EL CERRITO, CA
She already looked half-dead on the drive to the hospital, but I wouldn’t admit this until much later. I was pretty determined, I guess, to remain upbeat. In all the classes we’d taken to prepare for the birth, that was the one thing the instructor kept repeating to the men in the room, the future fathers. “There’s no magic involved,” she said. She told us that what our wives needed most was our support. Our patience. The idea was—and I totally believed this—that a calm mother would produce a healthy child. It had a logic to it, and we had no reason to doubt the instructor. We were all first-timers except for this one guy who showed up to class with a wife half his age. He already had three or four kids, I think, from previous marriages, and the instructor pointed to him and said, “Mitch has been through this before. He knows all about the idea of support, right, Mitch?” Everyone laughed but Mitch, who just kind of stared back at the instructor with a look of bemusement. It was almost more of a—even though his wife was pretty attractive—more of a look of defeat.
There were other aspects of that day that made me feel like something bad was coming. Things that made it hard to focus on the goal, that one task of keeping the birth free of panic and dread. First there was the humidity. Everything was drenched in it. By the time I got home from work my clothes were damp. I went inside the house and Mel was on the couch with her head back, sweating with the fan off. “Why are you here?” I said, and she said, “I stayed home today.” I said, “What?” and “Why didn’t you call me?” You know? “I would have come home.” But she didn’t say anything. Just stared at the ceiling with her eyes half-closed like she was drugged. I went to the kitchen and took off my shirt. I put half a box of noodles in a pot, and when I went back to the couch to check on her she was crying. “Are there contractions?” I said, and she nodded. “Are they close together?” I said, and she nodded again, and I was like, This is it. I put my shirt back on even though it was soaked, and I helped her out to my car. She had her full weight against me. I felt like if I let go of her she would just collapse into a pile. I tried hard not to get worked up. But then when I opened the passenger-side door the half-eaten taco from my lunch break slid off the seat and onto the driveway. I looked at the taco on the blacktop and I felt this, like, pulsing kind of terror.
Of fatherhood, yeah, I guess. I remember thinking, This is the car we’ll use to bring Flora home. This will be her first car ride, in my ten-year-old hatchback with mismatched seat covers that smell like burning human hair. Mel’s car was newer, but I’d blocked her in and there was no time. No time left to back out into a more respectable set of circumstances. I was working at a company I hated and wolfing down tacos in the parking lot of a strip mall down the road. It was not where I wanted to be, and anyway what difference would it have made? Mel and I were the people we were, and there wasn’t anyone to blame but ourselves for how we lived.
I got Mel in the car and started driving, like I said, toward the hospital. The clouds were wild and dark like right before a heat storm. They looked almost like smoke from a fire, sort of billowing in reverse behind the cell towers at the interchange. I glanced over at Mel, who was doubled over in the passenger seat. Her eyes were rolling around under her closed lids and her skin was a sort of light gray color. I looked hard at the road and told myself that we were all going to make it through the day, but only two-thirds of that statement was actually true.
I started taking Ambitor about a year before I found out I was pregnant with Spencer. This was right around the time it first went on the market, and almost half the women at Yan Talan started taking it. I remember seeing this ad for it, a three-panel foldout in the front of Fortune. It had a picture of a woman sitting behind a huge wooden desk in a corner office with floor-to-ceiling windows. She had her legs propped up on the desk and she was sitting back—like, reclining in a big upholstered leather chair, smoking a cigar. She was in the middle of blowing a smoke ring, and the caption said something like Call the Shots. That was it, except for the Ambitor logo and the tiny text that described all the side effects, which seemed like a small list to me, as someone who had taken a bunch of different antidepressants and weight-control pills and stuff. I looked at this woman in the ad and thought, That’s me. That’s where I want to be. I want everything in that picture. Not in a shallow way. Not like, I want to have a big desk, or smoke cigars, or I guess anything in the actual picture, which actually was really not very well done. But more of a feeling like, I want to be in control.
So I started taking it, and suddenly I had this capacity to do things. I had access to a whole new reservoir of energy. It was pretty incredible, actually. I mean, I still think about what it was like to be on Ambitor, and I would probably be taking it right now if I could. If it was still on the market.
