The 3.30pm bell has sounded and I’m corralling Tyson and Maki away from the wetter parts of the playground equipment as we wait for Archie and Lewis to emerge from their classrooms when a Mum I haven’t seen around these parts too often gives me a nod from three meters away and says, ‘I can’t believe how cold it is today.’
I am so shocked by my crushingly creepy response, ‘It is a bit nippley’ that my body begins to prepare for fight or flight even before the words have rolled off my tongue and I’m marinating in my own adrenal juice; a jittery, desperate, self-conscious mess, and that’s probably why my eyes dart unskilfully in the direction of her actual nipples – for just a split second – before I can redirect them to a pretend itch on my elbow.
‘The weather says it’s going to get hotter yesterday,’ I say, faster than a flustered Rain Man, which combines with my first utterance to make me seem both creepy and dim-witted and I realise that I can no longer rely on my ability to use words to fight my way out of this mess and so try for the casual and aloof Dad act to save face.
‘Hey Maki, come here bub,’ I say, as I clap my hands and drop to his level by sitting back on to the metal platform beneath the monkey bars. He toddles over to me just as I become aware that my light grey tracksuit pants are taking in water but despite the icey slap-like shock this delivers to the inner workings of arse cheeks I somehow manage to override my instinctive response to leap back to my feet and instead clamp to the platform as I release a high-pitched squeal that thankfully only dogs can hear.
The material seems to have stopped absorbing water about a few inches below the waistband but the coldness – the chilly mortifying high-school horror of it – is sopping at my will to live because this is not an unusual happening. I have been spinning into a fumbling, stuttering organism of pure self-consciousness around women for as long as I can remember. It’s an ailment that not even the protection and satisfaction of a blissfully happy marriage has managed to alleviate
In fact, even as I sit here like this, at this particular height, I’m reminded of the time in year eight when my class had just finished practising for the upcoming athletics tournament. I noticed my friend Robert and two of the hot girls from our class sitting on the grass next to the high jump equipment and because a male friend was there I managed to swallow my insecurity to join them by taking a seat on the high jump mat, inadvertently putting my hips at their eye-level. I can’t remember what we talked about in the thirty seconds it took before the girls stood up but I do remember Robert trying to get my attention by raising his eyebrows and staring with such intensity that I thought one of his eyeballs might pop out for some gore-ish bungy-jumping. When the girls walked away hurriedly, banging into each others shoulders and stifling giggles I knew – even before Robert leaned forward to whisper hoarsely One of your balls is hanging out – that one of my balls was hanging out.
I almost stand up in shock, as if I’ve been caught out, when Lewis yells, ‘Dad!’ and comes running across the quadrangle towards me, carrying his own kind of frantic. ‘Can I do weights?’ he asks, almost jumping into my lap as Archie emerges from his classroom with two close friends, wearing their schoolbags on their chests and running into each other, sumo-wrestler style.
‘Why do you want to do weights?’ I say.
‘Because I had an arm-wrestle with Jennifer today… and she didn’t beat me… but she almost beat me.’
I’m anticipating relief as I watch children running past me towards the school gates while others are walking out with their Mums or Dads or Grandma’s or Grandpa’s and even though I was only scouting for a means of escape, and not looking around for the Mum that started this all, it probably looks that way when I accidentally lock eyes with her as she’s walking past with her daughter. She gives me a little smile and a wave and when I wave back I’m almost certain I see her gaze shift to my wet arse and so I hunch a little and return my focus to Lewis.
‘Who’s Jennifer?’ I whisper.
‘She’s my girlfriend,’ Lewis says.
‘You have a girlfriend?’ I say, as inspiration for a great escape strikes. ‘How long have you had a girlfriend?’
‘All week,’ he shrugs.
Because the crowd has now thinned considerably I decide it’s time to make a move and after calling out to Archie I thrill Tyson with the wide-eyed offer of a piggy-back ride and within second he’s jumped onto the platform and mounted me. I rise with a shiver of revulsion because my bum cheeks feel as if they’ve been assaulted by paper-mache and a bucket-load of clag and as I tell Archie to take Maki’s hand and to walk very, very close to me I look up – with an expression on my face that I’d describe as pre-vomit – to see Pam, the school principal, waving at me.
‘Jennifer beat Ahmed easy. And I beat both of them,’ Lewis says, as I over-nod at Pam, attempting to smile but baring my teeth at her like a chimp which, thankfully, encourages her to strike up a conversation with another Mum instead of walking over to me, but because she’s still facing me I decide that backing away is my only option.
