Jeffrey Levin wanted pants. This unremarkable fact propelled a forgettable soccer weekend into the annals of awful parenting experiences.
It all began innocently. My son, Sam, was invited to join a North Jersey-based 12-year-old soccer team. Most of the players and their families were originally from Central America and lived in and around Newark. They approached soccer with intensity far beyond what Sam had seen in our suburban community. We were delighted he would have the opportunity to experience such a level and, incidentally, be exposed to different cultures.
Though the regular season would not begin until April, the coach entered the team in a tournament in Richmond, Virginia in early March. He acknowledged the distance might present a hardship for some families and said a new player could commence playing after the tournament. However, Sam wanted to get started, and I was anxious to spend time outdoors after the long winter, so I cheerfully offered to chaperone. I expected Richmond’s early-March weather to be mild.
A week before the trip, the father of the only other non-Hispanic player called and asked if we would join them for the ride. “After all,” Steve Levin explained, “my wife and I have a large van, and it’ll be great to enjoy adult conversation. Our son, Jeffrey, will share the ‘way-back’ with your son.”
“That’ll be great,” I said, thinking Sam would be pleased to have someone besides me to talk to, and I would be able to share the driving.
“Good,” said Steve. “Jeffrey loves to make new friends. If you come at mid-day on Friday, we can get an early start. Considering the traffic, we’ll let Jeffrey skip his afternoon classes.”
“Sam will love that idea,” I said.
When we arrived, as scheduled, at one o’clock, Linda, Jeffrey’s petite, Asian mom, met us at the door with three pieces of news, delivered matter-of-factly: 1. Steve was still at work; 2. Jeffrey did not want to miss his afternoon classes; and, 3. their van was in the shop, so we would be traveling by car.
“If you want to go on ahead,” she said, “we’ll understand.”
I was disappointed, but decided to stay the course. After all, we had driven to their house in a two-seater that was not comfortable on long trips and Sam would have been disappointed, I thought, to travel without his peer. Surely, the Levin family car was large, or Linda would have appeared upset. Linda ushered us into their den and showed us how to operate their small television. Ominously, she requested that we turn it off just before Jeffrey’s anticipated arrival. “Jeffrey is not allowed to watch television except for public television programs that we have pre-approved,” she explained.
At 3:30, Steve and Jeffrey arrived home together in what appeared to be a Toyota Corolla. It was hard to tell, because the front hood was held shut by a rope that blocked the manufacturer’s logo. The color was formerly either silver or blue but had been degraded by age into a blotchy, grey-like hue.
Steve, a tall, thin journalist with salt and pepper hair, tried to address what must have been a stricken expression on my face: “It’s surprisingly roomy, once you get in.”
Jeffrey was built like his dad, with his mom’s dark hair. He appeared mature for a twelve-year-old, gravely offering Sam a handshake while his parents looked on.
“Jeffrey,” said Steve, “Gather your math and science books for the trip. There will be a lot of learning time this weekend.”
Sam gave me a “what have you gotten me into?” look.
We squeezed our luggage into the Corolla’s trunk and I was offered the front passenger seat.
“You’re tall,” said Linda. “I’ll sit in back between the boys.”
“Between?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “so they can concentrate on their books.”
“I’m afraid Sam hasn’t brought any books,” I said, feeling like a cretin. “He takes it a little lighter on soccer weekends.”
“On any weekend,” said Sam.
I glanced at him, wide-eyed.
Steve and Linda paused for a moment, before Steve said: “That’s okay. Jeffrey will share.”
“Dad!” said Jeffrey, upset.
“Jeffrey,” Steve said, sternly, “Sam is a new friend. You need to share.”
Jeffrey rolled his eyes and plopped angrily into the back seat. I tried to imagine what Jeffrey was like when he was not trying to make a new friend.
Finally underway, we entered the Garden State Parkway in its typical Friday afternoon parking-lot mode. Steve described his parenting plan while I focused on the bouncing hood and wondered how much jostling the rope could withstand. Once, I looked back over my shoulder at Sam, who had an algebra textbook open in his lap, but his withering return stare discouraged me from doing so again.
