journal | team | miscellany | home

Schrodinger’s Child

Tom Gartner

After Monica emailed me the photo of herself with my brother—nothing explicit, just a shot of them in his studio, his arm around her shoulders—after that, it was a week before I heard from either of them again. That gave me some time to persuade myself that I should be grateful to him, and that therefore my desire to kill him and leave his body in a dumpster was misplaced.

When he did call, it was on my landline, and I was home, so I was able to listen as he started to leave a message:

“Rob, it’s Steven. Listen, I’m sorry about that email, she shouldn’t have sent that.” The subject line had read Don’t bother breaking up with me. There hadn’t been any text, just the photo. “I know I should have—“

This was so unusual—Steven apologizing to me, even if it wasn’t for something he’d done himself—that I picked up the phone. I didn’t say anything, but his voice downshifted as he heard me come on the line. “I should have talked to you before we—before anything happened.”

He paused. Was I supposed to say, “No big deal?” Unlikely. Whatever else he is, Steven’s not stupid. What I said was—“Or possibly instead of anything happening?”

“You told me you were done with her, it was wrong, you couldn’t take all the drama. Remember?”

“I remember saying I was going to break up with her. I don’t remember saying, ‘Why don’t you be the one to tell her? Then maybe you can swoop in on the rebound.’”

“You knew I liked her. I assumed it was OK.”

“Convenient for you.”

“So things happened in the wrong order—you wanted it to be over, it’s over. If you’re having second thoughts, that’s not really my problem. Or hers.”

“The three certain things in life.” I’d said this before, more than once, but never to Steven himself. “Death, taxes, and you being a dick.”

He laughed that Eddie Haskell laugh of his—odd for a man in his forties. “So we’re good, then?”

I hung up.

A COUPLE OF WEEKS LATER, on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, my father called.

“We missed you at the holiday.”

“Well, it’s not the first time.” He still lived at Lupine Station, the ranch on the Lost Coast where Steven and I had grown up. I left when I was seventeen, after our mother’s death, and I stayed far away—San Francisco, Sedona, Boulder, Seattle, Salt Lake City, now San Francisco again–for most of the next two decades. Only in the last couple of years had things gotten better between us. We talked once or twice a month, and I visited the Lost Coast when I could; we’d even gone climbing together in the Sierra Nevada, though not very successfully.

“No, it’s not the first time,” he said. “But we’re past that now, right?”

“Right. Let’s just say it would have been a long drive to see some people I don’t want to see right now.”

“Meaning Steven and Monica.”

“You remember that she was my girlfriend before she was Steven’s girlfriend, right?” Rhetorical question, but only sort of— his memory was fine as far as facts went. It was emotional impacts that escaped him.

“Is girlfriend the right word when the woman’s married?” He didn’t wait for an answer on that one. “We didn’t really get into it, but I understand that you broke it off with her. So I’m not sure I see why you care.”

“I’m not saying I care.” Technically true—I wasn’t saying it– though I didn’t suppose my father was fooled. “But I still don’t want to hang out with them.”

 “Well, it’s another month until Christmas. We’ll talk again. Maybe you could

come on Christmas Eve, they could come on Christmas Day. Something like that.

Think about it.”

“Maybe,” I said, and then was sorry I’d given in even that much.

I HAD AN OFFICE JOB that year, for the first time in my life, but there was no time clock, so I got out from behind my desk when I could. I left early one Wednesday—not because there was nothing to do, but because I could do it better at home on my laptop. I’d just stepped out onto Mission Street— a sharp wind off the bay, rusty trucks, a homeless guy carrying a surfboard—when I felt a warm pressure on my side, smelled perfume over the street smell of exhaust and urine, heard a brittle echo of Joan Jett leaking from earbuds.

“You over it?” Typical Monica intro—straight for the jugular.

“Stupid question.”

“Right.” She leaned into me, her breast pressing against my ribs. “Me either.” Which was generous of her, I guessed, acknowledging that the breakup had been a disaster for both of us. But that was where our stories diverged. She no doubt thought she was the injured party, that I’d blindsided her by wanting out, and her hooking up with Steven had just been self-defense. I thought it had been temporary insanity on both our parts that we were together at all, and pure spite that had driven her to Steven

I laid my palm gently on her back, just like we were affectionate exes.

“But that’s not what this is about,” she said.

I slowed as we passed a crowded Peet’s—whatever was going to happen, best if it happened someplace neutral.

