The Exby Kelly Morris
Wade's wife Callie didn't want to give birth in a hospital. Callie was a nurse and said that she knew what all went on in hospitals.
But isn't that what women do, asked Wade, give birth in hospitals?
Wade was a high school math teacher and had only been to the hospital to have his tonsils and appendix out. In his opinion, that's what was so great about hospitals, what they were designed for. You had something that needed removing—tonsils, an appendix, a baby—and the hospital removed it for you.
And what exactly went on in hospitals that was so bad?
"Trust me," Callie said. "You. Don't. Want. To. Know."
Wade has only known Callie a year, and she's been pregnant for close to eight months of that time, and times like this make him realize they are still feeling each other out.
Callie briefly toyed with the idea of a home birth. Whenever she brought it up, Wade kept his face very neutral. Even when she gave him a list of supplies they would need, he didn't overreact. He was very proud of himself for this, especially since she scrapped the idea on her own after a woman came into the ER one night after laboring at home for twenty-nine hours. Wade and Callie repeated that number incredulously back and forth to each other, as if it were a tennis ball they were lobbing across a court. All the things a person could do in twenty-nine hours.
"I think a birthing center might be a better fit," Callie said that night.
Wade accidentally memorized the home birth supply list, and on the nights he can't sleep, he'll summon the list and feel a shuddering deep inside him, a cramping feverish feeling that he imagines is the closest he will come to experiencing childbirth.
This was the beginning of the list:
2 - 1-gallon size zip loc baggies for placenta
10 underpads, moderate absorbency, 23" x 36"
5 underpads, heavy absorbency, 23" x 36"
1 perineal irrigation bottle (Peri-bottle) for each bathroom
1 mattress bag, or plastic sheet, dropcloth, or new shower curtain
2 large bowls - for nausea and later, placenta
At the first birthing center they visit, Water Birthwise, a woman named Rose is their tour guide. Rose has long, wavy hair and clothes that are strangely provocative in their ugliness. Or maybe it's simply that she's not wearing a bra. Rose looks like the kind of woman who feels sorry for men that they are denied the transcendental joys of childbirth. She also looks like someone whose parents actually named her Rose.
Wade can't eliminate the possibility that Rose and all the other doulas and midwives on staff (what's the difference anyway? he wants to ask. Are any of you actual doctors?) are all wackos. Wacko or not, Wade is distracted by Rose's breasts bouncing free under her shirt.
Predictably Rose has a soft voice. Wade can already hear her telling Callie, Yes, you can do this. Your body is designed for this. Pain is just weakness leaving your body.
Actually she doesn't look as if she'll say that last one.
They sit with Rose in the reception area after the tour. The couch is so deep that Callie practically disappears into it. Rose lists out all the advantages of their facility. Wade is unsure where to look since Rose's shirt has dipped so low that even Callie looks uncomfortable.
"We encourage food, drink, music, free movement, family involvement, and additional patient requests before, during, and after birth," Rose says. She leans forward until the middle half of her breasts are visible. "We have birth tubs and showers for water births. Most moms only have to stay hours after giving birth, instead of days. And we don't have strict rules about visitors or the number of people who can be in the room with you."
"We weren't planning on sending out evites to the birth," Wade says. "Out of curiosity, how much does all this cost?"
"It's sometimes more, sometimes less expensive," Rose says.
"What does that mean exactly?" Wade asks.
"Maternal and newborn care is not as invasive as in a hospital," Rose says.
Callie nods and writes that down in the notebook she carries around for these tours.
"Does that mean you accept insurance?" Wade asks.
He suddenly thinks that Rose is part of some ruse the birthing center has cooked up to get the men on board. Go out there and distract him! Men are such morons—they'll agree to anything as long as they get to stare at tits first!
Now that he's on to her, he makes no effort to maintain eye contact.
"We don't accept insurance," Rose says. Her soft voice isn't quite so soft anymore. "Most of our parents are perfectly happy to pay out of pocket for this experience. And we offer breastfeeding help, free of charge."
"Of course," Wade says. "Free of charge. But I'm wondering—are there any real doctors on staff?"
"You were rude, Wade," Callie says once they are in the car. "Water Birthwise is no longer an option."
"Can you hear yourself?" he asks. "Can you seriously hear the words coming out of your mouth? Because I'd feel more comfortable with the biology teacher, that young guy who can barely grow a beard, delivering this baby before letting someone at Water Birthwise have a crack at him."
Callie signs them up for Lamaze class. They sit on blue mats, similar to the ones Wade remembers napping on in kindergarten. The Lamaze coach is thin and pale. At the first session, she is wearing a green t-shirt and khakis. Her clothes—a bra, finally someone in this profession wearing a bra —give him hope. She even has a normal name, Katie.