“Jeffrey is an only child, of course,” said Steve. “We feel proper parenting can only be done with the focus that one child allows. Sam is your only one, right?”
“Well, actually, he’s the third,” I said.
“Oh,” said Steve. “That’s too bad. Jeffrey plays on this team so that he can supplement his Spanish lessons. Also, being able to play soccer at a top level should be attractive to the Ivies.”
“You’re already looking at colleges?” I asked.
“It’s never too early,” said Linda. “Harvard and Yale have top-flight soccer programs. If they are not ascendant when Jeffrey is ready to attend, his bassoon should also be attractive.”
“Jeffrey plays the bassoon?” I asked.
“And the oboe,” said Steve, “just for fun.”
Sam’s foot collided with my resting elbow.
“Oops,” he said, unconvincingly.
Afternoon turned to evening and finally to night as we crawled south. The Baltimore-Washington corridor of congestion segued into the Washington-Richmond region of construction. Steve chose to do all the driving while Linda doled out occasional portions of “healthy snacks.” My lifetime intake of baby carrots was tripled.
Steve’s voice wafted over me with explanations of Jeffrey’s interests and needs. I nodded or occasionally said “un-hunh” when it seemed appropriate, but I’m sure such social niceties were unnecessary. Steve would have told me about “vocabulary enrichment” and “biology boot-camp” regardless.
I felt electrical charges emanating from my nearly paralyzed lower back as the hours passed. It was well after midnight when we arrived at the suburban Wayfarer Inn where the coach had reserved a block of rooms. By then, the boys had fallen asleep, having hardly exchanged a word. We ushered them zombie-like into our respective rooms.
The next morning, the team met, as suggested by the coach, Giovanni, at a local restaurant several steps from the motel. Its sign promised: “Hot Dogs and Other Fine Foods.” The boys and their families were happily attacking the breakfast buffet when we arrived, and Giovanni introduced Sam around the room. I hadn’t slept well, still feeling as though I was in motion after the endless car ride. But I was proud of Sam for mixing immediately with his teammates, even though they were strangers who spoke primarily in Spanish. Sam established an easy camaraderie with them. I noticed that Jeffrey and his parents were sitting at a table by themselves, and I felt their eyes on my back, so I joined them.
After a few moments, Giovanni rose to speak, first in rapid-fire Spanish, then in halting English, for the benefit of us and the Levin’s. “We have two games today and, if we win both, the semi-final and final games tomorrow. These teams are very good, from Pittsburgh and from Boston. Juan Carlos,” he said, addressing directly one of the boys who appeared to have adult-sized musculature, “you will have to play smart.”
I looked at Steve for an explanation.
“Juan Carlos is not disciplined,” he whispered. “It sometimes becomes a problem.”
“How old is Juan Carlos?” I asked.
Steve shrugged. “His birth certificate says he is twelve. His puberty may be a little advanced.”
After breakfast, Sam and I joined the Levin’s for the short ride to the field. I was bundled in layers to protect against a chilly drizzle, the hoped-for warmth still weeks away, apparently. Jeffrey did not speak during the ride and appeared catatonic; Linda noticed me look quizzically at him: “He’s visualizing,” she explained. “It’s a technique he utilizes for exams and recitals, also.”
At the field, events proceeded as usual. The teams warmed up on their respective sides and the parents clumped together in anxious knots. Several of our team’s parents graciously greeted me, but nearly everyone was pre-occupied with what I had come to believe were the main parental concerns of youth sports, namely: what position will my child play, will he start, and how many minutes will he play?
Sam started on the bench, which was normal, given his newness to the team. After several minutes, however, he was substituted in on defense, taking the place of Jeffrey, awkwardly enough. I could not avoid noticing that both Steve and Linda were keeping track of such developments with stop-watches.
“Six-twelve,” said Steve, shaking his head.
“I’ve got six-eighteen,” said Linda, looking grim.
I edged a few steps further from them and was vastly relieved when Sam performed satisfactorily. Our team prevailed, 3-1, against the team from Boston, as Juan Carlos led the way. The Levin’s marked each entrance and exit of Jeffrey in a notepad (hand-written in those days) and conferred throughout as though they were observing a delicate operation.
