The Sunday Rumpus Essay: The Only Thing That Matters

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In the beginning, I pushed the baby along the lake. When the baby cried, no matter what I offered him, the only thing I knew to do was strap him into the stroller and push him down the sidewalk. We passed mothers and other nannies pushing quiet babies and he screamed and I avoided eye contact. Sometimes I cried too.

The lake was moody, like us. It never looked the same; it was always changing its mind. But then I found that when we walked on busy streets, with traffic and sirens and stumbling drunks, the baby stopped crying. Sometimes he even fell asleep. So I left the bubble of parks and privilege that runs along the lake and walked west. I decided to learn each foot of the neighborhood, to always walk on a new street. I wanted to keep walking until my brain stopped; until there was only walking. It occurred to me that it might be foolish of me to wander like this, through a neighborhood I didn’t know. But it was mid-morning and I was with a baby. What would happen to us?

One day when we were walking, there was a pop. It came from inside of the building next to us, but it was loud. A firework, I thought (which says a lot about where I grew up). Several people sitting on the stoop jumped up. One woman ran to a window and started screaming into it.

“There is a woman out here with her newborn baby! What the hell are you doing? Her newborn baby! A baby!”

She turned to look at me. We both looked at the baby. He was sleeping.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m fine.” I said. “I’m fine.”

It didn’t seem like anyone inside was hurt. No one was saying why the gun had fired. I walked away and then I started shaking. I ran back to the baby’s apartment to apologize to the baby’s parents. I felt responsible. I felt like I had failed.

“What street were you on?” the baby’s father asked. “Yeah. Try to stay north of the post office.”

“We’re so sorry that happened to you,” the baby’s parents said. “Are you okay?”

They seemed to feel even guiltier than I did, as if they had pushed me down the block. Nothing had happened, so why were we all so sorry?

*

The baby’s parents had a very fussy baby and I didn’t have a job, so they had offered to pay me to watch the baby for a few hours a few days a week. Then they asked me to come for more hours, and more days, until it almost was a job.

When I arrived in the morning, the baby’s father was always ready to leave. He’d meet me at the door in his tennis clothes or biking gear or swimsuit and then then he would run outside.

“I’ll be back,” he would call over his shoulder.

I would take the baby and hold him up to the window of the apartment, bouncing him, looking out at the lake.

“There’s your dad,” I’d say, pointing to the black dot bobbing in the water, though I didn’t know if the baby could even see that far.

“Maybe I’ll try to take a nap,” the baby’s mother would say. She was pale with tired. “No, I should try to get a little work done, since you’re here.” She smiled. I smiled back. I hoped my smile was more convincing than hers.

I was going through a breakup. It was my first breakup, really. The first time I’d made the decision, the first time it wasn’t forced by time or place or circumstance. We were living together, so when I wasn’t with the baby, I was supposed to be packing, getting ready to move into my friend’s studio apartment with her. I would look at the keys to the storage unit I had rented, and then I would lie on the couch and watch the Food Network or Wimbledon for hours. When my boyfriend came home from work, I would go into the kitchen and pack and unpack the same box, waiting for him to look up from his computer, to stop playing his video game.

I was terrified of the finality, so I told both of us that we weren’t really breaking up. I was just moving out so that we could go back to the way things were before. We could go on dates again, spend time together that wasn’t just sitting in the same room, not speaking. Moving out was my attempt to get him to stop taking me for granted, to make him say he needed me without asking him to say it.

The baby needed me—for everything. He needed me to know when he was crying from hunger, from gas, when his whole head ached from the teeth trying to come in. He needed me to hold him close to me, to stop the world from being so large. The baby cried a lot, but I loved the moments when I could stop his screams, when I could anticipate his needs exactly. He made a half-smile when his mouth closed around the bottle and since he couldn’t speak, I could make that half-smile about me.

The baby’s parents needed me, too. I didn’t tell them about the breakup. They were busy looking for the people they remembered being, before the baby. I knew them when they had been those people. I talked to them as if they still were. I couldn’t help them find themselves and I certainly couldn’t tell them it would all turn out okay. I was too caught up in my own drifting. When they were out of the apartment—running errands, trying to write—I helped the only way I knew. During the baby’s short naps, I washed dishes, folded clothes, put scattered things away. I wanted to help without making them self-conscious. I could tell they were afraid of my judgment, afraid that I looked down on them. I couldn’t figure out how to tell them that I didn’t without sounding like I did.

*

I crashed my boyfriend’s car. It wasn’t on purpose, but it was my fault. I was going to pick up his suits from the tailor and I rear-ended someone at a stoplight. The light turned green and everyone started moving and then everyone stopped but me. I ran his little Chevy Cavalier into the back of a Suburban. It was like a parking lot collision—a little bump—until it wasn’t. Suddenly it was loud. I was going 10 mph, but a sensor was hit and the airbags deployed, punching me in the face, filling the car with a thick dust that felt like smoke. The airbags shattered the windshield. And just like that, the car was totaled. I sat there for a minute, checking on my limbs, thinking I must be hurt if all of that had happened.

A man got out of the Suburban, holding his neck.

“Oh my god, is everyone okay?” I asked. He glared, said nothing. There wasn’t a scratch on his car, but he still sued for $10,000 in damages. The police arrived.

“This isn’t my car,” I sobbed. I wasn’t a person who got into accidents. I was a good driver. I paid attention. I needed everyone to know this. The officers looked uncomfortable. They wrote me a ticket.

My boyfriend was at work, so he didn’t answer when I called. A friend’s girlfriend came to sit with me while they towed the car away. She drove me home.

“No one was hurt,” she said. “That’s the only thing that matters.”

“You let them tow my car?” my boyfriend said, when he finally called back. “So, you didn’t get my suits?”

Hours later I realized that he never asked me how I was, or if I was okay.

It should have been enough, for both of us, having to confront this giant, clichéd metaphor for our failed relationship. But I was not the kind of person who got into accidents. And he was not the kind of person who took responsibility.

I saw the officers again that summer. I pushed the baby past them. This time they were on bicycles, on patrol. I didn’t know what I should say, so I kept walking. I was afraid I’d cry again.

*

I cried with the baby, but I also got to laugh. Together we discovered and rediscovered that toes are wonderful. And so are mirrors and tickles and fistfuls of sand. I sang to him and read to him and rubbed his belly. I recited tongue twisters and he giggled at the strange, alliterative sentences and I recited them again. When I was with the baby, I had to be in his moment, with him. If I went into my head, stopped engaging, he would cry. It was exactly what I needed, exactly what made his parents so exhausted.

I never thanked them for the gift of letting me feel useful.

My ticket read: “Failure to reduce speed to avoid a collision.”

I read the paper over and over, even after I’d moved out, even after I’d gotten a job and stopped watching the baby. It made it sound like I had wanted a collision, like I had seen the bumper coming and decided not to brake.

 

Feature photo © brighter than sunshine, licensed under Creative Commons. 


Karen Shimmin is a writer, performer, and podcaster living in Chicago. She co-hosts All Write Already!, the “completely unpretentious” literary podcast, as well as Essay Fiesta, a monthly reading series. Find her at karen-shimmin.com. More from this author →