February 5, 2023

A Good Man

by Suzanne Kay

I dove into the pregnancy thing with all I had. I read books on when the brain was forming and what to eat to make a smart baby. I went to the farmer’s market on Melrose and picked over the organic fruits and vegetables. I stir fried a lot of spinach and kale with garlic and ran down to Canter’s for a pastrami and sauerkraut sandwich with a pickle when I had a craving for salt. I was thinking I could do this thing on my own. I had a job at a bookstore and my plan was that I’d work until my ankles got fat and I couldn’t stand anymore.

Vince, the store manager, had deep black skin, keen features and wavy dark hair. He’d come around when I drank coffee and read backs of books I should have been shelving. You want to date me, he said one day in the break room. I tried to ignore him. Then he smiled with his whole face, eyes too, and it didn’t sound half as arrogant as it could have.

We went to a Japanese restaurant high up in the Hollywood hills with a good view of the city. Pinpricks of light flashed below and I couldn’t hear the whoosh of cars and honking and swearing. Vince talked and I floated, untied to him or the room, and there was a hum in my ears. I could do that, fly away in my mind. Even during sex. I’d stay in a room with a man at the beginning, then hover above where the bodies were pumping away, not particularly interested in what was happening.

I looked up at the blue-black sky, at galaxies. If I told Vince what I was thinking just then, he would have been surprised. I didn’t know why he liked me or wanted me around, but over the years a girl figures some things out. I had the right nose, skin, hair, and men liked that. They liked the parts more than the sum of the parts. Whatever that was.

“Is raw fish okay for a fetus?” I asked.

He stopped sipping his green tea.

“You pregnant?” he said.

“If it was bad for you how could there be so many Japanese people?”

Sometimes I could reason things out just like a normal person.

I didn’t want a baby that turned out like me. I wasn’t taking any chances. My mother, who drank when I was inside her, was the one who told me. When I was in elementary school the kids teased me for being the last one to finish books we read. After my mother left for rehab, I put myself on a regime. I read Ann of Green Gables and Wind in the Willows and later Moby Dick and Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. I kept reading, nose to the pages, when my mother left home and my father married a woman who changed her hair color every few weeks. I read books about families unravelling and girls who could time travel.

After our third date, Vince dropped me off at my apartment, a one bedroom in the flats near Hollywood Boulevard, all bougainvillea and cracked cement, weeds poking up in the front yard, a green-tinted pool that badly needed cleaning. Shit, I knew it wasn’t a good place to raise a baby. No one had to tell me that. But I worked with what I had. My roommate Sandy, a girl who carried those cards at the fights that said ROUND TWO, was splayed on the floor painting her toe nails red. The place smelled of stale cigarettes. I had to open the window.

“Those fumes aren’t good for a fetus,” I said.

Sandy rolled her eyes and then I told her about my date.

“That’s kinda gross,” she said.

“What is?”

“That he wants to do it with a pregnant girl.”

“Maybe he just wants to be friends.”

Sandy snorted and snot came out on her upper lip which she wiped with the back of her hand. She’d come to LA from somewhere in Ohio and she was dating a guy who had a fiancée but kept telling her he was going to break it off.

“Trust me,” she said. “I know men. Vince doesn’t care about you or the baby. He just wants to get some.”
What I liked about being with Vince was that he was a gentle man, almost like the whirr of traffic a few hundred yards away. He had questions about the father of my baby but I said the guy had gone back to Africa. Instead of running, Vince asked if I wanted to move in with him. He lived in a two-bedroom house in the Hollywood hills that he’d inherited when his uncle died. And I could stay in the guest room if that made me feel better. I told Sandy and she shrugged.

“Maybe he does like you,” she said.

I thought of Vince as a built-in babysitter. I took a backpack and a duffel and he picked me up on a Saturday night. He’d put out a fresh set of towels in the guest bedroom and changed the sheets. I couldn’t quite figure him out. I was fat with someone else’s baby and we hadn’t had sex because I didn’t feel like being touched or anything like that. I got up a lot in the middle of the night because I had to pee. I worried I was getting permanent varicose veins.

One night, Vince phoned me and said he was going to bring a friend home.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“A surprise.”

Sometimes I thought about what the baby would look like and I imagined a mix between Vince’s dark chocolate skin and my caramel tones, my auburn curly hair and green eyes. Then I’d remember that

Vince wasn’t the father.

The earth swallowed me up at night, pillows of clouds took me in, like a mother was meant to. If I stayed pregnant, rolled around in bed, grew fat ankles, I wouldn’t have to decide about things that were beyond me. The baby would keep growing inside, defying the odds. We were living in a three-dimensional world but saw everything in two-dimension. My baby was just going to be a thing to me that light bounced off of. I’d have to take, on faith, that she or he was as complicated as the stars. Because we never really know one another, do we?

Who says if your mother drank when she was pregnant, you have to stay stupid?

The low vibrations of an engine filled the cul de sac outside the house and I felt the sidewalk trembling in the kitchen. When I answered the door, Vince stood next to a short man in cornrows holding a grease-stained bag of fast food.

