“I’ll give an exact definition. ‘Love’ is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
-Jubal Harshaw in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
So, somehow I found myself very offended at the prospect of having sex with this young vixen. It wasn’t as if there had been a long courting ritual like albatross or 17-year cicadas. There wasn’t going to be a lifelong relationship like penguins have, where even the males sit on the eggs. She wasn’t going to commit herself to crawling ashore like a sea turtle, risking thousands of predatory dangers, to lay a number of eggs, by which only a small percentage would survive. All she wanted was my sperm. All she wanted was a hot load of salty protein by which perhaps a little bouncing baby would bounce on out of her uterus while she was under the influence of some heavy medication. Ah, sweet scientific advancement!
It’s not as if I didn’t want to have sex with her. Had there been a long dating process, dinners by which we’d gotten that mutual feeling of love and respect for one another. Fallen deeply and madly in love as two people should do before they have sex. I’m a traditionalist. It’s not that I even necessarily believe that two people have to get hitched before they shack up, but I certainly believe that there’s a minimum amount of love for them to be in. It’s not that I wouldn’t say yes, under those minimal circumstances, to coming in for a nightcap. For long, cathartic, adulterous sex. It wasn’t that I was morally against being up against the supple creamy skin on her legs. Legs that came up to here. Breasts that came out to here. Lips pouty, full, inflated with natural juiciness. Not that fakey collagen crap. It wasn’t a hatred of her cool violet eyes, sweet and understated, that led me to my conclusion. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to embrace her, to show her the love that her husband never could.
It wasn’t like I wasn’t already in love with her.
It was just that there was only one thing that I could provide that her husband could not. Sperm.
Six years ago, I had fallen in love with a girl in my Eastern World History Class. There were a few jocks in the room, each of them either goofing off or sleeping, in addition to those that never showed up, because they were getting a full ride on their athletic scholarships anyways. There were intellectuals who felt that years of high school Western World History had been a brainwashing waste of time. Who cares about Darwin or Freud or Charles Lindburgh? Who was this Kublai Kahn that we’ve heard so much about?
There were other history students, for whom this class was not optional. There were Asian-American students genuinely interested in their history. There was a single foreign Asian student, for whom this class was just a reiteration of his prior education. An easy A.
There was me. Danny Mill. There was her. Laura Minneken.
We had been best friends since high school, good friends since elementary school. Her mother, who was a stay-at-home mom, would watch me after school and during the summers along with her own children because my single working mother didn’t want me to become a latchkey child. There were fresh sandwiches and video rentals and video games and comic books. I repeatedly kicked Laura’s ass at Mortal Kombat. That’s what she got for picking Luke Cage. I was always Raiden.
Innocent giggling of ten-year-olds turned into a realization of sexual differences, turned into pre-pubescent awkwardness, turned into mutual maturation. In the fifth grade, she and I practiced kissing so that we wouldn’t be embarrassed when the time came to kiss for real. Better than kissing your hand or a pillow, we figured. There was much holding of hands, sharing of secrets, and inside jokes that could only exist after years of intimacy.
After years of such a friendly closeness, however, trading baseball cards and making secret forts in the woods, came the understanding that nothing besides a platonic relationship could exist. This understood requisite was never mentioned, never talked about to anyone else or each other, but it haunted my thoughts years later.
For through the wars against rival woodland forts, against other middle school rogues, stealing useless fort items and wrecking artificial bridges and what-have-you, it never struck me, as a child, that I might fall in love with this girl. For in the times of flipping through cheap comics at the local Hobby Shop, Danny looking for his regular Captain America and Laura looking for her usual Superman, she wasn’t really a girl to me. She ran like a boy, spat on the sidewalk like a boy, climbed trees, pushed through thorn bushes and collected any slimy, furry, disgusting creatures she could get her hands on.
She came home once with a tiny rabbit, throat slashed by some predator and left to die. Her mother had tried to nurse it back to health and demanded that we wait outside. A few hours later she came out and just shook her head, unable to express her regret, her inability to do what her little girl had requested. It was the first time that I had ever seen Laura cry. It was the first nurturing or female emotion that I had ever seen Laura display.
Because even up through High School, Laura was the kind of girl who would intentionally pick the opposite dodge ball team from me, just so she could bean me a good one against the head.
And yet, as we both grew, I continued at the softball, street hockey rate, while she suddenly made these feminine changes that neither of us were ready for. She had her Bat Mitzvah, I had my Confirmation. Over one summer, she suddenly began to wear more and more concealing clothing. When I questioned her, rather jokingly, why she’d want to wear two sweaters on a hot Indiana summer day, she yelled at me and ran off to cry.
I couldn’t apologize enough. For if there’s one thing that I handled worse than her changes, it was to see her cry.
In those days, she was taller than me. But I was about to experience some changes of my own. My first was to notice, one day, that there was a lot of hair in areas that, since the last time I checked, there had been none. Though I must admit that I didn’t check regularly, not having expected this to ever be an issue.
But perhaps the most prominent change was in my mind. For one day in math class I found myself admiring Laura’s hair. It wasn’t anything sexual, at least I didn’t think so at the time. For me it was philosophical, or as philosophical as a thirteen-year-old boy can be. It’s just that, here was a girl that I had known since first grade, and she had had the same rosy auburn hair all that time, and I had never noticed how shimmering it was. I was embarrassed, after a few seconds, to find that she had discovered me discovering her. Much to my surprise, she smiled and brushed a little of her chatoyant hair out of her face. It glimmered a bright yellow-orange as it was struck by morning light.
I looked down, smiling both at myself and at her, and went about my word problems.
Four years later, in high school, at the point where I was once again taller than her, we had both gotten into the same musical. There was a long part where we had to look into each others’ eyes, hold each other, embrace, stage kiss. We went through the motions, we practiced, we read lines, we stage kissed. And then we went about our homework.
