The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 14-JAN 15

All Issues
DEC 14-JAN 15 Issue

Born Man

Yesterday was a big day for me. Yes, yesterday was quite a big day. You see, yesterday my mother gave birth to 185 pounds of my sagging middle-aged flesh.

I know, I know, it doesn’t make much sense. None of it makes much sense at all really, but I swear it’s true. One minute I, you know, wasn’t, and the next my balding, forty-two year old gray head was poking out of mother’s down there. She screamed and screamed and I finally fell out onto the linoleum floor of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Hospital, clad in a badly tailored suit.

It was a difficult birth.

I wiped the afterbirth off my suit — although I’m sure I’ll have to take it to the dry cleaner’s — and mother started yelling in her usual way about how I don’t visit and how I’m not grateful for all she’s done and how I need to come over and fix the loose shingle on her roof and how she wishes she’d taught me better life values so I would have remembered to come over and fix the loose shingle on her roof. Obviously I was a tad flustered. Confused even. “I haven’t had any time,” I told her. And I certainly didn’t have time then. I didn’t. I was late for work.

When I got to work, Mr. Livingston came up to me.

“The ARP report is late along with the PowerPoint explaining the creation of the ARP report. What have you been doing?”

I tried to explain that I had just been in the hospital with my mother, and Mr. Livingston got very quiet — people like to get quiet when hospitals are mentioned — and asked if everything was all right. I said yes, it’s just that she was giving birth to me.

He nodded and took a sip of his coffee. 

“Look,” he said. “I understand that these problems come up, but I think you have to start being a team player.”

“I know. I really do,” I said. His shirt had a piece of lint on it. I wanted to flick it.

“To effectively optimize team-driven technology you have to be a proactive integrated co-leader synergizing with other proactive integrated co-leaders to produce optimal creative output.”

“Very true Mr. Livingston,” I said. Maybe someone else could flick it?

“You can’t very well synergize if you’re off in the hospital being born.”

I told him it was a one-time thing, and it wouldn’t happen again. 

“Make sure it doesn’t,” he said. He started walking away but then backtracked. “And I’m sorry, but I think this means I’ll have to make Ron the regional deputy project-manager co-architect.”

Ron waved from his cubicle.

“It’s okay, I don’t mind,” I said.

“You do mind,” said Mr. Livingston. “Being regional deputy project-manager co-architect has been your ultimate goal for the past five years.”

And then I felt myself getting red-faced. Angry. You see, I wanted to be a pilot. After being born that morning, I’d found a brochure on my car. “Fly Away to New Beginnings with West Valley Pilot School!” it said. There was a picture of a brown-haired man with shiny teeth smiling in a cockpit. A speech bubble pointing to his face said, “I’m going to Tahiti!” I wanted to be a pilot like him. I wanted to fly to Tahiti too!

I was about to clarify this point to Mr. Livingstone but he’d wandered off. Then Ron came over to ask for my self-evaluation reports from the last five years.

When I got home that night my wife gave me a look.

“Where have you been? You told me you were coming home early.”

I lay down on the couch and tried to calmly explain that I had a long day at work and, moreover, I had just started existing so I couldn’t have said I was coming home early. She said, “Excuses,” in that quiet exasperated tone she always uses when she’s quietly exasperated.

I watched her stir the soup.

She asked if I remembered to pick up the margarine — which is just the kind of thing she would say — she always expects me to fail and forget to pick up things like margarine. But of course I couldn’t have remembered to pick up the margarine or do the other things there hadn’t been time to do: put money in our IRA, get hair plugs, or investigate nursing homes for mother, who was already back in the hospital after slipping on the loose shingle that fell off the roof.

There hadn’t been any time.

She said that there was never any time.

I said that was true, it trickles away. And again, I don’t know how I know... but it’s true, it does trickle away. 

She asked me if I was unhappy that I had chosen her, and I said it was never a choice. She misinterpreted and smiled.

I got confused.

She said she’d wished that I had impregnated her so we could have made a zygote that might have traveled down her fallopian tubes, implanted itself on her uterine lining, and eventually become a baby that could somehow be extracted and raised by our mutual effort. Her eggs were too old now. There was no chance that a zygote would travel down her fallopian tubes, implant itself into her uterine lining, and eventually become a baby — or something approximating a baby.

