Rumpus Original Fiction: New Hallways, New Doors
After the baby is born and her screaming redness fades, Ben is surprised she is a little yellow, the color of an onion. Then, when she finally opens her eyes in the hospital, the whites are yellow too. “She has jaundice,” the doctor says. “It’s not a big deal. It’s very common.” But Jessie cries anyway, rubs the baby’s little foot.
“They’ll just put her under some lamps for a while,” Ben tells her.
“I don’t like it,” says Jessie.
“No one likes it,” Ben says. “But it really is okay.”
He gives her shoulders a quick squeeze, and she gives him a weak smile. She cries when the doctor places tiny goggles on the baby’s face, puts her under the lamp. Two days later, they leave, though she is still yellow, like buttercream, like corn silk.
Now it is nearly fall, and the baby is small and pink. Ben and Jessie and Kathryn, their tiny girl, are strolling through the park. It’s the late afternoon, all yellow light in trees. Kathryn is a month old, and Ben watches Jessie worry whether it’s too soon to take her out of the house. Her worry is active, observable—in her fingers as she fusses with the baby’s clothes and digs in the diaper bag, in her face, around her eyes, in the hand she places on the baby’s chest as she sleeps. “Just making sure she’s breathing,” Jessie said the other night. Here in the park, she pushes the stroller and stops every few feet to adjust the shade of the bassinet so that no bit of Kathryn is in the sun. “She’s fine,” Ben says. “Cave people had babies in the sun all the time. Or think about tribes in the Amazon.”
“I guarantee tribes in the Amazon still don’t let their babies roast in the sun,” Jessie says. “And we’re a long way from cave people.”
“Some of us more than others,” Ben says, and Jessie smiles. “Speaking of cave people,” he says. “Tomorrow I get a fresh batch. Can you believe it?” Ben teaches math to freshmen at an all-boys school.
“Not really,” says Jessie. “The summer went by fast.”
“Well, we’ve been a little busy,” Ben says, nodding down at Kathryn, who’s dozing. Two little boys run by, yelling, and Ben watches Jessie flinch. He knows she’s waiting for the baby to wake up.
“I can’t even remember anything about it,” says Jessie. “It’s like the last nine months never happened.”
“I know what you mean,” says Ben, even though he doesn’t. “You know what?” he says. “You should bring Kathryn up to school one day for lunch this week.”
Jessie frowns. She scratches at her eyebrow. “It’s so weird going up there,” she says. “I always feel like I’m intruding on something. A boys only club.”
“You’re not,” Ben says. “And there are lots of women teachers there. Think about that. They’re intruding every day.”
“You just said I wouldn’t be intruding,” Jessie says.
“You wouldn’t be,” he says. “Come on. You know what I mean.”
“Maybe,” she says.
“I’ll miss y’all,” Ben says. “My two girls.”
In the stroller, Kathryn makes a sound like a very small dinosaur. Jessie stops strolling and reaches down to pick her up. The baby turns her face from side to side, into the sun, into a shadow, into the sun again, and Jessie holds her close. “She’s hungry,” Jessie says. “I’m going to feed her.”
“Here?” says Ben. He looks around. The two boys who ran past them a few minutes ago have been wrangled by their parents. A woman in spandex shorts jogs by.
“I’ll just sit here,” Jessie says, and she walks over to a sunny patch of grass and sits and slips her breast out of her tank top, attaching Kathryn in a quick, fluid motion.
“Oh,” says Ben. “Okay.” He walks over and sits beside his wife and baby. “Look at her little hands,” he says. Her fingers are on Jessie’s skin, stroking or scratching, he can’t tell, but Jessie doesn’t answer. She is focused intently on Kathryn, watching the curve of her lips as she nurses. Ben suddenly feels very far away from his wife and daughter, miles away, in a different realm entirely, and he swears that if he extended his arm to touch them, they would be too far away. He would never be able to reach them.
The next morning, Jessie is already awake by the time Ben’s alarm goes off. She’s sitting up against the pillows, wearing a nightgown—she always slept in her underwear before Kathryn, even when she was pregnant, her belly huge and bare and otherworldly—and holding the baby against her, her phone in one hand. “How’s our girl?” he asks.
