Did the baby understand? Not just ‘go potty’ or ‘bad boy’ but circular concepts of loss and betrayal and identity and love?
I was lying in bed, running a low-grade stress-induced fever, copying passages into my notebook from Heidegger’s Being and Time, when someone knocked at my door. A tall woman with pale skin stood there with a baby stuffed into a Snugli on her front. Her hair hung down in a thick brown braid that reached her waist, and she wore a pair of baggy jeans, a grey wool Stanfield and thick-soled worn hiking boots. I recognized her as the woman who had moved into the unit next to mine a few months back. There were six of these units in a row, sharing one long, leaky roof, each with a small yard separated from the others by a rotting wooden fence. The baby’s arms were squeezed into the sling against his body and his face was covered in a bright red crusty rash.
Hi. Is Darryl home? she said.
I said, No.
A few nights before, after I got off shift, I had come home and found Darryl lying on the couch, smoking a joint. I took off my shoes and threw my clothes into the washing machine. I am a philosophy student-slash-server. He is an artist-slash-server and was my boyfriend for four years. He painted large female nudes in oil and hoped to get noticed one day.
Busy? Darryl asked.
Slammed, I said. If I wash my shirt now, do you think you can iron it for me in the morning? I really really need to sleep in.
Darryl said, Vivian? Listen up.
He had two things to tell me. One, that his art was the most important thing in his life. And two, more important even than his art, he might be gay. I laughed. I said, Oh great, I’m thirty-three years old, ready to start my life and I’m stuck with a boyfriend who is having a heterosexual meltdown.
Being gay is one thing. Not being gay is one thing. But not knowing, that’s something else.
I told him, Do me a favour, go sort yourself out somewhere else.
The next morning he moved up the mountain to his parents’ condo in Whistler, to paint, wait on tables, snowboard and sort himself out, somewhere else.
I didn’t mention any of this to the woman on my doorstep, who introduced herself as Deb and said she had come to return a stamp she had borrowed from Darryl.
She put her hand in her pocket and kept it there. After a moment I said, Anyway, I’m Vivian, nice to finally meet you.
She smiled and said, And this is Caro.
Caro and I made eye contact.
Hi Caro, I said. Caro farted.
Oh, he’s having a poo, Deb said.
I started thinking about the root of ontological and the root of ontical and wondering how long I could let Darryl suffer before I phoned and invited him back. Thing was I was writing a paper on Heidegger’s Dasein for my PhD and found that having Darryl gone was actually a blessing. I had a lot more time to concentrate and the deadline for this preliminary paper was coming up quickly. I was desperate to nail a unique perspective, something that hadn’t been done before, and it was starting to look like everything had been done before.
Not to mention I was on shift at the Copper House six nights this week.
Deb said her husband, Johnny Rain, was having a caffeine withdrawal fit and could she borrow some coffee. She told me she had met Johnny in Campbell River a couple years before; she was fresh off the fishing boat and he was getting headshots done. Now they were married. With a kid. She told me her husband was the guy in the latest beer commercial and asked me if I’d ever seen it. I told her I didn’t have a TV.
She said, He’s the guy at the bar who’s drinking the wrong beer.
I remembered then that I’d seen the commercial during an après-ski up at the mountain last season with Darryl. In the commercial, Johnny Rain is standing at the bar, holding his beer in the air in a beckoning way, his hair combed down flat, gelled and parted neatly on the side. He looks good but dorky, and when the beautiful blonde walks by, giving him a look, we see that she is actually looking at the man behind him.
I dumped a half-cup of coffee beans into the grinder and pulsed them. The baby jerked.
Drip or French press, I yelled.
Deb yelled, Drip.
I handed her a baggie of freshly ground coffee and the baby curled his tongue out of his mouth, then pulled it back.
Little boy? I asked. I tried not to notice the raging war zone on his face.
Yep, all boy, Deb said. Caro means dear in Spanish.
As in expensive? I asked.
That too, she said.
You’re not Spanish, I guessed.
Actually, I’m a Newfoundlander, Deb said.
The expensive baby was staring at my hair, which I was absentmindedly twirling.
He loves blondes, Deb said.
I stopped twirling.
Your baby, I said. Ummm, it looks like his arms are trapped.
Yeah I know, she said. I’ve got his sleeves pinned to his sleeper so he doesn’t scratch.
Oh. Cute kid, I said.
