The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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Girlie slid out like a hot buttered noodle on that Indian-summer night in October — her father’s birthday, in fact. Chas was in the birthing room, standing next to my hospital bed. A few minutes before, he’d been complaining that his legs hurt and he needed to sit down. The midwife cleaned Girlie off before presenting her, blue-ribbon style, to us, and I thought about how one chapter in my life was ending and a new one was beginning, whether I liked it or not.
The birth was my second. My first child, Paddy, had taken seven hours to come out, but his sister arrived in exactly four hours — damn good time, I thought, for a girl. The labor came on like a whipping and culminated in that incongruous mix of cheering and screaming, a sensation indelibly recorded in my memory. When the ordeal was over and I was breathing normally again, I asked Chas to get me a roast-beef sandwich and coffee from a tiny luncheonette across the street from the hospital. It was after ten o’clock, but I didn’t care. The food tasted remarkable, as if it were the first thing I’d eaten in days.
My stomach replenished, my baby expelled, and my husband mollified with a hamburger and a Coke and a newborn daughter who resembled him so much that it pained me to look at her, I laid my head back on the hard hospital pillow with a strong but weary sense of satisfaction. Before the midwife left, she gave me a heavy-duty Tylenol — for the postpartum contractions, which were bound to be as tough as the real thing. I swallowed the pill, Chas kissed me goodbye on the cheek, and a nurse wheeled me into an overnight room. My doleful parting thought was Girlie is my last.
About 3 A.M., I woke up needing to pee, feeling as if my insides were about to pour out. I had to get to the bathroom quickly, but sitting up required almost as much effort as the birth itself. Reluctantly, I buzzed for a nurse, who strode in, cross.
“I must go to the bathroom,” I said, whimpering, “but I can’t pull myself up.”
Muttering to herself, the nurse stood motionless at my bedside. I thought of my husband’s remark about his sore legs; he had a knack for saying the wrong thing sometimes. With as much might as I had used to push Girlie out, I sat up halfway, my belly swishing around like an ocean wave.
“You can have no trouble,” the nurse said, her voice hard and metallic. I had come to expect this attitude of everyone, now that I’d had two babies and discovered what little difference they made in how people — including husbands — treated you.
Contrary to what the nurse said, I had a lot of trouble shuffling to the bathroom. With blood trickling down the insides of my thighs, I stumbled to the toilet with barely enough strength left to shut the door in her face. Then, for the second time that night, as blood flooded the white toilet bowl, turning the water cherry red and splashing onto the floor, I felt suddenly at peace. I thought of how this birth had all begun, nine months earlier, on a moonless January night, Chas and I making love with the full intention of producing a baby — though not necessarily on his birthday nor in the midst of an Indian summer. I had wanted a second baby more than anything, enough to overlook the fact that being married to an artist was for the most part a single life. Or so my thinking went. The trouble was, I was certain of only one thing: that having a baby was paramount.
I walked back to the hospital bed, trailing droplets in my wake (pleased that the nurse would get blood on her white shoes), and settled under the sheets with a jittery surge of happiness — safe once again, needing neither a nurse nor a husband.
Chas rang the next morning.
“God-awful night,” I launched in.
True to form, Chas remained quiet, preparing the words that would let me know, in his steady but infuriatingly detached way, that I was most likely racked with fatigue and probably hypersensitive. (He was smart enough not to mention hormones.) While he was organizing his thoughts, and I was wondering if I needed a sedative, the telephone hung silently against my ear.
“Are you there?” I growled, wishing that someone — a nurse, a husband — would stop me from attacking him. What was the purpose of a husband, I lamented to myself, now that my pregnant life was over?
That summer and fall, as my belly had grown enormous with Girlie, I’d taken to reading in bed after dinner each night, not only for the physical comfort, but to escape the sight of my husband sneaking off to his studio down the hall, where he’d remain long after I fell asleep. Paddy would join me, perching on the edge of the bed as I picked up a book, the two of us unable to say out loud what we were feeling — that we were dying of loneliness, but at least we had each other. One night, seeing Paddy sitting like a dutiful bird on a railing, I understood that I was trying to escape the sight of him as well.
That revelation was still sharp and clear as I waited, feeling drained by the phone call, for the day nurse to shepherd Girlie into the hospital room so I could breastfeed her. I pictured Paddy in those last few months of my pregnancy, when my hormones had robbed me of reason and objectivity, and thought of how he had always yearned, since the day he was born, to create a small but important space for himself in the universe.
