Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Broken Door

I had to break into my own house last Tuesday. 

Maria, our three-year-old daughter, locked me out.

On purpose. 

It all started, as things like this tend to, innocently enough.  I was cleaning up around the house while Maria played in the back room.  The recycle bin in our kitchen was full, so I took it out to our large, city-provided recycling container, which sits not more than three steps from the door in our carport.  I lifted the blue lid of the big container and shook out the contents of our smaller kitchen bin.  I didn’t dawdle.  I wasn’t lollygagging.  The whole process took ten seconds, tops.  But, as I turned back and reached for the handle of the outer storm door, I saw the door behind it shut tightly, closely followed by the clear, metallic ‘tick’ of the lock being turned. 

Maria, whom I thought was oblivious to my random movements, must have seen me go by, been seized by a sudden and brazen inspiration, dropped whatever she was doing, trailed me through the dining room, and closed the door, all within that fleeting window of opportunity.  Working through this sequence of events in my mind, I still don’t know how she was able to do it, let alone why.  Maybe it was her attempt at an Occupy! takeover, or a less-than-subtle way of expressing her displeasure at being left alone with me yet again, or just an instance of temporary demonic possession. 

All I really know is that I am abruptly and unceremoniously staring at a locked door. 

At first, I assume she is just having some fun, and that she will unlock the door after only a brief pause for comic effect.  But a few silent moments pass, and then a few more.  “Maria?  Ha ha.  That’s very funny, sweetie.  Now please unlock the door for daddy, Maria.”  No response.  I knock softly.  “Unlock the door, please.  Maria…”  Absolute quiet.  No giggling.  No fumbling fingers on the handle, not one incidental sound.  Then it dawns on me that she isn’t even considering unlocking the door.  I look around in surprise, trying to digest this new development.  I am in my shorts and a t-shirt; I have nothing else on me.  The true extent of my predicament starts to settle in.  I begin to pass rapidly through the five stages of loss:

Denial – “Oh no she di’int!”
Anger – “Maria Margaret, you better open this door by the time I count to three! One...Two...Three!”
Bargaining – “All right, make that ten. (pause) Maria… I know where the cookies are.  I’ll give you a cookie if you’ll just open the door for Daddy… (maybe she knows we don’t have any cookies)  All right… Maria, in my wallet, I have some cash…”
Acceptance – “She’s not going to open this door ever.” 
Depression – “I’m going to feel really bad spending the rest of my life in jail after I kill my daughter.”

It takes no more than five minutes to navigate through all the stages of loss and double back to anger, which turns out to be the last stop.  The coaxing, cooing, knocking, demanding, pleading, pounding and yelling continue as a confused, indistinct jumble,  but nothing I say or do brings an audible response from the other side of the door.  I can’t tell if Maria is still there, or if she has gone back to finish watching Caillou in blissful solitude. 

Without her help, there is no easy, simple solution to this problem.  I look around helplessly.  It’s a peculiar feeling of vulnerability that you experience when you’ve been locked out of your own house by a three-year-old child.   I suddenly realize how many mistakes I made that I wasn’t aware I had made.  For instance, I had never seriously considered stashing a key somewhere outside.  Never saw the need, and it seemed like a risky thing to do.  Likewise, I hadn’t thought of giving a key to our trusted neighbor, who is almost always home.  In addition, we recently changed our locks, but we hadn’t distributed new keys to all of the designated relatives, including Elizabeth’s brother’s family, who live a mile away, and also almost always have someone around.   And the biggest mistake of all:  not buying one of those invisible fence systems when I had the chance, the kind with the shock collars they typically market to dog owners.  Originally, I thought it would be especially useful in preventing Maria from messing up every room as soon as I picked up.  If only I hadn’t let that sales clerk talk me out of it, I thought.  Maria never would have made it to the dining room.    

Now, because of my many oversights, here I am, hapless, effectively cut off from everything all at once.  My keys, wallet, and phone are all sitting on the mantle next to the door.  My sense of humor and sense of composure must be sitting there too, because I definitely notice their absence.  I go crazy knowing that the key is only 4 and 1/2 inches away; it’s just that it happens to be 3/8 inches of clapboard, 3 ½ inches of two-by-fours, ½ of drywall, and 1/8 inch of pine paneling.

I lean hard on the door handle, thinking I might be able to retract the latch just enough to get past the strike plate, and I test the sturdiness of the door with a few probing kicks.  It doesn’t give a bit.  Knowing I will be even angrier if I have to break anything to get in, I force myself to let go of the handle.  I walk around to the front window and look in, but she’s nowhere to be seen.  I rap loudly and yell Maria’s name a few times, but the only response I get is a cocked head and confused wag of our dog’s tail.  I try the main front door; it’s more solidly shut than the other one.  Playing a hunch, I move down to the end of the house and peer through the window into her room, but it’s empty also.  I tap as hard as I dare on the glass and yell her name anyway.  By now, I feel a lot like Stanley Kowalski bellowing ineffectually on the street in front of a wrought-iron terraced French Quarter tenement.

