It's the Sunday before Memorial Day. Don's home while Jonah naps, thank God, so I'm taking Eliza to buy groceries at Trader Joe's. She loves Trader Joe's because the guys there always give her a balloon. Eliza has an odd little obsession with balloons. She sees one and has to have it. But then, as if it were a seven-layer wedding cake or a nuclear warhead, everyone has to get out of her way when she's holding it. She walks slowly. Staring at it. And if it accidentally rubs against anything and makes that awful squeaky sound, she screams as if bloody worms were about to ooze from its nozzle and pull her hair. And yet she worships it. And hates herself for having to have one but loves it all the same. Basically, it's me with a York Peppermint Pattie.
We're in a hurry and I know I can't devote that kind of attention to a pink floating nuclear warhead, so I lay down the law -- "No balloons this time" -- as we tear through the store grabbing everything we need for our barbecue tomorrow. Turkey burgers, hot dogs, chips, salsa, and drinks... I load all the bags in the car, strap Eliza into her booster, and race down Ventura Boulevard.
Then I see Pier 1 and remember I'm supposed to get a patio umbrella. I pull into the parking lot. The only open spot is in the blazing hot sun. I think, Oh good. I can preheat the hamburger meat. I prep Eliza for a fast errand.
"Okay, monkey, we're just going in and getting the umbrella and going right home. You can help pick the color. But super fast, okay? Because we have meat in the car and don't want it to go bad."
"It's not bad. I love meatie!" she says. And she does love meat. Maybe it's her midwestern bloodline or some other primal carnivorous craving buried deep within. Eliza holds the string of the balloon I said she was forbidden to have. She stares at it as if eye contact alone will keep it from popping.
"That's right. Meat is good as long as it doesn't spoil. You understand, honey? If the burgers sit in the car too long, they can start cooking." She laughs at this. Then I tell her we have to leave the balloon in the car. She doesn't want to let it go. I have no time to negotiate. "If you bring it, it will pop." She's not buying it. "It will pop. And it will be very loud. And then it will die and everyone will cry." Done. It's not exactly a lie. It could pop. Whatever.
Inside, we head right to the patio umbrellas. They come in green, orange, and beige. Oh, and a striped one. I know we definitely don't want that one but can build a case in favor of any of the others. I hate how indecisive I am. Having seen and admired the R. J. Cutler documentary September Issue, I'd vowed to be more like Anna Wintour in my everyday life. Which color umbrella, Dan? says my inner Wintour. Don't be a pussy. Pick the right one or you're fired. Simple as that. There can only be one right choice.
Eliza reminds me that green is my favorite color. Yes. Green is good. But in a decidedly un-Anna Wintour move, I take out my BlackBerry and snap photos of the color choices and email them to Don. Meanwhile, a very cute twenty-something salesclerk approaches wearing this cool lime-colored polo shirt. He tells me he's a big fan of my work. "You were Billy on The Comeback!" I don't get recognized all that often so immediately I have the fantasy of asking him to come over and say it all again -- and this time, say it slower!
"I really loved The Comeback," he says -- a phrase, like the old "friend of Dorothy," which has come to mean "Yes. I am, indeed, gay." I love him. And not just because he loves me. He heads to the basement to find a nine-foot green umbrella since the floor samples are too small.
"Your daughter's adorable," he says over his shoulder. I smile, thinking, So are you. But I don't say it, of course. I'm not that guy, either. Then I look around. Where is my "adorable" daughter? Just before going to the panic place, I see her emptying a basket of colorful animal-shaped soaps onto the floor in aisle five. I run over.
"Bet those animals are pretty clean, huh?"
"Smell, Daddy!" She holds one up to my nose.
"Mmm..." I almost gag. It's cherry or berry or, wait, yes -- it smells like a urinal puck. I want to sneeze. I think about the hamburger meat in the back of my car. Shit! I have to hurry.
"No, sweetie, we're not buying soaps today," I say.
"Just one, D-D? Just for today?" she asks, her eyes begging. D-D is what she calls me when she wants something.
