The Wife With One F just started her last semester of nursing school, and this generally entails me taking my four-year-old daughter out somewhere in order to keep her occupied while my wife pursues the fine art of keeping people alive. Despite the nice weather, I decided to fuel our recent addiction to Chuck E. Cheese.
I never went to a Chuck E. Cheese when I was a kid, though I seem to have a vague memory of ShowBiz Pizza and the brilliance of the Rock-afire Explosion. Side note, the history and eventual dismantling of the animatronic band is actually really fascinating and deserves a VH1 Behind the Music. Yes I'm serious. My original point, though, is that these past few trips have been my first real experience in the realm of giant-rat-hosted pizza and gaming establishments.
Frankly, I think Chuck E. Cheese is awesome. Thirty dollars will net you 150 tokens, which can keep you busy all day long or can be taken home for another trip the following weekend. All the attractions use just one token to play, and if the gouging you take at the ticket redemption booth isn't any better than a roadside carnival, it's at least no worse. The food is meh, but I eat turkey bacon in hot dog buns and drink vodka mixed with Kroger-brand Coke Zero, so what the hell do I know about food?
There are even free attractions like a fairly large tube maze and slide. The one near my house actually has its own air-conditioning system just for the tubes. I'm more impressed by that than almost any other advancement in the world of childhood whimsy. It was this structure my daughter darted to first, and I contented myself checking Facebook and keeping an eye on her through various portholes in the tube maze.
Usually it's pretty deserted because the same attraction that is housed outside a McDonald's looks pretty pedestrian next to Skee ball and air hockey. Plus, children can always sense when they're not costing you money, and it itches at the very depth of their souls.
Not this time, though. This time the tube maze was housing a group of girls frankly too big to be in something designed for kids seven and under. They looked somewhere between nine and 11, and had their own smart phones. Being that I use my own kid as an excuse to enter every ball pit and bouncy castle I can, I didn't think much of it. Besides that, The Kid With One F is an extreme extrovert who never leaves a gathering without a new best friend.
The older girls were doing what older kids do: finding a spot away from parental supervision and presuming to act whatever they considered to be extremely mature for their age. I would see my daughter's little blond head go bouncing after them whenever they would move to a new spot, and waved when she pointed me out to her new friends. Everyone seemed to be getting along perfectly for the 20 minutes that she was up there.
Then, I was sitting with my back against a support near the slide -- which was the only exit -- when she came barreling out of the plastic tube.
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"What did you want, Daddy?" she asked with exasperated hands on her hips.
"I'm sorry, Heart?" I replied. "I didn't call you."
"Okay!" she said and raced back into the labyrinth. I thought it was weird.
I was just getting up to stretch a few minutes later when I heard the unmistakable sound of her sobbing. I looked over at the opening of the slide and she was sitting on the edge with big fat tears spilling down her face to wet her Spider-Girl costume she had insisted on wearing. I went over to her and gathered her up.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"My friends were so mean to me!" she cried from deep, deep down. I looked over at the girls gathered in one of the open areas watching her and making snotty faces. I carried her over to get her pink cowboy boots.
"What did they say, Heart?" I asked.
"They told me to go away. That I couldn't play with them because I was too little."
This was the first time I'd ever felt the Hulk-like rage that is supposed to fill daddies when their little girls are hurt. In general, I like to let her fight her own battles and learn from them. This time, though, something seemed like it required more.
With my daughter in my arms, I stood underneath the enclosed balcony where the older girls were still sitting.
"Excuse me," I said. "That was not cool."
"We didn't do anything," one replied.
"You didn't do a lot of things, maybe. You didn't consider the fact that hiding out in a tube maze designed for kids half your age would feature those exact same kids. You didn't show any kindness, restraint or politeness in dealing with one of those kids who just wanted to play with you, being the logical result of entering a play area. You didn't resist the urge to lie to her, telling her I was calling her, just to get her out of your hair.
"Most off all, you didn't act with any decency. I'm sure that whatever you're discussing up there, squirreled away from your parents, must seem frightfully important to you, but not being a complete jerkface to little kids is frightfully important to everyone. Now get out of there and go sit at a table like the adults you are pretending to be."
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My daughter punctuated our exit with a short, loud raspberry while we moved to the opposite side of the restaurant and played a game where you shoot sharks with plastic balls. She stopped her game in the middle to hug a boy who was crying next to her, having temporarily lost his mother. Upon her finding him, the mother thanked my daughter.
"She's very sweet," the mother told me.
God, I hope she stays that way.