I walk through the mall, hair pulled back and still frizzy from rolling out of bed in a rush. Yesterday’s cargo shorts and geeky t-shirt were retrieved and thrown back on, a little rumpled but presentable enough. My beard shows bends and kinks from being hastily pulled out of its braid as I rushed out the front door. I was running late to pick up the girl from basketball practice, no time for fashion.
Now at the mall after practice, she walks ten paces behind me, staring at her feet, tiny arms folded angrily against her chest, too angry to even look up. She marches with a furious slouch, still wearing the basketball warmup shirt from her practice.
A nice lady tries to engage her with small talk and a high, lilting tone. “Did you just come from playing basketball, dear?” she asks.
My daughter looks up slowly, meeting the little old lady’s gaze. The girl stares, blankly, silent.
“Do you like basketball? I bet you’re good at it. You look very strong and fast.”
“Maybe you don’t like the rain today? I think it will clear up and be nice later. Won’t you like that?”
I steer the girl away and continue walking. “She’s having a rough day and isn’t in the mood to talk,” I say over my shoulder.
As we scoot away, my daughter still walking several paces behind me, the lady looks confused and a little ruffled. She’s probably shocked that I didn’t force my daughter to respond. I wanted to tell the woman that her intentions were surely honorable, but my daughter does not owe her any form of interaction. We don’t force our kids to hug or kiss or even talk. We explain why they should, and how they come across to people if they don’t, and what fun interactions they are missing out on — but we don’t force them.
Finally, we arrive at the promised land, the plastic neon culinary hell that is the Mall Food Court. The girl perks up, excitedly pointing at the pizza stand.
“What do you want,” I say. “I’ll let you choose anything you want.”
“I want cheese pizza. No — I want spaghetti. Can I have both? You said ANYTHING.”
“Sure, kiddo. Both.”
“Yes, and Sprite.”
It almost hurt her to speak to me even to order food. At least she’s talking, but she’s still very mad at me. She’s furious. Her rage is radiating like a forgotten hot plate, her indignity blaring like a college dorm stereo.
Why is she mad, you ask? Because I bought her two pairs of basketball shoes.
But they weren’t the right pairs. I bought the two cheapest pairs they had, each on sale for half price. I offered to buy two pairs if they were on sale, or one pair at full price. Have you priced kid’s athletic shoes lately? She loved the idea of getting two pairs, but this full price pair had that special shade of pink, and this other one has… And then she was lost, totally overwhelmed with choices.
For 45 minutes we walked the aisles and talked prices and how shoes are supposed to fit and today’s shoe budget. She wanted all the shoes, and then none. She wanted socks. She wanted boy’s high tops, then running shoes, then only basketball shoes in hot pink would do, then only shoes with pink and some purple. Then she declared the store unworthy, and wanted to go home.
So I bought the cheap pairs. But not without protest. The Founding Fathers would be quite proud of this one’s embrace of her right to protest her oppression by the Establishment. And that’s me, of course. I’m The Man, holding her down. (eye roll)
But I bought them anyway because I had spent my Saturday morning fetching her from practice and tromping around a mall. I didn’t want to go home empty handed. So I bought her two perfectly good pairs, each of which she had said she loved and wanted at some point or another during the god awful roller-coaster of a shopping trip. I bought shoes so we could at least say we accomplished something. We came for shoes, and shoes were bought. God Bless America.
You know, of course, that she has more shoes in her room right now than I had my entire childhood combined. She has an entire rainbow of colorful sneakers, flats, hiking boots, rain boots, slippers, etc. So many shoes. Last week she asked for special basketball shoes because she’s playing basketball now. So of course I agreed to buy her some.
After I graduated college (best nine years of my life, but that’s a different story), I got a crappy job. Then a different but equally crappy job. Then another slightly less crappy job. And then I got a real job over in Indy and commuted from Terre Haute to Carmel for almost a year. It was 90 minutes one way, and gas was 97 cents a gallon. I could fill up my Honda Accord for about 15 dollars, and I did so about twice a week. It seemed ridiculously expensive, but it was my ticket out.
Once I had that real job, with a salary and medical benefits and all the trimmings, the first thing I did was go buy two pairs of sneakers. I had never in my life bought two pairs of shoes at the same time. It had always been one pair to last the school year, and we’ll replace them as they wear out. At some point I had bought additional pairs, on sale, walking shoes with more support, dress shoes, etc. So I owned more than one pair. But I had never bought two at the same time.
The triumph I felt, at age 29, walking out of that store with two brand new pairs of size 15 cross trainers, was off the charts. It was the first moment in my entire life when I had felt just a tiny, miniscule whiff of financial independence. I wanted two shoes, so I bought two shoes. I am man, hear me purchase.
Now, to be clear, I “paid” for them on a credit card, so I effectively paid double for them over the next couple of years — but that’s yet again a different blog post.
So today at the mall I didn’t have much sympathy for my girl who couldn’t choose shoes because she had too many options. I mean, I wasn’t a jerk about it. I know her pain is very real to her, and I don’t want to make it worse. But she needed shoes, and I bought them. Problem solved.
I engaged her in small talk as she gobbled her food court lunch. Or rather, as she inhaled it. She originally laughed at how much food I bought her, literally pointing and chuckling at the giant piece of mall-style cheese pizza as it arrived. But she ate it plus a big bowl of plain mall-style spaghetti, and slurped up her Sprite. Then she asked for a smoothie and then it was gone, too. I don’t believe she understands just how much energy basketball uses. She’ll sleep well tonight, methinks.
After dumping our trays into the food court trash bins, we walked silently to the car. She chose to still walk a couple steps behind me. I kept turning my head just a bit to catch her in my peripheral vision, to make sure she was still there, but not so much to make her feel I was watching her.
As I backed out of the parking space, she broke her silence. “Dad, can you hand me back my new shoes? I want to try them on.”
“Sure thing, honey. I think they’ll be great basketball shoes for you. I don’t know much about sports, but I hope these shoes help you feel stronger and faster, so you can enjoy playing.” I waited for her to respond, but still silence.
I drove, quietly, enjoying the turn of events. I had won. I had played my odds, played the long game, and had succeeded. Dad of the Year material here, folks. I never doubted myself.
We were about half way home before she spoke up again.
“Yes? Pretty awesome, right?”
Several long moments passed without a response. I mulled the rainy streets, wondering if the weather would in fact clear up later.
“They don’t fit.”