Another hot dream. I woke in a sweat. My chest felt sticky, my erection painful. Sal’s big body had crowded me all night. Sometimes her broad back against me felt like a dam pinning my pent-up life force. I got up quickly and had a shower, and when she got up, eye-smudged and groggy to get the baby, I was efficient, even curt as I passed her a cup of coffee. She was fat and innocent and I felt like a shit.
I knew my son had a birthday party to go to that day—Saturday August 27, 11 to 1. Every time I went to open the fridge for the last two weeks, I’d seen that invitation emblazoned with bright balloons, stuck under an anti-bullying magnet. I realized then I’d been seeing 11 to 1 as a bit of an escape. I vaguely knew the boy, Liam, and the family. I met them once at a La Leche League picnic—a group of earnest people I feel no connection to, even though my wife is a leader.
She sat by the window breastfeeding the baby, one hand around a mug and the other cupping her enormous brown breast. Propped into the crevasse between her big belly and her thigh, the baby applied suction to the hidden nipple, and around that little mouth, working rhythmically, spread the puckered aureole of my wife’s breast, stippled with long black hairs like a dunce cap askew the vast mound of veined flesh.
“I’ll take Pete to the party, “ I said, looking away from her bare breast and out the window to the silent green park, dotted white with seagulls.
“Oh, okay. I was going to….” the baby gurgled and farted and with a little cry came off the breast. My wife fussed with her, repositioning the flannel-wrapped sausage back onto the long damp nipple. “You can have some time to yourself with the baby” I said, watching one large seagull open his wings.
Pete was playing Lego in his bedroom. “Hey kiddo, I’m taking you to Liam’s party. We’re leaving in half an hour.”
Pete looked up at me, serious brown eyes in his pudgy face, a lollipop stick protruding from his dark lips.
“Where the fuck did you get a lollipop?”
“Lady at the grocery store,” he mumbled.
“Give it to me,” I opened my hand, “now.”
“No” said Pete, arching away. Little shit looked at me, defiant eyes, wild crinkly hair framing his fat face, a line of purple syrup dribbling from his mouth. He looked demented. Sometimes I looked at that kid and thought “he’s mine?”
“Whatever,” I said turning my back. Losing battle. Genes. My wife was fat, my kid getting fat, even the baby had rolls of podge. And today there would be more sugar—a cake and ice-cream, goody bags. Jesus.
Liam lived in a little stucco house a block away from an elementary school. The front steps and door were shabby, a stack of old newspapers moldering in the corner and a bag of garbage sitting atop the stack, like nobody had the energy to get this stuff into the bins down in the driveway. Sometimes homeschoolers were like that. Home all day with their kids, yet can’t get it together to do simple chores.
The door opened. Lily, the mother, beamed her smile. Pete shoved his gift into Lily’s hand and darted around her, yelling “Liam, Liam! Where are you?”
“Sorry, he’s really excited,”
“Oh, no worries! Liam’s excited too.”
We stood there together at the door entry, her smile lessening a little at the corners as she jiggled a baby on her hip.
“I’m Lily, by the way.”
“Oh, yes, Nils.” As both of her small hands were occupied, we both looked at my outstretched hand and laughed.
“Well, are you just dropping him, then? Or do you want to stay?” she asked.
I hesitated. “Well if you don’t mind.”
I hadn’t thought about what I would actually do from 11 to 1. For some reason a coffee at Starbucks with yesterday’s Globe spread before me seemed sad. Maybe I’ll stay and observe how the other half lives.
“Oh come in, come in,” she chimed, leading me into the living room, decorated with streamers. Scuffed, coloured boxes of toys lined one wall, bookshelves lined the other, and two big sagging sofas faced each other like old drunks.
“Coffee?” she called back to me as she started to fill a kettle.
“Sure, that would be nice.”
“My husband is just finishing up some balloon blowing in the rec room—it’s a secret game so don’t say anything to the kids. I’ll keep the game a secret from you, too! You’ll love it” she chuckled.
