We met at the bar near the hotdog shop. George liked to go there for the two dollar beers. There were always people there we knew, artists or writers. They talked about what was going on with them, and we watched their children go from being babies to attending college. Things didn’t change much with us. We were still together, but not married. We still lived in an apartment behind his parents’ house, cramped and cozy with paintings on every surface, and we smoked. Other people started and stopped smoking, but we just smoked. Sometimes people would ask us when we were getting married, or having children, but finally they stopped.
By people, I mean people who weren’t artists. The artists never asked us about things like that. Half the people I know I have no idea how they even earned a living. We just talked about art when we’re together. We talked about our last painting or our next painting. We talked about ideas and art and politics, but never about kids or health or domestic bullshit. I was working on a series of portraits, and so in the afternoons I had friends come to my house and I painted portraits of them. It’s the best way to get to know someone. They weren’t nude. I didn’t have any interest in capturing the externals but was interested in capturing something internal: a mood, a personality, an intangible connection to the world, the way that some people seem to be floating through life and some sink deeper and deeper into their corporality, so that you can almost see their bodies becoming food for the worms. Maybe there are two ways to die, like Frost’s fire and ice: floating and sinking.
You may wonder how we got by with money. George had been able to get disability for being crazy years ago—it was some kind of racket that his friend told him about and so he had some mental breaks and ate only cat food for months and didn’t talk to anybody. So we got that money and we didn’t pay rent because we lived in the behind house (which is what we called the in-law behind his parents’ house). I worked sometimes on the weekends doing catering for my friend Sylvia who had a wedding and event company, the kind with all the frilly touches and great appetizers. I was fine with smiling and passing the mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat or making Bloody Marys for aunts who had had one too many. It wasn’t a full-time job and when I left for the day, I was gone—bam—there’s the sound of the door shutting and me forgetting everything that happened when I was there. I’ve always loved jobs like that, the kind where when you leave you are really gone and nobody is going to call you or email you or text you to ask some question.
So I really had a lot of time to paint. I was always interested in painting live models, but I never was interested in realism. I loathe realism. I mean I may live in a small Midwest city, but I’ve seen art and I know that to paint a realistic portrait of someone since the invention of the camera is meaningless. Like painting canned peas that look like round green objects instead of painting what frozen peas taste like—sitting in a grey room and eating your own bad thoughts.
Usually my friends liked the paintings. They were open to things. I really liked that about them. I’ve realized that I can talk to artists, any artist, even a bad artist, for hours. Sometimes the bad artists are the best talkers, all juiced up on neurosis and crazy ideas, creating imaginary masterpieces in their heads. It’s like they had all been keeping a mouse in their pocket secretly all day and checking on it when everyone else was watching what was going on around them. I thought of their projects that way—something they held with them secretly and let nibble on their finger.
When I didn’t have a child and I turned forty my mother asked me if I was sure I was doing the right thing. She said maybe I’d be lonely. I said maybe, but I didn’t think I would be lonely. What I liked was to talk to people, and although I know that children are people, they aren’t the kind of people I like to talk to. And had she ever seen a woman pushing a stroller in the park? Nobody seemed lonelier than that to me, like a lonely zookeeper talking to the sloths, jabbering at a being who can’t even understand language, babbling incoherently to a pudgy face.
George was a poet and he wrote all of the time: in the shower, in the bed, while he was talking to someone, he was really writing. He was concerned with the sound of vowels and how they played in your head. He was trying to alter people’s consciousness through the use of vowels and certain consonants. When I heard him read, he made me want to have sex with him. It made me feel all woozy in the head and like anything was possible; there was a door opening before me and I could walk through it into this other space, this sacred space of poetry. I’ve always loved poetry that way, what Emily Dickinson said about poetry making you feel like the top of your head was coming off. Well for me it felt like my panties coming off. It is our magic. I loved his poetry and he loved to see me painting someone, to see me taking stock of their character and feeling the unique energy that comes out of each person and trying to capture it.
