Introduction by Deesha Philyaw
Recently, I read online a patient response to the poor faith interpretation of toxic masculinity as a denouncement of men as a whole, as if they were all toxic by definition. The response noted that the use of “toxic” as a qualifier suggests that there exists a masculinity that is not toxic. Which begs the question, “What is masculinity?” Like gender, masculinity is socially constructed. It’s a set of social norms that dictate that men be tough, independent, strong, and stoic—code for “emotionally flat“ and “best to leave the effervescence and histrionics to the womenfolk,” unless of course someone challenges your manhood, or sports are involved.
So if we desire a brand of masculinity that isn’t toxic, we will need to reconstruct and redefine it in our economic, social, and political systems; our personal relationships; and in our art.
In “A New World,” a story from Kristen Gentry’s powerful collection Mama Said, I kept bracing myself for Parker, the point of view character, to display some toxic masculinity. Parker’s a stationary engineer at Louisville Gas & Electric, where he “runs the boilers that create the steam that turn the generators and bring light and warmth to people’s homes.” A place where he “can make things work.” Because things aren’t working in Parker’s personal life. His ex-wife, with whom he’s still deeply in love, is fresh out of rehab but struggling. His sixteen-year-old niece Zaria is pregnant and could deliver at any moment. Parker will likely be the one to take her to the hospital because her mother, Dee, is also in the clutches of addiction. JayLynn, Parker’s fifteen-year-old daughter and Zaria’s best friend, has a boyfriend, Michael, who has “marked her up” with hickeys on her neck. Parker has never met Michael, but has confirmation that he and JayLynn are having sex. Parker desperately wants to save JayLynn, and JayLynn desperately wants to save her mother. JayLynn’s plan for her mother’s salvation is disastrous. But if she’s determined to execute it, Parker can’t stop her.
Despite carrying the weight of several worlds on his shoulders, Parker’s brand of masculinity never disappoints. This may be the first time I’ve encountered a Black man in fiction stepping up when the women in his life have checked out. Further, Parker isn’t a Black man looking for praise or credit for doing the shit he’s supposed to do, to paraphrase a classic Chris Rock stand-up bit. Parker doesn’t want to be a hero. He just doesn’t want to be a coward.
In Gentry’s tender and intricate prose, Parker’s discomfort with JayLynn’s burgeoning sexuality never veers into patriarchal purity culture clichés. He doesn’t treat JayLynn as a possession or slut-shame her. Instead, he worries over both JayLynn and Zaria, as well as their mothers. He sees them all in their full, vulnerable humanity, girls and women who have lost so much and who stand to lose even more. He wants to protect them not because they are weak and he is strong, but rather, simply, because he loves them.
– Deesha Philyaw
Author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
You Can’t Raise a Daughter on Hope and Junk Food Alone
A New World by Kristen Gentry
Parker stares at his niece Zaria’s stomach, covered by a stretched-out white tank top. Her belly is a dingy full moon creeping on the horizon of the kitchen table. She carries a whole new person, a whole new world. Zaria, sixteen, sits with Parker’s daughter, JayLynn, who is fifteen and wears a new hickey on her neck. It’s smaller than the last one, which was actually two, neighboring islands that were fading by the time Parker saw them. The new one is the size and shape of a fingerprint. It glows red like the legs of the woman in the champagne glass on the sign for that strip joint on Seventh Street when you pass it at night. Parker can’t remember the club’s name. It’s next door to a liquor store that’s next to another strip joint. And there’s another one a little ways down. They go on and on down Seventh Street, heading away from Churchill Downs. The legs of the woman in the sign spill over the glass’s rim. One stretches out, kicking the dark.
The hickey demands Parker’s eyes when they’re not on Zaria’s belly or the sad dinner and dessert he packs in saved, doubled-up plastic bags from Kroger. He’s eager to streak out of the house and get to his job at Louisville Gas & Electric, someplace where he can make things work. He’s a stationary engineer and runs the boilers that create the steam that turn the generators and bring light and warmth to people’s homes. On his lunch break this evening, he will eat the canned beans and franks, the package of bright orange cheese crackers with pasty peanut butter, and a roll of lemon crème cookies while he jokes and complains about wives along with Jim and Terry like he’s still got one.