The morning dragged on, and I still hadn’t nursed Girlie. Was she sleeping? Was she able to dream for hours, like her father? Paddy had been the only baby to slip out of his bunting in the nursery, the only baby who couldn’t sleep for more than two hours at a stretch, frustrating the staff and causing me great weariness. He must have had a lot on his mind early on.
Just that summer, right before his fifth birthday in late August, Paddy had started to read. His sudden ability was a bit startling and caused some friends of ours to say, “He’s going to be President someday.” Paddy and I were heading to Fire Island on the Long Island Railroad when it happened. The trip was my attempt to offer Paddy one last opportunity for togetherness before the arrival of his sister. Halfway there, Paddy read out loud, without prompting, “Passengers are not permitted to move between cars.”
I scanned the seats, wondering who had told him what to say when I wasn’t looking. (In the back of my mind, I imagined someone mouthing the words to him.) “How did you know what that sign said?” I asked, almost accusingly.
“I just followed the words,” he said defiantly. “I sounded them out like I always do.”
“Do you know what passengers means?” I asked.
“It means you and me.”
He dozed off as I ruminated over this small miracle, studying his face and ruffling his hair, which flew up like feathers, trying to let him know how much he impressed me, even though he was asleep. Maybe I wasn’t failing him, after all, when I lay in bed reading, tunneling away from the sight of him. Maybe my love somehow seeped into him by osmosis and didn’t need to be expressed through declarations or deeds.
As the train pulled into Babylon, where we’d pick up the ferry to Fire Island, I nudged Paddy awake, whispering, “We’ve made it to never-never land,” but I don’t think he heard me.
Later, his eyes adjusting to the glare of the beach, he asked, “Where’s the fire, Mom?”
It was a solid blue day, as first-class as any at the close of summer, and I was determined not to let a single moment go to waste. I wore a T-shirt over my too-tight bathing suit. My belly was a hideous and sorry sight, but I told myself not to care: we didn’t know a soul on this fiery spit of an island, and there was, after all, nothing wrong with being pregnant, even in the summer. The crowd on the beach was sparse, and the waves thundered onto the shoreline. It felt as if we were stranded at the end of the earth, and that persistent pang of loneliness that had woven its way into my marriage was actively working on my psyche at that very moment. Couldn’t Chas ever take a day off?
Afraid of the water, Paddy dipped his feet in the waves as they washed back, threatening to take him with them. I waded in up to my hips, trying to recapture the childhood summers I had spent swimming in the Long Island Sound, sharing the water then, as now, with tiny, clear jellyfish.
After drying off, Paddy and I built sand castles with turrets and terraces and a variety of swimming pools and moats. By late afternoon, our energy flagging, we decided it was time to leave. I was pleased at how our day had turned out: I had not lost my temper, Paddy had not whined or asked for something I could not give him, and there had been no mishaps. We showered in the outdoor stalls, the salt slipping away from our bodies, then changed clothes and waited near the docks for the ferry to arrive. As I perused the shelves in a gift shop, Paddy lingered outside. When I peeked my head out a few minutes later, he was gone.
I panicked, of course, immediately assuming he had fallen into the black, glassy water of the harbor, the enormous dark hole sucking him in, leaving no trace, no one to hear his final gasp, no one to witness his death. Paddy’s presence was now less than an asterisk in the world, and I was aware, in my frenzy, that I might never see him again and that I would never get over it. You let him wander, the harsh voices in my head sang like a Greek chorus. He did not know how to swim; there was no way he could survive a fall into the water. I had fucked up in a big, unforgivable way. As my heart pounded and my pulse soared, I started to run and shout his name, asking people if they’d seen a little blond boy, avoiding their cruel, knowing glances, wishing that I, too, were dead, just so I could be with him.
Then, turning down the last pier, I spotted him: small, skinny, lost, his face woebegone, a fairy-tale boy scared out of his wits. A woman — a plainclothes police officer, it turned out — was holding his hand.
“I noticed he was wandering,” she said. (I listened hard for a touch of recrimination in her voice, but there was none.) “We were just about to look for you.”
