Ignoring the arctic weather, my boyfriend Tal and I shuffled outside to greet Kate and Dylan. Despite myriad invitations, our best friends had been . . . preoccupied, and hadn’t been to our cottage upstate in ages. We were thrilled to have them there for New Year’s. We had high hopes for reconnecting.
We approached their old Saab gingerly. The windows were foggy, the interior atypically anarchic, and our friends looked strangely disheveled as well. And there, strapped in back, was the source of all this change and chaos. Smiling, face breaded in drool and Pirate’s Booty, sat Kate and Dylan’s eighteen-month-old son, Max.
We hadn’t spent much time with the boy – we saw him as an interloper in our relationship with his parents – but we hoped, that weekend, to demonstrate for him (and our friends, and ourselves) just how prepared we were to love him. Yet as they opened the car door, instead of immediately sharing a group hug, our guests began bickering about how best to unbuckle the car seat, reigniting a battle in some foreign and ongoing war. Hugs did not ensue once this flare-up ended either. Rather, Tal and I were enlisted as Sherpas, and burdened with their copious luggage. One of these bags – a quilted satchel that looked like something my grandma would store yarn in – banged against the trunk as I grabbed it, releasing a low hoot, like a laryngitic owl.
Max’s eyes locked on the bag. “Shoo-Shoo!” he cried.
His calls became increasingly desperate as Dylan carried him inside, and he began flailing wildly, reaching for the bag. I knew better than to offer a child anything without his parents’ permission, but I also didn’t want the boy to forever associate me with depriving him of his Shoo-Shoo, whatever that was. I started to hand him the bag, but Kate flashed me a glare, as if I was passing him a loaded gun. “You set off his train.”
I tightened the cords in my neck. “Sorry . . .?”
“Whatever. It’s not your fault. It just:starts this whole cycle.” She turned to Dylan. “You should have carried the choo-chie bag. Where’s the train porn?”
“Shoo-Shoo.” Max said, grinding at his father’s chest.
Dylan sighed. “I thought we agreed that was just for emergencies.”
“And what would you call this?”
He studied his son quizzically. “He seems distractible. R-A-T-T-Y?” he spelled. “Or C-O-O-K-I-E?”
Kate snarled. “Just get the train porn.”
I felt confused – and appalled – by my friends’ insane vocabulary. But before I could request interpretation, Dylan set Max down and the boy tore across the room and knocked over our antique folding screen. The noise of it landing seemed to stun him into silence, but prompted a troubling cascade of expressions: bewilderment, satisfaction and a desire for more.
Kate looked from Dylan to Tal and me, seemingly at wit’s end with us all. But the moment her attention shifted away from Max, he began to howl. She rushed over and scooped him up, cooing in his ear as if the screen had pushed him. I was mystified by this response: a reminder to leave our upright furniture upright, or an insistence he help fix his mess seemed more appropriate. Instead, Kate coddled him, and as I squatted down to check the screen, she shook her head. “It’s not very child-friendly in here,” she scolded.
Well, I thought to say, we don’t have a child. But I knew that parenting requires some myopia, and while this didn’t excuse our friend’s rebuke, it helped explain it. I held my forked tongue.
Sadly, Max didn’t reciprocate, starting his “Shoo-Shoo” business again. I personally believe that porn is a right, and didn’t understand withholding this mysterious train variant. But my friends held firm, instead dragging out a cache of distracting toys. Each of them worked – for about ten seconds – but after cycling through them, the boy still whimpered, “Shoo-Shoo.”
“Let’s try dinner,” Kate said. I agreed. Feeding time generally led into bath-time and the blissful glissade toward bed: the end of the child’s day and the start of ours.
Kate microwaved a box of Seitan-Satays they’d brought, and passed them to Dylan, who appeared set to feed Max on our couch. Since it afforded us an adult moment with Kate, Tal and I ignored this transgression, and enjoyed five full minutes of real conversation before a whistle blast intruded.We enjoyed five full minutes of real conversation before a whistle blast intruded. I imagined it was just a local freight train, until it was echoed by a now familiar response. “Shoo-Shoo!”
We quickly returned to the living room, which now looked as if it had suffered an I.E.D. blast. Toys and clothes littered every surface. A used diaper defiled our coffee table. And sitting naked amidst this, plunging his vegan food-stick into a puddle of ketchup, was Max. When he saw me, he clutched his plate tighter, as if I might try to steal it. “Shoo-Shoo,” he said.
I studied Dylan. He had changed into some tattered pajamas bottoms that Kate once called the world’s most effective form of birth control, and appeared oblivious to the mess around him. Behind him played a monotonous video. Silent save an occasional canned sound effect, it depicted nothing but the slab sides of a seemingly interminable string of boxcars, rumbling by at about two m.p.h. It was oddly Warholian. Dylan gestured at the television. “Train porn,” he said.
I must have groaned, because Kate snapped, “Don’t worry!” her voice conveying shame and indignation. “We’ll be asleep soon enough, and you can put all this away.”
That wasn’t my plan. I’d hoped we’d have dinner. Maybe get drunk and nostalgic. Or bond and move forward. And, no matter what, I didn’t plan to clean up their mess. I studied the people that stood before me, and contrasted them with the brilliant couple with whom I’d spent my adulthood – sharing embarrassments, fantasies, a frenzied drive across Europe. “Okay,” I said. “What have you two done with our friends?”