After the Kiss by Peter 9 Bowman

Felice and I take the last flight of the evening home from LaGuardia to Boston. I’m still having an out of body experience from the kiss she gave me as we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. Actually, it’s more like a completely in-body experience. My mind hasn’t yet returned from the nerve endings in my lips. Twenty-three and my first kiss ever – right in the middle of the pedestrian walkway. I’ll never see that stone and steel the same way again.
After the Kiss
After the Kiss by Peter 9 Bowman
We board the Eastern Shuttle, watch the lights of Manhattan disappear into the night, arrive at Logan, find my car in the airport parking lot, and start the long drive to Felice’s house. We’re on the Mass Pike and I’m driving about twenty miles an hour in my shiny new 350HP Corvette. Felice asks, “Are you okay?” I realize I’m still in first gear. I shift, step on the gas, and wonder if I’m about to wake up. I don’t want to. I’ve been longing for this particular dream as far back as I can remember. Right in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. I park in her driveway and feel almost giddy at the sense of joy she has given me. I want to kiss her again, to know that this feeling isn’t just something I made up, just a fantasy that will be gone tomorrow. I lean in, our lips meet, and once again my mind is flooded with delight beyond anything I have ever imagined. An hour passes. Felice says she’d better go in before her parents come out. I offer to wait in her driveway till morning so we can pick up where we leave off. She smiles and leaves. Over the next few months our connection strengthens. There are more New York trips – some overnight stays in four-star hotels, restaurants, walks in the woods. I plan increasingly elaborate adventures. In our over the top room at the Pierre Hotel on 5th Avenue I give her a small robin’s egg blue box with a white ribbon. She looks worried. “I’m afraid to open it.” I don’t understand her reaction. Then I get it. “It’s not a ring.” She finds a diamond studded gold anemone brooch from Tiffany that cost me the better part of a month’s salary. She looks even more stressed, uncomfortable. “I don’t get presents like this.” She tries to hand it back. “You do now. I just want you to know how much you mean to me.” Evenings in my Cambridge apartment generally start on my sofa listening to music and exploring the delicate hairs on the back of our necks with lips and cheeks and fingertips. As our passion grows, one of us suggests getting more comfortable. That’s the cue for Felice to stand barefoot on my feet as I walk us down the hall to my bedroom. We lie next to each other and continue our caresses – over time with fewer and fewer pieces of clothing to get in the way. I have never seen anything as amazing as her bare breasts – small and delicate and perfect. The touching and kissing and caressing goes on for hours each evening and ends in happy exhaustion. Felice offers no sign of wanting intercourse and I find our touches completely satisfying. There is no hurry. Three, four, five evenings a week our nights end in a shared bath with me lathering and slowly rinsing her shoulders and neck as she slides her back against my chest. It’s inevitable. Our passions grow, our appetites grow, we graduate from loving touches and sighs to actual physical lovemaking. I am inexperienced. So is she. Each new stage of intimacy is a happy surprise. I fly us to Bermuda. Our travel agent has fixed us up with a small cottage owned by someone they know. A private pink sand beach lies at the bottom of a twenty foot stone staircase. It’s not fancy, but it’s all ours. We spend our days exploring the island on mopeds – zooming around curves, pedaling to help the tiny engines up hills, soaring down steep slopes as if we’re flying. On our first evening there is a brief drizzle followed by a chorus of deep, other-worldly sounds. We find a flashlight in the kitchen and go outside to investigate. Hundreds of chicken-sized frogs have surrounded us, apparently attracted to the lights in the cottage. We run back into the house and jam a chair under the doorknob to keep the monsters out. And then we laugh until it hurts. Our nights are spent making tender love. When it rains we hear the chicken-frogs calling for their mates. When it’s clear, the background sounds are more subtle – crickets, peepers, and other creatures too small to be seen in the dark. On this magical island everyone wants to make love. Everything we see is new and fresh and exciting. We’re opening doors for each other we didn’t even know existed. The doors lead to worlds previously denied us – Felice by a childhood of not enough and me by peer humiliation, real and imagined. I want more. Specifically, I want to tell Felice she has become the center of my universe. I have to go slowly. I believe she needs to feel in control. Growing up in a family with nine siblings competing for scant resources has left her with a sense of everyone for themselves. At twelve she started doing odd jobs to pay for clothes she sewed on an ancient foot-treadle Singer. Hand me downs and donations from strangers were a way of life. Even with loans and scholarships, the only way she could afford college was as a co-op student. Our lavish adventures are as alien to her as her loving touches are to me. I worry that a sudden move on my part might send her running for safety. One evening in bed, after a particularly intense lovemaking encounter, I say, “I think I’m falling in love with you.” I know I’ve fallen in love with her – but I want to sound tentative, gentle, not demanding. I simply want to whisper the possibility. It’s an invitation, not a command. Several seconds pass in silence. Then she kisses me. No words, no I love you too, no verbal reciprocity – just a kiss and a smile. A few days pass, more lovemaking, more basking in the afterglow. I ask, “Have you ever thought about marriage?” Not Will you marry me? No ring, no bended knee, no decision demanded. It’s more abstract, more indirect, more cerebral, less threatening. She shakes her head and says, “I’ve never felt more secure.” She’s dodging my question. She feels secure, but there’s something else. There is something unsaid in her response, something hidden. What can it be? Marriage. The little I know comes from movies and television. It seems to be something that guys are reluctant to offer and gals are eager to do. I don’t remember ever seeing a show where a girl said no. Couples get married and live happily ever after. It’s as simple as that. But how exactly does that happen – the ever after part? My parent’s marriage doesn’t count. They stay together