When I return to the bedroom from nursing my infant son at 3AM my wife rolls over and says, “The moon is too bright.” I wonder why the heat guy hasn’t yet fixed our boiler. He initially rushed over when I told him we had a six-week-old but now it has been four days. Is it because he discovered that “we” is comprised of two women? And he, a good Southern man, a good Christian, could not help but think, Let ’em burn.
But we are cold. My wife’s fingers are sliced up from the hatchet she has been using to split logs for the wood-burning stove. Mine are sliced from little worries. I keep searching my cuticles for the edge that will finally even the plane. All that happens is more blood, the taste of iron in my mouth.
Elegantly named though the flower may be, it is not a pleasant thing to see your baby’s breath. As I sat there rocking him, the moon spilling in, the softball of his bum in my hand, tiny grunts coming out his pebble-sized nose, I had been trying to figure out why the heat guy hadn’t come back. I had been imagining the thoughts in his head. This is something you do, when you are alone with your baby and the streetlights. You can imagine that you are out surfing wild seas. You can climb inside the head of Vanna White, and imagine what goes on in there. Is she happy as she palms letters all day? Does she have a secret system of winks and nods with Pat Sajack to communicate thoughts about the contestants? Is it silent in there? Is she off on a wild adventure, her hair pulled back, riding a Phoenix, wearing giant yellow dish gloves as, I suppose, she would need to, to insulate against the molten-hot reins?
Or you can imagine the heat guy. Jason, the heat guy. A slim, slight man. A friendly man with crinkled pants. The faint smell of smoke on his breath, a thick drawl. He jogs up our front steps, breath turning white in the Virginia cold, and raps the door just shy of 8AM. He is there in a hurry; there is a baby inside and he is the father of five; he understands.
But then, two women open the door. The poor kid, with no father, he thinks. Perhaps this is why their heat has gone out. A punishment from on high. He tinkers around in the basement, turning knobs on the boiler, turning questions in his mind, flicking breakers. He figures out the problem, but doesn’t fix it. He decides he will think on it. Pray on it. He leaves with an excuse about needing parts. He nods to our boy, “Man, what a smile. He’s going to be a heartbreaker.”
Then he gets in his truck and sighs. The coffee his wife has packed reminding him of his moral duty to be disgusted by us. He goes on to his next job. He twiddles cold metal dials and envisions grids of electricity and gas. At nighttime, he lies back onto his pillow and considers what to do with the frozen lesbians on the little dead-end street. If God cut off their heat, who is he to intervene?
I crawl into the sheets next to my wife. Our dog—a displaced prince, a mutt with red hair and a white heart on his forehead—licks his black lips to remind us that he exists. “Want me to shut the shades?” I whisper. Still asleep, my wife grunts, “No, it’s okay.” And I think I will be a hero and shut them for her anyway. In that same way she keeps our family safe by tending the fire, I will keep our family safe from overly bright moonlight. But instead I savor the feel of the cool cotton on my cheek. For just one moment. I close my eyes.
It is the next night, and I am rocking again, and Jason the heat guy still has not returned. He texted us in the morning, assuring us that he would be here as soon as the parts came in. He was sorry. He hoped it would be later in the day. But it wasn’t. At what point do you stop believing? Trusting? Likely the delay has been caused by Thanksgiving’s approach, distributors backed up. Surely, he feels bad, and my reverie is as absurd as Vanna White on a Phoenix. But at some point to be a good mom is to stop trusting, right?
Tonight he smells like steam and peanut brittle, my boy. His nibbles and grunts, they are the finest music. I have tried analogy: They sound like raindrops. Tried metaphor: He is a baby kitten, wired with the insides of a chirping bird. But nothing comes close. I lay down my sword.
Another day has passed. The streetlights pour their milk onto the street. The walls of the nursery are cold as a cave’s. Over coffee, I read about a new danger. My mother forwarded me the article. Houses exploding up and down the Merrimack River in Massachusetts, not too far from where she and my father live. Something went wrong with the gas grid. The houses were imploding in clusters; no telling when or where the next one might go. An impossible nightmare. Your own shelter waiting until you’ve settled in for the night, then devouring you.
Had Jason read the news? Was that why he took so long in the basement? Has the gas been seeping through our walls all this time?
