We were walking towards Montreal’s Biodome when I saw a bus unloading doom: a horde of 60 children on a day trip from summer camp.
They immediately swarmed towards the Biodome, which was the destination I’d most wanted to hit on my Montreal vacation. The Biodome is like a zoo, except instead of each animal being in their own tank, lots of animals live in small ecosystems together. The experience is something like being on a hike in the forest, except instead of having to actively search to spot animals, it’s hard to look anywhere without seeing one.
The other way the Biodome is different from hiking is that you may have to fight your way through massive groups of children. The child-horde from the bus entered just ahead of my girlfriend, Rosie, and myself.
Inside, I saw that a bunch of overmatched teenage counselors were in charge, each trying to control a squadron of eight to ten younger urchins. “Micah, come back,” one counselor pleaded in every exhibit I encountered her squadron. She gave such a plea whenever Micah—a thin but athletic blonde boy—outpaced his group to see the next cool animal; for instance, penguins.
“They can’t fly!” Micah told the counselor as he hurtled towards the penguin exhibit.
“Micah, they can’t, but we need to stay together,” his counselor said, exhausted nearly to tears.
Rosie thought Micah was cute, but for weeks to come, the counselor probably had nightmares of Micah charging into the penguin pool and drowning. “They mate for life!” Nightmare Micah would inform the counselor between gasps for air.
I didn’t have much sympathy for the counselor, though—she could’ve ended Micah’s nonsense by teaching the rest of her squadron a game called Tackle Micah’s Scrawny Ass Until He Learns to Listen. But that’s probably one reason I’ll never be a camp counselor.
Another reason is that I have no idea how to interact with kids. Rosie and I are in our mid-20s, and we’re at the point in our relationship where she has asked me dreadful questions like, “When do you want children?” and “How many do you want?” My replies of, “When I’m 30, I guess?” and “Few enough to afford” don’t ever seem to be what she’s looking for—but they reflect my uneasiness around children and my worries about the time and money it takes to raise them. Rosie has numbers, names, genders, and rough dates of birth picked out already. I have a mental clock running down to when I think I’ll want to start a family.
But in the Biodome, I had children whether I wanted them or not. In what I think was a coral reef exhibit, I became swamped in several summer-camp squadrons. In front of me were two girls, probably eight or nine years old, with their backs to me. The one on the right (Righty) clandestinely tapped the one on the left (Lefty) on the back of her far shoulder, playing the “I’m Gonna Poke You But You Won’t Know It Was Me” game. Lefty turned around to find out who poked her and saw … me.
In my life, I’ve been sucker punched twice. I’ve been in two car wrecks. I’ve performed live comedy with no scripted material. None of those moments froze me up like seeing Lefty turn around, thinking I’d poked her.
Lefty stared back and up at me. I looked down at her. Our eye-lock felt like it took longer than Lefty had been alive. Insanely, I didn’t want to sell Righty out by snitching to Lefty. She would never believe you, anyway, I thought as I saw discomfort grow in Lefty’s eyes.
And now you look like a fucking weirdo, came another thought. My eyes flicked to a sea anemone, but the creature was no help.
What if she tells a camp counselor I poked her? my brain helpfully finished as Lefty turned back around. I made a path through another group of children—I’m 230 pounds and graceless, so the scene looked like a water buffalo tromping through a colony of prairie dogs—and abandoned Lefty and Righty to their game.
Righty, if you’re reading this, know I never snitched. And know that Rosie will look back on kids like you and Micah and think about how adorable y’all were. Meanwhile, I’ll look back and realize how accurate the answer, “When I’m 30, I guess?” really is.