Claudia called him last month after seeing the first hickey(s), like it was his fault, asking him what the hell he was doing over there. Over there, like the house and life she’d lived with him was far, far away. He hates this and his understanding of that sense of distance from places and people once known, hates that his wedding ring is coupled with dropped pennies, a fallen button, and other junk stored in the top drawer of his nightstand for unlikely repairs and reuse. Once Claudia finished yelling, Parker told her he’d never let any boys come over and hadn’t seen any hickeys, but he figured JayLynn’s boyfriend was who had marked her up. He’s never met him, but he knows his name. Michael is always popping up in JayLynn’s conversations with Zaria. She swirls his name in pink and purple ink on notebook paper. Parker didn’t tell Claudia that as much as she sleeps, the boy could have walked right into her apartment. He and JayLynn could have snuggled up in her bed and watched a whole movie before they started kissing and Parker doesn’t want to know what else. Part of him itched to say this, but the much bigger part didn’t want to fight or hurt Claudia and suggested dinner as a solution. She’d come over, he’d cook, and they’d sit down together to eat and talk to JayLynn.
“She’s already having sex, Parker.” Claudia sighed. “I’m taking her to the doctor next week to put her on birth control.” After that, Parker said nothing he remembers, nothing coherent or helpful before Claudia hung up. He appeared as dumb and naive as she believes him to be, someone who couldn’t save anyone from anything.
The girls are talking about ways to induce labor. Zaria’s due date was July 17, nine days ago.
JayLynn runs her finger down a page of the library copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting spread open on the table. “We can take a walk,” she suggests before crunching into a slice of her frozen pizza.
Parker cracks ice from a tray and drops the cubes into his extra-large thermos. He doesn’t jump in to ask if the girls intend to take this walk soon or what they plan to do if their efforts are successful since he’s about to leave and there’s no telling what street Zaria’s mother, Dee, has lost herself on chasing today’s highs. Dee and Claudia, sisters, spend their days disappearing, each in their own spectacularly common ways. If Claudia is home from work when Zaria’s contractions begin, she will most likely be buried in her bed covers and won’t answer the phone. She might even have the ringer off. Parker doesn’t know much about the baby’s father, Travis, but from listening to the girls’ conversations, he’s learned that the boy has pretty hair that Zaria wants for the baby, but no car.
Zaria groans and slumps in her chair. “I’m tired and it’s hot. I just walked from the bus stop to get here. Does the book say anything about taking a nap to induce labor?”
“You know it doesn’t, but the way you snore could probably get him out of there. I’m surprised he hasn’t already pushed his way out. The last time you slept over I swear I wanted to punch you. Matter fact, I hit you on the arm and you still didn’t wake up.”
“Leave me alone, I’m pregnant.” Zaria rises to reach for the family-size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos she brought with her. Half of her arm is lost as she digs for a chip.
The girls’ hunger is relentless. They are always eating— fat dill pickles that smell up whole rooms, bags of barbecue Grippo’s potato chips, fish platters with lots of fried batter crunchies from Long John Silver’s (where Travis works), and frozen pizza. Parker is forever buying frozen pizza. Sometimes it seems he’s spent his whole life carting the flat red boxes from his truck to the house, as if Claudia and her fried pork chops and greens were only a vivid, delicious mirage. When he looks at the girls, he feels like he’s stepped into a carnival of mirrors. Claudia and Dee ghost on their daughters’ faces. They roam in their eyes and mouths, in the tiny moles marking their cheekbones. Crack has hollowed Dee, snatched her few meaty parts. If Parker didn’t know about the baby and how the world works, he could believe that Zaria’s rounder cheeks and chin, her swollen breasts, and all that belly are the stolen pieces of Dee. He can imagine Zaria picking up the trashed chunks and patting her mother onto herself like makeup, rubbing her in like lotion.
He is thankful JayLynn doesn’t have her mother’s body. Claudia in a pair of red shorts—the cocoa-butter sheen of her coffee skin stretched tight over the just right muscle- to-fat ratio of her thighs—led him out of his booth at Blue’s restaurant and away from his plate of the best fried chicken he’s ever eaten. JayLynn is skinny, a straight line with no brake-smashing bumps, but today it seems she’s doing her best to show what she’s got in lace-trimmed, blue-jean shorts so short he’s grateful for the strip of extra material the lace provides even though it reminds him of nighties and bedroom whispers. Her hair is pulled up in a bun on top of her head, as if she’s showcasing the hickey right along with the tiny gold-plated Nike earrings she begged him for last Christmas. He regrets buying them and supporting the company’s slogan to Just do it.
