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‘Well I try, sure, who doesn’t, but Anna doesn’t like it. She says it’s a mixed message and if I don’t watch out she’ll wean me when she weans Joe.’
‘Ah ha. So you have to take the long-term view.’
‘Yes. Although actually I tried it one time when Joe fell asleep nursing, so she couldn’t move without waking him. She was hissing at me and I was trying to get it to work but apparently you have to suck much harder than, you know, one usually would, there’s a trick to it, and I still hadn’t gotten any when Joe woke up and saw me. Anna and I froze, expecting him to freak out, but he just reached out and patted me on the head.’
‘Yeah. It was like he was saying I know how you feel, Dad, and I will share with you this amazing bounty. Didn’t you Joe?’ he said, handing him the warmed bottle. He watched with a smile as Joe took it one-handed and tilted it back, elbow thrown out like Popeye with a can of spinach. Because of all the pinpricks Charlie had made in the rubber nipples, Joe could choke down a bottle in a few minutes, and he seemed to take great satisfaction in doing so. No doubt a sugar rush.
‘Okay, well, you are a kinky guy my friend and obviously deep in the world of domestic bliss, but we’re still relying on you here and this may be the most important bill Phil introduces in this session.’
‘Come on, it’s a lot more than that, young man, it’s one of the few chances we have left to avoid complete global disaster, I mean –’
‘Preaching to the converted! Preaching to the converted!’
‘I certainly hope so.’
‘Sure sure. Okay, I’ll read this draft and get back to you a.s.a.p., I want to move on with this, and the committee discussion is now scheduled for Tuesday.’
‘That’s fine, I’ll have my phone with me all day.’
‘Sounds good, I’ll be in touch, but meanwhile be thinking about how to slip the IPCC thing in even deeper.’
‘Yeah okay but see what I did already.’
Charlie pulled off the headset and turned off the stove. Joe finished his bottle, inspected it, tossed it casually aside.
‘Man, you are fast,’ Charlie said as he always did. One of the mutual satisfactions of their days together was doing the same things over and over again, and saying the same things about them. Joe was not as insistent on pattern as Nick had been, in fact he liked a kind of structured variability, as Charlie thought of it, but the pleasure in repetition was still there.
There was no denying his boys were very different. When Nick had been Joe’s age, Charlie had still found it necessary to hold him cradled in his arm, head wedged in the nook of his elbow, to make him take the bottle, because Nick had had a curious moment of aversion, even when he was hungry. He would whine and refuse the nipple, perhaps because it was not the real thing, perhaps because it had taken Charlie months to learn to puncture the bottle nipples with lots of extra holes. In any case he would refuse and twist away, head whipping from side to side, and the hungrier he was the more he would do it, until with a rush like a fish to a lure he would strike, latching on and sucking desperately. It was a fairly frustrating routine, part of the larger Shock of Lost Adult Freedom that had hammered Charlie so hard that first time around, though now he could hardly remember why. A perfect image for all the compromised joys and irritations of Mr Momhood, those hundreds of sessions with reluctant Nick and his bottle.
With Joe life was in some ways much easier. Charlie was more used to it, for one thing, and Joe, though difficult in his own ways, would certainly never refuse a bottle.
Now he decided he would try again to climb the baby gate and dive down the cellar stairs, but Charlie moved quickly to detach him, then shooed him out into the dining room while cleaning up the counter, ignoring the loud cries of complaint.
‘Okay okay! Quiet! Hey, let’s go for a walk! Let’s go walk!’
‘Ah come on. Oh wait, it’s your day for Gymboree, and then we’ll go to the park and have lunch, and then go for a walk!’
But that was just Joe’s way of saying yes.
Charlie wrestled him into the baby backpack, which was mostly a matter of controlling his legs, not an easy thing. Joe was strong, a compact animal with bulging thigh muscles, and though not as loud a screamer as Nick had been, a tough guy to overpower. ‘Gymboree, Joe! You love it! Then a walk, guy, a walk to the park!’
Off they went.
First to Gymboree, located in a big building just off Wisconsin. Gymboree was a chance to get infants together when they did not have some other daycare to do it. It was an hour-long class, and always a bit depressing, Charlie felt, to be paying to get his kid into a play situation with other kids; but there it was; without Gymboree they all would have been on their own.
