On women, daughters and distaste for the princess thing

by Brian Clarey

I used to think I knew something about women, used to think, even, that I had a “way” with them.

Sure, I had some successes with the fair sex when I had more hair on my head, less on my back and the spiderwebs had not yet set in at the corners of my eyes. I knew a cozy little French restaurant, lit like a séance, that never failed to impress first dates. And I had an array of counterintuitive pickup lines – “I’d like to buy you a nice, hot meal,” was one of them – that greased the skids, so to speak, of my sexual conquests.

Once, in 1997, I picked up a woman by telling her she stunk like garlic. Amazing, I know.

Also I have been able to maintain friendly relationships with women – inside the workplace and out – for most of my life, a product, I suppose, of growing up the only son in a house with two sisters.

I know enough about women to have convinced one to have my children and share my life, though to this day I don’t know how I pulled that one off. And after all of that went down, my life with women became a pretty simple and straightforward one.

But now there is another female of the species living in my house, and as she grows into young girlhood I am once again confronted by the mysteries of the X chromosome.

Scene: I come home from work and she runs to the door squealing my name, which for her purposes is “Daddy.” She demands to be held, asks to be hugged. She nuzzles her head against my neck and I melt a little.

Scene: She’s mad at her older brother, the middle child, for some unseen affront in one of the back rooms. I can hear her shouting at him and the light footsteps in the hallway; I see the 5-year-old boy running through the door, his little sister hot on his heels, and watch him collapse on the couch, which he believes to be some sort of safe zone. He is mistaken. His sister approaches, sizes him up for a moment, then wallops him on the back hard enough to make a thump. “That’s for you!” she exclaims before being dragged off to the corner. For hitting.

Scene: “Look at me Daddy! Look at me!” She’s hopping with anticipation. When I catch her eye she explodes like a dervish, frenzied hops, arms flailing, her honey-red hair whipping about like tendrils. She teeters, off balance, when she stops.

“That’s a girl dance. Daddy.”

Scene: She’s in her room, her arms crossed in front of her chest, lips pursed, a single fat tear coursing down the contours of her cheek, which has lost some of its babyish roundness these last few months. It’s time to go to bed, I say. “Stop saying that!” she says. I persist, pulling back her covers, propping her favorite stuffed puppy on her pillow. His name is Kevin. She’s still mad, the arms still crossed. She shoots me a half-lidded glare. “I don’t need you!” she shouts. When I hug her she tries to wriggle away. I hold on until she stops, until she returns the hug, then lay her down in her tiny bed, snuggle her covers, pat Kevin on the head. “Good night Daddy,” she says. Again I’m melting. I leave the light on for her and close the door, stand in the dark hallway and sigh.

In the beginning, when it was just the wife and me, I dreamed of having boys – quite literally. While she was pregnant with our first, I actually had a vivid nocturnal vision of the blonde, blue-eyed child who would eventually come to live with us. The second boy suited me just fine, too – a partner in crime for the first who tilted the house dynamic with a decidedly masculine bent.

We didn’t want a third child, or so we told ourselves, but when the subject of a little girl first came up, my eyes misted over and a warm spot grew in my gut. She came along a couple years later, and I’ll hold in my cellular memory forever the first time she smiled at me.

She smiled at me yesterday, standing at the foot of my bed in a pretty dress, holding Kevin by a well-worn paw, a bejeweled tiara resting on her honey-red locks.

Scene: “I’m a princess, daddy,” she says. I frown. The princess thing disturbs me more than a little, this notion among America’s little girls that they are enchanted, entitled, marked for greatness by virtue of their bouncy curls and flouncy dresses. And I’m not crazy about the tiara – a gift from my own mother, who was once regarded as something of a princess herself.

“You’re a beautiful girl, honey,” I say, “but there are no princesses in this country. We’re all the same here.”

“Stop saying that!” she says. She crosses her arms and reasserts her royal lineage. It is an argument I cannot win.

“I’m a princess,” she insists. “And I can dance,” she dances. “And I can scare people,” she says, putting her hands over her face and peeking through the fingers. “And I can do whatever I want,” she spreads her arms plainly, like she’s enunciating a fundamental truth to a simpleton, which perhaps she is.

I crouch and gather her in my arms, let her rub her hands against the whisker stubble on my cheek. She wiggles away, faces me with her hands on her hips, giving me a glimpse, perhaps, of the stern yet sympathetic beauty she will one day grow to inhabit.

“I’m a princess, Daddy,” she says again. And I don’t have the strength to argue with her.

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