Usually when my wife Melissa says, “I have a crazy idea,” it involves some sort of shopping excursion to the suburbs. Woodfield Mall, Old Orchard Mall, IKEA, etc. And I’m not one of those guys who hates the idea of going shopping. I actually love the idea of going shopping and then wind up hating it when I’m there.
So a few Sundays ago Melissa volunteers, “I have a crazy idea. How about after naptime we go to IKEA?” This, I think, is a fantastic idea for several reasons. First and foremost, “after naptime” means around 4:00 p.m. And every parent of young children knows that Sunday from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.—or whatever your children’s bedtime—is like waiting for a table at a restaurant for four hours while listening to the collected works of Nickelback, or being stuck in an elevator listening to Nickelback for four hours, or being at a four-hour Nickelback concert.
On Friday nights, I invariably look ahead to the weekend and being in the company of my children with great aplomb. But by Sunday at 4:00, especially if we’ve been housebound for much of the weekend, I’m ready to abandon them at the fire station under the protections offered by the Illinois Safe Haven Program, even if they are a bit too old.
By 4:00 on Sunday, the tail end of the weekend, I’ve dutifully weathered an impressive amount of whining, even for children, who are known for their whining; have done the dishes approximately fifty times; cooked countless meals and prepared countless snacks that have wound up either on the floor or in the trash or in the refrigerator for a time before they wind up in the trash; and wondered, upon feeling the slow dread set in when there’s only five minutes left of Scooby Doo! Abracadabra Doo, after an amount of television viewing that cut in half would cause the American Academy of Pediatrics to suffer a spit take, Just what the fuck are we supposed to do now? Any respite from the unpleasantry of simultaneously waiting impatiently for the sun to get the fuck out of Dodge while plagued by guiltily realizing that there’s obviously something very wrong with you for feeling this way is heartily welcomed.
So I run some numbers in my head related to this proposed IKEA excursion. After naptime, it’ll be about 4:00. And by the time we get everybody out the door it’ll be 4:30. It’ll take about 40 minutes to get there; 5:10. We’ll leave there about 6:30, home about 7:10. 7:30 is bedtime.
“That’s a fantastic idea,” I offer.
You may think that we’re going IKEA to do some shopping; look for some chairs, some knickknacks, light fixtures, bookcases, etc. And you would be forgiven for thinking this, as if you were to remove all of the IKEA furniture from our apartment, there would be no place to sit except for on the newly orphaned piles of books and records. But no, we go there for “something to do.” You see, at IKEA, there is a play area you can drop your kids off for an hour at this magical place called Småland, whose method of operation initially had my eyebrows raised, wondering What’s the catch? Turns out, there is no catch: as long as your child meets the height/age requirement and is potty trained, he or she can shoelessly roam the play area freely, which includes a vintage Chuck E. Cheese-style plastic ball pit, indoor playground-type equipment, and Disney films showing on an HD TV, free of charge.
So, while most people go to IKEA to shop, we go there for a little break. And our five-year old son Mascis loves it. Usually he doesn't want to go anywhere, sometimes not even McDonald’s! But he’d been pestering Melissa to take him there. Though, for some reason, he gets the name mixed up with the Salvation Army’s: “Mommy, I really want to go to the Salvation Army,” he had confessed earlier in the week.
So on Sunday, we all happily headed to IKEA to take advantage of its free babysitting service. The only anxiety being that, since Mascis had a hot dog for lunch, we wouldn’t be partaking in their 50- cent (!) hot dogs. But I was reasonably certain we’d be able to figure something else out for dinner, given their surprisingly wide selection of cheap, disgusting food options.
So we dropped Mascis off, loaded our daughter Lulu (who at fifteen months is alas much too young to be dumped off at Småland) into a cart and started wandering around fairly aimlessly, feeling kind of like being at Whole Foods not to shop but exclusively for the free samples.
We determined that there was one thing we could use from IKEA, that being a five pack of cardboard magazine holders costing a whopping $1.99. We quickly located them, put one five pack in the cart, and then continued to wander around aimlessly among the suburban undead, with their defective internal compasses and deficiencies in ability to determine acceptable parameters of personal space.