“It’s just going to be us,” she said.

And with that she stopped stirring the soup and turned towards me. A sad stranger. Deep parenthesis flanking her mouth and oven mitts for hands.

“Will it be enough?” she asked, frowning.

I wanted her to stop being sad. Her frown lines made me feel too icky inside. I shifted my weight from right to left and back again, wondering what to say.  

“Will it?” she asked again, brushing a stray hair off my coat. 

I knew I had to pretend so I said that the two of us was enough, more than enough really.

I offered to take over stirring the soup.

“It looks delicious,” I said.

“I’m sorry, I got lentil instead of tomato,” she said.

“That’s okay, it looks delicious.”

Our friends, a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman, came over for dinner and we talked about movies and the Steelers and the Steelers’ new tight end — the Steelers have a great new tight end — and I almost forgot about the strangeness. I almost forgot.

But then we talked about other things.

“His name is Gus,” my wife said, holding up a YouTube video displaying a small Schnauzer running through five rings of fire while balancing a beach ball on his nose. 

“Ooooh,” the couple said while slurping their soup. 

“He’s purebred, descended from two generations of Westminster champions on his mother’s side,” my wife said.

The middle-aged woman put a sympathetic hand on my wife’s arm.

“A purebred championship dog will surely make up for the fact that you can’t have children and your marriage has lost its spark,” she said smiling.

My wife nodded.

“We gave Violet a Dachshund for her birthday,” the middle-aged man said. He punched me jocularly with one arm, taking a large pull from his Budweiser with the other.  

“But can you —” the middle-aged woman said.

“A Dachshund!”

“Can you afford a championship Schnauzer?” she finished, eyeing me suspiciously. My wife’s eyes followed along with the middle-aged man’s and I sat there, clutching the cheap fold-out Flardfüll table and listening to Jeopardy from the rabbit-eared television in the kitchenette.

“Of course he can, he’s getting a promotion,” my wife said.

This is the lifespan of the Bristlecone Pine, the longest-lived tree on earth.

“Right honey?” she said.

I felt my body inflating. The blood welled up in my cheeks.

What is 5000 years?

“Right?” my wife said, eyeing me, a mixture of pain and pity on her face. 

My fingertips vibrated.

5000 years is correct!

And with that, it all became too much and I let out a piercing wail, banging my fist down on the table and splattering soup on my readers.

“It’s not fair!” I sputtered out, rocking back and forth in my chair as my wife got up to wipe the soup and spittle off my face. “I’m a baby,” I screamed. “I’m a goddamn baby and nobody seems to respect that!”

Dinner ended.

The others said it’s not true. They said I’m not a baby. They said I’m a man because I know the things a man knows and look the way a man looks. And it does seem like I’m equipped with a certain level of knowledge. I know how to get to the store and back. I know my wife’s favorite colors. But other things I don’t know and the not knowing makes me want to climb back inside mother, hide in her vagina, and refuse to come back out.  Because this wasn’t my doing. Something else made this. 

And I realize you may not understand. I don’t really either. You see, it’s hard to reconcile what I know with what I know but… I do know this: I’m new and nobody will let me be. That seems to be the biggest problem here. Nobody lets anybody be new. 

In bed that night I laid awake, terrified, stiff and still, listening to my wife’s soft snore and staring at her, examining the worry crease in the middle of her forehead and the slight droop of flesh beneath her chin.

She woke up.

“What’s wrong,” she said.  I said nothing. The chin flesh was the problem but I couldn’t very well talk about the strangeness of the chin flesh so I kissed her, thinking it would make things less strange. 

She moaned softly and I kissed her more, getting lost in the tactile sensations. I got on top of her, took off her nightgown, closed my eyes, and thrust deep into her. She gasped. I thrust harder. She said something but I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t hear anything. All I could do was thrust faster and faster, deeper and deeper, trying to believe that it was real.

And then I heard her. “Slow down baby, there’s no hurry.”