The Wednesday before last, JayLynn left her new birth control pills on the bathroom counter. Parker thought she’d be back the next day to get them, but every morning he’s been brushing his teeth glaring at the butter-colored plastic compact. He thought that when JayLynn came over yesterday afternoon that would be the end of that, but this morning he scrubbed his mouth into a slobbery white foam and spat staring at the compact. He imagined its pale yellow spread on nursery walls and crib bedding. He opened the compact to find the “THU” pill still nestled in its slot.
“It is Fri-day!” the DJ on the radio announces as Parker fills his thermos with tap water. Some of the cubes snap and split clear bolts of lightning on the inside when the water hits them. “TGIF am I right, y’all?” JayLynn’s boombox, perched on the kitchen counter, is always playing some song about sex or love or both, reminding Parker of all he’s lost. When the girls sing Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gonna Cry,” they begin quietly, but by the time they reach the song’s climax about no guarantees in love and not getting the part about being left, the words are rising from their guts, their eyes are shut tight, and they belt that song like women who have been married to lying sons-of-bitches for years and years. JayLynn can carry a tune, but Zaria has the worst voice Parker has ever heard. He thinks she must be tone deaf. It’s painful to hear her cracking love songs into pieces.
When the DJ fades into the music, Parker recognizes the intro of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads.” He’s no more relieved to hear this than whatever song would have the girls singing about shaking butts or broken hearts. When the synthesizer zigzags the intro, the girls don’t gasp and jump to turn up the volume. “Tha Crossroads” is the only video that plays when they watch The Box. Over and over, the Bone Thugs walk down streets with friends who vanish before their eyes, lost to another world. The song plays on B96.5 (the only radio station JayLynn and Zaria will listen to) at least once an hour, making every day funereal. The girls are getting over the hype, but they sing along. Even half-heartedly and without knowing most of the words, they get the haunting sentiment of loss and vulnerability just right.
Claudia moved out in November, two months after she left rehab. Clean of the Vicodin, she said to Parker, “This isn’t working,” and Parker thought it was just the depression talking. The words weren’t backed with the passion he thought someone would have if they were really planning to get a divorce. Yet, she got a job at the plasma center downtown, packed, left, and Parker thought it could be a good thing, that more physical space could help Claudia work out whatever was going on in her head. He now knows that was stupid. As if she actually needed to wrestle her demons, launch into a tornado of fists, elbows, and feet rumbling through room after room. As if she had a better chance of winning without him jumping in and helping her fight.
He stayed in the house, in the Shively suburbs, surrounded by homes decorated with leftover Halloween pumpkins whose carved smiles melted to rot. For Christmas, he bought a real tree like he always did, and he and JayLynn filled it with the ornaments he pulled from the basement. When he came home from work, he vacuumed the fallen needles and watched his neighbors’ candy-colored lights blinking out of synch in the cold black.
Claudia and JayLynn moved to an apartment in the Highlands, just off Bardstown Road with its stretch of cafés, bookstores, and vintage boutiques roamed by punk rock white boys who look like whips of black licorice, white girls with pink hair, black girls wearing blue lipstick. The shops sell “Keep Louisville Weird” bumper stickers to remind the outsiders and outcasts to stand proud and firm.
Claudia hired a divorce attorney in February and Parker followed suit. He signed the papers without a fight, as if he’d never loved her, because he loves her so much. He wants her to be happy, but when he asks JayLynn for updates, he finds that nothing’s getting better. He knows Claudia’s embarrassed about stealing pills from the hospital and regrets losing her nursing license. He likes to imagine she misses him.
When he came home from the grocery store yesterday to find JayLynn on the couch, she reported, “She’s still depressed,” in a bored monotone before he could even greet her or ask about Claudia. JayLynn used What to Expect When You’re Expecting, resting on her lap, as a makeshift table as she painted her fingernails in steady black stripes.
“Somebody drop you off?”
“I told you I don’t like you catching the bus. I could have picked you up. I was just out.” He walked to the kitchen, set the bags on the table, and began putting the frozen pizza, milk, and eggs into the refrigerator.
“I can ride the TARC, Daddy, it’s fine,” JayLynn called to him. “I’m not a baby. Plus, I told you I don’t want you coming to get me anymore because you can’t ever just honk the horn and wait. You always gotta knock and come in and peek around and knock again at Mama’s door and beg her to talk or get coffee, and it only makes things worse. Plus, asking her to get coffee is lame anyway because neither one of y’all drink it, and the whole thing is just sad.”
