The year of my divorce I taught Sunday school in a room the size of a large walk-in closet: a windowless, cramped pen in the gymnasium basement of a cinderblock building. At the end of every class, my four-year-old students burst forth like starlings out of a tree: chattering, swirling, looping around the gym in pandemonium. I loved to watch and to think about how good it feels to burst out of a too-small place, even if it’s a place one loves. I worked hard to make the cell assigned to me a haven, and I knew I succeeded because my old students sometimes migrated back. My most frequent visitor was Lars.
I met Lars the year before, at Sunday school “summer camp,” and we bonded. Lars was a skinny seven-year-old whose gray eyes, blond hair, and translucently pale skin reminded me of a watercolor left out in the rain. Lanky and twitchy, he stood in the doorway so those going out had to push past him. That was Lars: the kid who somehow could not figure out how to join the ever-moving flock.
I once asked him why he stood there, and he told me, “I like to watch the little kids.” Lars sometimes confided in me: why his Halloween costume had been a flop; his doubts about Santa; and his parents’ refusal to get him a kitten. All of his stories involved thwarted plans, and he seemed to brood over a worry he could not yet articulate as he watched the other children from the safety of the classroom that once had been his.
One day, as I folded a tablecloth Lars piped up: “Rose, which kids are your kids?”
I didn’t understand him at first. “I teach the four-year-olds,” I reminded him. From my classroom’s open door we could see the gym, and I pointed at my students as they raced by: “There go Jessie and Tamsin; there’s Diego on the table.”
“No, I mean, which ones are your kids,” he said, pointing right at my stomach.
“Oh,” I said. “None of those kids are mine.”
His eyes got big. “None of them?” he asked.
“Not a single, solitary one, Lars,” I replied, and tossed the tablecloth at the shelf. It missed.
“Where are they?” Lars peeked into the big carpetbag where I keep my toys, as if maybe my children hid inside. “Did your kids stay at home today?”
As I retrieved the tablecloth, I drew one of those deep breaths I find necessary before explaining something complicated to a child. “There are no children at my house,” I told him. “Even though I am the same age as a mom, I’m not a mom.” I put the tablecloth on the shelf and began picking up puppets. I paused when I realized he wasn’t moving.
“If you’re not a mom,” he said, “what are you?”
Of course I already knew that I was the only teacher in the school that was not also a mother, just as I knew all the mothers spent time together socially, but not with me. Yet I’d never wondered what conclusions their children, my students, might draw.
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” I said. “I’m just me, like you are just you. I’m the same as other people in some ways, and different in others. One difference is: I don’t have kids.”
“But,” said Lars, “I thought you liked kids.”
“Of course I like kids,” I said. “I like elephants too, but I don’t have any of those running around at my house.” I thought about that. “You know, I’m not sure how I’d even get an elephant up the stairs.”
Lars laughed, and I could have made my verbal escape by embellishing on the elephant story. But I didn’t. Part of the reason was I hated the idea he thought I was some sort of aberration because I had not reproduced. I was also motivated by Lars’s vulnerability and my hope that if I modeled sharing my feelings, he might find a way to speak of his own. I had this notion that he was like a well of clear water under the ground, which with effort might come sparkling to the surface.
But when I look back, I realize I had a third reason I did not recognize at the time, which would not allow me to turn the moment into a joke.
So instead of gliding to a safer topic, I told him: “I did want to be a mom, Lars, but it just didn’t work out that way.”
Lars handed me a rabbit puppet. “If you like kids, why don’t you just have them?”
I looked down at the puppet in my hands. “Did you ever imagine something special happening, like your birthday party you waited a long, long time for? But then when it happened, it didn’t look like the picture in your head, and even though the party was still good, you were a little disappointed?”
Lars nodded, leaning back against the wall.
“Well,” I said, “that’s what happened to me. I wanted a family with children in it. But it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. I can’t tell you all the reasons, because those are private; but the important thing is, my real life is different from the picture in my head.” I rearranged the puppets in my bag, tucking them in. “If I worry too much about the old picture, I can’t think about what new picture I might make. And I can’t enjoy the real kids already in my life, like you, if I’m always thinking about imaginary kids I don’t have.” I waited a moment to make certain he was looking at me. “I love kids, I just don’t have kids.”
“That’s sad,” said Lars, picking at a rough patch on the wall and swinging his leg.
When an adult tells me my lack of offspring is sad, it is often a kind of judgment disguised as sympathy. I braced myself. “Why is that sad, Lars?”
He shrugged, not looking at me. “Because I wanted to be friends with your kid.”
Before I could respond, he added:
“Your kid would be my best friend.”
I swallowed twice before I answered. “You would be a good best friend, Lars.”
He smiled at me. “So, when will you have some kids?” he asked. “Because I want to be their best friend.”
Would we ever run out of monkeys in this barrel? “Lars, in the new picture of my life, I am a teacher, not a mom.”
I saw Lars open his mouth. “Let me explain it this way,” I said, holding up my hand. “The other teachers have kids, and when their classes are over, they go home and are moms. But the kids in my classroom are the only kids I get. So I am a teacher all the time. It’s what I’m doing right now.”
He smiled and wound his arms around my waist. “You’re a good teacher,” he said, his voice muffled against my stomach.
I pitched my voice low so it would not shake. “Thank you, dear,” I said. My hands caressed his head as it lay against my belly. It was, I realized, the same protective, possessive caress made by pregnant women.
After a long moment, Lars leaned back to look up at me. “I still wish I could be friends with your kid,” he said.
“You had a picture in your mind that you and my child would play together,” I told him. “It’s a good picture, even if it can’t happen for real.”
“But, still,” he said.
