Grow Your Eyelashes
We are all in love with the baby. We, meaning the #4 bus community, weekdays at the seven o’clock hour, on our way to work and school and early morning errands. The baby wears a royal blue puffy jacket and a striped knit hat. He tracks our shopworn, overly articulated faces. Despite how we caper—tilting and bouncing our heads, scrunching our lips and wriggling our noses, working our hands into frantic waves—the baby gazes at us with his grave baby face. He is chary with his baby gift of a grin, a palm in the air, a mimic, obliging just often enough to lend hope to our campaigns. The father is charming, an early-thirties smiler with warm eyes and skin. Perhaps South American, his soft voice generous with the vowels. Strapped to the father’s chest, the baby flaps his arms. There is something of a bird in him, both cautious and confident. Something of a bird, and a sad little clown, and a medicine man, and all of the possibilities that are open to a baby. We look at him longer than we would look at anyone else we don’t actually know—and he will not say, or even think, that it is rude to stare.
I say that we are all in love with the baby, but probably there is someone on this bus who is not. Probably someone looks out the window, or at the affable father, or at her own lap, and thinks, goddamn that baby. This person is not swayed by the miniature hands, the swollen cheeks, the exploratory chirps—not swayed by this new human, welcomed as if he belongs to all of our delicate hopes and magnanimous impulses. As other faces soften, she hardens hers. I am willing to believe that there is such a person in our cozy bus community, with the chatty women and the tenderly grizzled men, and the driver who says “So long, little guy” when the baby leaves, borne aloft by his father.
We are trying, my husband Kevin and I. If only that meant we were trying to teach a monkey to do sign language; or trying out this new robot that cleans bathrooms; or trying to save the world, one polar ice cap at a time. But when you are a childless couple in your mid-thirties with two full-time jobs and a three-bedroom house, everyone knows what trying means. Making love, we used to think penis or breasts, vagina or balls. Thought them hard, as the dependable pleasure things they were. Then we thought baby, almost sexier than sex for sex, a mystery beyond tit-for-tat physical love. We thought not quite sperm and egg, those clinical, unlovely words, but something like seed pearl embryo pregnant fetus heartbeat fingers toes belly bump love genius baby. We have been thinking this baby into limbo existence for eleven months now. The baby isn’t coming. The baby is perched somewhere, her fist in her fierce, dainty mouth. I picture her the way Christian children are taught to think of babies God hasn’t released from heaven yet. A peck of them fully formed and squeaky clean, enthroned in clouds, parents an unnecessary earthly contrivance.
Kevin and I have the kind of grown-up jobs that cause people to nod politely when we say what we do and not ask any follow-up questions. I work as a web developer for a creative agency and Kevin’s a software engineer. I wear my peasant blouses and flared skirts on the bus, and he drives to work in his suit. Though he could dress more casually, he likes the advantage the formality gives him. He’s not especially handsome, but his shirt is crisp, his tie well chosen, his fingernails trimmed, and his hair nicely kept, neat with a bit of bounce. What more can a man do?
Before we met, I had hoped to find someone in an old-fashioned, romantic way: at a coffee shop, on a train, at my high school reunion (the guys I hoped to meet again were the ones I hadn’t talked to in high school, whose sleepy, sexy faces I stared at through an algebra or social studies haze). At the fifteen-year reunion, I was cornered by Georgia, who, when tests were handed back in class, would immediately turn around and ask me what grade I got. She had become a middle school guidance counselor. She went on about “my kids,” and how cute and troubled they were, while I eyed whatever men didn’t seem to have a woman attached to them. The only one I talked to smelled like sardines and laughed when I said things that weren’t at all funny.
After that I gave up and went online. At first the array of men was like the lure of the grocery store at midnight: shelves piled high with shiny goods, until you look closer and realize they’re all filled with corn syrup. But Kevin didn’t try to market himself with a glossy sheen. We skipped the coquettish emails and the hesitant phone calls and went right to sleeping together. He would undress in my living room—the wingtip shoes, the argyle socks, the creased pants, the boyish undershirt. His boxers were soft and worn. There was the thrill of a kind and decent naked man in my apartment. It happened slowly, first body and then mind, my skin leading the charge: love him, love him.
On the second date we established that both of us wanted kids, preferably two, but we weren’t in a rush. And then suddenly, in the way that even the passage of three years can feel sudden, we were. Now, the more we wait, the more rushed we are. Every twenty-eight days, I mark an S in my pocket calendar, for old Aunt Sally. She is miserably punctual, though once it was thirty-two days. I couldn’t get to sleep on night thirty-one. I kept squirming around in bed until Kevin caught me.
