When Isabelle lifted the Baby from the ivory box, breast milk leaked into her nursing bra. The Baby’s hands were hidden by plastic, and Isabelle carefully untwisted the pale pink ribbons from around her wrists, belly, and tiny feet. She was heavy, six pounds maybe, dressed in a baptismal outfit. All lace and satin. Inside the box, Isabelle noticed the directions manual but she did not pick up the booklet immediately. Instead, she pressed the Baby to her bosom, feeling her steady heartbeat, the way her skin was not skin but something so eerily similar that soon Isabelle couldn’t tell the difference. Warmth radiated through the lace, and, God, there was that soothing baby powder scent.
“She is battery operated,” Angel, the online sales person, had explained when Isabelle had placed her order. “But you’ll never know it. We build a cushion of silicone inside all the Babies. We insert the metal ticker in the center of their chest like a real heart. Your niece will love it. Our Babies are so lifelike that police officers have been known to break car windows to free them from backseats. Some have even practiced CPR on them only to realize that they were Babies, not babies.”
Isabelle winced at the mention of her pretend niece. She’d made her up over the phone too ashamed to explain why she wanted to purchase this Baby. But then Angel added, “You’ll see. Their lips are soft and cool: their body temperatures 98.2. Their hair is human, rooted to the scalp, not glued. They are top of the line. Best 6,000 dollars you’ll ever spend. You are one hell of an aunt. If the heart ever gives, tell your niece that we’ll replace the ticker for free. We have a Baby lifetime guarantee. After all, each is handmade.”
Handmade. Isabelle saw herself in a loft making a Baby, sculpting the legs and arms, pressing her finger into the cheek to give it a dimple. She imagined wearing goggles and using sharp objects the way she once did in woodworking class. But then she conjured up lungs inside her womb, a heart beating, cartilage in the kneecaps hardening. The two ways of creating Babies and babies, blurring one into the other. She caressed her Baby’s soft patch of auburn hair. That’s what had sold her—the infant’s hazel eyes and all that familiar red. In the foyer, the morning sun shone brighter than it had in days. Isabelle decided that she would eat breakfast and shower, something she’d refused to do since the hospital.
As she moseyed around her kitchen, she squeezed her new treasure and hummed “You Are My Sunshine.” She stopped at the photograph of her and her husband, the one near the microwave where they both wore sunglasses and hats on a spring break vacation.
“That’s Paul, your daddy,” she said.
Paul didn’t know about the baby and the Baby. Isabelle had dipped into her grandmother’s inheritance. Daphne would have understood. She’d lost her own child years before but she’d carried twins, so unlike Isabelle, she hadn’t come home from the hospital cradling air.
As Isabelle poured herself coffee, the umbilical cord image—a purple rope that had wrapped around the baby’s neck—surged back the way it had for days and nearly drowned her. The nurse with her yellow ducky scrubs had gasped. Isabelle had tried to sit up but the doctor kept her lying back. What he hadn’t accounted for was the mirror at her feet, how even from where she lay she’d seen the noose tightening.
Yesterday and the days before, Isabelle would have begun to shake. She’d have tipped her mug, hot coffee spilling over the lip, burning her hand. Except that today, Isabelle didn’t even cry. She held her new treasure and kept her fingers steady. Once she was done sipping, she put the cup down and caressed the Baby’s red hair. She admired her pudgy hands shaped in half fists. At once, she felt light, renewed. Her brain seemed to click on, her appetite returned. She sat down and made a list of what the grocery store would deliver and what she might buy at Old Navy. A special outfit, that rust-colored one she’d been eyeing back in August before she’d gone into labor. She imagined the birth announcements, pink stripes with an apple chancery font. The name June Margaret Davenport etched in white.
“Junie,” she whispered.
Isabelle carried the Baby up the steps, down the hall to the nursery. Every day since the delivery, she’d gone into that room, lifted the window, and let the late summer breeze blow in while rocking, alone, in the glider. Beneath her, the rest of the house’s shades had been drawn and the downstairs slept. When Paul had called her at the hospital a few hours after the delivery, it was late at night. The nurses dozed at the station. One resident doctor made rounds on another floor.