Yeah, you should see his little pecker. He’s gonna be quite the lady-killer.
When I phoned Darryl later at his parents’ condo a guy answered and I hung up. When I phoned back, there was no answer.
Everyone is the other, and no one is himself... And only that which is unmeaning can be absurd.
The next day Deb phoned. It’s on! It’s on!
She was talking about the beer commercial. I told her again I had no TV.
Being-alone is a deficient mode of being-with, its possibility is a proof of the latter.
I put Heidegger down, I couldn’t concentrate.
Out in front of the units was a communal play area, a few benches, shrubs, a swing set, a slide. As far as I knew Caro was the only child in the development.
Once I’d looked out and seen Johnny lounging on the bench with his shirt off, leaning back with his arms behind his head, soaking up the sun. The baby was tied into a swing, back and forth, a ridiculous grin on his face. Deb was licking Johnny’s armpit. Sometimes we could hear them yelling. Asshole, bitch. They really had the hots for each other.
Deb later told me that Johnny insisted that they put Caro in the teepee when they were fighting or loving or doing both. The teepee took up their entire yard. She told me that when she was pregnant she used to lie down in the teepee and listen to Bob Dylan.
I was deep into One’s state-of-mind is therefore based on thrownness when Deb knocked on the door again.
She had Caro on her hip and his face was buried in her hair, which was braid-free and hanging loose like a wild animal’s, almost to her waist. Caro was biting it and twisting it and generally smothering himself in its tangles, sucking at it as if it held the answers to all the questions of life.
Deb: Sorry, sorry to bother you again. I lost my hairbrush. Do you have one? Johnny usually brushes it for me, but he’s gone for an audition.
Johnny was trying to break into the film scene. So far he had landed the one commercial. When he wasn’t acting, he was window washing. I handed her the brush.
Me: Is Johnny Rain his real name or stage name?
Deb: Real name. He’s Native. Can’t you tell?
Me: I wasn’t sure, I thought he might be Greek or Hawaiian or something. Squamish Nation?
Deb: Yeah. Three-fifths.
Me: Three-fifths? How can he be three-fifths?
Deb: What are you, the fraction police?
Then she shifted gears. Vivian, do you think he’s hot?
Me: Well, he’s pretty hot. I mean, not my kind of hot, but I can see where Caro gets his looks.
Deb: Oh really? Well just so you know, Caro is not his baby.
Me: You kidding me? He’s a carbon copy of him.
Deb: Look. If I say he’s not Johnny’s baby, then he’s not Johnny’s baby.
Then she said: It’s just that, my first kid, I lost him. Me and Iggy just come in from eight days of trolling Seymour Narrows, fighting like cats and dogs and the worst haul we’d had in three years and the weather just sick and Isaac had this nasty diarrhea the whole time and I was bitchin’ about the bilge pump and he was bitchin’ about the dirty Pampers and throwing them overboard and I smacked him and said he was polluting the harbour and he said I don’t need this shit and he picked up Isaac—he was two years old—and got back in the boat and headed north to the Charlottes and I ain’t seen him since. Which would have been just right except he took my baby. So I figured out then that the only way to make sure I never lose another is to keep certain factoids to myself. Like who’s your daddy, eh? Who’s your daddy, Caro? It drives Johnny nuts, but that’s the way it is.
Then Deb said, Would you mind brushing it for me?
I began brushing Deb’s hair. Starting at the bottom, pulling the tangles. Her hair was stubborn, electric and snarled.
Deb: Don’t get the wrong idea but when Johnny does it, it really turns us on.
Johnny came round the next day to use the phone and sat Caro on the front doorstep. I asked him how Caro was doing.
Johnny: Little better today. I got him smeared up with Vaseline. Deborah’s decided not to take him to work anymore, she thinks he’s allergic to dog hair.
Two weeks earlier Deb had landed a job at Pet Fabulous in the mall, shearing and brushing dogs while Caro played with a doggie toy in an empty crate.
Caro’s face looked like a slice of watermelon, glistening with petroleum jelly. He lit up when Darryl’s cat jumped off the couch and pranced up to him. You could tell that Caro really really really wanted to touch the cat but he was in his usual straitjacket. His struggle was fruitless and unnerving. He kept crashing over on his side as he reached with his head. Darryl and I had talked about having kids, but we weren’t ready. Caro rubbed his bruised forehead on Johnny’s pant leg.
