What Matters by J. Thomas Eells

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Our baby comes into the world, and the doctor winds it up and hands it to us as it starts to cry. It’ll run out of steam quickly, the doctor tells us. Best to let it sit for about an hour before winding it up again.

Of course, we know this already. We know a lot; we’ve been reading all the most well-regarded books on baby care and development, and we know that over the next year, the baby’s rest time will get longer and less frequent. After about five months, we will be able to leave it off through the night, if all goes well, which we think it will.

We are both readers, and we hope our baby will be one too, so for its first nap we set it on our vast bookshelf, between a Woolf and an Adorno. We sit together on the couch, our fingers interlaced, and watch our baby sleep. We don’t speak, but we know we are thinking the same thoughts: that we did it, we’re doing it, our baby will grow to have its own thoughts, its own will, a set of fears and favorite places. It will grow away from us and break our hearts, though hopefully not in a gruesome way. In thirteen fourteen fifteen years, its wind-up mechanism will come loose, and then fall off completely, and our baby will take ownership of its destiny, which will terrify us.

We wind up our baby after it has rested, and we feed it, dust it, polish it. After a month, we take it to the farmer’s market, to the park, the post office, the library. We show our baby off to the admiring hordes of cousins, siblings, grandparents, neighbors.

A strange harmony settles on us as we no longer have the luxury of arguing, and our devotion to our baby leaves us without room for disagreement about what matters in life.

We confess our fears to each other. What if our baby grows sick? What if our baby comes to violently disagree with our fundamental worldview? What if it grows into a monster, scratches out our eyes, or the eyes of someone else we love dearly, or a stranger?

We soothe each other to sleep with lullabies. We have read enough to know that parents fall out of love with each other as often as they don’t, so as we cherish our baby’s fleeting smallness, we also cherish what vestiges we have left of our own youth, which, on a day-to-day basis, amounts to each other.

We know parents can fall out of love, and sure enough, soon after the baby starts sleeping through the night, something invisible starts tugging on us, and we grow terse with each other. Sometimes, when the baby sleeps, we quibble. We have petty spats about baby socks, Amazon Prime, lightbulbs, fried foods.

After the baby starts daycare, we have an ugly fight, over the matter of dog-earring pages in old books, and soon we are sleeping in separate rooms. We apologize and exchange a weary hug, but we also grow greedy for the freedom from each other afforded by daycare, and when our baby is home, we are greedy for the baby.

Our baby is not yet a year old, and we are so tired. We remember the days when our opinions on lightbulbs and dog-earring pages were like nothing, and we wonder if this was all a mistake. Of course, we keep going, because we must, because our baby needs us, and our baby might soon be all we have left of each other. We still share occasional happy moments, when our baby crawls over and picks a Le Guin off our vast shelf, or when it approximates sound into words: nanana; baff. And we still like to sit together on the couch sometimes as our baby sleeps leaning against our books.

One day, after a long hike in the woods with our baby on our backs, we set our baby down next to a Kundera in the shelf and fall asleep together spooning on the couch. When we wake, we look at the clock and realize we’ve overslept. I get up to wind up our baby.

Wait, leave it, you say. I like it just like this.


J. Thomas Eells is a former dishwasher and line cook who lives and writes in Minneapolis. His work has been featured in Molotov Cocktail, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He tweets @OneSilent_E.

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