Friday, May 26, 2006

The Baby - Part 2 - Reprinted From The Berkley Fiction Review

The Achilles’ heel of my theory was that it was testable. If the November 8th my wife had selected were to come and go and the baby had not been released by my wife, or chosen to appear on its own, then my whole argument would be discredited and blame for the situation would be laid at the feet of my overzealous and pushy sperm. I spent many a night in the office reflecting on this very weakness in my attack. In the beginning this was merely another source of my anger. Anger at myself for offering a proper and experimentally fallible theory, and anger at my wife for doing just the opposite. But as the days outgrew their hours and blossomed into weeks and the weeks passed all their days and graduated into months, my anger turned to fear. Fear that in fact I might be to blame. Fear that I alone might end up with the knowledge that something I’d done, something latent and internal, might indeed be the reason for the pain and torment that we, including the silent but loveable baby, had all endured. This thought was too awful to consider, so instead I assured myself that I would be vindicated. That the baby would arrive and would already know the multiplication tables, the backstroke, and the meaning of quiescent without ever missing a beat. I would follow the rules. I would heed the advice. The baby would be fine. My wife would be to blame.

***

Thus, we pressed on, trying to provide every advantage to our long overdue addition, while subsisting on our fury and the advice of people who’d failed in other situations, but knew best how we should handle ours. I kept up the work so my wife could keep up the classes. We put the baby in cub scouts where it attained the rank of Weebelo, and my wife spent at least three days a week at the park making sure the baby got its exercise and the opportunity to bond with its classmates. And on occasion, when our efforts to keep up and blend in appeared to find success it seemed that things between us might soften, that my wife and I might reach an understanding, find some other way to fuel our persistence. But these moments were rare. It was disappointment that was in abundance.

The play dates we arranged never seemed to work out. The other kids didn’t like playing with the baby and the other mothers didn’t like playing with my wife. Further, the burden of carrying a baby around for several years had not only robbed my wife of the graceful figure she’s worked to mold but had begun to severely tax her back. The doctors outfitted her with an outrageously comical specialized walker, which looked strangely like a rolling TV tray on which she could rest her belly as she moved. When she passed by people indeed stopped and stared, but for all the wrong reasons.

I felt for her, but could never find the words to say so. To preserve our veneer of marital and parental bliss we’d learned to smile when we wanted to scream, to profess love with our mouths and hate with our eyes. We became trapped in our own happy lie, and neither of us had the courage to let the other out.

***

As the birthdays ticked by we kept up our ritual, inviting all our friends and family over to celebrate, begging them to pretend our situation was normal, that our efforts to keep up had at a minimum allowed us to stay in the race. But each year as the number of candles in my wife’s belly button grew, our wish as she extinguished them became that much more intense. Please, we prayed as the fire was transformed to wispy trails of smoke, please let this end.

***

Years passed this way, the two of us doting on one another with unsatisfied rage as we broke our backs to keep our baby from falling behind until finally we found ourselves perched on the edge of that special Tuesday, November 8th, the one hand- picked by my wife all those years ago as the date she would deliver her first born. I felt an odd confidence that somehow we were only hours away from meeting the child who hadn’t left our sides in all these years. I dusted the little suitcase by the door and prepared myself for the impending drive to the hospital.
Though she’d always disagreed with my theory, my wife seemed strangely full of hope. If indeed she’d been responsible, it was clear she was ready for it to be over. If the baby didn’t come, it wouldn’t be for spite on her part.

Neither of us could sleep. We laid together in the bed and briefly dipped our toes in dreams that the baby had come, only then to lie awake in the knowledge it had not.

Day refused to break, sending only a lesser form of darkness in its place, a dull grayness that seemed poised to flatten us from above. The hope that had floated our spirits only hours before drained from the house with every passing hour. We waited in silence, until even the day got bored and went around to the other side of the world. Together we stared at the clock until midnight came, and with it the assurance that if the baby was coming, it would not be this day. This day that my wife had selected long ago would be like all the others she had not. She was absolved of all wrongdoing.

My fears were confirmed. Whatever had happened, it was surely my fault. With that realization all my contempt for my wife disappeared like that 8th of November, just faded into the past and became nothing more than history.

It’s my fault, I said. You were right all along. My sperm must have rushed. I scared the baby. I told her she was a wonderful wife, and a wonderful mother, and I assured her that there was nothing wrong with wanting things to be perfect.

It’s not you, she said. It was never you. It just is what it is.

For the first time in years we held each other close and refused to share our bed with thoughts of doing one another harm.

