Listen, I have blonde hair (when it isn’t gray), blue eyes, and a fair face. I know darn well that my 8 month-old son, with his cappuccino-colored skin, almost-black eyes, and chocolate hair was not created in the spitting image of me. Yes, if you look really close there are resemblances. He nabbed my chin divot. He possibly has my cheeks. And some people say he has my smile. That one makes me happy.
I knew we weren’t going to get good news, so I turned away. Technically, we hadn’t received any news at all—the ultrasound technician had said perhaps ten words the whole time—but that was its own evidence.
When previous scans had been normal, it had been apparent fairly quickly. Because of liability issues, technicians aren’t supposed to say much, but body language and demeanor say enough. When the technician cheerily points out the baby’s head, its chin, its heartbeat, fears are quickly alleviated.
Our technician didn’t speak and hardly looked at us. She stared straight ahead at the monitor. One hand operated the machine’s controls, and with her other arm, she somehow manipulated the ultrasound’s transducer without looking, almost as if she were an extension of the machine.
January 09, 2013
Dear Mr. Sheik,
I’m writing for a couple of reasons. First of all, I recently bought this amazing tumbler with your likeness on it. I think you’ll agree that this is the best beer mug in all of existence. So in your honor, I’m having a giant beer.
I also have a few questions if that’s OK.
Have you ever considered competing on Iron Chef? It’s a cooking show where contestants try to make better food than the “iron chefs.” Whenever I hear someone refer to that show, I think of you on accident. (I’m a child of the ‘80s, so this makes sense.) And whenever I happen to catch an episode of Iron Chef, I’m inevitably disappointed because there are no suplexes or Boston Crabs; instead, it’s usually just a bunch of cooks hurriedly cutting up vegetables.
1. You are not, and will never be, a mother.
In this age of growing equality – sexual, racial, interspecies – men are still second class citizens when it comes to parenthood. Never mind that your sperm helped make the whole kid and caboodle: your lack of breasts and a vagina will forever be held against you. In fact, if you do grow breasts – or a vagina – it will only make matters worse. Men are still portrayed in the media as cartoonish fools, incompetent diaper-illiterate Stooges who are about as capable of looking after a baby as they are of making a casserole. Women, we are told, have an innate ability to nurture, which includes a genetic predisposition for cleaning up poop with moistened wipes, and a built-in Spidey-sense that detects squalling infants at a range of up to five miles. Men, meanwhile, are quite good at playing games. Or pulling faces. Or, in the case of the truly talented, both at once.
The apocalypse comes in many forms. Oh sure, there is acid rain and there is drought, the crops dry up and the world moves on, but what happens when you’re alone with your wife or husband? Nature takes over, as it always does, and always will. And what becomes of the children? In Matt Bell’s haunting portrayal of twenty-six moments in the afterbirth of a world gone wrong, Cataclysm Baby (Mudluscious Press), we get to see how those days and nights roll on, when the waters are poisoned and furtive slick flesh seeks out a moment of passionate respite in many a dark and restless night.
My dog’s ashes are currently in a small silver gift box on my bookshelf. I loved my dog, but I hate that ugly box and its stupid tassel.
When my husband and I decided to cremate Bernie, we thought we would scatter his ashes along one of his favorite hiking trails, but doing so is illegal where we live. I hated the idea of us furtively dumping a baggy of remains in the always-crowded park. It didn’t feel like an appropriately jubilant celebration of his life.
November 28, 2011
I do not feel sad or overwhelmed.
I do not feel “over the moon.”
My vagina feels like it has been mugged, beaten, and left for dead.
Here is some crap. Here is some shit, here is something useless, my dear, for you. To make up for my negligence and my weakness. I’ve failed you in so many ways, ha ha. My letters are too far between, so let’s laugh and make some fun. I’ve had a little wine. Oh I’ve missed you, too. So. Well… anyway.
Ach. I don’t know. Days come and go, stories pass by unnoticed, just a sentence each, not enough to care, not enough material to weave. The great big strokes come much later, after we’ve had time to feel and think. Life continues to happen in wonderful ways, churning as always, but somehow I have nothing left to explain, to anyone. But I’m sure it will have been a really great year, looking back. A turning point, as usual. Isn’t that always the way with me? Ha ha ha.
Well, what can I tell you? I ran a short marathon in a big city, part of it through a zoo. Inexplicably, the herd ran faster there, winding through somewhat impractical paths and things, and the rhinos turned to stare, incredulous. They were excited, happy. The cats stared. Somewhere, a giraffe folded her neck and snorted. So we ran faster. I was consistent, and surprisingly fast. I’d silently asked the gazelles for gazelle energy, and they telepathically informed me that that was probably a very poor idea, after which I asked the bison for some advice, but by then we’d already left the park and moved on to the next kilometer.
