In the last two years, my older sister Lisa and I have been spending a lot more time together. Lisa and I were close as small children, but by the time she reached her teenage years, she decided I was “too strange” to spend time with. Then she took the path of getting married and having children, while I chose to focus on my career. We had very little in common.
But now that I’m married like Lisa is, we at least have that in common. Our lives aren’t as different as they used to be. Matt, a software engineer, doesn’t seem like he could possibly have much in common with Lisa’s husband Jake, who is employed as a mechanic, but the two of them will chat about sports and seem to root for similar teams. So when we have dinner together, Matt and Jake enjoy themselves.
Today I came to Lisa’s house for lunch, which means that I made sandwiches for us, as well as for her two boys, Jayden and Luke. Jayden is nine years old and quite a nice boy, actually, even though he picked all the lettuce out of the sandwich I made him. Luke is two, and he didn’t care for the turkey and Muenster cheese sandwich at all. He picked it apart into its components, ate a hole in the center of the cheese, and threw every last bit of lettuce on the floor.
Now the lettuce is just lying on the floor of Lisa’s kitchen. And she doesn’t seem to care in the slightest.
When something like that bothers me, I have a little mantra I recite in my head. It keeps me from popping Xanax like Tic Tacs:
Most germs are not harmful.
My immune system is strong.
I have a husband who loves me very much, and I love him.
I know the last one has little to do with germs and infection, but it calms me down to think about Matt. Still, there’s only so much I can tolerate. Food on the floor is ridiculous.
“Lisa,” I say. “Luke dropped the lettuce.”
She laughs. “There will be plenty more on the floor before he’s done. Don’t worry. Anna, you don’t have to clean it up…”
But I’m already picking it up with a paper towel. What if someone steps on it and it gets ground into the floor? What if I step on it? Tell me, how can you leave food just lying on the floor? Matt would never do such a thing.
“Maybe you need to increase your medication dosage?” Lisa casually suggests as she unstraps Luke from his booster seat. She ruffles his wispy blond hair, pops a pacifier in his mouth, and allows him to toddle away.
I know Lisa is trying to get a rise out of me. She’s trying to act like I’m the unreasonable one for not wanting food on the floor.
“Kids are messy,” she says. “It’s a fact of life.”
I shrug and drop back into my seat. Lisa might tease me about my medication dosage, but prior to my current pill regimen, I used to spend at least an hour cleaning Lisa’s house every time I visited. If not for the medications circulating through my blood stream, I would have the mop out and would be doing the entire kitchen floor as we speak. And look at that sink full of dirty dishes—I would never have been able to let that go.
“You have to learn to live with a little mess,” Lisa says. “After all, what are you going to do when you and Matt have kids?”
I shake my head. “Matt and I aren’t going to have kids.”
“Oh really?” My sister raises her finely plucked eyebrows. She has time for her eyebrows but not her kitchen floor. I don’t understand her priorities. “Not that I think it’s a bad idea, but does Matt know this?”
I feel a tiny twinge of panic in my chest. There’s a bottle of Xanax in my purse that I try not to use unless I absolutely need it. I don’t need it now. “He and I are on the same page.”
“Really?” Lisa’s lips curl into a smile. “That isn’t what he said to Jake.”
Luke trips over his own tiny feet and falls onto the floor. He’s so short that it isn’t a bad spill—not like the ones I saw Matt take before he started using his wheelchair all the time. But Luke’s pacifier pops out of his mouth and he wails, drool dripping from his soft pink lips.
Lisa bends over and scoops the pacifier up off the floor. She hands it to Luke, who pops it back in his mouth, mollified. I stare at my sister in horror.
“You gave him a pacifier from the floor?” I gasp.
She laughs. “Well, he already eats Cheerios off the floor. Why not?”
“Oh no.” I reach over and pluck the pacifier from my nephew’s lips. That poor child! The floor of this kitchen is absolutely disgusting—people walk on it. There’s probably rotting food on it, based on the display I just saw. I won’t let Luke have a pacifier in his mouth that was just on that floor. He could die!
I empty a large glob of dish detergent into my hand and start scrubbing at the pacifier. Luke is wailing again without his pacifier, but I don’t feel one bit bad about it. He’ll have to wait for a clean pacifier. He doesn’t know better than to eat off the floor, but Lisa should.
“For Christ’s sake, Anna,” Lisa says. “It’s clean.”
Lisa doesn’t even know what clean is. Nothing in this house is clean. But when I get done with this pacifier, it will be safe for Luke to put in his mouth.