When you’ve known somebody for as long as Laura and I have, there are a million moments where you could suddenly become an item. We had gone together to junior homecoming because neither of us had our own dates. We had found dates by junior prom, but hers had been a jerk and I ended up having to drive two women home. Funnily enough, I remember being mad at her because having to take her home ruined any chances I might have had with getting laid with the other girl.
There were recitals, after-school activities, parties, band practice, art classes, debate team.
There was a time after school where we’d been asked to set up for the annual art show. We were designing signs for each hallway, for each grade level in the district. I looked up from my painting and got a good view down her blouse. I looked down, embarrassed, and continued with my work. There was another time when we’d been watching TV and there was a moment of silence, she’d muted the commercial break. It was awkward only because we realized that we were so comfortable with each other that we could sustain long moments of silence without it being awkward. I was holding her as we lay on the couch, holding her in a purely platonic non-committal way, and it never struck me that perhaps this wasn’t enough. It never seemed like a good time to ask her about her romantic feelings or our personal standings.
None of these chances, none of these instances, did I ever feel motivated to take advantage of. It was only after four years of relentless high school dating with other, decidedly faceless girls, and another year of ambiguous college sex, that I realized, staring at her in Eastern World History, this was the girl for me. This was the perfect girl in the entire world.
Then I kicked myself for all the missed chances in my short lifetime.
She was everything that any man could ever ask for in a woman. Smart, classy, sexy, funny, respectful, ambitious, supportive. Additionally, she was already everything to me that any person needs in a soul mate. We filled in each others’ holes complimentarily, where one failed the other could pick up the pace. We had honesty, best friendship, and trust. We had those obligatory similarities, those likes and dislikes. But, like our long history, this only worked against me. For though we were alike enough to be perfect soul mates, it was opposites that attract.
Though we were platonic and non-committal, we’d perhaps been together longer than most committed people twice our age. Certainly more than our peers.
And I had already missed my chance.
For just a few months prior, Laura had fallen for a man named Don Parogon. He was an opposite, all right, if you consider an extreme end of a gradient the opposite of the mediocre middle.
By that I don’t mean he was the ‘bad boy’ or the James Dean leather-jacketed barroom brawling jackanapes with a scar, a tattoo, and a pair of cheap sunglasses. What I mean is, he’s everything that I was, that Laura was looking for, but to the most perfect extreme.
I played guitar, he played it better. He’d been playing it since he was three, whereas I had been playing since I was fourteen. I had done theatre in high school, he was already on a professional standing on the local scene. I could draw, I could paint, he was a master fucking portraitist. I could tell a good joke, Don had everyone he knew in stitches. I was honest, he was painfully sincere and excruciatingly genuine. He was stronger, better looking, leaner, taller, more muscular, smarter, more well-read, more pragmatic, more visionary, more goal-oriented. He was going to school here for a business degree, but was alternately getting his web design degree online, and wanted to continue his education in Law and business ethics.
He already had designed his own house. Had the papers in his room so that one day, when he settled down and got married, he could build for his wife the perfect home. With an American white-picket fence and a yard for their children to dance and play ‘round-and-round-the-mulberry-bush.’
I had known Laura longer, but I hadn’t the foresight to fall in love with her first. Not only was this my mistake to live with, but Don was the sort of person that you found impossible to hate.
I was sitting in Physics, banging my head against a desk as the rest of the class filed from the room. “Ok, P stands for momentum. Pomentum?” Don, touched by my hopeless determination, came over and spent about thirty minutes of his own after-class time to explain to me how gravity and centripetal forces work simultaneously. He was neither condescending nor was he patronizing. He allowed me to figure out what I needed to with only the minimal guidance of his enlightened sophisticated brain. He laid a friendly hand on my back, smiled, and said, “You got it, Danny! All I did was circle some equations. You did it!”
I wanted to hit him, he was so nice. I wanted to punch him in the face and eyes and bludgeon his nose into a mushy paste with my bare hands and when somebody finally pulled me off of him, tears and blood streaming from his newly formed orifices, long red saliva stringing from his mouth to my fist, I would yell, “He’s such a nice guy, he’s such a goddamned nice guy, the bastard!”
His secret dream, he told me later as he bought me lunch, was that after he got degrees in Business, Ethics, Law, and Political Science, was to pass the bar and become a lawyer-politician that people could count on. A man that denied all payoffs, corruption, and sin. Would do what was needed for average Joe farmer six-pack construction worker trucker with 2.5 kids. Would do it, not just in his speeches and campaign ads, but for real. In fact, after talking to him, I got the feeling he’d probably downplay his achievements for mankind. Even if he created legislation that ultimately led to the cure for cancer, he’d probably understate it in his campaign ads with, “Don Parogon, the Senator that tries his best!”
He was fucking perfect. Hell, I almost wanted to marry him. There was no way I could ever compete with him for Laura’s love or attention. I didn’t even think it was fair for me to. To deprive Laura of the most perfect man in the universe. He was Superman, and I was just Captain America. He was Raiden, and I was just Luke Cage. He’d even deprived me of the right to hate him, he was such a nice guy.
Let me digress.
My father had left me nothing when he died. He owned nothing. But the last time I’d seen him, which was at my high school graduation, he’d been so impressed, so proud, and so taken with my guitarist endeavors, that he gave me his old sacred guitar pick. I was surprised to see him there at all, as I hadn’t seen him in almost a decade, and even more surprised that he would give me his solitary possession. The pick with which he made a living. The pick he’d had longer than I’d been alive. It was a flat, rounded triangular piece of metal, which he’d fashioned himself, with a cut of negative space taken from its center in the shape of a twisted, almost tribal, spiral. It wasn’t very practical to play, but he was good enough at his music that he’d managed.
