Mortifying moments often warrant further examination. For example, this morning in the elevator, all four of us went down just before eight to see my daughter off on the bus to camp. We were joined by our neighbor, who was leaving early for work. She’s nice, a corporate lawyer with kids of her own (in junior high school and high school), dressed professionally in a blue dress and nice shoes and jewelry. After some niceties between the grown-ups, she turned her attention to Evangeline.
“What camp do you go to?”
What happened next drove me absolutely crazy: Nothing. Evangeline merely bent forward at the waist a bit, but kept her face tilted upward, looking at her inquisitor.
“Tell her what camp you go to,” said my wife.
“Pop quiz,” I said, trying to keep it light.
But I could tell we were in another zone: the zone of shyness. Defiance. Something inexplicable. She has been going to this camp for weeks, so there is no question as to whether she knows its name. The only question was whether she was going to be polite and civilized, or just crumple into a drooling ball of useless incoherence.
After further prompting, she mouthed the name of her camp; it was barely a whisper. Her smile grew avid and devious, and she bent down further at the waist.
“What’d you say?” said the neighbor.
Another mouthing of the name.
“That’s the first time I’ve known you to be too quiet,” said our neighbor.
Did she say that? It’s possible that I am embellishing somehow. Did it have that passive-aggressive quality? Surely I am imagining that. In my defense, I was bleary and barely there in my morning daze, a cup of coffee in my hand.
I don’t know what my wife was doing, but I think she was also wishing my daughter would give a straight answer to this simple question. She may have said, “Come on, honey,” or maybe I just wished she said it. The elevator descended and my mood descended, too. But things suddenly got much worse when Evangeline barked.
Was it a bark? I don’t know what else to call it: a sudden, guttural, very loud noise that reverberated in the tiny space of the elevator. It was hostile. It was outrageously bad manners. It took the irrational anger I was feeling and gave it an object.
A moment later, the elevator door opened and we all poured out into the lobby. Our neighbor got into the town car waiting for her and we staggered over to the the corner where the other parents and their kids had assembled to wait for those yellow school buses that come swooping through the neighborhood, scooping up kids and taking them to camp. The sun was out, there were trees swaying in the breeze, their leaves the deepest mid-summer green. It was a glorious morning, and my anger dissipated. But its sharpness lingered like a bitter aftertaste.
Later on, I thought about the scene in the elevator. I was overcome by a mixture of guilt and curiosity. Such a simple question: “Where do you go to camp?” Why didn’t she answer it?
Kids get shy, I thought. You have to forgive them for that. But like a painting that reveals clues the longer you gaze at it, something I hadn’t previously considered occurred to me: the neighbor’s daughter, Penelope, has been close to Evangeline for years. Penelope is six years older. To say she has been like a big sister is overstating it, but there were weeks, or even months, when it seemed Penelope was at our place nearly every night. She occupied some gray area between babysitter and friend. My daughter really loves her. But this summer, Penelope went to sleep-away camp, and they saw very little of each other. However, we did throw Penelope a birthday party with a cake and presents— it was just us and Penelope, our own celebration. Evangeline picked out matching best friend bracelets at the cheap jewelry place on Broadway.
Maybe my daughter was preoccupied with thoughts of her absent friend, who is a kind of idol to her, while in the presence of her friend’s mother. Did it arouse so many conflicting feelings that all she could do was stare and think and then let everything come popping out like a bazooka blast?
I shared all this with a friend over lunch. He’s older than me, has three kids, and the two older ones have kids of their own— a grandfather. He has experiences in these matters. I put all this to him and he said, “Maybe she just thought it was all bullshit. That the person asking the question didn’t really care about the answer. It was just a formality, and your daughter just didn’t see the point in participating in something so non-genuine.”
“Elevator conversations are some of the weirdest and forced things in the world, that’s true,” I said.
“Maybe she just thought, ‘You guys can talk to each other in this fake way, but I don’t want anything to do with it.’”
I pondered this. In the space of five hours, a gesture that was infuriating had morphed into a nearly heroic act of authenticity. I didn’t completely buy this theory, but I had to admit it made sense. The insult contained in that shout, though, didn’t really leave me. Why I should have felt so insulted is something I am still thinking about.