The baby is delivered to me at my apartment by a caseworker named Sandy, who has called three times to tell me she’s lost. She sounds annoyed, as if my apartment building isn’t cooperating. The baby is four days old and has just been released from the hospital; his mother is not allowed to keep him because she dropped her last baby out a third story window to try to get the devil out of him. On the phone this morning, Sandy announced that there’s an aunt who was previously unwilling to get involved, but seems to be changing her mind.
“We have to check her out, of course. That could take a few months.” She says it with a barely concealed exhaustion that I’ve witnessed in every caseworker I’ve met. There’s also a defensive quality to her comment, as if she’s expecting me to balk. I worry that she doesn’t like me.
When she arrives I open the door and there he is, asleep in her arms, wrapped in a blanket, wearing a blue nightgown that gathers at the wrists and at the bottom where his feet have poked through. The way she holds him makes his lower lip push out and I wonder if he can breathe correctly, but what do I know—this is the first time I’ve ever had cause to wonder such a thing. Sandy hands me the baby and steps past me into the apartment to lay out all his gear: formula, diapers, some clothes that will last me a few days in case I need to get some of my own. She talks about the stipend, and his first doctor’s appointment, and I’m hoping she’ll either write all this down or call later to confirm it. Sandy doesn’t email. I show her the car seat with the hesitant pride that a school kid presents a model volcano to his teacher. I get jumpy after a few minutes because I remember Seth is on his way over, and I wish there was some clue that will make him wait outside or pretend to be a neighbor. He wasn’t mentioned anywhere in my home study; he isn’t mentioned in most areas of my life. As she talks I keep looking at the closed door as if it might burst open on its own.
“Okay, well, good luck!” Sandy says when she’s through, sort of smiling. “Call if you need anything.”
She makes tickling motions on the baby’s stomach and then leaves. When she goes out to the elevator I hear her speak to someone. “Excuse me,” she says, and then Seth appears around the corner. His face breaks into a grin and I hold my free hand to my lips and cock my head in the direction he just came from. I had told him about this baby, but as with most people, it’s the sight of such a tiny being that makes it real. As he walks down the hall toward me I look down and sigh with a mixture of awe and something else, something sad, but I’m not sure of what it is until Seth reaches us and takes the baby’s foot in his hand.
“Hi, little guy,” he says. “It’s nice to meet you. This lady will take good care of you.”
When he says it, the sadness turns to panic.
Seth stays for about an hour helping me organize the apartment since I’m afraid to put the baby down. His mother named him Paul, but I cannot seem to attach a name to him yet, it feels too intimate. Seth takes charge of mixing formula with some water I had boiled that morning and stashes the bottles in the fridge. He makes a grocery list by wandering around my kitchen and goes out. He enjoys this, playing the quiet hero, and for now I appreciate it, but it will soon feel like something dramatized.
Most friends were remarkably reserved when I told them I was applying to be a foster parent. They asked practical questions about my having help, and taking time off. They told me to save up vacation and sick time, and gave me names of local day care centers. My sister, on the other hand, told me to go to a sperm bank and have a baby of my own, as if it were about that— having something of my own. My friend Rachel, on a bad day, sighed and said, “So I shouldn’t ask you to go with me to Brazil next winter?” The night I went to the information session was bitterly cold, the room we were in was overheated and I was distracted through most of the descriptions of the forms and fingerprinting process by the corn muffin in my bag. I was weak and sick to my stomach by the time I stood up an hour later to sign up for the foster parent training classes. When I explained the process at work the next day, my coworker Mike stuffed a French fry in his mouth and said, “Volunteering at the hospital isn’t enough? It just sounds like a lot.” His wife had just given birth to their third child, and he already spoke wistfully of the evenings when he could stay at work late. He longed for winter and then spring, when we’re all required to stay until all the applications are read, the financial aid packages prepared, the parents reassured and the deposits indicating their child’s desire to attend our small college have been received.
The only classes I could go to were held on four consecutive Saturdays, all day, out on the Pennsylvania border in a Presbyterian church on the side of a hill in a town full of small bungalow-style houses and ranches on large, treeless lots. As I drove through town that first morning, the grass was still dewy and the volunteer fire fighters were standing in the road holding out their boots to passing cars. I heard someone yell the word “hero” out the window of their SUV.
The class was small enough that we all fit around a conference table. A heavyset woman who introduced herself as an Assembly of God minister talked far too much, while the quiet couple next to her just smiled and spoke so softly that I learned nothing about them. Then there was the couple who wore matching Mets jackets and complained bitterly about the bureaucracy of social services, and a Black woman in her sixties who talked about raising her granddaughter. Two of the women were a couple: one looked warily around the room until her partner leaned over to speak to her as if she was promising they could leave soon. Leading the class was a muscular, earnest guy about my age who laid out magic markers and paper that made me fear we would have to do “exercises” and “share.” Judging by the looks on the faces of my fellow classmates, they were afraid of the same thing. When he promised pizza at noon, the mood lightened considerably. Now we all had something in common.
