“So now that we know we’re having a boy,” Anna says as I drive home, “we can settle on the name.”
The baby’s name has been the least of my concerns lately. But she’s right. Picking a name will be fun. “Okay, sure.”
“So his name will be Otto,” she says. And she folds her arms and looks out the window like the conversation is over.
Otto Harper? I don’t know about that…
“Um,” I say. “I thought we were going to have a discussion about it. This feels like you just telling me what the name is going to be.”
“Well, we agreed the name would be a palindrome.” We did? “If it were a girl, there would be more options, but for a boy, we’re limited. I think Otto is perfect.”
I frown at the steering wheel. “I don’t like the name Otto. It makes me think of… I don’t know, a large sea mammal.”
“That’s an otter!”
“Well, you have to admit, they sound the same.”
She sighs and smooths out her pants legs with her hands. “Well, there are a few other names. Asa. Natan.”
“I think it’s German,” she says thoughtfully. “I don’t think it’s a bad name. I would be happy with Reinier.”
I wouldn’t. “How about… David?”
“David!” Anna bursts out. “Matt, please!”
“What’s wrong with David?”
“It’s not a palindrome!”
She’s making my head hurt. Sometimes I forget how stubborn Anna can be. “My name isn’t a palindrome. Yet you still married me.”
“Yes…” Oh no, is she going to make me change my name now? “But there’s nothing we can do about that. We get to choose the baby’s name.”
I glance over at Anna and I can see she’s really upset. She’s visibly shaking.
How important is this name thing to me? I’m not sure. I don’t want my son to be named Otto. But at the same time, Anna wants this more than I don’t want it. She’s made a lot of sacrifices for me. Maybe this is one I should give in on.
“Okay,” I say. “We’ll see.”
I’m not sure why, but the office seems so dirty lately. When I got to my cubicle this morning, there was a white streak on my desk. I don’t know if one of the janitorial staff tried to clean it, which I hope they didn’t because I clean it myself before I leave, but whatever happened here, I had to spend the better part of an hour sterilizing my cubicle with Lysol.
Now I’m in the bathroom for the fifth time this morning to wash my hands. I had cut back on the number of times I’ve used the bathroom on any given day, but now that I’m pregnant, it’s even more important to maintain that cleanliness for the sake of the baby. If there’s any chance something is wrong with this baby, I can at least protect him from germs.
Him. We’re having a boy. Aren’t boys always dirty? Don’t they do things like roll around in mud?
Oh God. Muddy children. No, no, no. Can’t think about that.
As I wash my hands in the sink in the ladies’ room at work, I feel the familiar sting of all the tiny cuts opening up. But I ignore it, like I did for many years. I have to keep my hands clean. For the baby’s sake. My precious little boy, who is growing inside me. He only has me to protect him.
And when the baby comes, it will be even more important to be clean. Newborns have immature immune systems, after all.
I wash my hands for the requisite eleven seconds, then I realize I actually need to use the bathroom this time. So I go to a stall and shut myself inside. If I’m using the bathroom, I’ll need to clean my hands for extra-long afterwards.
After I relieve myself, I feel a mild squeezing sensation at the pinnacle of the swell of my abdomen. I’ve never felt anything like it before. Like my uterus is making a fist. It disappears after a few seconds, but it’s left me rattled. What was that? Was that a contraction? Am I going into labor?
Fortunately, I brought my purse to the bathroom with me. Without leaving the stall, I pull out my phone and select Matt’s name from the list of favorites. He takes several rings to answer—I finally hear his voice when I’m nearly about to faint from fear.
“Matt,” I sob.
“What’s wrong?” He’s immediately at attention. “Are you okay?”
“I’m having contractions,” I say in a hushed voice in case there’s anyone else listening. I don’t think anyone else is in here, but I’m not entirely sure.
“Contractions?” I hear the panic in his voice. “Are they regular? How many of them?”
“Well, just one.”
