“You don’t talk normal.” We were sitting in the grass at the park, the Quickening park.
“Normal-ly,” I said. I hate it when people confuse adjectives and adverbs. I mean, we’ve studied this for two weeks straight in school.
“What?” he said.
“Normal-ly. You said I don’t talk normal. But it’s normally. The word describes the verb not the noun.”
“Ah. Well I beg your kind and gracious pardon, then, and dearly hope that you will continue to educate me in the finer points of grammar, syntax, and all things semantic. Or semantically, as you please.”
“What?” I said. “I don’t know what all those words mean.”
Brendan smiled. “I know. Here’s your first lesson in our little project: The better part of maturity is knowing when to let things slide.”
Brendan was my neighbor. He was twenty-seven, single, cute-ish, and he had a guitar and no girlfriend. Somehow, someway he had recently decided to buy a large house in our boring suburban neighborhood — the kind of house with big white garage doors that look like Mater’s buckteeth. My mom called him a tinker toy in a LEGO set, whatever that meant.
Three days ago, I had been skipping down the sidewalk trying to remember the words to a song. I had forgotten who sings it, but it had that catchy bit and it was just stuck in my head like a Tootsie Roll jams in your molars.
I was staring at my feet and singing that ring of fire for the thousandth time when I looked up and stopped, mid-skip.
I turned slowly to my right. A man was staring at me from a cheap plastic patio chair on his Twister-mat-sized front porch. Not creepy-staring. More confused-puppy staring. I stared back.
“You like Johnny Cash?”
“W-who?” My throat stumbled.
“Johnny Cash. He sings that song. Ring of Fire.” He switched to a low rumbly singing voice. “That riiiiiiiing…” I could feel my gut shake. “…of fiiiiiiirrrrrrrre.”
“Wow. You’re really good! I didn’t know it was called that. I mean, it makes sense ‘cause it’s said so much in the song but I never really thought that they called it what they say when they say it.” I paused. “Why were you staring?”
“What do you mean?”
“Every day I watch kids walk to school and walk from school.” This made a little sense. The Oakcrest Low-Security Prison for Exceptionally Short People (or OLSPESP, as I had come to call it, though most everyone else called it the Oakcrest Middle School-Elementary School Combined Campus) sat at the end of his street. “Most kids have a walk about them that says something. For kids your age, their walk usually says they’re blank. Nothing cookin’ upstairs. But not you. Why not, I wonder.”
“Sometimes I ride my bike. It’s awesome.”
He screwed his face up just a little on the one side, like he was really thinking, but without really thinking, if you know what I mean.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Just spit it out, jerk!” I tried to conjure up a mean look and hold it.
The man stood up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I-”
I cracked. Couldn’t hold it. I felt afraid, the kind of afraid you feel when you’re called on in class and don’t know the answer.
He looked into my face, not hiding his curiosity in the least. A pause. Then a smile. “Yes!” he burst out. “You were faking, weren’t you?”
All I could do was nod. Barely. A slight dip of the chin was all.
“Ha! That’s what I was talking about! Your walk gives you away, but so does your expression.” He ambled toward me, looking a little too self-satisfied for my taste. I shifted and tried not to look too guilty or nervous or weird. He closed the distance between us, casually.
“Tell you what?”
“Why you yelled at me just now.” His eyes bored into my brain.
I looked away, down. “I was just…I was j-…”
“Out with it!” He didn’t yell. It was almost a whisper, actually. But it felt louder than a scream.
My words sprinted out of my mouth. “Sometimes I try to act like grown-ups do, to see if it works.” My eyes reached his. Something wild and serene came over him.
“How old are you?”
“Ten,” I said.
Another pause. “No. How old are you…on the inside?”
How could he know?! No one had ever paid enough attention to me to notice much of anything beyond my curly hair (with flecks of auburn). And now here was a total stranger, an old stranger, seeing me for who I was!
I hesitated. My mouth opened but nothing came out.
“It’s ok,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me. We don’t know each other, and people think it’s weird for a twenty-something guy to chat with a young-ish girl who isn’t in his family.” He looked away, annoyed maybe, but also…I don’t know…a little sad.
“I’m twenty-five!” I blurted. Something about his sadness connected to my soul in a way I can’t explain. Not in a boy-band, heartthrob kind of way, just so you know. I’ve never felt woozy about him. (You know what I mean by woozy, right?) It’s more like he’s an older, not-related, twin brother who hangs out with me because he doesn’t seem to have much else to do, if that makes any sense.
Back in Quickening park, I said, “Ok. Could you say that again?” I shifted my feet in the grass.
“You wanted me to teach you all the things that adults don’t teach kids your age but that everyone wishes they knew when they were in fact your age. Right?” Brendan was smirking. Not in a look-down-on-you kind of way like teachers do sometimes, but in a playful, mysterious kind of way.
“Well, then, the better part of maturity is knowing when to let things slide.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Like small grammar mistakes. Or little imperfections. Or those million tiny, incorrect things that people do everyday. Unless they ask you for help, or unless you know them really, really well, or unless you’re their parent, people don’t want to hear about what they’re doing wrong. Or wrongly, as you may say.”
“But weren’t you just telling me that I don’t talk normal…ly? Isn’t that what you were just doing to me?” I objected.
“You didn’t let me get to the point I was making, which was this: You don’t talk…normally,” he emphasized the word and gave me a significant look, “for someone who is ten years old. That can be off-putting for adults and kids alike.”
I waited to make sure he didn’t have any more to say. A couple of sparrows flitted around the branches of the leafy elm whose shade we were enjoying. This was the spot we had decided to come to every Friday afternoon at three to chat about life as an adult.
“So your point is that I’m weird and people don’t like me?”
Brendan laughed hard at that, a high-pitched giggle that sounded funny coming from a man as big as he was.
“You laugh like a girl but have the nerve to tell me that I’m weird?!” I said.
“No, no, that’s not what I meant,” he said, holding out his hands as if to calm me down. Laugh-tears had formed at the corners of his face, but he gathered himself up, swiping at each eye. “It’s just that when you talk, people won’t expect you to be all grown up. And that means that you have to let them see only a part of who you are, a little bit at a time, so that they can slowly come to that realization on their own. People do not like change. And they do not like to be surprised, especially by children. So let them figure it out themselves.”