Seth and his wife sat together across the table from me and smiled politely throughout the first day. She was an ICU nurse, he worked for a pharmaceutical company, and they hoped to adopt. He looked down at the table as he said the last part, as if he were saying something embarrassing; she looked at the wall across the room. I made assumptions about them—that they were conservative, possibly religious, that they lived in a hollow new house with tiny trees staked in the front yard. He was taller than I expected, his height all in his legs, and there was something about his eyes—light blue, lashes that curled at the outer edges—that made him seem like he was always about to smile.
Seth usually comes over on Sundays, after his wife heads to her shift in the ICU. This detail about her, about the work she does, makes me feel even worse—it would be easier if she did something a little less selfless. He tells me they’re working out the details of a separation, that they’re essentially through, that the rest is administrative. Only finances keep them both in the house, and yet, he never sees me unless she’s working. I met her one other time after our classes were finished—before this all started and before I admitted to myself that I thought about him constantly—and even then I couldn’t look her in the eye. She was in line at a coffee shop near the Division of Family Services office, and I was waiting for my drink, so I was stuck there as she leveled me with a tight smile and a once-over.
Since the baby, he’s come over more often—every other day. He brings dinner and stays for a little while, usually until the baby falls asleep—the first time, anyway. We never have sex anymore and I figure this is like having a baby of my own.
It took a few months after those classes before I was cleared as a foster parent, and in that time I spent a lot of hours with Seth and at some point began to picture myself having a baby with him. I had a fantasy of nursing an infant in my bed while he looked on from the doorway, contented and silenced. I almost told him about it lying beside him one afternoon, but I decided not to, fearing he’d pull away or gently remind me of our shared reality. The sky was a steely gray getting ready to snow, and I wished we could stay that way even as I looked at the clock and knew he had to head back home. It bothers me, all the things I keep secret, but there’s some voice in my head that tells me it will all work in my favor someday.
On Tuesday, Seth arrives at my apartment while the baby is screaming. His little face is red and squished into a frown; he pushes his lower lip out and stares at me as if pleading for me to do something to help, then gives up, opens his mouth wide and wails. The doorbell rings just as I realize I break out in a sweat every time he cries. When I answer the door I’m rattled and angry. I want to hand the baby to Seth, or I want him to take him from me, but I see the look on his face. Not tonight.
“This isn’t a great time,” I say loudly. My right ear is ringing.
“I can see that.”
“I said,” he shouts. “I can see that.”
At the same instant we both suggest that he come back some other day and as we come to understand that we’re both sending him home we stop and watch each other. Something changes between us; I want him to offer to stay. I am furious, tired and sad; he looks guilty and defensive.
“Call me tomorrow,” I say, letting him off the hook.
He nods and backs away with a flicker of an apologetic grin, then turns on his heel and walks to the end of the hall with his head down. I wonder what would have happened if I had handed the baby to him.
A few minutes later, once I’m sure he’s gone, I wrap the baby in a blanket and take him outside, hoping the fresh air will calm him down. I put a hat on his tiny head and hold him tight as we step out into the darkness. In the distance, I can make out the silhouettes of the teenage boys who hang around at night and for the first time I’m afraid of them, feeling vulnerable with this infant in my arms, who is still screaming even though I’m halfway around the block with him. I am sure that people can hear him as we pass each house, and I want someone to come out and tell me it will get better, it will change. It’s not until we’re back inside the building that he stops crying, suddenly, as if nothing happened. His face is pale and splotchy and his eyes are rimmed with red, even though he’s not able to make tears yet. He looks into my shoulder as we make our way up the stairs and sighs as if he’s bored.
He finally nods off about twenty minutes later, between bouts of thrashing and fussing, his hands windmilling against my chest. Once he does finally sleep I have time to realize how useless this situation is between Seth and I, how this relationship may collapse, and how it should really, if the universe behaves fairly. Then I wonder about the other man in my life, the one who’s sleeping soundly, his legs splayed, his fists curled beside his head. How long will we last together?
The next day, Seth returns and spends hours with the baby, taking him for a walk, feeding him, letting him fall asleep in his arms.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” I say.
“Oh come on, what’s the harm just this once?”
I want to tell him that the harm will come the next time he wants to sleep in someone’s arms and Seth isn’t there. I want to ask him not to make it harder on me. I want to say something about the terrific flaw in the logic of “just this once,” but I walk away instead, tense and distracted. In the meantime, Rachel calls to tell me about the trip she took to Costa Rica alone instead of Brazil. She talks about the beach, and the books she read, and the booze she drank.
She asks about the baby and promises to come meet him soon, maybe watch him while I go for a walk.
