After Nick got his two-wheeler, I thought we’d found the perfect father-son activity. Lately he’s been turning down my invitations to ride. Tonight, bored, he accepted.
We live a few blocks from a park with bicycle trails. We travel by sidewalk on the way, getting off our bikes to cross the streets. Nick feels particularly grown-up, speeding along at dusk.
When we arrive at the park, he heads for a flat, paved area. We coast around in circles for a while. I become so absorbed in my own play that at first I don’t notice him braking away and racing off over the grass into the dark. When I finally look up, I can just make out the flashing red light on his tail. The park is a half-mile square brimming with trees, hills and straightaways, athletic fields and sandboxes. It’s easy to get separated, especially at night.
Catching up with him, I say, “Were you trying to sneak away?”
“What would you have done if we couldn’t find each other in the dark?”
“Just ride around.”
“That doesn’t work for me. At night I need to see you.”
Nick has always loved hiding. As an infant, he’d lie on his changing table and pull a towel over his head. Nora would say, “Where’s Nick? Daddy, have you seen Nick?”
Hysterical laughter under the towel.
We make our usual circuit around the bike path. Nick has grown up in this park, first in a stroller, then on foot, now on a bike. Older kids are playing basketball in the lighted courts. I expect he’ll join them in a few years. But for now, Nick isn’t ready to be on his own here. His riding off alone the way he did still worries me. I need him to understand what it would be like for him if he got lost.
“Do you think you could find your way home if we really got separated?”
“I bet you could.”
I shouldn’t have said bet. Among other things, Nick is a sharper.
“I meant bet as a figure of speech.”
“A million dollars?”
I don’t quite know how to get out of this. I really do think he could find his way home if he had to. It’s about three-quarters of a mile.
“A dollar. When we go, you lead. If you get home without asking me for directions, you get a dollar. If you need my help, you get fifty cents.”
Fifty cents for trying. At least I know better than to make it all or nothing.
“Okay,” he says.
It’s fully dark when we leave. He starts out slow, hoping I’ll take the lead. I go slower.
“It’s this way, right?” he says.
“Beats me,” I say.
I follow a few yards behind as Nick retraces our route back to the house. The stoplight at the main drag throws him. After we cross, he heads up the street in the wrong direction for a few paces, then reverses himself. The rest of the way his confidence increases. He’s so excited he crosses the final intersection without waiting for me.
“It’s still not okay for you to do that,” I tell him.
He tears around the last corner a few yards ahead of me.
“Omygod,” I say as we approach the house. “I know where we are now.”
The first thing that he tells Nora is not that he got home by himself, but that he made a buck. He doesn’t ask for it immediately. It’s bedtime. We have the brushing of the teeth and other rituals to perform. Later, when his pajamas are on, I hand him a dollar bill. He deposits it in his strong box without saying a word. Just a guy doing business.
I remember soloing in an airplane the first time. The problem wasn’t knowing what to do. The problem was doing it without the instructor in the plane. As far as Nick’s getting home solo goes, that step seems a few years away. For the present, I’ll be riding nearby.