Chapter 19

San Francisco : 2003


The driveway of Judith’s friends’ house was paved with hexagons of pink limestone placed half an inch from each other in a honeycomb whose edges were now green with alien planet weeds and chive-like grass. A good third of the hexagon tiles were cracked, and another third had been pushed up crooked by some root or acute shift in the surface tension of the earth underneath over the years. The driveway ran to a garage whose dust-caked windows matched the color of the acrylic frost letters spray-painted on the giant foam-board train on the front lawn. The letters on the train spelled: “HAPPY 6TH BIRTHDAY VICK!”

The house itself was a Craftsman bungalow. Squat stone pillars propped up its roof, which was missing a few gray shingles. Its porch was covered with crunchy brown leaves and the white-dried plastic parts of a dismantled toy car. Ben wondered if the jungle where his friend Marin lived these days was half as wild and weathered.

“Bessie’s grandmother left her this house when she passed away ten years ago,” Judith said. “Bessie took that as a sign that she should quit her residency and go back to filmmaking. Elliott was freelance consulting then, so they would go on these long road trips in Elliott’s station wagon, filming the desert.”

Ben had met and talked to Elliott and Bessie at prior children-friendly events of Judith’s med school circle. Elliott was now a “Nationally Bestselling” author of Lord-of-the-Rings-reference-laden career advice tomes and charged $12,500 per engagement to summarize his published philosophies for a live audience. Bessie had finished a general practice residency at some point, had made partner at her group practice a few years ago, and now worked three-day weeks. Ben got the sense that Vick saw both of his parents a lot.

Ben and Judith had parked in the street and walked on the crooked pink hexagons towards the house holding hands. Ben could hear the sugary peals of first graders at play. Was he really okay with possibly never making/having/raising sugar-voiced munchkins of his own?

As if to answer this unspoken thought, a khaki-pantsed primate cub scampered up the concrete path at the left side of the house yelling “I AM NOT PRECOOOSIIIS!!!!” It was followed by its tired-faced, cool-eyed mother. The first grader was wearing a David Byrne “Look into the Eyeball” T-shirt and the white Y-shaped wire of a pair of MP3 player earbuds dangled from his ears, the unplugged stereo jack bouncing against David Byrne’s silk-screened nasal septum.

Judith waved hello to the mother, the wife of a close friend of Judith’s from med school, as the woman reached down and grabbed a few square inches of the back of her son’s shirt, which, amazingly, stopped and quieted him in one fell swoop.

Judith and the mom proceeded to make the small talk of small talk pros.

“I am not precosis,” the boy said to Ben.

“Oh, that’s good,” Ben said. “Precocious people are the worst.”

“Really?” the boy said. “Worse than third graders?”

“Oh, maybe not as bad as third graders,” Ben said.

“The third graders at my school are really mean to the first graders,” the boy said. “When I’m in third grade I’m going to be nice to the first graders.”

“Did you introduce yourself to Ben and Judith?” Precosis’s mom asked him.

“But see, if you start talking to some person already, are’s you still supposed to introduce?” the boy asked.

“‘Are you still supposed to introduce yourself?’” Precosis’s mom corrected. “It is rude to interrupt other people while they are talking, you’re right. But as soon as there is a natural pause in the conversation you should still introduce yourself even if it feels awkward.”

As a teachable moment to Young Precosis, everyone proceeded to awkwardly introduce themselves to each other, and the woman, Anne, with mom-given authority, led the three of them back down the concrete path to Bessie and Elliott’s garden.

The music playing—which Ben did not recognize, and Ben considered himself something of an audiophile—was not children’s music. The party’s adult population seemed to be composed almost exclusively of reluctant doctors (like Bessie), famous-on-the-internet types (like Elliott), and stay-at-home parents (like Anne). The children—ten first-grade boys and four girls, aged two to six—had taken the giant foam cones, balls, cubes, and loops (meant, Ben supposed, to inspire the young people’s dormant stores of creativity) from the giant mesh basket in the middle of the lawn and had turned them all into weapons with which they were waging an intense (if rather talky) war with each other.