I started to cry and said a million thank-yous as I took Paddy’s hand. We waved goodbye and got on the ferry, where Paddy let go of my hand and climbed the stairs to the top deck, refusing to talk. I said, “I’m sorry, darling. I’m sorry, Paddy,” but his bottom lip grew tighter, his jaw remained firm, and after a while I gave up, thinking he would forgive me by trip’s end. When the train arrived at Penn Station in Manhattan two hours later, I bought him a toy car, an ice cream, and a soda, but I was still waiting for his smile.
It came that night, as we sat on my bed, Paddy having eaten his favorite meal — macaroni and cheese — and I having relayed the story to Chas. (“Oh, no,” he’d said over and over, his voice genuinely sympathetic.) I lay back on my pillow and was about to pick up the novel I was reading when Paddy moved closer, newly emboldened. “Why do you read so much, anyway?” he asked, his eyes gleaming.
“I like to read,” I said, relieved just to hear him speak, even if his gaze still made me wither, “because then I can pretend I am far away.”
Smiling slightly, he asked, this time more curious, “How can a person go away reading a book? It’s not moving or anything.” (This is what he said, but what I heard him sing to himself was My mother loves me! She did not mean to abandon me!)
He continued his mild assault, saying, “I want to read, because . . .” He paused, searching, like his father, for the language that could best express how he felt about books and, ultimately, me. “Because I want to be in another world, too.”
“In a different country?” I said. “I know what you mean. Then I think I’m having a better time.”
His face shifted; I’d touched a nerve.
“Having a better time than the one I’m having in the grown-up world,” I explained, wishing that I could make up to him everything that had gone wrong in his short life — parents fighting, a mother’s blind eye, a father’s neglect. “I don’t mean better than the life I have with you. I’m talking about the life I have outside of you, beyond yours and mine. Like when my boss is grumpy, or when your father is off in his own world. Like when I try to do something right, but it doesn’t come out that way. You know, when you screw up and you’re sure everything’s ruined, but it’s really not?” And then, still searching, “Like when I feel lonely, Paddy, like you.”
He laughed. “You sure have a lot to say tonight,” he said. Touching my toes, he added, “Your polish is coming off.”
“I can’t bend over to paint them,” I said.
Paddy leaned up against me, his body hot enough to send me back fifteen years to the evening Chas and I had wandered his neighborhood at the bottom of Manhattan, near midnight. We’d walked into the Battery, on the esplanade, and parked ourselves on a bench, where Chas took my mouth and kissed it, his lips sliding over mine, his fingers groping while tugboats skimmed the harbor in the thick August heat. His saliva tasted salty, like seaweed, and the word longshoreman popped into my head.
“Paddy, will you polish them?” I asked, wiggling my toes.
He began to tickle my feet instead.
“No more!” I yelled. (Was this love — letting your son tickle you beyond the point of discomfort? I had no one to ask, no point of reference, my mother a drunk, my husband a depressive artist.) “Get the red polish,” I said, trying to divert Paddy. He ran to the bathroom and retrieved a bottle of Chanel Diable. Sitting near my feet, he began to brush polish on my left big toe, his hand as adept as a painter’s. “Not too much,” I instructed, aware that bits of polish were sprinkling the bedspread, that they wouldn’t wash out. As a child, I had painted my toenails while sitting on my mother’s white bedspread, leaving dots around my feet. She slapped me, and I packed a bag and ran away to the neighbors’, where my mother found me not much later. When we got home, she refused to cook dinner for me, and the animosity between us spread like an oil spill.
“I know how to do it, Mom. I’ve watched you,” Paddy said, his bony hands dipping the brush back into the bottle, his grip as unshakable as his father’s. Chas had snaked his hand under my shirt that night in the Battery with an assurance I had never seen in him again. And when I’d asked him playfully what he was doing, he had stopped, stared at me like a spooked animal, and then returned to his mission.
Paddy was intent on his task. He loves me, I thought, as he applied the red-hot color to my pinkie toenail, so crushed that it resembled a crumb. He loves me not, I thought, circling back, wishing I knew for sure, wondering whether I would ever know.
“Where will it sleep?” Paddy asked, touching my giant middle. “With you or with me?”
“It will sleep with me for a while,” I said, unsure whether that was the right answer. “I’ll continue to lie down with you at night, though.”
I shifted onto my side, my belly morphing into a new shape.
“It’s like an alien,” he said, giggling.