Except when I finish cleaning it, I still feel uneasy. The floor is so dirty. It can’t possibly be enough to simply clean the pacifier with soap and water and expect it to be clean. It will be in his mouth.
Most germs are not harmful.
My immune system is strong.
I have a husband who loves me very much, and I love him.
No, it’s not working. I have to sterilize this pacifier.
“Anna, what are you doing?” Lisa’s eyes widen as she watches me put a pot of water up to boil. Five minutes in boiling water should do it.
“The pacifier needs to be sterilized,” I explain.
“No,” Lisa says, “it doesn’t. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine!” The panicked feeling is rising in my chest. I’ve got to sterilize this pacifier. If I don’t, I’m going to have to take a Xanax. I hate taking it. I already take both Paxil and Abilify every day to control my symptoms. It should be enough. “Just let me do this, Lisa.”
I drop the pacifier in the water, but Lisa has already fetched another pacifier for Luke. I suppose it’s for the best because the pacifier will be very hot when it comes out of the pot. Can you imagine if I had given him a boiling hot pacifier? That would be even worse than a pacifier from the floor.
And this is why Matt and I could never have children. I would be an unfit mother. He must know that.
I give my wheels one push then lift my hands off them and into the air. My six-year-old niece Haley squeals in my lap as the two of us coast down the ramp in the park. Haley’s got her arms up over her head like she’s on a roller coaster and the wind whips her reddish brown hair into my face.
At the end of the ramp, we hit a bump in the pavement I didn’t expect. My chair jerks and I have to grab Haley by the waist to keep her from bouncing out of my lap onto the cement. But it’s fine. We’re fine. Even though my sister Erin gives me a look like I just threw her daughter in front of moving traffic.
“Again!” Haley shrieks.
“I’d like to keep her in one piece, if possible, Matt,” Erin comments.
“What’s the problem?” I retort. I point at her bulging midsection. “You’ve got a spare ready.”
Erin rolls her eyes and hugs her belly protectively, as if I might take her fetus for a joyride too. Someday.
Haley tugs at my shirt sleeve. “Again, Uncle Matt.”
“We did it three times,” I point out. “I’m getting tired. And your mom is getting mad.” Mostly the latter.
“One more time,” Haley says. “One more and I won’t ask again. Please?”
My wheelchair is the source of unlimited fun for Haley, as it turns out. That’s why she’s whispered to me on several occasions that I’m her favorite uncle. I don’t want to lose that honor and also, if I’m being honest, it’s fun for me too. Going down a ramp really fast is fun—what can I say?
I was still able to walk when Haley was born, but she has no memory of that time. She doesn’t remember when her Uncle Matt wasn’t in a wheelchair. Last year we were looking through a photo album at my parents’ house and she came across a bunch of photos of me on my feet, and she was absolutely amazed. “How did you do that?” she asked me.
It was funny. We all laughed, but at the same time, it made me just a little sad. She only knows me as disabled. The little boy in Erin’s uterus will only know me as disabled. Everyone I meet from now on will only know me that way. And while there’s nothing wrong with it… shit, I don’t know. It’s dumb.
I go up the ramp and repeat my joyride with Haley. And then once more time, because she was lying through her teeth when she promised she wouldn’t ask again. At which point, Erin practically yanks her daughter off my lap.
“Okay, enough of that,” she snaps. “Uncle Matt has had enough.”
Haley looks back at the ramp longingly, then bats her eyelashes at me. “One more time?”
I laugh, but Erin holds her ground. “Haley,” she says. “We’re at the park. Why don’t you go on a slide or something?” Haley doesn’t budge. “If you’re good, you can have ice cream when the truck comes by.”
The promise of ice cream lights a fire under my niece. She chirps, “Okay!” Then runs off in the direction of the playground. I watch her, half-wishing I could follow her out there and keep being her cool favorite uncle. But the uneven woodchips that make up the surface of the playground are going to be hell to push on. And no way I can go on a slide.
“I’m going to sit,” Erin informs me as she points to a bench closer to the playground. She’s wearing shorts and her legs are visibly swollen, as is her face. She’s at the point in pregnancy where she’s waddling.
I wonder what Anna would look like pregnant.
Erin keeps one hand on her belly, but her eyes on Haley. A smile plays on her lips as she watches Haley trying to befriend some other girl with blond pigtails. Haley is outgoing in a way that Erin and I never were. Erin’s husband isn’t particularly outgoing either, so I can’t figure out where the kid gets it from.
