The Midwest |

Romance Language

by Amir Adam

edited by Bryan Hurt

She texted Manon at the top of each act. She texted her through the toréador’s aria. Un oeil noir te regarde, just checking in. When we came back from the opera, Manon heel-walked over to us, barefoot, toes splayed, fresh nail paint glistening, congealing, and handed Beth a very contented baby, who immediately began to wail and shit in her mother’s arms.

It turns out that Manon doesn’t roll her Rs. That’s how she spoke in my head—with a confabulated, caricatured French accent—in alveolar trills. It was only when Marybeth and I sat her down to let her go that I realized they were uvular, flung from the back of her throat: I’m sorry, so sorry, terribly sorry.

I’ve been watching Manon flit around our living room for the better part of an hour. I watch her bend to gather up what the baby has flung about the room. I watch her move into the kitchen to mop up the applesauce she has turned over. I scrub backward to replay the moment she takes a running start and sock-glides across our hardwood to make the baby giggle and clap. I watch as she squirts a dime-sized spot of microwaved formula onto her forearm, then licks it away. I scrub forward and find Manon burping the baby, gently rocking from her heels to the balls of her feet—a natural. She swings the child over her shoulder with confidence, doesn’t flinch when the baby spits up onto her blouse. Some first-time mothers are pathologically afraid of dropping their newborns, so afraid that they avoid them completely, leave them in the crib, never bring them to their breasts, skin-to-skin—the babies remain on their backs, skulls flush against the crib’s mattress, heads gradually deforming into plagiocephaly.

But she’s a natural. A wonder, she is at once the ingénue and the matriarch. Manon is a girl men might speak of in terms of potential: if only she lost a few. But I believe she is altogether realized—full, but firm. One could rest his head comfortably anywhere on her body.

I watch her play peek-a-boo with the baby—cover her face with her hands, uncover it, and shout “cou cou!” In the Francophone nations, it’s “cou cou.” The baby is too young to grok the permanence of objects, still cognitively underdeveloped enough to believe that Manon’s fullness can be disappeared behind hands or a bed sheet. And though the baby squeals with delight at the game—specifically at Manon’s repeated return from nonexistence—I can’t help but imagine the depth of her despair in the moments she believes, truly believes, that Manon was impermanent, had left, was gone, abracadabra, forever.

According to Beth’s mother, it’s the innocent-looking ones who end up on some grainy courtroom television, wheeled in front of a jaw-dropped jury. It’s the innocent-looking ones who shake the baby so hard her retinas detach and cerebral vessels shear open. Horrifying. We spent an entire evening arguing what constitutes private space and eventually about the slippery slope of surveillance in modern, sovereign states. We looked it up together, confirmed our biases, but in the end, she was right: surreptitiously filming guests in your home is not illegal. And she showed me videos. Needless to say, they’re appalling—nannies dragging and whipping toddlers about by their ankles and wrists, sending spiral fractures spinning up their little arms and legs, nannies shaking permanent damage into little minds and bodies. But I also tell her that if we are going to worry, if we are going to fear, to really get worked up, then we need to fear more ambitiously. That we delivered the babe into a world teetering on the lip, a tweet away from tumbling into World War III. Manon—a trilingual, scholarshipped, CPR-trained nanny—is the least of our concerns. Perhaps the more pressing responsibility of the father is to break ground on a bomb shelter, to plan for apocalypse.

The queue of these YouTube videos was never-ending—I had to close her laptop screen and tell her to come to bed. I was brushing my teeth when she yelled to me from the bedroom, “Plus, I want to make sure she’s speaking French."

“What?” I called back after turning off the faucet.

Louder she said, “To the baby I mean. She promised she’d speak to her in French.”

