Her shoulders were like poured cream, translucent, the blue veins swimming just underneath.
The sharp little bones a magnificent scaffolding. I always used to kiss her on her shoulder. When she got older, I just knew she’d shrug me off, roll her eyes and say “Mom” in a way meant to tell me my worst fears had come true.
The first time I dropped the baby, Baby: 3 months old.
Later, my mother told me she used to tie me down in my crib. I don’t know why she finally told me that. I didn’t ask her about wandering babies. Something must have just gone off in her head and she decided it was the right time to tell me that little detail.
Of course I’d never tie the baby down in any way. I never bought a changing table either–just put the baby on the bed and changed her there. I’d prop everything up around her, the baby wipes, the Desitin, the half-gone package of diapers, all right there, handy. But I’d forgotten something and I turned away from the baby and when I turned back she was on the ground.
It wasn’t a long drop, maybe a foot or so. She didn’t cry or seem to even notice she wasn’t on the bed any more. Of course I panicked. Picked her up, held her to my chest, maybe to sense if there were any broken bones. I was still sitting on the edge of the bed. I had only turned my body half way around and like that, she was gone, on the floor.
I didn’t believe the baby did it on her own. Something must have bewitched her, scooped her up and plopped her down on the carpet to scare the shit out of me. And then my mother calls to tell me out of the blue how she used to tie me to the crib? Hardly coincidental. There were obviously forces bigger than me at work and I was going to have to keep my eyes open.
Every night before dinner Mother would turn off the TV and put the Tijuana Brass on the stereo. She’d read that eating to music was soothing and aided digestion. Sometimes she put on Mantovani and his sixty strings and once she put on Mitch Miller. But usually we ate dinner submersed in trumpet music.
When I was nine years old and they put through the freeway between Highway 101 (previously known as the King’s Highway) and the, until then, newer freeway, 280, Daddy drove us down through the tree-laden suburban area, explaining what he did for a living.
It was hard to pay attention. The new freeway opened up onto the back end of houses I’d never seen before and I was fascinated to find out what other kids had in their backyards.
Daddy insisted on explaining why that big steel dome on stilts was an important piece of the landscape. He called it a water tower. He told me that in case of an emergency, say a fire, when the water was shut off for any reason, the city could still get water from the water tower.
They weren’t a new idea. Putting water up high so that hoses hooked up to it could easily fill fire trucks due to the pressure exerted was an idea as old as the west, he told me. But this particular water tower, this one in Cupertino, just across from the Emporium, he had designed this one and it was completely different from any other water tower.
All I knew was that the kid in the backyard next to the water tower had the coolest jungle gym I’d ever seen. Inside all the crosshatch bars was a rope with a swing on it and off to one side, a slide. It was a marvel to me. My old swing set in our backyard was lined up the same old way: slide, swing, swing, rope, bar and when I swung on the swing now the whole swing set almost pulled out of the ground.
Daddy said, “This is what I’m most proud of. This tower will stand the test of time.”
Chuck Thompson Swim School. Diving into the big blue pool, being engulfed by chlorinated water, having the water pour into every part of my little body, ballooning my turquoise swimsuit out twice its size. I’ve so wanted to be engulfed like that again, like the first dive into the pool.
The baby’s black hair was maybe her most beautiful feature. It was shiny and curly in little wisps around her ears and made her look like a Kewpie doll. Her skin so perfect, her eyes and hair so dark, her nose puckered just so. I’d never had any idea of my own attractiveness out in the world and so thought that the baby was so incredibly gorgeous due entirely to the baby’s father who was a foreigner, of course, and who, after the birth, we rarely saw again.
Lisa’s party, Saturday night, Baby: 8 months old
I had great hopes for my friendship with Lisa. She wasn’t a single mom like me, but we had lots of things in common, OK, mostly drinking and men. After the baby’s father left I just had this big ache not to be alone. Baby wasn’t that hard to deal with, it wasn’t that.
So Lisa and me worked together, same old thing, typing and filing. She was a bit younger than me but she had lots of friends and had parties nearly every weekend. And every weekend she’d ask me to come, I’d have to bow out, no babysitter. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more and told her I’d just bring the baby and get her to sleep upstairs and it would work out perfect.
I bundled the baby up with all of her things, plenty of diapers too, an extra bottle, everything. I didn’t even leave until 9p.m. and she’s usually fast asleep by then. When I got to Lisa’s the party was already going. It was pretty loud.
“Just bring her up here.”
I followed Lisa up the stairs, straining for a look see into the party room itself, but it looked like the whole house was filled with people, smoking, drinking, laughing and lots of tall men.
“Is that guy Ralph here?” I asked her, piling up pillows around the baby who lay in the middle of her double bed.
“Ralph? Oh right, the guy I told you about. The sales guy?”
