Virtual Baby (Libbie Chellew)
There was a bottle half-full with formula on the floor in front of the Vulcan, a pile of unfolded washing on the other end of the couch and a full mug holding my morning coffee on the mantel. There was a towel, probably making the carpet damp, next to a plastic tub filled with filmy bathwater. I saw the dummy wedged between the carpet and the underneath of the coffee table.
I lay on the couch, feeling resigned and heavy. My mouth was slack against a woolly cushion. It was just after four and the house had been quiet for twenty minutes. I gave myself another moment before I sat up. Even though the house was quiet I felt no peace. The orchestra had stopped but there was still a relentless silence that pounded in my ear.
I touched the vomit-crusted shoulder of my t-shirt. I thought about finally getting to wash my hair. I thought about taking off my t-shirt. Reluctantly, I stood up.
I took off the t-shirt and threw it towards the hallway. I stood in my bra in the middle of the living room and felt the carpet under my toes. I looked down. I could cut those nails, I thought. I could vacuum too. I brushed crumbs towards the coffee table with my foot. On the coffee table was another mug; the tea inside had started to creep up the sides.
My husband’s mug. He had left the tea, half drunk, nearly nine hours earlier. He’d left for work in haste, starting with the clink of that mug on the coffee table and finishing with the beating of his motorcycle’s revs as he rolled over the gravel toward the street. My husband had fixed a loose screw on the cot before he left. He had fixed it but he hadn’t said a proper goodbye. I took the mug into the kitchen.
Rain pattered on the roof. Outside the kitchen window the sky was grey to the edge, making the trees and shadows darker. I wondered if he would come back from work. He has left me, I thought. He has driven off to work and thought, that’s enough. The noise has become too much. He has decided that he doesn’t love me anymore. We only ever seem to talk about things that need to be done or fixed. He would say, sadly, she couldn’t seem to make an effort. He would say he wasn’t satisfied and he would ask how his life got him here. I imagined making dinner for one. I imagined making tomato on toast. I mouthed the word ‘scurvy.’
I ran the tap in the kitchen sink until the water was hot. I put his mug under. The circular stain of tea didn’t shift. I added the mug to the collection of dishes on the bench top—about three days worth. I put in the plug and the alien-green detergent. The steam fogged the window for a moment. White hail started suddenly, and hit the windowsill and bounced off the top of the fence. I watched the hail as the bubbles bred. I wanted to go outside and turn my face towards the sky, keep my eyes squeezed shut and open my mouth, just to feel the sensation.
I opened the cupboard below the sink and took out a pair of gloves. I pulled the yellow rubber gloves onto my flexed hands. I started with the cutlery. When I leant over to take a stack of bowls my bare stomach touched the wet steel lip of the sink edge and made a line across my lower belly. I stood back quickly, taking a tea towel to my wet skin. The bowls I held slipped and clanged like cymbals against the sink. I swore quietly. I waited, leaning on the sink. I felt the steam behind my ears and on my eyes. Suddenly, it cried out.
I pulled at the gloves and they come off with a thwack, their insides revealing a paler version of their yellow surface. I slowly walked down the hallway to our room. I went in and looked down into the cot. Simulacra. Automation. Virtual. Virtual Baby. I turned away and looked for a t-shirt on the floor. I found one, not clean, but free of vomit. I pulled the t-shirt over my head. I looked back in the cot.
I touched my lower stomach, staring at the baby. It wasn’t crying as much anymore, as if it had forgotten it was meant to be. Then after a moment it started again. I wasn’t convinced. I had automatically come to the cot, conditioned to my duties but my arms were tired, immobile. It made the same noise over and over, shaking the head, jolting the body. Slowly, I placed my hand on its chest. It was warm. I could feel its heartbeat. Its chest rose and fell rhythmically with its tears.
I split the studs of the jumpsuit apart. I rolled it onto its side, checked under its arms and ran my hand over the back of its neck. I searched everywhere for a seam, for stitching, for an off button. Nothing. He was smooth. Except for some eczema in his elbows. I stood upright and breathed in. I could see myself faintly in the bedroom window, my face patterned by the fence.
I took a blanket, lifted him out and hurried out of the room. In the lounge room I calmed him. I sat on the half of the couch that wasn’t covered in unfolded washing. I made a flurry of shushing noises and sympathetic hums. This calmed him and he stopped crying. He looked up at me, his eyes bulging but his stare distant, as if his attention was inward. He kicked and wriggled violently. I started to fold. He was asleep when I was about half-way through the pile. I turned the TV on with the volume low.
I wished I had found something else to do before I’d gotten myself stuck there.
A motorcycle made a distant thunderous change of gear. I sat still as the roar came closer; I listened to it gear down to a deep rumble on approach to the house. He was home. His bike crunched up the drive. A cold draft followed him in and he came over to kiss my head, his icy face was soft against my cheek. I wiped my hair away from my face. He turned the television up so each word of the show could be heard. He talked to me about the hail and the dints in the cars at work. He was saying how lucky it was he had the bike parked in the warehouse.
There was movement on my legs. I raised the baby up and held him against my chest. I pulled out my breast and moved it carefully to his lips. He squeezed his eyes shut and sucked. I thought of something else to add to the list, something else to fix. I registered a sour taste in my mouth. I shouldn’t be left alone, I thought.
‘I have to talk to you about something.’
He looked at me.