And then she did the most remarkable thing: She shifted the grizzling baby from her hip into the crook of her arm, lifted her t-shirt to expose an alert pink nipple, slid the baby onto it, then cradled the egg head with her splayed hand—all in a series of expert moves.
I felt embarrassed then, to have watched her virtuosity with such curiosity, so I quickly turned away to look out the large windows wrapping the kitchen nook, onto the compost heap in the back, just in time to see a shiny rat running across the debris with an apple core in his mouth.
More kids started to arrive with their parents, but none of the other parents stayed. They seemed eager to be free of their children for a couple of hours. People hugged one another and handed off gifts in loud voices at the crowded doorway, as if insisting on how much they loved family life. Children, all boys, were running around the small house, yelling and laughing. I sat safely in the kitchen nook where I had holed up, nursing a cup of coffee, watching, listening, feeling my gut loosen, my mind soften. The children’s shouts seemed far away.
Liam’s father emerged from the basement with another child—a toddler. So they had three kids? Wow.
“Hello,” he approached me with a lopsided grin, hand outstretched.
“Oh hello, I’m Nils, Pete’s dad” I half rose from the nook to shake hands with this gangly man.
“I’m Liam’s dad, Miles. Just finished the one-hundredth balloon, and I’m knackered,” he laughed, blowing a raspberry from puckered lips in a demonstration of the work he’d been busy at below.
Pretty soon the birthday party started to take on a shape. Lily and Miles organized the kids in the living room and announced there would soon be a soccer game in the schoolyard, followed by lunch and cake and presents and finally a special game in the basement—a secret! Then goody bags and good-byes at 1 o’clock. The kids swarmed and pushed each other and shook the wrapped gifts piled onto one of the couches.
I sat in the kitchen nook, feeling quite proprietorial by now. I liked this corner. It felt safe. The kitchen table was strewn with used coffee cups, a colouring book and crayons, a stack of library books in one corner. The other adults had things in hand—there was nothing to do. My son was taken care of. I liked the coffee made from beans from a local roastery. It was strong with real cream. I liked the big panel of windows behind me. I could turn my head and see the narrow yard with a rusty play gym and the compost pile, home to happy rats. I could see the sagging homemade cake perched atop the fridge, the goody bags lined up on the top shelf in the Ikea-styled kitchen. The sun had come out and I felt the warmth on my neck and a pleasant breeze from the open window beside me. The kids’ voices seemed as if they were coming from a distant country in another language. I liked the feel of the smooth cushion under my bare thighs.
Miles shepherded the kids out the door with a soccer ball in one hand and holding the hand of his toddler with the other. He managed everybody in his gentle tenor, punctuated by chuckles: “C’mon guys, it’s not far, just a block, but let’s all stay together now! Last one there is a green frog,” and then he hopped like a frog for a few meters while the boys shrieked at him.
Lily stood at the open door, watching them go, jiggling the baby, talking softly.
“Oooh look at Daddy going bye-byes and all the kids. See your brothers?” Then she turned abruptly, flushed, “Oh I’m sorry, did you want to go with them? Go play soccer? I’m sure Miles could use the help. . . .” she trailed off.
“No, no, actually I’m really enjoying sitting here, if you don’t mind. I don’t often get to just sit. It’s very relaxing.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” she smiled. The baby’s eyes were closed and it leaned into her small breasts.
“I’m just going to put her down for a nap. Perfect timing, really,” she said, and padded down the hall to the dark nethers of the house, no doubt piled with cloth diapers, toys and more toys, precarious towers of books on attachment parenting beside the messy bed.
I leaned back into the cushioned nook, my hands on my thighs, feeling peaceful after the roiling night, feeling my breath go in and out. I pulled the stack of library books closer and—with a quiver—recognized the title on the spine of the bottom book. A Boys Own Story, by Edmund White. What are the chances! I pulled it from the bottom, and looked at the cover, a beautiful bronzed teenage boy in a tank top, his sharp profile framed by dark messy locks. A book I had finished only a week ago. What are the chances of us both reading this somewhat obscure 1982 memoir by the same guy who wrote The Joy of Gay Sex? Or maybe Miles was the one who had taken it out of the library? That would be even weirder. Feels like a sign.