Some people ran in costume. I watched them for a while to pass the distance. It was my first marathon. Well, not technically a marathon, but a race. I’d been so busy that I hadn’t had time to train, but it was not an overwhelming distance for me, and I welcomed the change of routine, surprisingly, on race day. Oh but my body ached afterwards, I was lame and my lungs felt totally unfamiliar, stretched a little too wide. We drank beer and warm tea at the finish. Some of us were more excited than others, because some of us were simply trying to find new uses for useless bodies, a new occupation.
Quickly, and to my surprise, this I should share with you, I received an accolade, and a great deal of money. A privilege and a station, which is just weird, and I seem to have also earned respect though that aspect was coincidence, and not due to any efforts on my part. And of course I adore conflicted emotions, so this constant source of ambiguous disappointment is fantastic. Nevertheless, it is something one should be proud of, and probably speak of in less elliptical ways. But nobody knows, because it is not a thing I love. I won’t even tell you what it is. I know, I know, how silly I’m being.
Ach. What else can I tell you. The cat doesn’t have cancer, probably, but I did find a flea on the dog, and now everything itches, constantly. We’ve moved, and my husband has a new office, and it’s lovely. I do not ever have a thing to wear, any morning, ever (I see mornings now) and my digestion is fine, I suppose. My sister is pregnant, again. I am not, as usual. They sent a yellow card informing us of the fact, though we already knew months ago, by designed accident. She signed her son’s name, I’ve never met him. We don’t speak. My sister and I, I mean. I’ve told you, probably. Right? We have not spoken since my wedding. Well no, actually since her wedding which was after ours, and which we weren’t invited to. Yeah, it’s strange, we were close, I thought. Oh but I’m used to it.
I don’t speak to any of them, actually.
I hear my mother is building a house, after all. My brother wrote on Facebook that he is moving to Florida. So that’s great for him!
Whatever. I don’t even care what they do, anymore.
No, ugh, sorry, I have been so moody lately. Hormones, probably. I am definitely not pregnant, though, ha ha. Oh I must have mentioned that already.
Me and my crumbling, decaying reproductive system.
Oh dear, oh ha ha ha. I’m joking. No no no! Don’t worry about me. Some day I won’t be so unhappy.
Ok, darling, I’ll let you go and have a good night. You have so much to do tomorrow, and I have so much to do here. Say hello to the kids for me, they are just so adorable, as usual. But it must be getting close to bedtime there. So I should let you go.
While in college, I tutored the following subjects for two years: Anatomy & Physiology, Biology (general and Advanced), and Microbiology. Yet there is one area I was never made privy to: the timeline of the umbilical cord. Going into the last weeks of childbirthing class with my wife, I suddenly find it psychologically incommoding I never learned that following labor and delivery, the umbilical cord is not cut all the way down to the bellybutton.
Yes, all the way down to the bellybutton.
Maybe you’re like me and didn’t know this.
Or maybe you aren’t.
Suddenly, I feel like the dumbest person on Planet Earth for not knowing this.
For the last 36 weeks, I have been a bit scared of having the honor of cutting my baby’s umbilical cord.
“Who needs scissors,” I told my wife when she was around 24 weeks. “I’m using my teeth. Look at these incisors.”
Then I grabbed the air with two hands as if I was holding an invisible rope and started gnawing.
Humor comforts me in times of the unknown.
Note to future dads: Your wife probably won’t find this amusing.
What if I didn’t cut far enough and my baby had an outie? I remember back in the summer days of my youth thinking that kids at the pool with outies looked funny.
Or what if I cut too close and my baby has the ultimate innie, a three-inch deep crater that will collect lint for all eternity? All this time, I’ve been terrified I would cut the umbilical cord much too close to my baby’s stomach and cause some nightmarish infection, thus subjecting my first born to weeks of antibiotic treatment and various hypoallergenic ointments 3x a day.
All because I cut the umbilical cord too close to the bellybutton.
And it would be all because of me.
The man she would grow up idolizing and compare all men to who ultimately could never measure up .
Or at least this is what I like to tell myself.
Then I learn the real story: that after I cut the cord—not all of it, just some of it—a clamp is placed on the leftover upright noodle and remains clamped until a week or so later when said umbilical cord dries up and falls off.
“If you’re lucky,” our childbirth instructor said, “You’ll go to pick up your baby after a nice, long rest and you’ll see the umbilical cord lying there in the crib.”
