The plan is complex. First, pick up a gift for the birthday girl. Second, eat something, drink some coffee at home, while getting the girls ready. Third, drive the thirty-minutes to Jump Zone. Fourth, watch the girls have fun, and stave off any tears. Fifth, keep the girls awake on the journey home. Sixth, don’t shoot self out of self-pitying distress. Seventh, get Pearl down for nap, and maybe Simone. Eighth, rouse girls in time for Dolphin Tale 2. Ninth, repeat number six. Tenth, make it home in time to make a nice dinner with feeble contents of fridge. Eleventh, feed girls with minimum complaining. Twelfth, get girls in pajamas, brush their teeth, read books with their mama, and to bed. Thirteenth, avoid feeling guilty about another night without a bath. Fourteenth, try to grab some enjoyment once girls are asleep. fifteenth, sleep thyself.
This is the plan. And like all plans, almost every step of it will fail.
We head up Lincoln. Traffic is light. I listen to a Gospel/Funk compilation for a while and then switch to U2’s War and October. I loved them both when I was thirteen. I try to listen with fresh ears, but I can’t. I only hear summer time and creative loafing. There’s that doubling feeling when listening to music you loved as a child. I find myself singing along. I remember all the words, despite the passage of 20+ years.
I glance back. Pearl is asleep. Plans already awry. She’s like me; if she falls asleep for even a few minutes she can’t sleep later on. I resist despair. Simone is asleep too. I focus on U2. My mind drifts to In the Name of the Father, which is sort of odd, and my college teammates from Trinidad and England, which is odder.
We arrive at Jump Zone with a giant blue sign. The girls are still asleep. I park the car. I wake the girls and hustle them inside. They take off their shoes while I sign a waiver.
Jump Zone is an enormous hangar filled with airwalks of various design. Above me, a thousand lost balloons hang from the metal rafters, looking like teary lost dreams in rainbow kaleidoscope.
There are running children everywhere. The Twilight Zone analogy is obvious, but that’s what I think of first.
The men all have bellies and the women are all trying to stave off that dumpy suburban look. Simone latches onto a group of children. Pearl wanders on her own. The inflatable rides—a giant alligator, race cars, a pirate ship, the Justice League, and the goddamn ubiquitous princess castle—jiggle beneath the feet of all the happy children. The parents congregate in the middle of the place, chatting about their children. The carpet beneath them swirls in multi-colored spirals. Arena rock plays on loud speakers over the sound of whooshing fans.
Now Jimmy Buffet. Now Queen. Now Journey. And now Journey again. I wait for R.E.O. Speedwagon or .38 Special, but they never come on.
The walls are mustard yellow. (Now Michael Jackson; the music is all from my youth.) The swirling carpet the people the balloons in the rafters and I lose sight of Pearl.
Noise and color and the feeling of being trapped and my children kidnapped.
This is me going insane.
Pearl appears and takes off her socks.
She removes her wristband.
I tell her to put on her socks. She runs away. I catch her. Socks back on, she refuses the wristband. Everything’s a battle. I threaten her with an early exit. She acquiesces. Something jars in my thoughts. I take out this paper and start taking notes. Simone is off with her new posse. Tearing shit up.
Pearl runs to and fro. Every time she slips out of sight I have a momentary panic, I keep remembering that Wells Tower story, “On the Show,” where the girl is murdered in a theme park. Or Bunny Lake Is Missing. Pearl disappears inside a carnival airwalk and I can’t find her. Shit, shit, shit. But then she appears, smiling at the mesh-covered exit.
Pearl runs to a basketball game. A little boy climbs inside at the same time. His dad is a chubby bearded fellow of about forty. He tries to get his son to let Pearl go in first. He fails. “He’s gotta figure out ‘ladies first,’” he says.
I shrug. “She needs to figure out there are other people in the world.” It isn’t the nicest answer. I sense he wants to chat. I’m not in the mood. I detach. I drift. I act busy. I’m not always crazy about my own behavior.
Pearl climbs the stairs of a giant fire engine. It ha a high, steep slide. She chickens out.
Michael Jackson returns to the loudspeakers. I’m so disoriented I can’t quite make out which song.
Simone hands me a water bottle and asks me to open it. I brought water for her but I open it anyway. She takes one sip and then hands it to me. There’s waste everywhere. I try to put it into my pocket for later and some water spills out. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
A teenager announces the next stage of the party; her voice drips with that peculiar sarcastic disaffection only a teenager can fully pull off. We hustle back to a side room. The walls are still yellow. The floor is a series of red, white and blue tiles. America! Beneath our feet! There’s cake and pizza and party hats—so much of our lives is a repeat of some earlier memory. Simone and Pearl eat pizza. Something’s irritating Pearl. She pouts. I ask her what’s wrong. “I want a pink hat,” she says. I ignore it; the pink hats are all spoken for.
There’s Chex Mix in little blue doggie bowls. Weird, but I can’t resist. Tastes like childhood. Tastes like sunshine, saturday soccer games and barbecues with my family. I’m in the corner writing this while the party rages on. No one seems to notice. I kept thinking how much I like being around groups of children, but hate being around groups of children with their parents. Everything feels infantilized. Including adult conversation.
I run out of paper. I scribble on the back of our dog’s vet bill. I write around the dashed-off notes for a stalled novel. Pearl begins picking all the pretzels out of the doggie bowl. She isn’t eating them. She seems happy so I leave her alone.
