by Katie Yee
The day I find out I am pregnant is also the day my husband decides to get serious about becoming an actor. I hold up the pink plus sign, and he starts Googling open auditions in our area. The first call my husband makes isn’t to his parents, it’s to his college buddy, Vito, a so-called talent agent. I hear him on the phone in the next room, saying, “I’m ready to be a serious man.”
For a while, nothing happens. It is anti-climactic, like 12:01 on New Year’s. Everybody puts down the champagne glasses and everything is normal the next morning. My husband and I go to work at the Best Western. I sit at the front desk, check people in, discreetly slip women tampons when they realize they’ve forgotten to pack them. My husband serves food in the attached restaurant. He hates the breakfast shift because everyone is always asking after the complimentary continental which they don’t serve. Guests come and go. People look forward to their vacations, and then their vacations are over. Four, five weeks pass. The doctor tells me the baby has a heart now. It’s one of the first things to form.
Then, my husband gets a call from Vito. He quits his job as a waiter when he becomes Waiter With Cleaver in the new Lionsgate movie. “This is perfect timing!” he says. “It will be so good for the baby!” he says. It is a small, barely speaking role. To prepare for the part, he says very little for the next few weeks. He carries the cleaver with him everywhere. He wants to feel it is an extension of himself. He drives with it in the glove compartment. He prepares all of our meals with it, which I don’t mind. He brings it into the shower with him. He sleeps with it under his pillow like a kid with a chemistry textbook, thinking the right answers will come through osmosis, a bleeding of knowledge. It makes me nervous. He will not touch me because his character isn’t the kind of person who has loving sex with his pregnant wife. Instead, he rubs my belly like a talisman before going into rehearsal.
My husband comes home happy every day. He loves saying he was one of the first characters to be cast, in “pre-production.” “The baby would be so proud!” he says. He loves saying “The movie is in production now! We are in production now!” The baby’s heart develops a steady rhythm. I run lines with my husband, in the car, at the supermarket in the freezer aisle by the peas, in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. We go in for a sonogram, and there it is: a visible umbilical cord, a sign that I am needed.
My best friend flies into town right as I’m starting to show. I can feel her eyes on my stomach, but she doesn’t say anything about it, which I appreciate. She stays at the Best Western. I get her a really good deal on a room with two twin beds, and we spend most of that weekend being schoolgirls again, watching Nora Ephron movies and playing M.A.S.H. What are we going to be like when we grow up? She is going to become a Playboy Bunny and live in a hut in Antarctica with our cute ninth grade biology teacher and zero children. We laugh and laugh, but I don’t want to play after that. She says, “Your turn,” and I start to cry. I think of something we were told in elementary school, one of the myths of adulthood: after having children, amusement park rides will make your insides churn. It won’t be the same. When you have a baby, some steadfast part of yourself gets dislodged.
The day we find out the baby is a girl, we have lunch with Vito. My husband wants to ask him about future roles. “The baby will want to see her father on the silver screen, don’t you think?” he asks.
When Vito sees me, he says, “Look at that baby bump!” The displeasure is splashed across my face, and my husband makes light: “What do making movies and making babies have in common?” He barely pauses before the punch-line: “Nobody says the right thing at the right time.”
My husband brings the cleaver and tries to use it to cut his steak. Vito stays on the phone most of the meal, only pausing once to ask, “Do you think your daughter’ll be in the pictures? Everybody needs a cute baby.” The doctor told us at this stage, her nerves and muscles are starting to work together. The doctor said, “Your baby can make a fist.” This is what I picture as Vito is talking: our baby girl, flexing her fingers, making a fist, shaking it at the sound.
This is the first time we’ve heard the phrase “your daughter.” I turn it over and over like a worry stone in my mind.
My parents are overjoyed. First, we tell them about the movie. “Before they hear about the baby, they need to know that I can support us,” my husband says, and he looks so proud, like a serious man, so I don’t disagree. My dad claps him on the back, and says, “Way to go!” And then we tell them about the baby, and my dad puts his hands on my husband’s shoulders—two serious men—and says, “I am proud of you, son,” like it is something he earned.
My parents can’t wait to be grandparents. My mother digs up my old stroller and highchair and crib from their cellar. I had no idea she still had all this stuff. My parents hand my husband baby booties, and then we all pile into their car to go to BABIES R US. Everyone is cooing over the teeny-tiny things, onesies with clever sayings and shrunken UGGS, but I can’t stop thinking about the name of the store. BABIES R US. BABIES R US.
We waited to tell my parents until the second trimester, when it is safe. When there is a skeleton building, a kind of backbone, and a layer of downy hair all over to protect the skin you can still see through. BABIES R US. I put my hand to my bowling ball belly and recoil at the thought of it, the mammal inside of me.
