"A couple of years," James said sheepishly. "But like, if we hadn't done it, I wouldn't have my daughter now. Having a kid is the ultimate. And, um, you know, I want to do it again."
"May I ask how?" I said.
"Well, I was hoping maybe someone from New York Magazine would ask me to dinner, and . . . ," he said, winking.
"But you know," he added, "I don't know if I could have a child with someone I'm not really involved with. I still think, like, you gotta be in love to have a baby."
"Did I mention that I love you?" sloba said, leaning into me.
"Oh, be quiet," I said, pushing him away. I was getting antsy. It was 10:15, the men were well into their entrées, and I was still a pauper in the baby business.
"Well, has anyone thought over my proposition?" I said.
"Wait! We still haven't heard from Sloba!" said the men, clearly avoiding the moment of reckoning.
"Sloba, Sloba!" They pounded the table.
How Sloba had become the alpha male of the evening remains a mystery to me. All night, the other guys had been splitting their sides over his odd Serbian humor and watching him with the indulgent smiles of boys whose dad is known around the neighborhood as "a trip."
I knew him as a guy who sat alone in his West Village apartment all day listening to obscure jazz records and arguing with credit-card companies. About a decade ago, he'd directed a really wonderful film in Yugoslavia, where he was known as the "Yugoslavian Jim Jarmusch." He shaved irregularly.
"How about you, Sloba, do youwant children?" asked Curtis.
"Wahl," Sloba said, pouring himself another gallon of red wine, "ever since I was kid I wanted to be a gangster, and that's why I came to New York. But whenever I envisioned myself as old a man as I am now, I thought I should already be somewhere fishing. Maybe on some island somewhere.
"On the island there, it's pretty safe, and babies can do whatever they want to do and live the life I think I had when I was a kid. They can go out on the street and play, and if they're late coming home nobody gets too worried. We, uh, radio them.
"The problem with me right now is, my country is being bombed . . ." His voice trailed off.
It was May, and the bombing of Kosovo had started about a month earlier. Sloba had been spending every day in front of his computer, monitoring information on the Internet to see which part of his past was being blown up next.
"For some strange reason, the priority of my life has changed. Suddenly, I feel I have to protect my own well-being. And what is the answer? Create a family," he said.
The men were silent.
"Wait," I said, frankly floored, "are you saying you want to have a child?"
"It's an existential reaction in the face of disaster," said James.
"I'm being propelled in a different fashion than I've ever been before," Sloba said. "Although the life I've created for myself in New York is . . ."
"Uneventful?" I offered.
"It is really blessed," he said. "But now, I'm confronted with being alone in New York under a whole new set of realizations. You're surrounded by people here, but without family you're more alone than if you were the last person on the planet.
"The thing is," he added, "I'm just not sure New York is the right place to raise children."
"You know," said James, "when I saw the news about that high-school shooting in Colorado, the first thing I thought -- after being utterly horrified -- was, that's the kind of place I feel guilty for not sending my daughter to! I mean, that big school with those big fields -- "
"Oh God, don't feel guilty," said Rick. "Not just because those kids in Colorado were being blown away, but because obviously something about that place was deeply sick. It isn't New York that's unsafe, it's the world that's unsafe -- "
"Are we just afraid to have children?" asked
"I'm afraid of children," Joey said. "Have you taken a look at the average 15-year-old lately?"
"Wahl, let me just illustrate one point which has become a very valid one for me," Sloba said. "About a year ago when I was in Belgrade, a friend of mine thought she might be sick with cancer. She turned out to be okay. But she said something to me -- she's the mother of a young girl -- that I'll never forget: She said, 'I can't even think about dying until her 18th birthday.'"
"Kids change everything," said James. "You're no longer living for yourself alone."
"It's a very animal thing. And it's very serious thinking," said Sloba.
There was now a plate of festive little Italian cookies in the center of the table. Max, the waiter, was serving bright raspberry scoops of sorbet. The men were smoking cigars I'd picked up as a pre-congratulatory gesture. But suddenly, the mood in the room had become a bit grave.
"Sooo," I said, putting my hands on the table; my arms were shaking. "Who's it gonna be . . . ?"
