Back when meals on airplanes were considered a treat, a little bit of steam-tray hospitality on a 5-hour cross-country expedition, I would always peak around the seat backs in front of me, hoping to catch a glimpse of what they were serving in first class. If we were given salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, surely the more important people were enjoying the real thing. My friends were always returning from long trips, boasting about the in-flight movies they had seen in coach, but I always thought they had it wrong, that they had misplaced their priorities. How could a highly edited version of the latest Bruce Willis flick compare to a whole new lifestyle at 30,000 feet?
“Die Hard, you say? That’s all well and good, but did you know they use real linens in first class?”
If people returned from trips only to bore their friends and neighbors with reels of family photos projected on a grainy white screen, I peppered them with endless questions.
“Did you see behind the curtain? I heard they use actual glasses!”
Linens, fine china, wine bottles with actual corks — that was the place for me, not the nether-regions of economy class, where we were often lucky to get seats at all, often flying on stand-by tickets. My insistence on a more cultured regimen of travel must have made it difficult for my parents, who launched bags of peanuts at me whenever I peeled the plastic wrapper off a ball of bread and said something half-snooty like, “Mmm, delicious mouth feel!”
“Oh just watch the movie,” they’d sigh, while I pretended they were talking to some other child sitting right beside them — probably one wearing burlap and talking about stills or picking head lice. I did my best to ignore them, listening instead for the gentle ting and clink of glass behind the first class curtain and knowing that someday I’d be up there, among my people.
So it came as quite a shock, years later, to be put in a first class seat on a business trip and have a bag of snack crackers thrust into my lap a few minutes before take-off. What does it say when even peanuts are considered too expensive for first class?
A moderately bored steward wandered by my seat, pouring free orange juice from a plastic carafe as roomy, harried travelers trundled down the aisle.
“Would you like chicken or pasta,” the steward asked.
“No steak?” I asked, searching for the linens.
“Steak?” he snorted, “Oh, yeah — not today.”
“Um, the chicken then please,” I said, wondering if it would be marseille or something even more remarkable, such as cordon bleu.
The steward wrote the order on a pad and looked up.
“That will be five dollars,” he said.
I am forever doing this, building up a personal vision of how things might be as opposed to how they are — innocent mythologies that suddenly deflate into what they truly are: delusions. I remember being greatly disappointed on a trip to Disneyland — the happiest place on earth! — after strolling around and discovering the old-timey Main Street architecture, castles and adventurelands were actually just all facades, phony edifices put up to disguise the everyday square buildings that you could find anywhere. It’s difficult to drift into a fantasy world of make-believe when you can see a building’s slip behind its elegant skirt.
It never occurred to me the same thing might happen with having a baby.
But in retrospect, I probably should have known things wouldn’t turn out like all the parenting books said, just by taking a look around the crib store: All the new parents stumbling around aimlessly, like so many Endymions — asleep with their eyes open — bumping into sale racks and searching for Diaper Genie refills or, even better, working brains. In the corner, near all the recliners, I noticed a man with a sling wrapped around his chest, a tiny, fist-sized lump poking out near his heart. His eyes were closed and his body swayed like some wind-bent tree, his limbs recumbent and lazy. He was too tired to even make it to a chair, so he just stood there, sleeping — jerking awake from time to time. Next to him, his wife was “trying out” one of the recliners, her feet up and her eyes closed, too. Eventually the baby on the man’s chest started to cry and he began to dance mindlessly and gently around the store, offering the occasional whisper or shush toward his chest.
“How old?” I whispered.
“A week,” he said.
“Is it amazing?”
The man stopped and looked me over, studying me, his blackened eyes moving from my new shoes to my clean pants and spotless shirt — my eyes still crisp and uncreased by sleep deprivation.
“You have no idea,” he grunted, stumbling away.
Like any couple expecting a first born, we were anxious to create a nursery room — to turn a small, stuffy home office adorned with framed movie posters into an oasis of stuffed animals and rocking chairs, as if the decor alone would make us good parents. To many first-time parents, nothing says “we’re ready!” or holds child protective services at bay like a nice armoire.
One day at home, in our future nursery, Dana was holding paint chips to the walls, anxious to replace the depressing “renter’s beige” that overtook the rest of the house.
“I like blue,” she said, “But what if it’s a girl?”
“Why don’t we just wait until it’s here and then decide?” I suggested, “I could paint this room in a few hours.”
