Saturday, July 24, 2004

 

The Househusband, a novel

The Househusband 

Part I:  Thinking the Unthinkable

The Upper Right Hand Quadrant

Richard shifted suddenly in his seat on the power deck in the bowl-shaped classroom.  The realization that, for the first time in the year and a half he had attended Harvard Business School, he was genuinely interested in what was being discussed made him sit up straight.  As usual he hadn’t read the case.  His strategy was to listen intently to the conversation for an hour and then to summarize what everybody else had said.   He found that preparing too much or even at all only prejudiced him, inhibited him from listening. 

Sally, his wife and classmate, didn’t approve of this strategy.  He was just rationalizing his laziness, she said.  But why study when he was graded on a curve, so all he had to do was look around and identify 10 people stupider than him in each class (which was disappointingly easy) et voila—a grading curve safety net.  Sally really didn’t approve of this ‘greater fool’ strategy.  Richard was less comfortable defending this tactic.  He felt more than a twinge of guilt about looking around for the 10 people who were going to fail before he did.  He wasn’t really as arrogant or mean as that sounded.  Was he?

Over time his guilt changed to bewilderment.  His non-studying proved so successful that he was on track to be a Baker Scholar—in the top 5%.  He wasn’t quite sure how this had happened.  He was certain there weren’t 85 people stupider than him in each class.  Sally, who was both smarter and better prepared than he was, hadn’t done nearly so well.  Luckily, she seemed more amused than threatened by his lazy dominance of the situation.
The case being discussed that day was about how a woman named Maria was managing her career.  Maria worked in private wealth management for a major investment bank and was facing a decision about whether to stay with her existing clients in NYC or to take an offer to manage a new Greenwich office.  One factor in her decision was that heading up the Greenwich office would mean much less travel and more time with her kids.  It was only one of about 15 considerations, but as she was a woman with children, the conversation was inevitably becoming a polarized and judgmental debate about whether she was properly balancing career and family. 

The whole class was tied up in knots over Maria’s choices.  Ashu, the class contrarian, raised his hand.  “As far as I am concerned, Maria is lucky.  She has choices, more choices than her husband, certainly.  If he wants to maintain his lifestyle, he has three choices: law, medicine, or business.  Maria is lucky, she has a fourth choice; she can marry and stay home if she wants.  Why is everybody bellyaching over poor Maria?  What about her poor husband?”  

“Ssssss,” hissed the class at Ashu.

“It is merely logic,” said Ashu.  “More choices are better than fewer, no?”

Elizabeth raised her hand and Richard picked up his pen, looking forward to what she was going to say.  She had an odd quirk of bringing quotes from literature into class to summarize the conversation.  The professor gesticulated in Elizabeth’s direction, “Ms Haruf?”
“I think what this case is really about is how we can use both masculine and feminine characteristics to manage a career.  It’s useful to make the dichotomy explicit here.  I think Rebecca West explains it best.”  There was a collective groan from the class about Elizabeth’s predictable literary pretensions. Elizabeth waved away the groans, pulled out a very fat book, and started reading.  “The word idiot comes from a Greek root meaning private person.  Idiocy is the female defect: intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain.  It is no worse than the male defect, which is lunacy:  they are so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.”

The professor cocked his head and tried to look thoughtful without showing how puzzled he was.  “Thank you, Ms Haruf.”  He turned to the board, drew two columns, and started filling in the column headings. 

Masculine Qualities                      Feminine Qualities
Public life—lunacy                               Private life—idiocy
  
The next round of comments followed Elizabeth’s lead, indulging in an unusually abstract speculation on the nature of “masculine” and “feminine.”  Somebody suggested that men were practical and women were creative.   Joe, a burly football player whom Richard had long ago identified as one of the 10 doomed to fail the class, shot his hand in the air, objecting.  “No way, man, most of the great artists and writers are men, not women.  Michelangelo—a man.  Homer—a man.  Shakespeare—a man.  I never even heard of a famous woman painter.  I think the thing is, men have more intellectual IQ and women have more emotional IQ.” 

“He must’ve nicked his brain picking his nose!”  A feminine roar of shouts and murmurs erupted.

“Fuckin asshole!”

“Unbelievable!”

“Ever heard of Georgia O’Keefe, baby cakes?”

The professor managed to get control of the noise by calling on a couple of the angrier woman.  However, he could not guide the conversation away from these un-case-study-like abstractions and back to a proper consideration of how the heroine in the case should go about negotiating her bonus and promotion.  Quite a list of male versus female traits was building on the board.
Masculine Qualites                           Feminine Qualities
Public life—lunacy                                   Private life—idiocy
Aggressive/destructive                          Nurturing/constructive
Practical                                                    Creative/intellectual
Intellectual IQ                                          Emotional IQ
Acting                                                        Communicating
Egotistical                                                 Egoless
Ambition                                                   Contentment
Taking                                                       Giving
Professional                                              Personal
Permanent                                               Constantly changing
Measurable (aka petty & venal)           Unmeasurable (aka heroic & saintly)

“OK, OK, enough comments on the differences between men and women.  What should Maria do?”  The professor tried again to bring the conversation back around.  “Anybody got a plan of action?”  He called on Dino, a practical guy from the Bronx, son of a fireman.

“Look, she knows what she’ll get if she stays in New York:  She’ll get paid more sooner and promoted faster.  In Greenwich, she’ll just get more time to pick up her kids from ballet lessons—which she probably won’t be able to afford any more.  All decisions should be this easy.  She should hire an extra nanny, and stay in New York!”

Another eruption.  The professor inadvertently threw gasoline on the explosion by calling on Michael, an anti-diluvian who didn’t really believe that women should work in the first place.  “I think that Harvard is advocating nannies over natural mothers, and that is a horrible thing for society.  What is more important, after all, raising the next generation or managing money?”

“You gonna pay your wife $500,000 a year to raise the next generation, Michael?” Dino fired back.

“Are you willing to stay home and do it yourself, Michael?” Elizabeth called out.

“I think women are more biologically suited to the task.” Michael leaned back in his chair.

“You think that’s a get out of jail free card between your legs?” One woman shouted.

“Sexist pig.” A noisy mutter went around, accompanied by a round of snorting and oinking.

Richard raised his hand and the professor pointed to him gratefully.  “It seems to me that we as a society have abandoned the upper right hand quadrant—”

“Ooooooh, he’s got a 2x2.  Surprise, surprise!” Various wads of paper were thrown at Richard.  The 2x2 matrix was the unit of analysis at business school.  You always tried to end up in the upper right hand quadrant, winning in two dimensions.  It was beautiful, really—the end of the false dichotomy, the beginning of the best of all worlds.  In the upper right hand quadrant you could always have “both-and,” you never had to settle for “either-or.”

The professor picked up a piece of chalk.  “And the axes are?”  He drew as Richard explained:

                                                            Masculine                                                           Feminine


Big Financial Reward

 
No Financial Reward

 

Richard continued to explain, pointing towards the two columns.  “Look at the feminine traits on the board.  You don’t get paid for any of them.  As a result, most of us here are reluctant to do the work associated with them.  However, all of us would recognize that those traits are the ones that make life worth living.  The solution is to start giving monetary reward to that so-called feminine work—not to quit doing it or to just outsource it to low-paid nannies and cooks and housekeepers.”  Richard leaned back in his chair, rather pleased with his little speech. 

A puzzled silence greeted him.  The professor looked at him, head cocked.  “And what does this analysis imply that Maria should do, Richard?”

“She should quit altogether and stay home with the kids.”  Richard felt the wave of female fury hit him before anyone had time to open her mouth.  He held up his hand, as if to stave off a slap across the face.  “She should, or her husband should.”

This latter statement was met with a collective feminist growl.

“Yeah, yeah—at least have the balls to say what you really mean, Richard!”

“Get real—no man would do it.”

“You’re just saying Maria has to give up her career.”

“Sexist pig!”

Richard imagined describing the snorting and oinking to Sally.  She would think it was hilarious.  Except.  Except.  Some worry tickled the back of his mind.  What was it?  Shit!  He’d just had a big fight with her in which it emerged that she was bizarrely touchy when he’d praised his mother for being such a great homemaker.  She’d accused him of trying to shoehorn her into a role for which she was not fit.  When this got back to her she’d think he was trying to talk her into being a housewife for sure.  Not that he wasn’t.  But he knew a frontal assault with Sally was pure suicide.  He just wanted to persuade her to get pregnant.  If he accomplished that, the hormones would surely kick in and do the rest of the persuading, right?  He held up his hand for silence.

“No, seriously.  Upon further reflection I think her husband should stay home—chances are he’s making less money, given her seniority.”  Richard winced at his own words.  He didn’t believe what he was saying, but he sure hoped Sally would.  

More growls to the effect if ‘yeah, right’ hit him.  Sally would hear all about this conversation before he could get home from his rugby game.  Richard scrambled further out on his limb. She would never agree to throw away her birth control pills if it got back to her that he was saying or even implying that all women should be happy homemakers like his mother.  He had to say something, and fast! 

“There’s no reason why her husband shouldn’t stay home.  I would stay home with my kids if my wife made more money than me.”

“Bullshit!” was the universal response, shouted out by some, covered up with coughing by others.  For the first time that day men and women were united in their reaction.  Nothing he’d ever said in class had gotten such a noisy retort.

Cynthia the feminist raised her hand.  “I just have a point of clarification for Richard.  Do you really think Maria’s husband should stay home?  Are you in fact going to stay home with your kids?”

Richard had a vision.  Sally’s birth control pills were sailing joyfully into the trash can in their bathroom.  He’d never thought about using the househusband argument to get her to throw them away.  Now that he had, he knew what they’d be discussing over dinner tonight.  “Absolutely!”

Cynthia raised her hand but didn’t wait to be called on to shout out, “So what you’re saying is, feminine work won’t get rewarded until men start doing it?  Women deserve to be domestic slaves, but men deserve to be paid if not canonized for every diaper?”

“Woof, woof woof!”

“Now you’ve stepped in it, Dick!” 

Richard couldn’t have cared less.  All he cared about was getting those pink pills into the trash.

Lay Down, Sally 
Richard didn’t have time to cut into the Tandoori chicken Sally had ordered in for dinner (it was her night to “cook”) before she fired the question at him.

“So.  I hear you’re going to stay home with the kids.”  Sally’s eyes were sparkling between suspicion and amusement.  “What’s up with that?”

“How about a how was your day?  How about a kiss?”  Richard bought a little time.  Usually he didn’t need time to think—he knew instinctively the right thing to say, especially with Sally.  It was one of the reasons why he’d married her.  She was like his own personal gumball machine.  He put in the right words and out came the “gumball” he wanted.  Until recently, anyway.

Sally smiled and kissed Richard on the lips.  He pulled her to him, prolonging the kiss, stalling.  She pulled away.  “I don’t need to ask you how your day was because I’ve already heard all about it, Mr. Mom.  What the hell?”

“Don’t worry, Sally.  I cook dinner every other night and my dick hasn’t fallen off yet.”  Sally burst out laughing in spite of herself.  He could always crack her up.  He loved that about her.  “So, how do you feel about having a kept man?”

“Oh, come off it.  You can bullshit the whole class, but you can’t bullshit me.  You’ll say anything to get me to throw away my pills, right into that ridiculous blue baby’s garbage can that you bought expressly for that purpose.  Won’t you?”

So much for gumballs, rolling down the chute and popping out joyfully…So to speak…Well, he couldn’t say his wife didn’t know him.  Too damn well.  He thought about that waste paper basket.  It did look like it belonged in a child’s room, come to think of it, with its sweet blue sailboat.  Was she right?  Had he in fact bought it with the unconscious hope it was really for a child’s room?  No doubt that was why she hated it.  Ever since she’d had to have an operation called a Leep, which shaved a bit of her cervix, he’d been thinking up different ways to persuade her to go ahead and get pregnant.  “No, Sally, I don’t expect you to throw away the pills today or tomorrow or anytime soon.” 

This was the right thing to say, the only thing he could reasonably say.  There was only one problem.  It was not the truth.  The truth was, he wanted kids, more than he had ever wanted anything.  He wanted toddlers to race around all clean in their pajamas refusing to go to bed.  He wanted to be a young father playing soccer with sons and daughters.  He wanted to see what his union with Sally would look like.  And every year that they waited made it less likely that Sally would be able to get pregnant.  She might even have to get two cervix shaves this year, because the first hadn’t gotten rid of all the dysplasia.  He wanted her to get pregnant.  Now.  
He felt sick.  When he’d first started dating Sally she used to say he had Jedi Mind Control and could get her to do anything he wanted.  He’d known the accusation wasn’t entirely unjust.  He was manipulative.  Still, he’d been able to assure her that one of the reasons he loved her was that the “right” thing to say and the “true” thing were one and the same with her.  Now, for the first time in their relationship, the “right” thing to say was not the “true” thing.  The discrepancy caught him in the stomach.  Was this how irreconcilable differences started?
It wasn’t that they hadn’t talked about having kids before getting married.  It was just that they had both agreed that they wanted them later.  But after Sally started having bad pap smears, and Richard’s definition of “later” started to mean “sooner” to Richard.  

“Richard, I don’t think you are lying to me.  But I do think you are lying to yourself.”  Richard opened his mouth, relying on Sally to “interrupt” him.  He didn’t want to say anything—all the words that came to him were either wrong or untrue.  Luckily, Sally kept talking.  “You want me to go off birth control pills so badly that you’ll say anything to get me to do it.”

“Sally, that’s not true, I—” He paused just a little. 

Sally looked at him quizzically for a moment, and continued,  “OK.  For the sake of argument let’s just say—not that I believe it’s true, but let’s just say—that you believe that you’ll stay home with a baby right now.  I can guarantee you that after a couple of weeks of changing diapers, you’ll go screaming back to the office and leave me holding the bag.  And what if I can’t hold it, Richard?”

“You can.”

“And if I can’t?  If I wind up like Mom?”  Sally’s mother had to be institutionalized briefly after her younger brother was born when she became suicidal with post-partem depression.

“Sal—” Again, he paused.  He couldn’t reassure her that she’d handle diapers well.  She absolutely would not.  And it wasn’t just about diapers.  She was terrified of everything that motherhood implied.  Not that she wasn’t loving—she was.  Bingo! That at least was the right thing to say, and true.  “Sal, you’re a very loving person.”

“Look, Richard, if I could be a father, I’d say great, let’s do it.  I’m ready to be a parent.  But I am not ready to be a mother.”  He couldn’t quite disagree with her.  He smiled, thinking about first time he’d met her, at 2:00 am in the kitchen at McKinsey.  She had been trying to sweep up some popcorn she’d dropped all over the floor.  He’d never seen anybody so incompetent with a broom.  She had scattered popcorn in every direction, getting more and more furious.  He’d stood in the doorway watching her until she had exploded “FUCK,” and had been about to break the broom over her knee, tears of frustration about to spill over.  Richard had taken the broom from her and swept all the popcorn up in three easy strokes.  Her look of absolute gratitude made him feel as if he’d just slain a dragon.  An image of Sally, her will thwarted by diapers, screaming over a pile of shit, a baby screaming back at her, came unbidden to Richard’s mind.

“What the hell is so funny?”

“I was just wondering if you’d be as good with Pampers as you are with a broom,” he teased, taking her hand.

She took absolutely no offense.  “Exactly, Richard.  I can’t do it.  I’m telling you, and you need to hear me and believe me.”  How could she be so comfortable with these inadequacies?  Had she intentionally cultivated that feminine incompetence to avoid sweeping and diaper changing?  Richard would never be certain. 

“But we both want children, right?”

“Yes!  We’ve gone through this a million times.  But I’m much more like my mother than yours.  I’d be miserable doing it full-time, and I’d make the kids miserable, and you too.  I need to get my career enough on track that I can balance things.  We just have to wait.”

“But what if we wait too long and then we can’t have children?”  What would happen?  He tried to comfort himself with the thought that he could divorce Sally and marry a younger woman.  Men did that all the time, right?  His stomach churned and his shoulders tensed at the idea.  He loved Sally too much.  Enough to give up children for her?  He felt like smashing something.  What the hell kind of choice was this to have to make?!  He tried to remain calm.  Nobody was asking him to make that choice.  Not yet.

“Richard, I am not going to let you do to me what dad did to mom.”

“I do not expect you to stay home, or even to work on the Mommy track.”  Richard felt his stomach clench.  This was the right thing to say, but it wasn’t exactly true.  On the one hand, he did not want to come home to a bitch in the house, which was exactly what he’d get if Sally did stay home.  But, he did want to come home to fresh flowers and dinner in the oven and freshly-bathed kids.  He couldn’t understand why Sally was so quick to dismiss this feminine option.  His mother loved her life.  Why wouldn’t Sally love that life?  Of course, with two big incomes they would eventually be able to hire a nanny and housekeeper.  But he didn’t want a staff doing all the things that were core to what he loved in life.  It would be like amputating his leg and getting an artificial one so that he wouldn’t have to go to the podiatrist. 

“So, what happens if we have kids, and then we’re both working 80 hours a week?  There’s no point having kids and just handing them over to a nanny full-time,” Sally often seemed to be reading his mind.

“Agreed.”  Richard’s shoulders relaxed.  That at least was true.

“I’m not going to make partner working less.”

He knew better than to ask her if she had to make partner.  Her nickname at work had been Sally “get the fuck out of my way” Barnes.  He loved that in her, and smiled thinking of it.  It wasn’t that she would trample on people, it was just that she was wildly impatient with incompetence.  She had not just a talent but a compulsion for fixing poorly run businesses.  His jaw untensed, and he took her hand.  “Sally, you are going to go all the way, and I’m going to be cheering you on.  Really, I am.”

She crawled over the table, moving plastic containers of Indian food out of the way, and crawled into his lap.  “All the way? Promise?”

Squash
“What the hell kind of choice is that?”  Richard whacked the squash ball and Wayne dove to the floor, covering the little room in a spray of sweat.  Wayne had been in Richard’s section their first year of business school.

“Hey, man, I know you’re upset but that’s no reason to kill me.”

“Sorry, sorry.”  Richard reached out with his racket to still the crazed ball and gave Wayne a hand up.  He looked hard into Wayne’s brown eyes, happy to have a friend at his eye level.  Mostly Richard had to look down.  “But I shouldn’t have to choose between my wife and children.”

“So that’s what’s got you?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, that’s it I guess.”  Richard’s heart was racing and he was drenched.  His body was exhausted enough to leave his mind clear.

“You’re not worried that Sally has cancer?”

“No, her dysplasia is not cancer, it’s not even pre-cancer, it’s pre-pre maybe cancer, and they’re getting rid of it.”

“So let me get this straight.  You’re so worried that she might not be able to get pregnant in eight years that you’re trying to kill me with the ball today?”

“Let’s just finish the game.”  Richard started to serve.

“Nah, let’s get a beer.  You need to chill.”

“Let’s finish.”

“When you’re like this it’s safer to drink and talk than play and talk.  We’ve only got the court ten more minutes anyway.”  Wayne walked towards the door.

They went up the stairs to the Au Bon Pain/pub, located right in the swanky business school gym built with money that was supposed to have been used for an ethics program.  Richard took a table and Wayne bought the beers.  “What makes you so sure Sally won’t be able to get pregnant?  She’s only thirty.  She’ll only be thirty-eight or thirty-nine when she makes partner.”

“It’s not about her age.  It’s this cervix-slicing.  There’ll be nothing left of it in eight years.”

“Why can’t you just chill?”  Wayne took a long sip of beer.  “Usually these things work out.”

“Usually isn’t good enough.  Having kids is the most important thing in life to me.  On that, I need certainty.”

“Certainty doesn’t exist.”  Wayne wiped the foamy mustache with the back of his hand.

“I can’t face the thought of living for the next eight years afraid Sally won’t be able to get pregnant.”

“What is so horrible about adoption if worse comes to worst, which it won’t?”  Wayne slid his beer between his cupped hands over the slick table.

“I want my own kids.  It’s natural.”  Richard shrugged.

“It’s also egotistical and irrational.”

“Fuck you, you had your own kids, you didn’t adopt.”

“Betty got pregnant accidentally.”  Wayne’s wife Betty was a former product manager from Microsoft who had decided to stay home with their two children. 

“Plus, I want to be a young father.”  Richard took a long sip of his beer.  “Even if we had kids right now I’d be fifty when my first was just twenty, and I want to play rugby with my sons and still be able to scare the shit out of my daughter’s boyfriends.  I don’t want to be retired at my kids’ weddings.”

“So the real deal is that you want to renege on your agreement to wait on having kids till Sally makes partner.”

“Hey!  Whose side are you on?”

“Your side.  You’ll never get what you want if you can’t even admit what it is.  Sounds to me like you want kids, and you want them now.”

“I’m not reneging.  It’s only because Sally keeps having to get these operations.”  Richard couldn’t bring himself to say “leep.”  Richard felt queasy at the horrible names for all these gynecological issues.  He considered himself an evolved male, but in his more honest moments he admitted that he thought it would be better if he’d never had to hear these words. 

“Doesn’t matter the reason.  You have three choices, as I see it.  Convince Sally to do what she has always told you she won’t do and get pregnant now, or—”

“That’ll never happen.”

“OK, you’ve got two choices.  Learn to deal with your anxiety about not having kids, or—”

“NO!”  Richard banged his beer on the table, sloshing it.  “I’m not taking any chances when it comes to my kids.”

“OK, so divorce Sally.”

Richard flopped onto the table, head on his arms.

“So.  What’s it gonna be?”  Wayne pushed Richard’s elbow.

“I want to be with Sally when she’s an old lady.  I can’t even say the d-word.”

“You’ve got a tough decision, my friend.”

Something Interesting

Richard and Sally managed to avoid all discussion of the career/children issue for two whole days, until they were sitting at Olive’s having dinner with his older sister Elaine and her daughter, Lacey.  Sally was telling an anecdote about a client engagement she’d had over the summer with ‘a major toothpaste manufacturer’ when Lacey suddenly fixed her mother with the kind of stare that would make wild animals attack.  “Mom, why didn’t you ever do anything interesting like that?”

There was a suspended moment at the table as all the adults counted to ten and tried to remind themselves that this beautiful, pouting bitch was only a child, only thirteen.  Elaine’s stricken face spurred Richard to speech.  “Lacey, I for one think you’re a lot more interesting than toothpaste!”  He winked at Sally.

Lacey looked skeptical.  “How big did you say that account was, Sally?”

Sally took a cue from Richard.  “Lacey, you’re more interesting than even a $10 million account.”

Lacey rolled her eyes.  “You guys don’t have to, like, patronize me!”  She seemed bizarrely on the verge of tears now.  “It’s not like I’m somebody’s full-time job.”

“That’s what you think, young lady,” said Elaine, having recovered her composure, or at least a bitchiness of her own.  “Who drives you to school every morning?  Who checks your homework every night?  Who dropped everything and took you for ice cream when Tommy didn’t call you last night?”

“Moooooooom!  I can’t believe you just told everybody about that.  You’re so—you’re such a—I just can’t stand it!  I’m never going to tell you anything, never again!”

“Until the next time—”

“You know, Lacey,” Richard interrupted his sister to protect his niece from the sting he feared was coming.  “I don’t think that there’s any more noble profession than housewife.”

“Don’t you dare call me a housewife!”  Elaine exploded, redirecting all her venom from her daughter to her brother.

“Mo-om!  It’s not like you work.”  Lacey tried redirecting the attention to herself.

“OK.  Homemaker.”  Richard held out his hands, palms upwards in a supplication for peace.  All three females rolled their eyes.  Richard felt mystified.  “Whatever name you want to give it.  Like our mother.  Look at what she did for us all.  Look at the kind of home we grew up in.  No profession could ever be more important or more satisfying than creating that kind of environment for us all to live in.  If feminism kills that off, it will have done immeasurable harm to the world.”

“Well, if that’s what you wanted, Richard, you married the wrong damn woman!”  Sally, usually level-headed, looked like she was on the verge of tears.  She pushed back from the table as if to leave.

Richard stared at his wife, not daring to say a word.  Why did she have to take what he said so personally?  He’d been talking abstractly.  There was another silence at the table.  A second conversational land mine had been tripped in as many minutes.  “God, I just wish I were a man!” exclaimed Lacey.  “Women are so touchy.  Men are so much easier to get along with.”
“But, you always admired Mom’s home,” Richard said to Sally, ignoring Lacey.  He agreed with her, but was already in deep enough shit without going anywhere near that.

“How many times have I warned you that I admire your mother but I’m nothing like her?”  Sally took a big sop of water to steady herself.

“I have never asked you to be like Mom.”

“Could have fooled me,” said Lacey.  “I’m with Sally.  I am going to get a job and make lots of money and never have children and eat all my meals out.”

“But, why?” Richard asked, genuinely puzzled.

“Don’t push her, Richard,” warned Sally.

“She doesn’t want to be like me, her mother,” said Elaine with more bitterness than was entirely dignified in a grown woman.

“Why would anybody want to wind up like Mom, crying over chicken that’s drying out in the oven because her husband is late from work and she imagines he’s having an affair just to drum up some drama in her boring life?”  Red splotches were coming up Lacey’s neck into her face. 

“And then she pretends that it’s not her who’s upset, it’s me, her stupid teenager worrying about stupid boys.”

“That is quite enough from you, young lady,” said Elaine.  “I think I’d better schedule some extra appointments with Dr. Frankl for you.”  She motioned to the waiter for a check.

Provider Man

Two days later Richard stepped out of the Marine Air terminal, first off the Delta Shuttle from Boston to New York, ahead of the rush.  He grabbed the first cab in the taxi line with a friendly wave and bark of “Manhattan” to the dispatcher.  He loved New York, with its calm absorption of all the aggression he could throw at it.  It was like rugby or squash.  He could let it rip without worrying about hurting anybody.  Funny how these were the places where he felt most relaxed.  He gave the taxi driver the address for McKinsey’s mid-town offices and sat back for the ride. 
Why was he interviewing at McKinsey, anyway?  He and Sally had worked there before business school, and were both applying for a job now.  It was 1997, the economy was booming, and both of them were practically assured of getting hired.  McKinsey was loosing too many people to dot com start-ups.  But did he want to be a consultant?  Right after college Richard had spent four years in the Peace Corps.  At the end of that four-year stint he’d been left with the feeling that was dogging him now:  there must be something more to life. 

In college he had thought a lot about the dichotomy between the idealistic and the practical, and had been determined not to let the pressures of life force him to choose the latter.  During his fourth year in the Peace Corps, though, Richard had read Dr. Zhivago and decided the dichotomy that was really driving him was between the public and the private.  Idealists were the only people worse than businesspeople about minimizing the importance of a their own lives.  He had decided taking a job that would allow him to achieve some measure of personal success might be more satisfying. He had become an analyst at Goldman Sachs, where he’d gotten tremendous amounts of praise and an exciting bonus.  When that didn’t do it for him either, a friend’s father had suggested he should try consulting for a more analytical/intellectual experience.  Richard had worked at McKinsey for two years, had done well there, but felt equally blah at the end. 

He wanted to care about his job somewhere in the core of himself.  He wanted his life’s work to be an expression of who he was—not just something he did.  His father had laughed at this idea.  “There’s a reason why they call it work, son.”

“Shouldn’t you expect something more?”

His father had quite a little speech prepared, as if he’d been waiting for this question for years.  “The whole notion that you can self-actualize at work is just a bizarre by-product of feminism if you ask me.  Women who weren’t happy at home thought they’d magically be happy at work, and now a whole generation of young people expect too much from work.  Don’t go becoming a malcontent, Richard.  Just get a job.”

Richard discounted his father’s advice, given whom it was coming from.  Not that his father was a bad man.  He’d never mistreated Richard or anybody else in any way.  But his answer to all questions was “Don’t think, just work.”  Richard had always thought of him as a character in a very boring, one-dimensional, humorless cartoon—Provider Man.  He had no thoughts or interests other than bringing home a paycheck for his family.  Not a bad man, certainly.  But hardly a whole person.  Barely even a real person.  “Provider Man: he can pay the rent, but does he have a pulse?”  Hardly something to aspire to.

Richard asked his mother what she thought.  “Well, I guess your father is right.”

“But what about you?  Don’t you love your work?”

She looked startled by the question.  “Why, Richard, I don’t even consider it work.  It’s my life, and I of course I love it.”

That was what Richard was gunning for.  

He knew he’d never find that as a consultant, which begged the question of why he was hurtling in a cab towards mid-town Manhattan.  Still, though, it would be good to have the offer.  Sort of a back up plan, a safety net, a reminder that even if he couldn’t find a job he loved with his whole mind and his whole heart, he could at least pay the rent…Was this how Richard died, and Provider Man was born?

The interview was with Frank McDermitt, aka Mac, one of Richard’s least favorite partners.  A whiskey swilling, cigar-smoking, frat-boy kind of man.  McKinsey didn’t have too many of those types, but Mac did really well with the telecom CEO’s, the DC bureaucrats, and the lobbyists.  The interview started with a case study, which Richard solved in about three minutes.  He didn’t really care about it, but he was good at it.  That was worth something, wasn’t it?

“Well, Richard, you nailed that one in no time flat.  What say we go celebrate with a little drink at my club?”

“Sure, sounds great.”  Richard stole a glance at his watch.  11:30.  A little early for a drink, but what the hell?

Enmeshed in his leather chair and slurping down a martini, Mac leaned forward confidentially towards Richard.  “I want to ask you to do me a favor.”  He swilled the drink in his glass with a practiced air.  He got the liquid so close to the edge that Richard felt constantly distracted, nervous he was going to spill it.  Suddenly, he realized that the near-spillage was just Mac’s little trick to throw him off balance.  Asshole.

“Sure.”  Richard stared into Mac’s eyes and avoided even looking at his glass.

“This can be kept between us, man-to-man, right?”

The man-to-man thing was never a good sign.  Richard leaned back and folded his hands around one big knee.  “Yes, I can keep a confidence.”

“That little wife of yours—”

“Sally?”  If Mac liked anything about women, it was the fact that some of them were shorter than he was.  Sally, however, was taller.  By about five inches.

“Yes, her.  See, ah—girls—”

“Women?”

“Ah, yes, women, when they’re young, they do make good analysts.  Ah, ah, ah, yes, I can admit that.  Sally was a good analyst.  But as they get older—well, they’re just not natural leaders.”

“Who aren’t natural leaders?”

“Ah—women.”

“All women?”

“Well, come on now Richard, let’s be realistic, you know as well as I do that they go off and have babies and they’re just never the same after that.”

“And?”

“Look.  I’m trying to do you a favor here.  You are about to learn officially that we have a new policy that we don’t hire spouses for the same office.  It’s just—ah—not a good idea.  Now, we like both of you, and, let me assure you, I think that Sally of yours, she’s a real pistol.”

“Yes?”
“Well, see here, Dick,”
“Richard.”
“Ah, yes, Richard.  See, Richard, we can’t make both of you an offer, and frankly, my sense is that the partners are going to come down on the side of making Sally the offer.  Now, between you and me, I think that’s bullshit.  It’s not because she’s better than you—you’re the natural leader, not Sally.” 

Richard bristled at the non-complement to himself and the unfair insult to Sally. He wanted to smack Mac, but knew better than to leap to Sally’s defense.  She always said that her husband’s chivalry would only hurt her cause in the workplace.  She had to fight her own battles.  Richard knew she was right.  He clenched his fists and worked his jaw, but said nothing.

“It’s because the risk of a law suit is too high.  These are the unfortunate realities of the world we live in.”  Mac was angry about these realities.  He slurped down the rest of his drink and waved at the waiter for another.  Richard didn’t say a word.  The second drink was placed in front of Mac.  He took a sip and started talking again.  “But if Sally were to withdraw her candidacy, you’d get an offer for sure.  It’d be a better outcome for us, and it’d be better for your family earning potential.  You’re much more likely than Sally to make partner.  And partners can make $5 million per year.” 

“Mac, I want to thank you very much for your advice.”  Richard stood up, ostensibly to hold out his hand to Mac, but really to discomfit him with the full force of his superior physique.  Richard was a big, good-looking guy.  He was 6’2” with thick, wavy brown hair, olive skin, powerful thighs.  He was the kind of athletic, energetic guy that men like Mac envied.  Richard had always been dismissive of his own physique because it attracted the attention of schmucks like Mac and a certain kind of vacuous woman.  But he wasn’t above using it when necessary.
Mac stood, looked up approvingly at Richard, and shook his hand.  There was something almost craven in Mac’s admiration.  Richard looked down at Mac, right in his eye, unwaveringly.  He calculated carefully which words would best knock the wind out of Mac.  “But I have to tell you something, Mac.  I’m the one who’s going to stay home with the kids.  Not Sally.”  

