Fiction by Michelle Panik

Only Daughter

Sarah Clayton, an atheist, didn’t see anything wrong with sending her daughter to a church-run preschool.

She came home from touring it that night and told her husband, “It’s crayons and circle time and three pet newts. The only religion is at holidays.”

“At which time their real mission becomes clear?” Cole asked.

They were in their garage, storing the baby items that their daughter, Ivy, had outgrown in a flash. It was a two-car garage but only Sarah’s Volvo fit, Cole’s slot having become a holding site for the things that children are perpetually five minutes from growing into or out of.

Sarah cleared space on a top shelf in front of the Volvo and lifted up an infant bathtub, wedging its white molded plastic between a box of motor oil and a 24-roll pack of toilet paper. With the tub stored and a dozen more things to go, she rested her interlaced fingers on top of her head. “The religion is pipe-cleaner Easter chicks and stockings hung by the construction-paper chimney with care.” She dropped her arms. “Think of it as her first anthropology lesson.”

Cole wasn’t convinced.

Should they even be discussing this in front of Ivy? Sarah wasn’t sure. She looked at her daughter, who was crouched in front of a bouncy chair, swinging the acrylic fish that dangled from a bar with her finger. Just over two years ago, Ivy had watched those same fish, wide-eyed, from the other side. Now, Ivy was fiddling with the buttons, turning on the sound and toggling between lullabies and crashing waves.

Sarah chose to keep talking and risk future therapy for Ivy because the time that she and Cole had alone, when Ivy was finally asleep for the night, was so short.

“We have two other options,” Sarah said with a sigh, which was directed both at Cole and the crate of teethers, rattles, cloth books, and Kleenex-sized blankets. “Eighteen weekly hours of disorganized chaos ‘supervised’ by teachers in the corner, discussing wedge heels. Or 18 weekly hours of fraternizing with well-bred, well-groomed, uniformed kids who’ve never been within 10 feet of any non-organic food, household cleaner, or bedding item. Or mattress. The privilege of which comes with a price tag of $1,600.”

“A year?”

“A month.”

Sarah tried wedging the crate onto a shelf, but it was too wide.

Cole helped her return it to the ground. “What are the other options?”

“There aren’t any.”

Sarah had committed to going back to her job, part-time, as a nurse in an OB-GYN office next week. There wasn’t time to find a fourth school.

Cole asked, “How much for the chaos?”

But upon touring Good Savior Preschool, Cole met teachers who were fully credentialed, who were patient, who couldn’t put away their attendance books (much less poster paints or paste) without melodiously rhyming “clean up” with “Dixie cup.” And who didn’t make one mention of trying to convert his family.

And anyway, it wasn’t like Sarah and Cole were never around religious people. There was the secretary at Cole’s work—a medical devices company—who had survived a plane crash and wasn’t shy about pointing out God’s handiwork in everything from pollinated flowers to weightless foundation makeup. And since Ivy’s birth, Sarah had been teaching labor and delivery courses one night a week. When people talk about the beginning of life, the life that comes from within them, they invariably talk about God.

Although not as much as one might think. The expectant mothers and nervous fathers-to-be in Sarah’s classes made mention of The Almighty, of the Grace of God, of the miracle of life. But all of it was in reference to their long-held beliefs, to their envisioned families. Not to converting.

And Sarah was, as she liked to say, “A teacher, not a preacher.” In a way that (she hoped) was comprehensible without insulting their intelligence, Sarah talked about a woman’s hormones, the stages of labor, the options for pain management, and the rewards that can be reaped from bringing cookies for the hospital staff at check-in. And about honoring their individual birth experience, no matter how it disappoints. Because they always do.

*

On the Friday of Ivy’s first week at Good Savior, she brought home an art project—their family depicted with thumbprints and stick limbs.

“Miss Jenine put the faces on!” She said upon thrusting it into Sarah’s hands at pickup. Sarah had woven through traffic to pick Ivy up on time, her last patient having two pages of questions about her delivery date that was still 32 weeks away.

