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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Demi-Christmas

 

by Gregory J. Wolos


 

 

            While Dahlia assesses her reflection in the mirrored doors of her closet, smiling with professional approval at her smart figure—she is a casting agent with a full client list— the cellphone on her dresser hums. She watches herself answer; she looks every bit the modern working mother in spite of the failed womb her tailored suit covers. It’s Dr. Morrison, the fertility specialist who has laid the groundwork for the surrogate birth that will make Dahlia a single mom in a week. Delivery will be induced on June 25th.

 

“Dahlia? We have a situation—”

 

Dahlia can barely hear Dr. Morrison’s voice, and she maximizes the volume with a thumb jab. “What’s that?” she asks crisply. Dahlia’s business success depends upon her reputation as a no-nonsense negotiator and problem-solver, and she wears the persona as if it were a superhero’s outfit. Her role-playing has allowed her to conquer a shyness that was nearly crippling in her childhood: she routinely handles reluctant performers, abusive directors, and parsimonious producers. She has never left a request for a seemingly non-existent character type unfilled. Because each day is a performance for her, Dahlia believes she has an insight into the psyches of actors that other casting agents lack. “Tough, but sensitive,” is the tag-line she’s give herself.

 

Dr. Morrison’s concerned tone hasn’t been lost on Dahlia—but she’s learned that potential problems often shrink away in the face of optimism. “Wait, let me guess—” she says before the doctor can speak. “Henry’s come early!” Dahlia knows the sex of her imminent child. His nursery has been ready for a month. Her heart flutters. She looks at her watch to confirm the date—it’s June 18th.  “But it’s okay—I’m ready. No appointments I can’t postpone. It’s just—I’d gotten used to the idea of June 25th—the ‘Demi-Christmas’ thing.”

 

            “This isn’t about Demi-Christmas, Dahlia. It’s the surrogate. She’s missing.”     

 

“Clarify, please.” Dahlia sees her mirrored figure sagging to the bed and resists, standing erect, the hand on her waist seeming to lift her. She is a disciple of body language—posture can persuade where words fail. But what exactly is she standing up to?  By choice, Dahlia has never met the woman who has been carrying her child. Doctor Morrison had made all arrangements in cooperation with an agency specializing in surrogacy. “Experienced, healthy, and health-conscious,” he’d said about the woman he’d selected. “A true friend of women in your situation.” Dahlia has already paid half of the $50,000 Henry will cost. A dietary regimen was prescribed and guarantees made regarding exercise and ambience.

           

“She missed yesterday’s appointment. She didn’t pick up or return the message from our office. I called her myself from home last night, but was taken directly to voice mail. Same thing this morning. I went to her apartment—you know I’ve worked with her before—I know her. I convinced the superintendent that this was a possible medical emergency—she’s obviously very pregnant—and he unlocked her door. There was no sign of her. Just a pile of circulars under the mail slot. Expired milk in the refrigerator. Bananas gone black in the fruit bowl.”

 

            Dahlia’s reflected lips form a red-lipsticked O. Her eyes retain the surprised look they never lose after the flesh-tightening that has made late-thirties seem less improbable an age. She turns away from the mirror and sits, careful to keep her spine straight. When she’d told Dr. Morrison she didn’t want to meet the surrogate, he thought it “unusual, but not unprecedented.” Dahlia had thought that if she never laid eyes on the woman, she could imagine that her baby was being carried by a version of herself—a perfect twin with an unobstructed birth canal. Meeting the surrogate would have placed an unnecessary body between herself and her child. Had she miscalculated? Without Dahlia’s face looming before her, mightn’t the surrogate mistakenly believe the thing growing inside her, sharing her blood, was her own? Didn’t possession trump a scrapbook of sonograms?

 

            “Couldn’t she be visiting someone?”

 

            “But she’s never missed an appointment—not in three pregnancies.  I tried all the emergency contacts we have on file. None are real—she made them up.”

 

            “Made them up?”

 

            “They’re cartoon characters. ‘Uncle Snoopy.’ ‘Oscar Groucherino.’ They have fake phone numbers and email addresses.  We’ve never had anything like this happen before. I couldn’t find an address book in her apartment.”

 

            “What about the police?”

 

            “It’s too early—she’s not officially a missing person yet. And I believe they have to be notified by next of kin”

 

            “This is crazy—she has my baby. And I’m his next of kin.”

 

            Clicks interrupt Dr. Morrison’s silence. Someone is trying to contact Dahlia. For a moment she’s sure it’s the surrogate, maybe with apologies, maybe with demands. But the number is Dahlia’s office, and she ignores it. “Dr. Morrison—the implant was—is—mine. I’ve paid half—”

 

            “Mm. The money’s one thing. Who the baby belongs to is a legal issue . . . it’s technically a contract dispute. Listen—there’s probably an excellent explanation.  Unless she’s already given birth, nothing’s less invisible than a woman about to give birth. Let’s not panic. I’ll start calling hospitals.”