Precosis joined the side of the war that possessed all of the foam cones, MP3 player earbud wires still dangling from his ears.

Anne left them by the yard gate and joined her husband by the smoking grill. Bessie, mother of the birthday boy, saw Judith and Ben come in and came to welcome her new guests. After hugs hello, Ben gave Bessie the wrapped book of artsy puzzles that they had bought for Vick (Ben’s selection: Judith had wanted to give Vick money).

Bessie took the gift without looking at it, thanked him and Judith, and said, “Are you guys thirsty? We have pink lemonade for the kids and adult lemonade for the adults. Are you hungry? We have hot dogs and well-done hamburgers for the kids and brats and medium-rare burgers for the adults.”

They both asked for adult lemonade, extra “adult.”

Bessie laughed, rolled her eyes, and said, “I think we may have ran out of ‘adult,’ but I’ll see what I can do.” She hopped onto the porch, opened the spring-locked screen door, and went inside, letting the door spring shut behind her.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the suburbs,” Judith said, more wistfully than dryly.

Ben put his arms around her waist, and Judith laid her cheek against his shoulder.

Judith had been the one to bring up the fertility issue during one of their recent couples therapy sessions. It had been left unresolved, but Judith was adamant about the fact that, even though she did want to have children in theory, she would not under any circumstances subject her body and their relationship to in vitro fertilization, egg donation, or surrogacy. Ben didn’t want to adopt. He wanted Judith, but he also wanted his own children.

Ben had actively lived his life to this date in order to keep himself far from such zero-sum choices. How had he gotten so far into this relationship—moved in with a woman—without properly grooming active forks to major outcomes? Independence ensured choice, and vice versa. However, choosing an independent individual as a partner apparently did not ensure independence or choice.

Elliott came over with their lemonades. “Hey Judith, Ted,” he said, handing them sweaty tumblers of sunny liquid with kayaks of ice-maker ice in them. “So Bessie says you guys moved to Bernal Heights a few weeks ago?”

Ted was Judith’s ex-fiancé. She had met Ted in med school, and they had lived together while Ted completed his residency and Judith her Ph.D. They had gotten engaged in 1996, before Ted had left for a Doctors without Borders assignment in Haiti. Ted, shortly after his arrival in the Caribbean, had fallen in love with an MSF epidemiologist and had broken off his engagement to Judith via voicemail message. Judith had moved back to the Bay Area later that year and had lived alone at her place in the Sunset until two months ago when she and Ben had moved into a two-bedroom in Bernal Heights together.

“Ben,” Judith corrected.

Elliott smacked his forehead. “Sorry, Ben. Oh my god. It’s actually, one of Vick’s best friends is named Ted, that’s probably why I... I know Ben. You’re working for the design magazine and the art gallery, and your parents run the inn on Martha’s Vineyard that Bessie used to stay at when she was little.”

“You’ve just had too much ‘adult,’” Judith said.

Ben laughed.

“What?” Elliott said, looking over his shoulder at Vick and the other children. Vick and Precosis were hitting each other with foam cones. The other children were standing around them in a ring and hitting them on their backs with other foam pieces. “Bess! Bess!” Elliott called out to his wife. “I’m sorry,” he said to Judith and Ben, and ran down to the yard to enforce an armistice.

After Vick’s party wrapped up with cake, singing, and presents two hours later, Ben and Judith drove back to the city and had a quiet dinner in the Richmond—Burmese food—and then walked to Ben’s friend Max’s new place on 18th Avenue for his housewarming party.

Max was renting a three-bedroom with two roommates: a video games artist named Pierre (with whom Max had been living for the past year in Oakland) and a new one. Max had found both roommates on the internet.

At nine-oh-five, Judith and Ben were some of the first guests to arrive. However, both Pierre and the new roommate Ho had invited their respective “best friends” over for pre-party preparations, which in the case of Pierre meant a tall, blonde French girl with pink cheeks named Celeste, and in the case of Ho meant a petite, bespectacled, be-cardiganed Jewish girl named Rebecca.

