My son's best friend broke his heart. On

I could handle my son Zev’s first love: balloons. Despite the fact that they always popped or flew away, I could blow up another one or whip out our copy of The Red Balloon and get him smiling again. But now that Zev has fallen for a person, everything has changed. 

Don’t get me wrong. I want more than anything to tell Zev I’m on board with his plan to someday wed Jonah from nursery school. The thing is, Jonah’s just not worthy of my firstborn. Granted, he is one scrumptious nubbin, from his ridiculously lustrous curls to his wickedly charismatic smile, which could charm the drawers off the most hardened, kid-averse misanthrope. But that’s just the problem. Everybody wants him, and he knows it. Some days, he gets Zev all lathered up with assurances that they are best friends; the next, he woos him with cool indifference. “I never want to play with you again” is his stock break-up line, frequently embellished with the news that he’s found someone better to play with in the sandbox, and, by the way, “You aren’t cool.” During one month alone, Jonah broke up with Zev at least a fifteen times, ditching him not just for other boys, but, as if to add insult to injury, for girls too.

It’s painful enough to watch an adult friend clamor after an indifferent-at-best party; more wrenching still to observe your own child chasing one. My husband, Ed, and I know better than to intervene: human nature dictates that if a parent instructs us not to love somebody, we desire that somebody exponentially more. So we state only the obvious – that Jonah is not behaving nicely – and otherwise quietly observe Zev as he persists, alternately beaming or sulking depending on Jonah’s whims.

If Zev weren’t such an earnest, innocent four-year-old, his brutal introduction to love wouldn’t unnerve me so much. But he experiences everything, from a ramekin of ripe raspberries to the sight of a goldfinch in spring color, in a full-body, intensely rapturous way. Take those first-love balloons. There was a time he’d coo to, kiss, and caress each one; if he had a bouquet, he’d roll on the ground with the whole mess for an extended, passionate wallow, just as, on better days, he now does with Jonah. Similarly, it wasn’t simply amour that initially bound him to those big, bouncy orbs; it was fear, too, namely that they might pop and abandon him – a prequel to his Jonah longing, and an event that also caused him to hit the deck and wail.

It’s not like my husband and I didn’t try diversion with Zev’s balloon mania. But our attempts to redirect his attention – Hey, check out that ladder truck! How about a giant water gun? – were predictably futile (and balloons, like Jonah, are unavoidable). So we left it to him to work out. Good thing, too: he soon informed us we needed to construct a home balloon wall, the kind you see at carnivals where one deliberately sets out to burst balloons. One peg board, one bag of balloons, and one screwdriver later, he invented what we came to call “balloon therapy,” alternately affixing fat, beautiful balloons to the wall, snuggling and cuddling them, and then instructing his dad or me to pop or “kill” them with the screwdriver point while he observed in horror. At first, the ploy looked unpromising. He’d hit the ground screaming, and afterward, still crying, he’d collect the withered balloon corpses and deposit them in an empty yogurt container, or “balloon graveyard,” consoling himself that we could always replenish the wall. But then, after about a year of pop and drop, he finally asked for a turn with the screwdriver. Ever since, he’s had the upper hand with balloons.

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