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Father Figures

One

I arrive at the doctor’s office early in the morning. I have forgotten my mask and ask for one at the front desk. Then I take a seat in the waiting room, which looks like a professionally managed Airbnb. Exposed light bulbs and plastic ivy hang from the roof. There is a pink neon sign on the wall that says, in cursive, ‘better together’. 

The doctor, who wears blue chinos, a checkered shirt and R.M. Williams, calls me into his office. 

‘And why are we here this morning,’ he asks without making eye contact. I tell him that I have been experiencing chest pain. 

‘I see, I see,’ he says tapping notes into his computer. I haven’t eaten breakfast. I feel anxious and I my fingertips go cold. I begin to take deep breaths through my nose. He takes my blood pressure and my pulse. 

‘Are you an athlete?’ he asks. I shake my head.

‘Your pulse is unusually slow,’ he says, and then takes my wrist to check a second time.

‘Your heart is beating thirty-seven times a minute,’ he says. ‘That’s very slow. I’d like you have some blood tests. And an ECG, too.’

He prints off some papers and sends me back to the front desk. They have a nurse who can do the tests on site at the clinic.

‘She is available now if that works for you,’ says the receptionist pointing towards a door.

Inside the door I am greeted by a woman wearing blue scrubs with straight hair cut into a bob. She tells me that she needs to take five vials of blood.

‘Are you a fainter?’ she asks. ‘My son is a fainter, and you look just like him.’

I tell her that yes, I sometimes faint after injections. 

‘Well, you better lie down on the bed then. I don’t think I’ll be able to pick you up off the ground.’

She takes the blood. I don’t faint. 

She asks me to remove my top. She takes out a razor and begins to shave some hair on my chest so she can affix the electrodes for my ECG. Her hands are trembling, and she makes a small cut in my skin. She apologises repeatedly and says that she is exhausted. She has just moved back to Melbourne after thirty years living in Edinburgh. She moved there in her twenties to be with a man, a surgeon, with whom she raised two children, her son the fainter and a daughter.

‘Towards the end of last year, he told me that he had fallen in love with a colleague and that he wanted a divorce. So, I said fine but then I’m moving back to Melbourne. And here I am, away from my children for the first time,’ she says while dabbing the small cut on my chest with disinfectant. ‘That probably doesn’t mean much to someone who doesn’t have children. Oh, well, isn’t that presumptuous of me. I just assumed you don’t have children. But do you?’

I say no, but that in the next year, maybe.

‘We’re talking about it,’ I say.

She nods solemnly and is quiet for a moment. She tells me that her husband used to say that the pinnacle of life is when we are just an idea in our parents’ mind, or a desire in their hearts, but when the embryo is formed that moment of perfection ends and decay begins.

‘It is a fairly bleak way to look at it, don’t you think?’ she says. ‘But also beautiful in its own way.’

Two 

We start singing happy birthday but the person whose birthday it is doesn’t hear us. He is turning ninety-one and his hearing aids have malfunctioned. He continues to eat pizza until his wife taps him on the shoulder, at which point he smiles, blows out the candles, and then continues eating his pizza.

Afterwards I am standing in a corner of the dining room eating a piece of cake. An elegant woman wearing a long, pleated skirt and conspicuous diamond earrings approaches me and wishes me ‘mazal tov’.

‘When I was pregnant with my first, Jack was accepted into Yale to do his PhD,’ she says, placing her hand on my forearm. ‘He left eight weeks before I was due. He wasn’t even here for the bris. Would you believe it? You couldn’t do that now.’ I smile and nod. 

When the baby was six weeks old, the woman continues, she got on a plane with her mother-in-law and went to join her husband in New Haven, Conneticut. They lived on the top floor of a four story walk up near the university.

‘What year was this?’ I ask. She says 1967.

‘Must have been an interesting time to be living in New Haven,’ I say.

‘It was awful,’ she says. ‘I remember one day I took the baby to a department store to buy a toaster. A race riot broke out and we were locked inside for four hours. Of course, we had no phones back then so I couldn’t get on to Jack – not that he was overly concerned. The baby cried the whole time and so did I.’

