“I want the RAZR,” she whined.
“The what?” I asked her.
“The RAZR,” she said, determined to grab my attention.
For three months, phone conversations with my daughter, Marlee, had centered around a brand new cell phone I knew nothing about. It had become tiresome. Each time I changed the subject she managed to reel me back in.
“Daddy?” she moaned.
“Huh?” I answered.
“Are you listening?” she asked.
“Yeah, a phone, I know,” I told her.
“No, the RAZR!” she barked.
“I heard you the first time,” I explained.
“Well?” she wanted to know.
“We’ll look into it,” I said, trying to skirt the issue.
“Ugh,” she sighed, and then hung up.
Seven months earlier, in December of 2005, I decided it was time for Marlee to have her own cell phone. No one knew my idea except for me. I had been speaking with Marlee on her mother’s cell phone about a homework assignment one night when my ex-wife abruptly grabbed the phone from my daughter’s hand. I was rudely told that my three minute time limit had elapsed. There was no compromising or reasoning.
“She has homework!” my ex-wife shouted.
“That’s why we’re on the phone,” I told her.
“It’s my phone! You’ve been on long enough!” she yelled.
“Two and a half minutes is enough?” I asked.
“I’ll help her with the rest,” she screamed.
“We were in the middle of –” Click. Dead silence. She had hung up.
Thoughts went through my mind. What if she’s crying? How will she finish the assignment? At the age of 10, I felt Marlee was ready to own her own phone, to take on responsibility, and then we’d be able to chat as long as we wanted, with no interference.
The first weekend in January of 2006, we went phone shopping. Marlee was excited. She had never owned anything. I had lectured her before walking into the store that this phone was to be used sparingly. I didn’t want to see unnecessary calls or texts appear on the bill. The two hour browse-around session at the T-Mobile outlet on 89th and Broadway ended with a successful purchase. Marlee had selected the newest Samsung, chosen a phone number, and picked out a case. No one on Long Island would know until minutes after I had dropped her off. As expected, that Sunday night, I got an earful.
“Are you crazy?!” my ex-wife hollered.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“What do you mean, who is this? A ten-year-old with a cell phone!?” she clamored.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I told her.
“I’m taking it back tomorrow,” she said angrily.
“That’s fine, take it back. Good luck. It’s in my name,” I explained.
“She doesn’t need one. None of her friends have a phone!” she shouted.
“My three minute time limit with you has expired,” I stated.
She continued to yap. I pressed ‘end’ cutting her off, and sat in silence for a minute. I shook my head and wondered if Marlee’s phone would be safe in that environment. Her friends might snatch it away, giggle, talk, and text for hours, and I’d get stuck with a thousand dollar phone bill. My imagination ran wild. I was flushed with anxiety, worrying that her mother might use the phone to save on her peak minutes. What had I done? Had I make the right decision? A week later, Marlee called and told me she loved the phone.
“Be careful of the minutes,” I warned.
“I know,” she said.
“Just remember, during the week, the shorter the conversation, the better,” I nervously told her.
“Then why did you get me the phone?” she asked.
“So I can talk to you without a chaotic interruption,” I answered.
“Whatever,” she replied.
In the weeks that followed, her mother calmed down. Marlee’s grandmother was also thankful that I had purchased the extra cell phone. They were able to reach her anywhere. I felt relief knowing that at any time, I could text or ring Marlee’s phone and either leave a voice mail message or speak with her.
Six months after she had the phone, our dialogue centered on a cell phone that a friend of hers had at school.
“You’ve only had your phone for six months,” I told her.
“But, the RAZR is so cool,” she said.
“Six months,” I repeated.
“So,” she retorted.
“So? You think you’re going to change phones every six months?” I asked her.
“No, but I want the RAZR,” she groaned.
“And I’d like a Mercedes,” I mentioned.
“You’re weird,” she said.
“You’ll need to keep your phone two years…”
“Two years!” she exclaimed cutting me off. “That’s not fair.”