Just lying there?
In the crib?
Like a fat earthworm that has baked in the hot sun?
Shouldn’t someone have sent out a mass e-mail to all expecting parents that along with taking your baby home, you also take home part of the umbilical cord?
Look, I’m not grossed out by this.
Actually, I am slightly.
But why is it I didn’t know this?
When I told my mom that Allison and I were expecting she didn’t tell me about the umbilical cord.
Neither did those Biology textbooks.
Then again, we never did get to the very end.
Science is sort of like history in that regard. You never get to the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam, nor do you get to the nitty-gritty in concern to the timeline of the umbilical cord.
Whereas I’m the youngest of two children, my wife is the oldest of four. She knew this already. Maybe all women do. Maybe this tidbit of information is something all women receive when they get their ears pierced.
Allison’s youngest sibling is nine years younger than her.
“I remember when I was a kid, Emily [her sister] and I would go into the nursery each morning to see if Carrington’s umbilical cord had fallen off yet,” she said to me while we were eating some 80/20 Angus Beef hamburgers I’d cooked up.
“What do you mean you’d go in and see if the umbilical cord had fallen off?”
“It dries up.”
“What do you mean by ‘it dries up’?”
“It dries up and falls off.”
“Yeah, falls off.”
“The umbilical cord?”
“What did you think happened to it?”
“It stayed at the hospital . . . with the placenta.”
So let this be a lesson to all you expecting first-time fathers out there. When you go in the nursery to snatch up your baby for a good rocking and see what appears to be either a turd or a chewed up cigar in the crib, Red Auerbach has not returned from the dead and been watching over your baby at night. That’s your baby’s dried up umbilical cord stump.
And let this also be a lesson that I am apparently not the right man to talk to in regard to tutoring you for any Biology class, especially Anatomy & Physiology.
As for me, I guess it’s about time I get some shuteye. As the story goes, there isn’t much of that in my near future. But it’s all gravy.
Here’s to first time knowledge and dried up umbilical cord stumps.
Recently, while teaching my pet polar bear and two Insane Russian Dogs how to sculpt ice with a chainsaw, I spotted a young woman dragging a baby carriage through a foot of hateful, sludgy snow. She appeared flummoxed and frustrated, snow pouring over the tops of her Ugg (ugh!) boots, icicle towers crashing to the ground all around her. The baby carriage’s wheels soon clogged to the point of complete immobility, and when the woman stopped to dig through her purse for a spare ice axe, she let out an audible whimper.
Being a typical American afflicted with some innate savior-samaritan complex, I rushed over to help. But – perhaps because Finns are markedly tough and resourceful, or perhaps because my Insane Russian Dogs were snuffling at the little human covered in its own frozen drool – the woman presented me with an uncommonly horrified expression. Despite my offer in three different languages to assist, the woman simply said “no,” took out her cell phone, and presumably bided her time until the spring thaw. There was no: “Thank you, but I’m ok,” or “Be gone, creepy Yank.” Just a well-rehearsed turn of the shoulder and a brutally disdainful sideways glance. I was offended. And in the typical reaction of someone who judges that which he doesn’t understand, I stormed back inside and updated my Facebook status.
Not two days later the scene repeated itself. This time I was busy filling the neighbor’s mailbox with snow (we’re at war, it’s a long story) when another woman, mistaking me for a smart person, ventured into our yard to ask for directions. She also had a baby carriage in tow. Before she could hand over her map of Finland (a monstrous white sheet with a tiny “You Are Here” in the middle), her two-inch heels gave out and she and the baby carriage splashed into the snow. The dogs howled. The reindeer scattered. The polar bear strained at the end of his chain. The baby wailed with joy.
After we pried her carriage loose, the woman asked me how to get to a particular church. I’ve heard of these things called churches. I believe they’re the pointy white things on the horizon. I directed her toward the nearest one (which actually ended up being an electric tower) and made the sign of the cross. The woman thanked me, stepped out of the yard, and promptly vanished into a crevasse.
This, my first uncut Finnish winter, has hosted many such events. While it hasn’t been particularly cold, the snow has been unholy and merciless. There’s so much that there’s really nowhere else to pile it. Neighbors can be seen tossing it back and forth over their fences in an infinite loop of futility. If you throw the snow into the street, the plow shoves it back into your yard. If you pile it against the house, the white stuff seeps into your basement and creeps up the stairs. Often you’ll be trudging to the store and will stumble over a shopping cart, an airplane wing, or the mail man.