Parker left the rest of the groceries on the table and went back into the living room so JayLynn could see him when he said, “It’s not sad; it’s love. I love your mother,” but she was wiping a black smudge from her pinky with a neatly folded pad of toilet paper.
She spoke while looking down at her hands. “I know, but she don’t want all that. Plus, it ain’t helping her and you’re playing yourself, doing all this loving for somebody who ain’t trying to love you back.”
Parker has heard JayLynn throwing her two cents to Zaria about running back to Travis after he’s spent days ignoring her calls and pages. She says, “Wouldn’t be me. You a good one.” All this tough love disappears when they’re talking about Dee. “She’ll be back,” JayLynn says when Zaria tells her how many nights Dee has been gone. “It’s the drugs, it’s not her,” she said when Zaria told her Dee found the money Travis gave her to buy baby stuff. She forgives their mothers for all trespasses. When she visits Parker, she never stays longer than two nights before returning to the apartment to check on her mother. Parker is sure JayLynn likes Michael and wears all that greasy-looking, strawberry-scented lip gloss for him. She probably thinks she loves him, but she doesn’t love him enough to go running across town just to be there while he sleeps, not enough to do things she said she would never do.
The word “sex” from JayLynn’s mouth sends a tremor through Parker’s hand. Some of the water in the ice trays he’s refilled splashes onto the floor.
“Shit,” he curses so softly the girls don’t notice.
“It’s too hot to do it,” Zaria whines.
Parker sets the trays in the freezer and goes to grab a paper towel.
“Look, it’s summer, it’s hot, get over it. I’m sure they got air conditioning at Travis’s house. I don’t think you have to do it for that long,” JayLynn says.
“The book says you’re supposed to have an orgasm to get your muscles contracting and stuff and that would probably take a looong time. You know Travis be like . . .” Zaria rata-tat-tats on the table with her fist, and the girls burst into laughter. Parker winces at the knowing tinkling in the notes that float from JayLynn. “The doctor said the man’s thing doesn’t hit the baby’s head, but I don’t see how it doesn’t, especially now. The baby’s probably, like, right down there, all ready, and I don’t want him traumatized with Travis beating on his head, denting it all up. Plus, I ain’t even feeling Travis like that right now. I told you, Cindy said she saw him walking down Broadway with some light-skinned girl the other day.”
Parker wipes the floor and wonders when the idea of his daughter having sex won’t startle him so much, though he’s already grown more accustomed to it than he’d like. The girls’ conversations around him have gotten increasingly frank. With Zaria’s pregnancy and JayLynn’s birth control pills, he guesses they figure there’s nothing left to hide; they’ve laid their cards flat. Bluntness has risen in JayLynn like a fever.
Last night, she was curled on the couch with her knees nearly tucked under her chin, gazing at the TV in a blank way that made Parker’s stomach turn. When he asked her if something was wrong, she told him, “Cramps. I’m bleeding in clumps,” without taking her eyes off the TV.
“Jay,” he’d groaned before he could stop himself.
She laughed. “I know. It’s gross.”
He feels bad about that groan, the chastisement. He acted like a boy. He should have handled the situation better, been comforting like she was when she looked up at him, said, “I took some Pamprin. I’ll be alright,” and gave him a quick, close-mouthed smile before turning back to the TV. She drops this token of reassurance that she’s not her mother and only gets a normal kind of sad when he catches her contemplating things he can’t see in the tumble of boiling water as she prods a block of Ramen noodles with a fork or lying on her bed staring into a book. Claudia used to lock their bedroom door, and Parker had to open it with a bent bobby pin, but JayLynn always keeps her door wide open. He can walk right in. He knows he should be happy about this. She wants to talk the darkness away so it won’t catch them too. She wants to know that they’re okay, but they’re not, and he doesn’t know what to say about that.
Now, he drops the paper towel in the garbage and watches JayLynn’s black fingernails flash as they flip through the book’s pages. She’s the one who checked the book out from the library. She reminds Zaria to take her prenatal vitamins. She wouldn’t just forget to take her birth control pills, not with Zaria big and pregnant, the baby any minute away. The abandoned pills are another card face up, plans being announced.
