(Prologue of Novel Sad Man Grinning)
February 14, 1968 — Morning
Just before dawn on Valentine’s Day, a fair skinned, red-haired young woman awoke to sharp pains in her abdomen. She clutched her overfull round belly, then felt something warm and damp between her legs.
It was time.
She was alone. There was no one to call. There was no bag to grab because no bag had been packed. She was going nowhere. From the old bed, she glanced around the small hotel room in the dim but growing light sneaking around the curtains. She rolled the worn sheets down to just below her knees and clutched the sides of the bed as her second contraction gripped her.
Despite her meager surroundings and swollen body, she felt lighter for the first time in months, knowing that she was to finally rid herself of this menace, this burden.
This isn’t mine. It’s not me. It’s not part of me.
She had been telling herself such things for some time now in order to make today easier. It was simple. She had known from the first day: she would not keep this baby.
At first she hadn’t known she was pregnant at all. She had missed periods before, as the result of not eating properly or the drugs. But as the weeks wore on she began to feel this life grow within her. It always felt alien, but she could not bring herself to end it. So she delayed it, day by day, week by week, until she began to show. It was soon clear that she was going to have this baby.
His baby. Not mine.
It wasn’t that she hated the baby. But in time she became indifferent to it. She hated him. She hated his hot breath on her neck as he pressed hard against her.
A pain shot through her. She felt like she was being squeezed and pulled apart simultaneously. 4th contraction. 11 minutes. Soon she would be done. It would all be done.
She hated the stale stench of cheap beer. It seemed to come not from his mouth, but from his every pore. She remembered the feeling of his toxic weight on her. Jesus, why was this happening to me?
Light began to fill the room, revealing dust dancing mid-air above the carpet and furniture as old as she felt. They weren’t hers. Nothing in the room was hers except a change of clothes, a pair of glasses, a pocket watch her father had given her just before he left, and a single book: The Grapes of Wrath.
She couldn’t read it very well, not because she wasn’t smart, but because she sometimes saw words backwards. It was a struggle just to get through a page. But she knew the story well. She’d heard it told by many people. She knew it was her story too. She’d heard they had made a movie and play of it, but she had never seen it.
Another stab cut across her abdomen. She was supposed to breath, but it didn’t come naturally to her. She rubbed her stomach, hoping to ease the pain and the process, to no avail.
It was time. She felt the baby crown. She grabbed the sheets, her knuckles white, her face hot and flushed, her body sweaty. But she didn’t scream. She’d learned long ago it didn’t help.
February 15, 1968 — Evening
Somehow she had cut the umbilical cord herself. She hadn’t bothered to clean up other than to take the stained sheets that surrounded her, roll them up in a giant ball of evidence of this tragedy, and stuff it unceremoniously behind the ancient and dusty orange ottoman in the corner.
Dusk had arrived. Now she could steal under cover of darkness with her secret bundle across Washington Blvd, down four blocks on Maple to the corner of Hamilton Ave. There she would make her deposit. She had looked up the address of Lutheran Services Adoption Agency weeks earlier. She had even scoped it out from the bus as it moved down Hamilton.
Since morning she had merely sat and waited. On the bed. Alone with her silent bundle. It had cried briefly at first but then not at all. Perhaps it learned its lesson early about the uselessness of screaming. Good boy, kid.
Occasionally she would drag herself off the bed, leaving the bundle behind, and pour her cup full of water from the bathroom sink. Then she would climb back on the sheet-less mattress. Her back rested uncomfortably against the plastic wood headboard. She sat with her knees bent, her bundle just in front of her in a swaddling of plain white, its tiny, ugly, pink face protruding.
There was no matter of getting attached now. She had already resigned herself to this. Soon it would all be over. She had planned to wait until dark. Then what? Could there be a proper time? Darkness felt comfortable. She felt unworthy of day and besides, night gave her anonymity.
There was no clock in the room so she couldn’t rely on choosing a specific time. She would have to pull herself off the bed and just begin walking.
There was no telephone either. Not that she had anybody to call. She had no one to talk to. No one to tell of her giving life. No one to stop her from what she was going to do.
Up until last night, even up until her water broke, she still carried a deeply buried secret wish that she could escape this fate. The fate, not of giving life, but the giving up of life. That at the last moment, someone—maybe a long-forgotten friend or family member, perhaps a kind stranger—would reach into her life and save her. That things could be better.
But that thought, that wish, that need—that things could be better—had carried her to this very moment, for years. But each passing day proved it wrong and became testimony to its absurdity. When would she realize that better was not a possibility?
Friends and family were a shadowy memory, gnats swarming in the distance. Like childhood, she knew she had once touched them, knew them, but its distance made it unreachable. The people she had called her mother and father had long disappeared. She lost touch with them years ago. Her father left when she was twelve. Perhaps if she tried hard enough she might be able to locate her mother. But for what purpose?
As she sat silently, the light that peeked around the dusty burgundy curtains began to retreat and she struggled to recall her last truly human, truly sincere contact. Before her mind’s eye flashed several vague images. Faces, hands, and eyes from the recent past emerged. The cashier at the dollar store had smiled warmly when she had purchased a white baby blanket. The old, Hispanic man had touched her shoulder gently when she had dropped her bag when boarding the bus. He told her to “take care”. The woman at the Laundromat Happy Bubbles had told her she must go if she wasn’t using services, but her eyes were warm and she expressed regret and empathy. She was only passing along the message of her manager, she had said.
Pressing further back in time, an image she took as Donny emerged. Relationship? Donny was not a relationship. He was a year-long curse. So what if she had loved him and thought he reciprocated. He was gone and the only evidence of his existence was the dark image in her mind that retreated day by day and the baby in her womb that grew day by day.
Even now, though, sitting as alone as she ever was, it didn’t occur to her that Donny was an aberration. For her, he was only the latest in a series of curses that was man. She had not had the fortune to be in a position of knowing that her experience was a wicked combination of bad choices, bad luck, and bad boys. But she was in a position of knowing that love is a word that people use to get what they want and knowing that a creature was growing inside of her as a result of that “love”.
She recalls those days now like one recalls a former life–hazily. And how many former lives had she lived so far? How in the world could she be only twenty years old? When the bus passed the college, she would look out the window at the girls her own physical age walking along the sidewalks of campus. The window was like the glass of an aquarium. Only she could never figure out if those girls, so youthful and girlish, were the specimen in the aquarium or rather—if it was she who was the one on exhibit. At any rate, they were of two worlds, and she felt reincarnated within this lifetime several times over.
She pulled herself out of her reverie and once more into the bathroom where she filled her cup for the last time. The hour had arrived. After putting her shoes on, she put the bundle in her arms and walked towards the door, her thoughts heavy but finally clear.
By midnight, this Valentine Baby will have a fresh lease on life.