Joyland

The Midwest |

Babies

by Ricco Siasoco

More incredible things had happened, Hugo thought, than a man giving birth. Frogs were born with six limbs; praying mantises laid eggs in gummy lines, backtracked, and then ate them like licorice. It was the last late afternoon of summer and Hugo propped his pillow up in bed, copyediting a piece about the equinox.

“I want to get pregnant,” Hugo said, placing his hand idly on Mitchell's head.  Earlier that day, in the crowded newsroom, a freckled intern had seen a push-pinned photo of him and Mitchell, and remarked that they would have the most beautiful children.

Mitch pushed Hugo's hand away. “You're kidding, right?” He placed his thin spectacles on a stack of milk crates--Hugo's idea of a night table. “Reality to Planet Hugo? We can barely pay our mortgage and now you want a child?”

Did the serious ever laugh? Mitch slid off the bed and removed his sweatpants. Hugo’s boyfriend liked to worry about the quotidian things in life, repainting the bricks of their crumbling brownstone or toning his svelte, thirty-four-year-old body. Mitch was a freelance nutritionist. Health, he liked to repeat to Hugo, was nobler than science. Your body is a temple. Hugo outwardly agreed, keeping to himself the knowledge that biology was fundamental to Mitch's vain world of nutrition.

Science, on the other hand, was Hugo's bread and butter. He lay against their headboard and smoothed the velvety nap of the blanket. It wasn't child rearing or adoption Hugo craved (he hadn't thought that far ahead), but the actual creation of human life. His and Mitch's baby! He laughed, lifting his papers and imagining a baby with Mitch's pepper-gray hair and his own straw-colored skin.

Mitch locked in his plastic mouthguard and closed his eyes. In a minute he was snoring. Hugo set his papers aside and watched his boyfriend sleep, and then turned off his lamp. He lay motionless on his back, feeling the leafy shadows from outside shimmer on the painted walls. The room was like a giant aquarium. Slowly the blanket floated off him, billowing in the room of blue-black water. He too floated up from the bed, reaching his hands to his neck and touching the flaky gills beneath his chin. Light waves splashed the stucco ceiling, and a few fathoms below, Hugo could see the black silt collecting on his computer monitor and along the crevices of the wide hardwood planks.

Hugo spread out his arms and kicked lightly, looking down at Mitchell. He exhaled an upward-arching stream of bubbles. If male insects could make babies, he wondered, why couldn't he?

***

Hugo had met Mitchell on a panel titled, “Nuts for Nutrition: Why Saturated Fat is Good for You.” Mitchell was the moderator, then a graduate student from Georgetown who asked easy questions of the well-known scientists and funneled the unanswerable ones to Hugo, an editor for a basement-operation journal. Mitchell approached him later over a tray of rolled deli meat and pickle shears. “You throw me curve balls in front of the audience,” Hugo said, “and then flirt with me during the reception.”

Mitchell fumbled with his paper plate, a black olive rolling off the edge. “I hope you don't think I was sabotaging you,” he stammered. “I mean, it doesn't matter who you are. It's what you bring to the table.”

Hugo listened patiently, watching Mitch's biceps tighten in his short-sleeved dress shirt. Mitchell lived in D.C. and was in town to volunteer for the conference. When the reception dwindled he invited Hugo for a drink at the hotel bar. Three vodka martinis led to a nightcap in Mitchell's hotel room, sloppy kisses on the cold balcony overlooking Boston Harbor, and sex with the television tuned to scrolling hotel announcements. For half a year he and Mitchell emailed every day, and once a month picked the other up at the Delta Shuttle gate. On a whim Hugo sent Mitchell a script he'd written for phone sex. They gave up after the first ridiculous attempt, Hugo losing it at Mitchell's dry intonation of the words “love meat.”

Hugo's nine-year-old niece Evelina visited for Christmas, coinciding with one of Mitchell's stays. When Mitch suggested they bring her to the Museum of Science Hugo said, “Why not the orthodontist? She could drop in for a quick root canal.”

