Today I have a plan. National Geographic-like. It's all above board, it's safari and I'm gonna get close, gonna see what I've been wrong about. Sure, I had my issues about starting a family, you know, you want to be able to be a real provider but I can do that, I just need to see for myself how it all works. I need testimonials. I need proof. You can tell from a distance how everything's better and mysterious, there's this bond between kids and parents — I was wrong to think they suck you dry, I can see that. And I want Rachel to know that my doubts are gone.
Infants are best observed in their natural habitat, I think. They're innocent and unstained by everything except themselves. There are these women, mothers with infants, they meet every Friday morning, no, it seems like they meet every morning at The Roast. They take up the whole back room. I'm there getting coffee this morning and the mothers are like a wagon train. Closed circle, closed ranks, protection from marauding Indians. Consoling, understanding, nodding their heads wisely. A community cooing at the little tykes. Women of every race and creed and age, sweetly commiserating. No men, though, I guess there are fathers somewhere. But it's clear these women are happy. Glowing. Fucking lit from within, it's true what people say, these new mothers with their infants strapped to their chests are incredible-looking.
And mothers of newborns, damn they smell good. You wouldn't think it. They've got to be covered in a slick of baby drool, and their hands must be sour from hundreds of filled diapers. But mothers smell incredible. I'm sitting there by the bathroom, just outside the circle pretending to read, I'm shaking with concentration on the eight different conversations and first this tall, leggy brunette walks by with her child wedged at the elbow. She's this eight-second wave of sugarcane — not even perfume but some kind of natural sweet breeze, like cherry blossoms. And then ten minutes later, next up to use the john, it's this professional-looking Chinese gal, little Chinese infant all wrinkly and damned if they don't both smell like an Italian dessert, you know the kind with rum and layers and caramel. I'm not ashamed to admit it, I finally just got hungry. I left at noon a changed man. I found religion over coffee, I can see Rachel's point of view, I'm ready to be a novitiate in the religion of mothers and infants, especially infants and the effects they have on mothers, on mothers and infants together and cuddling and all love and good smells. Holy infant, mother, child, all of it.
I'm gonna go to the park. I've seen 'em, there are whole packs roaming together. With kites. Kites and bags like a convoy moving across the plains. What do women talk about in private, parent to parent, that's what I want to know. What secret mother things do they talk about? All that lugging, pushing, pulling of strollers and gear, it's like they're in the army, and each shoulder has a strap that's bristling with baby supplies. Bottle at the ready. Booties in side pocket. Thermometer tucked at one hip, a handy washcloth looped at the belt. They're fucking prepared. And there's all the work involved in that whole bringing kids into the world thing — I can't even get into that. God it must be a wet, slippery, bloody mess. But beautiful. Definitely beautiful.
So. For the park, to get close to an actual mom, to speak with one, what will I need? A baby. Right, a baby, I have to earn their trust with a baby, I can't just walk up and speak to mothers without one. On Fifth, there's a shop that sells babies. Try there first.
I walk in, casual like I've been doing this for years. I know Rachel will be impressed. The old lady behind the counter is watching me carefully, I can tell she's trying to decide how much to take me for. I know how this racket works. There's a whole industry based on bleeding the parents — it begins with a stroller, but soon it's educational toys and then a new set of clothes every time Junior grows an inch and doctor bills for every cough and slaving away as a god-damned insurance adjuster so you can make your payments on college tuition, and anyway you always hated that job but it's all you know so it's no surprise that finally you're phased out and in the poorhouse, shaking your cup at tourists in Union Square, wrestling pigeons and squabbling over spare teeth with some crone in patchy gold spandex while at that very moment your Ivy League son had just staged a hostile takeover and is confessing to his latest lover over bourbon at the hotel bar that he has no father, and never did.
"Which one's the best?"
"It all depends on who it's for, sir," and I detect a little attitude. Clearly she's a mother. It's not completely my fault that I've got to buy my way into parenthood. The infants are all lying there in a row, watching me. White girls, black boys, dressed for church and completely silent. No way can I pass this test.
But then I see him, he's a good kid, clearly superior to the rest, a little devil with blue eyes and blond wavy hair. My guts bomb out, which must be a good sign, I'm thinking this kid is the key to my future. I lift him up and look at him for a long time and he sees right through me.
