The Second Son
The birth was similar to her first birth, but, of course, there were differences.
It was a Thursday and Edie had Bertie with her when she went for her check-up. She was a week from her due date. She always had Bertie with her. He was three and he was her everything. Her midwife was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; Edie was still at the same hospital, even though it was far from her house in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
“You’re going to go into labor soon. Why don’t we strip your membranes now,” said Jenny, her midwife, “that way your husband can come and get Bertie, take him to wherever he’s going for the night. That way it’s all under control.”
Edie felt a physical pulling in. “No. No. I don’t want to do that.” They had stripped her membranes when she was giving birth to Bertie, when she’d been deep into labor. It had hurt like hell. “I don’t want to force it.” The midwife shrugged, but she was annoyed.
On the long subway ride home—Bertie loved the train, he was in heaven—Edie’s breath came shallow and fast. She was afraid. She had hoped the second time around she wouldn’t be so afraid, but she’d been just as afraid the whole damn pregnancy as she’d been the first time.
It took almost an hour to get home. Her feet hurt, even though she’d been sitting the whole time on the train. Bertie fell asleep, so she had to carry him home. It was less than two blocks, but still. She was very pregnant, and he was nearly three. And as she walked up the few steps to their new home, she felt a sharp pain in her abdomen. She had to put Bertie down to get her keys and he cried. Inside, she tried to put him back to sleep on the couch, but it was too late. He was awake, tired and grumpy. She felt another sharp pain and her hands began to shake. She was in labor. The midwife had been right. She’d been foolish.
Their plan was to call John Weeks, their one true friend, a graying, hard drinking man who had dinner at their house once a week or so. She called him first, then she called Richard, her husband. John was on his way over; Bertie loved John; he was the uncle Bertie didn’t have. Richard would meet her at the hospital.
“Are you ready to go?” Richard asked.
She did have a little bag packed with a toothbrush and some clean underwear. “It could take awhile to get there. And second births can go faster than first ones. I better get going.” Bertie had only taken ten hours. And she’d labored at home for a lot of that. She’d only been at the hospital for four of those hours before he made his entrance.
The minute John arrived she called a car service. “Thanks, John.”
“No problem. Bertie and I will be fine. Won’t we, buddy?”
Bertie crawled up on to his lap and started to take off his glasses.
“I love you, Bertie. I’ll be home soon. With your new baby brother.” She grabbed him off of John’s lap and kissed him. He squirmed. “I love you, too, Mommy.”
The car honked. She waddled out to it. It was a clean, warm March day. Gone was the darkness and dirty snow of winter and the hot, filthy summer had not arrived. It was the perfect day to have a baby, Edie tried telling herself.
The labor pains seemed to be coming quickly. There was traffic on the bridge. She lay down in the back of the car. She noticed the driver look into his rearview mirror and give her an unkind stare. For some reason, this really bothered Edie and she began to breathe too quickly. The driver of the car Richard and she had taken when Bertie was born had been jolly, congratulatory.
She tipped the driver well, even if he’d been unfriendly. Richard was there. The midwife, Jenny, was not, but would be shortly. She felt happy to have the same midwife. She liked Jenny. The nurse began doing various things, taking her blood pressure, her temperature.
“You have a temperature.” She said nervously.
Jenny walked in then.
“She has a temperature.” The nurse said to Jenny.
“How high?” Jenny took the thermometer away from her. “It’s not that high. You’re fine.”
Edie’s heart was racing now. Fear, fear, fear. How could everything be fine if she was about to split apart, to cleave in two?
The contractions came harder. She walked around the room. It was a big room—a “birthing” room, and this was nice. Richard sat in a chair, looking miserable and useless. Jenny sat in another chair, reading Newsweek and occasionally smiling and offering some support.
Edie walked to the large window. They were on the eleventh floor. Below was Tenth Avenue. Cars and people went about their business, while she was up here, about to have a baby. It seemed strange, that the whole world wouldn’t stop. Another baby. Another boy. Another Bertie, that was what she wanted. When Bertie turned two and she was so in love, she decided to try and get pregnant again; she wanted another one.
And the time had come. Looking out, she saw the deli where Richard had bought her a sandwich earlier. She had eaten it hungrily, but now she wondered if that had been a mistake. Water trickled down her leg. Just like that. There had been no need to break her water, no. But now the contractions would really begin. And then what? Oh, no, the pain. Oh, no, who would this child be? She turned to Richard.
“Please go. Please go outside.”
Jenny looked up, grumpily. It wasn’t nice to ask your husband to leave the delivery room. But Edie had done it when Bertie was born, too. Yes, she didn’t want him there. He was no help. A contraction drove her to her knees.