“How are my girls?” he’d said.
His voice was muffled somewhere in Afghanistan. Isabelle could not bring herself to speak. She’d always given Paul everything—her virginity, her hand in marriage, a tastefully decorated brick colonial in Northern Virginia, in a suburban neighborhood where American flags blew in the wind and where grass grew emerald green. Now, a brand new baby. She grabbed onto the stupid bedrail and squeezed her eyes shut. Before she could try and form something on her lips, Paul added, “Every day I know that as long as I have you and Junie, I’ll make it home alive.”
As Isabelle swaddled Junie on the changing table, the doctor’s words “Have you considered a funeral?” muscled their way back into her heart. All these years living with Paul, they’d spoken of the dangers of his job. They’d prepared for the worst, Isabelle becoming a widow early. What grief might feel like, something jagged and barbed. But when the nurse had whisked Junie away, Isabelle hadn’t been prepared for the volcanic feeling, thick red lava curling around her, suffocating her. She’d screamed and screamed and screamed. When she’d finally run out of air, a strange stillness had enveloped her. Cotton wads had filled her brain. She’d asked the nurse to please bring the baby back to her. But the nurse hadn’t.
Isabelle set the Baby in her crib, turned on “Golden Slumbers,” and lowered the blinds, the room smelling like lavender and talc. She leaned next to the black-and-white mobile and wondered if Junie might fuss but she shut her eyes, the pacifier from the ivory box clasped in her soft mouth.
During her nap, Isabelle pumped both breasts, dumped the milk into the sink, then showered. She went downstairs and opened the blinds. Outside everything looked lush. Flowers bloomed. The sky spread bright blue and a little boy rode his tricycle up and down the sidewalk. Isabelle would vacuum and go for a stroll with the Baby, then bake lasagna and call her mother who lived with an aide in California. She’d buy red wine and would not curl up on her bed day and night anymore.
That evening, when the doorbell rang, Isabelle hurried into the foyer. She’d forgotten about the box. It lay strewn on the floor like a coffin, papers and pale pink ribbons everywhere. The name Handmade Baby Company adorned the cover. Isabelle gathered everything, then hid all of it in the extra blue recycling bin in her garage. Breathless, she rushed back to the door and opened it, a smile fluttering on her lips.
“Oh my God, you look like new,” Catherine said.
Catherine was Isabelle’s neighbor and friend. Both their husbands were on deployment for a year. When Isabelle had come home from the hospital, Catherine had visited. Isabelle told her what she’d told Paul, Paul’s parents, and her own mother—that she was suffering from post-partum, that the baby was jaundiced, that she needed time. Catherine popped over regularly, a concerned look on her face, and Isabelle shooed her away. But that evening, with the Baby tucked away upstairs in her crib, Isabelle said, “Want a glass of wine?” Then, “I was relaxing.”
“So smart not to over exert yourself,” Catherine replied, stepping into the foyer.
Isabelle kept on smiling. “It’s a bitch being a new mom.”
“Can I see her? I’m dying.”
Feeling new drops of milk spilling into her nursing bra, Isabelle said, “Junie’s fast asleep already but another time?”
* * *
For the next few weeks, Isabelle woke up at dawn. She went into the nursery, picked up June from her crib. She placed her on the changing table, hummed Baby Mine, removed her clothes, and stared at her sweet naked body. She marveled at how perfect her belly button was, how when she touched Junie’s thighs, the rolls squished under her fingertips, how her skin was so soft and how by now she couldn’t tell real from pretend.
“Chunky Monkey,” she whispered.
Sitting in the glider, Isabelle pulled the Baby to her breasts. Her favorite position was the football hold. Junie pretend-suckled fast and furious, her tongue squeezing Isabelle’s nipples the way Isabelle imagined a real baby would. In the direction manual, Isabelle had read that you could feed the Baby her milk bottle (the fake one that looked incredibly real) and that you could adjust the strength of the suckling (fast versus slow drinker) the way you might adjust the settings on your favorite pillow massager. The manual never advised to place the Baby to the breasts but Isabelle did it anyway. After a minute or two, she reached under the Baby’s right armpit and in the very center found the tiniest of buttons. She pressed it twice. The Baby yawned wide, showing red gums, then re-clasped Isabelle’s left nipple but softly this time.