The afternoon game against the Pittsburgh team was different. Their players were not supervised during warm-ups and lobbed hostile looks and remarks towards our team. Several pointed at Juan Carlos, conspicuous by his size, and were obviously taunting him. Only moments after the game began, Pittsburgh players fouled Juan Carlos and they continued to do so with dubious degrees of legality at every opportunity.
“Ref! Make it a whistle!” shouted Giovanni, calling for a penalty. Whether he was understood or not was unclear, but the referee, thin-legged and red-faced, in a striped shirt stretched over an ample belly, was disinclined to take action.
I was happy that Sam was playing a peripheral position as the mid-field action became heated. Eventually, Juan Carlos kicked at one of his tormentors, who shoved back, and shouted: “Get off of me, you stupid Mexican!”
A melee ensued, with punches delivered frantically, with Juan Carlos in the middle. “I’m not Mexican!” he shouted above the fray. “I’m from El Salvador!”
The coaches and referee ran to separate the boys. Descended from generations of Russian Jews who had observed competing bands of Cossacks, Sam was gingerly edging farther and farther from the scrum. If the fight had continued much longer, he might have been found in the parking lot. Once a degree of calm was restored, and the teams returned to their respective sides of the field, the referee pulled a red card from his pocket, and waved it in front of Juan Carlos, throwing him out of the game.
“Dios mio!” shouted Giovanni. “Eso es ridiculo!”
“I don’t know what that means,” said the referee, “but you’re outta here, too. Game’s over. You forfeit.”
He flashed a red card at Giovanni, who threw his clipboard to the ground and had to be restrained from attacking. The referee strode off the field leaving angry and bewildered parents to gather their sons.
I looked at Steve and Linda who were standing protectively around Jeffrey.
“We’re going home immediately,” Steve said. “We will not stand for this sort of exhibition. With the coach red-carded, the team can’t win the tournament, in any event.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“What else could go wrong?” I asked myself, thinking of the ride down, the poor sleep, Jeffrey’s unfriendliness, Juan Carlos’s torment, the fight and the forfeit.
As we walked towards the Corolla to pile in for the long ride home, Sam asked quietly: “Do we have to go to more of these tournaments?”
“No way,” I told him. “We’ll have a one hour driving limit.”
“Good,” he said.
All three Levin’s were silently seething about Jeffrey’s playing time, or the fight, or the result, or all of the above. I didn’t want to ask.
Just one hour into the eight-hour ride (if we were lucky) I was enjoying the fact that no one felt like talking. Sam settled into his seat for a nap, Steve stared straight ahead at the road, and I tried to relax, when Jeffrey’s voice piped up from behind, like a small bird deep inside a well: “I want to get some pants.”
“What, honey?” asked Linda.
“I want some pants,” he repeated.
Steve looked at him through the rear view mirror. “What kind of pants?” he asked.
“School pants,” said Jeffrey.
I thought this discussion was amusing. What twelve-year-old boy wants to buy pants? Surely, Linda would assure him they could go to the store at home sometime during the week.
“Well,” said Steve. “We’ll have to find a mall.”
I was horrorstruck. We were going to actually exit the highway near the start of a four hundred mile drive so that Jeffrey could go shopping.
“Ummmm,” I protested, unable to form a coherent sentence.
“It’s important to honor this sort of personal need,” said Steve. “I’m sure it won’t take long.”
Two malls and two hours later, we were back on I-95 headed north. Jeffrey held a bag with two pairs of khakis and speculated with his mother which shirts would go well with them. I wondered how much stomach acid it took to create an ulcer. When we finally arrived at the Levin’s home that night, Sam and I mumbled insincere thanks and stumbled towards our car.
“What do you say, Jeffrey?” asked Steve.
“Oh, yeah,” said Jeffrey. “I hope you’ll come to my bassoon concert next weekend.”
Sam looked at me aghast. “We’ll have to see if we’re available,” I said.
In the safety of our car, with the only alternative being to cry, Sam and I began to laugh.
“We’re not going to his concert, right?” said Sam.
“I promise,” I said.
Pondering whether this was one of my worst experiences as a parent or one of my strangest, I placed it in the top ten in both categories.