After the bathroom break, Katie asks them to hold their partner's hand and practice a transitional labor technique called color breathing.
"Imagine you are exhaling the painful colors," Katie says. "The reds and oranges and yellows." Here she makes a sudden noise, part high-pitched whinny, part yodel. It is so startling, so loud, that Wade bursts out laughing. The more he tries to smother the laughter, the worse it gets. He has to excuse himself for the rest of color breathing, but he can hear Katie through the door.
"Now inhale and breathe in the soothing ones—blues, violets, pale greens. Imagine these colors are helping your body relax so you can ride the wave of the next contraction."
From the doorway Wade watches his wife dutifully breathing in and out. There is something so reassuring about her body; Callie is solid and substantial in a way he thinks will sustain them for a long time. He could tell her this, he could use a word like solid and she wouldn't be offended. She would understand that he means it as a good thing.
He is suddenly terrified of this baby.
Callie opens her eyes and sees him standing by the door. She rolls her eyes, whether at him or Katie is unclear, but he is so relieved he starts laughing again and has to retreat into the hallway again.
The next class Katie has traded her khakis and t-shirt for flared jeans and a gauzy shirt, which doesn't strike Wade as a good sign. "Who can tell us some of the side effects of an epidural?" she asks during circle time.
"Relief from the contractions," a man says. He and Wade exchange a look, conspiratorial in nature.
"It can get into your bloodstream," the man's wife says. "And therefore into your baby's bloodstream." This woman is taking Lamaze class very seriously. She looks as if she is going to take all of parenthood very seriously. For some reason she reminds Wade of his ex-fiancée.
"That's not true," Wade says from his mat. "Epidurals don't get in the bloodstream."
"Yes, they do," the woman says.
"No, they don't."
"Yes, they do," she insists. "I've read all about them."
"Me too," Wade says. "And you've been misinformed."
The woman throws her hands up in the air. "Can we please?" she says to Katie. She starts crying, and everyone looks at Wade as if he has just called this woman a fat cow.
"We don't need Lamaze anyway," he tells Callie as they walk to their car. "If all this is so natural, then surely your body will naturally know how to breathe. I wanted to say 'I call bullshit on that one' when she said that about the epidurals. But I went with misinformed."
"Could you be a little… less from now on, Wade?" He doesn't think Callie is a crier at all, that she is one of those people who probably gets mad. She gives a little sigh as she buckles up, sliding the bottom strap under her belly in a way that looks uncomfortable.
Wade is on his best behavior at the second birthing center Any Woman Can! even though this is not technically true. Women with gestational diabetes or high blood pressure, for example. In fact, women with any sort of medical issue should deliver in a hospital.
But since he is being less, since Wade is not a lawyer out to prosecute poorly-named birthing centers, he doesn't say a word. There is no Rose this time. Instead they are shown around by a woman so old that anesthesia probably wasn't around when she was of child-bearing age. Luckily Callie isn't impressed with the state of the birthing tubs. "Do they look, I don't know, crusty to you?" she whispers to Wade at one point.
Once they are outside, Callie takes deep breaths through her nose, even though it is drizzly and humid. "It smelled like a cafeteria," she says.
"A cafeteria serving placenta sandwiches," Wade says.
Callie decides on the third birthing center they tour. Wade thinks this is more a result of it being the only one left on her list, but she exclaims over things—the lovely lavender smell, the sparkling tubs, the friendly staff—as if to make sure that Wade knows that she is choosing this place, she is not settling. They take insurance, so Wade doesn't say a single discouraging thing.
"Sometimes you just know these things," Callie says after they have put down a deposit and filled out paperwork. She looks relieved, and the tight lines that have hovered around her mouth and eyes suddenly release.
"I need more cereal," Callie says, nodding at the grocery store across from The Birth Center. "And almond milk."
She has become a little weird about eating cereal. On the days she doesn't eat her frosted mini-wheats, she is not someone you want to be around.
They breeze past the produce and head straight to the middle of the grocery store. His ex-fiancé used to tell him that a person should avoid the middle section and stick to the outer perimeter of the grocery store. And then he spots his ex. It is the second strangest feeling Wade has ever had, thinking about someone mere seconds before you see them.
Jill isn't pushing a cart but carrying a basket instead. It is loaded down with things from the perimeter of the store, chicken and cheese and broccoli and something green and leafy in a produce bag that could be cilantro. Maybe parsley.
Jill hasn't seen them yet, and he tells her, don't look up, don't look up, don't look up as she walks by the cereal aisle. But she looks up sharply from her grocery list, as if she is a dog who has suddenly heard a piercing whistle.
She looks so thin. He doesn't remember her being so thin. Her hair is shorter and darker, she has bangs and glasses now.
Jill walks over to them on legs that look snappable. "Wade."
Jill's hand is cold and small in his when they shake.