Isabelle would have never told anyone this, but the feeling, even though she’d pumped all her milk before, was delicious. A tingling sensation. The baby’s mouth, unlike the pump, felt moist and soft. At every suck, Isabelle’s uterus contracted. Yet, when she inserted her index finger inside the Baby’s lips to pause her momentarily, there was no wetness, only a strange squishy-like texture. Her tongue felt a little like a fillet. And when Isabelle rubbed the Baby’s gums, Junie let out an unexpected yelp.
“Oh darling,” Isabelle said, inhaling the lavender scent.
The Baby settled once more, her body warm, and when they were done rocking, Isabelle placed her palm against the Baby’s chest, never growing tired of the thump-thump of her heart. What kind of little girl would Junie become? Would she have her father’s gregarious personality or her own unwieldy imagination? Questions about the future swirled inside Isabelle, spreading mores joyful waves through her.
Though Angel, the sales person, had warned Isabelle not to let her niece give Junie hot baths, she still did. Not every day but once a week. “It’s bad for the battery and the heater. It could have long-term effects and the silicone could burn and melt away. If she gets wet, you must rub her with a special powder, Cabisol, to keep the silicone from shining and changing consistency.” But after baths, Isabelle liked to lather Junie up with lavender lotion and talc. She did not want to powder her with that cancerous stuff.
What Isabelle loved about motherhood was the routine. She structured her days into walks, baths, story, and nap times. When the baby was sleeping, Isabelle surfed the Internet. She bought diapers and onesies. A snowsuit for winter. A Valentine’s Day dress. She wrote Paul letters, explaining how being a mom, though bumpy at first, was everything she’d always wanted. And more. She included care packages, inserted photos of June in her crib, in her downstairs bassinet, in her stroller. Paul wrote her back. She is gorgeous. A princess. I love you both. Can’t wait to hold her.
When Catherine came by for morning coffee, June was always asleep but one Thursday afternoon, as Isabelle settled June into her carriage in front of her house, Catherine appeared on the sidewalk.
She said, “Can I hold her?”
Catherine wore her yoga outfit, mat dangling from her shoulder. She was nearing forty and the furthest thing from a mother. She worked for a law firm and stored high heel shoes in her pantry. Isabelle was about to say no. She knew that if she covered Junie beneath the soft blanket, Catherine would think she was precious. Bending over the stroller, two women yesterday had admired her in her yellow overalls and hat. But Isabelle also remembered Angel’s policeman story.
“Sure,” she finally said. “Keep her head on your shoulder. Don’t look at her. She’ll cry. I’ll drape a bib over your top.”
“You’re such a first-time mom.” Catherine laughed, holding Junie. “She is so small,” she cooed. “And calm. Like a little log.”
“You should see her at 2 a.m.,” Isabelle said. “I’m surprised her cries don’t wake you.”
Catherine patted Junie’s back. They chatted about the weather, how fall was fast coming, and what party they’d throw for their husbands’ return at Thanksgiving. After a while, Isabelle lifted Junie away and waved Catherine goodbye.
“If you need a sitter,” Catherine said before climbing into her car, “I have one. She is sixteen and very responsible. It’s my colleague’s daughter.”
Isabelle loved the idea of a sitter. That afternoon, she walked four miles. Her mood soared. She couldn’t wait for Paul to get home. She yearned to join a mommy group and wondered what a trip to the pediatrician would be like. The tips of the leaves on the trees were turning gold, the breeze wrapping its coolness around everything. She imagined herself and her husband pushing the carriage, then watching movies, and making love as the baby slept upstairs.
When she got home, there was a message from her OBGYN. “Hi, Isabelle,” Doctor Steinberg said. “My staff and I are thinking of you. We are wondering how you are feeling and—“
Isabelle deleted the voicemail. She went on about her day, rarely putting Junie down.
