Trent brings Oscar to their first playdate ever, at Arlo’s house. The dads immediately become closer than they’d ever anticipated.
The knock at the door, as always, caused a commotion in the house. Hope, in her beloved bouncy chair, banged out a rhythmic echo of the knock on the toy tray before her, and Steady shot to the window to peek through the sheer curtains at the potential intruder. (His repeated urging for the family to invest in a portcullis had thus far fallen on deaf ears.)
“Calm down, everyone,” Arlo said soothingly as he walked to the door. “It’s just Oscar and his dad. We talked about this, remember?”
“Checks out,” Steady said, his tone serious, as he stepped away from the window and shut the curtains. He retreated to his corner of the living room, from which his unit-block cityscape was once again sprawling into master-planned exurbs.
As he unlocked the door, Arlo shook his head in wonder at the gears that turned inside his son’s mind. He pulled it open to find Oscar, strapped to his father’s chest with keys still firmly in hand. His dad looked slightly less tired but still a bit ragged. His smile, though, was warm and genuine.
“You made it,” Arlo cried, as if they had overcome some great obstacle in summiting the three steps onto Arlo’s front porch.
“We come bearing gifts,” Trent said as he stepped through the doorway.
“Ooh, is it in Oscar’s diaper?” Arlo replied with a laugh.
“Hilarious,” Trent deadpanned. “Here.” He brought his arms from behind his back; one hand clutched a bottle of champagne, and the other a pink box wrapped with string. “Are we allowed to stay now?”
“You’re the hilarious one. I was kidding, you know.”
“And I pay tribute to your wit by taking it very very seriously. The cake is from this bakery near my house I’ve been by a million times but never stopped at. Then last week I was talking with a client and found out it’s apparently the hot thing among the cupcake-and-macaron set. Who knew?”
“Wow, a cake with a backstory.” Arlo held up the tidy pink box and regarded it solemnly. “And does the champagne have some intrigue in its past?”
Trent shrugged. “I had a case of it. Never really drink it myself.”
“And yet you happened to have a case of it?”
“That’s a story for another day.”
Arlo smiled, though he sensed there was something in that story Trent would prefer not to mention—or even think about. “Let’s head back to the family room. The place is baby-proofed to within an inch of its life, so the little mister and the little miss can roll about until they’re dizzy and we can just kick back and watch.” He held up the cake box and bottle. “And get tipsy and fat.” He set the food on the kitchen counter, then scooped up Hope from her bouncy chair and led the way down the little hall to the cozy playroom in the back of the house.
“Like there’s an ounce of fat on you,” Trent said, looking at Arlo’s waistline as he stepped over the baby gate into the room.
“I have managed to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight, thank you for noticing.” Arlo patted the flat and firm belly of which he was unironically proud. “I’ll just have to work out for an extra hour on Monday.”
“I remember working out,” Trent said with a sigh. “It’s all I can do to get some crunches in when he’s in his post-breakfast food coma.”
“Well, it looks like you are getting plenty of them in,” Arlo said, returning the glance at Trent’s trim waist.
“Now let’s ruin all our hard work by eating cake and drinking in the afternoon.”
“Or….” Arlo glanced slyly at Trent. “We could have ourselves a little crunch-off while the kids play. Then when we hit the pastry and bubbly we’ll have earned at least the first bite.”
Trent cocked an eyebrow. “Crunch-off?”
“First one to flop has to eat his piece of cake with a baby spoon.”
“Oh, it is on,” Trent said, unbuckling Oscar and setting him on the floor next to Hope. The kids picked up their parallel play immediately, aware of each other but content to simply glance sideways at each other rather than fully engage.
The dads, however, were fully engaged. They settled side by side—head to foot, so as not to bump elbows—and began to count out sit ups. They contented themselves with smiling placidly at each other, as if the first hundred crunches were no big deal, but as sweat began to glisten on their foreheads they started to exchange G-rated trash talk each time they rose from the carpet to meet.
“I could do this all day,” Trent said, his voice carefully devoid of effort.