I took Paddy’s feet and cradled them as if they might change before my very eyes. They were my favorite part of him, soft and mutable, like custard — flan, panna cotta, and crème brûlée rolled into one: the foods I longed to eat every day, though the midwife warned me about obesity and diabetes. I did not want Paddy’s feet to grow. I wanted them to stay small, to fit in the palm of my hand forever.
“What’s your book about?” he asked, as I opened the novel.
In the golden yellow light of my bedroom, I saw that Paddy was willing to wait a lifetime for me to notice him; that what had happened at Fire Island had made only a small dent in his love for me; that nothing had been spoiled, that he would continue to be mine.
“It’s about the IRA, a group in Ireland that wants England to leave the north. And it’s about two people who love each other but can’t be together,” I said. Should I tell him more? About the empty Irish sky, the black bogs, the chalky roads? About the way people turn against each other for no apparent reason, or for reasons they can’t explain? I looked for Paddy’s reaction, but his eyes darted away, refusing to be caught. His ash-colored bangs hung over his eyes like a curtain, and I reproached myself for not keeping them trimmed. Paddy had Chas’s hairline: swoops at the corners of his forehead and waves above the ears.
“What’s the matter, darling?” I asked.
“It doesn’t sound like a book that I’d like,” he said, shaking his head, his hair swishing like a broom. He was crying.
“Why are you crying? Because the book sounds sad? The best ones are sad, Paddy.”
I kept talking, but he wasn’t listening; he had fallen asleep.
In the hospital, I patted Girlie, who lay beside me, and thought, We have to think of a name for her. One of her lush pink nipples was staring up as if to say: You and I will not always be friends. I was sick of rethinking the past, of wishing I could release myself from this disdain toward myself and my husband, and the rest of the world. I picked up Girlie and brought her to my chest, luxuriating in her hilly cheeks and ruby mouth, a vivid mirror image of her father’s. Positioning her against my left nipple, I opened her mouth and helped her clamp on. The milk rose and fell.
The midwife visited that afternoon, just as I was getting cranky for a big meal myself. I told her about the unhelpful nurse the night before, the trip to the bathroom unassisted, the trail of blood. She absorbed my story and acknowledged my misery, as I had hoped. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll look into it.” And I think she meant it.
She inched closer and examined my stomach and breasts, sticking a finger inside my vagina and extracting a clot the consistency of pudding.
“A big glob,” I remarked.
“Not bad,” she replied. She poked around more, exploring me the way Chas used to, but I felt nothing. “A little tear down here,” she muttered. “It will heal, but the tissue will scar.”
“Does that mean if I have another child, the skin will be too tough to let the baby out?” I asked, laughing, skittish. And if I leave my husband, will I ruin my son’s life? Never mind my daughter’s?
“The same thing will happen that happened last night: the baby comes out, and you heal.”
She made it sound simple, like eating and sleeping and reading. In fact, figuring out husbands was much harder than giving birth.
“No more girlies or boyies,” I volunteered, tears coming.
She touched my shoulder, and I tried to regain my composure, without much success.
By 6:30, I was frantic for the spaghetti and meatballs Chas had promised to bring me from the luncheonette.
“Paddy’s putting up some resistance,” Chas said on the phone.
“Let me speak to him.” There was a pause, then the shortest intake of breath. “Paddy? You there, sweets?”
Feathery breaths, drafty huffs, a cloudy exhalation.
“Paddy, you must come and see me. I can’t bear it.”
Nothing. Then a voice sparkling with obedience: “OK, Mom.”
Chas walked in first, tired, aggravated, still recovering from our morning phone call, a new daughter about to enter the fray. At least he was holding the wine I had requested. A woman at work had suggested I have wine after the birth, to celebrate. I hadn’t thought having a child was something you celebrated by opening a bottle, but the previous night, chewing on my sandwich, I’d decided it was.
Asking if I had a corkscrew, Chas added, “I forgot your dinner.”
“Paddy?” I called, trying to hide my disappointment. “Where are you, Paddy?”
A sneaker screeched against the linoleum in the hall.
“Come here,” I said.
He turned the corner into the room and stared at me as if I were a stranger. He hates me, I thought, much worse than he did after Fire Island.
“Do you want some Coca-Cola?” I asked, knowing that soda — sweet and mostly forbidden — was about the only thing to bring him back to me.
