- Myself and Holden at Toddler Time at the Century Center in Carrboro.
Well, this is what I get for not choosing a viable career in high school. Did I miss a guidance counselor appointment? Was one even scheduled? As a product of a somewhat broken home (father died when I was 6, mother was into refining her sommelieristic aptitude – she never lost her taste for a fine muscatel) I was not really prepared for what lied in wait for me after high school. One could say that my resume, post-colleges (there were about 5 – I honestly lost count) was the curriculum vitae of a fish flopping around in a boat. Once, I got lucky, and landed one of those “dot-com” jobs that paid way more than I deserved for doing way less than I was alleged. When that luck ended, we had our first child, our daughter Olivia.
Since I couldn’t find a job like the one I had (I was told by my peers that I had it made as a Content Supervisor–I think the exact quote was “They’ll come looking for YOU!”) it was decided that I would stay home and we would eschew the costs of day-care in favor of my fatherhood skills. My wife didn’t have this problem. She went college for her chosen field, got an internship, a job, then when we moved to NC, another job in literally weeks, and now she runs her department. So while she slept (she worked third shift) I took our daughter, and then our sons, to the park.
Usually, people would look at me like I was either retarded or unemployed. “You sure have your hands full…” or “You stuck with the kid today?” or “THAT’S GREAT” when I told them I was the stay-at-home parent. It was still taboo for a father to be the care-giver, and there were all sorts of little prejudices that I never knew about before. Little assumptions. Is it any wonder? Every day, on television, in the movies, men are portrayed as doddering dolts, one hand desperately trying to grab a diaper or some other, the other arm clinging to their seemingly radioactive child with a look of bewilderment and panic as if this was the first time that the father had ever held his own baby. No father in the entertainment industry ever changed a diaper without making a horrible face or getting pissed on. People would occasionally refer to me as “Mr. Mom” in a strictly pejorative sense.
My daughter made me proud to be a care-giver. She was beautiful, inquisitive, and kind to her peers. And a couple of years later, my twin boys Holden and Harrison.They don’t remember now, but they spent a good amount of time being hustled around to the various parks in the area. My feeling as a parent was that they must never spend an entire day home. Whatever the weather, we could always find something to do, and the park was a gathering place for like-minded people. Ostensibly. If you know me, you know that “like-minded people” is a ridiculous conceit. No, it was always “How old are they?” “Where do you live?” “Where are you from?” and little more after that that would be considered adult conversation. Being a man, I was obviously trying to glean personal information in order to begin the seduction process. Sigh.
There were plenty of “mother groups”, but no real “father groups”. Even if there were, why should parents be separated into groups according to gender? We were all sharing the same role, weren’t we? The same “miracle”? It made sense that we all had time to spend our days at the park, so it could be safely assumed that everyone’s family income was at least middle-class. Or was it that the bigotry inherent in the tacit realization that I was not the bread-winner for our family render me somehow less than ideal? When mothers got together, did they talk about intercouse? Afterbirths? Boobs? Their husbands and their penis sizes? Why couldn’t I shake the trend? It was the early 21st century and it felt like there was still some sexism going on. Women have a glass ceiling. It was apparent that men like me had to find our footing on the glass floor.
There weren’t many men about on summer mornings, and the men I did see were usually taking the day off, not being a permanent member of “the circuit” like I was. Or standing idly by while the grandparents meted out their brand of affection. One fellow I saw often had a kind of nervous son, unsure of each step, talking to other children like a hostage on a phone, even his young happiness tempered by…something. There were red half-rings around his neck and what looked like thumb indentations. His father constantly barking out his name like he was trying to warn his boy not to step on a land mine. That dad didn’t seem happy at all, and everyone knew it. And I wonder what they all “knew” about me. Some of them thought I was gay. Or divorced.
There were plenty of “official” gatherings at the parks in the area, some scheduled through the mother’s group. I joined the mother’s group like the brave suffragette-in-reverse that I was, mainly so that I could have a steady group of people with which to meet. A usual gang of similarly aged children that Olivia could get used to seeing.
