Playing Pretend by Jacalyn Eis
You see him watching her – the dapper little boy dressed like a pre-school banker, in his navy blazer, a blue bow tie, and his blond hair combed smoothly to the side. Three or four years old, no more. If you had children, you might be able to guess more precisely. Already he knows how to sit up straight in a fancy restaurant, how to hold a fork and eat his quiche like a big boy. Already he knows how to cock his head slyly to peek at the girl about his same age in the banquette next to your table. He’s knows he shouldn’t look, but he can’t help himself.
On the way in, he saw her playing pretend. Who didn’t, other than their two sets of parents seated on benches, texting, as they waited for tables? She was yapping like a dog, holding her hands like paws in front of her and running up to people in line, barking into their faces. “Arf! Arf!” Like a comic book dog. She licked the boy’s hand, and he pulled it away. While she had his attention, she ran to a tree and lifted her leg like a doggy. You notice the boy glancing at the tree, probably wondering, like you, if she’d really peed on it.
You’re dining alone and wish you had someone to distract you from hearing the girl do her chimp act, jumping up and down on the seat, grunting at her father, who tries to fend her off and guard his lunch-time martini. When she sees the boy glance at her, she morphs into a howler monkey routine and directs her hoots and screams at him. He’s embarrassed, no, horrified to be the object of her naughtiness. Already, at his age, he knows not to turn and look again.
You remember child’s play being quieter, more secretive. Your mother still says that when she overheard you talking to your fairy godmother, your whispered conversations were so believable they gave her the creeps. This girl though, needs an audience.
She tries to stand on her head, kicking her legs and wagging her behind in pink ruffled panties at the boy. You wish his mother would notice and divert him from the shocked conclusions he seems to be reaching about the girl, maybe all girls, but his silent suffering suggests he knows he’s going to have to deal with his rapt bewilderment all by himself, like a big boy.
Her mother finally tells the girl to sit down and she does, but she pouts. When the food is served, her father gives her a helping of fries from his plate. You notice her glee as she crushes the fries hard under her thumb, drowning them cruelly in the sea of ketchup on her plate, the sensual way she grabs a handful of the bloody fries and smears them into her mouth and onto her tongue, how she’s fascinated by her ketchup-covered hands.
The boy looks at his food and pushes his plate away. You overhear his puzzled mother say, “But that’s your favorite,” and you completely understand why that lightness of eggs baked in a delicate, buttery crust has lost its appeal. The quiche you ordered doesn’t quite cut it for you now either. You order another glass of Chablis.
The girl emits a deafening shriek of delight when dessert arrives. She molds a bowl of chocolate ice cream into a dripping blob and then shapes it into melting, wormlike strands. A handful ends up in her hair. When her family gets up to leave, she laughs and slaps the boy’s arm as she passes, leaving a creamy, chocolate handprint on his pretty blue blazer. He flinches and watches her walk away, his mouth agape, beside himself with confusion.
You wonder what’s ahead for her and predict that such an outsized need for attention, in the face of chronically distracted parents might not end well. Still, her sense of fun may save her. She might turn her simian impulse to art. Hard to say.
And the boy. See how he looks down at his sleeve, his lower lip protruding, baffled by that rough inventiveness he dares not touch in himself. You’ve been there too, in that tangled place between fear and fascination, where intuition breaks the news that your feelings can never be expressed or returned in any coherent way.
The restaurant is quiet now. You can hear the clink of silverware and a stillness resembling a collective sigh of relief, but like the boy, you’re gazing at the doorway, half-sorry she’s gone.
Jacqueline Eis lives in Fort Collins, CO. Her short stories, flash fictions, reviews and essays have been published in a number of literary magazines, most notably, in The Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, Writer’s Forum, Crosscurrents, Prairie Schooner, The Crescent Review, Christian Science Monitor, The MacGuffin, 13th Moon, Happy, and Minimus. She has also been a past recipient of Prairie Schooner’s Bernice Slote and Mari Sandoz Awards, as well as a Colorado Arts Council Grant.