Ernie and Sue said nothing as they drove the dark, curving road to the hospital. Sue stared out the window trying to ignore the baby’s cries, but finally she gave in, leaning her head down to rub the baby’s wispy hair with her nose. As Sue inhaled her baby’s smell, she felt at home. For the first time since her daddy died, she belonged to someone. And her baby girl belonged to her. But not for long. Turn around! she wanted to cry, to make Ernie turn and drive as fast as he could out of town and across state lines, to somewhere they could live and work and watch their baby grow up. Instead, she lifted her head, rolled the window down and sucked in the damp night air, hoping it would chase away the longing inside her.
The entire time Sue had squatted on the floor of the gas station bathroom she stared at the graffiti on the wall next to the sink. “Sally loves Johnny 4eva” the red writing declared. She had just enough time to wonder if Sally still loved Johnny before the next pain came. Even though Sue felt like her body might break apart right where her legs met, she didn’t scream. She took the wet rag and bit down hard on it. Her top teeth missed the rag and dug into her lip, drawing blood. Sue found the taste comforting.
“Sally loves Johnny 4eva,” Sue read again, and this time when the pain came it seemed different, and when she reached down between her legs she felt something coming, sticky and wet, hard and curved. She pushed hard and held her arms in front of the spot where her body was opened. She screamed. She screamed so loud she shook the walls. She screamed and pushed and pushed again and it all started coming out, the baby with its dark hair just like Ernie’s, covered with blood and grime.
Sue had leaned back onto the cement floor, grateful for its coolness, and put the baby on her chest, holding it with one arm and trying to wipe the messiness off it with the other. She took special care to clear the gook out of its nose and throat just like the internet said. When she had wiped off as much as she could, she took the scissors she’d snuck from Mama’s kitchen drawer and cut the rubbery cord attached to the baby with trembling hands, getting as close as she dared to its stomach. Even though she knew she’d never have to see it, Sue didn’t want her baby growing up with an outie.
She held the naked baby against her, watching its head move back and forth, its tiny mouth open. The baby started to cry so loudly Sue expected to see Ernie burst into the bathroom in alarm. It seemed to be searching for something, pushing its nose and little O mouth repeatedly onto Sue’s sweatshirt. She felt a strange sensation in her breasts, and realized her body was reacting to the baby’s search. Her baby was hungry, and her body responded, and she wondered if she should let the baby nurse, just this once, to give it a good chance to start off healthy. But as she brought the baby up under her shirt Sue felt something else creeping up inside her, a different sensation that made her worry that if she let the baby suck that pre-milk from her it would know she was its mother, and it would get scared and cry more when she did what she had to do. She pulled the baby out from under her shirt and wiped it off again with one of the two towels she’d brought, then wrapped it in the other. More than anything, she longed to put the baby on her breast, not only to quiet it but also because she knew it would be the only chance she would have to nurse it.
“What is it?” Ernie asked as soon as Sue got into the car, but Sue just shook her head.
“No sense in both of us knowin’,” she told Ernie. “If we talk about it, just say IT. If you say ‘him’ or ‘her’, folks will figure it out.” Sue had spent the last few months dressing in baggy sweaters and sweats instead of the size one jeans and extra small tops she usually wore. She’d eaten extra helpings at dinner so Mama would understand why she was getting fat, even early on when more often than not the extra helpings didn’t stay down very long. Good thing she had a bush beneath her bedroom window to catch the extra helpings when they came back up.
Sue couldn’t let Ernie blow it now, especially when she had only a few more months until she left this hick town for college. No doubt if Ernie knew they had a little girl baby, it wouldn’t be long before somebody else in town knew they had a little girl baby, and not long after that her mama would know they had a little girl baby, and Sue would have to say goodbye to college before she even said hello.
“Park over there in the corner,” Sue directed Ernie as he pulled into the hospital parking lot. The corner of the lot was empty and the light in that section was out. Nobody would notice Ernie sitting in the parked car, no matter how long he had to wait.
Sue walked away from the car as slowly as she could, hugging her hidden baby closer to her chest. She kept her head up, trying to avoid the sweet smell of the baby’s head, which was just about the best thing she had ever smelled, even better than the eucalyptus bath soap Mama had brought her back from Richmond last Christmas. Sue felt the tears starting. Maybe she could just be a mama… She shook her head and forced her tired legs to take her to the hospital faster. Sue knew she couldn’t smell her baby’s head again.
As she approached the ER doors, Sue started to shake. What if the nurses wouldn’t take the baby? What if the new law she’d read about, the one that let you leave your newborn at the hospital and walk away without giving your name, wasn’t true? Maybe the story was a hoax like that War of the Worlds radio broadcast she’d learned about in history class. Would the nurses call the police on her? Then Mama’d call Sue a slut and a criminal and she’d never let her go to college! There was, however, a tiny part of her that hoped the newspaper story was a lie, because then she’d have to keep the baby to keep from ending up in jail.