Fortunately, the Finnish landscape is flat enough that we don’t get many avalanches. Unfortunately, the land is so flat that snow can’t be bothered to melt. Last year in Helsinki, the country’s southernmost city, the Municipal Snow Dump didn’t fall below the one-meter line until September 15th. All of Finland celebrated by peeling their snowsuits down to the waist, then got back to shoveling.
While the country may be big on snow, that’s about all that’s big here. Kitchens, roads, stores, sodas, stomachs, etc. are much more humble in volume. Even in the thick of winter, Finns drive around in cars not much bigger than a bicycle. (Often you’ll see forty or fifty clowns climbing out of them outside Alko, the state-run booze store.) SUVs are used as school buses and tow trucks. Houses that are large by Finnish standards would be considered foyers in the U.S.
Yes, Americans could learn a lot from Finland. Especially humility. But that’s not to say that Finland couldn’t learn a lot from the U.S.: the last time I was visiting my homeland, I stood in line queue behind a woman who wanted to know where she could throw out a coffee cup. Because she was above average in aesthetic pleasantness, an assortment of male courtesans appeared from the sky to assist her. None quite had a plan for the trash though, and the man who “won” it ended up shoving it in his coat pocket (perhaps to be used in future Voodoo rituals). Conversely, upon returning to Finland I saw a man try to help an old woman out of the path of an oncoming train. The woman spat, swung her handbag at him, and called him a “smelly c***.” And that was her being polite.
I guess in Finland being helped is ultimately a sign of weakness. It’s just not in their nature. Which is why I’m piling snow in the trunk of the neighbor’s car. I just can’t help myself.
May 29, 2010
It starts with a birth and finishes with a death. That’s the usual way, the only way, really. And for my mother, Bonnie Gandstetter, it was almost a short story—a life six-weeks long, coming to a near-end in a snow shower outside a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania.
My grandmother, Billie, was twenty when Bonnie was born. Bonnie was a fine baby: round head, wide green eyes, an inscrutable gaze. She was content to loll on the braided rug with the dogs, two liver-colored pointers who would lick the dried formula off her face. Sometimes she’d give a whistling holler and whir her arms and legs like rotors. The dogs watched her tiny limbs as if they were humming birds, and often Billie wondered how many minutes she’d have to leave the room before a dog snatched one of those humming birds in his mouth.
The rule in the house was that you don’t pick up a kid and cuddle it. If it cries, you let it cry. You feed it one bottle every four hours for six weeks, at which point you drop the night feedings. Never kiss the child and never talk to it in anything other than a voice as flat and firm as a sheet of aluminum. The last thing Billie had wanted was a spoiled child. And the last thing my grandfather, Otto, had wanted was a child who was not a boy.
Otto had little use for girls and women, although he had always been fond of Billie who was female but not frilly in any way. Billie wore slacks at a time most women were in dresses. She had a delicate, simple face, but her backbone was as rigid as her temperament. My grandfather liked to say that Billie was as unbreakable as an iron rod.
A month and a half after my mother was born, while Billie was still recovering from the delivery, Otto decided that he and Billie needed to go out for a drink. Instead of taking the truck, Otto took the convertible Buick Century with the top folded down like a giant accordion into the nook behind the opera seat. It was cold out, about forty degrees, with a sky as clear as glass. Otto had read the almanac that morning—it was sitting next to the toilet where Billie had left it for him—and it said there’d be no more snow in Pennsylvania until next December. Otto, like most people, considered the almanac a solid prophecy of the weather, certainly more reliable than the old Pennsylvania Dutch women who thought they could tell you anything by simply scraping their claws along the bark of an elm.
Otto placed baby Bonnie, nestled in her white wicker basinet, on the opera seat of the Buick. Billie told me that she remembers looking down at Bonnie for a second, noting with distaste the way she pursed her lips as if she’d just bitten into a lemon. Then she sat in the front seat without glancing back again.
Otto stood outside the car, his head tilted as he looked at the baby.
“I’ll tell ya Billie,” Otto said, and he laughed at what he was about to say. “If I hadn’t seen you change a diaper, I’d swear this was a boy, ‘cause this is one goddamn ugly little thing!” He tugged down the pink patchwork quilt that covered his daughter and examined her. Bonnie was bound so tightly in her receiving blanket that she resembled a cocoon with a face. Otto pulled the quilt back over Bonnie, up to her chin, then patted the blue crochet cap on her head that Billie had made when she was pregnant.
“Well let’s hope she’s not that ugly by the time she needs to get married,” Billie said.
