Beth Babbitt’s parents died after an airplane slid off the runway in Chicago because of ice buildup. By the time they were gone, she was already grown, living alone in a floor-through apartment in downtown Manhattan. All there was to do was call the family lawyer. There was no funeral, because her parents were incinerated, and no elders remained to care for her. There was no memorial service because she never paid attention to who should have come. She was an only child, and after they died, no one sought out her company or inquired into her well-being. She never felt close to her parents, and they never seemed particularly close to one another. This ambient distance between them spilled over into her developing life. As a teenager, she didn’t feel beholden to the intense friendships that adorned most girls around her; she was happier in her own company. Despite this, she imagined herself as a mother one day, but understood with a solemn clarity, that she could do better than her own. Her parents had failed, in so many ways. They were too oblivious to observe the rituals that dotted the other childhoods around her. If her father’s career were a silent filmstrip, a briefcase would open and close, over and over again; his back would be turned away from the camera, his mouth moving into the phone, his hand wrapped around the coiled phone wire. If her mother were a silent filmstrip, she would be glamorous, a dutiful socialite, always bouncing around a circuit of hair appointments and tea dates with everyone but her own child.
And so, it wasn’t much of a stretch, the before and after of her orphan status. For a time, she carried a sort of grief at the full weight of being alone in the world, the hollow ark of a consciousness. Even the small touchstones—the newspaper, the coiled phone cord, the tea dates, and the silence between them, erased in a moment. Their erasure was disorienting—the lack of warmth, after all, leaves a chill. Even in the heat of her parents burned to bits.
Although she couldn’t see the stars in the hampered darkness of the city nights, Beth thought a lot about the cosmos. Certain words could hit her ear and send her into a daydream. Ziggy Stardust; dwarf planets, dark matter, entropy. “Space is a hard vacuum, meaning it is a void containing very little matter,” she once read in a magazine. At least some of the little matter was comprised of her parents. They were transformed after having lived out their cold and suburban life cycles.
And what of Beth’s life cycle? She understood she was spun into the destiny of the cyclical nature of the physical world. She began to crave companionship. She had never been one to pick men up at bars; did people even do that anymore? Instead, she went on a couple of online dates, but found men a bother. They spoke too fast, skating across things she didn’t care the slightest bit about. They were divorced; they struggled with taking care of themselves; they complained. Eventually, this tedious cycle wound its way toward another solution. She could skip the relationship altogether. And so, instead, she found a sperm donor.
“Give Life to Your Dream” the website splashed across the homepage. A popup ad offered 15% off of all sperm straws. We’re celebrating our 30-year anniversary and want to give you something to celebrate too! Browse your perfect donor today! Their names were alphabetical. Abner and Ace and Ahab; Gerard and Gilroy. Patton and Sergio. Ace was an actor; Stig was a student of aerospace engineering. Ahab included a childhood photograph of himself leaning over a tricycle in what appeared to be a cool climate, his red wool cap barely containing a head full of curly black hair. Call me Ahab! Beth clicked the baby carriage icon next to his photo, which led her to the shopping cart. After ponying up $791 US dollars, baby Ahab hit the postal system. But first, she had to select a shipping method. “If it is difficult to predict your ovulation date, we recommend you select a nitrogen tank. We do not recommend dry ice shipments over the weekend.”
When Tiny Babbitt was born on the 9th floor of St. Vincent’s Hospital on Lower Manhattan, he yawned his way out of Beth’s belly through a 5-inch incision, right above her pelvic bone. For the first few hours, hers was a labor as on-time as an English railroad clock. Then, an interruption to the smooth ebbs and flows of the contractions; blood pressure of mother and child dropped, and a snap decision from her doctor brought her from labor room to surgical suite, bright lights and masks and curtains and hushed urgency. Tangles of nerves were numbed by a skilled anesthesiologist who gave a spinal tap. Then, layers of dermis cut through completely by cesarean, and a mere sensation around her waist of a belt being pulled tight. A few moments later, a tiny face, open eyes and peach colored skin, still wet from the place he’d cocooned. Beth shivered, as from a flu, sensitive to every touch, bump, and sound.
