Apr/May 2001  •   Fiction

Late Start

by Jennifer Hersh

Sophie was born eight weeks early; she fit in the doctor's hand. For eleven hours, the doctors weren't sure whether she'd live the night. Her lungs were underdeveloped and wet, and she had fitful, shaking bouts of what seemed like abject rage at having been born. I remember looking in at her in the incubator, tubes in and out and over. She looked like some raw thing, a skinned knee, a tiny lump of sunburn, a veal cutlet—a shame. I didn't feel sad; I felt resigned. I finally get what everyone else already has, I thought, and still it's not quite right. It just figures. Granted, I was stoned from the medications. I was concerned that I wasn't as concerned as I should have been. I know, though, that really I was—but I was protecting myself, keeping my distance, just in case. We took her home a month later, when she should still have been in my womb for four more weeks—kind of a strange way to slow time when you think of it. The first night she was home, she slept through the night and I thought she'd died; I was certain she'd stopped breathing. It turns out she was just a really good baby. So that was something.

I have days when I'm tired from the moment I wake up, and it just never lifts. So I spend my morning showering, dressing, vacuuming through the fog of drowsiness that won't shake itself out of my head. My husband, Eddie, is an insurance agent—Life, Home, and Automobile. He took over his father's agency three years ago, after the old man's second heart operation. We didn't decide to marry, Eddie and me, so much as we just melted together into some kind of couple-sculpture. We'd been together eight years, and neither of us really had plans. We said what the hell, you know, as if we were taking a test drive or trying a new ketchup. I was thirty-three when we married. Now I'm thirty-four, with an infant daughter who commands the energy of a twenty-four-year-old mother. She's stuck with me though, poor Sophie.

I've been home for nine months now. I left the agency six months into my pregnancy; Eddie said Karen and Dot could handle the claims ok, since deer season was over and not as many automobile claims were coming in. It's deer season again, though, and there's not a single part of me that wants to go back. Eventually, I'll miss it, I'm sure. Eventually, I'll go nuts from being in the house for so long. Sophie's a baby only once, and I want to do it right. For now, that's enough. The money's holding up ok, especially because Eddie and I don't eat out anymore—we used to eat dinners out three or four times a week, at least. But I'm home now, pretending at being the wifey, and it's just as easy to make a meatloaf as it is to take a shower and make yourself presentable enough to go to a restaurant. It's all in how you allocate your energy. Sometimes Eddie looks like he wonders if I intend to go back to work, but doesn't know how to ask. I think he's conflicted about the whole thing; he doesn't think it quite fair that I get to stay home all day while he has to work, but he's gotten used to dinner on the table at six every night and no cobwebs anywhere in the house. He knows he can't have it both ways. I think if I did go back to work, he'd resent me once the house started to get dingy and cluttered the way it does when no one has the time.

My own mother died before I knew her. In a way, it was a very good thing that she did. It meant I was never disappointed in her. I've never seen a photograph of my mother. My daddy didn't have any, and there was no one around to ask. He's not the kind of man you can mention things to. I've asked him a few times what she looked like. He just said she looked something like me, but he wouldn't explain. Meanwhile, I'd be dying to know exactly what that meant—were we nearly identical? Did we both have little baby noses, or lopsided brown eyes, or the same birthmark on the left thigh? Or were we both just females, and simply resembled each other to the extent that all females kind of do? I'm inclined to think it was the latter, since my daddy never was great with details—I'd rearrange the furniture or hang a new picture, and he'd never even notice. Once, I came home a platinum blonde, and he never said a word. Me, I've had formal portraits of myself taken every year since I was nineteen. Just in case.

Both Eddie and I are dark, brunettes since birth. Sophie has blonde hair, green eyes.  She's already a stubborn kid; if I feed her something unacceptable, she spits it right back in my face, laughs and laughs. The mean streak is something she's inherited from me. There are other parts of her personality, though, that come from some place I've never visited. Once, I cut my finger chopping off a slice of apple. Sophie leaned over and licked off the blood, so quickly I could do nothing but let her. I've yet to ask Eddie whether vampirism runs in his family line. Hell, for all I know, it could run in mine.

I see women in the mall and wonder whether I'm related to them. Usually, it's women who look like Sophie, pug-nosed, blonde, cheerful and direct. It had to come from somewhere. I need to believe it did, at least. It just doesn't make sense to me. It's like when you throw up and the vomit doesn't resemble anything you've recently eaten. I threw up once and it was black. Dark, like pooled blood. Was it my liver I'd just expelled? Was I going to die? Mysterious, and not in a good way. I get very nervous when everything doesn't just fall into place.

If it's sunny out, I'll take the baby to the park, sit with the other moms who are crawling the walls. Most of them look like they've fallen into a deep and unexpected hole, like they're not sure what they've gotten themselves into, or how. There's one mother in particular who strikes me. Her name is Maureen, and she has a thirteen-month-old named Scott. Maureen was a lawyer, a litigator, until she had Scott. She used to stand up in front of hushed groups of people and persuade them with just the right finesse. You can tell by the way she carries herself that she's used to people being a bit in awe of her. You can tell by the way she carries herself that she's stunned that no one, except maybe Scott, is awed anymore.