On her knees now, she put her hands down on the cold floor and crawled to the bed. The pain was making her hallucinate. The room undulated and swirled. Her midwife was a hazy annoyance in the room, asking something of her. What? Push? Soon, she would split in two. Who was this child? Who was he?
Looking back, there had been some signs. When she was seven months pregnant, her mother took her to Nassau, in the Bahamas, for a week. They stayed at a lovely small hotel on the Caribbean sea, a hotel made up of fifteen bungalows that sat up on stilts. The beach in front of the bungalows was small but calm and warm. She was there without Richard for the first five days; he was moving them into their new home and she wouldn’t be any help unpacking. It was nice of him, she knew, to do the work while she sat on the beach. And yet, she resented being grateful, as if carrying their child in her womb was nothing for which to be grateful.
Bertie was so happy to see his Nana. Edie was unabashedly grateful for her mother right now. It was a wonderful feeling, this gratitude, as Edie had spent most of her adolescence resenting the woman. Edie and Bertie’s bungalow was at the end of the beach, away from the restaurant and the entrance, which was guarded by a black man in uniform. It was painted a bright green and the room was round, with a large bed sitting high in the middle. She could hear the ocean, feel the wet sea air. At night, she’d pull a thin blanket over the two of them and listen and feel. The ocean, and the movement inside of her that always started at night. The baby inside her sloshing and flipping around, occasionally a spot of her stomach would jump out as a foot or hand pushed. Next to her, her son slept and made gentle breathing noises. She leant into him and smelled his skin; the smell of a baby still. He was not yet three. It was hard for her to sleep.
“Let’s go to the botanical garden,” Edie suggested to her mother.
They drove their rented car to the center of the island, where a small white house stood surrounded by blooming bushes. Inside, an elderly English woman sat behind a desk. They paid a small entrance fee, and then walked out the back of the house onto a dirt path. It was not a big botanical garden by any means. The day was unusually hot and humid, or it felt that way to Edie; perhaps it was because they were away from the cool breezes of the sea. Edie’s mother seemed irritated by the heat, as was Edie herself. She wanted to walk around quickly, and then get back to her room.
Bertie ran off in front of them. Edie’s mother held her mouth in that way that showed her annoyance.
Mom, can you chase him? Please? I don’t want him touching anything he shouldn’t.”
Without saying anything to her daughter, her mother went after Bertie.
Most of the path was shaded. But the air was so thick. Edie could no longer see her mother or son, but she could hear them. A small wooden bench came into view and Edie made for it and sat. She spread her legs wide; her crotch was throbbing with the pressure of her insides. She rested her eyes for a moment.
“Here you are!” Her mother exclaimed. “We thought we’d lost you.”
“No, I just sat for a moment. The heat is fierce here.”
“Mommy mommy!” Bertie crawled onto her and his knee went into her belly.
“Careful!” She said, her voice cross. Reflexively, she pushed him off.
Her mother picked up Bertie.
“Yes, let’s go.”
It was the last night before Richard arrived. They ate at the hotel, where the food was lovely. Edie had a glass of wine. The waiter gave her belly a look, but Edie didn’t care. One glass of wine wasn’t going to hurt. In bed, Bertie lay curled up next to her. He was wearing a T-shirt and a diaper, the blanket kicked off. He moved around, readjusted. He was sleeping lightly. The ocean’s breeze blew the batik curtains gently. The room even in the dark, all wood and colorful batik, was beautiful. Edie couldn’t fall asleep. She got up and went to the bathroom. She had to go to the bathroom all the time now. Below her room was the open air kitchen. She decided to go down and get a bottle of water out of the refrigerator.
As she walked out of her bungalow, a strong sea breeze slammed the door shut behind her. She didn’t have her key. The noise had woken Bertie, and she heard him cry out.
Her heart began to race. “Bertie! Bertie!” She didn’t know what to do. She tugged at the door. He was too little to open it himself. He began to cry in earnest now. She had to get back in there.
She ran to her mother’s bungalow and knocked on the door, loudly. “Mom! Mom! Help. I’m locked out and Bertie’s alone! Help!”
Her mother came to the door, half asleep, a robe wrapped around her. “What?”
“The door slammed and I don’t have my key and Bertie is alone—”
“OK, OK. Calm down.” Her mother led her down the dirt path. The wind was strong, the air cool. “We’ll go find someone who can open the door.”
“But Bertie’s awake now. I’m going back there. Can you come with someone? Find a key?”
“Fine. Go. I’ll be there.”
