Children have neither a past nor a future. Thus they enjoy the present -- which seldom happens to us.
-- Jean de La Bruyere
'David seems tense," said Ollie. I waited for him to collect his tea and change from the kid behind the counter before I responded. "So you noticed? I think he's really stressed. We have to move into some apartment downtown tomorrow, where we'll have to stay for at least a week while our floor is being fixed. We have tons of stuff to take care of before then, but today is Bella's birthday party, so we're going down to my mother's in Chula Vista. David's afraid I'll never want to leave."
We reached Ollie's truck and I gave him a hug goodbye. He hopped in behind the wheel but, seeking his advice, I stood between him and the door. "David enjoys hanging out with my family, but he doesn't want to be there for six hours when he's got all this other stuff to accomplish before tomorrow," I said.
Ollie's brows moved closer together, conferring with each other like caterpillar kings. "You two need an exit strategy. You don't want this to turn into another Iraq," he said.
"But what if I do want to stay longer than David does?"
"Just remember -- exit strategy. Make one before you head down there and all will be well." Ollie shut his door, signed off with a half-wave, half-salute, and drove away. I considered these sage words from my take-no-bullshit friend while I made my way into the elevator and then down the long hallway to our home, where I would notify my busy life partner that it was time to go.
We arrived an hour before the party was scheduled to begin, a morsel of information I withheld from David as we gathered our things from my dirt-encrusted Corolla in front of my mother's house.
"Wait a minute," David said, his voice laden with trepidation. I stood impatiently and watched as his gaze floated from the minivan in the driveway to the two SUVs parked nearby. "There are going to be a whole bunch of kids here, aren't there."
"Duh. Two-year-old's birthday party. What did you expect?"
Responding to my tone of annoyance, David explained. "It's fine, I don't mind. It's just that I have been so busy with other things that I forgot to mentally prepare myself to be surrounded by children."
"Are you prepared now? Let's go," I said, already taking quick strides toward the front door.
Once inside, I scooped my nephew Brian into my arms and kissed his cherubic cheek. I followed the melodic sound of laughter into the kitchen and found Jane, Heather, and Mom poking fun at my mother's frosting-painted version of Dora the Explorer, the bilingual cartoon star. I remembered my fourth birthday, when Mom had made a perfect replica of my favorite cartoon character, Bugs Bunny.
"Don't you think that's going to frighten the children?" Mom asked now, gesturing toward the blend of colors that formed Frankenstein's version of Dora. She explained that when dressing the cake at three in the morning, she didn't have the right tools for the frosting job and had to improvise.
"I'm sure they won't care," said Heather. "It's cake. It contains sugar. They'll love it."
There had been a Dora piñata at my nephew Liam's birthday party. Heather and I had watched in horror as the children decapitated their television friend. Later, as though recounting a scene from a Freddy Krueger nightmare, Heather said, "That head hung in our backyard for a week, just swinging back and forth." Now I prepared to witness the same kind of atrocity -- a room full of sugar-craving Chuckys would surely attack this girl-cake with fervor, the perversity of which had never entered my four-year-old mind as I licked the remnants of Bugs Bunny from my fingers so many years ago.
A few minutes later, my sister Jane caught up with me in the dining room, where I was examining the gift bags -- pink with a pattern of white hearts -- for the 22 children soon to arrive.
"I know, I know, it's sexist, but they're going to like it," Jane said. It took me a moment to realize she was speaking about the bags' contents -- half of them contained toy race cars and the other half held miniature makeup kits.
"I'm not judging, Jane," I assured her. "When I was that age, I know I'd have preferred the makeup to the car. Actually, I kind of want one now." Jane laughed, on the assumption I was kidding, so I quashed my hopes of walking away with a pink party favor.
Children began to arrive in clusters, each group beelining straight for the backyard, where they would climb into the giant, inflatable Dora bouncy thing set up on the grass. Grown-ups sat in the chairs that had been lined up to form a barricade between the patio and the pool. Originally, Jane had wanted to put up chicken wire, and had even purchased it; the wire sat stacked and unused beside the house, because someone had come up with the not-as-institutional-feeling chair idea. Squeals of delight echoed throughout the yard as the kids chased each other in and out of the bouncy thing.
"Doesn't all this chaos make you want to have kids?" Simon asked me.
My initial reaction was to laugh. "Uh, no. But I'm happy my sisters did. That way, I can experience some of the fun and then go home."
"What was it you said? 'When I'm bored with my life, I'll think about having kids?' That was funny," remembered Simon.
"That was actually my friend Nancy's comeback for when people pestered her about when she was going to start breeding," I said. "But now David and I have decided that when we're bored with our lives, we're going to get a dog." Simon laughed, and I felt comfortable in the knowledge that he did not judge me for, nor did he feel judged by, my jokes -- I see this as an indication of a man who harbors no doubts about his choice to become a daddy, which is obvious when I watch him interact with Bella.
I sometimes fear that the young parents in my life (my sisters and a growing number of friends) mistakenly assume that childless-by-choice people like me hold them in judgment. Kids are great for people who want them.
I like my life. I have no desire to be a mother. This does not mean that I look down on the women who happily make that choice. Just as some young mothers may envy my "freedom" (e.g., the ability to fly to New York to see a Broadway show without a second thought), I can appreciate the joy that their children bring, and I respect them for their decision to procreate. After all, if my sisters had not chosen to become mothers, I wouldn't have Liam, Bella, and Brian, three little people I love dearly and for whom I am grateful.
Bella ran by, a blur of black velvet and blue sparkles, a magical way to be snapped from my reverie. Three hours had gone by so fast, but both David and I felt the pressure of the tasks that awaited us at home.
"Let's wait until they do the cake," I said. "I want a piece of Dora." Children emptied out of the huge bouncy thing in the backyard and marched dutifully into the living room when "Cake!" was announced. I smiled to myself at the idea of emptying one likeness of Dora just to fill up with another.
I couldn't see the candles through the frenzy of short people huddled around the sugar source, which is why it took me a moment to catch on that after Bella had blown out her candles they were re-lit so that each child had a chance to do the same. Each spit-filled blow further diminished my desire for cake. That must be what I did to Bugs , I thought. Oh, to be a child again and to not worry about something like a little spittle-filled frosting .
I grabbed a chocolate-chip cookie from the cupboard to sate my sweet craving and, with regret, implemented our exit strategy, which began with a series of hugs and kisses from "An Baba."