The baby arrived on November 11, conceived Valentine’s Day nine months earlier. This is at least what Jason had assumed, since it was the night he and Lila reconciled their differences again. What he didn’t know, is that it may not have been that particular night but two weeks earlier when Lila had woken up after a “girls’ night out” with a hangover, and a stranger snoring in her bed. But Lila refused to acknowledge the chance that her on-and-off-again boyfriend was not the father, and pushed the one-night-stand so far out of the circumstances she’d almost convinced herself that it hadn’t taken place.
“Thor,” said Jason, only half-kidding.
“Get real,” said Lila, rolling her eyes to the ceiling.
“What?” he asked, flexing his tattooed arms. “It’s a popular name in Iceland.”
“We’re not naming the baby Thor, Jason. No way.”
The room fell silent, and the metal music from the suite below that was occupied by Doug seeped in through the floor boards. Jason tapped his foot to the beat until Lila’s expression told him to stop.
“Hey,” said Russ, entering the living room. Russ was Jason’s roommate and the bassist in their band. Doug was the drummer, and lived downstairs where he could practice without ruining everyone’s life. Russ stood in the door frame, jeans and t-shirt covered in dirt, with a construction hat in hand.
“What’s up,” said Jason, as a statement rather than a question. He eyed the beer in Russ’ hand and moistened his lips enviously. Drinking wasn’t allowed under Lila’s new rules, which were basically excluding him from anything she couldn’t do/taste/enjoy as well. He was basically relegated to giving foot rubs and making odd-hour trips to the store for more peanut butter, which she ate on crackers with sliced pickles every night before going to sleep. He knew it was best not to tell her how gassy this made her, not that she’d believe him.
Russ seated himself in front of the computer in the living room and told them about his new job. “I just got hired to work on the Olympic stadium, and now they have to do a background check on me. Make sure I’m not a criminal.”
“I thought you were a criminal?” asked Jason.
“I’m an axe murderer!” cried Russ, spinning in the chair and making air guitar noodling moves.
Lila awkwardly crossed her legs, and Jason knew it was a sign that she had to pee again, but he was too lazy to offer her any help. It was tiring being considerate all the time. Besides, he wanted to talk about the band.
“Did you tell Dave about practice on Friday?”
Russ shrugged, and sat down in front of the computer in the corner of the room, beside the TV. “Dave’s awol.”
“Why do you guys bother?” Lila asked, heaving herself belly first off the couch. Jason frowned, unsure if she was talking about Dave, or the band. He watched her pad out of the room and sulked silently. Russ said nothing, and didn’t turn away from the computer but Jason knew what he thought. Russ was afraid that the kid was going to change everything. And he wasn’t the only one.
Later that night Jason stared, wide-eyed and unblinking, at the shadowed bump beside him. Lila snored quietly, and he imagined she was dreaming about being a mom. His guilt over a consuming fear of fatherhood bubbled in his chest like heartburn.
He watched the bump, and it slowly rose, and fell. Rose. And fell. Are you a girl or a boy?
Lila wanted a girl, hoping to name her after a sister she lost as a child. When she was eight, Lila’s older sister Carlie was found on the gravel shoulder of a winding road three blocks from their home. After the accident, her father moved to the suburbs and started dating the receptionist at his used car lot. He and Lila rarely spoke. Her mother remarried, to a grocery store supervisor and the singer in a cover band. Lila’s mom made Jason nervous, she was a bit of a loose cannon, always flopping around in hip hugging jeans and halter tops. She’d transformed from a quiet court stenographer to take up cashier duties at Hank’s grocery store and dancing at the front of the stage during his shows on the weekend. To Jason, she was a case study in post-traumatic stress, one enabled by Lila’s egomaniacal stepfather who liked to pretend everything was fine at all times.
Thoughts of Lila’s family brought Jason a brief sense of calm. Compared to them, he had his shit together. But fatherhood? He couldn’t imagine being responsible for a human life, especially a small and helpless human life. He couldn’t even flip an egg without breaking it.
Lila flailed in the bed suddenly, responding to the baby’s kicks. “Jason?”
Jason kept his eyes closed, hoping she’d go back to sleep.
He grunted. “What?”
“I have to pee. Help me up.”
Again? Are you sure Lil, because sometimes you say you think you have to pee but nothing comes out. Maybe it’s a phantom pee?”
She smacked his chest. “Yes, you’re right. I should just go back to sleep and we’ll just see if I piss the bed.”
“Alright, Lila, shhhh… you don’t have to yell. There you go.”
Lila fought gravity, slapping his hand away and getting into sitting position. It was very indicative of their relationship, he thought. She only needed him in theory.
The following Thursday evening, the band mates met up to drink beer at Shady’s, a dive on the East Side, and sat at a round table on a patio so that Doug could smoke.
