(Note: This story originally appeared in a literary journal – Wisconsin Review – and it is intended for mature readers.)
The receptionist did a double take when I burst through the door, fumbling a Groovy Smoothie dribbling all over The Princess Bride. She edged back when I ran up until she placed me from earlier appointments.
“Last suite on the left,” she said.
As I rushed through that door too, I realized I should have paused for a moment to gather myself and put in fresh gum.
There Maya kneeled on the floor, leaning on Savanna, whose eyes narrowed at the sight of me. Maya wore her blue bathrobe and nothing else. It fell away from her, untied. She was all curves, swollen breasts and the giant egg of her belly. Savanna’s cheeks shone with sun, blonde hair pinned beneath a black bandana. Soft lamps and candles threw shadows on swaying walls, the room warm and smelling of blood. I felt unsteady on my feet, like a drugged acolyte suddenly thrust into a secret ritual. I closed my eyes to center myself and imagined the women pegging me squeamish. It’s just the whiskey, I told myself.
The midwife touching Maya’s back gave me a polite smile, skeptical. I hadn’t met her yet, one of the appointments I’d missed. She was a slight woman with clear eyes and long grey hair. Maya looked up with eyes that must have been as glazed-over as mine. Tilting against the doorway, I watched her try to focus on what I held.
“The Princess Bride,” I said, brandishing the DVD.
“Is that a double tangerine with a protein boost?”
“As you wish!” I hurried to her. “Sorry for taking so long!”
Maya grabbed the smoothie and sucked it down.
“You’ve been drinking,” Savanna said.
I could deny it, make something up. “A little,” I confessed. “A while ago.” I was there now, didn’t that count for anything? “I can do this,” I said. My words hung in the room. I wasn’t sure whether I believed me or not.
“Are you comfortable having him here?” the midwife asked Maya.
Maya just sucked on the smoothie.
I stripped off my Ducks sweatshirt.
“He’s catching the baby,” Maya finally said.
Earlier that day, just before she went into labor, I’d been sitting with Maya on the rock shelf about fifty yards downriver from the Autzen Footbridge, missing the tailgater and watching Duck fans cross the Willamette, when a football flew through the arms of a frat boy up on the bridge. I had my ticket in my pocket, USC ranked in the top ten along with us, Rose Bowl on the line, College Game Day, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso right there in Eugene. I’d watched in person that morning, shivering in the fog and screaming myself hoarse with Jimmy, Steve, and everyone else when Corso donned the big Duck head. The day had cleared into one of those crisp fall afternoons that makes you want to put on sweats and tackle someone, the smell of barbeque drifting down from the tailgaters, footballs flying all over the parking lot, so it was a small victory watching the ball intended for that frat boy wobble through the air and splash into the river.
“I think it’s time,” Maya said. She’d mentioned contractions earlier, but we’d had some false alarms. I thought maybe these were Braxton Hicks.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Am I sure?” She looked up from her extended belly, brown eyes passing me to follow a mother duck leading her chicks through an eddy in the shallows.
We still had two or three weeks left. I thought I’d have more time to get ready, go over the birth plan and the stuff from our classes.
Maya had turned back to me. “So what do we do, Coach?”
She had been thinking about our classes too, so at least we were on the same page there. I took stock of the situation. We were on foot, having walked to the river after Maya’s half shift at the Saturday Market. She liked how the river grounded her, the rush of whitewater drowning everything out. I spotted the football riding the current.
“I’m calling Savanna,” Maya said.
Savanna was her friend from Oregon Wilderness Leadership, where they’d worked with troubled teens. With them, I always felt like a third wheel. More like the block stopping the wheel. They had a secret language they still used, with earth names like Ocean and Moonlight, code words like “coyote” and “sage,” quick hand motions like a manager sending signals to his catcher. They did hippie stuff like the Oregon Country Fair, where everyone went topless. They’d run stashes of food from Eugene up to a tree-sitting protest. Savanna was a big girl: tall and strong, not bad looking but intimidating, with a snaggletooth and a snake tattoo wrapped around her ankle.
Maya, on the other hand, reminded me of the Jack Russell terrier I grew up with, small and spunky with a bark out of proportion to body size and a big heart to match. She got it from her Latina mother, an environmental lawyer who had challenged for state senate two years earlier and put up a good fight in the primary against the incumbent Democrat. “Cookie cutter bullshit,” Maya had said the next morning, slapping a newspaper image of the white man celebrating with his wife and two kids. Maya never talked about her father.
I paced the rocks while she and Savanna talked, squatted to splash cold water on my face, stood to watch the football disappear downriver.
“Shouldn’t you be timing them?” Maya asked.
I turned, not sure if she was talking to me.
“My contractions,” she said. “I just had another one. Savanna’s at the coast. She’ll be here in an hour.” Maya’s mother was out of the country, my family back in New York.
