The joke goes like this: What does a lesbian drive to her second date? A U-haul. What makes me think of the joke right now is my girlfriend Elaine. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not a lesbian.
This morning Elaine and I lounged in her loft and watched CBS Sunday Morning over coffee and blueberry scones, we ran by Barnes & Noble for a new crossword puzzle book. I priced new cell phones. Right now we’ve just finished an early lunch at Nawab. I got my mutton red masala Indian hot, and it lit me up, so I ordered a second 22 oz. Taj Mahal. I have a buzz going in the early afternoon and not a single thing I have to get accomplished today.
Taj Mahal isn’t bad. It’s beer. You know what they say about beer and sex and pizza: when it’s good it’s great, and when it’s not good… it’s still not all that bad. I told that one in the office once and my paralegal didn’t even look up from her desk as she said, “There’s a man’s perspective.”
The thing about the lesbian joke. Since my wife and I split, I’ve been out with a few women, and let me tell you, at my age, it ain’t just lesbians ready to load up the U-haul—it’s all of them, brother. That’s a punch line too true to be funny. Like the one about which food reduces a woman’s sex drive by 99%. Wedding cake. Right. You tell a married man that one and watch his laugh trail off into a gloomy sigh.
I haven’t heard any, but I suppose the jokes about gay men would have something to do with hit-and-run sex. What I’m thinking right now (while the Indian man at the register swipes my VISA and perfunctorily asks if my meal was okay without making eye contact) is that maybe lesbians and gay men have it easier in one enormous way: there isn’t all that Mars and Venus nonsense; they are wired to want basically the same thing their partners want. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
How I come to all of this is from musing on my good fortune at dating Elaine. She is physically feminine and sexy, but she interacts like a man, deals in facts, doesn’t manipulate. She is professionally successful, has her own money, her own place, and obviously needs no one to take care of her. She’s blunt, which I like; you know where you stand with her. Elaine is quite simply the best of all possible worlds.
I walk out of the dark restaurant full of food and booze. Our morning has been pregnant with sex humor and innuendo–afternoon delight back at her loft is the only other thing on the agenda for today. I can stay the night if I want, or go sleep in my own bed. No pressure, no responsibility. I laugh when I think about it.
Opening the door, Elaine says, “I need to swing by Burlington Coat Factory and pick up a gift.”
Air sucks into the entry as we open the door to leave, and it’s as hot as a blast of exhaust behind a city bus. This is the middle of October, and we should be riding the long, balmy descent into Fall, but the temperature has spiked into the low 90’s. The day is bright and shimmers like a mirage. Cars are inching around looking for spots. Thumping bass rattles from a car stopped at the light out at the edge of the parking lot. The light changes, the car turns, and the thumping recedes behind the Long John Silver’s across the road.
“No problem,” I say. “We’ve got all delightful afternoon.” Corny, I know, but I don’t care.
She reaches back and puts her palm lightly on the crotch of my chinos. I pull her back and she bares her neck for me to kiss. Her silky brown hair is cool from the restaurant, and at the base of her skull it still smells of her lavender shampoo from this morning.
“It’s a baby gift,” she says. “By the way, we’ve got a baby shower next Sunday.”
“A baby shower?” I say, “With men?”
“Yeah.” She takes my arm and leans into me. I have to lean back so she doesn’t drive me off the sidewalk. “I’m glad husbands are coming. Maybe there won’t be all those stupid little games.”
“Men at a baby shower?”
“Things are changing, old man.” She teases me about my age. I’m 47. I read in an Atlantic Monthly article several years ago that the average life expectancy for a man at the turn of the last century was, no shit, 54. Now 40 is the new 30, the life expectancy is still rising. I’m a young and fit 47. She’s an even fitter 32.
Men at baby showers. There’s something else that’s changed. A symbolic gesture, I guess. A nod to the way things are now—men expected to not just provide but actually nurture: to dip food from jars with rubber-tipped spoons, throw a cloth diaper (or whatever they use now) over the shoulder to pat out a gurgling burp. Change shitty diapers.
