I heard the doorbell ring in the living room. Mom was in my bedroom with me helping me button up the special shirt she had bought for me for dressing up. She said it was a “Campbell tartan” because “Campbell” was my “middle name”.
“Jonathan Campbell Zale”, she said. “That’s a name you can run for President with some day!” Her eyes twinkled when she said it. We were dressing in special clothes to go to a party across the street at Molly’s house. Mom was wearing a bright white shirt under a blue “dress”. That was one of those things that only women wore that was open at the bottom, instead of pants or shorts, which was what she wore the rest of the time. She had on the black shoes, “heels” she called them, that made her really tall, but also walk kind of funny. Her lips were very red and shiny.
“Margie’s here!” dad called from the living room.
“Great”, mom called back to him as she buttoned the sleeves of my shirt. It felt uncomfortable to have that tight feeling of shirt sleeves around my wrists. “Show her where we keep David’s bottles in the refrigerator and where his diapers are in the linen closet and how to work that damn diaper pail!” mom said.
“Liz, I got it!”, his voice sounded just a little bit angry, like she didn’t need to tell him that because he already knew.
Mom finished all my buttons and adjusted my “collar”. “You look very handsome”, she said.
She waved me to walk out of my room and walked behind me patting me on the shoulder, which I did not like. When I came into the living room Margie was at the door from the kitchen. She was not a grownup like mom and dad but also not a kid like me. She was wearing a dark blue sweatshirt with yellow letters that I knew said “Michigan” because I had one like it too.
“Hi Jonathan”, she said, “You’re all dressed up. You look very nice in that shirt!” She was about the only person who called me that name, because mom told her to and paid her money.
Mom patted me on the shoulder again. “Tell Margie what’s special about your shirt.”
I really didn’t like it when mom told me what to say.
“So what is the deal with your shirt little man?” Margie said, getting down on one knee in front of me.
“It’s a tartan”, I mumbled. I didn’t want to say it the way mom wanted me to say it.
“A what?”, Margie asked.
I heard mom blow out air and finally say, “It’s a CAMPBELL tartan, Jonathan’s middle name!”
“Okay”, said Margie, still on one knee, smiling and looking at me. “It’s your family colors!”
I felt embarrassed and mad that mom was talking for me.
Margie gave just the littlest nod like she knew how I was feeling. Then she said, “So tonight you’re all grown up going to the party with the folks while I babysit your baby brother!”
I nodded, not saying anything because I was still mad at mom.
Mom said to Margie, “Let me show you where the diapers are and how to work the pail.”
“Liz, I said I can do it”. I could hear the anger in dad’s voice. “You head over to the party with Cloob… Jonathan!”
“Eric”, mom replied, “I just want to show her the trick with the pail.”
“Liz”, he said, “I know the trick with the pail.”
Mom rolled her eyes. “Okay then.” She looked at me, “Jonathan, you can escort your mom to the party.”
I didn’t want her to take my hand, so I walked to the front door and opened it for her to walk out like I’d seen dad do.
“Such a gentleman”, Margie said as she followed dad into the hallway to find out about the diapers and the “damn” diaper pail.
“Thank you young man”, mom said to me, her bright red lips smiling and her eyes twinkling as she walked out the open door. I pulled it closed so it made a clicking noise.
Molly’s house was all lit up and you could hear voices inside talking and laughing. I looked up in the sky and the moon was a big round circle just over the tops of the trees. The street was full of cars all dark and still, and no people in them. But their outsides sparkled in the moon’s light. Though it was dark, the air was still warm and kind of wrapped around me like I was under a blanket. The door to Molly’s house was already open and a man standing by the screen door opened it for us to come inside.
“Jane Zale”, he said, his eyes moving from her face to look down her entire body to her feet, “You’re looking pretty damn good for a lady who’s just had a baby.” His words were coming out in a strange way like they were slowing down.
“Thanks Mort”, she said, putting her hand on my shoulder like she was protecting me, “How many drinks have you had?”
“A few”, he said, “Watch out for the punch, it’s wicked!”
Mom pressed her lips together and made them smile. “Thanks for the tip!”
“Who’s your date?” he said, looking serious and silly at the same time.
Mom breathed in and out. “Morton, meet my son Jonathan.”