“Little Dawg, this is my girlfriend, Sabrina,” Vince said.

The man was wearing dark glasses which he didn’t take off as he brushed by me without even a nod.

“Could you bring us some drinks while we watch tv?” Vince asked.

“Uh, yeah,” I said.

I closed the front door, but not before I noticed a white Ferrari parked in front. That was what had made the earth shake. Vince took Little Dawg to the room with the television and the house quickly filled with the smell of vegetable oil that hadn’t been changed in weeks. I had to breathe through my mouth.

I knew this man was someone famous.

I stepped into the den with a tray with two glasses of water.

“No orange crush?” said Little Dawg.

“No, sorry,” I said.

He turned down the television and looked at Vince.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

I sat the tray down and took that as my cue to leave.

Little Dawg was a rapper and Vince had dreams of making music videos and I guessed this was a big opportunity for him. Vince laughed too hard at Little Dawg’s jokes. I wanted to tell him not to trust this man.

I trusted books, not people. Once the characters were written down there was no way they’d disappear. Like in Middlemarch, I wanted the main character to get her life started and stop living through that old dried up man she married who kept burying himself in some book he wanted to write. But Dorothea didn’t know what she had. She didn’t see she was smart. It was a shame, really. Middlemarch was written by a woman who had to use a man’s name to be taken seriously. I found out that Beatrix Potter, the English lady who wrote the books about bunnies, was really a scientist and super smart. She drew mushrooms that people still use. Really good drawings. And she had a theory about mushrooms that she tried to take to the scientific institute of the day, but they wouldn’t listen. Because she was female. And later a man had the same theory and it turned out to be true. So, all we really know of Beatrix today was she wrote children’s books.

Men didn’t like it if a woman showed them what idiots they were. I could never tell my dad he looked stupid jumping into younger women’s beds. But if his friends had said hey man, you been dippin’ yo stick in some young bitches, he’d laugh.

Little Dawg started coming around to our place a lot. And Vince was spending more and more time on shoots hanging with Little Dawg and his crew. I was getting used to sleeping in the house alone. Then I got a call in the middle of the night. Vince sounded upset. He said he’d been at a strip club and, at the request of Little Dawg, only girls who’d never stripped before, amateurs, had been brought in. Someone had gotten the girls high as hell and when they came out naked, Vince recognized one as my old roommate. He sounded really shaken, like he didn’t know what to do. I thought it was bad, but I’d heard worse.

“Just get her out of there,” I said.

“No, it’s not like that. After they finished stripping, everybody took the girls in a room and –”

I felt sorry for Vince and I couldn’t imagine how those girls felt. Sandy had lost our apartment after I moved out. Something about not paying rent, even though I’d left my share for the month.

“Sure, bring her here,” I said. “But tell her just for a few nights.”

Sandy looked different. Her eyes were a dull grey. I gave her a plaid blanket and a pillow, and she curled up on the sofa. In the morning while I made breakfast, she lay there with one arm dangling, holding the remote control.

“What happened to that guy you were seeing?” I asked.

I had a craving for scrambled eggs. I put half a dozen eggs in a bowl and added milk.

“The one who was engaged. Did he marry his fiancé?” I said.

“Crashed his motorcycle,” she said. “Dead.”

She said it without turning her head to look at me. Bad luck came in threes. The stripping thing, losing her apartment and then this.

“Things will turn around,” I said.

I don’t think I believed it. Some people were magnets for bad stuff.

Sandy left the apartment in the middle of the night and I never heard from her again. I didn’t know if she went back home to Ohio or ended up stripping, or dead. She used to cut herself, right where the buttocks and the back of the thigh came together, a hard place to reach.

I had made lists and maps and tackled pregnancy like a general making war preparations. I had been doing things right, eating well and giving this baby the best chance I could. I read magazines in doctor’s offices, flyers left on my doorstep. Anything. I can’t remember how I found out about hypnobirthing. I signed up for a class and Vince came along and we drove to a flat-roofed building in Santa Monica. Six couples sat on the floor in a room. The midwife teaching this class had years of training as an RN and I felt I was in safe hands.

When she came into the room the couples got real quiet. She was an older woman, lined and crinkly around the eyes, who’d helped bring many babies into the world. She stood before an easel with a diagram of the womb and told us how two sets of muscles worked to push the baby out, one squeezed the baby down like a toothpaste tube. And the other opened like a turtleneck, drawn up and back so the baby could come out. And then she told us how the stomach muscles sat on top of those others.

“If you can stay relaxed, and that’s what I’m here to teach you,” she said. “then the third set of muscles won’t tighten and slow down the underneath muscles which work involuntarily.”

I liked how matter of fact she was, how calm, like the mom in The Brady Bunch. A pregnant girl next to me, she couldn’t have been more than seventeen, leaned back and asked her boyfriend what involuntarily meant. He shrugged.

“It means without your conscious control,” I said in a whisper. “It just happens.”

The girl smiled, weakly. Vince squeezed my arm. He’d been looking at me like he wanted to slip into my bed lately. But I could hold him off with this pregnancy thing. He was a gentleman.

