Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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When she was feeding him in the wee hours of the morning, Marly would attempt to will her own sleepiness into the baby. She’d close her eyes and concentrate, taking slow, deep breaths, as if by doing so she could channel all the intoxicating powers of her exhaustion into the breast milk, transforming it into a kind of mini-River Lethe. (She’d thought of that analogy one night, then immediately questioned the appropriateness of comparing what one fed one’s newborn to the river of oblivion in the underworld. Bad brain. Bad mother.)

But the baby didn’t seem to mind. The baby battered his tiny fists against Marly, panting and rooting at her nipple. The baby did not look exhausted. The baby, in fact, never looked exhausted during the hours at which it is normal and customary for humans to sleep. His hunger was indefatigable. And he was indefatigably nocturnal. And his fingernails were surprisingly sharp for being so small. If Marly didn’t keep his hands covered, he would rake his own face insistently, drawing blood.

Babies didn’t know better. Between their floppy necks and their self-excoriating claws and the soft spots on their big heads like bruises on a peach, babies seemed bent on their own self-destruction. But it was your job, as the parent, to stop them.

In the other room of their overheated apartment, Marly’s husband should have been sleeping. Marly longed to join him, to climb into bed and curl against his familiar shape, to breathe in counterpoint rhythm to his sleeping breaths—but he was working an overnight shift at the hospital. He wouldn’t be home until after his sign-out at 7:00 a.m., hours away. For now, it was just the two of them: the baby and herself. And the baby, his hot-dumpling body wedged against her, sipping the substance of her, slurping up her very cells, hardly counted. She, the baby—they were each alone.

The baby arched his little back against her, repositioned his head on her breast, and kicked off the arm of the couch with one foot like a tiny mountain climber summiting. Marly yawned. Nowadays, her single consuming desire was sleep. She fantasized about surrendering to blank unconsciousness without being awakened by the baby’s urgent cry or by her own aching breasts, swollen with undrunk milk.

There were pills a person could take, some of which her husband prescribed to his patients. Marly longed for those pills. She wanted the strong ones, pills that would clobber her chatterbox brain into silence.

“I want whatever’s the pharmaceutical equivalent of being clubbed on the head,” she’d told her husband recently. “I want to be clubbed on the head like a baby seal. Just for a night. Knocked out. One night is all I ask.”

“Trust me,” he’d said. “You don’t. Having a functioning reticular activating system is a good thing.”

Marly had shaken her head. “I want you to slug me in my reticular activating system,” she’d said. “Or find me a modern-day wet nurse. Who works nights. But it’s probably easier just to knock me out.”

Her husband wouldn’t do that, Marly knew. Her husband was ethical. Scrupulously ethical. He had strong opinions on many things, including the writing of prescriptions for controlled substances for one’s wife. Besides, he’d spent far too much time during his residency detoxing people off of benzos and prescription pain pills. It was all poison—Ambien led to sleep-driving on I-95, Xanax was impossible to get off of. Anything rumored to be the good stuff was an addiction waiting to happen; everything foretold a bad outcome. Her husband drank cup after cup of green tea, ate chia seeds and kale, went on early morning jogs, and was generally cautious and consequence-averse. He regaled her with horror stories from his training. He’d seen at least one horrible finale to everything—even the most innocuous-seeming choices, from lighting a scented candle to wearing the wrong pajamas, could lead to terrible outcomes. The world was full of subtle dangers.

“At the very least I could give the baby a little something to make him sleepy,” Marly said. Her voice was light, ironical, so that her husband would know not to take her seriously even though she was actually at least half serious. “That would help. You know, like people used to do? How our grandmothers’ generation used to give their babies a whiskey-soaked rag to suck? Or something like that?”

Her husband snorted. “A whiskey-soaked rag.” (She, of course, knew better. Bad joke. Bad mother.)

So, as a compromise, Marly had been taking the occasional Benadryl instead. Like a criminal. A Benadryl junkie. It was perfectly safe—that was a fact you could verify anywhere on the Internet!—but her husband, all bulgur wheat and almond milk, would not have approved. Her mouth was now permanently dry and she had sinuses like the Sahara, and yet she still couldn’t sleep. Even when the baby did go limp with exhaustion in her arms, finally allowing himself to be put down for an hour or so, Marly remained awake—terribly tired, but awake. She’d tried a glass, or two, or two and a half, of red wine—more than her husband would have approved of for someone breastfeeding his baby son. But the wine had only granted her a solid fifty minutes of unconsciousness followed by the punishment of a cottony headache. The baby, of course, was impervious to the effects of wine-laced breast milk.