“There you are. You’re so tiny,” she said when the doctor held him near her so she could see. He wasn’t really tiny. He was 21-inches long in fact, and weighed 7 pounds and 6 ounces, more than a bright yellow sack of Domino sugar and bigger than most Purdue roasters. Wrapped in the hospital issue flannel, with pink and blue stripes, his giant eyes belied the rest of his head, and in that moment, he owned his name. They were alone then. The clattering of surgical tools in metal bowls receded; the din of voices blended into a deep hum of relief.
Rituals of a warm motherhood, systematically withheld from her as a girl, came easily. When Tiny lost a tooth, Beth stopped off at a subway machine to get gold dollars to slip under his pillow. When it was St. Patrick’s Day, she drummed up netted sacks of gold chocolate coins at the corner deli and put them in the middle of the living room, along with a trail of green glitter that led to a window. “Wake up Tiny, the Leprechaun came!” Tiny hung on to her long black hair and shared the chocolate with her that every Bunny and Leprechaun and Santa Claus left on their apartment’s doorstep. He made tea parties and let her have the first poured cup. On the one hand, he was turning into a little gentleman. On the other, he existed in his space like a thousand snapping rubber bands.
Tiny bent down to tie his shoes for the third time after his teacher, Ms. Eileen, implored him to get it right this time. The first time was in morning meeting. “Tiny Babbitt, stop trailing your laces and get with the program.” The second time was at morning recess. Making his way up the ladder of the blue plastic slide, she was shrill and to the point. “Tiny Babbitt! Tiny Babbitt! Tie that shoe!” It’s true; his lace did dangle, grey and chewed up at the ends where once pristine. Her voice slid over him as it had so many times before, and as many other voices had before hers. On the playground; at a playdate; in the pediatrician’s office. Despite the vague sense of vertigo at the top step of the slide, he teetered, reached for the offending lace, and tucked it into his shoe.
Tiny had a penchant for hair. He’ll be the next Frédéric Fekkai, Beth quipped on the playground to other parents with toddlers, on afternoons tense from too much touching and grabbing. His little fingers sought every strand of hair in his wake and dragged across any surface that rendered his fingernails filthy. From head to toe his body was laced with slumbering nerves that needed more input to feel. It was like he’d been born with calluses over his entire skin, and in order to reach tactile sensations he had to reach much, much further. Banging trucks in sandboxes. Eating sand. Flinging himself from the monkey bars. Other mothers were far more fastidious than she was. Sandboxes were highly anxious helicoptering zones. Children who grabbed toy trucks from another were swiftly scolded; hand sanitizer bottles were squeezed every five minutes. Eventually she stopped trying to socialize him altogether. When they were at home, Tiny tugged on her hair like an orangutan baby. Her scalp grew tender to the touch, but she couldn’t bear to make him stop.
The crack in the connection between Beth and Tiny was imperceptible before it wasn’t. In his quirky ways, Tiny was thriving, but his childhood was leeching out whatever strength Beth had left in her. Other parents, she observed, were able to shoulder the layers of responsibilities. As a list, the routine was feasible: go shopping, cook a little something, clean up, tend to personal hygiene and doctors’ appointments, take Tiny to and from school, be a part of a community, even if hanging on the periphery. She was so lucky, she knew, that she didn’t have to worry about money like so many other parents, like so many other single mothers. Still, the weight of the manageable pile grew unmanageable. The crack widened; depression had found her. It was like they were swimming in the middle of an ocean, and there was one life raft, and it was thrown to Tiny. There were times when she knew they couldn’t both make it; when she wouldn’t be able to join him when he reached land.
These schisms were seasonal, ticking off the calendar like clockwork. It was a paralysis settling over her every few months, a grey wool forming over her eyes, and then mouth, and then body. Her wings fell off and she moved backwards into a cocoon, leaving Tiny to care for himself. This was confusing: overnight, his mother went from loving and tolerant and buoyant to catatonic and incapable of performing even the most basic tasks. All day and into the night, Beth laid down on the couch as he sat at her curled-up feet, looking at picture books with animated characters. A cat dressed like a pirate conquered a threatening ship, a skull flag hanging from its mast. Or, a cedar forest, soft with lichen-dotted trees and paths where vulnerable children walked deeper and deeper into a forest, holding hands. He would get to the eighth page and put it down before the witch opened the door to the cottage.