out of necessity. They have no choice, they need each other to survive. My father works in a factory, earns a modest wage, drives the car, and fixes things when they break. My mother runs the house, decides which bills to pay and which can wait another week, brings us to doctors when we’re sick, cooks, cleans, and helped me through speech therapy and eight painful years of braces. That seems to be the way they want it. But I’m after more than that. I want partnership, deliberate choice, a collaboration of two people with equal say. For me, my question to Felice says I am hers, or at least I can be if she wants me. I will please her as she in turn pleases me. Synergy. In my television fueled imagination marriage is even better than jewelry from Tiffany or trips to Bermuda. It’s a chance for one plus one to equal three. But Felice’s expression says it’s skydiving without a parachute – as if I’m saying don’t worry, there’s a haystack down there somewhere. Based on her mother’s experience, marriage is a lifetime of babies and diapers and unpaid bills. Marriage is a lifetime of obligations you can’t fulfill, promises you can’t keep. As the days pass it’s getting harder for Felice to explain so many late evenings to her parents. How many nights can you spend at the library studying? How many all-nighters does it take to get a degree? She decides to move into a modest two-bedroom apartment occupied by two of her classmates, Martha and Tess. I help her move and convert an open dining area into a tiny bedroom by erecting a temporary wall with a curtain as a door. Late nights together are now considerably easier. A couple of months pass. One evening I try, “I have an idea. Suppose we pretend to be married but don’t tell anyone. We can see how it feels. If we decide to not actually get married it will be easy to call it off.” She thinks for a couple of minutes – a couple of very long minutes. “Okay.” I know it isn’t the most romantic proposal anyone ever offered, but it’s a start. Dip your toe in the water. If you like it, try your foot, your leg, your neck. My Cambridge apartment lease is up and the landlord is asking for a thirty percent rent increase. No longer needing access to Becky or the river of Radcliff coeds crossing Harvard Square right outside my window, I rent a two-bedroom townhouse in a new development. It’s nearly twice the size of my Cambridge apartment and just over half the cost. Everything looks pristine – the appliances are new, the bathrooms sparkle, the carpet is flawless. The sheetrock walls have no nail holes, no stains, no dings – and everything has that wonderful just built aroma. We have been pretend married for a couple of weeks. Felice is spending nearly every evening in my new place. It’s a crystal clear November night, my bedroom is lit only by starlight. We are lying in bed still basking in an afterglow. I ask, “Do you think we should tell someone?” I don’t mention the word marriage but I’m sure she understands my question. In the dim light I can barely see her face as she tries to figure out how to answer my question. Finally I hear a quiet, “Okay.” Yes! We’re getting married. It isn’t exactly the big kiss and bent knee response that Laura might have given Rob on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but it’s a yes. “Does this mean I can buy you an engagement ring?” She shakes her head. “I don’t want an engagement ring.” Hmmm. I thought every woman wanted an engagement ring. What do I know? Women – why is there no instruction manual? I can wrestle the most complex computer systems into submission but it seems that there is hardly an assumption I make about Felice that turns out right. The next day Felice introduces me to her father and leaves the room. He’s a heavy smoker, heavy drinker, and he’s been blind since his thirties. He seems friendly enough, but I can see why Felice’s mom is so bitter about him as a provider for her nine brothers and sisters. Her mother avoids being in the same room as him, won’t go to school events if he’s attending, and rarely says his name without an expression of disapproval. There just isn’t much Felice’s father can do about the hand he’s been dealt, but the church tells him to keep the babies coming. I tell him Felice and I want to get married. “You? Really?” He takes a deep drag on his cigarette. “It’s been Edmund since high school. We were sure he was the one.” I’ve never heard of Edmund. Felice never mentioned there was anyone else. I’ve been boxing with someone I didn’t know was in the ring. Later, when I ask her about him, she says, “His parents are from Canada – Chéticamp, French-Canadian, same as mine. He told me he doesn’t expect his wife to work. He’ll have the career and she’ll split her time between the kitchen and making babies. That’s not for me.” I hear the referee counting to ten – a TKO. Later that day I call my parents to give them the news. My mother asks, “Have you set a date?” “December 5th.” Since I’m calling November 5th, my father asks the only logical question he can think of. “Is there something in the oven?” My mother scolds him for even raising the possibility. Of course we wouldn’t even think about sex until after we were married. I say, “No. She isn’t pregnant. It turns out if we get married this year, the savings from filing a joint income tax return will pay for the honeymoon.” I have never talked about Felice with my parents. In fact, I have never talked with them about Alice or Becky or any other girl I aspired to. When I was working on Wall Street and setting up my Brooklyn Heights apartment I took my mother along to help me shop for a vacuum cleaner. I bought a top of the line model and my mother said, “With that vacuum you’ll be married in no time.” The thing was, she meant it. I suppose it would make an original pickup line. Would you like to see my vacuum cleaner? I love my parents, but taking advice from them about my personal life just seems to be asking for trouble. Felice may not want an engagement ring, but that still leaves a wedding ring. We fly to Manhattan and go to Tiffany to see what they have. A clerk shows us several trays of rings and Felice picks out a plain gold band. She asks, “What do you think?” I’m not happy. I want something special, something extraordinary to symbolize our union. “It’s okay.” “You don’t like it?” “Why don’t we try another place. There’s jewelry store just a block from here.” We walk to Cartier and go to the wedding ring case. A clerk pulls out a tray and there it is – a platinum Ballerine wedding band. It’s simple and elegant, understated and extravagant. It also has a price tag representing several months pay. Felice shakes her head no – but her eyes remain