Blue tube, green tube, clear tube, fat tube. A Dr. Seuss rhyme. The tubes run from robotic Magi gathered around the incubator, snake through portholes in the clear plastic box, then burrow into the baby’s pinkish grey skin. One tube up her left nostril. One tube down her throat. One tube into an arm no wider than a Popsicle stick. One tube tunnels into her chest. The skin of her chest is so thin. The baby’s mother can almost see the tiny organs beneath, the way shrimp is visible under the rice paper of a spring roll. The baby doesn’t move. Doesn’t cry. To the mother, the baby, with its blue-black eyes, is an extraterrestrial crash-landed on her planet. Hidden away and kept alive by G-men while they assess what threat this tiny alien might pose.
“What kind of mother will you be?” Jacob asked. He and An sat side by side on a braided rug watching a flickering candle on An’s coffee table. An said, “I won’t be a mommy who bores people with the trials and tribulations of teething.” Jacob disagreed: “You’ll be like those TV-commercial moms who fret over whether to buy two-ply or three-ply toilet paper.” From the coffee table, An picked up a blue ceramic cup, the kind used for espresso, and handed it to Jacob. “Real traditional,” she said. “Real Norman Rockwell.” Jacob grinned and stood, stretching his long legs. While he was in the bathroom, An got up and dropped a jazz CD in her player. Then she went into her bedroom and lay on her bed. Before the first song ended, Jacob came out of the bathroom. “You were fast this time,” An said. Jacob replied that he’d been practising at home. He handed her the espresso cup and kissed her forehead. “I don’t love you,” he said. An replied, “I don’t love you, too.” After he’d let himself out of the apartment, An drew Jacob’s semen into a syringe. She hiked up her peasant skirt and slid off her underwear. Then she lay on her bed, two pillows propped beneath her rear. It was the first time with the pillows: gravity, she reasoned, would help.
Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Otherwise known as NICU. The doctors pronounce it NICK U, as if it were a university. “Our kid is studying at NICK U,” Jacob jokes with a nurse, who stares at him blankly. An thinks of NICK U as a baby hatchery, one that smells like the stuff dentists use to clean teeth. The incubators, a dozen aquariums, are not in neat rows, but here and there, the way progressive schoolteachers arrange desks. Ventilators hum, monitors flash, alarms sound, a baby makes a noise like a gobbling turkey. Meanwhile, neonatologists complete their rounds. Some spill a hot alphabet soup of acronyms–ROP, BPD, C-PAP–in An’s lap. Others say, with a hand on her shoulder, “We realize how stressful this must be.” To them all, An wants to yell: “Nick you!” Better yet: “Nick off and die!”
Four months into An’s pregnancy, Jacob moved into a top-floor apartment in her building. He called the place the pent-up suite because, according to An, the former tenants, a sulky husband and wife, were passiveaggressives. To exorcise the couple’s demons, Jacob wandered around his stacks of moving boxes spritzing a citrus deodorizer. “If marriage is an institution,” he said, “married people should be institutionalized.” An wondered if this was a veiled reminder: that she and Jacob were not a couple, that they weren’t bookends propping up Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare. Still, the move into her building had been Jacob’s idea. An concurred, though. Proximity without intimacy: it sounded good to her. She had no desire to actually live with Jacob or any other man. Men’s bathroom habits, the Q-tips caked with earwax they left on the sink, depressed her. In her foolish twenties, she’d shared a loft with a boyfriend whose puppy-dog good cheer had made her want to drive him out into the country and leave him there. “Maybe more marriages would last if couples didn’t live together,” she said to Jacob as he unpacked a food processor the size of a space probe. “Maybe couples should buy two semi-detacheds and each live on either side,” she added. Jacob laughed his nose-honking laugh. “That’s why you always strike out at love, An,” he said. “You’re so semi-detached.”
Between the twenty-third and twenty-fourth week of An’s pregnancy, the placenta began to separate from the uterine wall. Semi-detached, An thought, when the doctor told her. By this time, she was lying under a spotlight in the emergency ward of the Royal Victoria Hospital. Her contractions were a minute apart. A nurse, the one who’d injected her with antibiotics earlier, yelled out, “Cervix fully effaced!” The warm amniotic fluid trickled over An’s thighs, and the obstetrician soon announced, “She’s crowning,” as if An herself were Queen Victoria. Then came the huge, irresistible urge to push. When the neonatologist lifted her newborn daughter, An saw the tiny infant bat the air with one arm as if to clear everyone away, the doctors, the nurses–even her exhausted, terrified mother.