 

Could it be, Dahlia wonders, that she’s already a mother? Wouldn’t she feel it?  “Maybe she’s left the country—” Dahlia pictures her twin, her perfect self, hurrying through airport security—it isn’t clear if she’s pregnant or smuggling something under her coat.

 

“I doubt it. If she’s had your baby, it’ll need a passport.”

 

***

           

Dahlia calls her office back and cancels her appointments, then sinks into her pillow. She kicks off her heels and props her phone on her belly, wondering who to call. Her attorney? A private detective to search for her missing child? Neither seems the right place to begin. She has to wait. She needs to separate herself from the surrogate. The bearer of her child is not her twin, not the better self she’s been imagining. Who is she, then?  Dahlia envisions a slim woman, her features smoothed over like a mannequin’s, waltzing with a shopping bag—a white paper bag with an indistinct logo from an upscale department store. The dancer whirls—Dahlia waits for a newborn to lift its head from the bag and blink with astonishment at the spinning world.  But the daydream fades when the phone on Dahlia’s belly buzzes.

 

            It’s not Dr. Morrison’s number. It’s Kirkland’s. Dahlia won’t answer. Right now she’d find her friend’s sympathy unbearable. He’d sigh tragically at her news, a therapeutic sigh, the kind he’d share with his sigh-therapist at his next session. Kirkland’s inability to hide his feelings is one of the reasons Dahlia rejected the offer of his sperm. He’s too much of a child himself to share the responsibility of parenthood, and he could never be trusted to remain the silent partner she demanded. “I may be gay, but I’ve got macho sperm,” he’d sulked after Dahlia’s rejection. Kirkland is short, balding, and thick-thighed. Creative, but dour and easily offended.

 

An absentee father, an ex-husband, and a dozen lovers have disappointed Dahlia. “Male-o-factors,” she’d punned to herself when browsing the online catalogue suggested by Dr. Morrison. Find the characteristics you prefer, the catalogue invited. Search for race, ethnic descent, hair and eye color, height and weight, education. Picturing an ideal child, not the perfect mate, Dahlia had settled on the sperm of a blond, blue-eyed, water-polo playing medical student who listed “Shakespeare appreciation” as a hobby and requested anonymity. Only for a moment had she worried that the donor was too young for her. Then she remembered it wasn’t a date. Though Dr. Morrison has reminded her “there are no guarantees—genetics can be finicky,” Dahlia is certain her baby will be gorgeous and deep-souled—she takes her confidence as proof that her mother’s intuition still works in spite of her internal imperfection.

 

 

***

 

After Dr. Morrison had informed Dahlia that a zygote had been successfully implanted in the surrogate and that her baby would arrive at the end of June, she and Kirkland celebrated the sperm and egg’s “marriage” with a champagne toast.

 

“The perfect pregnancy,” according to Kirkland, “allows for the mother’s intoxication without the danger of fetal alcohol syndrome.” Demi-Christmas had been her friend’s idea: “My birthday’s the week after Christmas. It’s always an afterthought. Second rate presents—leftover junk that didn’t fit in the stocking. Wrapping paper with Santa Clauses, as if it’s my fault I was born so close to Jesus. June 25th is the perfect birthday—exactly halfway around the calendar from Christmas—Demi-Christmas!”

 

Months later, when Dr. Morrison offered induction as an option for delivery because “control will help personalize your birthing experience,” June 25th proved a viable due-date, and Dahlia had shared Kirkland’s suggestion.

 

Demi-Christmas?”  the doctor had smiled. “Why not? Unless nature overrules us first.”

 

***

 

But Dahlia’s baby has been stolen. Everything is in flux. The double dose of Xanax she’s swallowed has left her drowsy, and the warning on the bottle, “DO NOT TAKE IF PREGNANT OR PLANNING TO BECOME PREGNANT,” blurs. The phone hums on her stomach like a mother buzzing into the belly of her giggling infant. The vibration tickles through Dahlia to her spine. It’s Kirkland, still trying, his friendship relentless. He probably has more questions about Henry’s nursery: he’s already taken dozens of photos and measured the room, the crib, the pictures and posters, the bookcases and toy chest. All for an installation he’s planning: he’s constructing life-sized thematic Barbies “that interface with the trials and tribulations of the wider world.” So far he’s completed one diorama: Osama bin Barbie, the terrorist stretched out and bullet-ridden under a hawk-eyed, machine gun-toting Barbie Obama. “The installation will be kind of a freaky Madam Tussaud’s!” Kirkland had gushed. He needs the dimensions of Henry’s nursery so he can rebuild it in miniature and insert it into a pregnant, glass-stomached Brangelina Barbie. “Like the cows they used to fix up with glass stomachs in agricultural colleges so students could watch them digest. In Brangelina Barbie’s womb-nursery there’ll be dozens of tiny babies of all races and creeds, cooing and toddling. And only you and I will know it’s Henry’s room. Consider Brangelina Barbie your baby shower gift.”

