Now my back makes these little popping noises when I pour a glass of juice. I fantasize about torture devices from the Spanish Inquisition. I want one that pulls from both ends. I might be hunching. I know I’m getting shorter. My girlfriend has no sympathy. Whatever ails me ails her tenfold. Did I grow a ten-pound alien inside my uterus? Are my breasts swelling with milk, which requires a mechanical device to remove because the alien won’t latch? We’ve had sex one time in four months. We may never have sex again. She keeps telling me how lucky I am.
The baby looks at me like he didn’t ask to be born, like this wasn’t his idea, so don’t blame him. Of course, the baby is right. I spend the morning keeping him happy, which means quiet, except the baby is never quiet. I spend the morning counting the hours until it’s acceptable to wake my girlfriend, at which point she pretends to be dead. I remind her this is everything she ever wanted, which is a direct quote, before dropping the baby onto her swollen chest.
The baby arrived with my worst attributes carefully disguised, but there’s no mistaking them. He’s an impressive clone. Really, he’s an improved model. Nobody doubts as much, least of all his mother, who dotes on him in a way she never doted on me. How predictable jealousy can be! It doesn’t make it less real. He screams at me, and I scream back. He’s winning.
We do things just the two of us. We go for walks. He watches me eat, and I watch him. He gets most of the food on his shirt, which emboldens me to do the same. We’re unapologetically messy eaters, my son and I. We answer to no one in the eating department. His mother’s attempts to limit our gluttony lead nowhere. We refuse bibs and pass out when we’re finished. Neither of us plans on changing. What they say about learning from children is true.
My friends hold the following opinion: You got yourself into this mess. Nobody dissents. Except how did I get into this mess? My girlfriend seemed as surprised as I was. You never really know with other people, even the people you know the best. Now she’s happy. Now it’s something she always wanted. Not me but the baby. The family, she says, but really the baby. He looks like a yellow Buddha.
Today we went to the park. The park is where you go to see other children, though mine is too small to do anything with them. He’s zero years old. He can’t sit without crashing his head into something. The first thing he did at the park was crash his head into the slide. The other children pretended not to notice. I smiled idiotically at the moms.
They have little bags for everything. Bags for cheerios. Bags for raisins. As if anybody likes raisins, though these kids like a lot of things, such as hurling their elastic bodies around the monkey bars. Such as eating wood chips. Not that my son is opposed to eating wood chips. I keep a pacifier in his mouth. The pacifier is designed to look like a football, so most of the time he looks like he’s sucking a very small football.
The moms don’t approve of pacifiers. The moms think pacifiers ruin your teeth and impair your speech, but my son doesn’t have any teeth, and all he ever says is rah rah rah. The moms say just you wait. What do I have to do but wait? I’m in the waiting business, full-time. I have some things I’d like to say to the moms, but they wrap their ears in colorful scarves. They wear bulky coats that hide their figures. The moms eat all of the raisins.
“How about this weather,” I said to the moms one time.
“What do you mean?” they said.
My son replaced his pacifier with several wood chips.
“Just a lot of sun,” I said. “A lot of sky.”
“You let him eat that.”
Was it sexism that made the moms hate me? They may have hated everyone. I mostly hated everyone, but I wasn’t nearly as obvious as the moms. They were almost admirable in their unapologetic hatred. You could learn a thing or two about hating from these moms.
We led different lives. I considered myself too good for everything, and they resented my snobbery. Neither side was wrong. They read magazines, and I read books. They watched horrible shows, and I pretended not to own a television. No restaurant in town interested me, and they didn’t eat at restaurants. (I didn’t cook anything, and my girlfriend wasn’t much better; occasionally, one of us would drop spaghetti into boiling water, dreaming of more exotic noodles and ambiguous spices.) The moms and I only shared a park because of real estate. The exploding population of the city had made their previously worthless town valuable. We were waiting for the same thing: for people like me to move in and replace everything. We had different ideas about whether or not this was a good idea.
But today the moms approached me. I made space for them on the bench. Their purses took up more room than anything. The moms cleared their throats. I had all the time in the world.
“Have you been to Umberto’s?” they asked.
There are a million Umberto’s—King Umberto’s, The Original Umberto’s, The One True Umberto’s—and out of some distant principle, I hadn’t been to one.