It took me months of practice before I was even capable of using it efficiently. I had gotten together with a few local friends who’s all happened to go to the same college, and we formed a band. We mostly did covers of our favorite 80’s rock tunes, Golden Earring, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, the Fine Young Cannibals, even the Talking Heads. Our own little twist is that we covered them as punk ska tunes. It took hours to find the right songs that would fit this format. Obviously, you can’t put trumpets in Ozzy’s “Shot in the Dark,” but for some strange reason they fit real well in “Mr. Crowley.” We had written a few of our own tunes, too, just to break up the monotony whenever we performed. People loved the covers more, though, and we never seemed to manage any big gigs.
I was on campus, one night, strumming along to a Blue Oyster Cult tune, when I received word that my father had been found dead. He’d died the way he’d lived; poor, alone, and in the street.
He’d been a good father up until the point where I turned eight. Then he suddenly lost everything he had, his music store burnt to the ground, his hands burnt irreparably in the fire. His mind had been fractured, his future destroyed. He didn’t want the same for his family, though, so with what little mental capacity he had left he reasoned that we’d do better without him.
He took to the streets of some far away city, sending us checks whenever he could with no return address. They were far below the minimum you’d ever see in a child support payment, five dollars here, ten dollars there, but he figured that his absence was saving us money for food and insurance.
You see, he stopped paying insurance after the store fire. We’d collected a good enough sum from that so that my mother and I didn’t starve, but she never forgave him for his foolhardy decision. She said that the love of his family was more important than any amount of struggling we were about to endure together. She never spoke ill of the man in front of me, other than a gentle disapproval in his actions, or a wish that things had turned out differently.
So without any life insurance, or life savings, investments, college funds, stocks, bonds, or trusts, he had nothing to leave me when he died besides the pick. When he was beaten to death in an alley for the small amount of cash in his guitar case, and the guitar stolen with it, his body and his pockets were left empty. Police say that there couldn’t have been more than thirty dollars in the case. That that was the price some gang had put on my father.
He was always a humble man, and hadn’t been very materialistic. He bordered on communist, at times, in a world where nobody else was willing to share. He had no commune. He didn’t need one. The saddest part about his murder was that he would have gladly given the hoodlums his money, his guitar, the shirt off his back if they expressed an interest. Just more evidence that his death was pointless. He wasn’t necessarily a smart man, but he was generous. Insomuch as a poor man can be generous.
It’s not that I’m advocating communism, but things would be a hell of a lot cheaper and easier to select at the grocery store.
I wouldn’t really call what I feel, or felt, for my father hero-worship. I recognize his faults. He’d made some pretty stupid decisions in his life, irreparable ones. But in classic psychological theory, when a parent is absent, you tend to idolize or demonize them. And there’s no point in hating someone who’s so Goddamn nice.
Although my mother never encouraged a seething resentment of my father in me, she certainly never forgave him for leaving, whatever his reasons. She wanted to be the traditional mother, the kind that stays at home and babies her only baby. She didn’t read to me at night, and it pained her. She never got to tuck me in or take me to Disney World, and it killed her. As good friends as my mother and Laura’s mother were, she hated the fact that she had to send me to another house to grow up every day after school.
Laura’s mother, who was as much a mother to me as my own, in that she filled the gaps that two jobs took from my normal family life, was the third most important woman in my life. She falls right after my mom and Laura herself, respectively.
Many times Mrs. Minneken had to drive me home and even tuck me in, even after the age where this is socially acceptable behavior, because my mom couldn’t do it. Together they filled in the gaps that one left for the other. Mrs. Minneken provided the stability, the constancy, while my mother provided the financial security, the discipline. The two of them would have made a real cute couple, had they been lesbians.
In fact, calling her Mrs. Minneken seems a little strange, as she was just as much a mother to me as my biological one. Partially, I suppose, because Laura’s mom had never had a boy of her own.
And though she barely knew my father, and only had my mother’s rancor as a reference point, she cried endlessly upon the news of his passing.
My mother wasn’t too worked up about it, but Laura seemed the most upset. She was the one who had to bring me that news. Had to wait to tell me as I finished the song I was engrossed in, up on our pseudo-stage. I was in such a hurry to call my mom and find out what the hell was going on, that I rushed off from band practice at the community room and left my guitar. My band had picked it up with their stuff, but how were they to know how important a tiny dinged-up metal pick was? Had they even seen it? Or did they think, as I would have, that it was just too impractical? That I’d have done better without it. Had they seen it, remembered it as they left, door locking behind them, and figured that they could just buy me a new plastic one for a few cents?
I went back to the town of my birth, of my raising, to see my father lowered into the ground. He was dressed in the cheapest tweed suit I think I’d ever seen, yet it was still the most expensive thing I’d seen him in.
When I returned from the funeral services back home, I found that my bandmates had indeed forgotten the pick. They had gotten me a little white plastic pick in its place, with a crudely drawn alien face on it.
I screamed at them, informed them of the pick’s importance. I ranted until I could have died from a sore throat. They took it. After all, my father’d just died and this was the sole link to him in existence. I suddenly shut up and apologized. There was no way they could have known. I should have said something of its importance.
I searched the band practice area. The lunchrooms. Lost and found. The library. The band’s usual storage area. All the guitar cases. The local music shop, in case somebody’d sold it. I pained inside day and night that God had wanted to not only take my father away, but also the little metallic one-inch legacy he’d left for me.
I complained and I bitched about it like a little brat for days. There wasn’t a person on campus that wasn’t aware of my situation. There wasn’t a person on campus that was about to say something about it, either. After all, my father’d just died.
Then, one day, the fabulous and beautifully understated Laura Minneken approached me in the hallway as I bent down for a drink from the water fountain. She looked at me innocently, barely containing her enthusiasm.