What a pleasure to watch Mac’s worldview crumble on his face!  “Wha-wha-wha, Richard!”  Mac swilled his drink, sending not just the booze but also an olive shooting off across the floor. 

Gumball!  

Blueberry Jam
Richard got out at 97th and Riverside, looking up at the familiar old townhouse of his mother’s parents.  He let himself into the house and called out his hello.  His breathing deepened.  His grandparents’ home snuffed his stress, released his shoulders, jaw, and stomach.  Just walking in the door did that.   What was it?  The smell of the chicken and asparagus they’d eat for lunch?  The little marigold in a white cream pitcher on the old wooden farm table?  Just the presence of these two lovely people?

“So.  I don’t think I am going to be a consultant.”  Richard speared an asparagus and settled into his chair.  

“Oh?”

“Well, I told a partner at McKinsey that I was going to stay home with the children.”

That got their attention.  They both stared at him, forks midway to their mouths.  He’d never rendered them speechless before.  His grandmother was the first to speak, trying not to sound too hopeful, but unable to contain her joy.  “Richard! Is Sally pregnant?”

Shit!  Why, oh, why hadn’t he thought before he opened his big mouth?  He hated to have to disappoint her—she’d been so longing for great-grandchildren. “No, no, but don’t worry, Gran, soon.”

“So whose children are you going to stay home with?”  His grandfather’s eye twinkled.

“I was just angry because the firm has a rule it won’t hire spouses, and the partner thought I should persuade Sally to withdraw.  He said she’d never make partner anyway because she’d have children and then not have the dedication it took to make it.”

“So you said you’d stay home as a way of defending Sally?” His grandmother asked.

“No, I think he was objecting to the essentialist argument.  He doesn’t believe, nor should he believe, that all women are one way and all men another.”  His grandfather posited.

“And probably that partner wasn’t one of your favorites.  Was he the cigar man you were telling us about?”  His grandmother puffed on an imaginary cigar.

“Yes.”  Richard answered, impressed as always at his grandmother’s memory for the details of his life.

“But, Richard, did you want the job?”  His grandfather was serious now, a gentle question replacing the teasing in his eyes.

“No.  Not really.  Just as a kind of back-up plan.”

“Why didn’t you like it?”

“I did like it.  I just didn’t love it.  I feel like if I am going to spend 12 or 14 hours a day doing something I should love it.”

“Quite right,” said his grandmother.  

“You didn’t have to tell that partner that you were going to stay home with the children that you don’t have.  Why’d you do that?  Now that’s an interesting question.”

“Now, darling, maybe that’s what he really is going to do.  And I think that would be just wonderful.  Is that what you’re going to do, Richard?”  His grandmother asked. 

“No, of course not.” 

“Are you sure you wouldn’t really like to make a home, Richard?”  His grandmother touched his arm.  “You would be good at it.”

This brought Richard up short.  Was his grandmother more open-minded about gender roles than he was?  Maybe it was just that people respected the homemaker role more in her time.  Today, most women he knew wouldn’t dare admit they wanted to stay home.  No man he knew of would even consider it.  

 “I don’t know.  I just can’t picture it, Gran.” 

“Then why did you tell that partner you would?” His grandfather pointed a fork, still speared with asparagus, at Richard.

“I was just hoping I might persuade Sally to do it if I led by example.”
“But you just said you wouldn’t stay home.”  His grandmother wiped the corner of her mouth with a starched white napkin.
“Well, by theoretical example.”
“Is Sally interested in being a housewife?”  His grandmother asked. 
His grandfather snorted.
“Not much chance of that.” Richard admitted.  The future yawned before him impossibly.  “What are we going to do?”
“Oh, don’t worry, honey, it’ll all work out.  It always does.  You’ll figure out a way.”  His grandmother patted his hand, dismissing this insurmountable quandary as if it were some small childish problem.  Simultaneously infuriating and reassuring.
“You don’t have to have the answer to a problem before beginning to solve it,” his grandfather said.  “In fact, if you did, then solving it wouldn’t be very much fun, would it?”
“I can’t say I am having too much fun right now.”  Richard turned to his grandfather.  “What do you like about your career?”   His grandfather was an economist, and still loved his work.
“The discovery.  When I am working on a problem, I always have the sense that if I just think hard enough, I can discover some principle which, if I can make it broadly understood, will allow bankers to be more efficient or governments to pass laws that will make markets to run more smoothly.  The net result is an economy that leaves fewer people behind—that just works.”
“It’s rather like discovering the importance of bedtime,” piped in his grandmother, mischievous smile playing on her face.  “The simple obvious rules that often get overlooked.”
His grandfather held a teasing fist at his grandmother.
“And what do you love about your work, Gran?”  Was it work, or was it “just” life?  Whatever it was, Gran excelled at it.
“You know, one of my favorite things in the world is making blueberry jam.  I love to get up early in the morning when we’re in the country and pick the best berries, only the ones that are really sweet and ready, while the summer light shines on everything and the birds sing.  And I love the smell in the house as I make the jam.  And then opening up a jar in the winter—it’s like magic, a little bit of summer in February.”
“And I love to eat it on my toast—there’s really nothing like it.  You can’t buy that, you know.”  His grandfather reached for his grandmother’s hand, and Richard ached as if he’d just seen an ex-girlfriend out with somebody else.  This was a pleasure that was not to be his.  Somehow making homemade jam was forbidden in its inefficiency.  Why not just buy gourmet preserves for $8.69?  Or even $12, if it really took all day to make the stuff?
“I don’t think that Sally and I will ever have time to make jam.”
“You feel the loss,” said his grandmother sympathetically.
“Yes.”  Richard felt a mournful tightness in his throat, as if he were going to cry, a welling of emotion out of all proportion to the subject.  It was just jelly, for God’s sake!  And if he really wanted to make some so much, well, certainly he could.  But he knew he never would.  Why?  It wasn’t man’s work?  
“But there is also a gain—at least for me.  Sally would certainly not enjoy making the jam even if she didn’t have to work 14 hours a day.  But I really would like to write that paper we were discussing with her,” said his grandfather.  “And I daresay the world will benefit more from that paper than from another jar of jam.”
Richard’s grandmother rolled her eyes and Richard smiled at her.  “If she cooked like grandma, I’d disagree with you.  But Sally being Sally, it would be burned, so you’re right, Grandpa, we’re all better off if she’s working on the paper.”
“Do you think she’s really interested?” his grandfather asked hopefully.
“Oh, Grandpa, Sally would love it!”  Richard’s mood lifted at the thought.  It would be so good for both of them to work together.  He was glad that Sally had the interest.  He had no desire at all to spend six months delving into the macroeconomic consequences of dividend taxation.  “But, grandpa, for all your economic sophistication, I am not sure you how to value that jar of jam properly.” 
Richard winked at his grandmother again.  Making jam seemed like a better way to spend time—not just more fun, but more real, more important.  It wasn’t just about the product, it was the atmosphere, the feeling of hominess, that it created. 
“Well, now, that’s a good problem for you to work on, Richard,” said his grandmother.  The lump came back into Richard’s throat.  He felt free in the world, free enough to go to Africa for four years, to go to all the fanciest schools, to expect the highest-paying jobs.  But not free enough to spend a day making jam.

Mommy Track
“So.  I had lunch with Mac today.”  Richard threw the pasta in the water and began chopping tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.
“Yuck.”  Sally looked up from her case, twirling her pen around her fingers.
“Yuck is right.”
“What’s the deal?”
“Turns out both of us can’t work there.  They have a no hiring spouses rule.”
Sally looked up and put her pen down.  “I’ll withdraw.”
Richard stirred the pasta, letting the warmth and smell relax his shoulders.  He didn’t want to burden Sally with the whole story and potentially sour her feeling about the firm.  But they had always been totally open with each other and he didn’t want to change that now.  Besides, withholding information to “protect” Sally was just arrogant.  “No, I told Mac that it was better if I’d withdraw.”
“Why?”
“A few reasons.  Mostly, I don’t want the job, really.”
“And?”
“And Mac was his usual sexist pig self and I got pissed.”
“Oh, Richard, you didn’t go defending my honor again did you?”  She stood up and wrapped her arms around his waist, tickling him.
“No.  Well, not exactly.”
“So.  What’d he say?  What’d you say?”
“Well, you’re going to kill me, but—” Richard paused, really not wanting to talk about this all over again.
Sally backed away.  “Oh, Richard.  No, tell me you didn’t do it again.”
“Do what?”  Richard knew what she was talking about but he wanted to hear how she would characterize it.
“Say that you’re going to stay home with the kids just to get a rise out of him.”
Richard turned from the pasta to face her.  “Yeah.  I did.”
“Richard!  Do you realize what you’ve done?  You’ve put yourself on the Mommy track!” 
“Well, you make it sound like I’ve put myself on the train to Auschwitz.  It’s not that bad.”
Sally took a step back and cocked her head.  “You know that you’ll not get a job anywhere in consulting once Mac has finished his Martini rounds this week?”
“I don’t really want a job in consulting.”  Richard felt his shoulders tense.  What was he going to do?  It was going to be hard to find a job that paid more than the one he’d just ceded to Sally.  Then again, he didn’t like to believe that it was important to him to make more money than his wife.  He wasn’t such a cretin was he, was he?  He didn’t want to hold his wife back did he?  He imagined Sally making more money than he did.  He clenched his fists, felt his stomach harden and his breathing grow shallow.
“What do you want, Richard?”
“I want to start trying to get pregnant.”  The words popped out before he could stop them.  Normally he was more calculating.  
“Oh, now you think that you can conceive?”
“No, Sally, I want you to start trying to get pregnant.”  He smiled at her.  “To be precise, I want to start trying to get you pregnant.”
“Richard, didn’t we just talk about this yesterday?”
“But Sally, your mom had a really hard time getting pregnant.  You’re 30 now.  If we wait till you’re 38 or 39 it might be too late.” He swallowed the lump the words ‘too late’ made in his throat.  He wished he could dismiss this surge of emotion as irrational.  But he couldn’t.  The thought of not having kids was unbearable.  Didn’t she feel the same?  “Are the pie charts and spreadsheets really so important that it is worth missing out on having kids?” 
“Why should I give up my career?  You can give up yours if it’s really so important to you.” 
Richard moaned.  “Sally, how did you do this?”
“Do what?”
“Dump your biological clock onto me!?!”
“Don’t you go giving me any crap.  You already gave me HPV, which caused the dysplasia.  So it’s half your fault, my biological clock having sped up.”
Damn!  She could fight dirty.  He turned back to the stove and focused on dumping the pasta in the drainer.  He shook it dry, dumped it into a big chipped blue and white bowl, and sprinkled the chopped tomatoes, basil and mozzarella on top.  He ground in lots of salt and pepper.  He felt himself relaxing, enjoying the small tasks.  “This is so satisfying.  I can’t understand why you don’t like to cook.” 
“Oh, for God’s sake, Richard!”
“What?  I’m just asking.”
“Did you marry me, or some imaginary friend who just looks like me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I just wonder sometimes if you know me at all.”
“I do know you.  I know you don’t like to cook.  I was just asking why.”  He set the plates down on the table.
“Why?  You don’t know?”  Red blotches were creeping up Sally’s neck.
“I was just curious is all.”  Richard spoke quietly, placatingly.  Sally was either about to rip him a new asshole or burst into tears.  He hoped it was the former.  He hated tears and loved Sally for her toughness.  Her rare bursts of vulnerability unnerved him, made him feel like a big, blundering bully.
“Because it makes me feel incompetent, if you really must know.”  Tears shone in Sally’s eyes.  Richard’s stomach clenched.  “Because it’s so simple for most people but I just fuck it up every time I try, no matter how hard I concentrate.”
Richard reached over and brushed a tear away with his thumb.  “Like sweeping the popcorn?”  He turned one corner of her mouth up in a smile with a knuckle.
Sally laughed through her tears, and a little snot appeared on her lip, which made her laugh again.  She picked up a napkin, blew her nose, and said, “Yes.  For me it’s like sweeping.  I don’t like feeling incompetent.”
“Nobody does, baby.”  Richard hugged his wife.

The Angel in the House
Richard and Sally started out on their usual after-dinner walk.  “You were smart about the walks, Sally.”  Richard still felt protective of Sally after her tears.  He smiled at the memory of Sally asking him if they could take a walk every night for the rest of their lives, as a way of agreeing to marry him.  “I love you,” he said.
She looked up, surprised.  “I love you too, Richard.”  A pause.  “Why so affectionate tonight?”
“Don’t you like it?” 
“Of course I do.  Still getting used to it I guess.”   She put an arm around his waist and hooked her thumb into his beltloop.
He knew she was thinking of her mother who bounced between pitiful tears and frightful bile.  She was like an actress with only two roles—the Unhappy, Unloved, Unappreciated Housewife and Medea the Dangerous Mother.  It had taken a lot of patient reassurance from Richard to persuade Sally she wouldn’t wind up like her mother if she got married. 
Perhaps this having-children issue was much the same as the getting-married issue.  Maybe he could persuade her through patient, loving reassurance that it would be OK to have kids, that she would be a great mother, just as she was a great wife.  And once she was pregnant the hormones would do the rest of the persuading.  She’d want to stay home with her babies.  Wouldn’t she?  His stomach tightened.
“What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.  Just some gas.”  He felt ambivalent about not telling her.  When they were engaged they had gotten a veritable tsunami of advice.  They had agreed to take only two recommendations.  One, they’d spend at least twenty minutes every day really talking to make sure they practiced sharing.  Two, they’d leave three things unsaid every day to make sure they practiced letting go.
The thing was, it was hard to know which things to share and which ones to let go.  Richard was particularly unsure about the issue of children.  Since Sally’s first Leep he’d become completely obsessed by the idea of her getting pregnant—now.  Every day when she pulled out her toothbrush and then took her pill he felt like screaming.  But he didn’t want to start every day screaming at her.  Especially when he knew that the right way to bring her around was patient reassurance, not shouting matches.  So he let it go, every morning.
Lately he’d taken to having to let the children discussion go not just every morning, but noon and night too.  Especially at night.  His obsession with children was beginning to ruin sex.  He felt that the love they were making was being wasted.  He’d always dismissed spilled seed anxieties as a masturbation hang-up.  Now he knew it was much more profound.  Something precious was slipping away.  The harder he tried to grasp for it the faster it oozed away.  Yet he couldn’t manage to relax his grip.  He would cling to Sally in bed, and she would hug him back, but then push him away ever so gently.  She couldn’t understand what was making him squeeze the breath out of her as she was trying to fall asleep.
They meandered along the streets towards Richard’s favorite house.  The kitchen faced the street, and there was usually a jolly scene in it.  A woman would be washing the dishes at the sink while her pre-teen sons “helped” her by chasing each other around the kitchen, snapping towels dampened by the occasional swipe they gave a pot or a pan.  Her husband, suit pants on, wrinkled shirt billowing out in back, tie loosened, looking very much the archetypal Provider Man, would walk through the kitchen talking very seriously on a cordless phone.  He’d look at his wife, his face would melt for a moment, he’d touch her lower back, and then resume his pacing.  That sort of thing.  Tonight she was pulling cookies out of the oven.
Richard felt an aching homesickness.  The stranger’s cookies reminded him of his childhood, of the kind of home Sally was so mysteriously afraid of creating.  Surely she would come around.  Not that he expected childbirth to transform her into his mother.  If that was what he wanted he should have married another kind of woman.  Or lived in a different era. 
What had his generation done to hominess, anyway?  That kind of warm comfort he got when he walked into his grandmother’s home, or his mother’s?  It was as if the whole country had collectively become locked out of the very idea of home.  He felt one of those hopeless waves of global sorrow that overcame him when he blamed his own personal disappointments on society or some other force totally beyond his control.
“Look at those cookies,” he said to Sally.  “I wonder how that woman felt when Hillary dismissed being a housewife as “just baking cookies.”
“Hillary didn’t put much stock in the way that woman has spent her life,” Sally agreed.  “Arrogant bitch.”
Richard was startled out of his mood.  That wasn’t the answer he’d expected.  He felt a surge of hopefulness.  Maybe she was softening on the staying-home thing after all.  “Wow.”
“Still, Richard, you’re not going to get cookies from me.”  Sally kicked her leg sideways, smacking him in the butt.  “And if you did they’d be burned.”
“You know that’s not what I want from you.”  This was the right thing to say, but not entirely true.  Not at all true.  Where was that comforting warmth going to come from with two Provider Men stalking around the house?  They’d have fancier appliances, certainly.  A cook, perhaps.  But he didn’t want a cook.  Why would he pay a cook when preparing meals gave him so much satisfaction?  If he got too busy for a massage would he pay somebody else to have one?  No, he wanted a home like the one he’d grown up in.  But if he said that to Sally she’d take it as a personal attack.  Besides, he’d heard the older men he’d worked with marvel at how persuasive the hormones were.  Knock her up and the facts on the ground would do the fighting.  Biology was on his side.  There was no point wasting his breath on theoretical conversations.
“Just so we’re both clear on this one thing:  I’m no angel in the house.”  Sally put her hand in the crook of his arm.
“Why do you think that Virginia Woolf had to kill the angel in the house?”  Richard squeezed her hand between his arm and rib cage.  He could convince her.
“To make way for her career.  She’d never have had time to write if she hadn’t.”  Richard was surprised at the readiness of her answer.  Clearly she’d thought about this before.
“Was it just for her career? Or did she just generally disapprove of that kind of woman?”
“Come on.  You are the huge Mrs. Dalloway fan.”  Sally said.  “Virginia Woolf wrote a whole novel in homage to that kind of woman.  She just didn’t want to be that kind of woman.  Kind of like how I feel about your mother.”
“Mrs. Dalloway committed suicide in the first draft.”  Richard had always been haunted by this little snippet from a freshman year literature lecture.
Sally shivered.  “That’s weird.”
“Do you think you have to kill yourself to be an angel in the house?”
“Jesus Christ!  What does it take to get that through your thick fucking skull?”  Sally stopped short.  “But maybe you wouldn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“Richard!  Do you want to be the angel in the house?”
She was so earnest that she failed to see the humor in her question.  Richard burst out laughing.   “Kill Provider Man to make way for the Angel in the House?”
“Why not?  If that’s what you want to do?”  Asked Sally seriously, refusing to take his humor bait.
“Get serious, Sally!”
“What do you want to do?”  Sally started walking again.
“I want to make a lot of money, fast.” 
“Why?  What do you want to buy?”  Sally put her hand on the inside of his elbow, and he reflexively bent his arm to give her hand a horizontal to hang onto.
“Freedom.  Choices.”  He dropped his arm straight so that her hand fell out.
“What choices?”  She asked, taking his hand.
“Sally, quit nagging me!”  He dropped her hand and walked a little faster.

Beers
“So.  I guess you found a fourth option for yourself since you didn’t like the three I came up with,” said Wayne, bringing beers to the little metal Au Bon Pain table Richard was holding for them.  They were both still sweating from a rough game of squash.
“What do you mean?”  Richard wasn’t paying much attention to what Wayne was saying.  He was busy re-playing the shots in his mind.  He’d almost lost, a rare occurencre.
“Trophy husband.”
“Fuck you, man,” Richard laughed, waving his hand, mind on the ball he’d missed.
“So what was all that ‘I’ll-stay-home’ stuff about?  You didn’t tell me about your little stunt in class the other day.  Everybody is talking about it.  And Sally told Betty that you also said the staying-home thing to a McKinsey partner.”
“I didn’t want the job anyway, and I thought that I could lead Sally by example.  Like Rick offering to take Susan’s last name to get her to take his.”  Richard was referring to some mutual friends.  Rick thought it was important for a family to have the same last name, but didn’t want to have a pointless conversation with his fiancée about her principles.
“Yeah, but Susan was a pseudo-feminist.  She’s way too conventional to let Rick take her name.  He was safe.  Sally’s the real deal.  You are not safe, my friend.”
“Sally took my name,” Richard pointed out.
“As she said, what’s in a name?”
“You think Sally wants a househusband?”  Richard sat up now, his mind off the game and fully on what Wayne was saying.
“Shit, yeah.  Why wouldn’t she want it?”
“You think she wants all the financial burden?”
“It’s no burden for her.  She’s good at her job.  And if you stay home she’s better.  She gets to focus entirely on her career, comes home to a dinner you’ve made and kids you’ve gotten all ready for bed.  Of course she wants it.  What were you thinking, dangling that one out there?”
“Sally knew I didn’t mean it.”  Richard finished half his beer neatly.
“Why wouldn’t you do it?”  Wayne drained his beer too.
“Would you?”  
“Not no, but hell no!”  Wayne held his hands out as if to fend off the very thought.
“I rest my case.”  Richard stood up.  “I’m going to get two more beers.  Another Newcastle?”
“Yeah.”  Wayne polished his off and called after Richard, “But don’t think you can change the subject so easily.  Why wouldn’t you do it?”
“Why should I?”  Richard asked over his shoulder.
“Because you like kids and you don’t like business.”  Wayne called after him.  Several heads jerked out of case booklets, away from conversations.  There was an awkward quiet moment in the bar area.  Such words had never been uttered here in capitalism’s training ground.  The bricks of the neat little Federalist building out the window seemed to murmur a sigh of protest.
“Two Newcastles,” Richard said to the bartender, ignoring all the eyes on his back.  He wished Wayne hadn’t made that announcement, but figured he’d only come off defensive if he protested so he let it go.  He returned to the table with the beers and the gentle sounds of conversation and study returned.
“So?  What’s wrong with being a trophy husband?  Women do it all the time.  You pack the kids off to school, go play golf, go play tennis, pick them up, hire a tutor to do their homework, watch the Beverly Hillbillies, order dinner in.  It’s the life!”  Wayne clinked his glass to Richard’s.
“Betty would kick your ass if she heard you talking shit like that.”  Richard sat back and took a long sip.  He felt impressed at how convincing his unconcerned affect was.  Wayne, who was his best friend, seemed totally unaware of how close Richard was to smashing his face in.
“Oh, she knows I know she works ten times harder than I do.”  Wayne smiled.  “She agrees with me that I should try to sell you on the idea.”
“Why do you think I should stay home only to work ten times harder than I would at a job and earn no money?”
“Because you want to.”  Wayne slammed down his beer like a gauntlet and looked challengingly at Richard.
“I do not.  You think I could live with myself if I had to buy those beers for us with Sally’s money?  No fucking way.  Forget about it!”
“What if you won the lottery tomorrow?”  Wayne leaned back.
“No, I still couldn’t do it.”  Richard sipped his beer.
“Why?”  Wayne balanced his chair on two legs.
“Oh, come on, what do you mean why?”  Richard kicked one leg of the chair and Wayne came down with a crash.  “Because the idea is preposterous, that’s why.”
“So what’s your plan?”  Wayne leaned back on two legs.
“Well, you know Jake?”  Richard leaned forward.
“Your friend the painter?”  Wayne balanced on two legs again.
“Yeah.  He really wanted kids, but his wife didn’t.  He persuaded her that he’d do all the work, and she got pregnant, right?”  Richard took a big sip and looked out the window.  “She had this high-powered lawyer job and was working crazy hours and paying all the bills.  Then, he started getting commissions and had to spend more time painting.  He gave her a guilt trip about his career.  Next thing we all knew, his wife had quit and was taking care of the kid full time.”
“She was at Cleary Gottleib, right?”  Wayne sipped his beer.
“Yeah.”  Richard picked at something on his arm.
“How’d he convince an attorney at Cleary to become dependent on a painter’s income?”  Wayne put his beer down.
“Well, he said that it was just easier for her to deal with the diapers and the 2 am feedings, she just naturally did more, and then she was just too tired to keep up at work.”
“How’s she like being home?”  Wayne looked hard at Richard.
Richard took a big slug of beer.  “Well.”
“As I recall the story, which I heard from Betty, she was so depressed she had to be institutionalized last year.”
“Well, but—”
“Gee, that’s a good model.”  Wayne shook his head.
“Well, Sally wouldn’t be like that.  She’s not a depressive person.  She’s more like your wife.  Betty is happy, right?”
“Betty loves being a full-time mom.  But I’ve got news for you.  Sally is nothing like Betty, and you know it.”  Wayne came down hard on all four legs of his chair.
“Why didn’t I marry a woman like Betty?”  Richard clutched at his head.
“Because you want Betty’s job for yourself.”  Wayne took a sip of beer.
Richard smacked the side of Wayne’s head with an open palm, splashing beer on his face and t-shirt.  “Shut the fuck up.”


Start-Up Fever

“I don’t know why you’d join somebody else’s start-up,” said the guy sitting next to Richard as they waited for the presentation to start.  “Why would you work for somebody else when you can write a business plan in an afternoon, get $2 million in funding at $10 million pre, hire 30 people in 30 days, get $20 million more in funding at $100 million pre, and go public 11 months later with a $1 billion market cap?”
What kind of la-la land was this guy living in, Richard wondered.  Was he insane?  Or was he just in possession of the facts, and it was the whole market that had gone insane?  It was very hard to tell in the last quarter of 1997. 
“Sounds crazy,” said the guy in the row ahead of him, swiveling around as if he’d read Richard’s mind.  “But that is the way the numbers are trending.”  He waved a venture capital report.
“Hey, can I take a look at that?”  Richard asked.
“Sure.”  He handed it back.
 Richard flipped through the research report.  The guy with the crazy valuation story had it right.  An involuntary grin spread on Richard’s face.  It was delightful, really.  He’d braced himself for hard-nosed business school, and here he found himself in Never, Never Land instead.  One of life’s funny little surprises. 
Well, one thing was sure: it couldn’t last.  Richard decided that if he was going to play this game he’d look for the company closest to IPO and get as much stock up-front as possible.  Some people thought this new economy was a paradigm shift, but Richard thought it was a bubble that would burst before he had time to graduate and start his own company.  Still, the odds of winning this game were much better than the lottery.
The CEO of The Community.com walked to the front of the room.  They were getting tens of thousands of people to become members of The Community.com each month.  How much did people have to pay to be members? Nothing—they just gave their email address.  What did they get?  Membership in a virtual community.  What did that do for them?  The CEO waved his hands past such petty questions.  The important thing was that he was buying ads on busses all over New York City and eventually all around the country.  That would increase the numbers to 200,000 new subscribers each month.  By the summer, they’d have two million subscribers.  That was enough to go public on.  When somebody asked how they got money out of all those subscribers, the CEO again waved his hand past such a silly question.  They’d be public—with a market cap of a billion dollars.  And whoever took the VP marketing job he was offering would get options worth at least $5 million.  If you wanted in, you just had to buy into that “vision.”
Well.  It all seemed ridiculous.  But it might be fun.  Richard imagined having a boss who was just 28 years old, working at a company with none of the rules or formality of Goldman Sachs.  More like a family or a summer camp than a company.  Maybe it would be more fun, more engaging than the sterile work environments he’d seen before business school.  Plus, if he made $5 million in one year then he could quit and be both Provider Man and the Angel in the House.  Not that he wanted to be Provider Man like his father.  Not that he was really seriously thinking about staying home with the kids.  That was Sally’s job.  

Penis Envy
Saturday night Richard and Sally went to dinner at Katie and Arnold VonHuslen’s.  Katie was in Richard’s section, and her husband Arnold was a slightly older venture capitalist.  Neither Richard nor Sally liked Katie much but when she invited them to dinner it was with a kind of breathless insecurity neither one of them had the heart to refuse.
Katie greeted them at the door, a butler hovering just behind her.
“Oh, Richard, Sally, I am just SO thrilled to see you!” Katie effused.  The butler took their coats. “Thank you so much, Roland,” Katie flashed her warmest smile at the butler, and then looked at Richard as if to make sure he noticed how polite she was to her help.  “Come in, come in, and have a drink.” 
She led them into the most dramatic living room Richard had ever seen.  A wall of windows twenty feet high looked over the Charles River.  Enormous wooden beams held up the ceiling.  A few white couches scattered about were the only concession to the steel and glass furniture motif. No rugs ruined the lines of the wide-plank wooden floors.  An enormous vase on a sawn-off Corinthian column in the middle of the room showed off cala lilies 4 feet high.
“Wow!  This is quite a place you’ve got here, Katie,” Richard said.
“Oh?  Do you like it?”  Katie widened her eyes as though she were herself surprised by the room.  “Oh, that’s so nice of you. Thanks so much.”
A waiter brought them champagne in extraordinarily long flutes delivered by a different man than the one at the door.  Katie bustled off to her husband and his friends who were standing in an unfriendly clutch by the window.
“There seems to be a bit of a vertical theme, wouldn’t you say?”  Sally whispered.
“A foot long,” Richard joked, with a barely-perceptible motion towards his crotch.
“And then some,” Sally smiled.
“I’d like to introduce you to my friends from Harvard,” Katie announced to the clutch, her voice desperate to scatter them just a little.  Sally and Richard exchanged an eye roll.
The clutch consisted of three couples remarkably similar to Arnold and Katie.  Two of the men were venture capitalists and one a hedge fund manager.  Two of the women were, like Katie, insecure about their business careers.  One was staggeringly aggressive about her interior-decorating career.
Pyramid-shaped appetizers were being passed around with the introductions.  Smoked fish whipped up into a gravity-defying mousse on delicate little crackers.  Next came a porcupine of carrots and celery poked into a steel mesh so they’d stand at attention. 
Katie invited her guests to a table dominated by tapers that were tall enough to light up a medieval dungeon.  Pyramids of raw tuna with the stalk of a strange and beautiful vegetable sticking jauntily out the top arrived, carried by a man in a white chef’s hat so tall Richard couldn’t understand what kept it from flopping over.
“Oh, everybody, this is Jean-Claude.  He helps me out on three-case nights.”  Katie gave a little self-deprecating laugh.  “Business school doesn’t allow for much time in the kitchen.”
Richard dug into his tuna tartar.  It looked impressive and it was clearly extraordinarily fresh, but there was something too mild about the way it tasted.  He looked across the table at Sally and she wrinkled her nose just a fraction.  What was wrong with the fish?  It was properly chilled, but it tasted all wrong.  It didn’t taste.  Richard’s mother had told him that her secret in the kitchen was to handle food with her bare fingers, maybe even get it just a little dirty or even burnt in a patch.  The imperfections gave it character.  
“Did you hear about the Yahoo woman a couple of classes ahead of you in business school?” the horn rimmed hedge fund manager interrupted Richard’s meditations on dinner.
“No.”
“She took a job at Yahoo.  Two weeks before she even graduated Yahoo went public and her options were worth $10 million.  Now she is worth over $100 million.”
There was an odd sort of clicking at the table, as if the people were turtles snapping shut in the face of a looming threat.  Horn rims had stuck his neck out by saying something that clearly stressed everybody out and they all retracted swiftly into their protective shell of boredom.  VC Two actually yawned.
Richard wondered if some warm comfort food could change the tenor of the conversation.  There was something simultaneously intimidating and bland about the food.  Maybe lasagna would warm up these turtles.  Instead, Jean-Claude appeared with a rack of lamb, ribs jutting painfully into the air, replete with little paper crowns.  Richard decided he was going to have to drink too much wine to make it through the dinner.
“It’s a good time to join a startup,” Sally commented as the chef put the lamb in the center of the table.
“And what are you going to do after graduation?” asked Arnold as Katie started serving the lamb.
“Probably go back to McKinsey,” Sally said.
There was a disapproving silence.  “Why?” asked VC One.
“I like it.”
There was a puzzled pause.  These were not people who took jobs because they enjoyed them.  “But you could make so much more money as a venture capitalist or a hedge fund manager.”
“Or an entrepreneur, God forbid.  Don’t you have an idea for a new business of some sort?  Write a halfway decent business plan and we’ll fight to see who can give you couple million dollars to start making it happen,” said VC Number Two, voice dripping with mocking boredom.  Richard caught Sally’s eye.  She’d dismissed The Community.com, as Never, Never Land when he’d told her about it.  ‘The whole thing might be ridiculous, but, see, the money is very real,’ his glance said to her.
“All bubbles burst,” said Sally.  The silence that greeted this proclamation was even deeper and more disapproving than the last.  Snap, snap, snap went the turtles.
And so the conversation went, vertical course after vertical course, until one in the morning.  At least the wine was good.  And the Grappa.

