I was surprised to learn, seven months into dating Melinda, that she didn't like to hold hands.
"Please don't take it personally," she said, her thin ring-less fingers delicately clutched together, resting atop the shelf of her bare pregnant belly. "I never really liked it with anyone, but then I got the feeling you weren't so into it either so why are we doing this thing just because it's what people do?"
This announcement came soon after the one in which she told me I would be the father of her child, and before she announced that she would no longer be working with me and her other friends at the Pick Me! Pet Shop. That was where I had fallen in love with the way she pretended to shake hands with guinea pigs like they were little politicians, and the way she gave funny voices to hermit crabs that sometimes said I was cute but I should really try to get into my shell, and the way she once walked by me and lifted up my shirt and slyly put a kitten up underneath like she wanted me to sneak it home.
I had always been self-conscious about holding hands—about how clammy it made them—but with Melinda I wanted to do it anyway, be linked to her even if something about it felt wrong. I never knew if the clamminess was mostly from me or just an aspect of the human condition when hands touch for more than a few passing seconds. I could have taken Melinda's refusal to hold my hand as evidence that I was the source of clamminess. But I decided to see it as a kindness to me, and as a sign of her belief that we were linked by a more enduring bond than our sweaty grip.
The way Melinda told me I was to be the father of her child was by showing up for work at the Pick Me! with an oversized manila envelope, the kind with a hole in the flap and a metal tab-closer that goes through the hole. She held the envelope in front of her and told all of us to guess what was inside. She always wanted to make people guess things, like what thoughtful present you were going to open from her on your birthday, or what adorably ironic name she had given the new tarantula we had for sale.
This time, Jamie guessed the envelope contained an acceptance to graduate school. Melinda said no, not yet, but thanks for the vote of confidence—and it would have been a pretty solid guess if no one had invented email for sending college announcements.
Martin said it was the last will and testament of Melinda's awful great aunt Gertrude leaving her with custody of one of the world's meanest parrots (whom we all dutifully hated) and a multi-million-dollar trust fund to care for the old bird. "She wishes," Melinda said, "but no."
I said it was PETA's latest fundraising appeal, with a picture and story about experiments on gerbils. Melinda's look said, That isn't even funny, but I wasn't joking.
"All guesses are wrong!" Melinda said, as she always liked to say. She lifted the tabs, opened the envelope, and pulled out a large photographic negative. She held it up against the glass of a six-foot coral strewn aquarium with LED lighting. "Look, I'm having a sleepy little seahorse," she said.
There it was, curled on its back. Its body gently rounded like a seahorse, but no curving tail and long snout. Just a perfect pineapple of a head, and the side outline of a bent leg, a chest, a thin arm, and a hand with actual tiny fingers. I wanted to press that photo negative into my chest and hold it there.
Melinda moved the image up, down, and across the tank like it was swimming, exploring, seeking shelter in the mini-reef.
Despite the joy at seeing Melinda's baby, I felt a panic washing over me, but then Melinda smiled and held up a hand for me to high-five. We all took this as confirmation that I was the father. The math worked. We'd been sleeping together for six months. I returned Melinda's high-five. Jamie cheered. Martin patted me on the back.
Melinda lifted her baggy sweatshirt to show off the slight bulge in her belly. I was no expert on pregnancy, but I wondered how long she had known about the baby if she already had a baby bump. And it's true that our sex was not the most regular thing, but I felt self-conscious about not having noticed sooner.
A few weeks after the end of holding hands, Melinda told me she had more big news. I immediately thought twins; maybe one shy fetus was very good at hiding, like a crafty fish in a tank, and had shielded itself behind the other in the ultrasound.
"It's so amazing," she said. "I'm going to be an interpreter at the touch tank."
"Whoa!" I said. "Since when are we getting a touch tank?"
"No, I mean at the Aquarium," which she pronounced slowly, like I was a foreign tourist asking directions. "The real deal. They hired me."
"You mean, like, you applied?" I said. I didn't even know she was looking for other jobs.