The baby JayLynn’s trying to have is for Claudia. It’s a lastditch-effort baby, a poked-hole-in-the-condom-when-heleft-the-room baby, what Parker and his friends used to call a Jesus baby—a baby that will fix all the problems, save the world. This phrase was coined before any of them had kids, when they could laugh at somebody else who had gotten the wrong girl pregnant, when losing a woman didn’t turn them into piles of shards. Parker has only seen one successful Jesus baby.
When his friend Buggie’s girlfriend, Theresa, came up pregnant, everybody but Buggie knew what that was all about. They humored him when he bragged about his super sperm busting through the fortress built by years of birth control pills. Theresa was a decent girl, so nobody said anything. She was good for Buggie, too good for him really. No one knew why she’d want to stick around with him, but she gave him a son that straightened his wandering eye and made it see all her magic. They’re still married, both happily, it seems.
Sometimes Parker thinks if he could do it all again, he would flush Claudia’s pain pills down the toilet, get in her face and yell instead of convincing himself she knows what she’s doing. He wishes he hadn’t loved Claudia like a puppy, all pant and rollover. Sometimes when he can’t stand the open space in his bed and spreads himself wide to fill it, he feels all his regrets buzzing neon yellow.
But he keeps doing stupid shit. Keeps walking past those birth control pills and not saying anything. He could live with the discomfort of knowing he’s still the same coward, but he knows he’s worse than that.
He has imagined the child JayLynn could have. Claudia will blame him. Even if he doesn’t tell her about the pills on the sink (and he never will), she will make the baby his fault. He will deny, defend, and take all her insults like bullets. He will accept their lodge deep inside of his white meat. Claudia’s anger will fade like a headache when she sees the girl with JayLynn’s baby face—big, glossy eyes and dimples poked into cheeks.
JayLynn had a grown woman’s belly laugh at eight months. She would laugh so hard at Claudia peek-a-booing at her that she would sigh, slumping back sideways into her swing with a crooked grin on her face, catching her breath after the surprise of her mama returning to her world. Claudia loved this, couldn’t get enough of it. She would always call him to watch, and he never got tired of hearing her and JayLynn’s laughter jumbled up and spilling out.
Parker has dreamt about him and Claudia together as grandparents, showing JayLynn how to change a diaper, helping her bathe the baby in the sink. He’s seen Claudia rocking from side-to-side, gathering calm from the warm, milky smell of the baby’s crown. He’s given the baby JayLynn’s laugh. He’s heard Claudia calling to him, seen her playing peek-a-boo and laughing so hard she’s unable to steady herself for another disappearance.
“Come out, come out, little one!” JayLynn is bent down speaking into Zaria’s stomach. Her mouth nearly touches the small knob of Zaria’s belly button. “You’re gonna be so cute and fat and squishy, and I’m gonna eat you all up.”
Zaria puts two fingers to JayLynn’s forehead and pushes softly, slowly, nudging her backward. “That’s probably why he’s staying in there. Back up, weirdo.”
JayLynn turns back to her plate and takes another bite of pizza. “But he’s gonna be so cute!” she squeals through her mouthful.
“Alright, girls. I’m gone.” Parker grabs his lunch and thermos. “Call me if you need me.” He plants a kiss on each girl’s forehead. When JayLynn raises her head for him, he gets a closer look at that damn hickey.
“I just wish you were having a girl,” Parker hears her tell Zaria as he walks to the front door.
“I know. Me, too.”
“I’m having a girl.”
“You get what you get,” Zaria says.
“Well, I’m getting a girl.”
“I’m serious. You have to do it in the missionary position right after your period every day until four days before you ovulate and eat a lot of—”
Parker closes the door. He will talk to JayLynn as soon as Zaria leaves. He will figure out what to say.
JayLynn calls Parker at ten, an hour before his shift ends, to tell him Zaria’s having contractions, they called Dee, and now they’re at the hospital. He’s surprised that Dee was at home and more surprised to see her at the hospital when he arrives. She looks worse than he remembers. He saw her just a couple weeks ago when she dropped Zaria off, but her deterioration is like a stunning beauty that slaps like new every time. Even her hair—brushed into a stiff, dry ponytail—is skinny.
Dee cocks an eyebrow. “What you doing here? They said it’s okay for Jay to go to the delivery room when it’s time, though I don’t know why she wants to. Ain’t nothing pretty gonna happen in there.”
Parker doesn’t tell her he’s come to see how things play out because the baby already seems to be working miracles. “Support.” He shrugs. “I was up anyway. Just got off work.”
