“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The tow headed little boy, he was maybe six—big for his age—gave his mother a quick cautionary glance. He kept banging at the controls of the game, his fat fingers, too large for the little hand held device, but somehow working the buttons with the delicacy of a skilled surgeon.
“Level five,” he mumbled. “Hang on.”
Julia smiled. Her son, Peter was he name, was a shy kid; the kind that other children would whisper about and furtively point at. Despite their cruelty, Peter never seemed bothered by them. It was as if he simply didn’t notice their judgment. Sometimes his mother watched him, her happy little Buddha of a boy, her heart aching that over the fact he was different.
“Come on, Petey. Put it down and talk to me.”
“K. Jus’a sec.”
He let out an “oh, man” and she heard the whamp-whamp-waaah emerging from the game and realized Petey had just run out of lives. Peter blew out a sigh and gently placed the game on the coffee table before him. He blinked her into focus and asked, “Now, what did you ask me, Momma?”
“I asked you what you want to be when you grow up?”
“What do you mean, Momma?”
It had been a busy few days and she hadn’t really spent much time with Peter. Between her job and trying to cook and clean their little apartment, she often felt exhausted. She often worried she wasn’t a very good mother. Julia had managed to keep Petey clean and fed and safe, but there wasn’t much else she could do, except on the weekends when she took him to the park. She loved her little Buddha with a kind of tortured desperation, wanting more for him than she could possibly give. She had loved him from the moment she first held him. But she wouldn’t recommend becoming a mother at the age of seventeen.
“I mean when you grow up, what do you want to be? What do you want to do?”
Petey gave her a kind of perplexed grimace, his brow furrowed, chin cocked downward, his neck drawn back.
“I don’t get it,” he said.
There had been times before when she had seen this look. Like the time she tried to explain where babies come from and why he couldn’t watch a particular television show. Peter seemed to understand some things far beyond what a child his age should be able to grasp. Then there were times like this, times when he seemed to make simple things difficult.
“I mean you want to be something when you grow up, don’t you? What do you want to do?”
“Momma, you’re not making any sense.”
Julia’s heart quickened. She wondered if maybe Petey was having some sort of problem thinking, if maybe he was running a fever and was delirious. Then he explained.
“Those are two different questions, Momma. Do you want to know what I want to be? Or do you want to know what I want to do—like for a job or something?
Julia shook her head a little, dismayed.
“Now I’m confused, Peter,” she said. “What are you saying—asking I mean?”
“You asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. Then you asked me what I want to do. Aren’t those two different things?”
“Oh, I get it,” she said. “Yeah, I want to know what you want to do. What kind of job do you want to have when you grow up?”
“A betternarian. I want to be a betternarian.” Petey had always had trouble pronouncing his Bs. Vacation was bay-cation and Vermont was Ber-mont.
“A betternarian. You know. I want to take care of dogs and cats and stuff.”
He had always wanted a dog or a cat. At the park, Petey would always ask people if he could pet whatever beast he encountered at the end of a leash. He was fearless—he wanted to pet them all, large and small.
“Or a baker. I like the smell of bread and cookies,” he added. “Maybe, I can do both.”
“You can be whatever you want to be, Petey,” said Julia, reassuring herself more than Peter.
He gave her the look again.
“You’re doin’ it again, Momma.”
Suddenly, Julia understood, her frustration resolving into understanding.
“So what do you want to be when you grow up, Peter?” she asked.
The boy paused, gently biting the left inside corner of his bottom lip, which made the right side poke out in a kind of vague thoughtful way. He thought for a moment.
“Jus happy,” he said. “I jus wanna be happy, Momma. Like now.”
Julia could feel her eyes become watery with profound gratitude. This little boy, with such a grown up soul, somehow had eyes to see the world in ways that never stopped amazing her. She begged God or the Universe or whatever omniscient power there might be over this world to protect Petey, to keep him unsullied by the sometimes harsh realities of life. Or maybe it wasn’t Petey that needed protection as much as it was her. Maybe she just needed to understand the difference between being and doing like Petey seemed to know.
“Are you okay, Momma? Did I make you sad?”
“No, Peter, you didn’t make me sad.”
“Is it okay to just want to be happy? That doesn’t make you sad that I said that?”
“No Petey. It’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect.”