"It looks like congratulations are in order," Jill says to Callie.
"A boy," Callie says, rubbing her stomach. She doesn't often look startled, but she does now. Or at least the fine lines by her eyes and mouth have returned. He is reminded of the time Callie said, "I think maybe we are awful people. Truly horrible people who don't deserve good things in this life."
Callie fingers the cross necklace from her mother. Apparently every woman and her husband on her mother's side of the family wore it and they all had healthy pregnancies. Wade didn't tell his mother-in-law that the necklace and the healthy pregnancies are not related because she hates him. Instead he put on the cross necklace as if he too believed that was all it took to have a healthy baby.
Wade watches Jill take in his cross necklace and the contents of their shopping cart: the granola bars, fruit snacks, the three boxes of cereal. She looks like she is noticing these things and filing them away to discuss with someone later. She stands there, the muscles in her arms working overtime as she struggles to hold the basket in those twig arms of hers.
"I'm glad we ran into you," Wade finally says. He reaches for Callie as they walk away, hoping to be reassured by her solidness. It is raining, hard, when they exit the grocery store. Neither of them talk on the short drive home, and the windshield wipers steadily click away as Callie's hands soundlessly pet her stomach.
He thinks about that afternoon when Jill walked in on them, of course he does. Sometimes he remembers it when he is feeling very happy, the memory sidling up to him as if to say, Wait, not so fast. Or on the nights he can't sleep, when he is too defenseless to control the kind of thoughts that strike past midnight. In those moments, when he summons Jill's face as she walked into their old bedroom, he truly believes he and Callie are horrible people who don't deserve good things in this life. Maybe Callie has these moments too, but he doesn't ask.
He and Callie should have moved away. He sees that very clearly now, that this city is toxic. Wade has lived here all his life and he's allowed himself to become immune to the taxes and smog and inflated mortgages. They should have left, he should have insisted. They both have the kind of jobs that are easy to get, anywhere. Right now they could be living farther north, in Oregon or Washington. They could be in the Midwest or on the East Coast. Even with her blonde hair and blue eyes, Callie isn't really a California girl.
He'd nearly convinced Callie they should move—he thinks he even used the words fresh start—when they found out she was pregnant.
Wade dresses very carefully in his workout clothes when he makes a decision. He has never dressed this carefully before. In the hallway mirror, he notices all the gray in his hair, his body not so thin anymore. That afternoon he hadn't been able to run after Jill because he'd been shaking too hard to pull on his pants. Callie had walked over and zipped them up for him. She did it in a way that made him think she must be a very good nurse, that she removed catheters and changed bedpans with a calmness that probably seemed to border on boredom.
The wind is ridiculous. He says this to himself as he rides, but the wind whips his words away. Waiting at a light he has to brace himself on the curb to keep from being knocked over. Leaves brush past his face, trash dances down the road, plastic bags snag in trees and bushes. He rides past a woman and a small dog, and they both appear to be struggling to walk in a straight line.
In spite of the wind, he makes it to her place in under twenty minutes. He's never been here, but he knows the address, memorized it apparently, although he wasn't conscious of doing so. Her townhome has a small yard with bushes lining the narrow walkway. Bright pink petals litter the path. The right wall of the house has some sort of plant creeping up the side and there are windows, some very oddly placed, on all sides.
"Can I come in?" he asks when she opens the door.
From the doorway he can see into the den, and it seems to be mostly the same furniture although it's arranged differently. She has a coffee table now. The floors are some sort of stone, the ceilings high and beamed.
Even if she sold all the wedding presents and the engagement ring, she would not have been able to afford the down payment on this place.
Jill steps in front of the door and closes it behind her. "No," she says. "You may not come inside. I promised myself I would never let you in my house."
"Okay," he says. "Fair enough."
She leans against the door and studies him, long enough that Wade decides she's just going to stand there and stare at him.
"But we could sit on the porch out back," Jill says finally. "Then I won't technically be breaking a promise."
She leads him around the side of the house and opens the back gate. The porch, also stone, is empty except for a colorful mosaic table. The chairs are scattered in the yard—one leans against the back fence, another against a tree. A third sits smack in the middle of the grass. He collects them while she watches.
"They'll probably blow away again," she says. "Earlier today a neighbor's trampoline somehow ended up in our front yard."
She slides her hands into her windbreaker. It's too big for her. Our front yard, he thinks.
"I biked over here. It was like biking into a tornado at times."
She lifts her eyebrows at this. The look says You bike now? It also says I don't care.
"Should I have told you?" he asks. "About the baby?"
"It doesn't matter now."
"I think I should have," he says.
A sudden gust of wind blows her hair forward, snarls it around her ears. She pulls a rubber band off her wrist and yanks her hair back into a ponytail so tight her eyes bug out. "You were never good at big changes, Wade. I realized that about you a long time ago."
