“Now what?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. You said we could go to a restaurant.”
“When did I say that?
“When we were in the taxi,” she said.
“Oh really, I said…”
“Daddy, you said we could go when the movie was over.”
“I believe the credits are still rolling inside and…”
“You do realize we’re in the middle of nowhere without a car, right?”
It was a sunny, cloudless autumn day in September 2011. I’d inhaled a half a bottle of Tylenol that morning trying to ward off the skull pounding I’d woken up with. One month after Marlee’s last hurrah as a camper in upstate, NY, we had planned to spend the day together. She had wanted to check out the new Sarah Jessica Parker flick, “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” Under duress I said, “Fine, we’ll go.” I would rather have waited until this one came out on DVD, but I didn’t want to disappoint her. Parker was an unknown when I’d first seen her in “Honeymoon in Vegas” playing opposite Nick Cage and Jimmy Caan, and “Striking Distance” with Bruce Willis. I was able to tolerate her for years alongside Cynthia, Kristin, and Kim. Thank God I’d never heard about the Morgans. My headache was getting worse with every thought of this post-Carrie Bradshaw bad review. Even if I fell asleep, Marlee would end up telling me “how she did it.”
As we stood outside the UA Westbury 12, sweat seeping from our pores, I noticed the service road we had driven in on and decided to walk toward it. There wasn’t a strip mall or restaurant in sight.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Does it really matter?” I answered.
“Why are you…?”
“Listen, we’re in Westbury, there has to be something around here.”
“So you’re just walking?” she asked.
“No, I’m your father trying to find a place to eat,” I told her.
I’d taken three-and-a half-year-old Marlee to her first movie, “A Bug’s Life” in December of 1998. I’d driven off to the theater with Marlee in the back seat going, “Bug bug.” She had a pink bow in her hair and was squirming in her car seat in anticipation of watching a cartoon on a big screen. I looked in the rear view mirror and she was giggling, “Bug bug..haha.” The movie had only been out a few weeks so we left early to make sure we got a good seat. Marlee scooted into an aisle seat midway down. She had a big smile on her face and the right junk food for her first movie: popcorn, soda, candy. “This is way too easy,” I thought. The lights went down and previews started. Twenty minutes into the movie I looked to my left, no Marlee! I looked to my right, then left, then right. What a fright! I stood up, my heart racing. There, in the dark, rolling on her side, down the aisle, was Marlee, laughing. “Bug bug, haha, bug bug.” I shook my head and threw my arms in the air. “Oh my…what the…?” I ran after her and picked her up near the 2nd or 3rd row. I carried her up the aisle. As we passed our seats she pointed and cried, “Popcorn daddy! Popcorn.” Our afternoon at the cinema had lasted forty minutes.
The following summer she managed to sit still for “Inspector Gadget” and cheered on the “Spy Kids” a few years later. Right before her 8th birthday I took Marlee to see “Daddy Day Care”. We were visiting my parents in Rockaway, NJ that day. After lunch at the food court in the mall, we made our way to the AMC. Toward the end when Eddie Murphy expressed his dislike for the new cotton candy cereal in a company meeting, Marlee leaned over and whispered,
“Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“The movie’s almost over,” I told her.
“I can’t wait,” she said.
So, with eight minutes left I took Marlee to the bathroom and waited outside. The clock ticked. I waited some more. By the time she came out, the theater was letting out. To Marlee’s dismay, we had missed the ending. She cried right there in the hallway and insisted we try to go back into the movie. I told her we couldn’t and next time to go poopy right after she ate. Six months later we saw “Daddy Day Care” on video all the way through.
As Marlee and I traipsed in the heat down the service road next to the curb, I found it odd that no cars were driving by. The area was deserted. We walked and walked until I had to stop from exhaustion.
“This is crazy,” I told her.
“You wanted to do this,” she said.
“Really? I wanted to do what? I came by train, then taxi and…”
“That’s enough. Let’s keep walking,” I told her.
She rolled her eyes and continued along the path of starvation. A few minutes later we stood on Brush Hollow Road staring at each other. At this point I thought about calling a taxi and having the driver drop us off at an eatery somewhere near Plainview. But then I had an idea. We crossed the street and wandered into a food mart at a gas station. Someone had been cooking a hot dog inside as we walked in. Footlong fumes floated up my nose and my mouth started to water and the sight of Drakes Cakes, Ring Dings, Twinkies was unbearable. I felt like ripping open a package and shoving a cupcake into my mouth. A man with a handlebar mustache behind the counter said that there were no places to eat anywhere in the area.