fixed on the thirty-nine brilliant-cut diamonds encircling the ring. “Not this one. Look at the price.” “Don’t worry about the price. Think of it as a combination engagement ring and wedding band.” “It’s five times more expensive than my car.” “You’re worth it. We can afford it. We’re not going to do this very often.” We return to Boston, ring in hand, and I drop her off at her apartment. It’s been a long day and I’m eager to get some sleep. About 2:00 in the morning the phone rings. It’s Felice. “Can I come over?” She sounds upset. “Sure. I’ll probably be asleep by the time you get here. I’ll leave the door unlocked.” An hour later I awaken as Felice slips into bed beside me. She’s been crying. “What’s up?” “I showed the ring to Martha.” Roommate Martha has been engaged to Norman, another co-op student, for three years. They set their wedding date for a year after graduation to allow Norman to find a job. She takes every opportunity to show off her engagement ring to anyone and everyone. It has a solitaire diamond that turns out to be smaller than any of the thirty-nine diamonds on Felice’s new ring. Obviously Martha did something to upset Felice. I ask what happened. “She said I was being spoiled and I didn’t deserve the ring and I should call off the whole thing.” She starts crying. I have never seen her cry before. I feel as if she’s trusting me with a very intimate piece of herself. She’s letting me see a vulnerability she normally keeps hidden. “It’s a good thing you’re marrying me instead of Martha. She’s a petty, jealous little brat who’s getting exactly what she deserves – a small life with small ambitions.” And we hug. The wedding is on. Felice decides to sew her own wedding gown. That pleases me. My job is to arrange the reception and honeymoon. I can’t believe how much caterers charge for what you get. I decide to make reservations for thirty at a nice restaurant. Guests can order whatever they want and I’ll pick up the tab. With the money I saved by not using a caterer I reserve rooms at a nice hotel for all of Felice’s siblings, her parents, my parents, and my sister – complete with mini-bar and room service. It will be the first time most of Felice’s sisters have ever seen the inside of a hotel – something to remember. Felice and I meet with a priest from her family’s church. He asks if I’m Catholic. “I was baptized Catholic but I’ve never attended church. I’m really not a practicing Catholic.” I’m trying to be honest for Felice’s sake. One of her brothers is a priest and her family seems to take all this so seriously. I don’t want to disrespect them. “But you were baptized?” The priest stares at me as if looking into my soul. “Yes, but…” “You may not be a good Catholic, but you are Catholic.” It turns out if I weren’t Catholic I’d have to go to classes before we would be permitted to marry in a Catholic church. If I had to take the classes, we’d miss our December 31st deadline. The priest gives me a reassuring nod. It looks like we got God on a technicality. I’ll bet He didn’t see that one coming. You always have to read the fine print in these contracts. Doesn’t go to church, doesn’t embrace any dogma, doesn’t pray, never been to confession, never studied Catechism, never said a single Hail Mary – but he got sprinkled with holy water when he was a baby so we have to let him through. I’m Flounder from Animal House – a legacy who has to be let in. I guess there aren’t any lawyers in heaven to let Him know about the loophole we found. Marry by the end of the year and the honeymoon is on Uncle Sam. Sometimes you really do get what you pay for. Or maybe God was still pissed off I didn’t take the classes. Our travel agent booked a wedding night stay at the New York Hilton so we could catch an early morning flight from LaGuardia to St. Thomas. We leave the restaurant where our gourmet reception is still in progress and take a 9:00 evening flight to LaGuardia. We land in five degree weather with thirty mile an hour gusts and discover that New York cabbies are on strike. It takes two hours to bribe someone to take us to the Hilton. Luckily, being so late to the hotel was no problem because the travel agent accidentally made our reservations for January instead of December. We have no room. We wander the city on foot in the freezing wind until we find an available room. To make our flight to St. Thomas the next morning we have to get up at 4:00 AM. We consummate the marriage in about ten minutes, turn out the lights, fall asleep exhausted, and wake up two hours later to bribe someone to take us back to LaGuardia for our morning flight to St. Thomas. We arrive at our hotel in St. Thomas to sunshine and eighty degree weather. It is a tropical paradise – turquoise water, swaying palm trees, beautiful beaches. After chasing a few brightly colored lizards out of our room, we collapse in bed and sleep until dinner time. We awake to heavy rain pounding on the roof. Rain never lasts more than a few minutes in St. Thomas thanks to the trade winds – at least that’s what the hotel brochure says. Well, almost never. For the next seven days it rains continuously – varying only between heavy and unbelievable. I’ve never seen such rain. Mudslides, washed out roads, downed trees – it’s the most rain the island has had in thirty years. We spend our time on our balcony watching angry cloud bursts hammer the island in violently swaying columns that approach at forty miles an hour from over the horizon. We also chase lizards out of our bathroom, our bedsheets, and our suitcases. We can’t agree if it’s God or the IRS getting revenge. I think it’s Uncle Sam, but Felice says the plague of lizards trying to escape the rain are too biblical to be a coincidence. When it comes time to depart we check out of the hotel, find a guy willing to take us to the airport for five times the normal fare, and discover that the flight to San Juan that will connect with our flight to Boston is only an hour delayed. Closer examination of the departures board reveals that our flight is one hour and two days late. We have no hotel room, no place to sleep other than the waiting area floor, and if we miss the flight to Boston, we may have to spend days camping out at the San Juan airport. A bribe, nearly as much as our week-long hotel bill, gets us on a six-passenger propeller plane headed to Puerto Rico. I have to get out of my seat to let the pilot get into his. We skim the surface of the ocean close enough to see schools of fish. We do catch our flight from San Juan to Boston and, arriving home late at night, collapse exhausted on my bed. Sometimes you really do get what you pay for. Over the next few days we begin to settle into married