Because I was sure my mother knew the secrets of a happy baby—that she held the Keys to the Kingdom in her grasp. But for some evil, vengeful reason, she just wasn’t handing them the f**k over. And sleep deprivation can drive you crazy. Even the most absurd ideas suddenly look like viable options.
One time, it was around four in the morning and I . . .
Actually, it might be better if I just show you, so you can get the full effect. Yes, it’s a flashback within a flashback—but you’re smart, you can handle it. I’ll speak slowly, just in case:
James, five days old:
“Whaaa, whaaa, whaaa, whaaa.”
In the time it takes my eyes to crack open and interpret the numbers on the alarm clock, Kate is already sitting up, ready to spring out of bed and scoop up the swaddled ball of angry in the bassinet beside the bed.
Mentally, I groan—because it’s been less than an hour since he fell asleep. Although my first egotistical instinct is to close my eyes and let Kate deal with it, the part of me that wants to help out while I can—because I don’t want her to lose her mind—backhands the selfish part.
“I got him, Kate.” I toss the covers off and slip on a pair of sweats. “Go back to sleep.” I’m kind of hoping she fights me over it . . . but she doesn’t. She flops back down against the pillow.
I pick James up and hold him against my bare chest. His cheek nuzzles my skin before he unleashes a heartbroken cry. I walk out of the bedroom with him to the kitchen. From the fridge I grab a bottle of breast milk, which Kate filled this afternoon with that weird dairy-cow pump thing she got from Delores at the baby shower. Holding James with one hand, I run the bottle under hot water the way the lactation adviser at the hospital instructed us to do.
After it’s warmed, I make my way to the living room with bleary eyes and tired, wobbly legs. I sit on the couch, cradling James in my arms, and run the nipple across his lips.
I realize it’s a bad idea to feed him every time he wakes. I know all about the importance of a feeding schedule and burping and teaching him to “self-soothe.” I understand he shouldn’t actually be hungry, since he just ate an hour ago. But sleep deprivation is a torture technique for a reason. So all that crap goes right out the window, in the hopes of getting him—and me—back to sleep as quickly as possible.
He takes two drags on the bottle, then rejects it, turning his head with an openmouthed squawk: “Whaaaaaaa.”
I look up at the ceiling and curse God.
“What do you want, James?” My voice has a frustrated edge. “You’re dry, I’m holding you, I’m trying to feed you—what the hell do you want?” I walk back to the kitchen and grab the checkbook off the counter.
“Will money make you happy?”
Ridiculous—yes, I know. Don’t judge me.
“I’ll give you ten thousand dollars for four hours of sleep. I’ll write the check out right now.” I wave the checkbook in front of his face, hoping to distract him.
It just pisses him off more.
“Whaaaaaa . . .”
I toss the checkbook back on the counter and return to the living room. Then I pace the floor, rocking him softly in my arms, patting his ass. You know I must be really desperate—because I try singing:
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word
Daddy’s gonna buy you a . . .
I stop—because why the f**k would any baby want a mockingbird? None of those nursery rhymes make any goddamn sense. I don’t know any other lullabies, so I go for the next best thing, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica:
Take my hand,
We’re off to never-never land . . .
When that doesn’t help, I sit down on the couch. I lay James on my thighs and support his head with my hand. I look into his little face—and even though he’s still bawling, I can’t help but smile. Then, in a low, calm voice, I talk to him.
“I get it, you know. Why you’re so unhappy. One minute you’re floating in amniotic fluid—it’s dark and warm and quiet. Then a minute later, you’re freezing and there’s bright lights and some ass**le is pricking your heel with a needle. Your whole world is turned upside down.”
The tide of tears starts to recede. Though there’s a sporadic whimper, for the most part his big, brown eyes keep contact with mine. Interested in what I’m saying. I know the accepted theory is that babies have no understanding of language at this stage, but—like men attempting to get out of household chores—I think they know more than they let on.
“I felt the same way when I met your mother. There I was, cruising along, making the most of a fan-fucking-tastic life—and your mom came along and shot it all to hell. I didn’t know which way was up—with work, with my Saturday nights. This is a talk for another time, but it’s true what they say: you spend nine months trying to get out, and the rest of your life trying to work your way back in.”
I chuckle at my own joke. “You probably don’t want to hear this, but your mom is gorgeous—the finest ass I’ve ever laid eyes on. Still, I really liked my old life and I couldn’t imagine anything better. But I was wrong, James—falling in love with her, earning her trust, having you, are the best things I’ve ever done.”
He’s not crying at all anymore but simply regarding me with quiet attention. “The adjustment might be hard . . . but it’s worth it. So could you cut us some slack, please? We love you so much—I can’t wait to show you how f**king great life is on the outside. And you don’t have to be scared, because we’ll keep you warm and fed. And I promise I’ll never, ever let anything bad happen to you.”
His little mouth opens in a stretching yawn. And his eyes slow-blink. I stand up and pace the room again—slowly.
Kate’s hushed voice comes from the across the room. “You certainly have a way with words, Mr. Evans.” Her hair is wild, messy; my college T-shirt is baggy on her and almost reaches her knees.
“What are you doing up?” I ask.
She shrugs. “I couldn’t fall back asleep. And I heard you whispering out here.” She walks up to us and rests her head against my arm—gazing down at the baby. “He’s asleep.”
And so he is.
“Do I risk putting him down, or should I learn to sleep standing up like a frigging horse?”
Kate loops her arm through mine and guides me to the couch. She sits and pats the spot next to her. Like a member of the bomb squad handling a device with a hair trigger, I shift James so he’s on my chest, his head resting on the steady beat of my heart. Then I sit down and put my feet on the table and my head against the back cushion and my arm around Kate’s shoulders.