Skin the Color of Canned Peaches
They end up buying a gift card at Target. While they had wandered through the mall, Jeremy reasoned that it could be used to buy diapers and formula and baby food, as opposed to something less meaningful. “I mean,” he says as they leave, darting past the cars in the crowded parking lot, “they can get what they need. What are an aunt and uncle for? We’re here to take care of them.” Ryan cannot stop thinking about what he said, aunt and uncle, as she climbs into the truck, which they parked at the far end of the lot, past dozens of cars lined up like cattle in bins. She has three aunts herself, varying forms of her mother: middle-aged women smoking cigarettes around the dining room table, lamenting their kids or their husbands or their jobs. “It’s too bad we didn’t end up taking the bike after all.” Jeremy peers at the clear sky through the windshield, as he waits for a chance to pull out of the space. “This may be the last good day of the year to ride.”
Vincent calls late the next Friday night, waking Ryan from the first moments of heavy sleep. “Congratulations, Ryan! You’re an aunt!”
Ryan clicks on the lamp next to the bed and picks up the clock. Almost midnight. “Wow, that’s great.” Her heart is beating so hard from being abruptly woken that she’s breathless. She had gone out with girlfriends following her shift at the distribution center, after spending her day shoving mutual fund annual reports into Franking machines, and she still feels somewhat drunk, even though she has been home for a couple hours. “Jeremy’s still at work.” Jeremy is always at work. He’s a cop; at forty-one, he feels he is too old to join in the war effort, but Ryan suspects he uses his age as an excuse to take advantage of all the extra over-time hours.
“I know. I just couldn’t keep the news to myself.”
There’s a silence on the phone, and then Ryan says, “I’ll be sure to have Jeremy call as soon as he gets home.” She rubs her chest, holding her palm flat against the brutal pounding. After they hang up she lies down, and breathes as her heart slides back to a steady rhythm. She turns off the light and rolls over, shutting her eyes, just for a moment, figuring that Jeremy will rouse her, like normal, when he returns.
Ryan cannot picture Vincent as a father. She’s always known him as the bumbling little brother to Jeremy, shorter and quite a bit heavier. He and Jeremy share the same features–brown hair, splattering of freckles, and greenish-gray eyes–but what appears strong and linear on Jeremy’s face is more clown-like on Vincent. His wife, Tansy, is the same to Ryan, with her brassy hair and over-plucked eyebrows. When Jeremy and Ryan had eloped, a year ago, after dating for only six months, Tansy had accepted Ryan into the family. She invited her to lunch, and to her girls’ nights, and Jeremy had assumed that they would get along famously. They didn’t. Or at least Ryan didn’t. She felt she had nothing in common with Tansy, who collected Precious Moments and scrapbooked. Her year circulated around the annual vacation to the Brickyard, to watch the Indy. At Tansy’s baby shower, just two months earlier, Ryan sat in a corner–dressed, she learned, inappropriately, in jeans and a tight belly shirt that bared her tattoos–staring at the clock. She had not been to a baby shower before, and didn’t want to go. She had whined about it, but Jeremy insisted, so she went. Her friends, none of them mothers, were more likely to be in a bar than in a house in the suburbs eating pasty mints and drinking lime-green punch. Ryan watched wordlessly as Tansy and her guests, all her fellow dental hygienists, had meowed over the collection of brightly wrapped gifts. And there were babies, so many babies, of varying ages and sizes, who cried so much Ryan’s ears had throbbed. All of them seemed to be excreting some sort of fluid: urine, puke, even one whose shit leaked out of its diaper and onto the couch where it had been sleeping.
She’s woken again the next morning by the phone ringing, but Jeremy is up and out of bed before she can gauge what’s happened. He answers the phone in the living room, down the hall of their split-level. She realizes that he didn’t wake her when he came home. He approaches the room, saying, “No, she didn’t tell me.” He shoves the door open, and then stands in the doorway, dressed only in a pair of navy-blue sweatpants cut off at the knees. “She was asleep when I got back.” He puts his free hand on his waist as Ryan turns to her side, yawning. “It was really late, after all.” Ryan rubs her eyes, and looks at the clock, just after eight. After a pause, he says, “We’ll be up in about an hour, is that okay? Cool. Hey, man, congratulations. We can’t wait to see her.” Jeremy presses the off button with a beep. He tosses the phone on the bed, next to Ryan. “Why didn’t you tell me about the baby being born?”
