Published on November 7th, 2023 | by Cheryl Klein0
Microclimates: Kid Friendships and the Winds of Change
Hi Cheryl can we borrow the slide?
Jasmine’s* text arrives on a hot day in mid-October, the kind that sends me scouring my memory: Was the Southern California of my childhood so hot at this time of year? Or have things changed? My eight-year-old, Dash, is playing Roblox on his iPad while I read to his sixteen-month-old brother, Joey.
Our neighbor is referring to the Little Tikes slide that used to belong to our other neighbors; she and Dash salvaged it from the sidewalk before I could say no more junk. Jasmine and her sister, Juanita,* are our neighbors to the west, almost eleven and recently seven, respectively. The slide’s plastic parts were once bright, but the sun has bleached them pastel.
Sure, I’ll walk it over to you, I reply.
I plop Joey in his swing and lug the contraption down the sidewalk to Jasmine and Juanita’s driveway. The slide is too small for all of the kids except Joey, but they loved straddling it over the side of our inflatable pool on other hot days.
I remember, from my own childhood, how much fun it was to assemble any kind of structure I could fit inside or jump off, and how much more fun if water was involved. I remember the time my friend Genevieve’s* family had a brand new trash can, how we filled it with water and called it a pool, even though there was barely room for both of us to stand in it at once.
Sure enough, Jasmine and Juanita have goggles on their heads—the goggles I bought them at the beginning of the summer for trips to the community pool. They’ve set up their own kiddie pool on the patio behind their duplex.
Joey is still in his swing in our driveway, so I don’t wait long, but I wait long enough to know they’re not inviting Dash.
Bonnie—who was my best childhood friend following Genevieve—has been cleaning out her mom’s house. Her mom, who taught the fifth and six grade classes we were both in, died a few years ago.
She texts me a picture of a poem with my byline, from a journal produced by our AP English class. “Sisters” begins: Our room, back when we shared it, / Was a pastel kingdom of My Little Ponies.
After naming more shared interests, the poem continues, And I’m surprised when the phone rings / And the cracking voice of a freshman boy asks / Is Cathy home?
The poem drips with sentimentality for the sister I’d spent a dozen years fighting with; grownups loved it. The theme was essentially “Aw, my little sister is growing up!”
What if I stay eighteen until / Cathy is twenty-one when it should be / The other way around?
The subtext of the poem (which I would not have admitted then, even to myself) is: What if Cathy gets a boyfriend before I do, and I’m either celibate for life or gay?
Oh man, I reply to Bonnie, I was mourning the passage of time even in high school.
But in equal measure, I was anxious about the future, as I still am, even though there’s less of it ahead of me (and I’m anxious about that too).
Look at mine, Bonnie said, also so true today.
Hers is called “Prime Time Family,” an ode to the impenetrable perfection of sitcom families. I wish I could be like the people / Who live inside that big box.
I often thought Bonnie’s family was cooler than mine because she had older brothers and a lot of pets, but I can see, maybe, how the TV grass was greener.
Nostalgia is suspect: The past was plenty bad, and to say otherwise is to deny most of history. But I’m not immune to it.
There were good times with Jasmine and Juanita as recently as summer. In the bright white pool at the rec center, Juanita discovered she could finally reach the bottom without standing on her tiptoes. I taught Dash and Jasmine how to have an underwater tea party. The Gold Line train rushed by just feet from where we swam. We drove through Taco Bell afterward, the one where the girls’ brother works, and got frozen drinks that dyed the kids’ tongues blue.
But visits to our house have started to become leaden. Jasmine, always the leader of the pack, drapes herself over our armchair and vetoes any activity the younger two suggest.
Juanita eyes her sister for cues. I can tell she wants to play. She’s not too old for Legos or pillow fights or their favorite pretend game, “Babies,” which can enfold any adventure—Babies go on vacation, Babies go to school, Babies build a fort, Babies play pranks on Parents.
But when her big sister says “Naahhh,” Juanita doubles down. “Yeah, that’s boring. I’m so bored,” Juanita performs.
Because I’m wistful for the days when I could woo them with popsicles and trips to the park, I snap, “No one’s making you stay here. You are always free to go home.”
Jasmine’s parents gave her a phone when her older brother started his Taco Bell job, and she began staying home alone with Juanita. Now it’s her oracle and her tether.
When we try to make plans ahead of time, she’s likely to say, “I’m going to be pretty busy that weekend.”
“Oh, what do you have planned?” I ask.
“Me and my friends are probably going to do something,” she says. None of them have transportation, but she says they talk on the phone for hours.
She often says she’s tired from kickball or her dance group, but I feel like she’s tired of us.
