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The Baby Dinner

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"You said you wanted a baby, but it all sounded very abstract," I said.

"If somebody else at this table had a child with my cousin, would you regret it, Sloba?" asked Lisa, fixing her gaze on him.

Then he looked at me with an intensity I hadn't seen since we first met, at a party in the Village seven years ago. I was eating a chicken leg at the time, and dancing in a conga line with some lively Chileans.

"I wouldn't allow it," Sloba said quietly.

The room began to spin.

"well why didn't you tell me this before?" I said, recovering.

"You're supposed to read," Sloba said, "between the . . ."

"The ellipses," said Curtis.

"You really want to have a baby?" I said.

"Yes," said Sloba.

"You're offering?"

"Yes."

"You're serious?"

"Is it my English?" he said, glancing around. "Y-E-S."

Max the waiter handed me the bill. I stared up at him dreamily. "I'm gonna have a baby," I said.

"Wonderful," Max said, pleased, producing a pen. "Now just sign here."

The men were getting up and putting on their jackets.

"When was the last time a patron got pregnant here?" asked James.

"It's been done," said Max, pocketing the credit-card receipt. "I've seen it before, and tried not to break it up."

"Hey," said Joey, frowning. "What about me? Now I want a baby."

"Relax, brother," said Curtis, putting a hand up on his shoulder. "I think you missed the baby boat."

And we left.

"All my love, all my kissin', you don't know what you been missin' . . ." James began to sing.

We wandered through Wall Street singing Buddy Holly songs; none of us wanted to go home. We wound up in an empty bar by the water with a nautical theme, and I thought, We're like sailors, blown in here to escape our rootlessness.

We watched James dancing by himself to the jukebox, the tails of his velvet jacket swinging around as he did a Michael Jackson twirl. He and I danced cheek-to-cheek to "Refugee." He sang the words to me, Elvis-style: "I said ya don't -- have -- to -- live like a refugeeeee -- "

"Nance, you sure you know what you're getting into?" he asked, hugging me tight.

And I remembered the night I went on my first date with him and we wound up at the Blue Angel watching a woman with fangs do a "reverse striptease."

I smiled. "I never do."

Curtis and Lisa were huddled together talking about how they'd like to invite all their old flames to a dinner party, "just to see what would happen. It's the ultimate fantasy," I heard Curtis saying, giggling. He was flirting.

Joey laid his head on my breast and I cradled him like a baby. "Ma-ma," he said.

Sloba and I hardly talked to each other. A couple of times, we caught each other's eye. Finally I went over to him.

"I don't want to move to an island," I said.

"Wahl." He put his arm around me. "How about West 4th Street?"

But it didn't work out that way.

The bombing of Yugoslavia continued, and Sloba and I were acting like we were in love again. We were having romantic dinners, planning on moving in together. All I'd wanted was a baby, and now I had a husband-to-be.

For a couple of heady weeks, the Baby Dinner seemed to work A Midsummer Night's Dream sort of magic on all of us. All the men were calling me up, wanting to see me, to be with me. João wanted me to meet his fiancée.

Adam and I went to Notting Hill and afterwards danced up and down in the aisles of the Virgin Megastore to "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch," like little kids. James and I cried in each other's arms at the Corner Bistro when the Knicks lost game five. Kamal and I went dancing and laughed our heads off watching the Austin Powers video at 4 a.m., eating pancakes. Then we safely said good night.

And Rick and I drank wine and did something we never do -- we talked about the past, wondering, to paraphrase the Talking Heads, how we got here, and when we were ever going to have children.

"Are you and Sloba really going through with this?" he asked.

"No, we're not," I said, without thinking.

And then in its inevitable inverse magic, the potion began to wear off. Sloba became . . . unavailable. I became . . . irritable. Everything about us that had ever made each other crazy came back in a rush of slapstick incidents.

"But I love you," he said.

"I love you, too." But it was hopeless.

The bombing of Yugoslavia stopped.

He went home to see his parents; and as we parted he made some half-hearted joke about going to visit "Grandma" (his mom). But it wasn't even painful, because we are family, he and I, and all of us.

Maybe, I've been thinking, there's a new kind of family unit forming here in New York. Its base is a group of friends -- all hardworking misfits, loners, dreamers, who are disastrous candidates for marriage but would actually make very interesting and loving parents. Pardon the expression, but it's Friends -- with kids.

After all, the two-parent family structure is only a couple of thousand years old in a species that dates back tens of thousands of years. Friends-with-kids makes sense in a city where a cave big enough for your brood costs $200,000, and a nanny $25,000 a year, at least. You could pool your resources, buy a little brownstone in the Village, and employ communal nannies, or figure a way to rotate your schedules, like the chore wheel at camp.

Anyway, in some way the Baby Dinner gave me faith that somehow, it's all going to work out. My single life in New York hasn't been the unfulfilled search for a connection I thought it was; there have been connections, and they all mean something -- just something different from what it means to have a husband.

And that's why I plan to call on Uncle Adam when I need someone to go with the baby and me to a baseball game; Aunt Lisa will come in handy when I need to make Halloween costumes; Uncle Rick can teach the baby all about art; and Uncle Curtis, no doubt, will have something to say about everything. (With Uncle Joey, of course, there will need to be additional adult supervision.)

As for getting pregnant, well . . . I'll try to be patient. It's just not easy, with all this ticking going on.


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