“Miss Jenine?” Sarah asked. She looked from the trio of thumbprints—each with two eyes and pupils, a bulbous nose, and a crescent moon mouth, neatly rendered with black roller ball ink—to the adults in the room.

“Yes!” She said, flinging herself into her mother’s face and picking up two handfuls of Sarah’s brown hair. “She’s my very most favorite!”

Sarah didn’t remember a Jenine from her tour. She looked around the room, which was becoming crowded with mothers and nannies. Walking Ivy out the door, she wondered if the teacher’s help with the project was supposed to have been a secret. Did three-year-olds not have the ability to make such tiny faces? Was Sarah an out-of-touch mother for not knowing whether such a task were age-appropriate? Was Sarah an arrogant mother for assuming her daughter could have drawn those facial features? Was Sarah a judgmental mother for thinking their thumb family was too tiny relative to the construction-paper house and tree?

At home, Ivy carried the project through the door, abandoned it in front of the pantry, and brought a single-serving package of crackers to Sarah. As Sarah tore open the shiny plastic bag, she wondered if this were a task she should be encouraging her daughter—who was now of preschool age, after all—to do.

Ivy ran off to her shelf of the family’s bookcase, half of her snack sloshing out of the bowl en route, and Sarah hung the family portrait on their refrigerator.

When Cole arrived home that night, she unclipped the picture and handed it to him, saying, “Innocent enough.”

He looked it over closely—its peaked-roof house and bushy tree, and his sedan in the driveway. She expected some snide comment about the school but he said nothing, and just gave the picture a long, considered look before handing it back.

Holding onto that picture, looking at the extra-wide smile on Ivy, Sarah called into the living room, “Who’s Miss Jenine?”

Not getting an answer, Sarah walked into the living room and sat down next to her daughter, who was putting a hand towel over Floppy, the stuffed rabbit Cole had brought her from a business trip to Calgary.

“Isn’t Mrs. Joan your teacher?”

Ivy tucked the towel under floppy’s large feet. “Miss Jenine is her helper. She makes the best faces!”

*

And then, the next week, it was Miss Jenine who made the best friendship bracelets, the best daisy chains, and the best chocolate chip cookies.

“They’re so crunchier than yours!” She’d enthused, in the way that children upend standards of politeness in the sweetest possible way.

Sarah had to meet this woman. For several reasons, not the least of which was that their Wednesday night babysitter—when Sarah taught her birthing classes and Cole’s soccer league practiced—had left for college.

When Sarah dropped Ivy off the next morning, she asked Mrs. Joan about Miss Jenine.

“She’s a student teacher. Fully Live-scanned, background-checked, and extensively interviewed. From Sierra College’s teacher-training program, which I’m sure you’re aware is the best in the county.” Turning around, she said, “There she is.”

Pulling the door closed behind her was a petite college student. Her hair was a swath of curls pulled into a ponytail, with short ringlets hanging over her eyes. She wore black pants and a dark red shirt that wrapped over itself and tied on the side. Hip, but not too hip. Sarah imagined the dress code the young teacher had signed before accepting the internship. Neat and professional, with no bare shoulders or knees. Close-toed shoes at all times. The young woman had dark eyes and a smile that ended at pointed cheekbones. More than a preschool teacher, Sarah thought she looked like a cashier for an electronics store or car dealership. A second later, Sarah regretted the stereotype. At six feet tall, Sarah was the nurse called “Doctor” most often during her trauma rotation in the ER, even more than the male nurses.

“Miss Jenine,” Sarah said, rushing up to her.

She looked at Sarah with an “I’m-warm-and-caring” smile (which Sarah knew well, using it often herself), and said, simply, “Hi!”

After introducing herself, Sarah asked if Jenine ever took care of children in the evenings. “We need someone Wednesday nights.”

“I’m free Wednesdays.”

*

When Sarah told Cole, he asked, “What do we know about her religion?”

