Rumpus Original Fiction: Being the Baby’s Heart

By

If I stopped rocking the chair while holding the baby, his heart stopped with me. So, I just kept going. We rocked in the nursery, which had pale yellow walls and a brand-new changing table and a crib with a striped sheet. The chair, which I got to know well, was a classic wooden rocker with a yellow foam cushion and two long rocking rails that propelled the chair into easy, long motions. I noticed, as I rocked, that we had arranged the room wrong. The crib was placed directly in the sunlight where it would bother the baby. We should have put the changing table next to the door.

The baby had blonde wisps of hair, taken from two straw-headed parents, and big eyes the color of a dreary beach that his dad and I visited just before he was born. Gray-green, and earthy, and cloudy. On that day, the water was too cold for us, and the beach was empty except for one family of tourists. Their children plunged into the icy waves like it was nothing, and I hoped my baby would be like that. Not like me. When I was a kid, I stuck my toe in the water and pouted if it was chilly. His dad and I walked down the beach, hand in hand. He kept touching my belly, which had the shape of a giant, straining orange. He said, I’m going to miss it, and I laughed, Stop. We had a picnic, and the blanket was embroidered with brown bears wearing clothes.

It was difficult for me to decide to get pregnant. I had watched my own mother’s life get pushed out by motherhood. There are photos of her riding on the back of someone’s motorcycle, or going hiking. But the only images I have in my head from growing up are her cooking or cleaning or driving me to soccer practice or putting her feet up at the end of the day and having a beer. The older and more independent I got, the more she slept and drank. She became dependent on her role as a mother, but it was a fleeting role, and when it turned, she was left with nothing.

His dad took my pinky with his pinky and swore that I would never just be a mom. That we would take turns changing diapers, and he would plan all the family vacations, and every Friday night I could still go downtown with my friends. But here I was, doing nothing but rocking the baby.

Every once in a while, when his dad wasn’t home, I stopped rocking. Just to see. But each time, after a few minutes, his heart stopped. I took a deep breath. A long one. And I started rocking again.

 

The baby was born in winter, and the doctors took vials of his blood and listened to his chest with chilly stethoscopes that made him cry. The doctor sat down with us, me in the rocker, and said: Your baby is beautiful. Just keep him rocking until his heart starts up.

I asked him, How am I supposed to stay awake?

He said, Mothers in these situations just figure it out. Think, the mothers who can lift their car in an emergency. It’s an adrenaline thing. In most of these cases, the baby’s heart repairs itself eventually.

What about the other cases?

The doctor told us not to worry about that.

When the baby’s dad left the room for a moment, I rocked forward and said harshly: You’ve gotta understand, there are other things I’m meant to do. I can’t just rock this baby all day.

The doctor said, No baby or family is normal. They all just have to figure out what’s best for them. He added, You’ll take great care of him.

 

A friend of mine had a baby a few years ago. I didn’t totally believe her, but she claimed he was perfect. He was a fleece-wrapped bundle that slept peacefully and didn’t grow teeth at all until after she weaned him off breastfeeding. She said some motherly ghost took over her body for the first six months and she wanted to be around him all the time, smell the crooks of his arms, softly squish his tiny toes like cannellini beans between her fingers, for every possible moment of every day. She didn’t know herself. Her husband was left alone on the other side of the house for most of the day and he took it a little personally. When I was pregnant, I met her for coffee. I asked her, Is it true?

Of course it’s true. Becoming a mother was so easy. It was in me. Our bond was steel. She sucked on her bottom lip. I wanted to ask more, but she had to pick up her child from her playdate. She said, Call me! as she whisked away, accidentally leaving her mug behind. I put it in the dishes bin for her.

 

After we were sent home from the hospital, the first thing I did was make his dad try to rock him. I said, That sexist doctor assumed that I’m going to be the one to rock him all the time, but you’ve got to help.