I closed my eyes. “Yeah, I know. But, still.”
We were silent together. He did not let go, so I didn’t, either. Then he whispered, “I wish there was some real magic, like in the stories.”
When a child pines for magic, often what he’s longing for is hope. “I’ll tell you something magic, Lars,” I said. “When we are in this classroom, the children are sort of like my children. Not for real, of course, but close enough that if you want to be a friend with a child of mine, make friends with any child in the school.”
Lars’s face tightened, and his thin body tensed. Sudden trepidation flickered over me like a shadow.
He whispered, “How?”
And that was it: the question that he’d been waiting to find the words, or the courage, to ask. It was the question that summed up Lars.
I paused to think. “There are lots of ways to meet a friend,” I said at last. “But the easiest way is to find someone who needs your help. Sometimes you have to help a lot of different people before one of them becomes a friend,” I cautioned him. “But you’ll know you’ve made a friend if that person likes to help you, too.”
A sudden light filled Lars’s face. “Yeah,” he said, as if amazed. “I could do that.”
“Good,” I replied. Before he could ask me any more questions, I added, “You know, I think I saw they have cake in the gym. You’d better go get some before the other kids eat it all up.”
He dashed away without saying good-bye.
I glanced around the room. There was nothing left to put away, so I hauled my carpetbag over my shoulder and stepped through the doorway of my classroom.
Out in the gym, the parents stood facing in toward each other in little groups, their backs to me as they discussed soccer camps and parent-teacher meetings: difficult conversations for a divorced, childless woman to wedge into. Directly outside my classroom, a six-year-old girl jumped up and down, trying to reach the water fountain. Let her be, I thought. Don’t help her solve a problem she can fix on her own, just to make yourself feel necessary.
Then I saw Lars, rushing against the tide of children. His face glowed pink. In his hands he gripped the small, grubby plastic step we kept in the bathroom so kids could reach the sink. He held it over his head, like the Olympic torch. He dashed past me to the side of the girl by the water fountain.
“Here!” he crowed. “Let me help you!”
He stopped in front of the startled girl and placed the step before her. She advanced toward him then stopped, her dark eyes uncertain. Lars awkwardly held out his hand, focused as only a lonely kid can be. He was being weird again, acting out the part of a Disney prince in front of the water fountain; yet he had the intent look of a person trying to coax a young, wild animal from the shelter of the trees. Perhaps this is why the girl put her brown hand in his and stepped up to the fountain.
Lars stood frozen for an instant, then collected himself and pressed down on the lever: the silver water arced up, the girl pushed back her hair with both hands and bent her face to drink.
Then I saw Lars’s mother close beside me. She, too, noticed Lars and began to move suddenly toward the water fountain. I stuck my hand in her way and whispered, “Wait.”
“But,” she said, then stopped and whispered: “But…they need help.”
“Seems to me they’re doing fine,” I replied. “Watch.”
The girl slipped away during this exchange, but three more children arrived: Tamsin, Jessie, and a chubby toddler with fragments of Cheerios stuck to the drool on his face. Lars helped each child, and each scampered away after drinking. Lars stood alone again. One corner of his mouth drooped, his narrow shoulders slumped, and the glow in his face diminished.
Then the girl seemed to flit out of the doorway of my empty classroom. Her hand flashed out to press down the lever for the water. It leapt up, sparkling. Lars turned toward her. I could no longer see his face. He bent his head to drink, and when he finished he wiped his mouth on his wrist, sprang down, and together the two children galloped away.
Beside me Lars’s mother stared. I bent my mouth into a smile shape: I hoped it looked kind, but I was so tired I was no longer sure. “Sometimes it’s good to let the kids solve problems together,” I explained. “That’s the first step toward becoming friends.”
Lars’ mother gave me a look of admiration. “What a shame you’re not a mom,” she said.
I knew she was trying to be friendly. But still. “I’m a teacher,” I said, turning toward the door.
“Oh, but it’s just not the same,” she said, turning with me. I was afraid she’d try to put her arm around my shoulders. “There’s a bond between a parent and a child you can’t understand unless you’re a parent yourself.”
Since when, I wondered, do experiences have to be identical to be equally precious? I sped up, but Lars’s mother kept stride.
“This is such a waste of your talents,” she added, shaking her head. “You must become a mother before it is too late.”
I don’t remember what, if anything, I said in reply.
Somehow I crossed the room and left the building, climbing the concrete stairs with the rusted pipe bannister to the street. A cold, damp wind shook the flagpole lanyard so its clips clanged, metal on metal.
“Lars won’t be back,” I thought to myself. “That’s sad.” And I laughed, remembering him saying the same thing, and how it hadn’t meant what I expected.
Suddenly I wasn’t laughing. I hung onto the bannister, pulling the cool air into my lungs with deep breaths. Something seemed to be physically crushing me, and though I knew it was not real, I felt that if I let go of the bannister I would be pressed to the ground. I couldn’t seem to draw enough air into my lungs, as if the weight was squashing them closed.
“Stop it,” I thought to myself. “This is ridiculous.” But my body was not listening; my lungs were not listening. I was opening and closing my mouth like a bird stunned after flying into a window that looked like open sky.
Rose Strode, from Virginia, received a 2014 Undiscovered Voices Fellowship from The Writer’s Center, in Bethesda, MD, where she has been a student. Her personal essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review and The Little Patuxent Review. She also studies acting at The Studio Theatre in Washington, DC.
Spy Publications is pleased to reprint Ms. Strode’s personal essay from The Delmarva Review, Volume 8 (2015). The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with additional support from private contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council. Print and digital editions are available from libraries, local bookstores, and Amazon.com. For information, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.