We wind our way up and over the bridge, leaving downtown New Orleans behind us. The Mississippi River, appears below us in all its torturously winding, self-reversing glory. The sky is gorgeous in the late afternoon. We’re heading to our favorite Vietnamese place.
Up on the span of the bridge I ask my five-year-old girl about the day. Nine times out of ten I get nothing. I can recall being her age and returning from school to the overwhelming question, “How was your day?” The only possible answer was a single non-word, (good, fine, OK) or, more honestly, silence. On another level though, I often feel hurt by the way she crosses her arms, furrows her eyebrows in exasperation, as though I have again said something stupid. Often she refuses to give me even one word.
But before this little cycle can kick in I remember that there was a special event that day.
“Wait! Oh my God, the dentist!” I say. “How was the trip to the dentist?”
“I have two loose teeth!”
“My bottom two teeth are loose!”
“No way.” I look at my wife. “Is it true?”
“But she’s five!”
“I have two loose teeth!” She is elated at their looseness, or my distress, or both.
“How old are people when they lose their baby teeth?” I say. “I thought that was like, seven.”
“I guess it varies,” says my wife. “And they’re just loose. They’re not out.”
The moment passes. We eat with our friends and their kids; it’s a regular thing, the two families at this place. It’s their boy’s first birthday. He’s one month younger than our boy. There is a cake. Afterwards, standing outside beside the bereft parking lot, which I find so strangely thrilling, with the closed bowling alley and the “Nail Supply 2000″ sign, the kids run around, laughing and burning off the sugar while the parents talk.
My parental willpower wobbles in the face of the long dusks, these long summer days that bleed into nights. Bedtime requires a hardness of will. But the air is so soft, the light so gentle, and the news of her wobbly teeth make me want to savor the moment. So when we get home, my wife takes the baby inside, and Evangeline and I have an adventure in Audubon Park, just the two of us.
We take some bread for the ducks. Evangeline throws crumbs at them, gets excited about duck chicks, and then negotiates with the geese. After a while she come over and says, “I think the geese over there are less aggressive.”
I need a beat to process that she just said, “aggressive.”
“I’m going to take you to the monkey rock,” I say.
“Why is it called the monkey rock?”
“Because it looks like a monkey,” I say. “Or because you will look like a monkey climbing it.”
The golf course is empty in the fading light. We see the strange jutting rock and race over the manicured green grass. I point to a few bumps and try to sell it as a monkey. She is not buying. However she does climb the rock. Halfway up she needs a push. She makes it to the top.
Then she jumps off. It looks like it is made of volcanic lava. But if there was ever a landscape that was not volcanic, it is New Orleans. I later discover I conflated two local myths. This one is “the meteor,” rumored to be an asteroid. There is also “Monkey Hill,” which urban legend claimed the WPA built to show the children of New Orleans what a hill looks like.
After a while Evangeline insists we go to the playground to swing. Against a nearly dark sky she rises and falls. The playground is mostly empty now. It’s like last call for kids.
On the way home I offer her a ride on my shoulders. We used to have huge fights because she would begin every expedition by shouting, “Shoulders!” It’s been a while since she did that, and now I offer her a ride. She accepts.
At home I hustle her through brushing teeth. Then my wife points out I forgot the vitamins. So I give her vitamins, then another brushing of the teeth. There is much slowing down and procrastinating. She insists she is not sleepy.
“Don’t start,” I say.
“But Daddy!” she wails. “The night is so long!”
“Don’t start,” I say, loudly, almost a yell. The good feelings cannot survive bed time, I think. It’s infuriating. But then she is in bed and I read her Little Quack while she plays with her little animals. She is licking her hand and petting her favorite animal.
“Don’t do that,” I say. “Why are you doing that?”
“Leopard needs his bath.”
I go back to reading the book. Then, towards the end, she looks up from my shoulder and says, “Daddy could you start over? I wasn’t listening.”
“No, honey, you have to listen. I’m not starting over.”
“But Daddy…” Tears. Hysteria. “Daddy please! I wasn’t paying attention!”
“I’m going to keep reading. Next time pay attention.”
A terrible feeling comes over me; I am a hypocrite. All those moments of her babyhood and toddlerhood when I wasn’t paying attention. There is no going back for me — why not afford her that luxury of starting the book over? Strangers are constantly telling me, “Enjoy that baby!” when I am walking around with my son on my hip. They don’t need to tell me. When you have seen it go by so fast with your first kid, it chastens you.
And yet I read the next page. She weeps copiously.
“But Daddy, it’s so close to the end!”
This chokes me up for some reason. It is true. There are just a couple of pages left. I waver for a moment, then steel myself. You are the adult, I reminded myself. You cannot cave every time. It’s after 9:00 pm.
I decided to keep going. But before I read the last page, I reach over and put my index finger in her mouth and wiggle her two bottom teeth
“They don’t feel loose,” I say.
Her voice gets very low and mysterious, almost somber. “Only the dentist knows,” she says.
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