Short Stories

March 16, 2014      

Heimlich by MC Moore

An ugliness blossoms in Nina’s husband when their daughter is born. Though not confined to the bedroom, it’s at its most unpleasant there. Wordless instruction—would he hurt her if she didn’t submit to his rhythms? Would he hit her? Excitement slides toward fear.
     Post-coitus, she tries, “Do you think you might be jealous of Elsie?” Her words grateful of the dark.
     “That’s ridiculous. Why would I be jealous of a baby?”
     As if he’s asking, what equations does she know?
     They met when he was working on his Ph.D. in astrophysics. Nina was a senior, flunking out of Boston University, Alex went to MIT. She accepted his proposal like she was checking it off a to-do list—marriage was something she’d want to get to eventually. That was three years ago. Whether or not she loves Alex, there’s no question she loves Elsie.
     “Did you come?” he asks, turning on the light.
     She says yes even though they both know she hasn’t since the birth. Things still feel funny. The doctor says it’s normal.
    “You need to go back to that doctor.”
     He pulls her to him. At twice her weight and a foot taller, Alex gets his way. As much as she’d like to sleep, she ends up with her cheek stuck to the chest hairs that, since the softness of Elsie, have come to feel like barbed wires.
    “You need more stimulation than being stuck with a baby all day long. How about I build you a studio? I could do it during the break.”
     Spring break is soon, his lab will close. Such a project would deflect him from her body. And this one sounds big—he talks about enclosing the apartment’s patio. Plus he’s much more aware, it seems, of what an artist needs than she is. “You’ll be able to access both natural and electric light.”
     During winter break she’d taken Elsie to visit her mother. Alex stayed home to work, but called Nina frantically and daily. There was blood in the toilet. She told him to go to the doctor, but he wasn’t satisfied with the diagnosis of hemorrhoids. Nina came home early and, once they fell back into their normal (sexual, she suspects) routine, he was miraculously cured.

. . . . .

“What I really want is to be an artist, not an art historian.” This was before Elsie, when there was still time to daydream. Ten at night and she was already in bed, staring at the ceiling.
     Silhouetted by his desk lamp, Alex turned and said, “Take some classes, then.”
     “But we don’t have any money.”
     “Get a better job and save up.” Alex turned back to his desk. She was working at Kinko’s, the only place willing to hire her without a diploma.
     In fact, she took a break from the pill to save money—and having a baby was another item on her to-do list.
     The next time she complained to Alex about not being able to see a future for herself, he rolled his eyes. “Why is this so difficult for you? Do you want me to take care of your future?”
     Although her doctor said that two healthy twenty-somethings are playing with fire if they rely on timely withdrawal, and although she can’t imagine life without Elsie, Nina would always think Alex impregnated her to stop her whining.

. . . . .

“Can you shut her up?”
     Nina sits cross-legged on the carpet outside the bathroom. She can’t explain how it’s come to this—his demands, his neediness and mood swings. Door open, Alex is delivering a monologue about his workday from the shower.
    “I have to go to her to do that.”
     He sighs. “Okay, but come right back.”
     Nina gives Elsie’s smooth cheek a kissy-suck as she lifts her from the crib. Her sandy curls are matted from her pre-dinner nap. Her diaper is sodden, but Alex’s impatience reaches all the way to the closet-sized nursery. She tells herself she’s keeping the peace as she takes the baby, wipes, and a fresh diaper to her spot outside the bathroom.
     The baby cuddles in Nina’s skinny arms, her nose wrinkling until she finds the nipple.
     “Remember what I told you about the hierarchies,” he says, walking past, on his way to the kitchen.
     There’s a twitch between her legs as the milk begins. She smoothes back her pale ponytail.
    Nina used to joke that she went for her Mrs. in a time when people didn’t do that anymore. She supported Alex while he got his Ph.D. Elsie was born as he was defending his dissertation. He got a post-doc position in a highly competitive department and was making more money than Nina could, so it made sense for her to stay home with the baby. They still don’t have a car—he bikes to work and she and Elsie take a bus when they need to. She remembers when hardship seemed romantic.
     Looking down at the child, she thinks, I am the youngest mother I know.
     “Did you hear me?” he calls behind.
     “Sure. Larry’s on your side and, as department manager, he’s over Aditya, the lab supervisor.”
     “No, no, no. Shit, Nina. It takes all your brain power to stick your boob in her mouth.”
    Is she as stupid as he makes her feel? She does have organizational troubles. The things she sets out to do in the morning? She rarely accomplishes a single one of them. She plays with Elsie like she is a doll. Gets lost in the supermarket, trying to figure out what the baby is reaching for. She forgets what she wanted to buy in the first place.
     The baby, her smile infectious, hums as she grasps Nina’s finger.

