Playdateby Thelma Adams
"Adams is that rare writer who sends out every laugh with a sting in its tail. Most novels fade from the memory. This one sticks."--Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Inside their picture-perfect homes, the residents of this quiet California suburb are not at all what they seem.
Lance is a former weatherman, now a buff yogi,/b>/b>/b>/i>… See more details below
"Adams is that rare writer who sends out every laugh with a sting in its tail. Most novels fade from the memory. This one sticks."--Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Inside their picture-perfect homes, the residents of this quiet California suburb are not at all what they seem.
Lance is a former weatherman, now a buff yogi, stay-athome dad, and manager of his daughter's Girl Scout troop's cookie distribution. Belle is his precocious and quick-witted daughter. Darlene is a classic Type A work-a-holic, she has little time or patience for the needs of her husband and daughter
And just down the street are Alec and Wren. Alec, a womanizing businessman, is also the financial backer--and sometimes more--behind Darlene's burgeoning empire. Meanwhile, Wren is a doting mother and talented yogi, ready to lay down the mat for a quick session with Lance.
As looming Santa Ana winds threaten to turn brushfires into catastrophe; Playdate proves that relationships are complicated and the bonds between families, spouses and children are never quite what they seem. What happens next door, beyond the hedges, in the romper room and executive office--it's all as combustible as a quick brushfire on a windy day.
Hyde Park resident Thelma Adams knows and loves the movies. She’s film critic for Us Weekly, and hosts the annual Amazing Women In Film panel at the Woodstock Film Festival. As her very California novel opens, the hills begin to burn, a box turtle awakens inside a Barbie Dream House, and an 11-year-old walks in on a classic primal scene. Astute readers might get the distinct impression that they’re in for a red-hot and wildly comic ride, and astute readers would be right.
Our hero Lance is an at-home dad to Belle, unfortunate witness to the primal scene and owner of the aforementioned box turtle. She’s turning 11, and is at a loss in the “finely calibrated scale of playground fabulousness” at Rancho Amigo Elementary (or “Raunchy Gringo Penitentiary,” as a graffiti artist has opined on the signboard). Her family has recently relocated from laid-back Barstow, and Belle’s having a tough time adjusting to faster and perhaps shallower waters.
To her father’s credit, he devotes considerable concern to his daughter’s plight. Between Tantric sessions with his neighbor Wren and utilitarian, stress-packed baby- making encounters with his wife, Darlene, he’s running the Girl Scout Cookie drive. Despite the social stigma of being an at-home dad, his devotion to Belle is deep; this former surfer boy is likeable despite his flaws.
Darlene is a piece of work in her own right. As driven as Lance is phlegmatic, her business aspirations were the driving force behind the move that has left both her daughter and husband adrift. (Lance was a TV weatherman in Barstow; the larger markets here have no use for him). Darlene has stars in her eyes. A slick-talking businessman, who also happens to be Wren’s husband, has convinced her to franchise the concept she had a hit with back in Barstow: a kid-centric diner with gourmet food and a bar/lounge for parents. Her original had soul and funk; under Slick Businessman’s guidance, the franchise version seems in danger of resembling Chuck E. Cheese.
As the wildfire rages, it’s crunch time for Darlene’s ambitions. Opening day has been timed to coincide with Belle’s 11th birthday. To suit Mommy’s business agenda, underwhelmed but compliant Belle must tolerate a glam party with a Barbie cake and a live performance by Barry Beige and his Scary Monsters.
Against the many tensions pulling Lance and Darlene apart, Adams sets the very genuine underlying love that brought them together—and the abiding love both feel for their daughter. It’s a sharply drawn tongue-in-cheek portrait of a family on the brink of chaos or epiphany, in a psychological pressure cooker that’s reflected and amplified by the growing menace of the Witch Creek Fire.
Adams writes with cinematic flair, great visuals, and dialogue that zings. Interior glimpses of the characters reveal how sadly and yet hilariously far they are from comprehending one another’s true feelings and motivations.