One by one, her school friends started showing off their cell phones. Parents were buying their daughters the newest and most expensive cell phones on the market. They were different shapes, sizes, colors. After two months, Marlee’s Samsung was considered outdated. She’d say, “My friend’s Mom bought her a Blackberry and I have this crap phone.” Another time she’d say, “My other friend has a Sidekick. She’s so lucky.”
Some of her friends had rock-band ringtones. Others had flip phones. One girl even had a keyboard that popped out. Marlee’s phone was plain and simple. That’s what she had wanted on that January afternoon. A half a year later, I was now the rotten Dad for not listening. In my eyes, I was the one who had recently meandered for two hours in a T-Mobile store while his daughter tried out every phone. I had signed up for unlimited texting, even bought her a nice rubber case. Now, my daughter believed she was the “unlucky one with a crap phone seeking the next best designer ring tone.” By the time she started sixth grade, her phone, in her opinion, had become an antique.
With the holidays approaching, Marlee’s constant nagging was unbearable. I had promised her I’d speak with T-Mobile about the cost of breaking the two year contract. She got her wish. On a frigid Saturday afternoon in late December of 2006, Marlee and I rode the subway down to 86th & Broadway. We wandered into the T-Mobile store three blocks north to 89th. There she picked out her second cell phone, a hot pink Motorola RAZR, the thin flip phone she had belly-ached about for half the year. When we got home she called everyone bursting with excitement. The old Samsung had found a new home, the dresser drawer.
From the start, Marlee managed her new phones as if she owned her own business. She knew where her phone was at all times. It was in her coat pocket in cold weather, and in her front pants pocket in warmer weather. When she visited, the charger was stashed in the small zippered compartment of her suitcase. It travelled with her everywhere. The three-month campaign for the Motorola RAZR was over. She finally received her dream phone. I was smugly satisfied at how smoothly it had all worked out.
On a Sunday morning in Manhattan, in April of 2008, 16 months after I had bought her the RAZR, she walked into the kitchen and proceeded to aggravate me.
“When can I get a new phone?” she asked.
“What?!” I yelled.
“A new phone,” she said again.
“Where did that come from? What’s wrong with your phone?” I wanted to know.
“Nothing,” she told me.
“So, why do you need a new phone?” I asked.
She sat on our suede kitchen chair and said nothing.
“The contract is up in December. We’ll look then,” I explained.
“Ugh. That long?” she whined.
“You just got this phone,” I told her.
“No, I didn’t,” she said.
“Does it ever end?” I questioned raising my arms in the air.
“All my friends have new phones,” she told me.
“Really? Good for them!” I ranted.
“You stink,” she mumbled under her breath.
“What was that?” I hammered.
She sighed, then said softly, “It’s not fair.” Then, she got up, turned the television on, sulked on the couch, and waited until it was time to leave for Long Island.
I shook my head and imagined the barrage of comments and questions being bounced around at the lunch table in school. “Oh Marlee, your phone is so old.” “Marlee, tell your Dad to get you a phone that has the internet. How do have one with no internet?” “Marlee, the RAZR is so ‘yesterday!’”
We left the apartment at 3:30 that April afternoon.
I had stopped driving back and forth to Long Island in October of 2007. After four and a half years of highway exhaustion, I had ditched the wheels for the rail. I’d leave work early on Fridays, catch a late afternoon train for Long Island. A family member would drive Marlee to the Hicksville station to meet me, then we’d take the train back to Penn Station. On Sundays, we’d hop on the LIRR to Hicksville at 4:30. At Hicksville, we’d taxi to the house, I’d drop Marlee off, and head back home. It gave me time to read, relax, and not worry about congested roads, or an unexpected detour. It was our routine.
Under a pale gray sky, I wheeled her black suitcase down Broadway toward the subway station while she was in tow. It was a warm but overcast afternoon. She was still angry from our conversation. I handed her a Metrocard on the escalator in silence. When we reached the top, I faintly heard the subway rolling into the station.
“It’s here! Let’s go!” I shouted, making a mad dash for the turnstile.
“Wait!” she yelled after me.
“C’mon,” I motioned with my arm. “I’d like to catch this one.”
She swiped her card at the turnstile and went through. I rolled the suitcase underneath the metal bar, she grabbed the handle. The sound of the subway was louder. She handed me the suitcase on the other side as I stuffed both Metrocards inside my back pocket. The station shook, the subway screeched.
