It wasn’t until just after her fortieth year that she wanted to steal a baby. Marguerite had heard of this before. This kind of well-known lore, the kind of thing that floated in the air, no one questioning it or thinking twice. It was a well-known fact that women stole babies: it happened all the time. Middle-aged women or perhaps younger women who stole back the one they’d given up for adoption just before they’d changed their mind and now it was too late. But it was her own fault, people said, if she’d given it up. That’s too bad, she should have known better and she’d certainly no right to it now. Why should she think that it would want to receive any of the videotapes she kept trying to send to the new parents? Mothers who give away their babies should just stop bothering people and leave well enough alone. They should just suffer and not think they can get away with kidnapping their own child back.
Older women like herself — softer middle-aged bodies, stomach kind of doughy and pudgy in spite of the sit-ups and daily walks where they consciously tighten the abdomen to strengthen the core — could be seen in the mind’s eye as bending in long dresses or skirts over baby carriages and prams, furtively looking up and around, seeing if there were a clear coast for their foils. From where did we get such images? Books? Newspapers? Films? Then the little backstory would fill you in on how she didn’t have any kids. Poor pitiful woman, desperate for children, understandable perhaps, but we still feel pleasure when she is punished. Send her soft slightly sagging body behind iron bars for a good long while. That’ll teach her a lesson about the dangers of her infertility.
But Marguerite’s situation wasn’t any of these things. She was very fertile. She had three children with her ex-husband, all unplanned. The eldest borne of one single drunken night of not using any protection, the second a missed pill, and the third, well, the third was one single afternoon of sex slipped in between fights that were leading to the end of a bitterly failed marriage. Products of chance, happenstance, there they were: her children. No storybook romance or suburban fantasyland TV show life where grass is green with no weeds and granite countertops adorn fancy brushed steel double sinks with expensive multi-functional spraying faucets. Just the cold hard facts of life.
Marguerite had no reason to steal a baby. I don’t even want another baby! she had finally decided, because now was the time to decide. She had another year, two tops, to have another kid. She’d thought about it long and hard. When she was turning thirty-eight, it still seemed like a real possibility. Years ago, she and her ex-husband had talked more than once about having a big family. Three kids for sure, but four didn’t seem out of the question. Marguerite was thirty-five when the divorce became final. The ex was out, but that didn’t mean there couldn’t be somebody else. Even that marketing guy Bob she had dated for a while. He wasn’t exactly father material, that she knew from the start, but she could raise it on her own. She knew how to do everything, and by now being by herself didn’t scare her. In many was it was better. Life was much easier this way. It was only the small matter of money that made you sometimes long for a partner, that and the occasional remembering of a man’s body hard and warm next to yours in the dark middle of the night.
But when thirty-nine and then finally forty came and she just hadn’t had the will or desire to find someone new to date after Bob the marketer, she decided that it was done. Childbearing days were a thing of the past. She’d just have to get used to it. She was a middle-aged woman now and her children were teenagers. She’d have to adapt. Is this what it was then, this thing, this longing she felt lately whenever she was near a little chubby outstretched arm of a child, sweaty, barefoot in its stroller with toes pointing up? The knowledge, fear of slipping permanently away from the world of children, of babies? She still remembers that soft yet definite click, shift of things when she was first let in. Proportions changed, everything now measured by the small baby’s face. Her husband’s head, for instance, suddenly became enormous, monstrous, its closeness to the baby’s a clear desecration to the perfection she felt she, alone, had created. The child’s flesh, bones, arms legs limbs, coming from her flesh, her blood, her effort. It was a world where the baby was the absolute center, and she was unable to tear herself away, tenderly washing its body with gentle soft smelling baby soap and dabbing at the remnants of the umbilical cord with a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol like the nurse at the hospital had shown her.