Though An hadn’t wanted a baby shower, Jacob gave her one anyway. The theme, fittingly, was showers. The weather co-operated by drizzling. First, they took in the stage musical Les parapluies de Cherbourg, co-starring An’s mother, Lise, who played an umbrellashop owner in Normandy who meddled in her daughter’s affair with a kind-hearted mechanic. The daughter got pregnant by the mechanic but ended up marrying a diamond importer she didn’t love but grew to respect. During the standing ovation, Jacob whispered, “Only the French can make a com?die musicale depressing.” Backstage, Lise pulled An into her dressing room and shut the door. Her stage makeup was as cracked as a Rembrandt. Lise sat at her vanity, pulled bobby pins from her souffl? of a wig and talked to An’s reflection about the play’s theme. “Not only passion and true love, but more subtle kinds of love and devotion and attachment.” She talked loudly, as if she were still onstage. “You want me to marry a diamond importer?” An joked. Lise tossed her wig at An. “What I’m saying is, I’m trying to understand.” An thanked her mother for making an effort–an effort that deflated when An opened the dressing-room door. In the hall, Jacob was talking to the mechanic, his hand on the actor’s thigh. “Watch out for that one,” Lise yelled to the mechanic. “He’ll ejaculate into anything.”
“What’s your baby’s name, honey?” the big woman asks. She has crinkly permed hair and fleshy upper arms. “Haven’t thought of one yet,” An mumbles. The woman sits beside An in the lounge outside NICK U. The chair creaks under her weight. Sheila delivered a twenty-nine-weeker. “We wanted to call our son Alek,” she explains, “but he was born all pink and mewing and tiny like a newborn kangaroo, so we named him Joey.” An has seen the sign taped to his incubator: hi, everyone, my name’s joey. Many of the incubators are personalized with signs. You can even stick stuffed animals through an incubator’s porthole the way you’d place a treasure chest at the bottom of a fish tank. An tells Sheila she’s afraid to name her baby, that naming her might be a jinx. An is surprised at herself: for saying such a thing (she’s not superstitious) and for revealing something to a stranger. It must be exhaustion, or too many peanut butter cups from the vending machine. Sheila grabs An’s hand and squeezes. “No, no, no,” she insists. “Naming your baby will encourage her to live.” Above Sheila’s head is a poster of a baker frosting a cake with the letter B. The pattycake, pattycake man. “What about B?” An says. “Bea!” Sheila squeals and then adds, “Short for Beatrice. Like Beatrix Potter–nothing bad ever happens in Beatrix Potter!”
An’s own name started as Anne Brouillette-Kappelhoff, the last name a coupling of her French-Canadian mother’s and her German father’s. When Anne was in high school, she often signed her papers Anne B-K to rein in her unwieldy name. By the time she hit university, she’d also sliced two letters off her first name. “A-N,” she’d spell. “Like the indefinite article.” It got people’s attention. Made them think her eccentric, and at twenty-one, looking fourteen, that’s what she wanted. While her friends dressed in black, she wore flowery Laura Ashley dresses, accented with green Doc Martens lace-up boots. In her creative writing class, she handed in “Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific,” a story about a crazed Avon lady who drowned a suburban housewife in a bubble bath. A boy in the class, who wore a spiked dog collar and an alligator polo shirt, liked the story very much. It was different, he said, from the “ethereal, lyrical, namby-pamby schlock” that the other girls handed in. The other girls began to hate this boy, whose name was Jacob.
Jacob sings “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to B because he says she’s so precocious. He waves to his four-day-old daughter through the plastic. She’s the length of his forearm and weighs 520 grams, about the weight of the two sweet potatoes An bought for supper last night. Every day B gains the weight of a penny. “She’s got your wrinkly forehead,” Jacob says to An, who sits in a moulded plastic chair next to the incubator, smoothing out the yellow robe all the parents wear and twiddling the plastic bracelet that reads mother 87308. Across from them, Sheila sits with her robe open and her blouse lifted. Joey, who’s now two months old, cuddles against her stomach, the skin-toskin contact that older preemies are allowed and that the nurses call “kangaroo care.” Sheila is humming “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” because Stevie Wonder was a preemie. Jacob wanders over. “What bushy eyebrows you’ve got, little Joe. You’re a dead ringer for Joseph Stalin.” Sheila replies, “Are you calling my kid a communist?” Soon she has Jacob sitting in her seat with his shirt unbuttoned and Joey pressed against his chest. “You’re no communist despot,” Jacob murmurs to the baby, who’s clad only in a diaper. “You’re a little turnip head. A wobbly Weeble.” Sheila tells Jacob that her husband holds Joey as comfortably as he would a purse. “But you, sir,” she says, “are a natural.” An listens to the two of them extol the virtues of kangarooing till she can take it no longer. She goes out the door of NICK U and into the elevator and down to the lobby and out the front door. A pregnant woman is waddling in. Little head, huge belly, like an upside-down question mark: À. A single sob jumps from An’s throat, and the woman throws her a startled look. An goes over to the bike rack in the hospital’s parking lot and sits on a purple ten-speed with a banana seat. It’s not hers, but it looks like the bike she had as a kid. It’s a spring day, sunny but chilly. She breathes slowly and deeply through her nose as in her yoga class. After a half-hour, she feels almost serene. She goes back up to NICK U, where father 87308 has become a thespian. “To B or not to B,” he drones to his daughter.
Excerpted from Bang Crunch by Neil Smith. Copyright © 2008 by Neil Smith. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.