“You’re going to have to,” Arlo replied breezily.
They pumped through the next hundred, making the occasional jovial taunt at each other as they counted.
The third hundred was a little rougher.
“Fudge,” Trent grunted, clearly alluding to an alliteration he couldn’t make in the presence of babes.
“Filberts,” Arlo replied, his breath too short for more than a single word.
“Funicular,” Trent huffed.
This continued for several dozen more reps, until their store of f-words was as depleted as their reserves of energy.
Finally Trent looked Arlo right in the eyes. “Draw?” he said.
“Best idea… in the… world,” Arlo managed, then flopped back just as Trent did the same.
They lay there, side by side, panting, for several minutes. It wasn’t until Hope and Oscar both crawled over to, and then over the top of, both of them that they roused from their respective swoons.
Arlo tried to sit up, but was obstructed by the flames that raged where his abs used to be. “Ohhhh,” he moaned.
“You can say that again,” Trent muttered. “We may need to call 911 to get a crane in here. I don’t think I’m getting up any other way.”
They slowly, achingly, agonizingly struggled to a sitting position, then were able to leverage themselves on the sofa to get to their feet.
“I’ll go get the cake—and two baby spoons,” Arlo said with a winsome grin.
“I’d eat it with both hands tied behind my back right now—you are Olympic with your crunches, man. I’m dying.”
“I was only trying to keep up with you,” Arlo said. He poked Trent in the belly. “This is your fault.”
“Ow, no poking,” Trent cried, but he laughed all the same.
“Hang tight, I’ll be right back,” Arlo said, stepping over the baby gate.
“Tight’s the only option right now,” Trent replied, rubbing his belly.
Arlo opened the pink box to find a beautiful cake about the size of two donuts stacked one on top of the other. It was decorated with a doll maker’s precision, with tiny icing roses and a smooth gradient of color on the side from a hint of pink near the top down to deep magenta at the bottom. “Wow,” he said to himself. He pulled two champagne flutes down from a high shelf and popped the cork from the bottle. He put the cake on a plate which he then set on a tray. He pulled two baby spoons out of the drawer and set them next to the plate, then put the flutes on the tray as well. He carried the tray down the hall, carefully stepping over several toy cars and a ball that had rolled into the hallway at some point.
“Time for sugar and booze,” Arlo called as he stepped over the gate without spilling a drop of champagne from the full flutes. Waiting tables through college continued to pay dividends. He set the tray down on the large leather ottoman in front of the sofa—in the middle, so it was out of the grasp of the kids, who were both trying to pull themselves up the slick leather side. Arlo reached over and wound up the mobile hung from the fabric-covered arches atop the colorful mat spread out on the floor. Both Hope and Oscar were drawn to it like moths to a flame.
“To daddy time,” Arlo said, holding one of the flutes aloft.
Trent took the other one, and they touched their glasses together.
“This is nice stuff,” Arlo said. “Especially just to have lying around for no particular reason.”
Trent regarded the bubbles rising through the pale golden liquid. “I bought it for a special occasion, then ended up with no one to drink it with. Can’t think of anything more pathetic than drinking a bottle of champagne alone.”
“That’s why I stick to scotch when I’m drinking alone. Much classier.” Arlo laughed and took another drink of champagne. “Now, this is the most amazing cake I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I could defile it by sticking a fork into it.”
“Heh. Watch and learn,” Trent said, picking up one of the thick plastic baby spoons. He stabbed into the cake, scooping out a large chunk and balancing it carefully on the spoon. “Open the hangar, here comes the airplane!” He swooped the spoon up and around, spiraling in toward Arlo’s mouth.
Arlo’s mouth, of course, was fully occupied by laughing at the very idea of a grown man being fed cake with a baby spoon. By another grown man.
“Come on now, eat your cake,” Trent prodded, trying to enunciate through the laughter he couldn’t seem to control.
Finally Arlo opened his mouth just to keep Trent from waving the cake around in front of him. He popped the mouthful right in.
