The ad for The Daddies must have popped up because I searched for terms like gay adoption and gay parents and gay dads and, inevitably, hot gay dads. They met once a week at the Roxbury Gardens Jewish Community Rec Center, and on the third Sunday of each month, there was an informational meeting called Baby Daddies, for those who were thinking about adoption, surrogacy, or were just generally interested in the wonders of gay fatherhood. According to the website, this particular meeting was a potluck, and those planning to attend needed to bring a dish “suitable for serving ten,” which I thought was a lot to ask of someone who was just thinking about maybe adopting a kid. Maybe. Potentially.
“Just make your world-famous almond butter and jelly sandwiches,” Jack said and paused whatever basketball highlight show he was watching on the iPad. He kept his finger close to the play button though, likely expecting me to agree and praise him for his perfect idea.
“Isn’t that too childish?”
“Isn’t that the point?”
“We want to look like mature adults, who have our shit together and can turn a helpless little human into a big responsible grown-up who pays bills, taxes, student loans.”
“So then just leave the crusts on.”
I live with a man who has all the answers, who wins at everything, who knows how to not die. Jack’s mother took him to a psychic when he was in fourth grade and the psychic told him his life would end on a bicycle. So he never learned to ride. No sweat. I break down when the light over the stove burns out or when a Netflix show expires, just dying all over the place.
Cosmo jumped on the bed and began licking my phone screen. Maybe this was a sign, his way of communicating his approval or loneliness or longing for a new powdery smell in the house, a new delicate skull to nuzzle. I decided right then that I would fill out the new client form and RSVP to the next potluck. If not for me, and if not for Jack, then for Cosmo, who at twelve years old was clearly running out of time.
That night I had the same dream I’d been having for months. I’m in fifth grade at Queen of Heaven Elementary and my math teacher, Mrs. DeVivo, is teaching improper fractions or long division or something. The window in the back of the room keeps blowing open and after the third time, Mrs. DeVivo gets so upset she takes the chalk and draws a giant circle on the board in one beautiful, sweeping motion. The circle is so perfect it’s as though she traced it. The principal is called in and pretty soon the whole class has Polaroids and is snapping photos of the circle and shaking them to develop. The local news shows up with video cameras and boom mics and Mrs. DeVivo is given a cookie bouquet and I start to cry and that’s pretty much it.
The following morning I woke up and washed my face, applied toner and sunblock, and drove twenty miles outside Hartford to get fresh strawberry jam from a hippie couple who looked like they might both be one hundred and fifty years old.
“I have so many wireframes to mock up before the week starts,” Jack said when I asked him to join. “I’m drowning here.”
We’d driven by the stand countless times on the way to his parents’ house in Marlborough. A small, wooden shack right there on the side of the road called Lady Jane’s Jam that wouldn’t be out of place a state fair.
Next time we’ll stop, we liked to say.
“Your aura is beautiful,” the woman I could only assume was Lady Jane said, and she handed me the jam. “Indigo.”
“Does that mean I am patient and nurturing?”
“Sure,” she said and took my money.
Almond butter is the new craze as far as food crazes go. I read somewhere that it cured a teenager in New Jersey of lymphoma. Not that anyone I know has lymphoma but that must mean it does something good. But things change with the season. So far almond butter has received universal acclaim, so I feel moderately safe. I was confident The Daddies would appreciate how on-trend I was healthwise. Health and fitness and muscles.
I recently broke down and joined Equinox for zero initiation fee. It came with a free session with a trainer named Tavi, whom I told about The Daddies because I felt like everyone should know, even Tavi.
“Good for you,” she said. “I can’t have children.”
“Oh, I can’t imagine. I’m so sorry.”
“What for?” she said and laughed and kept laughing. Her arms were like machine guns.
Jack and I hated the idea of a kid. Would poke fun at our straight friends in their hygienic homes, their bi-weekly haircuts, hauling whole soccer teams in their Town & Country. Beep beep! After college, it was save the date after save the date. I flew home to the West Coast for a few of the weddings, but after that I couldn’t keep up. The flights and hotels and registries were getting out of hand. And then came the baby photos, on Facebook, on our refrigerator.
Madison is one and loves mushy peaches and when Mommy sings Adele.
Joey is two and loves blowing kisses but doesn’t like bubble baths.
They lived for their children. No more parties, no more drugs, no more sleep, no more time.
