The car arrived and his wife held the baby on her hip and waved to him as he trotted down their front steps. "Call me," she said, and he could still smell her coffee-mouth and sour, breast-milk smell as he slipped into the car. She looked old and beat-up, a bit of a double chin resting on her neck. One of her breasts was noticeably larger than the other; this had happened after the birth of their new son, Henry, when her milk came in. He waved back at all of them. Their three-year-old, Jake, bounced around on the sidewalk screaming, "Bye-bye Daddy! Bye-bye Daddy!" He would be gone for only two days. No matter; he was thrilled, thrilled to leave them, stinky, loud, and demanding, all of them. And he didn’t feel guilty about it. He loved his family, how they were always waiting for him to arrive in the evening. They needed him. He had framed photographs of them on his desk at work. But they were not always that pleasant to be around.
Ted Stanton was the technology director of a Web site, thirty-five, balding, and with a limp tire of fat around his middle. He played basketball on Sundays in Brooklyn, near his newly purchased house, with other men in their prime who worked in the online world. They played extremely aggressively, turning red and oozing noxious, booze-scented sweat. They never talked business, but every push, grunt, and jump was about whose IPO was fatter than the others. If he wasn’t playing ball on Sundays, he sat. He sat on the subway to and from work, he sat at his desk in his office in a sleek loft in downtown Manhattan, and he sat on the couch at home drinking a beer. He sat at the dinner table where Laura served him dinner almost every night. He then sat in front of the TV, and then sat up in bed and leafed through a magazine. Soon he would be fat. He was convinced Laura wanted him to be fat, as she always presented him with a pint of ice cream and a spoon while they watched TV at night. He hated her for this, but he also was relieved that she was there to take the blame, as he would never want to be responsible himself for putting on weight.
He had met Laura five years ago at a party. They discovered that they both lived in studio apartments on Mulberry Street. She was not at all remarkable looking, but her clothes were tight, and her trampy style was unique in his circle of Ivy Leaguers. They slept together that night, at her place. The next morning, deeply hungover, he had to look at a piece of mail on her kitchen counter to get her name. He had forgotten it, or never bothered to ask for it in the first place. They continued to drink a lot and sleep together, and when she accidentally got pregnant, they agreed to go to City Hall and get married. Two years earlier, he would have made her get an abortion. But Ted liked her, liked that she was his, and she cooked him dinner all the time. They had fit well together in bed, and while he knew she was no rocket scientist, he found her simplicity comforting. He had been thirty and eager to marry. He never had much confidence with women, and Laura had made him feel slightly good about himself.
She was just fine in every respect, really. Did he love her? This was a subject matter both Ted and Laura found embarrassing. It was something they had in common, this squeamishness about love. Once, after a particularly gymnastic and satisfying lovemaking session, he had blurted out "I love you." She answered him, her face muffled into the pillow, something that sounded like "ditto." This was good enough for him, but thereafter he restrained himself from saying anything in the heat of passion.
And now? Now, he was on his way to San Francisco, to a conference. He flew coach and could barely fit into his designated seat. But the flight left on time and no fat people sat next to him, in fact, no one sat next to him. He had a window seat. A pile of magazines and his laptop occupied the seat next to him. His flight attendant was female and despite the globs of makeup on her face, was relatively attractive and not too miserable seeming. He briefly imagined shoving his dick down her throat. Her tight, navy polyester skirt would rustle loudly as she pulled it up so she could get down on her knees; her shiny, lip-glossed mouth would part as she bent her head back to make room for his erection. It was something he did, imagined violating strange women whom he came in contact with. Once he had even fantasized fucking Larry Worth, the president of his company, in the ass. Larry, chubby, nasty-tempered Larry. Gasping from his smoking habit, the stink of old sweat coming off his dirty boxers as Ted ripped them down and shoved him over his very own desk. The tightness of his asshole, the little pieces of shit clinging to the dark threads of hair. He’d let out one angry scream as Ted stuck him like the pig he was. Larry had been a classmate at Harvard and Ted liked him, but resented him for making more money than he did. He didn’t have kids to support. He didn’t even have a wife! And definitely not a wife who perhaps defined herself entirely by what she bought.