Later, Seth makes dinner while I put the baby to bed. It seems I am always putting the baby to bed. He is a few weeks old now and he and I are getting used to each other’s moods and habits. He likes to grab the collar of my shirt as he nods off, as if it will keep him from falling. Yawning, he nestles his head in the crook of my arm; we have been at this for half an hour and I am losing patience with him, with this process, with this “stage.” I’m also hungry. I watch him as his attention drifts, his warm brown skin, his eyes still so black I can’t see the pupils. People tell me his hands are big and that he’ll be tall. I still don’t call him anything besides “young man,” or “sweetie pie” or “wiggle worm”—words I assume will be used by the people who want to raise him. It’s not that I don’t want to raise him; I don’t know if I do or not. I wonder if every parent feels this ambivalence and then wonder how they feel when they realize the situation is permanent. Does despair set in? The baby thrashes in my arms and makes snorting sounds as he struggles to get back to sleep; I have kept him up too long in the interest of watching Seth with him, and now he’s overtired and frustrated. I should know this by now.
He slips further down along my arm and I boost him up closer to my shoulder, which wakes him and makes him cry. These are the moments when I understand how people throw their babies out of windows. I bounce him a little, but the pacifier falls on the floor and he begins to cry and my arms tighten. I bite my lip. He is screaming now in fast shrieking cries and I can’t take it, so I put him on the bed. A few seconds of space, that’s all I want, but as soon as he realizes he’s not being held he opens his eyes wide and wails as I walk out the door. It takes the wind out of him and he goes silent, then starts again with a piercing cry that makes me run back into the dark room and scoop him up.
“I’m sorry, sweet boy,” I say, holding him close. “Mama’s sorry. Shhh…I didn’t mean to scare you. Please, little one. Please.”
He stops crying and I give him a clean pacifier as I sit on the bed with him. He stares at my shirt, blinks, and looks almost quizzical. Then he tips his head back as if he knows what he’s looking for, sees me and slowly smiles, spitting out the pacifier. I smile back.
“Sweet boy, go to sleep.”
He tucks his head down again, but after a few seconds he arches his back, finds my face and grins again. He makes no sound when he does it. It happens two more times and each time my stomach does a flirty little flip as I realize he’s happy to see me. He falls asleep minutes later.
Seth’s been sitting patiently on the sofa in the next room watching CNN as if he has no place else to go. It is seven o’clock—a Sunday—and I wonder if he would still be with me if his wife were home. I’ve been desperate for him lately, lying awake in the middle of the night after I’ve given the baby his bottle. I slip out of my pajamas, hoping to make it feel like he’s there with me, then scrambling in a sleepy haze to get dressed when I’m called in the morning.
Standing in the doorway, I wait for him to notice me. It doesn’t take long, and the television goes silent just as his eyes meet mine. He cocks an eyebrow and smirks at me, then some other look comes across his face. “You sure about this?”
“Get in there,” I say, casting a glance over my shoulder toward the bedroom.
It takes me a while to calm down, wondering if the baby will wake up again and worrying that we’ll get a surprise visit from Sandy while my legs are wrapped around him. I also think about Seth’s wife, but that’s nothing new, it’s just that these other two issues bring that fear into even sharper focus. We start out with him on top, then I’m on top, then we switch again because my hair keeps getting tangled in his face. The longer it takes for me to get into it, the more aware he is of how preoccupied I am, and I know it won’t be enough to tell him that I’m just happy to be with him. I start to make sounds that I hope will distract him, and just as I begin to believe them myself, feel my hips soften, my shoulders relax, he stops and rolls away.
“I’m not sure about this.”
I pull my knees up and try to slow my breathing. “Is it the baby?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. It just feels weird.”
I’m afraid to admit to him that it feels strange to me, too, because to admit it means I’d have to tell him that I’m afraid I’m obsessed with him, that I’m in love with him and that I want him to leave her and be with me, even though I also think that’s not quite true, either. To admit it might lead me to tell him we have to have sex so I know he’ll come back, so I can have a little more time to think. I long for an hour to collect my thoughts about the most mundane things, like whether I need more oregano, never mind wondering whether I love this guy who’s straddling two relationships.
“He smiled at me.” I say to the ceiling, thinking of the simplicity of that moment. “Just now, as he was falling asleep.”
“Of course he did. You’re his mom.”
“I’m not his mom. Don’t say that.” I hold perfectly still.
“Why not?” He says dismissively. “Isn’t that what you wanted when you signed up? To be a mother?”
He’s accusing me of something, but I don’t know what it is. He’s not having this argument with me. Maybe he’s having it with himself, but I’ve spent all day remaining calm, for a more worthy audience. I sit up quickly and turn to face him.
“You know as well as I do that he’s probably not staying with me. So what makes you think I want to talk about being his mother?” I’m gritting my teeth and my heart is pounding.