"I interviewed last week to work at the shark and ray tank. I told the woman I've been obsessed with sharks since I was two years old, and know all their facts and habits, and I've been to the aquarium about a million times. I even told her I have adult shark-pajamas. And that I think I want to learn to be a professional aquarist, so I'll be passionate about the work. She called today and said I could have the job, and she thinks I'm perfect."
Melinda is perfect—like a perfect stray Norwegian Forest cat that could have wandered in and claimed the storefront windowlight of any pet store, but somehow chose mine. That's not what I said. I said what popped into my head. "Did you tell her you're pregnant?"
"No," she said, a little angrily. "That's not their business. I don't have to tell, and they're not allowed to ask. It's the law."
"Oh," I said. "And what exactly is an aquarist? Don't you already take care of aquariums?"
"An aquarist isn't a job at a pet store with tropical fish. It's a profession where you're specially trained to care for animals that live in aquariums and educate the public about them."
"Wow," I said. "That's...amazing. Congratulations."
She looked deflated.
"This is where you hug me and say I'm so proud of you," she said.
"Do you still like hugging?"
"Yes, I like hugging, doofus. What are you talking about?"
I gave a her a big hug, wrapping my arms around her lower back. I'm tall. She's not. Our hugs can be awkward. Her forehead rested on my shoulder. I felt the slight protrusion of her belly press against my groin. I hugged tighter and forgot what I was supposed to say.
The crew at the Pick Me! usually went to happy hour on Friday night after closing the shop. Melinda had been our organizer. We'd missed two in a row now that she was both pregnant and no longer working with us and didn't get back from her aquarium shift until after six on Friday; happy hour was nearly over by then. Jamie and Martin seemed a little unhappy with me, like there had been some sort of divorce and they were stuck with me even though the one they really wanted around was the old Melinda.
I made the three of us go to happy hour the next Friday when Melinda would be working longer than usual because the aquarium was staying open late for Free First Friday. I kept ordering rounds of Jägermeister shots. Melinda always had a funny way of saying "Be the Meister!" with a villainous Germanic accent when encouraging us to down our shots, so that had become our drink and one of our taglines. Our baby had probably been conceived after one of these happy hours, because those accounted for most of the nights when Melinda and I had sex.
After we were good and buzzed, Jamie said we should go to the Aquarium for the last hour and see Melinda and her sharks. Martin started chanting, "Sharks! Sharks! Sharks!" like you would say, Shots! Shots! Shots! Jamie and I joined in, and soon we were laughing and chanting our way to the aquarium.
We went right past the stiff little penguins and the psychedelic outer-spacey jellyfish on our way to the sharks and rays. The crowd around the long curving tank was two rows deep with kids and their intense parents. I couldn't even see what was in the tank, but I could see Melinda from the waist up, standing tall on a platform at one end of the tank. She seemed to hover there, casting her smile over all of us down below. Next to her stood another woman, also on a platform, and much taller than Melinda, maybe as tall as I am. They both wore blue aquarium staff t-shirts and microphone headsets. Melinda had mentioned this touch tank co-worker, Amber, who had studied biology at a fancy college and might still go on to become a doctor.
"If you look closely at the sandy bottom in the middle of the tank," Amber said," you may be able to see one of my favorite creatures we've got here—the Cownose Ray. Its sandy color helps it blend right in to the shallow ocean bottoms where it likes to hide."
Standing sideways in the crowd, I managed to just barely squeeze one arm between two boys who were belly up to the edge of the tank. I felt my hand plunge into cold water, but without forcing the boys further apart I had no view of what was beneath my fingers. I just stood there, half-bent, looking over the curly head of the boy next to me to watch Melinda and the tall woman beside her, who went on speaking through her microphone:
"Something you might find interesting about the Cownose Ray—and about all rays and sharks—is that they have no bones, unlike other species of fish. Their skeleton is made up of flexible cartilage, like what you have in your nose."
Amber pinched the end of her nose and moved it back and forth several times, as if imitating the nose-wiggle of that housewife-witch from the 1950's.
