The baby was crying again. The endless rolling tide of shrieks made her want to die.
No one told her how hard it would be: having a baby at 75.
"Why didn't you warn me?" Rachel asked her third-to-last therapist during their breakup call.
"It's not appropriate for me to impinge on the procreative decisions of my clients. Ectogenetic liberty is one of the —" The therapist kept going but Rachel's arthritic knuckle had already ended the call.
Her baby was six months old now.
She'd read it was common for pod babies to have a strong disgust response. They didn't know why. But it was important to establish boundaries early otherwise they'd taunt you before they could hold a fork.
"Mama, yore ugwee," She imagined him saying one day soon.
She activated his feeder. The crying stopped.
"Nasser is arriving," her home announced. That was the man she had booked on an errand app. She had him for the afternoon.
Nasser was already waiting outside by the time she got to the door.
He smelled like expired sausage, and Rachel wondered if he ever washed behind his ears. But he seemed capable of pretending to be polite, and she could always ask him to open her windows.
Nasser could barely breathe from the low-lying stench of urine that clung to everything in the house.
They went to the kitchen.
She offered him a cup of her worst coffee and motioned to a half-finished sleeve of stale tea biscuits. He declined both and looked at the oven clock.
"Are you busy these days? You're probably up to your neck with people like me who can't move a chair anymore without dislocating a knee. Ha!"
Nasser managed a chuckle. Though neither of them were very convinced by the gesture.
"So, what do you need help with today," Nasser asked her.
"Loads of things! Lots to do. For starters: how do you feel about becoming a father?" She replied.
"Oh, I'm only kidding!" Rachel said, "You've got your whole life ahead of you. I only just had my first. Well, not the old-fashioned way. Not that you assumed I could. Ha! Wouldn't that be something. I'm flattered, really — "
"Coffee would be great actually," he interrupted.
"Sure! Yes! Help yourself. And let let me show you what you're doing. There's really not that
They walked back to the foyer to a stack of unopened packages against the wall.
"All these need to be assembled, installed. Some in the bathroom, some in the — well, you'll see."
Nasser picked up all the boxes he could carry. None of them were particularly heavy.
Enduring her asinine prattling would likely be the day's only labour.
He took out a carpenter's knife to open the first box. Rachel sat down near him.
"What's in that one? Oh right. The grip bar. That's for my shower. Who knew! I nearly slipped the other day. There goes my neck! Wouldn't that be something. It could happen to you, Rachel, I kept thinking - what a joke! So where are you from? Let me guess. Nasser. Hmmm..."
"I'm from Jordan." He told her.
"Jordan! Terrible what's happened.. That Prince of yours just couldn't manage. Some prize he turned out to be. You know I read the most awful story. The Druze - just horrible how they've been treated —"
Her eyes drifted to the tear on his shirt pocket while she talked. She wondered if he'd steal anything.
The baby started crying again.
Nasser remembered his father telling him that women evolved to be highly sensitive to the sound of a crying baby, even when it wasn't theirs.
"Do you need to go?"
"Oh that's right - of course. Ha! Burping! Never ends does it. Every day. When will they figure that out?"
"Babies figure out burping?"
"Oh, ha! Funny. When they'll come out with a baby burper, of course! Only seems right considering. What's the point of a feeder if you still have to make sure they're burped after? Can't be safe. People forget things! What about the people who forget things?"
"Why did you want a baby now?"
"That's a great question. Thank you, Nasser! How interesting! I'll be sure to tell you. Baby calls! Ha! I'll leave you to the grab bar. Oh, for the bathroom! Down the hall, second right."
He installed the bar and left one nut looser than he could have. He liked the thought of her wide-eyed panic every time she thought it wouldn't hold.
A few minutes later, they were both back in the living room. Nasser was assembling a mount of sorts.
"You were saying. About the baby?" He asked.
"Yes! Oh! Why now? Why not! I always wanted one. In a far away sort of way., you know. Always wrote "someday" in my dating profiles. Took it down when I hit menopause. Ha! Felt a little silly with the hot flashes and all. It was never the right time. Until there wasn't any time. Or so I thought. Then the glass wombs arrived! Now that was progress. 'Free the uterus!" We yelled. This is before your time. We were burning copies of "What to Expect When You're Expecting." - that's a book. My girlfriends gorged on cured meats and gulped down martinis while their babies grew five blocks down the street. Imagine that! Ha! Sent their emails without a care. It was a miracle! Nothing could stop us anymore.”
"That sounds very exciting. But you are not scared?"
"Have you considered journalism school? You're a natural. Ha! I might be able to pull some strings for you, Nasser! Maybe you could write about the Druze! Now wouldn't that be something! Right — let's see what you can do about this contraption shall we?"
They made their way to the nursery. There were horrible sounds. Nasser winced. Rachel motioned the volume lower.
