Friday, May 26, 2006

The Baby - Reprinted From The Berkley Fiction Review

My wife became pregnant very suddenly. One night she suggested I put some pickles on her Hagen-Dazs. The next morning she looked ready to pop. What’s going on here, she asked upon noticing the basketball-sized lump that had taken up residence in her belly. Did you do this?


The doctor seemed unconvinced that the entire situation had sprung up overnight, and he looked at me more strangely each time I repeated the story. I asked if it might be a reaction to the pickles, or the ice cream, or the combination of both. He remained skeptical.

It’s not pickle related, he said.

But I made a mental note to throw them out, along with the ice cream, just to be safe. The doctor checked and double checked his tests and scans and declared that we were no longer eligible to receive the traditional nine months preparation time. In fact, he said my wife could give birth at any minute.

Well, she said forcing a smile, that really doesn’t give us much time does it?

We did our best not to appear blindsided as we rushed out and began to collect all the tools required for proper child rearing. While we were purchasing the crib, diapers, and high chair, my wife kept pulling up her shirt, studying her belly in disbelief, mourning the loss of the perfect abs she’d been religiously honing for an hour each morning before going to work.

While we collected the mobiles, music boxes, and pacifiers, my wife consulted the detailed calendar she used to insure a smooth and even flow to our lives. Normally she could say with certainty which cases I’d handle for a given week, or where we would dine on a Wednesday evening six months hence, but it was clear the baby was going to put her plans in disarray.
I’ll have to throw this whole thing out, she said, holding the little calendar like it a beloved pet someone had just run over.

Yet by the time we gathered the rattles, rocking chair, and stroller, we’d managed a rally, convincing ourselves that certainly we could triumph over something so small and round. We completed the shopping with eight coordinated outfits to allow the baby to ease comfortably into our normal wash cycle and a new calendar for my wife in which she not only rewrote our itinerary to accommodate our unexpected guest, but made arrangements for its first birthday party, still a year away.

We took everything home and unwrapped it, then folded some items and unfolded others, set some things out and put others away, and by late that night we looked at each other and smiled.

Not bad, I said.

For short notice, it’s not bad at all, she agreed with a little pat on her roundball belly.

We packed a little suitcase and set it by the door so we’d be ready when the moment came.

And then we waited.


A week later we were curious.

Any minute, the doctor assured us.

After a month, we were nervous.

It could be any second, he said.

Nine months later, we were confused.

This, he said finally, is a head scratcher.

Again I brought up the mysterious pickles and again I was roundly dismissed. Everything looked proper he said. Everything was ready. In fact everything had looked proper and ready for nine months.

So what’s the problem, I asked.

The baby… just doesn’t seem to want to come out.

My wife and I looked at one another.

Well, can’t we go get him, she asked.

We could, the doctor explained, but because of the particulars of my wife’s medical condition, any attempt to remove the baby could pose a serious threat to her health.

It should only be a last resort, he cautioned.

So what do we do?

Well, as long as the situation remains stable, I guess we wait.

So we kept the little suitcase by the door where it slowly collected dust and the items trapped inside began to go out of style.


On the one-year anniversary of the pregnancy my wife had still not given birth but the party had been planned for so long that we agreed canceling it might give the impression that something was wrong. So we pressed on. My wife bought a gorgeous new dress and cut a hole in the center to expose the guest of honor and we strapped a party hat around her sideways so that it stuck out from her belly where we approximated the baby’s head to be.

Our parents came (anxious would be grandparents) and co-workers and friends and neighbors and acquaintances and business contacts and clients and prospective clients. They came wearing perfection, driving cars we desired, saying things we wished we’d imagined. They patted my wife’s stomach and ate our food and inspected our home for signs of bad taste or disorder. Occasionally someone mentioned that the child was lovely, or incredibly well behaved.
Those who had babies of their own who had already emerged from the womb and were getting on with the business of utilizing all the tools their parents had purchased in order to raise them properly, began to compare notes. Some of the babies exhibited incredible musical ability, pounding out Beethoven on plastic xylophones. Others were reading various American and European classics. One of the babies could perform differential equations by merely shuffling brightly colored blocks around the floor. Another had begun fingerpaintings of such quality that her renderings had outgrown the family refrigerator and required a downtown gallery show of their own. The family was putting the proceeds away to fund her education at a prestigious pre-kindergarten art academy where it was virtually assured the baby would be accepted.
Amid all this startling news, my wife eventually laid flat upon the kitchen table and we inserted a single candle into her belly button. We lit it and everyone sang, and the musically gifted babies played along. By the time she blew out the candle protruding from her belly and swallowed the first piece of cake on behalf of our reluctant offspring, we were both painfully aware that we were allowing our child to fall behind. And after we’d smiled long enough to see our friends and their talented tots out the door, we looked at each other and felt ashamed.


My wife took her maternity leave immediately and we began the process of helping our poor remedial child catch up to its peers. I read aloud from the encyclopedia on odd number evenings and from the dictionary on even ones (the dictionary was slightly drier and tolerable only in smaller doses). We enrolled the child in a pre-pre kindergarten as well as music, dance, and swimming for babies. Our child’s ability to perform many of the exercises was limited by its reluctance to leave my wife’s womb, but we felt that if nothing else the experience of getting out of the house and being around its peers could only be good for the baby.

This thinking was largely backed up by many of the self-help volumes we purchased in order to shape ourselves into better parents. We discovered what seemed a very promising section in the bookstore dedicated to dealing with your inner child, and though the books did not, as we had hoped, pertain to our exact situation, we felt on the whole they were helpful.

We were thankful to see that though many of the experts and authors themselves had run into troubles with divorce, or adultery, or estrangement from their children, or lacked children altogether, it didn’t stop them from providing us with volume after volume of much needed advice. My wife and I each started to see experts independently as well as together for group counseling sessions once a week.

