by Gregory J. Wolos
Dahlia attended the exhibit, “The Scandalous Family,” because her artist friend had contributed an installation celebrating her surrogate pregnancy. As she stood with Kirkland before his work, the casting agent peeked at her cell phone—though the due date was a week away, Dahlia’s doctor had hinted that the young woman contracted to bear her child had appeared “suspiciously ripe” at her last examination; Dahlia might become a mother at any moment.
Half of Kirkland’s installation was a black and white film displayed on a gallery wall: a pair of silhouettes set on railroad tracks in a desert. The first shadow figure crouched on all fours like a dog. The second figure—long-legged and spike heeled, Barbie-breasted and obviously pregnant—towered over the first and brandished a whip. Chains cuffed both figures to the rails.
The scene was projected from the headlamp of a perambulator-sized locomotive standing on steel tracks that ran across the gallery’s hardwood floor and joined the rails in the film. A small cradle hung from the locomotive’s headlamp, and in it a baby doll, hooded in black and swaddled in a leather diaper, rocked. The silhouettes on the tracks ignored the locomotive bearing down on them. Occasionally, the pregnant dominatrix dipped forward, threatening her partner with her whip, breasts, and belly.
Dahlia’s white wine warmed in its plastic cup, while Kirkland warned patrons passing between the locomotive and the projection to “Mind the tracks.”
“I can’t make up my mind,” he said. “Am I part of the installation? I could punch tickets like a conductor.”
Kirkland called his piece “Madonna of the Whip.” He’d fussed mildly when Dahlia had chosen the sperm of an anonymous donor over his for the in vitro fertilization of her eggs, but he’d understood. “Who would play genetic Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun?” he’d sighed, acknowledging his physical deficiencies. And Dahlia had scoured the donor-catalogue, eventually settling on the sperm of a blond, blue-eyed, rugby-playing, Shakespeare-loving medical student. The life she was casting didn’t call for a father with paternity rights.
Kirkland admired his work before turning to Dahlia. “The drama of the American family,” he said. “Look in the mirror.” But Dahlia didn’t see herself in the installation. Yes, a baby bore down on her immediate future, but the dominatrix couldn’t be her—she wasn’t pregnant with anything. And who was being whipped? Dahlia sneaked another look at her phone. No messages.
“Careful—” Kirkland touched the upper arm of a young woman wearing glasses who stumbled over the tracks, then held out his palm. “Ticket, please.”
The woman paused to take in the artist, Dahlia, and the installation. Her shadow blotted the figures on the wall into a Rorschach until Kirkland moved her out of the locomotive’s beam. After frowning at the silhouettes, she stabbed a finger across the gallery. “Those are mine.”
“Lovely,” Kirkland said, squinting. Dahlia followed her friend’s gaze, imitating his wince as if narrowed lids were the secret to understanding art, and saw a set of four paintings. All featured flesh-pink, brown-nippled globes. Dozens of pink melons were arrayed in a leafy field in one. Nippled balls dangled amid tinsel and lights from a Christmas tree in another. In a third the pink balls lined a subway bench like plump, nude commuters. In the last and largest, a fleshy globe had been stretched flat into a map of the world, the oceans a darker pink than the land. The world map’s nipple rose like a huge chocolate kiss in the center of North America’s Continental Divide.
Kirkland nodded. “‘Motherhood.’ Same as mine. But not as subtle.”
The young woman shook her head so hard her glasses shifted and her large breasts swung. Two spots darkened the white fabric of her T-shirt. Were these spots—they looked damp— part of the exhibit?
“Subtlety is dead and buried,” she said. “We’ve cycled back to sincerity.” She caught Dahlia staring at her shirt. “I’m padless, today. Did you know most primates can lactate without pregnancy? Also lemurs and dwarf mongooses.”
Later, Dahlia and Kirkwood took their new acquaintance, Lizzie, for coffee. After a trip to the restroom, Lizzie opened her backpack and showed Dahlia a plastic breast pump and a Tupperware container of freshly expressed milk.