‘That’s great Lewy,’ I say. ‘Sounds like you’re the strongest… hey can you walk behind me until we get to the car?’
After a few meters I realise there is just no way I can navigate my way out of the playground and through the school gates backwards and so I reach my hands around to support Tyson before shimmying him down to cover my wet spot as much as possible. As I turn around I say, ‘Stay as close to me as you can, Archie. And don’t let go of Maki’s hand,’ so I’m semi-satisfied that the seat of my humiliation is well and truly under wraps.
Although the car is only parked about twenty meters away my shoulders are screaming in pain and Tyson is slipping even further until I’m perilously close to choking him. I am forced to bend over to almost ninety degrees to save us both from injury.
Tyson says, ‘Daddy, I’ll fall!’ so that all remaining stragglers now have the chance to watch and wonder about the man who is using children as a human shield as he creeps from the schoolyard piggy-backing a four year old on his arse. But hey, we’re nearly there and after instructing Lewis to open the Tarago’s sliding door I wait until all the kids are onboard before sitting on the floor and swinging my legs inside, paraplegic-style.
On the way home I mentally punch myself in the solar plexus until the chill and the embarrassment fades and repeat the word ‘nippley’ a dozen times until it no longer seems to be such an amazing stuff-up but just another marker on the path to who I am and after a few deep breaths I’m able to look to the rear vision mirror to recognise myself in Lewis.
He’s all glassy-eyed and hyper-excited about his arm-wrestling duel with Jennifer and has mentioned her another four times already during the five minute trip home and as he gazes out the window I remember, earlier this year, that he came home from school talking about another girl and spent an hour writing her a card, and even asked me if he could give her twenty dollars. As I was tucking him in that night I just knew he’d be thinking about her right up until he fell asleep, and then first thing in the morning when he leapt from bed a little earlier than usual.
After I pull into the driveway and slide open the doors, collecting bags and lost shoes and a few pieces of artwork, all the while keeping my bum facing away from the road, I’m remembering the young female leader at a summer activities day. I was no older than Lewis is now and was doing my best to be the loudest and most disruptive of all the kids, because I wanted her to see me and to acknowledge me. I had to be taken aside and talked to a few times and later that night I remember lying in bed, in rapture, my breathing coming fast and shallow. I had no idea why all this was happening but I couldn’t stop thinking about her.
‘Bags in the bag cupboard, shoes off… no leave them on… head outside to the trampoline and I’ll bring out some food,’ I yell, and ten minutes pass before I hear the clanking of weights in the gym down the hall and realise that only three boys made it outside.
I know before I open the gym door that Lewis is in there trying for strength and thinking about Jennifer and as the handle turns I pause on forty years of experience and reflection.
What I once thought was my own tendency to fall in love too easily was actually an early unshakable need for female approval, which on its own was a pure thing, something I’d associate with the honour of a fearless and masculine knight, but which became sullied into awkwardness and inappropriate behaviour when combined with the surging confusion of adolescents.
Right up until the moment I met RM my romantic history has been a litany of terrible love poems, public humiliations and utterly brutal but understandable rejections of my unskilled advances.
‘Dad, I did one hundred push-ups and fifty pull-ups and I lifted those things… what are they called?’ Lewis says.
‘Kettle-bells,’ I say. ‘Have you done any situps?’ When he shakes his head, jumping up and down on the spot with six-year old enthusiasm, I say, ‘Let’s do some then. I’ll hold your ankles. How many do you think you can do?’
‘One hundred,’ he says, and then, ‘Dad, I’m going to make a card for Jennifer.’
Before I can stop myself I say, ‘Did that other girl like the card you made for her?’
‘She didn’t want it,’ he says, as he drops in front of me to start working his abs, as I take hold of his ankles and shake my head in disgust at my worry and interference.
My entire adolescent experience is leaping up for expression as I ache a little for him but I commit to swallowing it back and holding it in because it’s my thing, not his, and even though I can recognise certain similarities and have to accept that he might be taking his own first steps on the rocky road to nippley, there’s always the chance that he’s not; that he might take a different road altogether, and I don’t want to knock him off course or lead him astray with my own horrors and insecurities.
We’ll just hit the gym, me and Lewy, and maybe write some cards, and we’ll do that and similar things for as many weeks and months and years as it takes for the time to be right to chat about love and infatuation and heartaches and failures, because there’s a unique thrill to this kind of rapture that I don’t want him to miss out on and right now, at this age, he’s getting it pure.