The baby refuses to eat.
She has heated his milk for the perfected four minutes 15 seconds in the bottle warmer, then swirled (shaking creates too much foam) to ensure even temperature. She has pulled him from the high chair, a new apparatus, to cradle him the “old way,” which in infant terms means the way he was positioned three weeks ago. She has tickled his soft palette and made sucking noises. But he won’t eat.
The night-covered backyard draws her gaze. She scans the cracking surface of the partly frozen lake, amber lights burning like tiny fires on the western hill, the island across the cove she can just make out as a black mound, the next-door neighbors’ American flag hitched to an old sailboat mast and spotlit with a stark beam, and just like that, starts to cry.
“What a cliché I am,” she thinks, even as cliché tears spill from her eyes and run in cliché streaks, sliding around her nose and tickling her upper lip in a clichéd way, because she can’t brush them off — she is, after all, trying to feed the baby.
If he doesn’t eat, he will wake up in the middle of this cold night, hungry and wanting. If he doesn’t eat, he will train his stomach not to eat, he will lose weight, he will develop a heart condition, he will have to be hospitalized, he will become like the feeble 13-pound one-year-old child he shared a hospital room with when he had jaundice. If he doesn’t eat, she will wind up in a jail cell, charged with gross negligence. At six months, he already weighs 18 pounds. Two days ago he was deemed “in perfect health” by a competent doctor who said, as she always does, that he has a lovely disposition. If he doesn’t eat, she thinks — but she can’t find another dreadful thought. Almost as soon as she wipes the glass case around her mind, it fogs up again.
For his part, the baby laughs. He laughs around the nipple with his old-man-smoker laugh, “aheh heeeeeeh,” and his wide-open grinning mouth releases the pooled milk, which coats his chin with a streaky sheen. He is a happy baby. His eyes, bright with expectation, look for hers. He wants to talk. “Uh guh. Uh guh.”
Her husband walks in. She almost asks, “Why won’t our son eat?” but he’s been away for weeks, covering a trial, scrawling witness names and crime-scene evidence in his reporter’s notebook. He won’t know the details of the baby’s routine. “Take him,” she says as she removes the bottle from his dripping mouth. And then, to put an extra point on it, “I’m about to do something.”
She moves from the table to the stove. The house, once a one-room log cabin, now has separate bedrooms, but life still stretches out in the rustic common space where everything happens, where everyone can see and hear everyone else. She tends to zucchini, eyeing each half-circle so she can flip before they get too soggy. What did she mean by something? Make dinner? Throw the baby across the room?
“I wouldn’t have thrown him across the room or anything like that,” she says, assuring herself as much as her husband. But he’s busy, holding the baby up close to his face and talking to him. The baby talks back.
So what was she about to do? She starts flipping half-circles, one at a time, moving those on the edge to the center and vice versa for uniform cooking, and considers all the things she might have done. Drop him? Slam him back in his high chair? Squeeze his throat? Such violent things. Uncontrolled. Jam the nipple a little deeper and choke him? She could not do that to a smiling baby, her smiling baby. She thinks, as she often does, of the woman who killed her two sons by putting her car in neutral, giving it a little push, letting it roll into the lake, the boys strapped in their car seats. Her name and the woman’s name are almost identical. The woman is still in prison. She wonders how it could come to that. How, as the car rolled, the murdering mother, also in neutral, could watch it enter the water, slide across the surface, then sink.
The neighbors’ flag flashes as the wind picks up. She watches it dance in its obscene spotlight. Here in this neatly trimmed lakefront house we are Americans, it seems to say. We are proud and spotlit. We like boats — see, we have a mast in our backyard. We are proud, spotlit, boat-loving Americans, untroubled by the glaring white beam that draws attention to us. She wonders what the people on the black island think as they gaze across the cove at her side. Does the spotlit dancing flag ruin their nighttime view? Are we just a murky shore to them, scratched with one glowing white cross?
In her haze, a thought forms: The people on the black island don’t notice the flag, not when they can see, through the sliding doors of this cozy cabin, a family, the mother tending to dinner on the stovetop, the father holding the baby up toward the hand-hewn beams, the baby laughing. We look young, she thinks, even though we aren’t, even though it took a long time to have this, to be this.
If her husband hadn’t walked in, the islanders would have watched her pull the bottle out, set it on the table, wipe the baby’s chin, and declare an end to his dinner. She would have strapped him back into his high chair, like she does every night. She would have washed his bottle and narrated it for him, hoping to jump-start his literacy skills: “I’m washing your bottle now. I’m digging inside the nipple to make sure it’s clean.”
She turns back to the zucchini, which is so sodden now the peels fall from the flesh. Inedible. Pity, she thinks, there’s already salt and pepper on it. She can’t even feed it to the baby.