My son is only three, but he understands that stories are make-believe. “Oh, Mama,” Griffin says if I pretend that magic is real, “that’s just in fiction!” As we’re saying prayers before bed, he asks me if God is just a character in our family Bible. I’ve been aware for a long time that he’s exceptionally bright. On his first birthday he had a one-hundred-word vocabulary. Now—because his babysitter explained to him that English comes from other languages—he sometimes insists that I get out the etymological dictionary to check on the origin of a new word. It’s a little creepy.
The older he gets, the more I’m frightened of his intelligence. Early on, it was because a pediatrician warned us that it could be a sign of autism. Now, it’s because I worry that someday he won’t need me. He’s still in that delicious preschool stage, bursting with love. He crawls onto my lap in the morning, wraps his hands around my neck, and kisses me tenderly. He learned to write his letters in Montessori preschool, and he scrawls “I LOVE MAMA” on dozens of scraps of paper that he stuffs into my shoes.
“Why are you so worried?” his dad asks. “He’s still a little kid. Look at his Mickey fixation.”
Because, despite his big brain and early nihilism, my son worships Disney cartoons. As a testament to the all-consuming power of the Disney Corporation, Griffin believes wholeheartedly and passionately in Mickey, his favorite character. And he has no interest in going anywhere on any continent that doesn’t somehow involve The Mouse.
When I tell him that we’re traveling to Paris after Christmas, he sticks out his lower lip. “I don’t want to go.”
“It’s fun, sweetheart. You’ll love it.”
“Nope. Stupid Bear-is.”
“Paris,” I correct him. “Mama once lived there.”
“Nope,” he says as if it’s final. “Nope, nope. No Bear-is Paris.”
“There’s a Disneyland there.” And this is where I get a terrible idea. It doesn’t seem like such a bad idea at the time. After all, his dad and I have already decided to take him to EuroDisney. “Mickey has a house there.”
“Mickey’s house?” His eyes light up. He’s adorable, with blond hair, enormous blue eyes, and dimples. A colleague once told me that Griffin looked like Christopher Robin. I made the mistake of repeating this to Griffin, and we had to process this comment—that he looked like a fictional character—for days.
“Yes,” I say, encouraged. “When Mickey’s in Paris, he lives at the Disneyland there.”
We look it up on the map. He frowns, tracing the dot I have told him is Saint Paul, Minnesota, to the one that is Paris. “Which one is Mickey’s house?”
“That’s Paris right there.”
“Mama,” he says. “Mickey’s house will be on the map.”
From the minute we arrive in Paris, where we are spending five days, Griffin begins talking about visiting Mickey’s house. While eating chocolate crepes on the Champs Elysées, sitting on a tourist boat on the Seine, riding on a nineteenth-century carousel, strolling through a zoo. No matter how many child-friendly tourist spots we hit, he keeps asking, “So, where’s Mickey’s house?” And he quotes the brochure we got in the mail: “We’re talking about just one place—Disneyland Paris! A place where the whole family will have the time of their lives!”
“There are other things to see,” his dad says.
“I saw the Eiffel Tower,” Griffin says. “There’s nothing else for me here.”
We arrive at Disneyland Paris practically at dawn on a gray, chilly day. Icy rain spits on us as we stand in line for tickets. The very first thing we do once we enter the gates is wait in another line so Griffin can meet Mickey. Even though he questions the existence of God, he sees nothing odd in seven-foot, plush cartoon animals walking around and hugging children. He is vibrating with excitement, jumping up and down and shrieking, “Mickey, Mickey!”
The other kids seem frightened or awkward around Mickey. They cry when he hugs them, or they refuse to sit on his lap for a picture.
When it’s his turn, Griffin runs up to Mickey and gives him a huge hug. “Mickey, I’ve been waiting to see you!” A collective “aaaawwww” goes through the line. Some of the parents nudge their kids, saying in English or French, “See, that boy isn’t scared.”
As we leave the line, Griffin says, “Now I want to see Mickey’s house.”
“Did you ask Mickey where it is?” I say, smiling.
Griffin shrugs. “He wouldn’t tell.”
And this is where we discover the problem. I didn’t actually check on whether Mickey had a house at EuroDisney before we arrived. There’s one in Florida at Disney World. I assumed there would be one in here. Come on: Cinderella has a castle, Mickey has a house. But there’s no lodging for Mickey in Paris. And Griffin can already make out letters. He knows that Mickey starts with “M.” We can’t lie and pretend that some little faux cottage is Mickey’s house. And besides, in Mickey’s place, there would be pictures of Mickey and Minnie. Griffin keeps repeating this. “Mickey and Minnie share a house.”
