It’s Jill, at the other end of the apartment, needing something.
I don’t answer for reasons that are to me, at that moment, obvious.
“I’m in the bathroom!” I yell at the inside of the door.
Alex is 2. Edwin is two months old. I’ve had no luck explaining to either that sometimes mommy and daddy -- make that mommy or daddy -- need a moments to themselves even if it means abandoning their spouse to two kids.
Jill and I are the only members of this household not in diapers -- and I wouldn’t wear them if I could. The bathroom has become too sacred. We treat it the way criminals used to treat a church. You can’t be touched inside one.
She heard where I was. Why’s she doing this?
“I’ll be right out!”
Yeah, maybe I will, maybe I won’t. The bathroom has become a special concept around my home these last few months. Close the door, click the lock, drop your pants, and you’re safe. And it works anywhere, such as at the grandparents’. I’ve unslung Ned and Alex is dashing toward the stereo, the cats, and other breakables. Ned is starting to crank up. Grandpa is making sandwiches in the kitchen. Grandma isn’t feeling well. “Can you catch Alex?” I ask Jill. “I really have to-” Presto!
I‘m not sure when the bathroom became safe. It must have been sometime in the care taking of Alex. I must have been indisposed when Jill/Alex needed something and Jill called my name. There was of course a time in our relationship when Jill calling my name was irresistible. And it still is, it is, on a gut level, but as I sat there shielded by the sacred door, the porcelain and the towels, it felt comfortable. And it has since.
“Jeff, are you coming out of there soon? I want to take a shower and Edwin is crying and Alex is running around...”
Am I coming out of here soon? What kind of question is that? In here, I have the immunity of the biological function. I and only I know how long I will have to be in here. And if I stay in long enough, the cries for me stop! Though I may stay seated with my pants around my ankles longer than is customary. (Why do I have to take my pants down at all, really?) Also, my leg falls asleep.
I don’t ask Jill how long she’s going to be. “Hey,” I’ve been heard to say, “where is Alex’s- Oh, I didn’t know you were in the bathroom, Jill.”
“Be out in a minute.”
(“You don’t do that,” Jill notes, reading this. “You are such a liar.”)
What important minutes those are: the hush of the tile, the drink of water at hand, the chance to sit down. Many of the coolest people I know are also experienced travelers, and they’ve always had a rule: Go the bathroom whenever you can. So far, Jill and I respect that about each other.
“Oh Ned no!” Jill said just this afternoon, when Edwin refused to be set down without wailing. “Watch Ned for a minute,” she said to me, vanishing into the bathroom.
“Funny how you wanted your children so badly, and now we just want to get away from them,” she says later. “It makes you feel so guilty and bad.” Bah. You don’t like to think you ever have to get away from your kids. Alimony dodgers try to get away from their kids. Even parents who abandon kids sometimes have the decency to leave them in hospitals and police stations. They don’t just duck into the bathroom and leave the kid sitting on the table.
But we all need moments away from our kids. When the kids get older, some parents even want to spend more time with them, but by then in a parent’s life the bathroom has come to mean a different kind of sanctuary. (February 2001)
In a household with two small kids in a winter full of colds, the parents each have several nostrils to choose from. My wife, who wishes to remain anonymous, adds here, “Sometimes it’s better than picking your own nose.”
Colds belted us this winter, or maybe one cold kept pinballing between the four of us. The mucus started flowing fast and steady and through box after box of tissues.
Alex got it worst, of course. He almost went to the hospital with the first cold, in November, but he rose again and stayed relatively snot-free until February. Then he was sick the whole month. This second cold never put him on the crib mat for the count, but for a week he was wracked with a cough that would wake him bawling at 4 a.m.
He had a lot of nostril seepage. “Snot tusks,” commented Jill (sorry, “my wife”). “I am so sick of hearing snot in kids’ noses.”
Alex doesn’t know yet how to blow his nose; best we can do is a swipe and squeeze of Kleenex. I’ve tried to turn it into a game by first holding the Kleenex to my nose and giving a loud, raspberry-like fake blow. Alex sort of buys it. But without his exhaling, all we can ever pinch off is a skim of white stuff or, at best, a thread of green. Ned, age two months, is easier. Cold season had just set in when he sneezed hard and a bright green blob appeared under his nostril. A prize! Semi-solid, too.
