Punch

by Leah Browning
First, there’s an ultrasound.  Or, no, that’s not the beginning.  First, there’s a forgettable night with your husband.  You’ve been married eight years already and the spark is gone—it’s more than gone—its absence is so huge that it’s become a presence in and of itself.

But you’re not thinking about that anymore.  You want a baby now.  You’re like the Marisa Tomei character in My Cousin Vinny where she’s standing on the porch in a black bodysuit saying, “My biological clock is ticking like this,” and pounding the wooden boards with her foot.  The main difference is that you’re not going to win an Academy Award for all the nights you’ve sat up in bed trying to wheedle your husband into agreeing that you should go off the pill.

It’s not that he doesn’t like children.  When he holds your nephews on his lap or reads one of your nieces a storybook, he’s so sweet it makes tears come to your eyes.  It makes him emotional, too, but that’s because he’s still working at the copy shop and the novel he’s been working on for ten years is unfinished and every short story he sends out comes back with a little scrap of paper with a pre-printed rejection paperclipped to the front of the manuscript, and even though he loves books and he loves to read, it’s gotten to the point that by the time he leaves a bookstore, he’s so depressed he seems like he wants to die.  

And it doesn’t help that you were laid off last year, which seemed like perfect timing baby-wise because you’re thirty-eight now and you’re not getting any younger and every magazine article you read seems to trumpet this fact and a bunch of others that you’d rather not think about, but now money is tighter than ever and even though he’s a year younger than you are, he’s still cruising toward forty and his twenty-year high school reunion is next year and he’s more of a failure than ever.  It’s a sad speech, but you’ve heard it ten trillion times because you’ve been friends since college, back when he was still sure that things would work out.  He’s not even bitter anymore—just resigned.

So you borrow a little money from your mom.  You help him get a new suit and a new job that has longer hours but has better pay and benefits.  You take your temperature and make a chart to see when you’re ovulating and eat well and take folic acid.  You haven’t taken a drink in six months.  After a few tries, you’re so bored by the idea of sex with your husband that you want to cry.  The movies and the sitcoms that make sex-for-the-sole-purpose-of-a-baby look like a chore are dead-on.

The problem is that you don’t get pregnant, and you don’t get pregnant, and then the teenage girl in the little house two doors down from yours does get pregnant and her mother starts wearing a baseball cap low over her eyes and pretending she doesn’t see anyone she knows at the grocery store.  You call your doctor friend and you do cry while she explains why the high school sex ed. classes make it seem like you can practically get pregnant by brushing up against someone of the opposite sex, but when you’re older and settled and actually want a baby, it just doesn’t seem to happen.

You don’t have a job to go to anymore so you lie on the couch sometimes and look out the window and think about your body like an old refrigerator and your eggs which are just inside rotting.  You seem to spend a lot of time crying.  But then you pull yourself up by your bootstraps (as your father would have said) and go for long walks and volunteer to watch your friend’s son because his nursery school has a weeklong break while she and her husband have to work.

The little boy likes to drive his Matchbox cars around on the carpet or color or play with a big, elaborate dollhouse passed down from his older sister.  After the first few days, he does these things alone while you lie on the couch, resting.  You want to be happy but you’ve started to throw up every hour on the hour, or something like that.  You’ve got morning sickness, afternoon sickness, and evening sickness.  Sometimes, if you lie very still and don’t eat anything but saltines, you might get a two-hour break.  At first, as you kneel in front of the toilet, the little boy is standing next to you, patting you on the back and crying a little, but by the last day of the nursery school break he only looks up and gives you a sympathetic nod as you head back to the bathroom.

Finally you get to the ultrasound.  It feels like a new beginning because you’re finally starting to show, and you’ve finally stopped having the taste of vomit in your mouth no matter how many times you brush your teeth.  It’s the most contented you’ve ever felt even though you have incessant heartburn and a jag of pain radiating down one leg.  When the technician points to the black and white images on the screen and says, “It looks like you’re having a boy,” and your husband squeezes your hand and smiles, you think that you would live with sciatica for the rest of your life if it meant you would have a happy family.  

And for a while, you do.

