Lately the girls have been disgusted by parental displays of affection. When her father and I start kissing, Carmen squeezes between our legs and shrieks, "ROMANCE! ROMANCE! ROMANCE!" like a fire alarm, a siren warning of intimate heat that both pre-dates and excludes children.
Curiously, this same child has discovered a new favorite singer: country-pop star Taylor Swift. Carmen wants me to blast "Love Story" as we drive to Kindergarten, and recently asked me to find the video on YouTube. Gone are the innocent days of Raffi and The Annies... Wondering if I was making a mistake, I sat my 5-year-old on my lap to watch the angelic blonde Taylor, clad in a sexy Renaissance gown, tresses tumbling out of her tiara, belt "Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone" as a dark-eyed male model strode towards her in pantaloons. Even I, usually a romantic fool, had to cringe at the schmaltzy narrative. "Too lovey," Carmen proclaimed after the video ended, a diamond ring on Ms. Swift’s teenage finger.
But Carmen’s romance alarm went off again on our Northeast Kingdom trip, because we’d been invited to a party that Saturday night, a birthday bash for our old friend and neighbor Leanne.
"I didn’t know grown-ups had birthday parties," marveled Ava. I explained that this was not a cupcake and craft-table affair. Leanne was a big, beautiful, butch carpenter/bartender, a gem of a local gal with mischievous eyes, freckles, and the most enchanting smile. Her house party featured a DJ spinning Latin grooves and a makeshift plywood bar spread with homemade concoctions of every imaginable flavor.
Then we remembered how our friend Jordan managed to socialize, back when we were the childless, unencumbered ones. A young single dad who had his kids on weekends, Jordan would bundle his preschoolers into their pajamas, then drive the winding Wild Branch Road deeper into the Kingdom. By the time he arrived at the Party du Jour, the kids would be sound asleep and he’d tuck them into down mummy bags and leave them snug in their car-seats while he joined his carefree peers.
Why couldn’t we pull a Jordan and put Ava and Carmen to bed in the back of the car? We knew his two kids now; they’d grown into smart, athletic, well-adjusted teenagers who appeared unscathed by their early years, despite parenting choices that might be considered unorthodox by today’s helicopter standards.
So I zipped the girls into fleece P.J.s while Tim piled the back of the station wagon with pillows and blankets. Ava and Carmen were thrilled at the adventure. They played Sleeper Berth on a cross-country train as we clickety-clacked along the back roads to South Albany, listening to "Ramona the Pest" on audiobook. When we bumped up the dirt driveway to Leanne’s new house, we found her front field jam-packed with cars and pick-up trucks -- at least 40 vehicles -- this was a rager! Tim pulled around to the back door and parked within view of the house. I leaned over and gave the girls good-night kisses, their two small faces burrowed in a nest of blankets.
"We’ll come and check on you every 5 minutes," I said. "You just snuggle in here and listen to Ramona until you fall asleep."
"Can we do this in Brattleboro sometime?" asked Ava.
"Yeah, Mommy. This is way better than a babysitter!" agreed Carmen.
"We’ll see," I said. "I don’t think it would be safe there." I imagined the shocked judgment of our more civilized friends and neighbors down South. "You did what? Left your kids in the car while you went to a party?!" But up in Craftsbury, we were surrounded by empty fields and forests, sheltered beneath the dome of blazing stars. Leanne’s walls pulsed with house music, and we shut the car doors and stepped into the warm chaos of the Kingdom party, hand in hand.