Would You Prefer that Boiled in Bile or Saturated in Ego?
“Don’t even start with me, Richard!”  Sally said as they walked to the T, Boston’s subway.
“What do you think I was going to say?”  Richard felt proud of how coherent he was after all he’d drunk.
“Some smart-ass thing about how cold that whole dinner was, how much better it would have been if some woman were sacrificing her life and repressing her ego to bake fucking cookies all day long.”
“Just yesterday you were defending cookie bakers everywhere against Hillary the bitch.  What made you switch shides?”  He knew he was drunk.  Ordinarily he wouldn’t ask such a provocative question or use the “b” word.  He felt a thrill like holding a lit firecracker just a second too long.
“I knew you were going to skew what I said.”  Sally paused and put her hand on her hip.  “What else did I tell you yesterday?”
“You gave me a lot of shit about what job I’m going to take since I decided I don’t want to be a consultant like you.”  Richard he hated it when she Mom’ed him.
“Oh, Richard, for crying out loud!  That’s not what I said.  What I said was, I admire housewives but I will never, ever be one.  What’s more, I’m sick of your none-too-subtle hints that you think I should be somebody I’m not.”  Sally started walking again.
“Too much testosterone tonight.  A woman would never cook a meal like that.  Only a man would make such heartless food.”  Richard was mad and didn’t know why, so he tried to piss Sally off.
“You don’t buy that essentialist bullshit!” Sally didn’t get mad, she just dismissed him with a wave of her hand.  “Besides, the problem wasn’t that the chef was a man with too much testosterone.  The problem was that he was just doing a job, and like most people just doing a job, he checked his personality at the door.”
“So admit that the meal was totally saturated in ego,” Richard lengthened his stride to keep up with her.  
“Well, I agree it was bad, but it’s better than boiled in bile by an angry housewife like dinner at my house.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  My father pushed my mother into that.  You’re not going to do the same to me, Richard Moore.”
“Ego and bile aren’t the only two choices, you know.  Some women are really happy to make life nice for their families.”  Richard slid his arm around Sally’s waist.  He’d persuaded her to marry him.  Surely he could warm her up to motherhood as well.
“Well, you didn’t happen to marry a martyr, in case you haven’t noticed.”  Sally took the steps down to the T two at a time, running from Richard’s embrace.
“You don’t have to be a martyr.”  Richard caught up with her on the subway platform and took her hand.  His mother wasn’t a sacrificial victim.  She was one of the happiest people Richard knew.  But he knew better than to compare Sally to his mother.  He’d made that mistake before.  Even a cow learns not to walk into barbed wire.
“That’s what I am trying to say.  We wouldn’t have a dinner party like that, even if I don’t dedicate my life to cookies and diapers.”
“Right.  We’d have tandoori chicken delivered.”  Richard was surprised at the harsh edge to his voice.  He’d never complained about the take-out food before.
“And good conversation with interesting people.  Who really gives a shit what we eat?”  Sally didn’t sound the slightest bit defensive about her dial-a-dinners. 
The train came, and they stepped in.  The doors shut, and Richard thought that He thought about lunch at his grandparents, and tried to think about what, exactly, it was that made their home so comforting.  What if Gran had ordered in instead?  It was unthinkable.  What were the elements of magic in his mother’s home?  The food did have something to do with it. 
“Well.  But it does matter what you eat, and how it’s prepared and presented.  It creates a mood.  People eating homemade lasagna wouldn’t have been so defensive.  When food gets cooked professionally—well, it’s just different.  It’s a transaction not a relationship.”
“Here we go again.”  Sally rolled her eyes and grabbed a steel pole as the train pulled out of the station. 
“And it’s not just the food.  It’s the flowers, the candles, the curtains.  It’s about expressing yourself with all those things.  You can’t just outsource it all.”  Richard swatted one of the hinged handles hanging from the top of the car as if it were a punching bag.  It rattled back and forth for a moment.
“Oh, great.  So not only do I have to cook, I have to cut the ends off of flowers and arrange them in vases?  And buy little frilly curtains and put them up with a flounce?”  Sally did a funny spastic little jig.  Several passengers on the train snickered.  One applauded.  She started to bow, paused, and then gave an exaggerated curtsey.
“No, no, Sally, I am not saying what you have to do.”  Richard sat down and pulled her down next to him so she’d quit performing for the whole damn subway car.
“What are you saying?”  She allowed him to pull her close.
“I am just trying to operationalize what makes a home a home.”  Richard thought maybe if he talked about it in business terms she wouldn’t be so threatened.  “I am not assigning any roles.”
“And?”
“Well.”  Richard took her hand.  He focused on the window opposite them to keep things from spinning.  “Why did you think that dinner party was so awful?”
“The guests.  They were ridiculous people.  Do you honestly think that if you fed those assholes lasagna they’d magically have a soulful conversation?”  Sally turned towards him, folding one leg in a triangle on the seat between them.
Richard laughed.  “Maybe not.  But can you imagine anybody having a good conversation in that environment?”
“A good group of people should be able to have a good conversation in any environment.”  Sally raised their hands, fingers entwined, and let the joint fist fall on her leg for emphasis.
“Come on, it helps to have the right setting.  That meal and that apartment were all about ambition.  I want our home to be about contentment.”  Richard kissed her cheek sloppily.
“That’s why it’s so important for me to work!”  Sally wiped her face.  “So that I can exercise my ambition in the office and then be content when I come home.”
“Given the choice between slaving away in an office developing ambition and staying home all day developing contentment why in the world would you choose the office?”  Richard had wondered this since the day he met her and felt a little thrill at having finally given voice to this forbidden question.  He wondered just how much wine he’d drunk.  No, it was the grappa at the end of the meal that had loosened his lips.
“For the same reason you do.”  Sally shrugged.
“But unlike me, you have a choice.  You have a get-out-of-the-rat-race-free card.  Why aren’t you playing it?”  He couldn’t for the life of him understand it.  
“Because my get-out-of-the-cleaning-up-other-people’s-shit option just seems more valuable,” Sally fired back.
“Well, here we are,” Richard said as the train pulled into Harvard Square.  They climbed the stairs out of the station and he thought about a fight his sister and father had gotten into when she was in college.  His younger sister Susan had gone to a meeting with their father in the offices of a big Manhattan law firm.  In the elevator on the way down she’d asked him if he thought she’d be a good lawyer.  Their father had looked surprised and asked, “Why don’t you just marry one?”  Boy, had his sister blown up!  There was shouting and crying, and Richard had exclaimed over what a sexist pig their father was.  Now, it seemed that his father’s question was totally legitimate.  Being a lawyer or a consultant was no fun.  Come to think of it, why would his sister do it if she didn’t have to, if her spouse would do it instead, leaving her free to focus on sweet children and delicious food and beautiful flowers?  What the hell was wrong with his sister anyway?  With his wife? 

Interview

The following day, Sunday, Richard woke up with a massive hangover and caught the Delta Shuttle to New York.  He had an interview with the CEO of The Community.com.  Sunday was kind of a weird day for a job interview, but Richard had already missed the maximum number of classes and Tom, the CEO, assured him that he worked all the time anyway so Sunday was no different than any other day.  This wasn’t exactly reassuring.  But then again, to make $5 million in one year you’d have to work pretty hard.  Perhaps it was sort of like being a fighter pilot.  One wasn’t really paid more—just faster.  Only fighter pilots died, while dot coms just went public.  Or bankrupt, as Sally kept reminding him.
Richard finagled a second bagel, a third cranberry juice, and a fourth cup of coffee out of the stewardess.  By the time the shuttle landed, he had gotten the right ratio of bread, cream cheese, coffee, and juice inside him to feel relatively coherent.  By the time he rang the buzzer to Tom’s apartment he’d hit that place in a hangover in which all the colors were brighter, all the lines sharper, all the noises more distinct; but all his thoughts were fuzzier, making the world feel infinite with possibility.  Sometimes Richard liked a hangover even more than being drunk.
Tom opened the door and ushered Richard into what looked more like a ransacked toy store than an apartment.  “Welcome, welcome.  This is my wife Myra.  These are my kids, Jacob, Benjy, and Abby.”  Tom had a lopsided grin.  
“Can you two help us get started before you go?”  Myra asked.
“Absolutely.  Come on back to the playroom, Richard.”  The playroom had walls of windows from three exposures.  One easel was set up for adults, and three for the kids.  Sketches and some startlingly good abstract paintings were scattered about.  Perhaps it was the hangover, but Richard felt like he’d stumbled into heaven.  Once upon a time Richard had done a fair amount of painting himself, but he hadn’t picked up a brush in two years.
After a few pleasantries it was time to leave the sun-drenched apartment and the happily romping children.  Richard felt an almost irresistible tug to stay.  The boredom of discussing how to sign up 200,000 new members to The Community.com per month seemed profound, almost unbearable.  Who really cared about that nonsense?  He wondered if Tom felt how unfair it was to have to leave home every morning.  
“Let’s go!”  Tom said, opening the door to the apartment and pushing the elevator button down.  Richard found it suddenly very difficult to move his legs.  No, it was impossible.  He felt as if the elevator were taking him straight to hell, not just away from the playroom and down the street to the office.  Well, maybe he could just hang out here for the rest of the afternoon.
Richard reminded himself that he hadn’t flown all the way to New York to get a babysitting job.  And The Community.com was something he might be really interested in.  It wasn’t like McKinsey.  And what would Sally say if he didn’t come back home with an offer?  Why didn’t Sally want this for herself?
He had to tell himself over and over about the IPO in the next twelve months, the $5 million he stood to earn.  Even such powerful motivators were hardly enough to counteract the pull of the playroom.  Richard could barely muster the bullshitting skills necessary to feign interest in The Community.Com’s business model.

Call to Action
“So?  What’s the deal?” asked Sally as soon as he walked in the door.  She had gotten her offer from McKinsey and was anxious for Richard to get a job too.
“Salary of $100,000 and stock options that would be worth $5 million after one year if the IPO goes the way of Yahoo or Netscape,” Richard said. 
“Well, the salary is about $40,000 less than you’d get as a consultant, but if it sounds that much more satisfying, you should do it,” Sally said.  Clearly she wrote the options down to $0 right off the bat. 
Richard disagreed, but didn’t have any interest in debating it.  “Tom’s wife Myra has a much better job if you ask me.”
“Oh?  What’s she do?”
“She has three kids.”  Richard knew he was tossing a grenade, but he was too tired to care.  Why didn’t Sally want to do it?  He just couldn’t understand.  “They have this amazing playroom with easels and paints and—”
“Richard, for the love of God, would you—”
“Why, Sally?  Why don’t you want it?  I could barely make myself go to the meeting because all I wanted to do was to stay and play with the kids.  Doesn’t that sound more fun than doing power points at McKinsey?”
“Richard, I am warning you—” 
“I just don’t understand it.  Why don’t you want it?”
“I am not going to have this discussion again.”
“Why won’t you even explain it to me?”
“Richard, I have explained and explained and explained.  It is time for you to ask yourself the hard question.”  Sally calmly stood up and put her case in her bag.  “Did you marry the wrong woman?”  She walked toward the door.
“Sally, where are you going?”  Richard followed her out the door.
“Richard, I am going to spend a couple of nights at Wayne and Betty’s.  You have got to do some thinking.  Alone.  You’re driving me nuts.  I can’t take it any more.  I am who I am.  I am not going to change.”
“I didn’t ask you to change!”
“You’re right.  You never acknowledged who I am in the first place.  You never noticed that I am no happy homemaker.  If you won’t listen I have no choice but to act.”
Richard grabbed her arm, and she wrestled free of his grip with surprising agility.  “Richard, get back in the house.”
He took a step back, not in obedience but to get away from his own fury at her mothering tone of voice.  Let her go.  Who wanted to hang around that bossy bitch?
“I will be back in two days.  Think things over, OK?  If it’s a housewife you want, you are free to go get one.  But you are not free to try to turn me into one.”

Fogg
Think?  How in the world did Sally expect him to think about anything?  The moment she was out of the house, there was room for only one thought in his head: how to get her back.  He knew that he was going to have to make a grand gesture to get things back on an even keel.  No conversation was going to sort this out.  He needed to fight action with action.
He called his sister Elaine and asked if she could get her friend at the Fogg Museum to do him a big favor.  He dug in the back of his closet and pulled out an easel, a canvas, and his oil paints, which had gone untouched for the past year.  He didn’t have to wait till he had children to paint.  He could paint now, for Sally.
He stayed up all night and called her first thing in the morning.  “Sally, will you at least meet me at the Fogg tonight?” said Richard.
“Richard, I told you I am not coming home till Tuesday.”
“I just need to talk to you.  Don’t do this to me, Sal.  Just meet me at the museum at 6, OK?  There’s something there I want to show you, something that I think will help you understand where I’m been coming from.” 
“Oh, Richard.” 
He could hear her softening.  He needed to give her a face-saving out so she could agree but still feel she was sticking to her guns.  “You don’t have to come home after if you don’t want.”
“Richard, this is why I can never trust you.  You’re too manipulative.”
“Please, Sally.  It’ll help me think.”

“The museum’s closed.”  These were Sally’s first words when she walked up to Richard.
“Oh, baby, I’m happy to see you.”  He gave her a big hug.  She remained stiff in his arms.
“The museum’s closed.”  There was an edge of suspicion in her voice.
“Elaine’s friend is going to let us in.
Richard took her cold hand and dialed his cell phone.  Ten minutes later they were alone in a remote wing of the museum.  “So you think the minor impressionists have something to tell me about how you feel?”  Sally asked.
“There’s this one special painting that I want you to see.  Be patient.  It’s just around the corner.”  Richard took her hand and led her over to a dark spot just under a stairwell.  His easel stood there, holding the self-portrait he’d stayed up all night painting, perfecting its a pleading expression.  A carefully typed label was stuck to the easel, entitling the painting Forgive Me?
“Oh, Richard!”
He reached out and touched her cheek.  “Will you?  Forgive me?  It’s you I want, Sally.  Not a housewife.”
Tears had formed in her eyes.  He kissed her forehead and felt her body melt closer to his.  It was safe.  He wrapped his arms around her.  After a moment he heard her laughing through her tears.  “What?”
She looked up at him.  “It’s a pretty self-absorbed apology, Richard.”
“I would’ve painted you, but you were gone, remember?”  He put his face in her neck.  It was OK.  He was forgiven.  

Monkey on His Back
Richard wandered out of his Organizational Behavior class a few days later, Friday afternoon.  The professor, who also taught a class entitled Power and Influence, said it was about management.  Sally called it Manipulation 101 and suggested that Richard could write the authoritative text on the subject. 
But clearly he wasn’t as adept a schemer as all that.  He had just admitted failure in getting what he most wanted from his wife.  Sally was not going to stay home with the kids.  She wasn’t even going to get pregnant.  And, given the realities, he knew he’d been wrong to push her so hard.  He loved her for not being railroaded.  But he still wanted children.  He’d made up with Sally, but he was still in the grip of his obsession.
What would he do?  Hell, he couldn’t even figure out what he wanted from this Friday afternoon, let alone his life!  It was 2:30, and he debated his choices.  Should he go to the gym?  Go see who was having coffee at Au Bon Pain?  Go to the book store and buy a novel so he could “study” with Sally?  Feed the squirrels?  
He wandered across the campus pondering his options, staring over the big swatch of grass in front of Baker Library.  Richard noticed a man sitting in the middle of the lawn playing with something.  He looked a little closer, curious.  What was it?  Something in the man’s posture implied it was a baby, but that couldn’t be.  It was unseasonably warm for late November, but not so warm you’d just sit around with a baby.  Richard walked a little closer.  A dog?  No.  A little closer.  It was a monkey.  Richard now knew what he wanted to do with his afternoon.  He strolled across the lawn, hoping the man wouldn’t mind.
“Hi,” he said to the man.  “Pet monkey?”  Richard loved animals and had never gotten to hold a monkey before.
“Yep.”
“Really cute.  Mind if I have a seat?”  Richard waited for a nod from the man and sat down in the grass.  “How old?”
“He’s about two.  Named Nelson.”  The monkey scampered on the man’s shoulder and pinched his ear.  The man smiled, blissed out.
“How long you had him?”
“Since he was 3 months.” 
“Trouble?”  Richard had heard that monkeys were terrible pets, real home ransackers, which seemed a shame.  It would be fun to have a monkey, much more fun than having a dog or a cat.  Like your very own missing link, right there in your living room.
“Yes, but worth it.”  The man was warming up to Richard slowly, though most of his attention was still reserved for the monkey.  The monkey peered over the top of the man’s head at Richard curiously, tiny eyes sparkling.
“He looks so smart.”
“Yes, he is.”
“Much smarter than a dog, hunh?”  Richard said.
“Yes, but that’s not why I got him.”
“Why did you?”
“Hold out your finger,” the man said. 
Richard did as he was told, and the monkey reached out to hold his pinky with ten tiny fingers.
“That’s why.  A monkey can hold your hand,” the man said with a kind of crazy awe in his voice.  Richard wasn’t quite sure what he meant and looked up at him.  “Like a human child.”
There was a regret in the man’s voice that was unbearable.  Richard decided it was time to change the subject.  Clearly he’d accidentally hit on some kind of raw nerve.  “So, uh, did you go to business school here?”
“Yep.  Worked at General Motors for 40 years.  Was the CFO.”
“Oh, wow.  Nice to meet you.  I’m sorry, I’m Richard.”  Richard stuck out his hand.
“I’m Dave.”
“How’d you like GM?”
“I made a good living for myself and my wife.  But it had a price.”  The man looked unbearably sad and got that crazy look in his eye again. 
“What price?”   Richard asked.
“I missed my children’s childhood.  I only made it home before they went to sleep on the week-ends, and I missed a lot of those.”
“That’s tough.”   Richard held his finger out to the monkey again.  The monkey grabbed it obligingly.
“You have no idea,” the CFO said.  “That’s why we decided to get the monkey.  So I’d have my chance.”
The lawn seemed to undulate before Richard.  This man missed getting to know his children and he was making up for it with a monkey???  Richard felt as if a gulf had opened up in front of Baker Library.

Another Brilliant Career, Down the Fallopian Tubes
Shaken, Richard went right home to Sally.  “Anybody home?” he called hopefully, desperately, even as he cracked open the door.
“In here—doing a little studying, something we mere mortals have to do just to stay alive.”  She was studying at the dining room table.  “I want to get all my cases done tonight so we can have the whole week-end.”  Sally had a habit of studying on Friday night that irritated Richard.
“Sally, I need to talk to you.”  He sat down in the chair next to her.
“What’s up?”  She put down her pink highlighter, pushed her case away, and focused her blue eyes intently on him.
“Are you sure you won’t regret not staying home with the kids?”
“Oh, Richard, for Christ sake.”  Sally reached for her highlighter and the case.
“No, I mean, I’m not trying to persuade you.  I have decided that I would like to stay home.  I am serious.  But I don’t want to rob you of the experience.”
Sally put her highlighter back down.  “Richard, what the hell happened?”
“I met this man on the lawn in front of Baker.  He had a monkey, and he said he got it because he totally missed his children’s childhood while he was working for General Motors.  Sally!  He got a monkey to compensate.  A MONKEY!!!” Richard felt all the repressed panic he’d been feeling every time Sally took her birth control pill rise up from his stomach to his throat to his eyes.  Everything was constricted.
“Richard, whoa! Whoa!  Come again.  What are you talking about?”  She pushed her chair back, stood up, and massaged his shoulders.
“Sally, it was so pitiful.  I don’t want that to happen to me.  You should have seen the look in this guy’s eyes.  Haunted, empty.  Like my father, only with self-awareness.  I recognized myself in them, Sally.  I know I’d feel the same way if I live my life that way.  Sally, I don’t want a monkey.  I want children!!!”  He stood up, turned toward her, and wrapped his arms around her waist.
“Richard, Richard, calm down.”
“Only, Sally, what if you feel that way?  What if you feel that way at the end of your career?  It would be worse for a woman than for a man. I—”
Sally stepped back from him and smiled.  “Yeah, you’d have to get me an orangutan probably.  Or a gorilla.  With diapers.  And a pacifier.  And a pink ribbon.”
Richard saw himself suddenly through Sally’s eyes and burst out laughing, sitting down hard in her chair.  She sat on his lap and wrapped her arms around his neck.  “So this man with a monkey really wigged you out, I see.” she laughed.
“Yeah.  But I am serious.  I would like to stay home with the kids.  I thought I was bullshitting in class and with Mac.  And I’ll admit part of it was that I was willing to say anything to get you to throw away the pills.  Maybe I was trying to pull a Jake.  But now I mean it.  I want to stay home.  I really do.”
“Yeah, right.”  She leaned back away from him to look him in the face.  “I forgave you, but I’ve not forgotten.”
“Sal, I’m serious.”
“Are you sure, Richard?”
“Absolutely positive.”
“The monkey told you so?”  She smiled.
“Sally, I am not kidding.  I know I seemed crazy when I came in.  But I am not.  I really want to do this.”
“You think you can hack the tedium of it?”  She ran her fingers through his hair, looking at him intently.
“And working at McKinsey is not tedious?”  Richard tried to focus on being honest, not just manipulative.
“Well, the hours are long, but not 24x7.  And it is at least highly compensated tedium.  With constant ego reinforcements.”
“Since when was my ego so fragile?”  Richard puffed his chest out.
“Look, plenty of very strong egos have been crushed utterly by diapers and all the rest.  Even strong women like my mother.  And it’d be harder for you—are you sure you can deal with the attitude of everybody and everything if you do this?”  Sally was perched on his knee, arched back from him, and staring into his face skeptically.
“I’ve never worried about what other people think before.”
“Richard!  You were the beloved son with great grades. You are very good-looking.  You went to Stanford.  Then you worked in the Peace Corps.  Then you worked at Goldman Sachs.  Then you worked at McKinsey.  Then you went to Harvard Business School.  You have no idea what it feels like to have people look down on what you do.  You’ve never been within ten miles of disapproval.”  She held her hands far apart.
“You think I’m so weak I can’t hack a little criticism?”  He wrapped his arms around her waist to keep her steady on his knee.
“Richard, it’s not weakness to react to what people think of you, how they treat you.  It’s human!”
“Well, I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks.”
“OK, tough guy.  I’m looking forward to Christmas.”  She smiled at him.  “When you tell our parents about this decision.”
Richard felt bamboozled.  How did she do that?  There was not going to be any discussion of throwing those birth control pills away tonight.  Before he even raised the idea, she’d put him off until after Christmas…Still, that wasn’t so long from now, just over a month.  He could live with that.  He’d better lock it in.
“So if we tell my parents and your parents, then we can throw away the birth control?”
She sat bolt upright.  Richard tensed.  “You can’t just talk the talk.  You have to walk the walk.  Throw away the job offer, and I’ll throw away the pills.”
“What?! After the baby is born, I’ll quit.”
Sally turned away from him, suddenly furious.  “Yeah, right.  And what if you don’t?  What if you’re just about to IPO and make a gajillion dollars.  You’ll just expect me to pick up the slack, won’t you?  It’ll be the economically rational thing to do, right?  Because you’ll be about to become a gajillionaire.  Well, I’ve got news for you, buster!  No matter how much money you’re going to make, I’m not quitting!”
“Sally!  This is not about money.”
“Then why the fuck do you keep talking about the Yahoo IPO and how you’re going to make $5 million your first year at this crazy dot com?”
“The Community sounds fun to me.  More fun than banking.  Something new.”
“I thought you were going to stay home.”  Sally jumped up off his lap.  “You’re still trying to pull a Jake on me.”
“I am not.  It’s just that I thought I was going to stay home with the kids.  Not just stay home waiting for you to get pregnant, twiddling my thumbs.  Sal!?”
“Don’t you ‘Sal’ me!  I am not going to let you sweet-talk me into motherhood with a bunch of promises you have no intention of keeping.”
“But…why not have two salaries while we’re trying to get pregnant.”
“Richard, we’re still planning to go to India after graduation, right?”
“Yeah.”
“So, you’d not start working until August anyway, right?”
“Right.”
“How long do you think it’s going to take me to get pregnant?  If we started in January, that’s nine months till you’d start a job.  I could be seven or eight months pregnant by then.”
“What if it takes longer?”
“Let’s plan for success.”
“But shouldn’t we have the extra income in the meantime?”  He took her hand.
“I thought children were so important to you.  If you’re not willing to forego $100,000, really only $50,000 after taxes, to have kids, then how do you expect me to believe you will quit at all?”  She removed her hand from his.  “I mean, what do you want to buy that could possibly be that important?”
She was not fighting fair.  He struggled to keep his temper.  “What if it takes four years like it did your mom?”
“It won’t.  But let’s say it did.  So that’s $200,000, after taxes.  What are you going to buy with it that’s more important to you than having kids?”
“Nothing, but, Sally—it’s just not necessary.”  He struggled not to remind her about the stock options, and the possibility they’d be worth $5million.  Money was beside the point here, and he didn’t want to get side-tracked with an argument about dot coms.
“Goddammit, Richard, don’t you listen to a single fucking word I say?  It IS necessary.  I am the vulnerable one.  You’re asking me to get pregnant.  It’s not you who’ll have to carry the baby and give birth.  It’s me.  And God knows what kind of hormones kick in and God knows what kind of decisions I’ll make under their influence.  I don’t want to be just one more brilliant career, down the fallopian tubes.”  She paused, calming a little, having given a voice to her fears. 
“You act like I’m trying to slip some sort of narcotic into your cocktail, and then take advantage of you.”  Richard laughed a little at this idea.
“That is exactly what happens to a woman when she gets pregnant, when she has a baby!  She has intelligence, and then she breast feeds and literally loses several IQ points.  She has to, in order to do such a mind-numbing thing all day long and not go stark raving mad.”
“It’s only temporary,” Richard said.  “Her full mental capacities return after she’s done breast feeding.”
“Gee, thanks, so I only have to be stupid for a year per kid.  And it’s not just then.  A woman has all these goals, these ambitions, she has a baby, and suddenly it’s only thing that matters, for the rest of her life.  You see it over and over and over.”
“Oh, Sal!”  On the one hand, she was being ridiculous.  On the other hand, given the mystery with which people discussed motherhood, and given how brutally unfairly mothers have allowed themselves to be treated for time immemorial, maybe she wasn’t so crazy.  Still. 
“Don’t you Oh Sal me.  If I am going to become that hormonally vulnerable, I need a rock-solid commitment from you that you’ll stay home.  Not just a commitment.  I need proof!”
“Isn’t my promise enough for you?”
 “Do you know what percentage of women from HBS class of ’74 are full-time stay-at-home moms?”
“No.”
“75%.  Richard, 75%.  I thought that if I got my MBA it would sort of put me on an automatic work track.  But now I find out that most women with MBAs don’t even work.  I have to fight hard to stay in the 25%.”
“I am with you, not against you Sally.  I just think I should work until you have the baby—or at least until you get pregnant.”
“Why?  Do we really need the money?  Can’t we both live on my salary? If we can’t we’ve got some kind of problem!”
“Your salary will be plenty for both of us to live on,” Richard agreed.
“So the problem is that it’s my salary not yours? ”
She was pissing him off again, painting him as some kind of money hungry jerk. “Look, Sally, you know damn well it’s not about the money.”
“So it’s about the fact that you can’t bear not to have a job?” 
“No, Sally!”
“So why do you have to take a job after graduation?  If you expect me to believe that you really are going to be the primary care giver, it’s got to start now.  If you throw away your offer from The Community.com and quit interviewing, then I’ll throw away the pills.”
“Sally, you’re not putting me in a fair position.”
“Well, and you are putting me in a fair position, asking me to become a raging insane hormone-ridden baby vessel just as I start a new job?!  If I’m going to do that, I want things set up so I have to go back to work and you have to take care of the baby.  Your staying home is my safety net, to stop me from falling into my mother’s kind of baby trap.”
Richard looked at her, head cocked.  He didn’t want her mother’s life either.  He wanted his mother’s life.  
“Well, Richard, maybe you don’t want it either.  I can’t say I blame you.  Not one little bit.  That’s why you’ve got to prove to me that you’ll do it before I will feel safe getting pregnant.”
“Sally, it’s not reasonable, what you’re asking.”
“Look, Richard.  You want me to throw away the pills?  Fine.  It’s in your hands.  Just tell everybody what you’re going to do, throw away the job offers, and I will throw away my birth control.”
Having uttered the final word, she sat back down at the table, picked up her case and her highlighter, and went back to work.

Don’t Take the Bait!
They woke up and made love, the late Saturday morning sunshine pouring in the windows.  It was a slow, healing, well-rested kind of love.  After, Richard brought Sally breakfast in bed, fried eggs, pain chocolat, grapefruit, and good, strong coffee on a tray with a big riotous pink peony that he’d bought at the florist on Thursday and hidden in the back of the icebox.  He loved the languorous feeling of spoiling her. 
“Where’d you find this?”  She buried her nose right in the flower, not worrying about turning it brown, just wanting to enjoy every bit of it.  She dug into her eggs, kissing him and scraping the plate for every bit of yolk. With another kiss she started in on her grapefruit.  “How do you make it so juicy?”  She asked this pretty much every Saturday.  He dug the grapefruit out with a curved serrated knife, scooping the meat into a bowl and squeezing the juice out on top of it.  She loved it this way, but never managed to get out of bed in time to watch the mystery of its preparation.  “Are you sure you don’t pour grapefruit juice in?”  She finished the grapefruit and drank the juice left in the bowl.  “Now for the really good part.”  She dug into her pain chocolat, taking big sips of coffee after each bite.  Sally was fun to spoil.  
“See, you’re going to love having a kept man!” Richard had a delicious feeling saying these forbidden words.  And at the same time, a sense of déjà vu.  When had he felt this way before?  He glanced around the room and saw his old china doll.  He’d rescued that doll from his little sister Susan when he was ten and she was eight.  She had been playing cowboys and Indians, taking on the Indian role.  He’d gone into her room and seen her with a little hatchet, preparing to scalp the doll.  He’d immediately grabbed a toy pistol and with a whoop had rescued the china doll.  He’d kept it safe on the shelf in his closet after that, taking it down sometimes late at night when everybody was asleep.  He felt the doll’s loneliness acutely every morning when he picked out his clothes, but was ashamed to let anybody know he played with the doll.  He’d longed to keep it on his bed, but was too embarrassed.  Those late-night encounters with the doll had carried all the intimacy and thrill of a forbidden love affair.  He shook his head to clear the painful memory and focused on the future.  “Every morning could be like this.” 
“Breakfast in bed every morning?”
“Well, no, you wouldn’t like that before work—too much time.  But I’d get the cereal and coffee all ready while you showered, save you a good 10 minutes every morning.”
“That would be better than our usual scramble for the shower.”  She laughed.  Their routine was to wake up 20 minutes before class started, one of them racing for the cereal, the other for the shower.  If there wasn’t any milk, which there usually wasn’t, or if they overslept and got up only 10 minutes before class, they’d wind up taking a frantic shower together, often bonking heads as they raced to rinse shampoo.
“I’d even have the paper out for you to read.”
“But I’d have no time.”
“I’d read it then, during the day, and have the relevant articles clipped for you.”
“Mmm.”  Sally stretched luxuriantly.  “Sounds nice.  What else?”
“Well, when you came home there’d be one of those pine candles you like burning in the dining room.  And I’d have everything all ready to cook, but not cooking yet, so it would be OK if you were late.”
“And?”  She was liking this.
“And I’d have a bottle of wine open and breathing, and I’d pour us both a glass.  We’d cheer each other, and then you’d take a few sips before changing into your jeans or a bathrobe.  Then you’d come back in the kitchen and we’d talk about our days while I cooked.”
She put the tray on the floor and snuggled up to him, resting her head in the soft nook between his shoulder and his chest, throwing one leg over his.  “And?”
“And we’d have a delicious meal.”
“And?”
“And we’d have melon with port for dessert.”
“That’s all?”
“And a toll house chocolate and butterscotch chip cookie—with pecans.”  She liked nuts.  He didn’t.
“Just one?”
“No, you’ll be able to have two because here comes the part where we burn off lots and lots of calories.”
“But what if I’m too tired from my hard day at work?”
“You?!”  Richard was genuinely startled by this question.
“It could happen.”
“Well, if it does, then, after I get over the shock, I’ll give you a little back rub.”
“Mmmm.”  Sally snuggled into Richard, and then arched back, suddenly.  “And me?  What do I have to do for all this?”
“Just keep me in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed,” Richard laughed.  “Save me from PowerPoint.”
“Yeah, yeah, right.”  Sally settled back onto his chest with a ‘fantasy’s over’ kind of sigh.
Richard reached his arms up and pulled her back to him.  “I’m serious, how do you feel about having a househusband?”
Sally pulled away from him, propped the pillows up behind her, pulled her legs to her chest, and thought.  “Sort of like I’ve been pushing on a door all my life and it suddenly swung open.  Sort of like I’ve fallen onto my face.  But into a room I’ve always wanted to enter.  Once I get over the nosebleed, I’ll feel good I think.  Really good.”  She paused, turned towards him, and her carefully protective posture became suddenly aggressively defensive.  She leaped out of bed in one movement and put on her robe, tying it and folding her arms.  She looked down at him.  “Too good to go back.  So don’t go talking about this unless you mean it.  Don’t you dare promise such things and then snatch them away.”
“I won’t, I promise.”
“I don’t dare trust you on this, Richard.  If you let me down, I’ll wind up institutionalized, just like Jake’s wife.”  Sally got her most mischievous smile.  “Only I’d cut your balls off first.”

