I'm not like the others. I was all of 8 when my littlest sister was born, and I paid close attention after she came home. So I knew all about diapers and bottles and spit-up and night lights and stuff. I mean, I was ready when my son was born.
For quite a while, this was close enough to true. There were occasional lapses -- no one had warned me about colic -- but by and large I sailed through the first year.
With each passing month my self-regard grew. I can't imagine what a pain in the ass I must have been. I wouldn't take advice, though I freely gave it. I changed diapers against a stopwatch and charted my best time. And I found formulaic, doofus-dad comedies like "Three Men and a Baby" or "Father of the Bride" utterly insufferable. After all, those shows weren't for me -- I was Super Dad.
O hubris. How great thy fall.
I was so competent I was allowed to take Nicky all sorts of places unchaperoned. I was King Dad at the grocery store; apparently no one in my neighborhood had ever seen a father shop with a baby before. (That's right, dads out there, you won't get arrested if you show up in the checkout line with a toddler under one arm and a red plastic basket under the other.) You lucky son of a bitch, I thought smugly. If you weren't already happily married, you would be in no time flat.
At the coffee shop Nick would sit on the counter and stare raptly at the dyed-and-pierced barista, or point at every object in the place and require me to name it. Customers from 15 to 55 smiled at us indulgently. This kid is better than a puppy, I thought.
But we really had fun at the park. We'd climb on the ladder and go down the slides and ride on the swings. We'd toddle around on the grass and dig in the sand. And we'd take turns slurping at the water fountain and dribbling the water charmingly down our shirts.
It was at the park I received my comeuppance. The local park has three "play structures," the colorful, emasculated things that have replaced monkey bars due to the constant depredations of hungry personal injury attorneys. Each one is a collection of Euclidean platforms with an attached ladder, fireman's pole, and slide. The three are graduated in size, from a pathetic waist-high mound for the littlest toddlers to a 10-foot-tall jungle gym for the older kids.
Usually Nicky and I hung out on the little one and bummed Smarties from the toddler girls. But the day came when Nicky was 18 months old, and no longer a baby. He could walk, talk and spit in a particular direction, often of his choosing. Thus it was that we had come to the park that day to be men, and do manly things. Today was not a day for childish amusements. No, by God, today we would taste adventure and challenge, and learn of courage.
We headed straight for the big kids' gym.
On this fine, sunny day the park was full of moms and their kids. Usually being at the park with Nick got me plenty of approving nods -- "Look, Joyce, that one's really trying" -- but this time they looked at us with ill-concealed alarm as we headed to the big gym. Nicky had climbed like a little monkey from the age of 1, so after he had clambered up and down the platforms a while with me slowly following, looking nonchalant, the moms relaxed and stopped watching us out of the corners of their eyes.
That was when I got the big idea.
"Hey, Nick," I said. "Want to go down the slide?"
"Yeah!" said Nicky instantly. And then, rather than head to the little mound and the Nicky-sized slide, we turned to the big kids' slide right in front of us.
At that point I was up on the highest platform with Nick, and the slide stretched away from us like a ski gondola down to the ground. Nicky immediately plopped himself down on the top of the slide and looked over his shoulder at me. "Go ahead," I said indulgently. He pushed off and started down.
Now I don't know about you, but either I have a rich inner life or my serotonin uptake needs some tweaking, because I go around pretty much all day with a running monologue in my head. While my life swirls around me, a detached other observes the foibles of myself and my fellow men, considers whether Indian or Thai would be better for lunch today and ruminates during a staff meeting on how awesome it would be to be roaring through the Swiss Alps in a maroon Z3 with that sales-rep babe who came through yesterday.
As Nicky receded from me, the other observed detachedly that his poly/cotton pants were unusually slippery today, and his large diaper was giving him a streamlined, teardrop shape like a 3000GT, so he was in fact building up quite a head of steam. By now he was about a third of the way down the slide.
The other noticed alertly that due to the immutable law of gravity, Nicky was continuing to accelerate, and though not quite at the rate of 9.8 meters per second squared, it was certainly more than enough to compensate for today's negligible friction. By now he was about halfway down the slide, and picking up speed.
I scrambled down the gym like a madman but of course I was far too late. Nicky, blurring slightly, shot off the bottom of the slide and landed flat on his back a couple of feet farther on. Often children pause in sheer astonishment before reacting to surprise and hurt by crying. Not this time. Nicky shrieked from the bottom of his lungs instantly, and a second later I was there and had scooped him up.
Nothing seemed broken. "Hey, easy, big guy, there, there," I murmured while he sobbed wretchedly in my arms. I was flooded with two emotions: sorrowful concern for Nick, wishing he weren't hurt or scared, and (of course) abject humiliation that I could be so boneheaded as to send him down the big slide without even being at the bottom. Well, to be honest, I felt humiliated that I looked like a moron, an imbecile, a fool -- a typical, clueless, airhead dad.
Of course, all the moms were staring at me. I'm sure at least one had her finger on the 911 button on the cell phone. I waltzed in a little circle, making shushing noises and rubbing Nicky's back. He seemed to be quieting down from jet-engine volume to merely a tile saw.
Slowly life returned to normal. Then one of the moms sat down with her angelic little girl at the top of the slide. Wrapping her arms around her daughter, she looked off into the air and observed to no one in particular, "It's so great coming to the park with your kids. You can go down the slide with them and feel like a little kid yourself." Then the two of them slid, with majestic slowness, down the slide together to the bottom where the mom gently helped her little girl stand up.
What did I do? Did I rage? Did I seethe? In my humiliation, did I give that goody-two-shoes a piece of my mind? Well, no. I just simpered something about how they get away from you, while maniacally bobbing my head and grinning and gathering up the backpack so we could make a run for it.
Back in the car, on the way to some ice-cream payola, Nick had settled down to soft whimpering and massive snot production while I wrestled with the most serious question of all: Do I tell his mom?