“Isn’t your kid due any second?” the drummer asked.
Before Jason could respond his cell phone rang. Lila was on the other end, huffing and puffing. “Get your ass down to the hospital!” she screamed so loud he jerked the phone away from his head.
Russ raised his eyebrows and Doug ogled him from across the table.
Jason hung up and looked at them sheepishly. “Guess I better go.”
“Go, run man!” said Russ.
“Go! Go! Go! Go!” the Doug cheered, as the two band mates pumping their half-full pints of beer in the air, slopping droplets of booze onto the table unnoticed. Other patrons on the patio glanced in their direction curiously. Inspired, Russ scribbled lyrics on a napkin for a song.
Day one dad/ Does whatever a day one dad can/ Knees quaking in fear/
The kid is here/ The world looks like trouble with only one beer
Jason hailed a cab on Hastings, panic gripping him so tightly his clothes slipped against the condensation of nerves. He called every number in his cell phone to share the news even though he wouldn’t remember placing a single one of them afterwards.
“Your first?” asked the cab driver.
“How can you tell?” asked Jason, sarcastically.
“Your phone calls, my friend,” said the cabbie, offering a literal translation. “You are very excited, and I can see you are sweating. Much sweating!” He broke out into a loud, choking laugh and Jason laughed along nervously, patting his forehead.
“Do you have kids?”
The cabbie nodded. “I too was scared like you, oh-ho-ho-yes.”
When silence filled the cab again Jason leaned forward expectantly. “And then?”
The cab driver caught his eye in the rearview mirror and smiled broadly, with pride. “Even the fear will be worth it, my friend.”
“Worth what?” asked Jason, wondering what he was doing, and in need of tangible answers.
“The choice you make to love your child,” replied the cab driver. Jason watched the hospital rise up over the top of the hill, and as they drove towards it he mentally geared himself up the way he did before a gig. It was time to Rock n’ Roll.
Jason burst through the door to where Lila lay, groaning in bed with her legs splayed. He turned away immediately chickening out. The cold, hard slap of reality embraced him in the glow of the florescent lights with his laboring girlfriend, whose head was poking up behind her massive belly, hair plastered to her head, cheeks flushed and eyes flaring.
“You!” she yelled. “Where were you? I had to take myself to the hospital you asshole,” When he tried to reply and step closer, she kept shouting. Lila’s patience with her boyfriend snapped. “I don’t want to hear it Jason! I don’t need you here anyway. Go back to your band. You’re probably not even the father anyway.”
The nurse in the room let out a strangled gasp and tried to shush Lila, while Jason just stood frozen in the middle of the room, looking as if he’d fallen out of a tornado. “What did you just say?” he asked.
“I slept with someone else two weeks before we got back together,” Lila wheezed.
The nurse busied herself with preparation, head bent over the items in her hands.
“You’re telling me this now?” Jason asked, feelings congealing together in what felt like a cement mixer in his stomach.
“He was black,” she said, head back against the pillow, eyes closed.
The statement confused him to such a degree that he could barely see straight. But before he could say anything, Lila continued, unable to keep her secret bottled in any longer. “It doesn’t make a difference! You obviously don’t care about this baby. You’d rather be drinking with the guys than here with me.”
“But I am here with you,” said Jason, carefully. This was a bad choice of response and Lila yelled at him to leave. The nurse kindly interjected to suggest that he wait in the foyer.
Jason slumped from the room like an abandoned dog but instead of stopping in the foyer he continued back outside and hailed a cab in front of the building. Back inside Shady’s, Russ and Doug had only managed to move closer to the floor. The stray-haired leather clad rockers raised their pints when he walked in.
“It’s First Day Dad!” cried Russ.
“Where are the cigars?” said Doug, slumped at the table, his weak alcohol tolerance showing itself in his half-mast eyes.
“Something’s wrong,” said Russ, observing the expression on his friend’s face. “You were gone 20 minutes. False alarm?”
Jason pulled out a bar stool and sat down. It wobbled under him as told them the bombshell. “I may not be the father.”
“Nooo waaay,” said Russ, leaning back as though dodging a punch.
“What a whore!” Doug cried, but Russ shot him a look and so he muttered into his now empty beer glass, “horrible news.”
“Who’s the guy?” asked Russ, stroking the stubble on his chin.
Jason shrugged. “Some black guy.”
Doug burst into laughter. “Did she think you wouldn’t notice?”
“Maybe no one will be able to tell,” Doug offered.
Jason and Russ ignored him. “What are you going to do?” asked Russ.
Jason shook his head staring at his beer as though studying for an exam. When he stood up the stool skidded noisily against the floor. “I’m going back.”
Russ raised his eyebrows, looking dubious. “You sure you don’t want to think this through a bit more, buddy?”
