“You guys ready for ice cream?” I ask my son and his buddy Eric as they approach the table. I’m sitting under an umbrella reading a book and chugging water while the boys try to stay cool in the pool, which feels more like a bathtub. It’s about 95 degrees, and the trees are standing still.
The stifling air has had the boys swimming and splashing since we arrived at the swim club a couple of hours ago. As if on cue, they materialize every so often looking for handouts. First it was a lunch of chicken strips and fries; now it’s time for the second course.
“Sure,” my son says. He flashes me a smile — the one he gives me when I suggest the very thing he hopes for before he even asks.
I watch Eric and my son walk toward the snack shop, their wet feet leaving a path of footprints on the cement like imprints on a beach. They are both tall and lanky for their ages, but Eric is 18 months older and a year ahead in school. Their banter is drowned out by the shrieks of hundreds of children and the pool’s mushroom fountain, an open-air shower that sounds like a broken water main.
The boys return with their frozen treats, eating greedily but with just enough reserve to avoid brain freeze. Having ordered a cone, not a cup, Eric finishes first and heads back to the pool.
“You guys having fun?” I ask my son as he finishes his ice cream.
“Yeah,” he replies. An economy of words is the hallmark of a man.
“Eric’s kind of a chick magnet,” I observe. I’ve been watching the boys in the pool and have noticed a couple of middle school girls hanging around, making themselves obvious with some showy diving and the occasional overstated adjustment of a bikini top.
“Huh?” my son asks. He hasn’t noticed.
This is the difference between my son — bound for sixth grade come the fall — and his buddy Eric, the soon-to-be seventh-grader. It’s the difference between darkness and dawn, consciousness and a coma.
The difference is girls — the complicated people who one day will be the object of my son’s unspoken preoccupation. For now, at the tender age of 11, the subject of girls has all the appeal of influenza.
“There are some girls in the pool who seem to be trying to get Eric’s attention,” I say.
He looks at me with a face that is both clueless and uninterested.
I only broach this subject out of curiosity. I want to know where my son lands on the Richter scale of interest in the fairer sex.
Clearly, Eric is aware there are girls in the pool who are sending signals in his direction. To his credit, he’s pretending not to notice, possibly because it’s clear to him that his buddy is oblivious. He’s playing it cool. If he were spending the day with an older friend — say, someone approaching 13 — he might be engaged otherwise.
Already, the boy-girl thing has started a hormonal bolt of lightning through the telephone lines of several of my son’s peers, according his classmates’ parents. The girls think nothing of calling boys on a phony pretense such as asking about homeroom assignments for the coming year (never mind that classroom rosters for next year won’t come out until late August — a fact they already know).
So far, the only time a girl called my son was when he hosted another boy for a sleepover. It turned out she was on the hunt for her real crush — our houseguest. I recall asking my son what the call was about, and he answered, “I don’t know.” He really didn’t know.
His ignorance won’t last. There’s about to be a seismic shift in my son’s perceptions of the opposite sex. Up to now, the girls in my son’s universe have served as a friendly oasis from the rough and rowdy pack with whom he generally plays. Girls tend to like school, and my son likes school, too. Girls are clever and kind and often quiet. Girls laugh at his jokes; girls are nice.
Sadly, girls are about to change, the realization of which I suspect will overtake him like an earthquake, pulling the platform out from under the inexperienced, innocent footing on which he rests his understanding. Girls grow up faster than boys — that’s just the way it is.
Already there are rumors of mixed groups of friends going to the movies together and of hand-holding. My young son is unlikely to be included in the groups that push the envelope of social development and less likely to go along if ever he were asked, assuming I would even permit such an outing (which I wouldn’t).
I realize the day will come when his eyes will open to the allure of some preteen princess. It’s inevitable. He’ll glance her way, and she’ll glance back. They’ll exchange tentative smiles. He’ll do something ridiculous to get her attention like attempt a handstand or snarf water out his nose or belch out a verse of “America the Beautiful” — something daring to demonstrate his machismo — and she’ll think he is wonderful.
Not as wonderful as I think he is right now, though, unaware of the gale-force winds that will turn his head toward girls and away from the only woman who knows him through and through.
Whoever she is, she had better be something special because I’m not giving him up without a fight.
Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.