“A small one.”
There’s a pause on the other line. “Dr. Reid told you that you’d probably start having those Braxton-Hicks contractions soon, right?”
Did she? My head is spinning.
“Um…” I bite my lip, trying to remember. “I’m not sure…”
“Well, I am,” he says. “She said it specifically. She said, ‘Don’t worry if you have a contraction as long as they’re mild and not regular.’ I remember it.”
“You said it was mild, right?”
“And it was only one? Not regular?”
“So it was probably one of those Braxton-Hicks deals,” he concludes. “Don’t you think so?”
“Yes…” My heart rate slows a bit, but I still don’t feel good. It still feels like something is wrong. There’s a nagging feeling in the back of my head, like something I’ve forgotten. I used to get this feeling all the time, but I haven’t had it in a while. “I’m just worried that…”
Then it comes to me suddenly: “I think I forgot to clean out the lint screen in the dryer.”
“The lint screen,” I say again. “The thing in the dryer that catches lint? I did a wash yesterday and I never cleaned it out after. I can’t believe I forgot!”
“Okay…” I can almost hear Matt frowning. “So… what do you want me to do?”
“Could you clean it out for me?”
“Actually, I can’t,” he says tightly. “Because the dryer is in the basement. If you want me to be able to help you with laundry, we need a house that’s one level.”
“I don’t need you to help me with laundry. I just need the lint screen cleaned out.”
“You’re missing the point,” he sighs. “Look, you’ll clean it when you get home. What’s the difference?”
“Because…” I squeeze the phone. I want him to care about this, because it’s really bothering me a lot. “What if someone broke into the house and tried to do laundry?”
“Well, they could start a fire!”
Matt seems at a loss for words. I do realize this fear is farfetched. It’s unlikely someone would break into our house while Matt is there. And if they did break in, why would they do laundry? But then again, what if they broke in specifically because they needed to do laundry and wanted to use our machine? It’s not very likely, but it could happen.
“Anna,” he finally says, “nobody is breaking in here. I’ll check the locks if that would make you feel better, but I’m not going down to the basement. I can’t.”
I stand there in the bathroom stall, recognizing the truth in his words. Matt can’t get down to the basement so easily. He could bump down the stairs, but then he’d be stuck there or else have to drag himself and his chair up the stairs one by one. It’s possible, but it’s not realistic to expect him to do that.
“I guess I can clean it when I get home,” I say.
I wait another minute, hoping he might change his mind and offer to do it. He doesn’t.
“All right,” I say. “I better get back to work.”
I consider warning him not to let anyone come into the house and do laundry, but decide against it.
“Okay,” he says. “If the contractions get worse though, call me.”
He pauses again. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
We hang up and I feel slightly better about the whole thing. Truthfully, it does seem ridiculous now. Why would I think someone would break into our house and do laundry? What’s wrong with me?
I’m about to unlock the stall when I hear the door to the ladies’ room open. I freeze, not wanting anyone to find me in here. I recognize I’ve been in the bathroom a lot this morning, and I don’t want people talking about it. They already talk about me enough.
I recognize the voices of two of the receptionists, Laura and Nicole. They’re both in their mid-twenties and effortlessly pretty in a way that so many women that age are. I only know their names at all because of Matt. When we used to come in together in the morning, Matt would say, “Hi, Nicole. How was your weekend?” Or something along those lines. Then they’d talk for a few minutes about their respective weekends.
He’s able to do that—make small talk with people. He’s able to remember their names and little details about their lives so he can ask about it later. There’s no problem with my memory, but I feel awkward walking up to Nicole to ask her about her cousin’s wedding. She’d know right away I don’t care. I could never pull that off.
And for that reason, I usually just mumble a hello when I pass them.
“—working from home today,” Laura is saying. “He called to let me know.”
“I don’t blame him,” Nicole says. “I mean, he’s already around her all the time at home—I’m sure he doesn’t want to be at work with her all day too. Can you imagine?”
