Teenage WastelandBenjamin Percy
I worry about my daughter. Even though she’s only three, I can’t help but look at her sometimes — when she’s playing with an expired credit card or jabbering on a toy phone or biting thoughtfully on her crayon before adding one last purple scribble to her coloring book — and see the future.
In the future, she won’t want to snuggle in my lap. She won’t say I’m the best daddy ever and plant a wet smooch on my cheek. There will be I-hate-yous in the place of I-love-yous. There will be requests to drop her off a quarter-mile from school, to walk twenty yards behind her at the mall. There will be fast cars, ten thousand shoes and a hundred thousand text messages, slammed doors. And — for the love of God, no — boys.
The other day she asked me to cut out a paper heart. Then she crayoned red scribbles all over it and crushed it into her backpack. “What are you doing?” I asked, and she said, “I’m going to give my heart to Ethan at preschool.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I said. “Who is this Ethan guy?”
“He’s at preschool.” She pushed her hair out her eyes. “He called me poopyhead.”
“Wait. Back up. He called you poopyhead? And you’re going to give him a heart?”
“Because he’s my friend.”
I began to say, “What kind of little — ” and then my wife silenced me with a finger-jab to the ribs.
My daughter has big blue eyes, long golden hair, dimpled cheeks like thumbprint cookies. She laughs wildly, with her head thrown back, so that you can see all her tiny teeth. Her anger is just as theatrical, as she pooches out her lip and stomps her feet and throws herself on the floor, sobs, moans. “Ten years from now, good luck with that,” a friend of mine recently said, laying a comforting hand on my shoulder.
I will never be prepared for her to turn on me, but I am doing my best to prepare her for when the world turns on her.
I bought her a Spiderman costume. It’s pink. With a skirt. But it’s nonetheless a Spiderman costume. She wears it with ballet slippers. As an accessory she carries around chopsticks, which she imagines into daggers. “I’m Spiderman!” she says, and I say, “Yeah! Go get those bad guys!”
“Where?” she says, swinging her head around, her hair always a second behind her.
“Over there! In the hallway! There was a bad guy! I think he said his name was Ethan! Go poke him in the eye with your chopstick and tell him, stay away!”
Our favorite game is pretty ponies. She will place them in a horseshoe formation, some of them pink, some of them purple and pale blue, all of them with suns and stars and rainbows on their rumps that identify their powers and names. “So,” I say. “What’s the trouble?”
This is how we begin. The ponies have a kind of meeting to determine the trouble they must overcome. A marauding bear. Norovirus. Horse thieves. A car accident. Careless spending. Disrespectful behavior among the younger ponies. That kind of thing. The stories sometimes go on for an hour or more, with elaborate set pieces. Sometimes, as a bridge in the action, we brush their hair. But when the story wraps, Rainbow Dash imparts a lesson that always makes my daughter nod solemnly. “And that’s why we never, ever, ever trust Ethan the Clever Wolf, because he’s a filthy liar with bad intentions.”
I realize the pretty ponies can only do so much. I realize I can only do so much. I realize she won’t be mine to cradle and protect forever.
My son, who is seven, has become fixated on college lately. “When I go to college,” he says, “I’m going to live in New York City. Then I won’t have to drive.”
My daughter interrupts him by saying, “I’m not going to college.”
“Yes, you are,” I say. I know — she’s three. But I can’t help myself. Pure reflex.
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, because then I have to be a teenager, and I don’t want to be a teenager. I just want to be a little big girl.”
“Oh,” I say and crush her into a hug. “In that case, okay.”