If there’s any quibble to be had with this very enjoyable tale, it’s that Adams’s full-on pace engenders a few disconnects from reality: How exactly does a Barbie Dream House stay “pristine” with a box turtle living in it full-time? And is there actually a part of America where a restaurant can have a play area for kids and a bar side by side without being burned to the ground by DWI activists?
Regardless, the characters are good company and the story engaging, and the climactic denouement is a blast. Lance and Darlene manage to fumble their way back into love as Belle rediscovers her moxie. This Playdate makes learning fun.
With a wildfire approaching, marriages are already smoldering, in a brittle social comedy byUs Weekly's film critic.
Adams' debut, a slick portrait of middle-class California, explores privileged lives in which contentment is a rare commodity. The Ramsays' marriage is faltering as house-husband Lance pressures his driven entrepreneur wife Darlene for a second child. Darlene's pushy business partner Alec is married to yoga-obsessed Wren, who is having an intense affair with Lance, allowing her predatory babysitter Julia to neglect the children. Julia, however, has designs on Lance, while his daughter Belle sulks about the recent move away from her friends to this new coastal suburb of San Diego. Spanning six increasingly choking days as the Santa Ana winds blow the fire nearer, the story ranges across several characters' points-of-view without wholly making its own direction clear. Simultaneously sardonic and rambling, Adams' first novel is a round of coffee pick-ups, school runs and playdates (often a metaphor for extramarital sex) interleaved with debates about parenting and bread-winning. The story culminates in Belle's 11th birthday party, simultaneously the launch of Darlene's Diner. Although the fire threatens, it's really Adams' sudden shift of gear into feel-good anticlimax that unbalances the event.
A snappily told middle-class morality tale which, due to a meandering story line and unattractive characters, fails to catch fire.
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.86(w) x 8.32(h) x 1.03(d)
Read an Excerpt
Vermonters ignore nor’easters. Tornadoes in Tulsa are local news. Santa Ana conditions come with Southern California real estate. So, that first October morning when hot winds swooped in from the high deserts across the drought-stricken county, most San Diegans didn’t cancel plans or playdates. And then the chaparral began to burn like flammable pajamas.
At dawn, an eighty-five-mile-per-hour gust snapped a power line east of rural Ramona. Sparks ignited the eucalyptus below. Fragrant flaming leaves littered the patched roof of a Witch Creek Canyon ranch house, which appeared deserted even in use—as a meth lab. The ensuing chemical explosion dispatched an armada of flames that, once airborne, replicated the process. The Witch Creek Fire was born.
High winds carried bright-eyed embers west, burning buildings and brush in Rancho Bernardo and Poway. The walls of fire would later accelerate with a rapidity that stunned the laid-back locals. Still, that first morning, it had yet to jump Interstate 15 to threaten the coast. There, fifty miles to the west, it was a chill fifty-five degrees at six-thirty A.M. Free of cinders and ash, the sky hung banner-blue above the quaint ENCINITAS sign that arched over the main drag in the sleepy seaside San Diego suburb (population 59,620, median household income $76,500).
A few blocks uphill, morning dew soaked the lawn surrounding Rancho Amigo Elementary School. A half mile farther, the school day yawned open at 1212 Pacific Breeze, where stalks of orange-streaked birds-of-paradise and fuchsia bougainvillea fringed the relatively modest two-story stucco Spanish Revival. Inside, morning light eased rather than burned through the French doors in the downstairs bedroom, adjacent to the empty nursery. It stretched across the carpet and onto the icing-pink floor of a pristine Barbie Dream House. Inside, ten-year-old Belle’s box turtle thrust his bucket-shaped head against the faux-kitchen window, orange eyes aglow.
Above Boxy’s head, in the dollhouse’s lilac and lavender second-floor bedroom, Prince Charming Ken reclined on the white canopy bed stripped naked, crown intact. Little Red Riding Hood Kelly lay on her side facing him; she was fully dressed, yes, but the wolf, inevitably, was poised at their feet. Nearby, Businesswoman Barbie’s legs protruded from a plastic crib like the stiff limbs of a corpse in a Dumpster.