 

Dahlia’s lips are numb, and she imagines that she’s chosen to speak to Kirkland, that he’s taken the news of her lost baby with surprising calm, that he’s resolved to re-envision his latest project, abandoning the big Barbies. Instead, the entire installation will be about the nursery. Black Nursery is what he’ll call it, and instead of Henry’s room being tiny, “It’ll be huge—I’ll fill an airplane hangar—a football stadium. The room will be reproduced in perfect proportion, but swollen to a size that matches the misery of a mother who’s lost a child—and as dark as the other side of the moon!”

 

            And Dahlia is staggering through the Black Nursery, the fibers of its carpet knee high and as thick as the rushes beside a midnight river; its ceiling is starless; an inaccessible crib towers over her. Too high to see, but so vast she feels its colossal weight, swings a mobile the size of a solar system.  She sinks into the carpet, crushed into a dream-memory: a slumber party—Sherri Aspinall has locked herself in the unlit bathroom. Sherri is the only one of the tween girls brave enough to tempt the “Blue Baby” urban legend. Dahlia and the others huddle on pillows and beanbag chairs and hold their breath. They stare at the bathroom door.  Dahlia covers her eyes with moist palms. In her chest throb the words of the incantation she knows Sherri recites—“Blue Baby, Blue Baby”—thirteen times. Sherri will rock her arms as if she holds a newborn and stare into a mirror she can’t see in the dark. According to the legend, she’ll soon feel something in her arms; it will grow heavier and heavier and begin to claw wildly, until, after the thirteenth rock, a hideous woman will appear in the mirror, shrieking, “Give me my baby!” Unless Sherri throws the invisible baby into the toilet and flushes it, the mother-in-the-mirror will kill her!

 

            Dahlia’s eyes pop open, and she squints against the brightness of her vaulted bedroom ceiling. She remembers: a toilet flushes, and the waiting girls gasp; Sherri Aspinall bursts from the bathroom with frantic eyes, tiny scratches across her throat like the tracks of birds. Her screeching friends swarm over her but avoid each other’s glances— if any share a nod or smirk, the thrilling terror will be spoiled.

 

            But Dahlia is confused. Hasn’t she had the wrong dream—this should have been the dream of the thieving surrogate. Dahlia should be the witch in the mirror—she’s the woman with the empty arms. Her throat is sore, as if she’s been shouting: Give me back my baby!         

 

***

           

A week has passed. It’s the night of Demi-Christmas, and the surrogate has not been located. Dahlia’s attorney has arranged for a private investigator. Documents are being examined; precedents are being sought. What kinds of guilt, her attorney has asked, does she most want rectified? Financial? Ethical? Dahlia has told him she only wants baby Henry, who may or may not have been born. The date of the scheduled induction has lingered on the calendar like a canceled party.

 

Dahlia is working: she sits in a theatre evaluating actors for an important client, a renowned director. The play she’s watching, Dinghy, is an adaptation of a J. D. Salinger short story; it features members of the author’s famous Glass family, primarily a young mother and her hypersensitive pre-school son. Playing the mother is a former starlet notorious for her trips to rehab. Dahlia had expected little from her, but her performance has been touching, even memorable. Where had this childless woman—this actress legendary for her bad behavior—learned to play a mother?  Is nurturing taught in rehab?

 

Dahlia watches the young woman squat and smile bravely into the eyes of her pretend son. The world threatens to overwhelm him, and, afraid she’s losing the child to his fears, she tousles his blond curls. Could it be that mothering is nothing but pretense?  Dahlia winces at the thought, but it confirms a feeling that has been rising in her for the last week.

 

This performance will resurrect the career of the actress playing at motherhood, Dahlia is certain, but her client won’t be interested. He needs little boys, dozens of them, for yet another remake of Lord of the Flies. Unfortunately, the youngest star of Dinghy is disappointingly unexceptional, a small-featured, dyed-blond dandelion fluff of a clichéd nothing: the worst kind of an imitation of a child. His actress-mother might as well have been hugging a doll, whispering playful gibberish into the ear of a stuffed monkey—setting cookies and milk before a child whose existence would have been better represented in pantomime. But this production gives him legitimacy; Dahlia will call his agent in the morning.

 

The first act ends. Applause falls like tin confetti as the curtain drops on a bright kitchen with the mother frozen behind a mixing bowl, her son at her feet stacking boxes of instant pudding.  Dahlia’s professional responsibilities have distracted her from her personal woes. Her agency is short of satisfactory boys, and she sighs, but whether for herself or her business she isn’t sure. The sigh reminds her of Kirkland’s therapy. She’s yet to tell her friend of the missing surrogate, texting only that she was “too busy with preparations to talk.” He’s sure to have been lost in his Barbie world. But he won’t have forgotten that it’s June 25th— he’ll expect a baby. She won’t be able to put him off much longer.

