Romaine and I had our first sleepover shortly after the cotillion incident, in January of second grade. My mother didn’t like to part with me overnight if she could avoid it; she often creaked my bedroom door open late in the night, at two or three while I attempted to sleep, to make sure I was breathing, hadn’t been abducted, and was in overall good health. That’s probably why she needed to drink so much coffee.
I had been allowed this rare sleepover as a result of a dinner party—a work commitment for my father—my parents had been obligated to attend in the city. Mom hated to go to my father’s work events and leave me to a babysitter for the night. On this occasion, the dinner was to last so late, my parents had decided to spend the night at a nearby hotel and return the following day.
When faced with obligatory dinner and cocktail parties, my parents left me with cranky teenager Amanda, who smacked her gum loudly idling on the couch watching MTV. She paid little attention to me, bribing me with a later bedtime, then strictly enforced at 10:30, a half hour before my mother arrived home, usually alone, to relieve her. Apparently, my mother always found her straightening cushions on the couch. Had she returned home twenty minutes earlier, she would have found Amanda smoking cigarettes below my second-story window or kissing her slimy boyfriend farewell.
In fear of losing my later bedtime, I never mentioned Amanda’s negligence until the night before my parents were set to leave me with her overnight for the first time. The last time she had “watched” me, annoyed by my constant requests to play Monopoly, she had enforced my usual nine o’clock weekend bedtime. I, in retaliation, told my mother, who was so furious, she not only cancelled Amanda for the night, but screamed at her over the phone for a good fifteen minutes, demanding a refund of the money she’d paid for Amanda’s childcare services.
So my mother found herself short of a babysitter a day before the dinner party. She had attempted to get out of the engagement completely in order to stay home with me. While she argued softly with my father, I suggested that I spend the evening at the Enson-Morton house. My father found it an ideal resolution: I would be in the care of responsible adults with kids of their own, and I would have a wonderful time with Romaine and her siblings. He nudged my mother and proudly proclaimed that they’d raised a “sharp” one. I glowed. My mother conceded that it seemed an easy fix—but only if Lynnie and Dave agreed to a sleepover. My father called them himself and was pleased to report back that they would be thrilled to have me stay for the night. My mother bit her lip and stomped upstairs to do her hair.
When we arrived, Lynnie answered the door in her uniform of blue jeans and a ragged top that looked tie-dyed but probably wasn’t meant to be; she must have been working. My mother—in her calf-length black formal dress—thanked her profusely, handing her my small suitcase and a long list of emergency numbers, including that of my aunt in Maryland—as if she could be of any assistance. After giving me three kisses on the forehead, my mother left, shortly after my father honked the horn and waved furiously from the driver’s seat. Lynnie reassured her and walked her out the door. Ara, Romaine next to her, leaned in next to me.
“Do you want to play tag?” She asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
Lynnie closed the front door, turned around, and smiled. I turned as Dave opened the door to his office, walking toward us.
“Mommy,” Ara began. “Emma says she wants to play tag.”
Lynnie swiveled toward me.
“Do you want to be play tag?” She asked. She turned back to Ara. “What did I tell you about asking to play tag?”
“You said only if Emma wanted to play tag.” Ara beamed.
“Can we play tag?” I asked.
Lynnie grimaced slightly.
“Of course we can.” She turned toward her younger daughter. “But next time, Ara, we’ll let Emma decide what to do. And next time I say ‘no,’ don’t ask again.”
Ara turned to Romaine and poked her.
“You’re it!” she screamed, running down the hall to the backyard. I followed, Romaine close behind me, as Lynnie and Dave wove through the living room and dining room.
That was the way the Enson-Mortons played tag. No area was off limits. We ran upstairs and downstairs, through bedrooms and living spaces of the house, the only shriek being our—Romaine, Ara, Lynnie, Dave, Boo and my own—shrieks of delight. We threw open the doors of the house, taunted each other in the open space of the backyard, scurried through the playhouse—Lynnie and Dave scuttling hunchbacked, banging their heads on the doorframes—and occasionally escaped into the wood in the back of the house, tripping over exposed roots until Lynnie and Dave said it was too dangerous. The only occasional boundaries were the street and the woods. On slow days, when the weather was nice and the sun was out, we played in the street, sometimes scraping our knees on the asphalt running through someone’s tunnel. We never cared; we never noticed. I would return to the house the next day with bandaged knees oozing with Neosporin courtesy of my mother to see the open scrapes of the Enson-Mortons dabbed with a finger’s worth of saline solution.
My family didn’t play tag. Dad had bad knees and Mom was too afraid of getting hurt. Sometimes I played when friends came over, but only for short periods and never in the house. I tried once, but Mom screamed about how I might break something, knock over a couple chairs, which happened only occasionally in the old Victorian on Oak Street. Tag with friends was allowed, but always ended the moment Mom spotted someone fall on the soft grass of the front lawn. We were never allowed unsupervised, which took most of the fun out of playing anyway. Playing isn’t fun when you have to worry about when to stop.