The only problem during those late summer and early fall weeks was that every so often, Isabelle would wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and clutching her chest. She’d sit straight up in bed and relive that moment in the hospital when she bore down and pushed, the nurse gasping, red hot lava flowing and scorching the floor, the room, the building, and the universe. But then Isabelle would grab her pillow and hug it, silence blanketing her bedroom. She would change her sweaty nightgown to a dry one. She’d tiptoe into the nursery. Junie would be sleeping on her back. Isabelle’s heart would slow down and things would return to normal.
* * *
Emma Silver, the babysitter, showed up on a Friday night. She was a junior in high school. As she stood in the foyer in the exact same spot where Isabelle had unwrapped the Baby from the ivory box, Isabelle knew she could count on her. Catherine was right. Emma looked responsible. Slim, dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she had a shy smile. You could tell, Isabelle thought as she invited her into the kitchen, that she’d jump into a lake to save a baby.
“God, I love your house,” Emma said. “It’s so clean compared to the other families I sit for. Babies and toddlers dirty things up. How do you do it?”
Isabelle blushed, then promised herself as she fiddled with her dangly earrings that next time she’d leave a few odds and ends out of place or that there wouldn’t be a next time. The truth was that Isabelle hadn’t gone out for drinks since way before the hospital and she’d never left her baby with a stranger. But she couldn’t keep saying no to Catherine’s offer.
“You need to break the umbilical cord,” her friend had told her.
“Junie is in her crib,” she said, pointing her finger to the ceiling. “She is a heavy sleeper. You won’t hear a thing.”
Emma gave Isabelle the shy smile. “I’ll watch documentaries and if I hear her cry, I’ll go up and make sure she is okay. Don’t worry.”
Isabelle opened the front door.
“You won’t need to,” she said.
By now, Isabelle had read the entire manual and she’d learned how to turn Junie on and off, which was very practical. In the folds of her left thigh, there was a mole-button. All you had to do was caress it once and the Baby would switch on or off. Off, Junie would never cry, not even if you rubbed her gums. On was another story.
The night was pleasant. Stars blinked in a dark sky. Catherine was standing on the sidewalk, waiting. She wore black cigarette pants and her blonde hair framed her face. She had that yoga body that all men sought out and, for a second, Isabelle shivered, wondering if going out was a giant mistake.
“Should I set the alarm?” Isabelle said.
Emma shook her head. “We’ll be great.”
That night, Isabelle and Catherine drank too much. They sat perched on stools at this bar, Home, where military men hung out. By the time 11 p.m. rolled around, Isabelle’s black shirt was wet from breast milk. She wished she’d pumped before leaving but she’d forgotten. And, she’d had four glasses of wine on no dinner. This guy named Ben sat on Catherine’s stool and Catherine leaned against this other guy named Chip. Two soldiers between assignments.
“Can I buy you a drink?” Ben said to Isabelle.
He was tall, handsome with a goatee.
Isabelle flipped her hair. “I’m a new mom,” she said, the sound of it exhilarating. She added, “I’m also married to Sergeant Paul Davenport. Know him?”
Ben looked at her boobs. “No and lucky guy.”
Isabelle finished the last drop of her wine, then, dizzy, she placed her hands on her blouse. At once, she thought of Paul. She hadn’t seen him since her first trimester, months ago. She missed his hands, the way he kissed her too hard, how he sometimes looked at her and shook his head, then said, “Hottie.” Maybe it was the noise or the crowd, but Isabelle grew sad.
“We met in college,” she said. “He was in ROTC.”
“What’s it like?” Ben asked.
“Having a newborn baby?”
Next to them, Catherine sucked faces with Chip. They were pressed against each other and Isabelle knew that Catherine would leave with him in no time. How would she get back to her own house, to her sitter, to her Baby? How would she explain this complicated newborn thing to a handsome soldier? Suddenly, the cord image surged behind her eyelids. Isabelle inhaled. She saw the nurse in her ducky scrubs, Junie wrapped in the box, sleeping in the crib, Emma watching TV. She wiped her eyes.
“Baby blues,” she managed.
She thought she might collapse on this dirty floor from the pain stabbing her heart. So she grabbed Ben’s hands to steady herself and put them on the front of her wet shirt.