I made a show of checking my jeans and backpack. “Left the stopwatch at home.”
“Use the cell phone?” Maya said in her up-talk voice, that exasperation in her eyes. Like the previous March at her mother’s place in Ashland, when she announced her pregnancy the day before the Ducks made it to the Sweet Sixteen, when I tried to explain why I needed to watch the next game instead of go with her to a potluck.
“Because whoever wins this plays the Ducks,” I’d said.
“So? You on the coaching staff now, Chris? You gonna track their stats and come up with a game plan?”
I could have, actually, and I might have made a good coach. Numbers came easily given my job as an accountant. I couldn’t play any sport worth a damn, couldn’t have caught that pass the frat boy dropped, but my father always said the best coaches were the ones who had to work at their game.
“Forty-three seconds,” I said, looking up from my phone after Maya’s next contraction, though I couldn’t remember what forty-three seconds meant. I’d made a chart of the labor stages on our birth plan, but it was stuck to our refrigerator.
“Take me home,” Maya said.
“What do you think?” The midwife’s eyes bored into mine. “Are you up for it?”
Catching the baby. Maya and I had talked about it but never decided. I’d argued that going to the midwives instead of the hospital was one thing, but me playing doctor was another. “How difficult can it be?” Maya had said. “I’ll have the hard job.”
Now she breathed into a contraction way more intense than anything I’d seen earlier. I felt conflicted, sympathizing with Maya but relieved to have the midwife’s eyes off me. I heard the foghorn at Autzen, which meant the Ducks had scored. I instinctively looked around for a television, imagined the waiting room at the hospital and the game on there, expectant fathers pacing and how easy they had it, like the old days when all they did was hand out cigars. Back then they probably flirted with the receptionists and it wasn’t even a big deal.
I didn’t realize Maya was gripping me until she released her hold on my forearm. The color rushed back into her fingertips. She had the hard job, alright. I pulled the birth plan from my pocket, shook it from its fold and cleared my throat.
“What stage are we in?” I asked.
“Late first stage,” the midwife answered.
I looked at my chart, saw something I could ask. “Do you need to use the bathroom, Maya?” She nodded. Savanna and I helped her up. “I got her,” I said, but Savanna wouldn’t release her arm. The midwife was watching, making sure we didn’t pull Maya like a wishbone. “I’m a loser,” I said. “I get it.” The midwife stepped forward. “But we’ve practiced for this. I’ve got my coaching card in my wallet. I could bust out my whole pre-game go-get-em speech, but I don’t think there’s time.”
Savanna stared at me, daring me to regale them with such a speech, which I’d taken notes for but hadn’t written. Luckily Maya gently pulled away from her.
“That’s good,” I told Savanna as I led Maya toward the bathroom. “Keep an eye on me. If I screw up, it’s all you.”
“Thank you,” Maya whispered back to Savanna, but she also repeated it to me as I helped her onto the toilet seat.
“Let’s have a baby,” I said. “Just not right here in the toilet, though.” Maya smiled and gave me a weak smack. “I know we want a water birth, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
“Stop,” she laughed, but I didn’t stop. It said so right on the birth plan.
It was that line on the birth plan that had triggered our fight. After we’d walked, pausing for contractions, from the river to our apartment, Maya found a position on the couch, head tucked and pelvis rocking, and asked to watch The Princess Bride. I froze. The movie was also on the birth plan, something to pass the time before going to the midwives, but Jimmy had borrowed it for his girlfriend Lilly, who had the flu. I’d told him I needed it back right away, but that’s Jimmy for you.
“Inconceivable,” I said. “It’s not here. Did you put it somewhere?”
“Where would I put it?” Maya said.
“I don’t know, but it’s not here. I’ll see if it’s On Demand.” I turned on the television, the Trojans running onto the field. The crowd at Autzen let them have it.
Maya cleared her throat.
I scrolled through On Demand. Just above where The Princess Bride should have been was another title that caught my eye: Orphan. I clicked on it. “How about this one?” I said. “Orphan. A husband and wife who recently lost their baby adopt a 9-year-old girl, but there’s something wrong with Esther.”
“What the fuck?”
“Just kidding.” I clicked back to the main selection screen.
“Kidding,” Maya said.
“Yeah, joking. It’s in our birth plan, remember?” I walked to the kitchen and read off the sheet on the fridge. “Try to make Maya laugh, whether she gets the jokes or not.”
“And joking about watching a fucked up movie about dead babies is supposed to make me laugh?”
“Ok, my bad. I’m sorry, all right? I can go out and rent The Princess Bride.”
“Forget it,” she said. “Just put on the TV.”
I clicked back to the Ducks storming the field.
“No,” Maya said.
“It’s a huge game.”
