Several inches of snow made the park an unappealing choice for Katie’s day off from school on Friday, so instead I took the kids to McDonalds for an afternoon french fry snack and an hour of wild rumpus in the playland’s giant gerbil tunnels.
I wasn’t the only parent hoping to burn off some excess kid energy under the golden arches; there were probably thirty children careening around the plastic structure, screeching and laughing and bouncing off the walls like electrons in an excited molecule. As you might imagine, the nine or so tables in the playland area were full; we were lucky enough to walk through the door just as another family was leaving, and seated ourselves with relief. After the kids hoovered their fries, they scampered off to play, leaving me alone at the fourtop amidst the confetti of crumpled up napkins and empty ketchup packets.
I may have been imagining the dirty looks in my direction as I took up a whole table by myself, but when I sensed the presence of someone standing behind me, waiting for a place to sit down, I gladly turned to offer the empty side of my table.
Smiling what I hoped was a friendly smile, I leaned toward the mother and baby and said, “Excuse me, ma’am–would you like to share my table?”
The moment he opened his mouth to speak, I realized that the “mother” was a man. “No, thank you. We’re just waiting for my wife and son to get back with the food.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, my face suddenly aflame. Quickly, I turned around and busied myself in cleaning up the fast food detritus scattered over the table. Oh no oh no oh no! I can’t believe I called him “ma’am”! Did he hear me? It’s pretty loud in here. Maybe he thought I said “man”? I hope, I hope, I hope…
“Excuse me,” his voice intruded on my self-recriminations. His wife hovered behind him, tray in hand. “Could we take you up on your offer after all? Our son would like to play for a while before we eat.”
I motioned weakly to the empty chairs across from me, and they sat down. At this close proximity, I was able to see the man more clearly. How could I have thought he was a woman? He was holding a small baby, sure, and carrying a diaper bag, and in his ears he sported a pair of silver hoops, but that was where the resemblance stopped. If he did hear me, would it have made him feel better or worse to know that I didn’t think him a particularly attractive woman?
Usually after saying something embarrassing (and believe me, it happens more than I’d like), I flee the scene. But with my kids lost somewhere in the middle of a rocking and rolling plastic jungle, I was tethered to my seat. Looking up from where I was hiding behind my bucket of Diet Coke, I accidentally made eye contact with the baby, who was grinning at me as if she knew how uncomfortable I was.
Oh, well, I thought. If he’s going to pretend it didn’t happen, so am I. Surprisingly, we ended up having a pleasant conversation, during which I learned that they were just passing through town on their way from Seattle to Missoula (so I’ll never see them again, thank goodness.) Ten minutes passed before I was able, at last, to disentangle my children from the horde, get their shoes back on, and wish the young family well on their journey before making a merciful retreat.
My face is finally cooling and the sense of embarrassment is fading away, but just to be on the safe side, I’ve decided that from now on I might give up gender-specific addresses altogether and opt instead for a hearty “Hey, you!” when talking to people I don’t know. It may not recommend me to Miss Manners, but I hope at least it will keep me from becoming someone else’s blog fodder!