart beat faster. I was hyperaware of time the entire day; thinking, daydreaming about the nearing hour, fearing its passing: For I could not, for the life of me, be late!
I mean I’ve seen that happen before, in films: flustered, hysterical mothers, with messy hairstyles and tired faces, running (sometimes, in heels) toward their disappointed children. Most of the time, the message of the film was about absentminded motherhood: Motherhood of the unlucky. It happened to women in unhappy marriages, with broken dreams. There was always a justification to all human faults, I’ve learned. Still, in those films about bad motherhood, I was always more interested in the faces of their children: with their tearful vulnerability before they would be hardened by continuous disappointment.
“Ma-ahm!” they would whine, pulling away from the hysterical woman’s overcompensating tugging, and hugging, and nagging. Or, there would be an indifference between them; and it would hang inside their car until someone threw a resentful glance through the rear-view mirror.
Honestly, I didn’t care that much about my reputation: Her parents would have been able to forgive me if I failed the task; and I could handle all the passive-aggressive remarks by the schoolmasters. But what I didn’t want to confront — for the life of me! — is the child’s disappointment. She was a kid — an innocent, still; and even though she wasn’t my own, I had no business letting her down.
I could tell by the density of the traffic that I was near her school zone. Fancy SUV’s with tinted windows compacted the narrow residential streets. They double-parked and lingered, with zero consideration for the rest of us stuck behind, and with their break lights flipping us off in our faces. Staring at the zero on my speedometer, I felt my temper — and heartbeat — rising:
“Why are we sitting here?!” I swore, wishing I could see the faces of the incompetent creatures behind the wheels of their giant cars. I wanted to honk and speed around them. But then, I would remember: The streets were filled with children, and the loss of my self-awareness could cost a price I was never willing to learn — for the life of me!
Fine! I backed out, pulled into another side street, parallel parked. I got out:
“Shit!” I realized my passenger side was buried in the bushes. So, I got back in, pulled forward. “Phew. Now, she’ll be able to get in!”
My heart was still racing: I was fifteen minutes early; but I couldn’t, for the life of me, be late!
So, I started speed-walking. Having caught up to the fancy SUV’s, still lingering in their spots, I could see the flustered faces of tired mothers — ON THEIR FUCKING CELLPHONES! A few times, I saw small children bolted into the back seats while the women continued to gab and block the traffic behind them.
I sped up: What if she got out early? I could not, for the life of me, be late!
When I saw her school from the corner diagonally away, I began looking out for her immediately: the familiar strawberry chin and forever curious black eyes that seem to yank the dial of my heart’s speedometer by some invisible strings. The crossing guard in an orange vest was sitting in a director’s chair on the corner, and she was laughing with one of the awaiting dads. At the sight of her, I felt slightly more relaxed: What a face! What a soul! She seemed absolutely wonderful.
A woman with a wrinkly face and droopy bags under her eyes shot me an icy stare in the middle of the road. She was speaking to her child — an arian boy with golden locks. But as I got closer, she stopped talking and bent her pretty mouth downward. I smiled: How else could I apologize for the nearness of my youth? When the two of them reached the other side of the road, the woman resumed speaking. Yep: Russian. And she spoke of judging me.
The front lawn was already overpopulated by tiny creatures. The tops of their heads, of multiple colors, peaked out like a field full of mushrooms. Not a single one seemed to be sitting still.
Two brown boys were leaping over benches and flowerbed fences, and for a moment I studied the rules of their imaginary warfare. One of them tumbled down, got up, crouched down to study the scrape on his knees; but then resumed the battle: Warriors don’t cry, no matter how little!
“M’am! You have to move!” another crossing guard raised her voice behind my back.
I looked over: Shit, did I fuck up already? In the company of these tired mothers, I feared to be obvious in my lack of expertise. So, I had hidden myself under a tree with protruding roots (not that it saved me from a few more icy looks from the bypassing women).
“M’AM!” the guard was pissed off by now. She was knocking on the tinted window of a white Land Rover. From where I stood, elevated by one of the roots, I could see a naked elbow of a woman holding an iPhone inside, with her manicured hand. Immediately to the right of her double-parked vehicle, I could see the neon red of “NO PARKING”.
Hesitantly, the Land Rover began pulling away. As the crossing guard turned her tired face at me, I smiled sheepishly: Could she see my being a total fraud? In response, she pressed her lips tighter and shook her head.
“People…” she seemed to be saying.
I watched a tiny girl with my complexion skip unevenly, with no apparent rhythm, next to her slowly walking grandmother. A beautiful boy holding a basketball walked upright behind his father who was texting on his BlackBerry, non-stop. A luminous woman patted her daughter’s head as the little one was telling about her destiny earlier predicted in the game of M.A.S.H.
I began recognizing the classmates whose names I’ve heard in so many stories. My heart began racing: Have I missed her? Am I standing by the wrong gate?
“M’AM! YOU HAVE TO MOVE!” the crossing guard was pissed off again.
Behind my back, I saw a giant Lexus packed at the curb with the “NO PARKING” sign. A disgruntled old woman with a boyish haircut was standing outside of it, with her hand holding the car clicker up in the air.
“Where am I supposed to go?” she said, through her clenched teeth. “I’m running late!”
I sensed myself shooting the woman an icy stare: A look I quickly censored when I noticed the familiar strawberry chin marching toward me across the lawn.
She had seen me first. I felt my heartbeat speed up again.
I didn’t fail the task, this time! I didn’t let her down!
And the day was young and suddenly reinvigorated: with endless adventures and her trust the loss of which I could NOT — for the life of me! — afford.