Marguerite remembers that spring day, one of the first times she felt the pang to take one. She was walking with her eldest daughter on the street, small young trees flowering their pink and white blooms, the kind that people planted more for decoration than for any fruit they might bear. Her daughter was going to her singing lesson. Marguerite wanted to accompany her halfway, give her the check to pay the teacher, and then walk up to her favorite coffee shop to organize her agenda. They passed by a park. There were a number of children running around playing, dogs off their leashes chasing balls and sticks, adults clustered around, talking in between an intermittent throw, toss, push on the swing, nothing unusual. It was the child in the baby swing though, that made her feel the pang. A small baby smiling, laughing, arms and legs outstretched and open, body free and complete in the simple single action of being lifted up and down, carried effortlessly by the motion of its own weight. Marguerite could feel something twist around inside her, grab her from the inside out and squeeze around both sides of her ribcage. It was so sudden and intense this feeling, coming up inside her in such a painful and exquisite kind of way that it could have carried her over to the swing set not a hundred feet in the distance to snatch up the baby and run as fast as she could away, no plan, no destination; the important thing was to have the creature.
Or the baby in the train station. Marguerite there waiting with her book bag full of papers for work, looking up at the screen, waiting for the platform of her destination to pop up, her commuter ticket ready to be punched in at the self-service machine. The baby was a boy, maybe eight months, sitting squarely and messily in the seat of his combination baby-buggy push-chair playing with two ten-ride tickets. His older sister, a little girl of about four or five, came over to take them away, and knowing he’d cry, gave him a hat to play with as if that were a fair exchange. He whined and cried but the mother remained unaware as to what had happened. Fussing, scrunching up his little face and then smiling when his sister gave them back. So happy and satisfied, outstretching his sweaty dirty little arm to show his mother the prize, flesh so white soft and tender you’d want to take it in your mouth, kiss it or bite it. Marguerite all the while inching her way closer to the combination push-chair-buggy with the bustle of the train station abuzz, hum around her. Children got lost all the time in places like this, didn’t they?
Before they were married and were young and still dating, Marguerite remembers her husband pointing out a small child of five or six, a girl in a Sunday dress with carefully braided pigtails walking along a fallen log. There was a group picnic going on in the park with families. She and Julian were out for a walk, holding hands, timidly treading what seemed to be the unknown path of the future. “Do you like kids?” he’d asked. “Sure,” Marguerite had replied as if that solidified something about them, their relationship together as she eyed the little girl still walking with arms outstretched trying to hold her balance. Some adult called out to her in a language Marguerite didn’t understand.
“Sure, I like kids,” Marguerite had elaborated, the little girl now run off to join the people who had called her as they were unpacking food onto a peeling green picnic table beside one of the small stationary public barbecues. It was true, but not fully. She did like kids but didn’t ever really imagine having them. Marguerite’s cousin Justine had just had a baby at nineteen, one year older than Marguerite was, and it really didn’t look like much fun. Justine didn’t look very happy despite all the fuss about the baby shower, presents, buggies, and little cute clothes so small they could fit a doll. It made Marguerite think of when she and Justine would play house in the basement.
Justine’s dad had built her and her younger sister Kate a whole kitchen and laundry set out of real wood. There was a stove with burners and dials carefully and quite realistically painted on, a matching fridge (“without any magnets though ’cause it’s wood but we can use Scotch Tape to stick on this grocery list and a picture that Amy and Jack drew at school. KATE! Are you finished drawing the picture for us yet? We need it to put on the fridge. HURRY UP!”), cupboards filled with a variety of play boxes of cereal, plastic pretend cans of soup, little pink dishes, plates bowls and cups, utensils in the little drawer that really pulled out by the sink. Our dolls looked at us from inside their strollers with the real straps so that they wouldn’t fall out and get hurt. “You don’t want your baby to fall out and smack its head now do you? KATE! Buckle her in tight!”
The sink was in the corner. It was what joined the appliances and the cupboard section together. It was like a real kitchen might be, only in miniature, and it was painted a pea-green that was so popular in kitchens of the mid to late 1970s. It was easy to imagine Uncle Will (“short for William, my mom doesn’t like the name Bill,” Justine would sometimes explain to strangers) with his swatches of paint color, holding them up, perhaps even testing some small samples on the back of the fridge or the stove to see how each would look. It was a real labor of love Aunt Kathy had said proudly and more than once that Christmas.