CuteGaySalesGuy comes back just in time for me to demonstrate how sweet yet firm I can be. I feel myself unconsciously suck in my stomach. "Eliza, you were smart to pick the cute soaps, but we can't buy--"
"I have to go potty, Daddy!" she cuts me off, jumping up to her feet.
CuteGaySalesGuy leans the various umbrellas against the counter. Eliza retreats behind my leg. "How'd you go about becoming a dad?" he asks.
I love that he's asked. What a great opportunity to tell him about the process, to encourage him, to be a role model. I want to give him a conscientious answer, but Eliza has to pee and my car is transforming into an In-N-Out Burger.
"We adopted. But listen. Don't go anywhere," I tell him, "we're going potty." I don't want him to think I'm blowing him off.
Eliza and I step into the men's room. I hate public restrooms. Just because men can pee standing up doesn't mean we should pee hopping on one foot. How else to explain the urine on every single surface? Eliza and I have a rule we chant over and over as we step into bathrooms: "Don't touch anything. Don't touch anything." And we don't.
To prep her bum for perching, I wrap the seat in layers of toilet paper like some intricate Egyptian mummification process. I listen for a tinkle. I don't hear anything.
"Go pee-pee, monkey... we have to hurry." I feel guilty for rushing her but will feel even worse if two hundred bucks' worth of food is ruined and CuteGaySalesGuy doesn't get to adopt. Finally I hear a short tinkle. Now we're talking. Eliza wipes, pulls up her pants, and flushes. We wash our hands. I'm rushing as always but I make up little songs as I rush, hoping not to stress her out.
"Get our fingers in the water and then rub, rub, rub. Then the soap, do it quickly and then rub, rub, rub. Rinse and grab a paper towel. Grab it. Now. Now. Now!" She sees right through my game.
"I'm going as fast as I can, Daddy," she says. Which, frankly, is a much sweeter way of saying, Cool your jets, bitch, you're stressing me out. And incidentally, Papi is waiting for us at home so you may want to tone down the flirting. Which I would deserve.
"Stop singing," she says. I smile. She's right. I count to ten in my head.
"Let's go, Eliza," I plead.
"I'm coming, Daddy, I'm coming." I run up to the cashier's desk as I hear the chime of my BlackBerry. Don likes the striped umbrella. What? I apologize to CuteGaySalesGuy for his trouble and get him to sell me the floor model of the striped one.
"I don't need the box. I have groceries in the car and it's hot and..." Eliza rolls her eyes. When did she start doing that? She's five! And have I really mentioned the groceries that many times?
CuteGaySalesGuy pulls down the floor model. He seems eager to chat. "How long did it take you guys to adopt?"
I want to tell him my story. I want to be encouraging. I have a responsibility, don't I, to the gay dads of the future?
"Come on, Daddy, let's go!" Eliza is whining. Perfect. It's like my value as a father, my identity as a gay man, my ability to pay it forward, and my skills as a barbecue host are all being tested. And I'm failing at all of them. But come on. Right now my single responsibility, besides watching my daughter, is to get that fucking meat home! Why did I have to buy the umbrella and grocery shop and take Eliza all at the same time? Why did I agree to host a stupid barbecue? Why did I agree to do all the prep and planning? Why did I agree to have kids? I've definitely bitten off more than I can chew. But I'm sure Anna Wintour could handle it. As I'm digging for my credit card, I try to give CuteGaySalesGuy some helpful information.
"It took eighteen months," I say, "from the time we met with a lawyer to the time we took Eliza home. Best thing that ever happened to me -- to us." I hate how cliché and preachy I'm starting to sound. I go on, "But that's just me. I'm not one of those people who think you don't know what love is till you have a kid. Of course you do! I mean, I loved a lot of people before having kids -- and things. Pad Thai, for example. Love it. Always have." I remember that the last time the kids heard me speak of my love of pad Thai, Eliza asked me if I wanted to marry it. The answer, of course, is yes. But I think the gay plate is kind of full, so to speak, on the marriage equality fight already. Plus I think filing joint taxes with a bowl of rice noodles and fish sauce could get tricky.
