Isabella likes to eat her pizza in layers. First she peals back the congealed orangey-white cheese. It is greasy on her fingers. That is what makes it so good. Then she goes for the floppy thin crust, its pale white landscape stained with streams of red tomato sauce, some of which always ends up on her face. Isabella prefers “the soft part” of her pizza, saving the hardest flakes of crust to feed to the pigeons that scurry beneath the picnic table we are sharing outside the Whole Foods Market in Berkeley.
Her mother eats a bahn mi sandwich dripping with a creamy peach-colored dressing. Her grandmother eats a salad. I scroll through my phone while finishing an organic banana smeared with honey-roasted peanut butter.
Isabella is four and a half years old. Actually, she is almost five. Her birthday is October 8th. It is a very good time of year to have a birthday. This fall Isabella will be in Kindergarten, but right now she is in summer camp. School will not start until September. It is a long time to wait.
“Are you a teacher?” her mother asks me.
“I have been a great many things,” I tell her. “But for now, I am a writer.”
“Well, you’re very good with children,” she says. “You seem to take to her easily.”
I smile at what I take to be a compliment.
“I have a four-year-old niece,” I explain. And I marvel at how much that has changed me.
Isabella doesn’t like being sick. She is only just getting over a summer cold and summer colds are the worst kind to have. Sometimes she forgets to pick the boogers out of her nose and all of them get stuck there. This, Isabella believes, is why she gets sick. After revealing this, she decides that she does not pick her boogers anymore. It is only something she used to do. When she was younger. But now she has learned.
Isabella gives me pieces of her pizza crust and tells me to feed the pigeons. We toss them softly and they fall to the pavement at odd angles. The pigeons always find them. Sometimes they even catch them in their mouths. “Beaks,” Isabella corrects me. Pigeons do not have mouths.
Isabella recently watched a show on birds that live in the Amazon. Blue birds she says, her eyes big as saucers, her braided pigtails swinging back and forth as she imitates the flight of the birds. Isabella goes on to tell me about dinosaurs, asking me if they really area all gone. I say I think so. Or at least, I have never seen a dinosaur. I am suddenly saddened by the loss of the dinosaurs and hesitate to say anything more definitive than this.
Isabella is from Brooklyn. On Wednesday morning she took two airplanes to get to California. She is visiting another grandmother who is in the hospital. But more importantly, Isabella is going down the very tall twirly slide. The one in California. She asks if I have seen it. Surely I have, since I actually live here. I think Isabella’s California must be quite a bit smaller than mine. I tell her no, I have not been to the twirly slide, but I will try to find it.
Isabella’s mother tells her she must finish her pizza. It is time to “get going,” as parents say. But Isabella is busy playing with the hinged triangle of her pizza box. “It is a triangle shield,” she announces, using it to separate herself from the pigeons.
Once Isabella has finished the last of her pizza, her mother dips a napkin into a paper cup of water and reaches across the table to wipe the dried sauce from Isabella’s red-orange lips. The trio get up from their seats, the grandmother gathering the trash. The mother gathering Isabella.
“It was delightful to meet you,” I say. And by “you” I mean Isabella. As she walks toward the parking lot, I pack up my own lunch sack and decide to find the tallest twirly slide in California.