For Marguerite, it was a Christmas filled with absolute envy. A custom-built kitchen! Nothing could top that! Not that I had a chance anyway! she half-pouted. Her own mother could only afford one Barbie and had said so long before the before-Christmas buildup of cheer-filled snowy expectation. It was easier visiting her mother’s side of the family where everyone had nothing. Six girl cousins fighting over one small, coveted toy clothes iron. It also came with a miniature ironing board that folded up and had a flowered cover like a real one. But this wasn’t what was attractive about it. After all, you could just as easily iron on the bed if you needed to.
The thing that made the ironing set desirable was the cord on the iron. It was a curly, tightly wound spiral that was somehow soft and hard at the same time as it looped two or three times around to lay on the ground before finishing gracefully into the magical object of everyone’s desire: a small grey cone-shaped suction cup that you could attach to the wall. “Now you girls get away from here or you’ll get your hands burned!” Marguerite and some of the older cousins would say, menacingly holding the iron in mid-air.
The temperature of the iron could also be used in ways other than severe threats of mutilation; it could, for instance, be easily used to significantly prolong somebody’s turn. “These clothes aren’t straight! It’s still not hot enough! Can’t you see all the wrinkles?!” “Yeah,” another one of the cousins would chime in according to whatever alliances had been forming that particular day, “she’s not done yet! Her baby can’t go out with wrinkle clothes!” Sometimes some of the smaller kids would think they were smart and sneak up close beside the wall, having gone both underneath the ironing board and in and among the legs of the people in play, to quietly unplug the cord, the idea being to put an end to someone’s turn. Only this never happened. All their sneaky cleverness gone to waste as the older girl with the iron held in mid-air quickly snapped in fierceness and play exasperation: “It wasn’t even on! Now I have to start all over!”
Often enough, things could escalate. It could easily go from pulling the cord out from the wall and the imaginary electrical outlet to pulling on each other’s clothes, hair, whatever could be found and held onto. A few of the cousins were quick and adept scratchers, seeking and grabbing onto flesh almost instinctively; Lucy was the only one who would consistently bite. She was still young enough to get away with it. Putting on her “I’m-still-a-little-girl” face after the whole rough and tumble scufuffle was over, the ironing board still with its cheery domestic flower cover lying helpless and awkward on its side. “Is it broken?” they would all ask when they came to themselves and remembered the game, trying to recall at which point they were and whose turn it was next.
Marguerite’s life was so incredibly incomparable to that of her cousins Justine and Kate. Uncle Will had money and was interested in actually being a dad whereas neither of these things were true for Marguerite’s father, run off when she was just two weeks old, quitting whatever job he had so he wouldn’t have to pay child support. Uncle Will tried to take on his brother’s responsibility to Marguerite on top of the responsibility to his own kids as much as he could with weekend sleepovers and invitations to go on vacations Marguerite’s mother couldn’t afford.
On their vacations, sometimes all the way to Florida, Marguerite and Justine would share a bed and make Kate jealous by calling her a baby and elaborating on the pet name Aunt Kathy had for her youngest daughter: monkey. “Monkey! Where’s my little monkey?!” they’d taunt in a high fake-lady voice that was supposed to be Aunt Kathy’s. “Come here, baby monkey, you’re so jumpy and hairy! Arms hanging long and your little butt so white and flat! Come to Mommy!” Whatever came to mind about chimps and their various body parts and behaviors, Marguerite and Justine would say it to Kate till she streaked off crying to tell her mother — though only select bits so the girls wouldn’t get her even worse, later.
Marguerite’s husband Julian had liked to build things too. Apparently, according to the kids, he was still busily at it in the basement of his new house with his new wife. It was drywall he loved in particular. Tiling could be fun too he’d said after attending a workshop on it at the local hardware store. He tiled the floor of their small home office and had plans for the rest of the basement, a family room, just before the divorce. Marguerite got to choose the paint for the room: Sky Blue. She remembers sitting there at the new desk looking up off to the left out the small one by two foot window, the sill level with the ground, feeling only her feet freezing on the cream-color designer tile in spite of her thick socks. “Wow!” everyone said when they came in for a tour of the house, “you’re so lucky your husband’s handy!”