If Jasmine is embodying some tween girl stereotype, Dash is hellbent on performing eight-year-old boy to the max, roaring and jumping and sword-playing. He jabs and teases Juanita, and I ask him, “Do you know what ‘aggravating’ means?”
If we knock on their door and ask if they want to play, and they turn us down, he maintains his composure until we pass through our front gate. Then his bottom lip turns down the way it has since he was a baby, and he starts to cry.
In second grade, before I met Bonnie, my best friend was Genevieve, who had straight red hair and freckles and loved horses. She had two big dogs who chewed the feet of her Barbies and My Little Ponies.
My third grade teacher taught group French lessons after school. We pantomimed going into a candy store, ordered candy in French, and then we ate real French candy from a small round tin: fruit-shaped and citrus-flavored, dusted in powdered sugar.
Bonnie was in my class and we became friends. She was blonde, short for her age, and had invited Soleil Moonfrye, the real Punky Brewster, to her eighth birthday party. Soleil couldn’t make it, but she sent Bonnie an autographed 8” x 10” glossy headshot.
In fifth grade, we take a bus once a week to another campus for the GATE program. Bonnie and I are Gifted And Talented. I don’t understand half of what we do at GATE—there’s something called “mystery powders,” and there are computer games—but the classroom has a microwave, so we can bring ramen in styrofoam cups.
Genevieve is not Gifted And Talented. Genevieve will go on to become an occupational therapist, Bonnie a teacher, I a writer of things for nonprofits. I do not know what being Gifted And Talented, or not, has to do with any of it.
Bonnie and I invent an imaginary friend with whom we hang out at GATE. Her name is Chonnie, a combination of Cheryl and Bonnie. We describe her to Genevieve as the epitome of cool, putting even Punky to shame.
One day at lunch, I whisper to Bonnie, “Let’s think of things we have in common that Genevieve doesn’t have, and we’ll make her feel left out.”
I announce, “It’s so great how ‘Cheryl’ and ‘Bonnie’ both have six letters. Nine letters really seems too long.”
Genevieve’s mom calls my house one afternoon. “You’ve got to stop acting like this to Genevieve. Just knock it off.”
I hate getting in trouble of any kind. I have not broken any rules. I have not said any bad words. I have not told anyone that I don’t want to be friends with them, even. I have simply learned, as girls do, to be a little evil while still being Good.
For the second weekend in a row, and for the first time since the girls’ parents got COVID in winter of 2020, we don’t see Jasmine and Juanita. Dash doesn’t even ask. He’s finally gotten the hint. I’m relieved and sad.
Instead we drop him off at his friend’s apartment, where the boy greets us with lightsaber in hand.
My partner and I take Joey to a nearby park. The day is bright, but the heat hasn’t fully descended yet. Joey rides in his blue plastic car and drags his hand along the ground, feeling the dry dirt of the walking trail.
“I heard someone say that going to college used to be like a treasury bond,” my partner, C.C., says. “It was a sure thing which would pay off eventually. And now it’s more like going to a casino. It might pay off, but it’s a crapshoot.”
We are both saddened by this thought. I’ve always been an anxious type, but last year, after we adopted Joey on the heels of four failed placements, I spun out.
I say, “Somewhere between Dash and Joey, I lost my faith in systems.”
Things that happened in the seven and a half years between Dash and Joey: the Trump presidency, the pandemic, nearly 8,000 people shot and killed by police (mostly young men, with Black Americans shot at a much higher rate), wars that have made headlines and wars that haven’t.
“I’m not a prepper,” I say to C.C. “I’m not under any illusion that I can be self-sufficient if I have enough guns and canned food. I need people and systems. And I know it’s only because of privilege and luck that I ever had any faith in the first place—”
C.C. interrupts me. “No, a lot of things have gotten worse recently.”
I am nostalgic for good things. I am nostalgic for problematic things, and complicated things.
Maybe the appeal of the past is that we know how it ended. Maybe aging is a kind of homesickness. I’m no fan of uncertainty, and I’m too old and battle-scarred to see the future as a shiny beacon. I try to hide that fact from my kids.
Joey is fussing now. He wants a bottle and needs a nap. We’ve been trying to wean him off of quite so much milk, but the comforts of the past have a tight grip.
At the other end of October, when the moon is full and the nights begin to nip, Jasmine texts: Do you want to go trick or treating?
Her invitation cracks open the silence, and the weekend before Halloween, the three kids have an impromptu reunion. They build a slide out of couch cushions and make lemonade with unripe lemons from our other neighbor’s tree. They hit wiffle balls with tennis rackets and baseball bats.
“Let’s never take no more breaks,” declares Juanita. And for today, her story is the one we all agree to believe.
*Names have been changed