By Adam Sullivan
I pulled into a parking spot on the top floor of the massive garage. Emily had fallen asleep in her child-safety seat for the entire sixty-mile drive. I knew this because I’d positioned the rearview mirror directly at her, so as to monitor her comfort several times a minute. To me, this was more important than traffic.
She woke, as she always did, when I turned the car off. She opened her eyes wide and looked around with a stretch.
It was our third time in a week, but still she feigned surprise so we could share in the excitement together. She was generous like that. My wife had discovered a loophole that involved leasing tickets from a man whose office was a local gas station, so for a short time, the crippling theme park admission was cheap. Emily looked around to get her bearings, and within seconds was tugging me toward the escalator. We had a hard and fast rule about hand-holding in the parking lot, but even so, I had to hold on tight.
The escalator took us to a tram, the tram took us to a village, and thirty minutes later, we arrived at the gilded entrance to the Magic Kingdom, in the center of Anaheim, California. This was Emily’s version of paradise, complete with three separate sets of pearly gates.
Since she’d turned three, Emily was obsessed with Disney princesses. If there was a tiara involved, or a glass slipper, or a fairy godmother, we were there. From Cinderella to Snow White, there was something about their dilated pupils, NutraSweet endings, and penchant for breaking into song that locked wide-eyed little girls in their orbit, and mine was no different.
For the first couple years of parenthood, I worked a ton, and Anh stayed home to take care of the baby. But by the time Emily turned two, Anh was going stir-crazy, and I was laid off. It was decided that she would join the workforce, and I would assume the dubious honor of “Stay-At-Home Dad.”
Growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, both my parents worked, but my mom took a few years off to raise my sister and me, and my father became the prototypical breadwinner. Every morning he’d rinse his mouth with Scope, and every night he’d rinse his mouth with Dewar’s. For him, there were no playdates, no doctor’s appointments, no diaper changes. His role was simple and well established. I more or less just expected to end up the same.
I’d never thought about wearing the apron in the family instead of the pants, and the emasculation began almost immediately. It didn’t matter that I was a progressive husband living in the dawn of an enlightened age; change happens slow, and we weren’t that far away from the gender mores of the past. At this point, Emily and I weren’t yet best friends. In fact, we hadn’t spent a hell of a lot of time alone together. Anh knew all her quirks and favorites, and they’d grown so close I’d begun to feel like a third wheel in my own home.
After a tentative trial period, though, we became pals. Playing with Emily quickly became my absolute favorite thing to do, but it was never without an aftertaste of shirked obligation. Somehow, the dishes still stacked up and the laundry remained unlaundered. I was the absentee patriarch, neither hunting nor gathering. Instead of bringing home the bacon, I was burning it.
Eventually I took a job, writing web copy for a television network. I was able to work from home, and for a four-hour-a-day commitment, it paid pretty well. The trouble with working from home, though, is that unless you possess a moderate amount of restraint, the tendency to cut corners begins almost immediately. For the first couple weeks, everything was fine, but soon “her naps” became “our naps,” and by the end of the month, I had my four-hour workday down to ninety minutes flat. I’d set her up with juice and Cheerios, press play on Cinderella (run time seventy-four minutes) or Aladdin (run time ninety minutes), and go to work.
Before long, I was blowing off work altogether, opting instead to join her on the couch to watch The Little Mermaid—her favorite. If you asked her, she’d tell you it was about a sixteen-year-old girl who followed her dreams and found true love. But that’s not the movie I watched—all I saw was a naive little girl who failed to heed the prudent advice of her father. The only thing that he forbade was contact with the humans, and yet that’s exactly what Ariel did, first chance she got.
