One evening I came home from work to find Tristan playing his DS on the sofa, Mel cooking on the stove, and Norah, my four year old, was coloring at the kitchen table. In Mel’s left hand was a wooden spoon, and to her right was the iPad where she was playing the video game version of Life. The only member of my family that seemed to notice me was Norah. She came up to me, gave me a big hug, and said, “Daddy!”
I love it when she does that.
I approached Mel. Her head was down and fixated on the game. I kissed her cheek, and her body shook like I’d frightened her.
“Oh, hey,” she said.
And that was it. No I love you. No kiss back. No, “How was your day?” She looked back down at her game as though I wasn’t there.
I went to Tristan, sat down next to him on the sofa, and said, “Hey dude. How was school?"
No response. I asked him again, and without looking up, he placed his hand on my chest and pushed me away.
“I’m playing a game, Dad.”
So I sat there for a little while, gazing at him, wondering what I should do about his clear lack of respect for me. I was a little hurt. And I think it was understandable for me to feel that way. I wanted to rip the game from his hands, smash it, and tell him not to talk that way to me. I wanted to tell him that I was his father and he needed to love me and be excited when I got home.
But I didn’t.
I just sat and looked at his soft white skin and chubby cheeks. I looked at his blue eyes shifting side to side, completely focused on the game. I had to assume that he’d been thinking about games all day at school. That he’d been longing to get home, squat down on the sofa, and play, and I wondered how to break him of that. I wondered how I could possibly get him to step outside the game and find enjoyment elsewhere.
And I suppose what bothered me the most was that I’d been thinking about him all day. I’d been thinking about Norah and Mel, too. I was excited to come home and see my family. There is something about being a Dad that made me feel like every time I came home from work, I should be treated like a returning solder. Like everyone should be ecstatic to see me return from battle. They should be grateful that I survived those nine long hours at the office, and I am secretly saddened when my family doesn’t meet my expectations. I know that this desire is not reality, but I still want it. I still want the group hug when I enter the door, but instead I was in competition with the iPad and the DS.
I looked at Tristan for a long while and wondered if he’d done his homework. I wondered if he would actually step outside and use his legs. I wondered if he would even talk to me. I wondered if he would someday shit his pants while trying to beat a video game.
On the whole, Tristan was a sweet kid. But when his game time was up, I often caught him sitting on the sofa staring at me with a furrowed brow. His gaze was menacing, brows flat, one hand cupped inside the other. I could see gears turning in his head and I often wonder if they are evil plots. His look reminded me of Chucky or The Good Son or some other horror movie where a small boy commits devilish acts.
After Tristan pushed me away, I swallowed my pride and did something I’d never really done. I forced myself beside him and said, “Tell me about this game.”
Tristan looked at me through the corner of his eye. Then he gripped the DS a little tighter like I was about to take it away.
“No. Seriously,” I said. “What’s going on in this? Why are the plants shooting the zombies? Who is this guy with a pot on his head?”
Tristan relaxed a little and said, “That’s Crazy Dave. He made the plants that fight the zombies. Norah wants to he him for Halloween.”
“I had no idea,” I said.
I looked up at Norah and she smiled back at me. Then she went into the kitchen and came back a few moments later with a pot on her head, the handle tilting behind her head.
She sat down next to us.
Tristan went on, telling me about the sunflowers that shoot seeds, the red-hot peppers, the sun that made the plants grow, and so on.
“Is that a big foot zombie?” I asked.
Tristan laughed. “It’s the yeti zombie!”
We talked for a while. Tristan told me about the game and I kept asking questions. And Norah giggled and nodded her head. Every once in a while she’d have to rearrange her pot.
“You know Tristan,” I said. “It’s still light out. We could totally play Plants vs. Zombies outside. For real. I could be a zombie, you and Norah could be the plants. All we would need are a few balls from the play room.”
Tristan’s eyes lit up. Then he shut his game and said, “Okay.”
We collected a soccer ball, a football, and two chubby, roundish, stuffed animals. We went outside, onto the sidewalk. I put my arms out before me and walked with stiff legs, moaning every once in a while.
“Brains,” I said.
And Norah, still wearing a pot, and Tristan, smiling, threw balls at me, in an attempt to keep me from invading their house.
It worked out better than I expected. I was afraid that faking an interest in Tristan’s games was going to make him want to play more games. But instead, it got him out of the house. It felt a bit strange acting like a zombie, I will admit, and we got a few looks from our neighbors, but they were worth it because we were outside, playing a real game. And after a while, a couple of the neighbor kids came out to play, too. And once the evening was over and Tristan was all ready for bed, he said, “Dad. Can we play Plants Vs. Zombies outside tomorrow?”
With that question, I became a little less worried about Tristan growing up to be a video game nerd.
“I’d love to.”
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