I say, “God, I’m glad those days are over.” My two are teenagers.
Elaine talks all the way down the sidewalk about silly baby shower games. We walk past the coin laundry, the CVS Pharmacy, The Sally beauty supply place. A man cruises by in a Jeep and it’s obvious he’s checking Elaine out from behind his sunglasses. I put my arm around her shoulder and smile at him. She describes game after game. Her tone is derisive, and her voice carries, has an assumed authority that takes effort to question. Elaine practices corporate; she’s the youngest member on the city council. She has a reputation in town: she’s not to be trifled with. I love it. I laugh again.
By the time we get to the doors at Burlington, she’s jumped to bachelorette parties. Once she won a door prize that was a pink pacifier shaped like a penis.
“You sure men are supposed to be there?” I ask.
“It’ll be fun. Come on.”
I follow her. On either side are brown-carpeted areas filled with rack after rack of clothing. Down the middle is a tile floor that gleams like the yellow brick road. I lag so I can watch her walk.
Her fit round butt fills the khakis just right. This morning I watched from the bathroom where I was toweling off as she pulled on a conservative pair of cotton panties. My impulse was to go out and pull them right back off. I’ve learned at least one important thing about women from being married though, so I resisted the urge. I move up and take her hand. People glance at us, and I can see them doing the math in their heads. I can’t stop smiling. The hot food, the beer, beautiful Elaine—this moment is a fuzzy and floating dream: not long, not long now and we’ll be back in her loft making love.
The lady at the Baby Depot desk is pregnant. She has on a loose purple flower-print dress and her cheeks are puffy as a chipmunk’s. There are two other women shopping. One is pregnant and one has a newborn hanging from her shoulder in what looks like a knotted piece of burlap. They both lean back and flip their toes out like duck feet when they walk.
As we sit at the desk, Elaine says, “How far along are you?”
“Eight months.” She leans back and cradles the mound of her stomach.
“Are you ready?”
“Lord, yes.” She taps the space bar to wake up her computer. “With my first, I was two weeks late. This one. Lord help me…”
Elaine leans up and puts her hands on the desk. “Do you know the sex?” Her voice sounds strange. It’s changing in pitch, going high and soft.
The lady winces. “Yes,” she says, “it’s a boy.” She puts her hand on the side of her belly. “And he’s a soccer player.”
Elaine laughs and stands up and leans out over the desk. “May I feel?”
She takes Elaine’s palm and slides it around the side of her belly. “Feel that?”
“Oh my god,” Elaine says. “Wow. Yes. Yes I can.”
“That’s his foot.”
“Oh my god,” Elaine says again. She sits back down and puts her hands in her lap.
The lady taps something on her keyboard, then looks up at us, ready to get to business. “Are you expecting?” She looks from Elaine to me, and then back to Elaine.
Elaine laughs. “Us?” she says. She looks at me and her whole face blooms in a bright bemused smile.
“If you wait till you’re ready, you never will,” the lady says. She raises her eyebrows at me. She looks back to the computer screen. “Registry?”
Elaine says, “Yes.”
Elaine gives her the name of both husband and wife.
The lady says, “I remember her. So pretty.”
“Isn’t she,” Elaine says. “And so tiny. From behind, you can’t even tell she’s pregnant.”
“I hate girls like that.” The lady tears off a printout and holds it out over her belly.
Elaine takes it, turns to me, smiles.
I smile back. The booze and the Indian food aren’t mixing well.
Elaine stands and pulls her shirt down at her slim hips. The fabric goes taut on her breasts. She takes my hand and pulls me from my seat. She says, “You ready to do this?”
The first item we come to is a stroller. Not the kind my kids had. This thing has bicycle wheels, spokes, air-filled rubber tires with heavy tread like a mountain bike. Baby Trend Expedition it’s called. It has black rubber grips and a cup holder on either side of a flip up wipe box.