“So,” Erin says, rolling her head in my direction, “when are you and Anna going to start trying?”
“Uh…” That was the same answer I gave last time she asked me.
“Anna is thirty-six, isn’t she?” she says.
“Yeah, so we’ve got time.”
“Thirty-six isn’t young.”
“You’re thirty-seven and you’re pregnant.”
Erin cracks a smile. “Yeah, and look at me. I’m falling apart.”
I sigh. “I want to ask her. But… you know Anna. I’m afraid she’ll freak out.”
“Maybe she’s been wanting to ask you the same question?”
I consider that possibility. But no. I know my wife. Anna is not excited to have children. That’s one thing I’m certain about.
“I’ll talk to her about it soon,” I say. “Before she becomes an old lady of thirty-seven.” I look at Haley swinging from the monkey bars. “And if she’s dead set against it, well… I guess I’ll have to live with that.”
I almost say it convincingly. Then my stupid voice cracks on the words.
“Matt,” Erin says, “if you really want kids, which you obviously do, it shouldn’t be entirely Anna’s decision. The two of you need to talk it out.”
It’s funny because for ninety percent of my life, I couldn’t have cared less about having kids. Just the opposite—I was terrified of it.
In college, I was dating this girl named Chelsea for about four months when she called me up on the phone to inform me she had missed her period. I was twenty years old and practically dropped the phone.
“You’re pregnant,” I managed.
“I don’t know yet,” she said irritably. Chelsea was always irritable and I’d been thinking of breaking up with her and holy shit, how could she be pregnant?
“We used a condom,” I reminded her.
“Well, gee, Matt,” Chelsea said. “Tell that to my uterus.”
Dear Chelsea’s uterus, we used a goddamn condom. You can not have a baby in you.
“So you need to take a pregnancy test,” I said.
“Can you buy one for me?”
I wanted to ask her why she couldn’t buy the goddamn test herself, but I knew there was no point in arguing. I left all my textbooks spread open on the coffee table in my dorm common room and raced out to the drug store to buy a pregnancy test for Chelsea, which was about as embarrassing as it gets. I then made a beeline to her own dorm room, and shoved the test into her chest without even saying hello.
“Take it,” I said. “Now.”
Tears sprung up in Chelsea’s eyes. “Why are you being such a jerk, Matt?”
I felt guilty, but in retrospect, I was a twenty-year-old computer science major who’d just found out I might be a father. I was scared shitless.
“Sorry,” I said quickly. And I hugged her because I knew it was what I was supposed to do, but all the while, I felt nothing for her. I knew if she didn’t end up being pregnant, I’d break it off with her. And if she was pregnant…
At the time, I thought it meant I’d have to marry her. Maybe I would have. I wonder how Chelsea would have dealt with my MS diagnosis.
I was worried she’d make me come into the bathroom with her, but she didn’t. I waited outside the door, pacing the whole time, and a couple of minutes later, she came out, holding the test strip up in triumph. “Negative!” she cried.
I clutched my chest, certain I was going to faint from relief. Chelsea wasn’t the only pregnancy scare I’d experienced, but she was the first. There was some point where even though I most definitely did not want to get a girl pregnant, the idea didn’t terrify me quite so intensely. I could deal with being a dad. If it got thrust on me.
When I look at my niece, I get this ache in my chest. It’s great being an uncle, but I want to be a dad. I want a kid of my own.
I wonder if I can talk Anna into it.
Anna is a great cook.
I’m not saying that because she’s my wife. She’s a bona fide great cook. She’s light years better than my mom, and I always thought my mother was a decent cook. Not just that, but Anna makes things that are healthy yet still taste good. She’s clearing the fat out of my arteries that I earned after all the years of fast food before I started living with her.
The only problem is that Anna loves routine, so she wants to cook the same meals over and over again. On the same days of the week. I put up with this for a few months, then we made a deal. Five nights of the week, she could cook the meals she wanted and I’d eat them, but then on the sixth night, she had to make something new that she’d never made before. And the seventh night, we’d go out to Luciano’s.
But tonight is Monday, which means it’s lemon-pepper salmon with asparagus. I can smell it from where I’m working on my laptop in the living room and my stomach rumbles. I never liked asparagus before I ate Anna’s. She really makes it good.
“Ten-minute warning!” Anna calls from the kitchen.