“Let’s hope she’s not that ugly by the time she starts talking to me!” Otto swung open the giant, wide door and got into the car. He listened to the thrum of the engine for a moment before he shifted into first gear and, releasing the clutch smartly, pulled away from the curb.
As they cruised down the nearly empty road, Billie looked out at the bare trees, the dirt-brown grass in the fields between houses, the bald smudge of sun lowering on the horizon. I imagine she pulled her silk scarf tight around her neck then tucked the tail into the front of her blue wool coat. The wind had a bite in it sharp as a thistle, but Billie knew better than to ask that Otto put the top up on the car. Otto always said, if he had wanted to ride around with a roof over his head he wouldn’t have bought the damn thing.
About twenty minutes later Otto pulled into the parking lot of Buck’s Inn. He and Billie hadn’t been there since Bonnie was born as Billie hadn’t been up to going out and Otto, when he left the house without Billie, always met up with his five brothers who liked to drink at the local Redding bar. As usual, Otto parked the car away from the other vehicles whose owners might ding the sides of the burgundy Buick while drunkenly opening their doors. When he got out of the car, he stretched and surveyed his surroundings as if it were all his. And in a way it was all his. Otto owned a beer distributing business, shipping beer from Maine to the Mississippi river (with a stop at Buck’s Inn along the way). He was one of the richest men in town, a fact he never had to prove, as Reading, back in 1939 was a relatively small town.
Billie got out of the Buick without waiting for her husband to open the door for her; she walked across the dirt and gravel parking lot toward the inn. Otto paused, glanced at the baby in her basinet then looked up at the sky that had turned the color of a fresh bruise. He decided that Bonnie would be fine, wound in her blanket like a spool of thread, under the patchwork quilt and the scrappy red maple that bowed toward the car. Billie was waiting for him at the open door of Buck’s Inn—he jogged to catch up to her.
“You had that baby now, didn’t ya?” Roy asked, when Billie and Otto walked in. He was the bartender, a big man with a nose as red and round as a cherry tomato.
“Yup,” Billie said, settling onto a wooden stool. “A girl.”
“What’d’ya name her?”
“Bonnie,” Billie said, peering behind Roy to see what kinds of liquor he had lined up back there.
“She’s an ugly thing!” Otto shouted, as he sat beside his wife. Roy and the few other men hunched on their barstools let out bold, honking laughs.
“Well here’s to your ugly little girl!” Tom Kunkle said, lifting his mug. He was at the end of the bar, but everyone was talking loudly enough for the whole, small, murky room to hear.
It was dinnertime but neither Billie nor Otto was hungry. They were drinking scotch and when that got too heavy for Billie she changed over to scotch with a bit of milk in it. Roy put out a jar of six pickled eggs. They ate them all without thinking, tasting, or even taking note that they were actually eating. When Roy didn’t refill the jar, neither Billie nor Otto asked for more.
At ten p.m., a few more people stumbled into the bar, men who had been drinking at Earl’s down the street. Earl closed his doors early, his wife liked him in bed with her, he told his customers, and this fact made her seem sexy to everyone in town. Billie looked at Otto, her head wobbling the way Bonnie’s did when Billie picked her up.
“I think six weeks without a drink has made me a little intolerant,” Billie said.
“You suddenly getting light-weight on me?” Otto said. He rarely asked a question with the intention of getting an answer.
“Maybe we should take a room and let me sleep this off,” Billie said, and she wobbled off her stool and staggered toward the stairs leading up to the hotel guest quarters.
“Roy!” Otto shouted. “Do you have a spare room?”
Roy was wiping clean the glasses that were stacked beside the sink. He reached for a key hanging on a board of hooks above the cash register.
“Number seven,” Roy said, tossing the key over the bar to Otto. “If Mary wakes you up in the morning, just tell her Roy said you can sleep in as long as you’d like.”
“Put the room on my tab,” Otto said, and he staggered up the stairs behind his wife.
My grandmother told me that the next morning when she woke up, she sat up straight and looked toward the window that was like a sheet of glaring white light. She gasped as if she’d just received a blow to the stomach, then choked for a second. It felt like something might actually come up.
“Otto.” She would have yelled but there wasn’t breath enough in her to do so. Billie pushed my grandfather on the chest, then staggered out of bed. She hopped on one leg as she tried to pull up her slacks with quaking arms.
My grandfather woke up. Looked at my grandmother. Her eyes were wild, her movements exaggeratedly spastic.
