"Your wife has left you and taken your first-born son."
That conversation, held between Jon (my roommate from college) and me, made up what it lacked in length in frequency of occurrence. At least once a day, Jon, who was visiting, would pick up the framed photo of Fin, the one taken the day after his birth, gaze at it with affection, hold it up for me to see, and remind me in overripe tones that Deirdre had gone away to Kansas City. A wedding and a birthday party for Deirdre's grandmother served as the occasion of Fin's introduction to her hometown; meanwhile, Dad was left at the mercy of a bachelor.
Except for his melodramatic observations about my family, Jon was good company. Since graduating, I have taken up wine collecting, and he has taken up cooking , so we ate and drank well, spending more than was prudent on porterhouse, cabernet, pinot noir, and Rhone varietals. Deirdre called in the midst of this revelry and reported that Fin was smiling now, the real smiles that come with recognition and pleasure. This was good news — smiles help you to feel that the child you love has started loving you back — but the 1500 miles diluted its potency.
I was having an out-of-family experience, complete with suspended time and a detached view of things, until my essential marriedness, my newly paternal nature, decided to assert itself. Deirdre had planned to be away for over three weeks; I managed to slash my palm open on a piece of plate glass after two, rendering myself helpless and forcing her to return with Fin. If you ask me, I will tell you it was a painful accident. But we will both know better.
What I saw from my detached vantage point, what I sometimes see in daydreams, I hesitate to mention. Lately, I have been taking small bites of Alain De Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life. In it, I found this: "What can replace a clichéd explanation of our functioning is not an image of perversity but a broader conception of what is normal." Such a statement emboldens me to admit that I have entertained the morbid thought of what live would be like if Deirdre and Fin were killed somehow. What would I feel? How would I react? How would I go about living on my own? Even when I lived alone in San Diego, it was with the expectation that Deirdre would join me soon. Imagine life without that expectation — a taste of genuine solitude. The cliché is that couples with children can't imagine life without them. I found I could imagine, or try to imagine, life without children and life without the couple.
The danger here is that of falling out of one cliché and into another, leaving the conception of "what is normal" unchanged. I am not the famous repressed man who dreams of freedom from the bonds of marriage and family. I believe that in most cases, including mine, the "ordinary" life is the best life — the trick is to avoid the sticky weight of the everyday. I love my wife and son, and they love me. I don't want them to be gone.
But I am also young. The daydream comes, I think, because I have never been adrift, never had that period of uncertain solitude — out on my own with only my own skin to look after and the confidence that if I don't care for something, I can walk away — and I fear regretting it one day. College ended, work began, marriage followed a year later, and a son the year after that. Job, wife, and family fell into place. And now, house-buying, an event of palpable weight.
The impositions that Fin has made on our lives up til now have been of the "he-ain't-heavy-he's-my-brother" variety — love usually covers over any inconvenience. (At times, Fin decides to get hysterical when I am already about something else, and I have to tense my gut as I attempt to console him, but these are isolated events.) Now, we are buying a house for our boy, and I am feeling it. We are buying the house because staying where we are is unworkable, and the prospect of searching fro another house to rent fills me with even more dread than buying.
Where we are will be missed — the place is a proper love nest, loaded down with charm and coziness. Built into the side of a cliff at the end of a dead-end street, our teal-trimmed white Spanish guesthouse is virtually invisible from the street — a varied wall of trees and bushes secludes us. Stairs wind up from the sidewalk. A path branches off to our porch on top of the garage, which is further hidden by lattice walls. Sitting out on the porch in the morning, surrounded by vegetation, watching the hummingbirds, listening to the fountain, and eating your wife's fresh-baked bread, I am embraced. Downtown could be a million miles away instead of two.
The house itself is two stories, built around 1920 — legend has it that it served as part of a brothel during WWII — with an original isinglass chandelier, scads of old windows (including a huge arched bedroom window that opens like doors onto a view of trees you can almost touch), and tile. Vivid, deep-blue tile on the kitchen and bathroom counters; faded and uneven brick-colored tile on the downstairs floor. Gorgeous — and unsuitable for a baby learning to crawl. The stairway is open — another hazard. There is no yard. The whole place is maybe 800 square feet, and since I work at home, I hear every cry. We have been living in the residential equivalent of a vintage MG. Time to buy the minivan, or at least the Sport Ute.
The Normal Heights house we are in the process of buying is not dull, but neither is it exotic. One-story Craftsman, wood exterior, three bedrooms, one and a half baths, a garage for an office, and a small yard. Cushy linoleum covers the large kitchen floor; the rest is forgiving, coverable hardwood. There is room for an herb garden. We have struck a balance between form and function. The baby is boss. "Ordinary" life continues on its course; "What is normal" remains to be seen.