”But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice. “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” –Alice in Wonderland
It was about time to see my Imaginary Friend. We hadn’t spoken in five months, but Zan had recently texted—Did we want to decorate Easter eggs at her house? She’d even supplied a physical address.
Still, I didn’t get too invested. I didn’t mention it to the kids. Up until the last half hour, I expected the inevitable crack in our plans. But I didn’t hear a peep.
When we pulled up in front of her new house at the appointed time, Zan’s eight-year-old son was cycling around in the driveway. As soon as he spied us, Quentin abandoned his bike and ran inside like one of those kids in a Western. My kids jumped out of the car and chased after him. I was touched to see that he—or Zan—or both of them—had written a large “Welcome!” sign in pastel chalk on the cement steps. We took that as an invitation to enter through the open screen door.
Zan’s new place was cute and compact, like an Ikea catalogue (literally, the size of a magazine) and further congested by objects of whimsy—bowls of marbles and Chinese candies, porcelain chicks. This was only the second of Zan’s four houses I’d seen in the last five years, but it confirmed my belief in her interior design skills.
We found the occupants hiding out in their black-and-white (retro style) kitchen.
“Oh hello, hello!” Zan chirped, giving out little hugs. She was gracious and jittery, like an artist at an opening reception.
I presented her with a rather bedraggled, potted tulip bulb, explaining that’d been in our car all day.
“Oh no, you keep it!” she said, possibly misunderstanding.
As usual, she looked chic in a little black outfit, her dark hair swept off to the side. When all the other moms had congregated in t-shirts and jeans at Kindergarten pickup— Zan had looked like she’d just come from a gallery in the Chelsea District. In the winter you could find her wearing a Russian ushanka, and in the spring, carrying a sheer white parasol. I loved her sense of style, her attention to detail.
In honor of the festivities, the kitchen table was covered with a blue and pink tablecloth, banana-nut bread and orange slices, little plastic wells with dye and vinegar all ready for egg dipping.
The kids crammed some bread in their mouths while Zan tried to elicit some sound bites from them. They gulped cranberry juice liked long-distance marathoners. Then they followed Quentin out back to swordfight in the goat heads, leaving us alone.
Zan and I blinked shyly at each other in bright glare of the skylight, swatted at the spring gnats circling around the orange slices. We weren’t used to interacting in person. Most of our current communication is via text. So we grasped at the obvious: Her new rental and its proliferation of weeds. Her disinterested landlord. My family’s recent spate of sickness (actually, two unremitting months of rotating ailments), including a vomit fest in the van on the way home from skiing.
Not a real conversation, but the kind of low-level grousing women do as a warm-up for the main course. Appetizers, if you will.
Next came the soup and salad: I launched into my latest—and quite possibly most embarrassing—preoccupation: watching the Pistorius Trial (live) in Africa while the rest of North America slumbers; simultaneously reading tweets from courtroom journalists, some of which are quite amusing.
Zan countered with a few of her favorite “binge” viewing experiences, including the most recent addition, Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, the kids kept charging through the kitchen, testing our ability to stick to one single subject. Impossible! Zan served up a little side dish on George W. Bush’s artistic ambitions, paintings that she’s sure are traced out first with a slide projector, which devolved into a pointless political discussion.
“When I saw him on Leno’s last show, I couldn’t believe that he’d been our president!” she exclaimed.
“Because he can’t draw?”
“No, because he’s so inarticulate!”
“Presidents are probably just figureheads anyway,” I said. “Now we have a really articulate president, and what’s the difference?”
Zan shook her head and declared that “thinly-veiled racism” rather than party lines had kept Obama from fulfilling his potential.
“I thought we were beyond that,” I said. “Maybe I’m naïve?”
The kids dumped their eggs into the cups, fished them out with wire dippers, seemed thoroughly unimpressed by the properties of dye. Like fireworks, they’d been through it all before. A few minutes later, they informed us that it was time to go to the park to hide plastic eggs. I’d conveniently forgotten about this segment of the plan.
“Can I bring my bike?” Quentin asked.
“Um….yes,” Zan said.
I was surprised. Three kids and a bike? How was that gonna work?
It reminded me of the time we’d driven an hour in my car to a funky backwoods museum and she’d let Quentin to bring along his ipod and play video games. It’s not that we didn’t own ipods at the time (we didn’t), but that I never would have brought them on a playdate. What’s an unshared ipod, if not a tool of detachment? Besides, kids are supposed to get bored in cars. It forces them to be silly or inventive or desultory, and form lasting childhood memories.
Quentin immediately took off to the park on his bike, Felix sprinting and shouting behind him. Buttercup lay down on the pavement, refusing to move. When I finally lugged her the three blocks to the park, Quentin was circling like a bicycle racer while Felix begged him for a turn.
I dispatched the kids to the playground equipment and Zan and I took over a corner of the park, lobbing questions at each other while hiding eggs: So what are you guys doing this summer? (Quentin is going to Circus Camp.) Are you going to keep on homeschooling? (Yes, we’re having a blast!) Does Quentin like second grade? (Yes, he made a friend this year…) Is Buttercup going to attend Kindergarten? (Well, we’ve applied to a few Charter Schools…)
As soon as the eggs were hidden, the kids scampered through the underbrush like squirrels on speed. I figured that they would be high on serotonin and dopamine and other “feel-good” chocolate transmitters for at least half an hour. Zan and I would finally be able to sit down under a tree and get to the feast at hand.
The second this notion crossed my mind, a young mother and her toddler strolled up, smiling hugely. Zan gave her a welcoming hug and quickly made the introductions: Giselle is American-but-married–to-a-French-musician and living in France, she said; Lillian is “married”-to-a-Hungarian-theater director and homeschooling her son.
I don’t know if she was invited, but Giselle sat down as if she intended to stay. I was disappointed, I confess. Now that a new guest had arrived, we were back to the appetizers again.
Still, I did my best to be inclusive, asking Giselle about “snacking” in France—was it true that French moms didn’t allow it?
She said that most people stuck to prescribed eating times—though there was a specific snack time from four to six p.m.— “le goûter”—because dinner was so late.
Next we covered a myriad of Anglo-Franco differences including: the work week (35 hours) and vacation time (five weeks for everyone, regardless of position, guaranteed by law) and financial support for French artists—“you have to work really hard to get an artistic assignation, but once you do, the government subsidizes your income”—which is why Giselle and her husband had decided to go back to France instead of staying in the U.S.
While we chattted, Zan occupied herself by tickling/squeezing/chasing the baby, eventually abandoning us altogether. At one point I saw her cheerfully swinging him on the other side of the park.
My conversation with Giselle deepened. We talked about how having a baby irrevocably changes your life and how financial dependence can cause a surprising reversion to conventional gender roles, and why I staunchly refuse to do my partner’s laundry. She told me a story about how one woman had gotten over her resentment at ironing her husband’s clothes by having him read to her. She described the man reading aloud on an downturned bucket in a tiny apartment alcove. “That’s so French!” I laughed, totally imaginging the scene.
When we left the park an hour later—after reclaiming Zan and Quentin, bidding “adieu” to Giselle, leaving the bébé with a basket of plastic eggs—I asked Zan if she felt she had “more of a community” on this side of town.
“Nah, I’m a recluse!” she said. “But Giselle’s only here a few months so…”
I grinned, trying to catch her out. “You can afford to be friends?”
She smiled like a Cheshire cat.
Note: On the drive home, I asked the kids if they’d had fun. Neither of them bothered to respond. But Zan texted me a few minutes later to thank me for the tulip. I texted her back, thanking her for the eggs.