During refreshments, I went over to the midwife to ask her questions. I’d written a list on a yellow pad, like did I have to give the baby a Vitamin K shot right away and how much control would I have over when the nurses came in to take blood or check the baby’s heart rate. I’d be relaxing with breathing exercises and visualization and I didn’t want the nurses interrupting.

The midwife answered my questions then told me it was good that I listened to my gut and she patted me on my shoulder.

I waddled over to Vince, hand on my stomach, and he put his arm around me.

“This is my beautiful girlfriend,” he said, beaming. “She’s smarter than me, of course prettier. I still can’t believe how lucky I am.”

I kept waiting for that tingly all over feeling, like in movies at the end when the guy chases the girl to the airport and proposes. Vince’s arms were heavy.

I realized there was so much I didn’t know about Vince except he’d been raised by a single mother. Since he worked in a bookstore, I assumed he went to college, but I was wrong. He dropped out. Once when I finished a crossword puzzle, he framed it.

“You just get those words like it’s nothing,” he said.

I didn’t tell him I’d read the dictionary ever since my mother left.

After class, Vince and I stopped at a health food store to get me a freshly made beet carrot drink. He had one, too. If I wanted a plate of spinach and stir-fried mushrooms for dinner, he ate the same. If he needed something different, I guess he ate it when I wasn’t looking. At night he’d put a pillow behind my back, rub my feet. But I’d still float away when I was with Vince. I was pretty calm about what to expect at my baby’s birth because the midwife had given me a visual. Worlds inside worlds, whole galaxies. The problem I had with relationships was that I had no picture in my head, no good one. I think my stepmom kept changing her hair color ever few weeks because she was trying to keep my dad interested. He cheated on her anyway.

When I went into the delivery room, Vince was right there. He helped me walk up and down the hallways. We set the room up with candles and I had a recording of soft guitar music. When my water broke, I breathed through the contractions, or what my midwife had taught me to call surges, a word that made me think of waves lifting and lifting and then rolling down onto the shore. I had that diagram of the womb in my mind and all I had to do was keep my stomach muscles out of the way. So I inhaled in a long, slow breath, even and measured, counting as high as I could and breathing my stomach into a balloon and then I slowly exhaled the same way. I kept that up during the surges and as that baby moved down the birth canal, I didn’t feel any pain.

“You’re amazing,” Vince said, whispering in my ear.

Sometimes he’d compliment me like that and the words would stop right there at the skin.

When my son was born, the midwife put him on my stomach and he crawled up, inch by inch, and found my breast by smell, opened his eyes for a moment and we stared at each other. I’d read books and studied anatomy and set up my birthing room, done all I could to prepare, but nobody had told me about this.

At home, Vince brought my baby to me at feeding time. He changed diapers. Cleaned the house when I was too tired. When my son cried, he seemed to know just how to move his little chubby legs in a circle and then forward and back until the wind came out of him and he settled.

Then right after Christmas Vince got a phone call that his mother was sick and in the hospital. The day after he left, I was rocking my baby in my arms, holding him on a pillow that wrapped around my mid-section like a ledge and fastened in the back with Velcro, when the doorbell rang.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Came to see you,” Little Dawg said.

He took the baby from me and I smelled coconut oil with a trace of lavender.

“You’re still a beautiful woman,” he said.

He sat down in the chair across from me holding the baby. The next day Little Dawg stopped by again and dropped a shopping bag at my feet.

“Something for the kid,” he said.

He leaned over and stroked my cheek. The baby was agitated and couldn’t settle in my arms. I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew this was wrong. But what I’d say to Vince, if he ever asked, was that he hadn’t taken a long hard look at me. That was the problem.

“I have my eye on you,” Little Dawg said.

I told myself, these are the bad guys. They get girls high and make them walk naked. They trade in human flesh. But I could feel the undertow of his breath, moving in and out in the room, trying to get ahold of me. He was weighing his options. I was weighing mine.

On the playground a year before my mom left, a boy pushed me down into the gravel, knees split open, blood everywhere. My mom told me that means he likes you. And I believed her. I knew better now that I was older. If a boy pushed and you scraped skin against asphalt, watched blood pool on the surface, that wasn’t love.

But at least it was a feeling. At least I wasn’t floating.

Vince had to stay in his hometown while his mom slowly got better. Little Dawg came by with keys one day. He’d rented an apartment for me and the baby and hired a nanny. He handed me a credit card. I knew he had a wife in a house in Calabasas and girlfriends on the side.

“What’s my limit?” I said.

He grinned.

“Refrigerator’s stocked,” he said. “You know Vince is my boy so I gotta tell him what’s up.”

I read in a book once how to break up. Don’t do it by text or phone. Say it to their face. But I thought it was better to get it over with. I’d call Vince before he flew back from Chicago and tell him I moved out, try something like you deserve better. I wondered if I’d miss the way he looked at me. I had no picture in my head for what he did, how he put me before anything else. Maybe I’d leave a note and thank him for being such a good man.