When Alex asks us, it’s by email, which is typical Alex. Even back when we were dating, Alex had no sense of timing or process. He once told me he’d fired one of his junior staff on a Friday afternoon by leaving a voicemail on the guy’s cell phone, then felt bad over the weekend so he called him on Monday to soften the blow.
I’m standing in my bathrobe in the kitchen, scrolling through emails on my phone while I wait for the kettle to boil. By the time I’ve made up my mind to show the email to Ben, I have to press the boil button all over again.
Ben doesn’t even consider the question, doesn’t even really read what Alex has written. He just measures the gravity of the request and the medium and says: “Typical.”
Hey Sal. One thing I need to talk to you about when we see you in Van: Karen and I wondered if you and Ben would consider being the legal guardians for Ella and Ro, if something happened to us. Fucking serious question, I know! But give it some thought. We’re asking Karen’s sister as well, obviously, but Karen and I both want you to know that we thought of you guys first, and Ella loves you so much and we know Rowan will too. Talk Saturday.
Ben turns back to his newspaper, troweling cereal into his mouth with his left hand, turning the pages with his right. But he sees me standing motionless by the teapot, just stroking the screen of my phone, re-reading. So he puts down his spoon and says: “Sal?”
Saturday morning dawns sunny, thank god. I’d texted Alex and suggested we meet at the beach for a walk mid-afternoon before heading back to our place for supper. The last thing I need is being cooped up in the house with Alex and his whole fam-damily, trying to bring up his bombshell question. We don’t see as much of Alex and Karen as we did before they moved to the interior, but whenever they come back into Vancouver to see Alex’s parents, they always spend at least one of the nights with us. Alex doesn’t have any brothers or sisters and Karen’s whole family is back East, so I know Ben and I are Ella’s favorite uncle and aunt. Or that’s what they tell us anyhow. Rowan is only 10 months old but he’s a good baby, as far as I can tell.
“Thank god it’s sunny,” I say to Ben when we pull up at the beach. I can see Ella chasing seagulls by the concession stand at the other end of the parking lot while Alex and Karen load Rowan into the stroller. Karen looks, as usual, like she’s stepped out of some kind of yummy mummy advertisement, not an ounce of baby weight concealed under her tights and hoodie.
I turn off the car but don’t slide the key out of the ignition right away, just sit watching Alex and his little family. The golden autumn sunshine glints off the sea behind them making them look like something out of one of Ella’s storybooks.
Ben is already opening his door, saying,” Don’t over-think this, Sal.” He looks back at me, then leans over and nuzzles my ear, his lips leaving a sliding kiss against my neck. “He just wants us to know that they thought of us; it’s a compliment. That’s all this is. He knows we’re not having kids, but he knows we’re good with Ella, too. He just wants you to know that he didn’t want to not ask.”
Alex and I met in first year at Queens and stayed together almost the whole way through fourth year. My brother and his wife had kids when I was still in university and Alex was amazing with them, even then. He’d come home with me for Thanksgiving or Christmas and my family and friends would all say things like “He’s going to make a great dad” or — winking at me — “You guys will have gorgeous kids.” I’d just nod and smile. What a shitty mind-fuck thing to say to a twenty-one year old.
Ben’s never been the jealous type, never really questioned how I’ve managed to stay friends with Alex after all these years. When he asked, years ago, why Alex and I had broken up, I told him the truth: Alex wanted kids and I didn’t. Simple. I brought Ben as my date to Alex and Karen’s wedding eight years ago, and Alex ended up being a groomsman when Ben and I got married in 2007.
“Most guys actually don’t want kids, and they only end up having them because their wives or girlfriends wear them down.” This is the sort of grand pronouncement Ben makes from time to time, usually giving me a little squeeze, like he’s so pleased I’m not one of these kinds of women. “Most guys just can’t see beyond the roadmap laid out for them by society — the career, the marriage, the house, the kids.”
I’m not so sure. I’ve seen plenty of guys who seem pretty ecstatic about being dads. I’ve always just been glad Ben wasn’t one of them.
Ella spots Ben almost as soon as he straightens up out of the car. She gives a little squeal and starts zipping across the grass towards us, her little fists stirring the air with the effort. My heart lurches as she starts cutting across the parking lot, busy with cars, both Alex and Karen so focused on the baby they don’t notice where Ella is headed. But Ben dashes across before she makes it very far, sweeping her high above his head and over his shoulders then jogging with her towards the water, Ella laughing and whooping as they go.
“Hey guys,” I say as I approach, hugging Karen first, then Alex before bending down for the requisite cooing at little Rowan. He’s a smiley kid, more smiley than Ella was at his age. Even his eyes break out in a smile when he sees me. He gurgles a happy greeting.
“This one is going to be a slayer with the ladies, you know that, right?” I say. Alex, bending down again to fuss with the canopy on the stroller, is absolutely beaming.