He doesn't answer, instead watches as a bird attempts to fly away with something big and red in its mouth. It looks like it's going to make it, but then it opens its beak and flaps noisily away.
"What did you do with the bedspread?" she asks him. "You didn't take it, did you?"
"No. God no."
"I didn't think so. I was thinking about it the other day, and I realized I have no idea what happened to it. That's a weird feeling, having something and then not knowing where it went or who has it now."
They both pretend not to notice that she is crying a little.
Wade studies the thing the bird dropped, realizes it's a dog collar. "You have a dog?"
"Snickerdoodle," she says. "But we call her Snicky. She does this thing that's so funny— she eats wood. She devoured that tree over there." Jill points at the tree the bird had been in. The base of the tree is nearly stripped of bark. "I called out an arborist, thinking it was some sort of rot. And they couldn't find anything and then a few days later I look outside, and she's eating the tree like it's a popsicle."
"Roughage," he says, and she smiles for a second.
"I had to move the firewood out to the garage. Otherwise she'd drag out a log and start chewing it like a bone."
He'd forgotten she did that, string out a conversation one beat too long.
"I don't think you're supposed to keep firewood in the garage," he says. "It's a fire hazard."
"Then I'll burn my goddamn house down."
"Turns out that's not your concern anymore."
"Now he says sorry." As if addressing an imaginary audience.
He said sorry that day but maybe it doesn't count when you're naked in bed with someone who is not your fiancée, the two of you wrapped up in a rose bedspread.
Jill turns at the sound of the glass door sliding open. Her face softens in an unexpected way, making her look very young. "I didn't think you'd be back so soon," she says.
A man joins them on the porch. He has dark hair and is short, only an inch or so taller than Jill. "They were all out," he says.
"Bummer," Jill says. Wade has never heard her say this before.
"Bummer," the man says, and he and Jill smile at each other, an inside joke, the way people do when they are first dating, and everything is an inside joke.
"Peter, this is Wade's brother," Jill says.
Wade stands and offers his hand. "Bart," he says. He has a younger brother named Bart who Jill used to be ambivalent about. Somehow it seems okay to borrow his name.
"Nice to meet you, Bart." Peter gives a little head nod as he says this. His face is round but not boyish. He has a slightly raised mole on his face, at a diagonal from his ear. He and Jill have the same dark hair, the same dark eyes. They could pass for siblings.
Peter pulls up the chair next to Jill and reaches for her hand under the table.
"Bart came by to bring something I left behind in the old apartment," she says quietly. She says it so quietly she's almost whispering.
"Those earrings?" Peter asks.
"No, I think those are long gone." In a more normal voice Jill says, "Bart and Wade aren't really all that close. I think it's because there's only eighteen months separating you two," Jill says turning to him. "I think that narrow of an age difference has made you very competitive with each other."
"I read somewhere that three years in the ideal age between siblings," Peter says.
"That's what my sister and I are." Jill doesn't add that she and her sister get along about as well as Wade and Bart do.
"By the way, the trampoline is back," Peter says.
Jill throws her head back and laughs. "No!" She looks delighted about this.
"I think I'm going to need your help getting it down this time. It's much higher up."
"Of course. Actually." She looks over at Wade. "Could Bart help you on his way out?"
"Sure." Peter gives that funny nod. He's a weird-looking guy, really. "That'd be great. Thanks, man."
"Bye, Bart," Jill calls as he stands. She looks like she is struggling not to giggle as she smiles down at her hands.
Wade follows Peter into the house. A messy pile of videogames squat in front of the T.V., scuffed Converse sneakers hang out by the front door.
They walk outside and study the tree a moment. The trampoline is lying on its side and makes Wade think of a cat who has climbed too high and can't get down.
"How'd you get it down earlier?" Wade asks.
Peter is taking off his sweatshirt and doesn't answer right away. Up close Wade can see that he is considerably older than Jill, old enough that surely his friends give him shit about dating someone as young as Jill.
"I think we're going to need the ladder," Peter says.
When Peter disappears around the side of the house, Wade uses his toe to poke at the sweatshirt, to read the tag. It's a medium.
Peter returns with a small step ladder in his arms. "You're taller," Peter says to him as he opens the ladder and places it under the tree. That funny head nod again.
Wade slowly climbs up the ladder. The wind has stopped blowing, but the clouds have moved in, and they are an unsettling, soupy color. The trampoline is cool to the touch and surprisingly light; he nearly falls off the ladder when he uses too much force to hoist it up.
"Watch out," he says, and Peter moves to the side as Wade tosses the trampoline down. It lands upright.
"I had one of these as a kid," Peter says.
So did Wade, but this one looks flimsier. He doesn't think his had a red border either. But it could have.
Who the hell can remember these things anyway?