I took Holden to dinner the other night. Justine was off doing something. Probably seeing a musical. The woman loves musicals. Put folks in tights and have them burst into spontaneous song, and my wife is tickled all shades of giddy. It was just the boy and I on a Man’s Night Out. We get a few of these a month, and the routine is pretty much the same. Holden gets to pick where to eat, and we always get ice cream. Am I trying to buy my son’s love? Yes. Yes, I am.
We went to my favorite restaurant, a Korean BBQ joint on Solano Ave., in Berkeley. Truth is if I let Holden choose freely, he will go pizza, every time. We have to narrow choices down a bit. If I can sell the boy on a “fancy dinner,” any place with rice will do. (At three and a half, my son, fortunately, still believes rice equates to “fancy.” I will wait to tell him that the low-rent grain is actually filler as long as I benefits me financially.)
I picked up the kid from school, on a lovely, warm California evening, feeling happy to be alive. We’re having a nice early dinner, which means a nice early bedtime. With Justine out and the kid in bed by 8, I get to make a fresh pot of coffee and work on the new novel. (Yay, fun!)
Holden has his rice. I have my spicy meat wrapped in spicier meat. And the kid, knowing he’s getting ice cream and that Daddy is pretty lax with the rules, is hamming it up. I am talking Cute 4.0 Optimum XL Edition. And let’s face it, the byproduct of Justine and me, he’s pretty fucking cute.
Then they walked in.
I have a problem, I freely admit. I judge a book by its cover. It’s not a good trait, I know. True beauty is on the inside, I get it. But I can generally look at someone and decide within seconds that I hate them. And it’s not an attractive or unattractive thing, or even how someone dresses, if he or she is heavy, thin, somewhere in between. Sometimes it’s because I am a surly miserable curmudgeon; and sometimes it’s because people are just fucking awful, man.
These two girls in their early 20s sit down right beside our table (the early 20s are weird, and I never know what to call females at that age. “Girls” is condescending, “women” too old. And no one likes “ladies.” This isn’t the fucking 1800s. We’ll just go with girls, I guess). Immediately I can tell that if the human race were whittled down to just us three, humanity dies out. This goes beyond appearance. It’s a vibe, man. We are magnets clearly repelling.
Now I get that not everyone likes kids. There are plenty of people who don’t procreate, have no intention of breeding, and don’t get all squishy whenever they see a baby. But these two girls never look at the kid. Not even a cursory glance. Which is just weird. I don’t expect everyone to fawn over my boy or go all gaga, but generally anytime I’ve been hanging out with the boy, just the two of us, women tend to find him pretty irresistible, so much so that I told Justine should she ever (tragically) be abducted by aliens or whatever, I would probably be single for about seven minutes. (Sorry, honey, the boy is a chick magnet.) But to these two, my son might as well be a troll rock.
Right away, these two girls start talking loudly, and every other word is “fuck,” and every topic revolves around who is “fucking” whom (BTW, all boyfriends in these stories are “assholes”). Which is OK, I guess. I mean, I am not a prude. I don’t get why we have to bleep out “crystal meth” on the radio, or blur out boobs on TV. As long as they are not racially insensitive, words don’t bother me. But I watch my language around kids. Most people do. You don’t talk butt plugs when you’re around preschoolers. It’s one of those unspoken rules.
Anyway, these two keep cursing like randy merchant marines on shore leave in Singapore, but whatever. It’s Man’s Night Out, meat on meat, and the rice is extra fancy. Soon, we will get ice cream. Life is good. Except it’s hard to block out shrilling carnal exploits two feet away from your 3-and-a-half year old son. I’ve never seen the show “Girls,” but I know about it, and the way these two are carrying on, the hand gestures and artful ennui woven between the detailed sexual escapades, the thrift store garb and utter lack of self-awareness, I can’t help but feel like they are acting out a scene, the situation so manufactured, the rapt attention and deliberately shocking language, a ribald demographically tested tableux.
And then I’m, like, Holy shit I’m a bad person. Here I am, seething with murderous rage, judging these two girls because why? They remind me of a television program I have never watched? They don’t want to acknowledge how irresistibly cute my kid is? Yes, they probably shouldn’t be cursing in a family restaurant, but I don’t know anything about their lives. (Outside of their apparently having very robust sexual ones.) They might be old friends, stuck in terrible jobs, and all they have to look forward to in their miserable lives are meaningless one-night stands and this weekly dinner. So what if they are dressed like 17th Century modern-primative pirates? I sized up I hated them the second they walked in. I never even gave them a chance, man. I am a bad person. A bad, bad person.
Then I hear it.
“I fucking have to go back this year.” (Dramatic pause.) “I have to overcome my … Black Rock Bottom.”
(For those [luckily] not in the know, Black Rock is where the teeming hordes of dirty hippies head every summer for the Burning Man festival to don skimpy beachwear and build shitty sculptures [whilst doing designer drugs and having sex with strangers.])
And they won’t shut up.
“My Black Rock Bottom was so fucked.” (Cue stupid forced laughter.)
“You think your Black Rock Bottom was bad? I got so wasted. I didn’t even know where I was! My Black Rock Bottom was terrible! I have to go back to Burning Man this year.”
“Me, too. Me, too. I said I wouldn’t go out like that. I just have to triumph over my Black Rock Bottom.”
And on and on, and I realize this whole exchange has been a prelude to a sound-bite. Two feet away, just trying to have dinner with my son, I’m stuck in some trendy drama about secondhand hipsters playing grown-up in the big city. Burning Man with a catchphrase. Pretty much my idea of a living hell.
This is the real tragedy. Just when I think I am learning to love and appreciate the beauty around me, these two, with this vapid, clichéd exchange, have only reinforced by worst tendencies. They proved my skepticism correct, and in doing so have rewarded a dog for pissing on the couch, my contempt justified. I’ve run through the seven stages of grief over the course of kimchee, and can’t get out of there fast enough. I get our check, pay our bill, and bolt.
We leave so fast, I am about half a block before I realize I’ve left my favorite pair of sunglasses behind. Holding the boy’s hand, I turn around and contemplate returning for them. But I can’t. I can’t go back in there. We’ve gone too far. Together, my son and I forge ahead, into the blinding soundless sun, on a mission to get ice cream. Goddammit, my boy is getting his ice cream. That sun will set, but it will rise again, and as Lord is my witness, may he never hear those words again. (Black Rock Bottom, I mean. I still don’t think swearing is a big deal.)