My wife’s mother has been with us for nearly a week. Our first few days home with our son were tough and we asked if she would fly in from the east. The request, we both agreed days before her arrival, was premature, erupting out of the seething stress following two nights in hospital after a birth everyone we knew said was the easiest they’d ever heard of. Still, it is our first child. We hadn’t slept, there was no food in the house, my wife was in pain, and somehow we had to take care of this new being we named Evan, who was much easier back when we played Miles Davis to him at night and watched Jule’s belly ripple with his movements. Now Nan is here and you can’t think for the talking.
Nan is one of those stout, brassy ladies everyone thinks is charming for her salty manner. Everyone who doesn’t have to share a seven hundred square foot apartment with her that is. My teeth are on edge as she dances Evan around the living room. Despite having left Southie as a girl, she retains the accent of a woman on a first name basis with Whitey Bulger. As in Whitey, I need a favor. I need you to whack my liberal son-in-law. She moves from the balcony into the living room, dipping my son toward me like a tiny dance partner as she breezes past.
“There’s Daddy,” she says. “Say hi to Daddy. Hi, Daddy!”
Evan’s head wobbles as she hoists him back over her shoulder. He’s sixteen days old. Nan goes to the hallway and turns so that he’s facing the framed picture collage of our trip to Joshua Tree, where we believe Evan was conceived on a clear, desert night under a blanket of stars. I catch Jule’s tired eyes through the kitchen’s pass-through window. We’ve agreed it is her job to keep her mother from stirring up the baby, who hasn’t slept all afternoon. So far this hasn’t worked. Jule is helplessly passive before her parents, another person almost. Evan moans and buries his bald head in Nan’s neck.
“You don’t like the pretty pictures? Okay then. Let’s try this.”
She launches into the chant I’ve heard so many times during her three days here it plays on repeat every time I shut my eyes.
“Trot trot to Bos-ton, trot trot to Lynn. Trot trot to Bos-ton, don’t fall in!”
My heart boils with the rage that’s been building since I picked her up at the airport. Irrational, yes, but rage nonetheless. Rage at being denied the chance to bond with my son at every turn. Rage at the wedge she drives between Jule and me whenever we see her and Jule’s father, Steve. Rage at the smug, rural conservatism that reduces Jule’s area of study, mass communication, to a single catchphrase. Blame the liberal media. I’m already rehearsing the wisdom I’ll one day dispense to Evan about not judging grandma and grandpa for their views. They’re small business owners, they mean well. Just right now she needs to hand over the fucking baby so I can put him in the co-sleeper she doesn’t approve of.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t you being a little uncharitable, Gabe? She came at your request after all. All grandmas dote on their grandkids, especially the first. Surely you’re grateful.
No, I’m not. Here’s why.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m unforgiving, to a fault perhaps. I’ve never thought about my in-laws the same ever since my father-in-law introduced the topic of immigration (he’s in the “Mexico will pay” camp) as if we were fellow travelers. This was their first visit back when Jule and I just started dating. I joked that he should toast all illegals the next time he enjoys citrus fruit in January. From then on Steve has tried to insert his views on any number of political topics whenever possible. Over Christmas at their place just before Evan’s arrival it was raising the minimum wage. Steve runs a computer store that provides desktop support for local businesses. He already resents having to contribute to his employees’ healthcare. But it wasn’t so much our sparring over my benign position that wages should increase with cost of living that got me as it was the dismissive eye roll accompanying his response that “someone’s going to have to pay for all this largesse, and that someone is the consumer.” This from a guy who has a lake home not fifteen miles from his house just because he wants someplace different to do yard work in the summer. God forbid he consider scaling back, living just a bit more humbly. That would be socialism. “Liberals want everyone to be the same,” he says. “That might work on college campuses, not so much in the real world.”
See, I work for the university where Jule is pursuing her doctorate. I went there for a creative writing degree a decade ago, got a job managing the bookstore, and never left. To Steve and, by extension, Nan—who marches lockstep with her husband everywhere but on social issues, where she pivots hard to the right—this is tantamount to sucking off the public teat. It’s not as if I work thirty-seven and a half hours a week or anything. I truly believe Steve and Nan think the university pays me to sit at home and dream up ideas for a bestselling novel, like thinly veiled character assassinations of my in-laws for instance. Never mind that my salary, not Jule’s graduate stipend, keeps our new family afloat. All they see is a subsidized apartment in a bucolic woodlot where intellectuals flit about doing what Steve and Nan hate most. Thinking. But let’s back up for a moment. I fear I’m not being entirely honest. There’s more to my frustration.
