Play Center

From the outside it didn't look open, but at only 10AM the already full parking lot told its own story. A steady stream of people milled about the entrance fumbling with children and strollers.

Parents turned desert nomads didn't even try to hide their pained facial expressions, twisted grimaces, as they made the long pilgrimage from car to the sidewalk. With backs hunched and arms heavy under the weight of overstuffed bags, they resembled a reluctant group of hikers scaling Kilimanjaro rather than middle-aged suburban adults weaving through minivans. It was hard for me to tell if they were sweating from physical exertion or stress but their faces glistened and dripped like human snow cones. 

Those without a free hand to restrain their children barked "Parking Lot! Parking Lot! Parking Lot!" over and over in the manner of sheepdogs herding their scattering livestock to safety.

"We're going to leave right now if you don't stop!" a woman in black pants shouted. From her shaky tone it was clear the main person she was trying to convince was herself.  She stood between 3 year-old twins who were gleefully making it rain the contents of their crumpled plastic Ziploc bags. Each small, dimpled-knuckle handful thrown into the air sprinkled the pavement below creating a multigrain crumb carpet. One of them caught my eye and we shared a stifled laugh: the kind of laugh that lives only in the back of your throat and sounds like a canceled sneeze. Our jollies were cut short as his snack was snatched out of his hand sending him to the ground in angry hysterics.

The mom pursed her lips, closed her eyes and drew in a desperate breath. It was only then did I notice the infant in her arms. Like an amoeba in a footie pajamas, it was oblivious the situation and had only one goal in mind: food. While infants are notorious for their lack of muscles, when it comes to sustenance collection for the purpose of successful cellular replication they will stop at nothing and this one was no exception. It clung to the mother's spit-up mosaic of a shirt like a sloth to tree and with an outstretched neck bobbed repeatedly toward her chest. A slow motion woodpecker. Boing, boing, boing. With each unsuccessful connection its large head sprung back but it was undeterred and continued as if spring-loaded.

"Basic babies," I thought to myself.

Time to enter.

I don't know what the front doors were made out of but the fact that they had completely sealed in the deafening noise that exploded out once we'd opened them, made me think it must be a material used to secure space shuttles against zero gravity. We'd only been inside for a few moments before we were enthusiastically greeted by a short-haired teenager. 

Her excitement frightened me and I took shelter behind my mother's leg against this unwelcome lady tornado.

While they talked I braced myself for unsolicited eye contact. I knew it was only a matter of moments before she asked how old I was.

Thankfully they spoke only for a few seconds before exchanging treasures. We were waved past another set of double doors.

What I saw before me was incredible. I froze.

In the center of the massive play arena no less than 20 children flailed with complete abandon in an expansive lake of multi-colored balls. None of them were wearing shoes and they played at an impressive level of disregard for each other's safety. Every so often a soft face and swift heel would make contact. Instead of "say you're sorrys" the hurt child would be swiftly and silently plucked out of the ruckus the same way mold is nervously pinched off of bread in full knowledge that the rest of the loaf is a proverbial time bomb.

Anarchy was this land's mother tongue. I had entered Narnia.

Containing the bubble of pure joy that was quickly rising in my stomach proved impossible and I was moved to tears.

"What's wrong? We're finally here, c'mon!" she said in a poorly manufactured sing song voice, unable to hide an undercurrent of annoyance.

She picked me up and held me close, bouncing me from side to side. These weren't the soothing sways I knew so well but the irregular, quick jiggles of a self-conscious metronome.

I hid my face in her shirt as she found chairs.

"Look at that," she said. The sincerity in her voice piqued my interest.

I looked. The matrix. I had heard of this but didn't, until now, know if it truly existed. Before me was a structure high enough to graze the ceiling: a network of slides, tunnels, and overhead rope bridges.

It called to me but I wasn't ready. Instead I curled up on her lap and watched.

"Don't you want to play? Just go it'll be fun," I could sense her frustration and it incited in me both suspicion and agitation. What was her plan exactly? Run away and leave me here the second I'm out of sight? Absolutely not.

I pressed my head harder against her clavicle to send a message.

To our right, a father and his young son were getting ready to leave. I watched with admiration as the child resisted all attempts to have his arms threaded through his coat sleeves.

He pointed to his jacket. "Too warm, no!"

"But it's cold outside. Stay still!"

"I'm hot!"

The octopus wrangling escalated.

