Michelle held her baby at arms length as it screamed at her. She wrinkled her nose. The earplugs weren’t doing much to block out the noise. It was so red, so squirming. Why? I’m trying to help you, why do you wriggle so much? Do you want me to drop you?
Riley, they had named him. Riley had spent about ninety percent of his short life crying. Michelle had aged ten years in two weeks. Craig was away for business.
Riley, Riley. She was beginning to hate the name. It was the source of all her headaches, of every stretch mark, of every sore back and every aching shoulder, every bleeding nipple and sleepless night. Riley. She was beginning to hate not only the name but the baby, the baby she swore she would love more than life itself. As soon as this thing is out of me, she used to think when it kicked her ribs and made her sick, it will all be worth it.
No. Cry-ley, she had taken to calling him under her breath. It was not worth it. She was prepared for nine months of torture, not eighteen years. And Craig…so ridiculous. That’s what she gets for marrying an actor. She was prepared to be poor, not well-off but abandoned while Craig travelled the country caked in makeup and drinking whiskey. She was forced to stay in the city for her own job, which was on hiatus. She survived on their shared bank account, guiltiness flooding her veins with every withdrawal.
She wanted a finish line, but the only one in sight was when Riley finally grew up, but he was still so small he couldn’t lift his head. No finish line, unless either she or her husband quit their jobs but stayed married. No finish line, just a slow continuance of this soreness, of constant crying.
Riley, Riley, Riley. She wanted a girl, not a boy. Her arms were getting tired, holding the stupid, heavy baby out so far, so she placed the thing in its crib and sat in the corner of the nursery, sinking to the floor and resting her forehead on her knees, rocking her head back and forth. The crying permeated the air and infected her ears.
“Shut up!” she yelled, and the baby paused for a second, then went on crying. It was so stupid it didn’t know that eating solved hunger, that sleep solved tiredness, that it was supposed to love its mother and let her sleep. Michelle crawled across the carpet and shook the crib bars, all rattling plastic and soft metal. She roared at the child. The streetlight lit up the baby in gray strips. Michelle hit the bars with her forearm, resulting in louder crying from Riley. She rolled her eyes and went to her bedroom, closing the two doors between her and the baby.
She pulled out her earplugs and called Craig. Somehow he answered—he never answered.
“Can’t you come home?” Michelle asked the second he heard his voice.
“Honey,” he started with the boiling impatience of a pep talk. “I’m in California. We talked about this, didn’t we? One more week, then I’m home for the weekend.”
“Just the weekend,” Michelle whined, slowly rolling onto her bed. Crying still seeped through the door and the laughs and chimes of a cocktail party came muffled through the phone; Michelle struggled to tune out both.
“Yes, just the weekend, but I’m on tour,” he said, another word, like “Riley,” which Michelle couldn’t help but hate. “I have to keep on tour, it’s my job. How’s Riley? You doing okay?”
“Is he sleeping?”
“Far from it. Honey, I miss you.”
“Well, I miss you too. And Riley, but that doesn’t mean I can just come home whenever I want to.”
“Michelle, I’m not having this childish conversation with you. I have to go.”
“Fine.” Michelle hung up on him and instantly fell into a fit of hysterical crying, louder than her baby, heaving breaths and coughs and tremors, This was it. Craig would be home, a finish line, but then gone again, another starting line. Why was happiness the only temporary thing? Why was the only thing she seemed to see of her husband was his back as he headed out the door?
She didn’t remember falling asleep, but she woke up at about eight, the latest Riley had let her sleep since before he was born. Her heart froze, she leapt out of bed and ran down the hall, rushing into the nursery. There he was, in the center of his crib, sleeping soundly.
For a moment, Michelle watched her silent baby sleep, his lips twitching. Was he dreaming of her? She shut the door quietly and brewed a cup of coffee. The house was so quiet.
“Riley,” she whispered in the empty kitchen. She then sipped the too-hot coffee and burned her tongue.