We’d been talking of nothing else for days. I had on new panty hose and flats as Lisa couldn’t remember just how tall he was.
“I think I saw him down in the kitchen, talking to Michelle.”
I panicked. Michelle was gorgeous, smart, beautiful figure and, most of all, had no children yet. I took Baby’s favorite little bunny out of her diaper bag and put it in front of her. She started crying. Lisa looked horrified.
“Oh God,” I said. Not now, why now?
“How do you get it to stop that?” Lisa asked. I could see she was moving toward the door.
“Oh, it won’t take a second. I just need to rock her a little and I’ll be right down, OK?”
“Sure. Whatever.” Lisa gave me one last look before she closed the door. “I don’t know if this is going to work out.”
“Oh, the baby will be no problem at all. I’ll just get her to sleep and be right down.” I could feel the sweat starting under my arms–my good silk blouse.
I picked the baby up and walked her around the room. Below me the party sounded just like the kind of party I’d hoped it would be: plenty of alcohol, plenty of strange, new men.
But the baby was wide awake. I sat on the bed and sat her on my lap. She grabbed onto my hand and then reached for her bunny.
Ralph sounded so perfect for me. Tall, good looking, but not too good looking. Had a job, a nice car, was unattached at the moment. If I didn’t get down there soon though.
The baby was quiet in my arms. I leaned across the bed and laid her down in between the fortress of pillows we’d erected. She had the bunny’s foot in her mouth and was quiet.
I stood up, turned my back on her and headed for the door, stopped at the dresser to look one last time in the mirror. Just as I got my hand on the doorknob, the baby started crying again, only this time she was hysterical, sitting up and trying to climb over the pillows.
An hour later, Baby still wide awake, Lisa came back up stairs.
“No luck, huh?”
I shook my head. I was afraid if I tried to speak I’d break out sobbing.
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all?”
I shrugged. I had the baby in my arms and she was nodding off, just as she’d done about twenty other times in the last hour.
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you want, but it’s getting sort of late. Some people have gone home.”
“Oh, God.” I tried to weigh the danger of leaving the baby alone in this room and just going downstairs to see if I could give Ralph my phone number.
“Listen, I’m going to come down in ten minutes whether she’s asleep or not.”
When Lisa closed the door this time, the baby woke up again, sniffed the air a little bit and started crying softly. I set her back down on the bed. I didn’t even stop to look in the mirror, I opened up the door, stepped out and pulled it shut behind me. When I got downstairs the music was so loud I couldn’t hear her crying any more.
By the time I got the baby packed back up and into the car I’d had a couple drinks with Ralph and was feeling pretty damn good. He’d asked for my number and had even been warned about Baby.
I backed out of the driveway. It was two in the morning. I blinked a couple times to straighten out my eyes, feeling a little dizzy, and pulled up short to a stop sign. Baby was sleeping in her carryall in the passenger seat next to me.
Every block had a stop sign. Gave the gas a little extra, I guess, saw another stop sign and stopped pretty hard. The baby flew out of her carrier and was suddenly lying on the floor of the car under the dashboard, still encased in her blankets, still sleeping.
Oh my god, I thought. I’ve killed the baby. I looked over at the empty carrier. I hadn’t run the seatbelt through the carrier, plus I’d put the baby in wrong end out so when I’d stopped it was like she’d been poured out of a gravy tureen and served up onto the floor.
I looked around the intersection. Not a car anywhere to be seen. I blinked my eyes hard again, couldn’t see. God, I was crying, I was talking to myself, I was parked in the dead center of the intersection with a baby on the floor. I couldn’t figure out whether to save the baby or get the car parked safely. I was afraid to drive the car with the baby on the floor.
I reached for the baby. My seatbelt held me back. I looked back up and out the windows in all directions, still no one around. I took off my seatbelt, pushed myself clear across the seat and scooped up the baby. Her beautiful eyes never opened. I touched her cheek, she was still warm. I held her hand and it slowly curled around my finger. She was OK.
I placed her back in her righted carrier. Got her seatbelt situated and then tried rocking the carrier. It didn’t budge. I looked around the car. Nothing. Nobody around. No witnesses. I put my seatbelt back on and started the car again. I pulled out real slow and drove home with one arm on the carrier the whole way.
Just before the baby was born I held my breath as long as I could, not wanting to submerse myself any longer in the pain, wanting out of it any way I could. But it didn’t work. It got worse and she came out after all.
She never had dimpled knees, a sign of too much flesh, I thought. Her knees were perfect little round machines which she tried to put into her mouth daily. If she was particularly fussy, I’d run my hands over her legs and behind her knees very lightly and she’d go into a trance and start humming quietly to herself.
