The first time your mother didn’t come home, I worried about her. When it happened a second time I worried about me. The third time I spent the night staring at the red numbers of the clock, I worried about you.
She never gave us a fourth time. I haven’t seen her since.
Before you go getting all upset at her for leaving us, you should know that if it wasn’t for her, you wouldn’t be here. Your existence came from her stubbornness. You probably share that trait, along with the blue eyes and little nose. I wonder if you look like her now. If you’ve got the same dirty blonde hair. The same way of talking with your eyes.
She sure picked a bad time to tell me she was pregnant. The Broncos had just lost to the Raiders by a last-second field goal. I was only eighteen, still thought the way a bunch of strangers played a game was something personal. Like their loss was my loss. So I already felt empty and pissed for what amounts to no reason.
That’s when she decided to tell me. She stood by the couch with this weird look in her eye. Guess she knew what my response would be.
“I’m pregnant.” I’ll never forget the way she said it, head tilted up, sticking out her chin. Daring me to get pissed.
Which I did.
“How’d you let that happen? Aren’t you on the pill?”
It’s funny. All those years of Sunday school, all those years of lessons on morality and what is supposedly right, all the things I thought I believed in, went right out the window in that little moment. First, I just stared. Then I asked, “Are you going to take care of it?” Like you were some kind of curable condition. Something she could take two aspirin for.
That was as close as I could come to saying what I meant.
She didn’t answer with anything other than that glare of hers. She spun around, stormed into the bedroom, and slammed the door. I knew her mind was set. There’d be no talking her out of it. I turned off the TV and stared at the wall. Drank the rest of my beer.
We never mentioned my suggestion again.
So you see, if she hadn’t been so strong and pig-headed, you wouldn’t be here. I thank her for that.
Once your mother started getting bigger, things got difficult. Not that they weren’t already, two young kids playing house in that tiny apartment a thousand miles from home. But things got worse. She was not a big woman to start with, about five foot two on her tippy-toes. So toward the end of the pregnancy, she seemed as wide as she was tall. Couldn’t get her jacket around her. Hell, she couldn’t get my jacket around her.
She couldn’t sleep, either, so she got cranky. I already was cranky. Had been since the moment she told me. Hell, I was scared shitless. I guess she was too; I just didn’t know it then. But our playing house became too real. No longer a game, no longer pretending we were grown up, out there in the big world. It was real. We tried to figure out how we would buy a crib and diapers and all the things we never knew we would need.
I worked landscaping in those days, throwing dirt with a shovel, which didn’t exactly pay a lot. She worked as the evening desk clerk at the Hotel Boulderado, helping rich folk get checked into rooms bigger than our entire apartment. She worked right up to the day her water broke. Strong woman. I want you to know that. She had strength in her. More than I ever had. Or ever will.
That first night we took you home I’ll remember till the day I die. The wind blew like crazy, your typical Colorado spring. Not real cold, but enough that we were in a panic, had you bundled up till you were just this tiny face peering out with unfocused eyes, a round ball of pink blankets. We put you in that car seat I found at a garage sale. It was stained, but still worked. I installed it in a hurry, with your mother standing in the wind, holding you. I don’t think I did it quite right, now that I look back on it. Probably could say that about a lot of things.
We got home, driving ten miles an hour the whole time. Your mother sat in the back with you. Talked to you, soft and tender. I remember watching her in the rearview, catching glimpses of her smile, her hair down across her brown eyes. She never looked up, only watched you.
That night, you cried. And cried. And cried. To the point your mother cried. I didn’t cry. Not because I didn’t want to, Lord knows I was overwhelmed, but because I had some crazy idea that being a man meant not crying. Now I cry at cheesy commercials. Shows you what thirty some years and three more kids will teach you.
They never mentioned swaddling at the hospital. You’d think they would have said something to two young, wide-eyed, new parents. But they didn’t. Probably figured we would have our parents around to help. That being so young there was no way we were doing it by ourselves. No way we should have been. But our parents were parents in name only. Neither your mom nor I grew up with any idea what the word really meant. Your mother was partially raised by her aunts, bouncing around from relative to relative in her teen years before we ran away. My parents were worse. I’d rather not tell you about them.
