The Trouble

Eleanor Stern

-You weren’t an easy baby to take care of. It’s not a bad thing. You were energetic. You got that from me, I think–

-You had demands! Always crying.

-Always. Anyway, here’s what we wanted you to know: one day we lay you down for a nap.

-Well, I mean, don’t start with—we wouldn’t have made you take naps, if you hadn’t wanted them. You were too independent, and besides, we didn’t believe in telling you what to do. But you’ve always loved your sleep, haven’t you.

-So anyway, this time…we sat on the sofa and watched a little T.V., your mother and I did. Every so often we went to check on you, and eventually, when we came in, we found that you had, you know, you had shed your skin like a snake. Your old skin had been kicked through the bars of the crib and it was on the floor.

-Your father’s not explaining right. Let me tell you what I saw. Your skin, it lay on the carpet, shining like an empty bag. You were the shiny unwrapped present. So we swept it up—the skin, I mean—and put it in the trash, and that night, I took it out with the rest of the garbage. I didn’t mean to! I didn’t think about it. It was only later that we thought maybe we should have kept it somewhere safe.

-You didn’t seem to need it anymore!

-After you shed your first skin, we were a little concerned about injuring  you. Your new skin was so doughy and delicate. But soon you were thrashing so bonelessly about your crib and we knew that we would have to help you. So we picked you up. I held your feet; he took your head. It seemed like you’d be fine after all.

-Let me tell. Let me tell. After a few days you started to cry.

-Even more than usual.

-Well. At first we thought that maybe you really were sensitive to the touch now, and that we should take you to a doctor, but we put you down for a while and you kept crying, so we thought that it mustn’t be that. Then your mother had one of her ideas.

-I thought that maybe you wanted your old skin back! The way someone might want to wear the same shirt many times.

-She told me about it and I thought she might be right. We didn’t know where that old skin might be, and so we draped blankets and socks over you. We hoped that you’d be fooled into thinking it was the skin, but you were too clever for all of that. You’ve always been very smart.

-And we had to keep you home all the time, because the wind outside would be too harsh for you. Best to keep you in the blue light, little skinless baby.

-We called our scientist friend. We aren’t friends with her anymore. You wouldn’t remember her. But she said the skin wouldn’t be possible to find, after all that time.

-And we didn’t want people to stare at you, and to make you self-conscious. That could inflict, you know, psychological damage. So we couldn’t let you out.

-But in spite of our efforts, you’d try to get out of the house. You’d roll towards the doorway and we had to dash over and close it.

-It was so wistful and we just knew, oh, the poor baby wants that nice old skin back. Soon, the behavior grew more extreme. Trying to shimmy out of your crib and all. And you still cried all the time.

-And it was hard, wasn’t it?

-It was.

-We were so stressed about the whole, you know–

-Debacle?

-Yeah, the whole debacle, the fact that we couldn’t think of anything to do. You know how your mother can always think of something? But not then. And then one day we were in the kitchen drinking coffee and we heard a huge silence.

-The silence seemed to be coming from your room: you’d stopped crying, finally. The only thing left in the house was silence. So we looked at each other, you know, like this.

-When we got there you were in your crib. On your back.

-All peaceful, looking completely back to normal. We were so relieved.

-So relieved.

-We got you out of bed and–

-And here’s where the trouble really got started.

-Not at first, though. Everything was good for a while. We finally got you out of the house!

-So the weekend comes and we decide to go to the zoo together. We put a little hat on you, and we brought the camera.

-We stopped at, you know, that snack bar kind of place at the zoo. We stopped there and got some of those banana chips we used to like. But then we sat down at a table to eat them and it was like…like you were made of glass. Or mirrors. Made of mirrors. You were still soft like a baby but you reflected everything around you, you reflected the snack bar and, there was a boy eating ice cream, reflected on your hand. You know what it looked like? It looked like someone had melted down that mirror over there and poured it on you, and then it had dried up, right on top of you. But of course, nobody did that. We would have seen them.

-And we thought, oh, not now, when we’d all been having a really good time.

-We thought you’d had enough for one day, so we threw away the rest of our chips and left.

-We couldn’t trust a babysitter with you, of course. You were so much responsibility at that point. Which wasn’t your fault! But we didn’t like hiring babysitters anyway, except for your cousins.

-Before they all got so–

-So we stayed home and watched you, is the point. You still felt soft like a baby, but we’d look down at you and see ourselves, reflected.  In the little rolls on your knees, we’d see our own faces. Your eyes didn’t seem to look much of anywhere, they only showed reflections of our eyes.

-It was a little strange, but you didn’t mean anything by it. Only we did worry…our faces looked a little distorted in the reflections.

-We didn’t know if that was healthy. Maybe it was a symptom…but after about three days–

-Three days, yeah.

-You came back. No reflections, just you. We’d gotten used to using you as a mirror. But it was good to have you back.

-And now, when we got a good look at you–

-You had a tooth!