Upstairs, in the big house, the king-sized bed shuddered from the quiet ministrations of Darlene, thirty-four, who had given her husband, Lance, a quick blow and then mounted him. She was working slowly and quietly back and forth, trying to find the right spot, the right speed. She had promised Lance that they would try to make another baby, and though she hated approaching sex like just another box on her checklist, here she was, at six-thirty A.M., with her hands planted on Lance’s shoulders as her back arched and then flexed.
Lance’s eyes remained closed. The thirty-five-year-old had been dreaming of awakening in his mother’s cottage with the smell of fish cooking and the sounds of a distant struggle, and he couldn’t quite climb back there to determine what was coming next, so he submitted to his supple wife in a not-unpleasant dreamy way.
Darlene had her hand cupped over his mouth so he stayed silent and was building up speed, panting quietly, when the bedroom door opened. Belle stood inside the doorway. Their only child wore faded, green-striped Ariel the Mermaid pajamas and clutched a droopy Mrs. Bunny by the waist. She dropped the weary, wash-worn stuffed animal she had had since birth (and which had recently reappeared nightly in her bed, after being relegated to a distant shelf for nearly three years). Belle stood rooted to the carpet and stared uncomprehendingly, until her mother sensed her presence.
Darlene gazed abstractedly over her shoulder, her blond stringy hair matted to her flushed forehead, rubbery in her tan nakedness. For a beat, she stared at Belle, not seeming to recognize her. Then Darlene’s eyes cleared. “Belle,” she called, reaching an arm back toward her daughter, “Belle.” That was when the girl found her slipper-clad feet and flew out the bedroom door.
“We’re only making love,” Darlene called after Belle.
“Only?” Lance said, opening his dark eyes for the first time, and rising out of himself like a diver surfacing.
“I was talking to Belle,” Darlene said, prematurely pulling off Lance. His dick thwacked his own belly as it landed. “Didn’t you see her?”
“See her? She was in here? Shit, Darlene, didn’t you lock the door?”
“We never lock the door,” Darlene said.
“Well, you didn’t this time.”
“You jumped me,” Lance said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and pulling the clock closer to see the time. “That was a sleep fuck.”
“Sometimes a girl has to take fate into her own hands.”
“Is that a complaint?”
“No, Darlene.” Lance swung his legs out of the bed and grabbed two baby wipes from the bedside table, swabbing his penis with one, then his armpits and chest with the other. “If Belle hears us arguing, she’ll think she’s done something wrong.”
“Well, we weren’t doing anything wrong,” Darlene said. She grabbed a blue chenille bathrobe and shrugged it on.
“I know, baby, I know,” Lance said, approaching Darlene and tying the self-belt around her waist. He kissed her gently on the center part of her hair. “I salute your initiative.”
“You certainly did,” Darlene said, laughing.
“I’ll start the coffee and talk to Belle while you take your shower and get ready for work. Do you want Cracklin’ Oat Bran for breakfast?”
“Can you manage eggs?”
“Sure,” said Lance.
“Pepper jack omelet?” she asked.
“Deal,” he said while rummaging in the hamper for yesterday’s board shorts and the T-shirt that had become his uniform. When they left Barstow (the isolated desert city 160 miles northeast that ranked as one of California’s ten poorest), Lance went from professional weatherman at a local news station to stay-at-home parent. He missed the external reinforcement of regular employment, but he embraced the satisfactions of full-time parenting in a way that Darlene didn’t. He had become Rancho Amigo Elementary School’s most active male volunteer and the sole father to have appeared regularly at the weekly Girl Scout meetings. He put on the dirty clothes, then stuffed the rest of the laundry in a pillowcase and tossed it over his shoulder. “Hi ho, hi ho,” he muttered, as he headed out the bedroom door and down the stairs to find his daughter.
* * *
Belle was hiding out in the laundry room beyond the kitchen and adjacent to the doors to the garage and the backyard. She would have gone outside if she could have figured out the locks and the security code. Perched on the dryer, pointy chin on knees, she stared out the window at the gently steaming swimming pool, her face taut. Rashy patches were rising on her cheeks. Belle mostly resembled her father, olive-skinned, long-legged, and dark-eyed. Her high arched brows were her best feature, opening up her face with an intelligence she hadn’t yet grown into. She was handsome rather than pretty, her features softened by the feminine mouth she’d inherited from Darlene along with her mother’s appeasing smile, nowhere in evidence at that moment.