Three

I try to make eye contact with him, but he averts his gaze, so I sit down on the floor cross-legged. He slinks towards me and sits in my lap. He licks me gently a couple of times and then, without warning, bites down into the webbing between my thumb and forefinger. 

It is not the first time this has happened. Just the other night, as I was watching a hot-dog-eating competition on YouTube, he leapt onto the couch and dug his fangs into my ankle. I had to pull his clamped jaw off with such force that I could hear his breathing become squeaky and asphyxiated under the pressure of my hand.

At times like this I remind myself that his violent behavior is likely a response to a traumatic infancy. The woman we adopted him from said that he and his five brothers were abandoned by their mother at two weeks of age. When kittens don’t spend at least eight weeks with their mother they often develop odd social behaviours. They may be excessively shy and reserved. They may develop an obsessive and anxious relationship to food. Or as is the case with Pico, they can confuse feelings of love with feelings of aggression. 

I gently massage his jaw until he releases my hand. He becomes calm and affectionate, nuzzling back into my lap and purring. I want to stay where I am and hold him. But I recently read on a forum that it is good to take some space after an attack.

I move him off me, stand and walk over to the bookshelf. He follows me and rubs his face on my legs. I take down a book that I have been reading about the mother–infant relationship in the first year of life. The author, a man, says that all a baby needs to thrive during this first stage of life is to be held properly by a mother. The ability to hold, he says, cannot be taught. There is no school for it, no books that can offer a step-by-step guide. Holding is something each mother knows how to do instinctively for their particular child if they can just learn to trust themselves and attune to their baby. 

This sounds simple enough, comforting even. But the author warns that if the mother fails to complete this one requirement the baby will suffer ‘the primitive agonies’, a terrifying list that includes such psychic anguish as going to pieces, falling forever, dying and dying and dying, losing all vestige of the hope of the renewal of contacts.

Four

I am drunk and riding my bike home along Canning Street. I see a man standing naked in the window of a two-storey terrace. Or at least I think that’s what I see. 

The fleeting image leads me to recall a poem I once read by William Carlos Williams, though I can’t remember the name or any of the lines in the poem. 

I pull over and search ‘man naked in window poem william carlos williams’. The first result is a poem called Danse Russe. The speaker of the poem, likely Williams’s avatar, recounts being in his house at night-time after his wife and baby are asleep, finally alone to do as he pleases. He is dancing naked in front of the mirror, waving his shirt around his head, singing softly:

‘I am lonely, lonely.

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!’

Five

On Twitter a guy who posts regularly about avant-garde poetry, machine learning, and David Bowie says having a baby seems bad to him because it reorients adult life back towards childhood and childhood is an awful time, so awful that most adults have wilfully forgotten it, an amnesia that allows them to now selfishly have children to satisfy their egos or fill an existential void.

A surprising number of people agree in comments: yes, they say, childhood is filled with shame and fear, and starting a family reproduces this suffering. 

One man disagrees. He says that having children is like romantic love – an experience both painful and beautiful. And just like with love, for some reason the suffering is easy to talk about. But when you try to describe the beauty, it just ends up sounding like self-justifying propaganda.

Six

‘I am so stressed about the whole thing that I think I gave myself heart irregularities,’ I tell my friend. ‘I have to see a cardiologist.’ 

We are bobbing in the water at St Kilda Beach, watching the sun set. He laughs and then tells me that his parents are getting divorced after more than fifty years of marriage. 

‘They met at high school,’ he says. ‘I don’t think they have ever had sex with anyone else but each other.’

He went to visit his dad a week earlier in his new apartment in the city. They were supposed to go out for breakfast, but instead his dad took a packet of Golden Gaytimes out of the freezer and said they could eat ice cream for breakfast. 

‘And I sat there at this long trestle table watching him eat his ice cream in a really strange way. He kept turning the ice cream on its side and, like, biting at it, like he couldn’t even figure out how to eat an ice cream now.’