“I’m tired,” says Jessie. “And I keep reading all these articles about all the ways babies just randomly die. It’s a miracle any of us get out of this alive.”
Ben sits up now. “I hate to be morbid,” he says. “But none of us do.”
“I meant infancy, Ben,” Jessie says. “Not life in general.”
“She’s sleeping,” Ben says. “What if you went to sleep now, too?”
“I don’t know,” she says.
Ben leans over and kisses her shoulder, the nightgown covering it. “I’m going to get ready for work,” he says.
“The first day,” Jessie says, as if she’s just remembering. Ben nods. He takes a shower and gets dressed, grabs a bagel from the kitchen, and when he goes back to the bedroom to say goodbye to Jessie, she and Kathryn are both crying quietly, Kathryn like a kitten. The pillows are arranged around Jessie in the bed so she looks like some sort of sad, ancient queen in a palanquin.
“Don’t leave me here alone,” Jessie says. “What if I can’t do it by myself? How will I take a shower if no one else is here?”
“You can do it,” Ben says.
“I don’t even really know her.”
“I’m late,” he says. “I love you.”
“No,” says Jessie, but Ben tells her he has to go, and he does.
The school day runs smoothly. Ben is good at his job, good at controlling the boys who wrestle and push and nip at each other, like wolf pups, all jostling for the spot at the head of the pack; Ben is good at reminding them that spot will never belong to them, that it’s his alone.
On his lunch break, he calls Jessie, but she doesn’t answer. “I hope this means you’re sleeping,” he says on her voicemail. He tries her again after work, as he’s walking out to the car, and she doesn’t answer then either. Finally, he’s turning onto their street when his phone rings. “Hey,” he says to Jessie. “Everything okay?”
“Fine,” she says. “Kathryn is sleeping. She had a good day.”
“Did you?” he asks.
“It was fine,” she says again. “I can see you from the window. You passed the house.”
Ben lowers his head to look out the passenger side window. “Shit,” he says. “How did I do that?”
“I’ll see you in a minute,” Jessie says. He pulls into a driveway and turns back around. But when he arrives at his house, he sees why he missed it. Their house was painted gray this morning, the color of a storm cloud or a dolphin, but as he pulls into his own driveway, watches the driveway gate creak open, the house before him is white. Jessie is standing at the window. She waves as he gets out of the car.
Jessie says she’s just as confused as Ben about the house. “But it looks nice,” she says. In the morning before Ben leaves for work, they stand together outside and squint up at the house in the early sun. Jessie shrugs and bounces Kathryn in her arms. “I’m not sure I could have picked a better white myself,” she says. “Very clean. Crisp.”
“It makes me concerned,” Ben says.
“I like it,” says Jessie.
“It feels like I’m living in the wrong house,” he says.
“Go to work,” says Jessie. “Have a good day.”
“Are you going to be all right?” he asks her. He thinks about her crying in bed the morning before and imagines her heading there again as soon as he leaves. He wonders if she’s putting on a brave face for him.
“Just tired,” Jessie says. “What can you do, though?”
Ben kisses her, kisses Kathryn, who makes a perfect O with her mouth, and wriggles her face and looks surprised, as if it happened without her knowing. When he drives off, they’re still standing there, Kathryn and Jessie, and the sun on them makes them look like fairies in a meadow.
At school, he is relieved nothing has changed. His desk is clean and orderly. The boxes of calculators are neat, too, ordered and numbered. The walls of the classroom are still white, and it strikes him how institutional this white is. Jessie was right: the white of their house is perfect.
One Saturday night, about a month into the school year, a month in the strange white house, Jessie goes out to dinner with friends, and Ben puts Kathryn to bed. She’s still in the stage where she stays up later than she should, and Ben puts her in her bassinet first at 7 p.m.—swaddled up tightly, he thinking he could toss her like a football, and how she would arc neatly in the air and land in a receiver’s arms—then again at 9 p.m., though she is wild and sad, pushing against the confines of the swaddling blanket that pins her arms to her sides.
At 9:30 p.m., Jessie is back. She drifts into the nursery room, like a leaf carried by the wind, no choice where it goes. Ben is rocking Kathryn in the glider, and she is wailing, and Jessie drifts now to her, and Ben feels Kathryn, even in her mania, drift reflexively toward her, away from him. “I’ll take her,” Jessie says, but she already has her in her arms.