Sue kept her eyes up and focused on the red letters above the doors, making sure she didn’t look down at her baby. Her legs quivered.
“Hello,” a voice said from the bench beside the entrance.
Sue jumped back a little.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the woman said. “I just wondered why you’re taking the baby into the hospital.”
Sue looked at the woman, a tall, thin shadow in the dark, and she stepped back again, instinctively lowering her face to the baby’s head. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes, and she saw herself with her baby and Ernie, far from the hospital and from her mama, holding each other and laughing.
“This may sound crazy but, by any chance are you taking the baby to…to…” The woman stopped speaking.
Sue stood very still, wanting the woman to leave so she could go into the hospital and do the thing she came to do. Quickly. She didn’t know how much longer she could hold her baby before loving her too much to let her go.
The woman stepped toward Sue into the patch of light in front of the ER entrance. She had dark smudges under her eyes and wrinkled clothes and Sue wondered if she was homeless. She trembled and hugged the baby even closer, and as the baby’s nose met her breast she felt the liquid begin to flow. She started to turn away, toward where Ernie waited in the car.
“If you’re giving your baby…”
Sue turned back toward the woman, and the woman paused for what seemed like a very long time. She reached her trembling hand toward the baby bundled against Sue’s chest.
“If you’re giving your baby to the nurses,” she said finally, “maybe I can help you.”
Sue backed away a few steps, fighting the desire to turn away and put the baby to her breast. “What do you want?”
“A baby,” the woman’s voice cracked. “A baby of my own. But I’m forty-two years old. I’m divorced. I don’t have enough money to pay for artificial insemination. And do you know…” The woman took a deep breath. “Do you know how long a person has to wait to adopt a newborn?”
Sue backed away a little more. The baby was moving her head around against Sue’s chest and Sue felt her body pushing out more milk. “What do you want?” she asked again.
“I… I’m a lawyer and I know when new laws get passed. I know that when you take it in there,” she gestured to the hospital, “social services will get her. And I know I can do a better job raising a baby than someone chosen by social services. I figured, maybe… maybe you would see that I’ll be a good mother and give me a chance.”
Sue turned her back to the woman. How could she trust a woman who was just waiting outside the hospital hoping someone would give her a baby? This was crazy! Wasn’t it? Was it? Sue started to walk toward the hospital doors, but then got scared again. What if somebody who knew Mama happened to be in the ER with a bloody face or a broken leg right when she went in to give her baby up? They’d for sure tell Mama and there was no way she would let Sue go off to college if she knew Sue’d had a baby. She would end up losing both her baby and her chance to go to college and escape this little nothing town where all the women ended up old and mean before they reached fifty, just like Mama. Would it be better to let this unknown woman take her baby than take her inside and risk being recognized?
Sue held the baby out in front of her so she could see its face with its miniature mouth and nose. The baby opened its eyes wide. Sue wondered whether her baby would remember her if they ever crossed paths. Of the two of them only Sue would look about the same as she did right now. Sue swallowed hard to keep from crying.
She turned back around to face the woman.
“I promise I’ll be good to her,” the woman said softly.
Sue nodded, burying her nose in the baby’s wispy hair one last time. She handed the baby to the woman and turned away quickly. The brief sight of the woman holding her baby was already more than she wanted to see.
Sue ran to the car.
“How’d it go?” Ernie asked, jiggling his leg up and down against the keys dangling from the ignition. The tinny noise hurt Sue’s head.
“Fine.” Sue climbed into the passenger seat and turned her back to Ernie. She leaned her forehead against the cold window and closed her eyes, hoping Ernie wouldn’t notice the tears on her cheeks. Ernie didn’t seem to notice because he kept right on jiggling his stupid leg and making stupid noises with his stupid keys.
“Did the nurses ask you questions? Did you have to give your name or anything?” Ernie’s voice rose in pitch, and Sue swallowed a sob. She wished Ernie would be quiet. She closed her eyes and pictured the wide lawn in front of the columned buildings and the professors with their funny jackets and glasses. But the longing welled up again and more tears fell.
“Did they say anything?”
Sue wished he would stop asking questions. She just wanted to be quiet and hide her crying.
“Well…” Ernie said. “What did they—?”
“Shut up!” Sue shouted.
Ernie grunted loudly as he revved the engine and exited the parking lot, but he didn’t say another word the entire way back to Sue’s house.
He stopped the car in front of the house, and Sue left the car quickly without so much as a goodbye. She knew by the way Ernie spun his wheels pulling out of her driveway that she had made him angry, but she didn’t care. She hoped she’d never see him again.
Sue darted into the darkness between her house and the neighbor’s, pulled off her bloody clothes and threw them into the neighbor’s trash can. She crept in her side door and headed to her bed, weaving her way around the empty beer cans and the overflowing ash trays and the ripped recliners where her mama and stepdad lay snoring.
Image: “Wrapped in a towel” by Tatiana Vdb, licensed under CC 2.0