“Good boy! That’s how you grow big and strong. And fat. And next time I’ll slaughter you at the crunch-off.”
“Oh, no way,” Arlo said. He picked up his baby spoon and with surgical precision he excised a chunk of cake easily twice the size of the one Trent had just fed him. “Open the roundhouse—the train’s coming in.”
Trent took in a breath to laugh but found his mouth full of cake.
“That’s a big boy,” Arlo cried, tearing up from laughter.
As with the crunches, neither man was willing to relent. They fed each other the entire cake, even taking a couple of breaks to wash it down with champagne. The last swigs in their flutes they actually tipped into each other’s mouths.
Full of cake, they flopped back onto the sofa.
“Well, was interesting,” Arlo said finally.
“And delicious,” Trent added.
“And delicious,” Arlo agreed.
“Wasn’t your wife going to be here?” Trent asked suddenly.
“She had to stay an extra couple of days,” Arlo said. “It happens.” He gave a little sigh. “It happens a lot.”
Trent nodded. “What does she do?”
“She started an organic baby food company as a senior project in college. It was supposed to be a simulation, but we got pregnant like right after graduation and she decided to make a go of it. Steady’s first year she spent in the kitchen getting her recipes right, and then she went to work building the business and I went to work taking care of Steady. Her company got purchased by a private equity firm last year, which I thought meant we would see more of her, but they not only wanted her to stay and run it, they have all these plans for expansion. This week she’s in London, looking to see how they can source the necessary ingredients for their European expansion.”
“Wow, that’s really impressive.”
Arlo nodded. “Cara’s brilliant, she really is. And while she’s made sacks of cash for her investors—even for her professor, the one whose class she did the project for, who bought in early on—her dream is to use the proceeds of what she sells in developed countries to start sustainable farming and production in places like Africa. It’s like she’s on a mission to end world hunger, starting with babies. And because she’s Cara, she might just accomplish it.”
“She sounds amazing,” Trent said. “I assume that’s her?” He pointed to a framed portrait of the family.
“It is. We finally were able to make—and keep—an appointment with a photographer last fall so we could get a picture taken for a holiday card.”
Trent leaned forward to look at the photo. “She’s… beautiful,” he said. “I mean, you all are, but she’s….”
“I know. I get that a lot.”
“As long as you know how lucky you are.”
Arlo looked at him with a mostly pretend scowl. “Are you implying she’s out of my league?”
“Not at all,” Trent replied. “I just have had such lousy luck that I hope you realize how great you have it.”
“I do,” Arlo said. “I really do.”
In their champagne-fueled daze, they lolled on the couch digesting cake for the next hour or two and talking about all the things 10-month-olds can get up to. They both seemed to lose track of time, and the kids were endlessly entertained by having someone their own age to play near—and, eventually, with. Steady wandered in and out, checking in every once in a while just to confirm he was indeed being allowed to fully colonize the front room of the house with his block city. Normally he was limited to an hour or so, and was required to check the spread of the suburbs before they reached the legs of the coffee table.
It wasn’t until the lengthening shadows of coming dusk began to be seen through the windows that Arlo realized how much time must have passed.
“Hey, how about we get these guys some dinner?” he said.
“Oh, wow, look at the time,” Trent said. “We should really get going. We don’t need to be in your way the whole day.”
“You’re not in the way,” Arlo scolded him jovially. “Unless you have somewhere else to be?”
“You know the life of nonstop excitement we lead. No plans. But we wouldn’t want to impose.”
“It’s no trouble at all,” Arlo said, getting to his feet. “Now, is there anything the two of you don’t eat?”
“Honestly, Oscar hardly seems to bother with food. He’ll eat pretty much whatever I put in front of him, but he’s not one of those kids you see on YouTube who hoots and dances when their favorite food is put on their tray.”
“Then you’ll be endlessly entertained when Hope hoots and dances,” Arlo replied with a laugh. “Girl loves her some kidney beans and carrots. And what about you?”
“I’m like Oscar—I eat anything.”
