The sound of the doorbell was followed by echoing thumps of a basketball on the wooden floor of our front porch. I put my hand up as a visor against the glaring afternoon sun and recognized Louis, my 8-year-old son Harry's friend from across the street. The boy I didn't know, the one now spinning the ball on his forefinger, was tall and looked older than Louis' 9 years. I guessed he'd come home with Louis after a day at summer basketball camp.
"Hey, Louis," I said, opening the screen door to let them in. "What's up?"
"This is Marcus. Can Harry play?"
"Nice to meet you, Marcus," I said. The kid was muscular for his age, and his hand wrapped easily around the ball. Even though Louis was in a Michael Jordan Bulls jersey, it was Marcus who looked like a b-ball prodigy. "Harry's in his room. Go on up."
As the boys ran upstairs, I felt a twinge of panic. It was 1998, and Harry knew that there were kids, and adults too, who thought that some toys were only for girls. Surely Marcus didn't have any Barbies or a dress-up box in his room. Had I just set up my son to be teased in the safety of his own room? I was mad at myself for not calling Harry downstairs instead of sending a new boy up.
I sprinted up the stairs and walked into Harry's bedroom on the heels of his visitors. Harry was holding his hamster, Hammy. Louis moved to hold her, while Marcus scanned the room.
"You guys have fun," I said, turning to leave.
I took obviously heavy steps down the landing stairs. Then I tiptoed back up and leaned tightly against the door frame of the guest room next to Harry's bedroom. Ears perked like a military guard dog, and poised to make an emergency intervention, I strained to hear every word in the next room.
"That's a girls' toy," Marcus said.
I took a deep breath.
"I know," Harry replied.
"Why do you have that?"
"For when girls come over."
I nodded approvingly, impressed that Harry had countered with such a great, deflective answer. A few minutes of silence followed. I pressed my head closer to the doorjamb.
"Can I play with it?"
"Sure," Harry said.
Next I heard the pull-string of the Sky Dancer toy that sat on its launcher base atop Harry's dresser. Then came the whirring sound of its propeller arm-wings before a crash signaled that the flying doll had hit the wall.
"This is cool!" Marcus said excitedly. "I wish I had one!"
"The boys' version doesn't work that good," Louis piped in.
"I know!" Harry asserted.
I'd bought Harry the boys' version, Dragon Flyz, for a little balance in gendered toys, but it had been quickly relegated to the bottom of the toy box.
"It works better over the stairs," my son added.
I darted back to the landing. Then, with heart hammering, by some miracle I was walking calmly up the top two stairs as the three Sky Dancer fans entered the open hallway.
The princess fairy was in Marcus' hands. He stopped when he saw me, but I cued a smile to indicate that it was OK to let the flying doll rip. A second later Harry's Sky Dancer was winging her way down to the first floor. And three boys were happily playing with a cool girls' toy.