. . . . .

Dinner is microwaveable macaroni and cheese. Nina helps Elsie with rice cereal. It’s her first solid food and most of it gets painted onto the high chair while Elsie sings to it lovingly. Her thin white eyebrows crochet with the task and she blows spit bubbles when she looks up at Nina.
     Alex slaps a piece of graph paper beside Nina’s plate. “Here’s a flowchart of the department. ”
     She can’t help smiling.
     “You don’t even care, do you?”
     “Alex, look at our baby—”
     “But this is important.”
     “And this isn’t?”
     “Look, I’m under a lot of stress, okay? Yes, that’s very cute. What is that in her hair?”
    He forks a mouthful of pasta. “I give you enough grocery allowance for some meat, don’t I?”
    Nina wonders if Larry or Aditya ever disagree with him, or if they are afraid to.

. . . . .

Alex has to perform cunnilingus so they can have sex. One night, he pops out from under the covers and snaps on the light—bright in her face.
     “You’re seeing someone else.”
     She’d been nearly asleep.
     “What is this?” He pulls a hair from his teeth.
     She squints. “A pube?”
     “This is not yours.”
     He holds it up to the light. How would she have time for another relationship? Where would she get the energy?
     “You smell different too.” He goes back down and sniffs. “Like a condom.”
     “Jesus, Alex!”
     “Don’t you care how it makes me feel?”
     “There is something wrong with you.”
     “Wrong? With me? You’re damn right there’s something wrong with me.” He throws the pillow against the wall. “I’m stressed to the limit—working for you and your baby—and you have the nerve to cheat on me.”
     Nina doesn’t move. This feels familiar, and yet, surely she’d remember if it had happened before. “Elsie tried to crawl today.”
     “What are you talking about?” He is sitting up, now, face in hands.
     “It’s a milestone.” If he were a normal person, she’d ask if he ever got beat up as a kid.
     “Stop trying to change the subject.”
    Maybe this feels familiar because she saw it coming. The way he freaks out if she doesn’t pick up her cell. How he asks her not to wear makeup unless he’s with her. Despite his drama queening, she keeps drifting off.
     “Look at me. Listen to me,” he says over and over. He grabs her face between his hands. She feels her pupils contract as he holds her under the light. She winces.
    “Why can’t you look me in the eye? Are you afraid of me?” The way it sounds, he’d be satisfied if she said yes.
     Finally, the baby cries and Nina leaves to feed her.
    She tells herself that she’s not afraid, she just doesn’t know what to do with a normal baby and one the size of her husband.
     By the time she gets back to bed, Alex is snoring.

. . . . .

When he kisses her good-bye in the morning, Nina notes how pudgy he looks in his biking gear. Her body is gaunt, every ounce of curve gone to milk.
    She helps Elsie wave out the window, though Alex doesn’t look. As she watches him mount the bike, she thinks: I wish he would be hit by a truck.
     Another scenario that feels familiar—her wishing that he would disappear.
     But her wishing helps nothing. Even if he’s not the world’s best husband or father—or even if he’s the worst—the way she feels is her own responsibility. She knows this.

. . . . .

Nina and Elsie ride the bus to the market. Nina has forgotten her list. What would Alex say? That she is stupid, or that she has someone else on her mind? She tries to look at other men on the bus, in the store, but her sleep-deprived eyes can hardly focus.
     She hoists Elsie’s carrier into the shopping basket. The action exhausts her. She needs energy—a nice beef stew or pot roast, something that might improve everyone’s mood. Gray clouds show in the market’s high windows. If she can get carrots, potatoes, onions in the crock pot right away, the house will smell delicious. Then add some good stew meat. She’ll even make her grandmother’s rolls—ha!—or maybe not, that would be overreaching.
     The thought of the meal lifts her mood.
     Elsie’s eyes reflect the package of marbled beef as Nina rotates it to catch the store’s fluorescent lights.

. . . . .