When I fall asleep these nights, I dream I give birth to a baby who is actually a small lion. Or a field mouse who eats all the grain in the cupboard and lives in corners. I dream my husband gets a mysterious growth on his throat at the same time, and it swells as the baby swells. I dream he gets so famous that one day, he steps outside and the public tears him limb from limb, taking pieces of him home like baseball stadium souvenirs, and there is nothing left for me. I dream the doctors had it all wrong and there is no baby, only a giant tapeworm. I dream I give birth to a baby with no heart, or two hearts perfectly halved but functioning okay. Maybe the baby has a black hole where her heart should be, and everything gets swallowed up into it. I dream I give birth to an egg that I then have to hatch. That we live in a society where husbands are devoured after their wives have become impregnated like black widow spiders. I dream I give birth to my husband. I dream I give birth to myself. I dream my baby’s birthday is the day of the doctor’s birthday so there’s a whole party with balloons and streamers in the hospital room but it’s not for us. I dream the delivery room is lined up to the loading dock and UPS gets confused and so there are cardboard packages everywhere, Styrofoam peanuts everywhere, and I can’t hear the baby cry over the sound of all that bubble wrap pop-pop-popping. And none of the packages are for me. In one of my dreams, my husband is still dressed as Waiter With Cleaver and that’s what he uses to cut the umbilical cord.
To ward off the dreams, I stay late at the Best Western. I like the hard lines of it. The sharp folds in the linen, the key cards in a straight stack. Sometimes I go into the recently vacated rooms, before the cleaning staff comes in. I find myself wiping counters and smoothing out the sheets. I see if I can remember the guests based on what they’ve left behind, the way they’ve left things. The customers that come downstairs all frenzied, having forgotten something—I like them best. I like being the one with small solutions, when an extra sample-sized bottle of shampoo makes someone feel like we’d thought of everything.
My boss commends me for my caretaking. She says, “There are people who are good at making nests, and people who are good at getting them all mussed up.” She says, “I haven’t seen you do one thing wrong.” At first, I think she is talking about my hospitality skills.
The guests don’t ask how my day is going anymore. Instead, they ask me when I’m due. They ask me: boy or girl? They, like friends and co-workers and the middle-aged women at the library, flock and place their palms to my rounded center and wait to feel something, like it is owed to them.
Twenty-four weeks in, and my husband says the movie is in “post-production.” He is so excited about this that he hangs around the studio even though his part is done. The sound effects team plays with the score. The visual effects are drawn in. The baby develops fingerprints, a traceable identity. Vito calls. My husband goes on more auditions. He comes home in character, as a bank teller, as a businessman, as a convict in the county jail, as so many people I don’t recognize. When he comes home late, he apologizes to the baby, who is growing lungs that don’t work yet.
Somewhere in here, it is our anniversary.
That morning, I lay awake trying to remember what our relationship was like before the baby, before I lose him to another part. I try to remember whatever timeline we might have set out for ourselves. What did we say when kids came up in conversation? When the Gerber Baby came on TV to sell us things, to sell us a way of life? At big family gatherings, what happened when someone would shove an infant into our arms? Did we say, “How cute!” even when the baby was ugly? Did we force cooing noises like airborne doves?
My husband has always been very good with anniversaries. He makes French toast and special decaf coffee. “Such service!” I say, when he brings it to bed. “Better than continental at the Best Western!” he jokes. He sits with me, and we do not run lines, and we do not talk about the baby. It feels like I am just me and we are just us. Until the baby kicks, and I am filled with a quiet, hot resentment like air being let out of a deflating balloon.
In the last trimester, my husband and I have nightly rituals. We climb into bed and sit on top of the covers and watch Toy Story (1995). Toy Story (1995) was the first film to include a list of Production Babies in the credits. They did this because your memories of a movie and of your newborn will inevitably become intertwined. They did this because apparently when you have children, they become your only marker of time.
The doctor suggests we talk to the baby while she is in the womb. She might recognize our voices. My husband puts his hand to my belly and reads out the list of Production Baby names that roll in the Toy Story (1995) credits.
The doctor said I in particular should talk to the baby. Maybe the vibrations will be a comfort, the kinesthetic quality of speech. One day, I wander into a bookstore and buy The Big Book of 60,000 Baby Names. I keep it in the top drawer of my nightstand, next to a copy of the Bible that I stole from the Best Western, but the baby is probably too young for that. When my husband has fallen asleep after Toy Story (1995), I whisper-read her the names.
At thirty-two weeks, the baby is practicing breathing. The doctor says she is making the right movements, over and over again. My husband says, “That’s my girl—rehearsing.”
Sometime in the last four weeks of pregnancy, the baby is supposed to reorient herself: head-down for the birth, like an ostrich trying to bury its head into the sand.
The problem is the baby is late.
The baby is late, and now my husband needs her name before the movie goes in for final edits, so she can be added to the Production Babies list in the credits. But the twenty-second of May came and went without so much as a contraction. Yes, I am waiting for my body to contract, to deliver on a promise.
My parents come to town the week of the due date and are disappointed when they have to alter their travel plans. “I’m ready to be your grandma!” my mother shouts at my stomach.
My husband does everything he can think of to lure the baby out in time. He buys pink balloons. He hangs IT’S A GIRL! banners in all our doorways. He arranges for friends and co-workers to gather for impromptu surprise baby showers, hoping to startle the baby out of me like a case of hiccups. We watch Toy Story (1995) with the credits more than once a day.