Loading their dinner plates into the dishwasher, she said, “Ivy adores her. She’s fully Live-scanned, background-checked, and extensively interviewed. From Sierra College’s teacher-training program. Maybe you’re not aware, but it’s the best in the county.”

Cole had to concede that this all sounded pretty good.

“How was work?” He asked.

“Exhausting.”

“You can quit.”

“No.”

“’No’?”

“I’ve spent the last three years with low-level anxiety for whatever Ivy might need next. At work, no one ever—or hardly ever—cries. I need this.”

*

            The following evening, Miss Jenine showed up in a tank top and jeans tucked into knee-high black boots, carrying a tackle box. She sat down on the floor with Ivy and opened the orange plastic box, revealing beads of all shapes and colors, in trays and compartments that opened in all directions like the stairways of an elaborate princess castle.

            “How about a bracelet?” She asked Ivy.

That evening’s class concerned C-sections. It was a topic that deserved sensitivity and thoughtful consideration. Sarah gave it those things, and hoped it was enough. Birth classes are designed to prepare people for something that can never be adequately prepared for. And it wasn’t just first-time moms who enrolled anymore. People with one or even two kids under their belts wanted more schooling, to make sure they were doing it right.

            A woman who was 12 weeks along with a boy (no one waited until delivery to find out the sex anymore), raised her hand and asked, “Is it true that a C-section baby needs five minutes to recover—since without going through the birth canal its circulation hasn’t been stimulated—before having an APGAR test? And if it’s done too early, then a baby may be incorrectly diagnosed as below his abilities?”

            Christ, Sarah thought. A theoretical, minute-old baby. And already this mom wants to compete.

*

            Jenine was lying on the couch when Sarah returned home, boots on the armrest, reading The Continued Existence of False Hope.

            It was Cole’s book. All the religion and philosophy and angry-white-guy books were Cole’s, who’d created his own major in college that combined his distaste of herd mentality with his passion for debate, and which was embossed onto his UC Santa Cruz diploma as The Philosophy, Folklore, and Religion of Western Suburban Communities.

Sarah didn’t disagree with the tenets of the books on Cole’s shelves. But she also didn’t think they needed to be handed down with such vitriol.

            “Light reading?” Sarah asked.

            “This guy hits it out of the fucking park,” Jenine said, sitting up and slamming both boots onto the carpet. She walked into the kitchen and dropped the book on the table with a thunk. A second later, she picked it back up and thumbed through. “There’s this part where he says ‘Religion is the extended suspension of disbelief for people who are trying awfully hard to believe.’ It’s what I’ve always wanted to tell every religious nut I’ve ever met.”

            Sarah loaded the cups and plates from the sink into the dishwasher. “I wouldn’t know. That’s Cole’s book.”

            Jenine’s face dropped. “Oh,” she said, watching Sarah’s hands work. “I thought maybe you were—. Well. You know. An—.”

            “I’m an atheist,” Sarah confirmed in a bored voice.

            Jenine’s eyes widened and a smile spread on her face. “Does Ivy know?”

            Sarah considered the question. Did Ivy know they were atheists? Did she know what it meant not to believe in a god? Or to believe in one? How much religion had Ivy picked up in her two weeks in a room adjacent to a church? How much religion had she picked up at play dates, from trips to the grocery store, or driving past the cemetery on the way to the park? Certainly, she couldn’t grasp what the end of existence—her existence, still very much nascent—meant. Hell, Sarah believed her own end would come, and yet she still had trouble fully comprehending it. Ivy hadn’t known hurt or loss or injustice, the types of things that usually lead a person to consider the bigger questions of Why? and From where? and For how long?

            It was a lot for Sarah to think about. And, right now, she felt overwhelmed as it was with nighttime potty training. Existential questions would have to wait.

            “It’s not something we talk about directly,” Sarah said. “We focus on being kind and honest and helpful to everyone in the world.”

