When my water broke I called Harriet but got no answer, and mom said that daddy’s car was in the shop getting a new transmission, “…so honey just call a cab, and I’ll do the same and I’ll meet you at the hospital.” Where was Chet? I didn’t know which particular bar he was getting smashed in, and I didn’t care.
Labor the second time around was less painful, but I was still anxious, nearly terrified. How would I react when I saw my baby? Would he or she be like Roberta, or different? At least the delivery room looked familiar, not as scary as it was the first time, with those huge blinding lights. I kept my eyes closed as tight as I could the whole time. It was over before I knew it.
“It’s a boy!” Dr. Tamarkin said.
Well, he…YOU looked right at me, and I looked at you. The first thought that came into my head was, what’s next? What’s going to happen next?
What happened next was I’m dozing pleasantly and am jolted awake by Chester’s shouting. The door to the room was closed, but his slurring voice was unmistakable. It was him. “I wanna see my SON, goddamnit!” he shouted. “Where’s my SON? Huh?”
There’s more shouting out there, and banging around. “When you sober up, you’ll see your son, now get the hell out of here before we call the cops.”
That’s how you came into this world, Johnny. Drunken shouting, threats of violence.
The next day he shows up with a bunch of red roses. He’s wearing a white shirt and his suit jacket and his trousers are freshly pressed from the dry cleaner’s. He tells me ever so sincerely that he’s sorry, he really is, honest to God. He wishes that he wouldn’t have started celebrating so early the night before. He knows he should have been here, but one drink led to another and…well, I’m sorry.
Okay. He picks up his son…YOU, Johnny! And he coos and says, “Hey!”
A very convincing performance. Academy Award material.
Anyway, mom and dad came the next day to drive you and me to our little apartment in the projects, since Chet was supposedly at work. Earlier they had brought a lot of stuff, like groceries, little booties, a couple of baby sweaters, and even a new crib. They made such a big fuss, making sure everything was OK, then they said goodbye and left.
I sat down in the rocking chair, unbuttoned my blouse, and gave you titty. You were so hungry! It took a long time for you to get your fill, and then you fell asleep. I put you in the crib.
Exhausted, I got undressed and crawled into bed. It hadn’t been made up, of course. Chet wasn’t good at that sort of thing. I turned on my stomach and put my arms around the pillow. I felt something jab my arm. I sat up. It was a black hairpin. I found another.
My face burned. I didn’t use that kind of hairpin. They weren’t mine. I jumped out of bed, and pulled off the top sheet and blanket. Very pale yellowish stains. I knew what they were, all right.
Two weeks later Chet and Alex were drafted into the Army, and shipped out. The Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor, and a bloody war was going on. There weren’t any deferments, not even for married men with children. Everyone was needed, they said, and everyone was called. If he hadn’t gone I don’t know what in hell I would have done.
You should have seen him the day he and Alex left. He was so happy that he had the best excuse in the world to get away from all his responsibilities to me, and to you. He was going to serve his country as a soldier! Finally he was doing the RIGHT thing, and he strutted around with his eyes gleaming and his nostrils flared, so damned proud of himself. He could hardly wait to climb on that train. After boot camp, lucky Chester got the best overseas assignment in the entire U.S. Army. Clerk in the Schofield Barracks post office, on the lovely island of Oahu, in Hawaii. Alex became a teletype operator with the Signal Corps, going from one RAF base to another in England.
I lasted a year as a mother to you, Johnny.
You have to know I tried my very best. I took good care of you, breast fed you the whole time. But I was getting more and more depressed, and more and more frustrated and angry at your father, at everyone else, at the whole goddamned disgusting world. I was afraid of what I might do to you in that dangerous state of mind. Or maybe I was more afraid that like Roberta you’d suddenly die, and everyone would point their fingers and say it was my fault again, because I’m an unfit mother.
I couldn’t deal with it, Johnny. I had to get away.
I took you to your grandmother’s and told her I’d be back in just a couple of hours.
What I did was horribly wrong, Johnny. I’ll never forgive myself. And I don’t expect you to forgive me either. I don’t deserve it, never will.