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By Janet Thornburg
I was dead tired when I got home from work, but Barbara met me at the door and said she needed me to pick Ben up from his play date with Alexander. It was the last thing in the world I felt like doing, but I said all right because I knew if I refused, I'd have to listen to everything she'd done all day and all she still had to do. She gave me a slip of paper with an address. I said, "I thought they lived in Noe Valley," and she said, "No, you're thinking of Alexander B. He lives in Noe Valley, but Alexander P. lives in Bernal Heights."
I drove to Bernal Heights, feeling grouchy about how play dates suck up so much time. Barbara said we've got to do them, though, because if kids don't have play dates, and the other kids start talking about their play dates, the ones without play dates feel like rejects.
"Hey," I said to her, "isn't there enough time for that in high school?"
I found the address and parked and went up and rang the bell. I felt stupid standing there and not knowing who was going to answer the door. It was like being on a blind date.
A tall gal in Nike running shorts opened the door and said, "You must be Ben's dad. I'm Joanne." Her hair was short, and her handshake was firm, I mean firm. I've noticed that in San Francisco. The women tend to have extremely firm handshakes. I squeezed back hard, to let her know I wasn't intimidated, and we went into the living room, where another woman was sitting on the sofa eating pistachios. This one was all curves and dimples. She didn't stand up, just licked the salt off her fingers and said, "Hi, I'm Eileen. Want some pistachios?"
"No thanks," I said. I was really hungry, but I didn't feel like cracking pistachio shells with my teeth in front of people I didn't know.
"The kids are downstairs," Eileen said. "I'll go get them." She got up, stepped over a puzzle of Noah's ark, and put her bare foot down on something sharp. She yelped and picked up an action figure of Batman and threw it across the room.
It wasn't exactly surprising that she'd stepped on a toy--there wasn't a square foot of carpet that didn't have trains or blocks or stuffed animals or puzzles or kids' clothes on it. Seemed to me like maybe Joanne had been out jogging when she should have been cleaning. Barbara never lets our living room get into that kind of shape. Even when she had to have a C-section with Ben, she was up cleaning the day after she got home from the hospital.
Right after Eileen went downstairs, there were heavy footsteps on the front stairs, and the doorbell rang. "That must be Ron," Joanne said and opened the door.
A muscular guy with an expensive haircut came in carrying a roaster pan with the lid on.
"This is Ben's dad," Joanne told him.
"Chuck," I said and put out my hand. Ron set the pan down, but before we could shake, Alexander came running in and jumped up into Ron's arms. "Daddy!" he said.
Then my son Ben came around the corner wearing a blue dress-looking thing. I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me. This had come up before, back in Colorado. He'd had on a pink tutu one afternoon when I went to pick him up at preschool. His teacher told me it was normal, and a couple of times after that I noticed that the class bully--a big bruiser--was wearing the tutu while he terrorized the other kids, so I stopped worrying about Ben wearing it. But now I figured Ben was old enough to know better.
"What do you have on?" I asked him.
"Oh, Alexander's cousin donated that to the costume box," Joanne said.
"I don't want to go home!" Ben said.
"Come on, sport, Mommy's waiting," I told him.
From his father's arms, Alexander said to Ben, "You can't take the Tinker Bell nightgown home."
"I know that," Ben said and stripped it off and threw it on the floor. I was way glad to see that he had on his underwear. Joanne went and got his jeans and T-shirt and shoes and handed them to me, so I started dressing him. It wasn't that easy, but she didn't offer to help, even though he'd taken his clothes off in her house.
Ron took the roasting pan into the kitchen, and I could hear him banging around in there. It was unclear to me who to say thanks to for the play date, so I just tossed it over my shoulder and headed for the door with Ben.
I was reaching for the doorknob when Ben wailed, "I forgot Clarence!" That's the little orange stuffed armadillo that he has to have to go to sleep. We couldn't leave without Clarence--Barbara would send me back in a minute if we went home without him.
"Where'd you leave him, hon?" Joanne asked Ben, but he just gave her that same look he always gives me when I ask him what he did in kindergarten that day, like how would he know what happened millions of years ago?
"We had him downstairs," Alexander said, so all four of the adults followed the kids to the basement. Man, I thought the living room was a mess, but the downstairs made it look good. We all started pawing through piles of Legos and Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, but no luck.
After a while it seemed like everybody was losing interest, so I said, "Sorry to put you through this, but he really can't go to sleep without Clarence."
They nodded, but I could tell they were getting irritated. Ron asked Alexander, "Are you sure you left him down here?" Alexander shrugged.
"All right, we'd better be systematic about this," Ron said. "How about two of us continue down here, and two of us take the upstairs?"
I headed upstairs, toward the area of lesser chaos. I hoped Eileen would come upstairs too, but she and Joanne continued to sort through the wreckage below, and Ron followed me up.
"You want something to drink?" he asked me. "I think they have Coke and root beer in the fridge."
"Sure," I said, and we went into the kitchen, opened a couple of root beers, and started our search.