            “Play-based versus academic,” Jenine answered, nodding. “For the best, really.”

            Sarah didn’t know if she should be turned off by this young woman who was long on learning but short on experience, or grateful to have the approval of someone in the field that she was “doing” childrearing right.

Sarah said, “I assumed you’d be—. Well. Church-going.”

“Hell, no. Not now, anyway.” Jenine scratched her nose, shook her head, and threw up her hands. “Not ever anymore, I don’t think.”

Rather than ask what all of that meant, Sarah said, “How’d you get interested in the topic?”

            “Wade Coupeman. The Rules of Reason. Atheism for the New Generation.”

            Wade Coupeman was on all the cable news and talk shows, arguing for unbelief in easy-to-digest sound bites with styled hair and tailored suits.

            “But I haven’t read much Dietrich,” she said, tapping Cole’s book, which was written by a German astrophysicist without regard for the attention span of the Internet generation. “Mind if I borrow?”

After Jenine left with the book, Sarah got herself a self-serving of crackers, rationalizing the egregious price-per-ounce as a way to regulate her calories. Eating the crackers one at a time (another way to regulate calories), she looked at her daughter’s family portrait.

Was it a complete family? Sarah wasn’t sure. When she’d imagined this time in her life, it had been with a girl and a boy. Two children. But was that what she truly wanted? Or just what she’d seen on TV? Now, 38 years old with a three-year-old, she didn’t feel the urge for another child.

Sarah had grown up an only child, after her older sister was killed in a car accident. It was before Sarah’s birth, before the design of child car seats was given as much brainpower as the International Space Station.

Sarah was in the garage when Cole returned home, parking in the driveway and coming through the front door. After hearing him walk around the house, pour a glass of ice water and walk around the house some more, he came into the garage. Sarah was sitting on the cement in front of the cache of baby accessories. He stood before her shirtless, in blue nylon soccer shorts that shined in the fluorescent track lighting.

“It’s late,” he said, softly.

Sarah was looking at an infant bassinet carrier, the kind that clicked into a base in a car’s backseat, where it could keep your child safe, keep your future safe. Did she want to put it to use again?

“Jenine borrowed your False Hope book. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

Cole smiled.

What if, despite all the technology that had gone into Ivy’s current car seat, which was LATCHed into the Volvo’s backseat, a distracted driver rear-ended them and crushed her spinal cord into paralysis or worse? These were the types of things Sarah thought about on Wednesday nights while her daughter slept in her toddler bed, because her own mother had never imagined such a thing would ever happen.

Later, Sarah was in her pajamas, brushing her teeth, when she heard Ivy calling, “Mommy, Mommy! I have to pee!”

Ivy was capable of taking off her pajama bottoms and underwear, but in the middle of the night she liked company.

Sarah opened her daughter’s bedroom door and helped Ivy out of bed. Halfway to the bathroom, Ivy turned and went back, returning with Floppy.

Even though it was nearly midnight, Ivy insisted on putting Floppy on the potty first, before climbing up herself, the grey rabbit held like a football.

Sarah had a No Toys on the Potty rule (instituted after losing first a Pooh Bear figurine and then a Matchbox car to the toilet), but Sarah was too tired to be a Compassionate Authoritarian parent tonight.

“Floppy likes to use the potty,” Ivy said, holding him up high and then swallowing him into a hug.

“Does he?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think Floppy might like a little brother or sister rabbit?”

            Sarah was awful, she knew it. Such a thinly veiled suggestion was inappropriate. How, for Chrissake, did she expect her daughter to answer? And, furthermore, would Sarah listen to it, and allow a three-year-old to determine a significant portion of her own life, to say nothing of the creation of a whole new life?

            “Floppy has a sister,” Ivy informed her mother. “Me.”

*

The next week, Ivy came home singing, “This Little Light of Mine.” Sarah didn’t think anything of it; Ivy sang the dish detergent jingle, too. But after Cole put her down for the night, he returned to the living room, where Sarah was scooping them a bowl of ice cream, and asked, “Did you hear Ivy’s new song?”