“Boring,” Monica said, and pulled me down the block to a donut store with a stuttering neon sign. She ordered a mocha and an eclair from a tiny Asian woman wearing a shower cap.

“I’ve been eating like a pig,” she said.

She’d always eaten like a pig. It never showed, outside of a fullness to the curve of her jaw and a ripple in her thighs. If anything she was sleeker now than she’d been in her twenties when we first met: less the tattooed rebel and more the smug suburbanite. Her hair, spiky then, now was like a dark liquid poured across her shoulders. We’d had a tumultuous two years together as twentysomethings before she literally left overnight. Fifteen years later, unhappily married and with a five-year-old son, she’d come back into my life. The complications hadn’t stopped us from fucking each other senseless for two months, but finally I’d bailed and she’d moved on to Steven. And here we were.

“You don’t get the point?” she said.

“You eat like a pig? There’s a point in that?”

“I’m pregnant.”

It took me a moment to find something to say. “Like your life wasn’t complicated enough already.”

“I know, right? But there it is. Reality. So inconvenient.”

“Exactly.”

“I know what you’re thinking.” She frowned at me, that predatory stare of hers that had launched so many of our fights.

“OK,” I said. “What am I thinking?”

“You’re wondering why I haven’t just gotten rid of it. Then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation neither one of us wants to have.”

 More or less accurate. “What’s the answer? Why didn’t you?”

“There was a time I would have, for sure. Like before I was married. When you and I were together the first time.”

“Right.” This was the Monica I thought I knew.

 “But it’s different now.” She paused, her clear blue irises gliding to the corners of her eyes. Her features shifted, then shifted again, and I could fell her riffling through her past selves, looking for the answer. “Having had a child now, it’s different. I know where we’re going, and it doesn’t scare me. I’m three and a half months in.”

I did the math. We’d broken up—and I reminded myself, I’d wanted that, just not the way it happened—in August.

 “We were pretty careful,” I said.

 “You mean you wanted to be careful. It didn’t actually happen.” She got up, went to the counter, came back with another éclair. “I’m just saying, there’s a possibility.”

“What does Steven say?”

“Nothing.” She ripped the éclair in half, pushed one piece toward me. “He’s neck-deep in denial.”

“And your husband?”

“Doesn’t think it could be his. And he’s probably right. We kind of stopped having sex.”

“OK.”

“He moved out. He got a place in Tahoe and brought his twenty-five-year-old girlfriend out from New York. Just about the time you and I broke up.”

“I guess we already knew he was a bastard.”

“Thank you.” A tilt of the head, a bitter little smile. “No great loss there. Only …”

 “Your son?”

“Exactly. Right now I have him most of the time. But it’s going to be a big fucking fight. For custody, for money. Not that my husband really wants Derek—the nanny does all the work. And not that he doesn’t have money. He just doesn’t want me to have any.”

I hadn’t wanted to get into it, but that was the thing about Monica. However much she hurt me, she was usually hurting worse. She could pretend she was happy to be out of the marriage—I wasn’t buying it.

 “So about the pregnancy,” I said. “There’s a test. Right?”

“Wrong. Not one that’s safe, not until the baby’s born.”

“And you’re just going to go ahead, not knowing?”

“Isn’t that how I do everything?” She shrugged. “What I’ve learned is that you can’t count on men. Sometimes they do the right thing, more often they don’t. So I have to be ready for that. But it’s not the baby’s fault if no one steps up.”

“You’re sure there aren’t any candidates besides Steven and me?”

“Absolutely.” She glared at me.

“So odds are it’s him, right?”

“Maybe. But I keep thinking about that time at Lupine Station.”

I made a noise, somewhere between a yes and a groan. We’d left my father drinking Irish whiskey and walked along the track toward the old lighthouse. When we came to one of the abandoned huts in the cliff-top meadow, we pulled each other in and made love. Not for the last time, quite, but for the last time before I decided I couldn’t be with her anymore.

“So are you asking me a question?” I said now. “Like, do I want it to be mine? Or what will I do if it is?”

“No.” She grabbed the éclair half I’d ignored. It was gone in two bites. “I’m not asking you anything. I know you don’t make decisions that fast. But you might want to get the process started.”

I FIGURED that since it was sort of a Schrodinger’s baby, one whose nature was a mystery until it was born, it was Steven’s by default, as he was the one currently fucking Monica. And if it was his, I didn’t need to do anything about it. That was my logic, though it maybe wasn’t as compelling as the fact that I just didn’t want to talk to either of them about it again.

