Sunday, July 10, 2016

Game plans gone awry

I would have known her in an instant if she hadn't wrapped a towel around her waist, concealing a carefully mismatched bikini. My daughter -- technically out in the world, though not out of view -- could have been anyone. 

She certainly seemed taller from this distance. Older. The sun shone through her hair, turning it from tea to honey. I squinted and raised my hand in an eye-shading salute. There was a boy with her. 

The truth is, even in this heat, I wish she'd wear a snowsuit. 

I wish she didn't like the attention boys are paying her.

I wish she didn't have to grow up so fast.

She was running toward me now. Sand was kicking up behind her as she sprinted. It was starting to come into focus.

I began to understand what I was seeing.

As she got nearer; I could hear her laughter as it carried over the water. Forced and brittle. It was the laughter of discomfort. The boy wasn't with her, exactly, he had been following her.

Everywhere she went, he went, too.

He was tall and gangly and painfully thin. An oversized watch on his matchstick arm magnified a recent growth spurt. Everything about him had overstepped some boundary. He was the kind of boy her father has told her, jokingly, to be kind to when she turns him down.

I hadn't thought it bad advice in the abstract, though I'm pretty sure we saw the wisdom of this old saw from opposite sides of its double-edged blade: My husband wanted to preserve his gender's self-esteem, and I wanted to keep my daughter from having to dial 9-1-1.

Closer up, it was obvious; she was not enjoying the attention.

He'd done everything he could think of to win her over: He'd thrown his sister into the water and laughed when the poor girl cried; He was rude and snarky; He questioned her intelligence, her attractiveness, her reasoning and spatial understanding. 

And she did everything she could think of to tell him that she wasn't interested: She'd giggled nervously, tried politeness, then acted haughtily, answering questions alternating from monotone to streams of sarcasm.

None of it worked.

Her politeness was breaking into shards, and his demeanor had turned sullen and brooding.

Both of them were miserable.

"Maybe we should go," I tell my husband, who quickly agreed. 

The boy was persistent with his annoyance, and it was getting late. 

In the car on the way home, we kvetched about the kid and strategized how she could have handled him differently.

It wasn't an admonishment of how she HAD handled him, just possible alternatives. More like an after-game huddle without the whiteboards and dotted lines.

My husband started his armchair quarterbacking with the words "what you have to get him to understand," but then he stopped himself.

"It's not on you to change his behavior," I interjected. Don't get angry or try to laugh it off. Stay calm but don't engage. If he's bothering some one else, stand near them. Protect them. Don't engage. He wants a reaction. Don't give him one.”

My daughter's smile returned. 

And though I was relieved, I felt a little sorry for the boy. 

I wish he were in a car with his own people, figuring out better plays.

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