Walking around IKEA (like pretty much every public place, I suppose) really punctuates that there are people who don’t know how to walk around, and their sole purpose is to infuriate people who do know how to walk around. It really illustrates the inevitable moment in the automobile’s infancy when the decision was made to invent traffic lights: We have to do something; these dumb fuckers are constantly smashing into one another left and right.
“I don’t know,” I drawled, trying to conjure some direction. “I kind of like looking at glasses.” “We could do that,” Melissa agreed. “I saw some glasses in someone’s cart that looked pretty cool. So, yeah, let’s do that.” On the way to locating the glasses, we passed the staged kitchen areas, which hadn’t really changed since the last time we’d been there. We had fun dissecting them previously, in a manner not dissimilar to commenting on the results of home makeover shows when they finally reveal the results, so why not give it another crack, I thought. “I sort of like that kitchen,” I said. “It kind of reminds me of a ’50’s farmhouse or something.” “I know what you mean,” Melissa countered, “but it’s way nicer.” We stopped the conversation there, as we had this exact conversation, verbatim, the last time we were there.
When we reached the glasses, we poked around to no avail. The glasses that Melissa saw earlier in someone else’s cart were either an anomaly or a hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation, as they were nowhere to be found. Melissa pulled on the rim of a wineglass housed in cardboard on an endcap to reveal a comically oversized wine glass. Big enough, I joked, for the freakishly large infant—most likely no more than five months old but already the length of a four-year old, having fat wrinkles bubbling from behind his knees, his thick neck holding his enormous and weird head up sturdily so he could search the depths of your soul with his disquieting eyes—slung over the shoulder of his frazzled father with a wearied brow, himself (in direct opposition to his surroundings) strangely assembled, who sweatily got on an elevator going down when he meant to go up.
We made our way through each of the three floors quickly and unceremoniously, punctuating the difference between an annual (delightful) and a semiannual (uneventful) trip to IKEA. Kind of like seeing a The Usual Suspects for a second time; you know the whole time what’s going to happen, and the construction and minutiae of it isn’t the slightest bit interesting if you already know how it’s going to end.
Before long, we notice a sign that reads, “All Summer, Kids Eat Free,” and I sort of paw at the sign, as if the words will wipe off to reveal an addendum like “weather permitting” or “certain exclusions apply” or whatever other sinister truth may be unearthed by rubbing a cardboard sign. But, no, there are no restrictions. That’s amazing, I think, my excitement immediately being replaced my guilt. We were already planning on having the kids eat there, but neither Melissa or I would be patronizing the IKEA eatery, as we had learned a valuable lesson on our last visit, having purchased and consumed the handsome but thoroughly icky buffalo-chicken wrap: even if it only costs five dollars, five dollars worth of shit is still shit.
But now, in addition to babysitting our son for an hour, IKEA was going to feed him and his sister for free. I’m fairly certain that when it put these plans into practice, IKEA didn’t have the family of four that spends a scant $1.99 there in mind.
But oh well. Our one-hour time allotment at Småland was coming to an end, so we decided to check out with our meager purchase. IKEA doesn’t supply bags for your purchases, which is fine, but Melissa asked, “What are we going to do—just walk around the store with it not in a bag?” “Sure,” I said, “I’ll just carry it around with the receipt and show it to anyone who wants to see it,” as if it were a credential of some sort. And I would, eagerly, rather than have someone ask me; I would rather preemptively wave it said person’s face, which is probably at least as annoying to him or her as it is for me to have someone ask to see it.
So we retrieve Mascis from Småland, narrowly avoiding being trampled by this misguided lady and her dumb kids, all walking at us ensconced in a mysterious trance to get to the elevators perched behind a turn style bearing bold red letters spelling out “Do Not Enter,” as the elevator was meant only to be entered from the other side of the turn style. After losing this game of chicken we became unwitting participants in, we made our way to the food court up on the third floor.