Besides shopping and minding the children and house, Laura did nothing. In fact, minding the children and house had become a sort of shopping in and of itself. There was new underwear for Jake one day, diapers for the baby the next, and pork chops the day after. Ted knew that taking care of the children and the home was work, regardless of the weekly visits from a Caribbean housekeeper and a part-time babysitter. He wouldn’t want to do what Laura was doing. It was thankless, and not only because he didn’t really appreciate what she did–which was, in fact, true–but because no one did, not their little children, not the other depressed, defensive, and overeducated mothers she hung out with, not anyone. He was, of course, secretly glad she didn’t have a career. But when the sitter came in the morning, Laura went out shopping. And usually, in the afternoon, she strapped the kids in the stroller and shopped some more. She bought nice stuff–Kate Spade diaper bags, Petit Bateau pajamas for the kids, a pair of Gap leather pants for herself. She bought shell steaks, fresh rosemary, organic baby food. She cooked nice dinners with the nice food she bought. But sometimes Ted wondered if there was anyone lurking beneath all that shopping. This kind of thinking made him anxious, and he tried not to go there. He didn’t like hyper-intelligent women, but he also liked to think that Laura had a soul.
San Francisco, now there was a nice thought. Ted undid his seatbelt, breathed deeply. Out the airplane window was nothing, a whitish gray, cloudy nothing. Larry was meeting him at what was promised to Ted to be a very happening restaurant. Larry would bring a crowd of fabulously important schmoozers. There would be lots of parties to go to after dinner, lots of drunk, younger women with interesting jobs. But for some reason, despite the fact that Ted was doing quite well, all those loose party girls, all that fresh lemon pussy, the squeaky young recent college grads with their sixty-grand-a-year jobs, never came on to him. It wasn’t because he was married. Plenty of his married colleagues had flings. In the past, his insecurity had made him invisible to women, that he knew. But now he felt as if it were something else. He felt it was because he actually programmed Web sites, was a tech guy. All the young women wanted to fuck the creatives, as they were known. It was as if the nature of his job forced him into a monogamous lifestyle he no longer could bear. No one wanted to talk to him about code. Code was not sexy. He didn’t want to talk about code either, frankly. It was just something he had a gift for, something he did for a living. And no women, young or old, did technical work. They all worked in marketing or production.
Did he want to divorce Laura? Hmm. Every day he left for work and she stayed home, he felt them grow apart. They grew eight hours apart every day. He, with adults and computers, participating in the world. She, primarily with young children, sinking into a dull, repetitive existence. Besides shopping, she spent a lot of time picking up. She picked up underwear, dirty dishes, toys, old newspapers. She put away the bath towels, lined up the spices in the spice rack, took the old, bad food out of the refrigerator. Every night she sat cross-legged in front of the refrigerator, perusing its contents. Once, they had sex in common. That, and socializing. Sex, in many ways, was what had brought Laura and he together. Sure, they were both white, educated, and upper-middle class. They both believed in the superiority of all things New York. But it was their fucking that really clinched the deal, the negotiation which was their marriage.
"Something to drink?"
It was early. He knew the flight attendant really meant juice or coffee, but he ordered a Bloody Mary. There she was, with her full cart, leaning over to find a miniature bottle of vodka. She smiled at him. He wanted her to care that he was ordering a drink so early, he wanted her to feel his pain, see him as slightly on the edge. But what did she care if he had a drink first thing in the morning? He was nothing to her. She placed the little plastic cup with the rounded ice cubes onto a napkin, leaning again to do so, this time over his pile of stuff on the seat next to him. She had nice tits. She smiled, revealing a slight overbite. Perhaps the overbite was why he had imagined putting his dick in her mouth. The extra room there, the sexiness of the imperfection. Perhaps she secretly hated men who drank, he thought. Perhaps her father was a drunk who beat her, molested her. He wanted her to care.
The drink tasted good. Slightly horseradishy, very cold. The plastic cup was like a feather in his hand. He felt wild, free. He pushed the little silver button on the armrest and leaned back. Someone behind him coughed in annoyance and Ted looked back. Some guy with a job, like himself. Angry in his little seat, jowly face in his newspaper. Fuck him, Ted thought, and pushed the seat back further, as far as it would go. The back of his seat at this point, he knew, was in the guy’s lap. Ted coughed back at him.
An ice cube from his drink fell in his lap. Ted felt it there, felt it cold and hard, making a dark stain on his trousers. He picked it up off of his pants and put it back in his cup. Then he downed his drink.
When they had decided to keep the baby, Laura had been thrilled. She glowed in those first few months, despite her upset stomach, she positively glowed. She quit drinking, smoking, and cut back on her coffee intake. She started watching lots of TV. As she grew larger, they both grew more anxious. Ted worked late at night. Laura began looking for a house in Brooklyn, as the tiny apartment in Manhattan would no longer work for them. She took a prenatal yoga class where she met other expectant moms. She bought baby clothes, researched strollers and car seats. Her life, which once was partying and flirting, turned into obsessive nesting activities. Ted continued to work late and became ambitious in a way he’d never been before. He asked for a huge raise and got it. He wanted a corner office. He, too, became obsessed, obsessed with making more money.
