My wife and I love our daughter very much. Sometimes we wonder why she can't wait to get away from us. I don't mean "for good," but those daily times when she'll get that shocked look on her face that says, "Good Lord, I'm at home with my parents," which is followed closely by hurried phone calls or lame excuses about places she has to go and things she has to do. It would worry me, but the fact is, no matter how cool you are (and I can say without hesitation that I'm way cooler than her friends' dads) your kid does not want to be hanging around with you. This is universal, I suppose.
I think back to when I was a kid younger than my daughter. She's got a car and is as mobile as a Who song. I was doing the "escape from parents" on a bike every day at the age of 14. It was a red Schwinn with as many gears as I had goals. I'd usually ride it over to Johnny's house, about a dozen blocks away. I don't know why, but I've always been a much better guest than a host. Have you ever noticed that folks usually fall into one of these two categories? There's the one house where kids hang out or meet, and there's the kids who are leaving their house to come there all the time. This appears to carry over into adulthood where it's usually, "The Perkins (and not you) are having a party this Saturday." In my case, as a kid, it was Johnny's house. He was a cool kid and he had older siblings who were even cooler.
Johnny's sister had one of the first baby blue Buick Electra 225 convertibles in our town, and she loved showing that car off. Sometimes she'd let me and Johnny wash it for her and then give us a ride around the neighborhood. And his brother, who was even older, had already gotten married. So we went to him with all of our burning questions about girls and stuff.
It was 1964 and the Beatles' first album, Meet the Beatles, had just come out. His sister had bought it, of course, and he and I were lying on the living room floor listening to it on a Saturday afternoon in the fall. Johnny kinda liked "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "I Saw Her Standing There." I told him he was just saying what the radio stations wanted him to say. I said it was obvious that "This Boy" and "Till There Was You" showed much more musical promise. Well, I probably said, "You're a dumbass," and just thought the rest. Or, I might not have said anything. It was a long time ago and I am making all of this up anyway. I'm making this up to tell you about Carl, the semi-retarded boy down at the end of Johnny's block. And to tell you about me and Carl.
Carl's house on the corner lot had a marvelous empty yard between the side street and his house. This was our football field and we'd used it so much that Carl's mom never had to cut the grass. No one knew where Carl's dad was, or if he ever had had one. Carl was our age, but he'd been dropped on his head or something 'cause he was so slow he didn't even go to our school. He functioned OK, physically, but he was around 6 or 7 years old in his head.
Now, I'd like to say we were nice to Carl and let him play football with us and treated him like an equal. I'd like to say that. But mostly we made fun of him and used his yard whether he wanted us to or not. Sometimes we'd let him center for both teams, but most of the time he'd wind up sitting on the front porch, watching us play. I don't remember feeling guilt about this or feeling sorry for Carl at the time. I knew what guilt meant, but this didn't seem to be one of those things which required that emotion at the time. Was it the peer pressure, or was Carl just so annoying that it didn't seem to register? Who knows.
One day I rode my Schwinn over to Johnny's house and he wasn't there. I rode around the neighborhood and found him playing with some kids I didn't know. They looked a little older than us. I sat on my bike in the street and waited for him to invite me to join them. There were seven of them playing football in a different yard, a yard I'd never noticed before. They obviously needed another player to make the teams even. He glanced over at me and then just returned to the game as if I wasn't there.
There's breaking up with girlfriends, which would come later and hurt in a very different way. There's the loss of loved ones or pets due to death. There's the loss of innocence and the loss of prized possessions and the loss of honor. But there's nothing quite the same as the loss of a really good friend, especially when you don't have a clue why it happened. I guess I had just became an annoyance to him, like Carl was to us. When you're the perpetual guest, this can and will happen to you.
I rode my bike back the way I'd came, and it took me by Carl's yard. There was a heavy thunderstorm on its way and the clouds were rolling in with that cool ozone wind that makes you feel giddy and lightheaded. Carl was out there in the yard, by himself, throwing his football up in the air and catching it. Then he'd run a little ways and do it again. I got close enough to hear what he was saying. "Carl goes for the big one! Carl wins the game!"
I'd like to say I stopped and that Carl and I tossed the pigskin around and had a great time by ourselves. Just us two. I'd like to say that. But you know that's not true. I rode on home to my parents and Carl didn't even know I was there. And why should he care? He was having more fun than any of us. Especially me.