At six years old, Tiny was learning to take care of himself. He made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, letting sticky globs of fruit land on the kitchen floor, where Beth left them to dry. Her hair grew tangled. His clothes grew dirty. It was all she could do to put him on the bus in the mornings, his little eyes blinking back at her through the window of the “half cheese” school bus. Beth couldn’t stand how lethargic she’d become. Tiny would walk her toothbrush over to her at night and give her an empty soup can to spit in. He would play Beauty Shop and attempt to comb out her tangled hair while she sat catatonic on her couch. He would even walk to the corner deli with five dollars in his pocket to pick up a quart of milk and a few bananas. The cashier’s grave mistake was thinking this was charming.
In other ways, Tiny wasn’t as clear about his needs. When he was hungry, his stomach offered that insight, and he could follow it like the sound of a hollow drum. But other parts of his days suffered: action figures played alone, not with one another; rooms were quiet, not filled with music; cavities took root in his emerging molars, despite his brushing. He stared into his neighbor’s windows at night. He watched planes fly overhead, little specks of dark leaving streaks of smoke in their wake. And when his eyes were sated, he would turn around to his mother once again, and offer something substantive, like a word or two, or a banana. “You’re my little gentleman,” she would coo, and his cup would spill over.
When he needed attention, he learned to throw himself into furniture over and over again, the thwack on his little body resonating as affection. The harder he slammed, the better he felt. At the worst times, Beth would stretch out her arms and attempt to block him. “Why are you doing that? What’s the matter with you?” and the answer to that question was another deep slam into a surface. Afterward his relief was palpable. Were he an eraser, there would be no residual chalk dust left to clap on the sidewalk.
The cocoon would split, eventually. It always did. The musty edges of the grey pallor that covered Beth’s world began to loosen their grip. With an instinct to self-preserve, she pulled out an old camera and began to leave the apartment to take pictures along the East River promenade. Her subjects were often bridges, or waterfowl that slipped in and out of the shimmering surface, squiggling fishes in their beaks. Watching the doomed fish meet their fate, she imagined her life in the animal world. She was more insect than amphibian. An insect with stages: egg, larva, pupa, adult. She’d morphed into her adult stage, and with that came a set of delicate wings. Flying ants, she read, were the only ones to reproduce, using their wings to swarm and mate.
Tiny learned to sit on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass and hold them up to light where the ants would march, in the grassy seams of the broken concrete. When he tilted the glass just so, the beam halted an ant in its tracks until it curled into itself and smoked. The other ants would walk around the flecks of remains, moving in wavy snake-shaped patterns.
She got her film developed at the photography counter at Walgreens. The pimpled kid behind the register began to recognize her. “Here you go, matte, not glossy,” he said, handing her back the latest batch of two-dimensional waterfowl, bridges, and urban fauna. She bought some putty and stuck them to their apartment’s bare walls. Tiny wondered why there were no pictures of him strung in between the other images.
Beth took Tiny to the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum, an aircraft carrier built in 1943 and parked on the Hudson River. They moved around the exhibit, his small hand in hers. Tiny was delighted by the Growler Submarine, with its top-secret missile command center, and the Space Shuttle Pavilion that housed the prototype NASA orbiter. At the end of their tour, he yanked her towards an open cockpit. He crawled inside and sat on the pilot’s chair, grabbing the wheel, pretending to fly. “Pshew Pshew Pshew,” he said, missile noises shooting from his mouth. There were two seats, and Beth took her place beside him. Their two seats were compact, and a window looked out across the Hudson River. She pushed her hand through his sandy head of hair and gently pulled him to her, remembering how strange she felt after her parents fell from the sky. She pressed into his arm with her hand, offering a rhythmic assurance. She was comforted by the small space, and wished it were a real flight that would take them far away. Tiny was now tall for ten years old. Beth’s gestures across the last decade had added up to nurture this wiry boy into a curious being who needed more to feel. Between them, they had a constellation of issues. He was half her, and half Ahab, she remembered, looking across the wide river hoping to spot the fin of a whale.
Rachel Aydt is a part-time Assistant Professor of writing at the New School University. She also teaches a hybrid prose class at the Writing Institute of Sarah Lawrence College. She’s published essays and short stories in The White Review, HCE Review, Broad Street Journal, Post Road, Green Mountains Journal, and many other publications, and has completed a memoir. She lives in New York City and is co-founder of the Crystal Radio Sessions series at the KGB Bar in Manhattan.