All day he is relentless in his search, even tugging on one of the guards’ coats to ask directions. We tell him that I was wrong, that Mickey doesn’t live in France, he just visits. We tell him that Mickey’s house is in Florida, where we will go someday.
“No,” he screams. “Madeline has a house in Paris! Mickey has one too!”
“Madeline’s fiction,” I say, feeling ridiculous.
“I know,” he says, sobbing. “But it’s about a real person!”
“Mickey’s a story too.”
“You’re lying!” he wails. “I just met him!”
He collapses, dispirited and crying, beside Cinderella’s castle after we tell him, in desperation, that when Mickey is in Paris, he rents a room from Cinderella and her prince.
He looks us at with disdain, tears rolling down his cheeks. “That’s stupid. Mickey doesn’t live with humans. He’s a mouse!”
We take him for the third gelato of the day. He has refused real food and has eaten nothing but chocolate gelato since 5 a.m., when he had a stale croissant. And we finally realize that it’s a lost cause to convince a jet-lagged, sugar-buzzed three-year-old that Mickey doesn’t live here anymore. We drag him, kicking and shrieking, out of Disneyland and onto the train back to the city. French families edge away from us, looking at our red-faced beast in horror.
He is still crying a little the next morning when we tell him that we are visiting a king’s house.
“Palace,” he says, hiccupping. “That’s what a king’s house is called.”
“Its name is Versailles.”
“Oh.” He sits up. “I know about that.” It turns out that his babysitter—the preternaturally smart daughter of a colleague—played the storming of the Bastille with him before we left Minnesota.
And because his babysitter told him the story, he transfers all of his passion for Mickey’s house to Versailles. On the way he asks a thousand questions about the king who was killed. Was he a real person or a storybook king? Where did he go to the bathroom? Could he eat whatever he wanted?
As we wander the grounds, he asks, “So why did they cut off his head?”
I explain, as well as I can, about the extreme poverty of the peasants and the obscene wealth of the royalty. He cocks his head to one side. “They killed him because he wouldn’t share?”
“More or less,” I say, and he nods approvingly.
“What is this?” his dad asks. “The Richard Scarry version of French history?”
“You try,” I say, and his dad launches into a long explanation. He gets as far as telling Griffin about “Let them eat cake!” when our son puts a hand on his dad’s arm as if he is dealing with a particularly long-winded old person. “Mama explained about the sharing thing.”
The next day, in the Louvre, we see a huge painting of Napoleon being crowned, and Griff asks if he was a good man or a bad one.
“He wanted the whole world for himself. So I guess you could say he was a very selfish man.”
“Just like that other king!” Griffin pauses. “Did they chop off his head?”
“No, darling. They poisoned him.”
He nods happily. “I love you, Mama.” And I can tell that the balance of power has shifted. All is right with the world. I give a huge sigh of relief.
As we’re boarding the train back to Paris, he asks, “Who’s the king now?”
“Oh, they got rid of kings. Now they have a president. We passed by his office today.”
Griffin leans against me and I can feel his languor, the heavy stillness of a child about to fall asleep. He gives a big yawn. “Mama, that president.”
“Yes, sweetheart?” I stroke his hair, wondering what he will ask. I assume he’ll ask if the president likes croissants or whether he gets to put people he doesn’t like in jail. I relax against the seat, worn after a day of sightseeing and answering questions. But I’m happy.
“Let’s ask him if he knows where Mickey lives.”
The next day we head straight for a tourist information office. I’m kicking myself for not thinking of this earlier. As we wait in line, Griffin stares obsessively at the slender man in a blue blazer who sits below a sign that reads “Information” in several languages.
“Does he speak English?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “We’ll find out.”
When we get to the front of the line, I launch into a long explanation about our predicament in my used-to-be fluent French, making sure I say the word “Mickey” several times for Griffin’s benefit. The man frowns slightly. For a terrible moment I think he’s going to refuse. Then he adjusts his glasses, looks down at my son, and says in English, “Mickey once lived in Paris. Now he is moved. Back to America.”
“Moved?” Griffin asks. “Why?”
The man shrugs, lifting his eyebrows at the same time. “Mickey does not like it in Paris. He says it’s too cold. So he comes for a few days, and then he returns to California.”
Griffin considers this for a moment. “That’s stupid. I like Paris. I like crepes.”
The man smiles. “Would you like to take a tour of a chocolate shop?”
For the rest of our time in Paris, Griffin doesn’t even mention Mickey. On the way back to Minnesota, I have to rescue his collection of Mickey and Minnie figurines, which he drops in airport bathrooms, leaves in waiting rooms, and abandons in seat pockets on each plane. I know that this sudden drop of interest in Mickey is perfectly normal. I know that all children switch from one childhood obsession to another, sometimes going through several in the same week. But I can’t bear my son’s abandonment of Mickey, whom he once held so dear.