And now, the baby stopped sucking for a moment and clung there, his mouth still latched on her nipple, as if lost in a dream state. Slowly, Marly peeled him away from her body, but he startled, his tiny mouth suctioning to her nipple like it was a piece of taffy. She sighed and let him nestle back against her to resume nursing. He raised one of his tiny eyebrows at her, skeptical.

In her previous life, before she’d become a human milk machine, Marly had been a graduate student. She had started off as a graduate student in comparative literature but had at some point wandered over into the amorphous field of cultural studies, which meant a little dash of everything in the humanities. It also meant she could never exactly explain to her grandfather what she was doing with her life. “So you’re an English teacher?” he’d finally asked, and she’d nodded.

She was ABD. Her dissertation was entitled, “gypsies: Antiziganism as a Literary Trope and the Cultural Legacy of the Roma.” What this really meant was that she got to read lots of folklore and stories about tinkers and fortune tellers. It also meant she got to keep up with weird news stories, like the recent one about a blond girl found in the custody of a Greek gypsy couple. The couple was accused of having abducted her, although they’d claimed they’d bought her for €900 from her biological mother. This story had, of course, set off a wave of the old folkloric panic—gypsies! They’ll steal your children! And of course, this led to the inevitable overreaction: afterwards, elsewhere in Europe, two fair-haired gypsy children were briefly—erroneously—removed from their actual biological parents. The Roma and Traveler communities had been righteously aggrieved. There had been a whole political back-and-forth across Europe.

Stories like this (gypsy kidnappings, fairy changelings) had been around for centuries, and Marly collected the most gruesome ones. One young woman in Cumbria in the 1830s had become convinced that her beautiful pink-cheeked, golden-haired baby had been stolen by a traveling tinker and replaced with an imposter-baby, jaundiced and howling. Whether she’d believed the replacement baby was a gypsy or a fairy was unclear, but the imposter-baby sobbed ceaselessly. She’d been so certain that it was an imposter-baby—not her own, this incessantly sobbing creature—that she’d thrown the baby into the fireplace. Legend held that if you put a changeling in the fire he’d be forced to jump up the chimney and return your actual child. Of course, this wasn’t what had happened. So many things led to a bad outcome.

Marly now had pages and pages of notes on the Roma, Sinti, Manush, Romanichal, Irish Travelers; she had pages and pages of stories—both more recent news items and folklore. What she did not have, however, was a dissertation. What she had not done, in fact, was start writing a dissertation. When her husband introduced her at parties now, she knew that everyone, nodding politely, interpreted his phrase, “working on her PhD,” as “is a stay-at-home mom with frustrated ambitions.”

Her husband’s friends were irritatingly practical. They were doctors. There was something indisputably and unassailably official about this role in the world. Even if these doctor friends were mostly all psychiatrists, the vaguest and most hand-wavy variety of doctor, they didn't have to mention that part. When someone asked what they did, they could just answer with one word: “Doctor.” It was clear cut. (There was no explaining, for instance, what “cultural studies” consisted of.) They didn't stay at home wearing spit-up covered pajamas all day (that single fact was delegitimizing). Instead they could say something like, “When I was in medical school . . . ” or at least think it reassuringly. No one ever reassured herself by thinking, “When I was in graduate school for cultural studies . . .”

She’d always felt ill-at-ease among them, like a fake adult. Now she felt like something even worse: a sad housewife—or far worse still, a sad housewife with pretensions of intellectualism. When a doctor friend had asked her about her graduate work once at one of their dinner parties, she’d described the Roma’s migration from India, the historical stigma against them, and the evolving trope of the gypsy in literature and popular culture. She’d even mentioned the recent case in Greece about the child abduction, its unfortunate intersection with a long history of prejudice and urban legend.

She’d then told them the story of the woman in 1830s Cumbria, complete with the part about throwing the baby into the fire.

“Postpartum psychosis,” said Laurel, an elegant woman who was, in Marly’s opinion, too attractive to be taken seriously. She should have been a news anchor, not a psychiatrist. Or maybe the lady behind the cosmetics counter. A cocktail waitress. Someone people’s husbands had affairs with.

“Capgras syndrome,” said Kevin. Kevin smiled flirtatiously at Marly. Kevin was always smiling flirtatiously at everyone—man, woman, or child. She felt sorry for his wife, Becca, who was eyelashless and plain. Kevin’s flirtatious energy was like a spigot that could not be turned off. He exuded sexuality, aimed at no one in particular and thus at everyone. You felt your pelvis tilt towards his direction like a magnet and then were disgusted at yourself.

Marly wondered how either of these two could possibly do their jobs. They should have been on reality television, not entrusted to care for people’s mental health, of all things. It was annoying to have the intriguing aspects of your graduate work distilled by someone else into a smug DSM diagnosis.