Dee smiles, showing her rotting teeth. “That’s real nice.”
Parker wants her to close her mouth. It’s hard to look at her.
“The doctor said she’s got a while to go. She’s still dilating and worrying my nerves, about to drive me crazy. Travis ain’t even up here. We been calling and calling. His mama said he ain’t home, and she don’t know where he is. Ain’t that something?”
Parker wags his head in a that’s-a-shame shake.
“Come on down here with me. I told this girl I was gonna get her a Popsicle.” Dee starts scooting down the hall and Parker walks beside her. “You’re a good man,” she says, smiling again. “Claudia’s stupid.”
After they reach the nurse’s station, Dee asks one of the three nurses for a Popsicle and turns to Parker. “She just did this because she hates me.”
For a second Parker thought Dee had answers about his marriage that he didn’t. He manages to climb out of that disappointment to offer her reassurance. “That’s not true,” he says.
“She thinks it’s gonna be easy. Like it’s a doll.”
“Naw.” Parker shakes his head and chuckles. “It ain’t easy.” “That’s what I try to tell her. She thinks I don’t know nothing. Nothing. All that kid stuff is out the window.”
The nurse returns with a Popsicle and hands it to Dee, who holds it out to Parker. “Give this to her. I need to go get something to eat. The chips from the vending machine ain’t cutting it.”
Parker doesn’t move. “I can pick you up something to eat.” He stares into her eyes and sees the itch crawling all over her.
“Naw, I got it. I’ma be back.”
“Dee . . .” He’s never spoken to her about the drugs before; it’s never been his business.
“I’m coming right back. She ain’t even ready yet.” She sets the Popsicle on the counter and turns to leave.
Parker grabs her wrist and speaks quietly, “Stay.” This word is a plea, and he hates the way it sounds, the way he always sounds—nice, understanding. But he doesn’t understand. Nothing makes sense. “You are killing yourself.” As he says the word “killing,” he feels the tight scrunch of his face, the rise of his top lip and nose. The face has to contort into a snarl, teeth have to be bared, to speak it clearly, to emphasize it. He needs her to get it. “Killing yourself,” he repeats, “and that shit’s not worth it.” His eyes are locked with hers, but she breaks the connection to flash squinted eyes down to his hand wrapped around her as if trying to make sure what she’s seeing is real.
“Nigga, you crazy? Get the fuck off me.”
“Get the fuck off me!” Dee’s raised voice gets the nurses’ attention.
“Is there a problem?” The redheaded nurse reluctantly rises from her chair. She looks young and afraid but prepared to handle the situation.
Embarrassed, Parker releases Dee. He watches as she stomps away in her beat-up shower shoes, cursing to herself, and disappears through the double doors. The nurse’s chair creaks as she sits back down.
JayLynn pokes her head out of Zaria’s room. When she sees Parker and no Dee, she looks confused and hurries down the hall. “What happened? Where’s Dee?” “She left,” Parker says.
“Just now?” Her eyes dart in the direction of the double doors.
“She’s not going to stay,” Parker says to keep her from bolting down the hall.
“What’d you say?”
“I asked her to stay.”
“But is that what you said? ‘Stay’? Was she just about to leave and that’s when you came?”
“I said she’s not going to stay. Let her go.”
“Don’t get mad. I’m just saying, you’re not the best person for persuading people.” She sighs. “You’re right, though. She was probably gonna go anyway. Zaria’s gonna be so hurt.”
“That baby wasn’t ever going to make her stay.”
“But you would think she’d be thinking about being there for Zaria and seeing her first grandbaby being born.”
“Dee needs help.”
JayLynn nods slowly and looks grave. “Yeah.”
“A baby’s not going to help your mama, either.”
JayLynn’s eyes flash to the nurses before she whispers, “Dee’s a crackhead. Mama’s not taking those pills anymore; she’s just depressed. It’s different.”
Parker’s not surprised that JayLynn doesn’t deny her plan, she’s hidden nothing, but he’s startled by her conviction that the plan is reasonable.
“Your mama’s an addict, just like Dee.” He hates admitting this, but knows he needs to speak the words for himself as much as for JayLynn. “Just because she went to rehab doesn’t mean her problems with drugs are all over. It’s not that simple. And depression is a serious illness. It’s more than being sad, Jay.”
JayLynn rolls her eyes. “I know that.”
