I awaken to the aroma of lavender and the intrusion of squeaky wheels.
Wedged beside my hospital bed, there’s a clear plastic bubble that resembles a miniature tub. The chatty nurse from Trinidad, the one with wooden beads woven through rows of skinny braids, blows her signature spicy breeze across my face.
“Well, morning, missy. Will you be wishing to see your little boy?”
She asks the question rhythmically, like a native song, and it takes me second to remember where I am and that her question is meant for me. A sudden gripping pain shoots through my groin and reminds me. This is the moment I had feared− the perilous truth− the crisp evidence of how I’d lived the last few years of my single life: carefree, frivolous, without a plan.
“Go on, take him, Nicky,” my older sister whispers above me. Nan reeks from stale cigarettes and stale coffee. “It’s God’s will.”
“And when exactly Nan did you find religion?” I focus hazily on the tight flannel package the nurse places in the bowl made by my sunken stomach. No chance now to refuse, no time to wince or turn, or thrust my hips toward the window where the sun fans itself horizontally through the slatted shade. Somehow I manage to lift my arms and scoop the warm bundle, much like I might carry soiled clothes to the cleaners.
Take him, I hear from somewhere outside myself. You Must Take Him.
“Hey you,” I try. “Hey, baby boy.” I hardly recognize my own voice brimming with forced merriment. It’s the kind of voice I’ve used, too often, while fielding calls at the office for a boss who was rarely there. I have to remind myself to breathe, to slowly exhale through my mouth as if I am still bearing down. Staring hard at the goods, I am struck by the dent in his strawberry shaped chin— slight, yet distinct. Already the kid is branded. There is no mistaking that here sleeps Johnny’s boy, Johnny’s newborn son.
“I’m not at all good at this. Why don’t you take him, Nan? Here.”
I lift him up as an offering to my sister who hovers over me; Nan, cooing like a disheveled pigeon.
“Relax, honey, it’ll take some time, but you can do it. You’ll do just fine.”
Then, as if he overhears, the baby curls his tiny hand around my pinky. And, I think, this is his first aggressive act as male. I won’t be the first one to move, I can’t. No matter what, I will stay like this until Ms. Trinidad returns to take him back to the nursery. I remember what Johnny used to say: You and me kiddo, like crazy glue.
“See, I told you,” Nan says. “He already knows his Mommy.”
“Yes, but he’ll never know his….”
I try burying my nose into the peach fuzz skin of the baby’s neck. Nothing that I know smells so good. Nan bends over us to kiss him and grazes my forehead with her lips. She pulls a tissue from the nightstand box and blots my cheeks. I can’t see her face, but I hear her mumble that she’s going out for awhile and will be back later. Nan says she needs a smoke real bad. I bet she means a good cry.
“Please, sis, stay with me,” I whisper, but my sister rushes through the door leaving me alone with my son for the very first time. I squint at him as though he were blinding me, emitting the strongest ultra violet rays. He is barely a day old, and I am plagued by what I will tell him when he gets older—if he has the chance to get older, if the fragile world to which he was born can endure its own wrath.
I lean against the foam pillow holding my baby tightly; I shut my eyes. If only my last night with Johnny had been more memorable, even if bittersweet. But who could I have told, really? During the two years we were together, we were as alone and solitary as a couple could be. On that warm September night he had walked in the door around midnight covered in black char like he’d traveled back and forth from hell. There’d been an eight alarm in Chelsea he told me while downing his first frothy Bud. Some rundown sewing plant that had been fined for years went up in a flash, taking bookend apartment houses with it. Weeks later, I would sit and think: imagine the eerie dress rehearsal of it all, two buildings─ downtown─ collapsing within minutes of one another. What would we have done differently?
Johnny said they got the fire under control around ten but nearly lost two guys. I shivered and curved myself around his back while he stared at the streetlamp outside my kitchen window. He was achingly tired. Later, while he showered, I leaned against the bathroom door waiting, counting the seconds. I’d never done that before: tallied our time together. I handed him a fresh blue shirt; one he’d left here for times like these. He smiled then, only for a second, and that’s when I felt caught by his dimple. Its hollowness lured me in as if it was a tunnel, and I’d have to pay the toll to reach the other side. We made love, but it was hurried. It was the kind of love we often joked about: The rapid fire, slam, bam, and thank you ma’am kind─ void of kissing and tasting each other’s flesh.
Afterwards, I sat across from Johnny frowning while he woofed down the meatloaf I had warmed in the oven.
That was your Daddy’s favorite, baby boy─ it was the only thing I didn’t burn.
Finally, Johnny looked up from reading his box scores and saw me. I’d been shredding his napkin, and now I was popping small pieces in my mouth. He put down his fork and took both my hands.
“Sorry, babe,” he said, “but it was a real bitch, tonight. I guess I’m a little out of it.”
“That’s okay,” I said, lying. I did that sometimes. Mostly, I lied about needing more from Johnny. I didn’t want to lose him.
“I’ll take you out for a nice dinner tomorrow night. How about clams on the dock at Sheepshead Bay?”
“Sure, that sounds great.” I gave him what I knew he wanted: I smiled.
He stood quickly then and gathered up his keys. “I can’t stay, Nick. I promised Luanne I’d drive the kids to school tomorrow. But I’ll try calling tomorrow on the way to my shift. It starts around nine.”
Usually I followed Johnny to the door, but that night I turned my back and walked to the sink. I opened the faucets full blast, drowning out his footsteps as they pummeled down the narrow staircase, folding into the ordinary rhythm of the early morning calm.