I’m at the dog park with Buster, my joint custody pooch. It’s the first cold day of the year. The late afternoon sun’s pushing long shadows out of the trees, rolling darkness across the bright leaves covering the ground. I shiver slightly. I’m glad I wore a winter coat.
“Which dog is yours?” the pretty blonde woman sitting next to me asks.
“The black and white one,” I reply.
“What kind of dog is he?” she asks. I tell her.
“I’ve never heard of that breed.”
“They’re kind of rare,” I say. “You don’t see many of them.”
“Well, he’s very cute.”
I look at the woman sitting next to me. She’s cute. Fit and fashionably dressed, she’s roughly my age.
“Don’t let Buster’s good looks fool you,” I chuckle. “He can be a monster.”
“Deep down he thinks he’s a pit bull.”
“He likes my daughter,” the woman says, pointing to the opposite end of the park. “Look how nice he’s playing with her.”
I look up. Buster’s sitting on top of a picnic table. A small girl with blond hair is gently stroking his fur. To my surprise, his tail is wagging with happiness.
“That’s unusual,” I say. “Buster usually doesn’t like children.”
“Normally he just snaps at them.”
“Maybe I should tell her to get away from him,” the woman says nervously.
“It’s okay,” I say, “If he hasn’t snapped at her yet he’s not going to. Besides, your daughter must be putting out a friendly vibe.”
“That’s my Emma,” the woman says. “Super friendly.”
“How old is she?”
“The outgoing type?”
“Too outgoing,” the woman sighs. “Emma likes to say ‘After five minutes a person’s not a stranger anymore.’”
“Sounds like a trusting soul.”
“Yeah that worries me,” the woman says. “Too many crazies out there.”
“There are a few,” I reply, nodding my head.
“More than a few,” the woman says, her voice abruptly tightening with anxiety. “When I went online to see how many sex offenders live nearby I was stunned. It’s so bad I can’t believe anyone lets their kids walk home from school anymore.”
“It can be……”
“We don’t know any of our neighbors,” the woman says, talking over me. “My husband was born was raised in this area but he doesn’t like anyone who lives in it. We have security systems; I never let Emma out of my sight. Too many things can happen.”
The woman’s fear presses against me like the cold wind blowing across the park. “Must be tough raising a child today,” I say, choosing my words carefully. “You want them to be trusting but you want them to be safe too.”
“I never let Emma out of my sight,” the woman repeats, her face hardening. “I had her late and she’s my only child. I’ve don’t want her kidnapped by some freak.”
I pull up the collar of my coat and start hugging myself for warmth. I feel like telling this woman that her fears are overblown. Statistically, the odds of any one child being abducted by a random predator are remote. The reason this fear’s front and center in the every parent’s mind is because the media sucks every last rating point out of some family’s unfortunate but rare tragedy. While normal vigilance and prudence is always necessary, it doesn’t have to develop into paranoia. I once heard a criminologist say that if parents wish to enhance their children’s security they should make them wear bicycle helmets, keep pool covers secure, and keep stuff like chemicals and firearms under lock and key. These mundane precautions, he argued, are far more likely to save a child’s life than installing subcutaneous homing devices and tracking their every move. But I don’t have kids so I ain’t saying shit.
“I’m sure you keep your daughter very safe,” I reply instead.
“You better believe it,” the woman replies.
I feel sorry for the little girl playing with Buster. There’s a possibility that her mom’s over protectiveness could cause her problems later in life. To be fair, if she was under protected from life’s dangers, that would be a big problem too. I feel sorry for parents. It’s tough balancing security with freedom in today’s world. I just think it’s better to guard children against preventable threats that to be afraid of some nebulous bogeymen. But I don’t have kids so ……
“So which one’s your dog?” I ask the woman, trying to lighten the mood.
“Oh, we don’t have a dog,” the woman replies.
“Looking to see what kind of dog you’d like?” I ask. “I see a lot of parents here doing that with their kids.”
“Emma’s not getting a dog,” the woman replies. “We’ve just put in new hardwood floors. She’s has goldfish and a turtle.”
“I just take her here so she can play with other people’s dogs. I don’t want the mess at home.”
I look at Emma playing with Buster. I feel bad that she’s not getting a dog. They’re one of life’s great joys. Then again, I like playing with my friends’ children but don’t have any of my own. Not that I’m equating children with dogs mind you.
“Well,” the woman says standing up. “We need to be going. It’s getting too cold to sit out here.”
“You’re right,” I say. “I was about to leave myself. “
“It was nice talking to you,” the woman says.
“Same here. Have a nice evening.”
The woman collects her daughter and drives away in a very expensive car. I leash up Buster, get into my several orders of magnitude less expensive car, and drive home. By the time I pull up to my building the sun is a dim memory in the sky. The lights in my apartment glow welcomingly in the darkness. Inside a bottle of wine, a good book, and slow cooking roast await my return. Buster will sit in the warm kitchen and whine until I pull dinner comes out of the oven. The perfect end to the first cold day.
I just wish Emma could get a dog too.