“That’s what it’s like,” she explained, wanting to feel something, some kind of physical contact, warmth, a person that might understand for one second what being her right now felt like. “It’s overwhelming.”
But Ben wasn’t listening. He stared at his hands on her chest. He pressed his thumbs lightly against her nipples making new milk flow.
“They’re huge,” he said.
He offered to take her home. They parked on the sidewalk outside her house and kissed, his goatee coarse and unfamiliar. He slipped his hands in her nursing bra.
“I couldn’t get anything done if my wife had a pair of these,” he said.
“Wife?” Isabelle repeated.
“I haven’t seen her in eighteen months. She’s overseas.”
When Isabelle walked in her house, Emma was fast asleep on the couch, a documentary still running. A man was explaining that a monkey had once adopted a stuffed animal. Isabelle sat still dangerously tipsy, transfixed, watching the screen.
“She carried it everywhere with her for nearly two years but one day she tore it to pieces,” the man said.
Emma opened her eyes, yawned. “Weird, huh? Monkeys.” She got up, stretched, and added, “Junie never made a peep.”
Isabelle handed her money. “Thanks,” she said, walking her back to the door.
That night Isabelle didn’t go to the nursery. She didn’t turn Junie back on. Instead, she got into bed and thought of Ben’s hands, how much bigger they were then Paul’s. She hadn’t made love in months. She imagined Ben’s wife, a little brunette, flat chested, with mousy eyes but shapely legs. Distance, she thought, was impossible to overcome, the gate to heartbreak. Sometimes you could live in a busy neighborhood with mothers pushing strollers, roses blooming, fathers carrying toddlers on their shoulders, and still feel as if you were the only one alive. Some things hit you so deeply then made you so numb that you bathed in goo and didn’t know right from wrong. Falling asleep, Isabelle wished she could turn herself on and off.
* * *
Four days before Paul was due to return, there was a loud knock on Isabelle’s front door. She was upstairs, changing Junie. She’d bought her new clothes that she still swam in. As Isabelle ran a comb through her hair, a few ripped from her scalp, making Junie yelp. Her fingers, the half fists she always made, seemed a little looser, as if Junie’s hands were stretching. Nonsense, Isabelle thought, pressing her to her chest.
She hurried down the stairs, holding her, then opened the door. The day was overcast. Two soldiers stood on her doorstep.
The flowers that had been in bloom going down her path were wilting. As she was about to offer for them to come in, the soldier on the left said, looking at Junie, “How old is she?”
“Eleven weeks,” Isabelle said.
Maybe because the men were in uniform, Isabelle’s guilt—the one about Ben’s hands in her nursing bra—flared. She made her way into the kitchen where the scent of coffee lingered, and where the list of items to buy for the party lay partially written. Catherine was hosting and making a banner that would read, Welcome Home Sergeants Paul Davenport and Clifford Daly. Helium balloons were on Isabelle’s list.
The soldier on the right, the taller of the two, presented her with a letter sealed with a navy blue stamp.
“There was an attack on your husband’s camp last night,” he said. “He was hit by shrapnel and died in the arms of one of his fellow soldiers. We are sorry for your loss.”
Isabelle squeezed Junie so hard that she started to wail like never before.
“Hush sweetie,” Isabelle said.
The tall guy reached his hand toward her but Isabelle backed away. She went to the sink, filled it up with water, Junie still screaming.
“It’s time for her bath,” she said.
The other soldier said, “Please, sit down.”
Isabelle knew that she should tell them that after a few minutes she’d be A-okay (she was a military wife after all) but instead she laid Junie gently down in the downstairs bassinet. She un-swaddled her, pulled off her clothes until she was naked.
“We know this is very hard,” Tall Man said, standing behind her.
Isabelle ignored him. She kept hushing Junie, then she scooped her up and placed her in the sink. Before, she might have tried to caress the little mole in the folds of her left thigh to turn her off, but all Isabelle could now see was the red of Junie’s hair like Paul’s, her long eyelashes also Paul’s. Her belly, the lift of her chest, up down, up down. Her mouth contorting. She saw the noose tightening in the mirror but then the baby in the foyer dressed in her baptismal dress. All that lace. Everything about Junie was palpable. She kicked her legs and arms, splashing water out of the sink. She moved her head, her eyelids opening and closing. Her body temperature was rising, way warmer than usual. Isabelle could feel her own temperature rising, her heart racing, and sweat beading inside her nursing bra.
