My wife left me while she still could. A ten-day visit with her family in Kansas City, to see her new nephew and to help a friend in need. Soon she will be too pregnant to fly, and soon after that, she will join the ranks of the resented — the dreaded Woman on Plane with Baby. (Memo to the airlines: take a cue from another place where quiet is treasured,the church, and install "cry rooms" — a groups of seats walled off from the rest of the cabin and reserved for people traveling with small children. Whichever of you picks up on this first will make a fortune. Those without children will rejoice in the relative silence of a child-free environment, and those with children will be grateful to escape the silent wrath of fellow travelers.)
After a scant nine months of marriage, I am a bachelor again, or at least I am living like one. My diet of burgers, pizza, and burritos remains unchanged, except that it is undergirded by the massive batch of Swedish meatballs Deirdre made before she left. Once again, I eat alone at In-N-Out, my silence leaving me exposed to the conversations of those around me. "So, were you with him when you went out with this other guy?" Once again, I go alone to the movies. By the time I get into the premiere of Absolute Power, the theater is nearly full. Besides the neck-wrenching seats up front, all that remain are the buffers, spaces left by couples between themselves and the couple next to them. I have my pick, a rare advantage of solitary moviegoing.
To fill the time I am used to spending with Deirdre, I take up my old reading habits. I should dig into Shelby Foote's Civil War, but I find myself casting about for something short and modern. Kerouac's On the Road, an American novel I'm supposed to have read. All about mobility. Back and forth across the country, shoving off when the novelty of this or that place wears thin, or when the seasons change, or when there's trouble, or whatever. At the heart of it is Dean Moriarty, a man who moves to live. In the process, he moves in and out of three marriages, leaving children in two. The narrator calls moving "our one and noble functions of the time," and Dean is right to sense a certain tension between his noble function and his family. It's more than dirty looks on airplanes.
I get an early lesson in this when Deirdre returns with her friend Laura and Laura's 15-month-old daughter Madeline. They arrive at LAX at midnight my time, 2:00 a.m. their time, and we've still got two hours on the road before bed. Madeline has been awake for most of the journey, two days pass before she establishes anything like a regular pattern of sleep. In the interim, she wakes up throughout the night. Finding herself in a strange place, she then wakes us up.
During the day, she howls from exhaustion, demanding and rejecting distraction after distraction. When she does go down, we sigh with nervous relief, but not too deeply, for fear of waking her. I am sent upstairs to turn off the ringer on my office (her bedroom) phone, a mission that puts me in mind of the bomb defuser in The English Patient, except that I'm working in the dark.
When I was a bachelor, getting out of the house involved finding my keys and going. When I got married, things slowed down. Purse, hair, makeup, something. Pseudo-fatherhood adds to that list — diapers, bottles, toys, snacks, and strollers. And since Madeline sleeps almost exclusively in her crib at home, trips have to be carefully timed to allow for her naps. This is why Dean ditched the wife and kiddies, this is settling down.
Reading over those last lines I wince, because I hear myself sounding like another navel-contemplating, self-referential parent, forever marveling at the sacrifices I am making for my children's sake, forever coming up with clever waves of describing my lack of sleep, lack of freedom, lack of time to myself. I want to be more like my own parents, people who thought more about my brother and me than about how we affected their lives.
In Mother, Albert Brooks rejoices when he discovers that his mom resents him for squashing his career in writing. I cringed. Understanding is a good thing, but shouldn't he be saddened as well? In writing more important, more worthwhile, than raising a child?
My own mother graduated magna cum laude with a master's in English. She taught for a while and was once one half of a catering service. But she had children, and we came first, for Mom and Dad. I'm not saying women shouldn't work. I'm saying that parent ought to look to their children. That is the "one and noble function of the time." It's not a question of politics, it's a question of love. As the narrator aunt tells Dean in On the Road, "You can't go all over the country having babies like that. Those poor little things'll grow up helpless. You've got to offer them a chance to live."
In the early years, that chance means time. After her mother, what Madeline craves most is attention, contact. She cannot read, but she is happy to page through a magazine if you are paging with her. (The New Yorker proved a favorite, since it included a Mercedes ad featuring a butterfly and another ad picturing a lion.) She likes to feed me grapes and join in growling contests. She can spend forever putting her finger in your mouth, then hers, then yours, then hers....
Meanwhile, in preparation for the boy, we bought a beanbag gecko. He's about eight inches long, olive-brown above and ivory beneath, and he feels good in the hand. I place him on Deirdre's shoulder while she cooks and sit him upright. Buddhalike, on my desk while I write. Another thing fatherhood makes permissible is the purchase of cool toys you would otherwise have trouble justifying to the guys.