Lookaftering

Louisa hadn’t even realized she was pregnant when she gave birth to the eggs. She had woken up late, after Wally had left, and so made her own breakfast. As usual when this happened, she didn’t care for it. She felt fine while scraping the leftovers into the trash, but later while lying out on the couch she began to feel a strange uncoiling in her stomach, like a snake letting loose from a trick can. 

Wally found her that evening standing over the toilet. 

 Julia Justo

Julia Justo

“What is it,” he said, in that flat way that didn’t want an answer.

“I’m not sure.”

There were three of them, each one about the size of a fist, pale lilac in color. They’d made a dainty plop when they hit the water, sliding down to gather together in the crotch of the bowl.

“What the fuck, Louisa,” Wally said when he came to stand beside her.

“Well, this is just as much your fault as mine,” she said.

“Whoa now,” he took a step back, “let’s not go throwing words like that around.”

“They got inside me somehow.”

“Don’t look at me,” Wally said. “Anyway, I thought you were on the pill.”

“I’m on a pill,” Louisa said.

She crouched down, wanting to get away from him for a moment. The eggs were still; their shells showed no cracks from knocking against the porcelain. There was something peaceful about them. She wondered how heavy they might be, how delicate. There were so many others she had cracked thoughtlessly over the years, little white shards in her wake. She reached down and picked one up.

“That’s it,” Wally said. “I’m out of here.”

It settled in the center of her palm, the same weight and texture as a billiard ball.

“Aren’t you going to help me with these?” she asked to his departing backside.

“Are you snake or bird?” she shouted to the empty doorway, but he did not return to her. Not for a couple days, at least.

*

By then Louisa had done her research. She’d dried the eggs, wrapped them in a dishtowel, and set them underneath her desk lamp which she kept lit at all hours even though it made it difficult to sleep. Her fourth grade class had done the same with chicken eggs for a group experiment once; she’d been the only one to see them hatch. They’d come out wet and wobbly, like chewed up gum with a pair of legs. None lived more than a couple days. Six years later, in high school, she’d had to carry around a sack of flour for a day, treating it like an infant. When she wasn’t looking one of the other girls had cut a hole in the bag. The next time she picked it up white powder spilled all over the floor. Louisa was determined to do better this time. 

Wally liked to make dramatic re-entrances into her life so she didn’t bat an eye when he tumbled through the door, hair mussed, clothes polluted, the smell of lost spirits on his breath. She was seated at the kitchen table, one of her mother’s old encyclopedias propped up in front of her.

“Did you know,” Louisa said as he began banging around in the cupboards for the coffee, “that the female platypus, after mating, will construct an elaborate underground burrow from leaves and reeds to house her eggs? She drags these materials to the nest using her curled tail.”

He sniffed the grounds he found, made a dissatisfied grunt.

“And,” she continued, “that the female platypus doesn’t have teats. Milk is released through the pores in her skin.”

“Please Louisa,” Wally said. “I can’t handle this right now.”

“But you will later,” she said, looking up at him. “Or else you wouldn’t be here.”

He didn’t answer her then but that night, reaching for sleep as one does for air underwater, he rolled over and put his hand on top of hers and squeezed.

*

Louisa and Wally had only been living together for four months but they’d known each other since college. She suspected it was because of these two combined factors that he came back to her, despite his reservations about the situation. They were twenty-seven now and though they had once professed to grand plans for the future they both worked part-time. He tended bar in the afternoons or, as he called it, the graveyard shift. She had been a receptionist at a gym but was fired two weeks ago after mixing up Krav Maga and Capoeira, inconveniencing two trainers and thirty students. “It just doesn’t seem like you care enough about the Crush Fitness family,” her boss had said. 

She and Wally had never discussed having kids before. That was still something that only happened to other people, like parents with cancer or getting accepted to graduate school. They were pixels on a Facebook page. They were decisions, or at least accidents that became ones. But surely parenthood was not the word for what this was. Surely there was some other way to make sense of it.