Outside it was raining like a bastard. In three hours I had to be at work. I had seven days and four thousand words to go. I glanced at my notes. Anxiety brings Dasein face to face with its own-most being thrown.
Johnny said there wasn’t much window washing now that it was turning cold and he never got a callback on the Cialis audition. He was holding an apple up to Caro’s mouth letting Caro gnaw away on it. We talked about the strata fees and the roof. Can I borrow a skirt?
Oh man, I thought, not him too.
He scowled, I mean for Deb. It’s our first anniversary and she’s got shit for clothes and I want to take her out someplace nice.
The only thing I had that might remotely fit was a stretchy teal blue knit. She was at least thirty pounds heavier than me. Maybe more. I sighed and handed it over.
As they were leaving, Johnny was intoning Skwxwú7mesh-ulh at Caro, encouraging him to repeat it. Ain’t this kid something, he said.
I had time for one more chapter. Dasein is never simply what it presently is, but is “existentially that which it is not yet.”
When the day came I should have expected that the restaurant they would pick to celebrate in would be mine. They had married on Halloween and this anniversary night the place was packed and half the diners were in costume. My hair was sprayed gold and spread in huge rays around my head. I was the Tiger-Sun. I scrambled to find them a table and a high chair.
Johnny was wearing a T-shirt that read No Olympics on Stolen Native Land and he had his hair done in the same way as in the commercial, flat, gelled and neatly parted to the side. He ordered the boring beer. Deb was in my long teal knit skirt—stretching out the elastic waistband and making lumps in the ass—and a floral blouse that really didn’t match. Caro was dressed as a ghoul. His eyes were circled in black and he had long red wounds or tear marks painted on his face. I couldn’t tell if the blood was real or fake.
Deb whispered, I know, it scares me too, but it was Caro’s own idea, I wanted him to be a baby vampire.
His sleeves were firmly pinned to his tattered ghoul costume.
When he started fussing, squirming in the high chair, the other diners started to notice, and muttered amongst themselves. The manager asked me if I knew those people. When I said, Yes, slightly, she said, Deal with it. I took their beers to the table and said, Caro’s rash looks a little better.
Deb sighed, Oh, it comes and goes.
Does he still scratch?
Of course not. He can’t.
They studied the menu and ordered sweet potato fries, saying they weren’t very hungry. I made the kitchen double-size them on my tab and throw in two salads.
Then a party of eight showed up, everybody in costume, couple of old white people wearing fake Indian suits, complete with feathers in the headband and beads and faux leather, and Johnny was ready to bust right out of his skin at this point. By the time I got them seated, Deb and Johnny had both gone to the washroom and left the tiny bloody ghoul howling, unable to scratch himself, and I couldn’t put food down in front of empty seats and when they came back, Johnny’s hair looking even more like the losing end of a beer commercial than before and Deb with flushed cheeks, the super-sized fries were half cold. Deb sent them back to the kitchen for reheating.
The next morning Deb knocked on my door at eight. Vivian? Do you have any extra Tampax? I freaked.
Don’t you ever go shopping?
I told her to look in the bathroom and lay down again.
Deb stood stock still for a second then spun around and left. Caro glared at me from the Snugli on her back.
When I knocked at their door ten minutes later, with a box of Tampax in my hand, Deb slipped out into the hallway. Inside her place were empty Mason jars, a taxidermied pygmy owl, a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary. She picked up Caro and set him on the boot rack. Then she took the Tampax, opened the door and tossed it inside.
She put her hands over Caro’s ears and said, I wish I’d never had this baby. I wish I could go back to the ocean and haul fish.
I said, Come on Deb, that’s crazy.
Deb said, Not so loud, he’ll hear you.
I whispered, That’s crazy.
She said, It’s not crazy, it’s true.
I said, Well why not let Johnny Rain have him, then? Then you could do what you want.
Deb said, I didn’t say I wanted to give him up, I said I wish I never had him. There’s a difference. You’re the philosopher, you should know that.
I asked her if she ever expected to get custody of Isaac again and she said, Who?
Then she said, Oh, Isaac. A long pause and in that pause Caro threw up, a volcanic milky eruption.
While she cleaned herself and the baby she said, Isaac wasn’t mine. I lied.
Indeed it is even possible for an entity to show itself in itself as something that it is not.
I went to bed with Heidegger.