Lately, when we hear something rattling behind Ned’s face, we reach for what our babysitter Stacy calls “the booger baster”: a four-inch-long plastic squeeze-bulb syringe. The hollow tip is just small enough for Ned’s nostrils. We insert it, get it steady, squeeze the bulb, and release. If we have a good seal and the suction takes, we’re rewarded with the tiny sucking of baby mucus being dragged into the light of day. The tightest seals and the best suction reward us with a thread of snot when we draw the baster from his nose.
Trying to maneuver the baster into the nose of two-year-old Alex, however, is like a WWF highlight. So we pinch and wipe, and coat his nose with Vaseline when it gets raw. For the deepest of search-and-retrieve missions, we pick up the parents’ super weapon: the Q-tip.
Use of Q-tips started in Alex’s crib a year ago. He’d be lounging back with his hands behind his head and I just couldn’t help but spot the big green roadblocks in his nose. In Alex’s case, boogers can kill, or at least block oxygen from his cannula and send his sat numbers tumbling. With conviction, we went in there with stick and cotton. At first Alex let us do this, charmed by the novelty. Then at first glimpse of the Q-tip he’d start wagging his head and bringing hands up to block his nostrils. You can’t blame him: They monkeyed with his nose a lot in the hospital.
“Oh Alex, please can I do this?”
No no no.
“Please? You’ll like it...” Sometimes this booger thing makes me feel like a letch.
The trick is to get the cotton behind the booger. Then it’s the standard hook-and-pull, hook-and-pull, to get the stuff to the rim of the nostril and let fingernails take over. My wife and I got adroit at this, though exclamations differed.
“Come to poppa!” I’d say.
“Oh baby -- jackpot!” she’d say.
Alex’s grandest nose moment came a week ago in a bath. He was lounging back, the light in our bathroom strong and direct, and I couldn’t help spotting the blob hugging the inside of his right nostril. “Alex,” I said, holding up the Q-tip, “will you let me do this?”
He didn’t shake his head. Instead he moved closer, leading with his nose, took the Q-tip in one hand and guided it into his own nostril. Oh baby!
Ned’s nose is still too tiny to take a Q-tip, but it’s getting bigger by the day. In the light of the reading lamp right now, as he’s sprawled across my lap, I can see up in there and I know we’ll have fun until that rueful day when both of them pick there themselves. Then I will have to tell them to stop. (February 2001)
I stepped into the elevator with a neighbor the other night. She began fumbling with tickets. "Going to a show?" I asked.
"I have to go to the theater on 18th Street," she replied. "I think the subway goes right there." She wore a slick coat and boots and carried an umbrella. She was ready for adventure.
I was on my way to the trash with a bag of tin cans rinsed for recycling. "Yes, I think the subway does," I said.
She got off at the first floor. I continued to the basement, dropped my clinking bag into the blue bin, and headed back up.
Nightlife for me involves keeping Alex from standing in the bath and catching Ned's spit-up before it stains his onesie. Sometimes I take out trash or do laundry. Sometimes on laundry runs I grab the mail. When Alex accompanies me, I take the stairs down because he likes that.
I've lived around New York for almost 20 years, but have never cashed in on the nightlife. Barring New Year's Eve, the Oscars, and the odd play or Knicks game, I've spent most nights at home.
What's it like to just put on your coat and head out?
Where you going?
Got tickets! The subway goes right there.
Got an umbrella?
Jill and I have had two nights out sans kids since Ned came home. On my birthday, we went to several discount stores and an expensive Brazilian restaurant. On our anniversary, we went to an expensive Italian restaurant and ordered cheap. I spent both evenings glancing behind to see if I'd forgotten the stroller and scanning for payphones to check in with the babysitter.
We went out more when it was just Alex. We were living in Queens, and would call on neighbors Hannah or Maureen to baby-sit. On Hannah nights, we'd step around the corner for a drink. On one Maureen night - she was a nurse - we went out after leaving the number of the expensive Italian restaurant. I had seafood and wine. But even as I scanned for phones, just before our dessert, a waiter stepped into the middle of the noisy dining room and starting saying, "Simpson? Simpson?"