Since the Ramsays left their Barstow backwater on Route 66 in January, Belle had become graver, and the adjustment period showed no signs of lifting. Her face had grown thinner and longer, losing the rounded girlish cheeks; it was finding its way toward the woman she would ultimately become, the face she would shape through her own experience.
And this morning had only complicated the situation. It was as if her mother had become a total stranger, to be avoided like an unfamiliar person in a car offering candy; this frightened Belle, almost more than the fact that the naked woman she’d walked in on only moments earlier had shown no glimmer of recognition, no acknowledgment of a connection between the two of them. That woman glaring at her upstairs hadn’t been Belle’s mom but some vampire sucking the lifeblood out of her father.
At the time, Belle’s first instinct had been to rescue her father, but she had feared getting in trouble; yet for what? What had she seen: her mother atop her apparently dozing (if not dead) father? Oh, tartar sauce, Belle thought, what crime had she committed? What rule had she broken? So she had crossed the threshold into her parents’ room. Since when had that been forbidden? The door wasn’t locked. But there was her mother, or an unreasonable facsimile, shooting daggers.
Belle feared her parents’ anger, not because it occurred frequently, but because she was a good girl. Her self-esteem hinged on this, as it did on an A average in school (not counting gym and music), and the atypical ability to speak only when spoken to in the company of most adults. It certainly didn’t hang on her dramatic ability or natural beauty. Belle’s exaggerated fear of parental reprisal was just on the cusp of adolescent revolt.
On that early October morning when the haze still clumped like dust bunnies to the western horizon, Belle was desperate not to slip from her parents’ good graces. Like most middle-class, college-educated parents of their generation, Lance and Darlene had never hit her, although the occasional quick shake, hard squeeze of an arm, or twist of a collar was allowed. The primary disciplinary threat was exile, being sent outside the circle of their love.
Belle had stumbled into a clearing in her own house where she was unwelcome. She didn’t like this new house anyway, with her parents’ bedroom upstairs and hers down below and miles away. Darlene had tricked her into moving with promises of goodies and a private swimming pool. Darlene had assured Belle she would make new friends in Encinitas—things parents said to get their way. Belle had traded the friends who understood her jokes for a canopy bed, a Barbie Dream House, and a turtle. She hadn’t even held out for a puppy.
* * *
“Hey, doll face,” Lance said softly as he entered the laundry room, as if trying not to frighten away a dove.
“Are you okay?” she sputtered from her dryer perch.
“Of course I’m okay, baby,” he said reassuringly.
“I saw Mommy sitting on top of you, choking you,” Belle whispered, “and when she turned around, she had her demon face on.”
“Mommy’s sorry,” Lance said. “She didn’t mean to scare you. She was surprised to see you. You scared her as much as she scared you.”
“I don’t think so, Dad,” Belle said, wiping her drippy nose with the back of her hand.
“I think so. She was right: we were just—” He stopped, thinking of tantric terms, and then used the limp, “making love.”
“If that’s making love, I’m going to be a nun.”
“You can’t,” Lance said. “We’re not Catholic.”
“We could convert,” Belle said. “Or maybe I’ll just try screwing.”
“Where did you learn that word?”
“Mom,” she said.
“Great child-rearing technique,” he said to himself.
“You married her.”
“Mom,” Belle said. “Do you like her?”
“Of course I do. I love her,” Lance said quickly. But realistically he knew it was the reflexive “love” of married couples treading choppy water.
“I don’t like her,” Belle said defiantly. She looked into Lance’s eyes to register his reaction, and saw the pinprick of hurt; she’d scored a direct hit.
“Sure you do,” Lance said. “You just may not like her today.”
“Why do parents want to know what you feel, and then tell you that you don’t feel it?” Belle asked. Right then, Belle really did dislike Darlene. But this was the first time she’d said it aloud. Even Belle knew that pushing her father away wouldn’t work. She understood that while parents agonized over preferring one child over the other, kids didn’t. If they preferred one parent over the other, so be it. Belle favored Lance; she always had. She looked up to him literally and figuratively. He was the Zeus of her world, loved and feared. She wanted to tell him everything. And he wanted to hear it—but that didn’t mean she’d make it easy on him. Especially after whatever weird thing he was doing with Mom.
