by Brendan McNally Landry
It was never part of the conversation and we conversed about almost everything. When, exactly, to discontinue the use or our preferred method of contraception. What specific days would be best to actually do the deed. What season did we want the baby to be born in? Was there, in fact, a position or two that might prove to be the most affective? The answer was yes, to my surprise. We discussed the timing of the pregnancy based upon the relative ages of our friends’ kids. We talked about star signs, and school start dates, possible girl names, possible boy names. We agreed that an epidural was out of the question, unless of course Sara felt the need to ‘call a game time audible’—her words. Every detail had been covered, it seemed, as I cradled my newborn son, coaxing his tiny, lucent fingers to curl around mine, and Sara looked on, still resting in her hospital bed, flushed and utterly exhausted, but smiling nonetheless. We had done everything right to get this butterball out of his hiding spot and into the world; and I was proud of us, proud of me, really. I found a nice rhythm, swaying my hips to keep my son quiet and happy, as the doctor ticked off his list of proof that our son was a healthy, human baby boy and assured us that we could take him home in a few hours. These were his exact words.
You should be free to take the young man home in a few hours, he said and turned quickly toward the doorway.
I smiled down at the baby’s face, and then shot a glance at my beautiful Sara. My heart raced at the idea of being alone with her for the first time since she went into labor twelve hours before, when she violently clutched my inner thigh in the absolute dead of the night and told me it was ‘fucking go time.’ But as I knelt down and handed the baby over to Sara, I could see the doctor fidgeting in the doorway. He looked stuck or confused, and I wondered if he had forgotten something. Either way, he stood in the doorway, finger in the air, as if frozen in a very awkward dance move. Finally, he made his way back to the end of the bed.
Have we decided, he began to ask, a dramatic pause accentuated by his skinny finger pressing tightly against his lips, upon a circumcision for the young man?
My mind raced back through all the conversations, scanned over the spines of each and every book we had purchased, pored over the countless checklists we had put together; but this was a detail we had missed. This, we had not discussed at length, there was no agreement in place. There was only my first fatherly instinct blurting out in that quiet and sterile hospital room.
Absolutely! I rang out, reaching for whatever form I had to sign to seal the fate of my new son’s foreskin. Absolutely!
I sensed the doctor leaning back from me, retreating a bit, and pulling his clipboard close against his chest. I began to formulate the words that would apologize for my excitement when it registered what had simultaneously come out of my wife’s mouth. I turned to see her face go south as our conflicting words hit in mid-air, like careening verbal mini-vans twisted into a mess of bent steel and plastic right there in the middle of the hospital room.
* * *
Once we finally decided to try for a baby, it became a bit of joke between the two of us. Sara would include it on little to do notes she would leave for me on the kitchen counter. She’d be out for the morning, and I’d wander down for coffee to find my tasks for the day:
Clean upstairs bathroom
Send rent check
Get wine and cheese for party
Make baby. At first, it seemed so utilitarian. My penis as just a weapon in the war against childlessness, nothing more. But as we got into it, I began to enjoy the sex for its purpose. We had had sex in the past, many times and for many minutes, and it was good, often even mutually satisfying. But this became about something greater than a few moments of absolute relaxation and serenity. It was about life, a new one. One with fifty percent of my fucking DNA attached to it, and this was now my calling to make it a reality. I spent a small fortune on pregnancy tests over the course of nine or ten months, and we got ourselves on a pretty regular schedule. It was like brushing your teeth, showering, or shaving every day. But at the end, there was a test to see if you had done it the right way.
The test became a regular ritual for us. She’d slink into the bathroom attached to our room as the sun was piercing our too thin blinds. She’d leave the faucet running because she couldn’t pee when she knew I was listening. When she was done, she’d bring the pee stick back to bed and we’d wait the few minutes, passing the stick back and forth, trading ridiculous baby names like Copernicus and Penelope.
