I was the baby for a long time in my family, for ten years in fact before my oldest sister got married and had a baby of her own. It had been hard enough to see her marry the big-lipped white guy…there she was going…but it was harder when they would bring the new baby to our house…there she was gone. I was no longer the special girl who would get the first attention. There were two people in my way now.
This first baby, I was probably a little unfair with. I had been usurped and disrupted, but I was in love with this big-headed thing for some reason too. I had sat next to it when it was still in my sister’s belly all summer, getting my sister iced tea and watching her knit. I still really didn’t understand why she was living in an apartment so far away from our house, but I felt proud to be sitting next to her in the sun on the couch, watching TV in the daytime. It seemed like important work.
And then they started bringing the real baby to our house. There was a crib in my room—I had seen it being built—the same room I used to share with my sister. This was not a fair exchange. I never said it, but I remember thinking, So, you’re going to put the baby in my room. You’re putting the baby in my room.
That was fine. I don’t think the baby lasted very long in my room, though. I don’t know where she went after that, probably closer to her parents downstairs on the blow-up. These weekend visits would set me off in a way. The closer this new family was around us, the less sense it made for me to keep writing notes to God and burning them in the wood stove. There were no fairies in the sky.
More serious times had set in.
That house had a winding staircase in it that had seen many a drama play out. I would lie on the couch, in my eights and nines and tens, and watch my parents chase the older kids up and down those stairs. Sometimes I would be scared, and sometimes I’d be sick; sometimes I would hear it coming, and sometimes it would be a surprise. One time I really was sick, but my mom was working, so my dad was in charge of me. He gave me a glass of cold ginger ale fresh from the store and I promptly threw up just outside my parents’ bedroom. I waved it off and said I needed to lie down right now, so I did, on my parents’ bed. It was one of the best rests I’ve ever had.
One day I walked down that staircase from my room, having studied nursing for three hours on my bed with my sister’s nursing books, always stored in the closet. I came around the end of the stairs and there was the baby again: this time the family couch had been dismantled and she was sleeping in all her big-headedness where a cushion had been removed. The cushion was pressed up against the couch, held in place by a coffee table, the baby all safe and secure in the crevice of the couch. She looked pretty comfortable in there.
I came off the stairs, took about four steps towards the baby, took in her serene sleeping face and her chubby little legs, then I reached in and pinched her. I took her big grubby thigh and squeezed it together between my thumb and index finger. She was a slow crier; apparently, this hadn’t been done to her before. She woke up slowly, all negative, then she scrunched up her face and started crying. Waa, waa, waa.
I walked away with a tiny bit of guilt, calling out as usual in our house then, “The baby’s crying.” I had no idea why.
Another thing they told me about babies was that they had a “soft spot” on their heads. Apparently this was because their skulls hadn’t grown shut yet, so you had to wait before the final finishing touches took place. You always had to be careful of the soft spot. “Don’t bump her head,” I would hear. “That’s why she wears a bonnet!”
I would look at my tow-headed niece with the big blue eyes, always kicking her fat little thighs, and I couldn’t wait to get my thumb on her soft spot. When I did—hers was about the size of a quarter—I started tracing the edges every second I got. They were really smooth, not jagged.
I never poked my finger in there because I knew that was her brain, but I liked tracing the edges of it, gently on her bald head, knowing how easy it would be to hurt her.