Anyway, it was the three of us against the world. You, me, and your mother. It tied us together. Made us closer in a warm, wonderful way.
At least at first.
After about a month, she started sleeping through your cries more. Or she pretended to. She’d tap me on the shoulder, then roll over with a pillow over her head. And after work, I’d come home to find your diaper over flowing, her sitting on the couch, staring at nothing. I’d yell, she’d yell. It got so bad we hardly spoke. She wouldn’t talk and I didn’t know what to say. I had no patience. No empathy for her. That probably didn’t help matters, so it’s my fault, too. Worse, she stopped talking to you. Stopped the soft, high voice I would hear in the middle of the night as she fed you. Stopped the long looks, standing over your crib, just smiling. Stopped the kisses on your forehead. Stopped being a mommy.
I didn’t know why. I’d never heard of postpartum depression.
Then came the first night she didn’t come home from work. She was still gone in the morning. I had to call in sick so I could stay home with you. I called her work. I called her friend Michelle. Nobody knew where she was.
She stumbled in the next evening, just past supper. I was too relieved to be angry, but she scared me. The way she loved on you, slurring, with big, exaggerated movements. After she fell asleep on the couch I pried you from her arms, brought you into the bed with me. Built a wall of pillows around one side of you, me on the other.
Everything went back to normal. I didn’t ask what happened, and she never volunteered the information. We just pretended it never happened. As if it were that easy.
Then she started not being there, even when she was there. About a week later, she didn’t come home again. I remember sitting in that old, wooden rocker we found in the dumpster and cleaned up. Holding you after your bottle till you fell asleep. I couldn’t sleep. I stared at the clock on the microwave – you could see it from the living room, the damn apartment was so small – too angry to sleep. She was leaving me to do all the heavy lifting. You and I slept in the chair, through two feedings, till I had to go to work.
I didn’t know what to do. I called in sick again. Got a warning about missing too much time. Summer was starting. Landscapers’ busy time. They couldn’t afford to get behind. I couldn’t afford to lose my job. I talked it over with the old lady in the apartment below us, about what I should do. She loved you, was nice enough, but had seven cats and smelled like pine litter and cigarettes. She smoked a lot. I didn’t want to leave you with her, but didn’t know what else to do.
After one morning with her, I ended up paying for two days of daycare at a place that would take you early in the morning. It cost me about three days worth of wages. Three days of wages for two days of daycare.
Your mother came back on a Thursday morning. Didn’t say a thing to me. Or to you. Just walked in the door and went to bed. You were already in the crib sleeping, so I went to work. When I got home she acted like nothing had happened. She had given you a bath. Dressed you up in some pink onesie with a kitty on the front she must have bought that day. Even gave me a giant kiss.
For the next week, she was the mother I always thought she would be. She worked hard at making you healthy and happy. Got a book on parenting from the library, would read it at the desk when her work was slow. We even started talking again. Things felt right. Like we were a family. Like we were going to make it.
But then she started getting cranky again. I should have suggested help. Maybe some counseling. I didn’t know that stuff existed. But I should have done something and I didn’t. And then she started talking to me less again. Talking to you less again. I’d come home to dirty diapers and dirty dishes and a hungry you.
I knew it was coming. The night she wouldn’t come home. I watched her fold in on herself. Withdraw. From me. From you. From us. I would lie beside her, watching through the missing section of blinds as the moths incinerated themselves in the porch light. I wanted to say something to her. Anything. Maybe it’s all my fault, because I never did.
And then she left and never came home. A Thursday. You spent Friday downstairs again, inhaling God-knows how much secondhand smoke. I enrolled you in a daycare. I knew she wasn’t coming back. I didn’t even try to find her.
Between daycare and diapers, you cost more than I made. There’s help out there, but I didn’t know about it then. I didn’t know anything. I managed to get food stamps for formula, but everything else still cost a fortune. I started running up my credit card.