There were some people who we hung out with who were genuinely crazy. One girl, Mary, never left her house. She was a poet and she was afraid of open spaces, so we would go to her tiny apartment and see her, and she had plants everywhere in there and books piled up, mostly poetry books, or historical books about Egypt. She could hold forth a wicked conversation on ancient Egypt, but it was kind of cramped in there and I didn’t go that much. Plus she had a beetle collection that was live and sometimes escaped, so you would be drinking a beer and look down at your plate of chips and see a beetle on it—a beautiful and rare beetle, mind you, but a beetle just the same. She had jewel beetles that shined like sapphires and emeralds. I liked looking at them in the aquarium, but not on my body.
So one morning I wake up and I realize that I’m pregnant. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew. My body felt heavy in a way that it never had before, like there was a weight in my center pulling me all the way down into the center of the earth or like I’d swallowed a lead dumpling. I wasn’t really happy. I didn’t know how to feel. All that I knew was I didn’t want things to change. I liked what George and I had and I didn’t want some radical shift that made it all a blur from the past. I didn’t tell George for a while. I’m that kind of person I guess. I keep things to myself, brood on them, digest before I say anything. When I told George, he didn’t act surprised at all. He acted like he had been expecting it, so maybe I wasn’t hiding it as well as I thought. He acted like he knew it was coming and had a plan. “Oh good,” he said. “It will be an experiment.”
“What do you mean, experiment?” I said “It’s a baby, if we want it.”
“Of course we want it. Don’t be crazy.” He looked a little manic, like he had just drunk a Red Bull, but he had only drunk a single Rolling Rock. “Do you know the artistic potential of this child? He or she can be great. I hope it’s a woman. I secretly think women are the better artists.”
“You do?” I said, wondering where this sudden flash of feminism was coming from.
“Well in certain cases,” he said. I didn’t know if that meant that I was a “certain case” or not. So I was wondering if that was what he meant and trying to think of a way to ask him without sounding like an egomaniac. It always hangs there in relationships between two artists—who is the better artist?
“But George, the baby, it will be a lot of work,” I said. “Time, you know a lot of time.” We are both sensitive to time, finding it the only thing of importance in life, having enough time to do our art.
“Maybe not,” he said.
And that was when he introduced me to the concept of child sharing, an idea that he had evidently been rolling around in his head since he was in high school. He had the idea that we could find other people who wanted to have a share in our child—people we liked, who didn’t want their own baby.
George considered the baby an art project of the highest significance and thought that we could introduce the baby to as many artists, writers and intellectuals as possible.
I was skeptical. There are some things in life you don’t share, among them a toothbrush, deodorant, a lover and a child. Sharing something like a child could bring up people’s worst sides—greed and avoidance and territoriality, but he was passionate about the idea, and so we started to interview people.
We posted signs in coffee shops telling what we were up to. We put something on craigslist and started interviewing. More people answered than you might have thought. There were men and women in their forties and fifties who didn’t have any kids and always kind of wanted them and there was a young Japanese couple who were interested in the philosophy behind it. She also wanted to take some nude photos of me pregnant and George thought that was a great idea. Throughout the whole pregnancy, my body became something of an art project. He told different friends who were interested in pregnant nudes and I was painted, photographed, sculpted and videotaped at every stage of pregnancy. The growth of this child was one of the most artistically documented events ever. I started to wonder if we were over-intellectualizing this thing.
We got to know some of the potential co-parents and they were all interesting people. None of the other parents wanted us to smoke. Evidently in people’s minds smoking when you are pregnant is just about tantamount to planting landmines in a playground, so we both quit. I did OK with quitting. Maybe the baby was cheering me on, but George got anxious and would pace all night long and never sleep. Things weren’t going that great with us. I wanted to talk more about the future and the baby and he wanted to keep meeting with more and more people and talk about different strategies for raising children, breastfeeding, teaching sign language, un-schooling, diaper-free babies, parental anarchy and raising truly free children.
There was one older guy who was an accountant who wanted to co-parent. His name was Al and I liked him. He said that he hadn’t thought anything about having kids ever, and then when he was fifty-five he realized that he had never had one. Maybe that’s the male biological clock for you. I thought he was sweet, but when it came to all of the discussions, he was clueless. He didn’t even have an opinion about breastfeeding. He was always wearing a suit and tie when I saw him, and I pictured the baby spitting up on it and him charging us for dry cleaning.