“I do want to know what you feel, Belle.”
“I don’t belong here,” Belle said. “I want to go back to Barstow.”
“We can’t,” Lance said. “Mom’s got a job here.”
“You don’t, Dad. Why not leave her here?”
“We’re a family.”
“She could visit us on weekends,” Belle said. She resented that her mother kept saying the move to Encinitas was good for all of them, but it had mainly been good for her. She was so consumed with being busy and driving a new car and buying shoes at Nordstrom’s that she didn’t seem to realize that she had dragged them all out of Barstow and away from their friends and stranded Belle in the dreaded Rancho Amigo Elementary School. And Mom expected her thanks, as if it were an improvement to fall to the dregs of the school food chain. “Or we could come here on weekends. I could handle this place on weekends.”
“Is school that bad?” Lance asked, as he reached into the full laundry basket beside the dryer where Belle was sitting and pulled out a fitted sheet.
“Worse.” Belle’s mouth was squeezed into a knot.
“Here,” Lance said, “help me fold the sheets. I never get the fitted ones right by myself.”
Belle slipped off the dryer. She faced her father with her palms up. He flicked the far end at her and she caught a length of elastic. They were silent as they sorted out the corners, retreated a few steps away from each other to stretch the sheet straight, and gave it a shake to flatten it between them.
“I miss my friends,” Belle said.
“You have friends here,” Lance said, tucking one corner into its mate. “What about Sam?”
“He’s a boy.”
“I’m a boy.”
“You’re a dad,” Belle said dismissively, walking toward Lance to relinquish her corners and taking up the fold they’d made below. “I miss my real friends. I miss me with my friends. No one gets me here. They’re too stupid.”
“No, they’re not,” Lance said.
“See? I tell you how I feel, and then you tell me I’m wrong.”
“You can make friends here. It just takes time,” Lance said, and then he turned his attention to finishing the sheet to stem the flow of stock parent statements from flying out of his mouth.
Sensing she’d pushed too far, Belle said, “You’re my best friend.”
“Me, too,” he said, carefully placing the folded sheet in an empty basket beside the full one. “C’mon. Help me crack eggs.”
“You smell funny.”
“Like baby powder,” Belle said.
* * *
Lance led Belle into the adjacent kitchen; she choo-chooed behind, her hands on his hips. He opened the stainless steel refrigerator and gathered the eggs, milk, and grated cheese, then transferred the armful to the granite kitchen isle. He reached for a Pyrex bowl from a cupboard, bent for a whisk from a drawer, and placed both on the counter. Then he began to crack eggs with Belle beside him. He handed her the whisk so she could scramble, then asked, “Eggs for you, too?”
“No,” Belle said. “I want Cinnamon Toast Crunch.”
“Deal,” he said. “But you have to have O.J.”
“Gag me. It tastes yucky with cereal.”
Belle shrugged and said, “Let me see your neck.”
“To check for strangle marks.”
“Why would Mom strangle me?”
“I don’t know,” Belle said. “You tell me.”
“You missed that yolk,” Lance said, ashamed. As they stood side by side in the kitchen, with Belle’s wild head of black curls at Lance’s hip, he experienced such a feeling of oneness that it scared him. How would he pull himself back together if something happened to her? He relished these moments of gooey eggs on their hands; the brush of his arm hair against Belle’s; and the simple knowledge that Cinnamon Toast Crunch was his daughter’s favorite cereal, having vanquished Lucky Charms and an austere period of plain organic yogurt.
This quiet harmony Lance and Belle shared was what he had imagined he would experience with Darlene as their marriage ripened. Instead, as the newness of their passion waned, a gulf had appeared between them, competitiveness entered the void, and, it seemed to him, a desire on Darlene’s part to assign blame. He still wanted to bridge that gulf, but wasn’t sure how.