Dana turned from the wall, her hands on her hips. We’d known each other for more than 10 years and had been married for nearly three, and yet, this was a look I hadn’t seen before, this strange, wild glint in her eyes. It gave me pause, physically sending me a step back toward the door as if punched in the chest.
“Do you want to kill it?” she scowled, “Is that it?”
“I don’t know about you,” Dana huffed, “But I’m not having any baby of mine sleep in a room filled with toxic paint fumes!”
All the books called it “nesting” — that cheery time before the baby arrives when a woman suddenly becomes a spokeswoman for Pottery Barn Kids. But I was beginning to think psychosis was a better term for it. Dana spent her free time wielding paint chips and fabric catalogues, while I found myself throwing up my hands and agreeing to nearly everything.
A thousand dollar monstrosity of a stroller?
“Go for it!”
It was amazing, this collection of stuff we had amassed: the stacks of Dreft-fresh cloth diapers, the wipes, the wipe warmer, the onesies and tiny, thumb-sized socks, the sweat pants and miniature outfits that would lay abandoned in their dresser drawers, never worn.
I wish someone would have told us: Buy diapers. That’s it.
But what did we know? Sure, we read all the books, attended all the classes, but in the end, we were clueless — two young kids still struggling to figure each other out suddenly paired with a pint-sized interloper.
Dana and I both grew up in the same small suburban town that saddled the San Francisco Bay Area and the Great Central Valley. In one direction it was all farmland, and the other, freeway. We attended the same high school, ran in the same circle of friends but, oddly enough, didn’t actually meet until we had both moved away.
Dana doesn’t remember the first time we met, but I do. I remember exactly what she was wearing, exactly what she was doing. In college, we both worked for this company that hauled inflatable games around to corporate events. Have you ever seen someone slip on a Vel-Cro suit and launch himself into a Vel-Cro wall? We made this possible. We were carnies, with better teeth and less powerful drugs.
At one event in the town of Carmel, I had already set up the games when I looked up toward a chain-link fence. Blue jeans, tan boots, this girl approached the fence and, not finding a door, just started to climb. It was instant, the way these things were supposed to be.
We ended up chatting all night and at the end of the event I remember thinking how much I wanted to see this girl again, this girl who would rather climb a fence than find a door.
In fact, we did end up working together again, but not for more than a year. She had already graduated from college and by this time had cut her hair short and dyed it blonde, the clear sign of a post-college romp through Europe. I was excited to see her again and managed to break through a curtain of personal shyness to walk over and greet her.
“Hi,” she responded to my friendly wave, “I’m Dana.”
“I know,” I said.
“We’ve met before,” I told her, reminding her of that one perfect night while her face maintained this blank stare.
“Oh yeah, right,” she said, “Of course I remember.”
Sometimes these things take longer.
We ended up dating nonetheless. We found small, kick-around jobs together before we somehow grew serious. I got a job as a reporter at a small-town newspaper by offering to write obituaries for free. After a few months, they actually started paying me. And pretty soon I was working the night crime shift, driving around the county in a beat-up Honda to cover everything from bank shoot-outs to freeway wrecks.
For her part, Dana put her psychology degree to use and started working in a group home for disturbed children (there probably is some proper turn for this, but after hearing so many stories from her shifts, I decided that there was no medical term for how some parents can truly fuck up their children). After months of simply managing the chaos, Dana threw up her hands.
“I can do more for them,” she said.
And so we packed our bags, moving in together in the small Central Valley town of Davis so she could attend law school and become a better advocate for these children — before they got trapped into a system of chaos.
After three years, however, the call of something else altogether entered our lives.
“So a recruiter from a law firm in San Francisco was around today,” Dana said after class one day, “Do you have any idea how much money a first year law firm lawyer makes?”
When she told me, I dropped a dish, watching it shatter and tinkle across the kitchen floor.
Call it selfishness or greed, I don’t know. But just like some modern-day fagans, we abandoned the orphans for more money. After law school, we moved to San Francisco and started talking about marriage. After marriage, we started talking about kids. Not if, but how many. Dana grew up an only child, so of course she wanted as many as she could have, while I grew up with two brothers and knew better.
No one tells you about the fucking. You watch all these After School Specials about rebellious teenagers or late-night Cinemax movies about tawdry affairs, and you assume that if all it takes to get pregnant is one broken condom or too much red wine, then surely two nights of no condom at all and four glasses of a nice Cabernet will do the trick.
We had a lot to learn.
There were charts and pee sticks, old wive’s tales about positions and frank discussions with doctors that reminded me of all those awkward elementary school sex education lessons or that time my mom hauled me into the living room for the talk, while I feigned innocence — unsure about how much I was supposed to know at that age.