As we worked our way through the Disney catalog, I began to notice a troubling pattern: Princess Jasmine’s father gave her everything—a pet tiger, even—yet she felt the need to scale the palace walls just to slum it with a street urchin. Merida’s father wants to protect her by arranging a marriage (it was the custom!), but instead she wants to run wild and carefree, only to turn her mother into a bear and start a war. All were stories about fathers trying desperately to protect their daughters, and daughters who in turn ignored sensible advice. I could see right away that the lessons learned were troubling, but by that point, it was too late. Like Prince Eric, mesmerized by the evil sea witch’s voice, or the Sultan, entranced by Jafar’s sorcery, I was hypnotized by tiny squeals of laughter.
Emily was five now. In the last twelve months, she’d already grown a foot, lost a tooth, and begun to tire of our little inside jokes. She was growing up much too fast—I was ninety percent sure she knew the score with the whole Tooth Fairy racket, but she could see how much it meant to me, and so played along like a good sport. She’d begun kindergarten, and along with it came a sense of independence. She had somewhere to be now, even if I didn’t.
We made our way through the ornate theme park, my hand clamped securely around her little wrist, both arms pulled taut as she wiggled through the crowds. When she got tired, I would scoop her up onto my shoulders. She enjoyed the break, and the view, but for me it was the best part of the day. She’d hold me close, squealing directly into my ear when she spotted something new. I was a glorified pack mule, maybe, but at least there was no chance of losing her.
Despite her love for all things princess, The Little Mermaid remained her favorite, and so our days at Disneyland always ended the same way: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. On a good day, when the lines weren’t long, we could ride it two or three times.
We took our seats in the ride’s oversized clamshells, the track spun around, and we descended into the depths of the underwater kingdom. We watched the parade of starfish and sea turtles sing about the many benefits to domestic life under the sea. We watched as the evil octopus, Ursula, monologued about setting poor Ariel up for failure, and I instinctively put my arm around her.
Like most of the rides, it was a condensed, three-minute version of the film: Ariel visits the human world. Ariel falls in love with the human prince. The evil octopus tricks the young mermaid. And then, defying all odds and logic, love conquers all.
And where the film chose to gloss over the many practical reasons for obeying the king, the ride opted to ignore them completely. Here, inside Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, he barely has a role at all. All the salient points are omitted: King Triton has provided a kingdom for his daughter, and Ariel’s audacity to ask for more is, frankly, a little unbecoming of a princess. He forbids her one thing and one thing only: going to the surface, but neither in the film, nor on the ride, is he ever given the opportunity to explain why.
Perhaps in this world, humans don’t even know that merfolk exist. It’s a well-kept secret. And maybe every time Ariel rushes up to the surface, she puts their entire species in jeopardy. If humans came to learn about an underwater kingdom, there would be questions to answer, fins and gills to study, and before long, there would be war.
Her fascination with fairy tales kept me up at night, and yet I was the one who sat her on the couch. I pushed PLAY and gave her Cheerios and a juice box. If she was a monster, then I was Dr. Frankenstein, parading her around the village, carrying her back and forth across the Magic Kingdom when her little legs got tired, the way you do when you’re a grown man wrapped around an impossibly tiny finger.
As we rounded the final bend this time, the ride froze. This happens every so often, when someone can’t get off in time, or a forty-dollar stuffed animal falls into the gears. When it happens, the rides float in place, the music looping over and over as the animatronic characters blurt out their preprogrammed sound bites. This time, we stopped during the crescendo set piece—the now-human Ariel stands upon a balcony in her wedding gown, human husband by her side. She’s waving to all her undersea friends, but it’s a good-bye, rather than a hello, and her eyes have never been wider.
To their credit, her friends all seem happy for the little mermaid, able to let go and move on with their lives. But far across the stage, tucked away and almost forgotten is poor King Triton, the salt water masking his tears, his grimace almost passing for a smile.
Emily noticed none of that. Safe inside our clamshell, her eyes never left the balcony. We sat there, listening to the song again and again until the ride started back up. She snuggled even closer just then, and I realized two things. One: someday, I would have to start letting go. And two: I would put that day off, for as long for as I possibly could.
Adam Sullivan's stories and essays have appeared in Monster Children, The Binnacle, Tampa Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. He is on Instagram as @adamsullivan and in California as himself.