*

A week went by, during which the eggs didn’t seem to change at all. Louisa wanted to keep them in the kitchen because it was the room that got the best light, but that seemed reckless. And what would they do if friends came over? They never did but still. Instead she built a nest out of shredded old newspaper, adding a little more every day as the world carried on its own business. When she held them in her hand she swore she felt a tiny pulse inside.

Then one morning Wally announced, “I called your mother.”

“Oh God,” Louisa said. “She’s not coming down here is she?”

Her mother had a house four hours away by car but had never been to visit. This was how she made her disapproval of their living situation known.

“She thinks you’re being irrational and wants you to see a doctor.”

Louisa rolled her eyes.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Wally said. 

“Maybe I should see a vet instead,” she grumbled. But she knew he was right.

Luckily Dr. Sparks had an opening that afternoon. “Did you know,” Louisa said on the drive over to the offices, “that parrots nest in cavities, like tree hollows or cliff sides? And that both parents participate in the excavation? There’s often intense competition for spots. And when the babies are born they don’t have feathers.”

“I really don’t think you’ve laid parrot eggs,” Wally said. He’d insisted on bringing them along; Louisa held them in her lap, stored in a Tupperware container lined with cloth napkins.

“I know I haven’t,” she said. “Parrot eggs are white.”

“Plus, they live over a hundred years. I wouldn’t want our kids to be around that long.”

Louisa smiled; Wally always joked like that when he was nervous.

*

“Well,” Dr. Sparks said after Louisa had positioned herself on the exam table, slapping his hands and rubbing them together like he was hovering over a steak dinner, “what seems to be the trouble?”

She had been going to Dr. Sparks for six years but she still never felt entirely comfortable around him. He had a bald head and a tall, thin frame, like a beaker turned upside down, and a jovial, forthright manner that she found irritating; she suspected he couldn’t be trusted to deliver bad news.

“Hmm,” he said after she explained what had happened, “maybe it was something you ate,” and directed a barking laugh at Wally who was seated between the sink and a box of toys to distract young children.

“I think this is pretty serious,” he mumbled. 

Dr. Sparks cleared his throat, chastened perhaps, or merely disappointed. “You have them with you?” he said, turning back to Louisa who handed over the Tupperware. He popped it open and picked one up, holding it to his right eye while closing the left, spinning it with the counterfeit expertise of a pawnshop owner appraising jewelry. 

“Any lingering discomfort? Or spotting?” he asked.

Louisa shook her head.

“And while you were passing them. Did it hurt then?”

“Not really,” she said. “It kind of felt like sex. But in reverse.”

Nobody knew how to respond to that.

He listened to her chest through a stethoscope, prodded her stomach with his fingers, offered to send her down the hall for a sonogram but Louisa declined. 

“I can’t find anything wrong with you,” Dr. Sparks said.

“Well,” Louisa replied, “I guess that’s a relief.”

They were both silent on the drive home, at least until they pulled into the apartment lot. “For the record,” Wally said as he eased the car into its space, “I didn’t think anything was actually wrong with you. I just wanted to be sure you were safe.”

“I’ll be sure to note that down in my ‘Pro Wally’ column,” she said, pinching him affectionately on the upper arm.

That night she fell asleep listening to phlegm rattling like a sticky marble in Wally’s chest. It sounded like growing old together.

*

A week later Louisa answered a knock at the front door and found a reporter for the local news station standing there. 

          “What do you want?” she said, more curious than malicious.

          The woman was young, perhaps as young as Louisa, and seemed as tightly wound as her hair. She’d matched her nail color to the shade of her blazer and skirt so meticulously that Louisa found herself staring at her, wondering which decision had come first. The woman stared back, waiting for her to notice the camera crew that stood behind her, the puffy-headed microphone she held close to her breast.

