“What’s that?” asks my daughter, Libby.
It is a discarded dildo, laying on the dusty trail between the train station we just left and her elementary school.
In a flash, two tiny figures appear in mid-air. Over my right shoulder, a fella named Cool Hand Luke goes into high gear: “Don’t be so nervous. She’s old enough to know what’s going on. You better do it now or she’ll learn about it from TikTok and that weird friend of hers … the one who’s been in fifth grade a couple of times …”
“It looks like a branch. Where did it come from? Lemeee …,” Libby starts to reach for the abandoned sex toy.
“Don’t!” I grab my daughter’s arm.
“Why?” Libby, my relentlessly curious 10-year-old, asks. She wants answers. Now. Based on the way her eyes have narrowed into slits and are trained on me, our daily walk will go no further until I produce something sage.
The second member of my invisible entourage chimes in, one Ward Cleaver: “She is too young. I implore you: do not contaminate her mind with inappropriate images. It will play on her psyche. Tell her it is an old piece of rusted pipe.”
With Luke’s little arm wrapped around mine and Mr. Cleaver staring at me with naked disdain, I have a decision to make … and right quick.
“Ah. Well … sometimes … people …”
The words are like lead weights on my tongue. I try again:
“It’s like … when people play baseball … but not on a team … alone … in a batting cage …”
“Dad, are you sick? Your face is all sticky.” A blind man could have made Libby’s observation.
Truth and face the consequences, or …
Cool Hand Luke, swigging down his first beer of the day, sticks his face into mine. We are nose-to-nose: “What’s wrong with you, man? You want her to become a lonely, clingy cat lady? Tell her for crying out loud: you’ll both feel better. Then, we’ll all get a drink and celebrate!”
Mr. Cleaver, who had been scanning my psychological profile, snaps the folder shut, looks at me through rimless glasses, and says: “Do not repeat your father’s mistakes. Libby is entitled to have the childhood you never had. Children, whether they know it or not, need their parents to parent. Your father was … cool … and we both know how that turned out.”
When I was about my daughter’s age, I became hooked on “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, the ones where you got to decide what the hero of the story would do. It was great to be the star. If you chose right, you saved the kingdom and married the princess. But one false move and you were thrown into a dungeon on top of a tower for the rest of your life.
I took those books so seriously. I really thought they could transport me to times and places far away.
Now I’m right smack in the middle of a real-life fork in the road. What kind of woman will little Libby grow into? Depending on the answer I am about to give she will either become a kick-ass, amazon warrior who grabs the world by the tail or a sad recluse with nine cats and nothing but Netflix for company.
I take a deep breath, take my little girl’s hand in mine, and take the plunge: “OK, sweetheart. Here’s the thing. That thing is …”
My daughter’s best friend is charging toward her from the end of the trail, right where it links with the crosswalk leading to their school. Libby bolts toward her. They nearly collide halfway between where I’m standing near the dildo and the end of the dirt path.
“What’s going on, Ellie?’”
“They’re gonna say who won. Come on!” Ellie grabs my daughter, and they head off. Today’s the big day. I completely forgot. The principal is about to announce to the entire school the winner of this year’s young architects contest.
Libby had spent hours making sure her Eiffel Tower mockup was perfect. As tired as I was some nights, commuting two hours each way every day, I would instantly snap to attention whenever she wanted to show me the work she had done that day on her masterpiece.
Waiting for me in our living room as I walked into the apartment, my mass of frustrations magically melted away. Libby needed her dad: enough said.
Heading back to the train station, I let out a laugh. I’m no architect: not even close. Chances are nothing I told Libby about her Eiffel Tower will affect the outcome of the contest.
The only thing that matters, the only thing that will decide what kind of woman my daughter grows into, is my giving a damn about her.
Kids are not messed up by bad advice, only bad parents – the kind that can’t be bothered.
Even though the train I embark on for the long ride to work is packed, all is quiet. Cool Hand Luke and Ward Cleaver have clocked out for the day, and my mind is clear.
No doubt they’ll be back the next time I have a Choose Your Own Adventure moment with Libby. Just like those books from long ago, Cool Hand Luke and Ward Cleaver mean well … but should be taken with a grain of salt.
This story first appeared in City Dads Group on January 9, 2023.