I think about hopping the block fence and trying the doors in the backyard, but I don’t.  I know they’re deadbolted because I’m the one who deadbolted them just before I took Jess to school that morning.  Feeling a spontaneous urge to smash the window with a brick, I have to will myself to calm down instead.  I stare through the front window, waiting for any sign of movement.  It’s as though she’s disappeared.  Was this whole thing a plot to get me out of the house so she could do something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do?  Was a three-year-old capable of such cunning?  It took about five seconds to realize that when it came to Maria, that was a dumb question.  Then I start to imagine what sorts of things she might be doing in there.  Playing in her sister’s room with permanent markers?  Playing in the bathroom with mommy’s makeup?  Those were mundane possibilities that didn’t necessitate the risk inherent to a coup d’etat.  Dumping out every box of cereal and crackers in the pantry in an effort to locate the leftover gingerbread man marshmallows she loves?  Possibly.  Sticking a knife into the electrical outlet in the kitchen?  I had caught her trying to do that once with a plastic spoon. Did I leave anything dangerous out where she could get it?  What if she pokes herself in the eye with a pair of scissors?   What if she’s jumping on our bed and cracks her head open on a nightstand?  What if she climbs up on the washing machine and eats the laundry detergent?  They all strike me as increasingly likely possibilities, almost more like certainties.  The fact that the dog so far appears to be uninjured is only mildly reassuring.  The stillness inside the house is unendurable.  I can’t wait much longer for her to appear.  She could be doing nothing at all, and is simply taking a nap while waiting for me to figure out this little dilemma, or she could be in our bedroom, strangling herself in her mother’s bra straps.  How could I know?  Somehow, I have to get in.           

Nobody’s ever confused me with the sort of person who goes around breaking down doors, or even with someone who’s capable of doing such things.  Thankfully, Maria was only tall enough to reach the lock in the door handle, and not the deadbolt that sits half a foot higher.  I approach the door and give a warning like I’ve seen cops do on 70’s crime shows when they’re about to bust into somebody’s house.  I shout at her to turn herself in while she still can, pause a few seconds, and then shout for her to get away from the door because I’m coming in.  Then I jam the handle down and ram the door with my shoulder.  The handle jabs me back in my ribs, and the door barely acknowledges the impact with a dull thud.  I back up and try a few more times, then switch to a combination of holding the handle down and swift, close-quarter kicks until I hear a single, sharp CRACK!  One last kick, and the door swings in limply, splinters of wood littering the floor.  On my way in, I assess the damage:  the frame itself has split where the latch penetrated, wrecking it.  Also, a five-foot section of broken molding is leaning out at a forty-five degree angle from the wall.  The metal strikeplate, and the screws that held it in place, are lying intact on the tile about four feet away.  

I must enter like an enraged monster, because our dog, who thought she would be the first to welcome me back, takes one look at me and starts backing up, her head and ears dropping down almost to the floor, her eyes looking up in quaking fear like she has just seen Cruella de Vil’s lesser-known sister, the really mean one.  She tries to cram herself under one of the dining room chairs, which is difficult to accomplish because she’s seventy pounds, and about the size of a foal.  If I looked anything like I felt, I probably had green and yellow spinning pinwheel eyes, red lightning arcing from my body, and protruding veins nearly detached from my head, convulsing like gagging anacondas.  I sweep past her cowering bulk, intent on one goal:  finding Maria.  I search the back of the house first, but she isn’t in the laundry room, the back bathroom, or the TV room.  I storm back through the kitchen and dining room, and into the hallway, until I finally find her, hiding behind the closed bathroom door.  She hadn’t been up to anything that I could see; she appeared to be waiting the whole thing out in what I can only assume she believed was a magically enchanted bathroom. 

When I was in high school, there was this kid one year who blew up the school’s chemistry lab.  He was the kind of kid who would do things just because he had to know for himself what would happen when dangerous things were mixed together.  Reading about what could happen wasn’t enough, being warned by the teacher about what could happen wasn’t enough; he had to physically do it himself, and then see the results first-hand to mentally grasp the reality of the danger.  Although I wasn’t there when it happened, I imagine the look he had on his face in those moments just before the chemistry lab went kablooey was pretty much the same look Maria has on her face now.  There is definitely an element of fear; she knows nothing good is coming.  But there is also something else, an almost detached regard in the way she watches me filling up the space before her which bespeaks a burning curiosity, an intense desire to see what the precise consequences are going to be. 

Those precise consequences are direct and immediate.  I pick her up, blasting a rapid stream of nonsensical questions at her little, quizzical face, flip her around, and for second time in her three years on this planet, I spank her.  For the record, the first time was in response to a string of unrelenting and unprovoked attacks in which Maria refused to stop scratching, pinching and gouging the arms of her older sister.  And, in the interest of total transparency, I’ve spanked Jessica exactly once, and she’s ten now.  I swatted Maria sharply three times on her behind with my hand on the way to her room, and then put her in her chair for the customary ten minute time-out.

I know that it’s not currently fashionable among parenting authorities to acknowledge spanking as a legitimate form of discipline, and I fully comprehend the ultimate futility of relying on sheer physical force to compel behavior.  I, as much as anyone, can appreciate the irony contained in the statement, “Maria, if you hit me again, I’m going to spank you,” which, it turns out, I have had the distinct pleasure of hearing myself actually say.    

