"Looks like you've got your hands full," says the dad who is wearing his baby in a purple tye-dyed sling. "I don't know how you do it."
I look down at my double stroller and feel like crying. Gabriella has just tossed Henry's sippy cup to the ground and apple juice is streaming down the sidewalk. I lean over, pick it up, shake the rest of the juice out, and put it in the cup holder attached to the stroller. Henry screams. If he could talk, he would be saying, "Give it to me!"
"I'm sorry, buddy," I tell him. "It's dirty now."
"It's dirty," Gabriella echoes. "Dirty, dirty, stinky dirty!"
The man laughs and holds out his hand. "I'm Dave," he says.
"This is Maddy." We both peer at the little girl in his sling. She's cute, with lots of curly blond hair and big blue eyes that are shaped just like Dave's. I wave to her and she stares at me. "She's shy," Dave says.
"How old?" I ask.
"Nine months," he says. "What about yours?"
I make a sweeping gesture toward the stroller. "Gabriella is three and Henry is eleven months. I'm Linda. My hands are more than full. They're overloaded."
He laughs. "Well, I give you kudos. It's hard enough with one, let alone two."
"Tell me about it,"" I say. For some crazy reason, I want to run into his arms and rest there, just for a few minutes. He's wearing Birkenstocks, which I usually hate but on him look good. He doesn't have hairy toes and his feet are nice and tan. He has on faded Levis and a green tee-shirt with paint splattered across the right arm. I glance around the park, crowded as usual for a Thursday morning with kids, mothers, nannies, and an occasional father. It's ten o'clock and I am already counting down to one o'clock, when the kids go down for a nap and I can finally get some peace and quiet. It's sad that I feel that way, but it's true. It doesn't help that I have no support. My husband, Dan, and I split up when Henry was three months old because he had an affair. It wasn't just an affair, according to him, but it was the relationship of his life, the one.
They met at the supermarket because he was buying diapers -- and I sent him there. If it weren't for me being lazy and not having enough diapers to get Henry through the night, he would still be here with us. That's what I always tell myself, but it doesn't help the embarrassing pain that creeps up on me at odd times, like standing here talking to Birkenstocked Dave. The worst part of it all is that the woman he had the affair with is a divorced single mother, just like me. She wears curlers in her hair and drives around an old mini-van that barely rivals my new Town and Country cruiser. So what makes her more special?
He does pay child support, and a lot of it. Things could be worse. I could be working and never see my kids. His child support frees me up to write, which I have always wanted to do and now have occasional time for, plus he takes them every other weekend, which you'd think I'd be happy about but I'm not. I miss them constantly, even when they are there with me, even when I think I just can't do this anymore.
"How long have you been here?" Dave asks, shifting his weight. "It's getting really crowded."
I check my watch. "About an hour. I was going to give them a little juice break, but I guess they aren't interested."
"We just got here," he says, glancing down at Maddy's head. "I was going to set her free and let her crawl around in the sand a little. Would you care to join me?" The lilt in his voice sounds like a pick-up line gone wrong, and do I detect a hint of nervousness?
"Sure," I say. I bend down and unhook the strap around Gabriella's waist and she runs toward the slides. I get Henry next. I pull him out slowly and he hooks his arms around my neck. "Babababa," he says, and he buries his face in my shoulder.
Dave laughs. "He's cute. I like his shoes."
"Thanks. I bought them on sale at Target. They're the rip off of the name brand and they fit exactly the same way."
"Gotta love Target." He takes Maddy out of her sling as we walk over to a bench with our babies in our arms and sit down. I am dying to ask him why he is here and what his story is. Too early though. We watch Gabriella slide down the big girl slide and turn to me with glee when she reaches the end. I clap my hands and she smiles, then climbs back up for another turn.
I glance down at his ring finger. Just a farmer's tan of a thick band. His hands are nice, too. They remind me of giant paws.
"Should we let them play?" I ask.
"Let's try." We get up and walk over to the sand. We put them down and Henry crawls slowly. Maddy sits and runs her hands through the sand, fascinated. We laugh. "I love babies," he says. "They're so much fun."
He must be a part-time dad. Sure, it can be fun, but it's not a picnic when you're dead tired from lack of sleep and trying to change the diaper of a baby who is wiggling everywhere but where you want him. Or when you just settle into bed and hear the piercing cry of a baby who won't sleep. Or when you have to tackle the poop-up-the-back episode alone while your partner sleeps in another town with another housewife.
"They're wonderful," I say.
Then I do the most awful thing imaginable.
I start to cry. Not just light crying, but the hysterical, people-staring, what-am-I doing, I-am-never-going-to-live-this-down, cry.
Henry stops crawling and stares at me. Maddy looks at me and sticks her finger in her nose. Dave reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small packet of tissues. He takes one out and holds it out to me. "Blow," he says, and I do. Nosily, because what do I have to lose now? Henry crawls into my lap and touches my face. Gabriella comes running over and crouches down on her knees to look at me.
