The field trip was almost over. Myself ,this man, and 5 children (having been abandoned by the other mother who took the two kids she was with and decided we could have the third ‘extra’, that was originally to be shared by all) were gathered at the small lab-created island near the gate. I believe the entire class was supposed to have met there at a certain time to conclude the trip, yet it appeared only myself, this father, and the five various children in tow had followed protocol. The children were becoming overwhelmed , his daughter insisting on wanting papers and coloring books that my son had picked up free at a booth as we trailed behind them moments earlier. I sent my almost 6 year old son to escort her to the booth (seeing-distance away) to get her the same things.
The two other girls sat together looking at something, and the remaining boy climbed the island rocks, which had a rope guarding it and a sign to the effect of “Don’t climb on the island”. We pretended not to notice as he followed his daughter with his eyes to the booth. They returned, bearing more coloring books for the rest of the kids, and probably more than were needed. The rest of the class still not showing up, the man asked me if they had decided to just cancel the meet-up and stay at the playground area, where we had just left, putting shoes back on all five protesting 5 year olds, counting heads, collecting lunch bags and jackets.
“Looks that way”, I said.
“Hmmm”, he said, unsure of what to do, as if the situation were so complex. Now my son was also climbing the island, and his daughter, with the boy’s name and beautiful short , somewhat unruly strawberry blonde hair, was back to whining and imploring him for some new thing she wanted to have or do. He looked around, clearly annoyed with the situation.
“I’ll be back in a minute”, I said, making my son get down off the rock with the fake “neat-o” voice I had learned never fails with kindergarten age kids. “Let’s go see what’s in there..” and led Jr to the zoo store. He zipped around looking at stuff as I tried to rein him in asking him if he wanted a treat and what kind, an he started to take out way too many of every variety of the striped candy sticks.
“No, No, pick one flavor you like the best”. He did, and I picked the same for the other 4 kids, gave them to him to distribute. The other kids were thrilled with this ridiculously overpriced piece of sugar. He started the obligatory “What do you say?” and I just smiled at her, knowing the torture of parents who put children into that horrific “thank you, kind sir” constantly.
I apologized for not asking the man if it was OK if his daughter was allowed to have one. He looked at me as if I were slightly mentally ill, and said it was fine.
Contrary to the past theories of sugar making children into hyperkinetic agents of satan, the candy made them all seem to focus and at least stop making as much noise. He asked me something, a routine pleasantry that I hesitated, or stumbled over, or answered with not enough of something or too much of something, that it made his brow furrow. I think it was about vacation plans this summer. I told him I was not going along on the cruise, or the amusement park trip. I did not look at him until the end of this statement. He nodded. Long minute of silence. My face felt hot, my mouth dry. I longed for the candy the children had and wished I had bought one for myself.
I sat down at the end of the row of children to my left, who were engrossed in watching bugs crawl in the bricks and a loose brick they kept turning over and replacing. The man again started looking around, and almost pacing. He was average height, slightly built and sharp faced, the movement of his head almost like an eagle. His hair was of that indeterminate coppery sandy color, and of a rough texture, and very short. The way he scanned and watched for the children was a completely different way than I did, I noticed this when we were at the playground area. He accounted to me that he was going to the swings to push his daughter, a combination of “this is where I will be”, and “you take over”. I was surprised he did this but after the way he was at lunchtime, and the fact he paid for most of the kids train ride (except mine, my doing, feeling bad that the other mother and the rest of the kids were on his dime).
“OK” (half hearted smile), and turned back to make note of particulars about what the other 4 were wearing, or something about them to help me keep track of them.
He started talking about Nantucket and Father’s Day, how he was leaving that night (“that’s right, boysname, you can sleep on an airplane”)… I knew Nantucket was on the east coast, but that was all. It was better when we were just quiet and uncomfortable. I desperately wished he hadn’t started this new train of conversation. I nodded. Another half hearted smile, quick look, look back down. Oh God, it was my “turn” to say something. He saved me from this despicable moment, with something even worse. “so, we will see you at the school in fall, then?” . It wasn’t said brightly, either. It as said as if he had put 2+2 and thought this was the best question to answer all further questions.
I drew a deep breath, and looked up, took of the sunglasses that had by now become smudged and damp.