We carefully swapped places in the chair, and his dad rocked. I could see how wrong he was doing it. I felt it like needles up and down my arms. The pattern of the rocking didn’t match his heartbeat, and the baby went blue.

We swapped again, and I rocked him back to life. I made his dad pay attention to what I was doing. You’ve gotta match this perfectly, I said. I think I knew how to do it because I had his heartbeat inside me for so long. I gently pushed my feet against the floor and at the right moment let go, allowing the chair to creak forward. Then when his heart should beat, I pushed again. I said, You got it?

I got it, his dad said. He sounded annoyed. He tried again.

He didn’t have it. I could tell right away. C’mon, you’re doing it wrong.

No, I’ve got it.

I could tell that the baby’s heart was slowing, his skin going from a milky color to gray. Just stop.

No, I’m doing it.

I said, You’re killing him, and snatched the baby from his lap. I made him move from the chair and rocked the baby back alive. I wondered if our child would lose brain cells because his dad let him go heartless for a few moments.

His dad said, I’m sorry.

Not good enough. I cried.

 

This went on. Day in, all night, I sat in the rocking chair in the nursery, rocking his heart awake, keeping the baby alive. At first his doughy, sweet-smelling body started to get heavy in my arms. And then it became light. And then I didn’t know my own arms anymore, because I had his body instead of them. He never squirmed. He cried, and I kissed his cheeks. He put his mouth around my finger, and I pulled down my shirt so he could suck on my nipple.

A few weeks into this, his dad leaned against the crib. We spent so long picking out the crib and it’s not getting any use.

It felt like another lifetime now, texting each other links of product pages, of reviews, of recalls. Once or twice a week I would go by myself to the bar down the street for a drink—soda, once I was pregnant—and tread the newspaper, or sometimes a history book. It was an activity that relieved some kind of restlessness that lived under my skin. One that increased when his dad was home a lot, or when I felt disappointed in myself. I liked to live unwatched for a couple hours. Now, the baby’s eyes are always on me, large, blue camera lenses.

How’s work? I said. I realized it’s the first time I’ve asked in a while. He let out a breath.

Oh, you know. He paused, as if done. Then started up again. People can never keep the microwave in the break room clean of spaghetti sauce splatters.

He kept venting about his job, and I welcomed it. If there’s one thing I didn’t miss it was my job, except I missed even that, because even though I was just prepping business contracts, at least I could take a walk around the lake behind the office on a slow day.

Steadily, the baby breathed through his nose. But then he woke, and whimpered. His dad stood, and not being able to take him, leaned over us and stroked his face with his thumb. The baby settled down into my arms again, facing the other direction. His dad said, I can’t wait to take you to the zoo.

 

The minutes ran together like ink, and I didn’t know what day it was. I only knew from the routine of his dad’s house noises that time was passing. Metallic clanking from the kitchen while he made food for all of us. I rocked. Shuffling around the house, in that way he does, his heather wool socks making scratches on the carpet. I rocked. Answering the door for deliveries. I rocked.

I told him I can’t remember what the kitchen looked like. He laughed.

We got used to life like this. Me rocking, his dad working and caring and keeping me awake. We figured out the tricks to keeping the baby rocking while we changed his clothes and my clothes, while his dad fed both of us. I tried to stand and rock him at the same time, but it was too tricky: I had to stay in the chair. While his dad was at work, I tried listening to music or watching movies, but I found it distracting. I caught myself rocking off-beat while watching an intensive car-chase scene. I listened to audiobooks once in a while, if I found one I wanted to read.

His dad once came to me with a web page open on his phone to a mechanical crib that rocks babies on your behalf. I thought my days of rocking were over, until we realized there was no way of customizing the rocking motion, getting it to match the beat the baby’s heart needed.

It wasn’t too hard to cut from two incomes to one when we never went anywhere. We only had to pay insurance on one car. I noticed his dad kept wearing shirts when they developed small holes, but I didn’t say anything.