life. I seem to be changing – at least in the way Felice responds to me. Before we exchanged I dos, I was a lover, a well of possibilities, a successful provider, a partner searching for creative ways to top our previous adventures. I don’t know if it was the rain, the lizards, or the iffy flight to Puerto Rico, but somehow it feels as if Felice is beginning to treat me more like her mother treats her father than a loving partner. Every suggestion I offer is greeted with indifference. She doesn’t enjoy restaurants, doesn’t want to go to the movies, doesn’t want to go shopping. I am a constraint, an obligation, a burden. And I am completely baffled. The harder I try to please her, the more she ignores my efforts. Felice asks that we buy a television for the bedroom. After leaving college I had made a conscious choice to have no television anywhere. I didn’t want to pass my time watching variety shows and sitcoms. I filled my idle moments with music, reading, and even occasional late night talk radio. But Felice wants a television and a television I will buy. I haven’t given it that much thought, but I assume now that we are spending every night together in bed, we will make love before retiring, make love before we get up in the morning, and perhaps make love once or twice in the middle of the night should we both happen to be awake at the same time. That might sound a bit ambitious, but it had been pretty much our pattern when we vacationed somewhere. With all that lovemaking, I expect that my right hand and I will agree to be just friends. Felice puts our new television at the foot of the bed. It turns out Bonanza, All in the Family, Happy Days, and a dozen other television shows now occupy our time after dinner each evening. Chance encounters in the middle of the night must be prohibited by some fine print I overlooked in our marriage vows. Maybe God had a lawyer after all. As for lovemaking in the morning, that seems to be reserved for any day of the week that starts with the letters S-U-N. Sundays – provided it isn’t that time of the month. That time of the month occasionally appears to span two consecutive Sundays. Also, provided Felice isn’t feeling under the weather – sniffles, headache, stiffness in this joint or that. And provided I wake up before she starts to get out of bed in the morning. Out of bed includes covers pulled back ready to put feet on floor – in fact, out of bed actually means her opening her eyes before I open mine. Kissing. The intertwining of tongues, strokes on the back of the neck, my mind nestling in the nerve endings in my lips. None. Shared baths – more overlooked fine print. That priest was craftier than he looked. It’s all no longer allowed – at least no longer welcomed by Felice. And since, for me, pleasing Felice is mostly the point of all this, we have a problem. Something has changed – something important. And I have no clue why. I assume I just need to give Felice time to adjust to married life. Weekdays I go to work. Felice goes to school to finish her fifth and final year as a co-op student. Graduation is only a month away. Five of her fellow math majors have invited her to join them for drinks and a trip to Boston’s combat zone to see The Stewardesses. She asks me if she can go. I want her to know I trust her. She’s a partner, not a subordinate. She wants to go drinking and watch an X-rated movie with five guys she’s graduating with. I say, “It’s up to you. If you want to, go.” I try to act as if I’m unconcerned. The next Friday she heads out around 5:00. I glance at the clock every ten minutes or so. Around midnight she returns and we go to bed. I can smell alcohol on her breath. “How was it?” “We all piled into a VW Beetle and drove into the city.” That’s not the part I’m interested in. Then it occurs to me, a Beetle? Six people squeezed into a VW must require some pretty careful packing. “The movie?” “They did it in the cockpit, they did it in the restroom, they did it on a doorknob. It wasn’t fair.” Wasn’t fair? Fair? What does that mean? Whatever it means, there’s nothing I can do about it. My mind keeps offering possibilities that I push away. The movie ended at 10:00. It’s not a two hour ride back home. It wasn’t fair? What can that mean? I don’t want to know. Halloween. A friend of ours is hosting a party and has asked us to come in costume. Felice divides her hair into two long pony tails, sews a micro-skirt, and goes as Lolita. With her flat tummy showing and slender frame the effect is sexier than naked. I have trouble not staring. My costume is a bit more subdued. I dig an old pinstriped business suit out of the closet, tear a small hole on the side of one arm, and drizzle fake blood from what looks like a bullet wound. To make the effect more complete, I apply some costume flesh on the skin under the hole. It’s not that I’m such a great makeup artist, but who sacrifices a business suit for a Halloween costume? We show up for the party and our host greets me at the door with, “You decided not to dress up?” “Not my thing.” My wound is not visible from the front. “But I’m going to need a bandage or something. Some jackass tried to steal Felice’s purse as we got out of the car and I got shot. Just a flesh wound.” I show him my arm and watch as he turns pale. The music is loud, the dining table filled with bottles of this and that, and the smell of pot hangs heavy in the air. A new couple shows up. She’s dressed as a cannabis plant with cutout paper leaves her only cover from head to toe. Her companion is dressed in leather straps as a muscular gladiator. The truth is he could use a few more straps in strategic places. I’ve never been to a drug-themed party before. Actually, I’ve never even had a sip of beer or puff of tobacco before. It just isn’t my thing. I wander around, overhear a fellow who says he’s doing research on group behavior, and offer my theory that groups are actually living organisms with all the characteristics you might expect of more conventional creatures. He seems interested but unimpressed with my lack of academic credentials. Without footnotes how can anyone take what I say seriously. Felice goes to the dining table and pours herself a small glass of wine. I see gladiator-boy approach her and offer a hit on a large joint he has just lit. She declines – but empties her wine glass in one swallow. Gladiator refills her glass. Gladiator’s date, the human pot plant, is having a good time spinning around the room giggling and flirting. She’s an attractive gal and, as she rotates, the paper leaves are having a hard time providing much cover. Her panties are pink. That appears to be the only underwear she bothered to put on. She gets too