Monday, March 30, 2009

How to Dress to Meet The Woman Your Ex-Boyfriend Knocked Up and Also--Surprise!--the Baby Who Was Born Two Weeks Early

Beyond eating a fish fry and shopping for SPF that I wouldn't end up using while I was vomitting garden vegetable soup into the a Miami hotel tub, there was one more thing I needed to do while I was in Buffalo for that short time over spring break, and that thing was this: I needed to go over to Keith's and meet the girl I'd been hearing about for a long time. Keith had gotten this girl in the family way before he got her in the wedded way, and since I live six hundred miles away, I'd never had the opportunity to meet her before the engagement or before the birth of their son.

But when the baby came, I informed him that was all going to change. "You better believe I'm coming over to meet her," I said. "And the baby, too."

And so it was arranged. The day after I arrived in Buffalo and a day before I would leave for the ill-fated Miami trip, I drove over to the place Keith shares with his girlfriend and her son from her first marriage.

I parked, adjusted my lipstick, and straightened my clothes. I hoped I looked right. I hoped I'd achieved just the right look: I didn't want to look snooty, prissy, or fussy. I wanted to look low-key and nonthreatening. It's not that I have delusions that women are intimidated by me; it's that I spent a few years being openly attacked by The Big Head--Keith's last girlfriend, a girl with angry eyebrows, a girl who never knew when to shut up. She didn't like me, and she didn't like it when I was at the bar the same time she and Keith were at the bar. But it was all bluster, all cover, all overcompensation. She didn't like that Keith and I were so close, that we were best friends? Well, she ended up leaving Keith for her best friend, who'd been hanging around, dangling on her elbow for years.

It would have given me great pleasure to throw darts at her big head.

And so I was hoping that I could come off as mild and unobtrusive as possible. Mousy, even. Bookish. Sweet and harmless. Just a normal girl who liked her ex-boyfriend enough to keep on being his friend. Just a girl who hadn't even thought about him in a naked way for a good five or six years. I didn't want to spark an argument. I didn't want to be banned. The Big Head had always wanted me banned.

So I walked up the steps to Keith's house wearing dark jeans and a white cardigan. I had silver hoops in my ears. I felt confident this was the right look. And so I knocked.


I knocked again.


I knocked one more time and then stood on my tip-toes to peer in the decorative window paneling at the top of the door. There, through the half-moon window, I saw Keith's girl and the baby, and she was busy rocking him back and forth. Keith was farther off, in the kitchen, hastily throwing things into a trash and tying the bag into a knot.

"COME IN!" he yelled.

"I'm sorry," I said as I pushed through the door. "I'm early."

"No, no," he said. "It's fine. You're okay."

His girl--who, at nine years his senior, is technically not a girl but, as he likes to remind everyone, a cougar--smiled the prettiest smile I'd ever seen. It seemed possible she had extra teeth in her perfect little mouth. She looked younger than me. She looked like a seventeen year old cheerleader--small, petite, peppy. She looked like she might at any minute vault off the couch, toss the baby to me in one small movement, and break into a rock 'em-sock 'em chant before completing her routine with a split across the carpet.

I loved her instantly.

"Hi!" she said brightly.

Keith did a formal but half-assed introduction--he was still tangling with the garbage bag, and I had already asked if I could help him with that three times because I was afraid it was going to leak onto the floor--and then he told me to go right ahead and sit down.

When I was finally seated, that's when I snuck my first real look at the baby. It was sort of an awkward moment. After all, here I was meeting The Cougar for the first time, and she was a few days out of the hospital. She and Keith were tired, flustered, and woozy. And I couldn't stop staring at her--or, more precisely, the baby in her arms.

That baby was gorgeous.

"Oh my God!" I said. "He's too cute!"

"Do you want to hold him?" The Cougar asked, and she raised the baby up, like she was going to pass him off to me.

I panicked. I couldn't imagine handing my baby off to a complete stranger less than three minutes after meeting her, and I couldn't imagine that The Cougar--as sweet as she seemed--was really comfortable doing that either, so I said no, no, thanks, but maybe later.

Of course, I wasn't comfortable either. I suck with babies. I'm a mess. I haven't had much experience with them, so I don't really know how to hold them, how to pass them to someone else. I don't know what they need, what they want, what it means when they make this face or that noise. I've never even changed a diaper. It's just that I feel like I'm a big brute when I'm around a baby. I feel like I will inevitably break or ruin it and then the parents will end up hating me forever.