“Okay, how about this. Let’s get the kids some finger foods, and maybe Hope can teach Oscar some Youtube-ready dance moves. Steady’s got some mac-and-cheese left over from last night, and he can eat that every day until forever. Then, once everyone’s fat and happy, we can order in some Thai. Have you tried that new place down on Fifth?”
“No, I haven’t. I’ve never actually taken Oscar out for dinner, and I’m usually too tired at the end of the day to stay awake waiting for stuff to be delivered. That’s why I make a week’s worth of food on Sunday. Saves time, and keeps me from eating crap all week long.”
“Well, you are in for a treat. I’ll grab the menu for the Thai place, and you can drool over it while I get dinner for the kids. Then we’ll have grownup dinner.”
Trent smiled. “I haven’t had dinner with anyone who’s not Oscar or a client in… God, it must be more than a year.”
“I am honored to break your streak, sir,” Arlo said with a gracious bow. “Now, let’s roll this entourage into the kitchen and get to work.”
Arlo had low hopes for the whole dinner experience, honestly. He and Cara had been together for so long that in the kitchen—as in the bedroom—each seemed to intuit where the other was and what they were up to. Sharing his kitchen with someone he knew so little about was sure to be a collision-filled mess.
But much to his surprise, Trent and he formed a capable and dexterous team, much as if they had picked up a game of two-on-two basketball. In short order they had prepped plates of kidney beans, steamed baby carrots, and some pureed fruit, which they set in front of the delighted Hope and the stalwart Oscar. Steady plowed through his mac-and-cheese, with some carrots on the side, with the same determination he brought to his urban planning work.
“So, what looks good?” Arlo asked, nodding to the Thai menu Trent held in one hand, while with the other he shoveled kidney beans toward Oscar’s grasping fist.
“I cannot decide,” Trent said simply, shaking his head. “You get what’s good, and I’m sure I’ll love it. Just no octopus, okay? Oscar has a book about octopi, and I made the mistake of looking them up on Wikipedia. Turns out they’re, like, the smartest things in the ocean.”
“Gotcha. No octopus,” Arlo said. “How hot are you?”
“I haven’t had any complaints.” Trent pouted male-model style and ran his hand through his hair.
Arlo chuckled. “I meant how spicy do you want the food to be? They go from, let’s see… smiling baby up through… dragon. Looks like a really angry dragon.”
“I’m definitely an angry dragon. There’s no such thing as too hot, far as I’m concerned.”
“We shall see about that, sir,” Arlo said. He picked up his phone and called to place the order, then set his phone down. “It’ll be here in a half hour.”
“That’s pretty quick,” Trent said.
“You’re forgetting it’s only five-thirty in the afternoon. Normal people—meaning those without kids under the age of one—aren’t even thinking about ordering dinner yet.”
“Poor people. Don’t know what they’re missing.”
“What they’re not missing is sleep, adult conversation, and not serving as a napkin for a tiny human with terrible table manners,” Arlo said, pointing to the sleeve of his shirt which bore markings of everything Hope had eaten that day.
“Be honest now,” Trent said. “You wouldn’t trade what you have for something as trivial as sleep, would you?”
Arlo glanced at Hope, then back over his shoulder where Steady was once again back at the construction site. He shook his head. “Not for sleep, not for anything in the world,” he said solemnly.
“I thought not,” Trent replied. “And good for you.”
“How about you? Ever think about what you’re missing by being a single dad?”
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about what life could be like,” Trent said. He lowered his voice as if Oscar could understand his every word. “This wasn’t what I had planned, to be perfectly honest.”
Arlo nodded—this was not exactly a surprising revelation, given Trent’s manner thus far. “How about we finish these guys up, and then we can settle them back in the playroom? Hope’s got about three minutes before she craters for at least an hour.”
“Oscar’s the same. I’m surprised he’s still awake, actually.”
“Excellent. There’s plenty of room in Hope’s napping spot for two. Then we can have some adult conversation over dinner while Steady takes his bath.”