Ryan sits up, runs her hands through her hair. “I’m sorry. It was really late–”
“You know how much I wanted to know.” He leans against the doorframe, and folds his arms.
Ryan shrugs. “I fell asleep.”
“You could have at least left me a message. Or a note.” He strides across the room and raises the shades, blinding her momentarily.
She brings her legs up to her chest, and wraps her arms around them. “I said I was sorry.”
Jeremy stands at the foot of the bed and stares down at her, and then steps out of his shorts. “I’m going to take a shower. Are you even interested in going to the hospital to see her?”
“The baby.” His penis dangles like a little mouse.
“Sure.” Ryan lies back. “Maybe you could come to bed for a minute.” She snakes her hand under her undershirt.
Jeremy smirks, and plucks the shorts from the floor. For Ryan, for him to be naked means that he wants to get in bed with her. But he throws the shorts in the hamper in the corner, and says, “It’s going to take us at least twenty minutes to drive up north. You may want to get a move on, too.” He strides across the room and into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him.
They decide to take the bike up to the hospital. The weather has promised to be a sun-bleached mid-October day, with a chilly fall edge, and Jeremy warns Ryan to wear a jacket, as if she had never ridden in the colder weather. “I know, I know,” she says, as she yanks a fleece pullover out of the hall closet.
“This will probably be the last time we can ride this year,” Jeremy says as he tugs on his brown leather coat. He zips it up. “You sure that’s going to be warm enough?”
“Sure I’m sure.”
“You’re going to wear sandals?” He stares at her feet.
Ryan looks down. “They’re fine.”
“I’d put on shoes if I were you.”
Ryan kicks off her sandals and flings them into the closet. She crouches and searches for her black-and-white cowboy boots. She sits with her back against the wall and pulls them on.
“Won’t you get blisters without socks?”
“God,” she says, standing.
Jeremy goes into the kitchen and returns with the gift-card, which is tucked in a white envelope. He tries sticking it into various pockets of his jacket, but they are too small. He hands it to her. “Do you have a place for this?”
“Sure.” She puts it in the breast pocket of her jacket and zips it shut. “See, it’s a good thing I’m wearing this, right?” He doesn’t respond, just points to the door of the closet. Ryan slides it shut, and follows Jeremy out to the bike. The ride is much colder than Ryan anticipated, and her eyes tear from the frosty wind. She squeezes them shut as she slips her hands under the cuff of his jacket.
The hospital looms off the interstate, a clustering of chunky brown buildings spread out over several blocks, speckled by islands of grassy knolls and smallish trees. Ryan catches sight of herself in the reflection of the sliding doors as they enter the main foyer of the hospital. Her cheeks are ruddy from the ride, her hair in disarray, the part discombobulated. Jeremy sighs as she asks to stop to check her hair in the bathroom mirror. “You look fine. It’s not like we’re the important ones.”
He pulls her in front of him as he scans the back-lit, multi-colored map that lines the entryway to the hospital. With his palms, he smoothes her hair against her head and shoulders, down her back. She is acutely aware of the warmth of his hands as he goes through the motions, talking out loud, figuring the location of Tansy’s room. Then, after taking her hand, they worm their way through the labyrinth of hallways that lead to the elevators. The corridors are drenched with people. She can’t remember the last time she’d been in a hospital; she can’t even remember the last time she went to the doctor. Then she recalls; the last time she saw a doctor was when she had her last abortion, the winter before she met Jeremy. Almost two years ago.
As they wait for the elevator, the minuscule hallway fills with people, and the chill in Ryan’s cheeks is quickly overwhelmed with sweat. She pushes up her sleeves. “It’s hot,” she says to Jeremy. “It’s hot in here.”
“Take off your jacket, baby,” he replies. As she begins to remove her arm from the first sleeve, the elevator door opens. The general jostling from the crowd behind lurches her towards the doors before the occupants have a chance to exit. Jeremy jerks her back by the dangling free arm.