Sarah sang a few lines, and then Cole picked up the harmony with, “Don’t let Satan blow it out. I’m gonna let it shine.”

“It’s a folk song.”

“It’s an invoke-the-fear-of-God-in-you song.”

He took a single scoop of ice cream and then went upstairs to watch a soccer game live from Portugal.

If you first met Cole when he was talking about the absurdity of religion, you might think he’s an ass. That’s the impression Sarah got, when she heard him talking about the hypocrisy of John Paul II on the steps of UCLA’s Student Center, where he was a grad student and she a freshman. But then, when you found out Cole’s parents had been killed by a faulty oven, when he was eight and sleeping in his bedroom out of the carbon monoxide’s reach, your disdain for him turned into sympathy.

As a kid, Sarah believed her sister had gone to heaven, and that they would eventually meet there. Sarah had grown up as a stand-in for Karen, the daughter her parents never got to have, even though Sarah was their daughter in her own right. Even after meeting Cole, Sarah still believed in God and heaven. Until she started seeing mothers and babies die in childbirth. It still happened in America.

Sarah lost her first patient while a nursing student. Because there was a problem with the mother’s uterus, the operating room where she would deliver Cesarean had been set up to perform a hysterectomy immediately afterwards. Sarah was one of 15 nurses and, along with 12 doctors, they had role-played trial runs beforehand, practicing how to handle different scenarios. And yet, their preparations hadn’t been enough.

Seeing that woman in ICU for six hours before passing away, never able to hold her daughter, was when Sarah’s thinking changed. Too much joy awaited this new mother down on Earth for Sarah to believe she was really going somewhere better. And the idea that it was done for a reason? If you believed that, then your god was wicked. All the expounding Cole had done on science, on evolution, on the universe’s monstrosity, gave Sarah perspective. There was no other conclusion, she felt, than the sad, sobering realization that all you know is all you have. She came home from the hospital that night and asked Cole to marry her.

Cole would be watching soccer for three hours, at least. With the downstairs to herself, Sarah thought of her mother, who one minute would marvel about the icing on a red velvet cupcake, and the next minute say, “One day, I’ll take care of Karen again.” To which Sarah would say, “You’ll do a great job, Mom.”

Sarah called her parents, who were living their retired, footloose lives in Manhattan. It was after midnight back there. Sarah hoped they’d be home from whatever bar they’d gone to after leaving whatever show they’d seen after finishing dinner at whatever restaurant they’d made reservations at six weeks prior.

Her father answered after three rings.

“How tall do think Karen would have been?” She asked.

“That’s a hell of a way to call your father after five months.”

“Is Mom around?”

“Taking her makeup off.”

“Good. Don’t get her.” She paused for a microsecond. “Am I doing enough with my life to satisfy Mom? Enough for two daughters?”

“Your mother loves you.”

“She loved Karen, too.”

“That’s right.”

“Would Karen have loved me?”

“Like a sister.”

Who was to blame for her death? Not her mother, who’d been obeying all traffic laws. Not the other driver, who’d suffered a seizure from an undiagnosed case of epilepsy. Not the CHP officer, who’d inspected their car seat installation. Not the car seat maker, whose design had passed all National Highway and Transportation Safety Board’s standards. Not the NHTSB, whose certification standards were based on the best research available.

If there were blame to be placed, could it lie with the Chinese manufacturing plant, on the off-chance that the plastic had been too cool when injected into its mould, not allowing it to harden into its expected strength? But at that point—7,000 miles, 15 time zones, a non-Germanic language, a massively different culture, and a whole imagined scenario away, did it matter? How far back into a sequence of events did one have to go to find where it all went wrong? In theory, there should be one single place. And yet, there wasn’t. Everything depended on everything else.