They brought her instead to a touring production of Hairspray, explaining as they waited in line before the performance that the show was their Christmas gift to her.  “You're kidding, right?” she replied gravely. It had been a running joke ever since.

Mitchell moved into Hugo's floor-through apartment, and during the first year their domestic life was like a Van Gogh painting, the madness barely hidden beneath the bright slathered-on colors. The intensity of their relationship was apparent not only in Mitchell's omelet dinners or their Sunday afternoons at the Museum of Fine Arts, but in their arguments--in the beginning, over small things, unpaid bills, messy closets, sleeping routines. Before long their fights crept into the tenuous territory where insecurity and other men waited.

At work, Hugo began tracking the project of a famous archaeologist in Cairo who was studying the movements of the sun. Each day he measured the length of a ray as it crept across a long cathedral floor, posting his observations on the Web. Hugo bookmarked the site, checking its daily progress. It was just like love: some days the sun blazed with an uncategorical brightness, and other times it crept predictably along its parallax on the marble floor.

When Mitchell began an affair with one of his clients--an Indian architect who ate too many carbs and not enough protein--Hugo felt his anger was half-assed, as if he were upset only because that was how a wronged spouse was supposed to act.

But he wasn't a spouse, was he? Mitchell argued, more like a spousal-equivalent; and though they had been dating then for more than three years, Hugo was neither his husband nor his wife. He was, for lack of a more layered word, his lover. Hugo didn't want to listen to logic. He wanted Mitchell to either end the affair or move out.
Aryana, Hugo's twice-divorced sister, shared her advice for reigning in a husband: babies. “It's all about guilt. There's nothing like a kid to keep them at home.” He and Mitchell decided to buy a condo instead.

They moved into an eight-unit brownstone with steep front steps that led to the second floor. The matter of Mitch's affair they packed into their cardboard boxes and moved with them. Hugo agreed to an open relationship. Gay men could do that, Aryana said, avoiding her brother's gaze, just sleep around. And as far as Hugo knew, Mitch was sleeping with half of his clients while he tried to lure Joe the Intern out for a beer. This was the same freckled intern who'd said about him and Mitchell, “You two would have the most beautiful children.” He had no idea how prescient he really was.

***

Hugo woke from his aquatic dream feeling nauseated. He rushed to the bathroom, crouched in front of the toilet, and vomited with his eyes shut. Holding the cold wreath of the seat, he remembered the vinegar-tasting salsa Mitch used to make omelets the previous evening.

He leaned against the porcelain tub and severed the string of saliva from his mouth. Maybe it wasn't the salsa; maybe it was a fever.

“You all right?” Mitch said, staring down at him from the doorway. His gray hair was wild with bed-head. He wore bikini briefs and a black t-shirt.

“Fine. Those eggs,” Hugo said.

“Want some water?”

Hugo leaned forward, crossing his arms on his knees. He wanted to be alone.

“I'm fine, Mitch. Go back to bed.” Hugo held the edge of the tub and stood.

Mitch scuffed down the hall to their bedroom. Hugo flushed the toilet. He leaned over their wide scallop of a sink, staring at his complexion in the mirror. His skin was ashy, his eyes gaunt. Was it flu season? The term was ridiculous, like all the metaphorical seasons: allergy season, mating season, even Mitch's favorite, tax season.

When did they officially begin? And why weren't they sent flyers in advance?

He pulled down his right cheek and stared at the face which long ago had stopped changing--its perfect moon shape, the eyebrows aching to become one, the translucent hairs that covered his cheeks like a kiwi. A big red pimple had made a guest appearance on the tip of his nose. He pinched it between his fingers, suddenly remembering his desire for a baby. Maybe he had morning sickness. He smiled, touching his pudgy stomach and imagining a pea-sized embryo inside. His mother used to talk obsessively about childbirth. She'd had ten children, Hugo the last. Morning sickness was the easiest part of pregnancy, she said once. That queasy feeling eventually passed.