Ryan is stuck with one arm in the jacket and the other under the body of it as they ride the seven floors, the fabric an encumbrance as they stop at each level, allowing a menagerie of people exit and enter. They reach their destination, and Ryan takes off the jacket.
The hospital floor is shaped like an H, and Tansy’s room sits at the end of one of the four hallways. Jeremy taps on the door, and it budges slightly. They hear Vincent call for them to enter. Bright morning sunlight from a picture window to the far left of the opposing wall floods the room. A double bed separates the window from the door, and Tansy sits in a rocking chair in front of it. Ryan realizes that she’s nursing the baby, who is propped by a pillow. All that is visible is the back of the baby’s head, which is haloed by a ring of wispy russet hair. Vincent walks towards them, unshaven and droopy-faced, and he and Jeremy hug, slapping each other’s backs.
Tansy smiles at Ryan with a face devoid of makeup, and it is pockmarked and red, her eyes sunken and dark. Ryan returns the smile as Tansy removes the baby from her breast, wincing.
“I think she’s finally done,” Tansy says. “Plus, she needs another diaper change.” Vincent strides to her and takes the baby from her arms. “This hurts,” Tansy says, directed more to Ryan than Jeremy. “I didn’t think it would, but it hurts.” Ryan catches sight of Tansy’s nipple, like a scar against the cantaloupe-sized breast. She averts her eyes and scans the room, which looks like it belongs in a hotel, with cherry-wood cabinets and a hardwood floor. “And it takes forever. I haven’t eaten breakfast yet, and it’s what, after ten?”
“You eat,” Vincent says. “I’ll change her and then one of you can hold her.”
Jeremy rubs his hands together. “We may just have to fight each other to decide.” He glances at Ryan, who is still standing in the doorway.
“I hope you don’t mind if I do eat.” Tansy grasps the arms of the rocker, and pushes herself up, wincing again. She takes a tray a food from the bedside table and shuffles across the room, her shoulders hunched, and sits on a sagging sofa. Jeremy joins her, sitting on the opposite end of the couch, and leans back, extending his arm along the back.
“Ryan, come in.” Vincent says. “You look like you’re ready to bolt.”
Ryan chooses to sit on a hard chair next to a small, round wooden table on the far side of the couch. She shoves her jacket under the table. The baby, who, Tansy informs them is named Dakota, begins to squall and Vincent takes her to a glass-lined box that stands waist high. He places the baby in it and deftly inserts his finger into the baby’s diaper, peeking inside. “Yep, there’s more.”
“The poop–it’s unbelievable. Dark as tar. Thick like it, too. What’s it called? Crap, I’m so crapping tired. Vince, what’s it called?” Tansy drinks half her glass of orange juice.
“Meconium,” Vincent says, as he removes the baby’s diaper and then quickly opens a new one and places it under the baby’s butt. Jeremy joins his brother at the baby’s bed, and watches as Vincent maneuvers the diaper onto the baby. He hands Jeremy a blanket. “Spread this over on the bed, okay? I’ll show you how to wrap her.”
“We call it the Dakota burrito,” Tansy interjects. Jeremy takes the blanket, which has BIRTHPLACE printed on the corner, and with his back to Ryan, lays it on the unmade bed. Vincent brings the baby over, who squeaks, her arms shifting in folds next to her little torso. Ryan stares at the floor as Vincent talks his way through the process, first you tuck the end in here, then the bottom up, then the other end in here. Despite the removal of her coat, Ryan is still hot, the room stuffy from the heat of the sun.
“You want to hold her first, or does Ryan want to play Mommy for a second?” Vincent asks. They turn and Ryan looks up, shaking her head.
She nods. “Sure, you go ahead.” Jeremy sits on the rocking chair, and Vincent places a wailing Dakota in his arms, her head in the crook of his left elbow. Jeremy begins to rock as Vincent fetches a pink plastic pacifier from the cradle and gives it Jeremy, who sticks it into the baby’s mouth. Vincent joins Tansy on the couch, as Jeremy rocks the baby, who apparently falls asleep.
“Look at that,” Vincent says. “He’s a natural.”