She smiled broadly from ear to ear, white dazzling teeth showing from her upper lip, and said, “Danny, what would be the one thing you would want me to say to you right now.”
I could think of a million variations of the same thing, as I raised my head to find an orange outline formed by the morning sun through the window. Silhouetted her girlish form as she stood with her weight shifted to one leg, her torso angled back with that little spunky element of attitude. She hadn’t done a thing with her hair this morning, and she didn’t need it. It was fantastically untouched, as if God or Fate had been her hairdresser this morning. Her pillow had known exactly where each hair needed to be.
“What?” I tried to sound happy in one of the worst weeks of my life. To see her now, this was its only highlight.
She produced from behind her back, between thumb and forefinger, the little metal shape of my father’s only heirloom, my entire inheritance. I could have jumped a foot into the air, I could have rudely snatched it out of her hand. Instead I grabbed her, gave her an excited kiss on her cheek, and a bear hug that lifted her a good foot off the ground. I could smell her morning smell. I could feel her breasts pressed up against my chest. She held me firmly with her own arms, as well as she could, and we both laughed at this joy.
“Thank you thank you thank you thank you! This is, by far, the nicest thing you have ever done for me!” I said as I finally let her go and set her back on the ground.
“Oh, no, stop.”
“No time for modesty! I don’t care if it was just pure coincidence that you found it or if you were up all night. This is the best, most considerate–”
“No, I was going to say,” she said with a little naïve giggle, “that Don was the one who found it.”
She turned and walked away humming. She was almost skipping with the joy of the situation.
I looked out the window and into the morning sky. The rising sun and pink-orange canvas meant nothing to me now. I just looked up at the Creator and said;
That was about six years ago. Since then I had stopped playing guitar. I hadn’t had time to draw in almost a year. It had been months since I’d even seen a play, let alone thought about being in one. I had gotten my teaching degree, which meant that now I was a teacher’s aide until I could get a job on my own. I had been rushed from school district to school district. Each set of bosses worse than the last. Each set of students less cooperative and willing to learn than the last.
I had about a month to go before the end of this torture, and I had traveled back to my hometown to try for a job at the old alma mater. I had arranged a meeting with the hiring secretary of my high school, where, if I was successful, I would go on to talk with the principal or perhaps the superintendent if necessary. We’d discuss pay, pension, qualifications, classroom size, benefits, and opportunities to head up extracurricular activities.
In the meantime, however, I was staying in my old room at my mom’s house. She’d left it the way I’d left it, just as she said she would. Goldfinger poster on the closet door, Jenny Garth poster on the back of the door to the room. My Playstation, Nintendo, $40 stereo, VHS collection. The entire Godfather trilogy. There was a spot on the old desk that was lighter than the rest, since I had taken the computer with me to college. The Dark Side of the Moon album, the only LP I ever owned, was propped up on the shelf next to an ancient hockey trophy and a Spider-Man action figure. A box full of dusty old comic books.
There was a pile of sheet music on the nightstand, and a coaster that I never used while there was perfectly good wood grain closer at hand. Another pile of unfinished artwork and doodles lie sprawled on the floor behind the art desk for which it was designated. All of the messes in my room, undoubtedly, my mother had dusted week after week. She’s been a workaholic so long that I don’t know what she’ll do when she retires. Probably make a costume and fight crime.
I picked up a few of the crude charcoal drawings from my junior year. There was Sam, Ryan, and Stephanie. I laughed at my lack of skill, and the cartoonish exaggeration I had applied to some of my best friends. They’d either loved it, or just been polite when they told me what they thought. Sam’s big nose, Ryan’s huge ears, Stephanie’s chipmunk cheeks.
Then I came across my portrait of Laura. There were no exaggerations. No flaws. It wasn’t particularly well-done, that is, symmetrical, but aside from that I hadn’t taken the artistic liberties that I had with some of my dopier-looking friends. Even though I hadn’t been in love with her then, my seventeen-year old doppelganger couldn’t find any flaws in Laura.
Those were the days before my love, before the realization, before Don.
I piled all the papers into a neat little stack and placed them nicely on the desk. It wouldn’t be so much for my mom to dust, since she seemed addicted to it. I unpacked my bags, or at least what little I was going to need while I was here. Bathroom supplies, underwear, Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, and about three dozen papers to grade.
I would have began then, but my mother called me into the kitchen for waffles.
I went to the coffee shop in the mall where we used to hang out, since I was so lost in the past, and decided to grade papers there. Nobody around here knew any of these kids, and I had nothing else to do until my interview the following day. If I stayed at home I was just going to get fat on waffles and homemade cookies.
So I looked down at the papers, not really reading anything, just skimming the lines with a blank stare. More to keep the noise and sight of the outside world in my peripheral vision only. It’s not like these had to be done anytime soon, either. I had until Friday.
I was reading a paper written by Josie Young.
Josie’s a bright young cheerleader who could do so much better in class if she applied herself, but prefers to chew gum and twist hair. Her summation of the Whiskey Rebellion, though accurate and intelligent, was hardly compelling or original. Let alone complete. She included important dates, names, places, etc. But she didn’t go into the motivations behind the Whiskey Rebellion. She could have written a comparison paper between the taxation of liquor by the newly formed United States, and the taxation that the British government had imposed on the colonies, showcasing the new government’s hypocrisy. She could have gone into the importance of the Whiskey Rebellion, namely, that it was the first real test of the federal government’s power over the states. She could have used the paper to write about the pros and cons of state militias. Hell, she could have just rambled about how to make your own tax-free whiskey and I would have been happy.