“What about an Olive Garden, Applebee’s, TGI…?”
The man shrugged. I shook my head in disgust. Then I peered across the street where we had come from and saw a sign in front of a building that read “Viana Hotel & Spa.” I pointed to the hotel and said to the man,
“What’s over there?”
“Ah, very nice place. You find restaurant in there.”
Our problem was solved.
One year after the “Daddy Day Care” fiasco, Marlee wanted me to take her to see “Mean Girls.” She was almost nine and fascinated with female teen stars. Every other weekend, we’d spend our afternoon with Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan. After the movie we’d talk about the scenes we liked and the ones that were simply not funny. I’d become the classic teenage daughter-movie-Dad. On the weekends that I didn’t have Marlee I’d rattle off dialogue and scenes from these flicks to my friends who had kids Marlee’s age.
“You mean you haven’t seen Freaky Friday? Jamie Lee…let me say this, for her age, she can act. The part where she was playing guitar off to the side on stage…”
“And Jennifer Garner..”13 Going on 30”..great movie–the “Thriller” scene, hilarious…you have to see it!”
The premiere of “Mean Girls” was packed. Ten minutes before the movie started I stood up to find that I was one of three dads in the entire theater. There was a mother or teenage girl in every other seat. Mothers, daughters, their friends, and friends of their friends just kept coming in and walking down the aisle. I looked around and said to myself, “This is insane.” When the previews came on, they were still filing in. There were teenage girls sitting in the aisle because there were no more seats! The movie, written by Tina Fey, was to become Lindsay Lohan’s most memorable role and one of the highest grossing films that year raking in $130MM on a budget of $17MM.
Two months later Marlee asked me if the movie had come out on video. Every week by phone she’d say, “Daddy, I want The Mean Girls.” I’d tell her there wasn’t a “the” in the title. It was just “Mean Girls.” She’d still whine, “I want The Mean Girls.” I’d been dating Jan, my girlfriend, for a few months at this point. After hanging up from me, she’d call Jan and say, “When’s my dad getting me The Mean Girls?” Jan would say, “When it comes out on video.” Then she’d repeat herself, “But I want The Mean Girls.” A month after that I was ready to smash the phone against the wall. Every conversation consisted of the words “Mean Girls.” I had almost wished we’d never gone to see it. That September, “Mean Girls” hit video stores. We dashed to the old Barnes and Noble on 66th and Broadway, went down the escalator, to grab a copy.
When Marlee saw the racks of DVD’s that day she was amazed. She asked me if she could get one more DVD. I went to the next section and scoured the CD’s while Marlee hunted for another movie. When I returned ten minutes later, she was splayed out on the tiled floor, 20 DVD’s around her.
“I don’t know which one I want.”
“Is this necessary?! C’mon, pick all this up. People can’t even get by.”
“But Daddy, I want a movie.”
“I know you do, but you can be civilized and pick one out normally. Who does this?!”
“It’s not fair.”
“Oh my God. Look at this mess!”
Three months later, she owned, “Meet the Parents,” “Big Daddy,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” and “New York Minute” on DVD. The manager at Barnes and Noble would nod and smile when he saw us every other week. Marlee’s second home was at the foot of the escalator, on the floor, with DVD’s scattered everywhere. She wouldn’t do it any other way. Her list of “DVD’s Daddy Will Buy Me” was over 50 and she carried it with her.
The cool atmosphere inside the Marco Polo Restaurant & Lounge in the Viana Hotel almost put me to sleep standing up. There was classical music playing overhead. Each dark green formica table had silverware on top rolled inside of burgundy cloth napkins and was set for dinner. The small dining area had a parquet floor and was well lit. Marlee and I looked at each other and shrugged. I walked over to the bartender and asked if the restaurant was for hotel guests only. Two minutes later a waitress came out and seated us. It was 4:30pm. We were the only diners there.
“Daddy how come we’re the only ones here?”
“It’s early, I guess.”
“Listen, if I knew why this place was deserted on a Saturday afternoon I’d write an article…”
“Your answer for everything. I’m weird.”