“Well,” Marly had said, smiling politely at them. “I’m not so much interested in—”

“You’ve been to Paris, right?” Laurel interjected. “The gypsies are a real problem. There are swarms of them at the Gare du Nord, the Louvre. And they’re children. Gangs of children. That’s the creepy part. All these beautiful little dark-eyed gypsy children rush you and you’re enveloped by them. The next thing you know, your wallet’s gone.”

“Well, sure,” Marly said, her voice gone slightly huffy. She was aware of this, careful to adjust her tone slightly so it was not hectoring—not the very same admonishing tone she used back when she’d been a TA with classrooms full of sullen freshman boys, dead-eyed, wearing baseball caps and drinking Muscle Milk. “But there are kids in gangs here, too. There’s a criminal minority everywhere. But that doesn’t mean we should assume an entire—”

“The curse!” Jason said. “Speaking of gypsies! Has John told you he’s been cursed?”

Marly looked to her husband, John, who maintained an ever-present expression of the equanimity his name suggested. John. Johns were solid, reliable. Thank God she had married a John.

Jason’s eyes crinkled. He had a look of impish delight. Marly liked him. He was a jovial Southerner with a big laugh and a slight drawl. Of the handful of John’s coresidents who’d stayed on in the area after they’d finished residency, he was her favorite. He’d tell Marly hilarious stories of his disastrous dates with all the wrong guys—a stuffy accountant, a way-too-young former frat boy, the gorgeous but dumb bartender from the trendy new bar. Of all of the doctor friends, he made Marly feel the most included.

“A gypsy curse, alright. A hex. Black magic,” Jason said, looking pleased with himself. “Cursed by Ol’ Pants Leg herself.”

Marly looked to John, who was shaking his head.

“She’s not a gypsy,” John said. “I think she’s a Lumbee Indian or something.”

“Same diff,” Jason continued. “Don’t spoil my story.”

“You did not mess with her,” Kevin said, laughing. “Not Ol’ Pants Leg. You really don’t want to be on her bad side.”

“So what happened?” Laurel asked.

John sighed. It was part his scrupulosity, part his kindness, but Marly knew he hated talking in this way. Even if no one ever technically violated HIPAA, Marly knew that he found something horrid about the whole thing: nicknaming frequent fliers in the ER—most of them homeless, many of them schizophrenic or alcoholic, or both—and telling stories, albeit de-identified stories, but stories nonetheless wherein these nameless patients were transformed into grotesquely comic caricatures.

Marly knew it was probably some kind of psychological defense. A form of gallows humor. If she had to work in the bowels of an urban hospital, in the ER—the psychiatric part of the ER, no less—then surely she too would be telling stories about how Vomit Beard or Prostitute Mamie Eisenhower or Eye Patch had showed up again, or how Heroin Justin Bieber had spat in her face and called her a bitch, or how Snoop Dogg the Homeless Man could actually be extremely pleasant once he was no longer in acute benzo withdrawal. It must serve as a way of coping with the bleakness you encountered.

But it made her uncomfortable—and John, too. This was one of the things she loved about him. She took it as a measure of his fundamental decency. When he did at times unburden himself to her with a story of something that had happened on one of his shifts, he never played up the story for laughs, never gleefully found in one of his patients a tragic celebrity doppelgänger.

John shook his head. He was smiling, but Marly could tell it was a pained smile. He didn’t want to be a bad sport.

Jason laughed again.

“Ol’ Pants Leg cast the evil eye on John,” he said. “She’s pissed.”

John shrugged. “The mobile treatment team couldn’t find her for the past several months. She was floridly manic again.”

“Fine,” Jason said. “I’ll tell it. Anyways, so John’s right. She’s as manic as they come, yelling about Jesus. ‘I’ve got Jesus inside me! Jesus will protect me! I’ve got Jesus inside me!’ And when security searches her, what do they find but the business end of a cake-topper Jesus poking out her pants. So John had security take it from her. And she gets very upset. Apparently that was her protection. Tiny cake-topper Jesus! And John took Jesus away. That’s when she hexed him with the old gypsy curse. The nurses and techs were still talking about it when I came on shift.”

“What’d you do with Jesus?” Laurel asked.

John shrugged. “It was a sharp. That’s what I told her, too. Even if it was Jesus, it was a sharp.”

“Look out,” Laurel said, laughing. “Ol’ Pants Leg holds a grudge.”

“She probably does have some kind of voodoo up her sleeve,” Kevin added.

“What exactly did she say?” Marly asked. She did not point out to Kevin that voodoo was something separate entirely—a whole different cultural studies dissertation.