Julian would spend hours downstairs, measuring, bending, reaching, using a small rigid metal tool shaped like a corner along with a level with yellow bubbles to get all the various lines and angles straight. Well into the night he’d be there, cleaning, leaving everything just so, ready for the next day when he got home from work. Sometimes during the summers he’d be working on an outdoor project and they could all be closer together, there in the yard. The kids playing in the sprinkler or the blow-up pool while he raised flower beds, built a shed after laying himself the concrete foundation into which he wrote their children’s names with a stick. “There’s lots of room to store their outdoor toys in here too!” he’d said, smiling, readjusting the lawnmower and the new weed-wacker to gain the most efficient use of space. The kids running around squealing, the spray of water rising high up in the air, one of them having detached the dark green hose from the sprinkler to make a rainbow, fine mist catching the sun. We almost seemed like a family.
When the doctor told Julian that he couldn’t tell him anything about Marguerite, about the things she’d said and told him, he looked like he might cry. Marguerite had never seen Julian cry before. Only a little tear in his eye when his grandmother in Italy died. It was to be expected, he’d said, she was old; everyone had to die sometime, he’d half-smiled scooping the car keys up off the kitchen island on his way out the front door to buy the wood for the new deck. Julian’s face, so surprised by the young doctor’s firmness, resoluteness, insistence on doctor-patient confidentiality, touched her in some way. His soft green eyes, the hand that held hers and almost twenty years of their life together there on the white hospital sheet of the bed. Marguerite tried to say something as he got up but it remained just with her, trapped inside her head, her mouth and mind having been disconnected, years ago, one from the other.
The young doctor’s voice was soothing, though he seemed to get emotional too at a certain point, telling Marguerite that his mother was sick too, and one time she had to go away on a plane somewhere. “We didn’t want her to go,” he said, as if this whole story was to explain something about Marguerite and why she was in the hospital bed, “but she was just too sad. She couldn’t stay. And that’s how life is,” he said, “you’re not guaranteed anything. Not even the love of your children when they grow up.” Marguerite didn’t understand all of the doctor’s story. It seemed like a few odd bits of something, string of different sizes, thread with knots, pieces of wool all clung together in a ball that needed to be sorted out, matched up.
Marguerite was grateful for the way the sheets felt stiff, tucked in all around her on the bed. The air smelled and sounded of women-bustle, disinfectant and medicines. Maybe now I will be safe. She turned toward the wall and closed her eyes, the part about your children maybe not loving you when they grow up ringing in her head.
On one of their halfway walks, just as Marguerite was handing over the check for her daughter’s voice lessons, Lucille said she had decided that she wanted to go and live with Julian. She didn’t mind Mary, the new wife, like her brother and younger sister did and her dad’s house was closer to the high school and her new job at the mall. “Besides, I’m sick of going back and forth back and forth every week now, it’s tiring! I just want to stay in one place. I’m not choosing him over you,” she said, dogs running, sticks being thrown in the background, “I’m just making a choice for me. You can understand that, can’t you, Mom?” Marguerite feels the pang coming up slow from inside her, its steady creep this time instead of something quick and hard, seizing. It wraps itself slow and stealthy, winding itself in and out of the openings of her ribcage until her breath is there, all caught up inside.
“Yes, I do,” says Marguerite, feeling how the pang is there, wrapped around her insides, part of organs, bones, flesh. “I do understand that.” She touches Lucy’s face, brushes her hair back and looks into her eyes, the same color as Julian’s, and kisses her on the cheek. Mouth, head, breath connect.
“See you later, Mom!” Lucille waves, arm outstretched high above her head with the signed check. Marguerite watches her daughter walk the straight of the cement sidewalk between the rows of decorative trees to her voice lessons teacher’s house, a young woman in her twenties who has made a music studio out of her basement. The sky is blue as Lucille disappears, Marguerite standing alone now at the halfway point, the feel of her book bag resting there on her thigh. She turns, heading for her favorite coffee shop, a small piece of cord, the very end where it attaches, in her mind.