They are a nine-year-old, two six-year-olds, and a four-year-old, and the topic of their secret conversation is bad words.
At my school, there's a bad word written on the middle stall door in the bathroom. Do you want to hear what it said?
I go rigid inside, wondering about my boundaries. Do I step in for the sake of my little ones? Hold back and have a private discussion later? Before I can decide, the huddle breaks. Dandelion seed heads floating away on a downdraft. Their whispers scatter to the four winds.
That's not even a word! Mia is completely unimpressed. I know three...maybe three...bad words, though, and THAT is not even a word.
I soften, peeking around the corner. Lauren's face is blank, and a part of my heart constricts around her babyhood. She understands absolutely nothing of what she's just heard. I can feel her boredom melting along the floorboards, flowing towards the open windows where autumn breezes beg her attention.
But I wonder how much of the conversation has burrowed into Mia's self. Is she really as ambivalent as she sounds? I remember being completely enthralled by the possibility of badness. The suspicion that an arsenal of naughty language made a person more than average. Unlocked secrets to the world that were just beyond my reach.
The girls go outside to play; whatever the word was, it's now been tossed aside due to either lack of understanding or abundance of energy. The wind blows again and the dandelion seeds dance around each other, flying towards a landing that we cannot yet fathom.
All the neighbors have gone home; I keep looking around to make sure the children are accounted for, only to realize that these few children left are the only ones here. My family feels small again. Quiet. I feel misplaced.
"Hey, Mia?" I stir the last handfuls of cheese into the soup, letting the steam lick over my hands. "I thought I heard you girls talking about bad words earlier, and you said you know three?"
Her face is open -- a bloom; an offering; a hope -- and I think she'll actually answer me this time. I look back to the soup. It's my disguise: disinterested mother, easily approached.
"Mm-hmm. I do. Well, I think I know three, but I might even know four."
"Can you tell me what they are?"
She looks around. Once again, Lauren is following this discussion closely, but I don't mind. Better to jump right in with both feet -- with both girls -- than start from scratch next time. Something in my tummy flutters. This is it, I think. This is the moment my baby girl will step into the deep end of growing up; cussing for the win.
"Okay. The first bad word is dummy." She peeks from the corner of one eye. Her fingers are worrying the hem of her shirt and she continues. "Then there's stupid." She gets a thrill from this one; a smile breaks free at the edges of her lips. "And I know one more for sure: hate." Finally, she is looking right into my eyes. This has meant something to her, and I feel it rise up from where she's poured it at my feet.
I thought ass and shit and hell would be bad, being delivered in her small voice, but I was wrong. Dummy and stupid and hate have speared me clean through and landed me in a heap on the floor.
She says the words with conviction: these are wrong.
"Goodness," I say. "Those are bad words."
And I return to my soup. It simmers and I stir it. It boils and I quiet it. It thickens and I serve it. It is predictable and therefore manageable. "Dummy," I whisper into the broth. The word melts away at the swipe of the spoon and all I am left with is the taste of innocence, still strong on my tongue.