John sighed again. “Oh, she cursed me and my offspring for generations to come. Said she’d come after me somehow, destroy what’s most valuable to me. That was the gist of it, at least. She phrased it better than that. More colorfully.”

Marly felt herself flinch slightly.

“People say that stuff all the time. It’s the psych ER,” John said.

Laurel smirked slightly and straightened the bowl of chips on the table.

“I don’t know,” she said, looking meaningfully at Marly’s midsection in a way that made Marly flush.

And here they had erupted into laughter, Laurel pouring more Malbec into everyone’s glass (everyone except Marly’s, that is, since Marly had been eight months pregnant at the time), Marly holding her distended belly protectively, as if the words of a psychotic homeless lady actually meant something.


The baby bucked against Marly, his little head bobbing away from her nipple. Maybe he was finished. She looked at her watch. It was after 3:00 a.m. The baby—his name was John also, which surely meant he would grow up into a good, dependable man like his father—had to be finished nursing, surely. Her husband, in the fluorescent glow of the cramped workroom in the back of the ER, would be rubbing his eyes, counting down the hours until the end of his shift, stirring powdered creamer into one more cup of bad K-Cup coffee, his single vice.

Maybe she and the baby could get some sleep. A nap, at least, before John came home.

She scooped the baby up to her shoulder, leaving her breasts to drip. It didn’t matter. All of her clothes were soaked with milk these days. Who was she trying to impress? Her husband? She was no longer his anyway; she belonged to the baby now. She was the baby’s appendage. Or Laurel? Fancy Dr. Laurel who irritated her for no reason?

“You should go easy on her,” Jason had said to her once, back when she’d still been pregnant and had confided her irritation to him. “She had a miscarriage, you know. Pretty recently. It can’t be easy for her. Seeing other people, you know, couples, having babies.” He’d looked down, studying his hands.

“She told you?” Marly asked. “About her miscarriage?”

Jason nodded, solemn.

“But she hasn’t dated anyone since her divorce, right?”

Jason shrugged and looked away. “Things happen,” he said. “Not my business to judge.”

The way he said it made Marly know not to press further. They were friends, after all, Jason and Laurel. No matter what, Marly would always be the outsider.

“Well, I’m sorry for her then,” Marly had said brusquely, “for that.”

And maybe she was—although Marly had still noted that Laurel laughed a couple beats too long whenever John told a joke (and he was not, she had to admit, particularly funny); noted that Laurel attended to John with a touch of extra care, extra solicitude whenever they were at the doctor friends’ dinner parties.

The baby arched his back in Marly’s arms, then spat up violently, a hot stream against her chest. Thankfully, he resettled himself, back asleep. Marly moved him to her other shoulder, and turned the lights off in the living room. Sleep. They would both sleep.

Someone knocked at the door.

Marly froze, pressing the baby against her there in the darkness. He stirred slightly, still asleep.

The knocking came again, this time louder.

She was aware of her heart now, skittish in her chest. The front of her shirt was wet and her left breast totally exposed. She clutched the baby tighter in her arms, aware of how soft they both were, how vulnerable.

It was most likely a drunken partier. This had happened before. They lived on the same floor with some grad students at the arts institute. The art students had parties all the time—long, boozy parties during which they played bad music too loudly and let the sweet rotten odor of their pot drift down the hallways. Marly never complained to the manager, not once. Because she was a good neighbor, she told herself. Because she still remembered what it was like to be young and fun, rather than soft hipped and stretched out, exuding the warm, milky pee-smell of babies.

The knocking again, loud and insistent.

Ol’ Pants Leg, Marly thought.

And it was stupid (and probably classist and playing into exactly the sort of ethnic stereotype that Marly planned to rail against in her dissertation), but Marly thought of her. The curse. That stupid story.

She pictured her there waiting, just on the other side of the door: an older woman, in her sixties, with long, thick gray hair in a frizzled ponytail. A strong-featured, almost Mediterranean-looking face, with a large mouth and wide, dark eyes. She’d be wearing a loose tunic with a large, open sweater with clogs and painter’s pants cuffed to the knee, the right leg cuffed much higher than the left, like a bicyclist. She’d be waiting there expectantly, waiting to make good on her curse. To steal the baby.

Marly hadn’t told John, but she’d seen Ol’ Pants Leg once. She often saw people in the city whom she imagined might be one of the nicknamed characters from the ER stories she’d heard (terrible, probably, to think of them as “characters,” but that’s what the stories did). The cursing man with the brown bag always wandering by the downtown Hilton, for example—Eye Patch? The skinny, grimy, too-young kid pestering people for change between lanes of traffic on MLK—Heroin Justin Bieber? One day when Marly had been leaving the Whole Foods by the harbor, guiltily clutching her bag of overpriced organic produce and truffles tight to her chest, she’d seen Ol’ Pants Leg: an old woman pushing a rusted bicycle along the walkway and hurling angry gibberish at the seagulls. Marly had turned and headed the other direction.

