A Love Story Between Third Graders
By: Janet Borrus
Some people look to their parents as relationship role models. I look to my daughter Maya and her man Axel.
They’ve been together since kindergarten. Everyone thought it would last a year, maybe two. But they’re into their fourth and are tighter than ever.
Maya is eight. Axel nine.
In many ways, it’s a case of opposites attract. He’s guileless, affable, easily hurt. She’s fierce, shy, and stoic. Named for a Nordic folk hero, Axel is tall and blonde. Maya was born in western China and has caramel skin and delicate features. She reads better; he has a firmer grip on socially appropriate behavior. Maya is the one who says “penis” too loudly at In ‘n Out Burger. Axel takes her hand on the ride home and muses, “Isn’t this nice?”
They have pet names. He’s Apple. She’s Mango. When Maya becomes “Kitty” Axel goes by “Wolfy.”
The last time I called my husband “Padrino” we were on our honeymoon.
Depending on how many dishes are in the sink, the two of us can go from sweet to snippy in a matter of seconds. Maya’s play dates with Axel, on the other hand, are free of petty squabbles. They disappear into make-believe games like Endangered Species, in which Maya is a rare mouse and Axel the wolf determined to make her extinct. In Powerboosters, played on the swings, they become airborne to escape Motorcycle Man and his lethal super sucker. At other times, they build veterinary hospitals out of pillows and heal Maya’s myriad stuffed animals.
They do have different interests, but patiently indulge each other’s obsessions. Maya will spend hours operating Axel’s remote helicopters and hovercraft. Given a little popcorn, he’s happy to sit through the feature-length nature videos she loves.
They do not finish each other’s sentences. Or cut each other off. Their third-grade expertise in taking turns is enviable. Recently, Axel bought himself a motorized scooter. He eagerly let Maya try it, with no warnings about potential scratches and no panicked outburst when she nearly trashed it on a concrete retaining wall.
“Ya know Kitty, I think maybe you need to weigh a little more to work this thing,” was all he said.
If only my husband would stay that calm whenever I back our Honda into the gum tree.
I email him calendar items and to-do lists. Maya and Axel write each other love notes. This summer we went to visit my family in New Jersey. I came upon the following trail of texts on my iPhone ten days into the trip:
Axel: (next to photo of him with a tray of firecrackers) “Happy 4thof July, Maya!”
Maya: (next to photo of her stuffed camel wearing my glasses) “School is better on the Jersey shore!”
Axel: “Ha, ha, Maya. I hope you’re having fun. I miss you; when are you coming back? XOXO Axel”
Maya: “I am coming back on Wensday (sic). Secret, I love you! Your friend, Maya.”
Axel: “I can’t wait to see you! (photo of his latest batch of polished rocks) Look at my beautiful rocks. I polished them. I love you too. Axel.”
After they’ve been apart, they surprise each other with trinkets and news of their travels. And are never disappointed. When Maya gave Axel a bag of chocolate-covered nuts from Toronto, I overheard this from her bedroom:
Axel: “Gee, thanks for the moose poop from Canada, Maya! Did you see some moose?”
Maya (slightly downcast): “No just a reindeer and some lightning.”
Axel: “Hey, that’s better than moose!”
Even sleepovers go smoothly. Last weekend they wanted to camp out in the living room. When I explained that this would mean sharing a double blow-up bed Axel looked at me with utter sincerity and said “You know, Janet, I’ve always dreamed of sleeping in the same bed as Maya.” What mother gets such honesty from her daughter’s boyfriend?
They no longer share baths, but snuggle freely and greet the dawn with an interpretive pas de deux to the funk sample on our electric piano. Videotaping, I make a mental note to sign up for couples salsa at Arthur Murray.
In quieter moments, Axel and Maya reflect on their relationship and consider where they’re headed. When my husband jokingly referred to Axel as his future son-in-law, my daughter told him, “Me and Axel discussed this. We have a couple of options. We could get married or we could not get married and be friends. We crossed out live alone.”
At school their closeness has threatened some and confounded others. They draw stares from both classmates and parents when — as Kitty and Wolfy — they hug (and sometimes paw) each other goodbye at the end of the day. But they refuse to be shamed. When older boys tell them they should be playing with kids of their own gender, Maya says, “It’s none of your business.” If they persist they get “It’s none of your beeswax.”
For a while I thought their bond could be broken by a force even stronger than public opinion: the competitive younger brother. Oskar, age six, seizes every opportunity to discredit Axel and up his own intimacy with Maya. He delights in showing off his superior burping skills, teases Axel about his occasional thumb sucking, and will lunge across his booster seat to cover Maya with sticky kisses. She occasionally finds his antics amusing, but her heart is true. Maya knows the value of the unconditional love Axel gives her. And so do I. Because I get the same thing from her dad.
Watching her with Axel helps me remember that.
Janet Borrus is a writer, actor and arts educator living in Los Angeles. She has written several plays and screenplays, and portrayed a variety of evil moms on television and film. At home, she is better behaved.