Rob reached down and patted Brady on the back. “Brady, this is Kristen. Say hello.”
Brady ran up and wrapped his arms around my leg, gripping the fabric of my jeans. “Hi Kristen.”
Brady was too cute. I squatted down as Vincent had. “How old are you?” I asked him. I wanted to show Vincent that I was comfortable with children too.
Brady looked at Giselle and then back at me.
“Tell him how old you are, Brady,” Giselle said.
He looked at me a little longer and appeared to decide I was okay, to my relief. “I’m three,” he squealed.
“Good job!” Giselle said.
Emboldened, he grabbed my hand. His cute little fingers wrapped around one of mine. “Let’s go play trains!” he said enthusiastically.
I smiled and followed him. Vincent stayed behind to talk to his sister and brother-in-law.
As Brady led me to his play area, I looked around at the house and all the little touches Giselle had put on her home. Lamps, candles, vases, mirrors: everything was in good taste and combined attractively. It was hard to imagine a life where managing the household was a significant part of what you thought about. Riley and I looked after ourselves, but we were pretty low-maintenance and kept decorating simple.
When we got to his play area, the floor was littered with an array of trains, train track decorations, and even a stuffed conductor. A train track in a big figure eight was spread amidst the chaos. Vincent was right: Brady loved trains. As clean as the rest of the house was, Giselle had clearly decided that Brady’s play area was a place where messiness could reign.
I got down on my knees to be down on Brady’s eye level. He eyed me earnestly. “Which one?” he asked.
Scanning the floor, I took a red train in my hand and put it on the track. Brady hit the switch on the control center at the track’s control house and the train zoomed around. He laughed approvingly.
“Which one for you?” I asked him.
In response, he got up and ran over to a shelf where a child-sized blue conductor cap was hanging on a hook. He picked it up and threw it sloppily on his head before tottering back over. He plopped down next to me and picked a black train to put on the track.
Brady wanted to play with me, but once he started he was in his own little world, watching the trains. After a minute of watching him I heard a familiar voice behind me.
“I got him that cap,” Vincent said. He took a seat next to me and watched Brady maneuver his train in silence. A warm smile was on his face the entire time.
Brady played with his train for a while longer before he noticed Vincent had taken a seat at the play area. When he saw Vincent at last, his brown eyes lit up anew.
“Uncle Vincent! Which one?”
Vincent picked out a yellow train to add to the track. Whether it was the train track itself or playing with Brady, he was enjoying this moment in a playful way that I hadn’t seen before.
“Hey buddy,” Vincent said after a moment, “why don’t we build a tunnel for our trains?”
“Yeah!” Brady yelled.
I watched as Vincent got a chair from another room and returned with a blanket. He put the chair at one end of the figure eight, and Brady helped him with the blanket as well as he could. Soon they were racing the trains under their makeshift tunnel.
Brady’s enthusiasm for the whole activity was infectious. I could tell Vincent was getting into it, and soon enough so was I, watching the trains fly by faster and faster. Vincent was in the middle of talking to Brady about changing the track to take better advantage of the chair when Giselle came into the room.
“Looks like you guys are having a blast,” she said.
Brady was very excited. “Trains!” he yelled.
“I see that. Kristen, do you want to help me finish frosting the C-A-K-E? I think the boys are occupied for a while and Rob just went out to grab some last minute party supplies before Brady’s friends come over.”
I looked up and sensed a hint of seriousness beneath her innocent veneer. “Of course,” I said. “You two will be okay without me, right?”
Vincent looked up from instigating a train crash. “I think so.” Brady was too engrossed to notice us.
“Okay,” I said. “Be back soon.” With that, I got up and followed Giselle into the kitchen.
Giselle’s kitchen was a total disaster, which was to be expected when you were throwing a birthday party for a three-year old. Various kitchen implements were strewn across the granite countertop, and a metallic mixing bowl was sitting next to a fresh and delicious smelling round yellow cake. She walked over to the bowl and began stirring the contents inside.
“Have you ever baked a cake before?” she asked over her shoulder.
I wasn’t very good in the kitchen. It was one of my failings: I had always been too busy with school and then work to learn how to cook well. I was mostly good with a microwave and doing basic things on a stove top, like warming up soup. Baking a cake from scratch was beyond me.
“Not on my own, no,” I said. “The most I’ve done is bake a cake out of a box with my mother, but that was years ago.”
She flashed a quick smile over her shoulder as she whisked the frosting. “Neither had I, until I had to bake a cake for Brady’s first birthday. It was hilariously lop-sided, but thankfully one-year olds don’t notice that kind of thing.”
“It looks like you’ve gotten pretty good,” I said.
“I’m trying, anyway.” She waved me over. “Well, even if you haven’t done this before, I’m sure you can give it a go. Just try and coat this evenly with frosting. I’m going to work on the blue frosting for writing happy birthday.”
I took the plastic frosting spreader from its place on the counter and went to work. It wasn’t very different from spreading peanut butter and jelly on a sandwich, which I was a pro at. I quickly got into a rhythm of taking a gob of frosting and smoothing it out on the cake.
Giselle watched me work for a moment and then set to work on the colored frosting. “So you’ve been seeing Vincent for a little while now?” she asked.
“How did you two meet?”
I laughed nervously. Apparently Vincent hadn’t told her much. I decided to be truthful since the cat was out of the bag anyway. “To be honest, it’s a bit scandalous.”
She stopped whisking. “You weren’t married or something, were you?”
“No!” I cried. “Why? Do you think Vincent would do something like that?”