Ryan wonders how much Vincent knows. The night before she and Jeremy married she had fretted that they didn’t know enough about each other. “Tell me your darkest secret,” she had prodded, in bed, in the dark, cold hotel room. “You first,” he had teased, and she admitted to being molested by one of the drunken regulars in the office of her father’s bar when she was ten; how her father came close to beating the man to death, and how the secret was kept from her mother. Jeremy had confessed to getting his high school girlfriend pregnant when she was sixteen and he was eighteen. He had been off at boot camp on Parris Island by the time she found out, and her parents had insisted she give the baby up for adoption. “There was no other way,” he told Ryan, as they faced each other, seeing only the lines of their faces in the dark. “We were just stupid kids, you know.” After a moment of silence, he said, “It’s okay, Ryan. It’s been a long time.” It had been a long time, twenty-three years. Since that night they never spoke of the baby, a girl who was born just three years after Ryan. Now, looking at Jeremy holding his brother’s child, Ryan wonders if he ever thinks about his daughter, or if Vincent is aware he is an uncle. It’s possible, she figures, he doesn’t. He was only fourteen at the time and it wasn’t like their father talked to them about anything, and their mother was long dead by then. Ryan often ponders about that night, and continues to be thankful that she didn’t tell Jeremy the actual deepest secrets she carries: the abortions she has had, three in all, one when she was sixteen, and then two in the year before she met him. She tries not to think about them, and figures it is better if Jeremy doesn’t have to think of them either. Now she wonders if Jeremy has a darker secret, one that he has kept from her, too.
“Is there a Coke machine around?” Ryan asks. Vincent directs her to the food station down the main hallway. She tells everyone she’ll be right back, and escapes.
At the food station Ryan stands in front of the pop machine and lifts her hair off her shoulders, fanning her sweaty neck. She digs into her pocket and realizes she doesn’t have any cash. Whenever she goes anywhere with Jeremy he always pays for everything. When with him she had stopped carrying keys or a wallet long ago. She spies a water machine at the end of the room. She removes a small cylinder cup from the fixture on the wall, and fills it, the paper instantaneously dewy under her fingers. She gulps the water, which is sipid to her dry throat. She tosses the cup in the overflowing wastebasket in the corner, and holds the spigot over a cupped hand, letting the water flow onto her fingers. She rubs the water on her neck, and then sucks her fingers, returning them to the spigot several times to get more water.
Looking down, she realizes she has left a large puddle on the floor. She hears several people talking as they enter the room, and she turns and brushes past them, not excusing herself as they step back from the entryway to allow her past. Back at the center of the floor, Ryan realizes that she does not remember which hallway takes her to Tansy’s room. Then there’s Jeremy, walking towards her. “I figured you got lost,” he says. “Did you get your drink?”
“I don’t have any money on me.”
“You want to go back and get one?” She shakes her head. “No?”
“I’m getting hungry. Maybe we could get some lunch after we’re done here?”
Back in the room, Vincent is changing another diaper in the glass box. “Hey, it’s Ryan’s turn!” he calls out. “Time to hold the baby!”
Tansy is back in the rocker. Her feet, in light-blue slippers, are propped up on the chair Ryan had used.
“It’s okay,” Ryan says. She fetches her jacket from under the table. “I think we’re probably going to get going,” she says as she tugs it on. As her head pops out everyone is staring at her. “Right?” she asks Jeremy.
“You can hold her for a second, Ryan. We won’t starve to death.” Jeremy stands over the baby’s bed as Vincent finishes changing her.
The sun continues to course through the window, cutting a rectangle of light, and Ryan holds a hand up to shield her eyes. “I’m not really good with babies,” she says. She steps out of the sunlight, edging her way towards the door.
“You want to hold her, right?” Jeremy looks down at his niece, who begins to cry, her voice straining.
Ryan clears her throat. “I’ve never held a baby before.”
Picking the baby out of the cradle, Vincent says, “Never a good time like the present, right?” He smiles over the baby’s head. “Come on, sit on the couch and I’ll hand her to you.”
“It’s okay, really.” Ryan clears her throat again. “I don’t have to.”
“Ryan, come on,” says Jeremy. Ryan shakes her head.
“No,” Ryan steps backwards, and bumps into the side of the door. It stabs her in the back, and she looks towards it, and then pushes the door open.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing,” she whispers, looking out at the hallway. The baby continues to cry, a steady, hushed wail.