Part II:  Talking the Talk

Beware the Shit-Ass Children

Three days before Christmas Richard found himself alone in the kitchen with Sally’s mother.  Sally and her father had gone to rent a movie.  Richard was helping with the dishes.  He’d announced over dinner that he was going to stay home, but had gotten absolutely no reaction from her parents.   Conversation had turned instantly to the weather.  He’d never seen two more impenetrable expressions.  He was now waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Richard furtively scraped the rather plentiful remains from each plate into the garbage disposal.  Dinner had consisted of:  scorched, dried pot roast; corn pudding still frozen solid in the center; wrinkled, withered, baked potatoes; limp, yellowing broccoli.  That kind of meal made him all the more determined to stay home—he could do better.  The same meal shot Sally back to the office so fast it made his head spin—she was sure she’d do even worse.  Funny.
Mrs. Barnes looked at Richard for a long moment as he loaded the dish washer.  Was she actually going to engage in a conversation with him?  Sally’s family dinners were usually simmering in so much barely-repressed rage that conversation was an unaffordable luxury.  You never knew when some innocent thing you said would trip an emotional land mine that would blow up in your face.  But maybe now that he was alone with her mother, it would be possible to talk. 
“Richard, are you sure about this staying home thing?”
He turned from the dish washer and looked at her.  How to answer?  How could he be sure?  Of course he wasn’t sure.  “Well, I’m sure I’d like to try it.” 
“I just worry that you don’t know what you’re getting into.”  She put a strand of graying hair behind her ear.
“Did you know what you were getting into when you had Sally?”  
“NO!”  There was a note of desperation in the way she barked her answer.
“What did you do before Sally was born?”  Richard realized how odd it was he had absolutely no idea.  It had never been discussed.
“I was a real estate broker, Richard.”  She looked relaxed and almost wistful, suddenly.  This was an expression he’d never seen on her puffy, habitually strained, exhausted, disappointed face.  “I did pretty well.  I was making good money—enough for my own apartment and my own car.  My clients really appreciated me.  I got things done.  I had a feeling of accomplishment at the end of every day.”
“Why did you quit?”  Richard was amazed to hear such a cheerful speech from her.  He’d never heard her talk about anything in such a positive light before.
Now Mrs. Barnes’s usual bitterness crept back into her features.  “I had these two shit-ass children.”
Richard’s mind reeled for something to say.  He had been raised by a woman who loved nothing more in this world than taking care of children.  All his friends talked about having kids as if it were some kind of mystical, magical, and highly unusual journey.  They were prepared—no, eager—to sacrifice their very lives for their babies.  And here this woman was talking about ‘shit-ass children,’ one of whom happened to be his beloved wife.   Well, if he adored Sally he should make some effort to get to know her mother, right?  He touched her arm and asked, “That bad, hunh?”
Her anger melted at his hint of sympathy.  “I have to warn you what it’s really like.  You have no idea.”
“Tell me.  I want to know.”
“First, when they’re little.  You’re totally, totally sleep deprived.  You have no idea what it feels like.  They say you have to feed every two hours.  But keep in mind that a feeding takes forty-five minutes and then there’s a diaper which, if it’s a bad one, can take 15 minutes.  So really it’s an hour on, an hour off, 24 hours a day.  Your mind is blasted.  And then your husband—or in your case your wife—will accuse you of being an addle-brained female or of being distracted by soap operas if you leave the tea kettle on and it burns up.”
“No gratitude?”  He smiled and tried to feel sympathetic.
“God knows there should be, but there isn’t.  Problem is, there’s no way you’ll be able to explain to her what you do all day   It sounds ridiculous when you go through it all, every step of the day, sounds like you’re making it up or horribly inefficient or both.”
“Why?”
“Well, part of the problem is that the very question will so infuriate you that you won’t be able to say a word without exploding like some kind of lunatic.” 
“Take me through a day in the life of.”
“Are you a morning person?”
“No, not at all.”  Richard laughed.
“Well, tough shit.  So you’re up at 5:30 calming a child who believes the world is coming to an end.  But it’s just your world that has come to an end.  You reassure the kid everything is OK—for her—and you make breakfast.  And you clean up.  And then you vacuum, which is ridiculously hard to do at the same time you are watching a two year old who is hell-bent on sticking her finger in an electric socket or hurtling herself out of a window or killing herself in some other horrific way that will be all your fault.”
Richard burst out laughing.  Who knew that Mrs. Barnes had a sense of humor?
The corners of her mouth went up but she resisted actual laughter.  “Richard, it is not funny, I assure you.  Not the least bit.  Once I was vacuuming and I’d turned on the stove because I was going to warm up soup for lunch.  And Sally dragged a stool over to the oven and put her hand on the red-hot burner.  I smelled it before I heard her scream.”  Mrs. Barnes eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, God, how awful.”  Richard shuddered.
“And that’s not the worst of it.”
“Well, she was fine, right?  She doesn’t even have a scar.”
“Yes, it could have been worse, you’re right.”  Mrs. Barnes sighed.  
“So what happened next?”
“They sent the child welfare people out to see if I was abusing Sally.”
“Oh, God!  How terrible for you.”
“Yes.  It was.  Here I was, giving up my whole life, giving up any salary of my own, giving up Social Security for God’s sake, renouncing any life of my own, no time to read a book or go to a movie or even go to the bathroom alone, and they had the gall to accuse me of abusing her!  If there was any abuse in the house it was her abusing me!!!”
“Gosh,” was about all Richard could think of to say.
“For three years—for three solid years—I never once took a shower alone.”
“What?!”  She had his full attention now.  He tried to imagine never, not once, having a hot shower to relax in.  He wasn’t sure he could take it.  “Didn’t Mr. Barnes ever watch the children?”
“A few times he tried.  But somehow each time death screams made me jump out of the shower all dripping with sudsy hair.”
“What would happen?”
“Something would always go badly wrong.  Once Sally put her fist through a window.  Once Benjamin went flying down the stairs tooth-first.”
“Gosh.  Were they ok?”
“Oh, sure, fine.  And did the child abuse people come?  No siree, because a man was watching them then.  And men, well, they are allowed to make mistakes.  It’s perfectly understandable if they get immersed in the paper or a telephone call while their children commit hari kari, after all, he’s human and he’s busy.  But a woman who is vacuuming up all the shit her husband tracks through the house, if she takes her eye off the little suicidal beast in the house for one second while she is vacuuming a particularly filthy spot her husband made on the rug, they send the child abuse people after her.  Jesus Christ!  And I haven’t even told you about making lunch or dinner yet!”
“OK.  So. Lunch?”  
“So, let’s take a good day.  A miraculously good day in which no daughter scorches herself half to death, no son slices his wrist or head or neck or other major blood vessel with some sharp object.  Maybe there’s been a fight.  Maybe my daughter has slammed a broom handle on my son’s head, or perhaps shoved peanuts up his nose—but let’s imagine no blood, no concussion, and that I manage to get the peanut out of my son’s nose without the doctor’s intervention.  So on that blessed day, around the time I have finished vacuuming, finished loading the laundry, settled disputes between the two tyrants in the house, the dish washer has finished with the breakfast dishes, it’s time to start lunch.”
“What did they have for breakfast?”
“Cheerios and bananas and orange juice.  Every morning the same thing.  And all they want for lunch is pasta and butter.  Same for dinner.  But you can’t give them what they want.  No, siree.  They’d be malnourished.  The child abuse people would be crawling all over the place.  So you have to use all your creativity, every ounce of it, to come up with something they’ll have a prayer of eating.  And then all they can do is whine, ‘but I want pasta and butter, I want pasta and butter.’  Well, one of them.  The other is too young to talk, thank God.  So then you have to use all your negotiating skills just to get them to finish a glass of milk.  Makes closing on a house look like nothing.”
“Really?”
“When was the last time you tried to get a kid to drink a glass of milk?  Or even to have three sips?”
“Well—”
“Let me guess—never, right?”
“Right.”
“Well, let me tell you.  They put the milk on their mouths, make a little milk mustache, and then they ask you if that counts.  You say no, and they’re like as not to flail themselves on the floor kicking and screaming that it’s unfair.  You try the counting to ten thing, the time out thing.  You pretend to be in control, but let me tell you, you are NOT in control.  This is guerilla warfare, and believe you me, this is NOT your turf.”
“Gosh.”  Richard was at a loss for words again.
“Yes, and that’s about the only intelligent thing you can say about it. Gosh.  Go-o-lly.  This sure as shit isn’t what you got your MBA to do.”
“I did really well in my negotiations class—”
“Before you go getting all optimistic on me, bear in mind that it is now about 11:55.  You have got two children.  You have still somehow got to get some babyfood peas, some babyfood carrots, some babyfood chicken into one.  And you have got to get a glass of milk and a cheese sandwich and some apple slices into another.  Shouldn’t be that hard, right?  People do it all the time.  And furthermore, there’s whole continents,” she gesticulated wildly into the far-flung distance, “Whole continents full of starving children who would give their left hand for such a meal.  Mothers who would die to be in your shoes, right?  But that’s not your problem, is it now?  No, it’s not.  Your problem is to make your children, these two little imps of the perverse sitting right in front of you, eat.  But really, you sort of wish they were starving in Africa so that you wouldn’t have that problem, they would just gobble it up lickity-split.  What a joy.  Maybe if you just let them go hungry…So you see, your problem is to keep caring that they do eat—to drum up the energy to even give a rat’s ass whether they are malnourished or not.  Your problem is not to lose your temper when they won’t eat, because if you do, God help you, they’ll be anorexic, and that’ll be all your fault too.  Or worse yet, bulimic, barfing all over the place, just one more disgusting thing for you to clean up, in addition to the toilets, your husband’s underpants, and the crap that everybody drags all through the house.”
“How did you keep from going insane?”  Richard didn’t really want to know, he just wanted to interrupt her.  He felt like she was a faucet he’d always assumed was dry, and suddenly the handle had come off in his hand and there was the geyser spouting directly from the pipe.  How to turn it off?
Her face crumpled just a little, losing some of the sheen that pouring out all her anger and frustration onto him had given it.  “Ah, that’s my little secret.  You won’t tell?”
“No, I promise.”  
“I smoked.”
“Really?”  Somehow it made her more likeable, this secret self-destructive habit.  “And nobody ever knew?”
“Nope.  I’d go out to the garbage cans and sometimes just have one puff.  Then, back to the tiny slave-drivers in the house.  I swear to God I would have killed myself if it hadn’t been for those cigarettes.”  She thought for a moment.  “Come to think of it, maybe I was killing myself, but at least it was slowly.”
“So, what happened after lunch?”  Richard asked.
“Honey, we haven’t even gotten through lunch yet.  I’ve just had a few death-deferring puffs of a cigarette, the kids are still wailing in the kitchen, throwing bits of food everywhere.  You’ve no idea how far a toddler can throw a cheese sandwich.  It’s unbelievable.  You think you’ve got a baseball star on your hands, but somehow by the time they’re old enough to throw a ball and not their food they’ve forgotten the talents they once had.  It’s really unbearably disappointing.”
“So, how do you make it through lunch?”
“Well, you learn not to look too hard for all the bits of cheese.  You have to let some things go, you know?  You know that your spouse will come home and find them and look at you like a bad employee, but you also know that by that time you’ll be too ragged to give a flying fuck anyway.  So you smile at your children like they’re little angels even though they’ve just made the most unholy mess.  You tell them if they eat just two more bites that you’ll take them to the park.  All of a sudden, they’re all sweetness and light.  They eat.  Which you attribute to the puffs on the cigarette, so you’re more hooked than ever to the death sticks.”
“Wow.”
“Wow is right.  And you wipe them down as best you can, and get them somehow into the car.  And it will be worse for you than it ever was for me to get them into the car.  People are so car-seat obsessed that it will be a 45 minute operation for you.  For me it was just about 15 minutes.  I am not sure how you’ll stand it.”
Richard never would have thought that buckling a child into a car seat could seem so impossible.  But now he wasn’t so sure.  “Hmmm...”
“So you get them buckled, you get them unbuckled, and they run around at the park, like crazy little dervishes, and for that you’re grateful.  I mean, deeply grateful.  You don’t know the depths of gratitude.  Maybe, if they keep running around like maniacs, they’ll sleep, give you some peace.”
“Mmm hmm.”  Richard said distractedly.
“No, you can’t imagine.  But if you don’t try, you’ll learn the hard way.  At any rate, you eventually have to take them home.  You don’t want to.  But you have to take a bath—bear in mind you haven’t had time to bathe yet that day—and you have to get dinner started.  You want some semblance of order before your husband—or in your case your wife—gets home or you’ll have yet another screaming child on your hands.  Only this one is bigger and has control of the purse strings.  You’ve no idea how humiliating that part is, Richard, the lack of financial control, but we won’t even talk about that.”
“About what?”
“Having to ask for money to buy your sister a present, for example.  Being yelled at for spending too much on a pair of shoes that you really need.  Having to forget totally about your wants because it’s not worth the fight to get things that you only want.”
“Oh, Sally would never—”
“You have no idea, honey, what it means to be at the mercy of somebody else’s salary.  Even a decent person like my daughter, God help you both.”
Richard decided that he was definitely going to do the Community.com thing.  That ‘all that I am and all that I have’ vow didn’t make any sense if he had nothing. 
“And don’t even think about your wedding vows, erase those words from your hard drive—they’ll make you too angry.”  Had she read his mind?  “Anyway, you get home, and your husband—well, your wife.  Your spouse calls you and says where were you?  You say you were in the park with the kids, and your spouse imagines that you’ve just had the time of your life playing kick the can or some absurd thing.  You can hear through the line that you’ve just taken him—her—back to childhood, that he—she—imagines that you’ve just had the loveliest Proustian afternoon imaginable.  Your spouse is actually jealous of you.  And wonders why you’re not on your knees in gratitude to him—her—for being in the office all day long, supporting your so-called ‘leisure’ time.  Never mind that you haven’t had a shower alone or read a book in years.  Leisure time?  A load of child crap has obliterated the very memory of such a thing for you.  But you’re too angry about it to explain.  So you hang up the phone and use up every last ounce of self-control not to smash it to smithereens.  You put the kids somewhere relatively safe and you sneak out to the garbage for a puff.  Just a puff.  You never have time for a whole cigarette, because God knows those precious little babies will have eaten light bulbs to get revenge on you for daring to take two puffs of time to yourself.  So you have your little puff and you run back in the house, hoping for the best.  All they’ve done is taken a purple magic marker to the white sofa or cut their hair in a bizarre and unrepairable way.  You count your blessings and scoop them into the bath.  It’s now 4:45.  You want to feed them at 5:30, read to them from 6-7, get them to sleep at 7:30, so you can race around picking up the toys that are scattered around everywhere—again—and begin to get dinner ready for yourself and your—er, spouse.”
“Didn’t Mr. Barnes want to see the kids when he got home?”
“If Charlie had wanted to see his children then he could goddamn-well have gotten home before eight thirty.”  This didn’t seem entirely fair to Richard but he wasn’t about to argue with Mrs. Barnes.
“So, how does the bath go?”
“Well,” Mrs. Barnes smiled here.  “Kids are really cute in the tub, I have to admit.”
“Yeah.  They are.”  Richard thought about Wayne and Betty’s boys and smiled.  “So, what do you cook for dinner?”
“Well, they beg you for Kraft macaroni and cheese.  If they can’t have that, noodles with butter.  You negotiate for a little while.  How about some chicken and broccoli and some nice orange slices for dessert?  Screams of dismay.  I mean, you’d think that I proposed branding their butts.  You argue for a while longer.  Then you wonder why you care.  You cave.  Kraft macaroni and cheese it is.  You’ll give them that if they’ll eat, say three peas each.  Two and a half peas?  Now you’re worn down, you can’t negotiate, the best you can do is count to ten and hope you won’t choke somebody.”
“Would they starve if you just gave in?”
“No.  Not in this country.  They’d just become obese on McDonald’s and processed cheese food.  You know, they’re not allowed to call it cheese.  Because it’s not cheese.  It’s orange food dye and sawdust and artificial flavoring.  It’s the worst thing they can possibly eat, but they fuckin’ love that shit.  Love it.  But remember, you’re on their territory, these guerillas.  And they are armed.  Heavily armed by the marketing machines of billion-dollar companies.  Companies that your husband probably works for or lobbies for.  At the very least, he has purchased their stock for the 401K that is his pension and might be yours if he doesn’t dump you for a younger woman once you’re done civilizing his little savages.  Suffice it to say that between the will of the tiny guerillas and their sources of funding, your opinion about what’s healthiest hasn’t got an ice cube’s chance in hell.”
“Go-o-lly.”
“You sound like Gomer Pyle today.  Go-o-lly.”  She did a harsh imitation of Gomer.  Man, get this woman going, and you’d better just get out of her way.  What if Sally wound up like that?  Richard congratulated himself on deciding it should be him and not Sally who stayed home.
“I never knew—”
“Talk to your mother, honey.”
“I certainly will.”
“On second thought, don’t bother.  She’s probably why you’re thinking this way in the first place.”
“What do you mean?”  Richard allowed his voice into the warning range.  It was one thing to have her dismiss him as Gomer Pyle, another thing altogether to have even a fraction of her hostility directed towards his mother.  He wouldn’t put up with that.
Mrs. Barnes softened.  “Oh, Richard, your mother’s lovely.  She doesn’t seem to have any ego needs.  She really and truly loves what she does, and just does it, and it’s all perfect.  Only it’s not too perfect.  She’s actually likeable.  There are too few like her.  But that doesn’t mean you can be one.  I certainly couldn’t.  It’s an awful lot to expect.  Too much for most people.”
“I think you are wonderful, Mrs. Barnes” he said.  She smiled at the sound of her name but said nothing.  “So what happened after dinner?”  Richard wanted to hear the end of the story before Sally and her father got back from the video store.
“Back to A Day In The Life Of A Housewife, hunh?”
“Yes, please.”
“So, I read them stories.  If you leave it up to them, which you may as well, it’s the same book every night three times a night.  Or five.  I don’t know what it is with children and repetition, but I am here to tell you, it is mind-numbing.  You can’t imagine how boring.”
“But two year-olds must say something interesting now and then.”
“Oh, they do.  But they’ve numbed your brain, so that by the time they do you can’t notice it any more.”
Richard resisted saying gosh.  “So.  They go to sleep after stories, right?”
“Yes, thank God.  You feel relieved and try not to think about the fact that they’re going to wake up at least three times during the night.  By now you are bone-tired.  You try to brush your hair or something and then go start on dinner.  You’re too exhausted to give a flying fuck what you’re going to eat, so you have to rely on your spouse’s stomach to get you into the kitchen.”
“Are you looking forward to seeing him?”
“Yes, you have no idea how much.  I am by now dying to speak to an adult, any adult, even the jackass that is my husband, God help me.  I need somebody to come in and jump-start my brain.  It’s atrophying.  I can feel it, rotting there inside my head.  These brains that I spent so much time and money and agony educating, just rotting there inside my skull.  And you—you have an MBA.  I just had a college degree in history.  You will not only regret the loss of your brain, you will regret the loss of your wallet.  You will have to have a very robust psyche indeed not to go stark, raving mad.”
“And what happens when he gets home?”
“He walks in the door, all self-satisfied and preening, the pricks in his office having massaged his ego all day long.  Perky like a puppy.  And he asks, all patronizing, like he’s doing me a big fucking favor to be interested, ‘What did you do today, honey?’”
“And what did you answer?”
“Picked up bits of food off the floor.”
“And he says?”
“He bends over, and picks up half a cheese sandwich, and says, as if it’s the funniest thing in the world, ‘Missed one, honey.’”
“Ouch!”  Lunch had seemed like such a long time before.
“Ouch is right.  If I happened to be on the rag that day, I’d burst into tears, he’d feel horrible, but couldn’t admit that he’d done anything wrong, so he’d turn his guilt into anger and go stomping up the stairs like it was all my fault.”
“Then what?”
“Well then I’d burn the bejeezus out of dinner, and figure, well, it serves that fucker right, and he’d come stomping downstairs, and God help him if he noticed that his dinner was burned.  God help him if he didn’t eat every last bite, lick his plate clean.”
“What happened if he said something?”
“Oh, you know.”  For the first time in the conversation she seemed calm, bored even.  “Plates crashing into windows, that sort of thing.  The children would wake up screaming.  I’d go banging out the front door and leave him to deal with them, for once in his life.”
“And could he?”
“Could he what?”
“Get the kids back down?”
Here she got a truly evil smile.  “Come on, honey, do you think I am a complete moron?  I wouldn’t let him have that satisfaction.  I timed my walks perfectly so that the kids were still screaming but just on the verge of collapsing back to sleep in exhaustion when I come back.  I’d walk in the door, take them, they’d quiet down within two minutes, he’d look at me like I was some kind of miracle worker, and go downstairs with his tail between his legs and sweep up the dishes I’d smashed.”
“And then what?”
“Then I’d go to sleep, utterly undone.”
“And that’s it?” 
“What do you want?  Make-up sex?  A kiss every night no matter what?  Forget about it, honey.  After you have kids, all that is over.  Sex is about as exciting as hanging a picture.  ‘Easy, easy, a little to the right—no, no, back up, that’s not it at all, easy, easy, a little to the right—no, no, back up, back up I say, that’s all wrong.’  About as much fun as hanging a picture too.”
Richard was suspicious, suddenly.  Was she in cahoots with Sally on the birth control thing?  “So you think we shouldn’t have kids at all?”
“Look, Richard, here’s what I can say.  It’s certainly true that I love Sally and Benjamin more than I loved being a real estate broker.”  She paused here. 
“Even though you hated it so much?”  Richard was impressed that she could say this.  Clearly she hadn’t enjoyed her kids when they were young.  And it wasn’t as if she had a satisfying relationship with either one of her children now.  She and Sally could not speak to each other for more than 15 minutes without erupting into a screaming match. 
“Yes.  But don’t think it comes without a price.  First, it’s the end of achievement.  It’s impossible to have any sense of accomplishment when everything you do is so small and is undone so quickly.  Change one diaper and wham, another load of shit comes along.  Cook lunch, and it’s dinnertime.  Clean up the toys and the next minute they’re back on the floor.”
“That’s tough.” 
“And it gets worse.  You do all this for free.  Not just for free.  You pay to do all this.  You pay with your career.  Every year you are out of a job the more difficult it becomes to go back to work.”
“You could do the real estate stuff now,” Richard pointed out.
“Yeah, right.  Start back at the bottom with all the eager-beaver twenty-somethings?  No thank you.  You just have to accept that if you are going to raise your kids full-time, you pay with your financial independence.”
Of all the things she’d said, this was the scariest.  Richard refused to believe his day-to-day would be as bad as hers.  But he could understand her feelings about money.  Not that Sally would be a jerk about finances.  But, still.  He wanted his own cash.  That was natural, wasn’t it?  His father had given his mother something called “mad money” and he’d always found it offensive.
 “So you think it’s a good idea if I work for a year or so first and sock away some money?”  He stood up and stretched to ward off a bad feeling invading him.
“Work until you can afford a nanny is my advice, and then keep working.  Once you quit to raise them, you even pay with your cocktail party chit-chat. Nobody, but nobody, wants to hear about what you do all day.  It embarrasses them.  You become a conversational untouchable.”

Lock-Out

Sally and her father got back without any videos.  “Gawddamn store closed,” muttered Mr. Barnes.  “And Sally’s way too impatient to drive to the further one.  Had to get back to her househubby I guess.”
“Charlie, you big fuck.” Mrs. Barnes waved her drink in her husband’s direction.
“Was just a little joke.”  Mr. Barnes shrugged with exaggerated innocence.  “Why don’t we watch the home videos?”  
“What home video?” asked Sally, suspicious.
“Your grandmother had a bunch of home movies made into a VCR tape.  You’ve not seen it—I thought maybe you might be interested.”  Mr. Barnes got up and started rifling through some tapes on a bookshelf.
Richard was delighted at the prospect of seeing images of Sally as a little girl.  “I’d love to see it.”
“That figures,” grumbled Mr. Barnes.
“What, real men don’t watch home videos?” Richard laughed.
Mr. Barnes grunted and put the tape in the machine, but something about the way he settled into his big armchair made Richard think he was really eager to watch the images of Sally as a little girl too.  Suddenly a young Mr. Barnes flashed on the screen, holding an infant Sally as if she were a radioactive turd. 
Sally roared with laughter.  “Gee, Dad, you sure look like you’re having fun.”  On the screen a much younger version of Mrs. Barnes snatched the baby from Mr. Barnes.
“Never got much of a chance to get comfortable,” muttered Mr. Barnes.
“I was always afraid that you’d drop her,” said Mrs. Barnes.
“Charmaine, you always make out like I am some kind of clutz.  I am a lot more coordinated than you are.  I wouldn’t have dropped her!”
“You may be coordinated, but you certainly don’t have a maternal instinct.”
Richard and Sally exchanged glances.  It wasn’t like Mrs. Barnes was famous for her maternal instinct either.  “Dad, did you ever change my diaper?” asked Sally.
“Sure, I did.”
“Exactly three times.” Mrs. Barnes held up three fingers.
“Well, every time I did it you just bitched and bitched, I had done this wrong, I had done that wrong.  Eventually I gave up.”
“Who can blame me?  You wiped so much shit everywhere it took me three times as long to clean up after you changing a diaper as it did just to change it myself.”
“Yeah, I also poked you with a pin once, Sally,” confessed her dad.  “We still had cloth diapers then, and I’d always stick my hand in so that I’d be sure to poke myself and not you, but somehow I managed to stick you once.”  Richard was rather startled at the defeated look on Mr. Barnes’s face.  He’d never pegged him as the sensitive type before.
“Took me hours to stop your screaming,” Mrs. Barnes grimace-chuckled.  Richard wondered whether she was more relieved at or infuriated by her husband’s domestic incompetence.  Had she in fact contributed to it or even created it?  In any case, this was no simple case of schadenfreude.
“Can you blame me for not changing your diapers?”  Sally’s father asked.
“No, actually.”  Sally looked surprised by her own words.  “I didn’t know what it was like.”
“That’s the truth,” her parents answered in unison.
A picture of Mr. Barnes in a chef’s hat flashed on the TV.  Sally jumped up.  “Now he’s cooking?  What is going on???”
“Didn’t know I had so many talents, didya, darlin?” laughed Mr. Barnes.
“Talents, my ass!” Exploded Mrs. Barnes, quick to defend the territory she claimed she despised.  “He tried to cook a meal for me about a month after you were born, and he damn near burnt the house down.”
“Aw, come on honey, you always say that, but it was just a little grease fire.”
“Let’s just say that he wasn’t allowed in my kitchen after that.”  Mrs. Barnes put her hands out, as if to fend off an attacker.
“Mom, I thought you wanted Dad to help.” 
“I did.  But burning down the house and stabbing the baby doesn’t really count as help,” said Mrs. Barnes.
Mr. Barnes sighed, lugged himself out of his chair, and walked over to the bar.  Pouring himself another finger full of scotch he sighed again.  “Well, I guess I’ll go up to bed.”  He walked over to the stairs and stopped suddenly.  He turned full around.  “Richard, son, don’t you dare drive Sally out of her own home.”  His voice was full of unexpected menace. 
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Barnes.  I won’t, I promise.”  Richard was more charmed than threatened.  He had never seen Sally as daddy’s little girl before. 
Richard looked over at Sally to see her reaction.  An entirely new narrative about her parents was emerging.  She had always described her father as a sexist who forced her mother into a role for which she was unsuited.  Now, it seemed to him that Mrs. Barnes had locked her husband out of the kitchen and out of his children’s lives.  Richard caught Sally’s eye.  She smiled and shrugged.  She got it.

 
Storming the Kitchen
Richard sat on a stool in the kitchen, cutting up avocado and luxuriating in the feeling of being home.  Sally’s family had worn him out.  He was counting on his own to recharge him.  His mother was by the sink making cream cheese frosting for the carrot cake.  His younger sister Susan was sitting on the counter, swinging her legs and talking about how much it sucked to prepare for the Bar.  Every so often she’d read them a fact from a daunting-sized book.  Sally was mangling some tomatoes she was trying to slice.  She looked at him sheepishly.  He winked at her encouragingly.  
“Sally, dear, you must have had a cook growing up!”  Richard’s mother laughed gently at Sally’s inability to get the knife through the tomatoes.  Richard braced himself.  He knew his mother thought that she was giving Sally a complement, not an insult.  It was a good thing to have a cook, no?  But he also knew that Sally felt absurdly ashamed about her incompetence with the tomatoes.  Sally was good at so many things that when she encountered something she was bad at she didn’t stick around to master it.  She just fled to her comfort zone.  
Mrs. Moore at once sensed her mistake.  “Here, let me give you a sharper knife.  That one is a little dull.”  
“Oh, thank you.”  Sally continued cutting, irritation rippling her every gesture.
“God, I wish I didn’t have to study for the bar,” said Susan.
Sally looked up as if Susan had given her a great idea.  “Is this enough tomatoes?  I have to go do some work for my field study next semester.”
Richard started to follow, but Sally set him back on his stool with her eyes.
“Oh, dear.  I hope I didn’t offend her,” sighed Mrs. Moore after the sound of Sally’s footsteps receded up the stairs.
“Not everybody is as good a tomato slicer as you, Mom,” Susan looked up briefly from her book.
Richard winced.  It had been so nice and cozy for a moment.
Mrs. Moore turned to the oven and pulled out the carrot cake.  She put it on the island near Richard, and he inhaled the cinnamon and clove smell deeply.  
“How satisfying!”  His mother began frosting the cake, taking a generous scoop into her mouth.  Richard knew exactly how she felt.  He said the same thing to himself every time he cooked dinner.  His mother looked at Susan.  “Why you girls don’t want this for yourselves I’ll never understand.” 
“Oh, Mother, for God’s sake.”  Susan marched out of the kitchen now.
Richard was left with his mother and her pained eyes.  “Well, I certainly know how to clear a room don’t I?”  Sad smile.  “I was asking a question—not criticizing.”
Richard stood up and gave his mother a hug.  “I know, Mom.  But she feels it’s a trick question.  She can’t answer it without hurting your feelings.”
“I’m not such a delicate flower as all that,” said his mother.
“I know.  But she is.  And she probably regrets that she doesn’t feel like your choices are open to her.”
“Do you think she feels that way?”  His mother looked surprised.
“I don’t know.  Maybe I am just projecting.  Listen, Mom, I’ve got a question for you.”
She turned her whole attention to him.  “Yes?”
“Sally and I have been talking and—well,” How to say this?  He’d had the same struggle when he’d told Sally’s parents.  The whole idea was so unacceptable that there wasn’t even a phrase for it that didn’t ridicule the very thought.  Mr. Mom? Stay-at-home Dad?  Kept man?  Toy Boy?  Trophy Husband?  “I am thinking about being the one to stay home with the kids.”
“Is Sally—”
Shit!  He’d done it again.  “No, no, she’s not pregnant.  But we’re just trying to figure out how to work it all out.  She wants to wait seven years or more, but I want to start trying soon.  She’ll only get pregnant now if I agree to throw away my job offer.”
“Are you seriously considering this, Richard?” she paused, not wanting to chase another of her children from the room with gender stereotypes.  “I never had a job, never wanted one, frankly.  I was always happy at home.  But I didn’t have an MBA.  I never expected to have a high-paying job.  You do have an MBA, and you have expected to make money, all your life.  Are you sure you want to give all that up?”
“Would you choose to, in my shoes?”
“Well—why, yes.  But I would never have gotten an MBA.  Business is just not the life I ever expected.”
“Or wanted?”
“No, I didn’t want that, it’s true.”
“Do you think I can do it?”
“Why, Richard!  I just haven’t ever thought about it before.  I have to admit, it never occurred to me.”  She paused, thinking.  “Sally doesn’t mind having all the financial pressure on her shoulders?”
“She’d rather have that than the household pressures.”
“Yes.  I can see that.”  She smiled for a moment, eyes flitting in the direction of Sally’s mangled tomato slices.  She looked at her son for a long time, as if seeing him for the first time.  Finally, she said, “Richard, I know you can do anything you want to do.”
“But do you think I’d love it the way you do?”
“Why, Richard, I have always wondered why anyone wouldn’t love it.  I frankly never could understand why Susan wanted all the tedium of law school.  And I always felt just a little guilty when your father left for the office every morning.  He never looked forward to his days the way I did to mine, and it bothered me.  Not that my life doesn’t have its fair share of tedium.  It does.  But it all concerns the things closest to my heart.  Even when I would clean the toilets—it was a way of loving all of you.  Not like torts law, which seems to me tedium without the love—unbearable, really.  Or it would be for me.  I suppose the salary is some compensation, but, for me, that would not have been enough.”
“You know, Mom, you are the only person I know who makes any sense when she talks about her her profession.”
“I never thought of it as a profession, Richard.”
“I do.”
“Yes, but most people do not.  That’s something else for you to consider.  I didn’t come under so much criticism, because I am from another generation, but still people said hurtful things to me.  And you—I can only imagine the things people will say to you.”  She shuddered.  “Even Elaine is defensive, hurt by people who think that staying home is a cop-out.”
“Oh, Mom, nobody thinks—”
“Yes they do Richard.  I am strong enough to take it, and if you’re going to do this, you’d better be prepared for the flack.  I don’t think Elaine was.”
Richard thought about his two sisters.  Susan, his younger sister, was hell-bent on being a lawyer.  She had never boiled an egg, and was proud of it.  Domesticity was beneath her.  Elaine, his older sister, had her house and her kids and had never made a dollar in her whole life.  Filthy lucre was beneath her.  These two women got in such fights every time they were in the same room that Richard’s family tacitly avoided bringing them together.
As if fending off the fight that Richard was imagining now, his mother waved her hands in front of her face and said,  “Not that it should matter whether she is a woman or a man, I know.  But what should be and what actually is are usually two different things.  And given today’s realities, Susan doesn’t think it’s safe for her to cook, and Elaine has to do it defensively.”  Mrs. Moore smiled wistfully.  “What will people say to you?”
“That’s hardly the basis on which to make a decision, is it?  That’s not how you raised me.”
“No, of course not, dear, but don’t think for a moment it won’t hurt.  It will.”  Her eyebrows came together.  Clearly it hurt her just to think about it.
“So, Mom, what do you think?  Am I crazy?”
She looked at him seriously, more seriously than he had expected.  It took him by surprise that she believed he was actually considering staying home.  It still seemed sort of like ‘a modest proposal’ to him, an ironic treatise to point out the general insanity of society, not something he was really thinking about doing.  
“No, you are not crazy.  I just asked Susan why she didn’t want to have this life.  I have loved it, more than I can say.”  She paused for a long moment.  “But, Richard, I am going to be totally honest with you.  I hope I don’t drive you out of the room at my narrow-mindedness.  But I just never thought about a man doing all this.”  She gestured around the kitchen at the flowers, the cake, the curtains, the brass pans hanging from the ceiling, “I wasn’t surprised by Susan and Sally storming out of the kitchen—but I have to admit, it never even occurred to me that you would be storming in.”

