Now he sees me and also shoves his things into my chest: water bottle, backpack, sweatshirt. I can't hold all this stuff, and the water bottle falls. Thorne says, "You should have come earlier. You shouldn't have come to school so late." But who's late? I want to ask. If anything, I'm early. "You should have come earlier," he repeats, and then tears start down the sides of his round face and I realize we're in deeper than I thought here. All three of us are overtired. By the time we get to the van, both children have unhinged: Thorne hates his Chinese class and announces he's never going back. "Never," he sobs. "You have no right to make me."
Lao Wu smiles at me uneasily and closes the windows and turns on the AC. He seems as unnerved by the crying as I am and keeps laughing and making tsk-tsk sounds with his tongue as if to quiet Thorne. I smile at Lao Wu, but my hands are shaking a little. I need to talk these boys down. I wonder for a second which tack to take—and exactly how much English Lao Wu can understand. Because it's an odd thing to have your children unravel while a friendly Chinese man you've just met drives you through the Beijing stoplights. What will Lao Wu think of us—these American children and their mother crying their way home from school?
Except I am not crying. Not yet. Crying doesn't feel like an option. There's too much to get right. Aidan drinks from the water bottle I hand him and begins to give me a list of the reasons the new school is terrible. "Really bad," Aidan cries for emphasis. "Small bikes, yucky food. And boring. Boring, boring, boring. Nothing to do."
"Really?" I try not to panic. I look out the window at the passing skyscrapers. Things were good in Maine. And now we've gone and messed with it. I would lie down in this Chinese road for both of my boys, but I can't live in this country with two complainers. I need them to show a little spunk.
"You know why I like my old school better?" Aidan asks.
"No, why?" I say and slightly clench my jaw.
"I like my old school better because it has swings," Aidan explains.
"And I wish I were Chinese. Or Korean, because then I would be able to talk to the kids."
"But your new school has swings." I close my eyes for a second. I should state for the record that I have secret mother superpowers. Yes. I have the ability to detach from my children and climb into my own mind at the exact moments my boys might be telling me something they think is vitally important. And I know. I know. It's not necessarily safe. It's not necessarily compassionate. But what I do is build a small room in my head—closet-sized—and go inside and close the door. I can still see them; I just can't quite hear them. I go inside this room so I can think clearly. I go inside because the two boys exhaust me. They never let up. They never go play house or with finger puppets or dolls. They don't even play with Legos. Their games involve running and jumping and leaping off furniture. And they always want me to be the referee. I go inside the room in my mind because it's a way to not blow my top and lose it with them. Before I built this room I used to yell at them more. They were one and three or two and four and always climbing on the small tile ledge around the bathtub. No one was sleeping through the night.
"My old school had sturdier stuff." Aidan sips his water.
"Sturdier?" I look at him closely and wonder about that room in my mind and how quickly I can get in there. Because the machinery in Aidan's head is testing me. His eyes are a shade of brown that looks wet sometimes because the brown is so dark. You can't see the irises. He's four years old—why does his mind spit out words like sturdier?
"Yeah." Aidan looks back at me again. "The climbing stuff was sturdier."
Then Thorne chimes in that he doesn't know anyone at this school.
"Where are my friends?" It's a simple question. And it deserves a good answer. The boys' urge to belong is palpable. I feel it, too—a primal need to fit in here somehow, to reach some kind of early understanding with China.
By the time we get back to the apartment complex, it's begun to rain. We climb out of the van and say good-bye to Lao Wu. Then one of our Chinese neighbors approaches on the sidewalk and points up to the sky. He's an old man with white hair, and he says in English that each time it rains in Beijing, the temperature drops five degrees. That this is how we get ourselves through autumn in China: rainfall by rainfall, five-degree increments by five-degree increments.
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