That was one of the discussions we did have, whether or not to find out if it was a boy or a girl. We had decided not to initially, thinking it would be fun to wager on, I guess. But we are both shitty at surprises, and Sara eventually cracked. She had gone to an appointment while I was out of town on business and just couldn’t help herself.
She told me over a dinner of toast and runny eggs. I didn’t really hear her at first due to the dull grind of my butter knife over the slightly blackened bread.
It’s a boy, she said again, coyly shoving a forkful of egg into her mouth.
What? I said. You found out?
She chewed silently while I tried to figure out whether or not she was fucking with me. Finally, she nodded and wiped the corner of her mouth with a napkin from her lap.
I thought we were waiting, I said, letting my fork drop to my plate with a loud clank.
Just wait, she said and reached into the back pocket of her pants.
Sara produced the ultrasound photo, a small secret she had been keeping from me since her doctor visit that morning. She placed it flat on the table and slid it across to me, fingertips pressed delicately against the top corners of the dark photo.
That’s him? I asked, pinching the photo between two fingers and pulling it to my face. He’s a him?
She nodded, her smile inching ever closer to the edge of her rounded face. I held the photo up to the light hanging above the dinner table as if inspecting the contents of a sealed envelope and turned it 180 degrees.
How do they know? I asked.
Gimme it, Sara said. I’ll show you.
She righted the photo and pointed out all the features the doctor had shown her hours earlier. I vaguely made out the top of the head, but she assured me it was all there. And she ran her finger down the curve of what should have been the baby’s spine. Finally, she picked her head up and smiled. She pulled in a deep breath and grabbed my free hand.
Look at this, she said. She slid her finger to the center of the photo. You’ll love this.
Her fingernail landed on a small protrusion, a grainy arch of grey and white that peeked out into the sea of black background like the slightest of peninsulas, an estimation of a rocky coastline on a roughly hewn map.
What do you think that is? she asked me.
Ummmmmmm, I said, my veins pulsing as I realized what I was looking at. I’d like to take ‘Baby Penises’ for a thousand, Alex.
What? Sara said with a confused laugh.
Uh, I mean, yeah, I said, that’s our kid’s freakin’ penis.
Yeah, and not only that, Sara went on, but the doctor said he’s never actually seen one this big at this stage in the pregnancy…he even pulled other doctors into the room to show them. He couldn’t believe it.
My jaw dropped and the pulsing in my veins turned to goosebumps. So this was what it was to be a father, to be consumed with pride in something created of your own loin. I imagined, in that moment, that this was exactly what my own father felt the first time I hit a home run, or came home with a shiner after beating some kid’s ass on the playground. I wanted to tell everyone about this ultrasound, whether I knew them or not. I wanted to write an editorial for the local paper, maybe project the ultrasound photo onto the side of my office building with a huge neon sign pointing to it that said “This is MY Kid’s Freakin’ Penis”. I was out of my mind and my world was suddenly condensed into that grainy four by four picture of my wife’s insides. Then I saw her smile turn wry and I quickly realized she was fucking with me. She burst into laughter and got up from her chair to hug me. I threw my arms around her, still pinching the strange photo of my son in my fingertips, staring at the alleged curve of his head and back, and the peninsula of his regular-sized baby penis. Still, I was beaming.
* * *
I must say that the doctor handled himself quite well in that moment. A wavering cornstalk of a man, he let our conflicting words crash to the floor before offering a potential solution.
If it would be helpful, he said, I’d be happy to explain both the pros and cons of the procedure so that you might be able to come to a decision that suits the both of you and the young man.
He emphasized the and as if he were reminding us that there was indeed an infant in the room. I considered momentarily the idea of telling him off, but then reminded myself how he had so deftly retrieved my newborn son from the birth canal, un-squeamishly unattached him of his umbilical cord, and delivered him, eyes open and breathing, to my wife’s chest. There was nothing I could justify saying to this man in this setting.
No thank you, doctor, Sara piped in, beating me to the punch. We are not interested in mutilating our son.
Now hold on, I said, still surprised by our lack of agreement. I’d like to hear the doc out. The pros and cons and what-have-yous.