I felt something soft and fleshy press up against my hand in the water. It made me jerk backward, lift my hand from the tank. Amber's eyes settled on me. She was grinning. I stepped away from the edge of the tank and found myself next to Jamie and Martin.
"The Cownose Ray is also notable for its sexual dimorphism," Amber said, still looking at me. "That probably sounds odd to many of you, but it just means that the males and females of the species have pronounced differences in appearance and behavior. Studies have shown that the adult female Cownose mostly eats nutrient-rich clams and crabs—Yum!—while the male's diet is dominated by small worms and amphipods."
Some people laughed. A little girl's voice said, Ewww. I glanced over at Melinda, who was looking at Amber, beaming encouragement. Then she looked down into the tank.
"Ooh, I'd like to draw everyone's attention to the pair of sharks passing right below me now," Melinda said with excitement in her voice. All eyes moved in her direction. "It's the Smooth Dogfish Shark."
I noticed Amber turn to look at Melinda and raise her eyebrows like she expected to hear something amazing.
"You see they're fast swimmers," Melinda said. "We actually have four of them in this exhibit, all females. They're also known as the Atlantic Smooth Dogfish, or the Dusky Smooth-Hound, or my favorite of their nicknames, the Smooth Dog, which I love because it makes me think of the rapper Snoop Dog in the form of a four-foot shark."
This elicited more laughs than I would have expected. Jamie and Martin each gave a little hoot of appreciation. Melinda looked delighted. I thought of our baby swimming in the warm bath of Melinda's delight.
"The Smooth Dogfish is the largest species in this tank—like I said, about four feet long—and lives up and down the Atlantic coast, from Massachusetts to Brazil."
Melinda squatted to bring herself closer to several little girls who were gathered near the platform she was standing on. At the Pick Me!, she was always the best at talking to any shy kids, kneeling to their level and encouraging them to share what they most dreamed of in a pet. You felt that she might have once been shy herself but had learned to shed that skin without forgetting what it was like to be shy. You felt okay speaking up and being your dumb self with Melinda.
"Can you guess what gives Dogfish Sharks their name?" she asked.
I perked up to listen carefully.
"Because they have teeth," one girl said, holding her jaws together with her lips open wide.
"Interesting," Melinda replied.
"I think it's because they're friendly," said another kid.
"And they're nice to pet," said a third with two hands in the tank.
Hearing three responses to Melinda's question seemed to trigger something Pavlovian in me.
"All guesses are wrong!" I shouted, somehow believing that my lover and my friends would say it too. I didn't realize I was shouting until I saw Melinda, Amber, Jamie, Martin, and most of the other people around the tank gaping at me.
Melinda's expression was painful to witness. She didn't look angry so much as confused, and perhaps tired, as if realizing she carried an unexpected burden. I saw Amber shake her head.
Melinda regained her composure and explained that Dogfish get their name from a tendency to hunt in packs, often segregated by gender. I wondered if she had planned to make another joke along with this factoid but perhaps forgot it when I distracted her.
Amber was hard to get rid of, like that smell on your hands after cuddling an unneutered ferret. She was always coming over to Melinda's apartment. She seemed to have a vast knowledge of the foods that would taste best at each moment of a pregnancy. I swear Melinda would talk about wishing she had some lemons, and moments later Amber was knocking on the door with a burlap bag of lemons. More than once I was headed down the stairs to satisfy some newly arrived craving and I met Amber on the way in with exactly what was needed. They never admitted to having talked about it earlier in the day, but I sometimes thought they must have.
Once, while we were having breakfast on Melinda's day off, I asked if she wanted to marry me. I hadn't planned it, didn't have a ring. We still weren't even living together. But I felt a sense of purpose being in her life and wanted to help raise her child. And I'd noticed that the general fatigue and stress of pregnancy—along with a bleeding scare the OBGYN now thought was under control—had dented Melinda's breezy confidence about being a fully independent single mother. I wanted her to know she wasn't alone.
"You're not serious," she said.