He leaned over to look at me more closely and stuck out his right hand. I did not know what to do. He reached farther and grabbed my right hand and shook it.
His eyes were kind of wobbly as he looked at me and smiled. “Your dad says you’re quite the little ballplayer, a lefty like Johnny Podres. Johnny Zale… It has a nice ring to it. Like Tony Zale.” He looked up at mom.
She wasn’t smiling anymore. “His name is Jonathan, Mort. Not Johnny!” she said.
“C’mon Jane, a boy needs a nickname!” he said.
“That may be true Morton”, mom put her hand on his shoulder and looked at him, “But his is not Johnny.”
“Okay Jane”, he said chuckling, “I never pick a fight with a good looking woman!”
“Good thing for you in my case”, mom said, a big grin now on her face, her hand still on his shoulder and leaning towards him, “Because you’d lose that fight!”
He looked up at the ceiling and laughed. Mom gave him a final pat on the shoulder and then patted me on my shoulder with her other hand and we continued to walk into the house. It was full of grownups, men and women, most of them holding and drinking from funny looking glasses filled with what looked like water but was red.
Molly’s mom saw us and came over.
“Welcome you two”, she said, “Look at Cloob… er Jonathan all dressed up! But where’s your other guy?” She was saying her words kind of funny too. Maybe that was what grownups did at parties.
“He’ll be along in a minute”, mom said, “How’s it going?”
“It’s going gangbusters Jane”, she said, “We’ve raised nearly four hundred bucks for Phil’s campaign already!”
“Good for you Joan”, mom said, “I wrote you a check for twenty. Maybe that will put you over the four hundred mark!”
“Jane, you don’t have to do that”, Molly’s mom said, “I know how tight the budget is right now.”
“No Joan”, mom said, “This is probably the most important twenty bucks I’ll spend all year, to help put a man of Phil’s character in the U.S. Senate!” She pulled a piece of paper out of her purse and put it in a big pot on the table in the middle of the room with red, white and blue streamers all around it. Molly’s mom thanked her and gave her a little kiss on the cheek.
Mom reacted to the kiss by opening her eyes wide, saying, “And how many drinks have you had, young lady?”
Molly’s mom laughed, “Who’s counting! The more everyone drinks the bigger the numbers on the checks. And you know I can hold my liquor with the best of the boys!”
“I sure do”, mom said, and she looked at me and opened her eyes wide.
“Anyway”, Molly’s mom said to mom, “I’m dying to introduce you to Dick Sampson. He and I were grad students together in poly sci. He says he knows Eric and wanted to finally meet you. HE ended up getting his PhD and is now teaching.” She nodded slowly as she said it and looked up at the ceiling. “I ended up getting married and then Molly came along.”
She led mom and me over to two men talking very loud to each other in the corner of the living room.
One said to the other, “Look Dick, Kierkegaard said ‘existence precedes essence’, and Sartre and de Beauvoir are just starting with that axiom and taking it steps further.”
“I’m not buying it”, said the other, who winked at Molly’s mom as we approached them, “It’s not an axiom in my book, just an unproven theory! I’m not much for existentialism, I’m a Hegel dialectic man.”
“I don’t want to stop your tete a tete here”, Molly’s mom said, “But Dick, I wanted to introduce you to Eric’s wife, Jane Zale.”
He looked at Molly’s mom and then at mom and his eyes lit up.
“Jane Zale”, he said, “So you’re the girl that finally corralled Eric’s heart. We finally meet!”
Molly’s mom tapped mom on the shoulder and said she would go find Molly, and she headed toward the stairs up to Molly’s bedroom.
“We finally meet, Dick”, mom said, “So tell me how you know Eric.”
“I know him from Michigamua”, he said
“Michigamua?” mom asked.
“Yes. Well. It’s sort of a semi-secret university men’s club. A bunch of guys being guys”, he said. “Half naked. War paint. That sort of thing. The less said the better. Not really for mixed company.”
“Okay”, mom said nodding, “I get it.”
“So Jane” he said pointing at her, “Maybe you can help Lynn and I settle this argument once and for all. Have you read de Beauvoir?”
“I read The Second Sex for a soc class”, mom replied.
