I guess I should have realized what she was doing earlier. Silly superstitions fluctuate between amusing and annoying for me, but I don’t have a problem with little games. That she kept her half of the wishbone in a plastic baggie was the tip-off I should have received, but it wasn’t until just this moment that the light bulb had sputtered on.
As an aside, I can’t figure out the phrasing “The light bulb went off” as a metaphor for sudden realization. Given cartoon parlance, the idea always illuminates the bulb, which means if the bulb “went off,” the idea would be extinguished. An odd turn of the language, that.
Anyhow, here I am with a mouthful of kettle chips, staring idly into space while the open refrigerator cools my jeans because I’m functionally a very thin-haired teenager, waiting to sip Diet Coke directly from the two-liter once I’ve had a chance to swallow and I’m staring at this bit of chicken carcass magnetized to the fridge door and I get it. She wished that she was pregnant.
And it worked.
Or, at least, it proved to be a timely guess. Or an accurate hope. Or… something. For a few seconds I marvel that most of the truth or effectiveness of hope and wish and prayer and astrology and superstition and faith and optimism is basically attribution: If you think of it as coming from fate or God or cosmic forces or planetary alignment or positive thinking or the power of the human spirit it works either way. Did a wish on a chicken bone give my wife what she’s always wanted? Did God answer her prayers? Did nothing more magical than raw biology occur? It just depends on how you look at it. Maybe, technically, the answer is just “yes.” Maybe God granted the chicken bone the power to grant the wish that provided the sperm with the strength to push that last tiny bit.
Maybe it’s just easier to say she got her wish.
The fleshy woman had a security camera poised above and just to the right rear of her desk, overlooking both the semi-awkward chairs that served to provide customers with a modicum (a very small modicum) of comfort and, my paranoid mind assumed, to evaluate her level of worktime dedication. Pre-registering for admission to the hospital is kind of surreal when you think about it. Delivering a baby is one of the very few times you plan on visiting the hospital. I guess that’s why most people hate hospitals: They always interrupt your life.
Really, we love hospitals. They give us a place to go when these mysterious bodies of ours malfunction. I tried to imagine living in a place where hospitals weren’t standard issue in every township and populated region. It looked a lot like the scary places on Earth that I’m hesitant to visit. Maybe because they lack hospitals.
Jowls swinging, the woman “hoom”ed over our paperwork, flitting thickly back and forth between the forms (which weren’t that detailed) and her computer screen, which was turned opposite us so the security camera could stare watchfully at it but we could not. We listened to the clack of her fingernails on the keyboard for what felt like too many seconds while she let the semi-silence drag on. Finally she looked up, “Can I have a copy of your driver’s license, please?” Nik complied readily. “Did they take a copy when you were in here before?”
Nik looked puzzled but replied, “Yes.”
Heaving her bulk out of the chair (an unnecessary motion, I presumed, the office was scarcely big enough for her full frame, much less the three of us; I couldn’t imagine what she would need to do that one of us couldn’t handle by lifting an arm six inches to any side) she slapped the ID cards into the copier tray. “Well, no harm in copying them again, I suppose.”
I almost spoke up, suggesting that having unaccounted for copies of her driver’s license and insurance card lying around was indeed capable of causing harm, but I decided to stow it. Instead I marveled at the unfunny cartoon magnet on her overhead cupboard and the gigantic teacup-and-saucer shaped pots that crowded the room with poorly maintained plants.
The copier whirred and she lifted the lid too soon, half-blinding herself with the scanning light. I suppressed a laugh, mostly for Nik’s benefit, and watched as she handed the cards back to my wife, beaming with her un-self-conscious radiance in the stiff chair next to me. Before the woman flopped herself back into the chair I already knew that she was going to tell us we were all set to enter the hospital in less than 100 days for the first steps in the journey that would alter everything forever. I wished the confirmation was being delivered by someone with less Mary Kay brand lipstick on her teeth.
It had been a pretty tough morning. My first-shift partner had taken a personal day and things were breaking all over the place, causing me to get overwhelmed and stressed out. I griped over IM to Nik and she almost immediately asked if I wanted her to come out and have lunch. It was well past my lunchtime but having no relief/backup that day, I hadn’t actually taken a break. I didn’t really want her to go out of her way, but I did want to see a friendly face so I said if she wanted to come out, I would like to see her.
After the break she had decided to just stay and hang out until my shift was over. Fortunately the rest of the day had been much smoother than the first half and now we were discussing dinner options while I tried to pack up my equipment and hit the road. When Nik and I talk about what to eat for dinner the conversation often goes something like this:
Me: “What do you want for dinner?”
Nik: “I dunno, what sounds good to you?”
Me: “Meh, I could go for pretty much anything. Did you have any preferences?”
Nik: “Well, I’m starving but nothing sounds good.”
Me: “How about something we don’t get very often?”
Me: “How about something we eat all the time?”
Nik: “I’m sick of all of that.”
Me: “So… if you could eat anything in the world right now, what would it be?”
Nik: “I don’t know. I can’t think of anything. Give me some suggestions.”
Me: “Like, more suggestions than I already have?”
Nik: “You didn’t give me any suggestions.”
Me: “I should start carrying around a tape recorder.”
Nik: “You should start carrying around some sandwiches.”
Nik: “…What about sandwiches?”
But in this case we were also saddled with an additional issue of being close to our budget limit for food, plus we were in an unfamiliar location and had two cars. We had a meal at home that we were prepared to eat but it was at least 45 minutes until we could get there and then another probably hour until it would be ready. I suggested we push the budget anyway and get some food.
As we exited the building Nik said she didn’t want to do that because she’d feel guilty the whole time she ate, knowing it was bad for our budget, and she wouldn’t enjoy it. I said that was okay and we could think of something else. We walked along the sidewalk that separated the lots. My car was in the one to the right, the employee lot, hers in the left for visitors. We stopped moving because we hadn’t decided how to handle the transportation. Nik was looking increasingly agitated. She didn’t think we could agree on anything to eat and didn’t even know what we could find.
I suggested we could head into the main part of Sunnyvale and see what we came across, then come back and get my truck before we came home. Nik finally lost it. Her eyes puddled with tears and her lip quivered in that sad/cute way it does when she’s trying to avoid feeling silly for being emotional. She spoke in short, liquid phrases. “I haven’t eaten since before I left home! I know we should just go home, but I’m so hungry I’m getting a headache… I can’t think straight…” Out of the corner of her eye she saw one of my unknown co-workers, who was trying unsuccessfully not to stare at the cad making a pregnant woman cry. Embarrassed now at her audience and tumbling into a self-replicating spiral of emotional overload, she clammed up and tried to urge me toward my truck to just get something happening so she could try to forget the fact that she was crying about food of all things.
I don’t always know what to do when people get worked up over small things. I don’t judge them for it, in my estimation people like me are probably too cold and reserved for this world. Frankly, there’s a lot of stuff to get worked up about. In that second with tears falling against her will onto her stretched belly (where else would they land?) as if to bathe my unborn daughter with tears wrought by my inconsiderate behavior, I made a command decision. “Come on,” I said. “We’re going to get hamburgers. And I’m going to drive you there.”
“What about your tru—”
I cut her off. “I’ll take the shuttle tomorrow morning. I’ll drive it home then. No problem!” I smiled at her, hoping to appear reassuring and not reveal that if my all-in gamble on swaggering confidence failed me I would have no backup plan for how to ease her pain. She choked on a little laugh and glanced nervously at the bicycle-fiddler, who might as well have been whistling and staring at the clouds. She blinked back the pooled tears and wiped a palm absently on her shirt, and circled her arm around mine so I could lead her to the car.
It’s really not the sentiment the bothers me. I appreciate that people are engaged with expectant parents the way they would never otherwise be. There is a certain universal human-condition aspect to being pregnant that causes a sort of softening of the edges on the barriers that people usually construct between themselves and the ubiquitous strangers who populate their same general space. It’s in the smiles from passerby, it’s in the breezy conversations that wouldn’t otherwise be struck, it’s in the sense of palpable excitement from random humans with no other connection to you than their appreciation for your contribution to our species.
Still, there ought to be some limits. In some cases those non-pregnancy barriers exist for socially relevant reasons. Nik had just undergone the most recent barrage of naming suggestions from some arbitrary, disconnected passerby which sounded more like names they would like to use on their own children than names they felt would really suit a child coming from the collated DNA of Nik and I. We hadn’t exactly kept a secret that while we were fully prepared with a previously agreed upon name for a boy, the revelation that we were having a girl left us without a solid contingency in place. Hearing this had seemed to open the door for people to supply us with useful suggestions.
It wasn’t that we hadn’t scoured baby name books and sites already. Options were hardly what we lacked. What we lacked was that sense of connection to the name, the feeling that it was the end of the sentence that started with, “So I was hanging out this weekend with Paul, Nikki and…”
Of course, I wasn’t making it easier. I insisted that whatever name we chose also had a solid nickname. My entire life the principal complaint I had about my name was that it couldn’t be shortened. It felt many times like people avoided calling me by name, preferring to address me as “dude” or “bud” or whatever because there wasn’t a decent “hey-I-know-this-guy-and-we’re-on-informal-terms” phrasing for my name. Even people who have single syllable names like Tom or Jim can go by “Tee” or “Jay.” I won’t pretend I’m upset that no one ever felt it was cool or funny to call me “Pee.”
I built a spreadsheet. It contained the names we were considering in one column, the possible nicknames in another, matching middle name options in the third and then a column each for our individual ratings: 0-5. A calculated column then tallied the scores and sorted them by which names we both liked the best.
Lots of names Nik liked I had to rate low because they didn’t have nicknames at all. Many of the names I suggested were nixed because they were too unusual, even though I selected them to be long versions of the short names she liked. Nothing scored a higher cumulative rating than 6, and I kept dropping my score on that one because while I liked the full name, the more I thought about the short name the less happy I was with it.
Nik sighed and tried to shake off the well-meaning but ultimately frustrating encounter. Since we had the boy’s name earlier than we needed it we weren’t shy about sharing it. Even that had been somewhat bewildering as people felt perfectly at ease offering us critiques as if their reminders that it made a very excellent dog’s name was somehow helpful. The process felt in many ways like a classic case of too many cooks occupying the same kitchen.
“You know people are going to drive us crazy about this until she gets here, right?” Nik asked, although it wasn’t exactly a question. It was my turn to sigh. “I mean, what if we can’t come up with a name until right before she gets here?”
I rolled the thought around in my head for a moment, like Play-Doh. “What if…” I trailed off.
She scowled. “You have to tell me now. You know I hate that.”
“Okay,” I said with a grin. “I’m just thinking, what if we just told people we weren’t telling anyone the name?” Nik wrinkled her nose the way she does when she’s thinking.
“We could say it was going to be a surprise!” She seemed very excited about this.
“Uh, yeah. Sure.” I’m not huge on surprises, but I supposed that was what I was insinuating anyway. “Plus, that way even if we can’t agree on anything until the day before she’s born, no one has to know how much we struggled to come up with it. They might just assume we knew it all along.”
Nik cocked an eyebrow at me. “Ah, the procrastinator’s dream.”
We didn’t anticipate much of the reality of the pregnancy. We had plenty of notions about what it would be like. Having suffered from lower back pain for several years after an on-the-job injury and even undergoing spinal surgery to correct a herniated disc (an uncommon procedure in someone so young), we assumed Nik would have lots of back trouble during the ordeal. Instead it turned out that her lower back was fine but her ribs and mid-back were what sustained the most pressure from the extra weight in front and were causing her lots of sleepless nights and frustrating issues with general comfort.
I went to the freezer and retrieved the two ice packs we kept in there, these funky gel-based numbers that supposedly stayed cooler for longer periods of time. Than what I’m not precisely sure. I suppose than regular bags of ice cubes. That’s not the point. The problem was that even through a shirt they felt like they caused frostbite. We solved the problem by arranging them into a pillowcase, along the seam, separated lengthwise by about six inches. She would then wrap the case around her side, one ice pack lying atop her belly bulge and tucked under a breast so it could numb the thin muscles overlying the ribs. The other pack pressed against her back, just on the other side of her body from the first.
The problem was the position she had to contort into to hold the packs in place made the pain even worse than without the ice. So I grabbed an Ace bandage and wrapped it around her middle several times, making sure to get up underneath the edges of the ice packs so they would stay in place, then I clipped the bandage snugly in place. It was a little silly looking, with a bandage around the middle of a pregnant woman and a cream-colored pillow case hanging off her hip like a tiny mis-fitting cape.
I finished wrapping it up and the cold sent goosebumps up her bare arm, disappearing under the strap of her tank top. “Thank you, sweetie,” she said and planted a soft kiss on my cheek, standing up with surprising lightness on her tiptoes to reach.
Instinctively, my defenses began to rise. Forcefully I kept my voice even and tried again to explain my position, but I didn’t get far before her mind came up with another point. I could tell from her tone that she was on edge as well but trying valiantly to avoid escalating the conversation into a genuine quarrel. The curious thing about parenting is that so much initially affects the mother directly and physically. Eventually I presume the biology gets out of the way and things even out, but at this point there was so little actual influence I had.
“I think you’re not grasping that this is a long time we’re talking about. You don’t have to watch what you eat. You don’t have to alter much of anything, because the baby isn’t depending on your body!”
I nodded. “Well, that’s kind of exactly my point. I appreciate the reality of that circumstance, but don’t you think I should have some kind of input on things that affect our child? How is it fair that you play the biology card and it turns out it’s a trump card?” I’m sure she loves it when I make gaming metaphors.
It was all theoretical at this point. The discussion revolved around a comment she had read on an online article discussing bad husbands in the delivery room. One example had been a guy who, when the mother asked for an epidural, told his wife, “Come on, honey. We can do this!” Universally he had been reviled but I felt there was more to it. Perhaps they had agreed earlier that they would try for as natural of a birth as possible. It seemed like he was merely cheerleading, although I sort of understood that his use of the pronoun was a bit mistimed. My contention which was leading us down the path of disagreement was that husbands shouldn’t be chastised for offering opinions about labor process just because they weren’t the ones who had to do it. Initially my example had been that Nik once told me, “You can’t hold anything I say in the delivery room against me.” I was merely suggesting that the same ought to hold true. As much duress as men aren’t under in that situation, it’s still sort of new and scary. Plus, I say more stupid things per day than the populations of many second world countries combined, so my odds of not being a fool during delivery were vanishingly slim.
Eventually we were here, debating how much input on all things parental a father could really have when the executor of those decisions was, by definition, the mother. Nik was nodding as well, but not in agreement, more in understanding. “Well, you can have input, but you can’t have the say.”
I considered this. In a phony authoritarian voice I said, “That sounds like ‘Your opposition has been noted for the record, Mr. Dad.'” Nik curled her lip in a way to suggest, well, like, yeah. I softened my voice. “Can we at least agree that I should be some part of the decision making process?”
She tried to hide the eye roll, but I still caught it. “Of course we can.”
I’ve considered the prospect of parenthood for many years at this point. I never thought it would take less time than was necessary for the child to gestate to realize how challenging it actually was going to be.
Ultrasound technicians like to pretend they’re privy to some deep magicks, enabling them some true sight when they wield their arcane implements of divination. Honestly, they just have a lot of practice staring at grainy video feeds and speaking with authority. By the time the 20-week scan arrived, I’d seen about half a dozen or more of these in the last couple of years and felt like I was getting pretty good at seeing what they could see.
It helped when I realized that what often makes it strange-looking is that you can see completely through all the tissue most of the time. I guess it makes sense if you can see through the skin and organs of the mother that the sonic waves don’t conveniently stop when they hit the baby’s body. So sometimes you can see the baby from the bottom and catch a glimpse of its tiny, developing brain. On a related subject, I sometimes have a really tough time not making inappropriate jokes. For the record, ultrasound appointments in which they examine your fetal child to determine if everything is developing properly? Not great stages for witty stand-up routines.
I could tell the tech and Nik were discussing something; the lady squishing the paddle through the ultrasound fluid, more than a little reminiscent of hair gel, was talking a steady clip and adjusting various knobs and dials on the machine. I was in another land. I was watching my daughter roll and bounce, springing her head back and pushing off with tiny feet from the lining of my wife’s uterus. She was, it seemed, playing. It was the kind of moment you might catch if you walk up to a child’s room and find them alone, unaware of your presence. They softly entertain themselves with something mundane and maybe repetitive, lost in the world of minor activities that are still new to these inexperienced creatures. She was swimming, or jumping, or just rocking herself.
It looked like fun.
When I work from home, I tend to sit at the dining room table. The desk in the spare room/soon-to-be-nursery is always ridiculously cluttered and far too crowded with other computer peripherals from the aging desktop we can’t quite seem to part with for my laptop. Plus when I’m out in the main part of the house I don’t feel as much like I’m just stuck back in my cube at work. Nik, especially these days, prefers the couch. From my station it’s nice because we’re more or less facing each other and that makes it easy to chat while I work and she does her thing, usually studying or reading or watching TV.
She has a weird obsession about her face and makeup: She claims she had horrible acne as a teenager and she regularly complains about suffering from adult acne although I never really noticed it in high school and I don’t think it’s even remotely as bad now as she makes it out to be. But regardless she made a set of rules that she lives by regarding her skin. For one, she never leaves the house without makeup. This is frequently inconvenient for me since that means there is no such thing as her just “running out” to pick up something from, say, the 7-11 on the corner. If something needs to be picked up quickly, I’m the guy. For another, she never sleeps or lies down with makeup on. That means that if she has plans to take a nap at any point during the day, she tries as much as she can to avoid getting ready to go out until after the nap.
Sometimes, this doesn’t work. We’d had an OB appointment earlier that morning which had necessitated her getting her makeup on and she had class that evening so she couldn’t even get ready for bed early. But it was clear she was fading and needed to get some rest. She compromised by arranging some pillows on the couch and sitting in a more or less reclined position, head back, feet up, hands folded gently across the expanse of her stomach.
I was busy working, head down in some crisis of the moment and I stopped to crack my neck. As I did I pulled off my glasses and rubbed my eyes, catching a glimpse of the clock to see that I still had hours left to go in my work day. In an effort to shave a few extra seconds off my work and add a bit more mental refreshment, I looked around the room and my eyes rested on Nik.
She lay there, sort of awkwardly positioned but looking almost improbably relaxed, and I noted that the sun was low in the sky so it shone past the tall trees outside the balcony, and through the opened blinds on the patio door, illuminating her face. She says regularly that she doesn’t have that “pregnant glow,” which I believe she considers to be little more than myth. I sat for the full minute, watching that glow come from both within her and shining from without, cast by the golden sun and lighting her up the way rooms do when she enters. The soft rise and fall of her breathing, the barest of smiles tipping the edges of her mouth, a cool serenity in her expression the way she’s looked since she found she was pregnant.
I reminded myself to swallow, and reluctantly turned back to my tasks, wondering exactly how I happened upon this state of unimaginable fortune.
I don’t even remember the dream, now. In fact, given that it had wrenched me out of slumber several hours before, I didn’t even really remember it as I stood zombie-like in the shower later that morning. I was trying to concentrate on the pounding of the hot water against my neck and shoulders and not on the dream. Or the memory of the dream. Or maybe just the feelings of loss and sadness that had permeated my mind since it had played out in my subconscious.
All the books say expectant fathers often dream about their own dads, and while the specifics of the nightmare were nebulous and slippery, sliding further away on the masochistic occasions that I tried to recapture them, I do remember this: When I woke up, near to tears, I asked a concerned Nik who had shaken me out of it, “Is my dad okay?”
I guess the connective thread that binds fathers to sons as they become fathers themselves is predictably strong. The notion, passed into my waking forebrain, of losing my own father was readily contrasted with my sense of apprehension at suddenly having an entire set of people who depended on me and found value in my existence who would be left behind and, ostensibly, worse off in the case of my demise. It’s all very morbid and depressing to contemplate, especially before breakfast.
I honestly don’t know how we do it most of the time. I mean “we” in the most inclusive sense, the humans who get up knowing full well how tragically fragile our lives can be, and we carry on doing our thing, spending our time like borrowed money understanding that with each new relationship we forge we create another strand in a web made of spun glass, as easily shattered by a stiff wind as by a swung hammer. The shower thundered against the backs of my ears, and I listened carefully to its drumming, aware at once how dangerous and incredible this world can be. I shifted my weight a little, thinking it was probably getting to be time to dry off, get out and continue my day.
Maybe that’s just how we do it. We get up. We kiss our families. We face the day as bravely as we know how. We just hope. It seems somehow worth it, though thousands of years of poetry and art and music have tried in vain to describe why, we just sense it. Somehow it matters. Somehow, it’s worth sharing.
I decided to let the water run, just a bit longer.
It was the sixth time we’d visited Old Navy in as many weeks. When Nik first started to show, she was pretty pleased with her body. She had been on an impressively strict exercise regimen prior to conceiving and the first trimester had been a loathsome ordeal during which Nik was locked in a tense battle of wills with her own stomach. In this corner, crippling nausea. In the other corner, Nik’s lifetime aversion to regurgitation. The bout was ultimately ruled a draw but each landed some vicious blows.
Anyway, going into the second trimester Nik had actually lost weight, which didn’t make her doctor ecstatic but I’ve yet to meet a female who didn’t find weight loss, regardless of circumstance, a net positive. I’m fairly sure chemotherapy patients at least start off my saying, “All things considered, I’m pretty happy with the results.” She was starting to show in those blissful early visits but was only stretching her waistband a bit from the bump and overall her confidence was high.
I suppose “blissful” is a relative term. Shopping with Nik is a very effective tool in building patience. For one thing, she’s almost—almost—as picky about her clothing as she is about her food. Which means she can walk into any of two dozen stores packed floor to ceiling with garments, make a single circuit through the rows of jeans and dresses and shirts and jackets and return to the entrance declaring with authority: “They don’t have anything here.” It’s like a strange shopping blindness and I’ve found through repeated trial and error that picking something up and showing it to her does not penetrate the filter.
The other part of the equation is that she hates trying on clothes. I mean she really hates it. Given the choice between trying on clothes and stuffing live carpenter ants into her nostrils, I’m guessing the first thing out of her mouth would be, “How many ants are we talking here?” Practically this results in her returning a lot of clothes. I mean a lot. Every single trip to the clothing store(s) has, in our ten years plus as a couple, resulted in at least one item that needs to be returned. Of those approximately seventy-four trillion garments, I’d estimate one-third have actually made their way back to the place of purchase to be exchanged for cash or credit. Goodwill shoppers frequently petition us to move into their region when our leases expire.
I believe it was the former issue that ultimately led to this moment. It wasn’t that we didn’t see any maternity items, but Nik didn’t like any of them. She was also trying—and you will detect no note of complaint in this fact from me—to avoid spending a lot of cash. Naturally such ideals are lofty; lacking a large or persistent customer base maternity shops have decided to price according to demand and demand is high when as each week passes the figure a woman once only thought she loathed transforms into a mocking caricature of what she’s always envisioned herself to look like on her darkest days. Given the very real prospect of trying to squeeze an expanding body into a shirt that fit mere months ago and having the result resemble those Pillsbury biscuit cylinders when they’ve been accidentally dropped at the checkout line, women will pay upwards of $200 for an eyepatch if it makes them feel a little bit more attractive.
The obvious tragedy here is that pregnant women look, to outside observers, adorable by their very nature. We are genetically programmed to have a melting fondness for the rotund pregnant form unless we are actually the ones who are pregnant. Cruelly, maternity outlet stores capitalize on this biological fact like wolves serving starving sheep crabgrass à la mode in some famine-stricken region.
I’m not sure if I was shocked or relieved to find that even during the months Nik had spent shopping for maternity clothes, stores who didn’t specialize in them seemed to be ridding themselves of stock. I guess it’s difficult to justify charging $86 for a maternity T-shirt when you have regular, non-maternity T-shirts in XL two aisles over selling for $5.99.
But this Old Navy had clearly sold maternity clothes, they had sold them to Nikki, earlier in this exact pregnancy. Now here we were a week later, operating under Pregnant Lady Logic which suggests that seven days is all it takes for an entire rotation of a store’s stock. We were bewildered to find the spot we had checked to see the exact same elastic-waist pants and mid-paneled jeans and stretchy tank tops the prior Saturday was now an extension of the Jr. Ms. department like an encroaching vine of youthful non-reproduction had overtaken the motherhood section in the night. Nik approached a woman wearing an Old Navy name tag, tiny fists balled, clearly expecting a fight.
“You don’t have any maternity clothes.”
The employee looked up lazily from her strenuous task of folding. “No.”
“No? So where are they?”
“Where are what?”
Nik’s brow furrowed. “Where are the clothes?” The employee matched her rumpled expression and looked around, clearly thinking, look around lady, they’re everywhere. I didn’t have time to inject a friendly word of advice warning the girl about how pointing out the clothes was fruitless.
“I’m sorry ma’am,” the employee said, dropping the half-folded skirt onto the stack in front of her, “but what?”
“I’m looking for the maternity clothes,” Nik said, a little optimistic now that they were finally getting somewhere.
The girl, whose name tag read, “Mindee” and was adorned with what I presumed were supposed to be floating hearts but looked more like a child’s first clumsy attempts at the capital letter B, spoke slowly, now understanding that she was dealing with a challenged couple. “We don’t carry maternity clothes. Like I said.”
“What?” It was Nikki’s turn to be perplexed. “You just had them—”
Mindee cut her off. “Yeah, we got rid of them.” She resumed her skirt-folding. “Sorry.” She didn’t sound the least bit.
I could tell Nik was ready to launch into a tirade questioning the marketing decisions and lineage of every single employee who received a paycheck from Gap, Inc. I swiftly interjected, “Thanks,” and began tugging Nik by the arm toward the front doors. She was irate and hardly softened her voice much less her tone as she adjusted her focus from the shopgirl onto me, which I suppose was the intended effect of pulling her out, though just then I couldn’t remember why.
She was practically growling: “How are you going to just up and stop selling maternity clothes? What, did people stop getting pregnant all of a sudden!? Because, oh look! Here’s a pregnant woman RIGHT HERE and she thinks this is complete bul—”
The young man clearly knew nothing about the encounter at the rear of the store. He had been given some menial fabric-related task up near the entrance and obviously had been instructed to greet every customer as they entered and to cheerfully bid them farewell as they left. He was only doing his job when he piped up in a brisk voice as we stormed past, “Have a great day!”
Without even pausing for a breath Nik broke off her epithet and brightened her own voice into the patented Cheerful Nikki Phone Chirp: “Thanks! You too!”
At first it had seemed like one of those things, odd coincidences where something could be interpreted several ways but it was just nice or funny or pleasant to pick the unlikely explanation. But it was getting uncanny. Nik had popped on the TV just for a moment to set up the TiVo to record the Sharks game that night and when she was done she had dropped it back into Live TV which for whatever reason was set to Animal Planet. The show was some random pseudo-documentary probably full of dubious science about lions. As a sort of joke she had addressed our cat directly: “Hey, Dixie! Those are like, your cousins or something. Check it out.”
The cat had turned her head toward the TV, regarded it in her cool catty fashion for a moment, and then sat down, still staring straight at the set. Nik and I had shared a laugh. “I think she’s intrigued,” I remarked from my station at the dining room table. We tried to transition back into whatever conversation we’d been having before the game had come up.
But it was increasingly difficult to ignore the amusing spectacle of the cat who, for all appearances, was actually watching TV. She hunkered down into her relaxed, belly-down position with all four feet under her. She was apparently transfixed. “Wow,” Nik commented, “It really does look like she’s watching it.”
We had sat there for a few more minutes, watching her look intently at the television, waiting for her to break the spell. Then the show went to commercial, and things got surreal. As some ad for breakfast meats or impotency drugs came on, Dixie diverted her attention, staring first down at the carpet and then gazing languidly around the room. We had watched as several more commercials aired and she showed none of the previous interest in what was being displayed. And now the commercials faded and the show started up, some baritone voice-over artist booming, “Welcome back to Animal Planet!”
And the cat returned her attention to the show. She had watched the lions, stopped caring during the commercials, and was now glued again to the set, watching as the pride stalked some breed of Elk or another. “I’ve never seen a cat actually watch TV before,” I said aloud.
Dixie shot her attention over to me, giving me one of those wicked kitty glares that suggests, in a best case scenario, murder. I lowered my voice, “Sorry. Geez.”
She turned her head back, disturbance quelled for the moment.
There was no earthly reason for us both to be up that late. I was slated to work the next day although my sickly discomfort and sleeplessness was making that feel less and less likely by the moment. Nik, on the other hand, was just having one of her usual rough nights dealing with temperature control issues, aches, pains, discomfort with any of her recommended sleeping positions and you know, the regular stuff pregnant women go through like frequent urination and being woken by hunger.
Despite the unlikelihood of it all, here we were at four in the morning, sitting in the living room in un-slept-in pajamas, flipping through the channels. She munched on some late night snack or another while I curled my lip at both my gurgling stomach and the ridiculous choice of programming that late at night. I stopped on some random sports channel and dumped the remote onto Nik’s extended belly. “You find something.”
“Hmm-mm.” She said around a mouthful. “You do it.”
“I already tried,” I whined. “It’s your turn.”
“Well, I won’t,” she declared simply and definitively. We engaged in a non-uncommon battle of the wills as Ultimate Fighting played on our set.
“See? You won’t pick something so we get to watch these two dudes grope each other and—” a contestant punched the other in the head several times in rapid succession, interrupting my thought. “Oh snap!” I cried. That quickly, the match was over and clearly they had spent too much time hyping the event prior to the fight taking place because the post-game interviews were performed as the credits rolled by too quickly to actually read.
“Who actually watches this garbage?” Nik said, not necessarily revolted.
“Well, we do, for one.” I said.
“Because you won’t pick something good for your poor pregnant wife to watch,” she taunted. I just scowled in response.
Our banter may have continued, but the fighting show ended as abruptly as the match itself and the next moments would capture our attentions and seal our destinies for the next thirty minutes to come: The thrilling, self-declared NON STOP ACTION screaming from the intro to television’s only show dedicated to the noble sport—nay art—of turkey hunting.
Fathers are granted very little opportunity to connect on any level with their children until after their birthday. This is not some conspiracy organized by humanity’s sorority of mothers, it’s merely a fact inherent in the structure of the proceedings designed by God. I guess He figures that moms are going to be the ones handling the bulk of the physical contact anyway once the child arrives be it via breastfeeding or a slobbery thumb rubbed across the cheek to dislodge particles of Cheeto, dirt and congealed oatmeal. If there is any time to acclimate both mother and child to this bodily connection, it’s straightaway.
But dads on the other hand have to work to find that chemistry. Being uninitiated, I can’t say how much effort is involved, but I know that Nik has been talking to our daughter for months now, explaining the nuances of music and expressing her love and warning about the inherent insanity of her paternal unit. I, on the other hand, attempt to talk to her and end up feeling like I’m just talking to my wife via some odd bellybutton conduit. It feels sort of awkwardly silly, not unlike the times where I speak in a funny voice as if I were our cat, anthropomorphized, and she responds back. I know in an abstract sense that our girl is in there, a real person just too small to come out and be seen and held and kissed and loved, I just can’t get a sense for what she’s like.
I’m reading a stack of comic books, Nik is half watching something on TV and half fiddling around on her laptop. Abruptly she stops and sets down her computer, reaching over quickly to grasp my wrist. She drags my hand over toward her and I resist a little because I’m weird about being made to do things without any context or explanation. She plants my palm on her belly, low down toward her waistline and pushes my fingers under the elastic of her pants a few inches, a familiar touch that would be wildly inappropriate for anyone but me.
I know what she’s doing but honestly she’s been doing it for about a week and a half now and so far all that happens is she says excitedly, “Did you feel that?” I’m forced to respond truthfully in the negative which always leaves her looking crestfallen and me feeling a bit guilty. I’m even a bit annoyed at this point because I don’t expect anything will happen for a few weeks yet and I’m not looking forward to this scene playing out dozens of times before I finally give up and fib telling her oh yes, I did in fact feel that aw isn’t it so sweet and special. I’m really just wanting to get back to the adventures of the Teen Titans at this point.
Nik is valiantly patient with me. She likes to say that she envies my own patience but really all I offer is a detached indifference to most things that masquerades as patience. Her ability to never give up, to refuse to accept anything that resembles defeat no matter how long it takes no matter what toll there may be is real and genuine. It is unwavering. It is patience. She smiles as sweetly as I’ve ever seen her and she whispers, “Say hello to your daddy.”
The kick is little more than a soft thump, a light breeze tapping against my palm. It happens in slow motion, like a tiny high five shown for dramatic effect at the end of a championship game. One single moment, one tiny snapshot of time. One blink. One kick into my palm, and Nik glows. Her stomach seems to hum and it’s almost like there was a flashlight shining within her womb, silhouetting our baby against her smooth skin. She stretches her miniscule, developing hand into mine and we embrace the only way we are allowed at this moment. I linger there, frozen in a moment of pure contentment as we connect as one. Our family.
And I exhale.