Sarah took a marker from the kitchen junk drawer, the one she used to write Ivy’s name on her brown bag lunches, and inked her thumb with thick strokes of the marker’s wide tip. She raised her thumb—like Thumbkin, like a job well done—and placed it next to Ivy’s thumbprint of herself. It didn’t look out of place, except for the fact that it was far too large. She wiped off her thumb, inked her pinky finger instead, and pressed it onto the paper beside the thumbprint of Cole. There it was: Sarah and Cole in the middle, flanked by two children. It was a balanced portrait. Was that the life she wanted?

*

            The next morning Ivy ate her English muffin while hopping from dark kitchen tile to dark kitchen tile, oblivious to the addition to her family portrait.

As Ivy was climbing into her top-of-the-line car seat, Cole pulled on Sarah’s elbow.

“Is there something I should know?” He asked, turning over her hand to reveal a blackened pinky finger.

She rubbed the pad of her finger. “It was just something I was trying out. A dumb idea.”

Was it?”

And here, Sarah looked at Cole.

“Really?” She said, that one charged word meaning, Do you think we should have another child? Whether it be for us or for Ivy or for the great mindfuck that is the instability of the future?

Sarah was more informed than any birthing student she’d ever had. And those were the people who made the effort to, A) enroll in a class, and B) show up. Every day, people —people who didn’t know how they’d become pregnant, or that they were pregnant at all—popped out perfectly healthy babies and brought them home. Sarah felt confident that, should she want to, her body had as good a chance as any at carrying and delivering again.

It would be an adjustment, to have another infant almost four years after Ivy. But this would only make the experience better, because it was a bit of a crazy idea—another baby to make her boobs droop even farther down her stomach!—and Sarah didn’t do enough crazy things anymore. She couldn’t go back to that tropical cliff top and have her ankles tied to a bungee; she couldn’t complete that semester-at-sea application; she couldn’t go back and save that mother; she couldn’t transport herself to five years before her own birth, and keep her mother and sister from driving to the store that day. But she could have another baby.

It’s not that a second child would be insurance against Ivy’s well being. It would be a full-share sibling. Sarah wouldn’t let the child feel the same pressures she’d had growing up.

The child would be loved. Karen hadn’t been yet a year old when that car plowed into her door. She wasn’t old enough to really be known as a person, and yet Sarah felt certain that her sister had been held and smelled and loved and yearned for like anyone who comes into the world, completely innocent, not asking for anything other than basic needs doled out with kindness, and certainly not knowing anything of an original sin. Sarah shook her head.

*

            Two Wednesdays later, when Sarah arrived at Good Savior, Ivy took Sarah’s hand and pulled her out of the classroom.

            “I need to sign you out,” Sarah said, but her daughter—whom she remembered once being too weak to nurse longer than five minutes before falling asleep—was dragging her down the hall.

            It wasn’t until they were at the Volvo that Ivy finally said, “Miss Jenine’s gone.”

            “Vacation?”

            “No. Mrs. Joan said she’s not coming to our class anymore.”

            “Why?”

            “I don’t know. I’m three.”

            At home, Ivy went to play in her room and Sarah called the school.

            The director, who was very personable but also very strict, said, “I can’t discuss employment issues with parents.”

            “Did she violate a safety rule?”

            “I can’t discuss employment status.”

            “Can I get her phone number?”

            “I’m not at liberty.”

            Was it the God thing? Sarah wondered. Is there a licensing board I can call?

She thought for a minute and then quickly said, “The real reason I’m calling is to see if your infant room has a need for some items? Swings, bouncy chair, maybe even a bathtub?”

            “We always welcome donations.”

            Sarah said she would look through her things and let her know.

While Ivy napped, Sarah went online to see—just to know, just in case—how much cribs ran these days. They had taken one side off of Ivy’s and installed a rail. Probably, she could sleep in it another few years. But at some point, she’d need a twin-size bed. Did it make sense to buy her one now, and put the side back on that crib?

