“You ready, babe?” I snuck up behind Natalie, who was frowning at her reflection in the full-length mirror on the back of the bedroom door, and kissed her shoulder. “We should probably go. Dinner’s at seven.”
“I guess so.”
I wrapped my arms around her waist—or at least where her waist used to be—and placed my palms flat on her hard, round belly. “How’s he treating you?”
“He’s being difficult today.” She sighed, settling against me as if exhaustion was melting her bones. “He can’t get comfortable, and neither can I.”
I kissed her shoulder again, then the side of her neck. “Well, you look perfect.” I breathed in the scent of her skin, which always smelled delicious.
“I don’t look perfect. I look like a hippopotamus.” She caught my eye in the mirror and gave me an angry glare. “And don’t try to argue with me.”
“OK fine. You look like a hippopotamus.” I sniffed her neck again. “But you smell divine, so I’m going to go out with you tonight.”
“Very funny.” She closed her eyes and inhaled sharply just as I felt her stomach stretch and roll beneath my hands. “Jesus. Can you please tell your son to stop the assault on my bladder, or whatever organ it is that he’s abusing? I can’t take it.”
Even though I loved feeling the little life we created moving inside her, I knew how difficult the last few weeks of pregnancy had been for Nat. Time after time I told her how much I wished there was something I could do to relieve her from the burden, and I meant it, but secretly I was like fucking hell, I’m glad men don’t have babies. That shit looks hard! But I couldn’t have been happier that Natalie was having mine. Just two weeks to go, and then I could pitch in and share the load.
I took her by the shoulders and gently turned her toward me before leaning over to address our belligerent baby. “Listen, Gotham. You need to stop all this hibernation crap and just get out here already. You’re driving your momma here crazy, and I’m getting really fucking impatient to see you.”
“His name is not Gotham.” Natalie put her hands on her belly as if she could cover his ears. “And don’t say fuck,” she whispered. “He hears you.”
I straightened up and took her face in my hands. “Of course he does. He probably even knows what it means. He’s brilliant.”
“Can’t miss.” I dropped a kiss on her cute round mouth. “You’re the smartest person I know. And my sperm was genius enough to scale the walls and penetrate all your defenses—so genius that your body was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is the one. Fucking astrophysicist here. Brain surgeon. Virtuoso. This is clearly sperm prodigy.’”
She cocked her head. “Sperm prodigy?”
“Definitely.” I kissed her lips again before dropping to my knees, lifting up the flowing hem of her maternity dress, and pressing my mouth to her belly. “Are you listening, wunderkind? You found your way in, now complete the maze and get out. The fit might be a bit tighter through the hedges, but I think you can do it.”
“Oh, God.” She laughed and pushed her dress back down, but a moment later, she gripped her lower back, and the giggle turned into a groan. “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts.”
“It does?” I hopped to my feet and studied her, trying to assess how serious this was. Natalie wasn’t one to complain about anything, or get dramatic. “Maybe we should call the doctor. Or stay home tonight.”
“No, no. We have to go. It’s Jillian’s engagement party; I don’t want to miss it. And even if we stayed home, I’d still be uncomfortable.”
“Are you sure? I can go get you a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cake My Day and give you a foot massage while we watch Netflix. Or a butt massage. Those are nice too.”
She smiled, but I saw pain flicker across her face, and she had to take a deep breath before she spoke again.
“No, let’s get going. I need the distraction. Will you grab my purse? It’s on the bed.”
I grabbed it, but I saw the way she walked toward the door, using the edge of the dresser for support, slowly shifting her weight from one leg to the other and wincing with effort. Something buzzed up my spine—a warning. She looked gorgeous, but something wasn’t right with her tonight. “Hey, we’re calling the doctor in the car, OK? Just to make sure.”
She nodded, exhaling slowly. “OK.”
On the twenty minute ride to the restaurant, Natalie spoke with the doctor, who didn’t think her symptoms sounded like anything more than end-of-pregnancy discomfort, but said we could head over to the ER if she wanted to be seen tonight. Natalie hated that idea, of course. “I want to go to the party,” she said when she hung up, her eyes filling with tears, as they did so often lately.
“Then we’ll go to the party,” I said, taking her hand and kissing the backs of her fingers. “And if you start to feel worse, tell me.”
“I will. I’m sure this is nothing. Dr. Baldwin said she often gets these calls from first-timers thinking they’re in labor when it’s really just the buildup,” she said sheepishly.
I gave her hand a squeeze. “Exactly. Everything is going to be fine.”