Jason nodded, and patted his friend on the shoulder. There was a clarity to the day came as an epiphany. He could stay there, drinking the same beer, with the same buddies, writing the same songs, for the same weekly gigs, or he could try something new. He’d been consumed by the fear of fatherhood, but now that it had turned into an opaque reality he realized the fear was only a small piece of all his feelings. He was also excited, proud, in love, and happy. Somewhere along that nine month timeline he’d already become a dad.
“Good luck,” Russ called, but Jason was already out the door.
Back at the hospital, chaos was breaking loose. “Where is Jason?” cried Lila’s mother, who’d muscled her way into the delivery room shouting about a “mother’s rights.” She was wearing jeans that were strategically ripped and shaking bottle blonde head at her daughter, in exasperation.
“I’m not talking about this right now,” growled Lila, through clenched teeth. The doctor looked up from his position in front of her and pulled off his rubber gloves with a snap! Snap!
“You might as well talk about it,” he told her. “You’re only six centimeters dilated.”
“Thank-you so much,’ she replied, folding her arms over her belly.
Moments after he’d left the room, Hank and Lila’s father toppled in through the doorway, grappling each other awkwardly. Both men stopped wrestling at the sight of Lila and glanced quickly at the floor and the ceiling.
“Sorry,” muttered Hank, repositioning his baseball cap. “I didn’t think you’d want to see him right now.”
Lila blew the hair out of her eyes and gave her stepfather a grateful look. She turned to her shorter, pudgier father. “Dad, what are you doing here?”
“I got Jason’s phone message and he was worried.”
“I can’t believe he told you.”
“I have a right to know!” said her father, indignantly, pushing stray hair to the side of his face with the palm of his hand.
“It’s none of your business who the father is,” cried Lila, frustrated.
As if on cue, Jason appeared.
“What the hell? You’re not the father?” Hank asked him angrily, as though chastising Jason for not impregnating Lila. Jason held his hands up in the air.
“Lila,” said her mother in a stern tone. “Who is the father of this baby?”
“Maybe a bartender,” said Lila, breathing through her teeth and clutching the bed railing.
“He’s black,” said Jason, pointedly.
Lila’s mother’s eyes bulged, while Hank made fists with both hands and Lila’s father dropped his head back to stare at the ceiling. Lila began to sob, and her mother rushed to her daughter’s side, wiping the hair from her eyes. “It doesn’t matter darling, I’m so excited to be a grandma! It can come out Chinese for all I care!”
“Well, now wait a minute,” said Lila’s father. “We’re going to care if it comes out Chinese.”
“That’s very racist, Bob,” said Hank, slowly shaking his head in condescension.
“Honestly, Bob,” said Lila’s mother. “No one invited you, I don’t know why you’re here.”
Lila’s father paced by the door. “Well, I didn’t mean it like that. Is anyone taking into account Jason’s feelings here? If you ask me, Lila’s being a lot like you. Selfish.”
Lila’s mother turned to her ex-husband furiously. “You know I did my best,” said her mother, eyes welling up with tears. “I had to do what was necessary.”
“So you stepped away from your family?” he asked her. “Very big of you, Diane.”
“Now wait a minute,” said Hank, stepping between the two of them. “What are we talking about here?”
“Stop it!” yelled Lila. “Everyone stop it right now!”
By the looks on their faces it was clear they’d all forgotten she was even in the room. “I can’t believe you’re still fighting about her death!”
“Honey, we’re not -” Lila’s mother was cut off.
“Yes, you are!” said Lila, rubbing her belly. “It shouldn’t matter anymore!” Lila covered her face in her hands.
Jason had been standing to the side, letting the conversation play out, but now he stepped forward, in protective mode. “Alright everybody,” he said loudly, clapping his hands with brisk purpose. “We’re trying to bring a child into the world here so turn those frowns upside down, right now, or leave immediately.”
Lila’s mother, father and Hank quieted down nodding in agreement. Lila focused on breathing as Hank stepped out to return with the nurse who told them a doctor would be on the way. Before leaving, the nurse glanced at the group who were quietly bickering about where to stand and asked Lila, “Are you comfortable with everyone here?”
“Hell no!” Lila cried. “Get them all out.”
“And the, possible father of the baby?” asked the nurse delicately.
“He can do what he wants,” she gasped. Jason reached towards her and clasped her hand in his. She squeezed it, and glanced at him gratefully.
“I want to be here,” said Jason.
“Thank-you for coming back.”
The doctor entered the room again he took his position. After a moment he looked up at the expectant couple. “Yep, the baby’s ready to say hello.”
It was a remarkable introduction. That night, as they watched their daughter sleep in her mother’s arms, Lila and Jason named her Carlie Thora, and watched proudly as she breathed, and wiggled, and cried.