Owen was always aware of the looks. How could he not be, when it felt like a thousand pairs of eyes were drilling holes through him, with a good third of those making him feel the need to double check that yes, he was wearing clothes.
He'd never been one to have the nightmare of showing up to school or work naked. But picking up Maisie from school was making him start to better understand the feeling. Or maybe this was similar to how Claire had felt anytime she interacted with Hoskins.
Trying to avoid making eye contact, he hurried along the sidewalk, heading to his favourite waiting location under the large tree out front. Even though it really did nothing to hide him from anyone else waiting, there was something protective about standing under the tree. Maybe because he could have his back up against the trunk, and he knew no one could be staring at his ass.
Some of the moms had started to get a bit more daring. Moving closer, trying to engage him in conversation. At first, he'd thought they were just being friendly, and had politely chatted back. However, he soon realized that at least a few of them were looking, hoping, for something more than just friendly conversation. Since then, he'd done his best to just not engage.
And if they weren't blatantly hitting on him, they were swooning over just how great of a dad he was. How they wished their husbands would pick up the kids from school. And, had that been him volunteering in the school the other week? Oh, and was he going to be supervising the upcoming field trip?
After one day full of these comments, he'd mentioned it in passing to Claire. Did she get that too? Was all this attention and flattery because they were guardians? What was going on?
Claire had laughed. And then laughed some more. And then she'd corrected him – it was because he was male. That gender biases were applied terribly in both directions. That for her, it would usually come in the form of being underestimated or undervalued at work. But for him, it was the straight up awe and praise for doing the very basic and much needed tasks every parent should do. "Just wait until they find out you do almost all the cooking," Claire had added, another round of laughter following.
Not wanting to deal with it all, he'd started to pick Maisie up with his truck, so he wouldn't have to interact with anyone. It also provided him with a good reason to zoom off in a hurry, needing to free up valuable space in the pick up line. But, it always seemed stupid to do so if he wasn't already out or coming home from work. They lived only a few blocks away, after all. So, he'd gone back to walking to the school, trying to time it as close to the end of day as possible to avoid any encounters.
Today, he'd ended up early, having underestimated how long a side task was going to take, and unable to come up with something else to waste those few precious minutes that wouldn't result in him showing up late. It was always a struggle for him to get there on time – he found he either needed to go early or accept that he'd be late. So far, the mothers around him seemed busy enough with their own conversations that they were leaving him alone.
Owen knew he was a big guy – it's not like he could easily hide that he was over six feet and that he enjoyed working out. So he was more than aware that even leaning against the trunk of the tree he wasn't invisible to those around him. However, apparently today there were a few who were too caught up in their gossiping to actually realize just how close (and how loud) they were to him. He didn't mean to be eavesdropping, he was just hoping to past the time, but he found himself listening.
"...weeks since she came and picked her up."
"I know, I can't imagine being away from my kids that much," a second voice chimed in. "Some days, it feels like the school day is too long. I took them out last week just to have some more time with them. They're only this little once."
Owen just rolled his eyes at the conversation. He'd heard snippets of similar exchanges before; people whose whole lives revolved around their kids. He generally just felt sad for them. He loved Maisie and was really enjoying being a parent more than he ever thought he would. But, he also knew that his job as parent was to help her grow to not need him; at least, not for everything. Karen continued to hammer him and Claire on how important it was that the two of them had a relationship outside of Maisie. That when Maisie left for college they had to have something left to hold onto, or their marriage would move on at the same time.
"Did you catch her on the news the other day?"
"Yeah, all starry eyed over the dinosaurs. I don't get it. They killed people. We'd be better off if they didn't exist." Owen wished he was surprised to find out they were talking about Claire, but he wasn't. Annoyed, yes, but he was realizing that jealousy and one-upmanship was a common theme among the parents waiting for their kids. It generally just felt petty and pathetic.
"At least she loves something." There was a bit of laughter after that statement. "I mean, have you seen her husband? If I was her, I'd never leave the house."
"You mean the bedroom." More laughter.
Owen would never get over just how uncomfortable and awkward he felt when he overheard those comments. Mostly, though, he hated that it took being put into the same position that most women experience, to really understand just how it felt to have those comments directed at you. He had a lot of regrets about his younger self.
"Seriously though, not only does he look that good, but he's always here picking up Maisie. I've heard he volunteers in the classroom and gone on the field-trips."
"I can't even get my husband to sit and help with homework."
"She runs a non-profit. Her paycheck can't be that good. I wonder what she's got on him? I mean… what does she bring to the relationship?"