The sun sets into the ocean and everyone at the beach spontaneously applauds. We get out of the sea and eat fish and chips. Then we walk back along the Esplanade to his apartment. Around a bend in the path, we see strange fluorescent figures on the rocks leading down to the ocean. As we get closer, we see that they are fisherman wearing helmets to which they have fixed brightly coloured LED lights.

My friend tells me that the fishermen look like a species of grasshopper aliens he once encountered during a DMT trip. ‘They descended from the sky and asked me if I wanted a full body scan and I just politely said no thanks,’ he says. ‘It was very empowering.’

Later, outside his apartment, as we are saying goodbye, he tells me to wait a minute and races inside. He returns holding a brass film canister.

‘There is some DMT in here if you want,’ he says handing the canister over. ‘It might help you come to terms with things.’

Seven

I am getting dressed in front of the cardiologist in his corner office with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Fitzroy Gardens. He has just completed several tests on my heart and lungs. 

‘Your heart isn’t only healthy, it is exceptionally healthy,’ he says. ‘Are you under any particular stress at the moment?’ The doctor is in great shape, with luscious grey hair parted in the middle and swept back behind his ears, like Paul McCartney I think. On his desk there around a dozen photographs of him with his family – a wife and four sons. They are on a beach, playing tennis, toasting each other with champagne, at a wedding, a skiing vacation. 

I surprise myself by telling him that I am expecting my first child in the middle of the year. He smiles broadly and clasps his hands together. He tells me that being a father is ‘a slog’ but what ‘makes it all worth it’ is when you ‘see your son doing something that a good person does’, like sharing or ‘being a good loser’. 

Eight

My flight to Darwin is delayed due to bad weather. At the departure gate a mother is playing a game of air cricket with her son to pass the time. She takes a theatrically long run up. He stands waiting, imaginary bat in hand, wearing a black tracksuit and white Air Jordans. 

‘Go on,’ he shouts.

She sprints towards him and releases the imaginary ball. He swings. 

‘Catch it,’ a man wearing a cowboy hat, also waiting for the delayed flight, shouts.

The mother follows the non-existent ball up into the air and begins to run backwards. Everyone is watching. 

‘Catch it,’ the cowboy shouts again.

The mother leaps into the air with her right arm extended, closing her hand into a fist.

‘Got him!’ the cowboy shouts. ‘You’re out, son.’

Nine

It is election day, and we are at a birthing course in a church hall. The facilitator, a charismatic woman with curly red hair and prominent cheekbones, stands in front of around a dozen pregnant women and their exclusively male partners.

‘Do we have any willing women here today?’ she begins. A few women reluctantly raise their hands and look around. 

‘That wasn’t very resounding,’ the facilitator says. ‘And I don’t blame you.’ 

A willing woman, she explains, is one who is willing to have a ‘normal physiological childbirth’, which means birthing through the vagina with no intervention – no pain killers, no forceps, no epidurals. There are not many willing women anymore but this is not women’s fault. Modern obstetrics is designed to make women afraid of ‘normal physiological childbirth’. Pain is characterized as dangerous and evil, something that can be entirely managed by the well-trained (historically male) obstetrician. 

‘I’m not saying that all men are bad, but it is important to recognise that their role in childbirth is problematic at a population level,’ she says. ‘They make things harder by trying to take control of our pain. But what is labour pain?’ 

The facilitator pauses theatrically and then proceeds to explain that it is feminine creative power expressing itself and that men do not want to see women in pain because it generates fear. We might think this fear is protective and superficially maybe it is. But at a deeper, instinctive level men are afraid of this pain because it is beyond their control.

In traditional societies, she continues, men were not allowed to be around during labour. They were expected to go out hunting, collect food, and protect the space around the birthing area. ‘Even the father’s flat, low vocal tone can make the baby feel threatened, as if there is predator around,’ she says.

I look around at the other men in the room, who are mostly dressed in Uniqlo and appear to be in a state of extreme passivity, apart from one man with a shaved head and a beard who is nodding attentively. My eyes linger on him. There is something odd about the way he blinks, like each blink is consciously premeditated. 

