Friday, December 14, 2007

Don't Call Me Baby (1595)

Winifred has an assortment of male admirers. There is a married man in Texas sending her grapefruit (what she considers to be the state’s only positive contribution to the country is its fruit); there is a daily customer belonging to The King who sends her flowers, through my father. It is grapefruit season and Winifred has a taste for fruit this year more than ever before—and a man asked her today what The King Thinks of a Man in Texas Sending Her Fruit.
This man, though joking, is kind of old. But his implication was that it is not prudent for a married woman to accept fruit, even when it’s Texas Grapefruit in the dead of winter after weeks of endless rain and daily phone calls from your crankiest daughter. Winifred told her friend that The Grapefruit Man is Happily Married.
I don’t think it matters what Dad says or thinks. It doesn’t matter to him. These are friendly gestures—and even if they weren’t how much business is it of The King?—W inifred likes fruit, end of story. That’s how it is for The King. And that’s one of the qualities about my father that I like best: that he’s a feminist. That he’s comfortable in his relationship with Winifred.
Of course, his lackadaisical approach is only my illustration; Homer Simpson wouldn’t be bothered if Marge was receiving gifts, and I’m hesitant to tack that label to him. But I know The King, and you don’t, and I know that he thinks women are equal.

At some point in my teens I started to date a boy who took to calling me an endless string of pet names. “Baby,” “Sweetie,” “Pet,” were tossed across instant messenger and I was immediately revolted. It wasn’t that he seemed to genuinely think I was sweet, but that he was expected to say these things, and more appalling, that I was now “his.” When “Babe” and “Mine” followed, I wasn’t going to have that. I set him straight, I dumped him.
Friends, boyfriends, roommates, and co-workers have adopted their own network of nicknames. My roommate, whom I lovingly call Biscuit, started to call me “Boo” as a term of endearment when we were 19; my co-worker in high school called me Captain because he misheard our boss calling me by my actual name (and then recited Whitman); Emily and I use “dude” as a most extreme form of endearment.
Yet I find “Baby” revolting. So is cooing, or the deliberate use of “simple” words. “Baby” makes my blood curdle—my jaw clenches, my fists curly, and my eyes narrow. Good Lord, use any term of endearment so long as it is genuine, has some sort of foundation (I held the door open for you, I gave up my seat on the bus, I paid for your bus fare, I gave you directions to the courthouse downtown), and isn’t “Baby.” I feel the same way when I’m at the grocery store on Saturday afternoon and after briskly passing a man hear him chuckle, “Whoa ho, there, Little Lady!” I’m sorry, but how is the speed and determination of this trip offensive to you, Oldy McMoldy?
There seem to be few exceptions to my utter outrage. One holds a double standard and the others is my father.

The King’s birthday was a week after my own and fell on a Tuesday. Tuesdays are inexplicably my busiest day finds me on various forms of public transportation between classes. As such, I waited until 5 p.m. in hopes I’d reach The King by phone “in person” but left him a voicemail. He called me back but because of the limitations of public transportation was force to leave me a voicemail. “Hello, Baby, I got your message…” and I smiled when I heard his rare term of endearment, because I could tell I might have brought even a marginal positive difference to The Kings otherwise craptastic workday.
The King is not averse to sweet nothings. “Sweetie,” “honey,” compliments, and encouragement is his strong suit. He is fond of “shug” which may easily be Washington, DC’s “hon.” Short for sugar, he and Winifred throw it around the house on each other and their daughters just as The King’s parents may have. They do it with great fondness.

As I bounced through the bus route to campus, I realized the only man I’ll allow the courtesy of “Baby” is my father. He’s the only person who will leave me unbothered because I am the baby of the Quimby household. Yet, while Winifred may regularly say, “You’ll always be my baby,” this affirmation is rare from The King. At Thanksgiving we swore solidarity as the Youngests in our families. With his two older brothers, and my two older sisters we braced for the impact of Too Much Family During the Holidays while Winifred read internet-advice about Thanksgiving (“Remember that though the youngest is easiest to pick on, and will always be the youngest, they are probably adults now…”) and I swore again, my allegiance. I know I will always be the last to pass through significant life milestones, and this is okay with me.
The following Saturday found me careening through an intersection with two 18x24 frames under my arms. I had a walk sign at the crosswalk and bolted across six lanes of traffic as a car prepared to run the red light. We both skidded to a halt, and I hoisted my arm in a gesture to indicate that my framed artwork, recently picked up from the gallery at the end of the upper level art student show, would cause significant damage at the point of impact. An older man ran behind me. “You gotta watch where you’re going Baby,” he laughed, and jogged across the last three lanes.
Our strides eventually met and as we traversed the narrow sidewalk near my apartment he began to ask me a series of questions. Where are these frames from? Are you a framer? Are those your
photographs? His condescension—that I was unable to cross on my own accord, that I was incompetent with crosswalks, that I was beneath him to the point of pet names given our unfamiliarity as a result of age and/or gender, put us at an unfortunate disposition. Inarguably, the cross-examination if the artwork was mine didn’t help his case either. I politely delivered monosyllabic answers before darting past cracks in the sidewalk and hastily hurried home, where I stewed over the general condescension through our entire exchange. While we walked he made a point to walk on the sidewalk to face traffic, and seemed to loom over me even though we were close to the same height.

The double standard, however, seems to be the same treatment from women. Old ladies seem to love me, and I have stricken camaraderie with the baristas on-campus. Despite my guilt in contributing to Starbucks, I found myself next door to my job every Tuesday before class (Tuesdays wherein I was not in the city), plunking $5 on the counter in exchange for the caffeinated promise that I would remain awake for the next six hours while I wilted through class. The women are older than Winifred, they are harried, and they too, are tired. We share knowing glances while spoiled eighteen year-olds hem and haw over the myriad of options, and then we share tired smiles while my drink is prepared. One night I’d had it with the stereotypical spoiled student and inadvertently took it out on the barista. I was mean and when she handed me my drink she said, “Have a nice evening, Baby.” I was overcome with guilt that I’d been rude and that my barista had been so nice that I called Winifred in an attempt to atone for my sins.
Yet I convinced myself that it is our shared agony that these women insist on calling me Baby. It is not that they think I am so gosh darn adorable when I am flustered, or that they have some shared ownership over me, but that they have found an affection in my hard work—a fondness through shared attributes. There was an implication that they understood I was snotty because I was tired and frustrated, not because I am predisposed to finding people beneath me and had secretly taken me as their own.
My gender discrimination in this issue is unfair except that I am bothered more by the meaning than who says it. It’s almost in my favor that my friend calls a group of guys “baby” and “her babies” when they roll into town on tour. However, it’s almost justifiable in its gross meaning because she tends to supply them with food, lodging, and cold medicine. It still makes me squirm a little whenever she coos over their ability to exist in the same space that she is currently habituating.
I expect I will feel this way the rest of my life. I expect that if I married, my husband would have other terms of endearment. I hope they will be unique, or vaguely ironic, but it makes me nauseous to think it would be Baby. I’ll let The King and Winifred keep that one, always.

When Winifred squared her fruit at home, The King remarked that everywhere near the kitchen smelled like grapefruit. Winifred says the fruit tastes good. And, she wrote in an e-mail tonight, “People are generally so very nice.”

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