Owen liked to think he was pretty level-headed. That he could keep himself calm under pressure. It was a skill he'd developed over his years in the Navy and then at Jurassic World. There was not a lot that made him mad or set him off. But that line, that went too far. He moved to push off from the tree, ready to give them a piece of his mind, only to realize that his hands were already clenched into fists. He forced himself to take a deep breath first. A school yard brawl by adults was not going to endear him to anyone. Relaxing his shoulders and releasing his fists, he felt a bit calmer. But he was still angry, and still wanted to say something.
Owen turned, relief washing over his features when he recognized Amanda. "Hey, Amanda."
Amanda was his saviour, when it came to pickups. Whenever she was at his side, everyone else seemed to stay away and shut-up. Well, Claire had the same effect, but Claire's schedule rarely allowed for her to attend pick up, and when she could, he usually used the opportunity to stay later at work himself.
"They've been awfully chummy."
"I bet they're having an affair."
He saw Amanda's shoulder stiffen at the remark and knew he was not the only one who heard it. He was so grateful for Amanda's friendship. For Mark's, Amanda's husband, as well. They were, so far, the only parents that they really got along with.
"Oh for fucks sake," Owen growled loudly as he turned around, eyes immediately honing in on the gossipers, who looked a little shocked at his outburst. He took a couple of steps in their direction, a part of him getting a little gleeful as they immediately backed up, but he stopped well away from them. He didn't want a reputation of being a bully, and using his size for intimidation would counter any impact his words might have. "I don't know what your problem is. My relationship with Claire, is my relationship. You don't have any clue as to how it works and it's none of your business either way. I'm sorry you're so disappointed with your own lives that you need to try to invent stuff or bring down those around you to feel better. But leave me out of it. Leave Claire out of it. And leave Amanda out of it. We're not having an 'affair,' because both of us are more than satisfied with our own lives and relationships. Sorry that yours are apparently so small that you can't even imagine that or having a friendship with someone of the opposite sex. But, seriously, fuck off."
By the time Owen finished, he could feel Amanda pulling on his arm. It was joined a few seconds later by Maisie pulling on his other side.
"What's going on?" Maisie was looking up at him. It was at that moment that Owen realized that he missed hearing the release bell, or even all the kids storming out of the building, so caught up in what he was saying. He took a step back, his shoulders slumping, and he felt Amanda letting him go.
"Sorry, Maisie," Owen sighed, moving his arm to encircle her shoulders. He turned them so they were no longer facing the other woman and instead facing Amanda. "And sorry, Amanda."
"Sorry? Don't be," Amanda had a large grin on her face. "I wish I got that on video. Mark would love it."
"Somehow I don't think Claire would see it the same way," Owen groaned.
"Why were you yelling?" Maisie interrupted, still not understanding what she had walked in on. "And you swore!"
"You heard that?" Owen winced. "Let's just keep that between us, shall we? Actually, can we keep all of that between us?"
"Why?" Maisie questioned.
"See you later, Amanda," Owen waved goodbye, before steering Maisie away from the school, trying to figure out a good answer to her question. He knew, no matter what he said, it was going to come up at dinner.
x x x
He was right. Not that he expected to be wrong, but the moment they sat down for dinner that night, Maisie brought up the conversation she witnessed. Barely witnessed, he was glad to determine, when pretty much all she could tell Claire was that she'd heard him swear. And, from the death look Claire was shooting at him, he was really glad that was all Maisie heard.
Trying to change the topic at hand, Owen interrupted with his own suggestion. "You know, I was thinking today that Maisie is probably old enough to walk home from school without me."
"Oh?" Claire looked a little intrigued by the topic change. Owen wasn't stupid, he knew that she was trying to connect what he was suggesting with what Maisie was saying. There was going to be a "fun" conversation in his future once Maisie went to bed.
"Yeah," Owen nodded. "It's like 5 blocks away. Only one turn. And there are lots of kids headed this way, she'd hardly be alone."
"I don't know," Claire was unconvinced.
"I used to walk to school younger than Maisie," Owen shrugged. "I was fine."
"It was also a different time," Claire reminded him, before turning to Maisie. "What do you think Mais?"
"Some kids in my class ride their bikes home," Maisie supplied.
"Would you want to do that?" Owen asked.
"Maybe," Maisie paused, taking another bite of her taco. Claire's look stopped her from continuing with her mouth full and Maisie waited until she swallowed. "I do like that one of you is always there."
"What if I waited like… a block away from the school?" Owen asked. "Would that be okay?" He tried to ignore Claire's gaze, which he could feel burning into him. He just knew this comment was making her question even more what happened earlier.
Maisie nodded. "Sure." She looked towards Claire. "Will you be a block away too?"
"Um," Claire hesitated. She was going to say no, she wanted to say no, but her curiosity was so piqued she was no longer confident in her answer. "Let me see."
"Okay," Maisie shrugged, before picking up her taco again and moving on. "Can you help me with my spelling words tonight?"