Thursday, 27 December 1990

I heard that she had delivered and so I drove home straightaway. Apparently there had been some problems -- the baby's face was multicolored, perhaps something wrong with the brain as well; they were still processing the tests.

Consuela was in the kitchen sweeping. She straightened up when she saw me and spoke, self-consciously smoothing down her frock. "Madam's gone out," she told me. "She said to watch the baby until you came."

The baby sat atop the refrigerator near a vase of flowers, where Consuela could keep an eye on her. A baby girl. She was sitting up by herself in a diaper. As far as I could see, it was only her hair that was odd: a dark little crewcut that had already come in all over, except for a bald ridge down the middle like a part, tinged blue at the edges. But otherwise she looked all right to me -- a chubby face, round alert eyes, normal coloring.

I stood in front of the refrigerator and held out my index fingers to her. She took one in each fist immediately, and a look of delight came over her face; she bounced in her diaper, grinning and drooling. "That's wonderful!" I said to Consuela, who had begun to wash the morning dishes. "It's like she already knows me!" I leaned in close and made a face: "Ba ba ba ba ba!" "Ba ba tha tha tha," said the baby, happily. She was still holding my fingers and she started to conduct in 4/4 time, or so I fancied.

I was overjoyed at her spontaneous precocity. What a beautiful baby. This would indeed be the brilliant, unquenchable child I had always wanted to bring up. A father at last!

Looking down, I noticed a yellow note stuck to the refrigerator. I extricated myself and bent down to look at it. It was a list in my wife's handwriting: "Can crawl. talk. draw. Reads?"

I looked at Consuela, who shrugged: "Beats me." "Doobie da ba doot'n doo dah," sang the baby, still swinging her tiny hands. "Hang on," I said, with sudden irrational concern, and extracted my fingers. "I'll be back."

In the bedroom I removed my suit carefully, laying it down on the bed, and put on some old trousers and a T-shirt that I found at the bottom of the drawer. I was thinking hard. It had been a ten-month pregnancy, true, but surely there was something wrong here. Did we have Dr. Spock's book in the house yet? Probably not, but I could borrow a copy from my own parents. Or perhaps I could call the hospital. The doctors in obstetrics would certainly have some reassuring advice for me.

I went back to the kitchen for another look. "Aren't you a little big for a newborn?" I asked the child. She had gotten down from the refrigerator and I could see that she stood almost to my waist.

"It's because I'm a girl and you're not," she said. "Girls are always bigger."

"But daddies are supposed to be big too!" I protested.

Shaking her head impatiently, she turned away from me. "Who's that?" she asked, pointing to one of the color photographs taped to the wall. It was a picture of my wife and her son eating lunch in a park.

"That's your brother, your half-brother. He doesn't live here."

"Why not?"

"He just doesn't."

"Oh," she said, and added, with truly Christian conviction: "I don't like my brother."

I stared at the child. Where's Eva, I asked myself in sudden panic. She's just delivered, how can she be on her feet again. Where did she go? The girls from next door, two buxom healthy teenagers, had just arrived to pay their respects; they were standing out on the back patio helping themselves to soda and chips. I pushed open the door from the kitchen. "Candi! Traci! Where's my wife?"

"Dunno, at the office?"

"Maybe shopping?"

Their father, my neighbor, came up behind me and touched my shoulder kindly. "Here, let me help." He led me into the living room, where we sat on the couch by the coffee table and he consulted the telephone directory. He took a pen from his vest pocket. "Here is the number of the hospital," he said, circling it; "and the number of your wife's office . . . ah, and the number of the shopping mall downtown." He put a friendly arm around my shoulder. "You all right, fella?"

I shook my head. I could hear female voices from out back, talking with mouths full:

"At the circus?"

"Sightseeing from a taxi?"

"Watching TV with a friend?"

"In the bathroom sneaking a smoke?"

"Exchanging saliva with a mysterious stranger?"

I turned and looked out the window. The girl stood out on the patio with the others, discussing where her mother might be. She fit perfectly into their company. Her sundress matched theirs; she had one hand in a fist against her waist, the other clutching a bunch of potato chips which she took carefully with her mouth, one at a time; her ponytail swung one way, then the other, as she turned her gaze between the two neighbor girls. "Maybe — maybe she's having lunch at a fancy restaurant, you know?"

And looking at the three of them outside, I whispered: "My child, oh little girl . . . where have I gone wrong?"