And sex? They continued to have sex, albeit more cautiously, less frequently, and toward the end of her pregnancy, not at all. The last time they had sex during the pregnancy had been late at night, under the covers. Laura’s back was facing him as they lay side by side. It took about two seconds before he came. Her pussy had felt so swollen, and so thick with mucous, that it freaked him out. It had felt good, in a way, but alarmingly different and almost completely animal, or something. Like he was fucking a sheep. Overall, it was an unpleasant interaction, regardless of the physical gratification.
As Laura’s due date neared, they began attending a birth class. Laura had researched various birth classes–this was one of those things she talked at him about, which class to take, which hospital to have the baby in, to get an epidural or no epidural. Ted did not understand all the hoopla about birth. It was after the birth that things really started to happen, wasn’t it? After the baby arrived, that’s what really mattered. When he spoke this way to her, Laura would get mad, saying, "It’s not your body, so you just don’t care. You don’t care about me, do you? You don’t know how to care about me!" Then she would storm into the living room and turn on the TV. End of discussion.
The birth class met once a week in an elementary public school in the West Village. Ted hated it. The "instructor," Jane, was a beady-eyed, colorless woman in her forties who was relentlessly cheerful about birth despite an incredibly strong hostility that emanated from her person. Sometimes, one of her children attended the class and would sit in a loft in the back of the classroom playing by himself while his mother talked excitedly about vaginas, the uterus, dilation, effacement, placenta, and the like. Ted was disgusted. All the other couples seemed pleased as punch. Then came the practice sessions. Laura would lie on her side and he sat next to her, rubbing her back and talking to her in a soothing voice about oceans and forests. He just didn’t get it. Couldn’t she just take some drugs and put a sheet over her?
The flight attendant loomed over him suddenly. He ordered another Bloody Mary. She didn’t make eye contact with him this time. Good. Maybe she did care, he thought, pouring the vodka into the tomato juice and stirring. His hand shook slightly as he banged the little plastic stirrer around. Bloody Mary. Bloody bloody. At the end of the birth class, they watched videos of births. Ted would close his eyes. Instructor Jane, and sometimes some of the other women, cried and exclaimed, "Isn’t it beautiful?" Ted ran off to the bathroom, thinking he might throw up.
He tried to talk to Laura about it. It’s not that he didn’t want children, he just didn’t want to watch them come out of her. Was that so wrong? He admitted, bravely he thought, that he was scared. Laura argued that he would be sad and feel left out if he wasn’t there watching.
"What if you don’t bond with our son because you’re too chicken to see him come into the world?" She’d been sniffly and angry, with only weeks to go before the birth.
"I can’t wait to meet this baby," he’d said. "I’m not worried about loving this baby or not. I just am nervous about the whole birth thing. You are too, admit it. You’re not so sure it’s going to be so beautiful."
"I don’t want to be alone, Ted. And I think the immediate bonding thing is real. I want you there in the room with me, helping to deliver this child."
"Instructor Jane is brainwashing you! My dad loved us! He wasn’t in the room watching us slither out of my mother’s crotch!" He hadn’t meant to yell. Laura burst into tears. That was it. He apologized and said he’d do his best. And he did. At the hospital, he held her hand, gave her ice chips, and told her stories of mountains and trickling rain until she screamed at him to shut the fuck up. Jake’s head appeared and his wife, huffing, deranged, and drug free, touched Jake’s head. The midwife told Ted to touch Jake’s head too, and he did. A wet, hairy little head, stuck in the pelvic bone of his wife. He didn’t like it. The room smelled of feces and some weird, thick metallic smell; the smell of fear, the smell of blood and earth. His wife’s vagina expanded into something entirely unrecognizable as his son’s body emerged. Her vagina was all blood and ooze, as wide as a house, and beet red except for the places where it was a dark, bruised purple; looking at it just made Ted hurt all over. Laura’s eyes bulged from her face, black-green veins glistened all over her round stomach and breasts. Dark streaks of shit, poorly wiped off by the nurse, lay smeared on her buttocks, and her once tiny pink rosebud of an asshole was swollen to the size of a small melon. She moaned as if she were dying. He began to fear that she was dying. He had weird thoughts wishing that she would die, just so the damn thing would be over with, and so that he never had to look her in the face again. The midwife yelled, "Take a picture, take a picture!" He had been given a camera by his wife. He didn’t want to take a picture. He wanted to curl up in a ball and disappear. Everybody was screaming. Laura was no longer Laura. Her voice came from a place he’d never known was in her. He couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t stand looking at anyone anymore, and he began backing out of the room, the bitter taste of vomit on the back of his throat. His wife began screaming, "I’m dying! I’m dying! Pull! Pull him out of me!" Minutes later, he held his newborn son. The midwife asked him to take off his shirt first, for some "skin-on-skin contact." He ignored her. Jake, their little boy, their perfect, tiny boy, squeaked and cried. Holding him was, undoubtedly, the most profound experience of his life. Nothing could touch that. But the birth itself rattled him. He had been afraid and now he was, well, traumatized.