The ten-minute warning means it’s time to wash my hands. I have to be honest—prior to dating Anna, I didn’t regularly wash my hands before eating. I mean, my hands were essentially clean. I wash them when I use the bathroom, so I figure if I haven’t done anything disgusting between using the bathroom and eating, they don’t need to be washed again. It’s not like I spend my time digging around in the sewer.
Although to be fair, now that I wheel with my hands, I’d probably wash them before eating even if Anna didn’t make me. Not that my pushrims aren’t clean. I actually wipe them down with Lysol every evening, because if I don’t, I know Anna will. And I don’t want her to have to be cleaning my chair for me.
Back when Anna and I first started dating, the bathroom on her first floor was not accessible. And the truth is, it still isn’t. If I were buying a house now, I never would have chosen one with a bathroom like this. We widened the doorway so that I can at least get inside now, but it’s really too small for a wheelchair to fit. When I transfer to the toilet, I have to turn ninety degrees and slightly backwards and it’s scary. I fell once doing it.
And the bathroom isn’t the worst thing about this house.
Our house is not accessible. There, I said it. She bought it before she knew she was going to have a husband in a wheelchair and it’s terrible for me. We did install a ramp to the front door, but it’s not a regulation ramp because there wasn’t room, so that means it’s steep. When I go down the ramp, I’m going fast. When I go up the ramp, I’m pushing hard. It’s fine because my arms are strong, but if they ever weren’t (don’t want to think about that possibility, but it’s there), I’d be in trouble.
Once we’re inside, the doorways are too narrow. I have to take my hands off the wheels and propel myself through by holding the doorframe. I could never get a wheelchair any wider than the one I have now. We’ve rearranged the furniture, but it’s still not great. But that’s not even the worst part.
The worst part is the house is two stories. And there’s no space for a bedroom on the first floor—it’s a small house that Anna purchased thinking she’d be single for the rest of her life. So I have no choice but to sleep on the second floor, which sucks. We installed a stair lift so I wouldn’t have to drag my butt up the stairs every night, but it’s a piece of shit. It’s slow and it breaks. So plenty of nights, I have to drag my butt up the stairs, where I’ve got a secondhand chair waiting for me at the top.
It’s awful. I’ve put up with it because Anna is very anxious about change. I didn’t want to make her move right when her medications were being adjusted. And then there’d be some crisis. And now, if I’m going to bring up the possibility of trying for a baby, I can’t make her move. I can’t.
So I’m stuck with a tiny bathroom and a scary ramp and a fucking stair lift.
I wash my hands in our tiny bathroom for the requisite eleven seconds, then wheel to the kitchen to see the progress Anna is making. She’s lifting the lid from a pan of food, looking cute as hell in her fitted black pants from work, and the shapeless white blouse she’s got on only makes me picture what’s underneath. What can I say? My wife is hot.
“Can I help?” I ask.
Anna turns from the pan and smiles at me. “You may set the table.”
I grab some silverware from a drawer under the counter, and some napkins from the pantry, while Anna pulls out two plates from the cupboard over the sink. That’s another thing—most of the cupboard space in the kitchen is too high for me to reach. Yeah, I hate this house.
I lay out the napkins first, and put a fork, spoon, and knife on top of each one. In that order. It’s not the way my mom taught me to set the table, but it’s how Anna likes it. It always has to be the same way, even if we’re not using a spoon for our meals. And the utensils all have to be the same distance apart from one another. She doesn’t say anything if I do it wrong, but she’ll fix it. So I try to get it right. Whenever I arrange them in a way that she doesn’t need to fix, I give myself a pat on the back.
She doesn’t have to fix them today, so I’m golden. She serves us each a piece of glistening salmon with garlic asparagus. Our plates look identical.
“What do you think?” she asks me in a proud voice that makes me smile.
“What can I say? My wife is a great cook.”
She beams at me. And instead of settling into her own chair, she leans in for a kiss. I know it bugs her when the food gets cold, but when I grab her and pull her into my lap, she doesn’t complain. Anna is never adverse to a make-out session. I know people think she’s uptight, but let me tell you, she always acts like she can’t get enough of me. I cringe when I see my sister sometimes push her husband away when he tries to kiss her—Anna’s never done that to me in the time we’ve been dating. She always wants me.
Even when the salmon is getting cold.
“We should probably eat,” I say as our lips separate.
She smiles at me. “Okay, but later…”
“Yes,” I agree. “Later.”