I consider myself a contemporary man. I consider myself a feminist. I use words like partner and spouse in front of our academic friends. I agreed with Jule that our son should have a hyphenated name to honor both parents. I’m also foam-at-the mouth horny, junior high horny. I wake at night humping the pillow with a raging hardon. And no, I don’t expect Jule to do anything about it. She’s recovering from an event even I with my acute imaginative powers can’t begin to comprehend. All I had to do was hold her hand and cut the cord. I’m not exactly hanging around sulking and waiting for a blowjob, which, true confession, I had been known to do in the past. Guilt tactics wouldn’t work these days anyway what with Nan in our faces at all hours except bedtime. And bedtime is Evan’s time, when, with the door securely shut, my wife bares both full breasts—at least a cup size larger since her third trimester—rubbing a nipple over our son’s droolly lips until he makes a tight latch. Milk dribbles down the other breast as he sucks away, Jule too tired to stop the leak with one of Evan’s spit-up cloths. My joke about latching on to the free one got old long ago. Jule was a gamesome lover up to her delivery date, when like a German train Evan arrived exactly at midnight. Since then, she has encouraged me to take time to relieve myself whenever the need strikes in order to keep my equilibrium. That was fine before Nan came. Where is this self-pleasure supposed to happen now? Sure I could rub one out in the shower, but what fun is that? Masturbation is for me a necessarily drawn out affair. As much as I enjoy a rich fantasy life created out of ferment of my own imagination, whacking off is most satisfying with an internet connection, when I can peruse the limitless permutations of perversions until I hit on just the right thing to finish to. But try as I might, I just can’t bring myself to fire up the laptop with Evan sleeping four feet away.
Which brings us back to the present moment. Despite Evan’s increasing fussiness, Nan wants to go for a walk. This notion comes to her as she turns him over to Jule literally kicking and screaming. Evan would be getting more sleep anyway if he had his own room, she says. Barring that, the best thing to do is wind him down in his stroller. Jule’s jaw tightens as she stalks out of the kitchen with him to join me on the sofa, stretching her legs over mine on the coffee table.
“Maybe we’ll run into those gals we saw holding hands last time. The ones with the mustaches.”
“Mom, you’re exaggerating. They didn’t have mustaches,” Jule says, as if hyperbole were Nan’s only error.
“Do they get their own restrooms here?”
“You mean women’s restrooms?” I offer.
Ignoring my attempt to goad her, Nan begins unpacking the stroller. She stuffs the diaper bag into the compartment below the seat. Evan turns his head, locks eyes with me, and howls, hot breath in my face. Jule rolls her eyes and mouth, “He needs a nap.”
“No shit,” I snap.
“You know the transsexuals booed the governor in Boston just because he won’t say whether or not he’ll sign their bathroom bill?” Nan struggles to locate the mechanism for unlocking the stroller’s rear wheels. “These people want everything. What about my rights to share a public restroom with women only?”
Jule winces. I sense she is about to reach her limit.
“Maybe a walk will do him some good,” I say.
Before Jule can give voice to the thought making her scowl at me, I go over to demonstrate to Nan the unlocking of the stroller. Then I prepare Evan for the ride, making sure to run an exploratory finger up one leg of his diaper to check for anything other than the more or less constant dampness before strapping him in. There will be no turning back now.
“I’d be more than happy to pick up around here while you and your mom patrol the grounds for homosexuals.”
“Don’t be such a smartass, Gabe,” Nan says with that kind of offhanded way that fools stupid people into thinking Donald Trump is guilty of nothing more than telling it like it is and not a dangerous, irresponsible bigot. Even I have to be on my guard. Next thing you know I’m chuckling away with everyone else, like Get a load of this kook. “I’m just voicing my opinion. Why is it that the politically correct people always want to stifle free speech?”
“You’re right, Nan. I shouldn’t be so quick to jump. Go on out there and tell everyone in graduate housing exactly how you feel. Just watch it around those ladies with the mustaches. They might not be as easygoing as me when it comes to your right to free speech.”
“I said don’t be such a smartass, Gabe. Come on, Jule, let’s give this boy some fresh air.” Soon I am alone. I figure on a good forty-five minutes for them to push Evan about the paths running through our community. Plenty of time to spend most of my precious solitude “relieving myself,” followed by a half-hour clean of the apartment I can accomplish in five minutes. Before long I’m down the porno rabbit hole.
