“We’ve got to stop meeting this way.”
He had managed to get away from the group. SBB had stepped in, rerouting the other six mothers and their respective toddlers to the other three corners of the world. She must have sensed my high level of non-threat because she placed Rielynn and me with Nick and Parker.
For a second, he looked panicked again, but then something in the recesses of his mind must have led him on a mental trail back a couple days to the zoo, Juice-opalypse, and the rather uneventful, even relaxing train ride. Without shades to block them, I saw the relief that filled his eyes.
“Right,” I confirmed. “Nick, wasn’t it?” I asked, knowing full well it was. I bent down. “Hi, Parker.”
Parker smiled. “Hi-hi.”
“Hah, hah, hah, hah,” Rielynn, panting like a dog climbed the ramp, dropping to her knees to loudly smack her palms against it to maximize the noise potential of this particular obstacle. Parker, finding her technique fascinating, quickly followed suit.
“Heh, heh, heh, heh!”
“I haven’t seen you here before,” he said. The two kids started back up the ramp, Rielynn slightly in the lead.
“We’d been going to morning Beasts.”
Parker caught up on the down ramp, mostly because he had an impressive tummy slide that worked much better than the meaty pads on Rie’s hands.
I didn’t realize Nick had leaned so close until his breath was on my ear. “The afternoon mom’s are crazy.”
I laughed and turned, started to come nose-to-nose with him. My eyes widened in surprise and we both did a quick step-back. I covered my emotions with a smile.
“So are the morning moms.”
Nick nodded. “I figured they were. Lauren’s friends with a couple of them,” he nodded around the room. “so she really didn’t want me to switch.”
“Your wife?” I concluded. “No, Rielynn!”
Rie had grabbed Parker’s ankle in an attempt to regain the lead. She sat back quickly, eyes faux-innocently wide and held her hands up, chubby fingers skyward.
“Parker, play nice,” Nick warned. Parker gave him a tiny-toothed smile. Then, sensing no imminent danger, they were back at it.
“Yeah, Lauren’s my wife,” he confirmed after we had watched several second of commenced play.
“So you’re not a regular here,” I said, slightly disappointed and not really knowing why except that he seemed normal. Like me, he hadn’t dressed for success. I was hunkered down in my favorite green hoodie and black yoga pants, he in horrible bright blue jogging pants and a grey Star Wars t-shirt.
“I have been for the last couple months,” he corrected. “She goes out of town a lot.”
“Well, it’s nice to see a stay-at-home-dad,” I said.
“I’m not really a stay-at-home dad.” He sank down on the ground and I followed suit. Parker had found a ball and he had discovered the wonders of gravity by pushing it down the ramp. Rielynn assisted by pushing it back up.
He grinned. “I know they told you.”
I laughed. It was pointless to play dumb. Besides, he could see I wasn’t going to eat him alive. “They told me.”
“I take him with me. On tour.”
“How does that work?” I couldn’t imagine taking a toddler on a bus. Or a plane. Or however famous musicians travel.
“I hire a nanny to help.” Nick leaned over and grabbed another ball. I noticed he had a long torso. “Rielynn, here!”
Parker had decided to commandeer the ball. I hadn’t even seen my own daughter about ready to have an end-of-the-world meltdown. She watched the trajectory of the ball rolling her way and clumsily scoop it up.
“Thank you,” I interpreted. Nick smiled. “You’re welcome, sweetie.”
Play resumed. We had spent an extraordinarily long time at the one station, but I didn’t feel like moving, and obviously neither did he.
“I used to make fun of the other guys with their kids, but since Parker’s been born I haven’t really let him out of my sight. I’m not father of the year by any means, and sometimes I think space would be nice. But then I watch him fall asleep or see how happy he is to see me in the morning and it’s worth it, y’know?”
I closed my eyes. “I know exactly what you mean,” I said softly. I couldn’t count the number of times I had thought about running away, sitting on a sandy beach with a margarita in my hand. Or looking at a shirt covered in spit-up and thinking about the days when I didn’t have to smell like three-week old milk. But then Rielynn would give me a random hug or pick me a dandelion and the selfishness flew out the window.
:”Does your husband come every now and then?”
Nick had changed the subject. Unfortunately, the subject was me. I hated talking about my little corner of the universe.
“Charlie’s a doctor. His hours are long and crazy.”
“Parents, switch stations!”
We had taken the ramp away from the others too long. SBB looked right at us after the announcement and we knew we had to get up. We took the balls away with loud protest and then Parker clung so tightly to the ramp that Nick literally had to pry his fingertips out of the foam. He sidled up to me slightly out of breath.
“The bouncy mat?” I suggested. He nodded.
“The second most comfortably place to sit,” he assured me.
The bouncy mat was a hit. Between a bucketful of scarfs, beanbag animals, and the comfort in knowing that even when the kids fell they had little risk of breaking a bone, it was a popular station for kids and parents alike. Nick and I sat at the very corner of the mat. Rielynn ran towards the scarves; Parker the beanbag animals.
“You don’t look old enough to be married to a doctor.”
I laughed. It was pointless to try to beat around the bush. Like a band-aid, I let as much information as I was willing to share rip at once. “I’m twenty-eight. He’s thirty-two. I taught special needs third graders until Rielynn was born.”
“Did you like it?”
I looked over at him. His eyes were glued to me. I blushed.
“I loved it.”
“So why don’t you teach anymore?”
“Charlie wanted me to stay home with Rielynn,” I paused. “Not that I’d want it any other way either.”
“Well, people should get to have their cake and eat it too.”
I leaned forward. Parker and Rielynn were playing tug-o-war with one of the scarves. Rielynn looked like she was having a blast. Finally, a friend whose parent mommy didn’t want to kill!
“Would you guys like to come over to our house after this?”
I looked back at Nick, surprised. He looked hopeful. I looked back at Rielynn.
The answer was easy. I smiled brightly.
“We’d love to.”