Regardless, Steven called me on the Saturday morning after I’d talked to Monica. “I’m doing some work at the St. Francis Yacht Club this afternoon.” Steven’s a photographer. Wildlife and scenery, mostly, but he also does a fair business shooting expensive objects owned by rich people. Houses, cars, motorcycles, yachts. “That’s near your place, right?”

“Sort of.”

“Neutral ground?”

“OK, fine.”

We walked out along the narrow spit that separates the yacht harbor from the open bay. The wind from the Golden Gate pushed at our backs.

“So you had a talk with Monica,” he said. “Weird situation, huh?” As if we were two impartial spectators.

“You could say that.”

 “Amazing woman. Slightly high maintenance.”

“She is.” I still wondered how someone as difficult as Monica could get along with someone as self-centered as Steven, but I’d made up my mind not to care.

 “It almost feels good, the idea she might be having my kid.”

“Darwin in action,” I said. ”Let’s hope it’s yours, then.”

 “It’s not really what I had in mind,” Steven said. “You either, I assume.”

“True.”

“But it’s got to be yours.”

“No,” I said, surprised though only for a second. “I don’t see that.”

“She thinks it is.”

“She’s been known to think some crazy shit when it suited her. Anyway, if she thinks that, she didn’t say it to me.”

“The husband’s, then. What’s his name?”

“Thom Hansel. But she says no.”

 At the tip of the spit, grey-green waves surged onto a tiny beach. We clambered down a tumble of boulders to stand at the high-water mark. Out on the bay, three sailboats were skimming away from the yacht harbor, heeled over on their sides.

In each boat one person struggled with the tiller and a second leaned far out over the windward rail to keep them from capsizing.

“Better for everyone if she didn’t have it,” Steven said.

“Good luck convincing her of that. What will you do if it’s yours?”

“It’s not. It can’t be.”

I laughed, because it was so like Steven to be unshakably certain regardless of the facts. Somehow he never minded being proven wrong—there was always some loophole, some way he could claim it didn’t matter.

“Question is, what will I do if it’s yours?”

“And what’s the answer?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Probably I’m out if the kid is yours. No offense.” He raised an eyebrow, daring me to disapprove. “But I could be out even if it’s mine.”

“How would that work? Moving to Mexico?”

“Oh, there are ways.” He grinned with that eerie innocence of his, that willingness to confess his least admirable impulses. Some of it was a performance, surely, but some of it wasn’t. “Anyway, you’ll be there for her even if I’m not. Right?”

“Not right,” I said, and thought to myself, Who’s performing now?

IN THE END, my father won, sort of, and I went to Lupine Station on Christmas Day. The last few miles of the road are gravel; from a ridgetop at the edge of the watershed, you look down on the blue curve of the bay and the woods and meadows along Avila Creek. The ruins of the old sawmill straddle the creek near its mouth, with the main house just upstream. Across the driveway, the Carriage House—my mother’s obsession, the repository of her strange artistic legacy, the place she had killed herself–was almost hidden by a stand of ragged eucalyptus trees.

I braked to a stop there on the ridge, because Monica’s black 4×4 was parked by the main house, next to my father’s Land Rover.

Which was not the deal I’d made with him. Steven and Monica were supposed to have come on the evening of the 23rd and left by noon on Christmas. It was three o’clock now.

I drove down the hill, parked behind the Land Rover, and got out. The air had a cold salty bite to it, and a hint of menthol from the eucalyptus trees. As I was wrestling my bag out of the car, the front door of the house opened and my father came out. “Look, I know what we said—“

“Apparently it doesn’t matter what we said.”

“Something about picking up her kid. The husband changed days on her—“

“Whatever.” I shook his hand and turned toward the house: a scrupulously maintained relic from the 1880s, complete with a veranda, mullioned windows, gingerbread, and a widow’s walk. These days my father had to hire painters and carpenters, but for decades he’d done it all himself.

The living room was the same as ever—the overstuffed sofa and armchairs, the rolltop desk that had come around the Horn from Boston in 1890, the mounted head of a ten-point Roosevelt elk (shot outside the sawmill on Christmas Day, 1914), the bookcase that held my great-great-grandfather’s Greek and Roman classics and my mother’s books on art and mythology, the half-dozen paintings of the Lost Coast by various artists of the plein-air school, the luminous view of the Sierra Nevada by Bierstadt. My father was an artist himself, well thought of (and well paid) for his woodcut prints of West Coast scenes, but he didn’t hang his work on his own walls.