***

Dr. Pam, a sixtyish woman who wore little makeup and ponytailed her matronly hair at the nape, had given Hugo small pox vaccinations, prescribed acne medicine and Paxil, and more recently, counseled him on STDs and oral sex. She had been his mother's oldest friend, and argued with her doctors when the cancer spread to his mother's lungs, sharing bedside shifts with Hugo and his nine siblings during the long respirator nights at the end. It was Dr. Pam whom Hugo consulted when his fever and vomiting continued and he woke from fourteen hours of sleep unable to lift himself from bed.

Dr. Pam spent several examinations and three sleepless nights confirming Hugo's pregnancy. In her office she turned on a lightbox on the wall and showed him x-rays. “Scientifically, it's impossible, Hugo, but here, below your bladder, is clearly a womb. This round shape is the head of a developing fetus. And your blood tests repeatedly detect the presence of BhCG, a hormone found exclusively in pregnant women.” Hugo listened to Dr. Pam's tempered words, finding the florescent x-rays both fascinating and repulsive. It was his inner organs and a fetus on display. His inner organs! And a fetus! On display!

Dr. Pam wrapped her arm around his shoulders. “Congratulations, Hugo, you are a human platypus.”

Hugo slumped in his chair. Dr. Pam smiled, offering to speak for him at a press conference. “But if you want to keep this thing under wraps, it's your decision.” She clasped his hand, giving him a mock-stern look. “Miracles aside, the admiration and respect of the medical community mean nothing to me. Really, Hugo, nada.”
At his wastepaper basket of a desk--tucked into a corner of the busy Globe newsroom--Hugo logged into a chat room and discovered his frequent nosebleeds and constipation were shared by an expectant mother in Brazil. And when Mitchell wanted to have sex, Hugo caved in his chest to keep him from chafing his sensitive nipples. His family and co-editors commented on his weight gain, but as the woolly winds of October descended and he entered his second trimester, Hugo's change to oversized sweaters and snowpants seemed ordinary.

Mitchell urged Hugo to workout. “Just do some cardio, Hugo. Twenty minutes on the bikes,” he said one night, as they watched Conan O'Brien banter with his fat sidekick whose name Hugo could never remember. Maybe the fat sidekick was expecting, too. How many men got pregnant each year without anyone finding out?
“You don't have to lift to go to the gym,” Mitchell said, kissing Hugo on the cheek before powering off the TV and turning away from him in bed. A minute passed and Hugo thought of a comeback, but Mitchell was already asleep.

Hugo realized, of course, that at some point his massive belly would no longer be concealable. During his ultrasound a short, affable young man with dyed-blue hair (Hugo dubbed him Hefty Smurf) squeezed oily jelly on his stomach, undaunted by the fact of Hugo's pregnancy. Hefty Smurf chatted and pointed out on the monitor the fetus's doll-sized head, its salamander back, the stubs of its webby fingers. “Looks more like a weather map, doesn't it?” he said, handing Hugo a bleary photograph of the fetus. He turned off the scanning tool and wished Hugo good luck.

Hugo latched onto the happy melody of “Girlfriend in a Coma” as he left the examination room and traveled down the quiet corridors of the hospital. That was what was great about The Smiths, the way they got the combination of horror and comedy just right. He entered Dr. Pam's office, humming the bouncy tune. “You're in a devilish mood,” she said.

“Pregnancy does that to a man.”

He lowered himself into the corduroy chair. What was happening to him? It was as if Mother Nature had loaded up the cargo and set Hugo on a nine-month road trip. Somehow he felt less like a designated driver than a chauffeur.

Dr. Pam ran the green eraser of her pencil down a sheet in Hugo's thick medical folder. “You know, expectant mothers are prone to mood swings. Expectant people, I should say.” Dr. Pam closed the file, her voice suddenly deepening into Serious Doctor Mode. “Let's talk game plan, Hugo. You still going to work?”

“I'm thinking of moving to the Isle of Man,” he said.

