Of all the pregnancy scares and nerve-racking trips to a drugstore to buy a pregnancy test I’ve experienced since my late teens, I’ve never felt more seen than during a Sunday trip to a nearby Rite Aid four years ago. There, I stood — 35 years old, married, with one child already — stuck in a long line of people buying some combination of Advil, gum, toilet paper, greeting cards and cheap Tall Boys. My hands were filled with four different pregnancy tests from four different brands. I believe there also was a Coke Zero and frozen pizza in the mix. So as, you know, to appear as inconspicuous as possible.
While I waited — and contemplated who exactly was patronizing the Thrifty Ice Cream Parlor fabricated near the cash registers (the answer on this day: no one) — I mostly feared the seemingly impossible: that my wife was pregnant again. If true, it wouldn’t necessarily be an Irish-twins situation, but it would definitely represent a specific type of rapid-fire procreation that my blue-collar Chicago family was famous for (procreation being our foremost skill, despite the city’s declining population). My daughter was just short of 9 months old, still breastfeeding and barely crawling. This part was great. Early parenthood, of course, sucked in all the ways people tell you it’s going to suck. But I refused to be hazed by all the shit, piss and inconsolable screaming. I liked it, if anything. It was a test of strength that I viewed as a tether for the rest of her life. (And if not, I tried brainwashing her as well: “Who’s better than Barack Obama, Jesus and Santa? Daddy, Daddy!” I used to sing to her each morning.)
She also provided my wife and me with a family unit in a place (Los Angeles) where we were more or less on our own. We abandoned Chicago — the home to pretty much every one of our siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles — for good when my wife was four-and-a-half months pregnant; my job was moving westward and any other prospects in our native land were a pipe dream. And so, our gang of three was left to make sense of our new world together (our daughter: Earth; my wife and me: L.A.).
The thought of doing it all over again, however, was terrifying. We already had a child incapable of pissing and shitting anywhere but her pants. A child whose screams wouldn’t end until I bounced her on my knee long enough to watch everything on the DVR. A child who had yet to make it through a single night without those screams starting back up again every two to three hours. A child who had no family around — besides my wife and me — to give us a motherfucking break.
“One is a hobby; two is a job,” a coworker once offered, a stock piece of wisdom that only terrified me further. I already had a job — one that I gladly allowed to consume me, as well as one that my wife and I (though mostly my wife) had sacrificed everything for (namely: moving thousands of miles away from any semblance of family while about to embark upon childbirth for the first time). It was a fragile foundation that probably couldn’t withstand the flap of a mosquito’s wings, much less the tornado of another infant. More piss! More shit! More crying! More family — but in a totally unhelpful way!
And yet, here I was, at a West Hollywood Rite Aid with a discount ice cream parlor inside, a quartet of pregnancy tests in my hand and my mind tallying up every other similar emergency run to the drugstore I had made through the years that had never resulted in a baby — which, I tried to comfort myself, was all of them. Somehow, though, I knew that streak was about to end. Chalk it up to a father’s intuition. Or maybe, it was that I understood I couldn’t outrun my rabbit-like genetics forever, and this was my penance for their not derailing things like college or forcing me into a long-term commitment that was meant to be much, much, much more fleeting — even if I wasn’t any readier now.
Of the night of conception, I will offer two incontrovertible facts: 1) The old wives’ tale that a woman can’t get pregnant while breastfeeding is as much a lie as the pull-out method; and 2) I was, like many evenings before it, fueled by a mixture of Bacardi and Coke Zero (or as my friends in Germany told me to call it in public — a Cuba Libre).
If I can help it — and the night is to be filled with drinking from start to finish — another brand of rum or any other kind of liquor will never touch my lips. Mostly, because I know few things better than Ron Bacardi. That means if it is to do me wrong, it’s completely my fault since I’ve knowingly pushed beyond my established boundaries, which like continental drift, move slowly but surely with the passage of time.
