Your shirt’s spaghetti straps are Not Maheswaran Approved, so your mother sent you off to Steven’s with a light shrug over your shoulders. You meant to wear it, but Steven wanted to eat lunch on top of the hill, and there’s no shade and it’s a very sunny spring day. So, well, since nobody is around but Steven, who you trust, and the spaghetti straps aren’t that scandalous, you take it off for a while. Just a little while, you promise. Your mom’s not even there, but the part of your brain that feels like guilt is shaped like her, so you promise to it in your head.
After you’ve eaten lunch, Steven stuffs all the vegetable containers (you), chip bags (him) and sandwich wrappers (both of you) into the basket. He presses a juice box into your hand. “Let’s watch the clouds,” he says, so you both lie on the blanket. He asked Pearl once about cloud shapes, and he paraphrases the deeply complex nature of cloud analysis and classifications— “So that’s why you gotta just have fun and not worry about any of that,” he concludes— but you’re making your decision. If you inch all the way onto the blanket, it’ll put your bare shoulder in direct contact with his shirted one. If you maintain a respectable distance, half your body is lying on the prickly grass. You consult for half a moment with the mom-shaped guilt patch in your brain. It doesn’t react quickly enough to stop you.
The blanket feels better than the grass. When your left shoulder gingerly pokes his right, he doesn’t notice.
You smile. He’s oblivious in just the right ways, enough to be contagious. With him, it’s easy to pretend you aren’t choked with fear around people. It’s easy to forget that you’re expected to be mature but still treated like a child. He doesn’t just make you happy; he makes you want to be happy.
You point out a kangaroo, a heart (“No, it’s anatomical, see the aorta?”) and a space ship— clarified as a flying saucer, when corrected by Steven. You forgot that space ships were shaped like hands.
Steven sees a dog holding a ping-pong paddle, a butterfly with a top hat, and six mermaids with wings discussing philosophy. You can’t replicate it no matter how hard you squint. Your eyes are healed, but maybe that’s not the point. No amount of human intervention or healing magic would help you see it.
Steven doesn’t live in his own universe, inaccessible to everyone else. You think you know him better than that. He lives in the same world as you— he just sees the beauty and happiness everyone else overlooks.
Then again, he also insists that that cloud looks like a calculator, but it’s not even rectangle-shaped. He giggles at your reflexive nuh-uh. Maybe he is just trying to make you laugh after all.
You hope he isn’t trying that hard. You want him to really be as happy and sweet and wonderful as you think he is. You know he is.
He yelps before you can blush to yourself. He tried to take a sip from his juice box while lying down, but accidentally squeezed it. He laughs hysterically about getting sticky apple juice all over his face, and doesn’t worry about the damp patch on his shirt.
You giggle, because his laughter, like anything, is contagious.
“Pearl’s not gonna like this,” he remarks, pulling the shirt away at the bottom to look more closely. Your face falls. Pearl reminds you somewhat of your own mother: obsessively perfect and compulsively neat. Your mother would take away your television privileges for a thousand years if she could, because she loves you or for your own good, or both. Or no Connie, this book is going back on the shelf right this instant! No, I’m not telling you what it’s about— it is not appropriate for someone your age! Do not let us find out you checked it out, Constance Maheswaran, or there will be consequences. You don’t remember the name of the book now. It was Lola or Luella or something and now you can’t read it until you’re twenty-one years old. Banning an interesting book sounds like something Pearl would most likely condone.
“You’re not worried about that?” you ask.
“It’s not that big a deal— it’s just a shirt.” He takes a napkin and wipes his face, at least. “Pearl loves me. She’s not scary.”
You frown. Your mother loves you too, you know that, but that doesn’t make her less scary. In fact, that’s why she’s so fiercely protective. She’s just made that way. If there’s a problem, the solution should be as easy as a prescription. Attitude adjustment for Connie Maheswaran, sig-one-PRN, infinite refills. There’s no such thing as just listening. There must be action. There must be order.
Would Pearl get upset about spaghetti straps or wanting to make your own decisions?
Resentment trickles into the space where guilt lives. It feels like poison. But guilt is an emetic, and the toxins are purged before you can consciously let go of the feeling. Issues, you know, don’t justify bitterness. She’s still your mother. She still does everything for you. And those things don’t justify love, not by themselves, but you do it anyway.
“You’re sad,” Steven diagn— no. Points out.
“Why do you think that?” You remove the lens-less glasses from your face to rub your eyes.
“I unno. I can tell.” He doesn’t pry at all. You adore him. “Here, you know what makes me happy when I’m sad?” He stands up.
“This!” Steven throws himself backwards and rolls down the grassy hill, laughing the whole time.
“Steven!” you shout, because what if there are rocks? Thorns? Anthills?
But you grin because wow, that does look like fun.
He settles at the bottom, winding up on his back. When he stands, he wobbles. “Try it!” he shouts.
You don’t think long enough to change your mind.
When your mother picks you up later, she’s too scandalized by the grass in your hair to chastise about how you forgot to put the shrug back on. It makes you smile for probably no good reason. You wake up the next morning covered in itchy hives, from your shoulders and mid-thighs down: everywhere your clothes didn’t reach.
“Allergens. It’s spring again and you were rolling in all of that grass and pollen… If you’d just worn the shrug. And some longer shorts,” your mom gripes, but doesn’t say more. She comes back to your room with a box of hydrocortisone cream, which you’ll probably need for the next fifty years or so.
“Use it for the next couple of days,” she instructs. “Until it stops itching. You know you have allergies, Connie.”
You did know. And then you decided to be a kid anyway. That was your choice. “Thank you, mother,” you say politely.
She shakes her head in exasperation, but then: “At least it’s worth it.”
You can’t verbalize the shock.
“I know how unhappy you were when we used to move all the time,” she concedes. “Friends are important, and he’s important to you. If you’re happier because of it, then it was a good decision.” She points at the box before she leaves your room. “But if the rash isn’t gone in a few days, we’re going straight to the dermatologist.”
So that’s what validation feels like. Everything itches and you’ll smell like medicine for a few days and your mom didn’t really smile, but she didn’t say you were doing anything wrong. You’ve never even dared to ask for that much.
Your eyes feel starry for the rest of the day, and when your mom catches you taking a selfie, she acknowledges that Steven needs to see it. Your lotion mustache, she admits, is kind of funny.