close to a lit candle and suddenly flames are going up her back. Several guests tamp out the flaming paper and she seems to not have been burned. After the excitement fades she puts on a raincoat and dozes off in a chair in the corner of the room. A half hour later I see Gladiator still hovering around Felice. My own conversation has progressed to talking about group nervous systems when I see Gladiator open the door to the powder room and motion to Felice. She turns her head a couple of times, apparently not seeing me, and follows him into the room. The door closes behind them. I don’t know how many times he’s refilled her glass. I try to think of some innocent reason the two of them might be in the powder room together. I go to the door and quietly try turning the doorknob. It’s locked. Am I just imagining this? Twenty minutes later Felice emerges from the powder room and closes the door behind her. She wanders off and I pretend to need to use it. I try the doorknob. It’s still locked. Felice naps on the drive home. I think about asking her about the powder room but decide against it. I can’t think of anything she might say that would make me feel more comfortable. Several weeks pass. Felice and I are sound asleep in our bed. 2:00 in the morning some kind of sound wakes us. I press buttons on my clock but it won’t stop. I say, “I don’t know how to turn it off.” She says, “It’s the phone.” I pick up. It’s my parent’s family doctor in New Jersey. My father has died of a massive heart attack. Fifty-seven years old. He had a hard life. The priority now is my mother. She’s been pleading with the doctor to not call me or my sister. She wants to spare us the grief. As we drive to New Jersey in the middle of the night I am almost overwhelmed with pride for the obstacles my father overcame. He left home at fourteen to work on a coal truck. His biological mother died when he was three and his father remarried – four times. Each stepmother brought a child or two to the family and each stepmother in turn had died. His latest stepmother favored her own children at the expense of the earlier children. When he was eligible he signed up for the CCCs using his cousin’s name for a second tour. He was drafted into an anti-aircraft unit and part of the Normandy Invasion and Battle of the Bulge. He went to work for General Motors as a janitor and taught himself to be a skilled machinist. He had to put up with me, my endless doctor bills, and my lack of appreciation for the burdens he shouldered. There are so many questions I never asked, so many opportunities to say thank you that I missed. And now he is gone. Felice is especially supportive as we share my childhood bed the night before the funeral. We talk in whispers about starting our own family – about the void my father’s passing has created. She says she’ll have her IUD removed and we’ll let nature take its course. The next day, as we prepare to leave for the funeral, my sister hands me the phone. It’s my boss. He tells me the company is having a layoff. My employment contract protects me for another six months, but all my people are being let go. My father, my mother, the funeral arrangements, my job, my friends’ jobs – this is too much to wrap my mind around. I apologize to him for having to make that call with my father dying and all. I know how hard it must have been. A few weeks later I contact the people from General Motors for whom I’m designing a management information system and tell them I may be available full time. Yes, they would be delighted to bring me on board. They want me to help build a branch information system for GMAC. It means moving back to Manhattan to the newly built GM building at 5th Avenue and 59th Street in the middle of one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the city. The president of GMAC has to approve my salary. I accept his offer. I’m the highest paid twenty-five year old in the company. I’ve never worked in an organization that moves so slowly. I believe I’ll have no problem earning my keep. We rent an apartment on Central Park South and 7th Avenue. The Dick Cavett Studio is directly across from our building sixteen stories below. We discover our neighbors are luminaries like Muhammed Ali and Florence Henderson. They have huge units with fabulous views of the park. The two story wood paneled entrance to the building has a doorman, three-person reception desk, oil paintings and dramatic sculpture, and two manned elevators. At twenty-five I’m doing well, but not quite celebrity well. We have a small studio at the back of the building with a not so fabulous view of 58th Street. Our one-person galley kitchen lets us open the dishwasher or the oven, but not both at once. The rest of the apartment is an L-shaped affair with one wall of windows. Our bed is tucked into the corner of the room next to the windows. The television sits at the foot of the bed on Felice’s dresser. In the middle of the main space we have a queen-sized bed outfitted with a fuzzy black cover and center bolster that Felice made. Guests sit around the edges, backs against the bolster, facing away from each other. It’s one of my clever designs that almost works. The arrangement would be perfect for parties with people who don’t want to talk to each other. Especially clever and especially ugly is an upright six-foot square bookcase filled with fifty cubbies. I copied the design from a number theory book that showed how to fill a square with smaller squares, each a different size. It was supposed to be a diagram on a page, not a bookcase. The smallest cubby is a half-inch on a side and the largest about three feet – neither very useful. Most of the rest of the furniture is from my bachelor days: a fifty-gallon acrylic fish tank, fancy component stereo system with huge AR3-a speakers and studio-quality Teac reel-to-reel tape deck. In almost comical contrast to the homemade shelving are the imported Danish modern oiled rosewood pieces I acquired in my bachelor days: a three-meter wide wall system, coffee table, night stands, headboard, and upright dresser. Everything rests on two large wool shag rugs: a bright yellow and orange Rya design called Mexico, and a black three-inch thick hand-knotted rug from Portugal. The newest addition to our furnishings is a small eggshell-white Danish-modern crib with bright pink and black floral designs on each end. Felice is nine-months pregnant. It seems making babies runs in her family. Apparently once her IUD was removed my guys hit a home run first time at bat. She’s let her hair grow long. After two years, it now flows down nearly to the top of her butt. I love the way it plays on her back. She is positively radiant. Every