Joe disappeared into the tunnels of a big plastic jungle gym. It may have been a commercial replacement for real community, but Joe didn’t know that; all he saw was that it had lots of stuff to play with and climb on, and so he scampered around the colourful structures, crawling through tubes and climbing up things, ignoring the other kids to the point of treating them as movable parts of the apparatus, which could cause problems. ‘Oops, say you’re sorry, Joe. Sorry!’
Off he shot again, evading Charlie. He didn’t want to waste any time. Once again the contrast with Nick could not have been more acute. Nick had seldom moved at Gymboree. One time he had found a giant red ball and stood embracing the thing for the full hour of the class. All the moms had stared sympathetically (or not), and the instructor, Ally, had done her best to help Charlie get him interested in something else; but Nick would not budge from his mystical red ball.
Embarrassing. But Charlie was used to that. The problem was not just Nick’s immobility or Joe’s hyperactivity, but the fact that Charlie was always the only dad there. Without him it would have been a complete momspace, and comfortable as such. He knew that his presence wrecked that comfort. It happened in all kinds of infant-toddler contexts. As far as Charlie could tell, there was not a single other man inside the Beltway who ever spent the business hours of a weekday with preschool children. It just wasn’t done. That wasn’t why people moved to DC. It wasn’t why Charlie had moved there either, for that matter, but he and Anna had talked it over before Nick was born, and they had come to the realization that Charlie could do his job (on a part-time basis anyway) and their infant care at the same time, by using phone and e-mail to keep in contact with Senator Chase’s office. Phil Chase himself had perfected the method of working at a distance back when he had been the World’s Senator, always on the road; and being the good guy he was, he had thoroughly approved of Charlie’s plan. While on the other hand Anna’s job absolutely required her to be at work at least fifty hours a week, and often more. So Charlie had happily volunteered to be the stay-at-home parent. It would be an adventure.
And an adventure it had been, there was no denying that. But first time’s a charm; and now he had been doing it for over a year with kid number two, and what had been shocking and all-absorbing with kid number one was now simply routine. The repetitions were beginning to get to him. Joe was beginning to get to him.
So now Charlie sat there in Gymboree, hanging with the moms and the nannies. A nice situation in theory, but in practice a diplomatic challenge of the highest order. No one wanted to be misunderstood. No one would regard it as a coincidence if he happened to end up talking to one of the more attractive women there, or to anyone in particular on a regular basis. That was fine with Charlie, but with Joe doing his thing, he could not completely control the situation. There was Joe now, doing it again – going after a black-haired little girl who had the perfect features of a model. Charlie was obliged to go over and make sure Joe didn’t mug her, as he was wont to do with girls he liked, and yes, the little girl had an attractive mom, or in this case a nanny – a young blonde au pair from Germany whom Charlie had spoken to before. Charlie could feel the eyes of the other women on him; not a single adult in that room believed in his innocence.
He even began to doubt it himself. Asta was one of those lively European women of twenty or so who gave the impression of being a decade ahead of their American contemporaries in terms of adult experiences – not easy, given the way American teens were these days. Charlie felt a little surge of protest: it’s not me who goes after the babes, he wanted to shout, it’s my son! My son the hyperactive girl-chasing mugger! But of course he couldn’t do that, and now even Asta regarded him warily, perhaps because the first time they had chatted over their kids he had made some remark complimenting her on her child’s nice hair. He felt himself begin to blush again, remembering the look of amused surprise she had given him as she corrected him.
Singalong saved him from the moment. It was designed to calm the kids down a bit before the session ended and they had to be lassoed back into their car seats for the ride home. Joe took Ally’s announcement as his cue to dive into the depths of the tube structure, where it was impossible to follow him or to coax him out. He would only emerge when Ally started ‘Ring Around the Rosie’, which he enjoyed. Round in circles they all went, Charlie avoiding anyone’s eye but Joe’s. Ally, who was from New Jersey, belted out the lead, and so all the kids and moms joined her loudly in the final chorus:
‘Eshes, eshes, we all, fall, DOWN!’
And down they all fell.
Then it was off to the park.
Their park was a small one, located just west of Wisconsin Avenue a few blocks south of their home. A narrow grassy area held a square sandpit, which contained play structures for young kids. Tennis courts lined the south edge of the park. Out against Wisconsin stood a fire station, and to the west a field extended out to one of the many little creeks that still cut through the grid of streets.
