You see him most days, pushing a buggy and tugging his eldest along behind him with brief commands. You exchange smiles in the stream of chattering heads, and your kids ‘It’ each other playfully as you pass. He’s new in this part of the city. Tall, quick, wears shirts with buttons. He’s probably in his early forties, but he pushes his pram with the enthusiasm of an occasional uncle. He chews gum.
You’re nearly forty yourself and well bedded down in motherhood. You’ve long since capitulated to the routines, unidentifiable smells, irrational conversations and fragmented moments of your livelihood. By now you can plan the entire week’s menu whilst reading the bedtime story. When your daughter interrupts with a question, you look at her for a second before checking the book’s cover to see what you’re reading. You absorb her surreal comments and random decisions during the day and then, at its end, empty your pockets of its currency—wilted buttercups, an impossibly small tyre, a flattened gift bow. Precious only a few hours ago, now abandoned in your care.
Now that she is lodged in school, you return daily to a houseful of time. You stand in the abandoned kitchen, dust swirling through sunshine. Scanning the row of cookbooks, you wonder what you were thinking. The apartment seems crowded, as if the unscheduled day is a new visitor who must be entertained. Your neighbour two flats down, three kids in school, has started wearing lipstick again. Lipstick sounds almost ludicrous, at her age, in your line of work. For what? You barely remember the colour of your own hair, exiled in overstretched elastic bands. The mirror offers no clues.
You can’t deny he’s made an impression. Not by standing out, but by blending right in, tacking through the school run unintimidated by the pavement mafia. Unlike most cameo fathers, he doesn’t hang back at the roadside, clinging to business on his phone. Instead, he leans against the railings at the entrance of the school, chatting to you all, laughing at his kids with affectionate deprecation. He is so calm that when he jogs past you one morning muttering “I’ve lost my son,” it takes you a minute to realise that he has lost his son, in the sense of an emergency. By then he’s already strolling back, pulling the boy to heel like a frisky pup. He seems to be a man in the sense of ‘man’ that has somehow become irrelevant.
So you know him and you don’t know him, but you rarely pass each other without some acknowledgement as you circle the perimeter of your children’s world. Every now and then he stops short and says “Oh,” rooting around his person, “I have something for you,” finally pulling from his black jeans a kids’ party invitation or Big Toddle sponsorship form. Time enough to notice he freckle on the tip of his ear.
You fall into the habit of taking this token on behalf of your child, thanking him and then mocking disappointment upon its examination, saying something like “Oh, I thought you meant for me.” And he falls into the habit of chuckling, his head tilting with a smile, as if trying to think up some harmless but enjoyable riposte before your tin ships shove off again. His failure leaves something in the air. Even at the busiest times—tending to an after-school meltdown or jamming your kids’ gloves into pigeonholes, you manage to nod just before passing out of sight, like a bookmark in the chaos.
Then one day there is an invitation for you. In the kids’ toilets of the soft play place, where the hollering of thirty-odd birthday guests glances everywhere off the furnishings. He’s bent over a Lilliputian basin washing his hands when he looks up in the mirror and smiles at your reflection behind him. His son rushes out into the party. “I have something for you,” he says quietly, removing his chewing gum.
The door closes, then locks, and you move towards each other, awkward until you find purchase in the familiarity of a larger body tending to a smaller one. He loosens up, and you respond to his murmurs and movements like to a language you once knew. It is all so unexpectedly soft, sharp. Warm.
But the light—the cheap fluorescent light—throws down an antiseptic glare. As it is meant to, illuminating the darkest corners of unpractised events. And the toilets, though scrubbed three times a day, stink with the urgency of dozens of children who cannot control themselves. Its insistence gets between you, sticking to the soles of your shoes, sending you stumbling over his nappy bag. He pulls at your hair with clammy hands, and the cold basin saws dully against your legs.
The screaming outside redlines like panic, and suddenly you are too close to him, saturating with a rich scent that is not of your kin. You are now so close you can’t help but see in his face the edgy little boy he walks each day, tight red curls and runny nose, shuffling along in unfocused masculinity, opaque routine. You can almost hear him outside the toilet door, bent in unspeakable discomfort, banging, banging on the door for relief.
You can’t fling it open fast enough.
Artwork by: Jonathan David Lim. You can see more of Jonathan’s work here.