I found out I was pregnant in December, and Ron, who I thought would be scared or upset, given that we were just a few months into our marriage, was actually really excited. I can remember that first trimester being the last really happy time. Because I was made VP in February and put in charge of the whole Schick Quattro for Women account. And I won’t bore you with the whatever hours I spent at the office or at Schick headquarters in Milford, but it had the effect on my marriage that you’d expect. I saw it all happening. Like, I could remember watching as my relationship with Ron sort of split apart like a dissolving glacier, but—and maybe this was the Ambitor doing what it did best—I saw things drifting, but I didn’t really care so much. Or, I cared, but only in the way you care for the people in a movie, watching them as their lives go down the tubes.
I hardly remember anything about Spencer’s birth except that it took forever. Forty hours from start to finish. In the end they had to do a C-section, because he just wasn’t coming. Or I wasn’t trying hard enough. So I was completely out of it for the actual birth, and I didn’t know that Spencer came out without making any noise. Ron was really worried about that, but the doctor told him it was a myth that all babies come out crying. Of course, nobody knew at that time about Spencer—about what was wrong with him. So Ron just sort of took the doctor at his word. If I’d been awake I would’ve said something. I wouldn’t have let that go.
We took Spencer home a few days later. Ron had a week of paternity leave from his job and we were almost able to get back to that place where we were happy. But Spencer wasn’t nursing. Nothing at all. They said that you should wait a few days before panicking, that sometimes the kid just doesn’t want to nurse in the beginning. But by the fifth day of nothing we started to get really stressed out. Ron was going to have to go back to work the following Monday, and it suddenly seemed so small, the window of time we had to be all together. I didn’t know what I was going to do alone in the house with this kid who wouldn’t eat. We called the doctor and she asked if we’d tried formula. I was like, “You said we should never give the kid formula.” And she said that normally breast milk is the best, but if the kid is not nursing, you try the formula, so Ron went out in the middle of the night to a drugstore and got this stuff. He put the nipple of the bottle to Spencer’s lips and he immediately started nursing. I remember lying on my side in the bed watching Ron hold the bottle while Spencer was just nursing like crazy, like he’d been starving—which he was, I guess. And Ron started laughing with this mixture of relief and joy, because finally here was something, here was Spencer showing that he needed something. And I focused on Spencer—I tried to block Ron out of my vision, because I could see him glancing over at me, trying to get me to laugh about it or even smile, but I just felt sick, absolutely sick to my stomach. I couldn’t see it as anything other than a line on the battlefield, and Spencer, this baby that had wanted so much to stay inside me that they had to cut him out, had just crossed over to Ron’s side. I eventually got him to take my milk, but I couldn’t rid myself of that feeling.
The three months of maternity leave were like being underwater. Everything was so still and silent with me and Spencer alone in the house. He’d cry when he was hungry or tired, but that was about it. He never made any of those little trickling sounds that babies make. He’d stare at me, but it was like I was some kind of complex math problem on a chalkboard. I don’t know how to explain it, but it just seemed like he didn’t need me that much. And if I’m being honest, I guess it irritated me. I somehow expected that when I had a baby, we would be connected by a golden thread. There would be this bond between us that I could feel, even if we were in separate rooms or cities. But I didn’t feel any connection to him at all. He was like an alien in my house.
I went back to work, and it was like finally crawling ashore. My team had held down the Schick account in my absence, and within a few weeks we launched a huge online campaign for the new Quattro with Flex-Edge technology. I was then up to 750 mg of Ambitor a day, which was only slightly over the recommended daily dose. This was around the time that the article appeared in Harper’s, the one that was like, Ambitor is dangerous, Ambitor has these unknown side effects. Ron encouraged me to stop taking it—at first he was sort of sweet about it, but he eventually turned belligerent. He started blaming the Ambitor for Spencer’s behavior, which I thought was a little … I mean, no one was saying anything about birth defects. This was just classic Ron, making a problem out of everything. I was still hoping that eventually Spencer would just sort of emerge from the depths, so to speak. Like, one day I’d wake up to the sound of his babbling in the next room, and I’d go in and he’d look at me and smile and say “Mama” for the first time. But it never happened.
Copyright © 2014 by Ying Horowitz & Quinn
Eli Horowitz was the managing editor and then publisher of McSweeney's. He is the co-author of The Clock Without a Face, a treasure-hunt mystery; Everything You Know Is Pong, an illustrated cultural history of Ping-Pong; and The New World, a collaboration with Chris Adrian, forthcoming from FSG.
Matthew Derby is the author of the short-story collection Super Flat Times. His writing has appeared in The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, McSweeney's, Conjunctions, The Believer, and Guernica. He lives in Rhode Island.
Kevin Moffett is the author of Permanent Visitors and Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events. He lives in Claremont, California.