Was this a question or a conclusion? I wasn't sure. I decided to treat it as a question. "I am serious. I would do it right now. I love you."
"I love you, too" she said. This was not the first time we had said it, but I heard a different tone in her voice, like it meant something weightier than it had before.
"I want to be here for you," I said. "If you'd take me, I'd marry you in a heartbeat."
"That's so sweet," Melinda said. She had just taken a bite of the frozen cinnamon bun I'd toasted, but I'm pretty sure she was talking about me, not the bun. "I'm lucky. I didn't even realize what a rock you'd be."
I knocked my knuckles against the side of my head and said: "Solid."
Melinda smiled. "It's hard for me to picture beyond the next few months right now," she said. "But I'm glad you believe in us and plan to be there for me."
I don't know what I expected, but it seemed like she was actually thinking about it.
Then came those dreaded knocks on the door. I knew it was Amber. She always announced herself with an endless series of knocks, not stopping until someone opened. I think she was knocking the orchestral theme music to that Blue Planet documentary series she and Melinda loved to watch together. It gave me chills.
I let her in and said good morning.
"Sure is," she said, brushing past me toward the table. "Beautiful day out. Get those sneakers on, girl."
"Oh, yeah. I forgot to tell you—Amber and I are going for a walk this morning."
Amber stood by the table, looking down at the remains of our cinnamon buns.
"And a little something to eat," she said. "I'm so excited for you to try this Buddha bowl I found. Baby's gonna love it."
I hated how Amber didn't say your baby, or even the baby, but just baby. Baby's really beating the drums in there today. Baby should get a little sunshine. Baby's never heard Lucinda Williams? Oh, baby's in for a treat.
"You want us to bring you something for lunch?" Melinda asked.
"No, I'm good."
Later, I waited to see if Melinda would bring up the subject of my marriage proposal, but she didn't.
I was excited when Melinda asked me to go to birthing class with her. I didn't mind that it was in a dank basement room lit by cold fluorescents. I didn't even mind when the instructor asked if anyone in the group was doing this solo and Melinda hesitated but then half-raised her hand. At least she hesitated.
Then the instructor made a point to say she didn't like the way the media—and men and women alike—have never really stopped not taking men seriously when it came to childbirth. How we all joke and complain about men being unhelpful, or clueless, but what do we expect when we've for so long kept them at a distance from childbirth.
I tried to look at Melinda without looking—see if I could detect how she reacted to this comment. Maybe she wanted to look at me without looking and was so good at it that I could only see her not-looking at me.
As the class went on, we practiced maneuvers that might help relieve discomfort during late pregnancy and early labor. I didn't just watch, but joined right in. We both bent over, hung our heads down, rocked gently back and forth like a pair of sad Eeyores, imploring our upside-down baby to move lower. We also pretended to hula hoop slowly, like a couple of sexy Folk Festival-goers, laughing as our pelvises expanded.
I was particularly good at the penguin walk. In this one, we formed a unit, with me behind Melinda, my long arms surrounding her pregnant belly, fingers linked beneath it, lifting gently, as we stepped together from foot to foot like penguins steadying themselves against the harsh Antarctic wind. Melinda relaxed into me, let herself be led by my earnest desire to warm her.
We were told to practice these together as often as possible, and to have sex, too, as often as possible, which would soften the cervix and help release oxytocin, readying Melinda's body for labor.
What I didn't like was the ice water. The pregnant women were given bowls of it, told to plunge a hand in for as long as they could. My job was not to freeze my hand, but just to stand by and observe Melinda: see how her breathing and posture changed; notice where she looked, whatever her mind sought to counteract the pain. While some of the women stood, jumped, cursed, banged the table, squeezed their partners' hands, pulled them close, Melinda just sat still, looked down at her stomach, as if the baby inside was all she needed.
One of the last tips we received was to trust your own body, not listen to loud annoying people who think they know what's best for you, and just avoid anyone who might upset your sense of safety and calm. This seemed like good advice.