            Sarah closed the computer and cursed herself as a reckless parent. For the last month, a preschool intern—not even a real teacher—had been taking care of her daughter, and Sarah didn’t have any way to contact her. In some circles, such a thing was as bad as not vaccinating your children. (In still other circles, it was as bad as choosing to vaccinate.) Sarah and Jenine had always discussed their babysitting arrangement at Good Savior. She’d have to wait until that evening to see if Jenine would show up.

            “I’ll stay with Ivy if she doesn’t,” Cole said while packing his soccer bag.

            “But you’re packing your bag.”

            “I like to be optimistic,” he said, zipping it closed.

            At five o’clock, their doorbell rang.

            “She’s here!” Ivy squealed, running to the door.

            That right there, Sarah thought, that was why you endured the lack of sleep, the crying, the vomiting, the tantrums. To see a child completely, absolutely, utterly happy. Thirty-eight wasn’t so old to do it all over again. Especially by today’s standards.

            “I wasn’t sure you’d come,” Sarah said as Jenine put a reusable bag on the kitchen table, revealing a small spin art machine.

            “I wouldn’t miss my play date with Ivy,” she said, accepting the girl’s leg hug and wrapping her arms around her.

            “What happened?” Sarah asked, when Ivy had gone to fix a snack for herself and Jenine (two snack packs, which she’d open herself and put into bowls)

            “They found my book. Your book,” she said, looking at Cole, who was filling a water bottle with ice.

            He smiled.

            “And that’s not allowed?” Sarah asked. She’d figured there had been a dress code. Had she also agreed to believe in God?

            “They thought it’d be better if I interned elsewhere. I agreed.”

            And then Jenine went to her bag, moved aside squeeze bottles of paint, and took out Cole’s book. “Thanks for the loan.”

*

            At that evening’s class, one of the three women who were pregnant with twins asked about the possibility of having a vaginal birth. “They’re both head-down. Separate sacs, separate placentas.”

            Sarah asked how many weeks she was, and when her husband answered “28,” Sarah had to say, “Early still. So many things can happen.”

            But the woman had more questions. Sarah noticed several people in the class mentally check out of the class, looking out the window or studying their cell phones with even more intensity.

            “My first child was vaginal,” the woman added. “I know this sounds vain. But I don’t want a scar. And I don’t want my babies tugged out of me, behind a surgical screen. I hear my arms will be strapped down? God, no.”

            Sarah felt this was a good time to go off-syllabus. She let the woman talk.

            But she added just two more sentences. “I want God to be in the room with me. Not two surgeons and a team of nurses.”

            Sarah told her, “I hope you get your wish.”

            One of the youngest fathers-to-be got up to go to the bathroom. Another followed. There was a vending machine in the adjacent room, and Sarah knew it wouldn’t be long before someone visited it.

Sarah used the same course plan each time—her class repeated monthly—but tailored it to meet the needs, hopes, fears, of the people in each class. At least, she wanted to tailor it. Too often, the women and men wanted statistics, wanted spreadsheets, wanted checklists. They wanted facts, they wanted a guarantee, they thought it was one-size-fits-all. They didn’t want to hear how it could go wrong. She didn’t blame them for this.

*

            That Wednesday night, for the first time ever, Cole beat Sarah home. When she arrived, Cole was engaged in one of his favorite activities, talking about unbelief.

            “This will be the downfall of our country. Our reliance on God. The best countries of Western Europe have all thrown off the cloak of religion. And, for that, they’re thriving.”

            Jenine was rapt. “It’s like what Dietrich says. ‘When the world casts off the cloak of organized religion, only then will it be a better place.’”

Sarah sat down in an armchair next to Jenine, who was sitting on the couch, and asked, “How’s the new school?”

            Jenine stuck out her tongue. “Well, the Practicals are state of the art.”

            Cole looked confused.

            “Fancy teacher speak for ‘toys.’ They’re the best thing about the school. It’s a company. A business. All the owner cares about is the tuition. All the teachers care about are their cell phones at recess.”