“I donate to the milk bank,” she said, sipping her latte. Lizzie explained that she’d just ended a long relationship. “When things started, it was all about sex. All about my breasts, mostly—he’d have squeezed, licked, and sucked for twenty-four hours a day, if he hadn’t had to go to work. And I’d have let him. But then they swelled. My nipples enlarged. One night, he drew milk, and it shocked the hell out of us. He smacked his lips and wanted to nurse. I cried. I had to be pregnant, right? But tests said no. According to the doctors, I have super excitable hormones. Pretty unusual, but not unheard of. For a while—for just a very little while—my boyfriend and I both got into it. Lactophilia. It’s a fetish thing—there are chat rooms. People have ‘adult nursing relationships.’ But I got sick of it—I’d wake up in the middle of the night short of breath from the weight of his head on my chest and the sound of him slurping. He wanted to get married. But who wants to marry a giant infant? He’d have fought our babies for his fix. Anyway, I cut him off, weaned him cold turkey, and now he’s gone.”
Lizzie paused and stretched, pushing her chest with the half-dollar stains toward Dahlia. “I haven’t let myself dry up,” she said. “It’s not sexual anymore, but I like lactating.”
“It’s a mothering instinct,” Kirkland said.
“Maybe. But I’m not longing for a baby. What I feel is a kind of overwhelming generosity. That’s why I donate. It’s too bad milk banks don’t pay, like the blood places used to. I can’t make my rent by myself.”
“So you need a way to keep yourself in brushes and paint . . .” Kirkland turned to Dahlia. “She’s ripe and ready, kiddo,” he said, then leaned back and considered the two women. “I think you two are a lot closer to believing in God than you were when you woke up this morning.”
“Who doesn’t believe in God?” Lizzie asked.
Kirkland’s eyelids dropped. “Those who prefer fairy tales.”
Dahlia may not have understood art, but casting was her business, and Kirkland had identified a match that seemed pre-ordained. A deal was struck: Lizzie accepted a position as Dahlia’s fulltime nanny and wet nurse. The following week, Robbie was born and surrendered by the surrogate. New momma Dahlia brought her son home to his wardrobe of colorful onesies, his designer nursery, and his endless supply of mother’s milk.
At 11:00 AM, Brahms’ Lullaby lit Dahlia’s cell phone, as it had every day for three months since she’d returned to work after Robbie’s birth. It would be Lizzie, with a report on the baby’s morning. Dahlia always picked up, unless occupied with a casting obligation—a meeting with a producer, a director, a hopeful performer, or a stage mother. Her niche agency represented three groups, exclusively: Asians, who’d been hot lately; “working mother” types, for which Dahlia saw herself as the prototype—she’d wink at her slim, business-suited reflection in boutique windows and mirrored restaurant lobbies; and, finally, children with “a special difference.” When Lizzie called, Dahlia was sorting through portfolios from this last group in preparation for a lunch meeting with a new producer.
She let the melody play through a second time and studied the picture the phone displayed: fuzz-headed Robbie in his red PJ’s, a milky bubble on his lips, snuggling in Lizzie’s white arms. But Dahlia didn’t pick up— lately she’d been re-thinking the eleven o’clock arrangement. Routine sapped the joy out of things, potentially. And restraint could teach valuable lessons. Better that she be less regular in doling out her affection.
The ringtone cut out after the third Lul-la-byyyy, and the final note hung over Dahlia’s desk. She bowed back to the pile of portfolios culled from her list of “different” child clients: brave, beautiful little boys and girls in wheelchairs, on crutches, or angelically bald-headed, each indispensible in his or her own way for background scenes in commercials demanding diversity. Even these youngsters had their ambitious stage mothers.
Dahlia’s assistant buzzed in word of a surprise arrival—Shawn Anderson, the new client she was scheduled to meet for lunch to present her shortlist of “specials.” Before she knew it, the squat stranger had pushed into her office, dropped into a chair, and humped it up to Dahlia’s desk. He ignored her offered hand.
“Can’t do lunch,” Shawn Anderson said. His leather jacket cloaked his right shoulder— purple fingertips emerged from the ace bandage wrapping his slung arm. “Racquetball. I just got out of the emergency room. I’ve got to see an osteopath—my shoulder’s probably dislocated.” The portfolios scattered across Dahlia’s desk caught his eye, and he tilted his head for a better view. “I need one of your babies.” Then he saw Dahlia’s phone, frowned, and hunched forward. “There,” he said, jabbing at the picture of Robbie. “That one’s perfect.”
It shouldn’t have taken Dahlia as long as it did to explain that the baby on her phone wasn’t available, wasn’t a “child of difference,” was, in fact, Dahlia’s own “perfectly healthy, perfectly normal, non-show business little boy.” She shivered a little—was it pride?—as she held the phone under Shawn Anderson’s chin and scrolled through picture after picture.