The food and ambiance on the third floor is fancy compared to the food and ambiance on the first floor. But, to put things in perspective, they only sell hot dogs, cinnamon rolls and ice cream cones on the first floor, so it’s a relative comparison. To say that the third floor restaurant is cafeteria-style would somehow insinuate that it is somehow a step above a school cafeteria, when, actually, it’s pretty much on par with one. They offer a 99-cent breakfasts of powdered eggs; sad, shriveled diced potatoes; and toast, with something approximating coffee, which seem like a great bargain before you sit down to eat your meal and a rip-off by the time you’ve finished. Even with lowered standards, it’s the pits.
But free is free.
Mascis has settled comfortably into eating chicken fingers in these kinds of situations, which is easy enough, but his sister is a little harder to please. She doesn’t really like chicken, but, oddly, she likes beef. So we got her the IKEA offering that most approximates beef—Swedish meatballs. Which is made out of God knows what. It seems strange ordering Swedish meatballs for a baby, for anyone, really, other than for an old man with bushy eyebrows and foamy deposits plaguing the corners of his mouth.
I decided to take Lulu to get a table, maybe feed her some crackers, as she was starting to get fussy. Mascis soon followed, which left Melissa alone to make the food purchase.
“Are these meals really for kids?” the lady working the register asked Melissa. “Because they’re really only free for kids.” “Yes, they’re for kids,” Melissa responded. “But are they really?” the cashier countered. “Yes,” said Melissa, starting to get a little weirded out by the cashier's tone. “Because we have to enter it in if they’re not,” the lady explained. “They’re for kids,” Melissa repeated. It almost seems as if this cashier took it upon herself to stage this impromptu interrogation; I have a hard time believing that the idea was: Hey, let’s offer free meals to children, and then, when their parents order for them, let’s make the parents feel like unseemly criminals by badgering them about whether the meals are really for their children. Maybe it will even dissuade them, if not from ever coming back to IKEA, than at least certainly from trying to get free meals for their kids again. That’ll show ’em.
The kids had two bites apiece, as usual, and Melissa and I scarfed down the rest.
We had promised Mascis an ice cream cone, but not a cinnamon roll as he had requested, because he had those for breakfast. (Apparently, our kitchen turns out food remarkably similar to that turned out by IKEA’s first floor eatery.)
So we go downstairs, wait in line, and when we get to the register, Mascis is tugging on my (by the nature of their being, stupid, godforsaken) shorts, meekly saying, “Daddy I need to tell you something.” “Just a minute, Daddy has to order.” I order three ice cream cones, one for me, one for Melissa (she kindly offered to share hers with Lulu) and one for Mascis. We get the ice cream cones, and move over to the strange area set aside for people to eat? I think? It’s somewhat unclear: Among the rabidly horrible prepackaged whole coffee beans (do not be persuaded by their inexpensiveness and attractive font), bulk Swedish Fish, and weird lingonberry juice boxes (possibly for witches-in-training) there’s one table with chairs and a few wobbly, chest-height (while standing) tables with no chairs.
I handed Mascis his ice cream cone. “Daddy—” he started, but I saw that the one dirty and ravaged table was miraculously unoccupied, and delightedly ran to it, as a nomad to an oasis. I took Lulu on my knee to share my ice cream cone (taking a cue from Melissa’s selfless gesture to share hers with our baby daughter, an idea that never would had occurred to me), handed Melissa hers, and asked Mascis, “What did you want to tell me?” “Daddy, I don’t want this,” he confessed pathetically. “I want a cinnamon roll.” I explained to him that we had talked about it, and that he had cinnamon rolls in the morning.
“But I didn’t want this,” he said, now crying, crouching down on the floor on one knee and hanging his head, yet still holding the ice cream cone erect, improbably.
By this point, my blood pressure was beginning to rise. What kid cries when you give him an ice cream cone? Mine, apparently. We’ve spoiled him to the point that he’s crying because we bought him an ice cream cone. If my parents bought me an ice cream cone when I was his age, the only reason I would shed tears would be due to their kindness in breaking the cycle of sweets deprivation. I would have gladly accepted any flavor or form of ice cream and carried the joy of having had it with me to bed in the evening. What a fantastic day, I would think. What a magical day of ice cream.
