by Arty Owens
Every now and then people make the mistake of asking me when I’m going to settle down. You know, pop out a few kids.
This is what I tell them.
When I was younger, all my friends wanted a baby. That’s all they would talk about. How many they would have, what they would call the little squirts and how they would dress them.
‘I’ll give mine ballet lessons, so I can dress her in a tutu,’ Stacy would say. She was the first to get one. My friends gathered around it — singing the jingle from TV, Baby Born, Baby Born — like it was the Messiah gracing us with its presence at playlunch. Jasmine, it was called.
One birthday after another, a baby was paraded around the classrooms. Little George, little Samantha, little Charlotte … and then it was my turn.
I didn’t want a baby. I wanted the Hot Wheels car that did the loop-de-loop. The girls wouldn’t think that was normal. Girls have babies. That was the math. On one level, I didn’t want to be an incorrect equation. At the time I didn’t know I wasn’t a girl. Frankly, I didn’t know I could be me. On another, more burning level I just wanted a delicious taste of making my friends jealous.
The girls in my class wouldn’t fawn over my shiny, new plastic car the way they would fawn over my fake child. Mum said that all women eventually succumb to their natural urges and that someday I would know what she was talking about. My response had always been a resilient ‘nah’. So when I asked for a Baby Born, Mum was pleased that I, an ageing seven year old, had finally accepted my womanly purpose.
I got the one that peed. Nobody else’s peed. Every time I shoved the bottle into its mouth and water trickled down its leg and onto the grass, the demonstration was met with resounding applause. Stacy, our natural leader, would pipe up about little Jasmine’s first words or how she’d got a new dummy, only to be ignored in all the splendour of my baby’s piss.
Home was a different story. In the white wicker basket I used as a cot, the baby lay neglected. At first I did what I had seen the other girls do. Feed it. Sing it to sleep. Talk to it. Love it. Honestly though, it had nothing interesting to say. I’d ask what it thought about Lamborghinis and the dull thing would say something stupid like ‘mumma’. The piss quickly lost its charm. The detail of Baby’s eyes and how they looked like my own brown ones repulsed me. So I left it asleep. Eyes shut, permanent pursed lips, always hungry, sucking the air out of the room. I turned it on its stomach.
‘That’s not how you do it.’ Mum caught me trying to cover Baby with a blanket. Making goo-goo ga-ga sounds, she taught me how to swaddle. ‘There, you play with it like that.’
‘How do I play with it?’
‘You love her!’
When Mum left, I put my teddy in the makeshift crib in the hope that it could love Baby, because I did not.
Toy Story 2 had just come out. I was concerned about what my toys thought of me, but giving them constant love and reassurance was exhausting. I had so much I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be stuck pretending to love a baby. Did Baby know I felt nothing for it? That I grimaced when I picked it up? That I hugged my teddy longer than I hugged it? Did it resent me?
I worried Baby was plotting against me. Every night I sacrificed my doona to create a soft prison inside the basket, dumping it over the basket, with Baby inside, the edges tucked underneath. Rolled in the blanket, Baby looked like an evil calzone. Swaddled and shivering under my sheet, I tried not to imagine its muffled cries when I closed my eyes. Some nights I dreamed Baby wiggled free from its crib. Its plastic arms tap-tap-tapped as it crawled across my floorboards. Other toys watched, trembling in their clear plastic tubs. Only battle-ready Barbies with deflated balloon super-suits broke the lid to come to my rescue. Their warrior cries faded when the snapping began. All that was left was a battlefield of limbs, torsos and hacked hair. Then I’d feel the sheet being pulled off me as Baby climbed onto my bed. My body was frozen, something that was no longer mine as Baby crawled onto my leg.
‘Mumma.’ It seemed to feed on my whimpers.
‘Mumma!’ It called louder as it made its way up to my chest. ‘Love me,’ it screeched, those terrible eyes begging.
When I screamed, it raised a sharpened Barbie leg and push it into my chest, through my lungs and heart.
When Mum asked me if I wasn’t sleeping well, I told her the baby was keeping me up at night. I guess she thought my answer was too adorable to question.
Baby had to go.
Stacy was going to be my out. She had never got over the shock of Baby’s piss display. I only had to pretend this baby was the joy and light of my life one more time. It wasn’t unheard of for other kids’ toys to ‘disappear’ when she got her hands on them. When I took Baby to her house, Stacy eyed it like chocolate cake. I let myself feel hope for the first time in weeks. I carried Baby into Stacy’s bedroom, swaddled tight in case it tried to foil my plans.
Stacy had always been the first to get the exciting new toy. There in the bedroom they all were, were shelves of them, their lifeless bodies stacked upon one another. Filthy, broken and torn, despite smiles sewn or painted on, they looked like their souls were crying out for a swift and merciful death. Was it okay to let Baby be stolen, to live in eternal torture? Once the fun of making it piss wore off, would it be buried here amongst these forgotten souls?
It didn’t take me long to work out what the right thing to do was. I felt silly for doubting my true nature. For the rest of our play date I felt like a real grown up, unburdened by my decision. I felt a lightness in knowing I’d finally have a good night’s sleep.
When Mum arrived to pick me up, I ran out the front door to meet her.
‘Thank you so much for having me, Stacy.’ I called from the street as I dragged Mum to the car.
I was never going back there.
It was for the best.
‘Didn’t you bring your baby with you?’ Mum asked, starting the car.
Arty Owens (they/them) is a queer, chronically ill writer based in Naarm (Melbourne). Along with writing young adult fiction and children’s literature, they write non-fiction short stories. Their craft is informed by their illness, anxiety and devastating awkwardness.
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