“Here’s Robbie nursing,” Dahlia said. “That’s not me, that’s Lizzie. She’s Robbie’s wet nurse. That’s him in his crib. He’s looking at his mobile. I think he’s smiling. Here he is on Lizzie’s lap. She’s reading to him. It’s a book about rainbows or something. But see—there’s nothing the matter with him. He’s perfectly normal. Better than normal—he’s a darling. I think he’s cute enough to cast as a ‘non-different’—if this was that kind of agency and I was that kind of mother. For diaper ads and baby food commercials.”
Shawn Anderson’s snort startled Dahlia. He sat back. “Whatever you say. You’re the expert. So what else do you have?”
Dahlia pulled the portfolio of a lovely five-year-old girl with platinum curls, porcelain skin, and rosebud lips. The child’s photos emphasized her thick glasses and hearing aid. “She’s got experience,” Dahlia said, and listed the child’s sitcom and commercial appearances.
“Not exactly what I had in mind.” Shawn Anderson grimaced— his aching shoulder? “I want a baby. I’ve got little girls.”
Dahlia shook her head. “Infants of the kind you’re looking for are hard to find.”
“But you don’ get what I’m envisioning. It’s supposed to be an extended family. It’s for life insurance. I need a baby of a certain kind, I don’t know, hooked up to something, maybe in a special stroller; the others—sisters, brothers, parents, grandparents group around him—then the camera shows them from above, and we see that the baby is the bull’s eye of a gigantic target.” Shawn Anderson bit his lower lip. He needed a shave and his hair was a mess. “A little deaf girl,” he sighed. “Well, if that’s all you’ve got—” He tapped the blond child’s glossy. “Let’s try this one.”
Dahlia called the girl’s mother, muffling the woman’s exclamations with her hand as she passed the phone to Shawn Anderson. He confirmed the offer, clarified a few details, and ended the connection.
“Sorry about lunch,” he said. “Another time.” He stared at the picture of Robbie glowing in his palm.
“Good luck with your shoulder.” Dahlia reached for her phone, which Shawn Anderson surrendered. He stood awkwardly.
“They’ll probably do an MRI. Wet nurse? That’s really a thing?”
“Good fortune threw her in my path. She also happens to be a talented artist.” This time Shawn Anderson took the hand Dahlia extended—she tugged it away when he seemed about to kiss it. His focus slipped back to the phone Dahlia had placed on the desk.
“He looks cold,” Shawn Anderson said.
Dahlia sat at her desk, dabbing yogurt between lips she barely parted. She peeked at the phone picture of Robbie. What had Shawn Anderson seen? Her baby looked cold, he’d said. Cold? Was Robbie noticeably uncomfortable? Or had Shawn Anderson meant the baby looked cold to the touch? Was Lizzie cold from holding him in her arms? Did Robbie chill his wet nurse’s breasts?
What did Robbie feel like? Dahlia strained to remember the touch of her lips on her son’s forehead when Lizzie offered him for a “night-night” kiss before carrying him off to her bed. She resolved to take the baby’s temperature. After the gym and a quick bite downtown with Kirkland, she’d go home and paste the external thermometer she was sure was in the medicine cabinet across Robbie’s forehead. 98.6 was the target. Possibly Kirkland had noticed something about her baby boy. If the conversation turned that way, she might ask.
But at Pilates, Dahlia couldn’t concentrate on her core. On all fours, as she mimicked the bends and stretches of her instructor, she thought of the shadow couple chained to the tracks in Kirkland’s installation. Then her brow contracted, and she felt her features meld somehow with Shawn Anderson’s. With a shared face they frowned at the little picture of Robbie on her phone. Dahlia jerked her head with a snap that hurt her neck. She concentrated on her reflection in the mirror behind the instructor. The core, the core, she thought, coordinating her twists and stretches with the poses of the dozen other slender figures in her class. For a shocking moment she saw her body laden with the breasts she’d had surgically reduced long ago, when she was still a teen. Dahlia had insisted, and her mother had given permission. She’d so wanted to dance professionally. But at her new arts school she’d faced a stark truth—the career for which she’d reshaped herself demanded talents she’d never have.