The pre-party preparations had involved light cleaning, the emptying of one bag of pita chips and one bag of tortilla chips into bowls, and the setting-out of bottles of alcohol and plastic tubs of hummus and salsa on a table, so when Judith and Ben arrived the three boys and two girls were lounging on the two couches in the living room, at least one of which Ben was certain had come from a city sidewalk.

Max was slouched down on the far end of the blue couch with his feet hooked on the edge of the coffee table, guitar in lap, picking out the opening vamp to Seven Nation Army. The knotted butt of a spent joint stood straight up in a tiny pile of its own ashes in a makeshift aluminum foil ashtray next to his feet. Ben smelled denim brand cologne.

“Welcome to the par-tay, Benjamanno,” Max said.

“Not much of a par-tay yet,” Ho said.

“That’s because all one hundred people who didn’t RSVP are going to show up at eleven,” Max said.

“Or they remember how far is Richmond, no?” Celeste said.

“My friends, help yourself to some toothsome refreshments, my friends,” Max said, strumming a single G chord lightly.

Judith opened the best-looking bottle of red and poured glasses for everyone. They got into a heated discussion about the new Todd Haynes movie, and more people started trickling in. Soon enough it was ten-fifteen, and the apartment was packed with twenty-somethings dressed for much fancier neighborhoods than the Richmond.

Ben used to love Stanford parties. He used to love (truly!) finding out that his Anthro 112 study buddy Paul had gone to high school with that Peter guy that he’d driven down to Coachella with. He used to love how diverse the party crowds were in terms of race, nationality, and sexual orientation and how uniform they were in terms of age, intelligence, political affiliation, and cultural predilections. He used to love making the rounds and coming upon a debate about a controversial New York Times article or unexpectedly intriguing NPR story that he’d just been discussing the other day with someone else.

It wasn’t just Judith that had changed things. Ever since his MBAD article about the Sausalito potters had spurred a record sixty-seven letters in response, ever since one of his favorite Mud23 artists had followed his advice regarding a major installation detail and mentioned the adjustment (and Ben by name) in an online interview... Ben had felt impatient with both the anachronistic traditions of his elders and the scattershot, trial-and-error methods of his peers.

Two hours into the party, Ben went to the bathroom and got separated from Judith.

Alone, from the steep vantage of five glasses of wine, Ben breezed through a conversation with some investment analyst friends of Ho’s, had Jorge and Maya Reynolds in stitches with a satiric recounting of Vick’s birthday party, played devil’s advocate with Nazneen in a protracted and pointless argument about the Pure Homeland attacks, successfully deflected Celeste’s drunken attentions onto a grateful Max, and found Judith in a corner talking up her favorite Inner Sunset places to one of Pierre’s coworkers and the coworker’s wife.

Feeling the warm, soft, inward curve of Judith’s waist in his hands after what seemed like a very long time without, Ben whispered in her ear a single syllable: “Home?”

Judith and Ben walked back to Judith’s car along Clement Street at midnight, cold lines of sleet icing their cheeks. The sky above them was fogged over: gray, matte, a closed door.

“I do want children,” Ben said. “I may have viciously mocked the parents at Vick’s party for Jorge’s amusement tonight, but there’s something really amazing about it too: seeing the next generation grow up. Protecting them, pushing them, trying to guide them.”

“Yes,” Judith said, “and you should have that.”

“But I want to be with you more than I want that,” Ben said.

He looked at Judith: she gave him a face full of brave. She didn’t need him; she didn’t need anyone. And yet, Ben could sense the silent, invisible static cling of her longing for it to be true. For him to be true.

“Are you sure?” she said. “Are you sure you don’t want someone more... eggy?”

Ben laughed. “I’m sure,” he said. “You’re the one I would want to raise children with. You’re the one I would want to everything with.”

When she kissed him, Ben felt the last of his own childhood—all the fear, the confusion, the waiting for the grownups for this or that—melt away just as surely as the shaves of ice caught in the twisted wool of Judith’s gloves melted against the warmth of his neck.