Lance was a go-with-the-flow guy in the choppy waters of a marriage in flux; his instincts were to dive under the wave and catch the next one. He fought that gut feeling, and tried to hang on to how it used to be. In the beginning, he had welcomed Darlene’s vitality: she glowed in a way he didn’t. It was as if the sun were a desk lamp aimed at her. Sure, she had a vulnerable side that he connected to, a flurry of self-doubts that she wasn’t afraid to share with Lance. In the early days, he had been her father confessor. But it was her passion that attracted him; other women had seemed as dull as faded denim in comparison. She dreamed big and included him in those dreams. And yet Lance hadn’t anticipated Darlene’s restlessness, how she courted drama and then retreated to Lance to smooth her ruffled feathers. Lance gazed down at Belle and the bowl’s frothy eggs: was he selfish for still wanting someone who laughed at all of his jokes? Shit, yes, but that didn’t change a thing.
Lance and Belle looked up as Darlene click-clacked down the tile stairs from the bedroom to the great room, which was open to the kitchen where they stood scrambling. Darlene clattered across the Spanish tile floor in a khaki suit with a pencil-shaped skirt slit high on one thigh; her orange silk blouse was open deep at the neck, and long orange cuffs drifted out in casual irregularity from her blazer’s tailored sleeves. She wore high orange Coach sling-backs and gold chandelier earrings to sex up the suit even more than her body naturally did.
Lance didn’t let himself acknowledge that Darlene was dressing for someone else. He preferred his wife in floating India cotton dresses that were sheer when she stood against the sun, revealing legs that might have been shaved a few days before, or not. He missed the days when her toenails were half-ass painted, done while they sat together on the couch and watched sitcoms, laughing more at them than with them, their ratty sofa bed mirrored in the TV set. Often she would straddle his lap during the commercials and they would have mad make-out sessions. (“Giddy-up, horsey,” she would joke.) The next day he might find small patches of hot orange or inky blue-black on his knees or thighs, smudged toe-prints. He never scrubbed them off.
Now Darlene got professional manicures. She waxed her legs. Having crossed the tiled great room, she swooped down on Belle, kissed her lavishly, and said, her eyes wet with tears, “I’m so sorry, honey. I love you. I feel so bad.”
Belle, dry-eyed, received the flood of kisses. “Drama queen,” Belle said.
“Drama princess,” Darlene responded. She slipped her heavy gold chain over her head and put it around Belle’s slim neck, before boosting herself up on a barstool. She pulled the San Diego Union-Tribune closer to her and skimmed the newspaper while awaiting her eggs. “Since when did the high become eighty-five?” she asked.
“Since today,” Lance said.
“What happened to high of sixty-eight?” Darlene asked.
“That’s yesterday’s news, Darlene. Today’s high is eighty-five, low fifty-five,” Lance said, switching on his objective weatherman voice.
“Do you need a green screen with that weather report?” Darlene joked.
Lance raised his right arm robotically, finger pointing authoritatively, and continued, “Offshore winds, morning gusts to fifty miles per hour.…”
“Cold today,” Belle said, mimicking his monotone, “hot tamale.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have worn silk,” said Darlene.
“Keep your shirt on,” Lance said. Belle stifled a laugh.
“I so totally don’t need a Santa Ana this week,” Darlene moaned, as Lance served her breakfast. She was already a bundle of nerves wrapped in barbed wire, even before that morning’s mishap. She wished she were at her best in these situations but, swamped by work pressure, she was watching herself behave like her own evil twin. Next Saturday—only four days away—was the grand opening of Darlene’s Diner, the corporate outgrowth of the kooky little café Darlene had opened eight years ago in Barstow. The new restaurant on Balboa Avenue in a Pacific Beach strip mall was the prototype of a franchise that was supposed to ultimately go nationwide.
Darlene had had the idea of scheduling the restaurant’s opening on Belle’s eleventh birthday, and had invited 250 adults and kids to the birthday bash. Projecting from her own desires, she had assumed her daughter would love a huge party. Belle, to her credit, was not quite buying the commercialization of her own personal holiday. She had no desire to stand in the shadow of a life-sized Barbie cake. She shunned crowds in general and couldn’t be less impressed by the area’s premiere kiddy band, Barry Beige and His Scary Monsters.