Ever since Jule started showing, I’ve been drawn to pregnant women. No longer aroused by the run-of-the-mill babysitter or best friend’s mom scenario, I find myself searching out porn’s fertility goddesses, those of full belly and darkened areolae. Soon I enter that timeless space, clicking through screen after screen before finally settling on a sufficiently tasteless scene featuring a pair of women I’ve never seen before, a novelty for a smut addict like myself. A partridge chested matron bearing an uncanny resemblance to my mother-in-law sucks the milk from a young lady with breasts like artillery shells. Milk drips down her lower lip like I’ve seen on Evan, making for a parallel not so discomfiting that it stops me from pulling out my cock as I hunch before the laptop on the coffee table. But the thought of my son brings Nan’s chant back to mind. I stroke in time to its rhythm. Trot trot to Bos-ton, trot trot to Lynn. The matron jounces the girl’s titties with both hands and arches her neck as the young woman squeezes her nipples so that milk spurts out in manic jets. I’m hard as alabaster, brain at maximum dopamine, but I just can’t get the chant out of my mind, the confusion of fatherhood, the difficulty of reconciling all this lust with my new parental role. Trot trot to Bos-ton, don’t fall in!
Lost in tortured ecstasy, I don’t hear the door until Nan is halfway inside the entrance.
“Oh my God!” she says.
I reflexively shut the laptop, leaving me with nothing to shield myself as a single, sad drop of come from my aborted orgasm oozes out of me.
“Jesus Christ. What are you doing here?”
Nan remains frozen in the door.
“Oh my God!” she cries louder.
I turn away as I rise, pulling up my pants in one motion, though in no particular hurry. After all, she interrupted me.
“The pacifier,” Nan sputters. “Oh, God, and with a baby.”
I move to my side of the kitchen counter, where Evan’s binky lies on a paper napkin as it always does when not in his mouth. We shouldn’t even be using it this early, but one makes concessions in times of strain.
“He’s not pacified enough being rolled around in a stroller?”
Binky in hand, I go to Nan, who backs outside as if I’m pointing a loaded weapon. I hear Jule behind her now.
“Your mother needs to learn how to knock,” I call to her. “That’s what’s happening.”
“I didn’t think I needed to,” Nan says, straightening her back suddenly and puffing out her chest. So it’s down to a test of wills. “How was I to know you’d be… indulging yourself in here?”
“Relieving myself,” I say to Jule, who appears behind her mother, rocking Evan’s stroller back and forth. He doesn’t make a sound, his need for the binky obviously short lived. The little shit has managed to foil me once again. One day I will recount this story to him over strong drink. “Your mother caught me jacking off.”
Nan turns to Jule incredulously. My crotch feels wet and sticky as my dick turtles.
“He admits it. Wait until your father hears about this.”
“What does he have to do with it?” Jule asks. The calm in her voice leaves Nan dumbfounded, as if her daughter should be busy collecting her things and threatening divorce. Finally, I think. She’s standing her ground. “You could have knocked. But you could have locked the door, Gabe. I mean, come on.”
“Fuck that,” I say, emboldened, seeing this as the confrontation I’ve been preparing for for years, perhaps a lifetime. “And fuck conservatives. Who are you to judge?”
“Gabe,” Jule sighs as if dealing with the older of two children, “control yourself. Both of you, just control yourselves.”
Nan and I are both aghast, gaping as Jule wheels Evan away and calls to us behind her.
“You can come for a walk or stay here and slug it out without an audience. But I don’t want to hear a word from either of you when we get back. Evan and I need some peace and quiet.”
Thus it ends. As Nan follows Jule, I bring up the rear, slinking outside and locking the door before she has a chance to turn back. She’ll go nowhere without Jule I know. I’ll be damned if I leave them alone for the remainder of this visit. We will be like separate links in a knotted chain of love, a knot of resentment and frustration and misunderstanding and embarrassment. On top of being unforgiving, I admit I tend to overdramatize. That I’ve struck some kind of victory almost seems beside the point. Almost. But then what I like and loathe, my beliefs and opinions, are suddenly irrelevant, as much to my surprised delight Evan breathes out a note of content from beneath his stroller’s vinyl canopy and we all strike out to stroll the grounds together. Once more and as always we are family.