Nonfiction by Charles Newbery
The Day After
Our first child was born the day after she died. It was a day I finished work early, but dawdled. I never did tell you about this - of my being so nervous about the next stage in our lives, of us becoming parents.
“Right, I’ve got to go,” I said, hanging up the phone after an interview.
Taos, a younger reporter, looked up from his computer and said, “So do you think this is going to be the day?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Yeah, well, good luck, man,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
I started telling him about a few things to cover if they came up. But Richard, the bureau chief and the only father in the newsroom, of a boy and a girl, interrupted us. “Just get going, will you? Jenny’s waiting.”
“Right, yeah. You’re right.”
This wasn’t the due date; that was still a week away. This was a fetal monitoring, a monthly visit that had turned into every two weeks, now every week. This would be the last monitoring before you would go into labor. It would be any day now.
A boy? A girl? We wanted to wait to find out. We wanted to be surprised. We wanted to be surprised by everything. Your light blue eyes or my greenish-blue? Your fiery wit or my calm?
We’d already had one surprise: a honeymoon pregnancy. Your belly grew, and our life got busier. This was the next step; the step to take after our adolescence had run into your late twenties and my early thirties, an age of carefree living for us.
That may sound idealistic. It was. Money? Yeah, we made it. And we spent it. We went out in our adopted home of Buenos Aires to drink, eat and fill our desires. They were wide open.
We traveled to your England and my America, and to Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. At a café in Brazil, you said, “Why don’t we just stay and live here at the beach?”
But there were our jobs at home. So even before our marriage and our pregnancy, our dreams of living as we pleased, of traveling the world, those dreams were getting taken over by careers. We moved into a one-room apartment, and slept on my surfboard cover on the wood floor. You didn’t mind. My body was enough, you said, and yours for me. I had my eyes on a modern wooden bed an architect friend had recommended.
But after a week on the surfboard cover, you said, “Just go and get any fucking bed.”
I went then and there. I took the bus uptown to a shop. They said, “One week.”
I returned with the news. You didn’t mind the wait. The important thing was that you’d snapped me out of my lethargy.
“Never seen you move so fast,” you said, laughing.
I said, “Yeah, only when I’ve got a dragon breathing down my ass.”
You slapped the back of my head, but not hard. It felt good.
We set out to decorate. You displayed a Darth Vader figure on the bookshelf we bought, and you hung a signed Frank Sidebottom poster from your early twenties, only a few years earlier but what then seemed like such a long time before. The bed arrived and it became our sofa and our table and our bed.
It was that first bed and our first days together that I remembered when I left the office that day for the fetal monitoring and walked across Plaza de Mayo to the subway station.
We’d met at the Tancat, brought together by a friend in common. I’d arrived after you to the restaurant, and there you were at the end of the bar, your bone-thin body in loose-fitting jeans and a black button-up blouse with floppy lapels, and those waves of dirty blond hair that curled this way and that. That’s what I saw. That’s what made me stop. That’s what made me look and listen, an English girl in Buenos Aires, a city so alive, but so expensive in those days that foreigners didn’t stay for long.
We were a small crowd, the foreigners, and we all knew who was who, at least among the journalists. I looked over at you, and you looked over at me, in my old jeans and a T-shirt, my head shaven. You made the first move, stumblingly from all the wine. You walked over to me, and we spoke of books, music and your England, and of my Argentine father and my English mother and how unusual it was that I grew up American. It came time to go, and we walked to hail a taxi for you. We walked slowly and our hands almost touched. Then I went for it. I asked you for your phone number, and the next day I called, and you came over for a small party at my apartment. We drank, we spoke and we edged closer. It was when we went out and walked down the street to find you a cab - that was when I took your hand and you stopped. We kissed, and you leaned back against the wall of an apartment building, and that is when it all started, our life.
We wrote lists of things to do, furniture to buy. We fought, of course. We were still getting to know each other, and you got cold feet. Me too. But we could laugh as we shopped to piece together a place for ourselves. We chose what we could afford, first for our one-room apartment and then for a bigger place as we made more money. But we kept to a budget. We were saving for the wedding, and the day came, a large event at a rugby club with an 18-hole golf course to which my father invited all of his well-to-do family and friends and made sure they were seated advantageously.
It poured that day and our outdoor ceremony got moved indoors, the chairs left on the grass, six or seven of them knocked down in the storm, and there they lay. You got wet in your long, creamy dress and you muddied your shoes. Your dad told you off for saying “fuck!” eight or nine times before walking down the aisle to me.
The wedding party swelled. We ate and drank and danced. Things went well despite the storm, even though you put the ring on my wrong hand. “Who really cares?” you said when we were getting our pictures taken. You shrugged it off with that devilish smile of yours, my favorite of your looks. Those eyes, so devious and so much about you in control of your life, of you leading, of you pulling me along like a boy to a school dance or a young man to bed.
We flew to Costa Rica for our honeymoon. I taught you how to surf. We lay on the beach, and we slept in. And that’s when it happened. That’s when the next stage started.
Back home, I went to the doctors with you, and we took the birthing classes. Both of us chuckled when another pregnant woman farted. Everything was easy; it was careless. That was our life before the pregnancy – and during. We’d make love and lie in bed, read, talk and dream about our life ahead, and then get up for omelets at three in the afternoon. We had hopes and plans. We wanted four children, and we wanted to travel the world even if careers and parental responsibilities would encroach.
We bought our first clothes for the baby’s arrival: a pair of green- and white-striped pajamas. You slept peacefully and contented. I lay beside you and watched you and the baby’s movements, my hand on your belly. The baby kicked. You ate beef for the first time after going vegetarian at eighteen, and you took to pickles and pickled onions. You made me search for more in the middle of the night. The yolk from your favorite fried-egg sandwiches dripped onto your shirt, and Oscar, our fat black cat, purred on top of your belly with the baby inside.