The nascent Darlene’s Diner franchise had started modestly enough in a battered Barstow trailer. After eight years of hard work, Darlene had shuttered her funky but successful café the previous January. The Ramsays had moved to Encinitas, persuaded by Darlene’s new business partner, Alexander Graham Marker, that she would make a mint if she went national. It was her ticket out of that desert backwater, and she had bet the farm on the future business with a down payment on their Pacific Breeze villa.
Darlene carried the dual worry of future success and present mortgage payments as she stepped away from the countertop, her breakfast half eaten, and left the house to drive south toward Pacific Beach, returning once for her car keys and a second time for her new sunglasses. She raised her cheek for Lance to kiss. (She smelled like a department store.) “I fucked up. Sorry,” she whispered, and then turned her face to return his kiss even though it meant smearing him with newly refreshed lipstick. She tried to hold still in the moment, but she was moving too fast on the highway of her to-do list. She pulled away, then paused to look into his eyes and asked, “Is everything okay?”
“Sure thing, babe,” Lance said. That was not entirely true. But given the pressure Darlene was now under, Lance knew his wife couldn’t handle any added stress or uncertainty, so he sucked it up. She would have exploded if she knew he was holding anything back; that wasn’t the type of relationship she believed they had. One thing was for sure, Lance and Darlene hadn’t made a baby that morning. Pass interference.
From there the morning sped up. Lance bused the breakfast dishes and loaded the dishwasher. The countertop crumbs dust-busted; the granite sprayed with Fantastik and wiped clean. Lance did a quick inventory of the Girl Scout cookies (he had volunteered to be in charge of distribution for Belle’s troop), and noted on a handwritten list taped inside the pantry door how many mothers he had to call to remind them to pay up. He dreaded those collection calls.
Meanwhile, Belle dawdled putting on her Girl Scout uniform in front of an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants that she claimed she’d never seen before, but even Lance had seen it twice. He began to get frustrated that she wouldn’t put on her socks and shoes, so he entered her room to get her backpack and discovered from a flyer on Belle’s desk that today was the deadline for the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center field trip money. He lacked exact change, which sent him upstairs. He riffled through his pockets, then Darlene’s, until he found $10 in singles and change. It was only then that Lance realized he was really looking for something else (a pack of matches, a pink crumpled phone memo), some transparent evidence of suspected misdeeds. He found nothing.
When Lance and Belle climbed into the van, he slid his coffee mug into one cup holder; she slotted her chocolate-milk box in the other. He fumbled for his Wayfarers; she pulled them off his head and handed them over. “Buffalo Springfield or Hannah Montana?” she asked, fingering the CDs.
“How about a compromise: Judy Collins?”
“Too depressing,” Belle said.
Lance pulled out of the driveway, passing their neighbors the Montoyas’ Mediterranean Revival mini-mansion, and the scarred earth of the building sites to the right, the new homes with their glowing white driveways, the industrial greenhouses that emitted a pasty sweet jonquil smell.
“So, if Mom wasn’t choking you, what exactly were you doing this morning?” Belle asked, although she had her theories.
“Some stuff kids don’t need to see,” Lance said, and paused, searching for the right phrase. “Like their parents having sex.”
“So, that’s what making love is?”
“Yep,” Lance said.
“I still don’t get it,” said Belle. “I used to think parents made babies if they shared the same bed, but that’s not right. I’ve laid in bed with you and nothing happened.”
“Don’t go there,” Lance said. They passed Encinitas Park, where a lone Mexican nanny rocked a carriage in stoic boredom. Farther down the road in front of a sun-bleached and seemingly vacant Italian villa, a gardener pruned poinsettias.
“Also,” Belle continued, “a man and a woman don’t have to be married to have babies.”
Lance nodded. “True.”
“And I think I get the penis and vagina thing.”
“You do?” Lance said with a strained chuckle. He wanted to be truthful about sex but he didn’t know the appropriate way to string the words together. “Maybe you can explain it to me.”
“Julia told me.”
“The girl with the tattoos?”
“And the pierced tongue,” Belle said, nodding.