He looked at Dr. Pam, who frowned at him like a wilting flower. She walked around her desk and sat in the matching corduroy chair on his left.

Hugo leaned back and crossed his legs in a figure four. It had become difficult to cross them in his usual way, feminine-like, one knee on top of the other. “I have to make money--I haven't told Mitch yet. He thinks I'm certifiable as it is.”

She moved to the window, removing her scrunchie and adjusting her long white hair. “But don't you think it would be easier? I mean, if Mitch loves you--”
Hugo held the ultrasound photo by its corners, turning it clockwise until the hurricane pattern formed a baby. Did Mitchell love him? He may have been sleeping around, but Hugo considered sex a physical thing, like this pregnancy. A glint of sun from the snow outside the window made Hugo squint. Maybe love was less like the changing light in Cairo and more like his medical file, a logbook of aches and bruises that had been properly diagnosed. Hugo often thought he and Mitch were as different as butch and lipstick lesbians, but on this Mitch disagreed: he thought they complimented one another. Hugo had once opened a fortune cookie that said, “Wisdom comes from looking backward but life must be lived forward.” When Mitch balked at the ersatz proverb, Hugo crumpled the tiny slip of paper and ate it.

Hugo thanked Dr. Pam for her concern and patted her arm, advising her to work on her doctor-patient formality. He creased the ultrasound photo in half, the glossy paper making a squeaking sound. He couldn't say it to Dr. Pam, but in his body, in the space not flooded with amniotic fluid and his small, acrobatic fetus, he believed Mitch loved him.

***

“I'm pregnant,” Hugo said to Mitch at three in the morning. They were seated at the kitchen table, unable to sleep. Insomnia felt as ordinary as walking shoes to Hugo; Mitch, on the other hand, was suffering jet lag from a red-eye trip to San Francisco.

Mitch drank tea and skimmed the Business section of the . “You're kidding, right?” he said flatly.
Hugo stood and walked to Mitch. “Feel.” He placed Mitch's hand on his large belly. Mitch put down his newspaper and waited. He suddenly felt a faint movement, the murmur of life under his palm.

He yanked his hand away. “Jesus, Hugo! What the hell?”

“It happened the morning I threw up.”

“But how--” Mitch said, one brow raised. “It's impossible.” He combed his fingers through his graying cowlick. “There's no way.”

“Dr. Pam confirmed it. I'm seven months.”

Hugo went to the deep metal sink and poured Mitch a glass of water. He set it on their oblong table, sliding it toward his boyfriend. Then he sat in the chair opposite Mitch, their hairy knees touching. Mitch was speechless.

***

Hugo was convinced the baby had a scent. It was like opening his own Starbucks: repellent to some, attracting a great many others. Joe the Intern was among those who were buying. As they put the science section to bed one Tuesday, Joe asked him if he wanted to grab a beer. Hugo had suffered two nosebleeds that day and a persistent weariness, and though his body told him to go home and rest, the thought of an empty house--Mitchell was out with friends--depressed him.

At a neon-lit sports bar, Hugo sat on a metal bar stool. Joe asked the military-looking bartender for a Rolling Rock, was carded, and refused. With a conciliatory smile, he set a wooden bowl of peanuts in front of Joe and brought Hugo a beer (Dr. Pam had been politesse in her advice to him on alcohol). A gaudy drunk woman at the end of the bar gesticulated to her friend, spilling a martini. Hugo remembered the only time he'd drank a martini, in a dingy hotel bar when he'd met Mitch.

Joe grabbed a handful of nuts and watched the Bruins play on TV. They were like a pair of Before and After posters: Joe the bright-eyed student, Mitch the cynical pseudo-spouse. Why was he here with his intern, watching a hockey game in an empty bar? Was it the possibility of sex? Someone in his chatroom of pregnant women had posted a message that said in the last trimester, the sex had been the best she'd ever had.
Joe turned to him. “You don't look so good, Hugo.”

“I'm catching a cold.”