Covering his mouth with a balled fist, he cleared his throat and looked to the ceiling as if calling to mind information for a test he had spent all night cramming for. Finally, he looked to Sara for confirmation. She nodded, adding the slightest of eye rolls, and he launched into it.
Well first of all, he said, while it is technically surgical, circumcision is a relatively routine procedure that can take all of ten minutes and change.
The whole phrasing, to me, was a weird way to put it, and a bit too nonchalant as the subject was my son’s penis. But it was mostly the way the doctor provided air quotes around the word routine that left me unable to really follow along with what came after. There was the apparent reduced risk of urinary tract infections, something I knew nothing about, and had filed away as largely a female concern until that moment. He mentioned the possibility that it might offer an ‘additional line of defense’ against STDs, listing them out one by one—herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea—as if these might be the names of the fellas in the ‘wrong crowd’ that my boy might end up running with should we decide against circumcision. And then there was the string of words that seemed to jump out of the doctor’s mouth and aim themselves directly at my own crotch—Penile. Cancer. Risk. I remember thinking in that moment that I had been drastically undervaluing the peculiar look of my own circumcised member. I hadn’t yet pondered the idea of penile cancer in my hypochondriac mind and privately thanked my own father for his foresight in actively protecting me from this evil, as rare as it may be.
And of course there is the improved hygiene, the doctor said. Genital hygiene is easier in the absence of the foreskin.
Of course! I said, nodding and splaying my hands out in front of me, looking for reassurance from Sara that wasn’t coming. We all know that, right?
Sara ignored me completely and asked the doctor to continue with the cons.
* * *
We were on the tail end of the baby train among our friends. We had witnessed the complete transition, watched as one couple after the other shape-shifted into this oddly distorted version of the American family. Our regular weekly get-togethers became biweekly, then monthly affairs and each time, it seemed, there was a new tiny human there, pulling at my pant leg, bouncing maniacally from some contraption strapped to a doorjamb, or sleeping peacefully in its cozy car seat. It was reconfirming to see my friends invigorated with a new purpose, to be good at something. Sara, in fact, once made a joke about our new parental friends, saying it reminded her of the photos of her when she was a kid. Brown faded Polaroids of her dad hoisting her up at one of his friend’s birthday parties. The difference was, she said, that now we were the drunk ones and the pictures would be filled with tattoos and cheap-ass beer.
It wasn’t just the general scenery that was undergoing a massive renovation, but the people themselves. All conversations began and ended with baby updates, and we were peppered with details of lingering labor wounds, shitty diapers, and various methods for calming a teething child. I once even overheard my friend Kyle, a man who in high school ate and fully digested one bite at a time an entire copy of A Separate Peace on a dare, have the following conversation:
No, he said, yellow shit at that stage is expected. Totally normal. I can show you the chart.
There’s a chart? a very confused young father asked. A fuckin’ shit chart?
Yeah, man, Kyle said, killing his can of beer and slapping me on the shoulder. You really gotta know your shit, I’m tellin ya.
In a lot of ways, conversations like these served as a great method of birth control. Sometimes, I’d come home from these gatherings so afraid of getting Sara pregnant that I wouldn’t masturbate in the shower for a week for fear that she might slip and fall in just the right way and nine months later we’d have twins on our hands. Eventually, I convinced myself of my own idiocy and started accepting reality. There likely wasn’t fame or fortune around the corner for me. Talking about what I wanted to be when I grew up wasn’t cute anymore. I was already it, and it had grey hairs creeping into its sideburns, like mold growing slowly over old cheese. I don’t know that I had figured out that there is never a perfect time for a baby, but I knew I had run out of excuses. Not long after, I finally met our own pregnancy with a polite shrug, as if responding to a friendly waiter asking if we had left room for dessert.
Sure, I could go for a baby, I might have said.
When the pee stick finally showed a plus sign, Sara had trouble trusting the affordable drugstore science as a medical diagnosis. I told her she had been conditioned; conditioned to expect the negative. Even with the positive sign slapping her in the face, she denigrated a good baker’s dozen of perfectly good test kits before she was satisfied. Finally, she placed the positive pee stick in my hand.