The Pre-Nup
Two hours later Richard cut into his turkey and let the pleasures of Christmas Eve dinner wash over him.  They had just managed to re-capture the cozy feeling of family happiness after the drama in the kitchen, so he was reluctant to drop the househusband bomb on his father.  Sally’s glances urged him on.  If he couldn’t even manage to tell his father his plans, he had no chance of getting Sally to throw away the pills.
He had absolutely no idea what his father would say. He didn’t know his father well enough to be able to predict his reactions with anything even resembling certainty.  For the most part, his relationship to his father felt rather like his relationship with an automatic teller machine.  Not a relationship at all, but a well-functioning and generally painless transaction.  In a way this was reassuring.  It meant that saying he was going to stay home with the kids wasn’t so much a bomb he was going to drop.  It was more like a new bankcard he was going to use for the first time.  Would it give him the twenties he was looking for?  Could it surprise and delight him with pearls of wisdom?  Would it eat the card and spit back a little message because of your relationship with us, we are unable to process your request at this time.  
His secondary concern was what Susan would say.  Elaine was with her husband’s family, unfortunatley.  She was such a believer in full-time parenting she was bound to support him.  Susan’s response was harder to predict.  If logic applied to feminism, she would applaud him.  After all, he was going to support his wife’s career.  The problem was, Susan, like Sally, was actually a masculinist, not a feminist.  Susan might feel he was attacking her by celebrating the choice she’d rejected.  Sally hadn’t felt that way, but, then, she was the beneficiary of his decision.  Susan was just a threatened on-looker.
“Richard, you’re awfully quiet tonight,” Susan interrupted his musings.  “Penny for your thoughts.”
“He’s got a lot on his mind, dear.  Picking the first job out of business school is a serious choice.  It will impact the rest of his life,” said his father.
The eyes of both Sally and his mother came crashing into him full speed, alarming him with their intense sympathy and anxiety.  Well, there was nothing for it.  He really had to say something now, and calmly, as if it were no big deal, or they’d both quit taking his plans to stay home seriously.  Not that he was confident in it himself.  But a key to every success he’d had in his life had been appearing confident.  Faking confidence was one of his core competencies.
“Actually, Dad, I have made a decision.”
“Well, Son!  I am so pleased to hear that.”  His father paused.  Was he disappointed he hadn’t been consulted or genuinely pleased? Impossible to say.  “What are you going to do?”
It was on the tip of Richard’s tongue to say that he wasn’t going to do anything.  Goddamnit!  He wasn’t going to do nothing.  He was going to do everything, when it came right down to it.  Everything except earn a paycheck, muttered his father’s voice inside his head.  Richard dismissed that voice and focused on what he should say.  ‘I am going to raise the next generation while Sally makes the money?’  No, no.  Too absurdly grandiose and defensive while simultaneously dismissive of Sally’s role.  ‘I am going to stay home with the children?’  No, then he’d have to explain that he getting on the Mommy track, even though Sally wasn’t even pregnant yet.  ‘I am going to be a homemaker?’ Sounded like a census term.  ‘I am going to make our home?’  Too many words.  ‘I am going to be a stay-at-home father?’ No! No! No!  Richard had never before this moment appreciated the extent to which the home was this unmentionable, untouchable, embarrassing word.  What the hell was up with that? 
“I am going to work for a dot com, but only for a year.” He bought a little more time.  Sally dropped her fork.  Did she really think he would sit around doing nothing waiting for her to get pregnant?  Surely he could talk her out of that one.  Surely she would compromise just a little.
“Oh?”  His father raised an eyebrow.
Richard knew he had to think fast before either Sally or, worse yet, his mother, came to his rescue.  “Ultimately, I am going to follow in Mom’s footsteps.” 
“Well, that’s certainly an admirable thing.”  His father put his knife and fork down.  “But I am not sure I know what you mean.”  
“I am going to raise our kids—Sally’s going to get pregnant soon.”  Richard looked up at Sally, figuring she couldn’t really object to this last part.  They hadn’t agreed on when she’d start trying.  But soon was pretty vague.  She didn’t appear to object.  For the first time he felt he’d taken a little nick out of that big pink pill coming between them.  Things just might turn out OK after all.
His father folded and re-folded the napkin in his lap.  “Really?”
“Yes.” 
The whole table watched his father open and close his mouth several times.
“I propose a toast to Richard and Sally.  I think it’s just wonderful for both of you.  I think you’re both so brave.”  His mother held up her wine glass.
Everybody clinked glasses and had a sip of wine.  Tiny little sips.  His father barely even wet his lips.  He put down his glass and looked hard at Richard.  “Have you signed a prenup?” 
The very word filled Richard with an irrational fury.  He was tempted to hurl his wine at his father.  “Dad, we’re already married.  Remember?  That big wedding we had in DC about a year and a half ago?” 
Sally blushed.  Susan looked up suddenly from her rice and gravy.
“Well, then, let’s call it a pre-child agreement.”  His father cut placidly into his meat.
“Dad, give me a fucking break.”  Richard had never cursed in front of his even-tempered father before.  He felt shocked and stupid.  What good did it do to yell at an ATM machine?  Worse, he didn’t even really know what he was so angry about.  “I’m going to make plenty of money at The Community.Com.”
“In one year?  You just said you’re taking yourself out of the job market for the sake Sally’s career.  Seems to me she ought to commit something to you in return—in writing.  This is not the sort of thing you should be cavalier about, you know.”
“Oh, Henry, really!” Exclaimed Richard’s mother.
“Did you do that for Mom, Dad?”  Susan spoke over her mother.  
Silence.
“Well, Dad, did you?”  Prompted Susan.  Richard was glad she was talking.  He was so angry he wasn’t sure he could have said anything coherent.
“Yes, Susan, you father promised me all that he is and all that he has.”  Mrs. Moore wiped the corners of her mouth with her napkin.
“Just as Sally promised me,” Richard added, feeling more and more committed to The Community.Com.  He needed to make some money, and fast.
“Well, dear, your mother didn’t have an MBA.  Let’s be practical here.”  Mr. Moore took a bite of potatoes, having finished all his meat.
“Yeah, right, like that was really the reason.”  Susan muttered, turning in the direction of her soap box.
“Susan, your father is an honorable man.  I didn’t need an agreement from him.  And Sally is an honorable woman.  Richard doesn’t need an agreement from her.  Really, I don’t know what all this is about.”  
“Sally, I hope you don’t think this is in any way a reflection of my affection for you.  This is just about the world we live in today.”  Mr. Moore shrugged as if to abdicate all responsibility not only for the world but also for this conversation.
“Of course,” said Sally.  “But I assumed that the law just took care of all this.”
“What are your assumptions about how the law works?”  Mr. Moore put his knife and fork down, looking hard at Sally.
“Come on, Dad, divorce law is hardly a good Christmas Eve conversation topic.  And it’s a moot point.  Sally and I will never get divorced,” Richard’s jaw had tensed again.  Just uttering the word ‘divorce’ in the same sentence with Sally’s name made his stomach churn.  He couldn’t even stand it when she’d spent two nights away from home.
His father continued as if he hadn’t heard anything Richard had said.  “There’s a woman in my office who will never earn one fifth what her husband earns because she stayed home for the crucial first years out of business school.  Her husband then divorced her and now she can’t be the full-time parent her son, who has a learning disability, needs.  All her MBA did for her was give her a high imputed income, so it let her husband off the hook.”
“But this has nothing to do with Richard and Sally, Henry.  Sally would never behave that way.”  Mrs. Moore shot her husband a warning look.
“We need to reform family law!” announced Susan.
“Until you’ve accomplished that, dear, I think it’s sensible for Richard and Sally to come up with a pre-child agreement.”
Richard, Susan, and Mrs. Moore all started to pounce simultaneously, but Sally halted them, holding up one finger.  “I agree with you, Mr. Moore.  I’d like to come up with something in the next couple of days.”
“Sally, you are going to do no such thing.”  Richard said this with such finality that nobody dared go near that subject again.

The Post-Nup
“Oh, Sally.”  Richard pulled her to him, glad to find that morning had brought some tenderness.  After the conversation with his father they’d gone back to his room and had an I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it-let’s-just-block-the-world-out kind of sex.  The miracle of shared selfishness, Sally always called it.  That was the best possible way to look at it.  Richard preferred a slow-the-world-down kind of love-making to just using one another to get off.
Now sunlight was pouring in the room and it was Christmas day.  “I hope my father didn’t upset you last night,” Richard said, trying not to think about how much his father had upset him.  “He was thinking about the world in the abstract, not about you.”
“I know that.  And I don’t mind setting my intentions for our children down on paper.  It’s not such an unreasonable thing.  Everybody should do that before they have kids, really.”  Sally was playing with his chest hair.
It was the first time she’d ever said those words, ‘our children.’  Richard imagined that she might, just might, wrap up her pills in a little box and present it to him to throw away.  He knew he should dismiss the image.  He’d only be disappointed by it.  But, then again, why shouldn’t she get pregnant now?  He’d talked to her parents, to his parents.  He’d done the hardest part, right?  Richard felt a new kind of hopefulness.  Why had it always seemed so impossible to him?  Why was such a simple, common occurrence so out of reach for him?  Like blueberry jam.  “That’s the best present you could have given me, those words.”
“Which words?”
“Our children.”
She smiled up at him, all warmth and light.  “I want them Richard, really I do.  We’re going to make it happen.”  She looked at him, suddenly wary.  “Only, don’t push me too fast.  OK?”
Richard’s heart sank.  “So, you haven’t wrapped up the pills for me to throw away for Christmas?”
“Oh, Richard!”  She took him in her arms, maternal, almost.  She couldn’t bear to disappoint him.  “I am sorry.  You know I can’t do that yet.  You’re not ready.  Not till you quit working.  Till then it’s not really real.”
“I told our parents.  What else do I need to do to make it really real?”  
“Tell more people.  Our parents are going to love you no matter what you do.  And they haven’t even really had time to react yet.  So tell more people.  See how you feel.  And then, if you still feel good, turn down your job offers.”
“Sal—”
“Don’t ‘Sal’ me.  You turn down your job offer, I’ll throw away the birth control pills.”
“Come on, Sal, you’re not putting me in a fair position.”
“OK, then, let’s get up and talk to your dad about that post-nup.”
Before he knew what had happened, Richard had leaped out of bed and yanked all the covers and sheets off of it in one violent motion.  Sally was left on a bare mattress, looking more startled than frightened.  “Richard, what the hell is wrong with you?”
Richard stood there trying to get control of his breathing.  “I just don’t want any fucking legal agreement is all.  It would be too—too humiliating.”
Sally looked up at him with mingled suspicion and tenderness.  “Richard, you can’t stand the idea of being financially dependent.  I don’t blame you one little bit.  But that is part of staying home with the kids, like it or not.  That is why I thought the agreement was a good idea, would make things a little more fair.”
“All it does is rub my nose in it.”
“You mean it makes you aware of what you’re doing.  Well, that’s valuable, too.  So you don’t look back five years from now and feel I tricked you.”
“Spare me the patronizing bitch routine!”  Richard got into the shower, knowing he’d have hell to pay when he got out.  Sally had this thing about being called a bitch.

Division of Labor
Richard was fifteen minutes late to the restaurant.  Sally had let him have it for using the B-word.  Now, Elaine was sitting at the table, one leg bouncing up and down, on her cell phone, leafing through a magazine, and bouncing a pen up and down on the table.  These were not so much activities as expressions of annoyance at him for being late.  She wanted to talk.  Before Richard had had a chance to kiss her, say hello, or sit down, she’d announced what she wanted to talk about.
“It’s just not Jonathan’s decision.  It’s mine.”
Richard didn’t bother with the kissing hello thing.  He was there to listen.  He sat down and got started.  “What isn’t Jonathan’s decision?”
“Having another child.  I am just going to quit taking the pill and not tell him.  It’s my call.”
“Why doesn’t he want to have another baby?”  Richard put his elbows on the table and hunched forward.  This was depressing!
“Oh, he hates his job, is miserable every night, feels trapped, blah, blah, blah.  Same old crap.”
Richard was, as always, astounded at how his sister could be so totally dismissive of her husband’s predicament.  He truly hated his job.  Granted, that wasn’t his sister’s fault.  She didn’t ask him to be a tax attorney.  But still.  She saw him come home unhappy every single night.  How could she so blithely write off his career angst as “not her problem?”  Especially when she didn’t work?  Didn’t she have even the slightest imagination of what it felt like to do a job one hated day in and day out?
“You know, Elaine, hating your job is like a kind of living death.  You put yourself aside just a little bit every day and then every once in a while you realize that whole parts of your personality are dying.  If you do that long enough you wind up—like Dad.”
Elaine looked genuinely surprised.  “What’s wrong with Dad?  He never complains about his job—he just does it.  You hardly hear a peep out of him.”
“Exactly!”  Richard felt the old gulf opening up between himself and his sister.  She saw nothing wrong with the fact that her father had sacrificed his sense of humor, his intellectual curiosity, all the quirks in his personality, just to pay the rent.  How could she be so callous about what happened to the men in her life?
On the other hand, he wished he could adopt her point of view.  He’d love it if having children were his decision, not Sally’s.  If only he could just get her pregnant with out her consent, secretly throw her birth control pills away.
Richard still remembered a small incident that had happened just after his sister had gotten married.  They’d gotten a new house, and were just starting to furnish it.  Jonathan, her husband, had come home and moved an armchair.  Not very far, just a few inches.  Elaine had come into the room and exploded:
“Goddamn it Jonathan!  This is my house.  I’m going to make it really nice, and you’re going to like it very much.  But you have to understand.  This is MY house.  You can’t go moving the furniture around like that.”
Richard couldn’t fathom having the nerve to say something like that.  Was he going to have to adopt his sister’s attitude if he were going to fight his way into the home?  No.  Fortunately Sally liked her job.  He’d be lucky if he could get her interested in the furniture. 
“If it’s a boy I’ll name him Richard.”  Elaine interrupted his thoughts.
“What does Jonathan say about names?”
Elaine looked at Richard angrily.  “Have you not heard a single word I said?  I didn’t tell Jonathan I threw away the pills.  How could I talk to him about names?”
“Elaine, you can’t just do that!”  Richard was startled.  He had thought he was having a theoretical conversation with Elaine.  He hadn’t realized she’d taken action.  And dastardly action at that.
“Oh, yes I can!”
Richard understood clearly why men had repressed women throughout history.  They were holding all the reproductive cards.  It wasn’t fair. 

The Sugar Pill
A week later Richard was lying in the tub as Sally brushed her teeth, watching her.  He was depressed to be back at school and using the hot bath to ease the transition.  As she did every morning, she turned the dial on the little pack of pills to that day, popped one in her mouth, and flipped her blonde curls as if she’d just had a little shot of something good.  Richard sank into his bath and closed his eyes, trying not to feel defeated.
It was unfair.  If he were a woman he could be like Elaine, pretend to take the pill, secretly throwing it away, and then—oops!—get pregnant.  Not that he would.  But he could.  It would be his decision.  But as it was, the issue of his issue was totally out of his control.  Well, not totally.  He could leave Sally.  He rolled over in the water at the thought, curling into fetal position.  No, he wasn’t really so sure he could leave Sally.  At any rate, he was certain he didn’t want to.
Sally banged out the front door, calling that she was going on ahead, she needed coffee.  Richard yelled OK, waited till he heard the door bang shut, and then stood up out of the tub.  He dripped for a moment and then wrapped a towel around his waist.  He opened Sally’s drawer and looked at her pack of pills.  Was there any way he could substitute baby aspirin for those little pink pills?  What about the green ones?  Oh, yes.  He didn’t need to bother with the green ones, they were placebos.  He looked at the pack.  It seemed pretty tamper resistant.  She’d probably taste the baby aspirin anyway.  What if he called Jim, his roommate from college?  Jim was a doctor.  Could Jim get him some tiny pink placebos?
Before he realized he wasn’t just daydreaming any more, he’d dialed Jim’s number.
“Hello?”  Jim’s voice was groggy.
“Hey, Jim, you must be off rounds.  I woke you.  Sorry.”  Richard realized his heart was going a thousand miles an hour.
“No, no, that’s OK.  What’s up?”
“Just wondering if you could get me some tiny pink placebos.”
“What for?”
“A project here.  Little tiny pink ones.”
“No can do.  Only ones we have are blue.  Why not just use tic tacs or something?”
“Good idea.  Gotta hop, late for class.”
“You OK, Richard?”
“Yeah, fine.  Talk to you later.”
Click.  Richard sat down hard on the bed.  The reality of Jim’s voice had snapped Richard out of his mental tangent.  What the fuck???  So to speak.  He couldn’t believe he’d just made that phone call.  Not that he never had his moments when he considered doing stupid, dishonest things.  But usually he kept his really bad ideas bubbling down somewhere in a semi-conscious state.  Once they percolated up to his conscious mind he rejected them.  He’d certainly never gotten so far as to dial a friend’s number and try to involve him in actually implementing his nefarious thoughts.
What was happening to him?!
If it was so important to have children he didn’t have to trick Sally.  All he had to do was turn down his job offer.  What was so hard about that?  It wasn’t like being VP of Marketing of The Community.com was his heart’s desire.  No, having a family was his heart’s desire.  But it sure would be easier to make the bold move of becoming a househusband if he had just made $5 million.  Then at least he wouldn’t be a kept man.  Then at least he and Sally wouldn’t be subjected to the humiliating legal language his father had proposed.
“FUCK!”  Richard screamed out loud and whipped the towel across the room, catching a lamp and smashing it against the wall, sending broken bits scattering all over the room.  Richard left it all as it was—let Sally clean it up—and pulled on his boxers, his jeans, his sweater.  He grabbed his Debt Capital Markets case and stormed out the door, wrinkling the case to make it look as if he’d read it.

Everything Else Is Bullshit
Richard left the gym and decided to stop by the schmooze-a-thon before returning home to see if Sally had cleaned up the broken lamp.  There’d been a seminar with the CEO’s of ten major corporations earlier that afternoon, and now they were gathered together for cocktails at the Dean’s house.  He didn’t really feel like elbowing his classmates to suck up to these men.  But the Dean’s house was beautiful, right on his way home, and he did feel like a scotch.  Or two.
The first thing he saw as he walked in was Sally and six other women, all chatting with Hugh Morrison, the former CEO of X Corp.  Richard could tell by the way Sally was standing, one hip jutting out impatiently, that she was irritated.  Usually only her mother could make her stand that way.  What could the CEO of a $35 billion corporation be saying that would affect her so personally?  They were standing not far from the bar, so Richard went to get himself a drink and listen.
“I’m telling you, everything else is bullshit!  Total bullshit!”  Morrison was animated, looking more like a preacher than a CEO.  “It’s the only thing that matters in life.  Don’t miss out on it.”
“Would you really trade being CEO of X Corp for being a parent?” asked one of the women in the group.
“In a heartbeat!”
Richard took a sip of his drink and decided to see how Morrison’s tune would change when a man entered into the gaggle he was preaching to.  Would he sing the same tune for him?  Richard thrust his hand into the group.  “Hi, I am Richard, Sally’s husband.”
Morrison shook his hand vigorously.  “Very nice to meet you, young man.  I hope you’re considering a job at X Corp, and not following all the lemmings to some cockamamy dot com, heh, heh, heh, heh.”  Forced joviality replaced spontaneous animation.  Richard was shocked at how quickly the way that Morrison presented himself could change. 
“You want to work for a company that’ll be around a year from now,” Morrison continued.
“Of course,” Richard agreed.  “The valuations people are getting now just can’t last.  It’s got to crash.  Six months or two years—but it certainly can’t last forever.”   The last thing in the world Richard wanted to talk about was start-up valuations.  But somehow Morrison’s mask drew his own down.  Richard struggled for a moment.  He had no idea how to return to the conversation about children.  The issue of family vs. career wasn’t the kind of thing that men were supposed to talk about at cocktail parties.  Men were supposed to talk about career vs. career.  Stable company vs. start-up.
Well, if there were not graceful entrée, he would just have to barge in.  “Actually, I am very interested in what you were saying before.  I was eavesdropping.”
“Oh?”  Morrison looked placidly interested.  The mask betrayed no possibility of cracking.  Richard looked at Sally, whose hip was no longer cocked out in irritation.  She now had her bracing-for-a-crash posture.  Well, if he was going to stay home she was going to have to get used to people’s reactions to it too.
“I am going to stay home with our kids when we have them.  It’s really Sally you should be talking to about X Corp.”
Morrison looked confused.  Richard waited.  Would he keep his mask on and start talking to Sally about X Corp?  Or would he drop the mask and start talking to Richard about staying home? 
“Your wife is goin’ to hate you for takin it away from her.  Don’t do it, son!”  Sally and the five other women bristled visibly and Morrison, sensing their hostility, looked bewildered.  “Hey, ladies, I’m on your side!”
“I think my wife prefers bullshit to babyshit,” Richard gave his most winning smile, certain he’d just saved Morrison from being pilloried by the six women surrounding him.
Sally and the five women burst out laughing.  Morrison joined them and put his hand on Richard’s shoulder, palpably grateful have been saved from being pilloried by the women surrounding him.
“You’ve got that right, honey!”  Sally took his hand. 

You’re Taking Advantage of Her
 “Well, it’s been true for ages that a woman could marry more than she could ever dream of earning.  I don’t see why men shouldn’t be able to start playing the same game if women insist on working.”  This was the crotchety voice of Betty’s maternal grandmother.  She was a master WASP—able to sting, badly, pretty much everyone at the table with one blasé statement.
Richard wished he’d declined Betty and Wayne’s invitation to brunch.  It was Valentine’s Day and he’d rather be having breakfast in bed with Sally.  Besides, this old woman’s zing hit home.  He had no idea why he was so furious now while he’d been laughing off far more outrageous statements for a month now.  He’d blown off comments about how he’d be a man of leisure, having luncheon with the ladies while Sally slaved away.  He’d smiled at jokes about Sally buying him expensive gifts in exchange for his sexual favors.  His light-hearted quips had turned the all questions about how he’d spend his time if he weren’t going to get pedicures and leg waxings.  He’d handled all that, but now for some reason he was furious.  How dare she insinuate that his decision had anything to do with money???  He was making decisions and sacrifices based on love for his wife, and thoughts about creating a warm and loving home for his children.  How dare she drag her stingy old WASP views about money into the holy sanctuary of his marriage!  She didn’t even know how to enjoy money, she just knew how to hoard it and feel constantly threatened that anybody being halfway nice to her was just trying to get their greasy little hands on her cash.  And last but not least, how dare she say that he couldn’t earn more than Sally?  Nasty old bitch! 
Sally looked alarmed.  “Actually, Richard’s job offer pays him much, much more than mine.  He’s going to turn it down because he’d rather stay home and I’d rather work.  The money just isn’t that important to us.”  Richard was amused to hear that now all of a sudden Sally was valuing the options she’d earlier written down to $0.  He was less amused to hear her assertion that he was going to turn the offer down, but he let it go.  He hardly felt like having that debate in front of Mrs. Vanderfleet.
“Yes, yes, honey, I bet that’s what Richard told you.  He’s just taken a page out of our book—that’s what we girls have always said to men.  ‘Oh, honey, I just love you so much, the money’s not a bit important.’  But it wasn’t true, of course.  Not a bit of it!”
“But, Gran, staying home is much harder work than just having a job,” said Betty.
“Honey, that’s exactly why rich men are in such demand—for the help they can hire!  What is wrong with girls today?  Don’t you understand the simplest things?  Now, Richard, I bet you understand about help, don’t you?”  She winked at him.
By now he’d regained his sense of humor.  She wasn’t accusing him—she was simply looking around for a soul-mate. Now that he’d gotten over his shock at being mistaken for such a soul he could quit taking it personally.  “No, actually, I’m kind of a do-it-yourself Home Depot kind of guy.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!”  She wove a hand dismissively.  “Clearly you’ve no idea how to be a proper housewife!”

She’s Taking Advantage of You
Richard met Susan a couple days later for lunch on the law school side of the river.  She’d sounded urgent, and he was a little worried about her.
“You are going to get totally and completely screwed.”  Richard didn’t respond, hoping his little sister would leave it at that.  But she continued.  “You realize you are going to be just a divorce away from poverty.”
“Oh, Susan, don’t exaggerate.”  Richard was amused.  Suddenly Susan was viewing him as a woman who needed protecting from evil men.  Her whole life, she’d been accusing him of seizing unfair advantages because of his gender.  Now all of a sudden she was angry with him for ceding the unfair advantages.
“What’s your big rush?  Why don’t you wait to have kids?”  She crammed her mouth full of salad.
“Sally keeps having these cervix shaves and I’m afraid if we wait she won’t be able to get pregnant.”  Richard sighed.  
“Oh.  I forgot about the HPV.  She probably got it from you.  But, still.  You have to be practical.  If Sally divorces you, you’ll have a high imputed income and therefore get no alimony to speak of.  But you won’t have reached the level you should have in your career track, and you won’t have time to catch up because you’ll have kids.”
“I know, I know, Dad told us the story at Christmas.”  Richard ignored Susan’s accusation that he’d given Sally the virus. 
“So why isn’t Sally willing to give you a pre-nup? Or a pre-kiddie agreement?”  Susan was aggressive, suspicious.
“She is willing.  It’s me who’s reluctant.  I don’t want to boil this decision down to an agreement about dollars and cents.  It cheapens it.”
“You need to get over that.”
“Look, Susan, maybe that should be your job.  Fix the laws so they’re more fair.  I am sure that a lot of homemakers do get short shrift.  But getting Sally to write an agreement for me is not going to help those people.  And I trust Sally.  A document just isn’t necessary.”
“Look, imagine it’s Wayne’s birthday and you want to take him to go deep sea fishing.  You are going to have to ask Sally for the money.  What if she says no?”
“I want to take him to a titty bar.  What if she says yes?” Richard baited his sister.
“Richard, you’re not that kind of guy are you?”
“Look, Sus, I respect women, but I’ve been to my fair share of titty bars if you want to know the truth.  And I’ll continue to go.  Because I am going to make $5 million next year working at TheCommunity.com while Sally’s getting pregnant.”
“Yeah, dream on!  Sally’s not stupid enough to get pregnant till after you quit.  And this job is just your fantasy.  You are just in denials about the fact that you are committing economic suicide here,” Susan lashed out. 
God, no wonder his sister and her feminist friends were so neurotic, Richard thought.  Who could possibly bear that kind of self-laceration in the guise of supportive self-awareness?  “Look, Susan, first, I think I’ve got a good shot at that $5 million.”
“Whatever it takes to get you through your day, Richard.”
“OK, look.  Let’s say I do financially dependent on Sally.  That doesn’t mean that I am going to become dependent generally.”
“If you’re not financially independent you’re not independent,” Susan said.
“Look, Sally’s going to depend on me for her food, for the care of her children, for creating the atmosphere of home—for everything that’s most important, but—”
“Making partner at McKinsey is the most important thing to Sally.  Not her home.”  Susan interrupted
“Fair enough.  That’s why she’s doing that.  The home is more important to me than making partner at Goldman or wherever.  We’re a good team.”
“Why are you signing up to be the subordinate player?”
“Look, Susan, money doesn’t always translate to power, especially in an intimate relationship.”  Richard knew he didn’t really believe this.  That was why he was going to take The Community.Com job.  But, still.  It shouldn’t be that way.  He went on telling Susan about how he thought it should be, not how he thought it really was.  “Truth be told, I believe I am going to be doing the more important job, the more rewarding job, the all around better job.  Frankly, I worry more about being unfair to Sally than I do about being cheated by her.”
“Richard, that’s the domestic goddess bullshit that kept women down for hundreds of years.  Unlike women 100 years ago you are in a position to get a legal document asserting your right to half of all that’s earned if Sally insists on your staying home.”
“Oh, come on.  What’s the penalty if she cooks one night instead of me?” 
“If you can’t deal with putting together a pre-kid agreement it’s just because you’re not comfortable admitting your financial dependence.”  Susan was becoming increasingly discouraged about her brother’s prospects.
“Agreements just don’t work.  Sally won’t rely on an agreement that I will promise to quit work the day she gets pregnant, either.”
“Well, that’s different.  And I don’t blame her.  It’s totally unenforceable.”
“And the half of all she earns is enforceable?”
“Yes, of course.  But back up.  Are you trying to talk Sally into getting pregnant while you work?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You big dick!  You’re going to renege, and pull a Jake on her aren’t you?”  Susan looked palpably relieved to be defending a woman against a man again.