Beth has always wanted to raise her children in a multilingual household. Beth speaks to the baby almost exclusively in Spanish. When she moved to the city for college, it wasn’t her sorority sisters’ clothes or cars that impressed her; it was their exposure, their worldliness, and premature world-weariness. She was embarrassed that she only spoke American. Soon after Beth arrived in Barcelona to study abroad, she jettisoned the Mary from her double-barreled forename and switched her major to Spanish. Now she teaches the language to inner-city students with a Castilian lisp.

I came out of the bathroom, mouth still full of toothpaste, to remind her that wiretapping, though tempting, is a federal crime. Then I waved my toothbrush around like a professorial wand, and said, “But really, honey, this seems nuts—we can’t protect her from everything.”

I realized how weak I sounded, how complacent, just before she spit back, “Speak for yourself.”

I went back to the sink. There is no doubt that Beth is fiercer than I am. I’m barely up to the task of stomping roaches. As I brushed, I thought about the bomb shelter and about what types of canned food I could tolerate the longest. When is the last time that I opened a can? Do we even own a can opener? I gargled and spat; I noticed a pinkish hue to the expectorate. My dentist says I brush too hard.

When we finally sat her down, Beth asked, with damning foreknowledge, if Manon had ever smoked a cigarette. And as I watched her in the pregnant pause between Q and A, I realized that Beth’s was a face I no longer knew—flattened, pulled tight and motionless everywhere except the eyes and the brows above them, which flickered and rolled respectively, awaiting confirmation of a territorial threat. Even as she sat there, snug in sweats and slippers, chamomile tea in hand, reclined into the crook of the sofa, I could see that the whole of her body was crouched, red-twitch tensed and taut, prepared to pounce upon the lie that was fluttering up through the poor girl’s throat.

I’ve been watching Manon paint her toes. She’s slipped off a pair of thigh-highs and slingshot them, inside out, across the living room. When she’s done with the final oxblood coat, she separates the digits with a pink foam spacer. 

It’s both a miracle and disgrace that matronly Manon and her perfectly plump rear can be extrapolated from 1s and 0s cached in the racks of some sweaty server farm, that a pixelated, captive form of the girl is a command prompt away from viewing pleasure. She’s a fully formed woman really. Much, much fuller than the straw-thin, thigh-gapped girls I see around campus. I wonder if I’m deepening the violation by ogling her little simulacrum as she rests sidelong on the sofa, flipping her septum ring in and out of her nostrils, taking her hair into her mouth and chewing it, out of her mouth and twirling it, irradiating herself with various mobile devices. I begin imagining her exposed, languid in repose, a Boteros nude. Would it be worse, more troubling, any more intrusive, if we tucked the camera into the vent above the guest toilet to make sure she washed up well? Would it be worse to watch her sitting there, bored, sighing, knees knocked together, panties stretched tight around her thick calves? The most complete state of undress seems to have almost nothing to do with clothing.

The scene that’s suddenly shaping up my head isn’t the usual one. It isn’t one of those petite freshmen, bent over my office desk, leggings pulled urgently down—it is me in Manon’s arms, resting skin-to-skin against her chest, which is letting down milk. Milk is dripping down her chest toward parts my mind demands I imagine, in an ignorant French stereotype, as generously unshaven.

Almost any household item can be turned eye or ear. The most popular: stuffed animals, picture frames, digital clocks, and smoke detectors. There are waterproof ones too—some that can be plugged into a single hole in the perforated nozzle of a showerhead. The lenses are wide. The recordings are high fidelity. The scene captured, more or less, panoramic. Her bending, the volume of her chest threatening to spill over her neckline, to sop up overturned applesauce. Her opening, then closing the wine cooler, contemplating, biting her nails, biting her lip, then finally committing—pouring some imponderable amount out of an open bottle. Her moving past the baby, wine in hand, kissing her on the fontanelle. Her stepping out onto the balcony to disappear for what Beth immediately decided was a smoke-long interval.