          Wally was at work and usually much better at turning people away from the apartment so she didn’t realize what a mistake she’d made until they were inside, eyeing with unkindness the unframed concert posters on the walls, the loose screws in the Ikea furniture, the stacked dishes listing in the sink. 

          “May we see them?” the newswoman asked. She’d introduced herself, something alliterative, but Louisa had already forgotten it.

          “See them?” she repeated.

          “The eggs,” the woman said. “They are real, aren’t they?”

          Louisa winced as if threatened with a blow.

          “Tell me,” she blurted. “Are you familiar at all with the emperor penguin?”

          Later that night, when the segment was airing, the eggs looked dull, dishwater gray, neglected in their large, shabby nest. The light from above reflected on their surfaces like tiny windows, the camera moving steadily closer until they nearly filled the screen, grainy and utilitarian as a missing persons photograph.

          “Do you sit on them?” the woman’s voice asked before it cut to Louisa propped on the same living room couch she watched from now with Wally.

          “Do I look tired?” she murmured, reaching up to touch her face, but Wally shushed her: “I want to hear what you say.”

          They stared at her funhouse mirror image before them, waiting. 

          “No, I don’t,” the image said. “I think the weight would be too much for them.”

          “Was that a good answer?” Louisa asked. Wally shrugged, keeping his gaze on the television.

          “What do you imagine is inside them?” the woman asked.

          “I don’t know, but I hope they look like me.”

          “Would you call yourself their mother?” she prodded.

          “I think I’ll wait to hear what they want to call me.”

          Wally laughed. “That’s a good one,” he said. There was a beery glint in his eyes that Louisa didn’t like the look of.

          “You know,” the woman continued, “many parents struggle to prepare even for one child. What are you going to do with three?”

          “I think I’ll manage,” Louisa’s image said. “Lots of women deal with much more.”

          “So you’re raising them alone then?”

          Onscreen Louisa shrugged and the camera shifted abruptly to the outside of the apartment where the newswoman stood, a veil of grave concern over her features, and began intoning about absentee fathers and single mothers, the scourge of unplanned parenthood on the land.

          “Wait, they cut me off!” Louisa said but Wally was already getting up from the couch. “I said you would be helping me. I said they could find photos of us on the fridge. I took them in the kitchen and showed them. I told her we were like emperor penguins, how the female transfers the egg to the male after she lays it. How sometimes during the process couples drop the egg and the chick inside freezes. I told her we wouldn’t be like that. We’d be like the ones who recognize one another’s calls.”

          “It doesn’t matter Louisa,” he said. “You should never have let them in to begin with. Why, why did you do that? Why did you show or tell them any of it?”

          “Because she didn’t believe me.”

          “Who cares?” Wally spat.

          “I needed her to believe me,” Louisa said. “We can’t be the only ones who believe.”

          Wally shook his head, stalked into the bedroom, and shut the door. The news had moved on to the weather. There was a week of sunny days ahead.

*

          There weren’t many of them, at first. Just a few neighborhood ladies with hair the color and style of cotton candy peeping through the front windows. When Wally saw them he rapped the window with his knuckles, as if to scatter them like birds. But they returned the next day, and the day after that, growing in number each time.

          “What do you think they want?” Louisa asked but Wally was still not speaking to her, at least not directly.

          One day after Wally left for the bar she ventured out to them. Some had brought lawn chairs and sat knitting or flipping through magazines; others loitered further back, leaning against the railing that rounded the property. When Louisa stepped out they all turned toward her in unison, like creatures in some nature documentary. She paused in the doorway, waiting for one of them to say something. But they were waiting too.

          “Can I help you?” she asked.

          The women exchanged glances of covert import. “No,” one of them said. “We’re here to help you.”

          “That is,” said another, “we want to be ofhelp.”

          “We saw you,” another said, “on the news.”

          “You seemed lost,” shouted one from the rear.