Dahlia blinked sweat from her eyes and, relieved, found herself again as sleek as her Pilates-mates. But her abdomen felt slack. And hollow. She dug her fingers into the mat and focused on her knuckles as she stiffened into a plank. Shawn Anderson’s fingertips had been swollen like purple vegetable tubers. Once, when she was very little, Dahlia had ridden a city bus with her grandmother. The fumes had nauseated her, and Nana had smoothed back her hair and told her to “focus on something.” The dark-skinned man sitting across the aisle from her cupped a hand with shriveled fingers against his chest as if he held a dying bird. Dahlia stared, and when Nana noticed, she’d leaned over, her large bosom warm and stale-smelling against her granddaughter’s cheek.
“Thank you for your service,” Nana had said to the man, who ignored the senseless remark.
At dinner, Dahlia began the story of Shawn Anderson.
“He wanted a baby with a difference for an insurance commercial—”
“Your ‘babies with differences.’” Kirkland made a face. “And you say you don’t get art. You’re as creative as God. You can make a fake person out of anyone.”
Dahlia swallowed her tasteless Merlot, waiting for Kirkland’s banter to run its course. She had a headache. So Kirkland thought her creative. What about the miracle of her fertilized eggs? Twelve, an even dozen, eleven of them frozen “in case the first implant fails.” And it had failed. Dahlia pictured a white-coated lab technician retrieving an egg carton from a freezer. From that icy nest he picked Robbie.
A rattle of cubes, and startled Dahlia upset the glass the busboy was filling. Water and ice collected in her lap, while Kirkwood and the busboy pushed at the spill with napkins. A minute later, Dahlia stood in a locked restroom stall, rubbing the damp spot on her skirt with a paper towel. Then she was in her car, driving home, having excused herself on account of her aching head.
Dahlia had shrieked so loud her ears still rang and her teeth ached even after she’d collapsed on her sofa. Lizzie hung like a ghost in the hallway door, clutching frantic Robbie to her side.
“I thought—” Dahlia gasped. But she couldn’t say what she’d thought—it was too horrible: she’d stepped into her house, into her living room, and called for Lizzie, who’d materialized suddenly in the half-lit hall, her T-shirt and arms blood-soaked, her hair clotted—and the baby, smeared with red, splayed in her arms.
Sacrifice—the idea had struck Dahlia like a fist to her sternum. Her arms flailed against imagined knives as she fell back—Helter Skelter! Was Lizzie a victim or a perpetrator? Were curses scrawled on the walls with her baby’s blood? Who was calling her name?
“Dahlia—Dahlia! No! We were just painting. Robbie and I were painting.” Lizzie patted her drenched chest, lifted her bloody hair from her forehead. “You were supposed to be at dinner with Kirkland. We were just starting to clean up. I’m so sorry—this must look—” Was Lizzie half-smiling her apology? Naked Robbie, quieting, burrowed between her breasts, then pulled back, his face a red mask. Lizzie’s glasses were speckled with paint that Dahlia had mistaken for gore. Lizzie was smiling, her teeth white and sharp.
“You okay now? Okay? We were, like, finger-painting. Except I was using Robbie.” Lizzie coughed a chuckle. “Like he’s a big stamp pad. ‘Baby Parts,’ I call it. Red finger paint on brown paper—I’ve got it rolled out on the bathroom floor. Don’t worry—everything’s washable and non-toxic. We’d have cleaned it all up before you got here if you hadn’t been early.” Lizzie jostled the paint-smeared baby, who reached for her chin. “Isn’t that right, little man? Really, Dahlia, I’m so sorry. Can I get you something from the kitchen? Water? A glass of wine? I want to keep off the carpet in case we drip.”
Dahlia hoisted herself into a slouch. Not wine. “No thank you. Sorry,” she wheezed, still trying to catch her breath. “It’s been a difficult day—casting a horror film,” she lied. “—My imagination got the best of me.” She waved a limp hand. “I want to help with the bath. Give me a minute.”
“You change, and I’ll feed Robbie first. It’ll sooth him.” Lizzie and the baby disappeared into the kitchen. Dahlia heard a chair scrape across the tiles. She pictured the wet nurse lifting her shirt. Had the paint soaked through to the skin? Would she wash her nipples so her milk wouldn’t mix with the blood— the paint?
“It’s all non-toxic, right?” Dahlia called.
A ten count passed before Lizzie answered. She kept her voice low. “Um-hmm. Oh—I almost forgot—you had a visitor. A Mr. Anderson? I thought he was the cable guy. He said he was in the neighborhood, and I should tell you he’d thought it over, and he decided against the arrangement you made today. He said to tell you he wanted to go back to his original idea. You’d know what he was talking about, he said.”