time I see her naked she takes my breath away. Her breasts have grown full. They look wonderful, but as they filled out they also became tender. It’s been look but don’t touch for months. Felice has only gained a dozen pounds with the pregnancy. In her sixth month we went to Lady Madonna, a Fifth Avenue maternity shop catering to the rich and idle, and a patronizing saleswoman said, “I know how exciting all this is, dear, but you should really wait at least until your third month before picking out clothes. You don’t want to outgrow them you know.” We’ve only had our fourth Lamaze class. Our teacher is our obstetrician’s wife, a friendly woman who insists on pronouncing centimeter sahnta-meter. At first I didn’t know what she was referring to. Maybe it was some special unit of measure for vaginas. We haven’t gotten to the actual childbirth lessons yet. We’ve been focused on relaxation exercises. It’s late July in Manhattan, stifling hot and muggy. Rush hour, the haze created by buses and trucks literally makes it impossible to see more than a block or two down Seventh Avenue. Both Felice and I are eager for the big event. It may finally be here. Felice says, “Here comes another one.” I stroke her belly lightly and feel a raised ridge running down the middle. It’s so hard and tight it makes me uncomfortable – like touching an over-inflated balloon getting ready to burst. She’s been having contractions on and off for the last few hours. I look at the clock. It’s nearly 10:00 in the evening. I ask her to call the doctor. We don’t need to be trying to hail a cab at 3:00 in the morning. Her doctor tells us to go to the hospital for a checkup. About an hour later a random doctor we’d never met before examines her and sends us back home for the night. Close, but no cigar. Her contractions continue through the night. I drop into and out of sleep. She calls her doctor again in the morning. He asks her to wait until 1:00pm when his office hours start. I bring Felice to the doctor’s office on 28th Street by taxi. She’s the first one in. The doctor takes a quick peek and says “It’s time. I have a few more patients to see right now. Then we get you off to the hospital. I’d better come with you in the cab.” Better come with us in the cab? Why is that? I’m hoping it’s because he wants to save cab fare. We leave for the twenty-five block ride to the hospital at 2:00pm. The driver looks at Felice and refuses to let her into the cab. The doctor assures him everything will be okay. We make our way up 8th Avenue to 53rd Street in heavy traffic. 53rd Street is completely jammed. After five minutes without moving, our doctor says we had better walk the last bit because we’re running out of time. I think about telling him that’s why we went to the hospital the evening before but decide that pissing him off may not be the best thing to do just before he’s to deliver our baby. I help Felice out of the cab. The doctor tells us he’ll walk ahead to get ready. She’s fully dilated and ready to deliver and we’re walking a city block to the hospital. Every thirty seconds or so we have to stop so Felice can bend over and manage another contraction. She takes all this in stride. I’m getting very nervous. I should have peed before we left the doctor’s office. If our baby decides to drop on to the sidewalk the only Lamaze thing I know how to do is remind Felice to breathe. After what seems like a three-day hike, we get to the hospital. I take Felice up to the maternity floor. She sits in a wheelchair. I’m sent back downstairs to the admissions office to do paperwork. Paperwork. I suppose I can coach the admissions clerk to pant-breathe if it gets too stressful. Or maybe I’m the one who’s supposed to pant-breathe. I’m having trouble remembering. Was there even a chapter about paperwork in our classes? I find the admissions office. I’m told to take a seat. I say, “My wife’s having a baby upstairs and it’d be really nice not to miss it. We don’t do this that often.” No one cares. There are forms to be filled out. I’m told they’ll get to me as soon as they can. Eventually someone starts the agonizing process of finding out how to spell my name. “What an interesting name. How do you say that?” They need my Social Security Number, where I live, what my home and work phone numbers are, what I do for a living, what kind of insurance I have, what my relationship is to Felice. They want to see my photo I.D. and my insurance card. I fumble with my wallet and finally hand them the whole thing. “Take whatever you need.” They make photocopies of this and that and then they want all the same information for Felice. I’m tempted to tell them I found her on the sidewalk and don’t know anything about her. I don’t see how this can be any more frustrating. Meanwhile, Felice is by herself without the partner that was supposed to make this a tiny bit easier. I sign here and here and here and initial there and there. I have no idea what I’m signing. They could have just sold me a condo in Florida for all I know. At last I’m done. I run out of Admitting at full tilt and take the elevator back to the maternity floor. A nurse gives me a gown and mask. I change. I’m led into a delivery room. The lighting is harsh. The room smells of ether and other evil odors from my childhood. Felice lies on a delivery table with her knees up. She’s pant-breathing like she was trained to do in class. So am I – just in case. I’m going through all this in a mild state of shock. It feels like I’m not really in the room – just looking at myself in the room. We’ve been thinking about this event for nearly nine months. It’s now actually happening. There’s no slowing down, no turning back. It’s going ahead at its own pace, with or without me. The doctor says don’t push. Pant, pant, pant. The doctor says push. Pant, pant, pant. Felice draws on some inner strength. I’m there with the breathing and touch, but in the end this is really something she’s doing on her own. I have no contractions, I have no kicking in my belly. I have no sensation of being split apart. She withdraws into herself and seeks no external support – doesn’t cry out, doesn’t whimper or moan. She makes no sign at all of looking for someone else to ease her burden. I’m amazed at her strength. If I were on that table I’d be screaming my head off to let everyone know what I was enduring. She is the living definition of stoic, brave, magnificent. A few minutes later, five-pound seven-ounce Michael Alexander pops into the doctor’s hands. The doctor says, “We have a little problem here.” I look at my son as he draws his first breath and see that his upper lip and lower nose are missing. My priority is Felice. There’s blood