I hadn't drunk root beer since high school, and the taste took me back to hot summer afternoons at the A&W Root Beer stand out on south Townsend. It was right next to the swimming pool, and I spent three months drinking root beer from frosty mugs and trying to get up enough nerve to ask out one of the lifeguards. Her name was Carol. When I finally asked her at the end of August, she said no. Right after that, I got together with Barbara, and that's all she wrote.
Joanne didn't seem like the type to wear perfume, but her bedroom smelled good, and there were a bunch of fancy bottles on the dresser. There were satin sheets on the bed, too. I started thinking maybe she had a side to her that wasn't obvious on first meeting. I was about to look into her drawers to see if she wore sexy underwear, but Ron came in and started looking under the bed.
He dusted off his pants when he stood up.
"Dirty down there," he said.
"Yep," I said.
"I know they're busy with Alexander and all, but they could hire somebody to come in once a week," he said.
"Did you used to live here?" I asked.
"Heavens, no!" he said.
"Well, if you don't mind my asking, how come Alexander calls you Daddy?"
"I am his father, but they're the parents. I live in Pacific Heights. Here." He picked up a picture off the dresser. "Here's Alexander over at our place."
In the picture, Alexander was sitting on the front steps of a Victorian between Ron and another guy who looked a lot like Ron. "That's Dave," Ron said. "He's in L.A. this weekend."
OK. So this was a lesbian-moms, gay-guy-dads situation. Did Barbara know that's what she was sending me into? I'd had some awkward play-date pickups before, but this was off the graph.
Don't get me wrong. I don't have anything against gay people, and I knew when we moved here I was going to encounter some. I was prepared for that, but I wasn't ready to be alone in a bedroom with one.
I went into the bathroom and closed the door and checked in the cabinet under the sink. I saw something orange behind a bottle of Lysol and got down on my hands and knees to investigate. It wasn't Clarence, just an old T-shirt stiff with Comet cleanser. Someone tapped on the bathroom door, so I tried to jump up, but my feet somehow slipped out from under me, and on the way down my face hit the cabinet.
For a minute I sat there watching whirling lights. Then I noticed the salty, metallic taste of blood in the back of my throat and felt blood trickling from my nose. From the other side of the bathroom door, Ron asked, "Are you all right in there?"
"Yeah," I told him. I got to my feet and grabbed a handful of Kleenex and held them to my nose. The blood soaked through right away, and I didn't know what else to do except open the door and say, "I've got a damn nosebleed."
"You sure do," he said, and took a dark green washcloth off the edge of the tub and handed it to me. "Why don't you sit down?" he said, nodding toward the toilet. "I'll get Joanne."
I wondered what he thought Joanne could do, but I put down the toilet lid and sat down like he'd told me to. I heard some doors slam and then some pounding, and then Joanne came in with a plastic bag full of crushed ice. "You need to hold this on your nose," she said and handed it to me.
She seemed to know what she was doing, so I said, "Are you a nurse, or just an experienced mom?"
"I'm a doctor," she said. "You look pretty pale. Why don't you lie down?"
She moved a pile of laundry to the dresser, and I took off my shoes and lay down on the bed. The blood tasted nasty in my throat, but it was easier to keep the washcloth and ice bag on my nose while I was lying down, so I stayed there. Joanne sat on the edge of the bed and adjusted the ice. Her hand brushed against my face, and I felt sort of turned on and sort of like I wanted to cry.
Ben came running in with Alexander. "I'm hungry. I'm going to have macaroni and cheese with Alexander. OK?"
"Can he?" Alexander asked. "Daddy's cooking Scooby Doo macaronis."
"No," I told them. "Remember, Ben, your cousins are coming over for dinner tonight." I looked at my watch and saw that it was almost six. Barbara's brother and his family were probably already at our house, and I hadn't let Barbara know what was going on.
"We've got to go," I told Ben. I sat up, but I felt dizzy. Joanne said, "You can't go until the bleeding stops," like I didn't have any say in the matter. Ben saw the blood on my face and started whimpering. Joanne said, "He's just got a nosebleed, Ben. He's going to be all right. Why don't you go have Scooby Doos with Alexander?"
The boys took off, and I didn't fight it, even though I knew Barbara would kill me for letting Ben eat right before dinner. What could I do? I was bleeding like a stuck pig. Clarence was lost. Ben and I were stranded in the house of homosexuals, and that's just how it was.
Once I gave up, it was a big relief to lie back and let Ron feed Ben while Joanne watched over me and Eileen kept searching for Clarence. Maybe I was lightheaded from blood loss or something. I felt like I was floating.
Then it was like I was floating on my back in a swimming pool. I could smell the chlorine and feel the sun on my face and chest. I sank to the bottom and watched a stream of bubbles rise from my mouth to the bright, glassy surface of the pool. I didn't struggle, just lay there resting against the rough cement on the bottom.
Then there was an explosion of silver above me, and Carol swam down to me with swift strokes. She pulled me up, dragged me out of the pool, and put her warm mouth on mine. Then she blew into my lungs, which made me laugh, but she didn't seem to notice. She blew again and again. I could see she was getting desperate, so I told her I was fine, but she couldn't hear me.