“Oh—yes.” Shawn Anderson in her house? Dahlia peered, round-eyed, into the room’s dark corners—empty.
“He was kind of weird. He made me nervous, the way he wouldn’t leave. He asked to hold Robbie. Called him ‘My special little man.’” Lizzie’s words were muffled, like moths fluttering in a jar. “I told him Robbie didn’t like to be held by strange men. One of his arms was in a sling. It looked dirty. Stained. He said you knew how to get in touch with him, and he left.”
In her bedroom, Dahlia stripped in a methodical burlesque, observing her movements in the mirror as if she was gathering evidence. Should she place blouse, pants, jacket, and underthings in labeled plastic bags? They appeared clean, but you could never be certain. If she’d embraced the child, she definitely would have ruined her outfit. She tugged on a sweatshirt and sweatpants. The tub was filling in the bathroom: Lizzie hummed an old song over the gushing water—Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Why hadn’t Shawn Anderson left his message at her office? Special little man? Lizzie shouldn’t have opened the door. What if it had been that ex-boyfriend, the lactophiliac, crazy for a fix of mother’s milk? And if Shawn Anderson returned, asking for Robbie? Dahlia abandoned the plan to take her son’s temperature—how would she explain it?
“I’m putting him in—hurry up Dahlia,” Lizzie called. Sitting on the edge of her bed, Dahlia shivered. She pulled up a sleeve. Goose bumps covered her arm. “Hey—” she heard, “I should call my painting ‘Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers.’ You’ll see it when you come in. Hurry up.”
Dahlia slipped her hands up under her sweatshirt and cupped her breasts, but she couldn’t feel them. Which was numb—her flesh or her fingers? Her ribs she found. She started to count them and thought about the egg carton with her zygotes. Ten left. They must be so cold!
“Dahlia?” Lizzie must have been on her knees, bent over the tub, the infant naked and slippery in one hand while she scrubbed off the red paint with a washcloth. Rosy swirls must be blooming in the bathwater. Splashes. “We’re shampooing now!” Was that a giggle? Her son’s first laugh?
What were little boys made of? Half of Robbie came from a medical student—lover of Shakespeare—blond, blue-eyed rugby player. Did that man also have a horrible hand like the stranger Nana had thanked for his service? Like Shawn Anderson? Dahlia couldn’t remember her own father’s hands—either the sight or touch of them. The half-closed casket had hidden them.
Dahlia had Lizzie. Had it really only been three months? Three months made just one season. It seemed much longer.
“I don’t know you,” Dahlia murmured toward the bathroom.
“What? Do you want to towel him off? This is murder on my back—”
“You’re not even my friend,” Dahlia whispered. There was so much more to come—nursery school, grade school, high school, college. Friends. Lovers. Her boy was too small for any of it. Shouldn’t he have been bigger by now? Was that what Shawn Anderson had noticed? Dahlia jolted upright, her hands pressed against her cheeks, her mouth a dark oval. She should have seen it herself: Robbie was tiny! He wasn’t growing larger, he was shrinking. Now, in the warm bathwater, he’d be melting in Lizzie’s hands. He’d lose something with every bath—first his little arms would disappear, then his legs—he’d become a torso with a featureless head, a lozenge, with Lizzie wiping and wiping at him as he shrank away.
“Dahlia—” Lizzie called, “at least help me get him into his pj’s. He can start in bed with you, if you like. You can cuddle. I’ll take him back in a while, ‘cause he’s sure to get hungry.”
Dahlia shuddered, but her features relaxed. Her mouth closed. If Shawn Anderson wanted her baby for his commercial, why not? Now both of them knew what Robbie was. And Dahlia could assume the role for which she was best prepared—she’d represent her own child. If she rescued her baby from the tub now, while there was still something left of him, she could give him the most valuable thing she had to offer—a career.
“Wait,” she said. Her tightening chest forced the words from her mouth, “I’m coming.”
Gregory J. Wolos‘ fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in JMWW, Yemassee, Post Road, The Los Angeles Review, PANK, The Baltimore Review, A cappella Zoo, Superstition Review, Jersey Devil Press, and many other journals and anthologies, both online and print. His stories have earned two Pushcart Prize nominations and have won both the 2011 New South Writing Contest and the 2011 Gulf Stream Award for fiction. Two recent collections were named as finalists for the 2010 and 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. He lives and writes on the northern bank of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. For more information regarding publications and commendations visit: http://www.gregorywolos.com.