The boy pointed to his jacket and yelled, "Dis is why I'm hot! Dis is why I'm hot!" In his fury he began to stutter, "Dis is why...dis is why...dis is why I'm hot!"

His father angrily shot back back, "You're hot 'cause you cry! I need you to stop!"

The boy ripped his jacket off and ran toward the exit. His father picked up the abandoned coat and while he walked away calmly declared, "I'm never coming back here."

Near the snack bar a line grew as a grandmother and 4-year old girl slowly deliberated.

"Can I have cotton candy?"

"Baby you can have whatever you like."

"But Mommy-"

"I said you can have whatever you like."

"Popcorn, too?"

"You want it, I got it. Go get it, I'll buy it. "

The cashier added up their total. "That will be $12.99, ma'am."

"Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen!" the little girl squeaked. 

Grandma beamed and turned around to face the waiting patrons. "Brain so good could've sworn she went to college!"

Restlessness began to crawl up my spine and I jumped off mommy's lap. She stretched and smiled.

Looking up at the network of tunnels, I knew what I had to do.

Upon entering the tubing, the ever present noise of the play center quieted and became a distant muffle. Only the occasional child's loud laugh as they zipped through one of the intersections reminded me that I was not alone.

Every few moments an echoed shriek would run like a spider from its point of origin through the maze slowly fading as it traveled. But as I went deeper this happened less and less often until they silenced all together.

There was only my own shuffling, broken up by the sound of my breath. In this never ending cocoon I had no way of knowing if I still remained inside of the world I'd come know; the world with the people I loved, or if with each hand before hand, I was leaving it for an alternate, unknown existence.

I wasn't afraid and felt compelled to continue my journey through the blue tunnel.

My hands ached. Rest. I'd forgotten how much energy it took to crawl. Peeking out of a clear bubble window I picked mommy out of the crowd and was startled to see that she was already watching me. How did she do that? I enjoyed being in this position: looking down on her from above. She waved. I waved back. Pondering her smallness was immensely entertaining and I was about to giggle when I heard something. A low chanting in the distance.

I followed the low hum and found an unexpected cul-de-sac of sorts within the tubing populated by a group of young children. Fearing this strange atmosphere I turned to go back but one of them took my hand.

"Welcome friend." I couldn't see her face under the brown hood of a GAP sweatshirt. "Please sit."

While I'm not one to take orders, I didn't feel as if I had a choice and sat down. I fidgeted nervously and began composing fervent messages to the Mother's Instinct message center.

A toddler wearing a matching white Circo ensemble sat with legs in criss cross applesauce formation in front of everyone. "You have entered the order of The Toddler Council of Gloriousness. One for all, and all for juice."

"Did someone say juice?" I whispered to the toddler on my left. He was wearing only a denim-patterned diaper and a solemn expression. 

He ignored me.

The leader spoke again, "Now, let us recite the sacred melody."

There was a pause and then the leader began to sing in a surprisingly loud voice:

"Red cups and sweaty bodies everywhere
Hands in the air like we don’t care"

"WHAT IS THIS," I thought.

Several toddlers had their eyes closed. Some had their hands above their heads as if they were motioning "Need Up" to an invisible parent.

The leader continued singing and the audience chanted back in unison:

"And we caaaaan’t stooooop
And we woooon’t stooooop"

The leader went on soulfully:

"Can’t you see it’s we who own the night
Can’t you see it we who bout that life"

The group chanted back again:

"And we caaaaan’t stooooop
And we woooon’t stooooop"

The leader sang again, with even more fiery passion pumping fists in to the air.

"We run things, things don’t run we.
Don't take nothing from nobody."

Everyone yelled together:

"Yeah yeah!"

A light awkward applause followed and the toddlers began to disperse.

Just as I was about to turn around brown hoodie girl popped up and leaned into my face.

"We do not exist," she whispered.

Faster than I'd ever seen a toddler move, she hopped down to the bottom of the structure and ran giggling into her dad's arms.

I followed cautiously and felt relief as my feet touched down on the padded mat. 

"Where are your clothes?" denim diaper kid's mom shrieked upon seeing him emerge from the bottom of the slide. He shrugged.

I walked over to my mom who as per usual was texting. She looked up from her phone and smiled.

"Having fun?"

From two tables away I saw brown hoodie girl watching me. She waved without smiling.

"I said 'Did you have fun?' my mom asked again this time taking a Facebook photo at the same time.

Without breaking eye contact with my new "friend" I answered: "I think so."


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