My husband kisses my painted lips and hands me a bouquet of orange tulips that he has bought for another woman.
“OK guys, nice and civilized now,” he instructs, sucking in his stomach under his ironed shirt. “Remember what we talked about: no clowning, no fighting, no crying. And,” he adds, turning to my daughter, “let’s try not to spill anything for a couple of hours.”
My daughter presses her Doggy, who she has dressed in plastic earrings for the occasion, closer to her chest. My son yawns and leans against the doorbell.
We have been preparing for this evening since our first day in the Netherlands. I have brought an anti-aging eye cream. My son has agreed to wear jeans that are not torn at his knees. My husband has unpacked his nose n’ ear hair trimmer, and my daughter has granted me eleven full seconds to comb her curls. Even a four-year-old understands the importance of a good first impression on daddy’s new psychologist boss. And her psychologist husband.
The door opens.
A girl with missing front teeth leads us toward the smell of baking fish where a tall man with hair yellow as corn is chopping dill. He says his name – Ajern or Arjen (I won’t be certain until the end of our visit) – wiping his hands on his apron.
“You know how to win the boss’s heart,” he beams, as my husband hands him a bottle of French Merlot.
From the kitchen windows we can see their garden with soaring pines, butterflies dancing above lavender shrubs, and an enormous trampoline that has my children pulling on my dress. My gaze stops at a woman leaning over the trampoline ladder, with long rubber boots and a breezy blouse that could have used an extra button or two. She comes inside to greet us. She is beautiful, even in the kitchen light, despite her boyish hair and thin, bare lips. We say hello, with clumsy embraces and limp handshakes. She smells like a foreign summer. I am relieved that the woman who is holding my husband’s tulips and career in her manicured hands is at least two heads taller than he is.
There are now four kids in the kitchen. Two of them are ours, and the other two are impossibly blond. We take small sips of our sunset-colored drinks and exchange pleasantries about dill and kitchen lamps. The kids remain standing in front of each other like chess figures from opposite sides, wooden and unconcerned. The Boss sits them together at the end of our table, far from parental hands that could catch toppling cups and tame sibling scuffles. A whole roasted and herbed salmon away, I watch my son reach into the breadbasket and massage the rolls one after another, until he finds the pastiest one. My daughter asks for the same exact roll, then reminds me that she hates fish and the green stuff sprinkled on it. I grin royally, as I catch the Boss grinning at her kids in the same manner, and admire the porcelain plates in front of me (an effective analgesic for relieving social discomfort I have picked up from my years in Japan).
The Dutch siblings burst into laughter. I put my plate down and look over to my son. He has the bread roll shoved in his cheeks. The boy grabs his own broodje and copies my son. His sister follows. My daughter shakes her curls and giggles until she spills her orange juice – first on her pink dress, then on the white tablecloth, then onto Doggy. My husband clears his throat and gives our son his best death stare. I rush to help my daughter, my royal grin intact. More spillage. This time, with God’s grace, from the Dutch boy’s pocket.
“Pokemon!” my son exclaims, and springs next to the boy to help him collect cards like the ones he usually carries in the pocket of his torn jeans. “I have them in Japanese,” he says in English.
While we’re eating, my husband laments about the trials of international moves. I chime in with concern for the children: new language, no friends. The psychologists nod with parental sympathy, as we pile dressed arugula on our silver forks. We talk science and Boston winters. They teach us Dutch words. We pad pauses with mutual compliments, while the kids stare mutely at each other with carbohydrates in their hands.
After dinner, the boys race off, running through the garden as their sisters trail behind them. The butterflies spew out of the lavender bushes like fireworks to an orchestra of shrieks from the trampoline. They jump. They wrestle. They show off their handstands. Then, they bring their heads together in a comradely circle – two chestnut, two blond, one Doggy – and watch the foreign words tumble from their mouths. The words carry no meaning to their ears, but they listen attentively anyway, deciphering gestures, gauging intentions, reading minds. They are no longer from opposite sides of the chessboard. They are on the same team, defending the same king.
A wave of children’s laughter interrupts our adult conversation.
“What is their secret for reaching the depths of the human psyche without a lingua franca or alcohol?” Arejn or Arjen ponders, twisting his ginger mustache.
“Sumo wrestling on the trampoline,” hypothesizes the Boss, as we raise our glasses to the real experts on the business of being human.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Eric L