There was the knocking again.

Pressing the baby against her, Marly backed away from the door—as if it might suddenly swing open. It couldn’t, though. It was locked. She definitely kept it locked.

The baby whimpered and Marly flushed. She was just as bad as John’s doctor friends, with their quips, their nicknames, their brutal efficiency. Marly tiptoed over to the door, squinting out the peephole.

The person outside moved closer to the peephole, staring up into it, so close that Marly at first could make nothing out.

A finger jabbed at the peephole, accusingly.

Marly flinched, reminding herself whoever was there couldn’t see her. The floor creaked loudly.

“I know you’re there, darling,” a woman’s voice said in response. “I know you’re standing there, just behind the door. I’m sorry it’s so late.”

Marly shifted, balancing her weight on the old floorboards and praying for the baby’s continued silence. The woman’s voice was low and raspy and somehow familiar. She spoke with a strange authority.

“Open the door please, darling,” she said. “I need your help.”

Marly pressed her eye up to the peephole again, and now she could see who stood there.

It wasn’t Ol’ Pants Leg. Of course it wasn’t.

“Come on, darling,” the woman said again. “Please, dear. I need your help.”

It was a woman she’d seen in and around the building. Marly had passed her in the mailroom earlier that very day.

The woman was older, sallow-skinned with sparse gray hair and watery blue eyes. She was painfully thin—the kind of thin that is the result of either chronic illness or drugs, or both. She had the look of someone who’d stopped attending to details. Her clothes were stained and mismatched, and she had dirty fingernails. Maybe, Marly thought, she was an artist—a potter. A starveling window box gardener.

“Please,” the woman said. The woman was so skinny it hurt to look at her. When she lifted her ropey arm, Marly could see every tendon, every scar. “Open the door.”

The woman studied the door, waiting for some kind of response. Marly counted her breathing silently, peering out the peephole.

“Please,” the woman said. “I know it’s late. But you owe me.”

Marly realized what the woman meant: that day the man had grabbed her. This woman had intervened.

There was a liquor store on the block beside their apartment building, and a group of loud men often congregated there. Marly usually hurried past them, head down, and wasn’t bothered. Once, though, when Marly had been walking home with the baby in his stroller, one of these men had approached her, leering, calling for her. And then he’d grabbed her arm. Marly had shrieked, jerking away, but the man had just gripped tighter. The skinny lady had been standing at the corner, holding a rumpled bouquet of flowers in cellophane and smoking a cigarette. She’d seen and scurried towards them. “Get!” the woman had said to the man, who was obviously intoxicated. She’d swung her skinny fist at him, landing a feeble punch against his torso and then swung the bouquet of flowers, a damp, flaccid weapon that the woman rendered somehow threatening, into the man’s face, shouting, “You stink like liquor! Get! Leave this poor girl and her baby alone!” As small as she was, there was something fierce and slightly unhinged about her. The man looked startled. He’d released Marly’s arm and slunk off accordingly, leaving Marly to nod to the woman gratefully. At the time, she had assumed this woman, the Flower Lady, was a benevolent figure—a kind of homeless guardian angel (was that politically incorrect? Insensitive? Marly wasn’t sure.) “It’s no trouble,” the Flower Lady had said. “You just make sure that baby boy keeps growing big and strong. A good big, strong baby boy.” Marly had smiled gratefully. It was only later that she’d started noticing the Flower Lady walking down their block, standing outside the building smoking. She felt better knowing that this woman was a kind of ally. The city in which they lived was rough; you didn’t forget that, even in its nicer parts.

Marly felt a pang of guilt. The baby was warm and heavy in her arms.

“I helped you,” the Flower Lady said, “and now I need help. I know it’s late.”

This woman had stood up for her, had stepped in. She’d protected her. For the first time, Marly risked answering.

“Need help how?” she asked.

“I’m locked out of my apartment, of course,” the Flower Lady said, as if she were speaking to a small child or an idiot. “What do you think? And I don’t have my phone. My phone’s locked in the damned apartment.”

“Can I call someone for you?” Marly asked. “My baby just went to sleep.”

“Could you open the door?” the Flower Lady said bluntly, her voice edged with irritation this time. “Please. For God’s sake. Just open the goddamn door. I won’t bite.”

Marly backed away, pressing the baby against her heart, as if to quell its quickening.

“No,” Marly said, whispering at first. “I mean, I’m not exactly dressed.”

Marly heard the Flower Lady shift her weight to her other leg and sigh.