“I think we might both be sick. She might have a fever,” Isabelle said, scooping her back into her arms and toweling her dry, then bouncing her around the kitchen, wishing it was less hot, wanting to open all the windows. The tall soldier followed her while the other stood in the doorframe, his eyes darker than night.
“It’s okay, Junie-June,” Isabelle kept saying.
But the more she rocked her the more Junie screamed. And the more Isabelle wanted to scream with her. Junie’s hazel eyes were locked on hers and tears were streaming down her cheeks. Her half fists trembled. Isabelle had begun to cry too and when Tall Man said, “Maybe she’ll settle down if she is in my arms,” Isabelle marched up the stairs, went into the nursery, and locked herself in.
One of the soldiers yelled, “We’ll have to break this door down, ma’am, if you don’t open.”
Holding on to her screaming infant, all Isabelle wanted was to soothe her, to sing her “You Are My Sunshine,” to have life return back to normal where she putzed around the house with a husband and baby. Like in some kind of vortex, Isabelle heard herself singing.
The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried.
She belted out the lyrics and knew that as long as she wiped Junie’s tears and felt her squishiness, her warmth, and her heartbeat, everything would be fine. Hunky-dory.
She wouldn’t notice her translucent skin sagging, her hazel eyes sinking in, one of her fingernails slowly coming unglued. Isabelle even imagined Paul on the other side of the door, the soldier’s voice turning into his. Were they having an argument, she and Paul, about the baby? Should she call 911? Maybe Afghanistan had scarred him and turned him violent. He was frightening her and Junie. But also making her angry. Isabelle was now sweating through her clothes and felt queasy. She would get him counseling, she thought. They would discuss their marriage for the sake of the baby. The vortex spun and spun. Junie’s cries began to break into strange almost motorized beeps and then the room fell silent. Isabelle sat in the glider and pressed Junie to her chest.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away
She looked down at her, at those long eyelashes, fluttering, shutting, at her little mouth frozen in an O.
“I’m sorry, Chunky Monkey,” she said over and over.
The door came off its hinges. Tall Man surged into the nursery, knelt beside her, and said, “I want to help you, Mrs. Davenport. We’ll get you and the baby to the hospital. This must be such a shock.”
The other soldier stood in the hallway. Isabelle saw him dial a number, mumble something—distress, panic attack, ASAP—into his cell phone.
For a second, Isabelle thought that the rescue was for Paul, or, no, maybe for Junie, but then she realized it was for her.
“I’m not crazy,” she managed.
It took a solid hour for Isabelle to get up from the glider. When she finally made it to her feet, she handed the Baby to the tall soldier.
At first, he held her gingerly the way one holds a brand new baby but then he pulled off a part of the towel and ran his fingers on her tiny arm, on her strange-looking hands.
“Jesus,” he said.
They made their way down the stairs. Isabelle opened the garage and pointed to the recycling bin. The soldier lifted the ivory box out. In the kitchen, he swaddled Junie in the yellow towel, then he put her back into the box. He made sure Junie’s head was as straight as possible, then he covered her up with another dishtowel decorated with embroidered suns.
“I know grief,” he said, his voice a whisper.
All Isabelle could see was a tuft of auburn hair sticking out of the towel. After what felt like an eternity, she watched him take out a small American flag from his pocket, then lay it down on her.
“Do you have family nearby?” he asked.
Isabelle shook her head.
They passed through the foyer, the soldier carrying the box the way he would later carry her husband’s coffin. Outside, Catherine stood with her yoga mat on her back. But when Isabelle walked by, Catherine did not run to her. Instead, she stared at the ivory box with the words Handmade Baby Company. Like the nurse in the ducky scrubs, she gasped. Yet, Isabelle didn’t see her friend’s confusion. She was too busy cradling her purse and keys while being tucked inside a dark car, its tires spinning her out of sight.