“JESUS CHRIST!” he said, and he flung the covers back, got out of bed and had his khakis on before Billie had finished shoving her bra and underpants into her black clasped handbag. They stumbled down the stairs together, Otto buttoning his flannel shirt, Billie struggling into her blue wool coat. The bar was empty, and the unlocked front door easily pushed open as they ran out.
The sun was so bright it was like a spotlight on their faces. And yet, it was snowing. A faint, powder-dry mist seemed to fall in slow motion, as my grandparents raced across the snowy gravel.
“Godammit!” Otto said, when he approached the car. He looked back and forth between the baby, whose face looked like a frosted glass plum, and the creamy leather seats now sparkling with white dust.
Billie made a sound like a rabbit’s guttural squeal as she pulled Bonnie from the basinet and tried to warm her against her chest under her wool coat. It was an impulse propelled by instinct, Billie told me, she couldn’t have reacted differently.
“Hurry up now,” she said, to Otto, as he took a few seconds to wipe the snow off the seats before starting the car. Billie could feel Bonnie’s lungs beating open and shut like flapping wings. The child was as silent as the sky.
They drove straight to Reading General Hospital, the wind and snow biting Billie’s face as she hunched over the baby against her breast. Again, Otto parked the car a good distance from any neighboring vehicles.
“Stay here, clean the seats and put the roof up,” Otto said. He took the baby from Billie’s arms, tossing away the snow-dappled quilt, then trotted into the hospital and up to the third floor where Bonnie had been born.
“My wife went to check on the baby,” Otto said, as he handed off Bonnie to a plump, red-cheeked nurse, “and found her like this.” Otto swore to me that he remembers every detail of these moments, even that the nurse wore clip-on gold earring that seemed much too fancy for a hospital.
The nurse put the back of her fleshy hand against Bonnie’s cold, purple cheek, gasped and rushed the baby away.
A few minutes later Dr. Whiteford came out to waiting room to talk to Otto. He was a few years older than Otto, but deferred to him out of the simple fact that his father, brother and aunt all worked for Gandstetter Beer Distributing. Otto and the doctor sat side by side on thick, wide wooden chairs.
“Were the windows open in the room?” the doctor asked, and he looked down at Otto’s knees.
“Probably,” Otto said. “Fresh air is good for them.”
“Crib right next to the window?”
“I don’t know,” Otto said, impatiently. And he tried to picture where her crib was in the room, as if the story were true.
“She must have kicked her blankets off,” the doctor said. “It was just like she was sleeping outdoors.”
“Is she dead?” Otto asked, and there was a thump in his belly as if someone had a hammer in there. He had never thought much about Bonnie and wasn’t surprised that he’d slept through the night without remembering that she was in the car. And Billie, well, give the woman a few drinks and she’d forget her own name. But whatever he felt about the child, he surely didn’t want her to die–not like this, at least; not because they’d had more than triple their share at Buck’s.
“She’s not deceased yet,” the doctor said, and he dropped his head as if he were repenting.
“Thing was as blue as a punched eye,” Otto said. “Never seen anything like that.” The hammer in his gut thumped two more times. If he had been alone he would have hunched over with the spasms.
“No, it’s not something you see very often.” Dr. Whiteford glanced at Otto.
“So how are you going to fix her?” Otto’s eyes were like darts.
“Well, she’s breathing, and her heart is beating, but her lungs are filled with fluid—the cold air, and she’s got a fever that would have killed a grown man already.”
“How could she be freezing and have a fever at the same time?” Otto scratched the back of his neck, squinting at the doctor.
“Her temperature was too low when you brought her in, but as she warmed up, her fever spiked—trying to kill the infection in her lungs.”
“Jesus Christ,” Otto moaned, “first she’s too cold, now she’s too hot. What am I going to tell her mother?”
“I’ve got a friend in Philadelphia and he’s sending over some penicillin.”
“Penicillin,” Otto repeated. He had never heard of it. Few people had heard of it. The drug had only
recently been developed and what little there was, was being stockpiled by the government in case the U.S. was to become part of the war overseas. Dr. Whiteford didn’t know if this new drug could be used on an infant or not—he wasn’t even sure if it could be used on an adult without killing him. But since the baby seemed as close to soulless as you can be while still breathing, there was little to lose.
“I’ve never given it to anyone before,” Dr. Whiteford said. “We might as well try.” The doctor stood and stuck out his hand for Otto to shake. My grandfather looked down at the hand and wished there were a scotch in there for him.
