Jane Snyder is a retired social worker. She lives in Spokane.
It was Tom’s first day back at work after his daughter was born and he’d told his wife he’d come home at lunch, see how she and Chloe were doing.
“No need,” Beth said. “You just do your important work and don’t think about us.”
Yesterday, Sunday, when she saw him emptying the bathroom wastebasket full of blood soaked sanitary pads, she’d glared at him, “You think I stink. I’m repulsive to you.”
“You’re glad to go,” she’d said when he left this morning. “Get away from the crazy lady.”
Tom didn’t think that was fair, but it was nice at work; you got to finish whatever you were doing.
He still meant to go home, but they surprised him with a party in the conference room at noon.
“It doesn’t matter,” Beth said when he called her. “Chloe and I are fine.”
He’d been about to ask how they were. “I bet we’ll get some great stuff.”
“We’ve already got stuff.”
The women in the office had planned the party, tying pink balloons to the backs of chairs, and piling the presents in an umbrella opened on the conference table. Mark, his boss, and the other lawyers stuck together, expressed appreciation for the food.
Tom didn’t like being the center of attention. If Beth were there, he thought, she’d show enthusiasm, give each little outfit its due. There were details, little bits of embroidery and smocking, for instance, he could praise if he knew how to describe them.
The office manager had brought in a stack of onesies in a doll buggy. “Chloe can put her own dollies in it when she’s bigger,” she said.
“What a cute idea, Helen,” he heard himself saying, then remembered he’d also called a sun dress from someone else cute. He fingered the onesies. “Oh, look, they’re different sizes.” It must have been expensive to buy so many.
“She’ll need them. They grow so fast.”
Tom was embarrassed by her generosity; wasn’t sure he’d reciprocate. Helen always planned the parties; the time for being a bride or a new mother was over for her. “This was so thoughtful of all of you.”
“We were glad to do it. It was such a sweet time in my life. I miss it.”
He couldn’t think of an answer.
“I’d forgotten how tired you get.” She patted his hand. “It’ll get better when she starts sleeping through the night.”
Tom warmed to the unexpected sympathy. He wanted to keep talking to Helen but Mark thrust a box, wrapped in dark, pin-striped paper, at him. “It’s getting too squishy in here. This is for you, Daddy Bones.”
A T-shirt, dark, a little too big for Tom. “I’ve got a beautiful daughter,” the thick black letters across the gray cotton read, “I’ve also got a gun. A shovel. An alibi.” Helen’s face, Tom saw, had become resolutely blank. “Remember, Tiger, the first one who comes to the house you tell him anything he does to her you’ll do to him. Word’ll get out.”
“Nineteen years, eight months,” Tom said. They laughed because whenever somebody talked about something illegal around Tom, he’d say what the standard sentencing range was. Rain Man, they called him. Tom didn’t mind though he didn’t see anything remarkable about an attorney, even a tax attorney, knowing the standard sentencing range for First Degree Murder.
Would you tell your daughter you thought she was beautiful? He couldn’t imagine Mark saying it to his daughter. He and Beth had met Melissa at the Christmas party last year. Mark had told a story about the cruise, he, his wife, and Melissa, had taken last summer. They were in port, supposed to be back at the boat by five, but they couldn’t find Melissa and the boat left without them. Mark was full of energy, telling it. Melissa kept her head down. “And where were you, Melissa?”
“In the Sephora store.”
“In the Sephora store,” Mark repeated, looked around the room to make sure everyone heard. “And how much did it cost to rent the charter to get back to the cruise, Melissa?”
“Sixteen hundred dollars, Daddy.” It was funny, Tom guessed, Melissa being made to tell on herself, Mark correcting her, saying, “Eighteen hundred dollars with the tip.”
We’re not going to be that way, Beth said in the car on the way home. They’d known about her pregnancy for two months then. They’d told their parents, were waiting for the second trimester before telling anyone else. Beth was worried about miscarriage.
“Of course not, honey.” She didn’t like Mark. Tom didn’t either but he liked his job and didn’t want this to go where talk of Mark usually went. “But all kids do dumb things once in a while. And that was a lot of money.”
“We’d have gotten back on time because she’d have been with us. She’d want to be with us.”
Angie, the new paralegal, handed him another package, wrapped in the Sunday funnies. Except for Mark’s, the other packages had been wrapped in special, mostly pink, baby wrapping paper. “You can recycle it,” she said, pointing to the newspaper.
Tom had heard Angie wasn’t fitting in. The others said she acted like she thought she was better than they were because she had a college degree.
“I guess I should have gotten something cute.” The way she said cute gave Tom an idea of why she was disliked. “But I hope you and Beth can use this.”
Two large jars of Boudreaux’s Butt Paste. The name made him feel squeamish.
“Oh, you brought something for Tom too.” Mark made the snorkeling sound he made when he thought he’d said something funny. He picked up a jar, read the slogan, “‘Let’s kick some rash.’”
Helen talked into the laughter. “What a great idea. My daughter-in-law says this is the best stuff there is.”
“Beth was saying we should get some,” Tom said, though he hadn’t heard of the stuff before, and then, when he realized Mark could say something about that, announced he’d also been changing diapers.
Mr. Mom, Mark said.