In one corner of the room stood a ten-foot Douglas fir, decorated with ornaments my mother had made thirty years ago—wooden reindeer, elves, and birds; stained glass stars and candles filtering the glow of fat colored light bulbs.

So all that was familiar.         

What was different: Monica, sitting in my father’s Morris chair next to the bookcase, one of the early Lupine Station photo albums on her lap. She’d always had, for me at least, the ability to light up a room with the startling chiaroscuro of her pale skin and lush dark hair. Now there was some added candlepower, a smile she seemed to be trying to repress, a glow of expectation and self-assurance, a look that said, I’m sitting here creating life and you’re not.

Steven, across from her on the couch, nodded to me. Neither of them looked like they’d even thought about leaving. Possibly my father, in one of his trademark insults of omission, hadn’t told them about the deal he’d made with me.

I hadn’t stopped anywhere for lunch, so he insisted on making a hamburger for me. While he cooked it, I sat at the kitchen table, making small talk with him, giving myself a chance to acclimate. Steven was fiddling with one of his cameras, Monica paging languidly through the photo album.

My father was drinking Irish whiskey, as usual for the time of day. I had a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale with my burger and grabbed another as I followed him back to the living room.

Monica held up the photo album as my father crossed in front of her. “Is this the oldest one?” she asked him.

 He didn’t even need to look. He pulled another album from the bookcase and handed it to her.

I knew what was in it—the original deed, dated 1875 and made out to Donald Fleming; photos of the land before and after logging, of the house much as it looked now, of Donald and his wife in their turn-of-the-century best, of ships anchored offshore; newspaper clippings from Fort Bragg, Mendocino, and Eureka about births, deaths, marriages, business transactions.

“This is your grandfather?” Monica asked.

“My great-grandfather. Born in Scotland, raised in Nova Scotia, came out here in 1875 and settled. Raised a family. They were dairymen, mostly. Sheepherders. Loggers.” My father added the last word with an apologetic shrug.

“Don’t forget the rum-runners,” Steven said.

“Well, that was later.”

“Is that why all the ships?” Monica looked from my father to Steven and back again, an oddly innocent look, as if she thought they might be making fun of her.

But they weren’t. My father loved telling the story, and I’d heard it so often, told in so many forms to so many people, that I couldn’t remember the first time. Now, with a drink or two aboard and at least one willing listener, he started at the start: how in the last years of the nineteenth century, schooners and steamboats would work up and down the coast, offloading finished goods and taking on lumber, milk, butter, cheese, and wool.

“There was never a harbor here, but it was a safe anchorage in good weather. They’d load from small boats, or with chutes from the top of the cliffs. It wasn’t until the 1920s that there was a railroad all the way from California to Oregon, and then a road. That’s when the trade started to die off.”

“And the smuggling started,” Steven said.

My father studied him for a moment, wondering, I thought, where Steven had gotten his taste for subtle mockery. But the smuggling was, after all, part of the story. “When Prohibition came, my grandfather—my mother’s father–didn’t see the sense of it. He was a drinker himself. And it was an opportunity. The big ships would lie outside the three-mile limit, and the schooners and launches and skiffs would bring the booze in. Then they’d use trucks to take it to the towns inland. He made a lot of money, but even so, with the Depression and the war, things went downhill.”

“This is where our sainted grandmother comes in.” Steven took another album down from the bookcase and flipped it open to the back.  I remembered the picture, one of the few we had of her: a broad-faced woman with rimless glasses, smiling as she leaned over a flower bed. She’d died when I was four, and my only memory of her was of someone sitting at the head of the dining table, handing plates of food around.

“She took over after the war,” my father said. “Her father was fading away from drink, and her husband—that’s my father—was overseas, and when he came back he just wandered in and out, never did much of anything.”

Monica looked up at Steven, and I wondered if she was pondering that strain in his ancestry.

“She was the hardest worker I’ve ever seen,” my father said. “Teetotaler. Churchgoer. But tough. Smart as a whip. Bought land in Mendocino cheap, sold it high. She’s the reason we still have the place.”

“For better or for worse,” Steven said.

“You think it’s not better? This place could have turned out like Shelter Cove.” This was my father’s idea of hell—a fishing village fifteen miles up the coast that had been developed into a vacation and retirement community, complete with airport and golf course.

“Exactly,” Steven said. “The people who owned that land are millionaires now.”

“Says the nature photographer.” My father smiled and shook his head. “But speaking of work…” He drained his glass of Jamesons and stood up. “I should try to do some.” He headed for the stairs. His footsteps were slow and heavy as he climbed.