And I think babies know this. They sense it.

Keith's baby, though, seemed okay with my general presence. First of all, he was sleeping. And when he wasn't sleeping he was fluttering his eyes open, assessing the room, and curling back into another mini-nap.

So we all sat--Keith on the love seat, me in a chair, The Cougar and the baby on the couch--and we talked and occasionally commented on whatever was on the television. And what was on the television was the Game Show Network, which Keith and The Cougar found soothing. They liked the obscure game shows, the old episodes of classic games. They liked the call of buzzers, the drone of announcers, the squeals of excited contestants. It was the perfect background noise for new parents.

Keith gave me a tour of the house and the nursery, which he'd done up with frog decals and frog wallpaper and frog linens. We went back into the living room and talked about The Cougar's son, about becoming a mother again nine years after the last time, about giving birth, about the engagement ring Keith had given her, about shopping for the engagement ring Keith had given her, and about the show Whammy!

"No whammies! No whammies! No whammies!" the contestants were yelling in the background.

"What the hell is this?" I asked.

"Oh come on!" Keith said. "You've never seen Whammy?"

"Oh, it's good," The Cougar said.

"No whammies! No whammies! No whammies!" Keith chanted, pounding his fist in the air. On the screen, the contestant got a whammy, and an animated creature darted across the screen, gobbling up his score.

"Wow," I said.

"This is what we do now," Keith said.

And it was after this--after the talk of whammies, after Keith and The Cougar developed a sophisticated breakdown of how the show worked and why it was genius--that's when I decided that I'd worked up the nerve, that I'd gathered enough courage, that I'd been inspired by the whammies. I was ready. The Cougar had told me that all I had to do was say the word, all I had to do was just mention I was ready to hold the baby, and she'd hand him right over.

"Okay," I said. "Do you think I could hold him now, just for a minute?"

"Of course!" she said.

"Go sterilize yourself," Keith said, and he walked me to the kitchen to help me find something to dry off with--they were low on towels; laundry had suddenly been placed on the back burner--and after he tore me off a square of paper towel, we went back into the living room and The Cougar came over and settled the baby into my arms.

"How do I do this?" I asked. I was afraid of his neck snapping, his head cracking clean off and falling to the floor.

"Just like that," she said, and she went back over to her couch. She stretched. She stretched some more. I wondered how long she'd been sitting on that couch, staring at her sleeping son's face.

Then it was just me and the baby. And what can I say? I was a fool. I was a dope. I looked at that baby's tiny face and fluttery eyelashes and button nose, and I was done for. I opened my mouth, thinking I'd have something sweet and meaningful and comforting to say to the baby, but all that came out was this: "Oh baby-baby-baby! Baby-baby-baby!" I rocked him so gently he might not have even sensed it. His curled-up legs unfurled and pressed against my arms. He took a deep breath and then sighed. He opened his eyes--big eyes, pretty eyes--and looked up at me for a second.

I braced myself. This could be it. This could be the moment when he realized something was wrong, that his mother--the woman who'd been cooing lovey-loves! lovey-loves! into his ear minutes before--was no longer holding him. This would be when the screaming started.

But it didn't. That baby just wiggled his body deeper into the cup of my arms and closed his eyes again.

"See?" Keith said. "He's goooood."

Oh, and he was. He was the cutest, sweetest baby I'd ever held. I couldn't stop looking at him. I couldn't even hear the contestants yelling about whammies anymore. All I could hear was his breath, and all I could see was the rise and fall of his chest. All I could do was keep on saying, "Oh, hi baby! Baby-baby-baby! Oh yes, baby-baby-baby!"

All of it made me very happy. The house, the frog nursery, the towel-less kitchen. The Cougar, her Tina Fey glasses, her tight pony-tail. The baby, his booties, his onesie.

Before I left, before I got in my car and drove to my father's house, a place that wasn't stacked with gifts--diaper cakes, Pack-n-Plays, bassinets, formula, tiny sets of embroidered socks--I asked Keith and The Cougar if they needed anything, if there was anything I could do for them, if there was anything I could run out and get them so they didn't have to worry about it. But they said no. No, there wasn't a single thing they could think of that they needed now.

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