By Shannon Azzato Stephens
This is how it was supposed to go: Alphabet City would, contrary to all expectations, be good for the baby. They would wake when he woke, and they would tell him every story they knew so he would never feel alone. When he got older, he would make friends with panhandlers and leave a skateboard tipped against the wall in the hallway before washing his hands and coming to dinner.
It seems foolish to JC now, the idea that they could control how they would raise their child. JC cannot remember the last time he and his wife touched in their sleep, or when he went to bed in the dark and did not wake until daylight. The baby does not sleep between them but in a crib JC’s mother bought when she came to visit. The baby only sleeps after drinking from his mother’s breast, and when JC is with him, he is desperate for moments of relief. When he steps away, it is with a sense of great failure.
JC has taken to spending time at the corner bar after his wife and son have gone to sleep. He stays out longer than he knows he should, long after his friends have gone home. He usually ends up here around 4 a.m., standing in the cold and watching the glow of his son’s night light through their bedroom window, thinking that there is a safety up there which does not come from him. It makes him feel guilty for the private spaces he has gathered since their son was born: bottles hidden in a bucket underneath the kitchen sink, at the bottom of his toolbox where the hammer used to be, in the highest kitchen cupboard only he can reach.
In his building, he creeps up the stairs and takes a few tries to cram his key into the lock. He slips his boots off as soon as he’s inside, but they clunk against the wall and he’s not sure, at this point, which sounds are real and which are simply the fear of his son’s cries. If the baby wakes up, he thinks, I’ll get him back to sleep. Make him safe all on my own.
He braces himself against the wall to quell a wave of nausea. He always feels drunker just after he walks in the door. He slips into the bedroom, tipping against the doorframe for just a moment. His wife rolls onto her back, but he knows her sleeping face when he sees it.
In the crib in the corner, the baby, too, is still fast asleep. He is wearing a red striped onesie, the feet unsnapped so his toes can wiggle. The crib creaks when JC leans against it, but the baby still does not wake up. He leans into the crib and picks up his son. He tucks the baby’s peachy skull into the curve of his neck and rocks him—or is the room turning, all on its own?
Still, the baby sleeps.
JC sinks into the rocking chair in the corner. He leans back, back, and the chair touches the wall but he and the baby keep falling slowly into the darkness at the edge of the room. It is the dream he always hopes to avoid: His son grows into a weightless man who slips out of his arms and leaves his hands empty and he reaches out after this new man he has made but can’t seem to touch him no matter how far he—
It is the fear in his wife’s voice, not its volume, that wakes him.
She is snatching his son away from him. She has woken the baby, frightened the baby.
“He was sleeping,” JC says, lurching forward.
“You nearly dropped him.”
“No, no, he was sleeping, he needs me—”
“He was halfway down your lap by the time I got him.”
JC tries to get out of the chair, but with her free hand she pushes him down. She wraps her arms around the crying baby, so he can barely see his son and she slams the bedroom door behind her.