But her cursory description of perhaps some of the most important social disturbances in the nation’s history received her a B-. Having met the minimum requirements, I could hardly judge her too harshly, but I would have preferred something more befitting her intelligence. I had higher expectations for Josie. Not just, ‘An attack on liberties,” as she had titled it.
I rubbed my eyes more out of frustration than of exhaustion, and yawned as I gulped down some gourmet coffee, now cold. I was halfway through the pathetic stack of papers, but my ass felt like I’d been sitting here for years.
That’s when I happened to look up at the woman who was just happening to look over at me from the counter where you pay for coffee. It was Laura, and her mouth opened into a wide nostalgic smile. She removed her sunglasses and ran over, arms outstretched for a hug. I thought, amidst my happiness to see her, how embarrassing it would have been for her in that situation had I been somebody else. Somebody that only looked like me.
“Danny! Oh my God!” I stood from my chair and she latched onto me eagerly. It was good to feel her close to me again, even if it was entirely platonic.
“My my my. What have you been up to? What brings you to town? How have you been? How’s your mother?” She hadn’t given me enough time to answer one question, let alone all the ones she was still throwing at me. I motioned for her to sit down, which she did in an instant.
“Laura. You look… great.”
“Thanks. You don’t look so bad yourself. I like your hair short. Well, what have you been up to!?”
The man at the counter signaled for Laura, as she had left her coffee and her change at the counter in her excitement. She got up and retrieved it, then hurriedly returned to the chair.
“Well, uh, to answer you, uh, I’ve been working as a teacher’s aide. I’m applying for a job at the old High School tomorrow.”
“Well, good for you! Ooh! Are these papers you’re grading now?” She sneaked a glance at Josie Young’s fine piece of literature.
“Yeah. I’m staying with my mom until I get settled. She’s fine, by the way.”
“That’s great. Maybe I’ll stop by for some of her world-famous waffles.”
“Hm. Say, what about you? What are you doing these days?”
“Well.” she got very excited about talking about her life for a while. She wasn’t self-centered, just excited at everything in general. “I guess you know Don and I got married. I’ve been putting my degree to good use around the house. Cooking, cleaning.”
“Never had you pegged as the stereotypical housewife.”
“Stereotypical? Hardly. Well, I like it, anyways. It doesn’t pay much but I get free room and board.”
“Yeah, sorry again that I couldn’t make it to the wedding.”
Sorry? No. Bitter? Yes. I had told them, when she sent me a letter to RSVP, that I had a business weekend that couldn’t be rescheduled. Needless to say, that wasn’t true. They don’t have business weekends for teacher’s aides.
“It’s okay, you’re busy with your career. I understand.”
“Yeah. Busy with life in general, lately.”
“I just sort of wish we’d kept in touch better.” She forced a smile, and there was an uncomfortable silence. I thought I’d break it. But I was running out of usual topics for small talk.
“So… you guys thinking about kids or–” Her smile suddenly vanished. I’d hit a nerve and vein at the same time. Perhaps they’d tried to have children and lost a baby. Maybe they couldn’t have a baby. Maybe they had a kid and didn’t like him much.
“I’m sorry, was it something I–”
“No. I mean, it’s not like you and I really ever kept secrets, right?”
“It’s just, well, not the sort of thing you’d want to discuss in a coffee shop. Want to get out of here?”
We didn’t really talk on the drive to her house. It was almost as if we’d taken separate cars, except that she drove because I walked to the mall from my mom’s house, as I did even as a kid. We made some more obligatory small talk, but knowing that we would inevitably pull into a driveway and have a much more serious discussion at hand sort of overshadows things like, ‘So, how about those Colts?’
When we came upon the crest of the hill, it overlooked a superb model of statuesque architecture. I had known for eons that Don had wanted to build for his wife the perfect home, but I didn’t know how well he’d succeeded until now. It wasn’t so much that it was a mansion, though it was quite large, it was just simplistically beautiful. It had a two-car garage, white-washed picket fence along the back and the sides, open in the front. It had an ornamental, but certainly not gaudy, bay window and enough windows of other types to allow natural lighting to permeate every surface of the interior. You would think that this would create a lack of privacy, but for the fact that the majority of the house was upstairs. It wasn’t that there wasn’t enough square footage on either the ground floor, or second, or their finished furnished basement, its just that for some reason the home seemed taller than wider, though it wasn’t. It was just that the house had straightened itself up and sucked in its gut to welcome anyone cordially and make a good first impression. I got the distinct impression that as soon as I or any other visitor was out of sight, it would heave a sigh of relief and lower about seven feet. This is the sound of the house settling at night.
Don had reserved some of the more unnecessary things that people usually get for their homes, simply because they are unnecessary. He’d apparently eschewed luxuries like pools, hot tubs, full-service bar, gazebos, ponds, trees, swings, gargoyles, fake rocks, or fancy terra cotta. You got the sense that the house was almost a single piece of material, carved like stone into its form. It was a simple white piece of paper trimmed and folded like origami or those snowflakes you make in Kindergarten without ripping the sheet. It was elegant. It was aesthetic. It, in a perfect reflection of Laura, embodied good taste.
She seemed reluctant to get out of the car once she’d parked, then reluctant to go to the door once she’d gotten out of the car. She knows that she can tell me anything, and that anything she does divulge is as good as locked away from outside ears. Which further emphasized how sensitive an issue this must be.
She grabbed her mail, as it created an ample distraction, and leafing through it half-occupied, she led me to the front door. She gave me a warm welcome to their humble abode, but kept quickly shifting my attention from one marvel of a room to the next. She stepped into the kitchen, where she placed her mail upon the island in the center of the room. She was still looking down at it when she asked me if I wanted coffee. Of course, we’d just left a coffee shop, and still had our coffee with us, but it provided her with something else to say.
“You want something to eat? I’ve become quite the chef since we’ve seen each other last.”
