It's 8:30. Baths are done, the kids' teeth have been brushed for the mandated seven seconds, and it's time for bed. Which for my 6-year-old, still means a story.
Only my son is tired of the old standbys. We've exhausted Hans Christian Anderson, and I'm avoiding Pinocchio. James is at that stage where he keeps drawing raucous comparisons between Pinocchio's telescoping nose and his own... let's just say for now we're skipping stories about wooden boys.
So tonight James is bored, like my agent, and demanding new material, like my agent.
"Daddy, make up a story!"
As anyone can tell you who has read Bruno Bettelheim's classic, The Uses of Enchantment (I haven't), the most timeless and enduring fairy tales evolve from deep inner human conflicts. Universal problems which, according to Bettelheim, ". . . seem incomprehensible and hence unsolvable." That's why they resonate.
This holds true as well for my made-up fairy tales. Which means that on this night, in honoring my son's request for a new story, I go with my most recent obsession.
"Once upon a time," I begin, "Daddy had a jawline."
James stares at me blankly.
"A jawline, James, so chiseled that it could slice through a thicket of thorny brambles. A jawline, my son, that in the '80s turned the heads of some of the most desirable princes on the island of Manhattan. A jawline, baby boy" -- and I pause for effect -- "Audrey Hepburn would have killed for."
"Audrey who?" drones James, his clueless eyes confirming what researchers have stated for years, that a child's sexual orientation is firmly set by the age of four.
I attempt launching into Audrey's extensive filmography, but James is having none of it.
"I don't like this story."
"Trust me, it's really, really good. The bad guy . . . is Time."
"I want this," he says, handing me a book. And for the fifth time this February, we begin Tow Mater Saves Christmas.
James doesn't give a damn about his dad's deep inner conflict, and why should he? He couldn't care less about the incomprehensible and hence unsolvable problem of my sagging flesh. But tonight he's the loser. James loves scary stories, and there is nothing more terrifying than a jawline being swallowed by a neck.
All this began about four years ago. Bodies and minds begin the ugly joke of betraying their owners sometime after 40. I'm a good bit past that. I began to suspect something more serious -- premature senility, to be exact -- the day it became clear that my neck had lost every memory of how it's supposed to look. Turtlenecks that once gave me a sleek, faux-hottie appearance at holiday parties have now become sad knit retaining walls struggling to hold back a mudslide of skin.
Technology used to make me feel young. Smartphones, iPads, I was always the first on my block. I felt so zippy and hip with my texting and apps. I was especially thrilled with the advent of Skype, which makes possible a magical feat: being able to see the people you need to call but would do just about anything to avoid being in the same room with. I was enjoying this delightful innovation one afternoon a few months ago with David, a college friend I've not seen in over a decade, when he casually remarked, "Hey, what is it they call that thing under your chin? Is that a wattle?" I no longer Skype.
Recently my 10-year-old daughter began playing with it. The wattle. Playing with it. Swinging Daddy's swooping neck back and forth like some hideous hammock of flesh. Elizabeth soon grew tired of this game and stated flatly, "Daddy, you need to get this thing grilled off." Grilled off? I have no idea what that means, but I agree completely.
My husband says no way. He's adamant on this subject; plastic surgery is a deal-breaker. Kelly belongs to that rare species you occasionally read about in obscure medical journals: the gay man without vanity. He says he has no problem with my thickening neck. Or waistline, he adds unnecessarily. Circle of life, he calls it. Easy to say when you're 12 years younger and your circle hasn't started to sag.
"You can't turn back time. Embrace the future," says the man who still uses the clock radio he got in junior high. I point out the irony.
"There's nothing wrong with my clock radio," he says. "It works great and so does your neck. You're not changing either one."
I remind him that his clock radio still looks exactly the same as it did in 1982. If that were true of my neck, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
So I Photoshop it.
It's free, it's fast and I've become really good at it. In minutes I can adjust any unflattering photo, restoring my failing jawline to what it still looks like in my mind, one so chiseled it really could slice through a thicket of thorny brambles.
I recommend that you learn to do this. You'll feel a million times better the next time you see that photo of yourself that only last week you mistook for a stranger smuggling a blowfish under his chin.
Then you too can make up bedtime stories for your bored, straight child that end like this:
"And so, Time was vanquished, the handsome prince was restored his rightful jawline, and he and his neck lived happily ever after." In photos.
This post is the third in a series of Spilled Milk columns by William Lucas Walker that chronicle his journey through parenthood.
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