The diaper thing wasn’t as bad as he’d expected. The wipes made the cleaning quick and then you just folded up the dirty diaper with the nasty part inside and threw it away. Though yesterday Chloe had started to urinate just as he was unfastening the diaper tabs to take it off. For a moment he’d been embarrassed, feeling he was witnessing something too intimate. Only Chloe didn’t even seem to notice and he’d lifted the diaper up to catch the rest. “Would you look at that,” he’d said, “My little girl pottying like a boss.”
He believed Chloe’s expression changed a little, as if, he thought, she recognized his voice.
“It even smells good,” Helen said now, picking up a jar. She asked Tom if she could open it, passed it around. “That stuff we used to use with the cod liver oil was nasty. I hated putting it on my babies. You’re going to be glad you’ve got this when Chloe’s first tooth comes in.”
“That’s the other end, Helen,” Mark said.
She talked on. “Most babies get their first diaper rash, when they start teething. Because of the pressure of the tooth cutting through the gum the baby produces more saliva and the urine becomes more concentrated.”
Mark stood. “Some of us have work to do.”
Tom stayed behind, thanked Helen. He hoped the party hadn’t been spoiled for her; didn’t know how to ask. When he went out to the front desk later in the afternoon he noticed the women, including Angie, seemed to be having fun, laughing about something. Not about him, he hoped.
At home he put the T-shirt in the box for the Goodwill in the front hall closet. Beth was sitting on the living room couch, a crying Chloe sprawled face down in her lap. She was wearing the nursing nightgown she had on when he left in the morning, the front stained yellow with colostrum. Her swollen breasts were mottled red and stiff.
“She has to eat more. If she doesn’t gain weight they’ll make us use formula.” She stared down at Chloe. “She’s hungry. That’s her hunger cry.”
All Chloe’s cries sounded the same to Tom. Frantic and sad. He didn’t say this to Beth, not wanting to question her instincts.
“I must be engorged; I can’t get her to latch on.” Tom hoped she wouldn’t start crying. “I tried to express some milk but the milk started dropping down faster. God, I can’t do anything right.”
There was wine, Pinot Gris, in the refrigerator. Tom wanted some. But Beth wouldn’t drink while she was nursing.
“How about a warm shower?” he asked her. The lactation instructor at the hospital had recommended this for relieving discomfort.
Beth said no, she couldn’t leave Chloe when she needed her.
“Could I warm some compresses for you?”
“Nothing helps.” But he brought her the steaming towels in a bowl and took Chloe from her. “My turn,” he said, as if he’d been looking forward to it. He rocked her, thinking she’d like that, but Chloe still cried.
“This is perfect. This is wonderful. Oh, it feels so good.” Chloe arched her back and cried harder. “You were so smart to think of this.”
“Should I heat them up again? Or maybe cold ones this time?” But Beth was looking at the streams coursing down her spongy belly. Chloe cries became higher in pitch and a little milky fountain spurted from Beth’s left breast.
“You never told me you could do that. What a woman!”
Beth giggled and for a moment it seemed to Tom as if Chloe became softer in his arms, her cry less strained. Beth wiped her chest with one of the damp towels. Already her breasts looked less swollen. Tom was supporting Chloe’s head with his hand and he could feel her lean it back. She looked into his face. Sizing me up, he thought. “Did you see that, honey? She knows I’m here.”
“Of course she does.” Beth was smug; she’d known Chloe longer than he had. “I was talking to her today when I was changing her and she looked right at me. Give her back; I’m going to try to feed her again. You know your mommy and daddy, don’t you, baby?”
Chloe, settled back against her mother, sniffed, licked the milky aureole, looked intrigued. “Maybe she’ll like it better now it’s warmed up. Like a latte.” Chloe moved her mouth up around the nipple. “Oh, she’s b-r-i-g-h-t.” They laughed at Beth spelling out the word.
“You were right about her being hungry. Look at her go.” They admired Chloe’s deep pulls. They ate too; Tom heating them plates of the rest of the casserole his mother had brought.
He’d have thought that was gross once, he realized, eating in view of Beth’s exposed breasts, but he didn’t want to be alone. They ate some of the pink cake from the party and he told her about the presents and how the others had asked after her, minimized Mark’s part, tried to make it into a funny story.
Beth smiled down at Chloe. “I had a better day than you did then. Keeping it real with Chloe.” She roused Chloe a little, moved her to the other side where she sucked with gusto.
“Full as a tick,” Beth said proudly when Chloe’s mouth went slack and she sprawled against Beth’s stomach. The best time they’d had since Chloe was born, Tom thought. He didn’t say it, not wanting Beth to reproach herself.
Chloe slept on, even when he changed the reassuringly wet diaper, and sponged her off, trying not to look at the drying bit of umbilical cord which would, he told himself, surely be gone soon. He laid her down in the bassinet on Beth’s side of the bed, admiring the way Chloe slept, with her arms above her head. Like a prize fighter, he told Beth.
“Or somebody in trouble with the cops. ‘Put your hands in the air and leave them there.’”
“I don’t think the police talk in little rhymes like that.”
Beth had showered and wore a fresh nightgown. “Sure they do. ‘We think it best to place you under arrest.’ Come to bed soon.”
“No place I’d rather be.”
That was true, he thought, thinking of how it would sound to Mark; he’d probably ask if being between two swimsuit models was an option. He was glad he hadn’t said anything to Beth about the T shirt.
He studied his daughter’s face before lying down beside Beth. In the clear glow from the night light her features were pale and delicate. Her eyes, under the puffy eye lids, moved.