“You've been sick a lot lately.”

Hugo nodded. He drank the warm beer, hiccupping after a few sips.

Joey cleared his throat. “You live with someone, right?”

“My partner.”

The freckled boy glanced at the television above Hugo's head. “The older guy? In that picture on your bulletin board?”

“His name is Mitch,” Hugo said.

“So you're gay?” Joe whispered “gay” as if uttering the word would immediately transform him into Nathan Lane.

Hugo realized the direction of Joe's conversation. In his womb the baby did cartwheels, scratching its partially formed spine against Hugo's back. He repositioned himself on the stool. “Yes, Joe, I am gay,” he said, reluctantly playing therapist. Hugo liked his self-image of the smart young editor too hip for labels.

“Like, when did you know?” Joe asked. The boy squared himself on the stool and faced Hugo, his elbow resting on the bar.

Hugo finished his beer and asked the bartender for a glass of water. Joe ordered a Sprite. Ten years out, he tried to remember the boy's fear, that desperate feeling that hinged on whether you came out or married some hapless girl, fathered children, cruised public rest rooms like Larry Craig for the rest of your life. For nearly an hour Hugo shared the details of his life with Joe--the way he threw up before he came out to his mother, meeting Mitch at the conference, being out at work--and when the bartender brought them their tab, Hugo paid the bill. Then Hugo lied, asking Joe to excuse him. Mitch was cooking omelets for them at home.

***

“The trend now is toward drugs,” said Dr. Pam, her fingers intertwined on the glass desk. “Lamaze went the way of vinyl. Nowadays, Mom wants labor to be as easy as getting a facial.”

Mitch had finally agreed to meet with Dr. Pam. They were seated in her office, separated from her by the glass desk, a sleek laptop computer, and a chrome penholder that looked like two lobster antennae. Hugo pressed his leg against Mitch's in the seat next to him. His get-up today was a loose, knee-length parka and sweatpants. Mitch was wearing chinos and a dress shirt; he had come straight from a diet consultation with a client.

Mitchell tapped his foot in measured beats on the carpet.

Dr. Pam sensed his impatience. “What's on your mind, Mitch?”

He rolled his eyes. “I'm wondering why you're entertaining Hugo's delusions.”

Mitch lifted his blazer from the back of his chair and slipped into it. “Forget it. I'm going home.” He stood and went to the door. When he reached for the L-shaped handle, he stopped and turned to Hugo. His face was impatient, searching.

“Are you coming?”

Hugo looked at Dr. Pam. What he wanted was to stay where he was. He longed to say to Mitch, “Sit down, listen to what Dr. Pam has to say.” What he wanted, more than anything, was for Mitch to act like an expectant father, or mother. If pressed, he would have asked for a little peace and maybe some Louis Armstrong-wonder at the world.

Instead, Hugo lifted himself from the chair and took Mitch's open hand, uttering an apologetic farewell to Dr. Pam as she called his name from behind her glass desk.

***

In Hugo's daydream he was naked and also a jumbo jet. The sky was pure blue, the earth below him the crumbly texture of a cookie. He drifted slowly, idling, sailing through thin skeets of clouds. In his belly--the plane's cabin--his tropical-storm fetus pawed the walls of his stomach with its webby hands. There was something both exciting and irritating about its presence; Hugo put one arm-wing to his middle and picked at the tightened skin, as if it were a price tag he could remove without leaving any sticky residue.

***

“What if it's not mine?” Mitch asked that night in bed.

“What are you talking about? Of course it's yours.”

“You've been sleeping around, right?”

Mitchell held the remote control, idly changing channels. Hugo was making a list of baby names: Grover, Monroe, Obama. For some reason they kept coming out presidential. What kind of response would Milhaus receive on the jungle gym?

“How can I convince you?” Hugo asked.

“I'm throwing out questions. You always think I'm trying to sabotage you.”

“It's yours, Mitch. There isn't anybody else.”

“But I thought we agreed--”

“We agreed to be open. That doesn't mean I went out and screwed the first jarhead I saw.”

