At 18 months old, my son became sickeningly obsessed with cars. One of the early signs of Jakey’s fixation was his frequent tantruming upon buckling him into his carseat. He felt sorely misplaced in the back row, imprisoned by his five-point safety harness, and at such a young age, felt more comfortable in the driver’s seat. Most car trips ended with him poised in front of the steering wheel of the parked car, veering down an imaginary road and banging on the horn, as I unpacked the groceries. When this play-time would come to an end, another tantrum would always ensue.
The role-playing and imaginary car trips continued on into his twos, when he could no longer be tricked with a fake key for the ignition. Even my daughter, then four, was vying for her own turn behind the wheel, pushing buttons on the stereo, rummaging for emergency bags of chips stowed in the glove compartment, and jamming DVDs into the player as she patiently awaited being the driver. I was usually sitting in the back, folded into a cheerio-laden booster seat, pretending to be the unruly child as my “parents” took me on a long road trip. Other times I remembered to bring a book.
And then, the next year, there was the day when the happy playing became a little less happy. It was chilly outside, early November, and with my older daughter, Emmanuelle, off at school already, we waited for Jakey’s carpool to come pick him up for the trek around the corner to his playgroup. He asked to drive in my car. Knowing that the arrival of the other mother would signify a definitive ending to his activity, and it wouldn’t labor on endlessly for an hour as he was wont to do, I acquiesced. Jakey closed and locked his driver-side door, as I climbed inside the front passenger seat, pulled the baby onto my lap, and left my door open to allow a slight breeze. “Vrooom!” Jakey cried, his long, unkempt curls hung across his face as he angled himself over the steering wheel, manipulating over a particularly challenging curve. “Can I do the horn?” he asked, his fingers inching toward the shiny center of the steering wheel. “Just once?”
“Just once,” I echoed, figuring everyone was honking for carpools anyway, and an extra beep would go unnoticed. He happily tooted the horn and went on in his play. Mica, at four months, was beginning to get restless, and knowing that I needed to get her in for a nap, I tried checking the time, hoping his ride would arrive imminently. As I sat, one hand wrapped around the baby, the other in front of me, tugging at my thin jacket sleeve to reveal my hidden watch, I saw, peripherally, sudden movement on the retaining wall that flanked the side of the driveway, inches away from where the car was parked. It was two squirrels, running full speed, playing a friendly game of squirrel-tag, and as I turned, I instinctively felt that something was wrong, had a feeling of dread, like the time a huge black dog jumped into our backyard when I was eight, and chased me all the way home.
One squirrel veered from its course, took a flying leap off the wall and into the car, its gray fur thick and pointed, tail alight and full, and landed on my lap, face to face with my bundled newborn. I screamed, a full-lunged blow, because I really hate squirrels, because what the hell was it doing in my car, and because I was plain scared shitless. Squirrels are territorial, and so was I. Obviously, it didn’t like me too much either, because it jumped from my legs, its claws scratching the exposed skin on my bare upper-knees, and ran onto the dashboard, toward the steering wheel and my fixated son. I knew there was no way I could pluck Jakey from his seat and over the gear shift while holding the baby, and I had nowhere to put her down. I leapt from the car, baby in tow, and stood frozen by the open door. Jakey was trapped alone with the squirrel. I couldn’t get him out. At least I saved one kid, I consoled myself, but before I had time to devise a plan to rescue him, the squirrel did a 180 degree turn, bolted back across the dashboard and out my open passenger-side door. It ran up the wall, and probably up a tree, where he sat down on a branch 50 feet above the ground, shuddering in fright, and cried to his squirrel mother about his fearful encounter with humans.
I ran around to the driver’s side door, yanked it open, pulled a dazed Jakey out, and sat on the floor hugging my two children. I blinked back my tears, shaking, and whispering, “We’re okay, we’re okay,” into their ears, and held them close to my chest, eternally grateful that we had all emerged relatively unscathed and uncontaminated, save for the bloody claw mark on my thigh. In the distance, I saw three squirrels climbing a tree, happily frolicking in the flimsy upper branches, and worried that my own severe reaction to the situation would forever mar my son’s view of squirrels. He would cross the street at every sighting. He would always fear an attack.
“What a silly squirrel!” I quipped, trying to force a light and airy tone. “He wanted a turn to drive the car. Squirrels can’t drive cars.” I repeated this at various points throughout the week, hoping to impart a feeling of casualness, to erase my innate panic. I think it might have worked, because over the next few months, at random intervals, he would remind me of the time the squirrel wanted to drive, and would always end with a forced, nervous chuckle.
Almost a year after the encounter, Jakey, Mica and I are heading to the bus stop to wait for Emmanuelle to come home from school. I usually let him ride in an electronic car my husband insisted on purchasing, and as he careens up the sidewalk, shimmying between a fire hydrant and a car that juts out of the driveway, a squirrel pauses on the road, unsure as whether to throw itself in front of Jakey’s noisy “Stinger” or into the more lethal onset of real traffic. Jakey brakes. “Mommy, the squirrel,” he says, his head turning to me, his dark eyes shadowed by his large red helmet.
“Yes,” I say, “I see it there next to you,” and we both pause, afraid to show our fear, afraid to vocalize that perhaps this squirrel, too, will want a chance to drive. The Stinger has no windows or doors, and is a wide open expanse for any wildlife wanting to hitchhike. It is a moment, a hesitation, in which I realize his latent fear has blossomed. I planted in him a seed of panic, and to my dismay, it has grown.
“Make it go away,” he says, an easy enough request, because all I really need to do is pretend to lunge at it and I know it will bolt. But what if it lunges at me first? The animal unpredictability. A sudden car coming up the street causes the squirrel to pivot back onto the sidewalk, its beady black eyes pointed our way, but it sees the neon orange of the plastic Stinger, dissimilar to the muted tones of familiar tree trunks, and it stops to evaluate us.
“Just keep driving,” I urge, pushing my fears inward, hoping he can’t read my nervous hesitation, the skipping beats of my heart. “Go!” I command Jakey, partly because I want to scare the squirrel, but also since I don’t want to miss the bus. I am not giving into the fear, but hide behind it, thrusting my son in front of me, the squirrel expert, the one who was alone in the car with the giant rodent in the past, and didn’t even cry. He might be scared, but has had less years to develop this fear. It is newer, easier to erase than mine. Jakey leads the way, floors it, and the squirrel ducks under a parked car and jumps across the street, frightened by the grinding of the plastic wheels on the pebbled concrete. I exhale, breathing freely, and follow in the shadows of my son, in the dust of the Stinger, licking the trail of his confidence.