In addition, this mother’s group included a “mom’s night out”, during which everyone gathered in the evening at a different restaurant each month and, ya know, get to know each other. Sounds great, doesn’t it? It cost $5 to join, at which time they would forward you their exclusive list of shared babysitters, a schedule of playgroups catering to various age groups, and, of course, the “night out” information. And the secret handshake and a mantra, “memaymimomoo”. Well now I’ve gone and done it.
I went to the night out and the restaurant they chose was pretty expensive for my tastes. I was hoping we could sit around and drink coffee and shoot the bull in a relaxed fashion. I looked around the room for anyone I could recognize from the days at the park but there were no familiar faces. Finally I inquired of the waitress if there was a group of people attendant to our little club. The table she pointed me to was full of very well-appointed ladies, with expensive jewelry and nice scarves. None of them had ever gone to the park, they told me. They formed the group to network with others with babysitter/au pair/governess/maid needs. These were “ladies who lunched”. I was not a good fit. I was not supposed to be there. I was not the wife of a rich UNC professor or a scientist at Duke or whatever. I was a guitar teacher barely scraping by, looking for friends, I guess.
After a few drinks (them, not me) talk began in earnest about having a party. A theme party. I was not supposed to be listening to this discussion, obviously, and in fact, really, I was probably not supposed to come at all. After all, why would I, a man, wish to attend a sex toy party of all things? Why ever would I be sitting in an immaculately designed room watching these well-heeled southern belles attacking each other with vibrators and dancing mid-room with “The Satyr”, a “real doll”-type everyman with an astonishing cock and real-life pubes from Japan? No, I was distinctly out of my element, and I knew it. Pretty awkward. I tried some of the old comedy routines, but everything fell fallow. Fallow tallow.
It felt like I was back in high school, to be honest. Not really belonging but there.
More awkward was the news that came over the phone the next week. I was getting my $5 refunded and was uninvited from the evening functions of the group, since some of the ladies felt uncomfortable in the presence of a man. Oddly, this time, I had not said or done anything untoward. No, it was the mere presence of my penis (presumed) that disqualified me from the sushi, $10 white wine and paisley prints. I felt pretty horrible. I felt like Rosa Parks. JUST KIDDING!!!
The choreography at the park wasn’t much better. There were the occasional play-dates. Sometimes I would get along quite well with some of the women at the park. As you are my witness, I never had any intention of rubbing, touching, licking, boning, scraping, cunnilingating, lightly smacking, spanking, flippy-floppying, nipple-flicking, lip-balming, boner-showing, or anything from columns j-z. I was merely trying to find good, smart, friendly women to pass the time with.
One of the best things that all of my kids got to do was Toddler Time at the Century Center in Carrboro. For a mere $2 per child, they got the run of the gymnasium/stage (with piano) for an hour and a half, which, on a hot Carolina summer day was nothing to scoff at. You’d mingle. You’d make acquaintances. Angie, the director of the program at the time, was very nice, and took my humor in stride, never getting too flustered, acting as a sort of sensible conscience. Moral compass. There were crayons and books, gym mats, some musical instruments for the kids. And you could see the years pass as I and other peers brought new children as their old ones were off at school. Some were warm and friendly. Some were cold and distant. I can imagine now how much one or two might have dreaded my presence. I was nice to everyone, but nicer to some than others.
But pretty soon, cliques would form, and as a man, or as an obnoxious man, I was not included in them. I felt uncomfortable, as I still do today, when I felt the vaguest whiff of prejudice against my particular brand of indignant self-righteousness. Once I wrote a poem, published in a local zine, about the Carrboro experience. Like to hear it? Here it goes!