I took the house phone and sure enough it was Maureen, announcing that Alex had thrown up pink formula.
"Is he all right?" I shouted as the nearest diners turned.
"Oh yeah, he's settling down."
"Does he have a binkie?"
"Does he have his binkie?"
The best night Jill and I had out with the boys was at Aunt Julie's for the Super Bowl. Ned spent the game sleeping. Alex sat strapped in a chair eating Wheat Thins, chicken wings, and chocolate cookies.
We've tried stopping for lunch with both boys. (Alex eats French fries better in restaurants.) The place was packed. Jill had Ned in the chest sling; I slithered Alex and the stroller through the tables and the elbows. I got to our table and started unbuckling him when the waitress, from 20 feet away, pointed out that I could park the stroller in the far end of the dining room.
"How about here?" I asked, pointed at an empty neighboring table.
"We might need that space," the waitress called.
"What?" I said.
I passed Alex to Jill - I think she staggered - then collapsed the carriage and made my way to the other side of the room. I leaned the carriage against the counter, but the wheels wouldn't lock and it kept sliding to the floor. Finally I got the damned thing to stand and threaded my way back to our table where Jill was settling Ned, trying to keep Alex was flinging forks onto the feet of other diners, and hating me.
"You know, you can ask them for help when we come in with two kids!" she said. "They will help."
It's become just easier to get home around six and find Jill giving Ned a bath and Alex pounding something in the living room. I drop my bag and any groceries, peel off my coat, and throw fish sticks and shoestring fries in the convection oven for Alex's dinner. Lately he's graduated from three fish sticks to four. Ned has started getting baby powder after his bath. Yesterday we bought him hydrocortisone cream. He's off dairy. My nights always keep bringing something new. (March 2001)
Now I Lay Me
"Americans are sleep-deprived ... with only about a third sleeping the recommended eight hours a night, according to a poll released Tuesday."
A third? I didn't know so many people were the parents of Ned and Alex. Fifty-two percent also said they spend less time having sex than they did five years ago, but I'm too tired to think about that.
Sleep has come hard at our house the last few nights. Ned and Alex seem to have studied the tactics of tag-team wrestlers: One cries until wiped, then tags their teammate to take over as they step from the ring. We just get Alex - who, to be fair, had a cold this week -- down from the walls and dry on the cheeks when, wafting from our bedroom on the other side of the apartment, comes the cry of Ned. Last night I said a very bad word regarding our household.
Jill begged me to keep my grip. It's not forever, she said. No, but it is for tonight.
"The 2001 Sleep in America poll of 1,004 adults found that 63 percent get less than eight hours a night, and about 31 percent get less than seven hours."
I get about six. Alex conks out by 10:30 at the latest. Ned passes through his Witching Hour from about 8:30 to 9:30 (again, to be fair, earlier than he used to), then naps from about 9:30 to 10:30. He used to slumber right through this 10:30 slot, but lately seems to hit a bump. We usually turn to the bottle and try to knock him out with a couple of quick ounces. Sometimes it takes, sometimes not, and it's midnight before he settles down. I'm up once or twice in the night to put Ned back in his crib after Jill has fed him, or to rescue a wailing Alex. Last night I was up three times for the kids, stumbling through the kitchen to squint at the range clock as dawn crawled nearer. Alex is usually up and chattering by 7.
"Forty percent of those surveyed say they become so sleepy during the day that their work suffers. And seven percent say sleepiness on the job is a daily occurrence. To stay awake during the day, 43 percent said they use caffeine and five percent go for something stronger, such as stay-alert medications."
Where are these medications? I need two Diet Cokes with lunch - following a cup of Spanish coffee in the when I get up and two iced teas by 10:30 - and I'm not adverse to drinking something healthier. Coke rots your teeth. I would miss the hum that the sugar and caffeine in those teas inject into my mornings, though.
Do you really need eight hours? I've heard that the "recommended" number of hours sprang from a motto of the early days of the Labor Movement: "Eight hours to work, eight hours to sleep, eight hours to do what you want." (What I want to do is sleep, but since I can't do that when I want, I'll do it at work.) Plus, "I've heard this story so many times before," says Jill. "You know what? I hate hearing stories about sleep deprivation the same way I hate people telling me what a great nap they just had."
