I lower us to a multicolored foam play mat and lie flat on my back. Henry leans on my chest like a professional wrestler pinning his opponent. I close my eyes. The toilet flushes in the apartment next door, my neighbor ridding herself of another cigarette butt. While Henry listens to the rushing water, I consider my options: toss him out the window or ask my wife for help. However, neither of these options are included in the deal. I am on the clock, so I must remain conscious, battling an opponent with a delicious scalp and wonderfully chubby legs. Wandering through my hazy mind, I attempt to remember why I signed up for this job.
While staring at the ceiling, my mind focuses on choices made after Henry’s birth. I embraced visions of myself as a hip, progressive father — a modern dad unburdened by rigid, traditional views of fatherhood, a man not forced to divide the roles of provider and protector from nurturer and caregiver. At the end of spring, I resigned from a soul-sucking job to care for Henry, four months old, while Cara returned to work at a non-profit in the heart of the city. We desired to leave behind suburban life and a lengthy commute, well suited for many families, but stressful and impossible in our particular situation. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the north side of Chicago, near Lake Michigan, a promising place to stroll along the shore.
* * *
On a balmy summer morning, a week later, I walk the streets of Chicago carrying Henry in a long, green band of cloth wrapped around my torso. He flails his arms and kicks his legs against my waist, studying passersby. We absorb the light reflecting off Lake Michigan’s choppy surface while walking Jolene, our thirty-pound sheltie mix.
“Did you tie the wrap?” women ask.
“Yes, I watched the YouTube instructional video a thousand times,” I respond.
The soft wrap becomes a projection screen on which others display their parenting views. Women offer warm smiles, sometimes clapping. Men stare, dressed in their sleek suits, with furrowed brows. A teenage boy, arms hooked with his girlfriend, whispers loud enough for me to overhear, “Now, that’s the image of a man.” Another scruffy, bearded man in his twenties, standing on a busy street corner, points and roars. The neighborhood policeman leaning against the wall of the 7-11 informs me, “The first time I saw you wearing this thing, I thought you were Middle Eastern.” It is an odd thing to hear said to a pale, blue-eyed male with a Southern accent.
The wrap and I become one. I wear Henry to prepare dinner. I wear him on the subway. I wear him to the DMV. In line, a young woman with fashionable short hair approaches me to discuss the wrap. For ten minutes, she tells me about her experience with the wrap and how she proudly avoided a stroller. She speaks like we are members of a special baby-wearing club. Before moving on, she nods as if we are part of a movement. I nod back.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, six months old and wrapped against my chest, Henry studies the museum visitors nearby, resting fingers on their chins. Contemplating Picasso’s Mother and Child, I absorb the rich grey, brown and flesh tones, amplified by the neutral white wall. I recognize the mother’s gaze. I saw it on my own face in a photograph taken on the day my son was born. The mother tilts her head downward and stares into the eyes of the infant anchored in her lap. She resembles a classical sculpture more than a living person. Her large, rounded features provide a haven; her tender eyes underpin the playful baby, holding his foot. The mother’s gaze shines a light into the recesses of my heart, into a part of myself I was conditioned to hide. Her tethered soul sends blood rushing through my chest.
I learn that Picasso, in the early stages of the painting, included a father next to the mother and child — a father who stood over the boy, dangling a fish; a father who disappeared; a father covered with layers of paint as if he never existed. The warmth in my chest fades.
I cannot offer a precise definition of a father, because there are as many types of fathers as creatures in Lake Michigan. I consider that many children equate fathers with absence. Fathers absent by choice or from circumstances beyond their control. Fathers not known and children reaching for their ghosts.
* * *
“How was the day?” Cara asks.
“We survived,” I mumble.
Henry drops his bottle and lunges from my lap to crawl toward his mother. Cara sets her work bag on the table and embraces him, their faces gleaming. I sit down on the gray IKEA couch to regroup and brainstorm dinner plans. The odor from a diaper explosion lingers in the trashcan and our one-bedroom apartment appears to have been ransacked by thieves. The floor is a minefield of Cheerios, wooden blocks, and teether toys.