I notice that he also compulsively massages his wife’s shoulders. She has extremely long red hair and has now taken a seat on one of the pillows on the floor, leaning back into his knees. When morning tea time comes all the other couples line up to make themselves coffee and select a snack, except for this couple. They stay seated on the floor, eye-gazing. Then he starts doing a series of yoga moves culminating in a head stand.

‘Impressive,’ the facilitator says.

Ten

We’re at a gallery, the opening of a friend’s new show, standing in front of a sculpture that looks like a cage made from baguettes. The artist’s partner explains that the sculpture is in fact made of hundreds of baguettes that have been coated in a glass resin and held together with sticks of wood.

‘We call it the Bread Prison,’ he says. 

I walk to the bar and order a soda water and gin and tonic. The bartender, who has a neat mullet, tells me that his partner is also pregnant, and pours me a double shot of gin.

‘Drinking for three now, legend,’ he says. 

Eleven

On my way into the pasta shop I see an old friend.

‘How long until the baby now?’ he asks. 

In tell him around six weeks while craning my head to see what type of pasta is in the bain-marie today. Gnocchi Napoli. Some sort of pasta bake. Cheese ravioli in bacon and cream sauce.

I order the gnocchi and the woman who serves me, the daughter of the woman who owns the shop, says: ‘I didn’t mean to stickybeak, but did I hear you’re having a baby?’ I nod.

‘Oh, that’s amazing,’ she says. ‘Oh, how lovely. Girl or boy?’

‘We decided not to find out,’ I say, taking a seat at the counter.

‘I’d need to know because me and mum crochet, so I’d have to know what colour to make the blankets,’ she says passing me three slices of buttered bread. ‘And just so you know girls rule. I had a friend whose first was a girl and he wanted a boy for his second and when it was a girl, he called me up and said, “Now who am I going to take to the footy?”’

I say that I grew up in a family with three sisters, so I think I’d be comfortable either way. She says she also grew up in a family with three girls and one boy, but that it was more like being in a family with three boys and one girl.

‘Don’t ask me to elaborate,’ she says.

‘Do you have any kids?’ I ask.

‘Oh no, not me,’ she says. ‘I told mum if I haven’t met the right person by thirty-five, I’ll do it alone. Honestly it would probably be easier doing it without a man anyway. I’m seeing someone right now. He has three daughters so I can see what he’d be like as a father.’

‘And?’ I ask.

She does the so-so gesture with her hand.

Twelve

John from Wodonga is topless and has a ring in each nipple. He is wearing a 2XU hat. He has broad shoulders, a short beard, and braces. He is feeding a his seven-month-old son a bottle.

I am interviewing John for a magazine article (which I won’t get around to writing) about men who become fathers on their own via surrogacy. This has only become a legal possibility in Australia recently, John says, and to his knowledge, he is the first to do it.

Over the past hour John has told me the story – how he found himself at age thirty-three single and desperate for a biological child; how he found an egg donor; how his sister-in-law, who already had four children, offered to be his surrogate; and how when his son was delivered, the umbilical cord was cut, the baby was placed immediately on John’s chest, and the surrogate, his sister-in-law, was swiftly taken out of the room. 

The baby has now become restless and begins to whine. As John puts him over his shoulder to burp, the baby vomits all over his chest. John sighs dramatically.

‘Things change when you become a mum,’ he says.

‘You see yourself as his mum?’ I ask.

John says that in the weeks after his son was born, he felt his body begin to change, as if were preparing him for lactation. ‘My body fat grew. I got man boobs. My testosterone levels just plummeted. Where I could lift a hundred and eighty kilos before, now I struggle with a hundred. I’ve been known to be quite horny, too, one of the horniest people you’ve ever met. My sex drive pretty much went to zero overnight.’

With these physical changes came a realisation that a mother does not have to be a woman. The mother is simply the primary nurturing figure in the baby’s life. ‘I care, I feed, I get up at night, I change the nappies,’ he says. ‘I do all that for him. That’s what makes me his mum.’ 

The baby has now settled and is nuzzling into John’s chest.

‘The person I was before has died. I have grieved that person. I loved that person. I didn’t think it would change me this much,’ he says. ‘But that person has gone and here I am. When the baby was born, I was born.’

