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.
Not so Jonah. Not yet, anyway, no small thanks to the dinosaur dig fifth birthday party Jonah threw last month. The build-up was as heavy as it would be for prom, probably because Zev anticipated it for months and was promised the seat of honor. Let me note here just how much Zev loves Jonah: enough to whisper his name upon waking each day, like a love-struck coma survivor coming to; enough to pine for a playdate they had – last December; enough, even, to ditch a long-coveted green-apple lollipop in order to wrestle Jonah in the park. When the big day finally arrived, Zev carefully selected his outfit (one usually reserved for fishing with his father), thoughtfully combed his hair (a first), and once at the party commenced to dig for dinosaur eggs in unbridled ecstasy. He then bashed in a humongous T-Rex piata and watched a miniature homemade volcano explode, an emblem of his own erupting emotion for his beloved Jonah, who throughout the shindig sweetly referred to Zev as his “best friend.” Ah, Jonah was making our boy so very happy. Then it was time for cake, a giant homemade affair in the shape of a spiky brontosaurus, which scandalized all the parents present – all our kids wanted Jonah; now they’d want his mommy too. Zev, seated next to Jonah and pumped on the insanity of a roomful of four- and five-year-olds jacked on punch and prehistoric happenings, reached out when the cake came forth and gently laid a hand on Jonah’s shoulder.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Jonah swatted it away. As if that weren’t enough, he told Zev he’d had enough of him, then busted out his stock line: “I don’t want to play with you anymore.” Zev’s pain was palpable. After he came home from the party, he wandered around the front yard, clutching his laden bucketful of favors and candy but never digging in, like a mommy cat might drag around a dead kitten before giving it up for good. At dinner, wearing the green dinosaur T-shirt he received at the party, he recounted the day’s high points, absently fondling a plastic dinosaur egg, then quietly confessed that he never wanted to go to Jonah’s house again. Still, We knew we couldn’t protect Zev from this irresistible bad boy. like suffering Werther, he wouldn’t let go: before we tucked him in and told him how much we loved him, he asked if he could change out of his jammies and back into the party T-shirt. That, more than anything, broke Ed’s and my hearts. We knew we couldn’t protect Zev from this irresistible bad boy, any more than we could keep all his beloved balloons from eventually losing their air.
It’s been a month since the party, and while Zev talks up Jonah a smidge less, his affection is far from extinct. He continues to pull that party T-shirt from the drawer almost every day, which stirs in me considerable melancholy. But rather than saying, “Don’t you realize what Jonah did to you?” and suggesting we torch the shirt, I nod as Zev pulls it on and begins to reenact that fated fiesta’s highlights – piata, rushing lava, burying and unearthing toy fossils: it’s Jonah therapy, la the balloon wall. And while he has yet to recover from how Jonah hurt him that day, I know he’s working it out, just like he did with all those the balloons – teaching himself, one pop at a time, how to move on.