“Wait!” she said again.
“What now?” I asked her.
“I need to tie my shoe,” she told me.
“C’mon!” I barked.
She rushed over to a wooden bench next to the turnstile while I waited. People were darting through the metal gate as if it was the last subway into mid-town for the day. Men were shouting, tripping. Women were running. I lifted the suitcase after Marlee finished and said, “Quick! It’s gonna leave!” We galloped up the stairs. The doors closed as we entered out of breath.
Thirty seconds after the subway began moving I looked at Marlee. She was touching the outside of her jacket. She patted the pockets.
“Oh no, oh no.”
“What happened?” I asked her.
“My phone, oh no!”
“Your phone?” I questioned.
“It’s not in my pocket. Oh God, no!”
“You sure you don’t have it?” I snapped.
“I don’t!” she cried. “I think I left it on the bench.”
“You’re kidding me,” I told her.
“Daddy, no, no, oh no,” she stammered.
“Calm down. We’ll get off at 116th and go back. That’s all we can do.”
Marlee was still trying to catch her breath. She looked as if she’d seen a ghost. We got off and hopped back onto the uptown train. At 125th, we raced down the stairs and looked. Nothing. We scanned the floor. Nothing. We hunted high and low, even searching on the opposite stairwell. Nothing. I asked a subway employee. Nothing. By this point, Marlee was hysterical. I stood at the bottom of the stairwell with the suitcase feeling as though I’d been hit by a car. I was drained. The hot pink Motorola RAZR was gone, stolen. Marlee sat on the wooden bench, nose running, tears streaming. I tried to settle her down.
“It’s OK,” I told her. “We’ll get you another phone.”
“But, (hiccup) Daddy, I (hiccup) want my phone,” she wept.
“I know you do. It’s gone, Cookie,” I explained.
“No, (hiccup) Daddy, my phone (hiccup), no,” she sobbed. “I (hiccup) put it down (hiccup) to tie my shoe,” she told me.
“Listen, let’s get to Long island,” I quietly said. “We’ll come up with a plan.”
She cried for 20 minutes on the subway down to Penn Station. On the LIRR, I immediately phoned T-Mobile and temporarily cancelled the service. Marlee wailed uncontrollably for 45 minutes. She kept saying that she missed her phone. The conductor walked toward our seat with a concerned look. I told him what had happened. He felt terrible.
“Daddy?” (hiccup) she bawled.
“What, Cookie?” I asked her.
“I’m (hiccup) sorry I said you stink before,”(hiccup) she cried.
put my arm around her. “It’s OK. I’ve been known to stink,” I nodded.
She tried to crack a smile through her tears. It was a traumatic day.
The following day after school, her grandmother took her to T-Mobile. Service was temporarily restored on her old Samsung phone. On her visit two weeks later, we found out that Motorola had discontinued that particular RAZR. She reluctantly ended up with a new Samsung. It was a tough incident for a 12-year-old and her Dad to live through.
December, 2010, 16 months ago. I picked up Marlee on a Saturday morning on Long Island. We rode the LIRR into Penn Station. On the subway uptown, I told her I needed to stop into the store to pay a cell phone bill.
“How boring,” she said, sitting there.
“Do you have to pay the bill today?” she asked.
“They’re going to shut the service off if I don’t.”
“You didn’t pay it?” she moaned. She rolled her eyes.
“Is it too much for you to come with me?”
“I want to do something,” she moaned.
“You just got here!”
We got off the subway, traipsed up the stairs, and walked into the store. The salesman approached me and asked if I needed assistance. I told him that my daughter was in need of a new cell phone. Marlee looked at me.
“What?!” she exclaimed.
“There’s no bill,” I chuckled.
“You’re kidding?!” she said flustered with excitement.
“Go pick out that Blackberry Bold you’ve been whining about for months,” I told her.
“Daddy, this is so great!”
“Just don’t leave it anywhere this time,” I joked.
She gave me a hug and said, “I love you Daddy.”
We laughed all the way to the uptown subway. It was the start of a perfect weekend.
“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