Crazy, perhaps, but tomorrow I have to spend thousands of dollars I’ve barely earned to convince a lawyer to convince a court that my wife—my wife with nicks in the skin from tending the fire, with crinkles around her young eyes from laughing so hard, already in this life, my wife who held my hand and coaxed my son out of me by serving as a counterweight, by letting me hook my finger through her belt loop and pull hard to prevent myself from floating away on gusts of pain, to prevent my muscles from closing in on this being inside me, haunted as I was by the sudden appearance of Brett Kavanaugh by my bedside, yes, he was there with me, during my labor, in my mind, uninvited, his sexual assault hearing having been the day before, his mouth clenching into a smaller and smaller circle, coaxing my vagina to do the same, because of mirror neurons or because I was unsure, after all, if I wanted to offer a vulnerable being up to a society whose highest court is bricked in mouths like that, my wife who let me pull and pull and pull against that belt loop, my knuckle pressing harder and harder into the corner of her hip as though to bruise her, as though to make her femur crumble, as though to prove that nothing is reliable in this world, not a house, not a court, not a bone, but that beltloop staying intact the entire time, failing my worry’s test, or passing my hope’s test, never fraying, the loop acting like the Narnia wardrobe in reverse in that it kept spitting me back here, here, to Earth, where there turned out to be a few sturdy things after all, a realization that allowed me to finally release the tiny creature from the clutches of my body, my wife whose hands were the first to hold him, who has kept him alive through my naps and my bad instincts, who didn’t let me name him Clyde, who shows me how to prop his head and tells me not to hold him “like a Thanksgiving turkey,” who encourages me to take him outside, who is already building his facial expressions out of hers, her laughter crinkling into his pert baby skin, whose big eyes well with the thought of him just after she’s put him down—that she is his mom.
We are told we will have to brave the indignity of a background check, that a case worker will come into our home to study our floors and our cupboards and our bodies to see if we are fit to mother our own son.
Crazy that the heat man would intentionally kill us, but our own state, our own country, is not entirely convinced we are morally pure enough, fit enough, right enough in the head, to be looking after this baby with no man around. We do not hold hands on camping trips, because you never know. Every lesbian is haunted by the tale of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans, a young couple murdered while camping in Shenandoah National Park. We pretend to be sisters. Their murder is still unsolved.
The first time we took our little green tent to the Shenandoah backcountry, we pitched it beside a tree that had fallen at a perfect diagonal. We thought it would make a nice barrier, separating us from the trail. I woke to the silhouette of a man who was trying to push into the tent with some kind of object, but the fabric wouldn’t tear. An axe? A flashlight? This was about a year before our son was born. I was pretty sure I was pregnant. We had gone to the fertility clinic; I had missed a period; there was a good chance. A hammer? Whatever it was was pushing the fabric of the tent in, in, in. “NO,” I bellowed, scraping the bottom of the barrel of my lungs for the lowest notes. My wife awoke, terrified. Within a millisecond, she’d assessed the situation and done what was necessary for me to survive: not throttle me. It had been a dream. Imagine waking up like that, to the screams of your partner, to the dead of the night, the wild, and having the grace—her name is Grace, by the way, I know—to comfort them. She stroked my shoulder. “Baby, it’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s okay.” The next morning, I got my period. You might say I hadn’t been pregnant. I’m convinced I was. That that terror was the moment I became a mother.
Another day, no Jason. I picture him letting all five of his kids ride him like a horsie. A conveyor belt, or a Ferris wheel, of kids circling his back, then falling merrily to the floor. I picture him taking out the Bible, as he puts them all to bed, a kids’ version, and pointing to the chapter where it says men who lie with other men are yucky, and must simply—flip the page to big orange-and-yellow cartoon triangles—burn in hell!
My mother-in-law, a cheerful woman, who obviously knows what she is doing in the child-rearing department—remember, my wife’s way with an axe—told us her one piece of parenting advice is to teach your children not to be afraid of the world.
It has been seven days now, and Jason still has not returned.
I’ll be by tomorrow morning, he texts. Later this afternoon. Tomorrow for sure. It grows colder with a delicate kind of Virginia frost that seems to web its way up through the air. By day, we place our son near the woodburning stove; we bundle him in blankets, a hat.
Jason is a smart one, I think. This plot is ingenious. A game of politeness chicken. If we bail on him, if we call another heat guy and, in so doing, accuse him of lying to us, we will have proven that lesbians are cruel, untrusting, unchristian. And then he will have every right to wire our house for explosion. If we say nothing, nature takes its course and we freeze to death. Win-win. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.
A few days before our heat went out, we were interviewing nannies. And a woman came, with long dark hair parted down the middle, wearing pale-gray sweatpants, a pale-gray sweatshirt. She was prompt and she was polite, but after she left, I wondered aloud if she seemed “druggie.” She had references. She has twin daughters, one of whom loves dance. But I was done after one meeting. Who’s the bigot now?