In those final weeks, I mostly worried about the possibility that Melinda's water would break while she was at the Aquarium, that Amber would be the one to take her to the hospital and be her support. I pictured her bossing around security guards: Move aside, clear that octopus from the elevator! Melinda's going into labor! I saw seas of blue t-shirted tourists parting when Amber raised her voice.
Could I have told Melinda she shouldn't let Amber give her a ride to the hospital, or go with her in the Uber? I didn't even have a car. All I could say was that I'd be ready for her call, would drop everything, get myself straight to the hospital.
I imagined entering the maternity ward, seeing Amber with her arms around Melinda attempting the penguin walk. I practiced, in my mind, strolling up like a tuxedo-sporting man in an old-timey movie, tapping Amber on the shoulder, telling her Sorry, I have to cut in. The Melinda in this movie would slip snugly into my penguin embrace.
The call came earlier than expected. We weren't quite in the target zone yet. And my phone didn't ring because I was on the train into work and I get shitty cell coverage sometimes. It was only when I actively checked my phone later at the store that I saw I'd missed Melinda's messages about her water breaking. Then when I called an Uber and came out of the store a few minutes later to find it, I saw some guy down the block with a cast on his leg get in the black Ford Fusion I was looking for: sure enough, it was the license plate for my ride, but they drove off before I could stop them. So I had to call another Uber and wait for it to come along. I tried calling Melinda over and over while I waited and as we drove, but she didn't pick up.
As I jogged through the hospital's hallways looking for the maternity ward, my phone rang. It was Melinda.
"Where are you?" she said.
"Hold on. I'm almost there."
"I started bleeding again," she said, her voice breaking. "They have to get the baby out now."
"They're rolling me into surgery for a C-section. It's all happening so fast. They seem really serious. I'm scared."
"You'll be all right," I said.
I heard a voice in the background faintly say, "We've got to get you under anesthesia. We'll take care of your phone."
"I have to go," she said.
"I love you," I said as the line went dead.
When I entered the surgical waiting room, my eyes went right to the tall woman, her back to me, towering like a colossus over the tropical tank along the wall. She wore her aquarium staff hoodie, and her head was lowered a bit as if she were one of us from the Pick Me! staring down into the tank deciding which creature was next to be sent home.
I sat down across the room from Amber. Terrifying possibilities swam through my brain, all jostling each other like fish drawn to their flakes of food. What if we lost the baby? What if Melinda died but the baby survived? What if they both died? What if they both were fine but neither needed me? I was too scared to even guess which one it might be.
I saw myself—a brine shrimp flake floating on the surface of an unseeable deep, while the lip-less mouth of each imagined future opened wide beneath, wanting to suck me in.
I closed my eyes, waiting to be swallowed. But moments passed and I could still feel my knees in my hands. The room was unchanged when I opened my eyes. Nothing came to make me disappear.
My knees buckled as I stood, but I didn't fall. I wasn't a flake. I could stand, even move. Maybe not with the fearsome grace of a shark or a ray, but I could propel myself across the surface of this sea like a water strider on long bent limbs. I skated awkwardly across the room until I stood beside Amber. Now we were two colossi, side by side. I pictured us in the tank now somehow, the larger fish brushing against our ankles and the curves of our calves, the meek ones finding shelter in the crevices between our toes.
I looked over at Amber, saw she had been crying, but had stopped. Her skin was taut around her clenched jaw.
"You made it," she said, and paused a beat. "And are you actually sticking around?"
She sounded like she was afraid of wasting her time with me.
"I am," I said, then added, "That's something I do."
"I stick around," I said.
The door to the OR unit opened. We turned in unison. A surgeon stepped into the waiting room, her face anchored by stiff, emotionless lips.
Amber grabbed my hand, squeezed tight. We both looked into the mouth that was coming for us.
Blair Benjamin's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, North American Review, Atticus Review, Bluestem Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Spillway, Sugar House Review and Typehouse, among others. He is the Founder and Director of the Studios at MASS MoCA, a residency for artists and writers at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, MA.