He laughs a little, then stares at me blankly, not knowing how to take what I'm saying. I don't blame him. I just likened my kids to an Asian entrée. I'm self-conscious. "I just mean, parenthood... it's fantastic but not for everyone. Is there a dolly I could wheel this out with?"
Eliza tugs at my pants, whispering, "Daddy, I have to go poopie." What? She did not just say what I think she said! We were just in the bathroom and there was no mention of a poopie. I don't have time for poopie. Poopie was not in the picture.
"Eliza, I'm paying and then we can go poopie at home, okay?"
"No! I have to go right now!" She starts to cry. CuteGaySalesGuy notices. I'm a better daddy than this. I hand him my credit card.
"Why don't you run my card. I'll be right back," I say, forcing a smile though there's clearly panic in my voice and fury in my eyes. He smiles empathetically. I fall in love with him just a little more. I have a quarter-second fantasy about my life with CuteGaySalesGuy -- driving around in a Range Rover, our child who never has to go poopie in the car seat and a whole aisle of Pier 1 loot we scored with his employee discount in the trunk. Oh, and he's not wearing a shirt. And I look like Ricky Martin. What? It's my fantasy. Or was. Eliza's still crying.
"I know," he says, "you have meat in the car." He smiles. Winks, maybe? Or I imagined that. I'm mortified. I run to the bathroom with Eliza.
"Don't-touch-anything-don't-touch-anything!" I chant, faster than usual. I gift wrap the toilet seat again and Eliza sits. But nothing happens. She shrugs.
"Don't look at me, Daddy. I don't want you to see my poopie face." I didn't realize my daughter had a "poopie face," but I do as I'm told, facing the wall. I position myself so I can glance in the mirror at her adorable mozzarella face as she squeezes out a turd. She really is the cutest thing I've ever seen. How did I get so lucky? So blessed. So -- shit! The meat. I turn to face Eliza.
"Is that it, sweetie?" Nope. I turn again. She starts chatting now that she's comfortable. And relaxed. Why shouldn't she be? So adorable and infuriating. I try to appeal to her, calmly and rationally.
"Eliza? Remember all the food we bought together? All those yummy hamburgers and hot dogs we're going to make? Yeah. Well, Daddy's got to get that food home so we don't have to throw it all in the trash. Okay? So will you do Daddy a big, super big favor and go potty right now so we can get home before it's too late?" A part of me is hoping a little added stress may jolt the crap right out of her. Literally. But come on! She did beg to go to the bathroom only three minutes ago.
What's the use? By now there's probably a hungry, ketchup-carrying crowd lining up behind my car, and I've undermined the future of the gay movement by failing to deliver more than a few cursory words when I should have been inspirational. And here I am, facing a pee-stained wall at the Pier 1 Imports' men's room -- all for a tacky striped umbrella I've decided to buy because I am nothing like Anna Wintour.
Finally she's done and we flee to the checkout. CuteGaySalesGuy has given me thirty percent off! I'm speechless. "Floor model discount," he says, smiling at me. Oh my God. Should I ask him out? Oh no, right. I have a kid. And another one at home. And I'm married! Hellooo? I sign the receipt, thank him profusely, and wish him luck.
"Definitely check out Vista Del Mar adoption services," I say, dragging Eliza and my new umbrella toward the car.
I hope I've done my duty to future gay dads. Because I definitely have not done my duty as a dad, to be patient and loving and understanding of my five-year-old, who didn't ask to be dragged around on errands with me, even if I did cave on the balloon thing. The only one who's done her duty today -- in both senses of the word -- is Eliza. And good for her for taking care of herself. Because after all the stress and anxiety I put myself through, the meat was fine. And CuteGaySalesGuy? I can't be responsible for him and his parenting choices. Right? What do I look like? Let him Google "gay adoption" if he needs more hand-holding. Not my problem. And he shouldn't wear lime. Not that shade of lime, anyway. What is this, Miami?
Oooh. That feels good. Very out of character for me. And very Anna Wintour.
From Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight? by Dan Bucatinsky. Copyright © 2012 by Myrio, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.