“I hear married life’ll do that.” I smiled. There was a good, long silence following, and we each lost our smile.
“You know,” I said intently, “You don’t have to talk about it. If it–”
“No, no. I want to talk about it. I mean, I have to talk about it, that’s why I wanted you over. And if I do talk about it, there’s nobody else I’d want to talk about it to than you.”
This made me smile, as she placed me above all her other friends and her husband on the confidentiality list.
“Well…” I thought of offering that we sit down to talk, but then I remembered that it was her house, and if she wanted to talk about this standing up in the kitchen, so be it.
“Well. Don and I… we’ve been having… well, we’ve been trying to have a baby for about a year now…”
Don and Laura had been waiting for several hours in the waiting room, the doctor making phone calls and rechecking results from tests taken over the past few weeks. Laura’s gynecologist had ruled out that she was infertile, barren being too harsh a word, and so they’d gone to a bitter old man who spent his entire day looking at urethras and blown-up pictures of urethras.
Presently, he walked in the cold, sterile white room from the other cold, sterile white room. Don straightened up, having been slouching in fear and anxiety for the past few hours. His buttocks picked up a little of the tissue paper he was sitting on as he shifted about, and made a noticeable paper-sound. Laura put her hand on his shoulder for comfort and reassurance.
“Well, young man,” the doctor began, he’d dispensed with calling people Mr. And Mrs. years ago when he surpassed the ages of all of his oldest clients, “I have good news and I have bad news.”
“Well, start with the–”
“You don’t get a say. I always start with bad news. That way you leave here a little light-hearted. People always ask to start with good news, then they get all dashed to pieces. Like they expect me to forget the second part after I tell them the good part, or that its going to go away.”
“Doctor.” Laura stopped him. Old men have a bad habit of unwarranted ranting.
“Yes. Ahem. Well, the bad news is that you’ve been shooting mostly blanks for what I can only assume has been all your post-pubescent life, or as long as you were able to shoot at all.”
Laura’s grip on her husband’s shoulder tightened, and Don, true to his nature, didn’t have any visible reaction to this other than a deep inhalation of air through the nostrils. This, Laura had surmised, heightened his ability to accept bad news and cope. She looked him up and down, otherwise, for signs of turmoil.
“The good news,” the doctor smiled, “is that this means there’s very little chance of you having knocked up any cocktail waitresses before meeting the missus here.” He chuckled lightly, then realized that his attempts at humor were not appreciated. The room stayed cold, sterile white.
Hell, he’d given up professionalism almost the same time he became impotent himself.
The doctor straightened and said with a serious tone, “That, and I said you’ve been shooting mostly blanks.”
“There’s a small chance we can still conceive?” Don said, straightening up again and creating more paper-noise.
“Yes, but I must emphasize how slight this chance is. You have, according to these results, virtually no chance. It is there, however, but perhaps you’d like to consider other options…”
“No.” Don responded sternly. “As noble an institution as adoption is, I’m afraid it really isn’t an option for me. I want to make a baby of our own, no matter how much or how long we have to keep at it.” He reached over to squeeze Laura’s hand.
“And we’ll have plenty of fun trying.” She said with a wry smile, dropping professionalism herself, not that she ever had any.
“Actually,” the old man cut in, before they dropped trou and just started defiling his sterile room right in front of him, “I was referring to artificial insemination. With methods today, you can even go so far as pick out a boy or a girl before you even–”
“I’m sorry, I thought that I’d made myself clear.” Don interrupted. He was beginning to get upset, as he hated to repeat himself. If he wasn’t going to partake in a noble institution such as adoption, he certainly wasn’t going to have anything to do with Dr. Frankenstein’s prostitution of zygotes in some laboratory.
The doctor, having given up being upset when he gets interrupted years ago, simply raised his eyebrows and slapped his clipboard gently with the palm of his hand. “Well, all you can do is keep trying. I’d like to make another appointment, however, if you won’t object to using a recommended fertility drug…”
“He hadn’t objected,” Laura related to me, “but that was a year ago. And he’s shooting just as many blanks now as he was then.”
I was leaning up against the French doors that led out into the back yard. It was no wonder that they wanted kids to fill this big of a house, and that large of a yard.
“It’s just as well, I suppose,” she said. “you always hear of those fertility drugs resulting in about six or seven babies. I don’t think I could handle that. Lord knows Don would love that many kids, though.”
She was finishing off her coffee, and was just playing with the Styrofoam, a bad habit she’d had since she started drinking the stuff. She scratched at it with her thumb and forefinger, creating a paranoid grating noise.
“We really do just want one, though.” She said, staring down at her empty cup.
“I suppose you could sell the extras on the black market, if this fertility thing ever works out.” I said. It elicited a smile and gentle laughter from her, but it was all-too short-lived. She put down her cup and raised her hand to her face, presumably to stop herself from crying out loud. I rounded the island counter to take her in my arms.
“Now, c’mon.” Was all I could muster. She turned to face me, putting her back to the counter. I raised her up and placed her on it, sitting. I sat next to her so that I could put one platonic arm around her and comfort her. When she took her hands away from her face, it was already rosy red. From loss and embarrassment. She curled herself towards me, laying her head on my chest and shoulder nearest her. I rocked gently, as much as I could. After all the years, I still couldn’t handle it when she cried.
“I’m glad you told me all this.”
“Yeah,” she said, choking through watery breaths, “I’m glad I told it. Sort of cathartic.”
“I wish…” I wasn’t really thinking of things to say, just randomly spouting what TV and movies had told me over the years was comforting and reassuring, “I wish there was something I could do to help.”
“Yeah.” She sniffed and stared off into space, somewhere beyond her kitchen walls, as she crowded into my grasp.