Edie ran back to her bungalow, the wind and sea loud in her ears. It wasn’t until she was at the steps of her room that she could hear Bertie wailing. She crouched at the door, her belly pushing up on her chest. “I’m here, Bertie, Mommy’s right here. I’m coming in soon.”
He was alone in a dark, strange room and she’d left him there. She looked out at the sea, Bertie’s voice in her ears, crying out for her.
Like the eye of a storm, Edie had a moment of complete clarity. “OK,” she said to Jenny. “I’m going to push him out.” In a gush of salty blood, a large, red-haired baby boy came out. She was free now. Jennie passed him to her and he cried loudly and wetly squirmed around. She tried holding him to her breast, but he flailed and screamed.
“He’s a loud one,” Jenny said, smiling.
“Is he OK?” She wanted to count fingers, but she didn’t. He seemed OK. But she was still scared, scared something was wrong. It was all so different. When they had passed her Bertie, it had been a moment of comfort. The minute Jennie held Bertie up to her, she knew he was perfect. She looked at her son, her new son, her second son. She thought he was ugly. Richard came to her then and put an arm on her. He was shaking, his hand was trembling. Jenny had let him back in.
“You did it, honey. You did it. Look.” Were there tears in his eyes? No. But he looked spent and relieved.
“Yes. Let’s call him Charles. Let’s call him Charlie.”
Richard smiled. “Good. Let’s.”
Jenny examined them both. Everything was fine and they were free to go home.
“He’s bigger than Bertie was. And louder,” Edie said.
“The comparisons start already,” Jenny said. “You might want to just take him for who he is.”
Edie bristled. She was just speaking her thoughts.
They returned home together that afternoon. John Weeks was sitting in the rocking armchair that Edie had used to rock and nurse Bertie. Next to it was a brand new footstool. “A present for the Mommy,” John said as they came in and Edie spotted the footstool. He stood up to give her the chair.
“Bertie?” Edie called out, anxiety in her voice. “Bertie where are you?”
Bertie leapt out from behind the couch. Her boy. She was holding Charles.
“Look Bertie, you have a baby brother.” Suddenly, she could see this meant nothing to him. He wasn’t yet three, he didn’t know what a baby brother was. He barely knew his colors and numbers.
Later that night, after they had ordered take-out—something Richard hated, but Edie was too tired to cook—and drank beer with John Weeks, Richard went down to the office to check his email. He couldn’t stand missing one day of work. Edie was sitting in her chair with her feet on the new footstool. Charlie cried his loud, alarming cry and Bertie looked up from where he was playing with blocks in front of her. He was wearing red striped pajamas—Edie’s favorite.
“He’s noisy!” Bertie said.
“He just cries when he’s hungry,” Edie lied. It came back to her in flashes—the crying Bertie, crying when he was hungry, when he was tired, whenever. She’d thought he had colic. But no. “What else is a baby to do?” said her pediatrician. “They can’t speak yet. They only know how to cry.”
Edie held the strange looking creature against her breast and she felt the slight burn of his hungry mouth. Her breast swelled and the milk came. She closed her eyes. It was like a drug, the letdown of the milk, the hormones shooting through her blood. When he was done, she put Charlie in the new crib upstairs. Bertie had followed her halfway up the stairs.
“I’m coming right back down,” she said.
He looked suspicious.
“Come,” she said, and she picked up her boy, the boy she always carried, even in those late stages of pregnancy when it was very hard. And yet he was heavier to her now, strangely, even though she wasn’t pregnant anymore. Carrying him to the chair where she had just nursed Charlie, she felt a rush of blood between her legs. It had been less than twenty-four hours since she’d given birth. She sat heavily. Bertie squirmed into her body, curling his legs into her lap. She took his hand in hers, his three-year-old hand. She noticed his dirty fingernails and she put his hand up to her face and smelled it. It smelled unclean—they had skipped a bath tonight—like a boy’s hand, a hand that played and ate and was in the world, the big, dirty world.
“Your hand is so big, Bertie. I never..I never noticed.”
Bertie looked at his hand as if seeing it, too, for the first time.
She closed her eyes, leaned her head against the chair. Gone, gone. He wasn’t her baby anymore. “Come,” she said. “Let me read you a book. Time to go to bed, OK?” She set him down.
“Carry me,” he said, and he thrust his hands up to her, to be picked up.
The inside of her legs throbbed as she stood up. “I can’t Bertie. Not just now. I’m sorry. I can’t.”
April came and Charlie grew fat. He nursed every few hours at night and Edie was exhausted, as exhausted as she’d been with Bertie. One morning ,after a particularly brutal night of many nursings and diaper changings, she made the mistake of catching her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Her face was sallow and blotchy. She looked awful. She felt awful. Bertie came bounding in, full of life.
