“Ready for bed?” Sam asked, as he walked into the living room where I was snuggled on the couch between his two kids, after a full day of bowling, movies, pizza, and Go Fish. He smiled warmly at them and gave me a sly wink. I had almost forgotten he was there, even though I was in his apartment and we had been dating for a year.
Sam was boyishly good-looking with a full head of dark wavy hair and sea green eyes. He was a corporate lawyer and a full-custody dad. After the kids went to sleep, he took my hand and started leading me to the bedroom. “I’ve got an early morning meeting,” I said as I headed for the front door. I’d grown less interested in romantic evenings alone with Sam than weekend playdates with the three of them.
I first met Sam at a friend’s dinner party. We shared an affinity for old movies, Ella Fitzgerald and beachfront properties. I was turning 40 and said yes when he asked if I liked kids. Two days later, he called for a date. The idea that he had two young children who’d grown out of diapers and beyond childproof cabinets was compelling. During my thirties, I had grieved the loss of both of my parents and felt mixed emotions of pride and envy when my two younger brothers got married and had children. By the time I was in my forties, I feared it was too late to have kids of my own, particularly after a bad break-up. Sam and his ready-made family seemed just what I was looking for.
After one month of dating, he popped the question. “How bout coming to the beach this weekend with the three of us?” We had not previously discussed meeting his kids, and I had some reservations about meeting them so soon. So many questions ran through my head: Would I like them? Would they like me? Would they think that I was trying to take the place of their mom? I came prepared with only what Sam had told me about them: Nicki, was into boys, fashion and, just like I did when I was her age, asked the Magic 8 Ball questions about her life. Justin was into sports, had an easygoing manner and good sense of humor.
Once the introductions were made, the kids interrogated me for an hour, a pre-adolescent version of the CIA. Justin wanting to know if I rooted for the Knicks, what computer games I liked to play and if I’d read any of the Harry Potter books. Nicki wanted to know how old I was, and why I had never been married. Before I could compose a suitable response for a 12-year-old, Sam came to my rescue. “Last one in is a rotten egg!” he said, making a dash for the ocean.
As we rearranged our beach towels I got a pop music quiz — yes, I had heard of Pitbull.
Nicki said she liked my hair and thought I had a good figure for someone my age. It was going well so far and I felt comfortable talking to them. I was relieved.
“Hot dogs, French fries or pizza?” I asked, leading them to the concession stand.
“You eat hot dogs?” Justin asked. “Dad’s last girlfriend was a vegetarian.”
After hearing this, I wondered how many women the kids had been through and whether Sam was introducing me to them too quickly. As a child of divorced parents, I remembered how hard it was to meet the woman my dad was seeing for the first time. Back then, it had felt that if I liked her I would be betraying my mom, and if I didn’t, then I would have to pretend otherwise for my dad’s sake. It wasn’t an easy spot to be in, and as I got to know Nicki and Justin more, I wondered if they ever felt the way I did.
Though I had my concerns, I didn’t feel comfortable questioning Sam so soon and the kids seemed funny, affectionate and better adjusted than I had been at their ages. The four of us got together every weekend after that. We saw movies, went to parades, sat together for children’s book readings. They told me about their mom, who they visited over the summer and most holidays, and how much they missed her.
I had taken on a specific role in the kid’s lives. Not as a parent — they already had two who loved them deeply — but as a grown-up friend who listened to their angst and dreams and talked with them on their terms. I was there when Justin fell off his bicycle and Nicki got her period for the first time.
As a 40-year-old woman realizing I’d probably never have children of my own, they filled up a space in my life. They were playful, generous and gave without fear or reservation. I felt younger with them. It was unlike any relationship I’d ever known. The only problem? I wasn’t as nuts about Sam as I was about Nicki and Justin.
I knew that ending it with him meant I’d also be breaking up with the children; there’s no such thing as an ex-girlfriend with visitation rights. I finally got up the nerve to tell Sam it wasn’t working out. I asked if we could remain friendly and if I could still see his kids at least once in a while. As expected, he wasn’t having it.
“I think it’s best for everyone if we went our separate ways. They’re my kids, and I’ve got to go on with my life.
“But I’ve been in their lives for over a year. Don’t you think it will be more confusing if they never saw me again? They love me,” I blurted out. “Can I at least talk to them and tell them myself?”
“No. It’s not your concern anymore,” he said, walking away. During the first few weeks, I willed the phone to ring, hoping it would be Justin calling me to talk about the Knicks. I imagined Nicki sending me secret e-mails like she used to.
This was more than my usual breakup-and-be-single-again grieving process. I missed rooting at Little League games and watching school plays. I imagined Nicki kissing a new boy and telling some other woman about it. When I found Justin’s basketball jersey wedged between the cushions of my sofa, I remembered how, after he’d brush his teeth, there was always a dab of toothpaste I’d have to wipe off his mouth. I couldn’t stop thinking about them and wondering if they still thought about me.
One Sunday morning, the phone woke me. It was Nicki. “Justin and I wanted to know if you were free today. Dad said it’s okay. Meet you at 1:00?” I later found out that for the two months we hadn’t seen or spoken to each other, they had been asking Sam on a regular basis to get together with me.
Once they saw me, they couldn’t stop talking. Nicki was in with the really popular crowd at school. Justin was pitching and had three strikeouts.
“Dad has a new girlfriend,” Justin said taking a bite out of his pizza.
“Yeah, and she knows nothing about clothes,” Nicki rolled her eyes.
We left the pizza parlor and headed for the entrance to Central Park to meet Sam. Justin said, “Dad and the new woman aren’t going to work out.”
When Sam arrived, he told the kids to hang out and play. We sat on bench watching them. “They were miserable,” he said. “I needed some distance. I’ve had time to think about what’s best for them. You are a significant part of their lives, and I don’t want to take that away.”
Before I let myself get too excited, I needed to ask, “So what’s the new person you’re dating going to think of this?”
He told me that she wasn’t someone “in for the long haul.”
“I don’t think you should keep introducing women who you aren’t serious about to the kids,” I suggested.
He shrugged it off, saying, “It’s really hard to date with two children.” I saw then that I’d made the right decision. Sam hadn’t been in love with me, either. He just didn’t like being without a woman in his life.
Once in a while, the four of us get together, but most times I see the children without him. Nicki and Justin helped me grow up as much as I helped them. I’m grateful that Sam gave me visitation rights and two kids in my life whom I truly adore, one of whom called from her cell phone last year to say that her high school English teacher is “hot.”
“He’s single. He’s fun and smart. Want me to tell him about you?”