I met him at the coffee store. He would have instantly become my prey except for one small glitch: another female, blonde-haired, blue eyes moist with devotion. If she hadn’t been so cute in her sunsuit with the daisies, I might have resented her. But who could resist her pterodactyl squeals when he tossed her up in the air? Me, I was busy watching his biceps clench when he caught her on the way down.
He was nearly 40 years old and dressed like a teenager: backwards cap on his blond head, baggy pants and fuzzy sweaters. He wore little wire glasses and had a lost, wistful air that gave him the feel of a Frenchman manqué. This gave our standard glass-and-chrome coffee store the feel of an actual café. He was there every day–never reading or scribbling in notebooks like his existentialist soul brothers across the waters, but changing diapers. Franny laid out on the table, her chubby little legs kicking the air. Pretty baby. Stay-at-Home Dad was what I called him; Franny was his gig.
None of the people in our group had any sort of normal gainful employment, however. I was a writer. The Dog Ladies were … it’s hard to say. It isn’t New York dog etiquette to inquire what the dog “mommies” and “daddies” do. Our caffeinated drinks and our dogs are distinctive and expensive, with names like Mocha Loco! and Pomeranian. You rarely see a mutt.
I bought my dog, a wiry pit bull, at the beginning of last summer when I was feeling blue. I had just turned 35 and by now only had a dim mental snapshot of my last boyfriend, Tito, an Italian physics professor who had chased me around his apartment brandishing a carrot peeler. “Silence! Silence of the Lambs !” he screamed. I had gone so long without that vanishing New York institution–the relationship–that I actually missed Tito and the way he would read books about serial killers into the wee hours. (“You could make a hydrogen bomb so easily !” he would exclaim.) Now, for sex, I could only hope to bump into the occasional frisky compatriot, or just take care of business myself.
It was a terribly hot summer, and the seats outside the coffee store were always filled with Dog Ladies sipping iced coffee drinks, their furry companions beside them lapping iced water out of takeout tins. The first day I walked by with my dog Honey, I was hailed by Maxine, a middle-aged hippie woman who resembles a sheep dog with barrettes in her hair: “Hey! Nice pup !” she said.
Maxine is the president of the Dog Ladies. She regarded Honey suspiciously. “Looks like she might have an ear infection,” she said.
“Oh,” I inquired flatly, “are you a vet?”
Ignoring me, she sallied on: “If she gets a little diarrhea, don’t worry–just don’t give her any liver snaps! ”
The Dog Ladies cooed over my puppy. And there in the background, Stay-at-Home Dad smoked a cigarette and seemed to be watching me.
At first, I couldn’t quite figure out how he fit in. I had seen him in the neighborhood before, and thought to myself, Hmmmm. Mmmmmm . But each time he had been pushing the baby stroller, so I’d assumed that whoever his wife was, she was a very lucky woman to have a man who liked to spend his day off from work doing such daddy things. This fantasy, although brief, actually included imagining him rubbing his wife’s feet with cream, and then making love to her. And then she turned into me.
Honey padded over to the baby stroller and slurped at Franny’s face.
“Honey, stop!” I said, pulling on her. “Oh, I’m sorry …”
Maxine guffawed. “It’s O.K.!” she said. “She’s already a dog woman!”
Franny–the Dog Ladies had dispensed with the more elegant “Francesca”–gurgled affably.
“Saves me a Wet Wipe,” Stay-at-Home Dad said, and winked at me.
Into July and August, we all met up every day. You’d stroll over and there they all would be. It was the first time in my New York life that I had a neighborhood clique. Other people have bar buddies or basketball buddies. I had this.
“Franny’s a good girl, what a good girl!” Maxine would be saying, talking to the baby much as she talked to one of her dogs. Maxine has three, about whom she would regale us with endless tales, always ending with her hearty laugh. “So Buster was eating Ralphie’s food! Ha ha …”
Stay-at-Home Dad never talked much. He just smoked, or served bottles to Franny. He liked to set up The New York Times on her stroller so it looked like she was reading the paper. “What’d you think about that flood in China,” he’d ask her. He also crocheted. He was making a pillow for the baby with a dog on it. He was pretty good.
To our girlish delight, he liked to make jokes about his emasculation. “Before you know it, I’m gonna start carrying tissues in my breast like Grandma,” he said. Stay-at-Home Dad has the voice of a Catskills comedian. “Ever heard of postpartum depression?” he asked. “I always wondered why I was depressed.”
