In the beginning, I hated Roosevelt. He was infuriating, arrogant, and monopolizing. Romaine was the first real friend he’d ever made, and every recess was a battle between us. I didn’t mind Roosevelt playing with us occasionally or even all the time, but Roosevelt was not accustomed to sharing.
To be fair, he didn’t like me much either. I was a threat to his already precarious friendship. He wanted to be Romaine’s only friend in the way she was his.
Shortly after the field trip, Roosevelt began to steal Romaine’s time. At recess, he would drag her away to play and rehearse alone. Making up for the time he never spent playing with others, he packed their time with every imaginable game, club, and dramatic scene. At first, I weaseled my way into their games, sure that Romaine hated having her time overwhelmed by him. After school at Romaine’s house, she begged me to let him. We would still be best friends, she said, but Roosevelt needed her. His desperation made him only more endearing. She was too nice. While they went off, I played hopscotch by myself.
Later, while we played in the Enson-Mortons’ backyard, Romaine would fill me in on her afternoon activities with Roosevelt. They were creating a language. Roosevelt had read a book in which friends made their own language, and he wanted to try it. It was another branch of his secret, exclusive club, he had said. Of course, it wasn’t as secret as he’d hoped. Every afternoon, Romaine taught me their language. The words Roosevelt created were dissonant and gibberish. Romaine’s words were more logical once explained.
The word for “kiss,” which Romaine had come up with, was “bisci.” The way I pronounced it, it sounded like “bee she,” which clearly referred to the queen bee in my mind. And the whole hive would kiss the queen bee. She had explained the etymology of the word as she always did when she taught it.
“The first part ‘bis,’” she didn’t pronounce the ‘s,’ “is like ‘bisous,’ which means ‘kisses’ in French. The second part is from the Italian word for ‘kisses,’ which is ‘bacci.’”
“You know Italian?” I asked.
“A little. I forgot most of it.” Romaine shrugged. We were cooking in the playhouse in back of the house. Romaine flipped an imaginary pancake in the air.
“How do you know it?” I opened the oven, checking on a loaf of fake bread.
“Oh, we lived in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland when I was about three.”
I hadn’t known she’d lived in Switzerland. She had seemed foreign coming from Montreal; Switzerland was all the way in Europe.
Most of her words were constructed the same way—as a Franco-Italian hybrid that sounded more sophisticated than the original language. Roosevelt’s words, like “ooanto” for “lemon,” paled in comparison.
We practiced every day after school. I even made suggestions, like “tapa” for “pudding” because tapioca was my favorite.
Then Roosevelt began requesting playdates with Romaine. His nanny, Greta, called Lynnie a few weeks after the field trip. He’d been talking incessantly about Romaine, but seeing as he was a lonely boy, his nanny had never had to call and arrange a playdate. All of his others had been with the children of board members his mother worked with.
The first playdate had been at his house. His nanny picked them up from school. I played with Ara that afternoon. Romaine still wasn’t back by the time my mother came to pick me up. The next day proceeded normally. Romaine said it would have been more fun if I had been there.
The next playdate was at the Enson-Mortons’ house.
Lynnie and Boo picked the four of us up. I was late, having forgotten my lunchbox in the classroom. I rummaged in my cubby, but it wasn’t there. Outside, I could hear Roosevelt talking.
“Can we go to your house now?” He asked Romaine.
He and I had patience, or lack thereof, in common.
“We have to wait for Emma.” She reminded.
“Emma?” He balked. “This is our playdate. Not Emma’s.”
Romaine paused. I didn’t dare move until she responded, even though I saw my lunchbox laying on the ground across the room.
“Emma comes over every day.” Romaine said definitively. “If you want to be my friend, you have to be hers too.”
I smiled; Roosevelt didn’t reply. I lunged across the room, grabbed my lunchbox and hurried outside.
“Hi, Emma!” Romaine said.
She nudged Roosevelt kindly. I pretended to have heard nothing.
“Hi, Emma.” He repeated.
It was the nicest he’d ever been to me.
The playdate went well, the three of us interacting pleasantly. It became a bi-weekly engagement. Roosevelt even began to teach me their language. He marveled at what a quick learner I was. Romaine would smile out of one side of her mouth. We would laugh about having tricked him, but never unkindly. As the weeks went on and it became evident that neither of us was going anywhere, he let me become a full member of the “R” club.
“Bisci!” He called as he left in the afternoon. Soon, it came to be our word for “goodbye.”