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A Boy Not Born Yet

Story by Tori Malcangio (Read author interview) December 15, 2007

Brett and I are breathing from our mouths. An animal pant. It’s the only way to get the news out fast, because it’s deep in us—the news—as if maybe when we weren’t looking, the doctor implanted it on top of our hearts and lungs.

On the mauve Formica countertop, next to a tube of body jelly, is my file spread open to a page marked Boy, 22 weeks. In her rush, the doctor forgot it. Maybe she’ll come back for it: Excuse me, I forgot something. Maybe she’ll apologize for the mix-up, retrieve the file and the news, and give them both to someone else in the waiting room, someone better equipped. I lie back down on the butcher-paper bed, Brett leans on the countertop, and we wait. For what, we don’t know. There’s no telling yet. Our bodies insist on breathing, but we’d rather not.

Last night Brett made meatballs. Boiled linguine al dente and topped it with fresh garlic, basil, olive oil, and shaved Parmesan. With a paper towel over my belly reaching sixteen inches out, we talked until our plates were clean. He read somewhere that garlic is especially good for baby boys not born yet. Brain development, immunity, a strong pitching arm.

No sign of sweet basil; the room smells of breath and is bordered in rosebud wallpaper; a delicate pink-petaled pattern hand-selected for a woman supine. The stirrups are in the “go” position. The lights are recessed and bright, like the pop of a flash that’s not really a flash but a forever. Brett’s face is snow and marshmallow and cum. I stare into the glare, until it burns first and then spots dance. There’s hope in a room blotted and hazy, like a foggy patch on the interstate, and, give or take a mile, it’ll lift and the centerline will peek through.

Brett swivels in the dwarfed stool, probably still warm from the doctor using it to deliver the news. Metal tools with jaws, my heartburn, the morning light cutting through the mini-blinds—how long has God had us pegged for this storyline? And how many words do Eskimos have for snow? What about panic or fucked? For two seconds, I pretend I’m not really pregnant. Then he kicks.

Brett swivels. I pray to be sliced up my middle and let the news spill out, like what happens to sharks after biting off a kid’s arm. I can tell that Brett wishes to be gutted too; that he’d rather bleed it out. Anyway, we’re not ready to break the seal on this protective silence, to prick the bag of waters—and then the gush. Last night’s food and conversation is still happy in us: What to pack in my hospital bag; what outfit will the baby come home in; what if I decide I can’t do it without drugs; will Brett look “down there”?

The doctor was gentle. She delivered the news as she probably hands over newborns still attached and wet: Delicate, careful not to rush, careful not to linger. With each word, her voice fell ten steps. So did her shoulders. The “D” first: Down. Then the “S” with her eyes turned down: Syndrome. An “S” for good measure. Syndromes don’t go away; they aren’t treated in the nurse’s office between art and social studies. They don’t fade or grow less objectionable with birthdays. There is no catch phrase for “syndrome”—no “stork bite” or “strawberry.”

Brett rolls over to me. He touches my calf through the paper dress. Not yet, I can’t look at him yet, mostly because I’m not ready for our pain to collide and form one giant tropical depression. Your cousin has Down’s, he says. Already he knows the abbreviation. You drop the “syndrome” once you have one of your own.

Yes, she does, I say, and as a kid I remember looking at her—she was twelve; I was eight—and watching her play the same Barney record over and over and over. For seven years, she carried a yellow Frisbee, flapping it at strangers and throwing her head into walls. I remember—she was sixteen; I was twelve—her mother (my aunt) shaved her legs and then under her arms. When she was twenty-two and I was eighteen, her mom said that she was really only three and always would be.

Call your mom and dad, I tell Brett. Why? he asks. Never mind, I say.

We decide to keep it to ourselves—for days or weeks, we haven’t decided. It’s okay to wait, we say. Let’s let the past five months, and however that time can be classified—joy, anticipation, trepidation, fear—sort itself out and shrink back to normal like my uterus will. No rush. We’ll let the sorry of everyone we’ve ever spent a Saturday with settle in, maybe dilute ours.

Or we can start the secret now—you and I, Brett. We can say there was no heartbeat, no flick-flick, flick-flick; just black forever on the monitor. We can say we pushed hard on my belly and nothing. We don’t know when he stopped breathing; he just did. Sometimes it happens. And we can collect condolence cards and be excused for shutting ourselves in for five summers. We can shoot the intruder, or we can scream for help.

Brett says it’s time to go. You need to eat something, he says. I support my stomach swag while Brett helps me up. My paper dress opens, and the air-conditioning blows on my naked skin. Brett pulls the dress tight around me, hiding my thighs, my swell. It’s okay, I say, no one’s in here. He’s quiet, and the air in the room moans off.

About the Author

Tori Malcangio’s mom was a rodeo queen and her dad a national champ gymnast, so she once rode horses and was very flexible. On a boring weekday, she takes her 17-month-old to model homes and they play hide and seek in the all the closets. Running keeps her unflabby and writing keeps her sane. She’s an advertising copywriter and is getting close to finishing her first short story collection, Swallow.

This story appeared in Issue Nineteen of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Nineteen

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