I’m also far from being an advocate for corporal punishment.  My record in this area, as presented in its entirety in the last paragraph, should make it clear that I do not consider spanking to be an all-purpose solution, to be freely used at the whim of the parent for purposes of convenience.  In my ten years of doing this job, I’ve discovered that there are only three reasons (so far) that meet my standard for a spanking:  the child has threatened its own immediate safety through its own stupidity; the child has demonstrated a deliberate, willful and uncontrollable desire to hurt another person, and, once they get older, serious lying. 

Maria’s transgression definitely qualified on the basis of the first criteria.  A three-year-old alone in a locked house is, by definition, a danger to herself, and especially so for someone as mischievous as Maria.  You can’t just let that one go with a time-out and a stern talking to.  Besides, the whole time-out thing has kind of turned into a farce anyway, which I realized one day when I came in to conduct the standard post-timeout review, and she was looking at me with an unmistakable smirk, amateurishly concealed because, well, she’s only three.  You think this hurts me, old man, the look said.  I could do this all day long.  Just try me.  I’ll admit it threw a hitch in my gait.   I remember wondering, Is this how career criminals get started? 

No, she had deserved a spanking.  Still, I had misgivings.  Not about the punishment itself, but that I had been so angry when I did it.  I can’t deny that I was livid; I was furious; I was as completely berserk as I can remember being.  And that’s simply not the best time to apply a thoughtfully-considered and carefully-weighed punishment of the kind that we parents are obligated to dispense.  But what was the alternative?  Should I have waited until I was totally calm, and then spanked her with a cold, unemotional, dispassionate visage, like some kind of living dead zombie two hours later?  Wouldn’t that just be creepy, and probably more negatively traumatizing?  Would she even be able to effectively connect the punishment to the wrongdoing that far after the fact?  No, the punishment had to be immediate, or nearly so, to have any hope of being successful.  Now that I’ve had plenty of time to think about it, I suppose what I should have done is located her, made sure she was safe, taken a minute to simmer down, decided exactly what I felt she deserved as a punishment and why, and then proceeded.   Well, so much for the Mr. Mom award for 2012.  At least I made it to February. 

Something I haven’t mentioned yet, something which coincided entirely with Tuesday’s events, is that for a good while Maria’s name ceased to exist in my mind.  It began right around the time I reached the ‘acceptance’ stage on the Kubler-Ross scale, and lasted for the following ten hours or so.  Maria stopped being known as Maria in my thoughts, and became known only as “that little s**t.”  For instance, all the while I was looking in helplessly through the windows I was saying to myself, “Where is that little s**t?”  When I was looking at the busted remains of our front door, it was “Look at what that little s**t made me do.”  When I found her in the bathroom, it was “There’s that little s**t!”  As her time-out ended, it was “Time to go get that little s**t.”  As I put her frozen chicken nuggets in the microwave it was “I can’t believe I’m making lunch for that little s**t.”  When I put her down for her nap, it was “I better not hear a peep out of that little s**t.”  While she slept, it was “I still can’t believe that little s**t wouldn’t unlock the door.”  When Elizabeth called to see how things were going, I didn’t mention anything about the door, or Maria, because I was afraid “that little s**t” would slip out as naturally as her real name.  That night, instead of going to the library and working on my novel like I was supposed to, I went to the movies instead, because I was afraid I would sit in the library for three hours, typing nothing but “All work and no play makes that little s**t a dull little s**t” over and over.

But it didn’t last.  Somewhere around the scene where Joe “Lightning” Little dies in Redtails, I noticed myself transitioning unconsciously back to her proper name.  Proper names.  What is a proper name anyway?  A proper name is just what we decide to call someone.  They’re not required to reflect reality.  But what if they did?  In all the baby-name books and websites we went through as we waited in joyful anticipation of her arrival, not once did we encounter the name “That Little S**t.”  But maybe it should be there, just as a warning to every happily expecting couple that your future child is eventually going to do some really, really asinine things, and you’re going to call them, even if it’s only in your own mind, by a different name. 

But, for now anyway, Maria’s back to being Maria.  Although, if she continues to demonstrate an aptitude for it, we can always apply for a legal name change. 

Who knows?  We could become trendsetters. I can see it now…

Top baby girl names for the year 2042:
5          Apple
4          Diva Muffin
3          Petal Rainbow Blossom
2          Palin
1          That Little S**t


  1. No doggie door? If Chubby can fit through there, you sure can. And I think "that little s**t/you little s**t" are a universal name for children everywhere. At least that's my nickname for the boys when they come over. I love reading your stories, too.

  2. virgalvarado - No, no doggie door anymore. We replaced the doggie door door (if that makes sense) last year, and haven't decided about putting a new one in. I appreciate your comment about 'that little s**t' or something like it being universally used by parents. All kids do things now and then to earn it. Thanks for reading! Glad you're enjoying the blog!

  3. love it.. I think we have all been through this kind of torment with one of our children. just goes to show they are smarter than the average bear.. hahaha