The survey showed Americans do not want to give up any more sleep and would sleep more if they thought it added to the quality of their lives. But, said the presumably overworked director of the survey, "the bad news is, far too many adults still sacrifice sleep, which is unhealthy and counterproductive. A good night's sleep is a necessity, not a luxury. Having children also cuts into a good night's sleep, the survey showed. Adults with children average 6.7 hours of sleep a night, while those without children average 7.2 hours."
Ned? Alex? Paying attention?
Jill says we can't expect them, especially Ned, to respect our sleep. What does Ned know from 3 a.m.? What does Alex care if the sunup is hours away when it's time to cry in a dark room? My mother never seemed to care what time it was. Lately, aware that Jill has been shouldering most of the wee-hour calls, I try to get up and do my duty and say nothing. I shouldn't care what time it is, either. Too many parents do. I'd like to see a poll about that.
There's Ned again. "It's only temporary," says Jill, and I try to remember that some things last longer than a night of no sleep. (April 2001)
The Way Home
I step onto the subway car at Times Square and catch a sour waft of alcohol. My bag is heavy with a Times for Jill, more Mother Goose tapes for Alex, and two cans of soy Similac for Ned. I get a seat - a rarity on the uptown express during the afternoon rush - and open my book. I'm aware of a man who stands at the other side of the car, at the door I just entered. The train pulls out on its way up Broadway. The next stop, West 72nd Street, is about three minutes away.
We slide and rattle through the tunnel and the guy by the door starts mumbling. I glance at him. His pants cuffs are frayed and soiled. The soles of his shoes are thin. He carries an enormous dirty bag. He looks like an out-of-focus photo. He begins to mutter.
"'puter 'puter 'puter," I think he says. He reaches into his pocket. I catch my breath and wonder where to dive as he pulls out the black butt of an Uzi. No wait. It's a flip phone. I breathe again.
He stares out the black window of the train as the bare yellow bulbs of the tunnel fly past. He puts the phone to his cheek. "Computer!" he shouts. The phone squeaks and beeps. My two-year-old Alex has a phone like that. His grandpa bought it for him in Chinatown for a dollar.
"Computer, make the train go faster!" the guy shouts.
The force of the guy's voice puts my eyes right on my book. I know with a subway rider's experience that no passenger is looking at this guy, that they'd stare into the sun rather than look at this man with the phone and frayed pants and the wild voice. New Yorkers just live with it, and read.
"Computer, make the train go faster! A hundred miles an hour! Computer!"
He must be a "Star Trek" fan. Amazingly, the lights of the tunnel start to zip by faster.
"Thank you, computer," he says, and seems satisfied until the train slows down coming into the next station. "Computer!" he shouts. I don't know why he's shouting. Who could know? I still don't know when I change cars at 72nd Street.
I feel like a tourist, and this tactic almost always means giving up your seat, but I'm getting off soon, anyway.
At the next stop, I head up the stairs to catch my cross-town bus. The air on the street is cool and sweet; I breathe it as if I'd just been let out of a little box. The sidewalk seems to offer endless room to get out of people's way.
I catch the bus, and within a few minutes have crossed Central Park - a quiet ride: passengers murmuring into their cell phones, no cries of "Computer!" -- then I get off and start walking up Fifth Avenue.
This takes me gradually into a corner of Manhattan that used to be unlivable. One block east, housing projects are still stamped all the way to 125th Street. Fifth Avenue is No Man's Land, especially late at night: too nice for the bad guys and too bad for the good guys. I can manage it. I just don't walk east.
I walk north. Walking a long, wide avenue in New York is like driving fast down a long, wide highway: You should look at what's coming far ahead. I do, and I see a clot of kids in puffy jackets crossing to my side of the street. A lot of people are out and, more important, I can tell from two blocks away that none of the kids is taller than the roof of a car. If they were five years older, I'd keep an eye on them, my legs tingling as they got closer. But they're little kids. Little kids only do things to other little kids.
We near each other. They cross the street and strut and bob in my direction, their puffy jackets getting bigger, like grenades rolling toward me. When they reach my side of the street I'll be at least four or five steps beyond them.
Then from their little crowd, I hear snapping, like cap guns. They have those explosive little balls - you can buy those in Chinatown - that they slap onto the pavement. They creep closer. All four have something in their hands. Something dark and long that they hold tight. I keep walking. They chatter.
