The Rules


LAST YEAR, shortly before our second daughter was born, my wife and I moved from a fantastically impractical row house in downtown Baltimore to the nearby suburbs in Towson, Maryland. We were already parents then, and we were well into our thirties. We had jobs and a nanny and 401(k)s and a mortgage. But it took this, leaving the city, to actually feel like grownups for the first time.

Most days, I don’t even really think about how different it is out here. You get busy with things like kids and unfinished novels. But sometimes, usually at night, I find myself missing our old life in Charm City. Last night was actually a perfect example.

I let our dog out to go to the bathroom, which is one of my nightly responsibilities. When the weather’s crappy, I usually just watch him from our entryway, but the rain had stopped and it was a nice night, so I went out there with him. After sniffing around for a few minutes and stumbling through a spider web, he quickly trotted off into the utter blackness that is our yard at night, and I was left alone to think about how hauntingly quiet my neighborhood is, like a movie about the end of the world. Along with lower tax rates and the decreased odds of being stabbed by one of your neighbors, this is probably the most profound difference between Baltimore and its suburbs—the volume of things.

I called our dog’s name a few times, which he, of course, ignored, and I started thinking about a night a few years back at the old place when we were still new parents. I’d just come downstairs from putting the little one to bed, and I found my wife in our tiny kitchen using our blender to grind peas and green beans into ectoplasm. It was humid as hell out and our narrow house was all stuffy and close. I opened up the fridge to grab a cold soda and found that all of my Diet Dr Peppers and all of her Diet Pepsis were gone.

“Son of a bitch,” I said. I try to swear as much as I can when the kids are asleep. I find it very liberating.

My wife knew exactly what I was talking about. She’d just made the same discovery herself. She turned off the blender and looked at me gravely. “Since I’m doing this,” she said, “maybe you could walk down to CVS and get some more sodas.”

She’s a smart girl, my wife. You have to tip your cap at the “since I’m doing this.” I’m not sure exactly what I was planning on doing for next thirty minutes or so, but I doubt it was as constructive as blending organic vegetables for our first-born. “I’ll be right back,” I said.

There are bars less than a city block in every conceivable direction from our old place, and as I stepped outside, there were twenty-somethings out and about everywhere. Some were wearing intramural sports uniforms. Others looked like they’d gotten trapped in one of those blurry, never-ending happy hours. The “Humpty Dance” was blaring from a bar called Mad River on Charles Street and some guy nearby was trying to parallel park a yellow Humvee. His friend was out on the curb helping him. “Jesus, you dipshit!” he shouted. “Stop being such a bitch! You got like a whole foot and a half!”

A block or two into my walk, I noticed a girl alone up in front of me walking in a pair of loud flip-flops. With the Humvee guys still sorting things out behind us, we were the only two people for about a twenty-yard stretch of pavement, so I cleared my throat and stepped a little heavier than I needed to, just to let her know I was there. When approaching girls from behind in Baltimore at night, it’s best to sound like someone who isn’t about to brain them with a tire iron and steal their iPhone.

When I was about ten feet back, she stopped suddenly. Then, with a grace that only women can pull off, she removed her flip-flops, shoved them into her bag, and stepped carefully into a pair of absurdly high zebra-print heels. She took a few steps and groaned, actively limping before catching her stride again. Her shoes sounded like bricks on the sidewalk.

As I went to pass her, she turned my way. I was looking at her shoes, of course—a striking addition to an otherwise sensible pair of jeans and a tight black t-shirt. I expected her to be young, just another kid right out of school meeting some friends for drinks. But she wasn’t. She was lovely, but she was about my age, and, like me, she looked tired.

I never know exactly how to handle sudden eye contact with strangers, particularly female strangers, and so I just smiled stupidly the way I’ve been doing since I was eleven.

“God these things hurt,” she said. And then she sighed and smiled at the same time. “But, I don’t make the rules.”

I couldn’t think of anything witty to say in response, so I just kept smiling. And then she turned right, off to where the action was, and I kept going straight toward my sodas and the painful inevitability of adulthood.

About Matthew Norman

MATTHEW NORMAN is the author of the novel Domestic Violets, which was nominated in the Best Humor category in the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. His short story "Miss November" recently appeared in the fiction anthology Forty Stories. He lives outside Baltimore with his wife and two daughters and is currently working on another novel.
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One Response to The Rules

  1. Kate says:

    Great essay. This pretty much summarizes my thoughts about my own shift from Boston to nearby ‘burb Newton. I think the only difference is that the Humvee would have been a Ford Explorer and those guys would have dropped a few “wickeds” while yelling about their inability to park.

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