You Were My First Baby
by NATHAN JOLLY
There he is! At last. She knew he would look like that and stand like that and be just like that. It was a relief when she saw him there because she knew she could stop looking now.
He was talking to a guy who never made it past the friendship preliminaries: the boyfriend of a girl at his work, she’d later learn and recite, as their origin story became refined, edges sanded and bad jokes landed and fate understanding that this was their moment.
Of course, his shirt was wrong and her mascara was five drinks gone, and her skirt was an inch too long which crippled how she moved in a way where it haunted her head and dictated her movement to an infuriating degree, and he felt like he was getting hips that winter: proper hips, swinging lard sacks that he flattened and squashed into his side all evening, but they fell in love all the same or – if you believe such pronouncements belong only in soap operas – at the very least they collided suddenly and agreed to collide again at a later date – more softly and sweetly the next time, and the next time, until it was a dance they knew by heart. And so it was.
It wasn’t the last street, nor the street before, and all the streets look the same in this stupid Lego town, and this is her fault and she knows it, but he is being so fucking calm about it, because this whole visit – this whole trip, this whole experience – doesn’t mean a thing to him. He never tried. For once she would like him to just yell and blame her for not remembering to write down the address, or the phone number, or anything. Why won’t he yell? He is happy to just drive. He already knows he is going to leave her. These are wet matches. He needs a big fire before he can do anything. He needs scorched earth. He needs her to have an affair. He fantasizes about her quivering bottom lip as she confesses everything, he dreams about his game-changing kiss off, about his complete radio silence, his lawyer’s letters, his short, sporty, summer fling, his reply to her dick of a father who has no idea. He wants to hurt her.
No salt, just seasoning. She knows she eats too much fried shit these days, but they are going to start a diet after all the weddings and baby showers and buck’s nights and capital H-Holidays stop shooting at them so constantly, but summer is coming soon, too, and drinks are cheap here — let’s live now and sweep the soot in our old winters. Bobby is beautiful but she can’t think like that. Not when they are saving $900 a month while cooking in bulk and drawing up budgets while he promises, “Because this is important to you, I’m gonna make it happen.”
She can’t flirt with beautiful Bobby with those words rattling around in her head, not when they are saving so she can move to the city she cursed her parents for not bringing her up in. Not when he divided his home-made casserole into five marked Tupperware containers, and seemed excited and proud to do so. She wants everything, but can only whisper it for now; his plan is to get a suit and visit a bank in three months, and he is so steadily focused on this part of the plan that any further steps were sure to fall into place – he was sure of it. Her mid-afternoon daydream of catching a train to the airport, picking whichever flight is around $1,500 and leaving before she has time to shift and shuffle and talk herself sensible seems like mere sound now.
“This is not the park my children will play in,” she decided firmly when they moved into that scorched red brick apartment with the needles and the screaming and all the other awful things happening across and above her. Bikini bottoms and tea towels hung over every three or four balcony ledges; while lizards withering on plastic furniture, burning cigarettes, drinking from boxes, yelling “fuckin’ this” and “fuckin’ that” at their kids – white, middle nothing. This was not the apartment her babies would grow up in.
They wanted the babies to come in quick succession, in twos if possible, in threes if they traded up to an eight-seater with adjustable headrests and a sliding door that got stuck if you didn’t slam it hard enough, but after Julian months became years and GPs became specialists and quietly they blamed each other and even more quietly they cursed themselves for doing so — then, when they learned the truth, she blamed herself. He said it didn’t matter to him, and for a while it didn’t. One baby was plenty. There were carriages to push and car seats to fit, and first words to extrapolate and shifts spent anxiously watching him breathe, mini panic-attacks when he stopped crying long enough to possibly to be dead.
Each day Julian didn’t die was a victory, and when there was such a clear-cut goal, the rest of life hummed by until he learned to toss and crawl and not die — and the proper problems could no longer be a background blur. Now she views those early days as the best of her life, but at the time she often felt a snapped second away from drowning Julian in the shallow plastic baby bath, and driving to the airport with $1,500 folded neatly in her inside skirt pocket.
Paintings by Alice Neel.