Look at those suckers, Jack would say. We’ll never be like them. We were mountain climbers. We were Thelma and Louise, Lucy and Ethel. We still did ecstasy, cocaine, GHB, K. We had a threesome in Madrid in the bathroom of a ramen shop, a foursome in Tokyo with some dude and his robot. We drank champagne in hot tubs. We flipped off cliffs. We smuggled fireworks across the border. We were Buddhists. We were Children of God. We wore Patagonia in Patagonia.
And then, out of nowhere, we were ants marching. I finished graduate school and started working in publishing and Jack quit his gig in digital mapping to become a full-time product designer at a rideshare company. In terms of life and in terms of doing okay, me and Jack are at about a seven, which is definitely not the worst but also not the best. Like, we’re not both MDs or CPAs scoping out Montauk investment properties. One of us has an MFA and the other a Roth IRA. We could be doing worse.
There’s this girl Cindy I know from high school who started a GoFundMe campaign begging friends and family to help pay her cell phone bill and mortgage and health insurance. She posted videos to Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat of herself pleading for money in weird places like her bathtub or in a closet. Then she was stabbed to death, with an actual sword, by a liquid Fentanyl dealer in Sarasota. No kidding. It made the national news. So I’ll take a seven.
It pained me to leave the crusts on. I felt like the AB&Js were losing a certain tenderness, but still, I slid them into a couple Tupperware containers and drove down Putnam Avenue to Roxbury Gardens. I parked on Canaan Road and walked quite a few blocks, by the tennis courts, the swimming pool, and the picnic benches to the front desk. The security guard gave me a sticker that said “Visitor.” The meeting was held in Rec Room A on the third floor.
Although the parquet pattern of the floor would normally give off an air of sophistication, the room felt genuinely restrained: matte grey walls, sterilized lighting, a broken ceiling fan, and a large, goopy plant hovering beside the only window aching for sun, definitely the sort of place that’s used in the nighttime for some kind of Anonymous meeting. Alcoholics. Overeaters. Online poker. Maybe The Daddies were anonymous, too, but dropped that from the name because it wasn’t sexy enough. Daddies Anonymous. Actually that is pretty sexy.
There was an American flag stuck into a podium that Victor, president of The Daddies, spoke from. He welcomed us all to Baby Daddies and went over the agenda. To tell you the truth, he looked pretty presidential. A young Daniel Day Lewis. Tall, thin mustache, big blue eyes, curved chin. He later pronounced termination of biological parental rights with true grace and aplomb.
Of the twelve or so men in the meeting—some single, some coupled, some holding babies, most holding phones—no one looked tired. Beside Victor there were two men dressed alarmingly similar, both sporting bowties, one green paisley, one purple. Victor introduced them as Michael and Miguel and they appeared rested, their eyes bright and ready. Circling Victor was their little boy, Marshall, who howled and howled and to whom no one paid attention. Was I the only one who could hear him, who was listening? I suppose this is just the deal. It becomes a part of your everyday, the wailing, the cacophony, until you don’t believe it ever existed in the first place. Like Tae Bo, or angel sharks.
Victor went around the circle and asked each of us to tell a story. What brought us here. Why we are interested in starting a family, becoming dads. There was no pressure and you could say anything you’d like. This is basically what I said:
When I was in publishing back in Chicago, my old editor, Li, told me he’d had two lives, and then took two huge bites of his lunch. We were both eating curry chicken salad on the patio of a downtown tea garden, and saw a young woman scoop a toddler up into her arms and point to some mallards swimming in a koi pond nearby. While Li chewed, I readied myself for some sort of reincarnation story and was already scanning through the list of animals from which I’d choose: bald eagle, koala, island dog.
Li told me he had one life before he was a dad, when he was just known as Li, and then a second life after Yuri was born, when everyone in the world started calling him Dad, including his wife. Dad go do this and Dad go change that. “And that’s it. Once you’re a dad, you’re a dad for life,” he told me. “A lifer. Like Charles Manson.”
The meeting had a small intermission and everyone was instructed to grab a plate, snack, and socialize. We were gathered around the table where the food was served. One couple had brought a giant kiwi parfait, next to it an index card detailing ingredients. And by the look of the loopy calligraphy, we all knew who that couple was. There were a few buckets of KFC, some Chinese food, tuna salad with those shredded carrots, and saag paneer, which looked homemade.
“So, Oliver,” Victor said casually, squinting at my name tag. “Do you have a partner?”
I nodded and pointed at my mouth, chewing chow mein dramatically. I never liked the word partner, it always sounds so authoritative to me. I understand it’s both polite and politically correct—a way to avoid any assuming, but it’s like me and Jack were proprietors of our own LLC or worse, that we were being forced to dissect a cow heart together in AP Bio. We’re definitely not doing either of those things. But, to be fair, I don’t like the word boyfriend either.