Friday night, Baby dropped at sitters, Baby: one year old
After I’d pulled myself out of that hippie boy’s bed, I went to the babysitter and picked up the baby. My head was still a little unclear. I took the baby back to his place. It was still early enough. By then he was sitting on the couch in a roommate’s room, completely dressed, smoking something or other.
I didn’t sit. I held the baby in my arms. She was sleeping, looking beautiful. I told him, “This is my baby. She’s a year old.”
He didn’t say anything, just kept smoking then handed the cigarette to another roommate. I smiled, still half in the mood he’d left me in an hour ago and with some vague idea that this was almost like a family.
I heard his roommate say, “She brought her kid over here?”
And I could see that hippie boy’s eyes were dead to me. He was looking somewhere beyond me and nodding his head, smiling a bit. It made me stop smiling.
I heard him say, “Yeah, weird bitch. Like this won’t fuck the kid up or anything.”
But I’d already turned around and headed back to the front door. He’d never make a good father. Maybe I heard wrong. What did they know? They were young, at least ten years younger than me. I was pretty sure he’d never recognize me again.
In bed with the baby’s father, like sinking into a bowl full of jello and rolling and rolling and rolling and breathing it in and living in the jello and never wanting to leave.
I used to dream about the baby’s eyelashes. They were very long and very dark and turned down so much I imagined she’d have trouble seeing through them. When she blinked it was like a slow motion sweep of two darkly fringed fans. I thought, you’ll never need mascara and top-flight photographers will be begging you for your picture. She was unusual that way.
The time I left the baby alone, Baby: two weeks old
It was completely due to the baby’s father, that and me going through an intense bout of post-partum depression. The baby’s father was not from here. Let’s just say he was from another country entirely, where women are expected to take care of the children with absolutely no help at all from the men.
I’d been with the baby’s father for a year, and had hoped that once the baby was with us he’d change his mind and his habits and stay home more.
But when the baby was two weeks old and I was completely hysterical from lack of sleep, he decided to leave the apartment one Friday night and go drink with his friends. My mother had already told me she refused to step foot inside our apartment as long as we weren’t married, so the baby’s father was the only help I had.
We both yelled. He flew out the door saying terrible things to me in a language I was trying not to learn. I had on only my flannel nightgown, no shoes or socks. I put my big winter coat on and followed him down the stairs, down the block.
I could see him in the distance getting on the Geary Street bus so I ran to the car, got it started and followed the bus closely, noting each passenger who got off the bus every couple of blocks. The thought passed through my head, I wonder if I could get arrested for stalking a bus.
I followed him all the way downtown where he got out and stood waiting for the connecting bus to take him back to the Mission and his cousins. I parked right in front of him in the bus zone and got out, my coat flapping and my bare feet on the sidewalk.
“You have to come home with me now,” I yelled at him. “I can’t do this by myself.”
There must have been crowds of people out. It was late, maybe ten or eleven on a Friday night, but I couldn’t see them. I only saw him.
The connecting bus pulled up. He turned to me and spit in my face, then he got on the bus.
I watched the bus barely pull out around my car and saw that I’d left my door open. I started weeping uncontrollably, remembering I’d left the baby in the apartment, alone. I couldn’t remember how long I’d been following the bus or if the baby had been asleep when I’d left. I pulled out into the Friday night traffic and raced home.
There is a snapshot Mother has all bundled up in a shoebox, rubber-banded with a stack of other black and white snapshots that never made it into an album. I must have been sitting right next to her when she took it of Daddy because I have two memories of it, one of the snapshot and one of actually being at the beach that day. Though the shot is in black and white, I know the penguins on Daddy’s swim trunks were brown and I know that it was so windy that day the taste of the ocean was constantly in my mouth.
It’s a shot of the wide open sea actually, with Daddy standing with his back to us, his hands on his hips, looking straight out to the far horizon. Daddy’d been a world class swimmer in high school and college but had since put on weight and we didn’t have a pool in our yard big enough for him to swim in.
When Mother called to tell me he had died of heart failure at forty-six, I was in bed with Tim, the boyfriend of my college days. She had worked hard over the last ten years or so of Daddy’s life, to cook food that would keep his weight down, keep him alive. But his heart just gave out.
When he had finished his thesis they gave him a promotion at work. Mother and I went to the graduation ceremonies to watch him get his degree.
It was an incredibly sunny day. Mother wore a spring green cotton dress with gold buttons and carried a white whicker purse. I took a picture of the two of them standing in front of the other graduates’ parents, arm in arm, looking off into the distance. Mother looks tired and worried. Daddy looks relieved and impossibly young.
They look to me like two travelers, stuck in a Polaroid snapshot, at home in the background of graduates and brick buildings, but lost to the one person who wanted them most. I always feel like a baby when I see pictures of them so young.