“I don’t care if it’s the fucking Super Bowl!”
I flipped to a nature show and should have kept my mouth shut and watched the lions lope across the Serengeti. I should have remembered everything from birth class about not taking Maya’s emotions and hormones personally.
“You don’t have to curse so much,” I said.
“You sound like that fucky-fuck neighbor of ours.”
Given that we’d vowed to call Child Services if we heard one more tirade upstairs, I turned expecting to see Maya seething, not staring down at her belly.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She looked up at the lions, now stalking a water hole. “Go get the movie,” she whispered.
“As you wish!”
The midwife monitored Maya’s contraction lengths and cervix widths. I coached and drank coffee, the adrenaline rush of labor percolating my whiskey buzz down to a headache. I referred to the birth plan like a playbook and prompted Maya to breathe normally, to moan and groan in a lower pitch, from her belly.
When the midwife finally announced transition stage, Maya transitioned from human to animal, her moaning and groaning now primal roaring. She drifted between worlds, vaguely aware of us but also at home in her happy place, which I envisioned as some misty grove of whispering, ancestral women. When she unleashed a howl that they must have heard in the parking lot, the midwife said we had reached second stage and it was time to get the birthing tub ready for pushing.
“You’ll be our first water birth in the new center,” she said.
Getting Maya into the tub took some work, Savanna and I each supporting one side of her, but once she reclined in the water, Maya visibly relaxed. She gripped a handle with one hand and my hand in the other, drawing blood where her nails dug in. After two more contractions, her blood began turning the bath water pink. Like a secret ritual again, blood automatically bad in my book, but women’s blood something else altogether. I kept my focus on Maya and complimented her breathing.
“The baby’s coming,” the midwife said. “I can feel the head.” She looked at me. “Come down here, Chris, if you want to catch it.”
I’d ended up at the Fourth Quarter, a sports bar in the same shopping center as the video store. I’d walked there instead of driving to Jimmy’s, in case Maya needed the car. It was a small and obvious thing, but it made me feel better about myself, like pulling over for a fire engine. But the video store was vacant. Right next door was The Fourth Quarter, so I cupped my hand to the darkened window, the Ducks on offense, no score yet. I told myself Savanna would be at the apartment soon. Maya was fine. Labor could take a long time. I told myself I deserved a drink, that it would help settle me down, and I would only have one.
I stepped into warm darkness and stagnant air. Hippies have incense and patchouli to set the mood, but for sports junkies like me, it’s stale beer and popcorn. I could have predicted how sticky the floor would be, something satisfying about how it pulled at my sneakers, each step like a little rip of the soles. I took an open seat at the bar and figured if I was only having one drink, I might as well make it a good one.
“Knob Creek,” I told the bartender. “Double, on the rocks.”
The game cut to a financial commercial featuring a couple’s life in montage: meeting, wedding, kids, retirement. I lifted my drink and looked away to another game, but it was Notre Dame, no help. Maya and I were Catholic, had actually met at St. Mary’s on Easter Sunday, crammed together on a pew in the back. She was a liberal Democrat who believed in a woman’s right to choose, but for her there had been no choice. I knew a baby would change everything, like losing your star quarterback in the first tough game of the season. We’d only been dating half a year. But Maya wouldn’t even consider an abortion, so the baby wasn’t the question. We were. When I took a knee on a random sidewalk three days later, I hardly felt romantic.
The whiskey slid down my throat and burned in my belly. I nursed the double and tried not to think about Maya. At the end of the first quarter, game tied at seven, I knew I better get home. I finished my drink just as two women claimed empty stools beside me. They looked about my age, late twenties, and the one closest flashed a polite smile that I tried to return.
I pulled out my phone. There was only a message from Jimmy: “Where the f are u? go ducks!” The bartender took the women’s orders and asked if I wanted another. The woman beside me settled into her seat with a long, relaxed sigh. I looked at my phone, waiting for a message to pop up from Maya. The first drink had settled me down like I’d hoped. Maybe too much, because now I told myself that one more quick one might give me the fortitude I needed.
“Another?” the bartender prompted.
“Okay,” I said. “Same thing.”
Her name was Jeanette, just taking a break from molecular biology, and she divided her attention between her friend and me, our voices rising with the volume of the bar. They talked about their lab and we talked about the game.
“Did you play?” she asked.
“I sucked.” She laughed. My confession surprised me, but I went with it. “Couldn’t catch anything worth a damn, but you’d be surprised how hard it is with your helmet and pads bouncing around, not to mention some meathead waiting to crush you.”
The Ducks were driving with under a minute left in the half and went for it on fourth down. I was okay with the call, but the tight end dropped an easy one.
“Dammit!” I said, slapping the bar. “Catch the ball!”
Jeanette leaned away from me. “Are you one of these guys who lets a game affect your life?” she asked.