The Fucker and the Fuckee
“Susan and I had lunch.  She gave me a lecture today about how I needed to get a pre-nup from you.”  Richard and Sally were on their nightly walk.  “It’s so funny.  One day I have people accusing me of screwing you out of motherhood.  The next day I get these dire warnings that I’m getting screwed into motherhood.  Which do you think it is?”
“I, for one, think it’s fun to get screwed.”  Sally grinned.
“So I guess I’m screwing you, then.”
“Why is that such a bad thing, anyway?  To get screwed?  To get fucked?”  Sally looked up at him.  “But, all joking aside, I do think that we should put some kind of agreement in place.  You’d give up a lot if you actually decide to stay home.”
“I don’t want to discuss any agreement,” Richard let his voice slide into the register that told her this was one of the things to let go for the day.  “And I have already decided to stay home, even if you don’t believe me.”
“I will believe you once you’ve thrown away your offer and signed a pre-kiddie agreement.”
“Hey!  No fair adding new conditions.  I’m not discussing agreements.”  Richard stopped short.
“What would you like to discuss?”
Richard tried to think of something very distracting.  “Let’s talk about etymology.  The Greeks had a special insulting word for the partner who took it rather than gave it.  Roughly translated as ‘one who takes it like a woman.’” 
“Oooo.  That’s disturbing.”  Sally started walking.  “It never occurred to me I wasn’t an active participant in sex.”
“You aren’t giving it up, you’re taking it!”
“That’s another one! ‘Giving it up.’  Why do people say that?  Why are women ‘giving it up’ and men ‘getting some?’  It’s weird.  Isn’t sex something men and women do together, not something one gives and the other takes?”
“Of course.”  Richard started looking for a way to change the subject.  Sally was getting upset.
“Really.  I never thought about it before, explicitly, but what’s the big deal?  Why is it such a bad thing to be penetrated?”
“I don’t know.  The Greek expression had something to do with being a woman.  Maybe it was about the Greek discomfort with femininity, not penetration per se,” suggested Richard.  He certainly didn’t want to get Sally on an anti-penetration kick.
 “And why are people so conflicted about femininity?”
“That was my question to you.  Am I cheating you or being cheated if I play a woman’s role and stay home?”
“Can’t it just be a partnership?” Sally asked.
“That’s what we’re shooting for, isn’t it?”  Richard pulled her closer.  “You know, the word economics comes from the Greek word oikonomia which was about managing a household and family, creating long-term value for the community.  It was the most respected way to live.  Mere trade was looked down upon.”
“Hmph.  So we gave women the household, and then started to look down on it,” mused Sally.
“Not any more—not now that manly men such as myself will be doing it.”  Richard puffed out his chest and Sally kicked her leg out sideways to smack him in the butt.

The Job Is Too Easy For A Man
“But, Elizabeth, why don’t you date a man here?  You’ve got a 3:1 ratio, you’ll never have it better!”  A few people had gathered in the dining hall after class for lunch, and were teasing Elizabeth Haruf (the woman who always brought quotes into class) for signing up for an Ivy League dating service called TheRightStuff.com.
“Because the dating scene here is like water water everywhere and not a drop to drink,” fired back Elizabeth.
“Aw, come on, what’s wrong with us?” asked Joe.
“You nicked your brain last time you picked your nose!” joked Dino.  The comment had become legendary, and was quoted to poor Joe at least three times a day.
“Asshole!” Joe punched at him across the table, laughing good-naturedly.
“Seriously, why won’t you date one of us?” asked Dino.
“Because you want a woman who’ll stay home with your kids,” said Elizabeth.  “I don’t want to stay at home.  I wouldn’t be good at it.”
“You need a guy like Richard.” Dino pointed. 
“Too bad he’s taken.”  Joe shrugged. 
“Richard, are you really going to stay home with your kids?  Were you serious about that?”  Elizabeth looked at him intently.
Richard took a breath.  “Yes, I was.”
“So you’re going to throw away all your job offers, and just wait for Sally to pop them out, hunh?” asked Joe, incredulous.
“Well, I may work for a year or two first,” said Richard.  He was going to have to make a decision about The Community.com soon, and it was beginning to weigh on him.  A counterbalance to his obsession with Sally’s pills.
“Where do I find a man like you?” asked Elizabeth.
“Try TheWrongStuff.Com,” suggested Joe.
“Hey!”  Richard laughed, punching at Joe’s arm.
“Don’t take him seriously, he really did nick his brain,” said Elizabeth.
“But Elizabeth, would you really want a man who would stay home and leave you with the whole responsibility for supporting the family?” asked Dino.  “No offense, Richard.”
“None taken,” Richard assured him.  Actually, he was interested to hear Elizabeth’s answer.  He wondered if Sally would have been attracted to him initially if she’d known that he would wind up being a stay-at-home dad.  She of course would say yes.  He looked at Elizabeth, wondering if she was a proxy for the truth about what Sally would have been attracted to.  
“Of course,” she said, without hesitation.  
Richard felt vaguely ashamed at the relief and validation that her answer unleashed in him.
“What’s wrong with a nanny?” asked Dino.  “There’s nothing to show that kids are worse with a nanny than a mother.  Why give up the income?” 
“Yeah.  You could marry a big earner, Elizabeth.  You’re a babe!”  Joe said.
“Are you looking for a woman with a big salary when you date?” asked Elizabeth.
“Of course not!” Dino brought his eyebrows together, offended.
“Joe? You?  You looking for a rich woman?”
“Fuck you!” retorted Joe.
“So why do I have to look for a rich man?” asked Elizabeth.  “I can earn plenty of money myself, just like you.”
Joe and Dino looked at her, puzzled and a little hurt.  Richard knew what they were thinking.  Didn’t all women want rich men?  Wasn’t that why they’d worked so hard to get into Harvard Business School?  “But don’t you want to be with a man who’s living up to his full potential, not just hanging around the house?” asked Joe.
“But Joe, you’re going to wind up with a woman who stays home, aren’t you?” Elizabeth leaned towards him, elbow on the table, chin in her hand.
“Of course.  I’ll earn enough.  My wife won’t have to work.”  Joe puffed out his chest.
“But she won’t be living up to her full potential.”  Elizabeth held out her hands.
Joe looked utterly confused.  “Of course she will—we’ll have a great home, lots of kids.”
“So you think that having somebody focus full-time on the kids is important after all?” asked Richard
“Or is it just that you prefer being married to a woman who isn’t living up to her full potential?” asked Elizabeth.
“I think that a housewife is living up to her full potential.”  Joe cocked his head to one side.  “Don’t you?”
“Even if she could be making a million dollars a year instead?”  Asked Richard, winking at Elizabeth.
“Hey!”  Joe banged he fist on the table and raised his eyebrows in moral outrage.  “What’s more important, money or your children?”
“My children.  That’s why I want a husband who’ll focus on them.” Elizabeth leaned back in her chair.
“What the hell is wrong with a nanny?” Asked Dino.
“Nothing is wrong with a nanny,” said Richard.  “It’s just that all those things are fun to do—making a home, making a meal, hanging out with kids.  Not fun for everybody, but fun for me.”
“You think it’d be fun!?” Joe and Elizabeth said in unison and then looked embarrassed to find themselves on the same side of the issue.
“Fun is not what a man should look for in life.  A man should be ambitious.”  Said Dino.
“It is my ambition to create a happy home for me and Sally and our kids.” Richard shrugged.  “What could be more important?”
“You can pay other people less than $10 an hour to do all that crap,” shot back Dino.   “We’re talking low-skilled labor.”
Richard tried to imagine what his childhood would have been like if a few minimum-wage workers had replaced his mother. Dino’s household would be more cost-efficient, but utterly lacking in grace.  Dino was going to get fat on the gross food he’d order in. 
“Not low-skilled.”  Richard folded his hands.  “Just hard to measure.”
“What do you mean?”  Dino looked at him through one eye, lips pursed.
“Like aesthetics.  Two buildings next to each other in New York.  One is pre-war, has lots of charm.  Another was built in the 70’s and has none.  Which do you live in?”
“Which has more space for less money?” shrugged Dino.
“The 70’s building.  But it has no charming details.”
“Who the hell cares about the charming details?” Dino shifted restlessly in his seat.
“I do.” Richard held up his index finger.

The Job Is Too Hard For A Man
Elaine and her husband Bob were in town for one of Bob’s Estate Tax conferences.  Richard was waiting for them at the bar at the Ritz.  Elaine showed up first.
“How was your day?” Richard kissed his sister on her cheek.
“Fabulous!  I met my friend Mala at the Fogg museum and she let me see the show she’s putting together—such an amazing collection of American paintings.”
“How is Mala?”  Richard hadn’t seen Mala, his sister’s college roommate, for a few years.
“We had a three-hour lunch.  She is thinking of having a sperm bank baby because she’s despaired of ever finding a man.  she wanted to know what I thought.”
“What’d you say?”
“You know, I think she should do it.  I told her that Bob is no help at all except for the money, and Mala’s loaded, so what does she need a man for anyway?”
Richard, as usual, felt blasted by his older sister.  Hard to know what to say.  Did she really view Bob’s utility as ending at his paycheck?  Didn’t she love him?  Don’t kids need a father?  At that moment, Bob walked up, effectively changing the subject.
“How are you Bob?”  Richard stood up to shake his brother-in-law’s hand.
“Oh, God, I am bored half to death.  Get me a drink, fast!  Scotch, please, on the rocks—a double,” he shouted to the barman.
“That bad, hunh?”  Richard slapped him on the back.
“Oh, he’s always complaining.”  Elaine put her cheek out to be kissed.
“I spent the whole goddamn day thinking about how to preserve the estates of the very wealthy through these incredibly complex tax shelters.  Shoot me!”  Bob sat down hard.
“Sounds like consulting.  There must be a better way to make a living.” Richard squinted in sympathy.  Elaine shot him her look.
“God, I wish I could find one.  I just need to see something beautiful or inspiring.  Just for a minute, to redeem the day.  Is Fogg is open late today?”  He turned to Elaine hopefully.
“No, it closed at 5:00.”  Elaine took a little sip of seltzer.  Richard wondered if she feel even a twinge of sympathy for her husband.  Did she at least appreciate that she had just had an infinitely better day than he had, or that his bad day supported her fabulous day? 
The scotch arrived and Bob reached eagerly for this little painkiller.  It wasn’t just scotch, Richard thought.  It was the Quiet Desperation on ice.
“So.  Richard.  I hear you’re going to be a pioneer,” said Bob.  “Good luck.”  He held up his glass.
Elaine looked as if she’d just remembered something.  “Richard, I want to talk to you about this crazy idea of your staying home.  No man can hack it.  You’ll be insane instantly, your children will suffer emotionally and physically, and your marriage will never survive.”
“Elaine!”  exclaimed Bob, sheepish on her behalf.  “Sorry I brought the subject up.” Bob looked at Richard as he took a deep sip of Scotch.  “Should’ve known better.”  
“Bob can’t even boil water!” Elaine exclaimed.
“Oh, boy!”  Bob slunk down in his chair.  “Here we go.”
“The other day I had to go around the corner for some milk and he was supposed to be watching McClellan and Ella.  When Ella had to go to the bathroom Bob decided he could forget all about McClellan.  When I came back in the door, McClellan was under the sink trying to get the cap off the Draino—with his teeth!”
Bob slunk further in his chair and finished his Scotch.
“Men are incapable of multi-tasking.  They’re hunters.  They can focus on only one elephant at a time.  The result of men as homemakers would be a lot of poisoned children.”
Bob waved at a waiter and pointed to his glass, holding up two fingers with a desperate look in his eyes, pleading for, not ordering, a double.
“I bet Bob would do just fine if you gave him half a chance,” said Richard, feeling sorry for the guy.  Bob sent him a sharp look, clearly suggesting that it would be better just to change the subject than to defend him.
“Ha!  I have never dared even to leave the children alone with Bob for one afternoon.”
“Well, no wonder he’s not good at it.  You never let him practice.” Richard felt like he was watching reruns of sally’s family videos.
“Practice on my children!”  Elaine shrieked.  “I’d come home to find they’d ingested every poison in the house.”
“You got to practice.” Richard pointed at his sister.  “On your first child.”
“But I’m a woman.  I have natural talents.  And it’s not just for children.  Can you imagine what the house would look like with Bob decorating it?”  Elaine barked a short, harsh laugh.  “Bob can’t even match his socks in the morning without my help.”
Bob’s drink arrived, and he took it with a look of utter gratitude.  He swallowed deeply and said with a kind of despairing sarcasm, “Well, I may not be able to match my socks, but today I figured out how to shield the money of the woman who donated the money that was used in the Iran Contra case from estate taxes.”  He took another slug.  He was a staunch Democrat and felt his work betrayed what ideals he’d managed to preserve.  “Now, tell me I haven’t got talent!”
“You do have talent, honey!  All that complicated tax stuff—it’s amazing.”  Elaine said patronizingly, and turned to Richard.  “I’m just worried about your health, Richard.  You know I read the other day that men who stay home are 80% more likely to die of a heart attack than men who don’t.”
“Lies, damn lies, and statistics,” Richard said.
“I’m talkin’ eight O, Richard!  You can’t just ignore that.”
Richard could see no reason to pay even the slightest attention to such nonsense.  He tried to imagine the outcry if a study came out that showed female investment bankers were 80% more likely to have a heart attack than housewives…

“Poor Bob!” Richard exclaimed as he recounted the evening to Sally later that night.
“You’d better not be like Elaine if you stay home,” Sally said, poking him in the ribs.
“When I stay home.  I won’t.  I promised your father, remember, Daddy’s Little Girl?”  He tickled her.
She brushed his hand away.  “Any decisions on the Community.Com yet?”
He was furious, suddenly.  Didn’t she understand that he needed to make a little money of his own so that they wouldn’t have to go within ten miles of Elaine-style behavior?!  “Yes.  I’m going to take the job, you’re going to believe me that I’ll quit a month before you have the baby, and you’re going to throw away those fucking pills—tonight!”
Sally didn’t react to his sudden aggression.  She walked along, self-contained, unflappable.  “You are hardly reassuring me here.  You throw away the offer, and I’ll throw away the pills.”
“Sally, you are not putting me in a fair situation!”
“OK, so let’s put together a pre-kiddie agreement to make sure I treat you fairly.”
Richard’s hand was half way to Sally’s face when time slowed down and his thoughts became immensely clear.  I’m going to hit her, he realized.  My hand is moving towards my wife’s cheekbone.  I cannot hit my wife.  I am not the kind of man who would do such a thing.  I have to do something, and fast.  Richard turned around fast, smacking himself in the shoulder.  He went to the table and sat down, back to Sally.
“Richard!  You were going to hit me, weren’t you?”  Sally sounded more astounded than afraid.
Richard said nothing.  He focused on steadying his breathing.
“The last time we discussed this you yanked all the sheets off the bed.  If the idea of being financially dependent is so enraging to you the househusband thing isn’t going to work.”
“Sally, you have got to leave this alone for a few days, OK?”
There was a long pause.  Richard didn’t turn around to look at his wife.  He grabbed a copy of The Economist sitting on the edge of the table and started to flip through the pages.
“OK, Richard.” 

Titles
A couple weeks later Richard and Sally were out on their evening walk.  The air was almost unbearably heavy with the incipient rain of an early spring storm.  Lightning would occasionally blast through the tension, and, despite the bright warning, the clap of thunder following would make them jump.  The lightning and thunder were coming closer and closer together, but still no rain.  Then, with a shocking blast, the two came together, and a tree two blocks ahead of them lit up, an enormous branch crashing to the ground.  Sally screamed and jumped behind Richard’s back.  When he started breathing again, he turned around to hug Sally, who was giggling uncontrollably at her sudden display of feminine terror.  She always screamed piercingly when startled by a mouse, a sudden noise, a movement in the dark, and her outbursts never failed to surprise and embarrass her.
“I know exactly how that tree feels,” murmured Richard into her hair.
“What?!”  Sally quit laughing suddenly.
“I am like that—a lightning rod.  Every time I say I am going to stay home, people explode at me with their own neurosis about home, and project it on to me.  At first it was interesting, but I have to admit, I am getting tired of it.”
“Are you rethinking?”  Sally’s voice was full of anguished disappointment.  Richard felt surprised.  She had sworn she wouldn’t count on his talk of staying home until he threw away the job offer.  She hadn’t mentioned a pre-kid agreement again, but he knew his little performance couldn’t have reassured her of his intentions.
“No.  No, I am not, Sally.  I promise.  You can count on me.”
“I don’t want to push you to do this, Richard.”  She took his arm.  “I would kill you if you tried to push me to do it.”
“I want to do it, Sally.  Really I do.”
“But are you sure you can take all the flack?”
“Look, women fought their way through flack into the workplace.  And that was harder flack.  That flack said that they were not good people, that they didn’t love their children enough.  My flack just says that I am not manly—or that I am taking advantage of you for your money—or that you are taking advantage of my weakness—or whatever.”
“Still.  It’s hard.”
“I just need to figure out a way not to lose a limb,” he said as they approached the one that had fallen off the tree, examining its charred end.
“How?”
“Well, for one thing I am going to quit dancing around this language thing.  When people ask me what I am going to do I am going to say I’m a househusband.  Somehow the term housewife developed a pejorative connotation, as in “just a housewife,” and so househusband sounds like a joke.  But that is what I am going to be, and I am going to be proud of it, so I am going to stop pussyfooting around it.”
“Good!”
“But the thing is, I’ve got to make some money first.”
“Oh.”  He heard the regret in her voice with a little jolt of hopefulness.  She knew he was going to take the Community.Com job.  She wished he wouldn’t.  Did that mean she wanted to get pregnant now too?  That would give him a negotiating edge.  Maybe he could he convince her to go ahead and get pregnant after all.
“This whole thing will go much, much more smoothly if I make some money first.”
“It wouldn’t—I mean, I wouldn’t be a jerk about money.  It’s not like I’d insist on controlling everything.”
“I know.  It’s not about you or how you’d be.”  Richard squeezed her hand between his arm and chest.
“I understand, Richard.  I am not going to try to talk you out of taking that job.  I totally, totally understand.  I would never in a million years agree to become financially dependent on anyone, even you, to be honest.”
“Women fought pretty hard to be independent, even of the men who loved them.”
“Of course, relying on a woman would be much more palatable—women are more generous.”
“Hey, you big sexist!”  Richard laughed.  But his heart leaped with joy.  She was trying, however gently, to talk him into this.  That gave him leverage.  “So, how about it?  I will sign a pre-baby agreement, promising to quit my job no matter what one month before you give birth.”
“And what are the penalties if you don’t?”
Richard’s mind raced.  He hadn’t really thought so far ahead.  The most precious thing he could forfeit was custody of the child, but that would only play into Sally’s fears about being left holding the bag.  “100% of everything I earned, including all stock options.”
“No deal.” Said Sally.  “You throw away the offer, I’ll throw away the birth control.  I’ll sign away half of everything I earn, starting now, forever, to you.”
“Goddamnit, Sally, don’t you trust me?”
“Don’t you trust me to take care of your fiscal well-being?”
“You said you weren’t going to try to talk me out of taking that job!”
“I’m not trying to talk you out of it.  Take it.  Do it for a year.  Then quit.  Then I’ll throw away the birth control.  I’d prefer that, really.  I’m not dying to be a raging hormonal fat freak my first year on the job, you know.  And then a pumping cow the second.”
Damn!

Elevator Pitch
Richard practiced in front of the mirror.
“What do you do?”  He’d ask himself, adopting the persona of a friend’s mother, a CEO, a professor, Dino.
“I’m a househusband.”  He’d answer himself, making sure that he got just the right blend of confidence without spilling over into the over-confident/insecure realm.  When he was at McKinsey, he’d learned about the elevator pitch.  You should always have a 15-second way of explaining why what you were working on was extremely important just in case you happened to be on the elevator with the CEO.
It took him a couple more parties, but he eventually perfected his elevator pitch.  He resisted the temptation to say that he was a consultant or a writer or some other acceptable profession that allowed one to work from home.  No, he was a househusband. 
He learned to say this in such a way that he communicated that he believed being a househusband was, in fact, a more important job than doing marketing for some ridiculous dot com or making power point presentations for a consulting firm.  It was embarrassing how much discipline it took simply to say it. 
What are you going to do after graduation? 
I am going to be a househusband. 
He learned smile just a little to show he was happy, and everyone else should be too.  He would give the slightest of pauses, allowing the curious to ask questions.  For those who displayed signs of discomfort (and there were many), he was ready with a counter-question or a pleasantry about the weather.  He was comfortable answering questions, but he wasn’t going to force anybody to discuss his choices.  It wasn’t so complicated, after all. 
In fact, he usually got inundated with praise, even if it was insincere. 
“How brave!”  This was what the skeptics said.
“Good for you, man!”  This was what the people who thought he was dropping out said.
“How’d your wife ever get so lucky?”  This was what the people who thought he was pussy-whipped said.
“How’d you talk your wife into that one?”  This was what the people who thought he was a gigolo said.
He took all that crap, and still Sally wouldn’t throw away the pills!

Part III:  Walking the Walk

The Doctor
Richard could tell from the way Sally unlocked the door that something was wrong.  Usually she forgot it was a two-turn lock, tried to open the door after only one rotation, and kicked it when it didn’t open.  She would walk in muttering about the “damned lock” and scatter her bag, jacket, and anything else that could be discarded all over the apartment.  Then she’d sit down and tell Richard about her day.  Her stories more than made up for the insta-mess.  
Today, she put the key in, paused, turned it twice, paused, opened the door, put the keys on the hook Richard had installed in a futile attempt to prevent her from losing them in her trail of domestic chaos, paused, put her jacket in the coat closet (!), paused, hung her bag on the back of a chair instead of tossing it onto the couch, mumbled hello to Richard, and walked into the kitchen.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.  Why?”  Sally filled the teakettle with six times more water than she needed.
“Well, you’re making tea for one.”  Richard came up behind her and gave her a hug.  “You’ve never done that.”  He knew she’d gone to the gynecologist that day, but knew he’d never hear anything about it if he asked directly. 
“I haven’t?”  Sally looked at him in genuine surprise.  She put the kettle on the stove but forgot to turn it on.
“No.”  Richard poured half the water out and turned the burner to high, smiling at his wife’s back as she stepped into their little living/dining room.  “Earl Grey or Chamomile?” He asked, opening the cabinet.
“Chamomile, please.”  Sally went over to the chair, pulled a case study and a pink highlighter out of her bag, and settled down on the couch. 
“Preparing for class already?”  Richard asked, hoping to keep her distracted until she told him what had happened at the doctor.  Once she started studying, he wouldn’t get a word out of her for hours.
“May as well.”  Sally opened the case.  
“What’ve you got tomorrow?”  Richard settled down next to her on the couch, giving her the mug of tea.
“Just Corporate Financial Management.  I read Coming of Managerial Capitalism in the doctor’s office.”
“How’d it go?”
“Boring.  Was about Hamilton and revolutionary war bonds.”
“Not the case, the doctor, silly.”  Richard gave her neck a little kiss.  He felt strangely calm.  Whatever it was, they could deal with it.
Sally put the cap on her highlighter and looked at him.  “I had another leep today.  I know I should have told you, but—”
“Oh, Sally, I’m sorry.”  Richard hugged her tightly.  He felt betrayed that she’d kept it secret from him, but now was not the time to get mad at her for not telling him.  She was obviously upset enough already.  This was a big thing, but he had to let it go today.
“There’s another thing.”  Sally said into his chest.  “She said if I want to have kids I should do it now.  She said it’s no longer a theoretical problem in the future but a real problem now.”
Richard leaned back back.  For him, her fertility had always been a real and present problem.  The only thing that had changed was that Sally now felt the same way.  “Soon?”
“Yes, immediately.”  Sally stood up.
It was all he could do not to jump in the air for pure joy.  Sally’s posture forbade the jig his feet were itching to do.  Not only was she not as thrilled as he was, she was positively despondent.  What could he say to make her share his joy?  He stood up.  “Sally!  Really, everything’s going to be great!  This is something to be happy about.  What’s wrong?”
“Richard, what if you’re miserable?  I would be so, so miserable without a job.”  She turned away from him.
“Hey!  Haven’t you believed a word I’ve said to you?  Sally, I want to stay home.”  He put his hand on her shoulder and turned her towards him.
“You’re not just saying that because you feel guilty for giving me the virus?” 
“I’m sorry about the virus, Sal.”  Actually, it had never occurred to him to feel guilty for giving her the virus.  Shit happened, shit got spread around.  Mostly from the man to the woman, he realized.  He felt remiss, suddenly, for his previous lack of guilt.  “I didn’t know that you blamed me for the HPV.  No wonder you were able to hold so firm to your demand that I throw out the offer.”
“Yeah, well I guess that’s over.”  Sally’s hands were shaking. 
“What do you mean?”  Richard grabbed her clammy fingers.  The only time he’d had seen her tremble before was when they’d been mugged at gunpoint.  “What are you so afraid of?”
“Oh, Richard, I have to get pregnant now.  You can just take the job, but I still have to get pregnant.” 
“You make it sound like you are just afraid the doctor-imposed urgency hurt your bargaining position.” 
“Well, it did, didn’t it?”  Sally shrugged and let her arms flop at her side.  Clearly anxiety about her negotiating tactics wasn’t making her shake.
“But that’s not the point.  The point is, I really want to stay home.  You don’t have to negotiate.”  Richard reached out and touched her cheek.  “What are you afraid of, Sally?”
“Richard, I don’t know whether I am more afraid that I waited too long.”  Tears welled up in Sally’s eyes and overflowed.  She took a deep breath.  “Or that I’ll get pregnant no problem.  I am so, so afraid I am going to wind up like, like…” Sally shuddered, and her hands and lips began to tremble.  “Like Jake’s wife.”
“But, Sally, I am staying home.  Not you.”
“You don’t think you’ll go insane?”  Sally cocked her head and looked hard at him.
“Sally, I think I’ll be really happy.  Happier than I would be working at The Community.Com or some such bullshit.”  He realized that he wasn’t going to convince her with words.  He had to act.  He walked over to the desk, opened the top drawer, pulled out his job offer from The Community.Com, showed it to Sally, and walked over to the trashcan.  Her eyes followed him.  Looking at her, he dropped it in.  “We’re going to do this.  It’s going to be OK.  It’s going to be better than OK.  It’s going to be fabulous!”
She burst into tears.  “And you don’t mind not earning your own money?”
“I do.  But I’d rather raise our kids myself than hire a nanny or drive you nuts.”
“Let’s write up a pre-kid agreement.”
“Sally, don’t spoil this for me.”
“Richard, you shouldn’t do this unless you can face the facts.”
“Sally, let’s not spoil it all with money talk.  Not tonight, OK?”
“You don’t have to throw away the offer, you know, just because of the virus.  It might not be your fault.  I could have gotten it in college.”
“Sally, this decision doesn’t have anything to do with whose fault things are.  It has to do with how we want to live our lives.  You’re not coercing me.  I am making a choice here.”
“And you’re not going to use the doctor’s advice to force me to go ahead and start trying even before you’ve quit your job?”
Richard resisted the temptation to press his advantage and retrieve his offer from the garbage.  Just because her feelings weren’t rational didn’t mean that they weren’t real.  Whether she “should” be or not, she was going to be neurotically anxious about getting pregnant if he were working.  And it was more important to him that Sally feel happy about having kids than that he make a bunch of money at The Community.Com.  Besides, with any luck she’d be four or five months pregnant by August.  He couldn’t start a job and quit it four months later. 
“No.  I’m manipulative Sally, but I am capable of factoring your wants and desires into my equation, you know.”

Getting What You Always Wanted
Richard walked to the telephone.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to call Tom and tell him I’m not taking the job,” said Richard.
“That’s what I thought you were doing.  Put that phone down!”
“Why?
“I think you should wait a week.”
“A week!”  Now that he was confronted with getting what he’d been wanting for so long a week seemed impossibly long.  He wanted the pills thrown away immediately.  He couldn’t wait another hour, let alone a week.  He’d heard a story about a man who’d been in jail for ten years making an insane escape attempt just ten days before he was to be released.  He’d explained that once the prospect of freedom became real, ten days seemed longer than the previous ten years.  Richard knew now how the prisoner felt.
“Just one week,” Sally said.  “I want you to be sure.  I don’t want you to regret this later.”
“You’re sweet, but—”
“I’m not sweet, Richard.  It’s self-preservation.  I don’t want to feel guilty.  And I don’t want you to change your mind later.  Why does the idea of a pre-kiddie agreement enrage you like it does?”   
“Look.  Here’s the deal.  I’m calling today.  And you’re throwing away your pills—today.”
“I just had part of my cervix removed!  I’m not supposed to have sex for ten days.”
“No problem.  Just because we can’t have sex doesn’t mean we can’t throw away the pills.”
“But Richard—”
“Sally!”  He let his voice go deep, fall into what Sally called the “finality register.”
“I know when to give into you gracefully.”  She smiled.  “Let’s go throw them out.”
“No.  First I call Tom.  That was your condition.”  Richard picked the phone back up.  After a few tries he got Tom on his cell.
“Richard!  Got a decision for me?”
“Tom, I’ll cut to the chase—I am not going to take the job.”
“Damn!”
“I wanted to let you know how much I believe in the opportunity, how much I enjoyed meeting you.  If I were going to take any job, I would have taken the Community.Com job.”
“What do you mean if you were going to take any job?  You’re not going to take a job?”  This got Tom’s full attention.
“I am going to be a househusband.”
“No fuckin way!?  You won the lottery, man!  A little walk in the park, a little arts and crafts, lunch with all the hot ladies in New York, while your wife toils away in the office—how’d you swing that one?”
Richard knew this wasn’t the last time he’d have to let this sort of dismissive comment pass.  He started laughing.  “Shh—my wife thinks she bamboozled me into it.  Don’t tell her about the lunches.”
Tom guffawed.  “Hey, maybe you can write about it?  We’re starting a Motherhood section of the website.  Maybe we need a Fatherhood section too.”
“How about a househusband section?”  Richard proposed.
“Hey, man, would you really do that?”
“Sure, why not?”  Richard wondered if he could get him to say, aren’t you ashamed.
“That’d be awesome.  Really controversial, man.”
“Think you could find somebody to do a matching Housewife section?”
“No way, man.  Can’t use that word any more.”
“Maybe that will be my mission, to resurrect respect for the word, and the profession.  People should be proud, not ashamed, to say I am a housewife, I am a househusband.” 
“Cool, man, you’re going to start a whole new movement, right on the Community.Com.  That’s awesome.  That’s what we need to drive users.”
Richard realized, suddenly, that he was being sucked into the very job he had just turned down.  Worse, he was going to be doing that job and leading some kind of movement.  How would he find time to make his home, raise his kids, in peace?  Well, now was not the time to worry about it.  Now was the time to throw those damn pills away!
“Well, Tom, nice talking to you.  We’ll be in touch.”

Richard led Sally by the hand into the bathroom, heart pounding.  The only thing he could compare it to was opening the mailbox and finding the letter from Stanford.  He’d already heard he’d been accepted but he couldn’t quite believe he had really gotten in.  That moment of anticipation before opening the letter, and actually seeing the “yes” inside.  Only that was nothing compared to this.  That was just about college.  This was about—this was about everything, just everything.
Richard stood behind Sally, breathing hard as she opened the drawer where she kept her birth control. 
“Here, you hated them, you do it.”  She handed him the half-finished pack and pulled out the two spares, dropping them into the waste paper basket with the little blue sailboat.  She reflexively gave her hair a little flip, just like he’d imagined she would.  “It doesn’t mean we’ll have a boy, you know,” she said, nudging the can with her foot.
“Sailboats aren’t just for boys,” Richard laughed and tossed the pack Sally had handed him.  He wasn’t satisfied.  He plucked it back out, walked over to the toilet, turned the dial on the pack, and dropped each of the remaining eight pills into the toilet one by one.  He flushed and tried not to look too triumphant.  He retrieved the other two packs from the trash, opened them, and twirled their contents into the toilet as well.  He flushed again and tossed the three containers denuded of their pink and green tablets into the trash.
“Got any more?”  He couldn’t stop smiling.
“Nope.  That’s it.  All done.”  She tickled his abs.
Alexander the Great burst into tears when he conquered the world.  History was full of people who got what they’d always wanted and then felt let down.  Well, history was full of fools.  Richard wondered what was wrong with all of them.  He didn’t need to whoop or scream or jump up and down as if this were some stupid basketball game.  He stood still and hugged his wife and just felt happy.