“I don’t know. I might (a slight stutter here, not an official one, but headed in that direction, only a 1.5 ) , might have to move”. I clenched by jaw, pressed my lips together before I knew I was doing it, and felt that awful itch in my nose that meant the worst was about to happen. I looked down. His feet, in nicer shoes than a zoo trip should warrant, that were in motion before, turning this way and that, scanning for the other parents, stopped.
I stood up for fear he might sit down near me, and thankful he waited long enough for me to pick myself up, as I tried to regain dignity . With horror and embarrassment (or was it fear?) I almost recoiled as he touched my arm . “I’m sorry” he said. He looked at my hands , an obvious check for what was the appropriate thing to say. “I hope things get better (tiny iota of a pause) .. for you”, or something like that. How he could think of things to say, every pause, every word measured-that quickly frightened me yet impressed me. But “it” was over.
There would be no more awful questions now.
” That’s why it is better this way”, he said to the air , looking away. “No custody fights, no anger, no blaming. ” I listened, happy to be an audience for his proclamations, hoping he was about to lead into some boring rant about counseling and mediation and people ending up “friends” ,and that would conjure enough contempt I would stop feeling this way, at least.
I was so relieved he was not asking about me, I didn’t even follow some of what he said, or perhaps I couldn’t hear, except the part “when my wife died”…my mouth fell open .
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know that, I thought you just had custody”.
I recalled seeing them, he, the daughter and the grandmother the little girl had called “Oma” at the book fair where I had volunteer cashiered the week before. They were the first ones there. He seemed overly thrilled when I found the last copy of a children’s book for his daughter, and asked my name and introduced me to the grandmother, made the daughter thank me, which she did enthusiastically . I had wondered if this fey little creature was perhaps spoiled (although this scenario was missing something for it to be that) by the two obligatory late in life parents, and recalled seeing him drop her off in a car that looked to be expensive, at the time, passing judgement that the mother worked when she didn’t have to, and the little girl went to the afterschool program until 5 not being picked up by her mom like myself and the other mommies who stood and endlessly yakked as the children played on the playground atfer school let out.
Now I understood the introduction, the after-school program, all of it. The flush of shame rose in me. I looked at him helplessly and swallowed. I didn’t ask when or how, and wasnt about to. This was the kind of “opportunity’ the other moms would savor as far as knowing exactly the right consoling phrase and tone to take- but I, having been thrown off by my own tears so recently could only stand there and silently cry more but this time I didn’t look down, I looked straight at him, my pain being less than his I would not allow myself vain or prideful gestures when I had so little else to offer as far as words- the tears ran fast and hot, though silently for him, for my judgements, for the sound of his voice when he said “my wife” , his love for her in death possibly stronger than any man had loved me alive- then felt awful for my own self-pity- for his daughter whom I was looking at and wondering if her mother looked like her, as she did not favor her father much, and how that must add to it for him. My stomach tightened, longing for a full on sob, but I held it back with a deep, sinusy sniffle, which sounded bad, but was better than a sob or a vocalization.
I can’t remember anything else that was said by the island, as about then one of the school mothers whom everyone knew came up and he asked her what was happening, she stated that we could just go. He looked at me and I said that sounded like a good idea to me.
As we proceeded to the exit gates and he walked towards the close parking and I walked towards Sloat Avenue where I was parked half a mile away to avoid the five dollar parking fee, I looked back and said to have a safe trip. He sid something, but I can’t remember what he said to that. I turned holding my son’s hand and led him to the trail for the walk to the car. When I felt I was far enough away, yet he was still “back there” , I crouched down and hugged my boy, my face wet all over again. I had no mental sentence constructed to neatly wrap things up.
My son seemed not to notice, having seen this kind of thing before at home, and skipped along, commenting on the trail, the zoo buildings..
I now understood the vicarious happiness in him at the book fair, the inappropriate (I thought) introduction, him not eating at lunch and seeming inability to relax, how he seemed to be regularly checking not only where the children were, but the whereabouts of myself and the other mother as well- making a fuss over the fact his daughter was not finishing the sandwich or leaving a mess. The shape of their new universe and now unintended importance of details , small things, completion. , his determination that she would have her book, eat her lunch , go on the train, and smile.