“Just like old times,” Steven said. “I love getting him wound up like that. And we haven’t even gotten to art yet.”

“Please don’t,” Monica said. “I’ve been down that road. Haven’t I, Rob?”

The time she and I had visited when we were together, she’d had a minor tussle with my father because she thought he’d mocked her taste in modern sculpture. “That was just you being paranoid. It would have been fine.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But you can see why I’d rather stay off that subject.”

“Sure, I can see that.”

“Because he seems to actually like me now.”

“Does he? That’s good, I guess.”

“I know how you hate change, Rob.” She closed the photo album and hugged it to her chest. “But try to keep up.”

MY FATHER AND I did not have a big history of heart-to-heart talks, and I wasn’t sure I wanted that to change now. But after a third Sierra Nevada I went upstairs to unpack, then tapped on the door of his studio. He was leafing through one of his sketchbooks—drawings of the Alaska coast from a trip he’d taken years earlier.

“I’ve been slowing down.” He waved a hand at something. As far as I could tell the studio was the same orderly assembly line as ever, an array of tables and desks with the tools and supplies for the various stages of his work—the sketching and tracing, the carving of the blocks, the multi-layer printing, the framing. “I’m not going to be doing this forever.”

“Believe that when I see it.”

 “There are things I want to finish while I still can. Like this.” He tapped the sketchbook in his lap. “I’ve got most of Alaska in here. The Inside Passage, College Fiord, Denali, the Aleutians … Out of all these sketches, all I ever finished was three prints of Glacier Bay.”

“Well, it’s your time. Use it how you want.”

“Sure. The art is one thing. I’ll keep doing it as long as I can. If I have a legacy, that’s what it is.”

“You do. It is. That’s clear enough.”

“But it’s a business, too, a good one.” This with a shrug, like he was embarrassed to be saying it. I knew that when he started out he’d never thought it was going to go this way. “It can keep making money for the family for a long time. It just needs someone to run it. Marketing, distribution, shows, publishing. It’s time for me to start passing that on.”

 “Steven would be good at that.” I didn’t have to say that I wouldn’t; we both knew it.

“As a matter of fact we’ve been talking about it—him taking over the business end. And it makes sense. He’s made the most out of his own work.” There was a touch of condescension there, the implication that Steven’s business talent was greater than his artistic talent.

“The only thing is–if you trust him,” I said. “He might have a different idea of your legacy than you do.”

“I trust him with that part of things.” He put the sketchbook aside and leaned back. “But the property … I worry about what’s going to happen to Lupine Station.”

 “Like what it’ll say in the family album fifty years from now?”

“If there even is a family album. I’ve seen some bad things happen. The heirs fight, the property gets broken up, the lawyers are the only ones who win. Like the Stewarts—the daughter ended up getting a restraining order against her own brothers. Or the Frasers? Sold out to Georgia Pacific.” He shook his head in disgust. “I don’t want Lupine Station split up. I don’t want it sold.”

“I’m with you on that,” I said.

“Are you?” Not just a rhetorical question. He was studying me as if he really didn’t know. I realized that as much as my father was a puzzle to me, maybe the reverse was true too.

“Yes,” I said. “I don’t know about Steven. Or Monica.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t expect them to care.”

“Whether you should or not, I don’t think they do care.”

“The place where you grew up? That’s been in the family for four generations? When do you care about that if not when there’s a baby coming? I want the property to be here for the child. Is that such a strange sentiment?”

 “Not to me,” I said. “But don’t be too sure this won’t be one of those ugly endings.”

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I used to sneak out of the house late at night and wander around the property. Sometimes to the beach, where I’d build a fire and watch the waves form as negative space between lines of reflected starlight; sometimes to the bare hilltops to watch the deer and rabbits and foxes and coyote pick their way across the slopes. At the time I thought I was impressively stealthy to get in and out without being noticed; later I realized it was just that no one cared where I went. In reality there was no way to move silently in that house.

So that night around midnight, when I sensed the front door opening and closing—not a sound, really, just a slight shudder of my bedroom window—I guessed what it was. A few minutes later, one of the stained glass windows in the Carriage House lit up briefly, a flash of green and yellow.

I pulled on a jacket and went downstairs. Outside, the cold slid into my clothes as I crossed to the Carriage House. Built in the 1890s, originally it had indeed been a carriage house, the place where the Flemings kept their horse-drawn vehicles. Later it had been a garage, then a barn. By the time I was born it was more or less a ruin. My mother had spent the last decade of her life renovating it, turning it into a neoclassical showpiece, a sumptuously crafted evocation of ancient Greece—but one that would have seemed almost as eerily disjointed to an ancient Greek as it did to modern Californians.

