Published on November 3rd, 2017 | by Tina Mortimer0
On the Indoor Playground and Other Modern Horrors
There are certain places that every parent inevitably must go. In the beginning, I looked forward to STEM fairs in musky school gymnasiums, story times at the library, and play dates in the park with all the naïve enthusiasm of a new mom. I even looked forward to the birthday parties — especially the birthday parties.
I was elated the first time I saw a brightly colored envelope with my son’s name, Owen, written in a child’s scrawl, arrive in the mail. Having 12 cousins, and enjoying a level of popularity I could have only dreamed of at his age, it wasn’t long before Owen began receiving invitations regularly. The parties were usually held in someone’s backyard, at a bowling ally, or if the parents were true sadists, at an indoor playground. Even then, as much as I wanted to share in my son’s excitement, the indoor playground was my nemesis.
Like most days in January in Minnesota, this Sunday was overcast, with the temperature hovering just above zero. It was too cold to play outside, too depressing to stay inside. At seven years old, Owen’s energy was often exhausting, so although I wasn’t thrilled with the destination, I tried to appreciate the opportunity to get out of the house. The party was at a local place that had a cartoonish eagle as its mascot. It was an event that consisted of store-bought cake, frantic present opening and an hour of playtime, in that order.
Almost immediately after the playtime began, I lost track of Owen. I stood under the vast canopy of the jungle gym — imagine a McDonald’s Play Land, but ten times larger and only slightly less disgusting — searching for him, becoming more agitated with each passing second. I wasn’t afraid he’d been kidnapped; the place had tighter security than a TSA checkpoint: Kids and their guardians received unique matching hand stamps and wristbands at the door, which were checked before parent or child could exit the building. I only wanted to get eyes on him.
As I stood there scanning the room, I had a flashback: Me as an overly confident, chubby 8-year-old, wedged in a narrow tunnel at the McDonald’s Play Land off I-95 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. How I managed to get stuck is still a mystery. I have a vague recollection of chasing after my best, and only, friend, Jessica. She was petite, graceful, limber, all the things I was not — especially after a Happy Meal. One minute I was crawling on my elbows, army-style, after her, and the next minute I was stuck. Maybe it was the hot stickiness of the plastic against my bare legs or the stench of body odor and French fries, but I was inexplicably paralyzed. If I had just had the sense to straighten my legs and shimmy back the way I came, I would have been fine, but I panicked.
It took my mother and two teen-aged employees what felt like an hour to extricate me. And by “extricate” I mean yanking on my ankles while my mother hissed through gritted teeth, “Just move your legs, sweetie,” and “Push your butt through already!”
My mother, naturally, was mortified. She was having coffee with two women I didn’t know, friends from work perhaps, and was clearly embarrassed. I eventually wrangled my way free. After the incident, my mother stopped buying me Happy Meals — and I became painfully aware of my body.
This indoor playground was not as grimy or foul smelling as the McDonald’s Play Lands of my childhood, but it had its own unique challenges for a parent — the first being the sheer size of the place. It was a football stadium filled with mazes, climbing walls, foam ball pits and neon-colored tunnels and slides. I was standing under one of the monolith’s bridges, still trying to spot Owen, when it happened.
Tiny human beings were everywhere, to my right and left, in front of me, behind me, above me — it was dizzying. I was just getting my bearings when I felt a warm trickle hit my left shoulder and run down the front of my sweater. At first I thought it was soda or juice, but the intense smell told me otherwise.
I’d like to think that had it only been urine dripping down my arm, I would have been able to maintain my composure. But this liquid was brown and had the consistency of clam chowder. I moved out of the line of fire and looked up. Directly above me was a red-faced, blond-haired child of no more than three or four years old. She was squatting on her knees, spread eagle, a bloated and misshapen diaper at her feet. She didn’t seem to notice the horrified look on my face or the kids running past yelling Ewwwwww! She had to go, and she didn’t care who saw or felt her urgency. When she finished, she pulled up her pants and took off toward the slide.
I’m not sure how long I stood there. Time seemed to stop, and everyone moved in slow motion, like in a movie. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Owen, sweat-drenched with an outline of chocolate frosting around his mouth. He saw me too, I’m sure of it, but kept running.
“Where’s your mother? ” I screamed, but of course the child was gone. I screamed again, this time at no one in particular. A bored looking teenager with purple hair and pimples on his neck wheeled over a bucket and began to mop the mess on the floor. I asked him for a paper towel. He must not have heard me. People were starting to stare. With no diaper-less toddler nearby to blame, I was just a crazy person with shit on her shirt. By the time my husband sauntered over, my right eye had begun to twitch.
“Having a good time?” he asked. The look on my face must have answered his question, or maybe it was just that he was close enough to get a whiff of me. He took a step back.
“What happened to you?”
“I just got shat on,” I said flatly. “Please find Owen and tell him it’s time to go.”
Despite the fact that it was 10 degrees outside, we drove with the windows open. I’d found an old beach towel in the trunk that I used to wrap myself in so as not to contaminate the car. My husband tried to make me feel better. It could have been worse, right? At least it didn’t get on your face. I told him to be quiet before I said something we’d both regret. He said, OK and Sorry, and the rest of the drive home we sat in silence, listening to Owen snore from the backseat.
The second the car was in park, I swung open the door, pausing only to swear that I’d never, ever go to another one of those awful places again. My husband laughed as if I had made a joke. I wasn’t joking.
I stripped down to my underwear in the garage and threw my clothes in the trash bin. Then I took the longest, hottest shower of my life. As the water washed the shame of the day away, I contemplated the more refined and sophisticated places one could have a child’s birthday party — the science museum, the children’s theater, the zoo, any living room or basement in any house anywhere.
By dinner, I was feeling like my normal self again. We ordered a pizza. The kids were getting along. I poured myself a glass of Chardonnay and collapsed on the sofa.
“I brought in the mail,” my husband said.
I turned my attention to the pile on the counter. Towards the bottom of the heap, a bright blue envelope poked out. I recognized the logo instantly. There was the eagle, grinning in his silly top hat and bowtie, mocking me, knowing it was only a matter of time before I’d be back.