Or still, something good which looks like, but “in actuality” is not. Φάινόμενον άγαθόν.
It was three o’clock in the morning. A full moon outside.
How the worldly character of the environment announces itself in entities within the world.
I could see the shadow of their teepee in my yard.
The manifest. That which shows itself in itself. Φάινόμενον. Phenomenon.
It was so wrong, I mean, nice, but wrong. It was a cliché. The Squamish Natives didn’t use teepees, they built longhouses.
And in my dream Deb said, What are you, the teepee police?
I said, But why? Why do you lie to Johnny?
She said, Because I want him to be with me because of how we feel and who we are and not because we feel obliged to love.
The next day Deb needed to borrow five hangers.
Caro was not in her arms. Deb without Caro looked less grounded, less sure of herself. Even I felt unmoored.
Where’s the baby? I asked.
With Johnny Rain, Deb said. He took him to the barber’s for a haircut.
The barber’s? He’s eight months old. He doesn’t even have hair.
Johnny needed to do some faux father-son bonding. They’ll never come back. Or they’ll return for the wrong reasons.
I pulled a couple of Darryl’s crisp white serving shirts off two hangers and dropped them on the closet floor. I handed Deb five wire hangers.
How’s the essay coming? Deb asked.
Read me something.
I started reading. “Appearing is a not-
Deb interrupted. So did you tell Johnny?
Tell Johnny what?
You know, that Caro really is his baby.
Deb was squinting at me, searching my face.
It’s none of my business, I said.
Then she asked if I had a pair of scissors. I found some heavy-duty shears. She was holding her thick braid in her hand.
She said, I want you to cut this off.
Because I need to know if Johnny loves me only for my hair.
Nobody loves someone because of hair, I said. And even if he does, at least he loves you. You don’t test love, Deb, you don’t question it.
She let the braid drop. She sighed. I better not. Last time I trimmed my hair Caro was inconsolable.
Deb told me that Caro understood everything. I said, don’t be paranoid, he’s only a baby. But Caro seemed to be staring out the window, toward the teepee, in such a self-conscious way that I felt a chill run down my neck. Did he understand? I mean, not just phrases like go potty or bad boy but concepts, circular concepts of loss and betrayal and identity and love?
We decided to test him.
I said, Dog. Caro didn’t react at all.
Deb said, That’s insulting, try something harder.
I said, Global warming.
Caro looked at me.
I continued. Is climate change a result of carbon emissions caused by human intervention or a naturally recurring phenomenon based on sunspots and earth tilt?
Caro yawned and closed his eyes.
Deb put her hands over his ears. She whispered, I need to borrow your car.
I handed her my car keys.
She whispered, It’s Caro’s eight-months birthday, I want to get him a xylophone.
But can he play with it? I asked. I mean with his arms pinned.
Probably not, she said sadly.
He’s sleeping, I whispered. Why are we whispering?
He’s not sleeping, he’s pretending, she whispered.
Caro snored then, a small delicate snore. His mouth dropped open and a bit of dribble slipped down to his chin. Deb swooped it up with her thumb and put it in her mouth. Besides I have to go to the doctor. I think I might be pregnant.
Caro yelped. His eyes flew open and darted around madly, looking for something to soothe him, and he finally focused on one of Darryl’s large oil female nudes, very buxom. He immediately relaxed, closed his eyes and apparently fell asleep. But he wasn’t kidding anybody anymore.
He dreams about things you can’t even imagine, Deb said.
What kind of things? I asked.
A lot of times I think he dreams that he’s a rabbit.
Sure enough Caro’s nose started to twitch, and Deb covered his ears and said, I told you he was faking.
I asked if he always struggled in his restraints and she said, Sometimes he’s still, but I know he’s only trying to trick me into believing he won’t scratch. Regular babies can’t feel pain you know, Deb said.
I wasn’t so sure.
I mean they feel it but they don’t know where it’s coming from. But Caro knows. He knows exactly where it’s coming from.
He’s coming down with something, Deb said. I gotta get him in bed and put some onions in his socks to draw the fever.
I went to the cupboard. Is one enough? I asked.
Sure, she said and left with my car keys and one onion.
I phoned Darryl. I really needed to unload. The anniversary dinner, the cold fries, the fake blood, Johnny confronting the old people in their Indian suits, Heidegger, the onion. I was gonna tell Darryl I was ready for him to come home. I knew we could work it out, I missed him a lot. A lot, lot. He told me he was going out with Melanie, the bartender at Milestones.