I’d come home and clean you up. Feed you. Fall asleep beside you on your little play mat with those things that hung down, the blue hippo with the big smile, the purple elephant. You loved that elephant. But I’d fall asleep and wake up an hour later with you crying, half rolled off the mat, with a quarter that must have fallen out of my pocket in your hand. You could have easily choked on it. Scared me half to death.
Then one morning you were sick. Really sick. Coughing like there was a tornado in your throat. It was scary to hear such a noise coming from such a little girl. I thought you had pneumonia. You coughed so hard you couldn’t breathe. I panicked. Didn’t know what else to do, so I drove you to the hospital. They said you had the croup, that you’d be okay. The doctor was some old lady – at least she seemed old to me at that age, she was probably forty – who looked at me with this weird look. I knew what she was thinking, what’s this teenage boy doing with a baby? She asked where your mother was, and I lied, said she was working. She asked if I had any help. I lied again, said my parents lived in town, came over almost every day. She stared a long time at me, then patted you on the forehead and laid you in my arms.
Then charged me $700.
We came home and sat on the toilet with the shower going full blast, filling the room with steam. You coughed. Pinched up your face like an angry old man and cried. I cried. I cried because you cried. I cried because I didn’t know how I was going to take care of you. If I could take care of you.
You finally fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion. I laid you in your crib and collapsed on the couch. I remember I turned on the news. And an answer came to me. They were talking about some law they had just passed in Colorado. The “fire-station law” or something. For people like me. Drop off your infant, no questions asked. They’ll take care of it. See to it that it is put in a foster home, put up for adoption. Everything.
I saw it on the news, and knew what I had to do.
That night, I bundled you up. Pink fuzzy pajamas covered with tiny blue kittens. Put you in the car seat. I waited till the middle of the night, thinking there wouldn’t be any people around. No one to see the scared kid sneaking through the dark with a baby in a car seat.
It wasn’t easy, Audrey. I stood near the front of the firehouse, in the dark, outside the reach of the lights, wondering what I should do. I probably stood there twenty minutes. Three times I started walking back to the car with you. Then you started coughing. That deep, racking cough that made me feel helpless. Useless. Like I was a teenage boy in way over his head. Like every thought that doctor had was right. So I kissed you on the forehead and put the car carrier on the walk in front of the door. And ran like hell.
Half way home I stopped the car. Pulled out the base to the car seat and threw it as far as I could down this weed-covered embankment. I stood and watched it roll to a stop, stark in the moonlight. I realized I was no better than your mother. I ran when the going got tough. I abandoned my baby.
Who does that?
Did I do it to give you a better life? I tell myself that, but sometimes I’m not so sure. Maybe I did it to give myself a better life. An easier life anyway, cause it sure as shit wasn’t better, sitting in that quiet apartment, by myself. Wondering.
Took me a few years to sort things out. As much as I could anyway. A few years to deal with what I’d done. Not get over it. I never got over it. Just to learn to live with it without alcohol.
I still have your picture, you know. One little picture your mother took of me, holding you. You’re asleep, with these little round cheeks, like an angel. I look exhausted. But happy.
You’re probably wondering why I’m writing this. So am I. I’ll never be able to send it. I wouldn’t know where to. Hell, I don’t know your name, if it’s still Audrey. Or where you live. I just thought you should know that we loved you. We really did. I still do. I would love to find out that you’re happy and well-adjusted, with a little family of your own. Maybe an accountant or something. Not doctor or lawyer, just something stable and decent. Something better than had you stayed with a teenage dad.
I’d just like to know – after thirty-five years of waking up in the middle of the night, of celebrating your birthday in my head because even my wife and kids don’t know about you – did I do the right thing?
John Biesecker writes from an undisclosed bunker deep in the mountains of Colorado. His stories, both genre and literary, have appeared in print and in various journals across the “internets.” He is currently seeking representation for his first novel. When not writing he tries to keep up with his family on the ski slopes. Visit him at JohnBiesecker.com.
Originally published on Heart of a Man.
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