What a shit day, I was now thinking, half-assedly feeding an ice cream cone to my daughter, pretending that I cared more than I did that she liked it so that my son, in a state of total collapse, might notice that I was not thinking about how upset he was, which, of course, was all I was thinking about.
I smelled something very un-ice-cream-like, and recalled that Lulu was exhibiting some suspicious behavior when we were upstairs waiting for Melissa and the food to come; I had completely forgotten. So I reached down to stretch out the back of her diaper to take a peak, like you do, soiling my finger in a very unfortunate solution for its resurgence.
Melissa sprung into action: she went to the counter, grabbed a napkin, and dispensed some water on it from the fountain soda station. I wiped off my finger and threw the napkin in the trash. Melissa had finished her ice cream cone and offered to take Lulu to the restroom and change her. “Take these,” she said, and gave me the five pack of cardboard magazine holders we had purchased earlier. Removing Lulu from my lap revealed a large, damp spot on my (stupid, godforsaken) shorts, which I immediately realized wasn’t pee, which certainly would have been the lesser of two evils.
I’m not horribly squeamish when it comes to these sorts of things, but even the most hardened among us with no real bodily-fluid aversion would admit to this requiring immediate attention. I looked at my crumpled son on the floor, his arched back rolling in waves with every heaving shiver of five-year old teary moans. “Mascis, I have to go to the bathroom and wash my leg. I will buy you a cinnamon roll, but you have to come with me now.” He looked up, confused. “DO ... YOU ... WANT THIS?” I asked, sternly, slow with the weight of the question’s importance, taking the ice cream cone gently out of his hand. “Because if not, I am going to throw it away.” He indicated that he didn’t want it, and asked why I had to wash leg in the bathroom.
“Because sissy peed on it,” I said. Mascis’s constitution is more fragile than mine.
I tossed the ice cream cone in the garbage and shuffled him into the bathroom, and while I scrubbed my shorts and leg with soap and water, explained: “Look, I’m upset, and I’m not buying you the cinnamon roll as a reward, I’m buying it because I needed you come to the bathroom with me immediately because sissy peed on me, and I couldn’t think of any other way to get you to come with me. I’m not at all happy about having to buy you a cinnamon roll, especially because I told you before that I wasn’t going to get you one. And from now on, you aren’t going to melt down in the middle of a store because you don’t get what you want. I mean, come on, man! Things like ice cream and cinnamon rolls are not rights, they are privileges. If you don’t want the ice cream cone, fine. What do I care? I won’t buy it for you. But I also would’t buy you the cinnamon roll, because we already talked about how you were not going to get it.”
Are your eyes glazing over yet? Just imagine trying to pay attention to this as a five-year old. After we left the bathroom, I kneeled down, and asked him if he knew why I was buying him the cinnamon roll. “Because I was upset,” he said.
So I bought him a cinnamon roll, explaining again why I was buying it, if not to ruin it for him, then to at least make it a bittersweet affair. I got the distinct feeling that, though he was able to repeat the gist of what I was getting at, he didn’t really care, he was just happy to be getting a cinnamon roll.
Melissa came back with Lulu. I asked her if it was really bad, and she said, vibrating her head slightly, quickly, back and forth, “Oh, it was absolutely disgusting. I almost vomited.”
We all made our way to the parking lot, got in the car, and followed the ridiculously complex series of turns to make our way to I-90, then back to the city. We pulled in our garage at about 7:00 p.m.—almost bedtime!—and got out of the car and started gathering our belongings, mostly IKEA food garbage, from the car. “Where’s our purchase?” Melissa wondered, referring to the five pack of cardboard magazine holders we had purchased many moons ago. I then remembered that, flummoxed by the wetness of my daughter’s liquid waste on my leg, I completely forgot that I was put in charge of them, and left them in the ramshackle first floor IKEA café to be found by some sleepwalking slob chomping on a sensibly priced hot dog, caught unaware that his magazines or personal papers even needed to be organized.
May it bring him better luck than it did us.