There was semi-recently an internet kerfuffle on the topic of babies in bars in Brooklyn, which I have been thinking about a lot but, because I have one of these babies, have not had time to properly respond to until now. Yes, I realize that the world has been clamoring for the response of me, an eminent Park Slope literary mama (by which I mean, of course, the author of an under-read novel, the mother of a one-year-old and yet NOT a member of the Park Slope Parents website and thus obviously not much of a mother at all, and a lowly renter rubbing elbows with the owners of million-dollar brownstones).
And so I will tell you, dear readers, that there was something about the story and ongoing response to it that really got me. What on earth is wrong with people? I thought every time I read some vitriolic comment from a non-breeder who no doubt had time to compose the perfect snarky retort after sleeping until noon and then reading the entire newspaper. Babies are wonderful. Babies are the best things on Earth. I take my baby everywhere, because what, am I meant to hole up in my apartment all day, everyday? Thus is the joy of having a baby in Brooklyn, after all -– there are tons of entertaining places to go. We can walk to any number of growing-brain-stimulating places, the baby and me. I can plop her in the carrier or stroller and take her to a coffee shop, or an art museum, or even, yes, a bar. And I have, a very few times – always in the middle of day, mind you – taken her to bars, the kind of bars that serve food and, you know, have high chairs. (Holla, Bar Toto!)
After all, we were all babies once! And babies are people too! Adorable, lovey, magical, sweet-smelling tiny people! What’s more, I maintain that adults who hate babies have something seriously, sociopathically wrong with them. I mean, sure, it’s true, sometimes babies cry. But the sound of a baby’s cry is about a tenth as annoying as most of the conversations you overhear in places like bars. I mean! What is wrong with people?
Anyway. As awesome as my baby is, I admit that sometimes I need a break. After all, I am with her all day every day without any childcare, and my husband often works late nights and weekends, which means, you know, A LOT of uninterrupted time, just babe and me. So the other night after a particularly grueling bedtime, I excused myself for some mommy-me-time. I strolled down the block, and threw some baby clothes in a machine over the laundromat (I’m not that self-indulgent after all!) and then wandered into my quiet neighborhood bar. There was candlelight. There was inoffensive indie rock. I ordered a beer – a beer! – and settled in with a novel – a novel! For a few amazing moments, it was just me and my pals Stella and Mary. I could feel my shoulders untensing. I hadn’t had a moment like this in months, and this moment would only last about thirty minutes before I had to retrieve my laundry and go back home.
And then I heard it.
A giggly coo.
A baby, I thought. In the bar. You have got to be fucking kidding me.
This baby was mega cute, and having just learned to walk was toddling around on her chubby legs with the drunken strut of a 13-month-old with places to go. She sidled up to me and commenced to play peekaboo behind my table.
The problem is, I love babies, always have, and have always been the one to, yes, entertain someone’s baby in a random public setting. I wanted to indulge the little girl. And I wanted to provide her parents a moment of peace as they ate their fancy meals. But also, I really, really didn’t.
I was tempted to explain myself to her father who came to retrieve her once it became clear I wasn’t going to play. It’s just that this is the one half-hour in like a year that I don’t have to entertain a baby, I wanted to say. And anyway, also, what the CRAP man, it is 9pm! Why is your baby even up and out and nowhere near going to bed? A side note: I hate when people judge each other’s parenting. I judge people who judge other people’s parenting. But also, I was feeling very, very judgmental. “She’s so cute,” I managed, weakly. I offered a very small smile. She grabbed at my book. “Oh, ha ha. She likes Nabokov?” NabAHkov, I said it.
The hipstery-facial-haired be-courderoyed father had a smile that resembled a wince. “Oh, yes, she just loves her NaBOOkov,” he said, inflecting my beloved author’s name with an exaggerated Russiany pronunciation.
And then you better believe it was on. No help for you, buddy! I tugged my book away from the pretentio-tot and willed my smile to vanish. I pulled out the big guns. “Okay, bye-bye!” I said. I covered my face with the book, like a bad spy in a movie. “Bye-bye,” said bar-baby.
She toddled back a few more times and I worked hard to ignore her every time. I even tried not to notice her loitering near the bathroom door and almost getting knocked out every time someone came out, though the mother in me was dying to hop up and usher her away, or at least warn her parents, who were busy ordering dessert. But the heartless bar-fly in me (she’s small, but she’s in there) enjoyed ignoring the baby in peril. Even when she finally bit it and began to howl. I didn’t even offer a sympathetic look! In fact, I GLARED! I can sort of hear that baby’s crying above the jukebox and chatter, I meant my mean look to say. And I am not pleased! The now-harried-looking parents scooped up their little drunken sailor and scooted. I looked around for someone to toast, but no one else seemed to have noticed the whole drama at all.
