Paper Slippers

by Leelila Strogov

Appears in Other Voices #39

You get pregnant on October 22nd although you don’t realize it until well into November. Your body starts changing; your breasts swell a little and become more sensitive to touch and you start to get an obsessive enjoyment out of food for the first time in your life. You feel good and happy just because you’re enjoying all the newness.

You go to a doctor, nevertheless, to make sure. You urinate into a small plastic cup, being careful not to let anything run out over the side, and take it to the woman at the desk. She has café-au-lait colored skin, and her nose is long and thin, its nostrils bending over her front lip as though trying to peer into her mouth. You wonder if the skin behind her fingernails is white because of a lack of pigment like in her palms, or because of the pressure of the nails on the skin. She looks at your face studiously, her eyes slightly squinted behind their spectacles, as though trying to figure out what you’re feeling: fear, hope, excitement, embarrassment. You imagine you look very young to her. But you don’t really feel anything except a sort of strange smugness, and she looks disappointed that she can derive nothing from your expression.

The result is positive, as you knew it would be. The woman at the desk once again seems unsatisfied with your lack of a reaction.

“And how would you like to proceed from here?” she asks.

“Excuse me?” you reply.

“Well, would you like to follow through with the pregnancy or should I schedule you for a D&C?”

“A D&C?” you ask, obviously unclear as to what it means, and too distracted to try to deduce it.

“An abortion,” she replies with her head slightly cocked downwards as though she is speaking into her pencil sharpener.

“Oh, no thank you,” you say, “nothing for the moment.” You take your coat from the closet and leave without putting it on. “Good-bye,” you say.

You don’t hear her return your farewell before the door is completely shut, although she may have. You come home, eat an entire cold roasted chicken with bread and mayonnaise, put on sweat pants and a T-shirt, and crawl into bed with a book of stories by Hemingway. You turn first to your favorite story, to where the book naturally opens, and read the beginning as you always do before turning to anything unfamiliar: “MADRID is full of boys named Paco,” it begins, “which is the diminutive of the name Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.” Every time you read this passage you get a kind of weak feeling in your stomach (just because it is so beautiful), like on the few occasions when you would watch blood being drawn from the middle of your arm. After about two hours, you shut off the light, lie on your back, arrange the blankets using your arms and legs, rest your hands on your belly, and close your eyes for the night.

And your belly grows. You don’t really encourage it to, but you don’t do anything to stop it, and it takes off, as though of its own will. At first it is just a little lump in the usual flatness, until finally it becomes something big and unevenly round, the dent of the belly button having disappeared, and the skin pulled to a bluish tightness. You find you’re running to the bathroom far more than you used to, and when you ask why you are told your kidneys are now working for two. Your hair becomes thicker and grows quickly and wildly. You become cautious at sidewalk steps and revolving doors.

Finally, the day arrives. It is the third week of July, and it is so hot and humid you expect fish to pass by the windows. Labor is difficult, but not unbearable. You try to be cooperative, and constantly remind yourself that it isn’t going to last forever. You accept the epidural when it is offered, even though you vowed you wouldn’t. When you first see him, in your delirium, you think he looks strange; like someone else’s child. You decide he should be called Alex.

The first months are the most difficult because he can’t speak. You leave school and take a job as an assistant at a publishing company. You bring him to day care every morning and pick him up after work. Most of the children there are from black or Hispanic families, as are the ladies hired to take care of them. Alex is white as soap, like you, and you wonder if you are being racist toward them by wondering if they will be toward him. You read articles about children who are drugged by their caretakers to keep them from crying, or not given any human contact for hours on end. And because he is unable to tell you what happens to him when you are not around, you lead a very restless life for what seems like a very long time.

His early years pass slowly, but not without the usual milestones: when he can hold his head up; the first sounds resembling words; the first movements resembling crawls; the first real steps. Still, you don’t get much sleep and you worry about the future: whether you’ll have enough time and money to raise a secure child; how you are supposed to explain the fact that he has no apparent father.

When the time comes and the questions arise you tell him that his father is a journalist and that he travels to many different countries, sometimes putting himself in great danger. You say that although you haven’t heard from him in a long time, you are certain that if he is well he will contact you one day. You try to look sincere. The truth is that last you heard he had become a journalist, but somehow you don’t doubt his safety. You also don’t believe he has any intention of seeing either you or his son ever again, nor do you expect him to. He was strongly against your having the child.

And so Alex grows, bringing less hardship than you had expected. In kindergarten, he is the first to learn to read, and by the first grade he has mastered the grip of the pencil so that he can not only write, but can draw beautifully as well. He makes little plasticine figures that both he and you take great pride in, and soon they decorate every corner of your apartment. And you become friends. You read him postcards that come from far away. You take him food shopping and quietly gossip about people in line with funny toes or hats or mustaches that have been twirled into a second smile. You take him camping and horseback riding, things you used to do with his father. And once in a while, even late on a school night, you turn up the volume on the radio, and dance until you’re both silly with exhaustion.

And soon you are celebrating his first decade, just the two of you (he is too old for birthday parties now, you are told), first at home with a small cake barely able to contain its eleven candles, and then in the bicycle shop where you tell him he can choose any one he wants, within reason. You have been promoted in your job, which you now call a career, and living conditions are better although your time is still pressed. You aren’t seeing anyone romantically because you have neither the time nor the desire, but the thought of marrying crosses your mind on occasion. Alex becomes silently convinced of his father’s death.

And so life passes. You conform to the parenthood role into which you still don’t completely fit. You enforce ridiculous rules concerning table manners and chores and maximum hours of television. But you also give him books to read and movies to see, and he soon learns to trust your judgment. In junior high he takes up playing the guitar as a hobby, and sometimes when you are in bed at night, you don’t allow yourself to sleep in order to hear him and his Fender from underneath your door.

And that’s when you decide to go back.

Perhaps he doesn’t do well in school at all, and his teachers merely let him get by, thinking he’s just another boy from a broken home. And maybe in junior high he becomes close friends with “Stretch,” a skinny, irreverent kid with yellow teeth, and starts skipping school and smoking pot and not caring anymore about the books you so carefully choose for him. And perhaps one day, when you angrily pick him and Stretch up from the police station after they’ve been caught shoplifting, he decides that you aren’t his friend after all, you are his mother, no better or worse than any other mother. And maybe that day, on your way home, he asks you softly, from the passenger seat, if you really think you’ve been such a good role model with your lonely life and your crappy job, while Stretch broadcasts a condescending yellow grin into your rear-view mirror.

And then you go back further and wonder if he is really a he at all, or if you should be adding that crucial a to the end of the name you are now so comfortable with. And you slowly proceed to forget how to gently clean between the many fine creases of baby testicles.

And then you take the final step and call the lady at the desk and tell her. And a half a month later, you put on a little blue paper robe with little blue paper slippers and watch your knees strapped to cold metal lest they betray you. And you cry and feel like a hypocrite for crying, and you leave the room empty. And the father of your emptiness waits for you, and hugs you when he sees you, as if he loves you. But you feel hatred for him that his love is so paltry, so incomplete, that it lets him sleep so peacefully at night.