I kept getting bigger and bigger and I saw all of the portraits of me, but there was something unreal about it. I hadn’t bought any baby clothes or anything like that. I was eight months pregnant and we didn’t have a car seat or a stroller. And then one day in the middle of George photographing my belly for the zillionth time, I just broke down. I started crying and telling him that we needed to get more prepared, practically prepared. The baby couldn’t survive on photos of him (George didn’t want to know the gender, but I glanced at the ultrasound screen and managed to see something substantial between his wee legs). Meanwhile I was supposed to meet with Wakako and Hiro later to talk about how they would like to bond with my baby in the early days. I can’t do this anymore, I said, I need to take a break and really gestate—no photos, no interviews, nobody. And so I entered the cocoon stage.
George would go and meet with the co-parents and tell them how I was doing, but I had no contact with anyone but George and the UPS guy who brought me things for the baby. My mother had created a baby registry for me, and my relatives and her friends sent me all kinds of things for the baby—a bathtub, a car seat, something called a boppie that you use to help the baby nurse and lots of diapers and onesies. It was during this time that I decided that as nice as all of the co-parenting people might be, I didn’t want them to have anything to do with my baby. I didn’t care if my son learned another language before he was three and I didn’t care if he was equally peppered in different ideas through immersion in different personalities. I didn’t care that parents were the first authority figures and we needed to find a way to subvert the authority of the nuclear family, according to George, or children would never learn what freedom is and would always be a slave to something—their parents, the government, work, capitalism or God.
It was all a lot to think about and mostly I just thought that the baby would be small and would need to be cared for and that I loved it and couldn’t be so bad for it. Something had switched and the baby had stopped being a generic baby and had become my baby. But I didn’t tell George. I wanted him to him to feel it for himself.
I was hanging out at the house eating hamburgers and ice cream when someone came to the door. George was off with one of the co-parents talking about bonding and breastfeeding and I was really surprised that it was Alex. Alex is a guy that I used to go out with before George. I still loved him in a way. I didn’t know that he knew that I was pregnant, but he had found out from my mother. He brought me peanut butter fudge, which I always loved.
“You look great,” he said, “like this, I mean really beautiful.” I was stuffing peanut butter fudge in my mouth in the way only a pregnant woman can.
“Thanks,” I said.
Then I noticed he was looking past me at a naked pregnant picture on the wall and it made me feel both proud and a little embarrassed. There was something so comfortable about having him there and I felt like I hadn’t really talked to anyone in so long, not the kind of talking where you feel like you are really telling someone what is going on with you and they are really listening.
“This strange thing is going on,” I told him. “George wants to co-parent the baby with strangers, to share it with other people.”
“I never heard of that,” he said. He was standing near to me and I could smell him. He smelled like wood smoke and sweat.
“Me neither,” I said. “Do you think we’re crazy?” He put his hand on my arm, maybe to steady me because I felt like I was really front heavy.
“I’m not sure that would be too good for a kid,” he said. “It would just confuse them. Do you want to do it?”
I looked up at him. “No,” I said, “I don’t want to do it. I did in the beginning, but now I don’t, but I’m afraid to tell George. I feel like it’s why he wanted to have the baby, to have this interesting project around the baby.” He hugged me.
“Oh honey,” he said and held me in his arms. “You don’t have to share your baby if you don’t want to.” He held me for a while. It was odd because I almost felt like I was in love with him again and he looked at me like he was a little in love with me, which was insane; maybe it was the pregnancy hormones. It had been so many years since we were together and although I don’t remember now why we broke up, I had a very good reason then. I must have. But now as he pressed against me, I could feel his penis through his pants. I looked at him, surprised.
“I don’t know if you know this,” he said, “but I’ve always had a thing about pregnant women. I really love the shape of their bodies.”
I hadn’t slept with anyone else since I was with George and this seemed like an insane time to start, but I just felt so good with him there in the kitchen. I didn’t want him to leave.
“Stay for dinner,” I said, “maybe George will be OK with it.”