we basked in the sunshine, we gave the man change,
we break brittle boundaries and say what we feel,
we twitch like a cat at a firing range,
my twins are my weapons for long looks to steal,
and long conversations with nouveaux nubility,
plumbing the depths of my facile ability,
able at once to be caring and crippled,
hoping that some of the well-rehearsed ardor might
stick to the walls of an unprepared partner,
discourse left dangling, time a loose end,
Fair-trade organic Peruvian blend
My twins and I float to a once-a-week party,
I watch the door for an old friendly face,
Or maybe a neophyte shakes off the cold,
so i practice my alchemy on our acquaintance
and remake this leaden discourse into gold,
my twins lurch around as if boxers on opium
spinning toward the next noise, the next light,
and looking to me as their morbid mahatma,
sanctified, seething, and barely upright
dispensing bon mot to an unamused audience,
got to get into that vague innuendo,
got to claim victory over the sane,
got to march on against hints of uneasiness,
got to rebel against boundaries hard-won,
got to have tales to relate to the others,
should this last best shot at transcendence fail,
always another next week, little friend,
Fair-trade organic Peruvian blend
I didn’t want to have an affair. I wanted to have my own clique. I wanted to start my own group of friends. I wanted to have women as friends because men and women should be allowed to be friends. Men and women should be allowed to confide in one another without there being any sort of silly insecurity from spouses. Do we stop being people when we marry? Do men and women have nothing to share with each other outside of the context of poly-amorous opportunism? I was insulted when my wife or someone else would suggest I start a men-only parent group. Wouldn’t that just be an admission of defeat?
Lessee. Sharon 1 (this article doesn’t name names–they are all given the pseudonym Sharon) had me over to her apartment quite a few times, and her kids and mine got along well, even regaling me in tales of other mothers aghast at her choice to associate socially with a man. A married man! All was better than pleasant, until I emailed her one day, telling her I honestly enjoyed her company and it meant a great deal that she would invite us into her home. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Let people know we appreciate them? That freaked her right out. That was it. Over.
Sharon 2 liked me fine, motivating me to record my own music and stop waiting for a band. She and I visited often until her husband thought our friendship was inappropriate. Done.Once I took a picture of her after we had had a long talk about “us” and we were so happy to have resolved our differences that she just glowed. Maybe she was just someone who glowed. I don’t know. I know nothing.
Sharon 3 met us at Olivia’s preschool. She was a cool, funny redhead.
Sharon 3 had been having trouble with her daughter’s discipline problems. The little girl was not developing along the lines that the doctors had expected. We happened to have had a play date scheduled for the morning of a big gig that evening, and I wanted her to come, so I called her that morning to reestablish our plans. She said she couldn’t come to our play date because she had just discovered through the doctor’s diagnosis that her daughter was mildly autistic. She was devastated, as anyone would be. What can you say?
Well, if you’re a five-star asshole like me, you ask if she’s still coming to the gig. Then, exhausted by your bullshit, shocked by your insensitivity, tells you that you need some psychiatric help and hangs up. Then you don’t see her again until her daughter goes to your daughter’s school a few years later. Sharon 3 sees me occasionally, but she treats me like a ghost. She treats me like I’m street noise. And when I see her, I am.
Sharon 4 co-wrote some songs with me which I played in Philadelphia. We met at the Century Center in Carrboro, and was one of the most natural, secure, funny people I’d ever met. We talked about music and things like that, but it all ended tragically. As you know.
Sharon 5 and I would meet at night, for coffee, in public. Maybe an hour and a half at a time, and we had great conversations. I honestly don’t know what has happened to her. She hasn’t returned most of my emails. When do you give up on someone? Vague allusions to something life-changing in a negative way. Not confiding in me, regardless.
In fact, aside from the odd Facebook remembrance, there’s really only one person (Sharon 100, let’s call her) from all those years at various parks and play times that I can truly consider a real friend, and even that comes complete with its own set of sex-based taboos which prevent us from transcending the hard-set boundaries inherent therein. Sometimes I feel forces pulling us apart as I fight the feeling that, aside from seeing my kids grow up and have fun, that it was nothing more than another version of high school. A fucking waste of time. I hope Sharon 100 is around for a good long while. She was and is the best one I met.
Now my kids are in school, and that entire timer period seems like an old job that I left for something else. There’s no nostalgia, no connections that were made and kept, just killing time.