In an ideal scenario you don't give an eff about being liked by babies. You are a little bit standoffish. A little bit to yourself. You don't baby talk. You don't make faces. And yet, despite your indifference, babies are inexplicably drawn to you. They cannot get enough of you. Every guy wants babies to love him and to have no idea why.
At my brother in law's 32nd birthday I realized that my two-year-old niece and I had grown apart. I'd seen Sara in passing but hadn't interacted with her very much. Hadn't gotten down "on her level." I couldn't remember the last time I'd held her and now it seemed out of the question. She looked at me hesitantly, questioningly. She stopped when she saw me in a room and looked at her mom to make sure everything was ok. Things had gotten pretty bad, and I was about to make them worse. My first mistake was shrieking at her when she almost spilled my water, startling the bejesus out of her, but it was an hour later that I really made her cry. I mean really made her cry. She was crying hysterically. And the worst thing was that it was for no reason. Which I took to mean that it was for every reason. I locked eyes with her and she lost it. Her perfectly formed, still basically brand-new face twisted up in horror. She buried her face in her mom's chest, a place she knew I couldn't follow, and while we all laughed about how kids will cry about anything — “Kids!” — I knew that Sara had looked into my soul and seen something both terrifying and true.
"Don't worry about it, Mister," my wife, J, said on the drive home. "You just don't spend enough time with her is all."
"How am I supposed to spend time with her when I've got work to do and that Patti Smith book I've been meaning to read? What does she want from me?"
"She's just shy around you."
"She's scared of me."
"You're really not supposed to shriek around toddlers."
"She almost spilled my water. And that's not what made her cry."
"I mean you probably just shouldn't shriek in general. As a rule."
"She looked at me and knew she didn't like me. She could tell."
"Next time ask her to show you her toys."
"But her toys are boring."
"This is the problem."
"You're a selfish son of a bitch."
"You don't put any effort into your relationships and then you wonder why you're not everybody's favorite person."
"My strategy is air tight."
"Maybe just try a little bit. She's your niece."
There are two levels of shame that come from making your niece cry. There is the private shame you feel for being a bad uncle, and there is the public shame you feel for making a kid cry in the middle of a party. The mother makes the kid feel better while the father makes you feel better. It happens to everyone. Kids are just like that. She'll get over it. But still, it feels like you took a shit in the middle of the room. I decided to look up strategies for winning over a two year old. Not for Sara's sake, she had other uncles, but for my sake, because Sarah was the only niece I had.
Dammit: Sara. Or wait: Sarah. Nope: Sara.
When we got home I Googled "How do I make a two year old love me?" and found a blog called AskingJane.com. A mom had asked Jane my very same question. How do I win my two-year-old's affection? I figured the strategies would be the same for moms and uncles so I skipped down past the mom's multi-paragraph question and looked for the good stuff in Jane's answer. Jane claimed there were two "infallible strategies" for winning over a two year old. 1: Prayer (pass). And 2: Eye contact. Lots of eye contact. "...And when you look at her, think, 'I love you.'" I liked it. It was simple and secret. Sort of like casting a spell. It would allow me to put in effort without appearing to put in any effort. And when Sara's eyes finally softened after I had worn her down with my love voodoo, when she finally came running across the living room to me, I could say something like, "Well what's this?!" or "Well who do we have here?!" as if I was surprised, and then I would scoop her up into my arms.
I practiced on our cat, Mozart. We were sitting on the couch watching Netflix. Between episodes, I turned to him, looked him in the eyes, and thought, rapid fire: I love you I love you I love you I love you I love I love you I love you I love you. We stared at each other until the next episode started and then we stared at the TV. When that episode was over, we turned back to each other again. This went on for a while. Then Mozart dropped down from the couch and walked into the bedroom.
Next I practiced on the barista at Starbucks. But I quickly realized that filling your head with I-Love-Yous makes it pretty hard to answer basic questions like, "How can I help you?" and "What do you want?" and "Name?" And while the experiment did seem to be doing something, I wasn't sure it was making Albert fall in love with me, or feel any affection for me at all. I wasn't sure I was winning him over. It was possible the effects were only potent on two year olds.