Trent looked astonished. “That’s the most amazing plan I’ve ever heard. You are a miracle worker.”
Arlo smiled. “It’s not exactly rocket science.” He hefted Hope to his shoulder and started down the hall.
“Maybe not, but you make it seem so easy.” Trent followed along, bearing Oscar.
“I think you’ve been making it harder than it needs to be.”
Trent considered this for a moment. “I guess I have. It’s felt like Oscar and me against the world for so long… I don’t even stop to think how much easier it might be to have someone to talk about it with.”
They laid their charges down and, true to form, both were asleep within seconds of hitting the crib mattress. The dads exchanged thumbs-ups and tiptoed back out of the room.
“Bath time, buddy,” Arlo called to Steady. The boy set his blocks down and cast a worried glance across the room he had completely metropolized. “You can leave it tonight. Special treat. And don’t tell Mom.”
Steady, smiling widely, stepped carefully around his buildings and threw his arms around his dad. Then he raced up the stairs and was gone.
“He can run his own bath and everything?” Trent asked.
“We got him a floating thermometer, and he gets the water to precisely thirty-eight degrees before he gets in. Don’t be shocked, but he’s a little anal retentive.”
“Thirty-eight degrees? Is he taking a bath or a polar-bear plunge up there?”
Arlo laughed. “He insists on metric measures. It’s because Cara bought him his first unit blocks from Sweden. We set him on the wrong path, clearly.”
“I think he’s an amazing young man,” Trent said. “You’re doing a great job.”
“Thanks. But the longer I spend with kids the more I realize they come to us already being the people they are. Good parents help their kids make the best of what they’ve already got.”
Trent shook his head slowly. “Everything you say makes me feel like I’m maybe not such a screw-up as a parent. Where have you been all my life?”
Arlo, who had no idea how to respond to something like that, was relieved of the need to by a knock at the door. “That’ll be the food.”
“Let me get it, okay?” Trent reached for his wallet.
“You brought cake and champagne—I can get dinner.” Arlo opened to door and received a box with a several containers neatly stacked within it. He handed the delivery boy cash enough for the food and a generous tip for heeding the sign begging for the doorbell to be used only as a last resort should knocking not produce results. He stepped back into the house and closed the door with his foot.
“Wow,” Trent said. “Did you order one of everything?”
“One of everything that had octopus in it,” Arlo joked, setting the box on the dining table. “Sit. I’ll grab plates and stuff.”
Arlo hurried into the kitchen and returned a moment later with plates and forks and cloth napkins. “We have beer, and wine—though I’m afraid we don’t keep any champagne on ice. I did get a couple of Thai iced teas, though, if you’re into that sort of thing.”
Trent inhaled deeply, hovering over the boxes of food. “I’m beginning to think I’m into exactly the same things you are.”
“You might want to wait on that judgment until you’ve found out what I’m into.”
“If we end up in hell because of what you’re into, I’m good with that. As long as it smells like this.”
“Wait, are we still talking about food?” Arlo asked, wondering if he’d been distracted from the repartee by opening boxes and stabbing a serving utensil into each.
“Sure, food,” Trent said with light insinuation in his voice.
“Good. Glad we got that settled. Now, you have to try this,” Arlo said, holding up a forkful of steaming hot pad thai. “They do noodles like no one else.”
Trent smiled, showing he understood Arlo was going for a repeat performance of this afternoon’s cake incident, but he didn’t seem to care. He opened wide, and Arlo’s fork went in.
“Oh my God, that’s incredible,” Trent said.
“Wait for it…”
Trent coughed a little, though he tried to hide it. “And incredibly spicy,” he wheezed.
Arlo handed him one of the iced teas, and he took a deep draft.
“Wow. Angry dragon indeed.”
“Still into what I’m into?” Arlo asked with a wink.
“Hell yeah. Now, which of these is the hottest?”
Arlo pointed at the container marked 40-B. “That one,” he said.
Trent grabbed it up, and stabbed his fork into it. “Open up, baby.”
Arlo did what he was told.