“Can we go to IHOP today?” Finn asks me.
“We’ll see, buddy. Maybe after swim lessons,” I say.
IHOP is a twenty minute drive across town. In contrast, Bangkok West, which shares a parking lot with Imperial Courts, offers a buffet for $6.95. I have been promising fourteen-year-old Carson we would lunch there one day after his tennis lesson. Still, there is the mystery that my Chinese mother-in-law will not eat foods of other oriental origins, which rules out the cuisines of Thailand, India, and Vietnam. Denture food, offered on the menu at International House of Pancakes, may be the reasonable compromise.
There are plenty of vacant spaces outside the restaurant and I start thinking that Thai and Chinese seem pretty similar. Won’t Grandma enjoy the steamed white rice and chicken skewers? And who doesn’t like Pad Thai noodles? The two youngest can eat the bananas and peanut butter sandwiches I brought from home supplemented by a few bowls of the buffet rice. No ‘pieces’ in that. Buffet means no wait which equals very good for ill-behaved youngsters, fading memory seniors and big-bellied teens. And what’s good for the family is good for Mom.
“Look at those trees,” Grandma says, pointing to a row of undernourished sycamores huddling along the barren grounds of the parking lot. “Those are beautiful.”
“Yes, very pretty this time of year,” I agree. “I thought we could eat lunch at the buffet next to the tennis courts.”
“Okay,” Grandma says, rising from the passenger seat.
“It’s Thai food,” I add.
“Ooh,” she says, scrunching up her face and sitting back down. “I don’t think I’ll eat anything.”
“We can go somewhere else,” I say, rounding the front bumper towards the tennis club. “I’ll go get Car.”
Carson sits in the club lobby reading one of those fantasy novels he likes, the earpieces of his headset dangle around his neck. “Grandma says she won’t eat Thai food,” I tell him.
“Do you want to go in and see what’s at the buffet?” Carson asks Grandma hopefully as he approaches the minivan.
“Well, no,” she says, slapping the side of the car through the open window.
“We’ll go another time,” I offer, patting him on the shoulder. “How about IHOP?” I suggest.
“That would be fine,” Grandma agrees. “Hip hooray!” exclaims three=-year-old Lucy. “IHOP for me too,” adds Finn.
“Is Benny coming?” Grandma asks. “Where is that Benny?” she says, looking around the car as though expecting to find her son hidden in the backseat.
“He’s at work. He’ll be home tonight,” I remind her.
Both Finn and Lucy lobby for waffles. I scan the kids’ menu while Finn nags me to read the game instructions on the back of the placemat. I start in on the tiny print before realizing that it is a long commitment. Finn’s energy is one third Tourette’s, one third Asperger’s and one third bison. Seven years of experience with this kid have taught me to draw wide circles around our life, with ample space for error. Never leave the house without snacks. Apply no pressure unless it is a life or death situation, like when he bolts out into moving traffic. There is a new rule I intend to implement: avoid meals in restaurants with my children or in-laws without an alcoholic beverage at hand. Since alcohol makes me sleepy in the short term but keeps me awake at night, this maxim can’t be followed. Still, the thought provides me comfort, like an ace in the hole.
“I need to look at the menu first before I do the games with you. If I do the games now, it will delay ordering the food.” Finn reacts badly to this response. He jerks his head back hitting the base of his skull on the hard wooden top of the booth. The shock and pain cause him to erupt into tears, leaning his head on my chest, rubbing hard on my shirt.
“Oh my goodness,” Grandma exclaims. “It can’t hurt that much. What a lot of crying.”
The injuries seem to go in waves. This week they are crashing over us. Last night was the sprained toe from the long jump between the hard wood floor and the leather footrest. Yesterday at a birthday party was the skinned knee from the rope swing dangling over the creek.
The fact that there are four flavors of syrups distracts him. Strawberry, blueberry, old fashioned and here’s the wild card: butter pecan. The syrups allow me time to peruse the offerings and make an executive decision. Two orders of the $4.99 Silver Dollar Plate that includes an egg and piece of bacon. Nix on the waffles. The waiter comes and I inquire about replacing the pancakes with waffles on the kids menu. IHOP runs a tight ship, however, and cannot tolerate substitutions, so pancakes it is.
“I know you both want waffles, but it’s not on the kids’ menu so it costs more and I think you won’t get enough to eat if I just order you the waffle alone. We’ll do waffles another time.”
Not unlike when he was two years old and we told him no, Finn jerks his whole body back, forgetting the hard wood of the booth seat. His skull connects there for the second time in three minutes. I roll my eyes, repeating my support of the head, massaging the forest of black curls still damp from swim class. I stare hard at the flushed cheeks with the mouth agog. That agony on his face is a look I know so well. It means something bad happened to him yet again. He may have caused it but his eyes are wide with surprise, as though opening them fully will enable him to spot the real culprit. I make a mental note, no more restaurant visits following swim class.