“There were two good hours,” Ben says.
“It’s okay,” Jessie says. From where Ben still sits in the glider, Kathryn is just a tangle of white blanket and one little arm with fingers twisting a lock of Jessie’s hair. “Ouch,” says Jessie, but she says it in a way like she doesn’t mind.
“I’ll keep rocking her,” Ben offers.
Jessie is swaying with the baby. The curtains haven’t been closed all the way, and a crack of light shines in through the room. As she sways, the bright line of light appears across her face, like ceremonial paint, and then disappears and reappears as she moves from side to side.
“I don’t mind,” she says. “Go watch TV. I’ll be in there eventually.” She looks at him in the glider, and he gets up. The girls slide into the chair.
Jessie begins to murmur things to Kathryn as soon as Ben closes the door. He stands there for a few minutes, just listening, and he can’t understand what she’s saying, and it strikes him that it isn’t because her voice is quiet or a door separates them but because it’s another language that she’s speaking. He waits until all is quiet again. Then he sneaks away.
When Jessie joins him on the couch, she leans back and closes her eyes. “Let’s go to bed,” Ben says.
“Amen,” says Jessie, but she doesn’t move.
“What do you say to Kathryn?” asks Ben. “When you’re rocking her?”
Jessie opens her eyes. “Just the usual baby things,” she says. She shrugs. “Nothing special.”
“Like ‘you’re a good girl, I love you?’” he asks.
“Yep,” says Jessie. “Why?”
“Do you say it in another language ever?”
“What language would I say it in?” Jessie asks. She laughs.
“I don’t know,” says Ben.
“I don’t even know another language,” she says, but she rubs at her eye as she says this, and Ben isn’t sure he believes her.
A month later, he is certain he hears Jessie say something to Kathryn in the same language he heard her use before. She is doing tummy time with Kathryn on the floor of the living room, the both of them on their stomachs facing each other. She’s saying encouraging things to Kathryn, who’s crying and pushing up on her little hands, her fingers splayed out like very small maple leaves. Ben comes in and sits down next to Jessie. “Good job, Kathy!” Jessie says.
“She’s so strong,” Ben marvels.
“And so smart,” Jessie says. “You can just tell.”
“Is she going to roll over?” he asks. “Can you roll over, Kathryn?” But Kathryn is still crying. Jessie says something to her that Ben doesn’t understand. It’s a soft language, with cooing vowels, a musical lilt.
“What?” he says. He looks at his wife, and she squeals, shining eyes still on their little girl on the floor, and he looks down too, and Kathryn is on her back, looking dazed. “She rolled over,” he says.
“Yes!” says Jessie.
“I heard you just now,” Ben says. “Whatever it was you said.”
Jessie scooches herself up into a sitting position too and looks at him. “What?” she asks.
“You said something to Kathryn in a different language,” he says, “and she understood you and rolled over.”
Jessie laughs. “Oh, okay,” she says. “Ben, I’m just talking. I don’t know.”
“She didn’t do anything when I asked her,” he says.
“You are being completely crazy. She doesn’t do anything anyone asks her,” Jessie says. “Are you okay?”
“I’d feel better if I understood what the fuck you’re saying,” he says. “And why you won’t just say things everyone can understand.”
Without a word, Jessie stands up and scoops up Kathryn, and they leave Ben alone in the room.
Ben apologizes later that night. Jessie tells him it’s okay, but she doesn’t understand, and he says he doesn’t either. He says he must have been hearing things. He’s very tired, he tells her. They don’t speak about it again, but Ben keeps listening to her when she talks to Kathryn, waiting for her to slip. Which she does. She doesn’t even try to hide it from him. She just talks and talks to the baby and then to him, and sometimes it takes him a minute to understand her, or it takes her a minute to shift back to English. He can’t tell.
On talk radio at the gym, he hears someone talking about speaking in tongues. He googles on his phone “how do you speak in tongues?” And even though he is pretty sure that isn’t what’s happening with Jessie, he feels discouraged because apparently it’s a mysterious thing; no one knows how you learn the language. You just suddenly have it, and then it’s gone, and you didn’t even know it was there.