“I do,” I finally said once I swallowed. “He had to go into the office today. He’s the big man of the house.”
“And what does that make you?” he asked.
“The mom, I guess?” I said. Victor laughed.
The Bowties approached us. In the first half of the meeting they said they were there to answer any surrogacy questions. They pointed to Marshall, maybe three years old, eating his sleeve, and said he was a “miraculous product of surrogacy.”
“Adoption is nice and great and all that,” Miguel said. “But to see your own genetics walking around. Your own bloodline continued. The feeling is overwhelming. There’s really nothing like it.” Miguel looked at Michael proudly.
“And here’s a pro-tip: Make sure your surrogate is a Christian woman with a family. They can carry babies to term, they won’t do drugs, drink, or smoke. Women of faith. They have the most moral wombs.”
“Alright,” Victor said, cutting Miguel off. “Let’s take a little break.”
During the break, Miguel began drilling Victor on the parking at Roxbury.
“It’s abysmal, Vic. We had to park on Bethel today and walk over the bridge.” Michael stood there, nodding with everything Miguel said, unable to put his agreement into words. They had, surprisingly, brushed Marshall aside. He played anxiously with his shirt sleeve. His whole outfit was adorable, long-sleeve white tee, green corduroy overalls with a cartoon panda ironed onto the tummy.
“Well, it looks like it’s just you and me, kid,” I said, practicing my ability to relate to children, which has never been that great. “How’s Elmo?”
“What’s Elmo?” he asked and inched his way closer to the table.
“Let’s look for the best snack. Which one is your favorite?” He eyed my Tupperware of sandwiches and pointed to an overstuffed piece, oozing onto the plate. “Good choice,” I said and winked. I was delighted, validated, like our drifting glaciers had collided fortuitously in the sea. With his tiny hands, he picked the piece up and chowed down until there was nothing left. He licked the tops of his fingers one by one.
“What did you give him?” Miguel asked. He stood so close to me that I could feel his fishy breath warm my eyes.
“Just a little sandwich.” I said. “Funny story, I found out my aura—”
“Just a little sandwich!” Miguel shrieked. “He’s allergic!”
“It’s not peanuts!” I shouted back. “It’s not peanuts, it’s almonds. Almonds!”
“He’s allergic to strawberries. Dumb fucking shithead!”
Michael knelt onto the parquet and began fumbling through his leather baby satchel. I was immobile, anchored to the floor, studying the ceiling fan, the podium, the sappy ficus in the corner. Everything kept going, kept spinning, kept growing. Marshall looked fine. In fact, he was busy tracing the outline of the panda’s ears on his overalls. Only when his small brain registered the panic emanating from The Bowties did his eyes begin to well.
“It’s okay, Marshy. It’s okay, Daddy’s got you.” Miguel was rocking him in his arms. Marshall was crying and the whole room gathered around, offering help and calming Miguel and Marshall down. Victor fumbled in his pocket for his phone. Out of the satchel, Michael pulled what looked like a frighteningly large needle and handed it to Miguel who quickly removed the blue cap stuck it in his mouth.
“Blue to the sky!” he yelled and stabbed Marshall in the leg. “Orange to the thigh!” Marshall screamed, sharp like the blaze of a siren, and the room fell quiet.
“Should I call an ambulance?” Victor asked nervously. Others in the room were already on their phones texting someone, calling anyone, their expressions taut and wounded. Michael stood up and approached me.
“How could you do this to us?” he asked, his mouth widening like a wolf’s, as though I had betrayed his entire pack.
As a kid, I struggled with object permanence until about the age of four, which is way beyond the norm. The idea that something can still exist even though it has been covered up or taken out of sight was beyond me, to the point of terror. My father would play peek-a-boo with me and my sister, Mary-Anne, on the living room carpet. And when he covered his face with his hands, Mary-Anne would try to pry them open, whooping around and trying to tickle him into the big reveal. I, on the other hand, rocked back and forth in the La-Z-Boy horrified and weeping, sure that my father had been abducted. When he’d reappear and see me in such panic, he’d toss me onto his shoulders and jump in front of the mirror so we looked like one person, one giant man. I’m here for you, Oly. This is why I’m here, he’d say. For you.