Those boundaries as of today: No more than three pint glasses in a single sitting. Each, however, requires a heavy pour — the pint glass filled halfway with ice and the Bacardi stretching just above it, a splash of Coke Zero topping it off so as to appear more like a fountain drink than a super-sized cocktail in case anyone is judging. (I can take or leave the lime.) My Cuba Libres also must be consumed in Olympic sprinter-like fashion — i.e., one right after another, usually in 90 minutes or less — though I’ve been known to nurse the third for a longer period of time, in large part because by that point I’m usually sufficiently buzzed and/or on the outer edges of my boundaries.
Typically, I couldn’t give a shit about being judged for these drinking rituals. As specific and pathetic as they may be, they’re mine and they make me feel good — both performing them and guzzling down what they bring to the table. (The first sip in particular, where my lips inform my brain of the drink’s potency, is the moment that makes all else worth it.) Plus, I’ve been forever mocked for them. Even back in college — when everyone drank like an amateur — I caught an endless amount of shit for my Señor Frog’s-esque cocktail preferences. “I bet I know what Schollmeyer wants,” being the common refrain whenever we went out. (That, unfortunately, was as clever as it got.)
Now, though, I felt unrelentingly guilty. I was a grown man who drank like a child, which most likely was going to result in a child of another sort.
It felt like everyone at Rite Aid knew it, too. It was probably the paranoia and panic talking, but that line felt so judgmental. About the things they could see — the pregnancy tests and frozen pizza. And about the things I was feeling inside — my inability to stop at one small drink (or a single Daddy’s Little Helper as opposed to four giant ones) and the fuzzy logic it inspired in the heat of the moment (all that bullshit about breastfeeding as birth control).
When I got home, I attempted to shift the blame to the unreliability of a small sample size as a last-ditch effort to deny the obvious. “That second line is very faint,” I told my wife after she took the first pregnancy test. I can’t remember how many more there were after that, but I do know that the line never became any fainter. We were definitely having another baby.
If there was a calming agent over the next nine months, it was that three-quarters of a year (or roughly 270 days) is in a distant enough of a future that it never seems real. In that way, it’s an event in theory only. And if it’s only a theory, it means it doesn’t really exist. And if it doesn’t really exist, you don’t really have to deal with it. Or at least, you can convince yourself that it’s so far down the road that you can start worrying about it tomorrow — again and again and again. (My wife, of course, didn’t have such a luxury, having a child growing inside her body at the same time as she was chasing around a toddler who could now move at Roomba-like speeds; somehow, though, she had the better attitude about it all, believing it for the best since we were getting older and the children would more or less be forced to like each other since they were so close in age.)
And then, the new normal. Little Dude arrived, and we became a gang of four. Like before, it sucked in all the ways I imagined it would suck (times two). But also like before, I chose to view the degree of difficulty as a bonding exercise that would keep us close forever. It helps, too, that most of the first 12 months of his life — even just a couple of years later — are hazy. It was, if memory serves, one part survival mode, one part dividing and conquering (my wife taking him, me taking our daughter).
These days, we’ve graduated from a baby jail to a toddler terrordome — she’s 4-and-a-half, he just turned 3. I hope, though, that there are enough moments of sanity that this era of their lives doesn’t become a blur as well, and that I will always have immediate recall of all the adorable, funny and perceptive shit they say and do.
Stuff like this: The other day, Little Dude and I were in the garage sorting the recycling. It mostly entails my lining up aluminum cans, plastic containers and glass bottles for him to place into specific pop-up trash bins. A dedicated little helper, he’s generally quiet while focused on the task at hand — the only real noise coming from his throwing the recyclables into the bins as hard as he can (it’s part of the fun). Until, that is, he got to the bottles.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” he yelled, attempting to get my attention since I was busy crushing milk jugs. “This is yours.”
When I looked up, he proudly gave me what was in his hand: an empty bottle of Bacardi.