            The teachers at Ivy’s school would never do this. It was a big reason for enrolling her there. And yet, Sarah understood that urge to want five minutes to yourself, even if it were with an electronic device. To want to travel, perhaps back to Haiti, where you put a cast on a child who’d broken his leg eight days before. To take up a sport, like soccer, that you hadn’t played since you were a kid. To leave your child at a respectable preschool while you went to work. Once Jenine’s coworkers had children of their own, Sarah guessed that almost none of them would still be working with children.

            “Have you seen Dietrich’s latest talk?” Cole asked Jenine, going to the computer.

            “At Oxford?”

            “No. Cambridge.” Cole tugged on his sweaty soccer shirt and then began typing, searching for the video.

            “Same difference,” Jenine said. “I hear he a plows a right-wing nut right into the ground.”

            Sarah looked at Jenine. “You should believe in God until something makes you stop.”

            Cole turned around and squinted at his wife. But he didn’t protest or interrupt.

            “Atheism for the New Generation,” Jenine said. “That’s all the something I need.”

            “No.” Sarah said. “Not a book. The death of a family member. Handing out food to starving people. A baby born mentally retarded because the mother insisted on delivering at a birth center. A full-term baby dying in the level-III NICU of an excellent hospital.”

            When Jenine left, after giving Sarah her phone number and confirming for next Wednesday night, Cole closed the door and asked, “Tough class?”

            “They have dreamt so vividly how their births will go. It’s like they’ve already been experienced, those memories stored in their minds. How do you tell them what’s ahead in unknown?” She sat down next to Cole on the couch. “What’s next for us?”

“The same.”

She rubbed both upper arms in an instant of cold. “Childbirth?”

“I meant ‘unknown.’ But, yes, that unknown could end up as childbirth.”

“If I want it to?”

“Yes.”

*

            Sarah had been asleep a couple hours when she woke up to Ivy calling, “Mommy, I have to pee.”

            Sarah groaned and threw back the covers. They landed as a second layer on Cole, who didn’t move.

            Sarah met her in the hallway, Floppy tucked under one arm and holding her crotch with the other.

“Push down your pants,” Sarah said, but Ivy didn’t move.

Sarah grasped the pants, and her fingers sunk into wet cotton. “You already peed.”

            “I guess.”

            Sarah pulled off the soaked pants and underwear. In the bathroom, Ivy put Floppy on the potty first. As Sarah rinsed the pajamas in the sink, Ivy climbed onto the toilet in a twenty-step process, the last half of which included her crab walking around the rim until facing forward. Sarah had bought a stepstool, but Ivy preferred to do this on her own. It was something adults did several times a day, sit on a toilet, thinking about a million other things in the process. To a three-year-old, it required complete focus. It was a gift to watch her daughter learn all the things she took for granted.

            Sarah changed Ivy’s pajamas and walked her back to her room, hovering a hand behind her as she climbed into bed. Ivy had never fallen climbing up these 18 inches. But still. And then Sarah gave Ivy and Floppy both a kiss and rubbed their backs for one minute each before walking out of the room, her daughter already asleep.

            Usually, Sarah fell back to sleep easily after getting up with Ivy, not having fully woken up in her stumble to help her daughter in the bathroom. Tonight, Sarah would stay awake until morning, even though it would only take 20 minutes to pull all the baby items off their shelves and load them into the Volvo.

            Back in the kitchen, she wrote above that fourth fingerprint, “Karen.”

            Tomorrow, she would tell her daughter, as best she could, about the woman she’d never known.


Michelle Panik's most recent story was a finalist in Terrain's 2015 contest. Her other publications include Alimentum, Sierra Nevada Review, and ONTHEBUS. She has an MFA from the University Maryland, and a BA in Writing and Art History from UC San Diego. She teaches ESL at MiraCosta College, and is a reader for cahoodaloodaling. Michelle lives on the edge of California, in Carlsbad, but you can visit her from the comfort of your very own computer at: michellepanik.com