We, my friend, are in the baby business, she said.
Remarkable, I said, shaking the stick just one last time.
About an hour later, still holding the pee stick, I called Ryan. He is my best friend of fifteen years and not anyone I would ever expect to pass any mandated parenting exam, yet he was the capable father of a four year old girl. The phone rang and rang and I began to lose patience. I felt like I had just been given the password to a secret club, and I was eager to share the news with him.
Ryan had gotten himself hooked up with a strange and beautiful girl from up north. She was a hippy by anyone’s standards, a custom furniture maker who made us a porch swing for our wedding that had grooves carved out on the seat that were perfectly fitted to our then twenty-eight year old butts. I had never seen him smile as much as he did around her and he used to joke that she was pregnant before he even said “I do.” He had a beautiful little blonde headed girl who waddled around our parties now and she seemed to have learned how to talk before I realized she was even walking. I remember seeing him once, swinging her around, his hands tucked tightly under her arms. She giggled uncontrollably as she spun faster than she’d ever moved in her life, backlit by an intense afternoon sun, and Ryan looked about as natural as I’d ever seen him.
He was the first of us to become a dad, and from the moment I told him about the absolutely positively conclusive results of the aggregated response of no less than ten pee sticks, I had no choice in the matter at all. Ryan officially became my self-appointed, honorary new-daddy-mentor. There was nothing, in his mind, that I had to go through on my own. Right off the bat, he kept saying he was proud of me, and I kept wanting to ask what for. All I’d done so far was have sex the right way.
Don’t worry, I’ll let you in on a few things, he said to me, as if his own daughter had already escaped the entrapments of early drug use, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, and lackluster SAT scores. First things first, he went on, you better start praying for a little boy right now.
What do you mean? I said.
Whaddya mean, what do I mean, Ryan continued. What do you think has been in the back of my mind since I brought baby girl home from the hospital?
I don’t know, man, I said. Uhhh, cost of diapers? The state of public schools?
Man, come on! he said, and I could feel him leaning closer into the phone. I brought her home and before I even closed the door, my mind flashed forward like sixteen or seventeen years. And all I could think about were the like ten thousand penises that were already pointed directly at my doorstep. Ya get it?
He was sort of kidding and sort of not, and I didn’t fully get it then, but this was a sentiment I would hear again and again from him. Every time she sauntered into a room, or danced innocently to the music we played at the backyard gatherings, it would come up. I know my response to him that day was unfair, but I probably won’t fully get it until my own daughter is running around, curly haired and barefoot.
Relax, man, I remember saying, maybe she’ll be a lesbian.
Yeah? Ryan said. Fuck you, man.
* * *
I had decided not to actually witness the birth, giving into my fear of quickly becoming the primary medical concern in the delivery room. I imagined a pratfall, headlong into expensive hospital equipment, blood seeping from my head, desterilizing the entire scene—all of this likely coinciding with the crowning of my first born son’s slimy bald head.
It’s better off if I stay out here, I said to the doctor.
Ok then, he said, see you in five, six hours.
He smiled and turned toward the swinging doors, and I was sure he was judging me in some way, with his ‘who let this guy in?’ look on his face. I let it go and set off on a quest to find coffee and a nice spot to begin my wait.
When the doctor returned a few hours later, his brow was sweaty and he waved me back through the swinging doors; his straight arm flapping over his head as if swatting at flies. He was not well shaven and his medical coat was a bright white, but stiff and ill-fitting. On another day, I might wonder whether or not this was a bored terminally ill patient killing some hours in his sterile, fluorescent-lit prison by having fun with innocent bystanders. But I followed him to the room where my wife and new son were waiting.
That little bugger wanted out of there bad, the doctor said, as we rounded a corner and came to the doorway.
Uh, I said, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Well it’s not the worst thing, Jack, he said.