In conclusion: babies in bars are totally fine and obviously everyone should be nice to them and their parents. But only if they happen to be my baby. All other babies should be tucked in bed and kept out of my goddamned sight.
I never liked kids very much. Even when I was one of them I didn’t like myself, I’m not convinced I had any friends to like, and I certainly didn’t like the kids that picked on me.
After an extended period of contented real estate monogamy, my family and I have outgrown our one-bedroom Brooklyn floor-through (it’s not you, it’s us!) and so, despite its great location, lovely landlords, double exposures, and adorable mice, we have been looking for new place. And by that I mean, we have looked at about fifty places. At least. Over the course of this search I have come to two conclusions: 1) There are no deals in New York realty, and 2) Apartment-searching is a bit like dating. I say this having never really dated, and so I am open to the idea that this analogy might be absurd, but follow me, if you will:
Because we are not desperate to move, we (much like serial daters in New York) have the luxury/curse of getting to be really picky. You look at a place (go on a date). You think, eh, it’s okay. It has some slightly ridiculous problem as most NYC apartments, and people, do – no tub, or no closets, or it’s on the fifth floor (real estate equivalents of an annoying laugh, or being too short or too tall– all things you could overlook if you were really in love, proving that you aren’t). So you think, eh, I’ll wait. Something better might come up next week. And you look at some more places (go on a few more dates). You start to forget that you yourself are not perfect either. After all, you want to receive a lot and give a little. But it’s easy to forget this because you are in New York City after all, and while there are a lot of duds (dank basements for $2500 a month/drooling hobos peeing into milk jugs on the subway) you know that there is also the possibility of perfection (gorgeous brownstones with jewel-box backyards/surprisingly humble models who really just want to work with children).
And thus, we have become the real estate equivalent of the dater who just can’t settle down because she always suspects there is something better right around the corner. Because there probably is. There must be! There just MUST be a non-crappy, large 2+ bedroom in a decent neighborhood near the train within a young family’s budget…right? With room in the hallway to store a stroller? And if it could possibly not be a directly beneath the freeway/adjacent to a housing project or live poultry shop/actively on fire, that would be super sweet too.
(Dear non-New-Yorkers, know that what I am asking for is roughly the equivalent of hoping to see a unicorn making love to a liger while sliding down a rainbow. Realtors have literally laughed at me.)
(Oh, and by the way, Dear Realtors. Please stop telling me that a “cozy little room” is a “perfect nursery” when it is clearly a closet. And that door-less “bedroom” leading into the kitchen? That’s called a dining room. I’m not that stupid.)
If only I could cobble together bits and pieces of the 50-some places we’ve seen. The windowed sunroom of the Windsor Terrace tempter; the two large, separate bedrooms of the wackadoodle co-op; the backyard with cherry tree of the crazy people’s place in Kensington; the elevator and pristine laundry room of the Ocean Parkway condo; the PS 10 school zone of the livingroom-less wonder. The most perfect apartment would rise like Frankenstein’s monster and shuffle-step over to our current abode, gathering into its guts all of our belongings and placing them just so. Then it could lurch back to its quiet, tree-lined street with ample parking and a cute, never-crowded, baby-friendly, inexpensive café/bookstore/organic fruit stand right by the park. “Dang,” we would say to each other, “it’s almost too sunny in here!” And, “Sheesh, what are we going to do with all this closet space!” And, “Darn this spare bedroom, now everyone we know is coming to visit us.”
On the upside, house-hunting does provide a unique treat for a writer and/or nosy person: the opportunity to boldly snoop where you would otherwise never go. How else would we ever have visited the Sunset Park apartment with the room dedicated entirely to collections of crystal and its bedroom display of hardcore gay porn? Under what other circumstances would we have seen the Queens haunted-house foreclosure with its friendly squatters, or the Crown Heights edifice that’s become affectionately known in our household as “the murder house,” or the dramatic decorative stylings of Alexei, he of the space-ship-Jacuzzi-shower, circus-tent-ceilinged-living-room, and belanterned “wine cellar” closet with its brick-veneer-wallpaper? We’ve dated oh so many homes and though we’ve had our hearts broken more than a few times at least, like a commitment-shy ladies’ man (or man’s lady), we have some stories to tell.
There is no fairytale-wedding-style-ending to this tale–not yet, anyway. But the other we did measure the baby’s crib to see if it would fit in my office. Which is really a closet. And you know? It just might.
[Ed Note: But then that night a leak busted a hole through the ceiling of that room, breaking the plaster and ruining many books! It has not been fixed! And to that I can say only: HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!]