and fluid everywhere. She’s exhausted. She’s delivering the afterbirth. Instead of handing Michael to her, the doctor brings him to a cleaning station and puts him in a plastic bin. “Is the baby okay?” Felice asks. “We have a little problem. He’s a boy, a bit light weight for full term. I give him an APGAR of six out of ten. It looks like he has a bilateral cleft lip and,” the doctor looks inside Michael’s wide open mouth with a flashlight, “a bilateral cleft palate. I know it doesn’t look so good, but these days we can fix this kind of thing right up. I’ll have our resident plastic surgeon stop by to take a look.” “Can I see him?” I ask. “Oh, sure. Nurse, hold him up,” the doctor says. I hold Felice’s hand. “You made a baby! Good job.” Felice is transferred to the recovery room. I get back into my street clothes and make my way to a pay phone. I call my mother and tell her the good news. She’s very excited. This is her first grandchild. “Is everyone okay?” she asks. “Everyone’s doing fine. “He’s a boy and his name is Michael Alexander, after his two grandfathers.” My mother sighs. My father’s name was Michael. “Michael does have a cleft palate,” I add as casually as I can. I hear my mother drop the phone and scream. It’s a sound of anguish – as pure a sound as I have ever heard. My sister comes on the line. “What’s wrong?” she asks. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry. Everything’s okay. Put Mom back on.” I try to be stern with my mother. I tell her, “I’m not upset, so you shouldn’t be either. The doctor said they can fix this right up these days.” It takes everything I have to sound unconcerned. “Then it’s not so bad?” she asks. “It’ll be fine – don’t worry.” I’m talking to a woman who knows a good deal about the doctors and operations and recovery periods and agony that lay ahead of us. My mother gave birth to a cleft palate child of her own – me. I return to Felice with flowers and magazines. I know it’s a silly gesture. The last thing she needs right now are flowers and magazines, but that’s all I can think of to do. How much do I love her? Three magazines, two paperbacks, and a dozen roses. I try, “It’ll be okay. We’ll get through this one step at a time.” I have no idea what those steps are going to be. She’s tired, so I keep my visit short. I haven’t eaten all day and I’m spent – emotionally, physically, and every other ly I am capable of. I stagger back to our apartment. The feeling of detachment I had during the delivery has intensified into real shock. I’m confused. I think about the surgery and everything else that lies ahead as though Felice had just given birth to me and I’m the one who’ll be operated on. I’m still being marched through this process, observing it from outside, and I don’t know what to do. I crawl into bed and let exhaustion knock me unconscious. Early next morning I wake up and head back to the hospital. Felice is sitting up in bed with a breakfast tray. She looks sad, depressed, withdrawn. “How’re you doing?” I ask. I know how she’s doing. She’s doing the same that I’m doing. “It feels like the baby died. They won’t even let me see him,” she says with a hopelessness in her voice that goes right to my heart. As stressed as I am, her response surprises me. It feels like the baby died? I’m in shock, but she has something even more intense going on. I need to fix this. I go to the nurses’ station and tell them what Felice just said. “You have to let her have her baby.” It’s as though Michael has somehow slipped through the cracks. With all the paperwork and procedures and protocols the system has forgotten that a mother needs her baby as much as her baby needs to be with her. I can’t believe it hasn’t occurred to anyone that Felice needs to hold Michael and that Michael is in a bin wondering why Mom smells like plastic. I go back to Felice’s room. The nurse brings Michael in. Felice holds him and cuddles him. I stroke them both. His fingers are so tiny. He doesn’t look real. How can a human being start out this small? I’m amazed all over again that Felice made something this complicated without even using her hands. Felice tells me we have an appointment with the resident plastic surgeon in the afternoon. She recites a list of things I have to buy so we can take the baby home: diapers, pins, formula, bottles, nipples, sterilizer, powder, ointment, bathinette. Bathinette? What in the world is a bathinette? We were planning on a shopping trip next week. Michael came just a bit earlier than our obstetrician said he would. I leave the hospital a few minutes later. On the street it occurs to me I’ve no idea where to buy any of this stuff. I’ve never bought diapers or formula. I’ve never even been with anyone buying diapers or formula. I’m on foot in Manhattan. We have no relatives in the state, no less the city. None of our friends have children. Michael and Felice are counting on me and I’m on my own in a very big city with an urgent mission and no clue how to begin. I need a plan. I go to a small convenience store near our apartment and ask an elderly Hispanic woman at the cash register where I can get baby equipment. She points to a display of condoms. While trying to illustrate what I need with pantomime I mouth, “Bottles, formula, pins, diapers.” She directs me to a store a few blocks away. I thank her for the clue. If this new place doesn’t work out I’ll ask there. I’ll just keep asking random people until I find a place. It’s a plan. The Hispanic woman has sent me to the right place. The second store has six kinds of everything on Felice’s list. Bottles, nipples, sterilizer, formula. How to choose? Enfamil or Similac, Similac or Enfamil. I stare at the labels. Is more fat better or worse? What about corn syrup? Hopeless. I choose Similac because it’s twenty-cents a can more expensive. I have no idea what I’m doing and I know it. At 2:00 I return to the hospital for the meeting with the resident plastic surgeon. He looks like he’s in his late twenties. He explains that Michael has a bilateral cleft palate and lip. I say, “I have a cleft palate and lip. What does ‘bilateral’ mean?” “On both sides.” He says, “I’ve never seen a bilateral cleft before, but I think surgery may be required soon. I’ve not worked with cleft palate children, but if you’d like, I’d be happy to take Michael on as my first patient.” He says it as if he’s offering us a great honor – his first cleft palate patient. Felice and I are overwhelmed by the complexity and pace of everything. I’ve now graduated from picking out diaper pins to picking out a surgeon. My twenty-cents more approach doesn’t seem appropriate. I can barely think at all, but this seems really wrong to me. My own childhood