“Oh, darling,” she said, her voice softening again, cajoling in its raspy way. “I’ve scared you. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Let me call someone,” Marly suggested. “How about that?”

“Just open the door a teeny-tiny bit, sweetheart,” the Flower Lady said, cajoling. “Keep the chain on if you like.”

The woman smiled and Marly saw she most amazing set of teeth. Her teeth were big and square and white, like a Texas cheerleader’s. The teeth did not match the rest of her at all.

“I need to put something else on,” Marly said, opening the door a crack but keeping the chain on as the woman had suggested, “and put the baby down.”

The Flower Lady smiled faintly and pressed her index finger to her jaw. “Ah, there you are, dear. That’s better than talking to a door. I guess we haven’t been formally introduced. I’m Lara, but people call me Flip. Childhood nickname. We’ve seen each other in passing.” She tilted her head, indicating the mailroom, it seemed, and smiled again, revealing once more her mouthful of big, toothpaste-commercial teeth.

Marly pressed her forehead against the doorframe. She was so tired. So, so tired. She didn’t feel like being here now, having this conversation with this woman. The baby was sleeping. This was her chance, her moment to steal away, to go to sleep. And it was being ruined.

“Couldn’t I just step in for a bit, sweetheart? Darling dear?” the woman said, her voice soft and hush-a-bye now. “I’ll call my cousin, and while I wait, I can take that sweet big boy you’ve got there. I’m very good with babies. I’ll take good care. Like he’s my own. And you can get some rest.”

The woman’s voice was raspy and soothing. Marly took a slow breath, closed the door again, removing the chain. The baby made a tiny squeak in her arms. She closed her eyes for just a moment. It was possible, Marly thought, that she could go to sleep there, standing up. All of a sudden, after all her exhausted insomnia, she felt that sleep might finally overpower her, overwhelmingly, like a great wave, drowning out the woman’s voice, the street sounds, everything. She’d just sleep standing up there, like a horse.

She must have waited too long because the woman outside seemed to think she’d changed her mind. Flip let out a loud sigh.

“How’s that for neighborly. You fucking bitch,” Flip, said, careful and calm, as if she were merely making a scientific observation. “You selfish fucking bitch. I’m locked out of my goddamned apartment, and you won’t even open the door to help.”

Marly jolted upright again, a sense of panic triggered by that accusation. But she wasn’t selfish, was she? She wasn’t. It was almost 4:00 a.m. She wasn’t dressed. There was a strange woman at the door. She had a baby.

“No, no, I’m helping. I want to help you,” Marly said. She was a good person, a person who helped others, who believed in the fundamental goodness of her fellow man and woman. “Please. Just hold on. Let me put the baby down. Let me get dressed.”

Marly stood there, motionless, her eyes closed for one second. Two seconds. Three.

And then, very quickly, she put the baby down in his bassinet and went to their bedroom to change.

Once she’d put on a clean shirt, she returned to the door, took a breath, and opened it wide.

The woman, Flip, stood there beaming at her. She threw her arms around Marly.

“I knew it,” Flip said, walking into the living room. “I knew you’d let me in. I knew you would.”

Marly nodded, handing the woman her cell phone. This woman, the Flower Lady or Lara or Flip or whoever she was, did not smell good, Marly noted. A sour, unwashed smell clung to her. Maybe that was unfair—people had different standards, after all. And, Marly admitted to herself, she felt guilty for having once assumed this woman was homeless. Not that there was anything ignoble in that, but . . . well . . .

Flip punched numbers into the phone, stepping into the kitchen to talk.

“It’s me . . . ” Marly heard the woman say, “Yeah . . . Yeah . . . Well, hurry up. Don’t take too long . . . Yeah, where I said I’d be . . . Oh, yeah, it’s great . . . ”

When she finished and returned, handing Marly the phone, Marly asked her, “Can I get you a glass of water or anything?”

Flip surveyed around the apartment, running her long, skinny fingers over one dust-covered shelf. She didn’t answer immediately, instead walking a circuit in the small living room, as if appraising the place. She sat down in the blue recliner in the corner of the room as if she were relieved finally to be home after a long day at work. Crossing her arms behind her head, she looked up at Marly.

“No, dear,” she said. “I’m just fine. You’ll want to charge the phone, though. The charge is low.” She nodded to the cell phone in Marly’s hand, and indeed, the bar was low. “This is a nice place you have here. Cozy.”

And Marly was suddenly aware of the squalor of their apartment and ashamed. Flip had seen the pile of food-encrusted dishes in the sink, the thick film of dust on every shelf, the burp cloths strewn all over the floor. Marly gestured to the phone and walked quickly to the hallway near their bedroom, plugging it into its charger. She pushed a pile of dirty clothes to one corner as she did so.