 

We asked our friends and family to leave us alone for a while, given the baby’s condition. But when the baby’s heart wouldn’t work on its own in a week, or two weeks, and it became two months, people started begging to see him. A few old coworkers zipped by with a basket of goodies, mostly rompers and diapers for the baby, but they included a gift card for audiobooks.

My close friends visited. They gave me little neck massages and put lotion on my hands. They lit candles. They offered to help keep me awake in the evenings, but their voices felt like they were from another world. It was more exhausting to have them there than not.

My family came, and they filed into the room. I was smaller than everyone in my chair, their faces bobbing over me, their necks looking long, their nostrils large. I never noticed how much everyone had the same ones. The same hearty nose. The same chin that was carved too sharp. I looked at the baby and thought I could see it in his chin, too. It unsettled me.

My mother asked if she could hold the baby. Just for a second. I said, No. You know what’s wrong with the baby. She said it wouldn’t be for too long, that his heart would be okay for just that moment.

I could tell how much she longed to hold a child again. Despite months of adapting to a motherly role, I wasn’t like her. I imagined handing over this baby, letting her take him instead, being the one responsible for his heart for just a moment. I wished that it was possible, and held him tighter.

My mother played with the small patch of hair that was growing on the top of his head instead. She let him grab her finger and put it in his mouth. She said, Wow, you have a strong grip, little man!

 

When my family left, I felt exhausted for the first time. His dad had an idea, and dragged the chair to the bedroom, where I continued to rock. He said, you deserve a treat. He kneeled in front of me and put his hands on my inner thighs. I held the baby up, away, and my husband pulled down the elastic waist of my leggings and put his fingers in me until I felt flush and relaxed. Then his dad lay on the bed and talked with me all night to help me stay awake. Mostly, he talked about memories. The ones we’ve already had and the ones we’ve yet to make. He wanted to teach the baby how to bike, and I believed it could happen.

 

I have a cousin whose wife had a baby. It was going to be a little girl named Maria. But when the due date arrived, the whole family vanished. They stopped coming to Christmas and my aunt never spoke of them, at least not that I heard. I wondered if the mother and Maria were like me and the baby, rocking away forever.

 

The baby’s heart still wasn’t beating on its own and I was developing crusty yellow sores around my hips and at the back of my knees. His dad took some money out of our savings to get the doctor to come by for a home visit.

The doctor grinned when he came into the room. What a bouncing, beautiful baby boy!

I didn’t talk very much these days, it took a lot out of me, but I said, We’re worried about him.

The doctor put a thermometer in the baby’s mouth and held his finger up to check if the baby’s eyes followed it when he moved it back and forth. He listened to his chest and stomach and tickled his feet, making him giggle. The doctor said, You’re doing a wonderful job. He’s very healthy.

When will his heart start working?

The doctor shrugged. It’s hard to say. You never know with cases like this. He put some kind of lotion on my sores, and he left it with us for his dad to use.

 

I heard a rumor once about a girl I knew in high school who had a baby. It never stopped crying. One night, in the wee hours, she was so frustrated with her baby that she shook it dead.

 

Though some days I felt more exhausted than others, I began to slip into a fog in which I barely knew anything but the rhythm of the motion I had to keep up. I didn’t even notice when his dad came in and out the room, to feed us, to change the baby’s romper, to make sure we were both okay. The baby laughed for the first time when his dad tickled his stomach, and I barely smiled. I kicked the floor at the right time. The chair rocked like a heartbeat. The baby stayed alive. The only things left in my head. I wasn’t sure, but I think he was growing. He was getting heavier. Or maybe I was just getting more tired.

 

The front door’s bang of his dad arriving home after work felt later than usual. He didn’t come into the bedroom right away. I called out to him, and he walked in through the doorway. But he didn’t sit with me. He paced around the room, opening and closing the dresser. He stood at the window and pried open the blinds to look out onto the dark street.