That night I cried my eyes out, and the next and the next. I needed twenty minutes of teabags and ice cubes on my eyes before I could go to work. I thought about suicide. I thought about Europe. I thought about razors and pills and lighthouses in New Brunswick. I thought about climbing up the Angel Crest trail to the top of the Chief and jumping off. I wrote imaginary notes to Darryl: Dear Darryl, Go fuck yourself. I thought about all those nights he had stayed up late to cook pad Thai for me because he knew how sick I was of eating fried sweet potatoes at the restaurant.
Deb called to tell me the commercial was on. I hung up on her. I was getting a fever. I called Deb back and left a message, Where’s my fucking onion? I felt hot and sweaty. My unit was so damp the walls leaked. A mushroom was growing in the corner of my rug.
I called in sick and the manager said, Oh don’t even come back. I emailed my prof for a deadline extension. He emailed back, R U serious?
Then one day Johnny Rain phoned and said he needed me to babysit. Deb was running late, grooming a spoiled shih tzu, and he was going to an anti-Olympics demonstration. I told him I was in no condition to babysit. He said he’d wash my windows in payment. I said, for chrissake I wouldn’t charge you for it, I’m just saying I can’t. I’m not reliable, I’m not safe to be around babies or sharp objects. He hung up.
I soaked in a burning hot bath. I cried and watched myself in the mirror, crying. I looked so good I couldn’t figure it out. I hacked my hair off with the shears. I stuffed it all into a manila envelope and addressed it to Darryl. I wrote a note that said, here’s a souvenir, Asshole. Love, Vivian. I glanced over at Heidegger lying open on my desk. Being-alone is a deficient mode of Being-with. Then the light dimmed. I looked up to see Johnny Rain outside my window, standing on the top rung of an aluminum ladder, smearing sudsy water in a looping pattern on the pane. Caro was strapped on his back in a baby carrier, blinking at me through the smudged wet glass.
When I stepped outside later, on my front step were a box of Tampax with four missing, three quarters of an onion, my can opener, five hangers, my car keys, my skirt, my hairbrush. Even one fifty-nine-cent stamp.
Johnny Rain was sitting on his bike in the street, revving it. When he saw me, he took off. In their apartment Caro was seated on the floor, surrounded by puzzles and hammers, things that popped and whistled and dinged and swung. His arms were pinned to his sleeper and his face looked like a topographical map of Russia in pink. The TV was on, playing a tape of the beer commercial. Caro was staring at the commercial, watching his dad get passed over by the gorgeous babe because he was drinking the boring beer. Caro had a note pinned to his shirt that said, Vivian, there’s mashed avocado in the fridge for when I get hungry.
I laid Being and Time on the floor next to a pop-up Sesame Street.
I found the coffee I had lent Deb three weeks before, but no coffee maker. I sat on the floor next to Caro and watched the beer commercial, then rewound it and played it again. And again.
I told Caro about my plans to climb to the top of the Chief. I told him that cliffs were hard and air was thin and gravity was almighty. I explained to Caro that Darryl had semi-sorted out his sexuality and was now dating Melanie the bartender at Milestones. I told Caro how hard it was for me to even say her name out loud. I told Caro that it doesn’t matter what beer you drink, it will never help you get the right girl. I told him that his mother was working late at Pet Fabulous and as soon as he was big enough she’d take him fishing on the ocean. I told him he’d outgrow his rash. I told him that the question of the meaning of Being must be formulated. I told him that it was snowing on top of the mountain and what I wanted more than anything was to climb up the slope with my snowboard on my back and then stand at the top of fifteen hundred vertical metres and look away through the clouds to the Pacific in the distance and then slide and curl and bank down as fast and furious as I could until I was scared to high heaven and drenched in fine snow. I told him that Johnny Rain was his one true father. I told him Dasein always understands itself in terms of its existence, in terms of a possibility of itself: to be itself or not itself. I told him fear has three aspects: what we are afraid of; fearing; why we are afraid.
I unpinned Caro’s arms.
When Deb came home she looked at Caro and said, Oh, you told him.
She started kissing Caro’s wounded face and his eyes closed in feigned sleep or bliss, and when she lifted her head away from him and turned to me her lips were bright and vivid with his blood, as if she had smeared them with lipstick, as if she were going somewhere.