“Well, he married her! He knew what he was getting into.”
“Maybe he didn’t. Maybe she used to be normal and then she got crazy.”
“No, she didn’t. I talked to Simon about it, and he said she used to be way worse. Like, certifiable.”
“Is it possible to be way worse?”
I may not be as normal as these two secretaries, but I’m not an idiot. I know they’re talking about me. I clutch my phone in my hand and press myself against the wall of the stall, hoping they don’t notice I’m in here.
“It’s so sad,” Nicole sighs. “Matt is such a nice guy.”
“I guess it’s hard for him.” Laura’s voice lowers a few notches. “Being in a wheelchair and all. I’m sure a lot of women don’t… you know…”
“Hey, I’d go out with him if he wasn’t married. He’s cute.”
Laura giggles. “If he wasn’t married? Nicole, do you go out with any men who aren’t married?”
“Stop it! That was just one… okay, two guys.” She lets out a giggle of her own. “What can I say? All the good ones are married.”
“So give ol’ Matt a break,” Laura says. “I mean, how much sex could he possibly be getting? Anna’s so germ-obsessed. She sprays down her cubicle with Lysol, like, literally ten times an hour. I bet he could use an hour of fun.”
I do not literally spray down my cubicle ten times an hour. This is a complete misuse of the word “literally.” I spray it down when I first arrive in the morning and before I leave. And maybe once more.
“Hey, even I wouldn’t hook up with a guy whose wife is preggers,” Nicole says. “That’s pretty low.”
“I can’t even believe she’s having a baby. Can you imagine what that kid’s life is going to be like? She’ll probably wrap it in bubble wrap.”
As the women dissolve into giggles, any comfort I had from my phone call with Matt drains out of me. I can’t believe this is what everyone in the office thinks about me. Well, actually, I can believe it. It’s not surprising at all. But it still hurts to hear it. Everyone thinks Matt just settled for me because he couldn’t get anyone better. They think he’s unhappy with me. They think I’m going to be a terrible mother.
Cold sweat breaks out on the back of my neck and on my palms. I realize a second too late how sweaty my hand has become and watch in horror as my phone slides right out of my hand and onto the floor.
It’s bad enough I dropped my phone. Worse that I dropped it on the floor of the bathroom. And even worse that it’s bounced out of the stall and I’m sure the secretaries now realize someone is in here.
I hold my breath, hoping somehow they’ll just leave and not say anything. But no such luck. I see the phone scooped up off the ground, then the knock on the stall door.
“Um, excuse me?” It’s Nicole’s voice. “I think you dropped your phone.”
My panic is almost overwhelming. It feels like the walls of the stall are closing in on me. I’ve got to get out of here.
“Excuse me?” Nicole says again.
I grab some toilet paper so I can slide the lock open on the stall door without having to touch it. Although I’ve already touched the wall of the stall and my phone has been on the floor. I can’t even think about how awful it all is. I wish I could boil my phone in a pot on the stove.
When I push the stall door open, Nicole’s eyes go wide. She lets out a gasp and takes a step back. Well, at least she has the good grace to seem embarrassed.
“Anna!” Laura says, looking equally ashamed. “I… we didn’t realize you were… in here…”
Nicole is still holding my phone. The screen is cracked, which is fine because I would never use the phone again after it’s been on the floor of the bathroom. I don’t even want to touch it.
“Your phone…” Nicole thrusts it awkwardly in my direction.
I take a step back. “Um, well, it’s cracked, so just… you can throw it out.”
“Throw it out?” Nicole seems astonished, but she shouldn’t be. If a phone’s screen is cracked, you get a new one. That is a completely normal thing to do. Isn’t it? “But… don’t you want it till you can get a new one?”
“No, that’s fine.” I force a smile. “I’ve got a phone at my desk. And, you know, it’s all backed up on the cloud!”