I was unaware if he thought my name was actually Jack or if this was just what he called all of his casual male acquaintances. Before I could correct him, he was through the door, clapping his hands loudly.
Now let’s go meet your son, Jack, he said and slapped me hard in the center of my back.
Sara’s face was flushed and I could tell from her eyes that she’d been crying. She held my son in her lap, a tightly wrapped ball of white linens that I thought could easily be mistaken for a small load of laundry. But he was in there, and she couldn’t take her eyes off of him, even as I slowly lowered myself onto the bed next to her. She peeled back the blankets a bit, exposing his face and head. His face was pinkish and squished, as if he’d just tasted something not at all to his liking. He had more hair than I expected him to have, a black swirl around a decent sized bald spot, culminating in a brief and off-centered tuft in the front. It had the effect of making him look like a very tiny, squirmy old man; an old man with a head like an upside down onion.
There he is, Sara said. What do you think?
Is his head gonna stay that shape?, I said, placing my palm on his warm little head.
My god, Scott, she said. Really?
Well, I don’t know, I said.
No, his head is not going to stay that way. It’s part of the process, she said. Didn’t you at least look at the pictures in some of the books we bought?
The fact is, I had read the books, but I did not remember any chapters entitled So, Your Newborn Infant Has a Head Like a Prize-Winning Onion. I didn’t remember any of it in the moment. I was taken over by something, a serene calmness that I did not expect. Instinct, perhaps. I had spent the last hours pacing the hallway, shifting uncomfortably on the vinyl seats, dumping coffee down my throat, and desperately staving off the certain brain melt that would occur the very moment that I was informed that the idea of a child had gained successful passage into the world and had, in fact, become an actual, living breathing baby; a baby full of needs that I would be, at minimum, fifty percent responsible for not fucking up.
But that vanished as I took my son in my arms, surprised by his weight, his compactness. It was the first infant I’ve ever held that didn’t immediately break into tears. I rocked him slowly, exchanging glances with Sara, who was tired but too excited to rest. I felt confident and capable as I sat next to her on the bed, holding our son. I’m a father, I thought to myself. Again, I was beaming.
* * *
There had been no decision made on the fate of my son’s foreskin by the time mother and infant needed to rest again. I decided to take the time to relay the good news to friends and family. I should have probably called Sara’s parents first, but the doctor’s soliloquy on the pros and cons had decided my first dial.
Ryan was so excited to hear the news that I thought he might jump through the phone, or at the very least, rupture my eardrums.
Yep, I said. Healthy baby boy. Just like we were hoping for.
Does he have a name yet? he asked and I knew full well he wanted to hear that we’d name him Ryan.
Well, I said, I’m calling him Walter, but Sara’s not quite convinced yet.
Walter, Ryan said, as if testing its weight in his hand. I like it. When can I—
Hey, I interrupted, let me get your take on something.
I filled him in on the whole circumcision issue we had encountered that day. How Sara had been adamantly against it, how she’d called it mutilation, told me to have more respect for my son’s penis than that. I gave him my thought on the whole deal, which basically amounted to “if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for my son.” He laughed, as though it wasn’t a big deal, and I could feel my body temperature rise.
I’ve got three words for you, Scotty, Ryan finally said, three words that will make this whole situation much easier for you.
What ya got? I said.
Steven…goddamn…Stroika, he said. .
It took a moment to register with me. I was drawing a blank, I’d missed the reference. But then my mind caught up, conjured up the image of this kid, a kid from the neighborhood, a classmate. His senior picture. All teeth and spiky blonde hair. Black tie on a black shirt. That forehead. Steven goddamn Stroika, I thought to myself.
Oh shit, I finally said. The fuckin aardvark.
The last time I’d seen Steven Stroika was likely our high school graduation. We were all good friends growing up, when it was generally acceptable to be into dragons and wizards and shit like that. But he never really grew out of it, and by the time we hit high school, he was a bit of a lost cause.