“Okay, perfect. I’ve been dying to pose this question to the female of the species”, he said, turning to look at mom, his eyes briefly glancing down from her face to her chest, “Don’t you agree with me that it’s nuts what de Beauvoir said, that ‘one is not born but becomes a woman’?”
Mom didn’t say anything for a minute thinking. Finally she said something.
“I think she’s being provocative Dick. Of course women are born female and men male. But honestly, I don’t think it’s any more natural for me to do dishes and change diapers than it would be for a man like you!”
He laughed. “You wouldn’t want me trying to change diapers Jane, I’d make a mess of it!”
Mom chuckled. “You underestimate yourself Dick. I could teach you in ten minutes. With a little practice you’d be as good as any woman!”
He made a funny snort like an animal. “I’ll pass!”
“Well there you go”, she said with a big smile on her face and some fierceness in her eyes, then touching the side of his shoulder with her hand, “It’s really a choice on your part. Yet it’s supposed to be natural for women like me, though it’s really not. I think that’s what de Beauvoir is getting at.”
He frowned, but also liked mom touching his shoulder, so he smiled again and started nodding. “Okay. I’ll have to think about that one. If I hadn’t had so much punch I might have a good comeback.” Mom laughed.
He looked down at me and said, “This your little Johnny?”
Mom pushed her lips together and her head moved a little from side to side. “His name is Jonathan. My brother is named John. My son is Jonathan.”
I felt embarrassed, like there was something wrong with me that my mom had to try to fix with her words. I never liked it when grownups talked to each other about me when I was there with them.
“Okay Jonathan it is”, he said, looking at me again. But I could tell in his eyes he didn’t think so.
I felt uncomfortable, and when I felt that way I usually stopped talking. But I also didn’t like mom talking for me. So I told him.
“They call me Cloob”, I said.
“What?” He looked at me with wobbly eyes and a funny look on his face. Then he looked up at my mom with that same look.
“Well”, mom said, pushing her red lips together again, “That’s a nickname his dad made up, ‘Clubius’.”
“Clubius… Sounds kind of Roman”, he said, looking up at the ceiling and thinking, “Senator Maximus Clubius addresses the Forum.”
Mom nodded but didn’t say anything. I could see in her eyes she was doing a lot of thinking instead of talking.
Most of what they were talking about I couldn’t figure out. But that was what grownups did. I looked around the room for Molly. I saw Molly’s mom over by the front door talking to dad and pointing towards mom and me. She then went upstairs and dad came over to where we were.
“Eric”, Dick said, “I’ve known you for what, four years, and only tonight I finally meet your better half. She’s already wounded me in a philosophical argument.”
Dad tried to smile, nodded and chuckled. Finally he said, “Good to see you again, Dick. Congratulations on your doctorate!”
“Thanks Eric”, he said, “You started on that dissertation yet? Cardinal Newman?”
Dad shook his head, losing his smile, blowing air out between his lips. Mom shook her head too. There was that “dissertation” word again that they were always talking about.
Molly appeared from behind dad. She was wearing one of those dress things on the bottom part of her body but no socks or shoes.
“Coob”, she said, “Want to play in my room?”
“Now there’s the best offer I’ve heard all night!”, Dick said and laughed. Then looking at me, “You better say yes my man or I might instead!”
Molly’s mom appeared behind Molly and put her hands on Molly’s shoulders. “Dick you’re too much. I ought to cut you off from the punch.”
“Oh god Joan, anything but that!” Then looking around. “Where’s your hubby?”
“He’s around somewhere”, Molly’s mom said, “Maybe down in the basement showing some of his work buddies our new television.”
“Oh my”, he said, “So you’ve succumbed to the boob tube! You of all people Joan! It’s like a virus spreading! Commie plot to rot our brains!”
Molly looked at me and rolled her eyes. I knew she wanted me to go upstairs with her. I nodded and she ran towards the stairs and I followed.
“Like a moth to the flame”, I heard him say as I followed Molly up the stairs to her bedroom. Even from her room we could hear the talking and laughing below.
Molly said she wanted to play “Sky King”. I helped her move the two big puffy chairs so they were right next to each other, both facing one of the windows looking out across the street. She had a plastic toy thing with buttons on it and a steering wheel to fly the plane. She also had a black plastic box, with a button and a red light on top. Then she went over to the wall and turned off the lights. She sat in the one chair, the steering wheel thing in her lap. I sat next to her in the other chair, the black plastic box with the red light between us.