During the bedtime routine, I retreat to the bathroom, a closet-sized, windowless space. While the fiberglass tub slowly fills with hot water, I shut the door and turn off the lights. Pipes whistle in the walls, guiding water to rooms throughout the building. Stale cigarette smoke creeps through the vents courtesy of my chain-smoking neighbor. As I lie down, ripples splash against the tub and back against the sides of my body in the pitch-black room. For a few minutes, I close my eyes as the water stills.
When motivation arrives, I reach outside the tub for the iPad planted on the floor nearby, and rest it securely on my chest. The screen flashes large, red block letters on an inky background. An endless menu appears, offering an escape. My scrolling index finger struggles to decide what to select. I should watch an award-winning foreign film. I should watch a documentary. I should watch a TED talk. I must not waste this opportunity. What I really want is to watch 1990s television. Don’t do it. You know you want to.
At the tap of my finger, the glass screen flickers, revealing an explosion, lifting flames high in the remote Wisconsin woods. Minutes later a deputy sheriff, first to arrive in the dense forest, approaches the fiery scene. He encounters a strange, invisible creature that scorches him to death. In rapid succession, the events hook me before the haunting theme song of “The X-Files” and its monster-of-the-week storytelling transports me into hazy nostalgia. I swallow it like a pill.
* * *
On a breezy fall afternoon a few months later, during a visit to Whole Foods, we strike the samples. I navigate the aisles with Henry wrapped to my chest, maximizing our sampling potential. The organic apples, tomatoes and squash sparkle in the florescent light. A blender buzzes in the corner. I pick up a black cherry, bite it in half, and lower it to his mouth like a mother bird. This moment ignites a genial surge in my heart, a memory I pledge to preserve, a memory I would not have expected a year ago. We share pineapple, fancy cheese, tortilla chips, bite-size pizza, and hummus. Despite knowing Whole Foods does not align with our budget, we eat a shameful amount. At any moment, I am certain a manager will ask us to leave. If so, it will be worth it.
As fall turns to winter and light fades to dark early in the evening, mysterious bites appear on our legs and arms. The exterminator examines the Ziploc bag containing the reddish-brown, oval parasites that crawled underneath a shared wall. He instructs us to vacate the apartment for several hours.
After returning home, Cara bounces Henry to sleep in the bedroom. The gas heat fails to keep up with single-digit temperatures. The Chicago winter, winds whipping and snow accumulating, shoves life indoors. Slowly, our one-bedroom apartment transforms into a cell, difficult to leave after dusk. I withdraw to the bathtub.
My iPad provides enough light to turn on the tub faucet and raise the water temperature. A bead of sweat forms on my forehead and rolls down the side of my face into the bathwater, while Fox Mulder, eccentric FBI agent and unexplained phenomena expert, enters the moonlit woods, racing to gather evidence from a crash site. While a strange, invisible creature lurks in the remote woods, escaping government officials, Mulder finds himself captured in a makeshift military jail. Dana Scully, Mulder’s straight-laced and skeptical partner, arrives to free him. She scoffs at his far-fetched explanation; he is frustrated with her naivety, but due to his confiscated camera there is no evidence to present her. Once again, the truth brushes against Mulder like a strange creature in the water before slipping away.
Here is my truth: I am scared. I do not know how I am going to make it through the winter. I feel isolated. Beyond caring for my son, I have no energy or presence to offer the world. I want to write, but a numb brain struggles to shift into gear. I want to enjoy the winter wonderland, but only see tundra.
* * *
In the depths of winter, I sit on a frigid toilet at three o’clock in the morning, one eye open, too tired to stand. Unable to sleep, I grab the flashlight to inspect my son’s crib for bedbugs. I scan the light over his tiny, perfect feet. No bugs. Next, I turn to our bed where my wife lightly snores. I wave the light over the mattress. No bugs. I inspect the box springs and frame. A reddish-brown speck is wedged in a corner crease. I spread the crease. The speck crawls. I grab it with a tissue and drop it in a sandwich-size bag.
