Authors: Greg Olear
Tags: #Fiction, #Humorous, #General
For Dominick & Prudence
Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.
âJohn Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (1647â1680)
They just seem a little weird.
But don't give yourself away.
âCheap Trick (1974âpresent)
what to expect when
ATHERHOOD IS FEAR
ATHERHOOD IS DISAPPOINTMENT
is anger and envy and lust. And the surest guarantee of fatherly success is a Spock-like mastery of those base emotions. Mister Spock, not Doctor.
Good fathers conquer fear. They become One with their phobias. Like the Buddha. Or Patrick Swayze in
Good fathers manage their expectations. They do not expend perspiration on small stuff, and they recognize, like the Zen masters that they are, that all stuff is small. That nothing is worth sweating over. Not even punishments cruel and unusual, tortures that violate the Geneva Conventions: sleep deprivation, emotional blackmail,
Go, Diego, Go!
Good fathers temper their anger. They don't snap, they don't yell, they don't call the douchebag in the BMW who just cut them off a
when children are in earshot, they don't smack, and they sure as hell don't spank. Love is their sole instrument of discipline.
Good fathers combat the Seven Deadly Sins with the Seven Cardinal Virtues: humility, charity, kindness, patience, temperance, prudence, and, oh yes, chastity. Good fathers emulate good fathers of another kind, priestly, offering blessing and balm, repressing carnal yearnings, sacrificing their own desires for the salvation of others.
That's what good fathers do.
I strive to be a good father, but when your three-year-old daughter won't stop kicking you, and your five-year-old son swats at you with his fork when you try to take away his Lego catalog, and the two of them come to blows over matters of great import, such as who gets to play with the
magazine insert they found on the mildewy floor near the toilet, this can be a challengingânay, an impossibleâduty to uphold.
Which calls to mind another axiom of my austere and lonely office:
Fatherhood is failure.
DON'T KNOW HOW TO TELL YOU THIS
HARON SAYS, HER EYES
wide with concern, “so I'm just going to tell you.”
It's Friday, twenty minutes before eleven (eleven
, I might add; unless one of the kids wakes up with a nightmare, I'm toast by eleven at night). We're at Jess Holby's houseâEmma's mommy's houseâon our weekly playdate. Jess and Sharon and Gloria and me, the on-duty parents of three-year-olds. As usual, I'm the only male in the room (not counting Gloria's son, Haven, although he is often mistaken for a girl, on account of his Bret-Michaels-circa-1989 locks).
We're in the well-appointed kitchen, Sharon and I, availing ourselves of another hit of that parental crack-cocaine that is freshly brewed coffee. The others are in the great room, beneath the vaulted ceiling. I can see them through the archway. Gloria is blowing bubbles; the cavorting kids watch rapt as the glistening spheres float heavenward and burst into nothingness, exploding like so many childhood dreams. Although my daughter is the youngest and smallest of the bunch, she runs roughshod over the others, leaping over backs to have at the bubbles like an undersized power forward vying for superior position on a rebound. Maude, the tough broad: a thirty-pound freight train, three yards and a cloud of (Pixy Stix) dust. She has my father's face, only she's pretty. Wouldn't have thought that was possible before she came along, but here she is, a cute, miniature My Dad. Wait .Â .Â . what did Sharon just say?
I don't know how to tell you this, so I'm just going to tell you.
A line copped from God knows how many
movies of the week, on hackneyed par with
It was all a dream
. Which does nothing to dispel its harrowing efficacy. Unlike the other mommiesâand I include myself in that groupâSharon, as far as I know, is not prone to melodrama or gossip. Which means bad news coming down the pike.
Dynamite. I could always use more bad news.
I stop my pour with the cup half empty, coffee sloshing over the rim and burning my thumb. The coffee pot (Krups; we don't fuck around with our Moka Java) trembles in my hand.
.Â .Â . ”
Sharon doesn't say anything for a moment, as if reconsidering. I can see the struggle in her eyes (which, incidentally, are quite lovely; big, brown, and bright, like a NASA image of binary planets in some faraway galaxy). In the living room, Maude squeals with delight as another bubble bursts.
“Maybe I shouldn't,” Sharon says, turning away. A piece of soap-opera blocking to go with the soap-opera dialogue. “It isn't really my place.”