She turned into Joanne. We were the only people at the pool, which seemed odd in the middle of the afternoon. Joanne started crying because I wasn't breathing. "Please," she said. She lay down on top of me, trying to warm me up with her body. I understood then that if I didn't move she'd keep doing these incredible things to bring me back to life. She began to move on top of me, with nothing but our nylon Speedo suits between us.
The real Joanne said, "Mmmm!"
I was still half in the dream world, and the word "paella" sounded like something out of a fairy tale. What was it? Some bizarre kind of food? A scene from one of Ben's videos flashed into my mind. This little boy and his big sister fall through a tree into Fairyland, and one of the good fairies tells them, "You must not eat anything while you're here. If you do, you can never leave Fairyland." The girl resists the food they offer her, but the little boy forgets and starts eating everything in sight, so he's stuck there.
"Dinner's ready," Ron called from the kitchen, and Joanne got up and left. I could hear chairs scraping and dishes clattering in the dining room. My stomach was growling, but I didn't feel hungry. All I could think about was getting Ben and getting out of there. I checked the washcloth, and it looked like my nose had stopped bleeding, so I got up, ditched the ice bag and washcloth in the sink in the bathroom, and went into the dining room. "Clarence or no Clarence," I said, "we've got to leave now."
"I can't. I'm eating," Ben said and shoveled a spoonful of neon-yellow noodles into his mouth.
It was too late. Ben had eaten in Fairyland. I stood behind his chair, waiting for him to finish and feeling lousy. Of course I knew that video was just a movie, but you know how sometimes made-up stories have a kernel of truth to them? It was my job to protect Ben, and I'd let him down.
"Would you like to try some paella?" Ron asked. "I brought plenty."
"I'd better not," I said. "Barbara's fixing a big meal at home."
"At least sit down with us till Ben's done," Eileen said. "Have a glass of wine."
The wine was good. Ben wanted a second helping of Scooby Doos, and while he ate, Eileen giggled and filled my wine glass again. Her face was flushed, and I wondered how much she'd already had.
Joanne asked me to pass the paella, and when I picked up the platter, the smell of sausage overpowered me.
"Maybe I will try a little," I said.
It turned out to be one of the best things I'd ever eaten. Chicken, shrimp, and sausage, all in one dish, and the sausage wasn't the low-calorie fake stuff that Barbara tries to feed us for breakfast. The meat was embedded in yellow rice that melted in my mouth. I couldn't stop eating. After my third helping, I got Ron's phone number and told him I was going to have Barbara call and get the recipe from him. Of course that made me think of Barbara.
"Wipe that cheese off your chin and let's go, Bud," I said to Ben.
He stuck out his lower lip. "Clarence," he said.
"For Pete's sake, Ben, we turned the house upside down, but nobody could find Clarence," I told him. "You're going to have to sleep with something else tonight."
Ben started shaking his head. Tears ran down his cheeks.
Alexander reached over and patted Ben's shoulder. "You can borrow the Tinker Bell nightgown," he said.
Ben stopped crying and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Alexander ran downstairs before I could think of a polite way to turn down his offer. A couple of minutes later, he burst back into the dining room, holding something behind his back. "Guess what I found? Clarence! He was under the clown wig in the dress-up box."
The adults were all going "Whoopee!" but Ben just said, "Where's the Tinker Bell dress?" Alexander looked from Joanne to Eileen. "Do I still have to let him borrow it? He's got Clarence back."
"Yes, you do, honey," Joanne said. "You offered it to him. Don't go back on your word."
She went downstairs and got the nightgown. Ben wanted to put it on right away. I said, "How about when we get home?" but he just went ahead and peeled off his clothes. I put the nightgown over his head and fastened the tiny white button at the back of his neck.
Joanne and Alexander walked us to the door. "What do you say to Alexander?" I asked Ben.
"Can I take the Batman cape too?" he said. Joanne and I laughed, but Alexander didn't.
"Thanks," I told them for Ben.
Outside it had turned cold. As soon as the car warmed up, I turned on the heater and put on a Cat Stevens CD. "Oh very young one, what will you leave us this time?" I sang with Cat as I drove toward home.
"How you doing, buddy?" I asked over my shoulder, but Ben and Clarence had conked out.
At home, my brother-in-law's car was parked in our driveway. I got out of my car and opened the back door. I wondered if I should change Ben's clothes before anyone saw him, but I knew it would wake him up, so I didn't even try. I stood there looking at him in the blue dress, and I remembered a Christmas pageant from when I was a kid. The church was decorated for Christmas with pine boughs, so it smelled like we were in the woods, and the only light was hundreds of candles burning. All the kids who sang were dressed as angels. I had on wings and a silky white gown, and as I sang, I felt the cool air of the sanctuary all over my body, lifting me up with the music. In the glow from the streetlight, Ben looked the way I felt that night--radiant, otherworldly, lighter than air.
I picked him up and held him for a long time before I took him inside.
"First Date" is reprinted with the author's permission from Rhubarb Pie, published September 2005 by Thunderegg Press.
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