In The Trenches
“Literary Dada,” it says in the subject line.
Very clever, I think, knowing that this mystery man is responding to my username at Match.com: “Literary Mama.”
But he doesn’t stop there. He writes: “I am a warm and generous single dad who is seeking a respectful and cooperative woman who dreams with both feet on the ground, too!”
He’s still playing off my profile, in which I’ve posted: “I am a warm and generous single mom seeking a respectful and cooperative man who dreams big with both feet on the ground . . .”
I’m flattered. Here is a man who pays close attention to details.
When I click on his profile, Ronaldo seems to be looking right at me, his lips formed into a flirtatious smile. A six-foot-tall, 30-year-old Latino father of two, he’s completing his dissertation in psychology at UC Berkeley. Hmm, a psychology major. The skeptic in me wonders if this means he’ll play mind games, or manipulate me with psychological tricks.
I stop caring altogether about any tricks when I scroll down to the second photo Ronaldo has posted. He has caramel skin, short black hair, defined cheekbones, and wire-rimmed glasses. My cheeks turn pink. I go back and read his entire profile, the most specific and in-depth I’ve seen yet on Match.com. He says that he’s looking for a confident, friendly, and passionate woman who can be in love with her partner and life itself. Brainy and bold women turn him on. (Hey, doesn’t that describe me?)
When I read this line, however — “I don’t really do things, I delegate them” — I pause. I delegate. What is he getting at? Is he good at doling out orders and assigning tasks? Or is he raising his kids to be conscientious decision-makers? I think about the House of Delegates and wonder if Ronaldo likes to speak about issues that are important to him. Maybe he just means that he’s very responsible and trustworthy?
I continue reading. He writes that we that we can’t always be happy-go-lucky and that “if you’re having a crappy day, I hope I can bring you back to a place of balance.”
How thoughtful, I think.
He goes onto to say that he enjoys simplicity — a red glass of wine, a soft kiss, and easy conversation.
So, who cares if he likes to give orders once in a while?
In my own sometimes chaotic and cluttered life, I could use a little delegation. I write to back Ronaldo, thanking him for the note.
“How could I resist?” he responds. “I would love to hear more about you! In fact, I’m looking forward to it incredibly!”
A week later, we’re upstairs at a cozy teahouse on College Avenue, sharing a pot of jasmine tea. As we swap life stories, I learn that he joined the Army at age 18, married at age 19, and had two kids who are a year apart. His spouse was not happy being a military wife, and they often argued. She wanted to go to law school and moved to Washington, D.C., to do so. He now has sole custody, and the kids are with his ex every summer. I’m impressed by his devotion to his children and the fact that he’s doing it on his own, like me.
Every time my teacup is near-empty, Ronaldo is right there, filling it up.
“Thank you,” I find myself saying over and over, impressed by his attentiveness.
For the past week, we’ve talked on the phone every night after bedtime. Tonight he calls me at 8:15 sharp, after tucking his kids in. I can hear his voice on the answering machine in the other room: “Please call me — ”
But bedtime in our house is dragging on. It is 8:45, and I’m squeezed into Mae’s bed next to her, finishing another chapter out loud in Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona the Pest.” I silently reprimand myself for not being more stringent with the routines in our household.
C’mon now, I’m saying to myself. Can’t you have an actual bedtime, just leave the room, and have the rest of the night to yourself?
But, truth be told, I’m into Ramona — one of my childhood favorites — just as much as Mae is.
Ronaldo sends me some photos of his beautiful son and daughter, ages 9 and 10, and I find myself taking mental notes of the background in every picture: His kitchen counter is spotless, books are neatly lined up on the shelf, and wine bottles are stacked on a rack in his living room, divided by red and white. This is nothing like my own home. But haven’t I always wanted to be that organized?
We make plans to see each other again. For some reason, I find myself using Army lingo by email: “Secured childcare for Saturday.”
He’s amused: “How military was that . . . you are too cute! All systems are a go here, too.”
But that morning, his babysitter calls in sick with the flu, and I suggest that we get together for the afternoon at the Berkeley Marina — with all the kids — to fly kites. He offers to pick us up at home.
When I get into his shiny black Jetta, the first thing I notice is the fact that his button-up mint green shirt matches perfectly with his leather belt. Sigh. The second thing I notice is that the leather seats in his car are immaculate, in sharp contrast to the backseat of my Toyota, where there’s an orange crayon melted to the fabric and cookie crumbs are strewn everywhere. There are no empty water bottles rolling under his seats, either. When I breathe in, there is the scent of Sandalwood, not that permanent stench of urine that seems to inhabit my car.
“I’m hungry!” Mae whines as I strap her into the car seat.
Ronaldo’s daughter giggles until her brother nudges her in the ribs. He’s eyeing Mae like she’s weird.
I fumble around in my backpack for a cracker, but Ronaldo says, “I’m sorry, we don’t eat in my car.”
I must look confused because he goes on to explain, as if I’m one of his children, “The car is for driving and talking. Eating is done at the table.”
Is he busting me?
Then I feel a gentle jab in my ribs. “Relax!” Ronaldo tells me.
I zip up my backpack and tell Mae, “We’ll be there soon, honey.”
The truth is, sometimes I wish I had more rules. Our home is based on everything feminine: nurturing and taking care of others have always been my strong points (I’m a Cancer). Making and keeping rules don’t come easy for me. Imagine how clean my own car would be if I didn’t allow anyone to eat in it! Just yesterday, I found a line of ants crawling over the sticky straps of Mae’s car seat.
There is dead silence in the back seat as we drive down to the Marina, and I want so badly to blurt out something my mother would say, like, “Well, isn’t this a beautiful day to fly a kite!”
So I’m relieved when I hear Ronaldo’s daughter turn to Mae and ask her, “Do you have any pets?”
“Just fish,” Mae sighs. “But I really want an orange-and-white girl cat because I can’t pet my fish.”
“I’m allergic to cats,” Ronaldo tells me in the front seat.
Oh, that’s too bad, I think. I love cats.
At the Marina, Mae quickly gives up kite-flying in order to roll down the steep hillside. She begs me to join her, and I end up in a dizzy jumble at the bottom. There is grass in my mouth, and suddenly, I can’t stop laughing. Our elbows are brown with dirt.
When I look up, Ronaldo is standing at the top of the hill, looking unsure. I can’t tell if he’s disapproving of our fun or sorry that he’s missing out.
“Let more string out!” he directs his son, who obediently unravels the kite.
An hour later, we are all cramming back into Ronaldo’s car. In the parking lot, I’m doing my best to brush the grass off Mae’s clothes; his children are already strapped into their seatbelts. I slip off Mae’s muddy sneakers and hold them on my lap the ride home.
As we roll back through the city, Mae looks out the window. Suddenly, she blurts out a line from one of her favorite TV shows to herself: “We were as pleased as punch!”
I’m chuckling, a lonesome laugh that seems to resonate by itself against the shiny seats. I wonder to myself if I can be with a man whose parenting style is so radically different from mine. I’m not looking for someone who parents just like me, but he’s got to complement me, at the very least. Sure, my life could use a better system to keep it cleaner and more organized. But I like how messy our family love is sometimes. I don’t need a man to fix the parts of my life that I don’t like. He’s needs to like me for who I am.
If Ronaldo were in my life, I might be tidier and more efficient, but after today, I can tell that he’s not right for us. When I look back at our lives 10 years from now, I doubt I’ll remember the dirt stains that I couldn’t scrub out of Mae’s jeans. Instead, I will hold onto the two of us spinning down the hillside, my head woozy, as Mae jumps back up, screaming, “Let’s do it again!”