“Of course,” I said all the same.
“How come we never see your wife?”
“I don’t have a wife.”
“Or your husband.”
“I don’t have one of those either.”
The moms never talked to me, except to criticize something that wasn’t their business in the first place. They took their gloves off their hands, which were raw and pink, despite having been in thick gloves. I wouldn’t have minded a pair. I plunged my own pink hands into my coat pockets.
“It’s just that we see you and we wonder,” the moms persisted.
I looked to my son, who was enjoying a robust meal of wood chips. I tilted my thermos in his direction. It was good coffee, but the moms didn’t get close enough to smell it.
“Do you think a man can’t raise a boy?” I had no reason to think they thought this.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
If I had a cigarette, I would have lit it right there in the park. The moms flared their nostrils, as if I’d done this.
“It’s brave to raise a child alone,” the moms decided.
“I didn’t say I was alone.”
“That’s not why—”
“Brave might not be the right word. Firefighters are brave. When they’re fighting fires. Mostly, they play cards.”
The moms fumbled through their coat pockets. The moms kicked their feet beneath the bench. Their children stumbled to their defense.
“Okay. Well. Look.” But the moms couldn’t spit it out.
Throughout the walk back to the house I thought about what they might want. The only time my son was quiet was in the stroller, so I was in no rush. Plus, my girlfriend would have a list of things to do—or, worse, things I hadn’t done—as soon as I walked through the door. The door itself was a problem. It had to be painted or replaced. Truthfully, I didn’t listen. She was right on that front.
What if the moms wanted to enlist me in one of their mom-time games? The rest of the day and into the night I worked through the possibilities. It broke the cycle of baby-work-baby-sleep-baby, a cycle that wasn’t changing any time soon. I kept these possibilities from my girlfriend. I didn’t need her reminding me how far I could take things. I had a history. Not with the moms but with obsessions (her word).
The house was mercifully quiet. I walked from the bedroom to the kitchen to the bathroom just to confirm the quiet. Only at three in the morning could the house be this quiet. I considered changing my schedule to guarantee this quiet every day. At this point in my life, I didn’t value anything so much as the absence of noise. My younger self would have been outraged. My younger self hadn’t minded staying out until three in the morning, but my younger self wasn’t the point.
I sat on top of the toilet seat. There was a mechanical arm to keep the toilet seat shut, and I sat on top of that, too. The window only opened six inches. I opened the window six inches. I reached into the shaving bag where I hid my cigarettes and discovered a piece of paper rolled into the shape of a Marlboro. The paper read Nice Try. There were other pieces of paper with similar messages. I considered smoking them out of spite. I lit the lighter and ran my finger across the flame until my skin charred.
My girlfriend had her reasons. She didn’t want the baby breathing smoke, but I had a towel jammed beneath the door. I had an overhead fan. I wasn’t stupid. Would she be with me if I were stupid? I threw away the papers. I couldn’t identify half of the things in the trash, which horrified me. I left the bathroom, though I wasn’t sure where to go next. Returning to bed wasn’t an option, not with all of this quiet. I wondered if the moms were awake. Probably, the moms passed out from exhaustion. I could have fired a semiautomatic weapon, and my girlfriend wouldn’t have woken, provided the gun didn’t sound like a baby crying.
He was sleeping through the night. This was a new development and met with the enthusiasm and relief typically reserved for a dictator’s deposal. The baby waking up would have been a devastating blow, but he didn’t, and I kept thinking.
My girlfriend didn’t want anything beyond sleep. She wouldn’t have minded my being lowered into a snake pit, so long as she didn’t have to get up a minute earlier. Not that she didn’t care for me. I was more than a provider to her, though what, I wasn’t entirely sure. I resolved to speak to the moms at the earliest possible opportunity. I watched the replay of a basketball game until the baby woke at five, at which point I slipped into the shower.
I was useless at work. Nothing on my desk interested me half as much as the moms. I couldn’t help but compare every woman in the office to them, though this gave me no insight. The moms, I was discovering, were a particular species. Looking for them in the spectrum of women I knew was futile.
My girlfriend suspected I was up to something, but she didn’t have the energy to fight me. That’s how she put it. I neither confirmed nor denied her suspicions. She asked if spaghetti would be okay for dinner. I could hear the water boiling.