I opened up my eyes to find her brown ones saying please.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s okay,” she said softly. But it wasn’t and I knew it. See, I knew it because of her forehead. It was scrunched up — a bed of worry lines with a little vertical trench in the middle. Hovering over her, I stared at the scrunched up forehead, not really knowing why. And as I stared something just sort of — I don’t quite know how to explain — but something just… snapped into place and I saw our first date and how she scrunched up her forehead after I made an off-color joke. Something about Helen Keller? A rabbi? Helen Keller and a rabbi? I remembered doing a little dance the first time she called me back and the way her voice always squeaked in the morning. And suddenly it all made such… sense.

“Baby, are you okay?” she asked, a wisp of her auburn hair stuck to the corner of her mouth. 

I said nothing. Time had slowed down and I stayed silent and still, hoping I could make time freeze completely and live forever in the pure rightness of the moment.

But I couldn’t.

As I stared at the little trench in the middle of my wife’s forehead, it turned into a gash. An alien scar. A moment later I saw other things — things that didn’t make sense: the house we could never afford, the places we’d never gone, the child we’d never have. All the recognition evaporated and I pulled away, collapsing like a poured out piece of flesh onto my side of the bed.

My wife nuzzled up next to me, camping in the space above my shoulder blade. She gripped me too tightly.

I scooted away to the corner of the bed and got into the fetal position. I sucked my thumb. It didn’t help. Too salty.

“Honey, talk to me,” she said, rubbing my shoulder.

I started to cry. Big snotty sobs.

“What’s going on?” she said, handing me a tissue.

“I want to go to West Valley College and become a pilot,” I cried.

“What?” Her brow furrowed.

I went to get the brochure of the attractive, smiling man with the white teeth and I told her about West Valley College. If I went to West Valley College, I could earn my wings and fly away to Tahiti. I’m sure they would let me be new in Tahiti. I googled “Tahiti” on my phone and started learning things. Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia. It’s always sunny and warm and all the islanders look happy so I would never be cold and unhappy. My wife said something about not being able to go to Tahiti and I told her, of course she wouldn’t be able to go. She’s not a pilot and I wouldn’t give her a ride. If I gave her a ride, I wouldn’t be able to be new.

I was getting pretty excited, telling her about all the sea otters and sea lions that lived off the coast of Tahiti. But, then I turned away from the screen and saw her face. Her eyes were all red. Her skin blotchy.

“You’re not happy here with me?”

I looked down at the worn carpet, avoiding her gaze.

“You want to leave?” 

I drummed my fingers against my knees to some rhythm I’d known at some point. Or had I? No, of course not… I was new — and she had to understand that I couldn’t keep pretending.

 “Yes,” I said, turning back towards her.

As soon as I spoke the truth, I knew I should have lied. Tears streamed down her face. Strands of her auburn hair stuck to the wet parts. Her tiny frame shook slightly as she cried. 

And, it hurt — it hurt too much to look at her that way.  I got up and paced around the bedroom as quietly as I could, afraid that any loud noises might aggravate the sobs. “Do you think we should fix this crack in the dry wall?” I said, casually pointing to a rather obtrusive mark, hoping that she might just forget about the whole thing.  But she didn’t. When I turned around, she was just as before: a quavering thin-boned middle-aged woman balled-up in the corner of the bed, vibrating in her own sadness. 

And, you see, I did want to comfort her — I swear I did. I felt the magnetic pull of a loved one in pain.  But I also felt something else, another fit bubbling to the surface, a heat within me that kept rising and rising till my sweat simmered on my skin and I knew I couldn’t stay in that condo for one more second. So I ran out the door and kept on running. And there was only place to go: mother’s.

Twelve hours after I was born and one hour after my marriage had fallen apart, I went to the nursing home to see mother.  Since my birth that morning, her exponentially accelerating aging process had grown exponentially worse.  She was dying. And yet, with years, she’d grown more powerful. The oldest member of the nursing home, she was treated as a venerable oracle of sorts. The loose shingle that fell off the roof had hit her head, giving her visions, and the old people crowded around her asking questions. “Will my son visit me? Can you make my sciatica go away? When will I die?” A nurse flanking mother held a clipboard and screamed “One at a time, one at a time” as mother yelled out “Yes” and “No” and “You’ll die on Saturday.”