Kathryn catches a stomach bug and spends a week throwing up and soiling endless diapers with the most heinous waste Ben has ever smelled. He watches Jessie strip off vomit-encrusted clothes and leave them on the bathroom floor. “Gross,” he says.
“Tell me about it,” she says. She’s wearing no bra and a pair of giant, hideous panties she bought for her postpartum recovery but which have somehow made it into her regular underwear rotation. She slips on a t-shirt, steps into shorts. “I feel worse for Kathy,” she says. “Who knew she had so much poop in that tiny body?”
“You must be really scared,” Ben says. “To see her sick like that.”
“Not really,” says Jessie. “The doctor said she’s fine as long as she isn’t dehydrated.”
“Nervous then,” says Ben.
“I’m okay,” Jessie says. She shrugs. “Babies get sick sometimes. But you’re sweet to worry about me.”
“Isn’t that my job?” Ben asks. “Or wasn’t it at some point in time? To tell you everything is fine?”
“I didn’t say you weren’t allowed to,” she says. “I just said it was sweet.” And she kisses him and walks out of the room.
Jessie and Ben decide that she will come visit him at work one day, now that Kathryn is a little older and more predictable. “She is?” Ben asks.
“Yeah,” says Jessie. “She’s kind of on a schedule. Haven’t you noticed?”
“I guess so,” he says.
On the appointed day, Jessie strolls Kathryn into Ben’s classroom during the lunch hour, and a few boys are there in the room as well, playing games on their laptop with one hand, a sandwich in the other hand, or working on homework. “Hi,” says Jessie shyly.
“Boys,” Ben says. “This is my wife, Mrs. Morris. And this—” He scoops Kathryn up from her stroller and presents her to the room. “This is Kathryn.”
The boys show mild, dutiful curiosity about the baby. They show mild, dutiful politeness to Jessie, who stands with her arms folded and a stiff smile. “Sit,” says Ben, leading her to his desk. “Make yourself at home.” In his arms, Kathryn squirms, blinks slowly. Her cheeks turn a darker shade of pink, her body tenses.
“Thomas farted,” announces one of the boys. “It smells like shit.”
“Language,” says Ben.
“I didn’t,” says Thomas. “I bet it’s the baby. Babies poop all the time.”
Ben looks down at Kathryn. “Oh no,” he says. He turns her over. A golden brown spot blooms up her back. The boys howl. He holds Kathryn out with great care and fear, the way you would handle a small nuclear weapon, and he notices a Rorschach-like imprint of brown on his dress shirt.
Jessie jumps up to take the baby, who’s crying now, hands balled into angry fists, and Ben points her to the bathroom down the hall, and she hurries out. Ben strips down to his undershirt. “Take it off, Mr. Morris,” says Thomas.
When Jessie comes back, her own shirt is mysteriously damp, and Kathryn is naked except for a diaper, the adhesive straps pulled tight over her little hips. She’s crying, arching her back, her face as red as it was the minute she was born, before she turned yellow and then pink. “I forgot a change of clothes,” Jessie says. “I can’t believe it. And there’s no changing table in the restroom.”
“There’s not much need for one here,” Ben says. Jessie is looking down, reaching into her diaper bag, but he thinks she rolls her eyes at him. She tosses a plastic Subway bag with a sandwich in it onto his desk.
“Here,” she says. “We’re just going to go.”
“Are you sure?” Ben asks.
“Yes,” says Jessie. Kathryn wails, and he can picture her little tonsils quivering the way they do in cartoons. Even after they leave, he can hear her crying all the way down the hallway.
“That was intense,” says one of the boys when the girls are gone. “That sucks.”
“Just eat your lunch,” Ben says, and the room quiets down to its normal din of boy sounds—clicking of computer keys, snickering, idle chatting, the bouncing of a tennis ball against the wall of the room next door. Ben feels relieved.
After school, Thomas comes by so Ben can show him his most recent test grade. “It’s bad,” Ben warns him. When Thomas sees it, circled in red ink at the top of the paper, his shoulders slump. He stares at the paper in front of him. Ben worries he’s going to cry, and he does. Just quietly, though, wiping the back of his hand across one eye. “Hey,” says Ben. “It’s not the end of the world.” Thomas stays for ten more minutes while they come up with a game plan, and as Ben walks him out the door, he claps him on the shoulder in a fatherly way. Thomas smiles as he leaves.
