"Uhhh... Hey! What you are doing Saturday night?"
It was my friend Shannon. I'm not very good at making up lies first thing in the morning, so I told her I was free that night.
"Can the girls have a sleepover at your place so Craig and I can have a night out on the town to celebrate our 15th anniversary?"
Let's see. My oldest friends in the world want me to hang out with their two (usually) adorable daughters so that they can seize a rare opportunity to have a carefree evening to commemorate a milestone in their relationship?
"Of course I will," I said.
And then I flew into a panic as soon as I hung up the phone.
I live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. I own no plastic cups. I have a glass coffee table with sharp corners. I live on the 3rd floor. I was temporarily immobilized by the fear that something was going to get broken. Like a willful five year-old.
I ran to the medicine cabinet.
Hydrogen peroxide? Check. Band-Aids? Roger. Ace bandages? Yup. I hoped that was all the triage equipment I'd need. I reassured myself that I could keep the girls safe on this, my first ever babysitting sleepover.
And then I thought of something even more terrifying to a single gay 40-something man faced with having to entertain little girls that (seem to) look up to him?
What if-- G-d forbid-- they get bored?
Over my dead body. I quickly sketched out the evening:
1. Bacon cheese burgers and french-fried, wholesale bribery at Grubstake where we might celebrate both cinematic history and Portuguese heritage in one sitting.
2. Make your own sundaes at home.
3. A Marilyn Monroe film like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or How To Marry A Millionaire to instill some good, old-fashioned American values in the little angels.
4. Organic beauty treatments. Namely: guacamole face masks.
I thought I was being brilliant. However, I quickly realized that obsessively planning out an evening of "fun" is nearly impossible when a five year-old is involved.
Upon arrival, Craig and Shannon scanned my apartment for potential dangers, made a little chit chat, and then escaped.
"Well, girls," I said with a little clap of my hands,"I thought we'd start the evening off with a little beauty treatment!"
"I know," said India the five year-old, "Guacamole face masks..." She sounded less than pleased.
"It'll be awesome!" I said. I brought out two bandanas to protect their hair from avocado, and two small, grey t-shirts to protect their clothing, asked them to put them on and then made them pose for photographs, like any annoying adult with a camera might do.
"Why do we have to be Chinese women?" asked India. Chinese women? I had no idea what she was talking about, unless she read that the t-shirts were manufactured in China.
Zelly, the eleven year-old, looked at her little sister and then up at me. "I have no idea where she got that," she said.
"Is there anything particularly wrong with being a Chinese woman?" I asked India.
"I just don't wanna be one," was her response. Fine, I thought. I doubted that anyone would mistake a little girl with curly red hair for a Chinese woman, t-shirt or no. We got down to making the face masks:
Avocado (for dry skin), tomato (for those dreadful oily patches), and lime (for flavor and eye-irritation). Both the girls enjoyed mashing the ingredients together.
Zelly was game for smearing the mush on her face, but India would have none of it.
"But India, it'll make your skin soft and beautiful," coaxed Zelly.
"I already have soft, beautiful skin," countered her sister.
I was about to explain that it would do her a world of good by making her look years younger until I realized that a five year-old might end up looking like a newborn and therefore wouldn't find that appealing in the least. I let the matter drop.
"This is booooooooo-riiiiiiiiing," she moaned, "When are we going to go eat?" She just sat there and pouted until Zelly and I got cleaned up.
On our way to dinner, we passed the Asian travel agency around the corner from where I live. In the window was a poster for the Shanghai exhibit at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum. The image showed a beautiful woman representing the prosperity of that city in the 1930's. I pointed it out to India.
"She's beautiful!" she gasped. Suddenly, being a Chinese woman was appealing to her.
Zelly and I enjoyed our bacon cheeseburgers and beautiful skin, while India dined on about a quart of ketchup and french fries that were hailed as "better than Frjtz." When we returned home from dinner, she put the grey t-shirt back on to resume her Chinese womanhood. She refused even to take it of to sleep.
All was peaceful. The make-your-own sundaes a smashing success. And then I learned the first of two very important life lessons:
Never load up a five year-old with sugar and then expect her to sit through a feature-length 1950's comedy.
Bored, India set about annoying her sister and disrupting the film.
"This is boring! I thought we were supposed to have and adventure! I don't want to watch this stupid movie!"
She was dripping with charm. Her sister wisely suggested that, for the sake of peace, we watch Wallace & Grommit instead. I reluctantly agreed.
And then, of course, the dvd player broke. Being the adult in the room, I showed no outward sign of my panic. Instead, I grabbed my lap top and downloaded streaming episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants.
Evening saved. Sort of. I won't go into the false accusations of biting or the door slamming incidents or child-gassiness. We all survived and I lived long enough to recount the evening to their happy parents over brunch the next morning.
When I returned home, I was exhausted, but rather pleased with myself: No children were harmed during the course of the evening. They were fed, cared for, and more-or-less entertained. And, except for the sure-fire french-fry-and-ice-cream bribery, nothing at all went according to plan, which lead me to a deep understanding of the second-- and most valuable-- life lesson of the day:
Never underestimate the power of improvisation-- especially when five year-olds are involved.
And speaking of improvisation, here's my recipe for today:
Gringo-Gwai Lo Guacamole
"Gwai lo" in Cantonese means "ghost person." In certain circles, it's how they refer to white people. Well, since I'm a ghastly pale gringo making up a Mexican dish out of Chinese ingredients, I'm just going to embrace my gringo-gwai lo-ness and just go with it. And, since it's essentially guacamole we're talking about here, there are no specific amounts for the ingredients-- just go with what feels and tastes right to you.
Believe it or not, this recipe really, really works. I think I must be developing a knack for dips.
Serves no 5 year-olds I know, since there isn't any ketchup in the recipe.
3 ripe avocados
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, depending on your love of the bulb
Coarse salt, as much as you like
Toasted sesame oil
A splash or two of rice wine vinegar
A pinch or two of ground Chinese five spice
Black sesame seeds for garnish.
1. Split avocados lengthwise around the pit. Twist halves, remove pit, and scoop into a medium sized bowl.
2. Place garlic cloves in a mortar and pestle with a little bit of salt. Since you can neither morally nor legally take out your physical frustration on a five year-old girl, this is an excellent release valve. Mash to a pulp. Add to avocados.
3. Now mash avocados with a fork to attain a chunky/smooth consistency. Add sesame oil, vinegar, a bit more salt, and Chinese five spice. Taste, adjust seasonings. Garnish with back sesame seeds.
4. Serve on fried wonton wrappers to the eleven year-old, who behaved so beautifully. Sit back and enjoy the five year-old's resulting temper tantrum.