Mia is weighing the merits of two potential suitors, and for what’s likely the first and last time in her life, she’s soliciting my opinion on the matter.
On the one hand we have Scout. He is big, handsome, well-groomed, smiling with confidence. He looks good at her side, and she is old enough now to know that this matters. Scout is a stuffed dog, about the size of a football. On the other hand we have Cletus. Cletus is an orange stuffed cat. He is small and awkward, with hair that looks matted and a body that is loosely stuffed, floppy and gangly. Cletus has one thing working in his favor, though: he is a cat. Mia loves cats.
The occasion is the Ten Dollar Prom being held at Hanger Hall School For Girls. It’s one of the rare times the girls can come to school out of uniform; the conceit is that they come dressed for the prom, without having spent more than ten dollars on an outfit. I like this, because it’s single-dad friendly. Many of the special dress-up days at the school leave me bewildered and feeling out of my depth. With this, though, I can pretty much turn the reins over to Mia, and let her design her own outfit with a minimum of expense.
At first, there was no contest. She needed a date, so she went to the stuffed animals and picked Cletus immediately. She introduced me to him (I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and frankly this was my first time learning his name), and pleasantries were exchanged. Cletus and I came to an amicable understanding, and all seemed well.
But ten minutes later Mia came into the living room again, this time holding Scout under her arm. Strong, handsome Scout.
“Dad,” she said, “I don’t know what to do.”
Dogs are generally affable creatures, and I understand how the heart is beguiled by beauty, so I just said something inane like, “Wow, tough decision, kiddo,” and left her to it. She thought for a moment and said, “I’m going to take Scout, because he just looks better, you know? And plus he’s black, and that matches my outfit.”
She went back to her room. It was bedtime, and she was reading before turning out the light. (At least she was supposed to be reading; clearly her mind was occupied by other things.)
And here she is now, about fifteen minutes later, holding Scout. “I’m leaving him out here. Look at his creepy eyes! I can’t go to sleep with that in the room.”
“Okay,” I say.
She sits on the couch, pensive. She retrieves Cletus from the coffee table, where she’d left him. “Dad, I can’t decide. Which should I take? Scout is better looking and matches me, but I don’t like his expression. And Cletus is a cat!”
“Kiddo, here’s a life lesson. It applies here and throughout your whole life. If someone you’re thinking about dating makes you uncomfortable or creeps you out, no matter how good-looking he is, he’s not the man for you.”
She doesn’t even have to think about it. Cletus wins the contest, and is, at this very moment, accompanying my daughter to school for her Ten Dollar Prom. Scout is lounging creepily in my room, because Mia decided she didn’t want any more of his weird face.
“Thanks for the love lesson, Dad!” she says, walking back to her room.
“Life lesson. I said life lesson!”
Mia’s friend Hannah, who carpools with us, also brought a date. She brought a stuffed microbe. When I dropped them off this morning I wanted to see how many other girls were bringing stuffed animals. There was only one other car there at the time, and older girls were climbing out. None of them had any. I’m willing to bet that it was mostly sixth graders, on that sharp edge separating childhood from young adulthood, who brought stuffed animal dates with them to the prom.
It’s unbearably sweet, and it makes my heart hurt. Mia had put her army of stuffed cats away a long time ago, and as far as I knew, never thought of them at all. But recently Grace, a friend of hers from school, has been coming over for the occasional sleepover. Removed from the pressurized environment of a middle school, in which everyone is always pretending to be be older and wiser than they are, both girls very quickly shed their adult pretensions and became children again. They played hide and seek, they shot at each other with Nerf guns, they played with dolls and stuffed animals.
This is a freedom she can’t even indulge in with me. More than anyone else, probably, she wants me to see her as a mature adult. So to see her break out the toys and be a little girl again was a rare, vanishing treat.
After that first weekend Grace stayed with us, some of the stuffed cats never got put away. They were left sitting on a shelf, conveniently at hand. On that Sunday, we sat down to watch Angel on dvd. I noticed she had one of the cats on her lap. (This was Cletus, though I did not know his name then.) She didn’t talk to him, or hold him really, or acknowledge in any way that he was there. Not while I could see. But later, when it was time for her to get ready for bed, and when I was in the kitchen making tea, she got up from the couch and he tumbled from her lap, onto the floor.
My adult little girl, who is developing a crush on the teenager who plays Angel’s son on tv, who is reading To Kill a Mockingbird and writing essays about it, who is now capable of doing more complex math problems than I am, leaned over and picked him up. She pulled his ear to her lips, and said, very quietly so that she thought I couldn’t hear, “I’m sorry.”