I said, Will you read me a story? I’m feeling sleepy.

No, he said.

What do you mean, no?

Can’t you just listen to some music or something? I worked all day on an important report, I’m tired.

He dragged my chair out of the bedroom and left me in the nursery while he slept. I stared at the wall. I knew every pockmark in the plaster. I wanted to be free of this chair, if only so I could fill the uneven spots with spackle and paint over it. My yellow wall would be slick as glass.

My head started to nod. I allowed myself to close my eyes while rocking. I jerked awake a few times throughout the night, but I never slept for long. The baby was still breathing, still the color of milk. I took the small naps again and again.

 

In the morning, his dad apologized. He said, I’m just having a hard time.

Before work, he carefully brushed my hair, which hadn’t been brushed in weeks, and rubbed my shoulders. He made me oatmeal with apple and brown sugar and fed the baby mashed banana. It made it easier to face the day of rocking ahead of me.

He updated a baby calendar on the nursery wall: six months old. He offered to try again, to try and rock for a while, but he looked bent and weak, a man who couldn’t live up to the tasks life has handed him, and I just knew. I knew he wouldn’t do it right. That he would mess up, the way he did before. That he would kill the baby.

I told myself: one more day, and the baby will be well again. I rocked in the nursery through the morning and in the bedroom through the night, taking my miniature sleeps. I gave the baby a red, silicone ring to suck on. I let his Dad rest instead of helping me stay awake. He worked so hard. And he was mostly useless, when it came to the baby. The next day, I said to myself again, one more day. The next day, I repeated: one more day.

 

When I was a college student, during one of my fights with my mother—it was how I didn’t come home enough, or how I didn’t appreciate, enough, the packs of laundry detergent she sent in the mail with the scent I’ve always hated—I asked her why she couldn’t stop being a mother.

She said very confidently, I can’t help being a mother. I’ve always been meant to be a mother. I’m sure of it.

I told her she needed something else to do. I wanted to remind her of all the things I know she used to do that she has replaced with watching television specials about terrible things that have happened to young college-aged women like me. Her closet full of casual sports equipment. Her ambitions of learning to reupholster her own furniture. Instead, I meanly hung up.

 

It was storming, and the branches outside the nursery window scraped the glass. It was keeping the baby awake and fussy. His dad told me it was supposed to rain until nighttime. I said, I can’t remember what we used to do before the baby came.

He paused while fitting a romper over the baby’s chubby arm. He said, The baby needs bigger rompers. And he said, I remember.

I demanded, Tell me.

He finished snapping shut the buttons of the romper and sat down in front of my chair. Like he sometimes does, he wrapped his hands around the rocker rails and let his fingers get gently bumped. We’ve never discussed it, but I liked it when he did that. It felt like some grasp at physicality between us.

He told me I was a fun person. That I did not like to be tied down by anything, and that I kept a piece of me to myself at all times. He could always see in my eyes there was something I wasn’t sharing, and that’s why he married me. I made him try. We used to row down the river in a double-seater kayak. I had a pair of binoculars for watching herons. I liked to go dancing. I made crafts in the living room, and left string and colored paper on the coffee table. He promised me I would be back in the kayak soon.

Him telling me helped me remember, but the memories felt like a story. I wondered if when I returned to the river, it would feel enormous and troubling.

I kicked the floor at the right time. The chair rocked like a heartbeat. It thundered outside. The baby stayed alive.

 

His dad asked me again if he should try rocking the baby. I held the baby close and said, Are you trying to kill him?

He put his fingers in my hair at the roots, and said, Of course not. He didn’t try to take the baby from my arms.

 

It stormed again. I figured it must be summer. The patter on the roof was like a blanket. In my sleepy haze, I remembered sitting on the covered porch during rain with a deck of cards and two bottles of beer.