“Great,” I said. “Perfect.”
I kicked a rubber ball to my son. He watched it roll past him before reluctantly giving chase.
“Very good!” I shouted.
My girlfriend opened a box and poured its contents into the enormous pot. She stirred it twice before collapsing onto the living room couch. I took my son into my arms. He put his hand in my mouth. I pretended to bite his hand.
I took him to the window, where I pointed out each of the things before us. Car. Tree. Dog. He loved the dog. Already he wanted one. They all want dogs. Had I wanted one? If I wanted a dog, I didn’t get one. Did the moms give their kids dogs? The moms didn’t seem the withholding type. I tried to see whose dog it was, like I knew anything about the animals in the neighborhood, like I could tell one golden retriever from another. This dog walked with impunity from one front yard to the next. Nobody tried to stop this dog.
My son was squirming. I changed arms, which bought me a little time. I leaned into the window, and he leaned too, flattening his tiny palms on the cold pane. He wasn’t scared of falling, but I was scared of dropping him. Of course, the window had been childproofed. There was no way for him to fall. Still, I took a step back.
The dog was barking now. It wouldn’t stop. My son was barking a little, too. I wondered if the dog could hear us. It was on our property, pissing all over a bush. I tapped the window to gain its attention. The dog looked up with dumb curiosity. My son shrieked in excitement. I wasn’t sure what should happen next. I tapped again. The dog silenced before barking a solitary defensive bark. What did this dog have to be angry about, wandering the town, peeing everywhere? Loudly, I barked back. The dog charged the window, but behind the glass, I could call its bluff. Even my son seemed unafraid, though more likely he was oblivious. He began to pound his little hands on the window, looking disappointed the dog wasn’t biting them.
If my girlfriend heard this, she chose not to respond. She was still on the couch. Possibly, she was asleep, though she may have seen barking as a way for my son and me to bond. We didn’t spend a lot of time doing things beyond eating, which he loved, and sleeping, which he hated. We continued barking.
Now the dog was in a frenzy. It growled and thrashed and curled like it was going to leap. Then the dog leapt. Its claws hit the window. They sounded like champagne glasses clinking. My son looked at me like how come I can’t do that? I clinked back, and the dog lost its mind. I’d never seen anything like it. The dog appeared ready to bludgeon itself to death before us. It would be a hard thing to explain to my girlfriend. It seemed like a thing I should shelter my son from. It was at this point that I saw the moms.
My instinct was to hide. There was still time to turn my back. Could they even see through the late-day sun’s glare? The moms walked onto my front yard gingerly. To property, they showed great deference. Property was their ticket, and they knew it. Where did the moms want to go? I considered opening the window six inches and asking them. For now, the moms just wanted the dog to stop barking. The moms wanted the dog off my yard and back on the sidewalk, though the moms didn’t know it was my yard.
The moms yanked the dog’s collar, which was an action the dog recognized. It cried, which was a sound I recognized. Perhaps the moms and I shared more than I was willing to acknowledge. Why couldn’t I invite them through the window? We could tie the dog to a tree and settle around the table for a conversation. Surely, the moms would admire the sturdy table in the dining room, the way my girlfriend had done each setting in advance, even if nobody ever came to dinner, even if we didn’t even eat at the table, opting to carry our limp noodles to the couch, where—truth be told!—we watched any number of mindless sitcoms. Perhaps we could bypass the table altogether, squeeze onto the couch and start moving through channels. We’d share a good laugh whenever a dog trotted onto the screen. Outside, the dog could wail all it wanted. We had surround sound.
I didn’t open the window. I walked to the bathroom, where I checked my hair and my son’s hair, though neither of us had very much. It was a short walk from the bathroom to the front door, and I didn’t have anything to say. My son turned his head from side to side, preparing for a good cry. He wanted to know where the dog had gone. He saw its sudden absence as a great injustice. My girlfriend must have sensed this because I heard our bedroom door shut. That meant he wasn’t her problem, which he wasn’t, not now.
The moms didn’t expect to see me standing before them. The moms looked to the dog, as if it were withholding crucial information, but the dog couldn’t push its tail any deeper between its legs. The dog sniffed the bush it had peed on disconsolately.
“You live here?” the moms asked.
