Other People’s Children

by John Blahnik

My wife was coordinating our tapas order with David and Rachel when I spotted the girl. She held her fork in a fist, as if she were spear fishing, and vertically struck her octopus. Her parents watched indulgently. The girl chewed, and her mouth moved as if it were struggling with a gumball. I thought that the whole scene was adorable.

“Patatas bravas or the blistered shishitos?” asked my wife.

“Can’t we get potatoes that have completed anger management?” asked David.

“Let’s do the blistered shishitos,” said Rachel.

“Can’t we get peppers that moisturize?” asked David.

The girl spit out the octopus. Her teeth had left imprints as clear as those on a mouth guard. My table noticed her and watched as her mother opened a purse, pulled out a ketchup packet and squirted the tentacle.

“Don’t you think,” asked my wife, “that taking a kid to a nice restaurant is a waste?”

“No,” said David, “she knows that nothing complements pulpo gallego like Heinz.”

“At least her parents get out,” said Rachel. “David and I are worried that a kid would mess too much with our lifestyle.”

“So are we,” said my wife. “That’s why we’re probably not having any.”

I realized that Rachel expected me to respond, so I agreed. But as we drank our cocktails and awaited our tapas, I wondered if I did. I remembered a distant conversation in which my wife and I had agreed to delay having kids to focus on our careers, but since then we had both been promoted, and we never revisited the subject. Perhaps we didn’t need to. We liked having the time and money to be foodies, to follow the latest exercise trends, to improve our house, and kids would complicate all that.

As the night progressed, I became uncomfortably drunk. After our pre-dinner cocktails, we split a bottle of wine, and we were now finishing post-dinner cocktails. Rachel suggested that tomorrow we do some sort of exercise, and she and my wife and decided on a private yoga session. David and I decided on cycling. Last month we had bought expensive cycling gear, and I felt guilty that we had yet to use it. I was about to ask for the check, but perhaps feeling that his commitment to future health justified further consumption, David ordered a new round of cocktails. Mine tasted medicinal. I hoped this meant that it wouldn’t worsen my hangover.

The next morning I awoke with a terrible headache. I went to text David that I needed more sleep and noticed that he had already postponed until the afternoon. When I awoke the second time, I saw that I was going to be late and dressed too quickly to consider my new gear. Only when I met David did I realize that I too must look ridiculous. His spandex shirt emphasized his gut. His bike shorts and compression socks left his legs’ hairy middle exposed. Tapering toward its back, his helmet gave him the head of that creature from Alien.

“Maybe,” I said, “we aren’t ready for these outfits.”

David finished sucking on an energy gel.

“Dress for the cyclist you want to be, not for the cyclist you are.”

As we headed toward the park, we maybe looked like real cyclists. We arched our backs and held our heads inches above handlebars. But the truth was soon apparent. Casual cyclists overtook us. David attempted to hydrate while riding and wobbled. As we ascended the park’s primary hill, we shifted down and vigorously pumped our legs. We couldn’t sustain it. We walked our bikes.

The hill plateaued into a lookout that held a row of coin-operated binoculars. A boy inserted a quarter and scanned the horizon. He told his father that he was looking for their house. When he found it, he made no announcement, but I knew that he had. The binoculars were still, and the boy smiled.

David was panting. “Looking at the view?”

For the first time since we arrived, I looked. Spring was here, and foliage had returned to the town’s many trees. I recognized the downtown, the only section much taller than the trees, and my golf club, a flat stretch of grass and sand, but I was surprised by how the town, a place that to me was no more than a collection of upscale establishments, looked like an untouched forest.

On our way home, we biked past the downtown restaurants. I was hoping that I would see more families on outings, but it was an off hour between lunch and dinner. David stopped before last night’s tapas bar and looked at its outdoor chalkboard.

“Wine flights,” he said. “I had no idea we could have ordered them. Let’s do some.”

“Wasn’t the point of this bike ride to undo yesterday’s drinking?”