Thirteen

I am in a workshop facilitated by a writer who wrote a book about working through her ambivalence concerning motherhood. I always remember one part of this book where she says that if, as a girl, no one had ever told her anything about the adult world she likely would have invented, boyfriends, sex, friendship and art. She would not have invented child rearing. 

As far as I can tell, through my screen, the writer is in some sort of country house. There is a window and outside I can see what looks like the countryside in summer, in Italy or something. But I might be imagining this, or projecting. It is two-thirty a.m. where I am. It is cold and the middle of winter. I am on the couch, having taken 5 mg of dexamphetamine to stay awake for this workshop, aware that soon I’ll no longer be able to do things like this anymore. 

The workshop is odd, funny, unstructured, and chaotic, much like the writer’s books. She talks and gives pieces of wisdom in koān-like sentences. 

‘Plot exists in the reader not writer.’

‘A working title is a container.’

‘Don’t be careful with your draft. Kill it and let it come back to life.’

The message she comes back to repeatedly, though, is that writing is mostly painful, so you must find what is pleasurable in it and then follow the pleasure, to make sure you keep writing.

‘It is like having kids,’ she says. ‘Not that it’s something I’ve done. But apparently you forget the pain and just remember the high. That’s why people do it again.’

Fourteen

After cleaning the house, I drive to a friend’s place to pick up an oil heater. The baby will be born in the middle of winter and we need a way of keeping the room warm.

We drink a beer and she asks how I am. I say I feel like I’m in limbo, like before going on a long trip or moving cities. 

‘I know that things are going to change soon and I’m kind of just waiting for the change,’ I say.

She says her sister met a man and six months later they had a baby and are now expecting another. ‘It feels like they’re new people,’ she says. ‘Like she’s lost herself.’

‘That’s what scares me,’ I say.

She nods. ‘But there are people who do it their own way,’ she says, and asks if I know Sally and Marie. I don’t.

‘Because they had their first child just recently and I still see them out all the time,’ she says. ‘But they’re poly so I guess they’re used to being flexible.’

Fifteen

I am driving past a KFC when out of nowhere I remember an ancient Egyptian proverb. ‘We all die twice. First when we stop breathing and then again, a bit later on, the last time someone says our name.’ 

Around ten minutes later I pull into the Baby Bunting car park and look up the proverb on my phone. On a forum, a person called ‘moose_man’ says that the proverb is not in fact Egyptian but was first spoken by the anonymous street artist, Banksy. Another person called ‘HurricaneDNA’ disagrees: ‘I believe it was actually David Eagleman who said this first.’ I type ‘David Eagleman’ into Google but before I can read the results someone knocks on my window.

He asks me if my name is Oscar. I say yes. He tells me he has been waiting for me and asks me to get out of the car. 

‘Have you installed a bub seat before?’ he asks. I say I haven’t. I am paying him money to install a baby seat safely, as recommended by the retailer. He is wearing a red polo shirt with a badge on it that says: ‘Baby on Board’. His hair is pulled back in a tight bun. It looks like he has shaved his widow’s peak to make his hairline straight, but the widow’s peak is beginning to grow back, leaving a patch of triangle-shaped stubble on his forehead. He is grinning and not making eye contact. 

It takes him five minutes to install the seat and after he is done, I ask him to show me how to strap the baby in safely. 

‘Where’s the baby?’ he asks, turning his head around both ways dramatically like the baby was somewhere nearby and had escaped. 

‘It isn’t here yet,’ I say.

‘Of course,’ he says. ‘It isn’t here yet.’

He shows me how to strap the baby into the car seat and then says that we can pretend that his arm is the baby, to practice. I carefully take hold of his white, hairless forearm and place it in the baby seat and strap it in. He begins wriggling his fingers. ‘This is where the legs go and they will really wriggle like this,’ he says. ‘Like tiny frog legs.’

Days later, when I show Jess how to use the baby seat, I can still see the fingers wriggling where the real legs will shortly go. I think about the wisdom of Banksy but inverted. If we die twice how many times are we born?

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