I froze mid-drink, called out more than she could have imagined.
“Like if the Ducks lose, will you go home and mope around for a week?”
The whiskey went down all wrong, a wave of vertigo making me wobble on my barstool. “I should go home right now,” I managed.
“I’m sorry, you okay?”
I shook my head and checked my phone. No messages. I knew I was hammered halfway through texting Jimmy because I was trying to spell everything correctly and taking so long to do it that the battery icon started flashing. “Maya in labor,” I texted. “Lilly home? Im going over for Princess BRide. Go DUCKS!”
A text immediately came up from Jimmy: “Holy shit! go! good luck!”
Nothing about the Ducks. We always included the Ducks on game day.
“I gotta go,” I told Jeanette.
“Really? What’s up?”
“I dropped the ball,” I said. “I always drop the ball.”
The midwife looked ready to move on without me.
I squeezed Maya’s hand but she didn’t open her eyes. She was in that other place, so far gone she probably wouldn’t remember any of this clearly. I could just stay by her side, brush it off later if she asked why I didn’t catch the baby. I doubted Savanna would even chime in or pile on.
But when I realized I was off the hook, I actually wanted to catch it. I’d come this far, and I suddenly wanted to be there for my child from the very first moment, to be the first thing he felt in the world. I wanted to scoop him up and hand him off to Maya.
I nodded for Savanna to take my place, worked my hand free from Maya’s grip. Her eyes rolled open then clamped down as she latched onto Savanna with a moan. I hustled down the length of the tub, passing a control panel, and took my position beside Maya’s legs.
“Look,” the midwife said to me, pointing. “Can you see the baby’s hair?”
I peered through the murky water. Sure enough, I saw a swirl of black hair on the crown of a head. Everything snapped into focus. “Maya! I see his head! You’re doing it!”
“Go ahead and touch it,” the midwife told me.
I hesitated. The midwife nodded and I slowly reached down, hand trembling in the warm water. I wasn’t prepared for the softness beneath my finger. “Oh my God!” I said. “Maya, I feel his head!” It was like a sponge.
“Push!” the midwife demanded. “Push, Maya! This is it!”
“It fucking hurts!” Maya screeched.
“Deeper!” I shouted. “From the gut!”
Maya growled like an animal backed into a corner.
“Good!” the midwife said. “The head’s out! Now take a deep breath and get ready for one more push!” In a quieter voice, she said, “Give me your fingers, Chris. Feel the chin? Just guide it out.”
“Are you sure?” I whispered.
Maya roared and I heard the word “Mary” in it, Maya calling down the Virgin Mother.
“Push, Maya!” the midwife said. “Go ahead, Chris.”
With my fingers under his tiny chin, I tugged as gently as I could, but the baby didn’t come. His shoulders were stuck or something. I saw a burst of blood in the water and froze.
“I’ll take it from here, Chris,” the midwife said. “Go back to Maya.”
I did with relief, sliding back down the tub, which suddenly came to life. With a roar of their own, the jets fired up and broke the water into a bubbling cauldron of blue light. Maya screamed. My elbow had hit the control panel. I pictured my baby down there, half in and half out of his bleeding, screaming mother and getting pummeled in the face by twenty pounds of pressure. I spun to the midwife, busy feeling around in the tub with both hands. Savanna braced Maya’s back and yelled, “It’s OK! It’s OK!”
I saw no obvious OFF button. My instinct was to do nothing for fear of making it worse. Instead I started pressing random buttons. The light flashed from blue to red just as the midwife lifted our crying baby out of the cauldron and into Maya’s extended arms.
Suddenly serene, Maya cradled the baby to her breast and pronounced what we all could see. “A girl!” she said, breaking into tears. “My beautiful baby girl.”
And she was beautiful. Wrinkled and coated in vernix like a yogurt-covered raisin, with a cone-shaped head and a contorted mouth screaming at the world, she was an irresistible little monster that should have scared me to death. But I felt calm.
Maya looked at me for the first time in maybe an hour. Her eyes spilled over and searched my own, and she found something that surprised her, something that softened her even more. That I was there? Or that I was blubbering just like her, the two of us crying and laughing and finally wrapping our wailing baby in a sloppy wet hug?
Savanna whooped and squeezed us all together.
The jets suddenly stopped. The midwife turned off the red light. “I guess we need a cover for that panel,” she laughed.
We just stared at the baby, and then at the birth cord she lifted from the water. Translucent and nearly as thick as my thumb, it weaved like a strong rope pulsating with life. We waited for it to go still, then without even asking, the midwife handed me a pair of surgical scissors. Maya smiled.
I was a father now, the guy who carved the holiday turkey, who faced burglars in his underwear and walked his daughter down the aisle. My first snip barely put a dent in the birth cord. On my second try, I cut all the way through.