“Well, act like you know the next time you want to jump in bed with your boyfriend without taking your birth control.” The words come out harsher than Parker intends, but he adds nothing soothing.
JayLynn swipes the Popsicle off the counter. “I gotta take this to Zaria.”
“Do you hear what I’m saying?” Parker asks.
“Yeah,” JayLynn mumbles and glares at the floor.
“Do you hear me?” Parker leans forward and bends down so her gaze falls on his eyes staring up at her.
She wipes the tear sliding down her cheek with the heel of her hand not holding the Popsicle. “Yes, god.” She rolls her eyes again. “This is melting.” She raises the Popsicle.
He feels the jarring smack of déjà vu as he watches her walk away.
Zaria snores loudly over the juicer infomercial playing at whisper volume on the TV mounted in the corner of the room. Parker watches JayLynn staring down at Malik in his hospital bassinet. Parker’s so tired, his eyes are burning like the room is full of smoke. He appreciates the way this helps to nearly blur JayLynn’s hickey into nonexistence, but he wants to go home and sleep. Before sleep, he wants a shower. He needs the clean slate, the fresh start. He wants to wash last night. All his hope has gone foul and embarrassing, like his breath.
He called Claudia last night.
He was relieved when Zaria turned down his offer to stay in the delivery room because it would be too weird, but he thought she should have somebody other than JayLynn, who wouldn’t be prepared for the shit, the blood, and all those other intimate and uncomfortable smells. More than this, he was lonely and missed Claudia, and it was dark and he wanted to follow the day’s opportunity to the end of its unraveling. The phone rang and rang. Claudia must have heard it. He told himself that was it, the last time, but watching the sun rise, dousing the city with light, made him itch. Every day spins a new world of possibility; that spool of thin thread seems to have no end. There is always another day, another hour, another minute when he thinks, Maybe now. Maybe today.
But right now, he sits in a new day stinking with yesterday, and JayLynn doesn’t want to leave while Zaria is asleep. He is tired of everything being his problem. He doesn’t want this for JayLynn even though she seems intent on this fate.
“Was I that little?” JayLynn looks at him.
“Smaller,” he answers. She already knows this. She was a preemie, born nearly a month early.
“Were you scared?”
He smiles as he remembers. “Terrified.”
“Oh yeah. You know how your mama worries.”
JayLynn’s mouth twitches in a quick frown before her attention returns to the bassinet.
The baby manages to find rest in Zaria’s noise until he doesn’t.
“I’ll get him,” JayLynn says when Malik starts mewing.
“Alright, now. Be careful.” Parker rises from his chair to stand beside her. “Hold his back and neck.”
JayLynn’s movements are stiff and slow as she takes Malik in her arms. The baby manages to work his fists out of his blanket’s loose swaddling. One wrist is wrapped in the mate to Zaria’s hospital bracelet. Parker thinks about this link— the thick, inescapable knot of mother and child. He thinks the sunrise must scream to JayLynn. Go! Go! Go! Now!
Now! Now! Save her! He imagines this is the call of every mirror when she only wants to brush her hair or wash her own face and sees her mother’s staring.
Parker warns, “No book can prepare you for this,” though this is weak, hardly a deterrent against a baby, and certainly not convincing proof against JayLynn’s undying faith in their magic. Learning how to hold a baby is easy, and JayLynn demonstrates this by gathering Malik securely in her arms and cradling him to her chest. When she softly kisses the top of Malik’s head through his thin beanie and breathes his warm, baby scent, Parker can see how much she already loves him and how so much of that love is tied to her wants and wishes. She can’t fathom him not being just as irresistible to Dee who hasn’t seen, smelled, or held him yet. To JayLynn, he is a bundle full of firsts and cuteness that could keep his grandmother amused, proud, home, happy, and Parker is grateful that he hasn’t stopped fussing.
“Hey, little man. It’s okay,” JayLynn whispers, but Malik’s whimpers turn to tiny, sputtering coughs. She bounces slowly, bending at the knees, and taps his back. “Hey, hey, hey,” she coos while Malik tries to shake his head from her palm. He finally finds the air he needs to grow his coughs into wails. JayLynn looks to Parker for help. This is another opportunity to teach a lesson. He will take every one he gets. He will not and does not step in to take the baby.
He only offers, “He’s probably hungry,” and he and JayLynn turn to Zaria, who doesn’t stir. Her breaths fall heavy and undisturbed.