Midday, the sandpit and the benches flanking it were almost always occupied by a few infants and toddlers, moms and nannies. Many more nannies than moms here, most of them West Indian, to judge by their appearance and voices. They sat on the benches together, resting in the steamy heat, talking. The kids wandered on their own, absorbed or bored.
Joe kept Charlie on his toes. Nick had been content to sit in one spot for long periods of time, and when playing he had been pathologically cautious; on a low wooden bouncy bridge his little fists had gone white on the chain railing. Joe however had quickly located the spot on the bridge that would launch him the highest – not the middle, but about halfway down to it. He would stand right there and jump up and down in time to the wooden oscillation until he was catching big air, his unhappy expression utterly different from Nick’s, in that it was caused by his dissatisfaction that he could not get higher. This was part of his general habit of using his body as an experimental object, including walking in front of kids on swings, etc. Countless times Charlie had been forced to jerk him out of dangerous situations, and they had become less frequent only because Joe didn’t like how loud Charlie yelled afterwards. ‘Give me a break!’ Charlie would shout. ‘What do you think, you’re made of steel?’
Now Joe was flying up and down on the bouncy bridge’s sweet spot. The sad little girl whose nanny talked on the phone for hours at a time wandered in slow circles around the merry-go-round. Charlie avoided meeting her eager eye, staring instead at the nanny and thinking it might be a good idea to stuff a note into the girl’s clothes. ‘Your daughter wanders the Earth bored and lonely at age two – SHAME!’
Whereas he was virtuous. That would have been the point of such a note, and so he never wrote it. He was virtuous, but bored. No that wasn’t really true. That was a disagreeable stereotype. He therefore tried to focus and play with his second-born. It was truly unfair how much less parental attention the second child got. With the first, although admittedly there was the huge Shock of Lost Adult Freedom to recover from, there was also the deep absorption of watching one’s own offspring – a living human being whose genes were a fifty-fifty mix of one’s own and one’s partner’s. It was frankly hard to believe that any such process could actually work, but there the kid was, out walking the world in the temporary guise of a kind of pet, a wordless little animal of surpassing fascination.
Whereas with the second one it was as they all said: just try to make sure they don’t eat out of the cat’s dish. Not always successful in Joe’s case. But not to worry. They would survive. They might even prosper. Meanwhile there was the newspaper to read.
But now here they were at the park, Joe and Dad, so might as well make the best of it. And it was true that Joe was more fun to play with than Nick had been at that age. He would chase Charlie for hours, ask to be chased, wrestle, fight, go down the slide and up the steps again like a perpetuum mobile. All this in the middle of a DC May day, the air going for a triple-triple, the sun smashing down through the wet air and diffusing until its light exploded out of a huge patch of the zenith. Sweaty gasping play, yes, but never a moment spent coaxing. Never a dull moment.
After another such runaround they sprawled on the grass to eat lunch. Both of them liked this part. Fruit juices, various baby foods carefully spooned out and inserted into Joe’s baby-bird mouth, apple sauce likewise, a Cheerio or two that he could choke down by himself. He was still mostly a breast-milk guy.
When they were done Joe struggled up to play again.
‘Oh God Joe, can’t we rest a bit.’
Ballasted by his meal, however, he staggered as if drunk. Naptime, as sudden as a blow to the head, would soon fell him.
Charlie’s phone beeped. He slipped in an earplug and let the cord dangle under his face, clicked it on. ‘Hello.’
‘Hi Charlie, where are you?’
‘Hey Roy. I’m at the park like always. What’s up?’
‘Well, I’ve read your latest draft, and I was wondering if you could discuss some things in it now, because we need to get it over to Senator Winston’s office so they can see what’s coming.’
‘Is that a good idea?’
‘Phil thinks we have to do it.’
‘Okay, what do you want to discuss?’
There was a pause while Roy found a place in the draft. ‘Here we go. Quote, the Congress, being deeply concerned that the lack of speed in America’s conversion from a hydrocarbon to a carbohydrate fuel economy is rapidly leading to chaotic climate changes with a profoundly negative impact on the US economy, unquote, we’ve been told that Ellington is only concerned, not deeply concerned. Should we change that?’
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