My voice sounds so high and unnatural. Why is it so hard for me to talk to people? It’s so easy for everyone else. Why does everything in my life have to be so hard?
Nicole looks down at my phone doubtfully, but she doesn’t try to give it to me again. I stride past her, over to the sink, where I wash my hands for eleven seconds. But then it turns into twenty-two seconds. And then thirty-three. Soon enough, I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been washing my hands. I can’t stop. I can’t get them clean.
Most germs are not harmful.
My immune system is strong.
I have a husband who loves me very much, and I love him.
It doesn’t work. My stupid mantra is completely useless. It only worked when I had the medications backing me up. Now it’s just meaningless words. Mantra—what a joke.
Nicole and Laura leave me there, washing my hands. The last thing I hear as they push through the bathroom door is Nicole saying, “What the hell…?”
Our kitchen sink has been dripping the last two days and it’s driving Anna up the wall, so I’m grateful when Jake shows up at our door with his toolkit and his son. Luke, who propels himself at my leg, immediately yells, “Ride!”
“Hey,” Jake says, scratching at his light brown hair that he keeps shaved about half an inch from his skull. He’s glancing behind me. “Anna here?”
I shake my head no as I help Luke scramble onto my lap. “She doesn’t have work-from-home privileges.”
His shoulders sag. “Good. Because I had a cigarette an hour ago and I was sure she’d smell it on me.”
I laugh. “She definitely would. I thought you quit?”
He grins. “It’s a work in progress.”
Luke tugs at my pants leg eagerly. “Ride, Uncle Matt!”
Luke wants me to take him down the ramp to our front door. Since it’s not a regulation ramp, it’s fairly steep, which means if I give us even a small push, we’ll go fast. He loves it.
“Go for it, Uncle Matt,” Jake says. “I’ll check out the sink.”
Apparently, going down a ramp is my best trick for my nieces and nephews. Luke squeals with delight as we go racing down the ramp at top speed and I get us stopped just before my chair goes careening into the street. Not that there are many cars on our street, but it’s probably still good not to risk getting run over.
We do it about five times before I start getting tired. Because the ramp is steep, it’s hard work to keep pushing both my weight and Luke’s up the ramp over and over. My shoulders are starting to ache as we go up the ramp for the sixth time.
“Again!” Luke yelps. I have a feeling he could do this all day. I’m glad I’m making him happy. Maybe it’ll be okay if I have a son. I’m fun.
“Sorry, buddy,” I say. “I have to take a break. Let’s see how your dad is doing with the sink.”
We go back inside the house, where Jake is putting his tools away. He gives me a thumbs-up with a hand so greasy that I’m glad Anna isn’t around to see it. He struggles to get back on his feet, then washes his hands at a kitchen sink that no longer seems to be leaking.
Luke tugs on my arm. “Wrestle, Uncle Matt!”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “Wrestle?”
Jake rolls his eyes. “Yeah, he saw one match and now he’s obsessed.”
Luke tugs my arm more urgently. “Wrestle!”
I grab the wheel of my chair uncertainly. I don’t know what wrestling with a three-year-old entails, but I’m not sure how it would work when I can barely move my legs.
“Wrestle!” Luke whines again.
“Hey, Luke,” Jake says. “Uncle Matt can’t do that with you. I’ll do it.”
I watch Luke and Jake rolling around the ground and roughhousing. I can tell Luke loves it. That kid’s got a ton of energy—it makes me tired just watching him. And seeing the two of them messing around like that in a way I know would be hard for me now is making me really sad. And scared I’m going to be a shitty dad because I won’t be able to do all the stuff with my son that Jake can do with his boys.
After a couple of minutes of this, Jake turns on the TV for Luke and drops onto the couch. He grins at me. “That kid wears me out.”
“Yeah,” I mutter, trying not to feel jealous.
“How about a beer?”
I shake my head. “Anna got rid of them all.”
“You kidding me?”