“Honey,” Elaine says. (We haven’t said I love you yet, but somewhere we fell into using endearments.) “Honey,” she says, “look how nice.” She grips the handles and stares down at it like a teenager in her first car. “It really is perfect for staying in shape after the baby comes.”
“Is this woman pretty active?” I ask her. Over the top of the racks, on the other side of the store, a good football field away, is a brown restroom sign. My stomach gurgles.
It’s so comfortable,” she says. “Try it.” She takes my hand and puts it on the grip.
There is a Velcro flap over a plastic sun window on the roof of the stroller, the kind that get cloudy and brittle with age. On the top of the flap the warnings are indicated by a yellow exclamation point inside a triangle. My gut is starting to feel like boiling oatmeal.
“Sweetheart,” she says, picking up a Happy Hippo Gym, “isn’t this cute.”
One of those plastic arches you put over a baby so it can grab and bat at the colorful dangling shit. Her voice has steadily gone high and soft, and now it’s occasionally tipping into falsetto.
The indigestion is getting to me. I feel a little dizzy as I follow her around a corner to the next aisle, which is extra-wide to accommodate cribs and changing tables. Purple and pink and blue pastels all around. She looks at a Duchess Collection 3 in 1 crib, she checks the printout.
“Someone’s already bought them this,” she says. “I’ll bet the new grandpa, by the price tag.”
My oldest is seventeen. She’s sexually active. Her mother put her on the pill a year ago. My being a grandpa is by no means out of the realm of possibility.
While I’m thinking about this, the smell hits me. It comes from the dresser beside the crib. Elaine has just picked up a Johnson’s Bedtime Sweet Sleep Set: liquid bath soap, baby lotion, wipes, a goddamn stiff-paged copy of Goodnight Moon.
It’s the wipes. Somehow I smell that sickening perfume of baby wipes, and it doesn’t bring back specific memories, but nevertheless fills me with… I’m at a loss here, not sure what I’m filled with, but it’s unpleasant in the extreme.
“That smell brings back memories,” I say.
“Did you change diapers?”
She smirks at me and says, “You’re a good dad.”
She puts the bedtime set down and picks up a picture. She almost sings, “Honey, this is the cutest thing.” It’s a baseball glove with fat little fingers, and a ball in the pocket and in blue letters the word, champ. That’s all it is, a picture of a baseball glove and a baseball.
At this point, two memories do hit me. One is of driving down Boyd Avenue with Elaine toward her loft not a week ago. I saw a woman with a red-headed baby and said, “Look at that red-headed baby,” to which Elaine responded, “I want a red-headed baby.”
The second memory is of our first real date. We were having an after dinner drink and talking shop. She made the statement, apropos of nothing we were discussing, “I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to. I’m ready to make some changes—take on different challenges.” At the time I didn’t consider what she meant by that.
She holds the picture out at arm’s length and says, “I love little boy stuff.” She’s positively cooing now.
I saw an article just the other day in The Economist about how younger women and older men prove to be more fertile than other pairings. My two are beautiful and in the Governor’s School, the both of them. Elaine adores them—no, she adores what they represent, the promise, the prize they offer. Elaine’s ovaries are humming, honing in, chasing down my wiggling sperm. She probably doesn’t even like me.
She says, “A little boy would be so much fun.”
The churning in my gut is unbearable, I’ve reached maximum capacity. I drop the Happy Hippo play gym into the Duchess crib and say, “I’ve got to run to the little boy’s room.”
She says okay and looks away from the picture. Her eyes are fuzzy, her whole face the same big dreamy smile she sprang on me at the desk.
At the far end of the aisle I have to maneuver around a whole shrink-wrapped pallet of Pampers. I make for the restroom sign on the other side of the store, ducking off the shining tile path and zigzagging through racks.