“Hey, tell me what’s going on.”
I didn’t want to get his hopes up, but I couldn’t help myself. “My period’s late. Just by a few days, but.”
“Yeah? How do you feel?”
“Fine. Anxious. Maybe a tiny bit nauseated.”
Kevin circled my belly button with his finger. “Let’s start music lessons early. Maybe at four?”
“Five might be better. Something cool. Viola. Or oboe.”
“Oboe, are you crazy? Piano. Pianos don’t squeak. Anyone can play the piano.”
“Are you saying our kid would be just anyone?”
This kind of banter had been forbidden for months. We picked it up now like AAers playing a drinking game. We knew the risks, but we hoped that this time would be different.
My period came at work, in the bathroom, with its tastefully arranged display of tampons in a basket, as a courtesy to the female employees. I sat on the toilet and pictured babies living in the sewer system, playing in filth, but somehow still clean and happy, a gang of naked bottoms and fuzzy heads, throwing balls of shit and yelping with glee. When I got home, I had to tell Kevin, which I did by making sure the tampon wrapper was visible in the trash. We held onto each other for a while, and then we splintered off into our depressive habits: he read a million Amazon reviews for some dumb little thing we needed to buy, and I mapped out elaborate routes and accommodations for exotic trips we weren’t going to take.
One Saturday I make the mistake of going to the mall. My sister’s birthday is in a week, and I’d like to send her an interesting piece of clothing. Just inside the mall’s entryway, I’m greeted by a woman on a sign. A beautiful woman, though not high-cheek-boned, sultry-lipped, stone-cold beautiful. The idea is, she’s the kind of beautiful I might be if I tried harder and listened to the voices that are trying to help me. “Grow Your Eyelashes,” this voice says. There is, apparently, a scientific formula for it. The eyelashes on the woman who could be me look noticeably mascara-laden, but they’re not crazy long. Perhaps my doppelganger is just about to call the phone number presented here. She knows her eyelashes are okay, but that they could be even better. She is on the verge of possessing the eyelashes she’s always wanted, not falsies but real ones, cultivated from her very own eyelids.
Inside the mall I go from store to store, looking for something worthy of my sister Audrey, who has set up her stylish life just the way she wants it, in her mid-century modern house, with her husband Jeff and their two chickens. Patsy and Cline have a coop in the garden, where they take daily strolls through the sweet alyssum, nodding agreeably. When they want company, they press their beaks to the back door. You pick them up and stroke their feathers, and they expand to fill your arms. As a girl I tended to my dolls every day—otherwise they would miss me—and Audrey, two years my junior, could be conscripted to join, but she coddled no babies of her own. She played the movie-star aunt in a feather boa and plumed hat. “I’m back from Paris,” she’d say. “Have an Eiffel Tower.” An Eiffel Tower was anything she could stack up that wasn’t blocks: Oreos, beanbags, packets of pocket tissues. I dressed the dolls and brushed their hair, and she let towers fall in their laps. She’s an architect now, specializing in sustainable public projects, and she serves on several boards and has season tickets to the best local performing arts events.
“We don’t feel the need for children,” Audrey told our mother last Thanksgiving. “You have to need them, I think. So much that you don’t think you can be happy without them.”
Mom shook her head, proud and sad on its wrinkled neck. “That’s not how it works. You can’t know the joy until—.” She swiped at a tear that was about to fall into the wild rice stuffing. “You just can’t know it.”
“Look how happy I’m making you,” Audrey said.
The women’s clothing departments are highlighting bizarre colors this season: salmon pink, pea green, recycle-bin blue, and styles that make no sense: three-quarter sleeves, capri pants, short-sleeved sweater dresses, T-shirts with collars. I don’t have to look long in each store to decide—nope, nada. The salesladies ask if they can help, but how could they? Finally, in a Macy’s daze, I get Audrey a cream-colored, cable-knit sweater. There is nothing offensive or unique about it. I’m tempted to buy one for myself too, but I don’t want us to look like twins, even in two different states. If I had twins, I would give them names that sounded nothing like each other. Susannah and Mim, Theodore and Aziz. One twin would wear airplane pajamas; the other, stripes. I wouldn’t call them the twins, nor would I perform experiments on them to see how alike they were. It would be very hard to have two babies, one on each breast, but with twins we’d have ourselves a family in one go. Two adults, two children, the sturdiness of four.
I call Audrey on her birthday, and when the phone connects, I hear the clinking around her before she says hello. She and Jeff are having brunch with friends.