Tansy says, “If you’re ready to go, it’s fine. She can hold her later, when we get home.”
“She’s just being ridiculous,” Jeremy says. “Hold the baby. Come on.”
Vincent brings the baby up higher on his shoulder. The baby calms. “See, she’s all quiet, all ready for you to hold her.”
“I don’t want to hold the baby,” Ryan says, turning towards Jeremy. “Don’t make me do it.”
“She doesn’t have to, Jeremy, it’s okay.” Tansy says. “There’s plenty of time.”
“Ryan,” Jeremy snaps, ignoring Tansy. “Come on.”
“Jeremy,” Vincent says.
But Ryan obeys. She walks over and sits on the edge of the couch. Vincent places the baby in her arms. The baby is lighter than she expected, like holding a bag of powdered sugar. Ryan peers at her, only seeing her face through the wrapping of the blanket. Her skin is the color of canned peaches, her eyebrows so white they are almost invisible. “See,” Vincent says, so only Ryan can hear, “It’s fine. It’s just fine.” He takes a few steps back, and the three of them stare at her, as if she is on display.
Ryan’s arms begin to ache, and sweat breaks out across her forehead. She glances at Jeremy. The look on his face is similar to the one he had as they married, the one that is sometimes there after they make love; a softness. An acquiescence. If she is to admit anything, that look is the one she craves, the one she yearns for. But now she cannot stand the sight of his face anymore, and chooses instead to focus on the clock across the room, trying to figure how much time she has to hold the baby before she can pass her off to someone else. The baby isn’t moving; she doesn’t even seem to breathe.
Finally, thankfully, the baby wakes and begins to bawl. Vincent rushes from his stance and lifts the baby from Ryan’s arms. The crying echoes through the room. It is incessant. Ryan stands and wipes her hands on her jeans. Vincent takes the crying baby to Tansy, placing her in her mother’s waiting grasp. Tansy glimpses at Ryan, smiling slightly. Ryan can’t read it–she’s unsure if it is a smile of contempt or support. Jeremy tells them they’ll be back tomorrow, as if they are leaving, but he and Vincent stand close, continuing to talk. Ryan cannot hear them, the crying is so loud. She feels faint, from the stuffiness of the room and the heat that emanated off the baby, and the sweat that continues to pulse from her skin. It’s air she needs, she decides. Jeremy and Vincent are still in intense conversation and Tansy is with the baby. No one notices her. Ryan bows her head and exits the room, marching down the hallway to the elevator bay, which is, she thinks, blissfully empty.
She jabs the Down button, keeping her eyes on the lit numbers above the elevator doors, and all are frozen at a different floor. “Come on, come on,” Ryan says, repeatedly poking the button. She is crying. She rubs her cheeks with the sleeve of her fleece jacket, the knobby pilling scratching her skin.
Jeremy approaches as the doors slide open, and as they step inside the crowded elevator, Ryan concentrates on trying to stop crying, focusing on the dilapidated carpet of the elevator, which has no identifiable color. But then she thinks, does it really matter to anyone if she is crying? Anyone here can imagine any kind of scenario where a woman would be doing that. How many feet, she wonders, have trudged on this carpet, how many tears have wet the fibers? Is there any other feeling but dread in a hospital?
As they reach the first floor Jeremy clasps her hand, and he guides her with confidence through the knotted maze of the hospital, out the sliding front doors. They walk around the fountain, the wind blowing strong enough so that a mist drifts over them and settles on top of their heads. In the ramp, he releases her hand and straddles the bike, and Ryan follows. He starts the bike, and turns to her, speaking through the rumbling of the engine. She shakes her head. “What?”
“Let’s get you something to eat, okay?”
“Okay?” he asks again, as if the nod weren’t good enough of an answer.
“Okay,” she says, her voice straining over the popping of the engine. Jeremy takes the bike out of gear and guides it through the ramp. Back out on the freeway, the wind continues to ring cold. Ryan inserts her chin between Jeremy’s shoulder blades, willing to glean the heat of his body through the thick leather, and, as she feels the edges of the forgotten gift-card poke into her breast, she shifts her pelvis as close to the small of his back as she can.