He nodded, biting his lip, his eyes daring me to comfort him. Chas left to get the soda and my meatballs.
“Where is she?” Paddy asked.
I laid my hand on the mound next to my thigh.
“She’s sleeping at dinnertime?” he said, shocked.
I unwrapped her from the blanket, revealing her face, arms, legs, torso. Her pig’s feet. “What do you think?” I asked.
“Sort of cute.”
I patted the bed, beckoning him to sit. He put one half of his fanny on the edge and picked up the bed’s remote control. That fleeting sense of satisfaction was still within my reach. Paddy has met his sister, I thought, glad to have been there to watch.
Chas and Paddy returned the next day to take me home. “You did the dishes, right?” I asked Chas. “I don’t have to arrive home to a pile of dishes, do I?”
He frowned. “I did the dishes. I made the beds. I even got some milk for your tea.”
I didn’t have the heart to ask him if he’d bought anything for dinner. Why push my luck? There had to be some tuna fish and eggs. Or maybe not. We took the elevator down to the hospital lobby. Chas hailed a taxi, and people passing by on the sidewalk wished us well with their smiles.
“Angel face,” I said, looking down at Girlie’s head, relieved to see that her eyes were more gray than her father’s. Otherwise, she was still Chas in female form. The three of us climbed into the cab, Paddy on one side, me in the middle, Chas leaning up against the door on the other, inclined to avoid me, as usual.
We sped down Broadway, the early-afternoon light shining like the strings of a harp, the crowds of shoppers ebbing and flowing from one block to the next. None of us said a word. The silence took me back to an afternoon in the Prado, in Madrid, almost a year earlier to the day: Taking advantage of cheap airfares, Chas, Paddy, and I had gone on an impetuous junket to see art and somehow find a togetherness we couldn’t find in New York. Paddy was miserable in the museum, bored from beginning to end, until we came face to face with Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation. The gold leaf and lapis lazuli were hypnotic. Its magic made us keenly aware of what we were missing in our own lives: the feeling that we, too, were blessed.
The cab continued to race toward City Hall, green lights allowing us to sail along unimpeded, the breeze from the windows rumpling our hair, my mind still in the Prado. I sensed Fra Angelico’s angel passing over us, and Paddy, his face pushed against the cab window, said out loud to no one in particular, “Any comments or questions?”
Chas nudged me and grinned, and I returned his smile, forgetting momentarily about all our problems. I knew that Paddy was parroting what his teacher asked during his kindergarten class’s “meeting” time. In the cab, however, no hands shot up: no comments or questions from these muddled adults.
The taxi turned down Maiden Lane and pulled to a stop in front of our building, where we dragged ourselves into the lobby as if we had all given birth. The elevator clunked along, rising steadily to the tenth floor, depositing us at our same old front door. Once inside, I checked the kitchen; the dishes were done and the fridge was half full: a package of tortellini, a quart of milk, a stick of butter. Good enough. Moving into our bedroom, I plopped down on the bed and quickly shut my eyes, holding Girlie against my chest. Her sleepiness worried me. I considered the possibility of nodding off for the rest of the day myself. But Paddy came over and stood like a soldier at the foot of the bed.
“You’re still Number One,” I eked out, too exhausted to say much else, my mouth as tired as the rest of my muscles.
He looked pleased, as if I had just handed him a prize. Then the baby whimpered, and I started to massage her temples, a relaxation technique I had learned in a parenting class at the hospital.
“It calms her,” I said to Paddy. “She’s hungry, but I’m trying to put her off.”
“You don’t feel like feeding her?” he asked.
He watched for a while.
“Would you like me to massage you?” I asked, pulling him toward me.
I started with his forehead, my fingers moving in circles, causing his nose to twitch.
“Tickles?” I asked.
“Everything does to me, as well,” I said, rubbing the corners of his eyes. Lots of tension gets stored there, the nurse had said, accumulating from the moment of birth — perhaps even earlier, in the womb. The most tension, she’d noted, is where your jawbone meets your ears; that’s where your most sacred feelings go, the ones you hide from everyone, including yourself. But I decided to avoid those hot spots on Paddy’s face, thinking that they were probably best left for him to uncover someday. Instead I traced my fingers to the corners of his mouth, which I watched slacken and melt as he drifted off to sleep.