The baby’s born.  Your husband gets very emotional and cuts the umbilical cord with a pair of giant silver scissors and takes a bunch of pictures of you holding the baby in your arms even though all you can see is the hospital blanket with an anonymous baby’s nose poking out of it and your giant face with all its blood vessels burst from the hours of pushing.  You’re all torn up and stitched up and drugged up, and then when you get home, the baby spends all night crying and you think, Oh my god what have I gotten myself into—I am way too old for this.    

Your breasts are sagging, your stomach is sagging, and your hair is falling out in your hands when you manage to take a shower and when you look down at the strands, most of them are gray.  You’re afraid suddenly that people will think the baby is your grandson.

Every once in a while, when you were younger, you used to wonder why mothers let themselves go, but now you understand.  You don’t have time to brush your hair, and you wear your glasses because your eyes ache at the mere thought of having contacts jammed into them, and you wear sweatpants to the grocery store because you just don’t care anymore.  In fact, you run into the teenage mother from down the street buying formula and tiny glass jars of food for her baby (who looks like a giant compared to your baby!) and she’s also wearing gray sweatpants, but she’s lost all the baby weight and looks cute and perky with her hair up in a little ponytail and the word SWEET sewn across the seat of her pants.

But still, there are these moments when you’re happier than you’ve ever been, when the baby falls asleep and drools onto your wrist and you feel so much love for him you think you just can’t take anymore.  Your husband is just as bewitched, and he takes hundreds of photos of the baby napping or staring into space, and he sends fat files of them to everyone you both know.

You give the baby a good childhood.  You color and play with Matchbox cars and dolls.  You take the kid to play group and library story time and friends’ houses.  Some of his friends are third or fourth children, and the parents have kind of pooped out, but you’re getting enough sleep again and you’ve always been a determined person, so when he shows some interest, you sign him up for soccer and T-ball and teach him a little Spanish.

In exchange, you’re so richly, embarrassingly rewarded.  You have drawers filled with cut paper hearts, “I MOM” painstakingly printed in crayon, and all his drawings and letters and intense unabashed love.  When you lean over his bed at night to kiss his candy-smelling head and he smiles and reaches up his little arms to squeeze your neck, you know that the privilege of being his mother is worth every second of worry and stress and mind-numbing boredom.  

After his last year of elementary school, you think you might try to dip your toe back into the job market, but you haven’t kept up with computer technology and now you need new training.  You had thought that you’d go back when he was much younger, but there was always so much to do, and you’d barely have dropped him off at school when it was time to go pick him back up.  Your husband is still looping a tie around his neck every morning and going to a job that he hates but that has good benefits.  You remind him of this when he’s moping, which is pretty much all the time, and honestly, you would leave him if you thought things would be better somewhere else but the boy needs his father and anyway you’re fifty now and where exactly do you think you’re going to go on your little varicose veined legs?    

So first, there’s a night with your husband, and in the end, there’s a bathroom door.  It’s not really the end, or even the beginning of the end, but it does seem like it at the time.  Your son has grown into a teenager and he’s suddenly shy, or maybe withdrawn; you’re not sure which.  Girls start to call the house, and there’s a shadow of dark hair on his upper lip, and one evening you are walking up the stairs with a basket of clean laundry and you catch him coming out of the bathroom, freshly showered, with only a towel wrapped around his waist, and he edges past you impatiently, irritably.  He can’t wait to get away from you.

You tell him to do things—unload the dishwasher, go to his room—and for the first time since he was a toddler, he raises his chin and says no, and when he takes a step toward you, you’re aware of him suddenly in a way you never were before; he’s almost the same height, there are visible muscles in his arms, and there is a sickening, unsettling feeling in your stomach, an understanding that physically, you’re now pretty evenly matched.  You remember learning in school all those years ago about the concept of a paradigm shift.

Night after night, stress dreams.  It’s raining outside, the roof is leaking, the pots you place under the leaks fill with water, everything is overflowing.  Or the man down the street who has always given you the creeps is standing on his front porch, barefoot, in a pair of suit pants and a short-sleeved white undershirt staring at you as you walk by, which he often does in real life, and now when you rush past his house, the sinister undertone has become an overtone, and even though he has always seemed creepy but harmless you find yourself wondering if there is something more to the story.

