Five-year-old Ruby and her best friend Oli, age six, have come from Kalamazoo with their folks to see the shark exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium here in Chicago, but the sharks disappoint. The kids were expecting bigger. Fortunately, they’re preoccupied with other matters—they’re forming a band.
“It’s called the Dragons,” Oli says. “I’m the founder of it. We have two drums—rock drums—and three guitars. You can be the lead singer,” he tells me, unwittingly indulging my neither secret nor unique fantasy. Then he points to my boyfriend and adds: “Ben can play the drums. We’ll have three drums. It’ll be sweet.”
Ben asks Oli who his influences are while Ruby tries to clean her brand-new mermaid doll’s already grimy face with her thumb and some spit, mom-style.
“I like the White Stripes, DJ Shadow, Mogwai. Mostly I like to rock out,” Oli says.“I like Björk,” says Ruby. She also likes the movie Amélie. “Except for the part where the scary guy goes like this,” Ruby says, slowly drawing her hand down the side of her face.
On the way to dinner, Ruby says,“Hey-what’s-up guys?” to a group of strangers on the street.
I ask Oli how he spells his name.
“K-I-N-G-A-R-T-H-U-R,” he says.
After dinner, I find Ruby setting up Oli’s tiny chess set and Oli drawing a finely detailed cobra with a set of fancy markers. I ask if he wants to be an artist when he grows up.
“I’m already an artist,” he says.
“I’m an artist, too,” Ruby says, showing me a portrait of a woman in a red dress with a sparely drawn but intensely grimaced face. Ruby once made a drawing for Ben, but wrote BEN YOU I LVE. “Scissors can be a great idea,” she told me, cutting the words out and taping them back on in the correct order. Ruby says that when she grows up and marries Oli they’re going to have four horses, and three children named Dancer, Vixen, and Cupid.
“We’re already married,” Oli says. “Am I King Arthur? Are you Queen D.W.? Am I your husband? Are you my wife?” Ruby says yes to all of the above and Oli says, “OK, good,” but sometimes repeats the quiz immediately several more times in a row. Often there’s jumping involved. “I feel like reading,” Oli says, settling on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs even though he’s “more into chapter books.” “It has great illustrations,” he promises Ruby. They settle in close and Oli takes his time sounding out one or two bigger words, but reads carefully and with meaning.
Early the next morning, Ruby runs into my room. “Oh, what beautiful pajamas!” she says, peeling back all the covers to get a better look, only to leave me shivering when she spots a mirror and jumps off the bed. She puts her arms up like a tiger and roars into the mirror, then runs away. Ben and I once had an entire conversation with Ruby in which she never took her eyes off her reflection, making a different face for each question we asked her.
Ruby’s trying on some of my jewelry when she leans back on my bed and says dreamily, “Don’t you want to marry my Ben?” Later, she buys a jeweled crown for four dollars and wears it for the rest of the day.
Over lunch, Oli asks Ben if he lives with me. Ben says no.
“Do you love her?” Oli asks.
“I do,” Ben says.
“Like he loves her?” Oli asks, pointing to Ruby’s dad and mom. Ben nods. “Like I love her?” he says, pointing to Ruby.
“That’s cool,” Oli says. “Let’s get our heads out of here.”
Outside, Ruby says, “Hey-what’s-up?” to one more person on the street.
“Ruby, promise me you’ll never change,” I say.
“Okay,” she says, adjusting her crown.