His dad and I had played blackjack in our shorts, listening to the pour and taking whiffs of the sulphur being beaten out of the dirt. People not from here are afraid of the thunder. It made us feel at home. It made us feel alive. We made bets: If I win this round, you have to stand in the rain. If you win this round, I have to go down on you later.

We noticed that a single firefly, blinking in the corner, took shelter with us. It’s rare to see them this far south. We took it as a sign of good luck. When the deck was out, we went inside and had sex on the couch and, the storm still going strong, fell asleep.

 

I woke up, and his dad was sobbing. It occurred to me that this is the first time I’d heard him cry since the baby was born. Then I realized he was holding him.

I tried to leap up, but I nearly collapsed, and I had to lean on the chair. I said, What’s wrong with the baby?

His dad turned around. He said, He’s okay.

And there he was, our broken-hearted baby, smiling. His eyes transporting me somewhere. He looked so much smaller in his dad’s arms than he did in mine.

He’s okay?

I hugged them, and I put my ear on the baby’s chest, and heard his heart, beating all on its own.

Yeah, his dad said, and wept again.

 

After the baby’s heart fixed itself, I took a long shower. His dad took me to get a massage. I went shopping. I had to buy clothes that were a couple sizes bigger.  I bought linen pants. I wasn’t vain anymore. I took a ceramics class.

Every time I looked at the baby, now a child, my breath shortened. If I held him, I cried. I stayed in my room when I wasn’t at ceramics class. I secretly browsed the internet for jobs in other places. His dad took over the care, now that it was easier. He got used to sleeping on the couch. I didn’t complain when he bought the wrong brand of diapers. I was like a ghost in the master bedroom, watching from above this two-person family stumble through their days. The morning feedings. The dressing up in elastic shorts and Velcro shoes for daycare. The cajoling it took in the evening to get the kid to eat mashed carrot. The endless naps they took together, the child curled up on his dad’s chest. His dad asked me to join them—to hold the rubber spoon of baby food, or just to listen to the growing complexity of the vocal babbles—but the invitations became less frequent the longer I turned them down.

It took a long time to recover from my months in the chair. When I could go for a long walk without wobbling, I told his dad I realized family life wasn’t for me.

On a Tuesday afternoon, when the child was one year old, I left. His dad protested, but not exuberantly.

 

The child could eventually feed himself and put on clothes. He didn’t match his shirt and pants, but no one minded. He’d grown into a tiny person with curly blonde hair and those gray eyes. The nursery was transformed into a children’s room with blue walls and a twin bed and boy-sized boxers flung over the lamp and the door handle. I know, because his dad sends photos.

His dad, on the phone, said he doesn’t remember his mother much. He was told his mother left because she wasn’t well, and he seemed to accept it as much as any child can. But when the boy’s upset he curls up in the rocking chair and pushes back and forth in an eerie rendition of the rhythm that haunted the house day and night for half a year. His dad tried to ask if he remembers those months in the chair, but the boy is confused. He says the rocking is comforting.

I haven’t escaped that beat either. Sometimes, when I’m crouched stiffly in front of the pottery wheel, watching the clay morph under my fingers, the wheel an extension of my arms, it feels a lot like the rocking. It makes me need a moment to breathe.

 

I send the child gifts. I sent him a yellow mug, which his dad says he accidentally smashed. I sent him a ceramic elephant, and then a cat. I sent him a star-shaped Christmas ornament I cut out of clay. I sent him the first wind chime I ever made. It was glazed in the colors of the beach. His dad said this one’s the boy’s favorite. He hung it on the porch and listens when it storms.

***

Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.


Carly Rae Zent is a Floridian currently in the Midwest pursuing her MFA at Purdue University. She has previously been published in The Offing, Peach Mag, and Salt Hill and her work was a finalist for the Porter House Review 2019 Editor’s Prize in fiction. You can view her publications on her website, (carlyraezent.com), or follow her tweets at @_seeray. More from this author →