The wide arched double doors, flanked by marble statues of Athena and Aphrodite, stood ajar. I pushed through the gap and then stopped. Monica, or at any rate a curvy silhouette, was shining a flashlight in my eyes.

“This is amazing, Rob. It’s beautiful. Why did you never show me?”

“How did you get in here?” I’d had the words in my mouth ever since I saw the light in the window, so evidently I had to say them.

“Um, with a key? Your father showed me where he keeps it.”

“Great. Good for you.”

 “And it’s incredible.” She shined the flashlight around the room—intricate black and white tile floor mirrored in the ceiling design, fluted columns with gilded capitals, recesses with murals of waves, islands, ships.  “But somehow me being here is a problem?”

I had an answer for that, or I thought I did. The Carriage House wasn’t just a place. It was where my mother had died, and it was all she had left us. For Monica to just waltz in and gush over it felt like she was trespassing. “Because it’s one more boundary you didn’t respect,” was as much of that as I could say.

She held up the key.

That silenced me, but it didn’t make me happier about her being there. So maybe that feeling was about more than just the place itself.

“If you need me to be a bitch so you can blame it on me that we didn’t stay together,” she said, “We can do that. You know I’m good in that role.”

“Did you have some other one in mind?” I asked

“I’ve always been good at breaking up. That’s easy. Seeing each other afterwards—that’s what’s hard.”

“You’ve got that right.”

 “It’s a shame you and Steven split up the good qualities between you,” she said. “Better if one of you had them all and the other one was completely worthless.”

“So like if Steven wasn’t an asshole?”

“Or you had a little more ambition.” She put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed—maybe to take the edge off her remark, but then again maybe to sharpen it.

“Steven might be good with money,” I said. “I don’t think he’s too ambitious to raise a family, though.”

“Maybe not. I don’t know what he’ll do if it’s his. If it’s yours, he’ll probably run, and you’ll have to think of something.”

“No doubt.”

She shined the flashlight on my face, then her own: bright arcs where the light caught her bone structure, her eyes hidden in dark pools. Then she flicked the light out, and we were in the dark. I thought I knew what she wanted me to do—her hand dropped from my shoulder to my hip—and I wanted it myself. I circled her upper arms with my hands and held her in place. The very first time we’d ever kissed came back to me—it had been in the dark too, mysterious and uncertain, but not complicated as this moment was with anger and guilt.

Five seconds, maybe ten; it’s not that I made a decision, but apparently there was a time limit on the offer. She let out a breath and pulled away.

“I’m going to look upstairs now.” She turned the flashlight back on and pointed it up the stairs. The carven gods and monsters on the railing jumped out of the dark. A pale blur bounced back at us from the mural on the upper landing—Aphrodite, a maimed Aphrodite, one of my mother’s last creations. “If that’s all right with you.”

It wasn’t, not really, but I just turned away.

WHENEVER I SAW MONICA over the next few months, she’d remark on how slowly the pregnancy was going, how she felt like a passenger on a train to an unknown destination that it seemed she might never reach. Right in line with expectations, mine and Steven’s both, she was a high-maintenance mother-to-be. She spent his money freely on whatever she needed or thought the baby might need. She dragged him to birthing classes. She complained about back pain, heartburn, constant peeing—fair enough—but also about missing alcohol, about having to wear ugly clothes, about the well-intentioned but stupid things people said.

Doctor visits were not negotiable. She had an ironclad schedule that got more and more intensive as she came closer to term, and Steven had to go with her even if it was just a visit to the lab to get blood drawn. When it was just once or twice a month he was OK with it—so he told me. When they hit seven months and there were extra visits because she’d started to show signs of preeclampsia, they started to fight about it. At eight months, when Steven went to New York for three days for an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, she called me in as substitute escort.

Not that I was required to do anything; just to be present while Monica talked and the doctor tapped away at a keyboard. A blood pressure cuff made a brief appearance, and a stethoscope, and then we were gone, with the doctor not having once spoken to me or looked in my direction.

“Is she like that with Steven?” I asked when we were in the elevator.

“No, she likes Steven. You’re the bad guy.”

“You told her that?”

“I told her I think it’s yours. She kind of made up the rest.”

“It’s not mine. You don’t know that.”