I watch with a twinge of regret as she climbs off my lap and settles onto the chair across from me. I’m hungry, but I’m also horny. Too many tempting choices in life.
“You will be pleased to know,” Anna tells me as she settles in a chair across from me, “that I used a new spice today on the salmon.”
I grin at her. “Did you? How exciting. And how did you get that spice?”
Another way in which I know I’m enabling my wife is that I do all the grocery shopping because the grocery store freaks her out so much. Well, we get a lot of our groceries delivered. But then once a week, I put a basket on my lap and scan the aisles for stuff that can’t get delivered. Which means she doesn’t get any food that doesn’t go through me.
“I went shopping,” Anna says, the pride now clear in her voice.
“Really?” I raise my eyebrows at her, now genuinely impressed. Anna was shopping. Voluntarily. That’s huge. “That’s great. How was it?”
“Well, I only bought the one spice,” she says. “But it was good. Uneventful.”
A few years ago, Anna never had uneventful shopping trips. Every trip would involve, I don’t know, someone sneezing in the fresh produce aisle and then Anna would fly into a panic and leave her shopping cart behind as she mowed down shoppers in her haste to escape the store. Now she can buy stuff. The meds have really helped her.
Maybe it’s time to bring up the baby thing. Now or never, right?
“So I saw Erin today,” I remind her.
“Oh.” Anna averts her eyes, looking down at the salmon. “So can you guess what new spice I used?”
“Um,” I say. I can’t think of any spices. “Paprika?”
She smiles and shakes her head.
She shakes her head again.
“Um, curry powder?”
“Curry powder!” Anna laughs. “Do you really think I doused the salmon in curry?”
Well, how should I know? “Whatever you used is good.”
“It’s tarragon,” she says.
It is really good. It’s got a little something extra.
“So Erin is getting pretty big,” I say as I take another bite.
Anna shudders. At least, I think she does. Maybe it was a shiver. It’s a little cold in here.
“She and Steve are really excited,” I add.
“And probably worried.”
“Why would they be worried?”
Anna sucks in a breath. “Why wouldn’t they be worried? So many things can go wrong during a birth! What if the umbilical cord is compressed? What if the baby is deprived of oxygen during delivery? What if—”
“I’m sure it will be fine,” I interrupt before Anna can go on one of her Anna-spirals. “The chances of anything going wrong is really small. They’ll be in a hospital and they’re going to monitor the baby closely.”
“I would worry.”
I smile at her. “Well, you shouldn’t. When you have a baby, I’ll be right there next to you, making sure everything is okay.”
She stares at me, her mouth hanging open. “When I have a baby? When am I having a baby?”
This isn’t going as well as I’d hoped.
“Look, Anna,” I say. “We don’t have to start trying now, but… you want to have kids someday… right?”
She’s shaking her head, a horrified look on her face. “No. Why would you think that?”
“Because…” I grip my fork more tightly, even though I’m quickly losing my appetite for tarragon salmon. And I’m beginning to worry I’ve lost my chance at sexy time after dinner. “That’s what everyone does. They get married and then have babies.”
“Right,” she says. “And what gives you the idea that I do what ‘everyone’ does?”
“Anna.” I reach over to take her hand across the table. She lets me, but barely. I can feel her shaking. “I love you so much. I want to have a baby with you.”
Her blue eyes fill with tears. “So I’m not enough for you?”
“Of course not!” I can’t tell if she’s intentionally twisting my words around to dissuade me. “I want a baby because I love you so much. I just… I feel like it would complete our family. And… don’t you want to be a mother?”
“No!” She yanks her shaking hand away from me. “I don’t, Matt. I’d be a terrible mother. I don’t think I could take on the responsibility of another human life.”
“Don’t say that.” I shake my head. “You’d be a great mom. You’d probably make all your own baby food. And you wouldn’t let the house become a disaster like Lisa does. And you’d be on every school trip…”
Anna stands up, half the salmon left untouched on her plate. “I can’t, Matt. I’m sorry. I just can’t.”
She races out of the kitchen in tears. And of course, she makes straight for the stairs. Which means if I want to follow her, I’ve got to get on that goddamn stair lift.
I glare at the stair lift. I hate that thing—I want to punch it. I hate this house. But I’ve stayed here three years for Anna’s sake. Because she would freak out if we moved somewhere suitable for me.
Yes, I love her. But I’ve made more sacrifices for her than I can count on both hands.
I’m not going to give up on being a father just because Anna had a panic attack.
This isn’t the end.
To be continued....