“Mommy, play trains with me.”
“Just a minute Bertie, I need to get some coffee first. I’m very tired.”
After a cup of coffee, she helped Bertie set up a train track in the living room. Charlie began to cry in his crib. She went up to get him, a red-faced squalling little football. No, he was already bigger than that, more like a watermelon. He continued to holler as she brought him downstairs.
“Mommy, make him stop!” Bertie covered his ears.
She sat down and lifting her shirt, put him on her breast. It took a minute, but then he settled.
“Play trains, mommy!” He was sitting on his knees, holding a blue train, looking at her imploringly. Her breast swelled and she felt the milk come sharply. “I’ll be Gordon, you be Deisel.”
“I can’t right now. I’m feeding Charlie.”
Charlie began to cry again. Edie tried switching breasts. He kept crying. Bertie didn’t play with his trains; he watched them as they struggled.
“Make him stop.”
“I’m trying, Bertie, I’m trying.”
“Play trains with me.”
“I can’t.” Edie felt anger rise up in her. Charlie continued to howl. She stood now and began pacing, as she had last night at one moment, pacing, trying to get him to nurse, to settle. Her arms ached. Her face went hot.
Bertie stood, too, and followed her around as she paced in the living room. “Put him away, Mommy! Put him away!”
“I can’t, Bertie.”
“I can’t Bertie.”
His face fell. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen him disappointed, but the look on his face- it killed her. She was holding Charlie so tightly now, maybe that was what was making him scream. She tried to relax.
“Go, Bertie. Go play trains. Just stop following me.”
Bertie sulked away, and Edie went into the kitchen. She didn’t know what to do. But that was how it was. Babies screamed, you tried all sorts of things, and sometimes, they just kept screaming anyway. Her head throbbed. She sat at the kitchen table while Charlie tried to squirm out of her hands. And what would happen if she let him? He would fall to the ground, that’s what would happen. She opened the door in the kitchen that led to the small porch they had and went outside. The sun burned her eyes as if she had a huge hangover. It was nearing the end of April and already the ugly summer heat could be felt. She went back into the kitchen and noticed that Charlie was quieting. She tried to sneak around to the stairs, but there was Bertie.
“Shh..” she said.
“Put him down!” Bertie said and Edie ran away from him, up the stairs to Charlie’s room, afraid he’d wake his brother.
Later that night, when Richard came home, and Bertie had been read to, and sung to, and put to bed, and Charlie was asleep in his crib, Edie fell into her nursing chair. She was having a second glass of wine tonight. The day had been a day of survival. She felt demoralized, exhausted, slightly crazy and full of self-loathing.
She began crying.
Richard was doing the dishes and when he came into the living room with his wine he asked, “What’s wrong?”
It was his tone. He was annoyed. He hated it when she showed any weakness.
“I’m– I’m suffering.”
Was it disgust? Or just anger in his face?
“I miss him. I miss my time with Bertie. I feel…I feel like I’m betraying him. Like I’m cheating on him with Charlie. And, an–I resent him, I resent Charlie. For causing this–”
“Well, don’t feel that way.” He stood up. “Jesus.”
As she watched Richard go back into the kitchen and pour himself another drink, she thought, who was this man she called her husband? Had there really been a time when she made love to him, when she opened herself up to him, showed her face in the agony of pleasure to him? He was the father of her children, but that seemed almost coincidental at this moment. He was nothing to her. He was a man with a job. He was a paycheck.
“I want him back! I want my Bertie back!” She said, quietly, to herself. What was she to do? What was she to do? She stretched her mouth open as wide as it would go, throwing her head back, her eyes closed, but nothing came out of her. Then, then it started to come out and she shoved her fist in her mouth and bit down as hard as she could, so hard she tasted the salt of her own blood, muffling the animal howl from deep within her.
The next day she took Bertie to the playground. It was as hot as summer and only April; it felt like the day was mocking her. She trudged along, pushing Bertie in his stroller with Charlie strapped to her chest in a baby holder.
Bertie was happy to be in the playground; he immediately ran away from her and onto the jungle gym. A pregnant woman was sitting on the bench next to her with a double stroller in front of her. In one seat was a toddler, in the other, a baby not much older than Charlie. On the bench next to her, a four year-old boy sat eating a cracker. Then an older girl pushed a scooter up to the woman and asked for crackers, too.
Edie stared. The woman and her daughter on the scooter were arguing.
“He got more than me,” the girl said.
“Here, here’s another one.” The mother said, but her expression wasn’t placating. Neither was her daughter’s.