          “That boyfriend of yours, always coming and going,” the first said and the others shot her disapproving looks.

          Louisa regarded them with curiosity. The older women in the building had never shown much interest in her or Wally, never responded to their greetings with more than a nod or a curl of the lip. Their youth marked them as interlopers, freeloaders, reminded them of the worst impulses of their own kids, who threw water balloons at the mailman and got arrested for trespassing at the rail yards. But there was an amusing quality to how they gathered, mobilized, as if maternity was something that must be bestowed.

          “Let me think about it,” she said. 

          That night Wally came home tripping over the tips of his shoes. 

          “Did you know,” she said as he tumbled into the bedroom, “that snakes use internal fertilization? The males store paired, forked hemipenes in their tails that hook into the females’ insides.”

          “Ouch,” Wally said, but it may have been for other reasons.

          “They also abandon their eggs as soon as they’re laid,” she continued. “Except for pythons, which coil around them until they hatch. Female pythons will even shiver to generate heat for incubation.”

          She got up from the bed and went to the desk, plucking one of the eggs from the nest. The lilac color had begun to fade, as if it’d been left too long in the sun; now it looked the same dishwater gray as it had on the television.

          “Do you think I should do something else with them?” she mused. “Maybe build something that will keep them on my person? Like a pouch or a sling?”

          “You’re doing fine,” Wally slurred. “You’re doing fine lookaftering them.”

          Louisa held the egg up to her ear as if she might hear the ocean in it. But there was just the gentle swell of Wally’s snores.

*

          Once, not long after she and Wally started dating, Louisa was approached by a lost girl in the mall. She looked exactly the way you’d expect someone left behind to look: saddle shoes, pigtails, thumb in mouth. “I can’t find my Dad,” she’d whispered, giving the last word clear uppercase emphasis, when Louisa bent down towards her outside the Orange Julius. 

          Louisa did everything she thought she was supposed to do. She asked what her Dad looked like: tall, thin, wore glasses. He was a doctor, which was a fact provided without prompting. She let the girl lead her by the hand around the stores while she conveniently remembered that no, her Dad hadn’t come in here after all. Louisa tried locating a security guard but the girl always distracted her with tears or a request for some of her soft drink. Finally, after the girl asked to use her cell phone, Louisa gave her all the money in her wallet and left her by the fountain. 

          “You did the right thing,” Wally said when she told him. “I’m sure it was a scam. I bet her dad wasn’t even a doctor at all.”

          At the time Louisa convinced herself that she agreed, but now the memory frightened her. It seemed some sign of her capacity for monstrousness.

*

          A week after the women began to arrive, Louisa’s mother called. 

          “I saw you in the grocery store this morning,” she said in her brittle-boned voice. A life-long smoker.

          “That’s impossible,” Louisa said. “I haven’t been to the store.”

          “Not youyou. Your face.”

          “My face?” Louisa repeated. 

          “You’re a tabloid sensation,” her mother said, with the same enthusiasm she reserved for announcing the results of a recent colonoscopy.

          “I am?”

          “Don’t speak like that, honey. It makes you sound slow.”

          “But I don’t understand what you’re telling me.”

          “You’re on the cover of Idol. There’s an article too. About you and Wally and your little… situation.”

          Louisa glanced over at the eggs, as if they might have heard.

          “Well? What about it?”

          Her mother sighed which set something loose and she began coughing. 

          “Now, honey,” she continued once it passed, “I’ve known Wally for years. You know that I love him. But.”

          Louisa waited.

          “But it just doesn’t look right. Him never being around, coming home late, drunk. It’s all in the story.”

          “And?”

          “Don’t you see? Everyone who reads it will think they know things about you. Like the way they think they know things about movie stars. Or the president. Or anyone who’s not them. I just want you to be prepared, that’s all.”

          Louisa sighed, raking her teeth along the edge of her right thumbnail. “Do you remember those encyclopedias you gave to me?” 