“It’s such a mess,” Marly muttered, as much to herself as to the woman when returned to the living room. “Such a mess. I’m sorry. It’s embarrassing.”

“No need to be embarrassed,” Flip said, sweeping her arm across the room. “This is just fine. It’s perfect, really. You have an infant, for goodness’ sake.”

Accordingly, the baby sputtered from his bassinet, and Marly tiptoed over to him. His eyes were closed still, and he appeared to be nursing in his sleep. She was aware now of how awkward she felt with this strange woman in her apartment in the wee hours. She longed to pick the baby back up as some means of distraction from the burden of making conversation.

She paused, uncertain there, her hands fluttering like birds just above the baby in his bassinet.

When she looked up, Flip was standing right there.

“Let me,” Flip said, scooping up the baby in her arms. She did it with an easy knowingness. The baby sighed and resettled himself into this woman’s arms.

“You sit down,” Flip continued. “Better yet, lie down. I’ll make you something hot to drink. And you can rest. I’ve got the baby, don’t you worry. You just rest until my cousin gets here.”

Marly obeyed the woman helplessly. She sat on the couch, watching as the woman walked to the kitchen and effortlessly put the kettle on with one arm, the baby sleeping comfortably in the other. The woman had the baby, and the baby was sleeping, and so Marly decided she might as well lie down.

She was lying on the couch when the woman brought Marly a hot mug. Marly took it.

“Herbal tea,” the woman said. Marly must have looked skeptical. “Sleepytime,” the woman added. “You had it in the cabinet.”

And Marly took a sip. Plain old Celestial Seasonings. She lay back down, her head on the soft arm of the couch, curling her knees. It felt good just to close her eyes for a minute. She could hear the woman murmuring quietly to the baby. It was soothing, her murmuring; Marly let her eyes rest.


There was a shout outside the window. Marly jolted upright on the couch. Someone—the woman, Flip, she guessed—had put a blanket over her.

The baby let out a howl from the bassinet. Marly went to him and scooped him up, jiggling him against her. She felt groggy. The room was cold. The baby was cold too, his little fists icy. Marly jiggled him closer to her, warming him, as she walked to the window.

Their apartment looked out over the street. They were on the first floor, only slightly elevated above street level, overlooking a bus stop. People could be so loud there. They heard bus stop conversations and arguments all the time.

Marly looked out the window and saw children.

One, two, three, four, five of them. No, six. Seven. One more. A gang of them. Eight. An octet.

Romani, Marly thought. Gypsy children.

There was another shout. One of the children whooped, swinging on the bus sign. They wore oversized winter coats, their dark eyes gleaming from under winter hats.

They were looking up at her, Marly realized. They were grinning right at her. They were waving, trying to get her attention. Their grins, Marly realized now, were menacing. Little bandits. A pack of feral children.

But there were no Romani in this city. And yet Marly knew with unwavering certainty that these had to be gypsies. One of them whooped again. Another shouted. Another answered, in a kind of whooping call and response. A war cry.

Marly lifted her free hand and waved at one of them, tentatively.

She turned to say something to the woman, Lara or Flip or whoever she was, but the woman was gone. Maybe her cousin had already come. Maybe she’d left after Marly had fallen asleep.

One of the children outside waved back at Marly, and she felt something—a tiny, terrifying thrill. Real gypsy children! Outside the window! Coming for the baby. Waving to her.

And then the child’s wave transformed—he was flipping her off, Marly realized. His face transformed into that of a sneering teenage boy. A kid from the neighborhood. She recognized him vaguely. The one climbing the pipe let out a whoop. Marly looked down at him, and he stared back up at her, his mouth jackal-wide, before leaping back to the ground.

Teenagers. Non-gypsy. She’d seen many of them before, roaming the neighborhood. Realizing this now, it seemed impossible she’d mistaken them for gypsy children before—it was the darkness, their bulky winter clothes, her own preoccupied mind.

The tallest kid flung a small rock at the window, and Marly instinctively ducked. It clattered but did no damage. The windows were double plated.

The baby shuddered against her. Marly stepped back from the window and stopped, frozen in the center of the room. She wanted either to laugh or to cry. The baby did cry. He melted into a sobbing fury in her arms. She bounced him gently, torn, hesitant to walk back to the window or away from it.

She could hear them, the pack of teenagers, talking and laughing outside. The baby continued sobbing in her arms.

She needed to put him down. She needed her hands free. She needed to call John. John. Dependable, dependable John. She would call him at work.

She placed the baby down gently into his bassinet. He lashed his head from side-to-side, furious to be left there while Marly ran to hallway to get the phone.

