Friday, January 3, 2014

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We Say Thirty- guest author Ben Wheeler-Floyd


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One side of our apartment is mostly windows. On homecoming day in Madison, my wife stands in the living room, looking out, yelling at students to put their clothes on.
            We live on campus because my wife works in student housing. We moved to Madison from a much smaller city in Minnesota, which, small as it was, was seriously eight times bigger than the town in which we went to college.
            So, Madison is something else. We’re not used to it. Like, at all.
            We’re not used to school spirit, excited fans, or droves of drunk students howling at all hours.
            All morning, they stream past our apartment, decked in the red and white of the University of Wisconsin. They are making their way to Camp Randall stadium for the football game. We pay attention to what they’re wearing. It’s impossible not to. It’s impossible not to because it’s been a warm October. They are not covered in jackets or stocking hats, not yet. Rather than wearing hoodies, young men strut proudly past our apartment wearing only red bootie shorts, big red Ws painted inexpertly on their chests.

Like this, only dumber.
            Walk into the main campus bookstore downtown, and it’s like standing on the shore of an ocean of red and white clothing. Near the middle, in a position of importance, the store displays these ridiculous white- and red-striped overalls. They look like something a clown would wear. Which isn’t far off, except it’s not really funny. This morning, my wife points out a girl wearing them. And basically only them. She wears a sports bra, but it barely helps.

Like this, only with boobs

            The apparel students choose to wear on homecoming morning is of course not representative of their everyday style choices, but I’ve noticed some trends. Just walking around the corner to the grocery store, I’m likely to see no fewer than twenty young girls wearing snug t-shirts and skin-tight black yoga pants. From a pragmatic perspective, these pants are almost useless. No pockets, no real fashion capital, zero insulation--just a few yards of stretchy black fabric that hugs every curve. I do my best to keep my eyes up. I fail. I fail a lot.

Imagine walking through a forest of, like, twenty of these, and there are legs and butts in them.
            Had I lived here eight years ago, as a college freshman, I would have been all about this trend. This would have been something close to heaven. A heaven of barely concealed butts. But, by the cruel hand of fate that turns the universe, I am not eighteen. I am twenty-six. I have been married for two years. I want to tell these girls to put some clothes on. I do my best to be a responsible, feminist, respectful dude. I try real hard.
            Another illustration: one day, my wife and I were out walking. It was Saturday, a game day. This was our first mistake. Across the street from our building, a crowd of men were standing on a second-floor balcony. They held a beer bong tube down over the railing to street level, urging people to stop and take a pull. Many did. The boys whooped, drank more beer, whooped again.
            It was 8:30 in the morning. The streets were filled already with girls in red shirts and yoga pants, boys in sunglasses and shirts with no sleeves.
            This is all around me, but absolutely not mine.
            At twenty-six, I straddle two worlds. I live on a college campus, surrounded by young people testing all sorts of boundaries. Meanwhile, my wife and I have friends who have settled into homes, started to have kids. We see them whenever we can, remark about how cute the baby is, how big they’re getting, ask if they’re sleeping through the night. We do this because this is what adults do. And then the inevitable question is focused on us: when are you having kids? They tap their watch faces knowingly in a way that is not funny. We say, you know, soon, but not soon soon. But soon.
            We say this, but, in private, my wife and I share some real anxiety about having children. Some of it is joking. We say, what if our child gets the worst possible physical traits from each of us? We’ll end up with a radioactively pale little kid with black hair all over, long arms, flat feet, and a head too big for any hat. But, we joke, if the kid wins the genetic lottery—like if he or she gets my wife’s freckles and my good teeth—then that child will be a weapons-grade cute. People will compliment our baby and mean it. We will make them insecure about their only ugly baby. People will stop us on the street and ask to post photos of our baby to Instagram without using a filter. Hashtag, cutey pie.
            “But,” my wife will say. “What if we raise an asshole?”
            Probably living nowhere else would this possibility seem as likely. I think of those boys with their beer bong on the second floor. Red and white suspenders. I think about pretty girls in yoga pants. All those butts. I think about serial killers and Dr. Phil problem children and the very real possibility that my kid may just not like me very much, or vice versa. 
            I think the way a child turns out is probably more about nurture and nature, but I’ve been wrong before. What if, despite all our best intentions, our children act out, resent us, navigate the world in the worst possible way? What if they’re vegetarian?
And when I think about that, I don’t envy my friends with babies, which are basically little organic bombs with timers ticking down to that developmental stage at which they will start to exhibit actual personality. Only then will they really know what they have. What must that wait be like? Awful, I think.
            We say thirty. That’s how the absolute oldest we want to be when we have kids. This gives us some wiggle room, both practically and psychologically. Four years of time where we can focus on our careers, each other, being selfish adults with a little extra scratch and some time to chill on weekends.
            At twenty-six, thirty feels both far off and just around the corner. But there’s still time to course-correct, to duck out, to change our minds. I think about the Apollo astronauts, who had everything timed down to the millisecond months before launch, who still, at the very last minute, strapped on top of that rocket, could turn a handle in the capsule and end the whole thing.

Seriously. This is what it looked like.
            And so.
When the students have mostly made their way to the stadium, when the courtyard outside our apartment is empty, my wife turns to me again and asks the question we’ve been throwing at each other for the better part of two years.
            “What if we raise an asshole?” she says.
            I let a moment go by. “Alright,” I say. I move my hand toward that imaginary handle. “Let’s not have kids.”
            My wife scrunches up her face. She takes a deep, defeated breath. I know what she’s going to say before she says it. Sometimes, risks aside, you choose to not bail. Against reason, you decide. You resolve. “No. I want to have kids.”
            I nod. “Me too.”
            And I mean it.
            Thirty, we say. Thirty is a good number.

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Ben Wheeler-Floyd is a bookseller and novelist. He holds at MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. If you’d like, you can find him on Twitter at @benwheelerfloyd. He is obsessed with space aliens (which totally exist), horror movies (which his wife won’t go near), and Diet Pepsi (which is delicious). A Minnesota boy is whole life, he is still coming to terms with the fact that he lives in Wisconsin now. His story, “Snow Horses,” is forthcoming in Fiction Southeast.