“Do you remember when we slept on my surfboard cover?” I asked you one afternoon at our new apartment.
“Yeah, god that was awful. You were such an ass about buying a bed. You took ages,” you said.
“But you didn’t complain that much,” I said.
“What could I do?”
“And that first apartment? It was so tiny that you said you could piss and fry an egg at the same time,” I said, laughing.
“I didn’t mind,” you said. “Not always.”
At the subway that day, I took the escalator down and bought a ticket. “Uno, por favor.” In through the turnstile and there I waited, looking at the billboards and the people in the middle of the day. The train came and I watched as the billboards disappeared.
At the hospital, I walked across the parking lot, and that’s when it hit me. This could be the day. This could be the day I became a father. I was excited – and fidgety. I hadn’t really thought about my fate, about what lay in store for me, about becoming a father. The focus was on you and the doctors and the baby’s health, and planning how to find time to work and sleep when raising a child.
That’s when I felt ready.
I ran up the hospital steps and inside, smiling at my thoughts of what was to come for us.
I took the elevator to the fifth floor and stepped out and into the waiting room. Pregnant women, some on their own, some with their husbands, sat on the black leather sofas waiting to be called in for their monitoring sessions on the fourth floor. I didn’t see you. So I walked past them to the reception desk. “Permiso,” I said to the nurse. She looked up at me and she knew. I could tell. “Un momento,” she said, picking up the phone and telling me quickly that they’d been trying to get in touch with me. But she didn’t say why. She paged the doctor.
That is when I heard the elevator door open, and that is when I turned and saw the doctor come out, followed by you in your jean overalls and that orange and green shirt that brought out the color of your face, so young and lovely, so fair and freckled. That is when I saw your light blue eyes, and that is when I knew. Your face was dark as you walked toward me. My mouth quivered. The doctor reached me first and he gripped my shoulder like a father. His words about the monitoring came out muffled in my ears. His message was lost on me. I turned to you and took you in my arms.
In all your bloom, our baby was dead. You wept and I wept right into a room where the doctor led us away from the crowd of pregnant women who stared, then looked away.
The hours passed. I called family and friends. “Is it a boy? A girl?” they asked. My response came out splintered. “What is it?” my mother asked from Los Angeles. “Tell me, what has happened? What is it, Charles?”
Night came. You didn’t eat the dinner the nurse brought you. I ate it, and I slept. You said you didn’t sleep at all. The morning came, and with it the medication to induce labor. The doctor came to check your dilation, and on his third visit he said it was time, and two nurses came. They took you away on a bed.
I followed half an hour later in a light-green gown, cap and booties to the windowless delivery room where you lay, silent. The nurses, the anesthetist and the resident doctors looked at me. They didn’t smile; they didn’t speak. They went on with their jobs.
Our doctor arrived. His assistant, the one with the glasses and a round face, he held your hand and looked into your eyes, and the midwife told you what to do. You pushed, and our doctor said, “You’re doing great, Jenny. You can do this.” But after what must have been an hour, you gave up, even with the baby so close to coming out. You fell back on the bed and said, “I can’t do this, no puedo, no puedo.” I looked down at your face from the side of the bed. Your eyes were strained, your face pale and depleted. When you looked back at me, you didn’t see me, you didn’t see anything. Your eyes were empty. And that is when the midwife told me to move, and she got you to push again, and she pressed down on the top of your abdomen to help the baby out as you pushed with whatever strength and will you had left. And then it happened, the baby emerged – a girl.
I looked at the doctor and our baby, and I looked and listened like a paramedic at a car crash. There was still a chance of a pulse. I've always kept this from you. But I really thought our doctor had been wrong, that all of the doctors had been wrong, that the fetal monitoring and the ultrasounds had been wrong. I thought our baby would gasp for air, cry out and live. I thought this even when the doctor handed me our baby, silent and still, and when he said, “I’m sorry.”
It was when I took her in my arms that I knew that I was wrong.
It had been an accident, a knot in the umbilical cord. A fate beyond my control. Beyond our control.
Our daughter was kept in a cardboard box in a freezer while you recovered from the birth. They brought her to us, hard, stiff and with blood-red lips. We held her tight. But this didn’t help. Nothing did.
A day passed, and another. Then we had to leave. We had to go back to our lives as they had been, with empty arms. Out of the hospital we walked, putting one foot after the other, and the world parted before us. A taxi. Our home. I could see inside the room decorated specially. You closed the door to that room and went to bed in our room. Family came. And friends. I served them coffee and tea. We ran out of milk. My father went downstairs to get more.
I gazed out from the eighth-floor balcony to the slow, wide river with only a few sailboats out in the dead of winter.
I called the funeral home. “Is this for a parent, a grandparent?” they asked. “No, my daughter,” I said. The cabbies came in cars that stank of old cigarettes for our procession to the cemetery, the mass, the farewell, the incinerator. The slouching drivers put out their cigarettes, stood tall and bowed their heads when they saw that this was for a baby. They opened the car doors without words and we took our daughter’s ashes home in a mahogany box that would fit a pair of girl’s ballet slippers.
We had wanted to travel the world as a family, live careless and free at the beach.
The visitors went and we were left alone in an apartment with a door that we couldn’t open to a room with a crib, toys, a dresser of clothes and a pair of green- and white-striped pajamas that were never worn by a baby whose ashes were in a box in the living room. Her name is Sofia Frances, and we never saw the color of her eyes.
Charles Newbery has been a freelance journalist for two decades in Argentina, writing for LatinFinance, The New York Times and other media. He grew up in Los Angeles.