But because we’d allowed ourselves to fall behind and were overwhelmed with the tasks of catching up, and because we were in need of so much counseling and advice, and because the baby was so limited in the things it could do independently, my wife and I began to get tired.
After she’d run out of maternity leave my wife was forced to resign in order to keep up with the baby’s lessons and schooling. She’d always strived to demonstrate that gender had nothing to do with her abilities. So to leave her career because of a never-ending pregnancy was intensely disheartening. She began to walk with a pronounced slump and if I asked after her she responded that everything was great, that this was a miracle. Though I never requested it, she started to make me lunches for work. Usually the sandwiches were smashed and dry, and occasionally the bag bore the imprint of one of her shoes. I did not complain.

Her new job, taking the baby to vital classes and events, brought her little satisfaction. Being highly educated, she found many of the subjects simplistic and boring, but she was willing to endure for the good of the baby. Though she was eventually asked not to answer any more questions on the baby’s behalf (the teachers felt that my wife’s mastery of the abc’s was not necessarily representative of our child’s) she did enjoy having a school-sanctioned nap built into her daily routine. She told one of the teachers she’d been to Yale. The teacher let her be water fountain monitor for a week.

With my wife no longer working, I was forced to take extra cases in order to defray the costs of providing the right tools and environment in which to raise our shy, but otherwise healthy progeny. Good cases were fought over like meat, and quickly disappeared. Those of us in need, who had troubles, were forced to take the dregs. I had little interest in working till midnight on zoning cases or permit abuse, but I too understood that sacrifices had to be made.

For the most part we managed to follow every rule and heed every suggestion, even the ones that seemed contradictory. We listened to every expert and authority and generally gave ourselves credit for being the best parents we could be with the circumstances as they were.
But despite all the effort, despite all the advice, the baby did not come, and though the books and the experts would never have tolerated it, we secretly began to blame one another. The staggering amount of work that went into keeping the baby healthy and competitive was like an all consuming furnace, taking every scrap of energy we could give and then demanding more. When we ran out of fuel, we powered ourselves with anger. We burned inside over long unanswered questions about how exactly we’d come to be in this mess, boiled at the way our plans had been rewritten, and seethed at the idea that as we drove ourselves relentlessly ahead we might still be falling behind. The source of our power was invisible, because to show it would be to admit that something was wrong, that we’d encountered something that was somehow smaller and yet larger than us at the same time. Instead, we kept it to ourselves. For two years, eleven months, and six days of our child’s gestation we quietly used that anger to wake, work, and provide for ourselves. It was this invisible anger that kept in the race, our silent rage that kept us presentable. Then, one fateful Thursday, our couple’s therapist canceled our session to deal with his own divorce, and the dams that had held back our contempt began to crumble.

We’d agreed long ago never to argue in front of the baby, (all the books were against it) and since the baby was always present, our long festering marital meltdown was necessarily cordial. We let our words drip like honey and hoped they would land like punches.

My wife explained how she’d come to believe that I was at fault for our difficult situation. I was always rushing, always in such a hurry. She cited the way I often failed to wait for her in parking lots, walking five to ten steps ahead in my haste to get to the movie or the grocery store or the mall. The way I darted through traffic, and pushed through crowds, and generally acted like we were always headed to or from a fire. She remembered how I claimed not to be able to help it, how I said the need to rush was in my blood. Not only was it in my blood, she said, but it extended all the way to my genes. My sperm, according to her, were as pushy as me, and had gone in and rushed things just as one would expect my sperm to do. The baby had been spooked by all the pressure and hurrying, and was now simply afraid to appear. She concluded her case with an angry smile and stroked my hair softly as she repeated, this is all your fault, dear.

But I had my own theory, which removed all blame from my shoulders, and placed it back on my wife’s where, I said while offering her a massage, it truly belonged. I reminded her that she was an insatiable perfectionist, and asked her to recall our wedding day when she burst into tears over the fact that the bathroom floors had been paved with red rose petals instead of pink and again upon discovering that the cake cutter and the cake dispenser had gotten confused and switched jobs. That these errors were invisible to everyone else was immaterial. Because the day did not match her abstract vision of perfection, it was considered a disaster. I then reminded her of her precious calendar on which she’d organized to the day all of the major events of the next decade, the calendar she’d spoken about incessantly, the very calendar she’d had to toss out when we learned of the baby. According to her original vision a baby was not to be conceived until Thursday, March 6th, four years from now, and not delivered until Tuesday, November 8th of that same year. And though she claimed to have thrown her old calendar away I’d seen her sobbing and clutching it on numerous occasions. And so, my theory went, because the baby had chosen its own days rather than those pre-ordained by my wife, it seemed clear, though she’d never dare say it, she viewed the whole situation as a disaster. This was why our baby had not arrived. Either out of some incredible will to please its impossible mother, or through her own shocking determination to stick to her original visions of perfection. But certainly, I concluded with a kiss on her cheek, not through any fault of my own.

We stared at each other in the yellow incandescence of our bedroom, both of us having finally glimpsed the fury that propelled our endless motion. But a glimpse was all we could betray, because as much as we wanted to be rid of it, we feared that without it we could not go on. Without it we would quit, would give in, would lose. So we swallowed what we hadn’t shared and decided we should hug, for the baby’s sake. With concrete grins we embraced and each of us tried to squeeze all our anger into the other until we turned out the light and cuddled together in a big ball of hate.

1 comment:

Harry said...

"occasionally the bag bore the imprint of one of her shoes"

Welcome to fatherhood. You have now become quite insane and there is no help (or hope) for you any longer. Your life that you once knew is over. That is the good news. Mercifully, I have forgotten the bad.

Do enjoy.