When the lights were on in the room it was hard to see out the window because you saw the inside of the room too, like a mirror. But when the room got dark that all changed. Our eyes were able to see what was outside the window. The shapes of houses, and cars in the street shining from the moon. Light from inside those houses coming out the windows, including our house across the street where David and Margie were.
“Okay. Ready to take off?” she asked.
“Okay”, I said. I would go anywhere with Molly and I knew she would go anywhere with me.
“Roger”, she said, and she pushed the button on the black box and the red light started to flash. She grabbed the steering wheel and pushed other buttons. “Taking off!” We saw the houses and the cars below us as we flew over them. We could still hear the voices and laughing of the grownups at the party below us, but now it seemed farther away. I turned my head to look at her and every time the red light flashed, it made her face look strange and scary. Like the light was showing the inside of her rather than the outside. Seeing her in a way that wasn’t the regular way. We were both quiet and continued to fly over everything together.
Far away I heard the door to Molly’s room open. I heard the voice of Molly’s mom saying, “What is going on in here?” I returned to the room and opened my eyes and saw three faces in the flashing red light, looking down at Molly and me. They were all smiling and their eyes happy, though their faces looked strange like Molly’s had.
“These two”, Molly’s mom said. She was talking slow and funny like the other people had down at the party. “Our little adventurers”, said dad. “So dear”, said mom. Mom and dad were talking that funny way too. Molly’s mom pushed the button to turn off the flashing light. Molly was still asleep.
“Joan, thanks again for hosting a great party”, mom said, “It’s been forever since Eric and I have been out together with adults.”
“It certainly has”, dad said. Then all three of them started to laugh.
“I may be jealous of Dick getting his PhD”, Molly’s mom said, “But I wouldn’t trade anything for getting to be Molly’s mom!” She stroked Molly’s hair and Molly opened her eyes, rubbed them, and stretched her arms.
“The feeling is mutual”, mom said.
Dad looked at me and his eyes were wobbly and he spoke very softly. “You want a ride home on my back, Cloob?”
“Eric dear”, mom said, “You’ve had a lot to drink, you better not.”
Somehow I knew to shake my head no.
“Okay. Okay. Okay”, dad said, nodding. He ran his hand through his hair and took a deep breath and blew it out.
“You two okay?” Molly’s mom asked them, “I think I’m going to tell Jack to put less vodka in the punch next time.”
“I think we’re okay Joan”, mom said, “We just need to get home and let the babysitter go and put this guy to bed. It’s pretty late. It was a wonderful party! Thank you so much for hosting it!”
As mom, dad and I walked out of her room Molly said, “Good night Coob.” I looked at her one last time and nodded. I didn’t want to say good night to her with all the adults watching and thinking that was so nice.
When we got out of Molly’s front door, mom put her arm around dad’s waist and pressed her body against him. “Mmm… you feel good”, she said in a slow calm happy voice.
Dad put his arm across her back and said, “You too Liz, it’s been a while!”
“It has”, mom said, “Hopefully David’s asleep and will stay so for at least a few hours.”
Their words and feelings seemed strange to me. They were not the way they usually talked to each other. Other grownups at the party had been talking that strange way. More like kids than grownups.
Mom looked up at the dark sky. “You know”, she said, now looking down at me with her big friendly eyes, her other arm grabbing my shoulder and pulling me against her. “You need a proper nickname until you’re old enough for people to call you Jonathan. “Clubius” is cute and we all love it, but it’s more of a baby name, and I think the kids in the neighborhood are going to tease you if you don’t have a more normal nickname.”
Her big blue eyes reflected the light from the moon. She looked both happy and sad at the same time. She didn’t seem so much like a grownup, which made me want to say something.
“I like the ‘Coob’ name that Molly says”, I said.
“Hmmm”, mom said, sounding more like a grownup now.
“Liz”, dad said, “There’s that sax player from Stan Kenton’s band, Bob Cooper, that they call ‘Coop’!”
“Coop! Cooper!” mom said, “What do you think, young man?” She squeezed my shoulder.
I still liked Molly’s name for me, but I nodded.