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Secrets and Lice

4:15. Lola’s mom rings the doorbell. I run upstairs to let her in, thinking how great this play date has gone. You see, my daughter, Zoe, is just entering her Winter Cotillion Coming-Out Season. In the South, this kind of socializing occurs around one’s 16th birthday, and involves grand balls with traditional dancing and months of preparation. In Scarsdale, we introduce our children to society much younger and without most of the hoopla.

At three and a half, Zoe is making the rounds formally with her preschool friends’ mommies and babysitters, getting escorted from school in foreign car seats, and being jettisoned off to other people’s playrooms for an hour or two of snack time and creative play. She is enjoying unfamiliar delicacies like fruit roll-ups and traveling to new vistas. Heathcote one day, Greenacres the next.

At long last, my daughter is experiencing the height of preschool sophistication. She is going independently on play dates. And so, to return the favor, I also host her cute little friends at our Fox Meadow home.

I feel some pressure about this. Will I have the right kind of snacks to please this unfamiliar half-pint now standing in my kitchen and perusing the cabinets with Zoe, hands on hips? Will the brand, flavor, and quantity of juice options suffice? How many times should I ask Zoe’s friend if she has to make pee pee? And, always, the big question lingers: what will I do if the girls don’t get along?

But no worries today. Lola has been a pure delight. She more than approves of Zoe’s collection of cheesy Disney princess dress-up and has been hobbling around the basement in Cinderella heels for the past twenty minutes, with a sparkly purse dangling from a chain on her wrist. She and Zoe have invented a game they call “sister” in which they, well, call each other sister. They are busy preparing a play dough picnic when the doorbell rings.

We are “new” friends, Lola’s mom and I. We seem like-minded and could probably become good friends if either one of us had the time to sit for coffee. The fact that our daughters like each other is a nice start, and the promise of future play dates is made. Plus, Lola’s mom notices, we have the same chandelier! Friendship is surely on the horizon.

Just then Lola comes up from the playroom. “Hi, mommy.”

“Hi, there, sweetie! Did you have a fun time with Zoe?” Lola’s mom asks, bending down to give her daughter a hug.

“Yes! Yes!” Lola coos. I am about to congratulate myself when Zoe joins the group. She does not look happy, and points at Lola’s head.

“That’s MY headband. I want it back. NOW.” Being the younger child in my family, Zoe has never been afraid to fight for what she wants. Lola is also the youngest in her family, and therefore, cannot be bullied by the likes of Zoe. She is scrappy and feisty and holds on to that headband with the kind of fierce determination not seen since 1984 when Vanessa Williams fought to keep her Miss America crown.

“No!” Lola screams. “Yes!” Zoe screams back.

A cat-fight ensues. Lola’s mom and I are almost shocked into inaction. I actually laugh. Then we snap out of it and try to peel the toddlers apart before there is blood. Zoe is on the verge of decking Lola with an upper-cut to the left when Lola’s mom scoops up her daughter, grabs their belongings, and takes Lola barefoot and headband-less out to their waiting mini-van.

My own frantic heartbeat is now the only sound left in the entry hall. I shut the door, take a deep cleansing breath, and turn to Zoe. She smiles at me and slides the silver J Crew headband over her hair.

I am wondering if a fledgling friendship with Lola’s mom can survive this type of catastrophe when, two days later, I receive an email from her. The header is “Not Such Good News.” That’s not promising, I think, double-clicking the icon.

Lola has lice.

Now this doesn’t bother me as much as it would bother some. I appreciate the heads-up from mom (pun somewhat intended) and put the name of the famed Scarsdale Nitpicker into my phone in case I needed to speed dial her at some later date. I immediately round up all headbands, princess crowns, and other dress-up paraphernalia and place them in plastic bags to suffocate any lice that might be trying to hatch there. “Die, suckers, die!!!” I cackle, which feels rather good.

Since Zoe and Lola are in the same preschool class, Zoe too must have been checked, and unlike Lola, found clean.

At least for the time being.

When I arrive at school for pick-up, I am greeted by one of those signs on the classroom door: Impending Doom! Your Child Has Been Exposed! The appropriate boxes are checked off in red. Pink eye? Strep? Typhus? Radon? Peanut Butter? Weapons of Mass Destruction? There’s so much to be afraid of these days, I’m amazed the list is contained to one page and that it isn’t glowing or oozing. A group of moms is whispering to the left of the sign. “Do you know who it is?” They ask. The anonymity and secrecy of the form – knowing someone has lice but not knowing which someone – is killing them. Armed with the answer makes me feel kind of cool. But then I think about why I am privy to this private information (“hey, lady: your kid might be next”) and stop gloating.

I am not a nosy person in general. But I am somewhat ashamed to say that, when presented with one of those Cholera forms, I always try to figure out who the carrier is. I know I am not alone in this. I don’t want to know the information so that I can alienate the child or fault the parents. I am not looking for a Hester Prynne to make an example of. I just feel like information is power; it gives me a (perhaps false) feeling of control. I have even been known to quiz my son in order to determine who in his first grade class has strep.

What? You thought I was perfect?

Meanwhile, in order to contain the lice, Zoe’s preschool class clears out all bedding, dress-up clothing, soft toys, and carpeting. By the end of the week, the place looks rather depressing, with children wandering around mumbling to their hands as if they were puppets, with no place to sit comfortably.

Still, the preschool families carry on. On the evening before the second lice check, there is a cocktail party for the parents in Zoe and Lola’s class. It is a lovely get-together, sophisticated and friendly. One friend has gotten her hair blown straight for the occasion. Another, donned almost 24/7 in workout pants, wears heels. It feels nice to be so social in January. Like a grown-up playdate, complete with dress-up.

The next morning there is indeed bad news from the preschool: two more cases of lice have been discovered. What’s more, the moms of the two infected children have lice as well. I try to remain calm as a flashback forms of the night before. Did I bump heads with anyone at the soire? Share hats? How far can these buggers jump, anyway?

Word on the street is that Pantene conditioner should be combed through one’s hair and left on for ten minutes. Done weekly, this can ward off lice. I think the class moms should run to CVS and get supplies for everyone. I also think that I should buy stock in Proctor and Gamble and consider going to school for my Nitpicker’s license. There are areas of our economy that are strong, after all!

I hear that LiceEnders is visiting the middle school that day, so I go over and get in line, trying to blend in with some Popham sixth graders. I emerge from the nurse’s office clean, though not without some funny looks from the staff.

“Didn’t you resign from here?” One teacher asks, not unkindly.

“Yeah, but I can’t resist the free lice checks!” I laugh. “I’m a recessionista, remember?”

“I personally don’t see what the big deal is.” Another teacher shrugs. “It’s not like an STD. I mean, to qualify for lice, all you have to do is live. It shouldn’t be so taboo.” There are nods all around.

Ah, society. Zoe has faced her first Winter Cotillion and emerged relatively unscathed. I am happy to report that she and Lola have made-up and are back to sharing toys, though headbands are verboten.

Lola’s mom and I are on our way as well. Last weekend, at a birthday party, she and I chatted over pizza and cake.

“You know, I was thinking. You should really write about this lice thing,” she suggested.

Giving me an idea for an article? Letting me share her secret with all of Scarsdale? Now that’s someone I’d like to be friends with.

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