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Inner Child

“Thank heaven for little girls.” — Maurice Chevalier

Once I set us up with drinks, a bowl of corn chips, and spinach dip from Trader Joe’s, I hopped onto the couch, crossed my legs, and hit the play button on the remote control. When the score began to swell and familiar images filled the screen, I suppressed a yelp of delight. “I can’t believe you haven’t seen this yet — it’s only, like, one of my favorite movies ever,” I said to Jen. When the talking crab made a wisecrack, I let out a belly laugh, as if I’d forgotten the countless times I’d heard the line before. Jen shot me a bemused look every time I chortled at the screen. David, accustomed to my behavior, simply smiled. Upon hearing the first few instrumental notes of my favorite song, I could contain myself no longer. “Would it bother you much if I sang along?” I asked.

“Not at all,” said Jen. “In fact, I insist.” I took a moment to sip my wine and get over my self-consciousness and then opened my mouth wide, Broadway style. I sang in perfect sync with the animated, red-headed mermaid on the screen, hitting every note and audible breath, even mimicking the emotional whisper of the last words, “Part of your woooorld.” For three minutes, I was Princess Ariel. Or, to be more accurate, I was a regressed version of myself, the 12-year-old me watching The Little Mermaid in a theater in Plaza Bonita, getting sold on the Disney dream. Little did I know that forever after I would fantasize about a land of magical kisses, altruistic animal friends, and happily ever after; that regardless of my age, the little girl in me would never disappear.

Most of us don’t grow up entirely. There are boys whose toys get bigger and more expensive as the years go by and girls who never stop playing dress-up or pining for Prince Charming. As with any rule, there are exceptions — for example, I’m fairly convinced David was born with the emotional and mental development of a grad student. Only on rare occasions am I able to catch a glimpse in his dimply smile of the little boy David abandoned long ago in his determined pursuit of sophistication. Whereas my inner girl lies just beneath the surface, awaiting any opportunity to jump up in excitement at the slightest motivation (cue fluffy woodland creature).

Though I am unapologetic about my reoccurring “little girliness,” I admit that it sometimes leads to complications. For instance, I find it nearly impossible to maintain the disposition of a grown woman while babysitting my sister Jane’s two daughters — dropping me in the middle of all those dolls, stickers, and sparkly makeup is akin to asking a raccoon to guard your trash.

Once, I brought a sheet of plastic gemstone stickers to Jane’s place, just to watch with envy as Bella crammed ALL of them onto her tiny face. Later that same day, Bella refused my offer to “help” her color in the Disney princess coloring book I’d brought with me. I was left to dangle a jingly toy in front of her two-year-old sister’s face while Bella got to decide which blue worked best on Snow White’s sleeves. Fortunately, no other adults were around to see me when, a week later, I argued with the four-year-old about which cartoon to watch. I was all about Aladdin or Sleeping Beauty, but the child wouldn’t stop shrieking until I popped in the Cinderella DVD. Though Gus Gus the chubby mouse made me smile, for the most part I sulked until the Fairy Godmother sang “Bibbity Bobbity Boo.” Regardless of my frustrations, I had the wherewithal to refrain from complaining about such instances when Jane returned from whatever errand she’d been running.

As a child, I enjoyed playacting or imagining what it would be like to be an adult. Now in my day-to-day life, whether I’m driving my car, doing the grocery shopping, or filing my bills, I routinely get the sense that I am still just playing grown-up. Every once in a while, I’ll have a whimsical moment of glee when I remember that I get to make all the important decisions in my life, such as choosing my own bedtime or which cereal to buy. And though I do so love to be taken seriously when I play grown-up, I also have a fondness for retreating into the wonderment of looking at the world through a child’s eyes.

One afternoon, David walked into my office and sat in the rococo reading chair beside my desk, as he often does when he becomes bored with his corner of the house. While telling me about the latest news articles he’d found interesting, he absentmindedly grabbed a plush-toy hamster from my desk and turned it in his hands. I was in the middle of telling him that, no, I do not think it is a good idea for someone to purposely default on their mortgage so they can qualify for the bailout deals being offered to slackers, when the look on David’s face suddenly switched from attentive to inquisitive. I waited for him to ask some kind of rhetorical economic question, but instead, he raised the hamster in his hand and said, “Didn’t you buy this for Bella?”

Stupefied, I stared at the big round eyes of the cartoon-styled fuzz-ball in his hands, as though waiting for it to speak in its native Japanese tongue.

“You are going to give it to her, right?” David pressed. Gauging the answer in my expression, he shook his head in disbelief and tossed me the toy.

I caught it and clutched it to my chest. “It’s just so soft,” I said. “And it’s not like she doesn’t have a million stuffed animals already. What’s the big deal?”

Instead of answering, David looked around my office as though for the first time. His probing eyes made me anxious. “That, right there,” David said, pointing to an elaborate ornament hanging from the corner of a frame on my desk. Attached to the golden curlicue at the top of the trinket were jewel-like beads leading down to a large, translucent pink teardrop graced with wispy white feathers. “Didn’t Bella pick that out as her reward for being so good during the photo shoot? Tell me you didn’t keep that.”

I remembered the moment I’d snatched the bauble from the floor of my sister’s minivan, where my niece had discarded it with temporary disinterest. “She didn’t really want it,” I said. David sighed in resignation and returned to his desk. Once he was out of earshot, I exhaled with relief, grateful that he hadn’t noticed The Faeryland Companion — the comprehensive guide to winged creatures I’d picked up to give to Bella for her birthday this weekend but decided, after situating it on the bookshelf in my office, that it belonged right where it was, nestled behind the small ceramic bunny statues.

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