“She’s worried she’ll drink it by accident and kill the baby.”
Jake snorts into his fists. “Oh wow. I’m so sorry, man.”
I shrug. The beers Anna tossed are the least of my problems right now. I can’t stop thinking about Jake rolling around on the ground with his son, and how much I’m going to miss out on because I’m in this chair. Wrestling is the least of it. What if he wants to play football with me? What if he wants to go to the park and go sledding like I see all the kids doing in the winter? I can’t wheel anywhere around that goddamn hill in the snow. It would be impossible.
“So…” I force myself to smile. “Does Luke want to wrestle… a lot?”
He looks at me curiously before his mouth down into a frown. He gets it. He’s not a dummy. “Hey,” he says, “it’s no big deal if you can’t…”
“Is it?” I sigh and drop my head. “It’s not just the wrestling. It’s… a lot of things. I mean, what if he joins the boy scouts and they go camping?”
He shrugs. “So you’ll go camping. They have accessible camping sites. I’ve seen it.”
“So I’m going to make the whole camp go to some accessible campsite just for me?” I fold my arms across my chest. “And what if there’s some father-son picnic and there are a whole bunch of sports I can’t participate in? Hell, half the places they’d have a picnic, I probably wouldn’t even be able to push my chair.”
“So you get one of those, you know, all-terrain wheelchairs.” He shakes his head. “You’re not the first guy in a wheelchair to have a son. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
“Matt.” Jake’s voice is low and firm, cutting me off. His steely eyes are looking straight into mine. “Listen, there’s something you don’t know about me. Something I don’t tell many people. Even Anna doesn’t know.”
I stare at him. Jake has become one of my best buddies in the last few years and I don’t know if I want to hear this. Is he sick or something? Dying? Shit, this sounds like it could be serious.
“I’m dyslexic,” he says.
“Oh,” I say.
That’s a relief. I was thinking he was about to tell me he had five years to live. Dyslexic? Well, so what? I’m in a fucking wheelchair. I have multiple sclerosis. I win.
“I know you think it’s not a big deal,” he says, “but let me tell you, it is. I struggled all through school in special ed classes and just barely graduated high school. College wasn’t an option. Think about what your life would be like if you had trouble reading, Matt. What kind of job could you get? I’m always scared shitless for people to find out because I figure they’ll think I’m an idiot. And when Lisa was pregnant…” He sighs and rubs at the stubble on his head. “I kept thinking, how the hell was I going to read my kids bedtime stories? How was I going to help with homework? What were they going to think of me when they found out how much trouble I have with something everyone else can do so fucking easily? I didn’t want my kids thinking their dad is dumb.”
He has a point. If I couldn’t read… well, I don’t know what I’d do. It would suck, that’s for sure. “Does Jayden know?”
He nods. “Yeah. I play it down, but he knows. Lisa helps him with anything that involves reading and I help him with math if he needs it. Luckily, he’s a smart kid and doesn’t need much help. Unlike his old man.”
Jake looks sad in the same way I did a few minutes ago. Now I feel bad for him, even though I’m still pretty sure I have it worse.
“Anyway,” Jake says, “you won’t have anything to worry about because your kid is probably going to be a huge geek like you and Anna. He probably won’t even know what a football is.”
I feel a smile tugging at my lips. “No way. My future son is going to be tough as shit. He’ll be able to kick anyone’s ass.”
“Do you mean he’ll be able to kick anyone’s ass at World of Warcraft? Because I won’t argue with that.”
I laugh because he’s probably right. When I was a kid, I had more fun taking my computer apart than I did playing football. Actually, I don’t think I ever even played football. There were never any father/son picnics where my father could humiliate me with his ineptitude with sports. I only started playing basketball in my twenties when my friend Calvin got me into going with him to the gym.
Maybe this will all be okay. Maybe I’m worrying over nothing. After all, Anna worries enough for the both of us.
To be continued.....