-You did. It was exciting because all the books say you should grow your first tooth at four to seven months and it had been, what, six and a half?

-Seven, by then. All the doctors we took you to said not to worry, that you couldn’t help it.

-But now we looked and it was a lovely white tooth. So I reached this finger in and touched it. And you bit me!

-Not on purpose! But it did…it bled a little.

-And it did hurt. I washed it and used some of that herbal stuff we used to put on bug bites, but it still just scorched. My whole arm. Like when we were hiking and that scorpion bit me–

-Scorpions don’t even bite.

-Sorry, stung me–it was worse than that!

-Because that didn’t happen.

-The point is, you bit me and I was lying flat on the bed.

-He couldn’t move.

-Yeah, after a couple of hours I got all swollen and creaky and I couldn’t bend. And my whole body was sizzling, like a piece of wood in a campfire.

-He also turned a little blue. Just a light shade. But he was okay by the next day. He sat up around sunrise and asked if there was any coffee, didn’t you?

-And we talked and said, well, maybe our kid’s got a venomous bite. Nothing to be ashamed of. We decided to wait and tell you when you were older. Just don’t bite anybody, if you can avoid it.

-Now, we weren’t mad at you at all and we weren’t scared!

-Just to be sure, though, we waited until night to give you a bath.

-I gave you a bath. Always.

-Well, yeah, I guess. And after that we were getting you into your pajamas. But you hated clothes and you kept trying to twist away.

-We finally got them on you, and you got angry, and made some sounds.

-Like this–

-Not anything like that. You don’t even…you don’t even know what I’m talking about. But the point is, you shook your arms a little bit and we thought you might cry, but instead you just reached up and put your hands over your eyes.

-Like this: all your fingers spread out, Peek-a-Boo. It was very strange for a baby.

-But we thought it was so funny. We took pictures and all. It was a little tic you had. When you were upset you’d cover your eyes. And meanwhile, you were getting a little bit older. You said a word or two.

-We gave you a haircut.

-Yeah. And still, when you ate something that you didn’t like or when we said you had to go to sleep, your hands would go up to hide your eyes.

-So maybe that’s why we didn’t think much of it when you reached up one day–

-After sitting through a long car ride–

-And you took your eyes right out.

-You just stood there, with your eye sockets empty and shining, your eyes in your hands. So we realized, of course, why you’d kept putting your hands over your eyes. You hadn’t been covering them. You’d been trying to take them out. But your fingers had been too small and chubby before then.

-So we said to you, give those back, give those to us! We thought, I don’t know, that we’d put them back in for you. But you wouldn’t hand them over and we didn’t want to take them out of your hands.

-Because we didn’t want to damage them or anything. And they’re your property, in the end.

-Eventually you put them back. But you did it every day or so after that: just took them out for a couple of minutes. I wanted to clean them off because I thought you were probably smudging them with your fingers, but I couldn’t figure out how.

-We just tried to keep your hands clean. But one day I decided that we could all use a vacation.

-A nice beach vacation, some stress relief, you could get out some of your pent-up energy.

-We packed the car with all of your books and everything and drove out to a little motel on the beach, you know, two or three hours. You were good on the car ride. You just sat there and leaned your chin on your hands and–

-Anyway.

-Well, you tell it, then.

-Fine. The next day, we all put on our swimsuits and headed down to the ocean. All the other people were bouncing off each other, playing their little games and all in the sand. And you and I walked down to the water. So we were having a good time, standing there in the waves.

-Well, suddenly I hear him calling my name! So down I run, and your father just points from you to the water a couple of times. Speechless.

-You’d lost your eyes! You took them out without me noticing and let go of them in the water.

-I thought you’d never get them back. I wanted to cry, but it was too hot to do anything but gape. I asked your dad to take you back up the shore–

-And I made sure that you kept your eyes closed, so no sand could get in–

-And while you waited I tried to find them. So I swam and I looked here and there and I found them floating, I don’t know, five yards out? Still pretty close together.

-She carried them up to you, one in each hand with her arms at her sides, the way you always used to hold them.

-That’s right. When I handed them to you, you just slid them in, wearily, one after the other, with your pudgy little sandy hands. I remember they made this popping sound. It seemed very loud at the time. I don’t know.

-Then you blinked at us and turned around. We followed you back to the motel. You didn’t speak another word to us all that day, you just quietly let us give you a bath, and you ate dinner in your high chair without making a sound, even with your chewing. And then you stood up from the table and strutted right to bed.

- We kept waiting for you to take your eyes out again. I mean, we were prepared.  But you didn’t. You stopped, after that, for a long time.

-The thing—the thing is, though–

-What we wanted to explain, really–

-We don’t know if you’ve noticed.

-You probably haven’t. It’s very minor, really.

-It’s just, the skin on your shoulder. It’s torn a little. It seems to be opening more every day.

-But don’t be alarmed. It’s really very small, and we’ve seen it before. It’s not a big deal. It’s just a pattern, is all.

-So now you know.

-So now you know.