A day of portentous skies erupted into an afternoon of heavy rain, and from my desk I thought of the boys: Did they make it in off the playground in time? It was a Friday and Jay and Wally had stayed late after school. Caroline was out of town for the weekend and I had a project to finish. I watched the rain for a minute, then thought I owed it to the boys to work a little faster.
A little after 4pm I walked out the front door, keys in hand, and drove quickly down the road. It had stopped raining. The trees were dripping, the pavement was slick. Water churned beneath my tires as I pulled away from a stop sign. Outside the side door to the school I found a pile of shoes, wet and caked in sand, evidence of an emergency retreat. I opened the door into a new universe, a Tilt-a-whirl of children humming busily in slow, slow childhood time.
Wally was at the far side of the room, pulling something from a shelf. Jay was a table closer by, sitting with a girl and working at construction paper. Neither saw me at first. I called out through the din, trapped at the threshold in my wet shoes, and beckoned them over. They looked up and eyed me warily.
With our arms full of lunchboxes, water bottles, art projects, worksheets, we walked to the car and rode home in surprising quiet. My mind wandered back to article I’d been working on before I’d left the house. In the back, Jay and Wally were looking at nothing in particular, the three of us still gripped by the momentum of our separate days.
At home, we unloaded from the car, apportioned the lunchboxes and water bottles between us, and made our way to the front door. “Shoes off, hands washed,” I called, once, then again. It was 4:45pm, which meant we could ease right into television, then dinner, bath, and bed. It was the kind of clear path I like, especially on days when I’m taking care of the boys alone.
I got the boys situated upstairs, Wally with his bottle of milk, an episode of Dinosaur Train on the television. Downstairs I started water for rice, and took a container of stir-fried beef and broccoli from the refrigerator, left over from the evening before.
There wasn’t much left to the day that could go wrong, but I still felt unsettled. It was the boys. I hadn’t seen them all day, and then after school, not much had passed between us save a few commands.
So I turned off the stove, went back upstairs, and asked them if they’d like to have a pillow fight. It’s something we do from time to time, usually on a weekend afternoon when everyone’s feeling a little bored. Now I knew it was one of the few offers that could tear them away from their show, and it seemed like the best way to reacquaint with one another.
Jay launched down the stairs with Wally quick behind him. I made it to the bed first and prepared to be assaulted. Wally struck as he usually does, with a flying jump on top of my head, his teeth gritted, his legs pinched around my chest. Jay stood above us—always more of an artillery guy than an infantryman—with his pillow cocked, waiting for an opening. When he finally struck, I offered up an exaggerated grunt. Jay shrieked and reloaded.
For 10 minutes we rolled around like that. I wrestled with Wally, countered Jay’s blows with a few volleys of my own, launched surprise tickling raids at the boys’ soft sides. At one point Jay lost his balance and fell backwards to the floor. Is this how it ends? But no, he was back up, tear free, and more determined than ever to strike a decisive blow.
When I finally called it, Jay dropped his pillow and fell on top of me for our ritual hug, the peace gesture at the end of the fight. Wally, still pincered around my head, didn’t need to go far to receive his. The boys were tired but cheery, breathing hard. “Now back to your show,” I told them. They ran off and soon the sounds of talking Pteranodons were coming once again from upstairs.
I thought about the difference between feeling close to someone and feeling like strangers. There is no instrument in the world that could measure how close the boys and I were before we battered each other with pillows and how close we were afterward, but the difference was as palpable as a foot of fresh snow. Back at the stove, I turned the burner on to make rice. I felt ready now to feed the boys and put them to sleep, with whatever it is that exists between us, replenished.