“We’ll see.” The elevator door opened, and the people standing outside moved to let us by. “But I’ll tell you this.” She put a hand on the back of my neck and squeezed. “If I didn’t think it was yours, I wouldn’t be having it.”

“That’s some seriously fucked-up reasoning,” I said.

“Who said it was reasoning? It just is.”

HER DUE DATE was April 17. I started hearing from her every few days, phone calls or emails with bits of information I didn’t need, complaints about Steven, little requests that were hard to refuse. The baby was a boy–she was thinking of naming him Daniel, after my father, or Michael, after her brother—what did I think? Her car needed the oil changed—did I know how to do that? She had a prescription waiting at the Walgreen’s on Divisadero—would I mind?

I could see it from her point of view, even if I thought she was wrong. She thought I was the father, or hoped I was. Naturally she wanted me involved. She wasn’t harsh about it, in fact she hardly seemed like the mercurial diva she’d so often been to me. That made it harder to say no to her, but it didn’t mean that I had to be happy about saying yes.

Steven, meanwhile, was getting the same treatment times three, and starting to rebel. We met up at the start of April—that is, he randomly showed up at my apartment one night.

“Not as bad as I thought,” he said when he was sitting at the kitchen pass-through with a beer, looking the place over. “From what Monica told me, I figured it would be a dump.”

“Probably she was talking about the place where we lived together. Different time, different apartment.”

“Hard to imagine cohabiting with Monica.” She was still in the house she and her husband owned in Sausalito. Steven spent a lot of time there, but he hadn’t given up his apartment on Twin Peaks. “I suppose she’ll insist, though.”

“Insistence is her middle name.”

He laughed, and I wondered if it was possible that only now, after eight months together, was he really encountering the sharp edge of Monica’s temperament. “Yeah, it’s impressive how stubborn she is. But then so am I.”

“Seems like you’re the one that’s giving ground. First time we talked about this, there was no way the baby was yours. The whole problem was going to go away.”

“Adapt or die, little brother. Things are going to change. I know it, you know it, even Dad knows it. Lupine Station is going to change, and not just in some imaginary future when the hundred-year-old monarch abdicates. If nothing else, Monica’s doing that. Don’t pretend you don’t have an interest.”

“I’ve never been much on strategic thinking,” I said. “But if you mean we’re going to clash over what happens to Lupine Station, and Monica and the baby are going to be part of it, then yeah. Of course we are.”

THE LAST PART probably didn’t seem fast to Monica, but it did to me. She went into labor on a Sunday, delivered a baby boy early Monday morning, and took him home Tuesday afternoon. Steven sent a mother-and-child photo to my phone, with the caption: Michael Fleming McLean-Tomkins. Nobody asked me to go to the hospital, and I didn’t volunteer. I visited them at the house in Sausalito Friday evening after work, and it was all just as expected—a baby like any other baby, Monica exhausted and disheveled, Steven half drunk and annoyed at having to take care of mother and child. I didn’t mention the question hanging over us all, and neither did they, except that as I left, Monica said to me “We’ll talk soon” with her most meaningful half-smile.

The summons came a week later, in the form of a three-word text. “Let’s talk. Sevenish.” When I got to the house, Steven wasn’t there. There were a hundred things that could have meant, but I could only think of one. On the far side of the living room was a bassinet on a wooden stand.

Monica kissed me on the cheek and put her arms around me, not so much a hug as a collision. She was wearing a loose blue dress, her arms and shoulders bare.If she wasn’t her usual self again–make-up perfect, shimmering with energy—still she wasn’t the wreck she’d been a week ago, and there was a calm elation that shone through the weariness. Her eyes kept drifting closed, but each time she opened them she’d look over in the direction of the baby and a smile would tug at her cheeks.

“He’s asleep,” she whispered.

She handed me a beer and poured a glass of water for herself, and we stood on the deck outside, looking over the treetops and roofs below us to the bay. Across the water in Tiburon, a dozen sparks of brilliant gold flared from a hilltop—the setting sun reflected in picture windows.

After a few minutes the baby woke, making some noise that I didn’t hear but Monica did. She took me by the hand and led me over to the bassinet. Like her, Michael looked much better than he had a week ago.

“Well,” she said “What do you think?”

“I’m told we McLeans are always cute as babies.” All cleaned up and rested after his fight to get into the world, he waved a tiny fist in the air. I bumped it with my thumb. He had dark hair, at least for now. His blue eyes, wide and unfocused, looked bottomless as geyser pools. “And damned if it’s not true.” I was sad for him, thinking of all the crosscurrents surrounding his birth, the uncertainties he’d face, but proud of him for making it this far and oddly confident that he’d handle it all. Whether it was the McLean contribution or—more likely—Monica’s beauty that I saw there, he really was kind of perfect.