He thinks we should just pick a name. He suggests: Alice, Emma, Lucia after his grandmother. It becomes a kind of game. We go about our day, and he keeps pitching: Harriet, Lila, Diane. I bat them all down. Choosing one before meeting her feels wrong.
The baby is four days late. We go to dinner with my husband’s new actor friends. We go to a lovely Italian restaurant with thick white linen tablecloths. We have to ask to change tables because I can’t slide into the booth. They try to get me to drink a glass of wine to induce labor. One woman takes a sip of red, leans in across the table, and says, “Doesn’t it trouble you that your baby is late?” She says, “Don’t you want your body back?” Like I am renting out space, like my womb is a room in the Best Western. Like my body is not mine, the baby not a part of me. I stare at my husband who drinks his wine and says nothing.
At home, I am curled into a ball around the baby, like an armadillo, in the center of our bed. All the wrinkled lines in the sheets lead to me. My husband emerges from the shower, with cleaver, and I want to ask: Who does your body belong to? I want to ask: If you could carry this baby, would you? I think of him guzzling wine across the table from me, and I think, It must be nice not to have to leave the light on inside yourself for anyone.
The first Saturday of every month, we spot-clean the house. I am dusting vases, sitting on the sofa. It is the only task my husband allows. He is wiping the windows and not facing me. Again with the names, mostly actresses: Audrey, Katherine, Bette.
“Do you need help over there?” I ask him.
Grace, Lauren, Florence, Marilyn now.
I say, “Why are you doing this?” I say, “Why do you care about this Production Babies list so much? Out with it.”
My husband is quiet for a minute, then his back says, “Are you happy with where you are?”
I go to stand next to him. “Yes, I am happy with where I am.” I put my hand on his shoulder. We are still like a May pond. Through the window, we look down on a man trying desperately to get into his parked car.
“At the Best Western?” my husband clarifies. “Are you happy there?”
I think of giving out tiny shampoo bottles like candy, of making the sheets pristine. It is a specific joy, like the tail of a check mark crossing its box’s boundary. “I’m not unhappy there,” I tell him. He nods and says, “Exactly.”
And it is then that I realize: my husband has no womb, only a stomach growling for success. Has our girl made my husband into a serious man? And what of me? I press my hands to my crystal ball stomach.
The day the movie plays on the big screen for the very first time is the day I go into labor. A labor of love.
My husband is at a cast party, a red carpet affair, one he pleaded with me that he had to attend. I am examining my figure in the bedroom mirror, in my stretchy maternity-wear gown. The baby is two weeks late, and the stretch of my stomach shows it.
I feel a sharp pain in the hallway of my body, and all these fears about childbirth come over me. I am afraid of the doctors forgetting to give me the drugs, of passing the point of no return and having to feel everything. I am afraid of the epidural needle tapping my spine the wrong way, of being swallowed by the dark, of having my lights shut off. I am afraid of medical complications. Of our baby being feet first. The umbilical cord wrapped around her neck like a noose. Of having to be cut open instead. The ripping and tearing and the blood and the baby all coming out at once. I call my husband, whose phone must be silenced for the movie. He doesn’t answer.
Our baby girl comes out on a red carpet of my blood in the early hours of the morning.
The weeks that the movie is in theaters after our baby girl is born, my husband is rarely home. He spends his time going to the neighborhood theaters, to sit around and watch the movie he is stuck in, to scream out our daughter’s name during the credits to a nearly empty theater.
She looks so much like me it hurts. When I peer at her through the nursery glass, I touch my own nose to make sure it’s still in place. It’s that uncanny. “She doesn’t look a thing like me, thank god,” my husband jokes. Maybe her insides will match his. Not a home but a hunger.
My husband struggles with success. Some nights, he hands me scripts so we can run lines, so I don’t have to say anything that hasn’t been prepared for me. Again with the auditions, with the strange versions of him at the dinner table, burping the baby, crawling into bed beside me: a taxi driver, a lonely schoolteacher, a dying brother, a farmer going insane in small ways.
It is quiet for a while.
One day, I hope a husband will come home, finally. Not an actor, but a father. A man who will remember to bring home the dry cleaning, who will cook when I have fallen asleep in the baby’s room at odd hours, and warm the milk and test the temperature on his forearm. Lying in bed, he will touch his nose to my cheek and ask if I want to make another baby. “Don’t you dare,” I will laugh, and he will listen. I see these days in cinematic muted colors. I see him holding the baby close to his chest, bouncing her on his leg. It will be my favorite thing to watch. And when I look at him then, I will know exactly who it is looking back at me.
One day. But on this day, after an early dinner, I lean against the doorframe and watch the actor who is my husband sitting in the L of the couch. My hands wring the tea towel. I find a sudsy spot on my forearm in a place the water missed. I think I hear rain. Our baby girl sits up on his strongest knee.
“Dada,” she says, pointing to the television set.
Katie Yee is the Book Marks assistant editor at Literary Hub. She holds a BA from Bennington College and lives with her rescue dog in Brooklyn.