I quit smoking months before the baby arrived, maybe a year. The smell offends me now; I shoo away second-hand vapors like a swarm of biting gnats. But I imagine sharing one with her. Passing it back and forth, sheets stuck to our sudorous bodies, the incandescence of Parisian streetlamps pouring up past the tree line, through wrought-iron balcony bars, falling in quadrilaterals over her body, cutting her hair into a brilliant ombré. Then her wrapped round me, swallowing me, the big spoon.

I move, waddle really, pants halfway down my ass, to double-check that I’ve locked the door. Good that this office sits at the center of a tortuous maze of halls, that the offices’ alphanumeric labels seem to only roughly reference the building’s spatial layout, that it’s difficult for students to find. The other assistant professors continue to vie for rooms with views and natural light, but I like it here, in the windowless belly of the building.

Beth stayed up long after I fell asleep, watching and probably re-watching the entire recording. Around one in the morning, when I woke to the sound of the baby bawling through the intercom, she was still up. She offered, but I went to the crib. There is no question that she watched, or at least listened, until the crying stopped. I’m sure she watched me sing to her, swing and sway her, as I tried desperately to convince her that she was being held in loving and protecting arms.

She was finally asleep when I came back. The grayscale monitor, which sits on her nightstand, was faithfully transmitting a representation of our child, swaddled in her crib, appropriately supine. The monitor washed her in an artificially dawnish light, silvering her hair. I tucked my legs up, turned my curled spine to hers, and slept fitfully.

The next morning, she was already up and researching the deleterious effects of third-hand smoke, which it turns out, are manifold. We started to argue about viticulture in France. I reminded her that while American children chug Capri-Sun, the French youth are brought up sipping Grand Cru. The breast pump was working away. As usual, there was almost nothing in the reservoir.

When she was further into the pregnancy, Beth wanted to buy one of those transvaginal microphones, so the fetus could listen to Beethoven, to stimulate white-matter growth. I told her the kid has enough to listen to: the synchronous beat of the heart, a water hammer pulse, the music of borborygmi.

Now she has to listen to us argue and yell, to our circumferential philippics. She has to endure to her mother’s strained Spanish. She’s been pulled out of the muff, her muffled amniotic float tank and into this variable noise, furious sound. Later it will be catcalls, hoots, hollers, howls, snorts and huffs. The voices of bad men. Bragging men. Begging men. She’s already subjected to the broadcasted whines of our president and his invertebrate cadre. Why did we bring her out, why did we pull her out into this vicious vibration, this vulnerability? No accident that a large portion of the population spends its hours trying to tunnel back in—that we burrow and bore in with fingers, fists, cocks, tongues. If we could get our heads back in there, we would. At night you can hear the industry. The apartment walls are thin.

My office is better insulated. Sandwiched between a janitor’s and water closet, I can play my music as loud as I like. I can spit in my hand and rub one out, shudder and grunt. The last time I did it, Beth was a few days past due. The girl came in and cried, or she was crying when she came in. I can’t remember. She left in tears. Pretty much the only reason students visit office hours is to expostulate about the semantics and syntax of the multiple-choice questions they’ve been dinged on, so I hardly glanced up from the blue book I was grading until she asked for a tissue. By the time she came out with it and told me how my TA had begged, and when she demurred, lunged and grabbed, she was crying so hard that she could hardly get a breath in. There was snot everywhere—coming out of her nostrils, hanging into her mouth. She cried so hard she threw up into my wastebasket. She was crying so hard she didn’t realize her skirt had ridden up, that her legs were spread, and that her underwear was wedged in between her pale lips. I couldn’t even stand to show her out, lest she notice the tent I’d pitched.

Tremendous guilt. Deep, all-consuming guilt. I bought Beth tickets to the opera sometime later that week. I figured it could be our first postpartum outing. After the show, I downloaded the soundtrack. Car c'est la fête du courage! C'est la fête des gens de coeur!I wish I had a vintage record player in here. The modern professor’s nostalgia for the apocryphal heyday of academia is real. I too imagine myself betweeded, feet up on my desk, cherry-wood pipe smoldering, considering my role in the valorous play: Bull? Fighter? Spectator? Faceless voyeur in the circus of blood? Le cirque est plein de sang.