I practiced on J whose only response was, “The fuck you doing?"
I practiced on myself in the bathroom mirror.
And then I tried Mozart one more time. But this time instead of hitting him rapid fire, I thought the words just once, and very slowly: IIIIII LOOOVE YOOOUU. He turned over on the couch and looked at me upside down.
The next time I saw Sara it was Easter Sunday and she was wearing a shiny pink dress. Her hair was up in a bow. She hid behind her mom's leg, but every once in awhile I would catch her eye and — pow! — hit her with an I love you. At dinner we sat on opposite sides of the flower arrangement but sometimes she would peak out from behind and — pow! — I love you. Pow! I love you. Pow! Pow! POW! As Sunday wore on, though, despite my barrage of silent affection, nothing seemed to be working on this kid. Unintentionally, out of desperation maybe, my subliminal message shifted. First from I love you to You love me. And then further, from being a statement to being a command: You, love me.
"It's not working," I whispered to J.
"You're not doing anything," she whispered back.
"Yes. I am," I said.
"Not that telepathic crap."
"It's not crap. It's from Asking Jane."
"Asking Jane of AskingJane.com. You wouldn't understand."
"No. I wouldn't."
"No. You wouldn't."
I was getting pretty worn out and also a little bit sleepy. It took a lot of effort to not put in any effort at all. And the results were fairly lackluster. In fact the results were non-existent. Except, I guess, for the fact that I had been looking Sara in the eyes all afternoon and she hadn't burst into tears. Except for the fact that Sara had been looking me in the eyes all night and had, for the most part, maintained her composure. And while that wasn't necessarily a glowing acceptance, it also wasn't a complete rejection. Which is maybe all I've ever wanted out of life: to not be completely rejected. To live in that demilitarized zone between being liked and being hated. To be nobody's favorite person and nobody's least favorite person. I mean, did I really want to be Sara's favorite uncle, with all the responsibilities that would include? Did I really want this kid to love me, with all the love that would require in return? It was all starting to sound like a lot of work. And now that I thought about it, I wasn't sure I sure I had time for it, let alone the energy. I wasn't sure this relationship was something I could maintain given my current schedule and active to-dos. And if it wasn't something I could maintain, why begin at all? Why set Sara up just to let her down? If I cared about this kid at all — and I did — I needed to refuse her all affection. If I cared about Sara's well being at all, I needed to completely ignore her.
The next time I caught Sara's eye I sent her this message: You're indifferent about me. And then, later: We are cordial acquaintances, nothing more. And finally: Look maybe we should spend some time apart this thing is moving faster than the both of us.
We had reached what I felt was an understanding. An agreed lukewarmness. The last hour of Easter passed calmly. Sara arranging wooden numbers in mostly ascending order, me pushing Percocet to street kids in an iPhone app called Drug Wars. Sara and I avoided eye contact, stayed out of each other's way, secretly ate jellybeans when nobody was looking.
I think we both felt a weight had been lifted.
And maybe now our relationship could grow since there was no longer any pressure on it to grow. Maybe now we could just get along. Of course it would be nice to have some sort of relationship with my niece. It would be nice for her to like me a little bit. I didn't need her to be crazy about me or anything. I didn't need to be her favorite person, god no, but I would enjoy being top ten. Top five even. I would enjoy being among her favorites. Or at least in the running. And if maybe one day something happened to her favorite, maybe they moved away or turned to intravenous drugs, maybe then I could become her favorite. Maybe then I could move into that role. But that would be years from now, or maybe sooner depending on how things went. Depending on how much effort I was willing to put in. Because it would take some effort. No doubt it would take some serious effort. And time. A lot of time. If I was going to become her favorite person years from now I was going to have to start planting seeds today. But I didn't exactly have time today. Today wasn't exactly a good day for me. And from the looks of it, it wasn't a good day for Sara either. She looked pretty busy with her blocks and stuff. I watched her arrange her numbers, in random order now, and I thought about telling her that joke about seven eating nine, I thought maybe she would think that was pretty funny, not now of course but a few years from now, once she had started school, once she had grasped the nuance of homophones, then that joke would crack her up, I was sure it would crack her up, not now but a few years from now, when we were both just a little bit older.