          “Not really,” her mother said.

          “It doesn’t matter. But I’ve been reading them. Most fish, you know, engage in oviparity. The females lay a great number of eggs, sometimes several million, which are externally fertilized by the males. Then the eggs are left to develop on their own. The parents have really no say at all.”

          “True,” her mother mused. “But how many end up as caviar instead of fish?”

          After hanging up Louisa went to the front window and peered at the women outside through the curtain. Most were doing what they had been all week: chatting, painting one another’s nails, taking lopsided selfies. But a few held copies of Idol, were shuffling through the pages, the image of the eggs from the television reproduced in queasy close-up, like quivering porno flesh. Louisa shrank from the sight. She wanted nothing to do with them.

*

          Wally found her on the bedroom floor in a fetal curl around the nest. He knelt down and held a copy of Idolin front of her face. 

          “How did this happen?”

          He didn’t sound angry, but deeply, deeply sad.

          “The way all of it happened,” she said. “Without anybody asking me.”

          “Nobody asked me either,” Wally said, bringing his butt down and crossing his legs to sit.

          “I did,” Louisa said. “On the very first day. I asked if you would help me.”

          “And I am. Aren’t I?”

          Louisa sat up, rubbing at her eyes, blurring the Wally before her.

          “Is this what you think of me?” he continued. “What these rags say?”

          Wally came back into focus. He looked older than she remembered them being. She thought back to when they had first met, which was different from when they first decided on one another. It was at a party in college, held in an abandoned apartment complex. Half the roof had already been torn down and the rest of the building was set to follow in the new year. The first snow of the winter came early and the floors were covered in a damp white dust. There was no electricity; everyone huddled around trash can fires, or one another, for warmth. Others sprawled out on the staircase that led up to an open sky. Beer was retrieved from a bathtub filled with ice.

They’d gotten into a room upstairs somehow, underneath a shredded section of the sky. It was empty aside from the snow, which had fallen in haphazard clumps from the jutting skeleton of the roof. The wallpaper had split and peeled away in the cold; it hung from the walls in stiffened strips, a woman caught undressing. The floorboards groaned beneath them as they wandered. “Is this safe?” Louisa had asked.

“Probably not,” he said.

He’d tried to kiss her that night but Louisa, skittish and virginal, took one step back too many and fell to the ground. She lay spread-eagle for a moment, not sure what to do. Then she brought her legs together and her arms down and made a snow angel.

  Later Wally would confide that was the first moment he knew he could love her. She couldn’t remember when she knew she could feel the same way.

Now Louisa reached out for the paper and began tearing pieces of it off, adding it to the nest. Wally watched her in silence until she finished, little black smudges left behind on her fingertips, then he grabbed her left wrist. He held his other hand out, palm up.

“Do you trust me?” he said.

Several years later, after Louisa had given birth to their first child, while Wally was out trying to locate some coffee in the hospital commissary, two nurses waited while she tried to get her new daughter to latch onto her breast. It was a tedious process to watch as it was almost always successful eventually, and yet it kept them in a state of suspense nonetheless. The baby’s head lolled about like a buoy on an ocean. 

          “She’ll get it,” the younger one whispered to the other. But the older one was not convinced. How could you ever know a thing like that?

But now Louisa reached into the nest and picked up one of the eggs, placing it gently in Wally’s outstretched hand. It was the first time he had held one. They’d grown no larger in their six weeks of existence but there was a density to them now that felt fibrous, braided, less like the pulsing of a heart than the flexing of a muscle.

They held their breath as Wally let it settle into the cradle of his palm, both looking down at what was between them. As the minutes ticked silently by on the digital clock they drew closer until their foreheads rested against one another, forming a chaste tent. And then, just as they were starting to get comfortable, there was a tiny cracking sound, like kindling starting to splinter on a fire. Something was breaking through the surface of the egg. They remained as still as possible, waiting to see what they had made.