“A kid cried today,” Ben tells Jessie over dinner. “Bombed a test.”
“Awkward,” says Jessie.
“It was okay,” Ben said. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was one of the boys from lunch.”
“Oh,” she says. “I would ask which one, but I was a little distracted.”
“I’m glad I could help him, though,” Ben says.
“Me, too,” says Jessie. “Good for you.”
Soon the house begins to rearrange itself: Kathryn’s nursery gains a few feet in length and moves closer to the master bedroom, the kitchen shares a wall now with the spare bedroom instead of the living room, there are three more stairs leading up to the front porch than there used to be. “Okay,” says Ben. “Seriously. What the fuck?”
“Honestly,” Jessie says, “it’s not affecting anything, right? We can still live here. Nothing’s actually wrong.”
“Sure, but it’s unnerving,” Ben says. “At the very least. Come on. You have to admit that.”
“I grew a child in my body, Ben,” Jessie says. “And then pushed it out of what is usually a very small hole. After that, nothing is weird anymore.”
“No,” he insists. “That’s natural. This is not.”
“I kind of like it,” Jessie says. “I’m hoping it makes my closet bigger.” She pauses for a minute, folds two of Kathryn’s onesies and a little dress, shaping them into rectangles. “Besides,” she says without looking up, “why should it matter to you? You’re hardly here. Meanwhile, Kathryn and I are here all the time.” Now she looks up at Ben, her hands still moving, pairing two socks together.
“Well,” says Ben. He feels an urge to reach over and sweep the folded baby clothes off the bed. “I live here, too,” he says.
“Of course you do,” says Jessie. “It’s just we live here more.”
“Oh,” says Ben.
Jessie takes the pastel rectangles of clothes and stacks them on top of each other. She puts the piles in the laundry basket to transfer to Kathryn’s room. “I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s just how it is.”
“I can be home more,” Ben says. “Or just wait till summer. I’ll be here every day, all day long.”
“Okay,” Jessie says. “Sounds good. That will be fun.”
“Someone has to go to work,” Ben says. “We need money.”
“I know,” says Jessie. “I wasn’t trying to say you needed to be here more. I was just explaining why the house, the way it moves and all of that, should matter less to you.” She picks up the laundry basket and gives him the tiniest kiss as she squeezes past. “You’re here the perfect amount.”
Ben thinks about that for the rest of the day. He counts the number of hours he is gone during the work week: twelve hours at home, twelve away. Fifty percent is a terrible grade, but for Jessie, he is sad to think, it’s perfect.
One day, the autumn sky bright and blue, the house shrinks itself so that the yard is giant, nearly taking over the entire lot, the house a storybook home for gnomes or fairies or some such small creature, and Jessie and Kathryn spend the whole day outside, squealing in delight at the field of their lawn, first playing on a blanket, and then rolling through the grass. “Come on,” Jessie cries to Ben. “Come play.” And he does for an hour until he begins to feel annoyed at the sprawl of the yard, the tight quarters of the little white house. All of it is strange, and he is discomfited by the feeling. When he goes in, Jessie is singing Kathryn a song he has never heard and doesn’t understand.
The house is back to normal by Kathryn’s bedtime, but Ben regards it warily, waits for it to change and change again without ever thinking at all about what he wants.
When Jessie is five months old, they transition her to her own crib in the nursery. “This will be good,” Ben says. “I’ve actually always thought she didn’t sleep well in her bassinet because you’re in here, and she smells you or something. Now she’ll sleep better, I bet.”
“It’s not my fault,” Jessie says. “Don’t try to blame it on me.”
“That’s not what I said,” Ben says.
“I just miss her,” she says. They’re in bed together, and Jessie clutches the monitor and watches Kathryn on the screen. “Maybe I should open our door so we can hear her.”
“Which one?” says Ben, pointing at the two doors in their bedroom. They’ve been having a door problem recently, with the house procreating door after door of different sizes and shapes, some that swing and some that slide and some that never open at all. Jessie smiles at this comment, and he smiles too, and he loves her, maybe, more than he did a minute ago. She’s still holding the monitor, and he leans over to watch the screen. Kathryn sleeps on her back, with her hands up over her head, like she’s just scored a touchdown.
“See?” says Ben. “Look how peaceful she is.”