I cut through the crowd and asked mother for advice. “Who are you?” she said and proceeded to yell at the nurse, telling her to take away the encyclopedia salesman. I waved the nurse away, and explained to mother that I wasn’t an encyclopedia salesman. I was her son, the son she had birthed earlier that day, and she couldn’t die yet because my life was frightening, sad, and unfair, and she hadn’t taught me how to be in it.

“I didn’t have time to teach you!” she yelled.  

“I know,” I said.

“You can’t blame me. You always blame me.”

“I know, you did the best you could,” I said.

At this point, I began to blubber again and I was spitting up on my suit. Mother removed the electrodes from her heart monitor, stood up, and slung me over her shoulder. The old people stood back crossing themselves, shuddering in awe, as she walked back to her bed, her brittle-boned, decaying body creaking all the way as she carried me like a sack of potatoes. “There, there,” she said, patting me on the back as I bawled and bawled. “There, there.” She lay back down on the bed and held me, feeding me a bottle she had in a cooler. I suckled on it. She plugged herself back into her heart rate monitor and whispered in soft tones, “It’s okay baby, it’s okay.”

I was calm.

And then I told mother all about my life and the confusion. How I wanted to go to West Valley College and fly away to Tahiti but I didn’t want to see my wife’s face all shriveled up and wet from tears.

“Mother,” I said. “What should I do?” 

Mother looked up at the ceiling, as if waiting from some sign from the heavens. After about a minute, she tilted her head down and looked me squarely in the eye.

She opened her mouth, but no words came out. Suddenly, she clutched her heart.

“What, mother?” I said.

The cardiac monitor started to beep faster. And faster. Nurses rushed to her side. Doctors took out their stethoscopes. The old people, taking mother’s sudden decline as a bad omen, cried in horror and fled the room to say goodbye to their loved ones. 

“What should I do?” I said again, in desperation.

But the heart-beeps soon blended into one final death beep. The doctor called it at 12:05 AM. One day after giving birth to me, my mother left this earth.

Today, my wife and I went to mother’s funeral. “I’m so sorry,” she said, smoothing the thinning hair from my forehead. As they lowered mother into the ground, my wife wrapped her arms around me and I tried to feel the belonging. After all, I’m an orphan now. She’s all I have.

The gravediggers shoveled earth onto mother’s casket and the minister mumbled the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread. A plane roared overhead and the assembled crowd, as if on cue, stared aloft for a few seconds before snapping back to attention. And lead us not into temptation. 

I couldn’t help but keep staring. The plane had a hula girl on the fuselage with some indecipherable script across her midriff. Cyrillic? Where on earth did the Cyrillic alphabet and hula girls co-exist? But watching the plane disintegrate into a dot on the horizon, it seemed so precarious. Flying. Planes. Everything I don’t know. Not all dots are going somewhere interesting. Some of them even plummet into the ocean.

When I looked back down, the gravediggers were smoothing the ground above mother with the backs of their shovels. I felt my wife’s arms tighten around me. I knew I would have to stay. You see, most of the time I do not believe it’s my life. But, still, there’s no evidence anything else is. 

I can’t leave and begin anew. I have a mortgage. And we’ve adopted a small more economical Schnauzer named Rick.

We picked him up today. He’s the runt of the litter, blind and a bit dim in the head. Has a gimp leg and inadvertently walks in counter-clockwise circles. In fact, he’s doing it right now. Round and round the coffee table he goes. He can’t see a thing, believes he’s walking in a straight line. A minute ago, I blocked his path with a toaster, thinking that perhaps he would get a clue after running into it on his second lap and change things up.  But he just walked straight into it, only pausing for a millisecond before redoubling his efforts and taking off again, this time in a trot.

He’s whining in pain now as he rounds the corner, his bad leg twitches and shakes as he runs faster than he should, faster than he can handle. My wife sits down and we watch, pointing and laughing, as he somehow continues accelerating, his little legs pumping faster and faster till we can’t even see him anymore, till he’s simply a small fur blur rapidly revolving around our coffee table, yelping in one continuous high pitch screech as he perseveres, giving chase to nothing. 


Lisa Gunn

LISA GUNN is a writer who lives in San Francisco with her girlfriend and a Siamese fighter fish named Fred. Her essays have appeared in Salon and other places. This is her first published short story.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 14-JAN 15

All Issues