Down on the beach, Ben is playing balance beam along the logs with Ella helping her leap the gaps or racing her from one long log to the next. I had thought Karen would go and join Ben so Alex and I could talk, but instead she lingers, rattling on about the drive down from Penticton, how good Rowan was in the car. I’m not going to be the one to bring up Alex’s email, but I don’t want this hanging over us the whole visit either. Finally Karen says she’d love to get in a run, if I don’t mind. She shrugs out of her hoodie, blows a kiss at Rowan, then takes off at a near-sprint towards Spanish Banks.
“So,” Alex says, his eyes following Karen, “I guess you’re freaking out about my email.”
“You’re such a fuck-up, Alex,” I say. “Who drops a bomb like that by email?”
Alex laughs. If it’s one thing I can say about Alex now, it’s that he truly is happy. You can see it rising off him like a vapor.
“It’s a morbid thought, I know,” he grimaces. “Jesus. Me dead, Karen dead. I think of it every time we make that drive through the pass, especially at this time of year. There’s already snow in higher sections.”
I close my eyes. I’m too good at this, too willing and adroit at furnishing my future with imagined catastrophes. Untrusting, always, of the status quo.
When I open my eyes again, Ella is up on Ben’s shoulders and they are ambling across the sand towards us. Ben has two maple leaves, brilliant red antlers, tucked one behind each ear. Tonight in bed, exhausted, we will say to each other like we always do, how great it is to have fun with someone else’s kids, then give them back and get a good night’s sleep.
Fifteen years ago, when Alex and I were together, I thought that maybe if I got pregnant by accident, that I’d feel differently. I’d turn all mushy and maternal, and this one thing, this one stupid thing that was driving Alex and I apart, would vanish. I’d be like everyone else. Then, in my final year at Queens, I did get pregnant by accident. I still loved Alex, but I didn’t turn into someone I wasn’t. And I didn’t want that baby.
I didn’t keep it either. I figured Alex would never forgive me and for a while, he didn’t. But he did, he has. Even if he’s never understood. I’ve never asked him if Karen knows; I doubt it somehow. I’ve never told Ben either.
Alex stops and turns to me, and I realize he isn’t going to be all serious about this with me after all. His eyes are twinkling and he is watching me closely, trying to make light of this. For my sake, I realize. Rowan has his eyes.
“It’s okay, Sal,” he says. “Karen’s sister and her husband are officially the godparents for our children, although that’s the last time you’ll hear me use the word godparent. I was sort of hoping for a back-up scenario, because you guys are so good with Ella. She loves you, and she knows you better than Karen’s family. But we have other options, truly. Don’t stress. I just thought I’d try you.”
Soon Ben and Ella will be upon us; another minute and she’ll be demanding a dismount so she can race over to me and drag me off on her next adventure AuntySallyAuntySallyAuntySally. We are close enough that I can see Ben’s eyebrows lift ever so slightly in my direction, his eyes on mine. He wants to know if it’s safe to approach or if he should steer his charge back down towards the glittering waves.
Alex throws an arm over my shoulder and gives me a half hug, one of those safe, breast- and genitalia-free side-squeezes I’m more accustomed to getting from Ben’s Dad. “No stress, Sal,” he says softly. He takes my right hand, holds it for moment, then guides it onto the handle of Rowan’s stroller.
“Keep him moving so he falls asleep,” Alex says. Then he hollers: “I’m coming to get you!” and races off down the beach towards his daughter.
Sometimes I think about people who lose a loved one abruptly, or who survive crashes or wars or terrorist attacks, how the script of their lives is going in a specific, deliberate direction, then gets radically rerouted along a different trajectory, with a whole new cast of characters. Whatever you’d been before, or whatever beliefs or plans you’d had, those no longer have a place in your new reality. Whatever comes next, or comes instead, because of what came before, it’s okay. I can’t explain this to Ben. Not without him seeing something in me we both had assumed I’d cleared out a long time ago.
We don’t fight about this, Ben and I. At least, fight’s not the right word. But that night, after work, the same day I got Alex’s email, Ben can’t understand why I’m so upset, my hesitancy, or why this is so hard for me.
“Ella and Ro would be our only connection to Alex and Karen, if they’re gone,” I try to argue. “We’d never see them if they moved out East, we wouldn’t be in their lives.”
Ben just shakes his head, bewildered. “You’re not honestly considering this, are you? I’m sure we could see them as much or as little as we wanted to, Sal, you know that. Alex and Karen would have made that clear.” He is watching me carefully. “We already made this decision didn’t we? If we were going to have kids, Sal, we’d have had our own.”
I open my mouth to respond then close it. He’s right. I can’t imagine a different version of Ben and me. Our careful choices, our organized lives.
But a life without Alex in it? My life? I can’t get my mind around that either.