“Charming,” Lance said.
“Julia lisped when she first got it done, but now she can talk normally. Discussing sex didn’t freak her out like you guys. She said it’s like a plug and an outlet. The man’s the plug and the woman’s the outlet.”
“When did Julia start working at Home Depot?”
“She said when you add mouths and butts, everyone has outlets.”
Their next-door neighbor, Coco Montoya, passed them in her gold Lexus with daughter Jade strapped in the backseat. Mrs. Montoya braked and flashed Lance a smile, teeth sharply white against fuchsia lipstick. She raised her fist to her ear and mouthed, Call me; cookies. Lance rallied a noncommittal finger-point and nodded.
“What else did Julia say?” Lance asked, parking in front of the school.
“It’s not just about babies.” Belle looked down and pulled up her green knee-highs. “Julia said sex is fun. And sometimes boys do it with boys, and girls do it with girls, but Sam and I agree that’s way gross.”
“If you knew all this, why did this morning freak you out?”
“I wasn’t freaked out, Dad.”
“You were, too, Miss Blotchy Face sulking on the dryer.”
“Maybe a little.”
“Okay, I was, too.” Lance wanted to confess how useless he was explaining sex to her, but that wasn’t particularly parental. He was supposed to know how to do these things.
“Hey, Dad, if making love is so fun, why did Mommy look pissed off?”
“Don’t say pissed off, honey. You sound like a trucker.”
“And saying penis doesn’t?”
“A trucker would say something else.”
“Penis, penis, penis,” Belle chanted until the school bell rang. She opened her door and hopped out of the van. Her Girl Scout skirt wafted up like a Fantasia blossom.
“That went well,” Lance said to himself as Belle crossed the lunch court and swished behind a pillar. She was brighter than Lance ever was. Gifted, according to the Barstow teachers; reading seventh-grade level in second grade, but still with the sticky emotional life of any other little kid. He knew Belle saw things in him that he was unaware of himself. Fatherhood was such a huge responsibility to be better than you really were—more vital, fearless, and decisive—but the truth was kids saw you at your worst, too. They could sense every change in routine, every hiccup in tone of voice. They could sense every whiff of sex or attempts to cloak it, even if they couldn’t deduce what those clues meant.
If Lance had more kids, he reflected, at least he could benefit from his mistakes with Belle. The instinct was to protect your kids; still, you could take that too far and have children that clung to your pant leg whenever they encountered a carpenter ant. But it was impossible to protect them from yourself, from that part of you that was so ingrained you stopped seeing it, like a mole on your cheek that you didn’t recall having until your kid asked with a poke, What’s this, Daddy, this brown thing?
Lance realized that this day was already going askew, although he couldn’t entirely blame the Santa Ana winds, rumored to make you crazy. (In junior college, he’d studied that increased positive ions irritated serotonin levels, inspiring hyperactivity, nervous imbalance, and road rage, among other unpleasantness.) He was going to have to steer in the direction of this emotional skid. He had largely lived in female-dominated households since he was Belle’s age, and was prepared for swift changes in emotional direction.
It had been different when he was a little kid, before his parents separated and he’d become the man of the house by default. Until he was ten, he lived in a five-bedroom New Jersey Tudor on a rolling lawn that swooped down to its French Colonial neighbor; a house built for a level of entertaining and child-rearing his parents never achieved. Lance had run with a pack in that upscale suburb. There were no playdates, no plans, no organized sports; just his best friend Carl, whom he’d known since before they both could walk, and all the brothers and sisters and cousins and neighbors who swirled around like lightning bugs in their mass games of hide-and-seek that spread from lawn to lawn and backyard to backyard and into the bramble beyond. All fences could be climbed. Lance had been so certain of his place that he’d been unaware he had one until he moved with his mother to California when he was ten. That was a shock.
Lance drove slowly across the tracks for the Coaster commuter train and then braked at the light before turning left onto Coast Highway 101. He wondered whether it was possible that he craved another child so that he could finally have another male in the house. That was too Freudian an explanation. What he wanted right now was a Starbucks; that was far less complicated.
Copyright © 2010 by Thelma Adams
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