 

Dahlia stops clapping and studies her French manicure as the houselights rise. Kirkland had created Demi-Christmas; she knows it’s not fair, but she blames him for the failed baby project. Henry who? Hadn’t Kirkland picked that name, too? She thinks of Dr. Morrison. Maybe the next time she sees the fertility specialist will be in court.

 

The intermission will be brief—five minutes. Dahlia scans faces in the audience and recognizes no one, which is unusual. The seats on either side of her are empty, paid for by her agency for clients. If things hadn’t been so complicated, she might have asked Kirkland along. She smiles at the cloud-haired woman two seats over who squints in her direction. But the woman is gazing past her at someone else. No one who looks at Dahlia would guess that she’s supposed to be having a baby this very evening. She turns on her cellphone to check her messages just as the houselights wink to signal the beginning of Act II. The slivers of darkness remind her of the Black Nursery—something else to blame on Kirkland, though she knows the giant room came from her own dream. She holds her breath, waiting for the shadow of the huge mobile, praying that that it won’t come—if the curtain rises first, she tells herself, she’ll be safe. Why had there ever been a baby in the first place?

 

Her phone glows: a new text message. From Dr. Morrison: We have your baby! Bellevue Maternity Hospital. Neo-natal ICU. Congrats. Come now.

 

***

           

Somehow Dahlia has negotiated the hospital’s fluorescent maze, the glare of polished tile, glass, and steel. As she dons a white gown and mask, she remembers the satin swish of the wedding dress she’d slipped into a decade past. She tugs her fingers into latex gloves. A gleaming door opens with a whoosh, and she recognizes, after a moment, the masked face of Dr. Morrison. His eyes are moist—he’s either smiling or in pain.

 

            “Here,” he says, and waves her forward. Nurses gather behind him. Something cold fills Dahlia’s torso. The doctor stands aside, and the nurses part. There’s nothing between Dahlia and a plexiglass incubator. Wire tendrils descend from it.

 

            “But it’s empty,” she begins, before she sees, laid out on a white cloth, the broken, eye-less doll—so pink it’s red, so red it’s bFile:Human Infant in Incubator.jpglue. No, only blue. Dahlia chuckles in horror. Dr. Morrison takes her arm above the elbow and guides her forward, but she resists. A nurse leans toward a monitor on which a red light blinks and touches something.

 

            “No,” Dahlia says through her mask. She lifts a hand as if she’s swatting through a rack of sale blouses she knows she’d never buy. “No!” She turns to the doctor and narrows her eyes. “Where did you find the mother? Where is she? How do I know this is mine? What’s your proof?”

 

            Dr. Morrison’s eyes shrink. Dahlia is sure there is a wet-nostriled snout beneath his mask. He shakes his head. Dahlia shakes hers.

 

            “Dahlia,” the doctor pleads, then more firmly, “Dahlia—this is your baby!”


            She chuckles again. Her gaze skips across the half-covered faces of the nurses. She won’t look at the incubator.  Where are the men, she suddenly needs to know. Where had they been when they’d planned this? She’d had a husband once, whose face she can’t remember, and a father who’s been dead for years. Somewhere is a young blond man equally responsible for the shriveled thing encased in glass. How easily she’d been abandoned —why had she been the only one dragged from the theatre?

 

            “No!” Dahlia wrings the doctor’s hand from her arm. “Where’s the mother?” There has to be a woman, freshly purged, lying nearby, and Dahlia needs to find her. She backs through the steel door into a white hallway, which she hurries down. She passes several rooms with closed doors and stops before one marked “WOMEN.” The knob is cold through her latex glove, as is the lock she turns once she’s inside. Dahlia glimpses a sink, a toilet, and her own white-swathed reflection before she finds the switch and darkens the room. She pulls off her mask, and the air is cool on her face and in her lungs, comforting until the odor of ammonium stings her eyes. Dahlia knows she’s staring at a mirror, but sees nothing. Maybe on the mirror’s other side, through the wall, the awful baby’s true mother lies. She laces her fingers together at her waist—through the gloves they feel like cold sausages.

 

Dahlia sets herself in motion. “Blue Baby,” she says, swinging her arms. “Blue Baby . . .” On which rock-a-bye will she begin to feel the weight? “Blue Baby . . .” She shifts her blind gaze for a moment, guessing where the toilet must be. “Blue Baby . . .” She mustn’t fear the face in the mirror when it rises before her. “Blue Baby . . .” When the witch demands her child, Dahlia will yell, “Take it!”—eager to surrender her terrible mistake.