Edie unstrapped Charlie; her chest was damp with sweat where he had been and he, too, was wet and sticky. His hair caught the sun; it almost looked unreal, it was such a glorious shade, a deep orange.
“What amazing hair!” The woman said.
“Thanks,” Edie said. It was amazing. She put him in the stroller in front of her. He was starting to smile and occasionally he broke into all sorts of baby cooing and laughter. He was a happy baby and it bewildered Edie. How could he be so happy when she wasn’t? But his happiness was infectious, too. She leaned forward and cooed at him. Then Edie asked, “Are they all yours?” gesturing to the brood surrounding the woman. She wasn’t much older than Edie, or so it seemed.
“Yes,” the woman answered. “But I think I might stop now. Five is plenty. I don’t know. I’d have more, too. I don’t know.”
“I just had my second and I’m so overwhelmed. I can’t imagine–”
“Just wait. Soon enough, you’ll want another.”
“I don’t know.” She wanted to confide in her, but how to go about that? She thought of calling John Weeks. She needed someone, something. John would distract her and play with Bertie. Yes, she would call him later that day and invite him over for beers.
“Each time I have a baby,” the woman said, leaning toward Edie now, “I keep trying to get that feeling back, that feeling you have with your first. And you never quite get it again.”
Edie looked at her, stunned. The woman was a good thirty pounds overweight, her face was greasy looking and gray hair stood out at the roots of her hair. She had “let herself go”, as they once said.
She smiled. “But you can’t bring it back, the past. You can only look toward the future.”
Edie looked out to where Bertie was playing. He was running with two other boys around his age; they all hollered as they went.
The woman watched her watch her son. Then she said, quietly, “Have you heard the saying? Children are like pancakes, you should throw the first one out?”
Suddenly, a long, loud wail grabbed their attention. Edie stood up. It wasn’t Bertie, but it was a little boy standing next to him. She went to them.
“That boy hit me,” cried the other boy and he pointed to Bertie.
“Bertie? Did you hit him?”
Bertie made a face and clenched his fists.
“Say you’re sorry, Bertie.”
“Say you’re sorry!”
“I’m sorry,” Bertie said, and then he began to cry.
Edie was stunned. She grabbed him by the arm and yanked him back to the stroller. She strapped Charlie back on and pushed Bertie down into the stroller and started off. She looked back at the woman who’d been sitting next to her. She was smiling, but it wasn’t friendly. It was something else. Something like satisfaction.
When they got home, Bertie was still sniffling. Charlie was asleep and she put him in his crib and then ran back down to Bertie.
“You’re bad!” she yelled. Anger coursed through her.
“I’m not bad.”
She grabbed his arm, roughly. “Shame on you.”
“Stop it, Mommy!”
“You hit someone! You hit someone!
Bertie began crying more earnestly. He tried to pull away from her, but her grip tightened.
“You’re hurting my arm!”
“Damn it! Damn it!” She was screaming now. She let go of his arm abruptly. He had been pulling away from her, so when she let go, he fell hard. Crying he looked up at her; it was the first time she saw fear in his eyes.
Edie started to cry. She sat in her chair and wept with her head in her hands.
“Mommy, mommy! Don’t cry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“No, Bertie, it’s not you. No, no. I’m just sad.”
“Don’t be sad, Mommy, don’t be sad.”
He walked up to her and put his little hand on her cheek. He was comforting her and it was all wrong. He was her baby, she was supposed to comfort him. No, no, it was all wrong.
“Come, come sit on my lap.”
He crawled up on her, with all of his smells of the playground and sticky juice and cracker crumbs.
“I’m sorry I hit that boy.”
“I know you’re sorry. Just don’t do it again. It’s OK. It’s OK.” She said, stroking his hair, but she was lying. What had she done by letting herself really feel things, love, loss, pain? Wouldn’t it have been better to not have felt anything at all? She’d had a boyfriend in AA years ago who’d said, feelings can’t kill you. It was part of the AA philosophy and had something to do with him not drinking anymore, with letting himself feel and not try to numb himself with alcohol. But she’d answered, “Of course feelings can kill you. They are the only thing that can kill you.” He broke up with her shortly after that conversation. But she’d meant it, she knew it then, but not like she knew things now. No, not like now.
“I love you, Bertie.” She said. She stroked his soft curls, his sweet, three-year-old head. He was still here, he was. But he was leaving her and she didn’t want him to. He wasn’t her everything anymore, too, and that was no fault of his. No she wanted him to be her baby forever, forever. She wanted him, and no one else, she wanted him all over again. Then Charlie started to cry and she pushed Bertie off her lap to go get him.