“It’s a hotel, in Westbury, Long Island. Big tourist spot!”
I finally got a giggle and a roll of the eyes out of Marlee. We sat and waited until our potato skins with sour cream appetizer came out and then, dug in.
By the time Marlee entered junior high school, our weekends together dwindled as she wanted to spend more time on Long Island and had told Jan and me that she was bored in the city. An afternoon movie with Dad and dinner afterwards wasn’t enough. She’d call and tell me about the latest horror movie or romance flick she had gone to the night before with a group of girlfriends. Afterwards, they’d go to a diner and cause a ruckus laughing and cackling. Our theater escapades together faded into the Manhattan skyline. I was a bit disappointed but had known it was only a matter of time.
Marlee’s love of DVD’s though never diminished. She had boxes filled to the top in her room, some of them still in the wrapper. Our favorite movie, “Jersey Girl,” with Ben Affleck, always sat on top. This was the one Marlee watched the most and quoted from on a regular basis. We had seen the movie one night on HBO and Marlee loved it so much that I bought her the DVD. Shortly afterward, Marlee wanted me to quote the lines with her, particularly from a scene toward the end with Will Smith and Ben Affleck chatting in a media publicist’s waiting room. She’d call me up at random and say,
“Daddy, how far you love me?”
I’d answer, “All the way to that table.”
She’d reply, “No you don’t. You love me all the way to the moon, and back down to the dirt.”
We’d be hysterical and recite the dialogue from beginning to end.
Out of the blue a few years later, Marlee said she wanted Jan and me to take her to see “Aquamarine” about a mermaid who comes to life and swims in circles for ninety minutes. The afternoon movies with Dad and giddy time with her girlfriends had now become an evening event with the family. After the movie I looked at Jan and shook my head with an expression of, “Are you kidding me?” After seeing “Marley and Me” on New Year’s Day and then “Little Fochers,” the family outings ended. We could never agree on a movie after that, and having painfully slogged through “Aquamarine” I wasn’t about to suffer through another disaster.
After stuffing our faces with chocolate mousse and cheesecake, I walked over to the bartender and asked if he could call me a cab. The restaurant dimmed the lights as dinner guests began to arrive. After I paid the bill, Marlee and I left the restaurant and walked down a few steps into the small lobby where we had entered. Marlee sat on a black leather couch and I paced.
“When’s the taxi coming?”
“The guy just called. We’ll wait,” I told her.
“For how long?”
I shook my head. “What do you have an appointment?
She gave me a deep sigh.
Marlee had texted me earlier that morning and wanted to see this movie as most of her friends had seen it already. My only method of transportation back then was the LIRR and a taxi. I wasn’t able to rent a car on such short notice. Then I thought, “A taxi to Westbury? Am I crazy?” Even if Marlee wanted to come into the city, she couldn’t. Her grandparents were out for the day. There wasn’t anyone to drive her to the Hicksville train station. I had no choice. We decided on a time and a theater. I took the subway down to Penn Station, then rode the train to Hicksville and hopped into a taxi. After picking Marlee up, we headed to Westbury. Marlee was excited as she was spending the day with Dad.
“It’s so cool that we’re taking a taxi to the movie,” she said to me as we headed down the Northern State.
“Tell that to my pocket,” I told her.
“Why are you so weird?” she asked me.
The driver turned into the Westbury Music Fair parking lot which was empty and Marlee and I looked at each other. Then I saw him peering at me through his rear view mirror. I leaned over and articulated to the driver “I need the UA Westbury 12 Cinema—you know, the movie theater.” As usual Marlee laughed under her breath as we made a right turn out of the lot.
We stepped outside and got into the taxi when it pulled up in front of the Viana. Marlee gave Ms. Parker’s new flick a positive review as we gabbed about it all the way back to Plainview. I told Marlee that they should make a movie about my life and call it, “I Don’t Know How He Does It.” As usual she gave me the roll of the eyes as if to say, “There’s something wrong with you.” We said our goodbyes at the front door a few minutes later.
On the way back to the train station I thought about the day and how much fun we’d had. It had been our 3rd movie in the last three years. But, I didn’t care about the movie so much or the restaurant we had eaten in. It was all about spending quality time together. Once again, I had found a way to make our day in the dirt enjoyable. I’d consider that a happy ending.