Her thick, baggy sweater, the kind with the way-too-big turtleneck, obscures her lithe frame and breasts that are sneakily perky (I only know this because I saw her last summer in a one-piece at Moriello Pool). She's probably a knockout, Sharon, when dolled up for a night on the town. But mothers of three-year-olds don't tend to dress that way. Not in New Paltz, anyway. Function trumps form, sure as a full house beats three of a kind. There's a reason mothers wear baggy clothes and cut their hair like Simon Cowell. Why my own hair is military short. Why I've worn the same pair of jeans every day for two weeks straight.
“Sharon,” with some difficulty, I jam the pot back into its hot-plated nest, spillage sizzling on the metal, and try to keep my voice level, “just tell me. It's okay. Whatever it is, it's fine.”
This is what she's afterâmy blessing to continue, a tacit promise not to kill the messenger, absolution in advance. She opens her mouth (her best feature; her plump lips are what Hollywood surgeons are going for when they inject the collagen) but before she can say anything, Iris plods into the room.
,” Iris says. Her dark hair is bobbed, the comically short bangs intended to cutely channel Louise Brooks, but more suggestive of Mo of
fame, to whom, truth be told, the girl bears a striking resemblance. Iris is the Alexa Joel of New Paltzâone of the prettiest mommies in town, and she's the spitting image of her ho-hum old man. Genetics is such a crapshoot. “Mom-
“What's the matter, honey?”
.Â .Â . Mom-
mee .Â .Â .
Iris stammers her way into requesting a cookie from the pile of Stop & Shop specials on the plastic tray before usâthis takes almost three full minutes; I time it on the coffee-pot clockâleaving me to suffer in purgatory. From
, I think, root word of
. The sloughing off of old skin. At night, Iris sleeps in Sharon and David's bed. Always has, since infancy. There isn't even a bed in her so-called bedroom, I've heard, just a Dutalier glider and a grand assortment of (wooden; nothing that bleeps, nothing that's fashioned from that Devil's clay, plastic) toysâthe whole Melissa & Doug catalog. The appeal of co-sleeping, to me, is right up there with castration. While there are undoubtedly moments of sweetnessâparents and child lovingly nestled together, like so many puppies in a basketâthe family bed is like Iraq: there's no exit strategy. Once embedded between Mommy and Daddy, the kid remains there till the troops come home. She's there until she starts dating. And this must pose problems for the co-sleeping parents. How can Sharon and David possibly get it on with a permanent chaperone heaving and snoring and sucking up space in the middle of their mattress, like a goiter in human form? But maybe that, too, is by design. Sharon and David, I can't quite figure them out. He's a good twenty years her senior, and not particularly attractive, in terms of either looks or personality. The pairing is something of a head-scratcher about townânot exactly Anna Nicole Smith and her decrepit oil heir, but still remarkableâbut no one knows her well enough to broach the subject of how she wound up with a late Boomer my wife calls Old Man River.
As Sharon bends down to present Iris with a cookie (health-food-brand, retrieved from a Ziploc baggie in her canvas handbag, and not from the Stop & Shop stack, as if that makes it nutritious), her baggy sweater hikes up, offering a glimpse of a tattoo I didn't know she had on the small of her back (an ornate scorpion, red and black) and the satin hint of her panties (also ornate, also red and black), and I feel an unfamiliar twinge down below. A rumble in the dormant volcano. For the first time, the parental wool is lifted from my eyes, and I see Sharon not as Mother but as Woman. This is someone I've known socially for almost two years, and only now does it occur to me that Sharon is
kind of hot. I've always known she was
, of course, but in the same way I recognize that, say, my friend Meg's daughters are pretty, or my sister. Like I'm watching her on the Disney Channel of my mind. Only now, only this morning, does my inner remote control change the channel to Skinemax. Only now does it dawn on me that sex with Sharon would be
highly enjoyable. The road to Damascus is Emma's mommy's kitchen.
