The voice echoed from behind my right shoulder and I was surprised to hear my name.
“Uncle D.J. is going to read you a bedtime story. Go pick one out.”
I stopped and spun around. My friend Justin was walking his youngest son Jude to his bedroom. Not knowing much about four year olds, a bunch of questions raced through my head. How long do you have to read before a child falls asleep? Can’t they read themselves? I couldn’t recall a memory from my childhood where someone read to me. My earliest memories of life start at six years old, and I had been reading on my own for a few years at that point. My mother brags that I taught myself how to read at age four. And I guess now I’m bragging to you. Anyway, since I couldn’t recall a personal experience of being read to, what came to mind was Peter Faulk reading to that boy in The Princess Bride. And that movie was two hours long, for chrissakes. I can’t read aloud for that long. As a self-centered adult without children, if I spend more than ten minutes with one, I get nuts.
I sighed and followed Jude into his bedroom. He told me to shut the door and to climb into bed. He was rifling through a series of books strewn about the comforter. I went to shut the door and when it latched I noticed my discomfort. Not only was I not used to being around kids, but I had never climbed into one of their beds. It’s funny because, albeit innocent, I felt like I was doing something wrong. It was too intimate. Remember when Michael Jackson talked about sleeping in bed with kids and how we all retched at the news? But this is my close friend’s son and I’m a good soldier. I climbed into bed into the space that he had made for me.
The book Jude chose was a series of short stories about zombies who live among us. Except in this version the undead were just like you and me except they looked different (rotten flesh) and didn’t murder humans for their succulent brains. In these stories the public treated these zombies as if they were real pieces of crap. It was an attempt to teach tolerance of people who looked different. Which is just what a four year old understands – subtle metaphors about discrimination.
About halfway through the first fable I realized that stories about zombies are pretty energizing. It’s not exactly the literary equivalent of chamomile tea. Try to put a child to bed reading aloud a story about teenage dracula figuring out how to get his blood fix halfway through the senior prom. That’s a thrilling narrative! Nobody falls asleep during the last ten minutes of a Walking Dead episode, you know? I should have picked one of those Berenstain Bears novellas. Those bears never did anything interesting.
And, no, I spelled it right. It’s Berenstain. We all called them the Berenstein Bears growing up but we were wrong. They don’t celebrate Purim and I don’t recall the bear son ever getting Bar Mitzvah’ed.
Back in college I became obsessed with hypnosis. I read dozens of books on the how and why, and started hypnotizing people for fun. Over time I realized that what I said when putting someone under was irrelevant. All you have to do is slow down your voice, deepen it, and talk with a sleepy cadence. A subject fall in seconds if you do it right. As I read to Jude, I applied a hypnotic tonality and pushed my voice into the ether. My goal was to get him unconscious before I got to the end so I wouldn’t have to read a second book.
While I kept my eyes on the book’s pages I could feel that Jude was about to interrupt me. He tried to ask a few questions about the stories (Why does the mummy call his mom a mummy?) but gave up when I answered his question with a question. “Well why do you think that happened, Jude?” Sure, I could have explained the joke, but explaining jokes usually results in the person going, “Uh, that’s not very funny.” So, he gave me his thoughts on the mummy-mommy thing. Whatever his answer was I would just pause, nod slowly and say, “I think you might be right.” This is one of the more effective strategies I have developed when dealing with other people’s kids who ask questions. Earlier that day Jude had asked me if there were monsters in the sea. I asked him what he thought about it. He said he was pretty sure there were. I looked around pretending to check if anyone was within earshot and replied softly, “That makes sense to me.” His eyes grew very wide. I walked away smiling.
As Jude was falling asleep against my right arm I realized that this was a first experience for me. Before this moment I had spent a collective thirty minutes of my entire life in the presence of children. I only have one sister, and if she has any babies she’s keeping them secret because I haven’t met them. I live in Chicago and most of my friends have moved to the suburbs after they started having kids. Which means I rarely see anybody because the suburbs are like way out there and there’s 25k more things to do in the city. When I do trek out to their homes (with yards!) I exchange a few pleasantries with their offspring but I’m there to hang out with the adults. I didn’t drive forty-five minutes to play Thomas the Train Engine with a three year old. Plus, that Thomas face freaks me out something fierce.
I would estimate 40% of the population does not like cats. Which is an oddly high number because I’ve never heard of even one cat-mauling. Dogs chew up babies all the time, but 98% of people still like dogs. I believe that most cat-haters like the idea of hating cats and also like to tell the world that they hate cats. I’ve owned four cats in my life and they were all awesome. Well, one sucked. But batting .750 in cat coolness is a decent average. My suspicion is that people that dislike cats have never spent any quality time in their presence. My current cat is as affectionate as my dog. Plus, she bathes herself which I appreciate.
When girlfriends would ask me why I’m not into talking with my friends’ children I’d say, “Because kids aren’t funny, they say nothing interesting, and they’re sort of gross.” But the truth was I didn’t arrive at these beliefs from real world experience. So reading to Jude was my first actual intimate moment with a child. And, like holding a kitten for the first time, you can’t help yourself loving it. Even if you’re one of those assholes with an intense cat allergy.
So, I guess I’ve changed. I loved the experience of reading to my friend’s child and I did honestly connect with that little guy. It was a real moment, and I made him happy. He hugged me at the end and thanked me for my service. I walked out of the room and felt honored to have been there. Later that evening when I was going to sleep I told my girlfriend about the experience. I teared up while telling her. I was so moved I blurted out that I wanted to have a child someday. Through the tears I said, “I mean, I’m not going to change diapers or anything. I’m firm on that issue.” She assured me I’d make a terrible father.
Since my dog is with me at both the office and at home, I’m rarely not in her presence. But my cat stays at home during the day. As I arrive home from work, the cat races over to greet both me and the dog. She rubs up against both of us while purring. It’s a special moment I get to experience daily. Several of my friends have said the best part of their day is that walk from the car to the house where they know the kids are awaiting daddy’s arrival. I experience a version of that with my cat, but I assume the joy would be stronger with a child screaming my name.
But, who knows? I could end up siring a whole litter of dickheads. That would be a bummer, but if it happened, I’d just refocus my energy to the pets. They’re a sure thing.
Author’s Note – After this was published my mother wanted me to know that she read to me every night. I believe her. She also said that I taught myself to read at age three, not four. Not sure I believe that one.
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