“You put what where?”
In truth, I had already mastered the “what” part, but it would be years before I got to the “where.”
In the end, it took months — months of non-stop, dedicated fornication. It was like living in a porn movie, which at first sounds just fantastic — like any guy’s dream. Then you realize that all these people are standing around, watching, checking their watches, looking at the clock and shifting their weight — all these fat, unionized cameramen you never see, all waiting for the lunch whistle and thinking, “Come on, buddy, just do it already!”
It hadn’t occurred to me before this, but just like any working stiff, I bet even porn stars complain about long hours at the office.
One morning after I hauled myself out of bed, sore from a long night of using some hitherto unnoticed pelvic muscle, I discovered Dana in the bathroom, crying in front of the mirror.
“Look,” she cried, “Look.”
I had never been so excited about someone offering me a stick of their urine.
We had done it. She — we — were pregnant.
Almost immediately, we started taking on the extra bedroom — which up until then had been my office. We moved the Bogart movie posters into storage and started shopping for cribs and dressers, toys and honestly, does any baby really need a bilingual singing animal mobile? Ours apparently did. Over the months, the room seemed to balloon with things just as Dana’s belly did, and we began to develop new, strange routines.
Every night before she went to bed, Dana settled a pair of oversized head phones onto her belly and played a favorite tune through the thin walls of her womb, while I laid down next to her and read aloud some of my favorite tales from Norse mythology, wondering from time to time whether we’d create a transvestite bar-room brawler from all the whispered accounts of drunken, cross-dressing demi-gods filtering slowly into the baby’s still-developing ears. But this is what the books said: A fetus likes music. It likes hearing its mom and dad talk. You can raise a child’s future IQ by reading to it in utero, and so we did these things. We were determined. This baby would be special, have all the things we never had. We knew it all. We even named it, offering the silly gender-bending moniker of “Hermanette” because we didn’t know the sex of the child.
We also started taking classes — everything from infant CPR to breastfeeding classes. Dana yelled at me for trying to get out of this one and I still feel badly about the jerky attitude I brought to the room, considering this would be the source of all our future tragedies. Years later, I shake my head in amazement that in one of the classes, we actually had to put a diaper on a doll. No one needs instructions when you end up changing diapers 30 times a day.
As Dana’s due date approached, she became frantic because we had yet to find a crib. It became a desperate search. Assuming the newborn would spend its first nights blissfully sleeping in a distant room, its tiny body cradled by soft moonlight and downy sheets while we dozed peacefully down the hall, we needed to find one fast. The baby would be here any day now, we thought.
And that brought us to a crib store in a suburb just south of San Francisco. It was an early Saturday morning, but already the place was filled with the frantic pre-baby nesters and the walking half-asleep zombies. In retrospect, I wish we, the nesters, would have taken a better look at the walking zombies, who stumbled around the store, picking up extra diapers, stray wipes and the occasional chew toy. They were walking, bumbling testimony that you couldn’t plan for everything — that not everything was within your control — but we ignored them, sure they simply hadn’t read the right books or attended the right classes. We wouldn’t be like them. We knew what we were doing. The unwritten story of our family — the personal mythologies we would create together — they would be different, better, perfect.
Near a rack of sleep sacks, these plush pajama devices that billowed into pouches for the baby’s legs, I saw an obviously new mom struggling to maintain a grip on her frantic infant. Despite holding onto a wild spider monkey, the mom’s eyes were nearly blinking closed and it took her nearly two minutes to read each label. Clearly, I thought, she was in over her head, barely holding on.
“Here,” I told her, reaching for the child, “You’re supposed to hold them like this.”
“What are you doing?” she snapped, suddenly awake again.
“Well, the classes say you’re supposed…”
It was as far as I got.
“Fuck you,” she said, while I took a moment to consider what a horrible parent she would be.
“Oh you just haven’t read all the right books,” I wanted to say. Instead I congratulated myself for staying silent and walking away, so sure I knew what I was getting into.
We ended up finding a crib some place else and assembled it only a few days before Dana’s water broke. We fitted it with sheets and a bumper. We played with the mobile and wondered what it would be like to look up dreamily at this wonder-zoo floating overhead. Just a few more days, we thought, and the baby would be here, sleeping peacefully.
The next Saturday, Dana woke up from an afternoon nap, the sheets steaming and wet under her legs. She slowly made her way to the living room, holding her belly.
“I think this is it,” she said.
But we were ready. We were special. We could handle anything.