The Pre-Kid Agreement
Richard looked around Au Bon Pain for Susan and Sally, feeling uneasy.  It had been a week since Sally had thrown away her birth control pills.  It had felt even better than he’d imagined.  He’d been walking around for a week feeling surround by a haze of mystery and power.  And they hadn’t even started trying yet.  
This morning, though, Sally had sounded furtive when she asked him to meet her and Susan for lunch at Au Bon Pain on the law school side of the river.  What were they up to?  The past week had felt too good to be true, and he was afraid Susan had thought of a way to spoil it all with some kind of feminist angst. 
Just as he started unwrapping his sandwich Susan and Sally appeared bearing their salads.  He could tell by the determined look in Susan’s eye he was in for it.  Well, he wasn’t going to let them ruin his good mood.  Whatever it was, he determined to have fun with it.
“Now, Richard, I know you don’t like to talk about this but you’ve just got to face the facts.”
“Which facts?”  Richard asked, knowing full well what she had in mind.  She had that “I want to talk about money” look in her eye.  The touchiest of all subjects.  
“Sally and I have written up a pre-child agreement for you.”
Richard looked at Sally.  “I thought we agreed it wasn’t necessary.”
“We did no such thing.  You asked me not to talk about it for a few days.  It’s been three weeks.”
“Sally asked me to look up the precedents.”  Susan interjected.
“And what are the precedents?”  Richard unwrapped his long sandwich and resisted the urge to make an obscene comment about its size and shape.
“Well, there’s not much.”
“So we thought we’d make it up.”
“Mmm hmm.”  Richard wasn’t eager to become a legal precedent but it seemed easier to listen than fight.
“So here is the deal.”  Susan leaned forward.  “Whoever works will pay whomever stays at home half of whatever they make until the youngest child is 18.  It’s not child support, and it’s not alimony.”
“Sounds like a salary.”  Richard took a bite out of his sandwich and continued speaking with a full mouth.  “Sally have to pay taxes on it?”
“No.  It goes into a bank account that has your name on it but since you’re married there’s no tax consequence.  It includes half of any stock options, pension plans, etcetera.  The person who works is obligated to pay for college and for graduate school.”
“Very generous,” said Richard, voice uncharacteristically harsh.  He was stunned at the force of his feelings.  Sally pay him?  He focused on breathing.  He knew he had a track record of irrational fury on the subject.  It was time to look at it. 
“Not really so generous,” said Sally.  “It doesn’t even begin to compensate you for the opportunity cost.  Sure, when the kids have graduated from college, you could get a job.  But by that time your earning potential will be around one twentieth what it would be if you’d been working all that time.”
“But I couldn’t think of a way to deal with that, other than making the obligation last much longer than college,” said Susan.  “And that would turn this into a pre-nup, not a pre-kid agreement.”
“Which we already agreed we didn’t want to do,” said Richard.  He and Sally had both hated the idea of tainting their love with these kinds of discussions.  They’d both promised each other “all that I am and all that I have, forever” and they had meant it.  
“Right,” said Susan.  “One more thing.”
Richard didn’t want to hear it.  There was one way for sure to shut her up.  “Are you suggesting to Elaine that she should get her husband to sign this agreement too?”
“No, of course not,” snapped Susan.
“There is a funny side to all of this.  No man would ever do this for any woman.  Yet here is my feminist sister badgering my wife to do it for me, but not her brother-in-law to do it for her sister.  Weird, don’t you think?” 
That not only shut Susan up, it teared her up.  She said nothing.
“Oh, Richard, Susan is just trying to be helpful here.  Don’t be an ass.”  Sally frowned at him.  He felt like a jerk.
“Thank you, Sally.”  Susan was still working to regain her composure.
“Richard, Susan is right.  Even this proposal, which is way, way more generous than the norm, doesn’t begin to compensate you for what you’re giving up.”
“For what I am giving up financially.  Money is not really such a big deal to me.  How much better can I eat?”
“So what the hell are you doing at Harvard Business School?”  Susan glared at him.  “Preparing for another four years in the Peace Corps?”
“Susan, I appreciate that you’re trying to help here.  I appreciate that there is all kinds of injustice around how housewives and househusbands are treated.  If you want to create a pioneering body of law around this I’ll work with you and support you.  But doing this one-off thing for me and Sally isn’t going to fix society’s woes, and, since Sally isn’t mistreating me, this agreement isn’t going to do anything to fix a problem we don’t have.”
“Richard, we do have a problem!”  Sally reached out and put her hand on his arm.  “The problem is that you’ve just thrown away your job offer, and every time we mention your financial future you fly into an absolute rage.  Something’s got to give.”
“And it has to be me?”  Richard took a big bite out of his sandwich.
“No, it has to be me.”  Sally smiled.  “You have to be willing to receive.”
“Oh, great.  So we’re back to the fucker and the fuckee.  I guess it’s time for me to face the facts. I’m the fuckee, now.”  Richard wrapped his entire mouth around his sandwich on a baguette.  Sally cracked up.  Susan looked down at the floor uncomfortably.  Richard laughed, blowing bits of bread and lettuce and cheese and salami and ham everywhere.
“Er, I think I’m late for class.”  Susan stood up, swinging her backpack over her shoulder.
 “Bye!”  Richard and Sally called in unison, avoiding each other’s eyes.  When Susan turned the corner Sally dared to look at Richard, the sandwich still crammed into his mouth.  He pointed at it, crossed his eyes, and managed to say through the impediment,  “Yow too big, Sal. Ah canna take it.”
They both doubled over laughing, more in relief that Richard’s temper hadn’t erupted than at his stupid joke.  Richard started choking, and spit the sandwich out onto the table.  Sally handed him some water and wrapped the mess up.
“I’m sorry I got so mad before, Sally.”  Richard said once he’d quit coughing.
“I just want to make sure that we look at this thing squarely in the face before we do anything irreversible.”  Sally handed him some napkins.
“I know.  I know.  I just don’t like the idea of being a kept man.”
“You’re not a kept man.  You’re my husband.”  She winked.  “I’ve made an honest man of you.”
“It doesn’t feel honest, this agreement thing.  It flies in the face of everything I’ve been taught.  It feels like becoming a sponge.”  Richard slumped in his chair.  There.  He’d said it.  “Are you going to claim me as a dependent on your tax returns.”
Sally’s eyebrows shot up.  “Good God!  I never thought about that.  It’s insulting, isn’t it?”
“Well, in a word, yes.”
“Do you suppose that Betty felt this way when she quit?”  Sally asked.
“I’m sure that Wayne didn’t shove this kind of agreement down her throat.”  Richard smiled to cover up the edge that had come into his voice.
“He should’ve, don’t you think?”  Sally ran her fingers through her hair.  “I mean, it’s a huge financial agreement, and agreements should be explicit, don’t you think?  Otherwise, there’s huge misunderstandings.”
Richard thought about it for a moment.  “I don’t know, Sally.  It’s also not business, it’s personal, and it’s for a lifetime.  Personal lifetime commitments require more flexibility than a legal document can handle, maybe.”
“Well, here you go, Richard.”  Sally slid a document over to him.  I’ve already signed it.  Read it and see what you think.”
“Fair enough.”  Richard slipped the envelope in his bag.

You Took Up A Spot
Katie Von Huslen was wandering around with a camera, asking people to talk about what they were going to do after graduation.  She was giddy at the thought of all  these potential millionaires and billionaires in her class.  They were under a jolly striped tent, having mimosas just before graduation. 
“I’m going to get another mimosa,” Richard said to Sally.
“Richard!  You’ve already had four.”  Sally looked at him.  “What’s up?”
“Well, I’ll get a glass of water.”
Richard was all the way across the tent before he realized he was dodging Katie, who was interviewing Sally.  Since when had he been afraid of the Katie Von Huslens of the world???  Fuck it!  He turned around and went back towards Sally.
“Ooooh, Richard!”  Katie oozed as he walked up.  “You’re wife’s going to run McKinsey.  What are you going to do?”
“I am going to be a househusband,” said Richard.
“I beg your pardon?”
“A househusband.”  Katie still looked puzzled behind her camera.  “You know, I am going to take care of our home and our kids.”
“Really?!”
“Yep.”
“But.  But.  But, you took up a spot!”
“What?”
“A spot.  Here.  At HBS.  You don’t need a business degree just to be a househusband.  Why’d you come?”  Katie felt betrayed, tricked.  Here she’d been inviting him to parties, expecting great career moves from him, and he was going to be a househusband?  Richard smiled.
“Well, Katie, 75% of women who went to HBS are now housewives.  Nobody says they shouldn’t have come.”
“I do!”  Katie exclaimed.
“But, Katie, what if I leave him high and dry?  He’ll need his degree then,” Sally interjected, winking at Richard.  “It’s like a safety net for him.”
“Harvard should not just be a safety net!”  Katie huffed off.

Richard and the rest of his class sat in wobbling white folding chairs, roasting in black robes under the bright June sunshine.  He stared at the diploma on his lap.  What the hell was he going to do with it?  Had he in fact just been “taking up space” the past two years?  He kept dismissing Katie as a nincompoop but her accusation kept returning to him.  Was he just as waste of resources?  Was he about to become a cost center, and an inefficient one at that?  Worst of all, they’d been trying for almost three months and still no pregnancy.  He knew he shouldn’t feel like a failure, but…Sally had been right.  He’d never been within ten miles of disapproval before.

“Richard, honey, you ready for all this?”  Sally’s mother cornered him by the bar under the tent after the ceremony.
“Ready for what?”  Richard asked, hoping he was doing a good job of keeping his insides inside. 
“For the end of external validation?”  She looked at him, challenging.
“I am not sure what you mean.”
“Oh, all your accolades.  Harvard didn’t make you feel smart?  The Peace Corps didn’t make you feel good?  Fancy jobs and a business degree didn’t make you feel secure?  You’ve got to give up all that now, but God forbid that you live through your children, you’ll screw them up psychologically.”
“Well, I guess so, but—”
“That’s all over now.  It’s just little old you now.”
“Oh, Richard, congratulations!”  His mother came rushing up to them and gave him a big hug, full of energetic happiness.  “Hello, Sally.  Wonderful to see you.”
“Hello, Sophia.  What do you think, is Richard’s education going to make him a better househusband?” 
“Oh, Sally!  What a question!”  She laughed and pulled Richard to talk to his grandparents.
“Sally pregnant yet?”  asked his grandfather.
“We’re working on it.”
“Work harder, boy, work harder!”  He laughed.  “I can’t wait to meet those babies!”
“Neither can I.” 
“Meantime, come upstate and help me with the blueberries,” said his grandmother.  Richard caught his breath.  He handed his diploma to his mother and hugged his grandmother. 
“I can do that now, Grandma!”
 
Self-Involved Nattering
“Pee on the stick!  Pee on the stick!”  Richard had unwrapped a pregnancy test and was holding it out to Sally.
“Oh, Richard, for God’s sake!  It’s my first day of work.  If I am pregnant I don’t want to know about it.”
“Hey! It’s my first day of work too.  And I do want to know.”  He was following her around the room as she pulled her things together.  They’d had a great trip to India after graduation, with one major exception:  Sally still wasn’t pregnant.
“Come on.  Your first day of work was last week when you started to look for this apartment.”  Sally gestured around.  He’d found them a great one bedroom in the village with leaded windows and wide plank floors and a fireplace.  Half-unpacked boxes were everywhere.
“Pee on the stick.”
“Whatever.”  Sally took the test and went into the bathroom.  Richard sat down on the bed and waited, certain it would be negative.  He wanted it too much.  Sally stepped out of the bathroom, head down.  “One line.”
Come here.  Richard held his arms out, aching.  She was actually disappointed.  He’d thought she’d be relieved.  She fell into him, tears on her cheeks.  “Oh, Sally!  It’s OK.  We’ve only been trying for four months.”
“I know.”  She nuzzled her face into his T-shirt, and he held the back of her head.  He pulled her closer, wanting every part of her body to touch hers.  It was one of those all-absorbing moments of physical closeness, like the first time their bare stomachs had touched.  Sally melted into him, and murmured, “You don’t seem so upset.”
“I’m too happy that you’re upset.”
Sally arched back.  “What?!”
Richard laughed and kissed her forehead.  “I’m sorry.  That came out all wrong.  I am too happy to see that you want this child, that we’re doing this together, that I’m not dragging you kicking and screaming.”  The clock caught his eye.  “Now, get ready for work!  Everything’s going to be OK.”
Sally put her arms around his neck and gave him a long, slow kiss.

Sally had to scramble to get out the door half an hour later than she should have.  Richard listened to the door slam and her heels bang down the stairs of the brownstone with a smile on his face.  When the outer door crashed closed he went to the window to watch her hurry down the sidewalk.  She disappeared around a corner and Richard sat down hard on the couch, unprepared for the deserted-island feeling that washed over him.  Sally had gone to work.  He was sitting here on the couch in his jeans and a T-shirt, prepared to unpack all their boxes.  How did he feel?
Conflicted.
Delighted.  He loved wearing jeans.  Suits made him feel like the incredible hulk, constantly in danger of bursting through the seams.  And he couldn’t wait to open all the boxes.  Unpacking was like a tour of the past.  The picture of the sixth graders he’d taught in Mali.  His old underlined copy of Mrs. Dalloway.  And another copy of the same book, a first edition that Sally had bought him for graduation.  A photo of him fishing with his father.  The old china doll he’d rescued from being scalped by Susan.  The candles he and Sally had bought on a week-end lark in London.  His journals.  Sally’s funny martini glasses, given to her by his father, of all people.
Afraid to enjoy the day.  Who wouldn’t enjoy unpacking leisurely, setting up his apartment just the way he liked it, and spending the day in jeans?  Who would go to the office given this pleasant alternative?  Was he taking advantage of Sally?  No, of course not, in fact it was her irrational demand that he not take a job before she even conceived let alone had a baby.  But if he enjoyed himself too much he might just start to feel guilty.
Lost in space.  Not that the apartment was that big—it was shockingly small, really, especially given that they were considering bringing a third into it.  But what the hell was he doing here all alone?  What was tethering him to the world outside?  All these memories were fine, but what about his future?  He couldn’t feel proud of himself for unpacking boxes, even if it did have to be done.  He didn’t need the “attaboys” from work or rugby all the time.  He had enough internal fortitude to do without.  Or did he?
To hell with all this self-involved nattering!  Richard got busy putting the apartment together.

 “Oh, my God!” were Sally’s first words as she walked into the apartment.
“You’re home early.  What’s wrong?”  Richard was putting a bunch of peonies in a vase.
“You’re finished!  I managed to escape early to help you unpack but you’re finished already.”
Was she happy and grateful, or did she feel locked out of her own home, or a little of both?
“Do you like it?”
“Like it?!  I love it.”
Richard wasn’t going to be like Elaine.  He’d promised Sally’s father.  “You can move anything you want.”
“Richard!  Since when was I any good at decorating?  I just feel bad I didn’t help at all.”
“I still need to take a shower.  Maybe you can help me do that.”
Sally came up behind him as he put the peonies on the table and wrapped her arms around him.  He turned to face her and she wrinkled her nose.  “Let’s get in that shower.”

An hour later Richard was stirring asparagus into risotto.
“Are you doing this from The Cookbook?”  Sally asked, laughing gingerly.  When they’d started business school together Richard had come home from rugby one day to find Sally crying over a risotto cookbook that his mother had sent her.  ‘I just can’t do it.  For some reason, I just can’t deal with getting all the ingredients and then cooking them and then cleaning up.  I like the idea, but I can’t bear the lost time, all the other things I could be doing.’  Richard, stunned at her tears, had assured her that if she ever wanted risotto he’d cook it for her.
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t find this satisfying, but I’m glad you don’t.  I loved my day.  You?”
“This is just as good as we imagined it, isn’t it?”  Sally nuzzled up to him.
“With one small exception, yes.”  Richard knew he shouldn’t have spoiled the moment by reminding her she wasn’t pregnant.
“Well, maybe that shower did the trick.”  Sally forced a smile.
“Let’s hope.”
 
So, What Did You Do Today?

 Three weeks later Sally walked in the door as Richard was finishing yet another batch of risotto.  She stuck her nose over the pot.  “Mmm.  Smells good.” 
“Thanks.  How was your day?”  Richard kissed her on the lips. 
“Fine.  What did you do today?”  Sally went through the mail on the table.
Richard turned from the risotto.  He’d almost gone out of his mind with boredom that day.  He’d mopped, he’d vacuumed, he’d scrubbed the mildewed tiles in the bathroom, he’d gone to the grocery, he’d gone to the florist, he’d done the laundry, he’d replaced a washer in a dripping faucet.  All of those things kept him busy, but only occupied a tenth of his mind.  He’d gotten lost in the other nine-tenths.  September was coming, and still Sally wasn’t pregnant.  “Nothing much.”
“Really, what did you do?  I want to know!”  Sally looked around for evidence of his day, but the drama of unpacking was long gone.  He was into maintenance mode now.
“Truth is, Sally, until you have a baby I’ve got too much time on my hands.”
“Couldn’t you take up golf?”
“Sally, you—” Richard had to bite his tongue to keep from calling her a bitch.  “You know I don’t like golf.  And you know I’d rather be working right now.  So don’t go needling me about having too much free time.”
“I’m sorry, Richard.  Both of us though I’d be pregnant by now.”  A note of panic crept into Sally’s voice.
“So what’d you do today?”  
“Littla this, littla that.”  Sally was abstracted, opening a letter now.
“No, really, what?”  Richard turned back to the stove and stirred the risotto.
Sally looked up from the mail.  “I don’t know really.  Some powerpoint, some email, a couple of client meetings.”
“But you don’t have to feel bad about it because you’ve got a paycheck every two weeks reassuring you that, whatever it was, it was valuable.  Right?”  Richard stirred a little too vehemently and some of the risotto splattered onto the stove.
“Half of it goes to you, as per the agreement.  Why don’t you sign it Richard?”
“Because that’s not the problem.  The problem is I don’t feel productive.”  Richard put the lid on the pot and turned around.  “I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do tomorrow to be perfectly honest.”
“I’m sorry, Richard.  I know I was being irrational about your not taking a job even before I got pregnant.  I just—it’s just—too good to be true, your staying home.  I didn’t really believe you’d do it.”
Richard got up from his seat, and scooched into Sally’s, pulling her onto his lap.  “It feels too weird.”
“Do you want to get a job?”  Sally walked over to him.
“Let’s plan for success.  You’ll get pregnant this month.  I shouldn’t take a job I’m going to quit in just ten months.  Anyway, I just figured out what I’m going to do tomorrow.”
“What?”
“Make blueberry jam.”

Misery Contest
A few days later Sally’s parents came to dinner.  “So, what did you do today, Richard?” 
“He cooked dinner for you,” answered Sally’s mother, allowing “jackass” to be silently understood at the end of her sentence.
“Well, most of the day I was over at my grandmother’s making jam,” Richard still felt a pleasant kind of buzz in his head from his day that he didn’t mind the way Sally’s father raised one eyebrow.  Wasn’t he supposed to be making money not jam?  Wasn’t it tedious and dangerous to make jam?
“Oh my God, now that is work!”  exclaimed Mrs. Barnes.  “I made jam once for Christmas presents when money was tight.”  She glared at her husband.  “It took three solid days of back-breaking work, and I got a third degree burn on my hand.” 
Mr. Barnes got a mischievous look.  “The next year she just bought a bunch of Smuckers and put it in mason jars.”
Richard had the sense that he actually liked and admired this solution from his wife, but she took it as an accusation.  “That was because I had to schlep around to your ridiculous golf tournaments.”  Something in the way she said “golf” made it sound like a torture chamber, not a game.  Yet Richard had seen her play.  She loved it.  “Always on the golf course, he is, while I slave away.”
“That was very important to my business, you know.  I won three new clients on the golf course that year—saved the business.”
“Sally, you going to take up golf?” Richard teased her.
“No.  I’m in the high tech practice.  Clients either want to go to the symphony or play laser-guided paint ball.”
“Oh, God, how awful!” sympathized her father.
“Richard, are you going to put up with that?  Slaving over a hot stove while Sally is playing paint ball?”
“Paint ball is totally fun,” said Sally.  “One of the best parts of the practice.
“And I’d rather be cooking,” said Richard.
“You see, we both enjoy our lives.  We’ve made choices we’re happy with.  We’re not in some kind of misery contest,” Sally was more bitter than she need have been. 
“Ah, to be young and idealistic,” sighed her mother.
 
Pussy-Whipped
It was September 1 and Sally still wasn’t pregnant.  She’d gone to her doctor and everything was fine.  Richard had gone to his doctor, and his sperm count was plenty high.  The just had to keep trying, quit stressing.  Yeah, Right.
Sally told Betty to tell Wayne that Richard needed a little pick-me-up.  Wayne decided that what Richard needed was a night out with the guys.  He needed to drink a lot of scotch and eat a steak and maybe even go to Scores or, if they drank enough, to some even skankier topless bar.  Richard told Sally the plan.  Sally rolled her eyes and waved her hand.  “Whatever.”
Thus Richard found himself face to face with two boobs swirling tassels, first clockwise, then counterclockwise.  A talent, really.  It couldn’t be so easy to do that.  He wondered how long she’d had to practice to master it.  Wayne and Joe and Dino and about six other guys from their class were cheering her on and blowing cigar smoke tasselward.  Richard’s eyes stung so he took another sip of scotch, and then realized his head was spinning, not so much from the tassels as from the scotch-scotch-Bordeaux-Bordeaux-Bordeaux-scotch-scotch rhythm of the evening.  Whiskey dick was not going to help him get Sally pregnant.  Not that it mattered.  Tonight was an off night.  They were on a strict sex-on-demand schedule now.  He looked at the woman with tassels and tried not to think about the similarities between her situation and his.  She caught his eye suddenly and walked away.
Joe chased after her and put money in her g-string.  He came back to the table and looked accusingly at Richard.  “Jeez.  Don’t be such a cheapskate!”
“Sorry, din’ realize she was lookin’ for money,” said Richard, his speech lazy with alcohol.
“Don’t be an asshole, Joe.  Sally’s not giving Richard money for tips in titty bars.”
“Man, talk about pussy whipped!” muttered Joe. 
“I’d say the guy who’s afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t slip money into the crotch of a stranger is the one who’s pussy-whipped,” said Richard, anger sharpening his speech. 
“S OK, Rich.  We love you even if you’re poor.”  Dino pounded him on the back.
“Hey, asshole, who just bought the last two rounds of drinks?”
“Sally?” asked Joe. 
“Here’s to Sally!” Dino raised his glass, and everybody clinked.
Richard was totally unprepared for the rush of impotent fury that hit him.  He bought the drinks, goddammit!  Had he bought the drinks, come to think of it?  He pulled out a credit card, which had his name on it, and he would pay the bill with a check that had his and Sally’s name on it.  But only one of them was putting money into that account.  He could do nothing but smile and hope that his rage didn’t show on his face.  “To Sally,” he cheered.
“Seriously, Richard, doesn’t it piss you off that your wife makes more money than you?” asked Dino.
“She also makes more money than you, Dino.  You man enough to deal with that?”
They toasted to Richard this time.

Home Economics
Richard returned from the Magnolia Bakery the following afternoon, hoping a cupcake would ease his hang over.  It hadn’t.  He checked voicemail and found himself shamefully happy to have a message.  He used to dread going into the office and having 27 messages, and equally dreaded coming home to new messages.  He used to feel under attack from the outside world, unable to capture a quiet moment to himself.  Now he found himself in a place that the outside world was completely uninterested in reaching.  He forced himself to put away the cheese before he listened to the message.
It was Sally’s voice on the message.  Only she wasn’t talking to him.  She was talking to somebody who sounded like Elizabeth Haruf.  Their voices were a little muffled, but he could still hear everything.
“So how’s Goldman?”
“Oh, fine.  Crazy hours, but basically fine.”  There was a rustle, rustle.  Probably Sally’s phone had hit redial, and she hadn’t realized.  So now the message opened up a little wire tap into Sally’s lunch.  Probably he should delete the message without listening.  Just as he was about to hit 3 for delete he heard Elizabeth ask, “So how is it working out having Richard stay home?” 
Richard sat down guiltily and kept listening. 
“It is fabulous.  When I get home I can smell dinner cooking even before I open the door.  Sometimes I just sit outside the door for two minutes sniffing and sniffing.”
“He actually cooks?”
“He’s great—he loves it.”
“And is he wearing an apron when you come in?  How can you find that sexy?”
Sally burst out laughing.  “Richard could be wearing a skirt and hose when I came home and I’d find him sexy.  But, no, he doesn’t wear an apron.”
“So, what else?”
“When I come in there are flowers on the table, and candles lit.  We sit down and have a glass of wine together and then we eat and take a walk.”
“If you’re home late?”
“He waits.”
“Really?!  What does he do while he waits?”
“Reads.  Half the time he’s got a whole pile of clippings from four different papers waiting for me.”
“No fucking way!”
“I think I’ll make partner a full two years sooner because of it.”  Sally’s voice was muffled, but Richard could hear what she was saying clearly enough.  He stood up, knocking the chair over.  He didn’t like being discussed as an accessory to her career.  He told himself he should just hit 3 for delete but he couldn’t.
“What?!  Why?”  Elizabeth sounded jealous.
“You have no idea the stress relief.  I am ten times as effective as I was before.”
“So it really doesn’t bother you?”
“What?”
“Richard’s not working.”
“No.”  There was hesitation in Sally’s voice.
“No, but?”  Elizabeth prompted.
“But it does sort of drive me crazy how inefficient he is.  I mean, not that it really matters, he’s got plenty of time.  Which is all my fault since I insisted that he stay home even before I got pregnant.  But for some reason it just bugs me.”
“For example?”
“Well, he shops every day, meat from the butcher, cheese from the cheese shop, flowers from the florist.”
“God, it must be expensive.”
“No, it’s not that.  Actually, it’s cheaper.  It’s the time that gets me.  How can he do it, over and over, the same errands, day after day?  I’d go nuts.  It drives me nuts watching.”
“Why does he?”
“He says it makes everything a little nicer.”
“It’s like living with some kind of European housefrau.”
There was a beep and the message was cut off.  Richard threw on his running clothes and pounded his way up the West Side Highway.  When he got home, dripping with sweat but still white with rage, Sally was there at the door, waving a little white stick.
“Oh, there you are, thank God.  I’m ovulating.  Quick, I have to be back in the office in thirty minutes.”
“You bitch.”  He didn’t care, suddenly.
Sally stepped back suddenly as if she’d been physically hit.  She sat down in the chair by the door and burst into tears.  “Richard!”
“Look, Little Miss Time and Motion Study.  Everything isn’t about efficiency, OK?  If you optimize your whole life in doing every task in the shortest possible amount of time, you’re not going to have much pleasure, are you?”
Sally quit crying and looked at him in utter bewilderment.  “Richard!  I thought you wanted me to start doing the ovulation tests.”
“It’s not about the fuck on demand thing.”  The harsh tone in Richard’s voice surprised even him.
Sally raised one eyebrow.  “Then what is the problem?”
“Your phone called mine when you were at lunch today and I got quite an earful.”
“A, you shouldn’t have listened.  And B, we were talking about how great it was to have you stay home.  Why in the world did you mind hearing that?”
Richard clenched his fists and dug his nails into his palms.  “You talked like I’m some sort of support staff to your career.  Like the whole value in my staying home is so you’ll make partner one year earlier.”
“Maybe two.”
“Goddammit, Sally!”  She jumped as he punched the wall.  “That’s not the fucking point.  You can do the math.  If the only benefit is for you to make partner a year earlier then we made a pretty stupid decision.  We’d be much better off with two partnerships a year later than one a year earlier.”
“I know, Richard.  It’s just—it’s the easiest way to measure the benefit, my making partner earlier.”
“That is what is driving me crazy.  You have to measure everything in terms of efficiency.  You are always thinking about how long it takes me to do things, to go to the cheese shop, always optimizing on time saved.  But you never stop to think about the result—how things look or what they taste like.”
“I’m sorry, Richard.  I shouldn’t have discussed your shopping habits.”
“Your job at McKenzie is to optimize on the numbers.  At home, we optimize on pleasure.”
“I’m not having too much of that right now.” 
Richard looked Sally, crumpled and sad in her chair.  It finally occurred to him he’d just called her a bitch.  “Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry.”  He kneeled in front of her and put his head in her lap. 
She dug her hands into his hair.  
“Let’s knock you up now.”  Richard’s words came muffled from her lap.
“I don’t want to conceive a baby in anger.”  Sally massaged his shoulders.
“It’s not going to get better, Sally.  It needs to happen soon.”

Ladies’ Luncheon
“Richard, I am coming to town on Thursday.  Want to have lunch?”  Richard had a bad feeling about this invitation from Elaine.  But he could hardly refuse to see his sister.  That was one thing he really missed about work—an endless supply of polite excuses.  What was he going to say now?  Sorry, I can’t, I have to vacuum our one bedroom all day?  Sorry, I can’t, I have to stay home in case Sally starts ovulating?  Sorry, I can’t, I have to go to the grocery story?  Sorry, I just don’t want to hear it from you tomorrow?
“Sure, I’d love to see you.”
“Great.  Meet me at RSVP on Lexington and 73rd.  Oh, and—a few friends will be there.”
“Who?”
“Oh—Carol.  Mala.  Lela.  Ronit.  Cheryl.”
“Oh, Elaine!  Can’t we just get coffee?”  The thought of the questions she was going to pepper him with were bad enough.  But now, he realized, he was the main attraction at a ladies luncheon!
“Richard, you already told me you were free.”
“But, Elaine!”
“Since when did you become afraid of six women?”
“Come on, Elaine, it’s just awkward.”
“What’s awkward?  You’re afraid of being a minority?”
“No.”
“You look down on housewives?”
“No, of course not.”  He said it just a little too fast.  He’d told Sally he wanted to resurrect respect for the institution of housewifery.  Why, then, did he have such horrors about going to a ladies luncheon?  Maybe it was just because he objected to the idea of leisure.  But he wouldn’t have felt a moment’s hesitation to go to a “power” lunch, or a 3 martini lunch.  Elaine’s invitation had uncovered a prejudice he didn’t like to admit to having.
“You’re too busy?”  Elaine’s voice was derisive.
“Elaine, you know I am not.”  Maybe he was just defensive about the amount of free time he had just now.  It had made sense back in April not to take a job.  He’d expected Sally to be six or seven months pregnant by now. 
“You just need to get over feeling bad about it, Richard.  It’s part of the life you’ve chosen, you know.  You’ll have these odd periods of downtime, but when the baby comes you’ll be impossibly busy.  Part of your new job learning how to enjoy the free time when it comes so that you can survive the 24x7 when it comes.”
“I hadn’t looked at it that way.”  Richard was impressed.  He’d never heard his sister explain herself before.
“You are going to get lonely if you don’t meet some other people to hang out with while Sally is at work all day.  It’s unhealthy to be alone all the time, and even more unhealthy to be alone with a baby all the time.”
“I like being alone.”
“You answered on the first ring.”
“Jesus, Elaine, I was standing right by the phone.”
“Why won’t you come?  Give me one good reason, or even a bad reason, and I’ll let you off the hook—about the lunch, and about the fact that Mom says you called Sally a bitch.  That’s not like you.  You must be under some stress.” 
“Oh, OK.  I’ll see you there.”  Maybe she had a point.  And he had to get over his reluctance to associate with other housewives.  It was time to walk the walk.

The Numbers Game
“Where are you headed?” asked Cheryl after the lunch was over. 
“Uh, home.”  Richard tried to think of something he needed to do urgently.  He didn’t want to spend one more second with this woman.  He hadn’t excised his housewife prejudice by going to the lunch.  Instead, he’d found its very source:  Cheryl.  Her day consisted of Yoga, Tennis, Meditation, Shopping.  She had two full-time nannies, a cook, and a decorator. 
“Do you have time to go by that cheese store you were telling me about?  Some of Lee’s partners are coming over for cocktails tonight.”
“Uh,” Richard tried to think of something urgent, but came up blank.  “Sure.”  He’d tried to tell himself that she was a manager more than a housewife, and that was OK too.  But in the end he couldn’t get past his real judgment of her: she was just self-indulgent.
“I really admire what you’re doing,” said Cheryl as they were ensconced in a cab.
“Well, I really admire what you’re doing,” replied Richard, embarrassed.  “You have kids already—you’ve really got work to do.”  Richard hated the insincerity in his voice.  She didn’t spend a minute with her kids as far as he could tell.  “I’m just goofing off, really.”
“No, don’t kid yourself, the waiting thing is the hardest part.  It took Lee and I two years of trying—it was the worst two years of my life.”
“Wow.”  Richard decided if Sally wasn’t pregnant in two months he’d get a job.
“Of course, I’m sure it won’t take you that long.  Lee—didn’t try very hard.  So to speak.”
Richard felt sorry for poor Lee.  As much as he’d disliked the “spilled seed” sex, he disliked the ovulation-driven sex on demand thing even more.  “You know, it’s hard for a man to have to perform at specified times.”
“Oh, Lee is just away at work all the time.  And then when he comes home, he’s so tired, he just wants to sleep.”
“His job is pretty crazy, hunh?”
“I just don’t see how we’re going to have another child if he sleeps in the den all the time.”  Sudden tears welled up in Cheryl’s eyes.  “That’s why I had to get into the Yoga, the meditation.  To deal with the deprivation.”
“Oh, Cheryl, I’m sorry.”  Richard felt badly for having judged her so harshly.  He put his hand on her shoulder, and before he knew it she was sobbing on his chest.  “It’ll be OK.”
“I bet you don’t have Lee’s problem!”  Before he knew what was happening, her hand was down his pants.  She was right.  He didn’t have that problem.  His dislike for her didn’t prevent him from growing instantly hard in her hand, eliciting a little moan from her.  “No, you don’t, do you?”
Richard looked to the cab driver for some kind of help.  He was intent on the road ahead.  “Cheryl, Cheryl, I really can’t do this.”  She burrowed a little deeper.  “Cheryl, pull yourself together.”  He thought of dead kittens and went flaccid.
She retracted her hand quickly, and sat back, defiance and humiliation melting into resignation.  She sighed.  “How did Sally get so lucky?”
Richard patted her hand, quickly.  “You’re going to be OK.”  He leaned forward and said to the cabbie, “I’m going to get out here.”

