He screams at her from the backseat, kicking his feet against the car seat bottom and flailing his arms in the air. He pushes his chest up against the restraints, eyes wide with worry. She cannot get the CD in the slot fast enough. I got I got I got I got, you got you got you got you got, we got we got we got loco legs, the band sings, harmonizing.
His small, tense body immediately relaxes into the seat, his feet stop swinging, and his thumb goes right into his mouth. A stranger might mistake his slight grimace for a smile. She talks to him gently, she’s always reassuring him, narrating everything, just talking and talking, hoping that one day he’ll talk back. Once when she was reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, he’d said “cheese”, or “chee”, or maybe she’d just imagined it all, and she tried her best to tamp down her excitement, ultimately unsuccessfully. He was like a timid deer that she didn’t want to scare off. But she had. She’d said, “Say it again! Say cheese! That’s right!” And then he’d crawled back inside himself instead. He’d gone silent, looking through her, fiddling absentmindedly with the silky edges of his blankie.
So today, she’s back to narrating, in between songs when the silence allows. The upbeat melodies cannot be interrupted if she wants to maintain any sense of serenity. In the rearview mirror, she looks at his chubby angel face, his vacant eyes. “We’re going someplace really special today, bud,” He whimpers and then his swinging feet start up again. She shrugs and unmutes the music.
She finds a parking space on the first level of the deck and feels her jaw loosen, her shoulders lower. Getting him there is only part of the mission, so the closer the better. She unclicks the buckles and frees him quickly, scooping him up, holding him close. She kisses his head, lowers him to the ground, says “All right, here we go!” He reaches up for her outstretched hand. She offers up a preemptive prayer, hoping he won’t melt down, wasting the money she shelled out for the tickets.
If she strains really hard, she can hear the metallic sound of the steel drum as they walk toward the park. She looks down to see if he hears it too, but he’s gone somewhere else in his mind. She just keeps walking, hyping up the surprise, pointing at things along the way, making an audible label for each item. Then she sees it, the music swirling gently around his ears, pulling something out from down in the deep. He turns his face up to her and signs more with his stumpy little fingers.
When they pass through the gate, stubs in hand, the clouds get angry and start to spit out rain. The wetness on his face distracts him and he grunts, swiping at his cheeks. She digs into her bag and grabs a Superman poncho, pulls it gently over his head and smooths it down. He looks up at her, confused, and she explains how it will keep all the little misties out of his eyes, so he can see better, he can see his friends so much better. The ones on the stage. And then she points so he can see.
She can’t read the expression on his face but she imagines his little brain like a computer trying to download a file that’s way too large. When she was little, she had asked her mother how the characters on the show shrunk down enough to fit inside the TV. He wonders the opposite, his darting eyes seem to say, how did the people inside the TV get out?
For a moment, she takes her eyes off him and scans the crowd. Clusters of children running around, shamelessly dancing, wiggling and jumping to the beat, clapping at random. She sees some on their parents’ shoulders, using their heads like drums. Her view is skewed, her heart is jealous. Every kid seems carefree, unburdened, but then she looks down and sees the smallest of grins on his face, his little feet marching up and down like a robot in response to the loud music. He is having fun, she thinks. He is having fun.
She grabs for her phone, for something to put in front of her face so no one can see her. She tries to gulp it back down, but the corners of her eyes are burning, emotion threatening its escape. She lets a few tears wriggle free and descend down her cheeks. Without taking his eyes off the lead singer in his bright yellow sweatshirt, he wipes the raindrops off his face with the back of his hand.
“He sure is enjoying himself,” a woman who has materialized next to her says gently. “Oh yeah, yeah. Definitely,” she answers, snapping back to reality. The jogging stroller she stands beside holds a little girl about his age who seems about a timid as he is, mostly all of the time, except at this very moment. The child sits transfixed, rhythmically sucking on her pacifier. Her mother must sense her staring, so she offers up some refreshing honesty. “I know, I know. I hear it from everybody all the time, ‘She’s too old for that thing. She’s gonna need braces. She’s not a baby anymore’. Thank you, I know all of these things!” she says, her laughter an apology.
She puts her hand out and squeezes the woman’s forearm. “Oh no, please. Do not feel bad! Whatever works, right? We’re on our third CD of these guys! We’ve lost one copy and worn out another.” She watches as the mother’s face lights up and relaxes. “Us too!” she agrees. “We know every single word,” she says, pausing before the reveal. “We know every single word of every single song, even though I’m the only one who sings.”
They fall back into the quiet of watching the performance, listening to the music. She bends down and smooths his hair over on his forehead, takes out her phone and pushes record, thinks to herself, she’ll show him this in a few years and he’ll get a big kick out of it. He’ll protest and tell her to put it away, it’s so embarrassing he’ll say, and then he’ll use all the words to describe how he feels.
“Once he starts talking, I’ll never tell him to be quiet!” she tells the other mom, surprising herself with how easy it feels to serve herself up raw. “Oh, he’s nonverbal? Yeah, she is too…she’ll be three in August and still not a peep,” she says. “This little annoying band, all these songs, earworms that they are, bring her a little bit of joy, so I will record this show, I will buy all the CDs, and I’ll buy everything on that merch table,” she says and opens up her jacket, shows off her Fresh Beat Band t-shirt.
She blushes and looks down. “I have the same one in black.” They both throw their heads back, cackling. She even opens her mouth and catches a few raindrops. Her little boy breaks his stare, looks up at her again and smiles, a full-faced smile. He rests his head on her hip and she slicks his hair back in place.
“Hey, I hope this is not too weird, but can I get your number? Maybe we could set up a play date?” she says. The woman, squatting in front of the stroller, rises up and turns to her. “For us?” she says and they both laugh that knowing laugh. “Of course!” she says and pulls her phone out of her back pocket. The opening notes of A Friend Like You start up, the guitar and the keyboard melding together. Shimmering confetti falls down onto the crowd as he turns to her again, brushing both hands lightly in circles against his chest. Happy. “Me too," she says.