But that’s just a way to take your mind off your own home, which you’ve arranged so carefully but which seems to be unraveling.  There are so many things to argue about: wet towels on the bathroom floor, or on the hardwood of your son’s bedroom, or hung over a burning lamp; music played too loudly; a report card where the high point is a single C.  You and your husband spend hours bickering over what to do about this problem, that problem.  Your son slouches around with his hair in his eyes as if he wants to blend into the walls.  Just hearing him come home after school sets your teeth on edge.  You’ll be in the kitchen preparing dinner or in your home office paying the bills, and you’ll hear the front door and then the door of his bedroom slamming one after the other.

You’ve been having trouble making yourself get out of bed in the morning, and sometimes it takes a lot of effort to push back the desk chair and stand up.  You try not to think about anything in particular.  You and your husband have taken away his skateboard and headphones, unplugged the computer, and banned the television, and it is unfair.  He hates you.  He will always hate you and he can’t wait until he’s eighteen and he can get out of this house.  That’s not quite what he says word for word, but that’s the gist of it.  

So when you knock on the door, twice, and he finally barks, “What?” your impulse is to turn away, but you steel yourself and say in your best kindergarten teacher voice that you hope he had a good day at school and could he please come out and unload the dishwasher and sweep the kitchen before he gets started on his homework.  Please.

You try to sound pleasant yet commanding, but he seems to find you unpleasant and un-commanding—feeble, you might even say—and he practically knocks you down as he opens the door and sweeps past you.  He’s going to a friend’s house and he’s not doing any of these stupid chores before he leaves, either.  He can’t wait until he’s eighteen and he can leave this house and never come back.

This is starting to sound good to you, too.  But you stand up straighter and say, “You’re not going anywhere,” and he glares at you, absolutely radiating anger, and says, “I’d just like to punch you in the face,” but then jerks away from you, swearing, and puts his hand through a wall.  

Somehow you end up in the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the tub with the door locked and your head in your hands.  You can no longer hear him in the rest of the house and you don’t know where he is. You know now that he is going to be a thief or a drug-dealer or a serial killer, or maybe all of the above, and he’s going to systematically ruin your life if he doesn’t hack you to death with a meat cleaver or shoot you in your sleep, and you think about getting locks for the bedroom doors or sending him away or murdering him for his own good before he can murder you first.  You’ve never been one of those women who thinks that men are scum; you’ve known a lot of good, steady men in your life, including his father, who is probably at this very moment sitting at a desk filing paperwork so that this boy can continue to have a roof over his head and food on the table; and thinking of your husband giving up his dreams, thinking of everything you both have given up, makes you weep.  But the boy doesn’t know anything.  These aren’t his memories.  

There is a faint knock.  He’s saying, “Mom?” and in his voice you can hear it all—the remorse, the apology, the need for forgiveness.  That’s not all, though; there’s so much more left, and you don’t want to do this anymore, you don’t know if you have the energy to keep on going—it’s too much, it’s just too much!—but he continues knocking, and eventually you wipe your eyes and stand up and walk across the bathroom and open the door again.  
Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens (Capstone Press) and two chapbooks: Picking Cherries in the Española Valley (Dancing Girl Press, 2010) and Making Love to the Same Man for Fifteen Years (Big Table Publishing, 2009). Her third chapbook, In the Chair Museum, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in 2013. Browning’s fiction, poetry, essays, and articles have previously appeared in a variety of publications including Queen’s Quarterly, Tipton Poetry Journal, The Saint Ann’s Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Corium Magazine, The Literary Bohemian, Wigleaf, and Brink Magazine, as well as on a broadside from Broadsided Press, on postcards from the program Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, and in several anthologies. “The Costume Wedding” is the third in a series of three linked stories. The companion stories, “Strange Men in Bars” and “Keeping Up Appearances,” were published in 42opus and Lily, respectively. In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review. Her personal website is located at www.leahbrowning.com.

© 2011, Leah Browning