Sometimes a companion, sometimes such a kid

I’m often impressed with the things Jay knows how to do.  He’s nimble with a screwdriver.  He has decent command of the subjunctive, especially when it suits him (“Uh, maybe I can have two cupcakes?” he said the other night). And his short-term memory runs laps around my own.

But just as often I’m surprised by the types of things that confound him.  I received a socket wrench set for my birthday that we’ve been playing with almost every night.  To put a socket on the wrench you need to be able to apply pressure in two directions—one to push a button on the back of the wrench, and another to press the socket onto the male end of the wrench.  I figured it would be easy for Jay but after playing with it for a week, he still doesn’t have it down.

He’s also not very good with patterns.  Yesterday morning Jay, Wally, and Caroline were sitting at the dining table playing with blocks.  Caroline built a bridge.  One side of the bridge was a blue block stacked on top of a beige block; the other side was a beige block stacked on top of a red block.  A blue arch spanned the two sides.

Caroline asked Jay to build a bridge that looked just like hers.  He started sorting his blocks.  He recognized quickly that he needed two beige blocks, one red block, and one blue block, and that the red and blue blocks should be on different sides.  But he had trouble thinking vertically: He put the red block on top of one of the beige blocks and the blue block on top of the other beige block.

Caroline pointed out that this was wrong and prompted him to try other combinations.  He switched the blue block and the red block and when Caroline shook her head he hesitantly switched them back.  It was clear he was grasping for a solution, and it was funny (and surprising) to me that something so seemingly obvious was completely bending his brain.

Following the workout with the pattern blocks, Wally took a nap and Jay and I went out to buy a book—David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which I’ve put off reading for nearly two years but which last week began to feel like exactly the book to get me through the last month of winter.

I buckled Jay into his car sear and we headed for Nicola’s Books, out Jackson Avenue on the west side of Ann Arbor.  It was Sunday morning, so there wasn’t much traffic.  Sitting in the back with his puffy hood around his head, Jay called out stop signs and asked me to find “a good song” on the radio.  I told him it didn’t exactly work that way, but we found some Bruce Springsteen and were happy.

The bookstore turned out to be tucked into a strip mall, which I didn’t realize at first, so we sped past it.  I pulled into a hotel parking lot and Jay asked why we were turning around.  I explained that we’d driven by the bookstore accidentally.  He didn’t seem concerned.  In fact, I think the mishap only added to his sense of adventure.

When we walked into the bookstore a man approached us and asked if we needed any help.  He was in his twenties with a full beard, wearing a kilt—the perfect indie bookstore counterpoint to the green shirts and khaki pants at Barnes & Noble.   The oddness of the kilt didn’t seem to register with Jay.  He asked the clerk, “Do you have The Pale King?” The book was waiting for us behind the counter.

After we paid we went next door to Barry’s Bagels.  I didn’t have high hopes.  The odds of getting a good bagel in a strip mall whose other tenants include Curves and T.J. Maxx seemed low.  But there was a line inside and Barry’s extensive menu was listed above the counter in a font that called to mind an authentic Jewish deli.  My impressionable, optimistic brain shifted quickly from “There’s no way this is going to be good” to “Maybe you’ve just stumbled upon the single best bagel west of New York City.”

We ordered a sesame bagel with cream cheese, a small coffee, and a small cup of milk. I told Jay he could choose where we sat.  When he settled on a table in a corner by a soda machine I suggested we try “this one over here instead because it’s sunnier.”

Jay sat up on his knees across the table from me while I used a flimsy plastic knife to even out the lump of cream cheese they’d put on the bagel.   No sooner were we ready to eat then Jay said in an urgent, no-joke kind of voice, “I have to go pee, I have to go pee, I have to go pee.”  Normally I would have been annoyed at this 11th-hour curveball, but as Jay ran down the line of tables towards the bathroom, I saw the way the other diners smiled at him as he raced past, and I just felt proud.

A few minutes later, back at our table, we began to eat.  I tore the bagel into two uneven pieces and Jay’s eyes lit up when I handed him the bigger one.  Then I leaned back in my chair and thought, “This right here is the good part.”

And it was. Jay silently ate his bagel, stopping only to angle his paper cup just enough to get the straw into his mouth. I looked across the table at him and for a few minutes felt completely and utterly content.  It was nice to do something I actually enjoyed doing, and to get to share the experience with Jay, and to imagine that maybe he felt just as content as I did.

But the spell didn’t last.  The fraying began with a blob of cream cheese that fell from Jay’s bagel onto his chair and which he then scooped up with his fingers and ate.  Then he tipped his cup too far and spilled milk down the front of his shirt.  Then he turned his attention to the sugar packets in the little ceramic container at the end of the table.

For a moment I felt perplexed.  In the same way that I was surprised that Jay couldn’t figure out how to stack the blocks that morning, I had a hard time understanding why he needed to go and muck up our perfect little breakfast mood.  Of course, that’s just the way it is with kids, and not just when they’re two.  Jay goes in and out of focus—sometimes quite capable, sometimes a charming companion—other times surprisingly feeble or as an inexplicable as a house pet.

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