“Go back to it,” I tell her. “Eat your eggs Benedict.”
“Yup, that’s what I’m having,” she says.
“And a bloody Mary?”
“Just OJ. Hey, thanks for the sweater. It’s really cozy.”
“I wanted to get you something with interest, as Mom would say, but there was nothing out there. The mall is a travesty.”
“Did you hear me? I said I like it.”
“Well, wear it in good health, as Grandma would say if she were alive.”
“You sound depressed.”
“Go back to your birthday brunch,” I yell, as if volume equals enthusiasm, and end the call. When we lived near each other, Audrey would notice if I got a haircut, or new shoes, or new earrings. She would also tell me that I looked tired, or that my concealer wasn’t concealing, or that my jeans had gone beyond fashionably worn. Now that we don’t see each other much, she comments on the sound of my voice. I know she doesn’t intend to be nosy or mean. She intends to be accurate. Over the years I’ve found her accuracy refreshing, intimate. Lately it makes me wish I had a quiet, oblivious brother.
On the bus, the baby stares me down. Of course I am staring him down. I don’t know which one of us started it. I’m standing across from him in complete winter garb, grasping the bar with a gloved hand. When I move to let an older woman take the one remaining seat, the baby turns his head to follow me. What attracts his attention at this stage in life, a matter of months? The deep red of my coat, the toggle buttons protruding from it, a feminine face probably about his mother’s age? Despite the gold ring on the cute father’s finger, I pretend that he’s on his own, a single parent. Not knowing his name, I think of him as Javier. What happened to the woman who bore Javier’s adorable child? She loves Uruguay more, with its rolling plains and ample rivers and her whole family there, all the aunts and cousins and children to care for as if they were her own. Or she is off with another one of her photojournalists, knowing the baby will fare better with his caring and dependable father. Or she died right after the birth, a complication no one could have foreseen or prevented. Yes, Javier seems too smiley to have endured the recent loss of his love, but it’s his personality—wondrously compassionate and ever-hopeful—and now there’s his son to think of too. Besides, everyone knows that only children smile out of sheer delight. In a real adult smile, there is always something other than happiness.
From our bus flirtation, Javier and I will fall in love. We’ll conduct our affair gently, maturely, out of respect for Kevin (whom I still love, of course, but how can one anticipate the sudden flowering of an even greater love?). And out of respect for the baby, who has already suffered the trauma of his mother’s loss, if only in the unknowing depths of his developing brain. Eventually I’ll tell Kevin, who will act all aggrieved, but who may already, behind his disappointed eyes, be considering the possible benefits of my betrayal. He could find someone prettier, more positive and proactive. Someone younger, ridiculously fertile. After the right amount of time has passed, we’ll wish each other well, and a second-chance peace will reign over our new households. Javier’s baby—and mine, yes mine now—will become less bird, more human. He’ll walk on his own, and stamp his feet and scream. He’ll patch words together to make sentences that articulate his pleasures and his sorrows.
But for now, I have spoken no words to Javier. The chatty middle-aged women have all the small talk covered. Occasionally one of the tenderly grizzled men will wink at Javier, as if the noble state of fatherhood is an acknowledgement between them.
“I’m pregnant,” Audrey says.
It’s nine or so at night, and Kevin is in the next room, scrolling through the New York Times
by laptop light. I keep quiet. Audrey had one abortion, four years ago, when she and Jeff were recently married. She told me and only me, certainly not our mother. She was relieved to be able to exercise the right to not have a child long before it would become a child, and she didn’t seem to have ever regretted it.
“What do you think I should do?” Audrey asks now.
“What? I mean, what do you want?”
“I might have it. I wasn’t planning to get pregnant, but maybe I’ll just let it happen this time. Maybe Mom’s right, and once I have a kid, I won’t be able to imagine my life without it.”
“What does Jeff think?”
“He’s not thrilled, but he’ll go along with it. He’s not going to punch me in the stomach or push me down the stairs.”
It occurs to me that she might have a miscarriage anyway, and I try to discard the thought.
“Now’s the part where you’re supposed to say I’d make a good mother.”
“You would,” I squeak. Audrey laughs.
“Who knows, right? You’re the one who always liked babies. But hey, maybe we’ll end up doing it together.”