When I arrived home, I parked the car in the street and sat there numbly with the ignition running. I got a text from Victor telling me not to worry about what happened, that Marshall was fine, that he’s probably not even allergic to strawberries, and that The Bowties overreact to pretty much everything. He ended with the emoji that has the big teeth like eeeeeek!, which conveys how I’ve felt every day since birth. I turned the car off and climbed the steps to the front door. It was late afternoon and our neighbors’ kids, Benji, and his younger sister (whose name I can never remember), were sitting on their porch taking turns pressing gobs of Reddi-wip into each other’s palms. Oscar, their Australian terrier, danced around them, managing a few steals.
In the house, Jack was working in the room we designated “the den.” It was the extra bedroom we had for guests. A queen-size air mattress we kept inflated year round, a large bookshelf with all our fiction, our art and design, our Lonely Planets, photos from college of Jack in debate competitions or me smoking cigarettes on someone’s porch. He liked to work at the desk we had in there with one of those extra large Apple monitors so the designs could swallow him.
“How’d it go?” Jack asked and clicked around the screen.
“We have to find a Christian,” I said. “To carry the baby. They have moral wombs.” “Makes sense,” Jack said.
“Yeah, they probably don’t drink or smoke or anything.”
I made dinner, grilled cheese and Campbell’s soup, and ate it at the kitchen table watching old episodes of Strangers with Candy, while Jack worked into the evening. This was how it was going for what felt like centuries now. We were beginning to exist on the periphery of our own lives. And Cosmo, sweet Cosmo, was stuck in the middle. Pacing from room to room, not knowing whom to sit near or why. Pretty soon, he’ll be just like us, floating through the firmament, radiant and alone.
I brushed my teeth and washed my faced and applied a parsley seed moisturizer and we all met again—me, Jack, the dog—in bed. Jack leaned over and kissed my forehead. “Night, Oly.” What began as a heavy sigh shifted at some point into a light snore.
“I poisoned some kid,” I whispered.
“Cool,” he said and drifted off. Cosmo appeared from beneath the covers and tipped his head in the way dogs do when they need something—when they are waiting for you to give it to them.
The following day I woke up and took a long, hot shower. Afterward, Victor called and invited me and Jack to The Daddies’s annual amusement park trip at Deep River Park, at the southern tip of the state. He told me that initially it was a small group of them that used to go a few years ago, for drinks, for laughs, an escape from the perils of fatherhood. Then The Bowties brought Marshall when he was just a baby and the other dads felt guilty about leaving their own babies with sitters. More and more kids started tagging along and it became something else—something good, but something different nonetheless.
“No bumps of coke before the bumper cars this year,” Victor said and chuckled. I couldn’t tell if he was serious.
The plan was to go on Friday, an LGBTQ night called “Out on the River.” Years ago, he told me, when someone shared the event on Facebook, no one could believe that Deep River would even think of having an LGBTQ night. It was, after all, a small, conservative farm town whose slogan was Deep River: The Southernmost Town in the North.
“And don’t worry, Mike and Miguel can’t make it this year,” Victor assured me. I wondered if he could sense my hesitation or if he himself was relieved at this news. “They’re taking Marshall to a Baby Gap casting call.”
I put Victor on speaker, cruising through the house in search of Jack, who was, of course, hunched over his keyboard in the den. “Deep River for gay night with The Daddies. Wanna come?”
“What a waste of money,” he said without looking at me. “Fifteen-dollar hot dogs. Are they out of their mind? Besides, Oliver, these mockups aren’t going to mock up themselves.” Jack laughed as though it was the first time he had made this particular joke.
“I’m in,” I said into the phone.
Victor picked me up in his rusty green Cherokee. Tyler, his three-year-old, slept soundly in the back. Within minutes Cheerios materialized everywhere: on the dashboard, in cup holders, in the ashtray, and when I pulled the visor down to check for breakfast in my teeth, one singular Cheerio spilled out into my lap.
“Honey nut,” Victor said.
The drive was easy and quiet. Victor told me to reach beneath the seat for the book of CDs.
“I can’t remember. Are these from the Triassic or Jurassic period?” I teased.
“You won’t find any Britney Spears in there if that’s what you’re asking.”
I put on some old Flaming Lips and watched the Connecticut hills chug by. If I was a stranger standing on the side of the road and happened to catch a glimpse of Victor’s Cherokee cruise by, I might have assumed we were a family of some sort. Two adults buzzing about something in the front—politics, what to eat, the cost of healthcare—and a toddler strapped safely into a carseat midway through his midday nap.
“He looks like you,” I told Victor, noticing Tyler’s windswept bangs and the way his nose hung on his face like a painting.