Just then, Adam's beeper went off.
"Biological clock," said James.
Adam got up to say his good-byes, explaining that an urgent work-related matter had come up -- at midnight. "I'm sorry, gorgeous. Call me, okay?"
Kamal and João also rose, heads ducking as they made for the door. "Yo, can we do it one more time before you get pregnant?" Kamal whispered hotly in my ear.
I sighed. Now they were gone, and the rest of us sat looking at one another like passengers on the deck of the Titanic. Sloba was blowing smoke rings.
We were down to five men. "Oh, are you still here?" I said. "There seems to have been a stampede."
"Like, Nance, you don't really want to have a baby with present company . . . do you?" asked James.
I looked at them all, and tried to imagine a child sitting next to each of them -- a little dreadlocked Curtis Jr.; a little James in a velvet jacket and shades; and they were all beautiful -- except for the one with Joey, but I loved him anyway.
"I want to be a mommy," I said.
"Look, don't worry," said Rick, trying to be comforting. "You have time -- just wait. My sister's 39, and she has a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old. There are going to be men in your life who want to have a family -- "
"But what if it doesn't happen?" I said. "What if I get into a two-, three-year relationship with a man and then we decide we can't stand each other? I'll be 37, 38 . . ."
"You could adopt," Curtis said.
"I could; I would. But does that mean every woman who turns 40 without being married has to give up the right to bear children?" I knew there were people, especially in Utah, who'd answer yes to this, and they were entitled to their opinion.
Lisa made a face. "Even if you do get married, it doesn't mean the man's gonna be around after the baby's born, so what's the difference? More than half the people in America get divorced."
James grimaced. "Nance, like, what are you gonna tell this kid? Who's Daddy?"
I hadn't ironed that one out yet. " 'Daddy is a friend of mine?' " I suggested.
Sloba's smoke rings were hovering over the table.
Suddenly, Max the waiter was stepping backwards in a strange dance; he was cracking up. "We're taking bets on this in the kitchen," he said.
Rick had stubbed out his cigar and left to go and meet his boyfriend ("I'd give this a few days to jell if I were you," he said in my ear). So now there were only four men left: James, Sloba, Curtis, and Joey -- all sloshed, their ties all loosened. They had started singing ("Babyface, you got the cutest little babyface . . .").
Time was fleeting, and for one slippery moment I thought how easy it would be to get any of them into bed . . . oh, but these were my friends.
"Oh, Nance, I'm thinking about it," Curtis said suddenly, burying his head in his arm.
My heart leapt around as if it had been shocked by those electric hospital bricks.
"Yes," he said, sounding pinched.
"You talk to her on the phone every night anyway, Curtis," Lisa started babbling excitedly; "now you could just be talking about the baby -- "
"I'm thinking about it," he repeated.
"What do you mean, 'thinking'?" grumbled Sloba. "You're not serious. I am Serb. We don't think, we only . . . misbehave."
"Um -- the weight of it," Curtis said, "hadn't settled on me until this moment, but I'm, um, thinking about it very seriously. Look, I don't always love being around kids." He sighed. "But that doesn't mean I don't want to have some."
"Oh, I'll take care of them!" I piped up.
"Convenient," said Sloba.
"No, no, wait a minute -- I'll do it," Joey hissed.
"Is that an offer, Joey?" I said. "It sounds like you're agreeing to hard labor."
"Yeah, that's her department," said Sloba.
"Well I don't know how I feel about being attached to you forever," Joey whined. "But I'm sitting here tonight realizing I'm never going to get married. I really only like to date lesbians."
"Oh, well, thank you," I said. "I think."
"Hey," Joey said. "I want the kid to be a tennis star. We gotta get it right into a tennis training camp."
I looked from Curtis to Joey -- it was like looking from a lion to a turtle.
"What do you say to a duel?" I said.
"Nance," said James impatiently. "Why don't you just go for it? We all know who it's going to be."
I was bewildered. "Tell me."
He pointed at Sloba. "Like, he's the coolest."
"He's the drunkest. And I haven't heard him offering," I said.
"I thought I made my feelings quite clear as I explained the circumstances surrounding my present situation," Sloba slurred, attempting diction.