“And it has, so now let’s celebrate with a drink.”

Our waiter seated us at last night’s table and handed us a menu. David pointed at a flight from the Russian River Valley.

“We’ll have some of this here Ruski wine.”

The flight came with a card that identified the wines and described tasting notes. David flipped it over.

“Let’s test my palate.” He closed his eyes. “Hand me a glass.”

He sniffed. He sipped. He aerated the wine in his mouth.  I asked him what he was drinking.

“Fermented grape juice.” He opened his eyes. “Am I right?”

When we finished the flight, David and I parted. We lived on opposite ends of a neighborhood made up of Victorians. My wife and I were especially proud of our own. When we bought it, we restored its façade, and it was now covered by vibrant shingles that looked like a golden snake’s scales. As I arrived home, I was struck yet again by the contrast between it and our neighbor’s house. My wife had once sent a letter suggesting ways to highlight their Victorian’s charm. She never received a reply.

I walked up my porch and paused. A group of children had poured out of my neighbor’s house, and I was having difficulties recognizing their son and daughter. I hadn’t seen them for nearly a year. Their son was no longer a toddler, and their daughter was now a tomboy. I felt like those awakening from comas must feel, disoriented by lost time. A football game was soon underway. I wanted to watch, but I reminded myself that a man can’t stand around looking at other people’s children.

The house’s interior was dim. A soft glow came from the living room, and around its perimeter were candles. Rachel was cross-legged beside them. In the room’s center, so entangled that I at first confused them for a single person, were my wife and her yoga instructor. He was straddling her butt and pulling on her nearly vertical shoulders. Her face suggested both pleasure and pain.

“Is yoga,” I asked Rachel, “a partner thing?”

“The advanced poses are.”

“Deeper,” said my wife. Her instructor continued pulling. His pelvis thrust further into her butt.

“Maybe I should be my wife’s partner.”

Rachel looked confused. “You know the advanced poses?”

My wife exhaled, and her instructor released. Lost in post-pose bliss, my wife didn’t notice me until she and Rachel exchanged places.

“Hey,” she said, “Trey and I just finished.”

Trey smiled. He had a young, All-American look. I imagined that he was a former high school athlete, perhaps the type who once found yoga ridiculous.

“Well,” I said, “should you and I do something together?” I looked out into our backyard. We had recently decided that we would plant a garden, but the tools, fertilizer and seeds hadn’t left our shed since the day we brought them home. “Maybe we’ll start that garden?”

“You go ahead. I’m going to meditate.”

Trey took off his shirt. My wife didn’t close her eyes.

I decided that I would start and finish the garden that day. I grabbed a shovel, a trowel and a watering can, and I began preparing the plot. The work was harder than I expected. Spiny weeds pricked my hands, and their stubborn roots held firm. The soil was a dense clay that I had to both moisten and crumble. My knees and back ached. The only pleasant part of this was that from my backyard I could hear the kids. Sometimes I heard a single voice—a quarterback starting the play, a receiver calling for the ball—and sometimes I heard the many voices of a celebration or dispute. Sometimes the single voice and the many would harmonically alternate, and I thought of playgrounds and their jumble of joyful noise. Daylight faded. The plot was nearly ready. My wife came out and said that she had ordered dinner.

“Thanks.” The voices formed one of those joyful jumbles. “Hey, does any part of you wish—”

There was the sound of a collision. A child cried. Adults yelled. They comforted the crier and reprimanded the others. Bickering overwhelmed all sounds.

“Aren’t you glad that we don’t have to deal with that?” said my wife.

She was smiling, so I also smiled. Our neighborhood was now silent. I wondered if I could plant the garden before the sun set.

 

John Blahnik is a teacher and writer who lives with his wife in Manhattan. He has previously taught English at various high schools in the Northeast—most recently at Lauralton Hall in Milford, CT. Currently he is a second-year MFA student at Rutgers-Newark.

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