I lie on the couch, resigned to the reality of bedbugs. Resigned to my isolated existence. Thoughts of failure spin in my mind. I am failing to keep bugs from biting my wife and son in the night. I am failing to provide for my family. I am failing to keep them from breathing secondhand smoke in our bedroom. The old tapes, ingrained in my brain from a hyper-masculine upbringing, play over and over in my mind.
At six o’clock in the morning, the State of the Union address delivered on the previous night plays on my iPhone. President Obama’s words fill the kitchen. I disassemble the coffee grinder, remove the stale grounds, and wipe it clean with a small brush. Steam raises the lid off the silver kettle on the stovetop; water spews from the narrow, s-shaped spout. Henry, on my hip, waves at the hissing kettle. I remove it from the stove eye. I tare the scale. I grind the beans until they are reduced to a sand-like texture. I pull the tray from the grinder and breathe the freshly ground beans. Henry leans his face over the tray and pretends to take a deep breath. His blue eyes widen. A burst of applause comes through the iPhone speaker.
I pour steaming water over grounds, which rest in a red, ceramic funnel on top of a glass pot. I pour enough to saturate them, causing the water and grounds to dance together, creating a mushroom-shaped bubble that collapses after thirty seconds, the signal for more water. I pour four hundred grams of water in a slow, circular motion; rich, brown liquid drips into the pot. My ears tune to the President’s words.
“Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave. Forty-three million. Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home.”
I recall a meeting before Henry’s birth. Responding to my request for paternity leave, my employer slides a thin piece of paper across the table, full of language resembling a legal contract. While reading the mechanical response, I shake my head at the decision to deny my request for two weeks of paid family leave. After three years, it is clear they do not value me, much less my pregnant wife; nor do they want to offer support when we need it most — hundreds of miles from our family and support network.
The coffee finishes dripping. I pour a steaming cup into a porcelain mug. Henry fidgets as the steam rises.
In the living room, while I sip my java, Henry rolls on the foam mat. Sharing five hundred square feet with a nearly one-year-old cellmate is like living inside a pinball machine. Henry bounces off the changing table, couch, kitchen cabinets, bookshelves, and television stand. In the afternoon, we shift to the hallway; he crawls and knocks on random doors, while our thick-haired Sheltie dutifully follows. Together, we inspect doormats and plug-in deodorizers; we ride the elevator.
To escape, in the middle of winter with several feet of snow piling on the ground, we scurry to Super Foods, a corner grocery below our apartment. A gust of wind burns my cheeks, forcing Henry to tuck his head in my chest. He whimpers. Upon entering the store, Henry emerges with two brown ears and limbs swallowed by the fleece bear outfit my mother mailed from Tennessee. He trades smiles with the cashiers and the owner, an elderly Eastern European man who mesmerizes Henry with his accent.
Henry and I squeeze past a line of customers wrapped in long winter coats and waiting to purchase lottery tickets. We plod across the cereal aisle examining box covers, spending several minutes admiring Toucan Sam and Lucky the Leprechaun. We land in the produce section. I quiz Henry. I hold potatoes, grapes, pineapples, broccoli and bananas in front of his face. “Ba-na-nas.” The corners on his face rise. “Ba-na-nas.” His lips open revealing his jagged teeth. “Ba-na-nas.” He giggles.
At the cash register, I purchase a bunch of bananas to justify the trip. The elderly Eastern European man amuses Henry with facial expressions. After their exchange, I hustle back to our fifth-floor cell, leaning into the face-numbing wind, holding a bear and bananas.
In the apartment, I sit Henry on the kitchen floor, place the bananas in the fruit basket, and remove our heavy clothing. I open the refrigerator door, grab the water pitcher and pour a glass. Henry crawls to the colorful containers resting on the wire shelving, while I slide to the floor and lean against the faux-wood kitchen cabinets and extend my legs into a V shape. The tile deadens the muscles in my ass. My sweatpants reveal stains ranging from coffee to breast milk to blueberry yogurt. Artificial light beams from the refrigerator, while the brutal wind whips against the windows of our apartment. Henry’s rounded legs squat to lower clanking salad dressing bottles to the floor. My neighbor’s door slams, echoing in the hallway.