“You think that’s a good idea?” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “If we’re sharing the baby, maybe he’ll share me too.” It seemed like it would fit in philosophically with George’s theories after all.
“I can make dinner,” he said. “Why don’t you take a nap?”
He made chicken and a big salad while I slept blissfully in the next room. When George came home he asked what was going on.
“Alex showed up and he’s showering attention on me,” I said. “I like it. He wants to cook for me and he want to have sex with me and he thinks it’s stupid to share a baby.”
“I see,” George said. “And what do you think?”
“I don’t want to do it,” I said. “I don’t want to share the baby. I thought I did, but now something changed and I want the baby all for myself. I don’t want everybody taking turns bonding with the baby. I just want it to be you and me and the baby, if that’s what you want.”
George said he needed some time to think about if he wanted to raise a kid just the two of us, that he wasn’t as intrigued with that idea as the other one.
I told him he could go somewhere and think about it, but I would probably have sex with Alex. He told me we both had to do what we had to do. George wasn’t overly emotional, he was a spiritual and intuitive person and I loved him, but he never got too worked up about things like fidelity and infidelity. For my part, I believed in monogamy, but I felt like I deserved a vacation since I was so pregnant and Alex wanted to take good care of me. So he moved in and George moved out.
It went pretty well until I went until labor. I woke up with contractions in the middle of the night and was startled to see Alex next to me. He was just sleeping, but he was doing it in such a mundane way. What is he doing here? I remembered why I had left him, because he wasn’t complicated enough, because he didn’t give me that thrill of dating someone smarter than me that George did. George never slept. He only paced.
I needed to tell someone that I was in labor and the only one I wanted to tell was George. I realized that George was who I wanted to be with when the baby showed its head for the first time⎯George with all of his problems and crazy ideas. I went to the kitchen and tried to bake lemon bread, since I read somewhere that baking is a good thing to do to move through labor. Around seven in the morning things were really going strong. I went into the bedroom and shook Alex. “I’m in labor,” I said.
“Oh my God,” he said.
“Wait,” I said, “There’s more. I’m in labor, but I don’t want to be with you.” Funny how direct you can be when you’re about to give birth.
“OK,” he said, “But shouldn’t I take you to the hospital?” And in the end that was the kind of guy that Alex was, someone so amazingly sweet that when you were breaking up with them, they thought about you. Or maybe he just wasn’t in love with me either or he didn’t really want to deliver the baby himself.
George had moved in with Mary since we split up and I pictured him in the kitchen with exotic beetles crawling all over him, breathing the same stale air over and over again because Mary had been living there and rebreathing her same air for fifteen years, a kind of condition that might lead some of your brain cells to die, or so it seemed to me. I called him on his cell phone and he said he was really glad that I had called and he would be there right away.
George was at the hospital when we got there and we were all very excited. I didn’t know anything about labor, of course, but it went the way it was supposed to—that is I entered a space like a cat, a deep strange space, where I made noises and bonded with my primal self and in the end begged for an epidural and the baby came out fine and he was the most beautiful thing I could imagine. And when George looked at him, his face was red with joy and he was crying. There was sunlight pouring into the room and the baby lay on my chest like a red squirrel, but prettier, and I looked into the baby’s eyes and thought that I saw all of him there, a mystic elf on a journey from another time, wandering aimlessly until he stumbled inside of me. And if some of us are floating and some are sinking, he was floating far far in another world. I would have to hold onto him tight just to keep him on the earth. I took a picture in my mind of that feeling so I could paint that moment later.
George held the baby in his arms and leaned down and put his mouth against the baby’s head, feeling the warmth of him against his skin. His eyes were filling with tears and he looked at me like the old days, like his eyes were a stick and he was going to poke out my eyes with them so he could get into my head. He whispered, “I don’t want anybody else to ever even hold this baby.”
Jenny Bitner’s short stories have been published in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Sun, PANK, The Fabulist, Fence, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Writing That Risks. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in Anything That Moves, Utne Reader, Men’s Health and other publications. She is a hypnotherapist and teaches classes combining trance and writing. She is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.