I offer no assent, no sisterly chuckle. I haven’t told her, or anyone, that Kevin and I have been trying. Why discuss such things? Why say that you’re attempting to grow out your eyelashes? Why not wait until they grow too long, stick out from your eyelids like a rooster’s crown, sweep down your cheeks like a Chinese fan. If Audrey were around, I would ask her to trim them. Only she would have a steady enough hand, a careful enough eye. She would say, “You fool,” and then fix me up. I would close my eyes and tilt back my head, hear the satisfying snip of scissors cutting through abundance. Could you make a wish on an apron full of eyelashes? Would their numbers strengthen the wish’s power? Or is it only the chance falling of a single eyelash that makes it worth a wish?
Audrey chooses to ignore my silence, to spare me this time—or maybe she’s too wrapped up in her own expanding life.
After we’ve ended the call, Kevin comes into the room and changes into his pajamas. “What’s new with Audrey?” he asks, and when I tell him, since he’ll find out sooner or later, he says, “Just like that, huh, by accident?”
“Sounds like it.”
He settles heavily into bed, tugging the covers to his side. “Well I think we should stop trying to make it happen by accident.”
“Yeah, I’m following the calendar. You know, sex isn’t always a spontaneous seduction.”
“I mean we’ve got to get some help. Do the tests, follow the steps. It’s been long enough. Over a year.”
“I know how long it’s been.”
“But you don’t think we should do anything.”
I do think we should do things. I could carry around three hazelnuts; he could carry a mandrake root. We could place a small statue of a fertility goddess beside our bed. We could make a pilgrimage to this hill in England with a chalk outline of a giant sporting an enormous erection. And when all of the magical rituals have failed, we can make an appointment at a fertility clinic like the other sensible and desperate childless couples.
“That’s not true,” I say, but Kevin is already after me, because he is a person who believes in taking practical action and does so, and I am a person who dreams about taking radical action and does nothing.
“So fine, it’s easy for people like your sister who never even wanted a baby. Sometimes you have to work at things, give them a chance before you roll your eyes. What if you do become a mother? Are you going to teach our kid to give up, throw in the towel—it’s just too hard?”
I thump out of bed, angry in my underwear. Kevin grazes my hand. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.”
“No, go ahead. Be harsh.”
I stand blinking in the doorway, watching him blink. It’s one of those things you never think about until you do, and then how strange, the constant flickering of everyone’s eyelids. But imagine a person who didn’t blink, who stared at you with unshielded irises, like a picture in a biology book, like a doll, like the dead.
I didn’t want to have to invest my faith and hope in medical technology. I wanted Audrey’s surprise-surprise. To suddenly have a flower waterfall sea tendrils shooting stars flutter-kicking misty-eyed lullaby blooming through me. I wanted the romantic view of life to win out this time.
The baby and Javier—though that is surely not his name—haven’t been on the bus for almost a month. The flu, I thought at first, in its heyday season. Then I envisioned a long vacation, the baby’s first flight. But I am coming to believe in a more permanent, mundane reason for their disappearance. The dad goes to work at a different hour now. The baby attends another daycare. They have a new car, with the radio on, heat flowing from the vent, and the baby in his car seat, flapping his arms for no one to see.
The chatty people on the bus confer with each other over weariness and weather. Spring is on its way, they agree. Yup, winter is out like a bad dream. The bus driver says “So long, big guy” to the kid who seems barely old enough to ride the bus alone, with his Batman backpack and his Spiderman shoes kicking the air above the floor. My mom calls to crow about Audrey’s pregnancy; to plan a baby shower; to assure me it’s okay that Audrey’s going to have a baby first even though she’s the younger sister, because my turn will come, she just knows it. Audrey tells me that she is throwing up, she is showing, she is considering cloth diapers, she is priming the chickens for the arrival of their human sibling. I let them do the talking; I ask the solicitous questions a loving daughter and sister is supposed to ask.
But some mornings, looking out the bus window at the proud tulips popping up out of the earth, I pretend that I am the one among us who can’t stand babies. Ignorant thumbsuckers, uncivilized droolers, toothless malcontents. That new baby smell mothers swoon over—it’s just their own soured milk. The soft, creamy skin—see how puckered and red it gets when the baby screams. To take care of a baby, you have to become accustomed to the constant sound of unhappiness; to spit-up and yellow poop; to long hours of doing nothing that requires your mental acuity, your wit, your carefully cultivated self. You will be so very tired. Once a baby is born, she will seem to expand ten times in size with her relentless needs and wants. She will care about you only in relation to herself, will claim residence in your arms and lock eyes as if to never let you go; and then, when the delicate fringe of her eyelashes finally comes to rest, you will be stuck awake, unable to turn away.
Copyright © 2019 by Polly Rosenwaike. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.