I doubt you will find refrigerator entertainment as a technique in a legitimate parenting manual, but it’s the only trick left in my bag. Henry hands me a head of broccoli and wobbles back toward the manufactured light. Leftovers from breakfast burritos fill my nostrils. In a bottom drawer, he discovers a bag of grapes, removes one, and turns toward me, grinning; he holds the grape at eye level as if turning a precious stone in the light. I force the tired muscles in my face into a half-smile.
I glance at my iPhone’s display. My wife will not arrive home for another three hours. I am a shell of myself, beat down by a blue-eyed creature barely weighing twenty pounds. I do not know how to raise myself from the tile floor. I have the physical strength, but emotionally I am unable. I sit. Henry explores the refrigerator. I question my fitness to care for him. I don’t know why I thought I could do this by myself. Naivety. Delusion. Immaturity. I don’t know, nor do I understand how I got lowered to this tile floor.
* * *
On a Saturday morning a few days later, I walk Jolene along the shore. The edges of the dim, grey horizon blend with sheets of ice on Lake Michigan. Crisp air blows off the ice, drying my eyes. Layers extend from the shore beginning with several feet of snow resting on solid ice, which alters to floating ice chunks packed together, bumping into thin sheets expanding to the skyline. My butt rests on an ice block posing as a bench near the sidewalk that wraps around the water. I have not smelled anything since the exhaust I inhaled crossing Lakeshore Drive. My dog’s breath steams out of her nose.
I imagine the creatures beneath the coated lake, the freezing water driving them to the depths. Their movement limited. Their existence pressed downward. Down to the muddy bottom.
I do not remember the last time happiness surfaced and shattered the expanding sheets over my heart. My emotions do not move; they dive to the recesses of my heart. I want someone to launch a large, jagged rock on to the frozen surface. I want someone to shatter the layers, create a hole large enough for my feelings to rise. A gaping hole, so big, the person I once knew emerges from the dim waters. I will hand a rock to anyone willing to hurl it. I cannot do it myself.
* * *
Cara and I sit on the grey IKEA couch. I stare at tropical images shuffling on the flat-screen television. Henry sleeps in the bedroom. The red line train hums northward, while a man digging in a dumpster sings in the alley. Cara’s large green eyes scan our family budget on the laptop. Her shoulders sag and brow furrows.
“Here are three options,” I say. “First, we stay in Chicago, but I will need to get a full-time job and Henry will go to childcare. Second, we stay in Chicago, but I will need to get a flexible part-time job, continue caring for Henry, and we will squeak by financially. Third, we move to Tennessee and get closer to family and our support network.”
Cara studies the grim budget. She tends to be decisive. I debate, waver, and second-guess.
“We need to move to Tennessee,” she responds.
“We can stay here but we will need to…”
“No, we need to move. Life in Chicago with a child is not sustainable,” she says.
We sit on the couch. The decision made itself and provides relief despite being laced with failure. We will return seeking balance after our world was turned upside down, seeking to recover from the shock of parenthood. The grueling routine of childcare will remain, but we hope a wider circle of support will ease the burden. We will move forward not on our terms, but on Henry’s.
At the end of spring, we pack boxes and a handful of friends load our belongings on a rental truck. We abandon our couch and bed in the alley to avoid transporting bedbugs. On a Sunday morning, Cara and Henry board a flight to Nashville, while I stack the final boxes in the truck, pressing them inward with my shoulder as I pull the door down and secure the latch. I step into the cab, start the engine, and roll away from our apartment building. Our time in Chicago fades as life shoves us forward.
I merge on to Lake Shore Drive. The road winds southward along the shore to exit the city. People walk the beach and bounce volleyballs and toss Frisbees. I imagine the creatures below the surface, no longer coated with ice, and wonder what life stirs. For the next seven hours, I will sit alone in the truck wondering what life stirs within myself. Wondering if my soul will thaw. Wondering if my true self will return.
* * *