“He’s adopted,” Victor whispered, smiling into the rearview mirror. He put his index fingers to his lips and looked at me.
The Daddies arrived at Deep River car by car. There was Stan, a big bear of a man, and his daughter Ava, who had a cast on her arm covered in tiny red hearts and smiley faces. And Ron and Phil, new to the area from Austin, and their son Forest who, for a three-year-old, had exquisite posture. There was Matty and his partner, Jonathan, one clinical psychologist, one financial advisor for Tri-State Bank, and their daughter Lucy. There was me, Victor, and Tyler. And then, to my chagrin, The Bowties pulled up in their G-Wagon. I felt my heart beat faster and my fingers curl into fists. Miguel rolled down the window and slid his Ray-Bans down his face.
“Michael got the casting date wrong. Now we have to go all the way to King of Prussia next weekend.”
I’m sorry, Victor mouthed to me.
“I’m gonna go find a bathroom,” I said as The Bowties were unbuckling Marshall from his carseat, who, by the way, looked as healthy as a beet. I felt bad for Marshall, the kind of bad you feel for a dog wandering in the rain. His fate was sealed.
I found the bathroom and then I found Cover the Spot. I had played it with my dad at every church carnival, every county fair. He’d drive me and Mary-Anne to Fantasy Island each summer until we were teenagers and we’d head right for the alley of games, anxiously in search of that big, glowing sphere. The gist was pretty simple: cover a painted red circle completely using five silver discs. If there is any red showing, even the slightest bit, game over. Over the years, neither me nor my dad ever won—we came close a few times but no dice. I think that’s maybe why we kept going back.
The guy working this station, Neil, wore a rainbow baja hoodie that was two sizes too big. He was young, maybe a college kid home for the summer, looking to make some extra cash. His hair was pinned up into a bun and a cigarette was tucked neatly behind his ear. He demonstrated the game, just to show me it was possible.
“See,” he said, chewing his gum. He looked me square in the eye and let the discs slip from his grip, one by one, each made a tinny sound as it landed. In one try and without looking down at the spot once, he was successful. No red showing. “Poof! It’s that easy.”
The stuffed animals that hung above Neil, each clipped to a rope, seduced me. It was one of those games where no one ever wins these sorts of huge prizes. There was a Minion, SpongeBob, Scooby-Doo, Nemo, and then some weirder ones, a bright purple unicorn and box of French fries. I lingered beside the stand and watched a few kids approach with their parents. They all failed miserably, parents included. I watched Neil demonstrate several times and realized I was witnessing something exceptional, the choreographed movements, the one two three four five of it all. I watched him, followed him like a disciple. Maybe twenty people came in and out, all losers respectively.
“Here, I’ll have a go,” I said with a British twang.
“You’ve come back,” he said and handed me over the discs.
“I never left,” I said creepily. Neil laughed even though I really never did leave, which is, in fact, creepy. I felt a kinship with Neil, like we already knew each other, vaguely, from a different plane. His confidence, assurance, the way his eyes felt full. I took the discs and slid the first one on, then the second, and by the third I knew I had messed up. I tried again and again.
“You got this man,” Neil said stuffing more of my money into his apron.
Never in my life had I felt this determined. And then, finally, after perhaps my thirtieth try and over one hundred dollars spent, the spot was covered, no red peeking out from any corner. The spot had ceased to exist. Neil looked at me, with the eyes of a brother, and tore down the stuffed French fries from the clips.
I sprinted by carts of caramel apples, psychic tents, pirate ships swinging like pendulums. I skipped over horse shit and dodged golf carts carrying obese grandparents. The ride was Bingo’s Flying Cars. The man operating the ride had a blue bandana wrapped around his head and kept checking his phone. He waved me in, overlooking the French fries—maybe three feet tall—that I carried at my side. We strapped in, fries and I, the metal bar locked in place over our laps. The operator said something muted, his microphone cutting in and out, and then we took off. Pilot and copilot. The Daddies were down there somewhere among crowd. Victor and The Bowties and the Cherokee and the Cheerios.
I imagined Jack down there somewhere, too, looking up, trying to spot me and the fries soaring way above the tree line. Weeee! Holding his phone above his head, wanting to get the perfect photo from the ground—our hands in the air, the wind blowing back our hair. He was already thinking about where on social media he would post this, of which filters he would use. He was readying the hashtags: #gaydads, #hotgaydads, #dilfs, #thedaddies. He would surely get the shot, when we were flying at our highest, and when the light was just right.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.