Fiction · 04/01/2009

Baby Love

I had a baby.

“Why’d you have to have a baby?” Denny wanted to know. “There are so many babies on this block already. You know this neighborhood’s really changing. First the Starbucks and then we got a Gap.”

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I had a baby.

“I heard you had a baby,” Ellen said. “Mina Denelsky also had a baby. Ginger Stanhope had a baby. Sue Rodriguez is pregnant with twins.” She paused to slug her sugar-free vanilla skim latte. “Alan Cage’s wife had a baby in August. Jenny Richardson had triplets. And here’s a shocker, you know the Trachtlers? Expecting number five.”

I pulled off the blanket I’d draped over my stroller, where plastered in sleep, the baby lay, one eye leaking fluid, his face a wrinkled turnip on a platter.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” she said. “You certainly did have a baby. You did. Fucking Jesus Christ.”

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Once home I handed my husband the baby. First I had the baby, and then I handed my husband the baby I had had. Can you follow me, time-wise?

“Everybody is having babies,” I said. “Ellen Webler in Starbucks told me. Johnny, it’s so weird. Like that time all the people we knew were down at one time with the flu.”

Johnny jiggled the baby. “What were you doing in Starbucks?”

“You’re not listening. All these people having babies, Johnny, and we didn’t even know. We hadn’t heard they had babies, too.”

“Remember when you bought a car and wanted to know, like an errand from God, how your Volkswagen measured up? Cars, trucks, hybrids, minivans! Even after we bought, you saw the world disproportionately as roadway, forgetting our city’s dependable, low-cost, environmentally sound though stinky means of public transportation.” Johnny smiled fondly. “People refine the world according to their present capacities.”

Since the baby I’d had trouble following conversations that weren’t about me, and sometimes ones that were. My eyes dimmed. “What are you saying? I was a car bore, now I’m a baby bore?”

“No, no, no, no, no!” He spoke in the high-pitched wibbly-wobbly tone with which we talked to the baby.

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I had a baby and sent friends and relations digital pictures of my baby. Roughly two to three hundred digital pictures. Each digital picture a 400 kilobyte .jpg file which with my 56K modem took two to four minutes to transfer. People downloaded two to three hundred pictures of my baby and wrote back. “What an adorable baby!” “I believe it is against the law to be such an adorable baby.” People wrote letters to the editor. They phoned the media.

SHE HAD A BABY.

(The headline read.)

“We had a baby,” my husband said.

“Oh quit feeling so goddamned sorry for yourself,” I said.

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I had a baby.

The Mortons came over to meet the baby.

This was a big deal. We were letting the Mortons meet the baby. Even though the Mortons were guests, the baby was the guest of honor. We took the Mortons’ coats, hugged the top parts of their persons, and tiptoed them into the baby’s room.

“Boy, does it smell in here!” said David Morton. “Like someone took a dookie!”

My husband, I assume shocked beyond speech, stepped back hard against the wall. Our perfect baby, with his short habit of living, lay whiffling in the crib, a miraculous compression of human nature, cute and amazing and wondrous, capable of evolving into anything, permitting us to gaze on him in repose. And all the Mortons could do was sniff the air?

“One day,” I said, “he’ll be able to go down the hall like you, David, and shit in the toilet all by himself. Will that impress you? He’ll be able to shit in the toilet and wipe his own ass while the rest of us have coffee and pretend not to hear.”

“Oh,” my husband, who had recovered, said faintly. “Would anyone like coffee?”

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I had a baby and I was pushing the stroller and wearing a backpack diaper bag. Laden. Slowly. Listening to my husband talk but thinking only of where I could get my next sugar or caffeine fix. As we came to the intersection, the traffic light turned orange. “Quick!” My husband stepped gamely off the curb.

“Quick?” I said. “There is no quickness in me left.”

To remedy the lack of personal energy, I took six p.m. walks my husband called exercise, about which name I had sturdy doubts. A five dollar bill crumpled into my pocket for donuts, an unwillingness to pick up the pace beyond an elephantine circus march, the baby frequently mewing for tiny adjustments of blanket, hat, and sock, I never labored less for exercise, nor felt more tired failing to break a sweat.

But oh, the women, the slackly guarded women, cruising with babies through the summer dusk! Before the baby, I walked the city in silence. Now I spied Young Mother and, like an octopus scenting chemical along the ocean’s current, drew close.

How old is your baby? Live in the neighborhood? Doing a play group? Sign up for Wiggle Worms? Baby sleeping through the night?

Scraps with telephone numbers collected in my diaper bag.

Megan from Uptown, baby Jane.

Julie from Lakeview, baby Cooper.

Liza from Andersonville, baby Maya.

“Pick-ups,” I told Johnny. “Not even one night stands. On the street I hunger for connection. Once I’m home, I never call.”

“Maybe you and these women have something in common.”

“I had a baby!” I shouted. “For cripes sake. You think their experience can touch this?”

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I had a baby. More and more, the baby exhibited a personality neither wholly pliable nor designed to reflect the fact that life, as his mother orchestrated it, was perfection itself. Time, which helps to coordinate an infant’s limbs, did not spare him, and from the lump in the bedclothes he grew into a small, active, battering person. His achievements left us breathless and a little self-conscious about our own relatively faint capacities for growth.

“Wasn’t it yesterday he just wiggled on the sofa?” said Johnny. “I mean for hours, while we watched a DVD?”

“Sunrise, sunset,” I said cynically but felt, in my solar plexus, what he meant, especially as the baby stumbled across the room, pulling my hoary hairs out of a brush and throwing them at the cat for sport.

“I get Ma’amed more than Missed,” I said.

“Well, no one can stay a baby forever.”

“Ba ba ba,” said the baby.

“Let’s not rush him,” I said.

But as I hauled the baby to parks, libraries, garden centers, rummage sales, swimming pools, sandboxes, airports, and anywhere with an escalator to kill an hour or two, I observed that the baby, with his jouncy pounds and self-feeding hands, no longer struck others as something I had obviously, and with enormous effort, expelled from my body — an effort about which, let it be said, the world can in no way be too reverent.

People called him boy, kid, little man, though to me the baby was Pumpkin and Bunny and Kernel and Babycake.

One morning the baby looked up from the sticky floor where he sat spooning almond butter from a jar and said, “I am not your Babycake,” and I wondered: should I stop thinking: I had a baby? Maybe the baby was no longer something I had had. It was true he had learned to speak, clever animal, and I no longer conspired against his very wakefulness. I read him stories for fifty minutes and he hollered me back three more times to ask one more thing, and then after I had trained myself to associate bedtime with elaborate tricks and popish ceremonies, he changed again; he began to go bed with jarring ease. “No stories,” he warned.

No stories?

I closed the door, listened for my summons, and heard nothing. Stood in the hallway dizzy, as if I’d stepped off a treadmill and my exhausted legs still wanted to run. Don’t ask me to tell you what I was feeling. I had a baby. For my feelings substitute the emptiness of a rain barrel, its wood drying out, its metal staves creaking; an unbidden, arid silence after two years of learning to hold the rain.

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Sara Levine’s short stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, Nerve, Conjunctions, and other magazines. Her essays have been anthologized in The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction and A Best of Fence: The First Nine Years. She teaches at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.