With the Enson-Mortons, we never had to stop. Games never ended; they were put on pause until the next time—in five minutes, two hours, three days, a week, whenever—someone tapped another on the should and shrieked—loud enough so everyone could hear “you’re it!”
That evening, we played without Boo, who was upstairs sleeping already. Lynnie disappeared to check on him every once in a while and, since he was sleeping, there was an implicit rule that we couldn’t run through his room in case we woke him up. When we played with him though, he usually just sat in the grass of the backyard, partially because he didn’t know what was going on, partially because his two-and-a-half-year-old run was more like a waddle. Once he was tagged three times, he was supposed to be “it,” but he didn’t understand, so Lynnie or Dave became “it” for him.
That evening, we played tag while it was still light, running through the playhouse whenever Lynnie or Dave was “it,” through the woods when Ara was “it,” zigzagging on the lawn when Romaine was “it” because she had the worst balance, and downstairs when I was “it” because they knew all the hiding places better than I did. We played until our stomachs grumbled and our hands were covered in dirt from falling. We played intense, heated games of tunnel tag: the kind where one had to slide, like a baseball player stealing third, under the person’s legs so one wouldn’t be tagged, too; the kind where guarding was the ultimate sin and contesting one’s tag was a close second.
We traipsed into the house just before six, and Dave headed straight to the kitchen sink to wash his hands before making dinner. Lynnie shepherded us upstairs to the room Romaine and Ara shared so we could wash our hands in the attached bathroom. Still giddy from our game of tag or the endorphin-induced delirium from all that running, we splashed each other with the water, the four of us screeching and laughing until our hair was stringy and our clothes soaked. Lynnie dried our hair with a towel until it was comfortably damp and went about setting out new clothes for Romaine and Ara. While they changed, she ran downstairs to grab my suitcase, in which my ever-prepared, always disaster-ready mother had packed a spare outfit, just in case.
After modifying our outfits, Lynnie led us downstairs to the table in the kitchen where Dave was sautéing vegetables in the big pan. Lynnie instructed us to stay put, not to disturb Dave so dinner could be ready faster, as she quickly ran to her studio in the attic, checking on Boo on the way up.
She returned a couple minutes later with several pieces of clay. She marveled at our creations, most easily categorized as abstract. Romaine crafted a tree that looked more like a wizard’s hat or traffic cone. Ara shaped her piece into a lopsided bow, which she requested be fired in the kiln so she could wear it in her hair. That was before Romaine’s elbow slipped on the slick surface of the table, smushing Ara’s bow. Ara cried. Lynnie held her and told her she could make another and not to make a scene because it wasn’t polite when guests were over. Romaine hovered over them, struggling to be heard.
“I’m sorry, Ara. Ara, Ara, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Ara. I didn’t mean to. It was an accident, Ara. My elbow slipped. It really did, it slipped. Emma, it slipped, didn’t it? Ara, I’ll help you make a new one, okay? Ara? Ara?”
Ara looked up from her sniffling.
“Tomorrow?” she asked.
“Tomorrow before dinner?” Romaine repeated to Lynnie.
“I’ll bring some brand new pieces of clay. Now Ara, I want you to apologize to Emma. It wasn’t nice to do that in front of her.”
“It wasn’t polite,” Ara corrected her. “I’m sorry, Emma. I won’t do it again.”
Lynnie drilled perfect manners into her daughters—at teatime, playtime, in the home as well as outside—even as she seemed impermeable to everyone else’s judgment. Manners, etiquette, and propriety were signs of reverence to society and the social order, institutions to which she didn’t belong. My mother made clear that my manners were only so I wouldn’t cause public embarrassment.
We returned to our clay projects; Ara moved on to sculpting a flower while Romaine put the finishing touches on her tree. Once I was satisfied, I lifted up my creation to show Lynnie. It was a bird done in the simplest manner possible—the view of a bird as it flies through the air, the “v”-shaped figures children draw in their crayon panoramas of the natural world, birds against a sky so blue, it doesn’t look real.
“Oh Emma, that looks lovely,” Lynnie exclaimed; her experience with children’s clay sculptures meant that she knew exactly what it was.
While we finished sculpting our clay pieces, the stove puttered as Dave turned it off, licking his fingers, which never would have been allowed in my house.
“Dinner’s ready,” Dave announced, holding the pan full of his vegetable concoction. “Ara, Roma, time to set the table.”
Ara and Romaine gathered their clay and placed it on the counter before racing to the napkin holder.
We had a vegetable ratatouille for dinner, full of squash and tomatoes. I never minded vegetables. My mother, always overly concerned with my well-being, had spoon-fed me only the most healthful foods she could find. As a result, I never had much of a sweet tooth; fruits, vegetables, and wheat bread were all I’d known.
The Enson-Mortons had paper tablemats so everyone could draw. Even Lynnie and Dave used them—Lynnie sketching and Dave scribbling equations. When we tired of that, Dave did his animal impressions at the table, prompting only a slight smile from Lynnie as we laughed, throwing our heads back and forth, hair falling into our mouths.