I look up. I break their chatter. One of the boys looks at me and levels a black plastic pistol with a bright orange tip on the muzzle. The boy stares at me. He's about 12.
"Gonna shoot you motherf----r!" the boy says.
I keep walking. I wait for the snaps and snarls to get closer. They don't. The pavement feels solid under my feet. My stomach relaxes. I imagine what would have happened had I been half a dozen steps slower coming north on this street. Right now I could have a kid's head locked in my arm, choking him as I snarled at the others. Right now, instead of sweating in my pocket, my hand could have been around a young throat as I hauled the boy in a search for a police car.
I'm pretty sure I could have done it, providing all they had were cap guns.
I get home. Our babysitter Stacy is giving Ned a bath. He kicks as she holds his head above the water. Alex rocks on his horse and watches Mother Goose. He sees me, gets off and toddles over for me to pick him up. Jill says neither of them has been out of the house all day. (April 2001)
A Mother's Day
Jill called this morning to say she had an ethical dilemma. I had a time dilemma, but something told me I ought to listen.
"What do you do," she asked, "if you've found out that a present somebody bought you isn't what you want?"
Uh-oh. Why does she ask?
"Because I found this K mart receipt for Martha Stewart pot holders, and I have a feeling that this is my Mother's Day gift."
Okay: a) I don't like Martha Stewart and Jill does; b) We need pot holders; c) I am buying her other stuff. I'm thinking about a Palm Pilot, though I know she'd never use it. I should get her opera tickets. I should also go with her to the opera. I also picked up two books on eBay strategy. Jill loves eBay. I hope they'll be hits. If I don't do better than pot holders, I might wind up on eBay ("Husband! 39. Frayed around the corners but otherwise in EXCELLENT CONDITION!!!" Father's Day is coming, boy.).
I was careless. Around Mother's Day, you can't leave receipts laying about any more than you can leave pornography laying about the rest of the time. "Well, I thought you'd like them," I said.
"Pot holders? For Mother's Day?"
Well, yeah. I thought that once women became mothers, they went for stuff like this. My mother did. She used to consistently ask for "a pot or a pan," or if we were still in school "get good rank", even more wrenching, for us boys to "just behave" or, Sometimes, mom even bought stuff for us to give to her. Wrenching. Mum's gone now, but my sister's just like her. One year, my nieces gave my sister knee pads to wear when scrubbing the floor.
Pot holders seemed decorative yet work-oriented, just a mom's speed.
"Do they have flowers on them?!" Jill wanted to know. "You don't have to buy me a present for Mother's Day."
Well no, but at age five months Ned isn't likely to bounce out of the car seat and meet me for a secret run to Macys. Get Alex in a store, and he's more likely to scamper under the wheels of somebody's cart than sort through ladies' wear until he finally declares, "Oh, this is perfect!"
This will be one of the few Mother's Days when I must do the buying yet not do the buying. I am the invisible instigator, shopping on behalf of the boys without their help. I have all the responsibility and potential for blame -- and if I do a superb job I should, really, get little of the credit. This must be putting some pressure on me. Last night, the surprise evaporated, I presented Jill with the pot holders. "Are they flowered?" she asked, as my fingers went into the bag and closed around a thoroughly cheesy drawing of pink petals. I pulled them into the light; Jill looked like she'd just seen an accident.
"We can send them to your sister," she said. I pulled out another - I'd bought five of the damned things - and said, "This one has kitties..."
On the first of her birthdays when I was with Jill, I scored big. I bought a bunch of little stuff and hid it around the apartment and left her little notes for a treasure hunt. She was smitten. Since then, my gift-giving has lost momentum all the way down to a diamond-chip necklace I have to guilt her into wearing.
Jill must supply ideas. Wrenching. Last night, she said she'd like potted flowers and a wrist corsage. "A what?" I asked, finishing my fourth glass of wine and unsure that I'd heard her right. "You mean like flowers on the wrist?"
"Yes," Jill said. "It would make me feel pretty."
I can see the white flower (aren't they all white?) on her wrist that day, bouncing as she holds Ned or takes Alex's hand, holiday-delicate as she bends her hand and splays her fingers across her cheek and listens to me talk. I can see where it would make her feel pretty. She shouldn't have to provide me with these ideas.
