The other day was Derek's birthday, which meant he was the boss. This is probably a parenting mistake, but that's our policy: whichever kid has the birthday has the sole right to choreograph the party down to the last quirky detail, from the flamboyant food, to the strict and subjective guest list. I think the policy started four years ago when Amanda and I first moved to L.A. and were eager to coddle our kids (having yanked them out of their Manhattan pre-schools and across the country) with the once-a-year illusion that things were totally their call. For Derek especially -- the middle child -- it seems important to make things his call. Derek called a knights party.
"Knights like medieval knights? Or, you know, dark nights."
"Mmmmm...there'll be one dark knight."
"With swords. No, no swords. Water balloons."
His eyes were wild as he invented. "And my blocks all set up like a castle. You have to set them all up like a castle. Or Mom. With five turrets. Because I'm going to be five."
"And you're the dark knight."
"And we're the good knights. All the kids at the party are good. But -- sorry, dad. You're bad."
The other thing about our birthday parties -- if you haven't picked up on this -- is that they're fairly low-class. Kids' birthday parties in L.A. are freaking gala affairs. Parents serve brie and wine, hire magicians fresh off Leno appearances, import carnival rides and reconstitute entire zoos in their landscaped backyards. I've been to three "puppy parties," during which a fresh litter of newborn dogs is provided for fondling and ear-grabbing by toddlers before being whisked away in time for catered cake. Our cake isn't catered. We have only one dog, she's old, and she bites. We don't, quite frankly, have a lot of extra money -- but more than that, we don't have the style or savoir-faire to pull off the caliber of event apparently called for. We've got the Policy. We've got some kind of vague faith in the merits of old-fashioned slovenly fun. And that's it.
So we found a few boxes of discounted plastic breastplates and helmets online. We planned the party for a Friday afternoon when Derek's older sister would be at school, making him number one for once in his life. I stacked his blocks into a teetering castle wall in the backyard. Amanda baked a lopsided cake and stuck on Lego knights. We cut some old boxes into turretlike shapes and taped them to the walls of the porch around a rusty picnic table. The kids -- a dozen rowdy boys and three or four girls Derek thought of as boys -- arrived promptly with their moms, rioted outside, saw no gigantic bouncy castle and spent six seconds kicking my medieval wall to rubble. Pizza was served and half-eaten. Breastplates were donned. Helmets patted onto heads. And it was showtime.
"Deeeeeeee-rek," I growled loudly through our upstairs bedroom window, reciting the lines he'd assigned me. "Deeeeeee-rek! I am the Dark Knight, and I shall defeat you! Your friends cannot defend you against the wrath of the Dark Knight! On your birthday! I am coming for you!"
"For thee!" he shouted from the backyard.
"For thee! Beware! As here I come!"
I shuffled through the house toward the back door: not easy, as Amanda had wrapped me head-to-toe in tin foil that was loosening and rattling down my legs and arms as I walked. The child-sized plastic helmet was popping off the top of my head, so I half-hid behind the cardboard shield I'd coated in metallic duct tape. The first enemy I encountered was the battalion of moms huddled by the back door, the Order of the Ladies Lacking Brie -- but they turned to smile surprisingly warmly over their cans of Diet Coke. He's unemployed, isn't he, their smiles said. I raised my shield and stepped onto the lawn to face the gathering horde that Amanda was arming, according to instructions, with water balloons from a plastic laundry basket full of them.
"Thou shalt not --"
But I tripped. Paused to rewrap the foil on my leg. And looked up in time to be crushed in the face by the first freezing-cold balloon.
"Get him!" Derek hollered. I would have thought the script called for Throw at him!, so this disturbed me somewhat as I wiped my eyes, looked quickly for my helmet, and thought to lift my shield when another balloon smashed and drenched my shoulder. Several missed -- "A-ha! Thou shall never defeat the Dark Kni--" -- before I was blinded by another crashing bullseye to the forehead. When I recovered they had surrounded me, crowding in on me, and I saw in their bright helmeted faces the kind of unbridled boyish zeal that cannot be conjured by CAA-repped magicians or invertebrate puppies. Yet I also saw something else: something deeper and meaner, more primal. A little hand ripped off a chunk of my arm foil. Another punched me in the back. One of the girls neatly snatched away my shield, and a small Persian boy had found a large stick on the lawn that he held over his head as he advanced. I glanced toward the moms. Their merry warmth had been replaced by terror: faces stricken, sodas lowered, knees bent to run. I had time to think, 'Keep your feet, don't go down, they can't hurt you if you don't go down' before two twin brothers leapt on my back and I went down.
There were screams somewhere, and a hard thumping on my ribs that meant I was being kicked. The shredding of aluminum was deafening. Names were called ("Tyler! Nooooooo!" and "Mason! Mason!") but it was hard to hear them through the cold crashing of water balloons. By the time I'd been defoiled and defeated and had stopped resisting long enough to bore the mob, two girls were crying loudly in the arms of their mothers and the boys had moved on to a tin foil fight on the porch. Only Derek remained, crouched over me where I lay in fetal position, one shoe off, in the mud.
"Hey, dad," he said. "Dad."
He patted me delicately on the back. "That was me who got you first."
So it was.