surgeries tell me that doctors spend years training with experienced specialists to learn the intricate ins and outs of cleft palate treatment. This guy hasn’t worked with cleft palate kids at all? He’s offering to take Michael on? This has to be terribly wrong. I’m so confused I don’t even get angry at his obscene proposal. “Thank you very much – we’ll think about it and get back to you.” He leaves. I wish I had thrown a chair at the bastard. I haven’t been to work in two days. Before going back to our apartment, I stop in at the office. I’ve been a missing person. It never even occurred to me to call. I see Claire, an admin in her early thirties. She lives by herself in an apartment on the upper East Side. She’s meticulous about her appearance, her hair is always coiffed perfectly. She likes expensive clothes and has the subtle underdeveloped upper lip that many of us with cleft lips share. Unlike mine, her scar is barely visible and her nose perfectly symmetrical. She smokes white-tipped Parliaments. I find her smoking surprising. I assume that anyone who’s had the breathing problems that come with deep nose and mouth surgery would want the cleanest air they can get – especially in Manhattan. Claire acts surprised to see me. “Where have you been? We’ve been looking for you.” “Felice gave birth yesterday. He’s a boy.” I try to sound the way a proud new father should. Instead, my voice is wobbly. “Something’s wrong?” Claire doesn’t know me well, but apparently she sees I have something on my mind. I’m a grown man standing in the middle of a busy office talking to a woman I barely know. Tears are welling up. “He has a bilateral cleft palate. I have to find a doctor. I don’t know anyone. I don’t know what to do.” Tears come streaming down my face. I’m losing control. Claire looks at me for a second before what I said registers. She takes an involuntary breath, as if I’ve knocked her off balance, and then reaches for pen and pad at the same time she starts talking. “I know just who you need to see. His name is Dr. Hogan. He did some work on me. He’s head of the Cleft Palate Clinic at New York University Hospital. He also has the most exclusive cosmetic surgery practice on Park Avenue. I’ll tell him you need to see him. He’s worked with hundreds of kids. He’s the best there is, really.” I take the note. “We’ll call him first thing tomorrow. Thank you.” I think about calling Dr. Hogan myself but it’s out of character. Felice and I have a partnership, each with our own roles. I’m the provider, the one who hunts and gathers and creates and presents the options. She’s the decider – the one who chooses the path we take. Later that evening I return to the hospital and tell Felice about Claire and Dr. Hogan. She takes the phone number. She’s been asking doctors at the hospital about where to go and also heard about the NYU Clinic. I’m with Felice the next morning when a man in a white jacket walks into the room. “I’m Dr. Hogan. Are you Felice?” Felice and I are both surprised to see him. We made no appointment. We didn’t know he was coming. “I’ve seen Michael.” There is something reassuring about him. He gets right down to business. “He has an extensive bilateral cleft of the palate and lip. It’s as severe as any I’ve seen and I’ve been doing this for thirty years. He’s going to need a series of procedures. First we’ll close up his lip. I know the center section seems to protrude pretty far out now, but we don’t want to remove any tissue or bone because he’s going to need it later as he grows. We’ll operate when he reaches ten pounds. That should be in about a month.” I feel gratitude welling up inside me. This man knows what he’s talking about. Thirty years. He knows what comes next. We’re no longer in this alone. “Next we’ll construct a new palate for him by slicing the tissue in his mouth and doubling its size. He doesn’t have much to work with, but I think we can do it. He’ll eventually need some bone grafts to stabilize the center section of his upper jaw. We usually take bone from the hip and pack it around the upper jaw. He belongs in the clinic program. We have specialists who deal with kids like Michael every day. We’ll take care of his mouth, nose, hearing, speech, teeth, and anything else that crops up. Why don’t you think about it and give me a call if you want me to proceed.” I look at Felice. She nods. I say, “We want you to proceed. Felice has heard good things about the NYU Clinic and Claire thinks you walk on water. What’s next?” “Take Michael home. You’re going to need a Breck feeder. The nurses will show you how to use it. Check in with his pediatrician regularly. Give me a call as soon as he weighs ten pounds and we’ll schedule the first procedure.” Dr. Hogan leaves. I feel a huge relief. I needed a plan – I needed to follow someone’s advice who knew what he was talking about. I believe that Dr. Hogan truly is the best there is. I trust him completely. Felice says something amazing. “If Michael had to have this problem, it’s a good thing he got us as parents.” Her words come back to me all night long. I drift in and out of sleep. At about 6:00 in the morning her words ring in my head one more time. I suddenly realize I’m Michael’s father – not Michael himself. Yes, we have a lot to go through. But I’ll be there to help, to support, to calm fears, to get the best care possible. I won’t be the one having the surgery, helpless, vulnerable, unable to influence the events around me. For the last three days I’d believed I was Michael – seeing everything through his eyes, dreading the smells and needle pricks and burning and stinging of endless surgeries. I was Michael – and I was overwhelmed. I dress and feel an indescribable closeness to my new son, an overpowering need to be there for him. I need him as much as he needs me. He gives me purpose and direction. I know why I’m here. Michael survives a long series of surgeries on his lip, nose, throat, and ears. Without our knowledge, Dr. Hogan retires as head of the NYU cleft palate program. It turns out the Clinic thinks Michael is their patient and not Dr. Hogan’s. An ambitious Clinic intern decides to take a shot at Michael’s next surgery. He botches the procedure so badly that I contact Dr. Hogan and he sends us to a world class surgeon at the Mayo Clinic to try to repair the damage. Several failed bone grafts later Michael’s upper jaw is finally stabilized. Michael enters college, takes a job, and starts a life of his own. Can Felice and I rediscover a romance begun three decades earlier? That’s a whole other story: The Kiss Farewell. I’d love to hear your thoughts at Peter9Bowman@gmail.com

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