I used to have a pack right here in this drawer, in case of emergency. What I would give for one now, ready to burn when I’m done here, covered in a mess of my own making, when the dopamine has fallen, like cannon-shot confetti, when I’m left with my prick in my hand whilst my head is rapidly reprioritizing.

“I’m sorry, so sorry, terribly sorry”, she said, covering her face with her hands. I noticed her nails then, unlike her toes—bare, bitten down, raw and bloody at the corners. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to recommend you to other families,” Beth said. Then she gestured to me and I started for my wallet, but Manon refused. I offered again and then she really began to cry. Beth had the tissue box ready. “Here, dear,” she said.

That I find myself thinking of Beth with mixed feelings isn’t new. It might be the stress of early fatherhood muddling me up, but as of late, when I see her hooked up to that milker—dry, bony, in vain—like some cachectic farm animal, it’s a mix of pity and love and revulsion. Is she not a good-enough mother? Should I not love her with her claws out? Hissing? What kind of mother was I expecting?

French: Native. Italian: Fluent. English: Proficient. We hired her after one interview over Skype. But the vetting process will be more comprehensive when our daughter becomes a mother. Parents will watch the help with the child, of course. But before, during the preliminary stage, they will unpack the contents of the multi-cameral mind. The goings-on inside will be smoked out and literally screened. They will know beforehand about the bad habits—the nail biting, the need for nightcaps, the nicotine cravings. And if you sat me down, hooked me up, and pressed play, my god what would you see? What might be wrested from the black box inside the black box? Certainly instances of good faith, decent intention, but also what is pixelating into form right now—me latched onto and lapping at Manon’s exposed tit.

For now, this will have to do. A decoy smoke detector. An eye in the sky. A dark eye watching. And it does well, is quite revealing. The world is dangerous, child. There are nannies with wine-stained teeth and nitrosamine-laden clothes. But also men. It’s mainly the men. It’s filled with weak-willed men, who act on impulse, pusillanimous men who do not have the power to put away their parts. Hardly men at all. Beasts. Boys. Babies. Beastly babes. She squirts a dollop of hot Enfamil onto her forearm. Sucks it away. Feeds the child. Rocks and burps her. Reflux. The baby spits up onto her shoulder. She throws her head back to laugh—how adorable, a weak little stomach. She returns and begins to speak to the baby in what I imagine is a language with no evolutionary link to Vulgar Latin at all. I imagine it’s something else entirely, something private and spontaneous. Time to turn this off. Time to zip up. Zip it up kid, pack it in, head home, take a cold shower. Now she’s playing with the child, gesticulating wildly. They are having a laugh. I imagine it as some mellifluous motherese, with her gliding glissando between pitches, between meaningless phonemes. I imagine being swaddled in that sound. I turn off the recording and she is gone, has left, abracadabra, forever. Woe is me. And so I turn it back on—cou cou!—and my heart is full, bounding, bursting with limerence. I am indescribably pleased and standing at firm attention. It’s just me and my prick and the blood hammering in my ears; the world desounded around me. I turn it off. Tout d'un coup, on fait silence. Don’t despair. Know better. You are capable of recognizing that she is permanent, real, an object that takes up space, a material, fully-formed body, one that cannot disappear behind hands, or into the darkness of a screen—she is oh-so-real, wide-hipped and hearty. Use your head; don’t turn it on. There’s a child in the frame for god’s sake! I turn it on. Cou cou! I’m in the thick of her. She has that je ne sais quoi that takes me back, that leaves me yearning. Cou cou! She’s returned, I’m returning, I’ve returned, have arrived at, comment tu dis, la petite mort? No no—jouissance!