“You know who used to—”
“No, probably not.”
My son extended his hand, but the moms didn’t bite it. They smiled at him in the manner of all moms: with sweet recognition and a little hunger. I smiled back, but the moms weren’t looking at me. Whatever they meant to ask, they forgot. It was never important. The moms looked over my shoulder.
My girlfriend wanted to know why I hadn’t invited the moms inside. The moms gave my girlfriend a look that suggested they were wondering the same thing. How long had she been standing there? She gave no indication. She gave nothing at all.
The moms tethered the dog to a tree, which the dog begrudgingly accepted. We all walked to the living room with the exception of my son, whom I carried. My offer of tea was accepted, and there we were in the living room, wondering what was supposed to happen next. I placed my son in the middle of the carpet, where he promptly tipped to his side. The moms sat on the small couch, so my girlfriend and I took the big couch. It felt like a play where everybody forgot their lines. I said something about dinner, which the moms took as an invitation. My girlfriend started laughing. Did she sound a little crazy? I will tell you that she did. Her face moved in alarming and unpredictable ways. I couldn’t remember her face moving like this.
The moms leaned forward. They weren’t in the play. They were the audience, and they were fascinated to see what happened next. I was curious myself, though mostly I was frightened. I tried not to reveal my fear. I didn’t want to show weakness. My girlfriend finished laughing. She sighed a small crazy sigh before clasping her hands over her knees and saying, “Fish?”
“That sounds like a lot of work,” the moms said.
I didn’t say anything. I’d never seen my girlfriend touch a fish.
“Not at all,” she said all the same.
Then I was alone with the moms. I didn’t realize what had happened until they turned their gaze toward me. I gathered what I could grip of my son into my arms, his arms and legs dangling wildly. He was all energy. He was the only thing moving. Everything else in the room was completely still. It was as if my girlfriend had never been there. Certainly, there was no trace of her. The moms could wait forever. I accepted it as punishment for inviting them to dinner.
The moms studied my patience. They were willing to match it, if necessary. I think they doubted my resolve, which only doubled it. My son wasn’t aware of anything. When I lowered him to the floor, he sprinted to the couch the moms occupied. He bounced off it like a tennis ball and writhed unconvincingly on the carpet. But the moms kept their attention on me.
“She’s an excellent cook,” I lied.
“Particularly fish. She’s like a magician with fish.” I made a cryptic gesture with my hands. “Abracadabra!”
The moms were smiling. Whether they were smiling at me or some private internal joke, I couldn’t tell. The moms had real secrets to keep. I didn’t blame them for their privacy. There seemed something superior in it. I wondered how long I could sit on the couch lying about my girlfriend. I thought I could do this for a long time.
“Maybe I should just check,” I said. “See how things are going,”
The moms didn’t say anything. I scooped up my son, but my girlfriend wasn’t in the kitchen. She had vanished. Probably, she was in the bedroom. Was the door locked? I looked back to the moms, thinking about what to do next. I wasn’t coming up with a lot of ideas.
“Let me grab this one thing,” I said loudly.
No reply. The moms were content on the small couch. I didn’t blame them. It was a comfortable couch. Plus, they had all the advantages. Without even trying, they’d infiltrated my home. I tried to imagine what their homes looked like: mismatched furniture, unopened magazines, bulky remote controllers. The living room carpet concealed innumerable particles of food and dirt. Every drawer in the kitchen was open. It smelled like taco night. It sounded like a commercial for dryer sheets.
Of course, the kids were everywhere: sprinting down the hallways and up the stairs, opening doors and slamming them. The girls wanted to know who’d taken their hairbrush, top, phone. The boys were making explosion noises, human video games. The kids were indefatigable. They would never slow down.
Where were the husbands? They were staying late to avoid the evening tantrum. They were raising their hand for another bourbon at the bar beneath the tracks. Halfheartedly, they were protesting an impromptu trip to the strip club while asking their coworkers what they were telling their wives. But long before that, in a forgotten universe, the moms were somebody’s girlfriend. The moms were breathy and funny and strange before being worn down by someone like me.
Kevin Clouther is the author of We Were Flying to Chicago: Stories. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Writer’s Workshop, where he serves as Program Coordinator of the MFA in Writing. He lives with his wife and two children in Omaha.