With trembling fingers, she called John’s cell from the darkness of the hallway. In the living room, the baby continued to scream. The old radiator rattled, and the teenagers were laughing and swearing outside the building. The phone rang and rang, but John didn’t answer. She thumbed through her address book until she found the number John had given her for the physician’s workroom at the hospital. She’d call him there instead.

The phone rang only once.

“Hello?” a voice said. The voice did not belong to John. The voice belonged to Laurel.

“He . . . Hello,” Marly stuttered. “It’s Marly. Is John there?”

“Oh, Marly,” Laurel said. “Of course he is. He’s right here. Busy night. He had to call me in for backup. We’ve got ten people unseen right now. Got patients sitting in chairs out in overflow.”

Marly nodded into the phone silently. There was a ruffling of papers, muffled talking. In the background, Marly thought she heard her husband laugh quietly.

“Hello?” he said into the phone. “Marly? Is everything alright?” He sounded so calm and competent on the phone. She’d almost forgotten that about her husband—that he was so competent, so calm, practical. So unmoved by strong emotion.

She no longer knew what to say. There was a stranger here tonight, a strange woman. Come home, please. Please, please, come home.

Marly sighed. She was so very tired. She just wanted a good night’s sleep.

“I got scared,” she said, suddenly aware that the apartment was now perfectly quiet. “I got scared, and I wanted to hear your voice.”

“I’m here,” John said, his voice calm as ever. But different. It was the voice he used with his patients, Marly realized. A voice of practiced but detached soothing.

“A neighbor came,” Marly said. “She needed help. She was locked out.”

“That was nice of you,” John said. His voice sounded remote, as if he were hundreds of miles away, even though she knew the hospital was no more than two or three miles down the road.

She nodded into the phone, as if her husband could see that.

“The baby’s alright?” John asked. “How’s my little guy?”

The baby. Marly walked quickly, holding the cell phone to her ear, back to the living room. The baby now lay sleeping in the bassinet, his tiny tummy moving up and down with each breath. Peaceful as an angel.

“He’s fine,” Marly said. “He’s perfect. He’s sound asleep.”

“Well, you get some sleep too. Now’s your chance,” John said. His voice sounded unusually bright for the tail end of an overnight shift. Laurel said something indistinct, her voice like caramel in the background. “I’ll be home soon,” John said. “Get some rest.”

“I will,” Marly said, and hung up the phone.

The room was still cold, Marly noticed, so she grabbed a swaddling blanket to wrap around the baby. As she walked past the door, she peered out the peephole once. There was no one there. All was quiet.

And back in the living room, that’s when she noticed it: her laptop. It was gone. Her laptop with all her notes, all her research, was gone.

It had been sitting on the small breakfast table, a fresh, blank document open on the screen like an accusation. She’d emailed herself her notes several months ago, but hadn’t backed anything up recently.

It was gone. So much work. Gone. She almost laughed.

She grabbed her purse from the small table near the couch and groped inside—her wallet was missing.

Marly did laugh now—a harsh, admiring laugh from the darkest corner of herself. Of course. Who, after all, would want a newborn when he or she could have a wallet and a laptop? She was too tired to weep, too tired to mourn what she had, through her own willful blindness, already lost.

At the bassinet, she bent and lifted the baby. He grunted, a soft, milk-heavy weight in her arms. She spread the blanket and repositioned him on it to swaddle him.

Perhaps it was just the dark room, but he looked different there without the living room light on. The streetlight outside cast an orangey glow across his face, rendering his features somehow strange. His cheeks seemed less round, his brow slightly more furrowed, his chin sharper. The nose was off, like it had been recast from a different mold. He smacked his lips once in a gesture Marly did not recognize. It was a trick of the light, Marly knew. She was smart enough to know that.

There were terms for all of it, the tricks of the brain that caused you not to know the people you thought you knew, that led the world to seem unreal: agnosia, derealization, Capgras syndrome, Frégoli syndrome, depersonalization. Her husband had taught her all of this because she’d been interested. This is where she had an advantage over the poor mother in Cumbria; this was what the poor mother in Cumbria hadn’t realized.

Maybe the woman at her door had been Ol’ Pants Leg, transformed. (Intermetamorphosis, John would say. That was the term.) But what did that matter?

The truth was that no pathology was required. Familiar people turned into something strange, something unrecognizable, something wholly different every day. Bit by bit, we are all rendering ourselves unrecognizable, Marly thought.

She touched the baby’s cool forehead, stroking his little cheek.

That’s my sweet baby, Marly said to herself. That’s my precious boy. My John. My baby. I made you. You are made of me.

The baby grimaced in his sleep.

Marly shivered.

She realized then why the room was so cold.

Taking care not to wake the baby, she padded quickly over to the window and pulled it shut.  end  

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