“It is. And don’t tell anyone I’m not feeling well, OK?” Her voice got stronger. “I don’t want my family to worry, and I don’t want anything to take away from Jillian and Levi.”
Our baby, of course, didn’t give a shit about taking away from Jillian and Levi, and decided to arrive early.
Natalie had been shifting uneasily in her chair all evening before finally leaning over during the meal and saying, “Uh, I think this baby is coming tonight.”
For a second, I totally panicked. I mean, I completely freaked out internally.
No! No! I’m not ready! I can’t be a dad! I’m not qualified! I’m a child myself! I’ve never even had a dog! I’ll probably forget to feed the baby! Or drop it! Or damage his frail little psyche with my foul mouth! Oh my God, whose idea was this? Why did I ever think I could be a father? I have to get out of it! I’m a menace to society! I can’t be trusted! What is wrong with the universe that someone like me is entrusted with ensuring the health, safety, and happiness of a helpless human being? Where’s the exit row? Can my seat cushion be used as a flotation device? I need the oxygen mask!
“Miles. I’m scared.” Natalie put a hand on my arm, and as soon as I looked into her eyes, my anxiety was replaced with the fierce need to protect her, make her feel safe, keep her calm. Maybe I wasn’t qualified, or even deserving, but I was this woman’s husband and this kid’s dad, and I loved them more than I’d ever be able to express. They were everything to me.
“Don’t be scared, honey.” I patted her arm and spoke quietly. “I’ll totally take you to the hospital as soon as I finish eating. The chicken piccata is amazing.”
“Miles!” she hissed. But a smile ghosted her lips, and I was grateful I knew how to make her laugh. If the baby really was coming, this could be a long night.
“OK, OK, fine. Let’s get up and go right in the middle of dinner.” I helped her to her feet and said to the other guests at our table, “Gotta run. Nat’s decided now would be the perfect time to go into labor. Some people are such attention hogs.”
“Oh my God.” Natalie shook her head and leaned on the back of her chair. “I’m going to kill you.”
She probably said that at least ten more times throughout the night, but by eight the next morning, when we finally welcomed our son into the world, both of us were crying happy tears. I couldn’t even speak. I’d been scared for nearly nine months about actually watching the birth, wondering if I could handle it, but when the time came, I couldn’t look away for a moment. It struck me how incredibly lucky I was in so many ways—to have Natalie for a wife, to be a part of this huge, loving family as we started our own, to become a father at a time when dads are not only allowed in the delivery room but encouraged to take part. It was scary as hell, but I’d stayed strong for her, keeping my fears and emotions in check, making her laugh when I could, staying quiet when she rested, telling her constantly how much I loved her—but at that moment when I heard our son cry out for the first time and then they placed him in my arms, the lump that had been building in my throat dissolved, and I let the tears fall without shame.
A little later, when we were finally alone in the room, I sat at her side while she held him, overcome with love and gratitude, and found myself choked up again.
“Jesus, you’re worse than I am,” Natalie teased when I had to get up and get a tissue.
“I’m a modern man, Natalie,” I said, blowing my nose. “We are not afraid to let our feelings show, because we know that our manhood is not threatened by showing emotion. In fact, we recognize that it only makes us sexier. Look at you, you’re panting for me right now, I can tell. You’re so hot for me.”
She rolled her eyes. “You just stay over there. I’ll let you know when you’re welcome to penetrate my defenses again. It’ll be about six weeks. In the meantime, you’re on diaper duty. Go practice.”
“Purgatory,” I moaned dramatically. But I went to her and reached for the baby, who was surprisingly little, all wrapped up in a blanket like an enchilada. Or was it a burrito? The nurse had given me a lesson on it once already but I’d probably need another one. Maybe another five. “He’s so small,” I said as I carefully walked to the changing table. “And so light.”
“Well, he’s only, like, an hour old.”
“I know, but your stomach was so mammoth, when he came out I was like, ‘That’s it?’” I joked as I gently laid the baby on the table.
“I just added another week to your purgatory.”
“I take it back. No wonder you were so huge. This baby’s an elephant.”
She laughed. “That’s not taking it back.”
I glanced over at her. “You know I think you’re perfect. I always have.”
A smile lit up her face. She looked more beautiful than I’d ever seen her, even with no makeup and sleep-deprivation- induced dark circles under her eyes. “You’re gonna be a great dad,” she said.
I looked down at the baby, who had Natalie’s big blue eyes and little round mouth, and my dark hair. A perfect combination of the two of us. How fucking crazy was that?
Love rushed me, filling me up. “I’m gonna try.”