“I know you’re hungry buddy. We’re going to get you some food,” I say, peeling a banana for him and opening the sandwich tin from home.
Once our order is placed, we transition into using our crayons to learn what animal that is called ‘chien’ in French is hidden in the picture discovered by coloring in the dotted sections. Then we do a crossword that follows Rooty Jr. the Pancake Kid on a tour of Paris, France. We discuss what could be the connection between the name Rooty and pancakes.
“I think it’s a cause ‘dat Rooty like pancakes,” Lucy suggests. Lucy is the one who came up with our all time favorite knock knock joke.
Lucy: “Knock knock!”
Us: “Who’s there?”
Lucy, with an enthusiastic bounce of the head: “Banana and Bear Bear!”
From where I sit, her explanation seems as plausible as any. Before we can solve the mystery of Rooty’s name, our food arrives. As Carson’s plate passes by Finn reaches over and grabs two French fries while asking, “May I please have some of these?” Carson gestures with a “you’ve already helped yourself you little pig,” grimace.
“Wait until someone agrees to give you the food before you take it, buddy,” I suggest. And to Carson I add, “two French fries is not the end of the world is it, Car?” He nods and focuses on his burger, stuffing his headset back in his ears. Grandma glances at her plate then takes in the surrounding room: “Is Benny coming?”
“No, he’s probably eating his lunch at his office,” I say, setting several napkins beside Finn’s plate. That’s when the Asperger’s kicks in. Finn’s attempt to eat the fried egg makes it slop over the edge of the plate. At risk of losing the sole bit of protein available for my little low blood sugar friend, I move in with my knife and fork, whisk it back on the plate and start slicing it into pieces.
“I don’t want it cut!” Finn laments in a much louder than ‘inside voice’ tone. As his mother, I understand the hidden meaning. It’s not that he wants to cut it himself. He just doesn’t want the yellowy egg runs to ooze onto his pancakes. At home I serve all his food on separate plates. Each item demands its own utensil as well. “Another plate!” he wails. Our waiter, in earshot of the ruckus glides to the table.
“I want another plate,” Finn repeats. “Can you please say that with good manners?” I ask. The waiter tolerates our shortcomings despite the fact that this bill can only offer him a five dollar tip at best. He refills our water glasses while Finn snuffles, “may I please have another plate?”
Four minutes after this plate arrives, Lucy decides that she can’t eat her egg and pancakes on the same plate either. Is this before or after Finn drops his fork on the floor and I wipe mine off to give him? Summoning the waiter yet again holds no allure, so I shovel the remaining spinach leaves into my mouth cradled between my three middle fingers and a spoon.
The $4.99 Silver Dollar Plate turns out to be a scam. He’s still hungry even after a few more French fries and some of the chicken tenders out of my IHOP ALL NEW SPINACH SALAD! On our dining table, the copper colored plastic coffeepot with the black spout blocks my view of the waffle on Grandma’s plate. Will she eat it all before I order another? I steal glances at the menu tucked to my right on the aqua booth cushion and suck down a few more sips of my Free Refill Unsweetened Iced Tea for $2.39, stalling before making a commitment. I regret that Finn was so generous to share his one slice of bacon with both Grandma and Carson whose midsections are both far more robust than his slim one.
My attempts to get the waiter’s attention are unsuccessful. By this time the meal seems to be coming to a close. Our plates are empty and even Grandma is munching the last of her waffle. If I order another dish, it could mean more waiting and maybe the kids are full now anyway. The possibility of another contact between the skull and the wooden booth looms as a deterrent in the background. I cushion the booth top with Lucy’s blue velour Cinderella jacket and slide my arm behind his head.
“We’ll get some more to eat at home, buddy. It’ll take too long if we order again.” Either the blood sugar is back to safe levels or the skull remembers because this news is received without response. After some time, I get the waiter’s attention for the check. There is no “thank you,” as I herd them to the car.
Silence is my reward for the drive home made possible by a library audio book. Bruce Colville reads his story Moongobble and Me, yet another tale of an orphaned child wizard. I check the rear view mirror to assess the story’s reception. Carson is lodged in the third row of the minivan, arms folded, facing away from his siblings, his headset buzzing. I can make out Lucy’s head, listing off towards one side, eyelids fluttering. Finn stares out the window, absorbed in the story. I am so grateful for the mental break that Grandma’s monologue seems to complement the pleasant hum of Carson’s headset in a symphonic duet.
“Where is that Benny?” Grandma asks.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem