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During the four years you shared with her, she had seen to it that your modest suburban home was clean, tastefully decorated, a pleasure to return to even from a fabulous vacation. She had never shown the slightest inclination to pursue a career that some day might threaten to become more important than her relationship with you, but was instead content to maintain your home and to volunteer part-time at a food pantry in the city. She had never brought up the possibility of marriage, which, though puzzling, suited you just fine; you were still young enough to enjoy your success as a graphic artist, not so old and desperate that you ever worried about spending the rest of your life alone. Although the arrangement was satisfying, you couldn’t help but wonder now and then why she never brought up the M word. It seemed unnatural, somehow, and you’d wonder whether she was harboring some dark secret; maybe she had been married and never divorced, and to clean the slate now would mean to dredge up a past that was best left buried. Whatever the case, you sometimes found yourself eying her suspiciously, but all you would see was the beautiful dark-eyed girl you’d literally
bumped into while walking down a crowded downtown street five years ago. Though sometimes uneasy, you felt blessed to have her, the perfect partner for you now. The baby was a surprise, to say the least. Like marriage, you had never discussed the possibility of children with her. So when, one morning, she broke the news to you, all you could do was absently eat your breakfast and stare at some point just past her face. You felt a groundless dread. You were too stunned to utter a word. “Well?” she finally said, sitting across the kitchen table, which was small and stylish. “Well,” you said dully, and puffed out your cheeks, as if buying some time to formulate a response. When you finally looked her in the eye, you didn’t see hope or joy or disappointment at your hesitancy. She remained dead-pan, which made the moment the more confusing. “What are we talking about here?” you asked at last. “Are we talking maybe, or is it a done deal?” She broke out laughing, then, the delightful gurgling laugh that you’d come to love but soon would start to distrust. “How you put things,” she said, shaking her head. “Really, do you think I would even mention it if it wasn’t a done deal?”
“But we never--” “What?-- never discussed children? No, but then we never discuss rain either, but sometimes it does rain.” That was the extent of the conversation regarding the news. You and she finished breakfast, and then went about your daily routines.
A baby-- it seemed so unreal. Whenever you thought back on the way she’d told you, you couldn’t shake the feeling there was something sinister about it; she had delivered the news with such lack of enthusiasm. It just seemed so cool and calculated, you couldn’t help sensing a trap. The more you dwelled on it, the more your breathing seemed to shorten. You had grown up in a large family, with three sisters and three brothers, and most of your childhood memories revolved around eating dinner, with many hands reaching every which way across the table, grabbing this bowl or that. As the middle child, you often feared that you might starve. Sure, there was camaraderie among you and your siblings, but it never seemed special enough to override the mortification of having to wear hand-me-downs clothes. The worse thing, though, the thing that affected you most, was the suffocating lack of privacy. For the first eighteen
years of your life, you felt that you had never been alone; always there were eyes watching every little thing you did, eyes following you everywhere. Your childhood nightmares were filled with crowded fears-- eyes staring at you, hands snatching food from your mouth, bodies jostling you, pressing in tight so that you could barely breathe. Maybe this was why you cherished your simple, uncluttered existence now. Maybe this was why the idea of a baby troubled you. Although a baby took up little space, that would change. It would grow larger, breathe more air, eat more food. Soon your house would be overflowing with baby things-- a crib, a diaper bag, cans of formula, bottles of Karo syrup, stuffed animals, nursery books-- and later, as the baby grew, there would be toys-- Leggos, learning games, more stuffed animals, action figures, tricycles, kites, skate boards…. In the weeks to come nothing changed your opinion that a baby was a very bad idea. But what could you do; it was a done deal.
Days passed, and you and she pursued your lives as though nothing had changed. She never referred to her condition, and if it wasn’t for
a large bottle of neo-natal vitamins in one of the kitchen cabinets, you would have believed it had all been a strange dream.
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One night, you found it impossible to sleep. It was odd; you had never before suffered insomnia. You lay in the darkness, which enveloped the room, and she slept silently next to you. You puzzled at your lack of drowsiness. Maybe you’d drunk too much coffee? Maybe you ought to switch to decaf-- just in case…. Soon you discovered how frustrating insomnia can be; you didn’t know what to think while waiting to fall asleep. All you could focus on was your sleeplessness, which, after a moment became very boring. Never having been a daydreamer, you were unable to
entertain your mind with visions of your hopes and fantasies. It was a sort of torture, being limited to contemplate the stark present: the dark, the woman, the baby…. Insomnia took root that night, and every night afterward you regarded bedtime with growing despair. There was always the darkness. Her presence next to you in the dark seemed unreasonable; she seemed like a stranger now-- you realized how little you understood her. You’d watch the bedroom slowly brighten as the sun rose outside. Your eyes became continuously bleary, so that you had trouble focusing on whatever you were drawing at work, and dark swollen circles formed under your eyes. Each time you watched her wake, you detested the way she, fully rested, slipped out of bed to dress and meet the new day as though nothing at all was wrong. Over breakfast you sat with her but did not speak, and the silence between you and she was maddening. You wanted to scream something at her. You felt in some way she was mocking you. Then something strange happened. While enduring another night of sleeplessness, you saw in the darkness of your room a brightness. It began as a dim smudge of light that seemed to hover in the air. You believed at first it was just eye stain or some figment of your weary mind. But the light intensified and began to take
shape. It looked like a small rainbow that was devoid of color. It was floating just over your girlfriend, whose form you could barely make out in the dark. You were fascinated by the phenomenon, which you suspected might be nothing more than an hallucination. But then came the voice, saying, Because she knows…. It was a tiny voice, neither male nor female, the voice of a child, although tinged with a world-weariness-- as though that child had survived some unspeakable abuse. Your skin crept at the sound of the words. You were certain that you were awake and that your girlfriend wasn’t playing some kind of joke on you. Your breath came in short strangled gasps, as your mind attempted to process the experience. The words were obviously directed at you, but you couldn’t detect its source. “What?” you heard yourself whisper, your voice dry and raspy. For a moment there was silence, broken only by the heavy thudding of your heart. Then, again, Because she knows…. “Knows what?” you murmured in the dark. But then the voice fell silent and the light faded away, leaving you
in a state of wonder and dread. Sitting on a crowded el train the next morning, you were still replaying the small tortured voice in his mind. People tramped in and off the train at every stop. They jostled each other as they tried to win a seat. Those left standing in the aisle glowered down at those who were seated. Although all this occurred every morning, it seemed today you were suddenly aware of the other riders. Was it always so crowded? Your breathing became shallow and puffy. You couldn’t wait to get off the train. You peered through the gray smudged window at the skyscrapers of downtown, getting closer but not quickly enough. The train went through a series of curves, at points where disastrous el derailments had occurred, and suddenly the train seemed like a huge snake coiling itself round some prey. When you finally got off at your stop, the open air of the street offered you little relief.
At night you were assailed by otherworldly lights and the small angry voice that spoke only in riddles. She has always known…. Plans have been set in motion…. Your future is wide open, but your present is not…. It all made no sense to you. Was it your imagination? Was it simply from stress? You didn’t feel the least bit stressed at the idea of a baby; you felt oddly disconnected from that reality, as disconnected as you felt from the voice that hectored you. The eerie lights of nighttime faded with the rising of the sun, but the voice began to haunt you during the day. You’d be at work, leaning over a light table, and the voice would drone on in your head. While drawing the exterior of a housing development-- White Pines Estates, “upscale living for the middle class”-- the voice said: It is, after all, just a bunch of buildings to you. That is all you see-- that is all you’re able to see. You can color the brickwork and the trees and bushes, but you can never make them feel like home. They are all empty boxes…. As the weeks passed, the voice assumed a more accusatory tone.
On the train ride home every day, the other passengers seemed unsavory. A man wearing a rumpled overcoat kept coughing as he loudly crumpled the newspaper each time he turned a page. A ragged-looking teenaged girl stared at the floor, never once looking up to show her face. A young black guy looked balefully at nothing in particular as he stood holding onto one of the poles near the exit. All the passengers appeared sinister or depraved or just plain gray, not quite human. And the voice in your head said: They are the living, those you can never know. You cannot imagine what they see when they look at you…. You never thought he was losing his mind, yet recognized the fact that hearing voices was never a good thing.
One day you come home from work. The house was oddly still; there was something in the air that made it heavy, like the air within a funeral home but without the cloying smell of flowers. You have a difficult time breathing, as though on the verge of an anxiety attack. But you slough off the feeling, and search through the house. She was not there. At first you thought that she had simply gone
out to the store. But then something made you check upstairs, the bedroom, the closet. All her things were gone-- that that she ever had much-- her clothes, a few framed photos of her family, a funny stuff alligator you had won for her at a carnival two summers ago. There was no proof that she had ever been in the house. You wandered around in a daze. It all seemed to unreal-- as unreal as the tiny voice that you had been hearing at night. Finally you find yourself in the kitchen, and you spot the neatly folded paper on the kitchen table. “Dear Jeff,” the note said, in that large loopy handwriting with which you had become familiar. “I have been dreading the day I would leave this letter for you. You will, no doubt, believe that I am an awful person to do such a thing to you. But, really, it is a kindness that I remove myself from your life. I feel sure that you will feel better off without me. You are very remote-- I suspect you are just built that way, and can never change. At one time I had hope that you could be different, but I lost that hope long ago. I did love you, though, and hoped that one day you could love me as much. “Please don’t attempt to find me. It would be a waste of time. Even if you did find me, I would never return to you. There is just nothing for me to return to.
“I will have the baby alone-- raise it alone. I feel that that is for the best. I will love that which you gave me, and it will love me back. I regret that things had to turn out this way….” And she signed her name, the jolly loops of her writing growing tighter and darker.
Months later you would still wonder at it all. Had the last five years ever really happened? You were now content to be alone. The entire house was yours. There would not be the least bit of sharing. At night now you lay alone. The tiny voice leave with her, and only the deep whirling of night played through your mind. The voice returned only once, several months later, the first and last message from your only child. And now I, the son, am born, and you, my father, the bastard.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?