***

After that we burned the books, deciding that we could certainly do no worse on our own. We withdrew the child from classes and dropped any pretense of being a normal family with a normal child and embraced the idea of being a special family with an extremely special child. My wife went back to exercising, concentrating not on her abs but her back, building her muscles to support the baby without the aid of the rolling TV tray. I took some time off from work and we took the baby to see the sights. We did Disney World and the Grand Canyon, a little camping, a little hiking, and stopped the car every time the baby kicked, and gave the child a few moments to examine whatever happened to surround us, wherever we happened to be.
And pretty soon we just forgot to be waiting and moved onto enjoying our situation the way it seemed destined to stay. Our friends with incredible things and incredible children plowed ahead, but we never remembered to feel left behind. To others we were two people and a medical curiosity. To us, we were just a family, and that was enough.

***

After a decade of pregnancy we held a quiet tenth birthday celebration at home, just the three of us. We each put five candles in our bellies and from our backs we blew them out wishing not for the baby’s immediate delivery, but for its permanent well-being. We retired to bed and kissed our dodgeball shaped loved one good night, and promised that we looked forward to seeing one another in the morning.

At 2:58 the phone erupted from my nightstand. I grabbed it after a single ring and looked at my wife, who edged close to consciousness before slipping back into the comfort of her dreams.

Hello, I whispered.

Hello, came a voice from the other side.

Who is this, I asked.

It’s me. The baby.

I gasped for air, as if more oxygen were the key to understanding this information.

Where are you?

Where do you think I am?

I looked over at my wife’s inflated midsection and watched as it rose as fell with her easy breaths.

You can make calls from in there?

Yes.

How?

It’s complicated.

I see.

Well, look, I was just calling to say that I’ve decided something. You’re great people, both of you, wonderful parents, but I’m not coming out. I was really thinking about it, planning on it actually, and I figured tonight, after ten years and all, tonight would be as good as any. But I just can’t do it. It’s just not for me.

Did you feel I rushed you? I never meant to rush you.

Rushed me, are you crazy? I’ve felt quite welcome to take my time.

I hope you don’t think you mother didn’t want-

No, no, it’s nothing like that. I told you, you’re wonderful people, and I’ve been lucky to have you.

So, is there any particular reason you never wanted to come out?

It’s really comfortable in here. The best. The funny thing is that no one really has to leave. It’s sort of an unwritten rule that you get the nine months and then you’re supposed to hit the road, but most kids do it and then immediately regret it. As soon as they realize what they’ve done, that there’s no turning back, well, you’ve been there, they just start screaming and crying.

Then why does anybody leave?

Monkey see, monkey do, man.

So why did you stay?

Don’t know. Guess I’m a little bit of a maverick.

I like that, I said. I’m proud of you for that.

Yeah, but it’s bad for mom’s back, no matter what she says. You guys need a break. It’s time. So I’m going to be leaving.

Where are you going?

Back where I came from.

You can do that?

Sure.

How?

It’s complicated. But you guys are going to be fine, don’t you worry, I’m sure of it.

How do you know?

Well, it’s not like I have a crystal ball or anything. A telephone yes, crystal ball no. But I can tell. Please let mom know I love her and thank her for the ride. I’m going to miss you guys.
We’ll miss you. Very much. Will we ever see you again?

Of course.

When? Where?

It’s complicated.

There was a pause and then, I love you dad. Good-bye.

Good-bye.

The line went dead and I held the phone to my ear and listened to the drone of the dial tone until the operator took it away. I dropped the phone in the cradle, and I went to bed.

***

When we woke the next morning my wife was skinny as a rail and the mere idea of anything with pickles made her ill. I told her about the phone call and she seemed saddened, but somehow able to understand.

For a while we weren’t sure what to do. We decided that what was required was a send off of some sort, something better than a late night phone call to say goodbye.

A funeral seemed too sad, so we decided on a graduation, though we didn’t specify from what. We invited all our friends and the baby’s now pre-teen contemporaries. My wife taped a mortarboard to her abdomen and we opened the thoughtful gifts of Cross pens and personalized stationary that our visitors had brought. Everyone was careful not to mention that the guest of honor was absent, that the graduate, had in fact, already moved on. They just smiled politely, and we smiled back.

Six months later, among the thank yous and other mailed pleasantries from all our invited guests, we found a folded note with no postage. On the front was a crude drawing of a kite blowing in the wind and inside, the paper revealed itself to be a piece of graduation stationary. There was no signature, no letter, no explanation at all. Just two words, Thank You, that appeared to be written with a fountain tipped Cross Pen.




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3 comments:

Napfisk said...

I'm sitting here with a wonderful smile on my face after reading your story. Thanks.

Just thought you might like to know.

mr. kyle said...

glad to hear it

mikey mchappy said...

Very nice... a very creative way to convey realistic and relevant feelings about the competition that takes place with others and within your own marriage as it relates to procreation. I also thought about parents of disabled children while reading this.

And written by a guy who does not have children, and is not legally "married." I think all of your friends deserve a free snow cone for the random spills of familial stress that seem to have at least partially inspired this story.