Simone has two party hats resting on dangling slinky ears. She looks like a child’s version of a devil. I check in. “Are you happy?”
She doesn’t answer. “Pearl, are you happy?”
I eat more Chex Mix. What am I eating? Salt and crunch. Soupcon of Worcestershire amped up by MSG. Can’t get enough.
Simone tries to sneak out and play. I tell her stay; we have to sing happy birthday to the birthday girl. Simone doesn’t understand. “She’s still eating pizza.”
The birthday girl’s mom is friendly. She cuts Pearl’s pizza. Pearl lets her. (Pearl gets angry when we try to cut her food.)
Simone and some other children huddle around an i-phone. All this activity and they plug in. I weep for the future. Simone falls off the bench, cries. I try to offer her solace but she refuses. I’m becoming obsolete already.
We sing happy birthday.
The girls stuff their faces with cake.
I don’t take any. I can’t hear any music. Is it my hearing or is the music switched off? Am I losing my senses?
I skulk. I hover. I write notes. No one seems to notice but surely someone sees that I’ve faded out of the festivities, that I’m writing something with my back against the wall. I can never see myself through other people’s eyes. Am I interesting? Creepy? Boorish?
I alternate my hands in my pockets and then resting by my sides; neither feels right. I never know what to do with my lanky body when I don’t want to socialize. I’m running out of paper. Why did I, for the first time in years, leave my notebook at home? Do I look aloof? Am I posturing? Am I acting like D.H. Lawrence, a hundred years ago, who jumped up at a dinner party and yelled, “Why are we doing this? I don’t want to do this! I don’t want to talk with these people!” and stormed out.
I chat with a woman about Detroit. “The day our eight-year-old was robbed at gunpoint for her bike, and on our street, a nice neighborhood, we knew it was time to move,” she says.
I mention “Detroit Arcadia,” the article I read in The Nation so long ago. (Or was it The Atlantic?) We chat for a moment, but then the girls follow the birthday girl back to the airwalks. I follow.
My cousins had a trampoline when I was a child. It didn’t have any safety netting. It was ringed by a metal bar. And often it rested on a patch of concrete. The very best thing you could do was double-jump someone off the trampoline onto the ground. Once this happened to a neighbor and he bloodied his elbow. He was mildly hurt. It was awesome. I jammed my fingers in the metal springs more than once. I caught my leg in the space between them. We jumped on that thing even as the springs began to break. I’m sure we violated every safety rule that accompanied the packaging. It was (one of our) wild spaces.
My cousins moved the trampoline beneath a basketball hoop. We used to dunk nasty on each other, have competitions. Their dog, Lady, a black lab, would get on the trampoline with us and frantically slid around. She couldn’t have liked this but we thought it was hilarious.
And we played a bouncy version of blind man’s bluff up there. Or am I misremembering? We spend hours on the trampoline, taking breaks to explore the creek behind their house or shoot each other to pieces with toy guns. Something about Pearl and Simone on these giant airwalks reminds me of them. Those were halcyon days.
The music has definitely stopped. Strange. Does it signify something? Are we supposed to leave?
Simone removes her socks. This time I lose the battle. I shove them in my left pocket. Her new friends include me in their game. I’m their “boss.” The rules are they bring me garbage and I pretend it’s treasure. I feign enthusiasm, but I’m not crazy about this game. They bring me a single lost scrunchie and then move on.
Pearl covers herself with stickers: both legs, both arms and her chest. I ask her where she got them but she doesn’t remember. She runs off for more jumping. I’m losing steam.
I feel adrift, isolated, useless. My mind turns to other things. A time I got sick at a party. I was eighteen and awkward and too self-aware. I was also losing weight, nervous about college. I threw up in the bathroom at the party, in the sink, and I can’t believe I still feel shame at this so many years later. Who else remembers it? Who else could?
And my dog. Annie, who my mom put to sleep. And Pepper, who I put to sleep. And Spot, who was killed by a car. And Izzie, who my parents put to sleep. And now Jack, who is aging and just last night dodged some reaction to a vaccine to the tune of 200 bucks.
Trampolines and arena rock and children and party shame from drinking too much and dogs. The mind, the mind, what a weird organ.
I’ve lost Pearl again. I look for her. The music is still off. The paunchy men and women all around and I feel judgmental and misanthropic. I want to go home. Where is Pearl? I feel nervous. I can’t find her on any of the airwalks. I finally see her in the middle of a bunch of adults. She’s lost one of her socks. I pick her up. She hugs me. I find her sock and put it in my pocket, next to Simone’s.
Pearl goes back to the giant fire engine slide. She climbs up and slides down, backwards, and has a blast. I feel better about things. She goes again. I remember Disney World in eighth grade, with my friends, we ran through Space Mountain over and over, we rode it thirteen times in a row, it was one of the great memories of my childhood, we were free and loose and happy in a land that somehow looked like my dreams.
When do our experiences only become exercises in nostalgia? For other, earlier memories?
When does life lose its primacy?
Why do I feel inhibited in my joy?
I see Simone standing on the outside of a little conference between the birthday girl and two of her friends. Simone looks upset. I feel upset, too. We say goodbye to the birthday girl and her parents. Pearl hugs the birthday girl’s mama with a fierce abandon.
Outside, it’s raining.
In the car ride home, Simone is grouchy. Pearl looks out the rain-streaked window with angry eyes. I listen to U2. “The Drowning Man.”
This time, I don’t sing along.