Ed note: What follows is my best attempt to relay the crux of the events that unfolded on Saturday evening. For the sake of brevity (and truthfully, self-preservation) I left out a lot.
I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning – kneading and rolling and attempting to pound this story into submission. And yet, this is the best I can do.
Cape Cod –
We are in a small marketplace built around an old meeting house. An open square in the center is filled with benches and picnic tables. Restaurants offer take-out to bring to the tables. There is a wooden platform that serves as both a stage and a dance floor in the center of the square.
Katie and I sit at a table while Brooke wanders back and forth along the perimeter of the stage. We are waiting for Luau to join us with dinner.
Three sisters join the scene from a table across the way. I guess their ages to be nine, six and three or four. Brooke makes a beeline for them. There is no one else on the stage.
“What are your names?” she asks them each in turn.
Her voice is a little too loud. She gets a little too close. I watch the subtle signs in their reactions. They answer her politely enough, but it’s in their body language. They’re on guard. Something doesn’t feel quite right.
Brooke couldn’t be happier.
She inserts herself into their circle. They stop and look at her. They’re not unfriendly, but no one quite knows what to do next.
Ed note: This is where I’ve chosen to fast forward. We’re skipping over a stilted game of Ring Around The Rosy, a failed attempt by Katie to intervene and a couple of tries at getting Brooke to join us at the table and leave the sisters to play. Brooke will have none of it. She is determined to play with her new friends.
She runs back to the trio of girls.
“I will teach you to bow!” she says.
“No, no, no. no. Please no.”
Katie is burying her head in my arm.
She all but hisses at me, “This. Is. So. Embarrassing.”
“It’s OK, babe,” I tell her. “It’s OK.”
Brooke has one arm thrust out. “First,” she tells her reluctant pupils, “you go like this.”
They are standing stock still. They look like deer in headlights.
I feel like I’m watching from behind glass. Years of facilitating this stuff and yet I’m frozen in place. I have nothing.
Katie whirls and twirls in a vortex of ten year-old social insecurity. She looks like she’s going to be sick.
Brooke looks confused when the sisters don’t respond. They look far more confused than she does.
She repeats her instruction a little more forcefully.
“You put one arm out like this.”
The little one does it. Why not? Seems perfectly logical to her, apparently. She stands in front of Brooke, mimicking her stance. Her sisters slowly follow suit. Sort of.
Brooke is emboldened.
“You put your other arm out like this.”
They lift their arms just enough to satisfy her.
“And then you bend over like this.”
She bends at the waist, then looks up to watch them.
They all bow.
The eldest gathers her little sisters. She’s ready to get them out of there.
As they walk away, Brooke follows. She tentatively reaches out for one of them, then lets her hand drop. The small gesture nearly kills me.
I call over to her. For some reason, my words hit pause on the scene. No one moves.
“Sweetie, I think the girls are going to go back to their table now.”
Brooke turns back to them. They aren’t moving. Without warning, she hugs the older girl with everything she’s got.
The girl’s arms hang awkwardly at her sides. It only takes a moment, but I watch it in slow motion.
As soon as she is free, she grabs her sisters by the hand and leads them away.
They were never unfriendly. They were never mean. In fact, they were as solicitous as anyone could ever hope a group of unsuspecting girls might be.
I’ve been at this too long to feel this helpless.
I should have. What?
I could have. What?
There were so many damn ways I could have helped.
Why didn’t I?
I was paralyzed.
Katie is softly crying into my sleeve.
I call Brooke over.
“Baby,” I say, “I think the girls are all done playing for a while, OK?”
She looks at me. She doesn’t seem to understand.
She looks back at them. They are retreating to their table.
She says the words that I will hear again and again and again. The ones that I will wake to at 3 a.m.
“Don’t they want to be with me?”
Luau shows up with dinner.
I try to hide the tears streaming down my face.
It’s just too much.