The shopkeeper then scares the shit out of me as she appears right at my elbow and takes the kid from my hands and walks to the cash register. She says, "This one is a classic. If you tip him back, his eyes close because he's gone to sleep." Well this is perfect, this is great — he'll rest when I take him to the park. Perfect. I get a stroller too and a blue blanket, wrap my kid up real tight and pay the lady. My observation can now get underway.
Strollers are heavy when you go uphill. Jesus. My little boy, his name is Jimmy, he could stand to lose a little weight. But it's exactly like the lady said, Jimmy's quiet and contemplative. Taking it all in, just like his old man. We're pushing along, past the brownstones with their windows filled with families and family-things. If Rachel could see us right now, she'd die of jealousy. We're a nuclear family, missing the nucleus but Jimmy and I, her sweet and loving Oz, we're electrons, we're circling her in orbit. Circling the absence of where Rachel ought to be. I try to avoid rolling the stroller over cracks in the sidewalk so as to spare Jimmy any further bad luck.
At the park, I buy a hot dog with mustard and lots of onions and it dawns on me that Rachel will understand that I've solved our difficulties if she can see Jimmy for herself. I get one of those disposable cameras. We wheel up onto the grass, blazing a four-wheeled trail up the small hill that looks out over the green and this will be an ideal moment. Families everywhere on a Saturday morning, families with dogs and grandparents and picnics and Frisbees. The light is perfect. I prop up Jimmy gingerly, hold the camera at arm's length with the whole teeming park behind us, and click. That'll be great, but I wind the camera and take nineteen more just to be sure. Different angles. I grin hugely in one, pucker my lips in the next, but in many of the photos I'm stern-looking. Serious. Fatherly. This is what I'm capable of, creativity and range — I'm gonna be a great dad.
Up to my right, on the sidewalk under a big oak, I see a knot of four strollers and four mothers. We approach silently from the south, Jimmy and I. We act unconcerned, slowly perambulating past, gauging their womanly activities. They're laughing about something, it's like a klezmer orchestra the way they laugh, and one of the babies is screaming in short, three-second bursts. Shrieking. It sounds like an Amazonian Monkey. This is where the action is. We stop at a nearby bench and I turn the stroller so Jimmy faces me. I take out my camera and wish I had a notebook so I could take copious notes.
The women are in a circle, just like the mothers in the coffee shop. It's closed off to outsiders, I can see that, but they must feel secure because they're practically shouting out their mother-secrets. A treelike woman is entertaining the others. She's got this raspy voice, brown hair, a fetching little gap between her teeth and solid legs that root her to the ground. "No," she says, "Ainsley loves those plastic blocks, though. Mike's convinced that she'll be an architect, but you know Mike — so literal. She'll be a therapist like her mommy. Build up those walls and then pull them right down!" This woman's got her kid training for a career, that's great. Two careers. Damn. Mental note, write that down: building blocks.
"I know. My little Ashby finds so many ways to give us clues." This is from the short, squat woman with a bowl cut. She's built sideways. She's wearing white shorts and the way they pull against her hips it's like she's hoisting a flag of surrender. "But I feel like I'm the only one filling out all the Montessori applications."
The screaming kid has been plucked up out of the stroller, this massive plastic riverboat, and into the arms of his mother, a bleached blonde pushing forty. She's rocking, swaying with the little bruiser, and when that doesn't work she hikes him up onto her left shoulder and does this elaborate shiatsu massage on the kid.
"Let me have a kiss," the fourth woman says. She's average height, kind of round at the edges but striking, and her curly hair swallows up the small kid who by now has stopped wailing. He looks startled, kind of sharklike. I think it's a he. He's wearing little ducks, it's all kind of ambiguous. Do ducks mean boys? What about pink ducks? What happens if you're not thinking, you just dress your little boy in a red shirt but it's faded in the wash and he's got a diaper on with blue polka dots but the average passer-by can't see that. They don't know. What if someone asks the name of your sweet little girl and they're wrong, they're wrong and you correct them but maybe the damage is done? Maybe it happens to Jimmy once too often, "such a pretty little girl," someone will say admiringly but Jimmy will start to wonder, even then, and let's face it, development is key. Shit.