"Are you okay?" she says in her tiny voice. "Why are you crying?"
"Mommy's sad, that's all."
"Mommies just get that way sometimes," I say. I reach over and stroke her hair. "Don't worry." She looks uncertain.
"Really, sweetheart. I'm fine. Go play, okay? The slide looks like so much fun!"
Her face breaks out into a huge smile. "It is! It's so big and I slided down it!" she yells.
"Good!" I say, smiling through my tears. "You are such a big girl!"
She runs back to the slide. I turn around and face Dave. "I am so embarrassed." I know my nose is bright red and my face is blotchy. I look horrible when I cry.
"Don't be," he says firmly. "I understand."
"I feel like such an idiot."
"You would be an idiot if you didn't let it out. Just take some deep breaths. Do you want to get some water? There's a fountain right over there. I can watch Henry. No problem."
I take a deep breath. Dave is nice, but he is a stranger. Granted, he has his own baby, so could he really kidnap my child and his at the same time? It would be quite a feat. Plus, the water fountain is literally ten feet from the sand, so if he went to snatch Henry, I could dash over there and grab him, or pin Dave down by hitting him in the crotch.
I decide to go for it. "Thank you." I walk over to the fountain and take a long drink, keeping my eyes on the kids at the same time. The water does make me feel better and by the time I get back to Dave and the kids, I feel a little more human.
"Tell me what the problem is," Dave says, picking up Maddy and holding her in his lap. They are both sitting in the sand and he doesn't care that he's going to be all sandy, too. Dan would have hated it. Henry is still crawling and trying to pull up on a metal, rusted horse.
"Nothing, really. I'm just tired."
"Come on," he says, twisting his face into an evil grin. "Tell Uncle Dave."
I can't help but laugh. "I don't even know you."
"I don't know about that. I think we are intimately connected now. After all, you used my Kleenex."
"But I didn't give it back. That would make us more connected."
He makes a face. "Do you think I would want your snot rag back? I don't think so."
We laugh for a whole minute. The kids are staring at me like I am a nut. Which I am, I guess. Then, before I know what I'm doing, I'm telling him everything. About Dan and his housewife girlfriend, and his new house in the nice part of the valley, and how I feel like a complete and utter failure. I even tell him how lonely I am, how no man is ever going to want me. "I feel so old and disgusting," I say.
"Please," he laughs. "How old are you? Twenty-five?"
"Whatever. That's young. You have nothing to worry about." He grins. "I'm a guy, so I know what I'm talking about."
"You're a guy?" I joke.
He looks down at himself. "Last time I looked."
I laugh again. "What's your story?"
Something changes in his face. "Maddy's mother is a long-time girlfriend of mine who I married when I found out she was pregnant. Maddy was an 'oops' baby. Melinda is already remarried, but we're still on friendly terms. It was one of those things that just didn't work out."
"Oh, I'm sorry." I take Henry's hand out of his mouth because it's covered with sand. I give him a teething ring and he goes to town. "That's unfortunate."
"I'm okay with it. She lets me see Maddy whenever I want, and that's the important thing," he says. He ruffles her hair fondly. "She's my girl."
Gabriella runs over to me. "I'm hungry," she whines.
I check my watch and am surprised to see it's noon. Time for a quick lunch and then naps, finally. But I am surprised by the fact that I don't want to leave. I want to stay and talk to Dave. He doesn't even feel like a man, let alone a cute one. He just seems like a new friend. "We've got to take off," I say reluctantly.
"Yeah, us, too." He picks up Maddy, who sobs and rubs her eyes. He cups her head gently. "It's okay," he says to her. "We're going to go home and have a nap. How does that sound?" She stops crying and looks at him, trusting.
My own kids, without crying, get into the double stroller with my help and wait patiently for me to wheel them back home, back to the life and routine they know: Lunch, nap, playing, snack, dinnertime, and then bed. My dreary life is just as predictable. Pretty much the same as theirs, except mine also includes some half-hearted writing attempts after seven o'clock when they go to bed, and usually ends with some bad reality television before falling asleep.
"Are you going to be here tomorrow?" he asks, once we've got all of our kids settled.
"Yeah," I say casually. "And you?"
"I try to make it three days a week," he says. "But for you, I will be here tomorrow." He bows. "At your psychiatric service, madam."
"I usually come around ten."
"Ten it is." He leans over Maddy in her purple sling, takes her hand, and makes it wave at me. "Bye, Linda," he says in a high-pitched voice. "See you tomorrow!"
I wave back at her. "See you!" I coo, and she smiles.
Then we take off in opposite directions. Halfway down the block, I turn around, and he has turned around, too. He smiles and waves, then turns and walks toward his home, which he told me was a mile away from the park. I find myself whistling as I head toward my own house, strangely hopeful.