“You mean, you haven't--?”

“With who? And when do you think I had time, between sneaking to doctor's appointments and working late on the paper?”

“But don't you want to?”

Hugo tucked his ballpoint pen behind his ear. He didn't care as much as Mitchell did about sex. Hugo placed his list of names on the milk crates. “I guess the opportunity never came up.”

Mitchell turned off the TV and was silent. He rolled away from Hugo and faced the painted wall.

Hugo felt the baby kicking, the surprising jerks like desperate kernels of popcorn. He said, “It's okay, Milhaus,” and rolled flat on his back, pulling the blanket to his chin.

Mitch turned and faced him. “Definitely not Milhaus,” Mitch said, placing his hand gently on Hugo's stomach. “Christ. I thought only straight guys had to worry about getting their girlfriends pregnant.”

***

Hugo chose a natural childbirth. The thought of pain was terrifying, but if he was going to be the first man ever to give birth, he felt a responsibility to be the first man to actually give birth, not cheat the process with an epidermal like some freakish animal on a bed-table. He hired a portly midwife named Rosie with a mane of Aqua Net to teach him to breathe on his and Mitch's braided living room rug.

Now, in a breezy room overlooking the entrance of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Hugo breathed calmly. His contractions were spaced nearly ten minutes apart.  He squeezed Rose's callused hand, sucking in his cheeks and saying, “This is the part of the movie where the woman starts bitching out the man.”

Mitch held Hugo's other hand. He stood above Hugo, who lay on his back with knees bent on the soft opium bed.

“And the man agrees with everything,” Mitch said, “because he knows that he is solely responsible for the baby, man's suffering, and yes, all evil in the world.”
Hugo smiled, the pain receding for a moment.

Dr. Pam entered and placed a hand on Mitch's shoulder. To Hugo she said, “It looks like you're doing just fine.” She looked to where Rose, her friend, had pulled up a stool at the foot of the bed. “How many kids have you birthed now, Rose? It's gotta be up to fifty.”

“Fifty-two. Mrs. Kaburagi gave birth to twins yesterday.” Rose handed Mitch a wet towel and he dabbed it on Hugo's forehead in small swiveling gestures. “But this baby is special, I know it.”

Hugo thought: special, and premature. The contractions began to quicken and Hugo could feel nothing outside his pain and the coin-sized hole in his body that this baby was struggling to get its head through. He labored in a dense fog of immediacy. For one fleeting moment he imagined his mother prostrate in this same position, the pain she had endured to give birth to him and his siblings.

Tears ran down Hugo's cheeks when the baby was born--out of joy or relief, he didn't know--and later, after she died and was placed soundlessly in his arms. They were the first moments in Hugo's life that had felt real, cradling his lifeless daughter, combing her fine wet hair with his palm. Was this the experience men were never supposed to understand?

The bright April morning Hugo was released, Mitchell pushed him in a shiny wheelchair down a hospital corridor. Something about the length of the hallway reminded him of the cathedral in Cairo, its tile path for the sun embedded in the marble floor. Hugo passed an operating room with surgeons huddled in green scrubs, a waiting area with more toddlers than adults, a row of brown doors (all closed), and more operating rooms and more waiting areas. On the first floor, Mitchell pushed Hugo through the electric doors to the cracked sidewalk.

He looked up at Mitch, his house keys jangling at his waist. Aryana had asked him once what he saw in Mitchell; he'd answered something sentimental that he couldn't remember now. Mitch kissed Hugo quickly on the cheek and told him to wait while he retrieved the car.

Leaves shimmered on the maple trees around the edge of the parking lot like great green waves. A VW bug and a bulky ambulance were idling beneath the canopy, and the people entering or leaving the hospital were bunched in groups and pairs.

Hugo wanted to revise his answer to Aryana about Mitch. I see silver-blue eyes and graying hair, he thought, pushing himself up in the wheelchair, I see sunlight fading on a cathedral floor.