Laura’s lids, heavy and wet with tears, red with crying, once again closed and buried her eyes the way she was burying her face into my chest for shelter. Then her body shook ever so slightly, ever so momentarily, and she raised up from my grasp. From her sheltered cocoon.
“Wait. Maybe there is something.” She said, returned to Earth with divine providence. Her eyes were bright with possibility, sparkling because they were still wet. I could see myself and the whole kitchen reflected in her eyes. They shone violet the way that the eyes of animals on documentaries shine late at night, eerie and yet beautifully alluring at the same time.
“Anything.” Again, spoken automatically.
There was a short pause as she thought of the best way to put into words what she was about to propose. I wasn’t really on the edge of my seat, since I was just doing my best to comfort, without really investing conscious thought. In my experience, conscious thought just gums up the works.
“Well, I mean… you’ve got sperm.”
And there it was. As simple as that. With the tactfulness of AOL’s automated voice telling you that your e-mail is full, except saying, ‘You’ve got sperm!’ There was no dancing around it. There was no leading up to it. I had sperm. She needed sperm. Here’s a receipt.
“I-” I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Well, what do you say to that? ‘Yes, yes I do?’ or ‘Thanks for noticing?’
“It’s just that… I’m afraid that this is all hurting the marriage. Don seems so distant. Sex has become so mechanical. So cold.” Sterile. White.
I was lost. She had forced my consciousness into the conversation, alright, and damn abruptly, too. So I thought pragmatically. “I thought Don was against donor’s sperm? Even if I donated to you in secret wouldn‘t he see it show up on some bank statement?”
“That’s why we… you know… get a hotel so you can… um… donate the old-fashioned way.” She said with a suggestive, though strangely platonic smile. This was by far the most outrageous thing I’d ever been asked to accept as reality. And mind you, I’ve had to listen to teenager’s excuses for not having their homework in on time. But this! This was a frat boy kegger story that never happened. This was a Penthouse Letter that you knew was made up to give you something to masturbate to when the pictures got boring. This was unbelievable!
Like watching something you love get crumpled up or destroyed before your eyes, you tell yourself, this is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening.
“We wouldn’t even have to tell anybody! This could just be our little secret!”
A secret affair, is that what I really want? A forbidden taboo?
“And its not really cheating, I mean, we’ve known each other since we were kids.”
Do I really want to hurt Don? The nicest guy on the planet? Mr. Perfect if not for the protein deficiency.
“That way we can let Don think that he made the baby! It would make him so happy.”
Yeah. That’s exactly what I wanted to do, make Don happy.
“You want to help me save my marriage, don’t you?”
Now, if that isn’t a loaded question, I don’t know what is. But when you’re in the position I am, that is, the woman asking you to save her marriage is also the woman you’d like to marry, its doubly dangerous. Do the selfish thing and get Don out of the picture? Do the gentlemanly thing and keep them together? It would, at least, make Laura happy.
“I don’t know… I just don’t know, Laura.” I was inching away from her. She’d already left her curled-up position as the prospect excited her more and more in more ways than one.
Though it wasn’t that she really wanted my body. Compared to Don, I was less than average. Women, in general, do not look for variety, not like men. Men look to have sex with as many different women and as many body types. Laura couldn’t care less if I had a Herculean body or Buddha’s belly. If she could have put Don’s head on my body or my penis on his she would have.
Her biological clock had gone off about a year ago, and this new chance at motherhood, the opportunity presented in my willing gonads, short-circuited what would conventionally be called logic and was replaced what I would call, ‘hormone logic.’ She went on and on with hormonal reasoning as to why it was a good idea. Don and Laura get a baby, we become closer as friends, trust each other more than ever before. Don and I are similar enough in appearance that no noticeable differences would be apparent in the baby. I would still play a big part in the child’s life, as I would be expected to anyways. Besides, she’d never been with an uncircumcised guy before, so it was for intellectual purposes as well.
“Yeah, but…” I found myself at a loss for reasons why we shouldn’t do it. I certainly didn’t seem totally uneager at the thought. “There’s got to be logical reasons why we shouldn’t. I can’t think of any, but surely there are some…”
“Okay, well… just think about it. I mean, don’t make any rash decisions. Think it over real well.”
“Okay, I will.”
“And while you’re thinking, think girl. We want a girl.”
The difficulties of fathering children.
Little kids, especially little girls, need the sort of constant attention that only a father can provide, yet the complexities of life usually take away from him. Working late, time and a half, and then coming home exhausted. When your daughter comes up and wants a bedtime story, and that mommy can’t do it right because daddy does all the voices the right way. And she cries when you go to work everyday. And she cries when you have to go away on business. And every time you take her out she wants something, a toy, or some candy, or a book. And she always wants you to carry her when you go somewhere, even when she’s too old for that. And it breaks your heart to spoil her, but it breaks it even more to deny her of anything. And when she’s seven she wants to wear mommy’s makeup. And when she’s ten she wants to get her ears pierced. And when she’s thirteen she wants to be dropped off at the mall all by herself. And when she’s sixteen she wants to date. And when she’s eighteen she wants to date a twenty-four-year-old. And when she’s twenty she wants to go to art school.
All joys that are taken away from you when you father children you will never see. Well, even if you see her, you can’t be a father to her. At best you’ll be called ‘Uncle Danny’ or something. You can buy her things, you can take her out, but you can’t change diapers, wake up at three in the morning to heat up a bottle, or fall asleep at work because of the crying at home. You can’t hold her when she skins her knee at the park. The difficulties of fathering children you will never see. Now I have deeper insight into how my father felt.
Like him, I’d make a sacrifice for the woman I love. Put her good, her happiness, safety, freedom, all above my own. Like my father, I’d be destined to mean nothing to this little blubbering human form, nothing more than a guy that sends good presents and shows up on important milestones. A guy who means well, but isn’t integral to the family unit.