The constant whir of the airplane reminded Ted of the computers at work. A soothing, white noise. He was fifteen the first time he touched pussy. A Saturday night, in the graveyard behind Hotchkiss. His first year of boarding school. She was a lovely, bulimic, Greenwich, Connecticut girl named Mary Todd. They had been drinking vodka mixed with Seven-Up. After fumbling around for a while, Ted, so nervously, put a finger into her panties, searching for it. It was warmer than he thought it would be. No one had told him it would be warm in there. Slippery yes, but with invisible, superfine grains of sand. He let his finger linger there as Mary Todd sighed underneath him. His erection waned as his hand explored, but his curiosity was sated. Like a blind man, he saw with his fingers.
In the year that followed Jake’s birth, they went to a marriage counselor, a sex therapist, and finally, a doe-eyed, extremely short woman in Times Square who specialized in post-birth, male sexual trauma. She reminded Ted of Dr. Ruth and he often had to stop himself from breaking into nervous laughter during their sessions with her. He did this by thinking about death. Death, Ted would think, frowning in concentration. We all will die, we all will die, was his mantra. Laura and he spent a lot of time there watching explicit, touchy-feely, sexual-technique videos, while the therapist pointed to a close-up of a penis thrusting in and out of a vagina and said stuff like, "See? It’s not a bad thing, the vagina. It’s friendly!" Indeed, the vagina had once been his friend. And to a certain extent, the vagina became his friend again. Only on occasion now did he become erectally challenged, so to speak. Only on occasion was he haunted with the specter of Jake’s birth. Henry, the new baby, was born while he waited outside. His wife had an epidural and read magazines throughout the labor. The Dr. Ruth look-alike had convinced Laura that Ted needed some boundaries, and that this did not mean he was a bad husband, nor did it mean he was an unloving father. Ted was so thankful for this, so thankful for the support he didn’t even know he needed, so thankful that someone had articulated what he felt, that she became a powerful goddess in his dreams. He dreamt of her often, even though he couldn’t remember her name. In his dreams, she stroked his head and her voice was the soothing voice of his mother.
The white-gray nothing outside of the tiny window was changing. Bits of land and water became discernible. Ted looked down at his drink. It was gone. At some point, the flight attendant had put a little box with a sandwich, an apple, and a cookie on the tray next to him. Where had he been? He rubbed his eyes. Had he slept? San Francisco was approaching. Suddenly, he felt drunk and sad. He missed Jake, he missed the drooly, gurgly new Henry. And in a lesser way he missed his bossy, aging, somewhat boring wife. She was, after all, the mother of his children. She was a decent, hardworking mother. He picked up the sandwich and started to eat it. He would catch up on sleep in his eco-sensitive hotel. He would drink maybe a little too much at the parties, but not enough to behave inappropriately. He would not get laid, this he knew for certain, because he truly wasn’t interested in acquainting himself with the vagina of some strange person. And when he returned home, what to do with Laura’s straightforward longings directed toward him? Her foot on his crotch at night, while they lounged on the couch, watching TV? Said or unsaid, he had grown to love this woman. He did not always like her, this was true. He had stared deep into her, watched her produce life, and it had changed him. He knew, like never before, that he would die, Laura too would die, and that even his children were temporary beasts of the Earth themselves. His job, their house, basketball, preschool, and shopping–it was all just waiting, killing time. And while he waited? He would do his best. That’s all he could do.
The flight attendant came down the aisle, picking up people’s food boxes and accompanying trash. Ted, after wiping up the little drips of boozy tomato juice from the tray, neatly stuck the napkin and the tiny vodka bottle into the empty cup. He was trying to be helpful. He lifted his arms to her with his garbage, to save her the trouble of reaching over for everything. "Thank you," he said, his eyes wet with vodka, and the plane continued to descend.