But since she is, what else does she want? Jill looks at Ned. "I just want the boys to behave," she says.
(Postscript: I gave Jill the eBay books, two potted flowers, a corsage of three white roses, and a promise of a subscription to Martha Stewart Living. She wore the corsage when we took the kids to the park, seemed to get teary at the flowers, and asked me to forget about the subscription.) (May 2001)
I'm on a plane to Denver. A little girl cries two seats back as the plane rocks through the clouds.
The little girl - Is it a girl? Should I turn and look? - idles in a wail and arches into a screech when we hit turbulence. A man in front of her rubs his face and snaps open a magazine. Other people near her turn and glance.
Everybody knows what a crying child does to the mood of 200 strangers sealed together four miles up: Beyond the cheese grater on the nerves, the wails make everyone aware of all that go wrong in an airplane. The levers, the switches, the papery skin of aluminum between life and a plunge through freezing air. Why is one kid's right to cry more important than everyone's right to not think about dying? Besides, what if this little girl who can't talk yet was born clairvoyant and is trying to tell us that we're about to BURST INTO FLAMES?! Lucky for me that these days I usually travel on business and can expense the little bottles of bourbon.
I used to think that people should be forbidden to fly with babies and three-year-olds, that FAA law should regulate them to driving. I used to also own cats, and couldn't understand why boarding kids was never considered. There was a time in my life when the little girl, and the billions like her who've had a seat on every airplane I've ever ridden on, would have set me groaning during the pre-flight safety spiel. All the way from New York to Denver! The length of a continent next to the throat of wailing kid. I would have cursed my luck, dug out my earplugs, and snapped open a magazine.
But life has changed. Three years ago, I had a kid. Alex, and his baby brother Ned to boot, will be the kids in the airplane seats before this summer's over. The length of a continent next to a little boy, with no chance to put in earplugs and no one to glare at but myself.
The last four years have altered my threshold of annoyance. I used to grimace and shift in my seat that can be used as a floatation device in the unlikely event of a water landing. Now I just wonder, "What does the little girl want?" I think about how Ned holds out against sleep and turns cranky, about how Alex wails when he takes a spill. He took one this morning before I left, a thud so hard I thought he had dropped a book. I phoned home three times from the airport before boarding; the memory of that thud hung on my heart as I took my boarding pass.
Soon I'll been flying with Alex and Ned -- to Denver, too. Ned will likely sleep or eat or watch the movie. Get Alex a window seat, my boss recommends, and let the airline know ahead of time so they can ply him into silence with toys and special food. Maybe, my boss adds, they'll even take Alex up to the cockpit.
Jesus god. The cockpit! I can't imagine how Alex, or anyone else flying with him, will survive five hours in a flammable tube that comes with an emergency door latch and a cockpit crammed with buttons. The longest Alex has ever had to sit still, at least without the help of paralyzing drugs, has been an hour on a city bus on the way to doctors' appointments. Jill says he's gotten better, even enthusiastic, about taking his bus seat quickly and staying there, a little quiet gentleman of mass transit.
How's Alex going to react to being buckled into a seat that can be used as a floatation device in the unlikely event of a water landing? What will happen when the little guy's ears pop? When I flew to Tucson with my mom in 1973, I got a hammering headache and spent most of the trip with my head on her lap. And I was old (11).
No rocking horse, no "Mother Goose" videos, no wooden puzzles - well, maybe a wooden puzzle would work out until he threw the pieces securely under the seat in front of him. Alex, c'mon sweetie, we'll be there soon... No we won't. Nobody flies anywhere soon anymore. They won't have even passed out the headphones for the movie (Look Who's Talking V?). What about the meal service? It's like eating on a mini-sub as it is. What's Alex going to do when the airline utensils appear within sudden reach? How's he going to resist returning my tray-back to its original upright position with a slam? How am I going to feel when the passengers in the row ahead turn around, bespattered with my miniscule portion of chicken lasagna, and glare?
Maybe Alex will mimic Ned on the trip. I can see Ned there, sleeping and eating and sleeping again. Infants are great on planes, as every traveler knows. (May 2001)
Go to Chapter II.
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