The tormenting started early on. Ear flicks and book tossings as Steven made his way down the hallway, not looking anyone in the eye, doing nothing to draw the attention he received on a daily basis. It got worse for him sophomore year, when gym class meant mandated showers. It took less than a day for word to get around to the loudmouth sophomores, and it became a bit of a battle cry. Get you a load of Stroika’s junk, they would holler, ending it with a guttural grunt that would echo off the hard cinderblock walls of the locker room. For weeks on end, it would invariably be called out on the way to or from the showers, met each time with uproarious laughter from the curious hyena boys who skittered about the locker room, hands clutched tightly to the tops of their bath towels.
To this day, I don’t know what set it off. Maybe something had been said in gym class, a joke or putdown. But something was different. One of the bigger boys hollered out the strange battle cry and it was met with the same maniacal laughter. But then the bigger boy, with the help of one or two others, grabbed Steven by his spindly arms and thrust him against a row of lockers. The bigger boy stripped away Steven’s towel and let out a bird-like yelp. I was transfixed along with every other stupid boy in the room and I remember praying for a teacher to bust into the locker room to break this up. But it didn’t happen, and the bigger boy held his grip tight on Steven’s arm, leaned in, and squinted his eyes.
It looks like a fuckin aardvark’s snout, he said. Probably stinks like one too.
And there it was. His brand through the rest of high school and even into adulthood—Steven ‘Aardvark’ Stroika.
I held the phone to my ear, but if Ryan was saying anything, I couldn’t hear him. I remembered Steven’s dad sitting hunchbacked at our graduation. His pock-marked face lighting up when his intelligent son shook the principal’s hand. I wondered if he knew his son’s high school brand. If he knew what had happened. I wondered what he had done the day Steven was born.
* * *
I walked back into the hospital room to find Sara barely awake. She cradled the baby and kept herself narrowly spread across the rest of the bed. This was officially the first time we’d been alone as a full-fledged family. The TV was on, David Letterman interviewing a young bearded man I didn’t know. I grabbed the remote and turned it down as Sara raised her eyes to me.
Oh hey, she said, yawning. How are you? Given any more thought to mutilating our beautiful son?
I motioned for her to hand the baby over and she did. I could feel him shake from his sleep as I settled him into my arms and there was a sudden buzz to him.
Don’t call me a mutilator, I said, looking down into the baby’s face. I don’t get why you don’t want little Walter to be circumcised.
First of all, we didn’t agree on Walter, she said, sitting up and shifting forward in her bed. And no, I don’t see the need to do that to him.
Do what to him? I asked, my voice bouncing a bit too harshly off the bare hospital walls. It’s a boy, that’s what you do…Walter’s not different!
Ok, stop calling him Walter. He’s not a 65 year old man, Sara said, her hands stretched out in front of her as if she were requesting a vehicle to slow down.
At this point, Walter began to wriggle around in my arms. It felt to me like holding some strange battery-powered toy caught in the throes of its last few seconds of juice. He started to cry, producing abbreviated chirps that gradually grew closer together, like the sound a bouncing ball makes as it begins to shorten its hops over wooden floorboards. Panicked, I looked to Sara, who sat up straighter with her arms outstretched, prepared to take the child. I placed him gently down in Sara’s lap. She quickly disrobed her upper half and removed the blanket that had been wrapped around Walter. She pressed him to her chest and, with a little assistance from Sara, he expertly went to work. I was amazed at this display, proud of its fluidity, as if it had been practiced, by both of them, a thousand times before.
What were we talking about? I said distractedly, unable to take my eyes off the lovely site of my breastfeeding wife.
Oh right, she said gently, we were talking about how you want to mutilate your son mere hours after his grand entrance into the family. You were saying?
I was saying nothing, and in fact had nothing to say in that moment. I didn’t even belong in the room; I was like the slightly creepy bellhop who stays a beat too long after the hotel guests had tipped me and settled in. I stared on in silence as my wife returned to her instinctual duties, cradling my son below her breast, the sweet sound of his tiny lips barely perceptible, and I wondered why I didn’t know what to do.
by Brendan McNally Landry