“So why’d you do it then?”
“Why’d I do what?”
“Get involved with this.” In the darkness I swear I detect a smirk.
I draw as deep a breath as I can manage and say slowly, “Please go home.”
He barely says goodbye, and I’m not sure if he’s angry or shamed. I nearly stop him as he opens the front door, but everything I might tell him would be useless, because all I want him to do is promise that he’ll stay with me.
After he leaves, I go in to check on the baby. His mouth has fallen open and his pacifier is stuck beneath his ear. I put my hand on his chest and feel his ribs expand beneath my fingers; he wriggles a bit so I take my hand away and go back to bed, lying diagonally across the mattress.
The first day of our classes in the Presbyterian church, the leader said, “Here’s this kid in your house, and you fall completely in love with him, and all he wants is to be able to fall completely in love with you, but he can’t, because he figures he’s leaving soon. You see the dilemma?”
When Seth asked me to have coffee with him that first time, I assumed we were just meeting as fellow classmates, but over the course of the next few weeks, he told me they had been trying to have a baby of their own for three years, with monthly trips to a fertility clinic, shots, hormones and constant disappointment. He told me that it brought out qualities in her that he didn’t like; she became a woman who talked about nothing but her resentments. He even began to wonder what ever made her become a nurse, and in his less charitable moments decided it was little more than a need to prove that she was going out of her way for other people. They went to the foster parent information session together and had a terrible argument in the car on the way home. She didn’t want a sick baby, she said. She didn’t want the uncertainty of being a foster parent.
I should have kept my distance; I should have been the friend he needed. There were things I could have done to prevent it long before it got to this. I shied away from talking to friends about wanting a child, distanced myself from people who had become parents and then found myself alone, frightened and determined to do it anyway. There was even a guy, a good guy, who I put off preemptively because I thought he wouldn’t understand. I let this happen. I blame myself for where we are now.
Two months after he was dropped off, the baby—I now call him Paul, since he is still with me—is picked up by Sandy and taken to see his mother’s aunt. The state will make her go through the same classes and answer the same questionnaires. They will ask her about her feelings on masturbation and how she’ll handle her anger. It’s strange to think now of who I was when I answered all those questions about my attitudes towards sex and discipline and morality and who I have become in what seems like no time at all. I feel as if we are two different women, and that maybe I should write out the answers to the questions again. Then maybe they’ll see they’ve made a mistake.
The aunt will be fingerprinted, as will everyone else living in her house, including her youngest son. There is a suspicion that he is dealing drugs, which would disqualify her, and I’m conflicted as to what I hope they find when they check out the family. I imagine the boy, a teenager, lanky and handsome, with beautiful brown eyes that once found someone’s loving smile for the first time. I want to meet him.
I dress Paul in a red and blue suit with rocket ships sewn up one side. He tries to grin at me from the bed and sticks his arms straight out when I want him to bend them. His toes strain a little against the feet in the suit, and I decide I will use my afternoon off and buy him some larger clothes, after I see Seth. We haven’t spoken since I kicked him out, but he texted me to say he wanted to talk.
I count the snaps on the suit: “One. Two. Three. And…” I struggle with the last one near his chin. “Four. What a handsome boy. My goodness, won’t you make a good impression on them.” He tips his chin back and coos, then a true smile breaks across his face. “Remember to say your ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’.”
I pick him up without saying any more and kiss him on his cheek, letting my lips rest there for a few seconds until he squirms. Then I buckle him into his car seat and head out to meet Sandy.
After I drop him off I call Seth at work.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “About the other day. And probably a few other days, too.” I hear him rattle the pens in the cup near his computer, something he does when he’s thinking. “This is a lot.”
“Meet me,” I say. “I have the afternoon to myself.”
We go to a motel out on the highway that is sandwiched between a printing company and furniture store that sells cheap recliners and gaudy brass bed frames. The room has a mini-fridge beside the bed and one chair. I sit on the edge of the bed and let him take my boots off.
“What if they take him?” I ask. “What if that’s the best thing?”
I shrug. He stops and sits back on his heels. “You knew this going in.”
“He smiled at me.”
“You’re good to him.”
“I love him.”
Seth puts his hand on my knee and I watch his face for a reaction. There isn’t one, except for a steady gaze, as if he’s waiting for me instead. A depression washes over me and I take his hand. I close my eyes as he pushes me back on the bed and kisses me. Then he lets me cry in the crook of his arm until I fall asleep.
When I wake up, the room is dark and I’m searching the covers for the baby, convinced he’s smothering. I swear I feel the weight of him between us and in my half-conscious frenzy, I am digging for him, convinced he’s lost. By the time Seth takes my hands I’m breathless and sick.
“He was here,” I say into his chest, as he rocks me slowly, shushing me. “I know he was here.”