Most guys, of course, would have recognized this as soon as she walked into the room with her aging, balding dud of a husband. But most guys are not stay-at-home fathers of two young children. Men in my station must, by necessity, divorce ourselves from our carnal impulses. Lust, you see, is a pernicious weed that grows in the (kinder)garden. As soon as it rears its ugly head, it must be
whacked away. It wouldn't do for me to be at the preschool, at the playground, at the Little Gym (where Maude spends most of the forty-five minutes in my lap), formulating fantasies of fucking Sharon Rothman. Bending her over the dining room table, ripping off those sleek panties, putting my thumbs on either side of that tattoo, andâ
Not that Stacy and I don't have sex. We do. But the night in Capri on our honeymoon, when we drank two bottles of wine apiece and tore at each other like animals in heat .Â .Â . those days are over. Not
; that implies they will never return, and they will return, I know they'll return. But at the moment, they feel as distant as retirement. If the full moon, when the freak comes out, represents the reckless abandon of the weeks after your weddingâthe
moon, if you willâStacy and I now find ourselves under the darkling sky of its antagonist, the black and hopeless night of the new moon. That she has been in Los Angeles all week, on an interminable business trip the purpose of which I cannot hope to divine, does not help matters. When I think about this, it upsets me, so I try not to think about it.
Cookie successfully won, Iris tub-thumps on stout little legs back to the living room, where the bubble mosh-pit has found new life. Sharon stands up straight and glances at me, her eyes reassuming their wide-with-concern look; I avert my gaze just in time to avoid getting busted for ogling. And just as suddenly as they appeared, my lustful urges vanish, as I recall her words, the preamble to what are sure to be tidings of discomfort and
I don't know how to tell you this, so I'm just going to tell you.
“Sorry,” she says, gesturing toward the living room. A beat, an awkward grin, and then: “So .Â .Â . ”
“So .Â .Â . ”
She takes a deep breath, maybe for dramatic effect. “It's about Stacy,” she says.
“What about her?”
“She's .Â .Â . oh, Josh, I hate to be the one to tell you this. I think .Â .Â . I think she's having an affair.”
This is the opening to a dialogue that could last hours, but parents can never depend on the luxury of time or undivided attention necessary to converse intelligently for more than sixty seconds. We've been in the kitchen for five minutes, Sharon and I, bullshitting about nothing, about how the mayor is an idiot, how the metered parking in the muni lot is killing downtown, but no sooner does she lay this bombshell in my lapâbefore I can process it; before the news can even generate the ineluctable psychosomatic response in my stomachâthan Maude trips over Emma's foot while going for a bubble, smacks her head on the corner of the coffee table, and bursts into throes-of-death tears.
“Hold that thought,” I tell Sharon, and I'm in the living room before I even realize I'm moving.
I scoop up Maude, shower her with kisses. I hate to see her cry, of course, especially from injury, but boy does she look cute when she's upset. Her features scrunch up just so, and a single line of stubborn displeasure runs from one eyebrow to the other, across the bridge of her nose. Maude is so theatricalâhistrionic, evenâthere's not much separating her
cry from her
cry. The main difference between kids and adultsâother than the fact that adults can have sex and can wipe their own asses after using the bathroomâis that the former have not yet learned to pick their battles, so they get upset over
. Yesterday, for example, Roland flew into a rage because Maude wouldn't let him see the poop she just made in the toilet. That's maybe not something a grown-up would get riled up about. To the preschooler, every conflict is a life-or-death struggle. It's all do or die. Sometimes I think that my main job as a father is to show them how to manage disappointment. I get to teach them the all-important lesson that most of the time, life kind of sucks. Lucky me.
There's a little red knot on her foreheadâbumps on the head tend to balloon, I've learned, and often appear worse than they actually areâbut she calms down after I smother her with kisses and give her a pacifier. She loves the “passie.” To Maude, it's like having a cigarette. I'll be shocked if she doesn't wind up smoking in college. If they're still distributing cigarettes in 2023. Or bachelor's degrees.
I take her into the kitchen, away from the tumult. Cradling her like a giant football in my right arm, I get some ice cubes from the ice maker with my left. Maude will accept ice on her skin for fifteen seconds, tops. I don't know why I bother, other than it's what you're supposed to do, and maybe if she gets used to it now, she won't mind it so much later on. After approximately five Miss'ippis of ice time, she starts flailing around, her patience for my ministrations at an end, and she yells, “Put me down,” and I doâif she's not the most willful kid on earth, she's certainly in the top three, and I don't know who the other two areâand she bounds back into the fray like a wide receiver returning to the field after a vicious hit, Ford tough, like nothing happened. I half expect to hear Pat Summerall saying, “And look at thisâhere's Maude Lansky, coming right back into the game,” followed by John Madden extolling her rough-and-tumble virtues and concluding, “You know what? There's not a tougher player in the National Football League than Maude Lansky.”