In the opening scene, White describes, in erotic detail, how he, 15, and a young visitor to his summer cottage, 13, fuck each other every night in a narrow cot, with the boy’s younger brother asleep in a cot beside them. Some of the lines had kept coming back to me, stirring me, after I read it.
I opened the book and found the page. “Now that he’d completely relaxed I could get deeper and deeper into him.”
I registered tingles in my groin area.
And then I skipped down to this: “‘I’m getting close,’” White said to the other boy. “‘Want me to pull out?’
‘Go ahead,’” the boy said “‘Fill ‘er up.’”
Oh sweet Jesus. This kid welcomes the rush of ejaculate into his butt like a tank welcoming the flow of gas—my God that made me horny. As I re-read these lines, I felt my prick start to thicken. I closed the book, but continued to hold it in my hands, touching it almost tenderly now, recognizing again how much yearning it had stirred in me.
After a minute or two, Lily padded back down the hall, toward me, smiling.
“Out like a light. I’ve got to get the lunch ready for the kids, but just sit there—it’s fine.”
I had made no move to get up to help her. I just smiled broadly, fully relaxed now, holding the book in my hands. Was it something about this messy house, the coincidence of the book, her open smile, the drone of lawnmowers on nearby lawns, the caffeine buzz in my head, the arousal that made every pore a thirsty mouth?
Lily started to pull things out of the fridge – mustard and ketchup in plastic squeeze bottles and packages of wieners.
“I bought both meat hot dogs and tofu hot dogs because I happened to know some of the kids are vegetarian, including ours” she said brightly, with an inquiring look on her face as if to say “and what about you and yours?”
“Oh, we all eat meat,” I said. “But I’m not sure how much real meat is in those things,” I laughed. And then lifted the book up to show the cover.
“Did you like White’s memoir?”
“Oh my god, so good!” she said, putting two pots of water to boil on the stove and fumbling around for scissors to cut open the plastic packages of wieners. “Have you read it?” she looked over her shoulder at me.
“Yes, just recently. It seems such a coincidence that you have, too.”
“Oh, I belong to a book club, and we’re doing a year of memoirs, actually. It was my turn to pick, and I was at a loss. So my brother, who’s gay, was here for dinner and raved about it. So I figured—let’s give it a try!”
And here my voice took a leap out into the warm air.
“The opening chapter—that was brilliant. I read it more than once” I said, feeling a blush creep up my neck. “Every time, I got hard as a rock.” Nervous laughter. There was no turning back now. It was out there, hanging in the air, that boys having sex made me hard, this thing that had rolled around inside me, a lump deep in my gut, a greasy red coil that fueled my erections every morning. I wondered if her back had stiffened a little, hearing it, or did I imagine that? Practice, I told myself. Practice this. Don’t expect approval, man. Don’t expect anything.
“Sorry, Lily. That was TMI, I know.”
She turned square, facing me, wiping her hands on her cut-offs.
“Not at all,” she laughed. “Do you know, I felt aroused by that scene too? Don’t you think we’re all polymorphously perverse? Freud was really onto something.”
That got me sitting up at attention. “But did you know Freud said that it is under the influence of seduction that children became polymorphously perverse, just like so-called bad women are swayed to perversion by seducers. He did not approve. To him polymorphously perverse was a distortion of sexuality. You know he was a product of his time—a real prude.”
“Hmm,” she sat down across from me. “How do you know so much about him?”
“Oh, Freud has held some fascination for me over the years.”
She looked at me quizzically, then got up, went to the stove, and started to lift the pots to drain the dogs. “I’ll put these to keep warm in the oven. Help me get the cake finished? I haven’t frosted it yet.”