“You’re the best mom I’ve ever seen!” Maxine said one day, slapping him on the back.
I thought I saw him flinch. “Thanks,” he said mildly. “The only problem is the pay.”
I don’t know how long it took before it hit me: I was becoming a Dog Lady. Maybe it was the morning I got up and realized that I was dressing to go to the coffee store, which meant basically a robe. I started to wonder if this meant I would never again be naked in the company of a man.
One night in August I went for a walk without Honey. I was supposed to be having dinner with a guy I’d met through work, but he’d called 10 minutes before I was about to leave. “I’m devastatingly tired,” he said. I knew I shouldn’t care: He spoke in italics and he had a high voice. But he was somebody. And there was nobody.
I found myself at the coffee store, and there he was, no Dog Ladies, just him and the stroller. “What are you doing out so late with the baby?” I asked.
“I heard they have great coffee here,” he said.
I sat down and he handed me a Wet Wipe. I dabbed the tears off my cheeks.
“Can’t smoke in the apartment,” he explained after a moment.
“Can’t your wife watch the baby?”
“She says she doesn’t know how,” he said, and, as if that might sound a little too malicious, added, “Anyway, that’s my job.” Which sounded worse.
He told me she worked like a slave for a movie company and always had to stay very late. She didn’t make much, so they couldn’t afford a nanny. “She’ll come home from work after I’ve been with the baby for 12 hours and she’ll scream, asking me to take her,” he said.
“You sound angry.”
“I guess I’m angry.” He flicked a cigarette butt in the street. “I’m angry because I don’t get any recognition. I’m angry because everybody, including my in-laws, seems to think it’s some sort of embarrassment that I’m the primary care-giver. I’m angry that I have no office parties, no colleagues, no lunch hour, no 401(k). I have no raise, no office supplies to steal … ”
“All I get is a kiss,” he said, smiling at his baby. He touched her head.
I watched him; I wanted to climb in his lap.
“What did you do before you became a stay-at-home dad?” I asked.
Just then, Hector, the skinny counter boy who wants to be an actor, came outside to take in the chairs.
“That’s my man!” said Hector, putting a hand up.
Stay-at-Home Dad high-fived him laconically.
“He’s my mentor!” Hector said.
“What did Hector mean by that?” I asked as we walked away from the coffee store together.
Stay-at-Home Dad shrugged. “He thinks I have it easy.”
We walked up the avenue side by side, Franny’s big plastic stroller bumping along. He seemed to be walking me back to my place. I guessed he must live on the way.
We were at my door then, where he lingered.
“Ah …” he said.
But I just couldn’t do it.
“Good night,” I said.
“Good night,” he said resignedly, pushing off with the baby.
But here’s the thing about sex: Pass up an opportunity, and be prepared to have it fester in your brain like the storm on Jupiter. Stay-at-Home Dad quickly became what my girl cousin and I call our “reel.”
“He’s part of my reel!”
“Oh, no, don’t do it,” she said.
“But he’s part of my reel.”
But what right did she have to warn me off when she was having an affair with a high-income-bracket sex addict (he had bug eyes like Michael Douglas) whom she would only allow to make love to her after he had given her a back rub with oil. Every night.
“I’m dying here,” I said. “I’m turning into a Dog Lady.”
To my slight surprise, she never mentioned the moral aspect of the thing: Stay-at-Home Dad was married. My friend Henry never brought up the moral angle, either.
“I doubt it’s even his baby. He just uses her as a prop to get women.” He yawned. It was late at night. We were on the phone.
“Who would give their baby to some man to go and pick up women every day ?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s a nanny ,” said Henry.
“Why can’t I do it, just once?” I asked.
“Look, you can do whatever crazy sex thing you want. Everybody else is. Look at me, I met my girlfriend on a phone sex line–”
“I thought you met her on the Internet.”
“No, that’s my other girlfriend.”
Summer slipped into fall. We were all outside the coffee store now in our coats, breath swirling up from our drinks. Without ever discussing it, Stay-at-Home Dad and I had started to find excuses to break away from the Dog Ladies. Mostly we just had to wait them out. “So then Ralphie smacks Buster with his paw! Ha-ha …” Maxine droned on. Stay-at-Home Dad and I would attempt to smile, shooting each other meaningful looks.
“Wanna go for a walk?” he’d say after the Dog Ladies had finally drunk so much coffee, their dogs had to walk them home to pee.