Richard was sorely tempted to let the incident with Cheryl be one of the things that went unsaid that day.  On the one hand, why upset Sally?  On the other hand, she would tell him if somebody grabbed her physically.  And what if she heard about it some other way?  How would he explain his silence? 
“Wait till you hear what happened to me today.”   Richard said as he poured chocolate sauce onto their ice cream.
“What?”
“Elaine’s friend Cheryl, you remember her?”
“Yep.”
“Anyway, she stuck her hand down my pants in a cab on the way back from lunch.”  Richard figured he might as well just come out and say it.
“What?!”  Sally slammed her glass down.  “She just stuck her hand down your pants, out of nowhere?”
“I certainly didn’t think I was giving her anything like an invitation.  We were talking about dealing with free time, and then she started talking about how hard it had been for her to get pregnant, and then she sort of blurted out it was because Lee didn’t like sex that much, and the next thing I knew her hands were down my pants.”
“Well, of course they were!”
“Sally, it was the last thing in the world I expected.”
“You were taking her down that path by letting her talk about lack of sex with her husband.”
“I certainly didn’t intend to.  You know that, don’t you?”
Sally looked at him for a long moment.  “Richard, do you have any idea how often I used get hit on at work, how often I fend off approaches now, with clients, whatever?”
“Well, you told me about Bob.  And you told me about James.  There were others?  Why didn’t you tell me about them?”  Richard didn’t like the way the sands were shifting underneath him. 
“Don’t get pissed.  I am not raising the subject to make you feel jealous.  It’s just that when you’re one three or four women in a group of thirty men, you’re going to get hit on.  All the time.  It’s a numbers game.  And you’re going to be a minority of one in a sea of women.  You need to learn how to fend them off, early and politely.  It was the most important skill I learned right out of college.”
“I can’t say I’m used to getting hit on by women very much.”
“Well, get used to it, buddy.”  Sally slid into his lap.  “And figure out how to cut them off way, way before they get to the fucking pass.”  She put her hand down his pants.  “Or else!”  Dinner was much delayed.

One Tough Cunt
“You’re home early.  What’s up?”  Sally was home a solid hour earlier than Richard expected.  She couldn’t possibly be ovulating now, and they had confirmed she wasn’t pregnant the day after Cheryl had hit on him.  They’d been tiptoeing around each other’s raw nerves for five days now.  Lots and lots of things were going unsaid every day.
“I need to take a shower.”  Sally seemed unusually rattled.
“What happened?”  He pulled the filet of sole soaking in garlic and olive oil out of the fridge. 
“Tell you in a minute.”
Fifteen minutes later Sally came back with wet hair, in her robe.  “Better?” Richard asked.
“You won’t believe what happened to me.”
“What?”  Richard dropped the fish in a hot skillet and handed Sally the glass of wine.
“So, I’m out for drinks with this software client, and he’s telling me about what makes a good high-tech consultant in this market.”
That didn’t sound so horrible.  “Was he one of those techno-geeks that spit food on you?”
“No, no, much worse.”
“What happened?”
“He started giving me all kinds of advice about my career—lots of it good, actually.  So, I’ve let down my guard, and I was really listening to him.”
“Uh oh,” Richard said. 
“Uh oh is right.  So he leans in and lowers his voice, and says to me, ‘But there’s one thing you really need to know.  To be a good tech consultant, what you really need to be.’”  Sally paused here.  Richard instinctively leaned towards her.  She reached out and put her hand on his arm, continuing, “‘What you really need to be…’”  She paused and leaned forward again.  “‘Is one tough cunt.’”
Richard recoiled at the word as if it had burned him.  “He used the “c” word?!”
Sally leaned back, satisfied at his shock.  “Yep.”
“No!”
“He really said that to me.”
“I can’t believe it!  I didn’t think people used that word.  I don’t think I’ve ever said it out loud.”  Richard chuckled.
Sally didn’t even smile.  Was she going to cry?
“Sal!?  What is it?”
“I just feel—like I’m in the wrong business in the wrong city in the wrong century.”
“What?”  Richard took the skillet off the stove so the fish wouldn’t burn and then took her hand.
“I used to get hit on.  Men used to think I was sexy.  Now you’re getting hit on, and men tell me I’m one tough cunt.”
“You want me to kick his ass?”  Richard stood up.
“Yes!”  Sally allowed the tears to spill over and Richard wrapped both arms around her and rocked her back and forth.
“You’re really going to let me defend your honor?”  He asked into her hair.
“Yes.”  She looked up, smiling now.
“OK.  What’s his number?”  Richard grabbed for the phone.
Sally laughed and waved him away.
“What did you say back to him?”
“You really want to know?”
Richard finished his Budweiser.  “Yes.”
“Should that tough cunt be wet, or dry?”
Richard blew his beer all over the table, and grabbed for a napkin to blow his burning nose.  “What’d he do?”
“He said clearly I didn’t need any more of his advice and asked for the check.”
“Sounds like you defended yourself pretty well.  As usual, you don’t need me to defend your honr.”
“Just because I can take care of myself doesn’t mean I don’t like to be coddled now and then.”

Initial Public Offering
A few days later Sally called him unexpectedly around 11:00 with an unexpected proposal.  “Richard!  Let’s go out to dinner tonight.”
He thought for a moment that she’d had this idea because she remembered that he was going to be installing the drapes that day.  But, no.  It wasn’t the kind of thing she’d remember, and if she did, she wouldn’t connect that project with dinner.  Besides, there was something suspicious in her voice.  “Where did you have in mind?”
“Anywhere you want to go.”
Something was definitely not right.  “How about the Boat Basin?”
“Perfect!”  Something was definitely up.  Something big.  She generally refused categorically to go there.  This was his most favorite and Sally’s least favorite restaurant in New York.  She said the food was bad and it was a pain in the neck to get to.  She was right on both counts.  But somehow the setting made it magical for him—sitting there on a lake surrounded by trees, which were in turn surrounded by skyscrapers.
“Think you can make it for sunset?”  Richard joked.  She had a big presentation coming up and had been working till at least ten every night.
“Sure.  I’ll see you there at 6:30.”  Sally said breezily.  Something was definitely up.
“Sally, wha—”  But it was too late.  She’d hung up before he could finish talking.
Did she have something to tell him?  He tried to shut his brain off, but the next question burst up through his sub-conscious to the conscious like a torpedo.  Was she pregnant?  No fucking way could he wait till 6:30 to have that question answered.  As he reached for the phone it rang.
“I do have some big news—but sorry, sorry, I am not pregnant.”
Richard laughed.  She did know him.  “I was just about to call you.”
“You know I don’t have any tests at work—just at home, so we can find out at the same time.  Right?”
“Right.”
“Well, OK, see you at 6:30.” 
“Toodleoo.”  He felt strangely uncurious about what she had to tell him.  Now that she confirmed she still wasn’t pregnant, whatever her big news was, wasn’t really so big. 

“So.  Richard.  You were right and I was wrong.”
“What?”  He wasn’t paying that much attention.  The sunset was exploding over midtown Manhattan, and the trees holding it all at bay with their beginning-of-fall leafiness.  A few swans and exotic ducks lolled about. 
“Did you hear already?”
Richard looked across the pond at the enormous boulder that settled into it.  Two excited children were throwing bread crumbs to some equally enthusiastic ducks.  A woman in a sari and a woman in dredlocks watched their respective children peacefully.  “What news?”
“About the IPO.”
“Whose IPO?”
“You really didn’t hear?  Where were you all day?”
“At home, hanging the drapes, doing the laundry, and generally reaping the rewards of my Initial Private Offering.”
“Oh, Richard! I am so sorry.”  Sally looked on the verge of tears.
“Sally, I liked hanging the drapes.  The laundry I could do without, but no big deal.”
“No, it’s not that.  It’s that—well, I really screwed you up.”
“So, screw me down too and I’ll be happy.”  She didn’t even smile.  “What’s wrong, Sally?”
“The Community.com went public today.”
“No kidding!  How’d they do?”
“Much, much better than anybody thought they would.”  Sally seemed to be bracing herself for something.
“Well, I’ll be damned!”  Richard’s first reaction was one of amusement.  He’d been right about la-la-land after all.
“You aren’t going to kill me?”
“I can’t say the thought even crossed my mind.”
“Aren’t you even a little made at me?”
“Don’t need to be.  Seems like you’re doing a pretty good job beating yourself up.”
“Well, if you’d taken that job, nobody would ever give you a hard time at topless bars again.”  Sally looked down at her plate.
“Hmm.  Hadn’t thought of that.  Going to titty bars isn’t such a big thing for me, in case you hadn’t noticed”
“Aren’t you going to ask how much your stock would be worth?”
“You calculated that already?”  He smiled broadly.  Of course she would have.  “That’s my Sally!”
“I’ll put it this way.  Your options would be worth $8 million right now.”
“Shit!”  Richard didn’t know what else to say. 
“That’s one way of putting it.”  Sally laughed.
“Are you mad I didn’t take the job?”
It was Sally’s turn to look puzzled.  “No, of course not.  Why would I be mad?”
“You wouldn’t have to work any more.”
“But I like to work.”
“We could buy a nice house on the beach.”
“We’ll be able to do that eventually anyway.  I was just afraid that you’d be mad at me, for putting so much pressure on you not to take the job.  As it turned out, you would have made enough money to tell everybody to go to hell, and we could have started trying to get pregnant now, only six months after we actually did start.”
“Oh, well.  I don’t need money to say go to hell.”  Richard was surprised at how small and distant that huge sum of money was.  He just wanted Sally to get pregnant.  Nothing else mattered.
“So we’re OK?”
“Yes, we’re OK.  Or at least we will be as soon as I manage to knock you up.”  Richard tried to make a joke, but he saw his pain in Sally’s expression, and just felt more sad and strangely isolated from her in this joint sorrow.

Guy With Boobs
“So, I hear this loft is even bigger than the last one we went to,” Sally said.  She and Richard were in a cab downtown, on the way to a party thrown by the guy in their class who had taken The Community.com job.
“Supposedly they’re going to give us roller blades at the door,” Richard said, trying to drum up some enthusiasm for the humor and fun being proffered.  Sally had just peed on the stick.  Still just one line.  Not pregnant.  He felt sick.
“You upset it’s not your?”  She asked.
“I don’t want to have big parties with roller blades,” Richard shrugged.
“Oh, Richard.  It’s going to happen.  The doctor said there’s no reason why it can’t.”
He shrugged.  “Well, I’m glad we didn’t wait longer.”
“Well, don’t worry, Richard, I’ll only have one half of one Manhattan.  Just in case.  The test could be wrong, you know.”
Richard didn’t dare to hope.
They arrived to thumping music and indeed were handed roller blades and Manhattans at the door.  The place was far too packed with people to skate, however.  Richard and Sally inched their way towards the bathroom.  Several expensive-looking women who had declined roller blades in favor of their dramatic heels were clutched in line ahead of them.  “Did you hear about that guy in their class who didn’t take this job so he could stay home?”
“The househusband?  Henry says his wife is just a guy with boobs.” 
Richard twitched, and Sally took his arm, shaking her head and asking him with her eyes to keep his mouth shut.
“How can she be attracted to a guy like that?” 
“Is he gay?”
Now Sally started forward, but Richard held her back, winking at her.
“Who knows.  The question is, why would she let him do it?”  
“Sam says that she’s just an alpha earner.” 
Interesting.  Richard hadn’t heard that term before.  Sally the Alpha Earner.  He rubbed his fingers together and brushed her chest.
“Girlfriend!  You can be the boss and still stay at home!  Don’t you dare think you have to give up control just because you give up your job!”  Richard nodded and looked at Sally meaningfully.  She started to giggle.
“He said alpha earner, not alpha generally.  She just likes to work.  Prefers a job to housework and kids and all that.”  Fair enough.
“I’d hate to meet a bitch like that!”  
Suddenly Richard was no longer amused.  He tapped the woman on the shoulder.  “This is my wife Sally.  Not only are her breasts much nicer than yours, but she’s not nearly such a bitch as you are.”  
The woman’s eyes grew wide and her mouth opened.
“You’ll have to excuse my husband.”  Sally rolled her eyes and started pulling him away.
“I can’t believe you said that,” whispered Sally when they were safely on the other side of the room.  She was giggling, though.  Richard knew she was glad he had.
“Well, that woman needed to be smacked.”
“Maybe she’s right, though,  Maybe I am just a man with boobs.  Maybe that’s why I can’t get pregnant.”  Sally’s shoulders sagged.
“Oh, Sal!  It’ll work out OK.”
“Or maybe it’s because my cunt is too tough.”
“Alright, Sally, I’m taking you home right now to show you just how perfect it is.”  Richard took her arm.  She didn’t feel sorry for herself very often, but when she did Richard knew exactly how to snap her out of it.

 
“Just” a Housewife vs Father Courage
Richard and Sally walked into a birthday cocktail party in honor of Betty’s mother.  Within fifteen minutes, Richard had Betty’s mother and half her friends in a little circle, singing his praises.
“And what do you do, Richard?”
“I am a househusband.”  Back straight, eye contact, little smile.
“Why, Richard, I declare, you’re so brave to do a thing like that!” said Betty’s mother.  “None of the men in my day would have dared even think about it.”
“How do you cope with all the criticism that people must throw at you?  You must be a very strong young man!” Said Mrs. Wilkes, a friend of Betty’s mother.
“Doesn’t sound like he’s getting much criticism does it?” piped in Betty.
“Oh, Betty, I didn’t see you there!” said Mrs. Wilkes.  “How is Microsoft?”
“I am just a housewife now—quit a couple of years ago actually.”  Richard winced at the word “just.”  He’d have to explain to her about the elevator pitch.
“Oh, what a disappointment!  We heard your career was going so well, we thought women were finally getting somewhere.” Said Mrs. Wilkes.
“She is somewhere, Mrs. Wilkes!  She’s at home raising her children,” piped in Richard.
“Oh, Richard, that’s so sweet of you to say but you know what I mean.”
“You felt locked in your home and wanted out, right?” asked Betty.
“Exactly!” said Mrs. Wilkes.
“Well, I felt locked out of my home and wanted in.” explained Betty.
“Me, too,” said Richard.
Mrs. Wilkes assumed an expression of extreme skepticism.  “Why, that’s just about the silliest thing I ever heard.”

“Mrs. Wilkes thought the lock-out thing was silly because she was holding the keys and had no intention of giving them to her husband,” said Richard to Sally on their walk that night.
“Oh, I don’t know what you’re bitching about.  If I decided to stay home, I’d get the same treatment that Betty did.  ‘Oh, she’s just a housewife after all, what a disappointment.’  But you, you are like the fucking darling of the party.  With you it’s like, ‘Oh, here comes Father Courage.’”  Sally was uncharacteristically bitter.
“Do you feel like you can’t stay home just because people would look down on your decision?”  Richard touched Sally in the small of the back.
“Oh, get real.”
“You—” Richard bit his tongue.  He’d been about to say she’d sounded like Elaine.  But he knew better.  “You are right.  Men do get cut more slack than women.  It’s unfair.”
“Why is that?”
“Maybe it’s just because I’m doing the unusual thing?  I get a lot of flack, too.”
“But the harshest of your flack gets diverted to me.  Like the woman at the party said, I must be some kind of bitch.  Like I’m an evil, callow, money-hungry, power-hungry person because you’re staying home.  The worst you get called is gay.  Which isn’t even really an insult.  There’s nothing wrong with being gay.  There is something wrong with being an evil, callow, money-hungry, power-hungry bitch.”  Sally started walking faster and faster throughout this speech.  By the time she was done Richard could barely keep up with her.
“You’re right.  It’s not fair.  Do you wish I’d go back to work?”
“Hell, no!  Fuck ’em!”
 
Stiff Peaks
Richard decided to cook red snapper baked in a salt crust for the dinner party.  He’d never tried it before, but what the hell.  It wasn’t like he had anything else going on that day.  He went to Fairway and to Citarella, got everything he needed, and by noon he was attempting to beat egg whites into stiff peaks.  He beat and beat, but he didn’t how they were ever going to become stiff peaks.  He felt irrationally frustrated.  Maybe he should get a job.  No, he could do this.  He turned the mixer on a higher speed, scattering egg to the ceiling.
He called his mother, who suggested that perhaps there was a little yolk in his egg whites, making fluffiness difficult.  He threw that batch away, and spent about twenty minutes separating whites from yolks, being much more careful this time.  He beat these six pristine egg whites.  And beat them.  And beat them.  And beat them.   No peaks.  What the hell was the recipe talking about, anyway, stiff peaks?  What he had was—well, soggy mounds, if he stretched his imagination.  It was now 2:15.  This was ridiculous.  Should he think about—no, he wasn’t going to be chased back to Goldman Sachs by a few unruly eggs.
He called his mother again.  No answer.  Well, he wasn’t going to be defeated by some goddamn egg whites.  He was out of eggs now, and went around to the corner to the deli to get some more.  They didn’t have organic ones.  Fuck it.  But, no, he shouldn’t.  Sally was trying to get pregnant.  If ever there were a time for organic eggs, it was now.  He was going to do this right.  He went a few blocks more and found some organic eggs.  He needed six, but bought three dozen, just in case.
At five thirty, Sally walked in the door.  Richard was beating the last six of his eggs.  They were not in a froth but he was.  “What the fuck does this mean, stiff peaks?!” He exploded as Sally walked in.
“Can’t help you.”
“What time is it?”  Richard hadn’t dared to look at the clock for the past two hours. 
“Five-thirty.  I snuck away early to help you.” 
He had just spent over five hours trying and failing to beat egg whites into stiff peaks.  If he were working he’d have made $500.  These were some very expensive failed stiff peaks.  He’d just spent five months trying and failing to impregnate his wife.  If he were working he’d have made $8 million.  Better not to think about it.
“Thank God.  Maybe you can make the egg whites stiff.  I sure as hell can’t.”  He couldn’t quite bring himself to admit to her he’d been trying for five hours.
Sally took off her jacket, and took the beater from him, looking at him curiously.  She glanced into the garbage can and saw all the egg cartons.  “If you can’t do it I sure as hell can’t do it.  Why don’t we just order in?”
“Goddammit, Sally, just try while I make the salad, OK?”
“Fuck you.  How about I just go back to the office?”  She dropped the blender, splattering egg on the counter, grabbed her jacket, and stared for the door. 
Richard grabbed the bowl of eggs and hurled it to the kitchen floor, leaving shards of white pottery scattered over the floor and covering them both in egg.
“Richard, what the hell is wrong with you?”
“Fucking egg whites!” was all he could say.  Part of him knew how ridiculous he was being.  But the bigger part was so angry at those eggs for not behaving that he needed to throttle somebody.
“Richard, dinner is supposed to be fun.  I refuse to fight about making dinner.  Let’s just order in, and enjoy the next two hours.”
“Order in!  But  I’ve been working all day.  I’m staying home so that we won’t order in.  I—”
“Richard!  You’ve got to find a better outlet than egg whites for your ego.”
“You don’t appreciate—”
“You’re right.  And I never will.  If your life’s meaning goes into meals, I can never appreciate them enough to justify your existence.  I’m not going to try.”
“You’re talking to your mother here,” Richard was doing his best to remain calm.  “I’m not your mother.”
“Well, you’re well on the way.”  Sally gestured at the mess on the floor.  “Come on, let’s clean this up and dial a dinner.”
“Maybe I need to get a job.”  Richard felt relieved, having said it.  He’d been beating it back all afternoon.  Literally.
“Fine.”  Sally walked out of the kitchen.  Richard started cleaning the egg spattered everywhere.
By the time she came back in jeans and a t-shirt Richard had cleaned up and calmed down.  “I’m sorry,” they said to each other at the same time.
“Shall we take our walk now?”  Richard reached for the phone.  “I’ll just order Tandoori chicken.”
“Nah, let’s do it after everyone leaves.  Let’s make dinner now. Together.  Only a simple one.  One with no stiff peaks.  Tell me what to do.”
 “Can you wash the lettuce?”
“I think I can do that.”

We Don’t Live In Sweden
 “So, what am I supposed to do, call my mother and ask her why she doesn’t have any ego needs?”  Richard asked, swinging Sally’s hand as they walked along the Hudson for a late night jaunt after dinner.
“You’re right.”  Sally put her arm around his waist.  “That doesn’t sound so good.  ‘Hey, Mom, don’t you have any wants or needs of your own? Or were you really happy just attending to mine?’”
“No.  There’s got to be a better way to ask the question.”  Richard looked out over the water.
“She may not have any answers for you.  It’s possible that your ego is just more demanding than your mother’s.”
“Well, maybe she figured out how to channel it or something.”
“Oh, come on, Richard.  Maybe you should just get a job.”
“But—”
“Maybe we can work it out.  Maybe we can share.  We made dinner tonight, didn’t we?  We shared that.”
“Sally, I appreciate that you managed to leave the office early—that is, at 5—on a Friday.  But keep in mind, you managed to do that for the first time in six weeks today.  I bought all the food.  I planned the meal.  You washed the lettuce and set the table.  I appreciate your help, but…”
“You’re right.  One job, one person in charge.  If there’s two, it won’t get done.”  Sally looked up at him.
“Maybe we should move.  In Sweden, there’s a whole year of parental leave, and fathers can take all of it or half of it.  I think there’s a lot more true co-parenting there.”
“One, look how obsessive we are now about getting pregnant.  If we move to Sweden and I still don’t get pregnant, it’ll be a disaster.  Two, I doubt there are almost no female executives there, so it’s not like it works all that well.  If we co-parent, we co-parent here.”
“I thought co-parenting was out of the question.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem rational.  Here are the economics.  We both scale back hours and earn, say $80,000 a year.  Total family income of $160,000.  And because neither one of us is on the partner track, there’s no hope of the $5 million a year salary.  We top out at, say, $200,000 a year, combined.  And we’re both scrambling, and making compromises we don’t want to make at work and with our child.  Given our choices, it just doesn’t make sense, the sharing thing.”  Sally looked up at him.
“That’s true.”  Richard sighed. 
“But if you think that you’re going to go insane, get a job.  It won’t do me or our kids any good for you to be miserable.”
“But aren’t you worried that you’ll become just an automatic teller machine, like my dad?”
“Put your card in, get your cash out?” Sally made a grab for his crotch.
“Yeah.  Aren’t you worried?”
“No, actually.  Plenty of my friends—and yours too—have great relationships with their fathers, all of whom worked full time.  Generally simpler, more functional relationships than with their stay-at-home mothers, I might add.”
“So you think I should go back to work?”
“Not no, but hell no.  But I do think you need to solve your ego need problem,” said Sally.
“The problem is just too much time on my hands?  When we have a baby, these issues will disappear.”  Richard swung her hand.
“You mean you’ll be so fulfilled picking up bits of food off the floor that it won’t bother you any more when people assume I’m a bitch and you have a small dick?”
Richard laughed.  “Right.”
“Well, still, in the meantime, you’d better find something to do because you’re going a little nuts, and we’re both so anxious about getting pregnant that the stress levels are making it impossible.”

Ego Outlet
Two days later Richard called Tom at The Community.Com. 
“We can’t pay you for content, Richard.  It’s not part of our business model.  That’s the whole point.  People come here for free, they contribute for free, it’s a community.  But I can give you some of our developers time to put together your section of the site.  I can give you some community resources, see?”  Tom had become even more exhausted and frenetic than ever after having gone public.  He had had to describe his business model so often that it had assumed the role of something sacred in his mind.
“Yeah.”
“And I’ll even allocate some advertising budget to attracting users to your part of the site, if you can show me that I’ll get more users per dollar that way than some other way.”
“Hey, that sounds like work, not just contributing content.”  Richard assaulted the sacred business model.
“Fair enough.”  Tom was too tired to argue much.
“So we can work out a consulting contract, right.”
“Give me one that looks reasonable, and we should be able to work something out.  Think more in terms of equity than cash, OK?”
“Sure.”
The nice thing about the start-up world was that it did move fast.  Stimulus-Response.  Stimulus-Response.  Stimulus-Response.  It sort of reminded Richard of the game at the fair where little purple faces popped out of holes in a table and you had to bang them back down.  No need or ability to stop and think.  Just Stimulus-Response.  The upshot of all this was that two days later he had designed a section of The Community.com for househusbands.  Were there any others out there, or was he all alone?  Richard didn’t know.  But he would soon find out.  Now that the site was done, he’d worked out a deal for banner adds with a lot of sites for kids.  In a couple of days an add would go up on the phone booth outside the Children’s Museum on the Upper West Side.  All these things would go live in two days.
Richard woke up two days later, and turned on his computer, eager to see if his site was getting any hits.
“Whatcha got?”  Sally asked, coming in with a cup of coffee for him.
“Thanks,” Richard said and took the cup, navigating to the web log.  “Holy shit!  There are 5000 hits already!”
“No kidding!  Well, let’s go to the site and see!”
The first message on the guest log was from somebody called ‘I got a wee little cock.’
“Oh, God, can you delete that?”  Sally asked.
“Yeah.”  Richard logged on as administrator and blew wee cock away.  “We better see what else is here.”
The next one was from a housewife, Leslie Cox.  She said: “I found your website at the Children’s Museum and thought I would check it out. I am a single parent (woman) and I think this site is great. It is nice to know that there are dads out there that stay at home and do the traditional jobs that we women were supposed to do. I say go for it. Being a stay at home dad gives men the opportunity and sometimes the enjoyment of seeing how the other side lives being a woman. It is very hard on families these days trying to make ends meet and if the roles can be switched then go for it. I will be more than happy to suck you off for a few dollars. Please email me. I am very eager to talk (lick) you to orgasm! Email me for free pictures of my pussy...you won't be sorry! Thank you![1]
Sally burst out laughing.  “Don’t delete that one—it’ll drive traffic to your site.”
“So to speak,” agreed Richard.  Still, he logged on as administrator.
“What’re you doing?  Don’t delete!”
“I’m not.  I’m just changing her email address so that people will go to her through the site, driving up the number of hits.”
“Good idea.  Let’s see what else is there.”
“Aren’t you going to be late for work?”
“This is too good to miss.”  Sally scooched him over in the chair and sat down.  The next few hits were from people selling Viagra.
“Oh, here’s a creative one.”  Richard exclaimed, pointing for Sally to read.  “Great site! Totally dig the content and would like to trade links with other kewl sites. We specialize in hand blown pyrex glass dildos, dildo and accessories with the absolute best prices on the internet with a great affiliate package - let us know! Email us for a free blowjob in your hometown! No need to wash, we like em dirty! Johnson  Johnson <admin@gasmicglass.com>[2]
“Oh, God, this is getting depressing.  Now I see what they mean, new technology always is used by the perverts first.  Aren’t there any that are serious?”
Richard scrolled down.  “Two are.  That’s a start.”

Sally left, and Richard got busy reorganizing the site so that people offering sex were channeled to one place and the househusbands wanting to discuss all other issues went to another.  95% of the traffic went to the first, but it would subsidize the other 5% of traffic, so Richard didn’t feel too bad.  He’d also done a little research on Amazon and found a whole plethora of books to re-sell: Family Man: Fatherhood, Housework, and Gender Equity; Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family; The Kitchen Sink Papers: My Life as a Househusband; Being There: The Benefits of a Stay-at-Home Parent, on and on.  There were dozens of books written on the subject, and the more he browsed, the more Amazon offered up to him.  He emailed some of the writers, and several had already responded, and were happy to do web-casts.  He’d established links with a site called Slowlane.com.  Unfortunate name, but, whatever.
“Hey!”
Richard was so startled he almost fell off his chair.  “You’re home already?”
“It’s 9:00.”
“Oh.”
“Shall I order some dinner?” Sally asked, picking a damp towel off the unmade bed.
“Sure. Tandoori chicken?”
“Coming right up.  Good day?”  Richard could tell Sally was struggling with the large number of things that were going unsaid.
“Check it out.”  He navigated to the new web site as Sally dialed the Indian restaurant.
“Wowee.  I can see I’d better get pregnant fast or lose you to an abstract consideration of these subjects forever.”
Richard pinched her.  She couldn’t help herself.

Two Blue Lines
Richard handed Sally the pregnancy test.  Gone were the jolly days of chasing her around the apartment, shouting “pee on the stick, pee on the stick.”  There had ceased to be any excitement at all in this waiting game. 
“Two blue lines to justify my existence, please,” said Richard as Sally walked into the bathroom.  He didn’t even bother following her in.
Sally looked over her shoulder sadly at him and closed the door.
Hell, even if she were pregnant now, not that Richard had even a glimmer of hope that she were, he doubted he could continue this way for nine months.  He’d been beaten down by time.  He just had too much of it, and too little to show for it.  Not to mention the exhaustion of being a lightening rod for everyone else’s domestic neuroses.
He flopped backwards on the bed.  He felt sort of ashamed.  He’d always dismissed his jobs as unimportant, and here he was feeling totally deflated without these unimportant jobs.  What was important, after all?
“Richard!  Richard, come here!”
Richard dragged himself off the bed, a glimmer of hope stirring in him.  “What?  What is it?”
“Come here!”
He opened the door to the bathroom.  Sally had both hands on the sink counter, staring down at the little white plastic stick.  “Tell me what you see here.”
Richard looked down.  He looked again.  “Looks like two blue lines to me.”
Sally screamed and jumped on him, arms and legs around him.  She kissed him and screamed again.  “I knew it I knew it I knew it.  I just wanted to make sure I was right.”  She was laughing now, still clinging to him like some kind of monkey.  He started to breathe, and wrapped his arms around her, laughing with her now.  He still couldn’t say anything.  He wanted to join in her hooting celebration but couldn’t yet.  Too many feelings were shooting through him.  Relief at Sally’s unbridled joy.  She wanted this.  She really wanted this.  Disbelief at the two lines.  He kept glancing down at them to make sure one hadn’t faded.  And something else.  Some other kind of intense sensation, a new sensation.  What was it?
“How do you feel?”  Sally asked him the same question he was asking himself.
He glanced back down at the plastic stick.  “Are there really two lines there?”
“Here, we’ll do another one.”  Sally pulled out a new test and sat down on the toilet.  He looked at her, teasingly.  He didn’t need to ask.  She smiled back sheepishly.  “I’m so excited.”  She was like a little girl, always had to pee when excited.
Two more blue lines.
“How do you feel now?”
Richard thought about it.  “You know how they say that the best physical sensation is the cessation of pain?  Well, I feel the emotional equivalent.  I feel the cessation of panic.”  He paused.  That was it.  “How do you feel?”
“I feel like the Chairman of X corp was right,” Sally said.  “Everything else is bullshit.  All the crap that you’re getting, that I’m getting.  We’re going to do this.  Together.  And it’s going to be great.”
 Richard grinned.  “We’ll have our moments,” he reminded her.
“Yes, but they’ll just be bullshit.”  Sally grinned.  She was standing on his feet and he was walking her out towards the bedroom. 
“Right.  Onwards and upwards.  We’ll graduate from bullshit to babyshit!”
“And live happily ever after?”
“Something like that.”  Richard kissed his wife. “Let the trouble begin!”  




Comments:
So far so good. And I've been hearing good things too.
 
Chugging through it now, it's taking shape. I will drop some more serious comments when I have finished it up.
 
Great novel!
 
I really liked this novel. Too many of these househusband novels are like broken records. You took a different spin on it by focusing on the "early" days. I thought it was great. Have you thought about a sequel?
 
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