I slept with seventeen men before Eddie. He says that's a lot; I think it's about average. My theory is that average has more to do with where you live than what kind of person you are. Eddie grew up in the suburbs, where sex was kept locked away, like jewelry, taken out on special occasions. In the country, you learn sex early on from watching livestock fuck. Sex is more recreational in the country, like swimming, fishing, painting the porch. They always have ‘number' quizzes in those women's magazines: How High is Your Number? Should You Tell Him Your Number? What Does Your Number Reveal About You? Meaning, whether or not you're a slut.

The second boy I had sex with was Emmett Travis. I was fifteen and I started talking to him at some party—after about ten minutes he led me upstairs for the best ninety-second fuck he was sure I'd ever had. He lives on his father's farm now, and he has four kids. He honest to god married one of those women for sale from Thailand, the kind you order from a magazine and they come to you on a plane. Apparently, the American women he'd been with weren't docile enough. I know for sure that I wasn't docile enough for Emmett Travis. When I saw him the night after the party, I wasn't quite welcoming enough for him, so he shoved me onto the hood of his car and took what he wanted.

Eddie was the one that interviewed me for the insurance job in the first place. I'd circled the ad in the paper—it sounded like something I'd be competent at, customer service, filing, basic office stuff. I'd been in Abilene, Kansas for two months. I was twenty-four years old. I moved to Rome, Kansas from Louisville with my boyfriend, Jimmy. He'd accepted a job putting fans in airplane engines. Jimmy'd said over and over that he aimed to marry me, just as soon as we got up a little nest egg for ourselves. Mostly, he said it while he was holding me, kissing the tears off my face, after he'd smacked me against a wall for burning the steak or spilling coffee on the table. Jimmy got fired his second week, after getting caught taking steel out of the trash. He figured they were going to throw it away, anyhow, and he knew he could turn a profit by selling the steel scraps to a junkyard. The engine plant didn't quite see it that way.  That night, Jimmy damn near ripped my ear off. I'm lucky it's still attached, according to the doctors. For some reason, damage that visible seemed like the last straw, so I sent a neighbor for my things, and I never looked back. Abilene was under my finger when I consulted the map of the state, wondering where to go next.

What I remember most about the interview is how depressing the office was. Everything but everything was gray—the walls, the telephone, the paperwork, the coffee, even Eddie. He had on this gray pinstriped suit (I found out later that he owned three other suits exactly like it). He offered me some of his thick, gray coffee, which I accepted but did not drink. It was one of those interviews that's not an interview at all; he wasn't interested in a thing I had to say. He told me about his family, and the history of the business, and about how he'd wanted to be a historian but ended up his second year of college getting “sucked into the vortex of the family business” - that's an exact quote. When he was done, I felt like I ought to send him a bill for counseling services. What I gathered was that Eddie needed someone to do a little filing and a lot of listening. I'd been accustomed to being on the arm of some guy or another, and if this job would put me right back on someone's arm, and pay my rent besides, well, I was all for that. It was quite clear from the outset that my job description would be somewhat open-ended.

On the Friday of my first week, five o'clock came, and Eddie and I left together to grab some dinner. There had been no discussion about going to have dinner.  He'd never asked me out on a date or anything. It was just like we both plain and simply knew that we were supposed to go have dinner together. Even the other people in the office acted like this was the most normal thing in the world, Eddie leaving to have dinner with the new girl on a Friday night. No one stared or anything. I followed him to his car, and we went for steaks. The sex that night was, well, comforting. There was no lust, really, but it did last more than ninety seconds. All I can say is that, afterwards, I felt damn safe, with the top of my head just fitting right up in his armpit. Not long after, I stopped paying rent on my dingy efficiency apartment, and I started living in his gray-and-white two-story house on Oak Street. Ever since, no one has thrown me down any flights of stairs. No one has attempted to tear anything off my body that ought to belong on my body. The predictability does sometimes make me restless, but all I need to do is find a mirror and account for all my scars to know I'm better off. That calms me down no end.

Sometimes Sophie smiles for no reason at all. It always makes me wonder what she's thinking. I mean, when I smile out of the blue, there's usually some memory I'm conjuring up, something I'm reminded of. But Sophie, well, she's so new, she doesn't have any memories to bring back. I guess when you're a brand-new person, damn near everything is funny to you, because it's all so foreign. This huge weird world is a regular laugh riot to Sophie. She's so pretty when she smiles; her big green eyes sparkle and glow. She's the most beautiful thing I've ever made, that's for certain. I'm not good at much. My grades were always mediocre, and my fashion sense was always just a bit behind what was current. My Daddy never stuck any of my artwork up on the refrigerator, not that I really blame him for that. I can catch a decent fish from time to time, and I keep an ok house, as long as you're not looking to eat off the floor or anything. I make sure nothing's rotting in the fridge, and there aren't any fingerprints on the coffee table. Eddie's never complained in bed, so I guess I do ok there, too. I'd have a hard time telling what I'm best at, but I suspect it's being a mom. I look at her and I think, it took me a while, but this time, I did good.