"Do you like it? I think it's awful! It's supposed to stimulate grey matter. Don't ask me! I brought in an ecto-oriented designer for the room. Came highly recommended! What a thrill working with him. Be careful with anything on a flat surface. Uh-uh — watch those elbows Nasser! Just kidding! But really, it's much more expensive than it looks. Isn't it now? We don't want anything breaking do we?"
Nasser set down the mount while Rachel admired a Vladimir Mika vase on the table.
"Isn't it beautiful?" She said." And that glass circle in the middle! Charlie, the decorator, called them wide eyes. Like portals. They form only in the most perfect conditions. And. Well - hmm. They don't have belly buttons. Pristine. He doesn't have one, the baby, I mean. Not a real one. They fuse the opening shut when they're ready to come out of the pods. Like they came through space. No beginning or end. No centuries-old shame to carry. Do you want to look?"
Nasser didn't move. His stomach turned, like a warning flare.
The old woman tottered to the crib and moved smooth grey instruments that Nasser didn't understand away on their swivels so she could reach the baby. Her onion-skin arms reached in for a few moments and finally lifted the bundle from his tiny bed. It was hard for her.
The baby cooed. He was angelic and alien all at once. His eyes were fixed on his mother's face, trying to understand. Rachel loosed the clasps of the sleepsuit around his stomach.
"See Nasser?" she said, "Nothing." Rachel ran her thumb over a faded scar where a naval should be then covered it up again.
Nasser stared at the baby. His ears had begun to ring.
"Excuse me. One minute," he said.
He walked to the bathroom and closed the door behind him. The grip bar shone in the light. Taunting the room like the blight it was.
A prickly hot rush of sweat soaked Nasser all at once. It dripped into his eyes and burned like turned sulphur. He turned on the bathroom faucet with one hand and with the other rubbed his index and thumb fingers into either corners of his eyes.
Nasser inherited the position from his father who assumed it as he washed his face during wuzu ablution before prayers.
Nasser was back in Amman. Crouching outside the bathroom as his father cleansed for Ramadan. He was too young to fast this year. "Maybe next year," his father had told him. The radio played Fairuz between calls to prayer. Nasser loved Fairuz.
He wished the baby could hear Fairuz.
He wiped his face. Gathered himself. But what was he to do? Rescue every wretch? He returned to the nursery. She was no longer there. The baby was in his crib. Nasser put a hand under the baby's neck and the other beneath his tiny back and scooped him toward his chest. Like his mother had taught him.
"Whose blood fills this body?" He whispered in Arabic. The baby looked at him with the same lost gaze as before. He had no answers to give him.
"Nasser! Nasser! Hello? The boxes! Did you forget? They won't open themselves! Ha!"
Nasser placed the baby back in his crib and left the room.
"There you are! Enjoying yourself? Hurry please! There's lots more to do!"
Rachel looked different. Smaller. Weaker.
"What about the mount? We didn't finish with it," he asked.
"Oh! Ha! Forgot about it! See what I mean? We'll have to go back later. The baby is sleeping you know!"
He picked up the next package.
"What is his name?"
"The baby? Oh! How would I know? He hasn't told me yet! Ha! No one decent names their own babies anymore, Nasser, you know that. Who are we to tell them what they should be called? Agency. Do you know it? They're their own people and each person should have the right to choose for themselves."
"I see," Nasser nodded, his forearms taut and angry.
"Yes! Any more questions before this goes to press? Ha!"
"Only one more."
"Well? Let's hear it! While I still can!" She said.
"Were you scared? Are you scared, I mean?"
"Scared of what?"
"Becoming a mother at your age. By yourself."
"My age? By myself? Ha! What's there to be scared of? There's feeders, and screens, and Nassers to put up my shelves. Everything I need comes straight to my door. I've got a pulse haven't I? I'm assuming you mean without a man. Let the joke about being a father get to your head did you? Imagine that. You're all the same aren't you? Can't let a woman crack an egg without butting your head in and trying to tell her what to do. If it was so wrong why would I be allowed to do it? Did you think about that? He has everything he could want. He's probably dreaming about how happy he is right now."
She was shaking now.
"In fact, I think that's quite enough for today. Let's see what you've done with that bar and you can be on your way. And you can forget about journalism school."
They walked to her bathroom. She stood outside the tub and gripped the bar, testing it.
"This is loose! Go figure. Can't do anything right, can you?"
She dropped her hand and looked at him through the mirror.
"Fix it now and get out of my house."
He paused no longer than a breath and lunged at her whispery frame. He smashed her head against the bar, doing his best to crush her skull in two in one go. She went limp in an instant. The blood poured down her head. He let her body fall into the porcelain basin then stripped her bare and turned on the shower.
The baby was crying now. Nasser walked into the nursery.
What was he to do now? Raise a child? And with what money? With his whole life ahead of him? Before he had figured anything out? What if he wouldn't be a good father? What pain would he pass on to this tiny person? And into a world like this? So cruel and ugly? So filled with despair and hatred?
No. This was not his to bear. Not yet. He wasn't ready