“I’m going to watch her a little longer,” Jessie says. “Just to make sure she’s fine.”
“She’s fine,” says Ben. “I’m turning off the light.” He falls asleep quickly, and he isn’t sure how long he’s been asleep when he feels Jessie grab his shoulder.
“I feel worried about her alone in there,” she whispers. “Will you hug me?”
He rolls over to his side and wraps his arms around her.
“Please,” she says.
“I am,” he says.
“I don’t feel anything,” Jessie says, and he sees that her eyes are closed, and he wonders if she’s talking in her sleep. He hugs her tighter to him. “Fine,” she says. “Don’t then. I don’t care.” And even though he holds her the rest of the night, she wakes up every so often to beg him to touch her just once, to let her know he’s still there.
In the morning, Ben asks Jessie if she’s okay. “Yeah,” she says. “I just missed having Kathryn so close by. I kept worrying she would wake up and think we left her.”
“You seemed really sad,” Ben says.
“You wouldn’t take care of me,” she says. “I needed some encouragement because it was really hard being so far away from Kathryn, and you wouldn’t even give that to me.”
“You’re crazy,” says Ben. “I held you all night, every time you asked.”
“I couldn’t feel you,” she says.
Ben pulls her into his arms, and she shakes her head. “It doesn’t feel like anything,” she says. She looks at the clock on the microwave. “You’re going to be late,” she says.
At school, Ben shakes the hand of every boy as they walk in the door of his classroom. Some hesitate, some grab his hand reflexively, as though the only thing you could do to an extended hand is put yours in it. “Damn,” says one, rubbing his hand when Ben lets go. “You don’t have to squeeze so hard.” Ben feels confident the problem, then, isn’t with him.
But that night, Jessie claims she can’t feel him when he kisses her hello, when he puts his arms around her while she washes Kathryn’s bottles in the sink, when he holds her as she cries and watches their baby on the monitor.
Ben thinks about Jessie all day at work the next day, how she doesn’t feel him. He lets the kids play stupid calculator games and do work for other classes. He googles “wife can’t feel,” and the results are, to say the least, unhelpful. He googles “magic,” “witch doctor,” “priest.” He wants to find someone to help them. When the bell rings, he goes straight to his car and drives home.
The floor plan is slightly different this afternoon—he takes a new corner too sharp, trips a little—but the rooms are empty. “Hey!” he calls into each one. Finally, he sees a new hallway extending from a corner of the kitchen and at the end of it a big wooden door. It looks like a door that belongs in Beowulf or Game of Thrones, sturdy and medieval. He pushes it open, but behind it is another door, a front door, like the one they have on their white house, heavy and dark with a row of tiny windows above a ledge. That one opens, too, to a flimsy sliding door. He hears faint singing. “Jessie!” he yells. The singing stops.
“Can you let me in?” he asks. “The doors have gotten out of control.” He kicks the closet door in, and the next is a patio door, one long window covered by plantation shutters. He pulls the cord to open the blinds, and there, in the nursery—it moved, when did it move?—are Kathryn and Jessie.
Jessie sees him. She waves her hand, waves Kathryn’s, curled in a tiny fist. They’re sitting on the floor, a pile of wooden alphabet blocks between them. Ben remembers when Jessie unwrapped those at the baby shower. She had taken them out of the box, spelled first MOM, then DAD, pointed at him.
“Let me in,” Ben says. “The door is locked. I want to come in.”
But Jessie doesn’t hear him. She just gestures at the door, come in, but he can’t. The handle won’t move. He kicks the door, but the shutters are in the way. He rips them off, and now Jessie watches him curiously, like a goddess on a mountain in the clouds puzzling over the ways of mortal men. He stares in through the glass and sees the nursery has expanded beyond its dresser, crib, glider, toys, books, the lamp shaped like a unicorn. It has depth, it has hills in the distance, cheerful clouds like lamb’s wool on the horizon, even a playground, a whole world beyond the small one he and Jessie first built together.
He pulls at the handle, kicks at the glass. He looks around him for something heavy to throw at it and shatter the glass, but he worries about scaring them, about shards of glass flying across the room. Jessie says something, and he thinks he understands her. “I’m trying,” he says.
Try harder, she might be telling him, and he does.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.