"What's your little one named?" I look up and they're on me like lionesses. Collectively, they've got a lot of teeth. What happened? They move so quickly on concrete, these women. I try to smile, this can work, I'm in the circle because I let them come to me.
"We call him Jimmy. After my father," I say. This is true.
"James, oh that's a good old-fashioned name," the tree-like woman groans. "He looks so small, sleeping there. How old is he?"
"Um. Three months."
The aging blonde reacts first. "Twelve weeks? No. Really?"
Fuck. Is he too big or too small? Why wasn't I prepared for this question? Rachel would know what to do, of course. "Well," I begin, "He has a medical condition."
"Oooh," the women murmur.
"Today I'm just trying to be helpful, you know, give Rachel some time off." They all smile at this. Now's my chance, but I can't think of any questions to ask them. I've got to keep going, these women are a goldmine of information. "Yeah, Jimmy and I are inseparable. It's great, right, the way kids look up to you, no matter what? I mean, you don't want to screw them up, they're like your life for the next thirty or forty years, you've gotta give 'em all your attention and do whatever it takes no matter what your life was like before since kids are a blank slate and you've just got to get it right. So, yeah, we go to the park."
Curly-Haired nods solemnly, and Tree-Woman begins to suck in air to say something but Short-Squat preempts, saying, "Aren't you a saint?"
Inspiration. I pick up the camera and hand it to her. "I want my girlfriend to see all of us. You guys are great, here, take a picture of all of us together." The short woman squeaks, she takes it and hops to the other side of the concrete. The other ladies kind of maneuver their kids over, lifting and bobbing at the strollers. The infants are making little snarky sounds, sort of bubbling songs, it's like whalesong as we all get ready for the photo. They're greeting my little boy. This is perfect.
"Say provolone!" We all grin, and I hear Curly-Haired's stomach roaring. Click, and Short-Squat winds the camera. "Come on, we can do better than that. How about another shot, real smiles, people!"
"Has he had his shots? Diphtheria, Hep A?" Bitch. Aging Blonde's trying to smoke me out.
"Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Dipstick, dipshit, sure, he's got it all, yeah." I smile at the camera, because as everyone knows I can be a funny guy.
"One more shot, kids," says Short-Squat, "but let me sit next to Mr. Mom." They all laugh, but suddenly it doesn't sound so friendly. Tree-Woman holds up the camera and she's winding the gear and then it's a blitzkrieg, it's an attack from both sides. Curly-Haired's going in for one of her kisses, diving for Jimmy, she's dipping and I angle my stroller out of the way just as Short-Squat reaches in, "Is baby awake? Little Jimmy wants a photograph?"
And then there's a lot of quiet people. They lift my kid up, his eyes open and I want to tell them to hang on just a minute but Tree-Woman drops the camera on the ground, all of our photos for Rachel so I jump to scoop it up.
"You sick fuck." Aging Blonde is already on her feet. "What, you're picking up mommies, is that it?"
"Pervert, oh, I read in the Times about predators like him."
"Jane, I'm calling the cops."
"I've already got them on the phone," says Tree-Woman. They're standing between me and my boy. Short-Squat starts to shout for help. I suspected the expedition would be dangerous. Jimmy's lying there flat on the bench, asleep again at least so he won't see his father's shame as the women start to circle. Their bottles are out and upside-down, little raised clubs and I don't understand the ignorance of others, I've just got to run, Jesus the women are screaming and the infants are egging them on, they're loud and crying and I make a quick step toward Curly-Haired, who softly hesitates, she's scared and she drops from the ring of arms closing around me. I run, I run and I don't look back at Jimmy, I'm up over the hillside and into the street and two cars nearly hit me, there's honking screeching and I run until I'm lost.
My photo expedition, before my failing as a father. But Rachel doesn't know how it ends. At the drugstore I buy an envelope and fish out some stamps from my wallet. I write the address, Rachel's address now in Montana. I told her parents I was an old friend from college and they said she has a kid on the way. Yes, but not our kid, not Jimmy. Jimmy. I write in careful script, I know how she's going to open up the envelope, slow like she does and biting on her lower lip, she'll recognize it's from me like it was yesterday, she'll develop the film and see for herself. When I come to rescue her in Montana, by the time I get there, she'll see for herself how God-damned ready I am.
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