Unlike my father, I wouldn’t even be able to stick around long enough to see my kid enter primary school. Does that make me a worse father? Unlike my father, I’d be assured that my child would have two steady parental units in the house. Does that make me a better father?
Would the child miss me? Would she idolize or demonize the father she didn’t have? I suppose she couldn’t, as she would never know. She’d have a father. A better father. I’d never be as good as the ‘official’ daddy.
What if Don ever found out that the baby wasn’t his? Would he leave Laura? Would he try for custody or leave them on their own? Would she be devastated? So devastated that a relationship with me was out of the question? Knowing Don, the perfect Olympian, he’d probably still accept the child as his own and forgive Laura’s indiscretions unequivocally.
Not that it’s really an indiscretion. She’s really doing this for him. When she has sex with me, she’d just picture his face, she’d really be having sex with him. Does it really count as adultery? Then why not tell him beforehand? If he’s so perfect, he’d probably be okay with it. Well, probably not. Not if he takes issue with artificial insemination. Then again, this is more like… pinch hitter insemination. Would he secretly resent Laura, or the baby? Would he love Laura any less?
What of Laura’s love? Do I dare accept a few hours of unbridled love-making, in lieu of real love? Ever-lasting love? Is it an adequate substitution? Am I willing to settle? Does that minimize the so-called love I have for her if I do? Does it make me any less of a man? Would a chivalrous man fight for her? I sort of missed that chance years ago when I decided not only to not go to the wedding, but also to pass on a chance to stand when the rabbi says, ‘If there is anyone here who has reason why these two should not be wed, speak now or forever hold their peace.”
Well, I guess the real chivalrous thing to do is to forever hold my peace.
Does that mean I’ll die cold and alone like my father? Do I have any responsibility to Laura to let her know my true feelings? Will I ever fall in love again? And if I do, will it be authentic, or will I forever hold every future woman up to the comparison of Laura? She who is so perfect.
What right have I? To tell her my true feelings at the possible expense of her current happiness? To complicate her perfect life? To break up a marriage, to play God with another man’s wife or future baby? What right have I to deny her?
No. That’s a selfish statement. I’m not serving her happiness or needs by either denying her or agreeing to go along with it. I’m serving my own purposes. Either I do what she asks and give her my body, and lose any chance of being with her in the future. As if the sending off of the sperm is like breaking a wine bottle on the side of a luxury liner before it makes its final voyage. Then we watch the Titanic sink. And if I deny her, I lose our friendship, our trust. It’s a lose/lose, damned if you do/don’t situation. So perhaps I stop deluding myself into thinking that I’m doing anything for her when its always what’s in my best interest. Whenever a person makes a decision, it’s always in their best interest no matter what they’re fooling themselves into thinking.
So maybe I’d better forget interest and just work this out pragmatically.
All this I thought as I finished a large stack of waffles, sopping up maple syrup from the plastic form of the fourth most important woman in my life, Mrs. Butterworth. Whether I was going to turn Laura down, or accept her indecent proposal, either way I was going to need the strength that only chocolate-chip waffles can provide. It’s not like there was a third option…
I entered through revolving doors, saw the young man at the counter in his red suit and cap, and asked where the elevators were. He pointed to the right, looking quizzically at me. I must have seemed a sight. I was about as messy, having had to run here the last few blocks from the parking lot, with a ruffled raincoat, even more ruffled hair, and tattered flowers.
I had no baggage, at least not the physical kind.
I pressed the ‘Up’ button, as there was no ‘Down’ button here on the ground floor the choice was pretty easy. Much faster than I’d expected, the worldwide accepted ‘ding’ heralded the arrival of the lift, which I surmised hadn’t had to come very far to the first floor, if at all. I entered, and hit the button for floor seven.
Earlier I’d called Laura’s cell phone, not wanting to risk getting Don on the home phone, and left a message when she didn’t answer. She called me back, at home, and left a message to the extent that she was glad I had come to a decision, and would meet me at this place, at this time. She was sorry we were playing phone tag. Ha ha. She seemed either overjoyed or faking it. She hung up.
When the doors to the elevator closed me in, I was presented with the visage that had alarmed the bell hop so. I straightened my back, and tried to comb my hair lightly with my fingers, unsuccessfully. I was already late, I had no time to find a bathroom, and surely the only public restroom was back on the first floor. It wouldn’t do to ask her to use her room’s bathroom to improve my appearance for her. It was supposed to look like I didn’t care that much, but I didn’t want it to look like I didn’t care that much.
I unruffled my coat as best as could be expected, as the floors rose to three, to four… I settled with the thought that I had a sexy, windswept look. Sure. We can go with that.
I tried once again to run my hands through my hair, found that I was using the hand holding the flowers, and got a good reflective look at their appearance.
Oh, this would not do.
To five, to six…
I tried to arrange them a little better than they were, at least a little better than my hair. I hid some of the more battered roses in the center of the collection, moving the unharmed inner flowers out where they would be noticed first. It wasn’t a first-rate job, but I was no florist. As I sneaked another glance in the mirrored doors, they slid open to reveal, by strange cosmic coincidence, the exact room we were supposed to convene at.
I gathered my courage, lost it, and gathered what I could again. By this time, the elevator was buzzing as I stood in the way if its door closing so it could return to some other floor. Well, there were three other elevators, and this required all the courage I could have time to muster.
I finally stepped off the bouncy mechanical lift, onto steady seventh floor ground. I stood there, in front of her door by two feet, and figured, ‘no time like the present,’ and knocked politely. I stood with conviction, and held the flowers rigidly in my left hand. I hooked my right hand into my jacket with stately nobility, and readied myself to offer the flowers as soon as she opened the door.
What I was about to say, the selfish things I was about to unload on her, required flowers.