 “We did good, huh?” She hugged me again, harder even than the first time, and between the heat of her body and the flaring adrenaline rush in my chest I floated back a year to the first time she cheated on her husband with me. Now as then it seemed perfectly reasonable; other people didn’t seem to matter.

She tilted her face up to mine and we kissed, not long or hard but softly, unsteadily, almost as if we’d never done it before.

Silence for a long moment.

“Unfortunately,” she said, and left the word hanging there.

“Unfortunately what?”

No answer.

“Monica, tell me what’s going on.”

“You know, it’s the same DNA– yours and Steven’s. What does it matter which one of you it came from?”

I stared at her. “Not exactly how it works.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So …”

 “Unfortunately Steven’s the father.”

“What the fuck was that, then?”

“I just wanted to see what it would feel like. You know, if we were together and it was our baby.” She turned sharply away. Back again, forced smile. “But no. Unfortunately he’s Steven’s. Do you want to see the paperwork?”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Monica.” I shook my head, wandered around the room in a circle. “And Steven knows?”

“Yes.” Long pause. Then: “He’s taking it better than I expected. It seems like even if you don’t really want to be a father, there’s kind of an ego boost when you see the actual item.”

“Sure, I get that. Understandable.”

“Jealous?”

I said then what I’d been planning all along to say if the baby was Steven’s, although now I wasn’t so sure: “Vicarious fatherhood is perfect for me.”

Her eyes held on mine for a moment, as if there was something she wanted to get across without words, or something she hoped I would say. But then she shrugged. “Your father’s pretty excited, I’m sure you know.”

“Haven’t talked to him.”

“He wants us to move up there. He has a whole plan worked out.”

That alternate reality, that I would be the one in our father’s plan, that everything from now on would be about Monica and the baby, had been hanging over me for six months. But it was only then, in the moment after it had dissolved, that I actually tasted the unique, frightening, intoxicating flavor of it.

“Sure,” I said. “He would have a plan.”

“Steven’s not too crazy about it.”

“And you?”

“Well, I’m a city girl.” She steered me back across the room, and we sat down on a huge black leather couch. “As you know. And my son—my other son—is down here. I’m not leaving him behind. But I could see us spending more time up there.”

“When did you become the girl who wants to please everyone?”

“I know Daniel and I got off on the wrong foot, but he’s been good to me.”

“After all, you’re propagating the dynasty,” I said. “He’d probably given up on that until you came along.”

“Probably. But is that a bad thing—propagating the dynasty?”

“Depends on whether you’re a Victoria or a Cleopatra, I guess.”

Historical references aren’t Monica’s thing, and I wasn’t even sure how apt this one was. But she got the point, and not surprisingly she didn’t like it. She turned away from me, looking over her shoulder toward the baby. Then, staring at me again, but this time with no suggestion of wanting something back from me: “Rob, you’re just going to have to get used to it. I’m part of this family now.”

“I get that,” I said softly, because I hadn’t wanted it to be true and yet I could see now that it was.

“More important—“ She grabbed me by the collar of my shirt, a move out of a gangster film but strangely soft-edged. “You still are, too.”

“Apparently.” I could understand what my father saw in her, a promise for the future, a way to tie Steven to Lupine Station, maybe even a matriarch like his own mother had been. And no doubt she had the strength and the force of will. But he didn’t know her like I did, and I wasn’t sure Steven and Monica’s future would align so neatly with his. It was a legacy—Lupine Station, my father’s art, my mother’s—that I thought I’d renounced, but evidently not, because I could still see myself fighting them for it if I had to. The Monica I knew when we were in our twenties, the girl with the torn jeans and turquoise hair, was of course long gone. But so too was the suburban wife I’d collided with, knocking both of us out of our uneasy orbits. What I didn’t know was who’d replaced her. “Apparently we both are.”

I stood up, pulling her to her feet as well, and led her across the room to take a picture of the three of us together. Probably, I thought, it was something my father would like to have.

▪ ▪ ▪

Tom Gartner’s fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals, including California Quarterly, The Madison Review, New Limestone Review, Levee, and Kestrel.  One story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in California, just north of the Golden Gate, and works as a buyer for an independent bookstore in San Francisco.

journal | team | miscellany | home