I push a button at the restroom door and wait for someone somewhere to buzz me in. I stay. I’m not sure what else to do; I’m not thinking clearly. I wait. The bathroom is cool and echoes every step and cough and belt jingle. I don’t feel better. I’m starting to chill. I need to get some sunshine.
Stepping out of the men’s room I am facing a bunch of rugs and runners draped over poles. I turn and there looms a monstrous rack of boy’s 2-T clothes: dress shirts with clip-on ties right inside the package, suit coats with sleeves sticking out at 45 degrees, no longer than a ruler. Beyond that are puffy ski coats so fat they could already have chubby little humans in them.
I quicken my pace and turn toward the front of the store. The merchandise goes by me in a spinning blur. Towels, shower curtains, yellow and blue women’s towel wraps.
I turn the corner and see the exit, and right there beside my head is a display for Burlington’s Sheer Legacy pantyhose, with tummy control and crotch panel. Just past that is a rack of baby Halloween costumes. There are front-zippered cats and bunnies. A dog costume with a nose and floppy tongue that hang over the baby’s forehead, and of course, long drooping ears. A strawberry costume with green leaves and a stem on top of the hood.
I pass the baby costumes. My gut hasn’t settled. I’m sweating and chilling. Food poisoning maybe. I skirt the edge of the entry where all the round tables full of seasonal stuff are and head for the doors. Then I make the mistake of glancing over at the registers.
Elaine is jabbing her card into her wallet while the girl is bagging up baby stuff. I see three bags. The one with the Hippo thing in it has a fat baby face on it big as a hubcap, drooling grin and rosy cheeks. She looks up and sees me. At first she smiles, but immediately sees that something is wrong.
I lose my cool. I break for the door.
“Honey?” Elaine yells. “Are you okay?”
I don’t answer. This Burlington used to be an Ames, with the entryway like a long hall with two sets of double doors on either side. If I go toward my car, she’s going to cut me off before I even get out of the store; if I run to the other doors, I’m shot out headed the wrong direction. I run away from her, to buy time to think.
“Honey?” She yells it this time. “What’s wrong?”
I run out the doors and down the sidewalk a ways, cut out into the parking lot. My Caddy is at the other end of the shopping center, in front of Nawab. Out in the middle of the lot, I turn and slalom between parked cars toward my own.
It’s so damn hot. The gurgling in my stomach has morphed into cramps. I need to stop and vomit, but I can’t. I pace my breathing, in for two steps, out for two steps. I focus on breathing and running. Elaine comes into my peripheral vision, running at a good clip along the sidewalk. She passes the Sally Beauty Supply, she passes the pharmacy. She’s carrying two bags by ropy handles and has the big baby-face bag cradled in her left arm.
I angle toward my Caddy, I see it, gleaming red in the bright lot. I get out my keys and unlock the doors on the run. She’s too close. I can’t make it. She’ll be there before I can back out of the spot. If a car is in the way, I’m done for sure.
Elaine pulls even with me, glancing my way as she runs. She steps off the sidewalk without changing her pace. A car has to hit its brakes for her. She’s too fast. She’s cutting off my angle now. She’s going to catch me before I even get to the car.
Like a kid playing tag, I have to hook out wide and abandon my bid for base. I run to the outer edge of the parking lot, where the Burger King building is. The restaurant, closed, and now there is a yellow and green sign in the window announcing, Need Money Now? No Hassle. Pay Day Loans. Checks Cashed. A woman is leaning into the back of a car, strapping a crying child into a car seat. I pick up my pace. Now I’m breathing in and out with every step.
I reach the stop light where the car with the thumping bass was. I stop and wait for the walk light, trying to catch my breath, and then run across the road. I’m in the Long John Silver’s parking lot. The smell of fried fish makes the mutton and beer percolate inside me.
I slow to a walk. I turn around, trying to breathe and swallow down bile. There she is, jogging across the street, closing in. I pull up and stop. I lean over and slap my hands to my knees and breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.
“A Hot Day in October” was first published in Sou’wester.