And we’d tool around the park, sit on benches and pretend we didn’t want to have sex.
“Hey, my friend thinks you just use that baby as a prop to get women,” I said one day.
“Well, it could work,” he said, thoughtful.
My heart skidded. “It could?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but the baby acts like a kind of pheromone. Not the mothers with babies–they treat me like another woman, all they want to talk about is Teletubbies and these gifted program tests. It’s the skinny ones in business suits … It’s funny, they pretend like the baby’s not even there. They just think up some excuse to talk to me.”
“Ever take any of them up on it?” I asked.
“On what?” he said, looking innocent.
Winter came. There was dog hair on everything in my apartment, including me. I knew I was retroactively turning into someone nobody would have ever talked to in high school, but it was too terrible to contemplate. “So that’s how they stand it,” I realized one day, “you just don’t think about it … ” And then I had to stop.
One afternoon, I was sitting home working when my buzzer rang and the voice on the intercom said, “It’s me.”
He came up the stairs with Franny under one arm, stroller looped over his shoulder. She was 10 months old now and had gotten some teeth. She smiled when she saw me. I smiled back. She was wearing his furry hat.
“Well,” I said. “Come on in.”
He put her down on the Turkish rug in my living room. Honey came over, wagging her tail. Franny said, “Dog!,” the only word she knew.
He and I went into the kitchen.
“Do you want some coffee?”
He covered my mouth with a kiss. We both happened to be wearing overalls at the time, and some explosive grabbing under the bibs commenced.
We heard Franny’s diaper swishing as she crawled over to the kitchen door. We disengaged.
She looked up at us. “Dog!” she said.
He whispered to me, as if she could understand: “We’ll have to wait for her to fall asleep.”
We all sat on the couch and watched Sesame Street . “Me want cookie!” Cookie Monster said. Franny was transfixed. Her father was trying to put his hand in my pants.
“We have to wait,” I repeated, “for her to fall asleep .”
He fell back against the pillows. “That’s all I ever hear,” he said. He lit a cigarette.
We tried to go into the bathroom, where he whipped down my overalls and kneeled in front of me. But then she started to scream and he bolted up and ran back out to the living room.
Honey had stolen the baby’s zwieback biscuit.
“Whassamatter, gorgeous?” he said sweetly.
It was getting dark out. His wife would be coming home soon. He started stuffing Franny into her winter suit.
“Well …” I said.
“Well,” he said.
He put the baby in the stroller and turned it around so that it faced the wall. He kissed me again.
“Hey,” I said, my arms around him. “What did you do before you became Stay-at-Home Dad?”
He drew back and sighed and said, “I’ve never really done much of anything. I was a waiter, a cook. I tried to start some companies.”
“Nothing ever worked out. Now’s the first time I really have something to do that means anything. I’ve always just … hung out. My circumstances haven’t really changed that much … except now I have a pal”–he gestured toward the stroller–”to hang around with. You know, I meet people. I talk to people. Street people understand me. ‘God bless you,’ one of them said to me. He wanted to give me change out of his pocket from his dirty hand to buy her an ice cream cone.” He shrugged. “They know I’m just like them.
“So I know it isn’t fair that I’m angry,” he said. “But I’m still angry because every moment is so precious. And in a sense, your life kind of stops as you raise your child instead of pursuing your own life.
“Well,” he concluded, with a slight smile, “presumably mine isn’t over yet.”
“Hey, look,” I whispered. “She’s asleep … ”
I kneeled down; down came his pants. The baby started to fuss. He pulled a bottle out of a pocket on the stroller and pushed it gently in her mouth. Eyes closed, she sucked at it.
We got down on the Turkish rug.
I didn’t go back to the coffee store for a while. My cousin was right, the whole thing wasn’t good for me. You could fall in love with a guy like Stay-at-Home Dad. You could be that crazy.
And then one day I was walking Honey along the avenue and there, up ahead, I saw him poised against the stroller, talking to an attractive lady with a couple of silky golden retrievers on a double leash. She was dressed in flowing garments and about my age, and she was laughing at whatever he was saying. Laughing and nodding and flashing her eyes up at him. He was gesturing with a cigarette.
I went by the coffee store; the Dog Ladies weren’t there, but Hector, the counter boy, was outside on his break.
“You seen ––?” he said, referring to Stay-at-Home Dad. He grinned. “That guy’s a play-ah . His wife needs to break him off a piece.”