Elsie talks to the sheep on her blanket while Nina chops the vegetables. Behind cans of formula, she finds thyme and basil in a spice rack that had been a wedding gift. A little ground pepper and the smell of the stew keeps them contented all day as rain starts to fall.
     She makes the blanket sheep talk back to Elsie in a silly high voice that brings the baby to hysterical laughter. They watch the heavy constant rain, and Nina feels a touch of sympathy that her baby’s daddy will be biking home in it. With a pang, she remembers Alex’s offer to build her a studio.
     When the baby goes down for her afternoon nap, Nina makes a list of things she wants to do. When she’d whined about wanting to be an artist, Alex encouraged her to take active control by setting goals like this. Humbling to remember that she needs him too. She’s giddy by the time he gets home.

. . . . .

But when he stands inside the door peeling off his riding gloves, his lips are drawn tight across his puffy face. He glares until she feels the rain is her fault.
     “I need to talk to you.”
     She clings to her mood as best she can and follows him to the bathroom where he rolls his biking outfit from his sweaty, hairy body. Elsie is in her arms and Nina sees the fright on her baby’s face. She’s looking at her father as if he were a monster. Nina closes the door.
     When he pushes back, she grips the door in her free hand. “Please dear, let’s smell the stew instead of you.” She giggles to suggest she doesn’t mean any harm.
     She sits in her usual spot, but puts the baby on the floor and they play a silent game while she pretends to listen to Alex, berating her for forgetting to pack his lunch.
    When he emerges, his mood seems to have lightened. He kisses her forehead.
    “Go make yourself warm while I make the gravy,” she says.
     Reading her goals list one last time, she lights two candles and sets Elsie in her high chair.
    With his damp hair and flushed face, Alex shows Elsie how to drum with her plastic spoon. “We want beef,” he chants.
     Nina fills their plates and hands Elsie a sippy cup to play with.
     “Do you like it?”
     Clearly, he does. He compares it to a meal his mother used to make. He squeezes her hand. They click glasses of Gallo.
     Anticipation keeps her from eating. Smelling the stew all day, she finally has an appetite, but she has to get this off her chest.
     “I’ve been thinking, Alex. What if I looked into some daycare?”
     He wipes gravy off his lips and snaps his napkin into his lap. “Too expensive while I’m paying off student loans.”
     “I’m just talking a few hours a week. Give myself time to paint. In that studio you’re planning?”
     There follows a silence in which she wonders if she invented the idea of his building her a studio. The candlelight reflects in Elsie’s eyes as Nina aims a spoonful of cereal past her lips.
     She can hear the food in Alex’s mouth. “If you were really gonna do that—be an artist—chomp, chomp—don’t you think you would’ve made some effort already?”
     He leans back in his chair and switches on CNN. She hadn’t noticed he’d brought the remote to the table. “I mean, you’re almost twenty-five.” He squeezes her hand again before he turns toward the TV. “Real artists are born.”
     Nina turns toward Elsie, wishing she could understand.
     Suddenly—a loud bang. Nina snaps her head, expecting to see Alex fallen backward in the chair. Instead he is standing, the chair kicked out from under him. Violent, his face red.
     Nina grabs the baby, but the baby watches Alex—who seems to be performing acrobatics. She can hear a rasping above Anderson Cooper.
     His hands are around his throat. His eyes bulge at Nina. Surely, dumb bitch, you know what to do.
     But he is flailing like a maniac. He is so much bigger than she, there’s was no way she could get close enough to help.
     She should call for help, of course. What is she thinking?
     Elsie starts crying.
    Blood pounds in Nina’s ears as she lifts Elsie from her high chair. Her first thought is to get the baby away from him. Keep the peace. But as soon as Elsie’s in her arms, Nina is thinking, if anyone asks, I was with the baby in the nursery.
     Nina shakes as she changes a completely clean diaper.
    A loud thud comes from the dining room. He has fallen, then.
     The baby smiles up at her. In the quiet, an Ambien commercial plays on television.
     Focusing on her breath, Nina pulls a set of mint-green jammies onto Elsie and sits with her in the rocking chair.
     Her heart is pumping too hard for her to let down milk.
     The baby seems to sense this and sits upright on her lap.
     Nina rocks faster and faster.
     She thinks of a time she wrote the multiple choice answers to a biology quiz on the inside of her thigh. That is probably the worst thing she has ever done.
     Finally she takes a deep breath and feels the familiar stinging in her chest, down through her nipples.
     Then—the footfalls of a giant. They get louder and louder, slower and slower.
     Nina and Elsie both scream when his head looms in the doorway. The question on his face, the answer in his eyes. Are you afraid of me now?

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