My son has passed out from nursing. Over the cusp of his moonlit head, I imagine the most gruesome things. Jason climbing in through the small window in the basement. Turning the knobs, slitting our throats, messing with our bodies, stealing our boy. Our boy who will break hearts. Our boy who deserves better. I picture him as the sixth car on the Ferris wheel.
My father-in-law, who obviously knows what he’s doing in the child-rearing department—remember, my wife’s crow’s feet, her Narnia hip—said our only job is to give our kid “roots and wings.” Roots so he knows he is grounded, wings so he can fly away from us.
As I savor the warmth of my baby against my chest, I worry I am already deforming him.
It has now been nine days.
A few months after our neighbors moved into the house next to ours, they lowered a Jesus shade in their attic window. The window faces our upstairs bathroom, where my wife and I shower together and pee while the other brushes her teeth, where we take our baby into the tub and displace two mothers’ worth of water. He was not there at first, Jesus. When he rose, he seemed like a message.
Ten days after our heat goes out, Jason the heat guy pulls on his trousers. He climbs into the cab of his beige truck and takes a big swig from his thermos of coffee. The sun has not yet risen. The earth just beyond his tires is hard, too hard for digging. He does the thing that needs doing and then smokes a single cigarette. There is a loud thud in the bed of his truck. He starts driving. One hour. Two. The sun comes into her full glory, slathering the asphalt. This is living, in its way. Three hours. Four. Everyone finds their own kind of meaning.
My son’s bald head sprouts yellow hair; he moves off the breast, onto sweet potatoes, onto a scooter. We truck our rocking chair to Chicago. We move into the heart of the gayborhood where all that’s raised are rainbow flags, trans flags, Black Lives Matter flags. Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies. Two weeks later, Justices Thomas and Alito take aim at gay marriage. They pen a circuitous thing, a four-page statement, promising to protect the rights of bigots, or, rather, calling people who call bigots “bigots” bigots, or, rather, charging that the 2015 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage was unfair to people “who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman” because it allows for the rest of the country to “brand” them as “bigots.”
Where did the word “bigot” come from?
Will etymology, as it has so many times before, soothe my anxiety?
It snows in Chicago on the morning the 115th Supreme Court justice is sworn in. She wears a well-tailored black dress and small heels. It is reported, from her confirmation hearing, that she rarely moves her hands. One state over from us, Indiana tries to claw parents like my wife off every last one of its birth certificates. Two months later, a mob of insurrectionists bearing confederate flags storms the Capitol, and the President tells them he loves them.
Now, when I rock in my chair, my wildest dreams are of the past. I imagine it is not snowing. I picture our dead-end street, a nub of pavement beneath a canopy of oaks, pecans, hemlocks, cherries and magnolias, our neighbor Jeff dragging a metal fire pit out to the center of it, his beacon calling for another Friday-night hang, some neighbors stopping by for three minutes, some for three hours, almost everybody, at the very least, coming to say hi. Maybe our next-door neighbors lowered that Jesus shade to remind themselves to love us. I don’t know what goes on inside any home.
Jason’s five kids are growing. New cowlicks, gangly arms. Maybe he has a sixth now. Maybe he has a teen who just can’t with him. Probably, he is still doing house calls, in spite of the risk to his health, to his life, because in this pandemic HVAC workers have been deemed “essential,” a funny way of devaluing someone’s safety.
That morning, ten days after our heat went out, here is what Jason did: He got in his truck and drove all the way to New Jersey and back to bring us a new boiler. He did not charge us for the labor of driving.
I want to take my mother-in-law’s advice.
But the entryways are breeched. And more rulings roll in. No officers are charged with killing in the killing. No access is granted to disabled voters. In the hours following the attacks on the Capitol, the President quietly sanctions the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people in adoptions. Barely an insurrectionist is arrested.
So here’s my revision:
Teach your kid not to fear the world.
Unless your kid needs to fear the world.
In which case, teach your kid to fear the world.
If your kid doesn’t need to fear the world, teach him to imagine the fear that haunts others. Tell him to spend a little time each day trying to picture it, to conjure it up, to stare at it on the TV screen.
And then, I guess, take him into all four of your bosoms, and, while you are still legally recognized as a family, love on him for a bit. Let him laugh, really laugh, and feel safe, for a bit. Say, “1, 2, 3, takeoff!” and toss him high into the air and believe—even as he grows bigger and approaches, as he falls, something resembling a man—that you have any idea how to steer him, to catch him.