“Tell me more about Freud, you dark horse,” she said. “Or, actually, tell me more about getting hard from reading Edmund White.” She looked me in the eye. “Seriously, I don’t judge. I don’t tell. I am an impartial listener. And I grew up with gay.” Then she laughed and started to lay tofu dogs on a cookie tray.
“I’ll take it,” and I joined her laughter.
* * *
When Miles and the kids returned from the soccer field, Lily and I were working side by side putting the hot dogs into buns, pouring juice into glasses. “How did it go?” Lily called, and Miles, in response, came up behind her, sliding his arms around her.
“Fun, fun, fun. We’re hungry, baby.”
Pete rushed up and punched me in the leg.
“Why’re you here, Dad? You’re the only one. The only parent. You can go now” he said, his dark brow furrowed by the anxiety anything out of the ordinary produced in him.
“It’s okay, Pete, I’ve just been hanging out with Liam’s mom, helping her.” Pete seemed to accept this explanation, and soon there was just the blur of kids eating hot dogs, and then the singing of Happy Birthday, and cake, and Liam tearing gift wrap off of boxes of Lego, a book, some juggling pins, a sketch book. I had reclaimed my nook, and I watched the proceedings, all of it a bit surreal. I could not take back what was said, nor did I want to.
Lily was deep into being a mother. The baby was back on her hip, her other hand gestured and grappled with a lighter to light candles, squish balls of gift paper, and rescue bits of hot dog from between sofa cushions. Miles snapped pics with his iPhone, laughing frequently.
“Good gift for you Liam, a sketchbook – nice one – young artist.”
The kids were playing with the new toys—a dozen bodies moving rapidly and making noise in the small living room. I watched safely from my nook, sipping juice. Then Lily did a remarkable thing. She handed the baby to Miles, leaped onto the coffee table, and cried “Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp!”
Each time she said it, she punched the air with her little fists on the “stomp” and stamped her naked feet, making it into a war holler. In only a few seconds, the kids caught the idea and echoed “Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp!” Letting toys drop to the ground, they punched at the air with sticky fists.
“Okay guys, the game’s down in the basement, but first you have to put on your elephant feet.” Lily took a stack of brown paper bags she had placed at the end of the coffee table and started handing them out, two for each boy along with two rubber bands.
“I’ll show you what to do.”
But before she demonstrated how to make elephant feet, she strode over to me in my protected corner—“You too!” she said, smiling. “It’s fun!”
I hesitated, but then I took the bags and watched. Lil put one bag over each bare foot, securing them with rubber bands around her ankles.
“Now I have elephant feet,” she crowed, stomping them up and down, and causing the baby in Miles’s arms to startle and wail. She laughed and helped the kids on with their bags and rubber bands. Soon they were all shuffling down the basement steps in elephant boots, following Lily, laughing and talking excitedly, except Miles, who stayed above, shushing the baby. I trailed behind, my paper boots making every step uncertain.
Lily opened the door of a large rec room strung everywhere with dozens of coloured Christmas lights glowing on a sea of softly bouncing balloons. The children stopped quietly for a moment, looking. One of them exhaled loudly, “Jeez Louise.” We all laughed at that.
The first kid in the line, my kid, yelled “Hey, let’s stomp ‘em” and soon all of the young bodies smashed into the softly lit space and were stomping on the balloons that burst with cracking noises, like guns in rapid fire.
Lily hadn’t needed to show them what to do. They knew. Then she grabbed my hand and pulled me in. “Let’s do the stomp, elephant man,” and she brought her right arm up against her face, pursed her lips, waved her arm up and down, pushed a loud stream of air from her tight lips. At the same time she lifted her knees and splayed them in an African dance. She was a mad she-elephant trumpeting, waving her trunk in the soft jungle light, bursting jungle balls in heavy-footed splendour.
Laughing, I made my arm into a trunk, trumpeted my own rich high-pitched sounds into the mix, bursting my own bubbles in the dim cave, protected by the dark.