Like Everyone Else
by Nicole Beckley
2018 Art of Prose Contest First Prize Winner
When the baby came it wasn’t so much a baby as it was a seal.
Genevieve took the little bundle the doctor handed her and looked, bewildered, at her husband Mark. “What will we do?” she asked.
“Love it, I guess,” he said.
It had not been an easy birth. It had still taken six and a half hours, despite the seal’s natural slipperiness.
Genevieve admittedly was not all that prepared to be a mother. She’d browsed What to Expect When You’re Expecting — though now she thought that the title was misleading. She had not been expecting a seal.
“What should we do?” Genevieve asked the doctor.
“Treat it like your baby,” the doctor said.
At home Genevieve and Mark set up a vinyl baby pool in their living room and filled it with water. The room was full of baby shower gifts — bibs with blue plaid patterns, tiny corduroy pants, an antique oak basinet, a tower of diapers — what would they do with these things now? Maybe trade them for pool supplies.
They slept for hours and hours and the seal slept too, submerged in the baby pool. Dreaming little seal dreams. What did seals dream about? Maybe they dreamt about being human babies. Genevieve thought maybe she would wake up and the seal would instead be a mini version of Mark — with his dark tendrils of hair and sloping mouth, but with her green eyes. Everyone had told her that babies were often born with blue eyes that would change into boring brown; nobody mentioned glassy black eyes.
In the morning Genevieve was startled awake by loud barking. Their friends had come to visit. Of course, they wanted to see the baby. They wanted to hold its little toes and kiss its fat little arms and press their noses against its sweet head. They wanted to tell it they’d love it forever, even though they’d likely move away at some point and practically forget about it. Forever was a long time. And plus they wouldn’t expect it to swipe their faces with wet whiskers.
“Come in,” Mark said, slowly opening the door once Genevieve had put on her sweatpants. Their friends had brought a green bean casserole and some egg sandwiches. Nothing appropriate for a seal. Their friends stared at the baby pool. The seal barked.
“Is this… ?” their friends asked.
Genevieve and Mark nodded.
Their friends stared.
“We brought egg sandwiches,” they said. They didn’t know what else to say.
“What did you name it?” they finally asked.
When Genevieve was pregnant she and Mark had argued over what to name their baby. He wanted a family name like John or Nicholas or Mark the Fourth, and she wanted a name that could have its own history. But they easily agreed that Herman was the best name for a seal.
“He just looks like a Herman,” Genevieve said.
“Oh, it’s a he?” their friends replied.
You can put a little blue onesie on a boy baby, but what do you do for a male seal? Genevieve didn’t know.
After a week at home Genevieve took Herman to a new mothers’ group. All the other moms in the playgroup were obsessed with facts about their babies.
“My baby was 19 and 3/4 inches long when it was born.”
“My baby is a very strong sucker.”
“My baby sleeps 15 hours a day.”
“My baby can easily hold its breath for six minutes underwater,” Genevieve said.
The other moms stared at Genevieve; they didn’t seem to appreciate how easy this was for her baby. The other moms complained of sore breasts and anxiety and lack of sleep, but nobody complained about having to keep their baby wet all the time, which really was a pain. Genevieve had to keep buckets of water around to refill the pool after vigorous splashing sessions.
At home Genevieve read facts online about what could be wrong with babies. “Something may be wrong with your baby if it’s too floppy or too stiff.” There was no mention of what might be wrong if your baby had flippers.
How could this happen? Genevieve wondered. How could she and Mark have produced…this? Maybe something had gone awry in their lovemaking. Mark had been working too hard in the county attorney’s office, and she’d logged a lot of nights showing houses to 30-something newlyweds who suddenly wanted homes near good schools. Now whenever she and Mark made love they had to plan it out. Not like when they were fresh out of college and a certain feeling would simply take hold and they’d go at it like animals.
The first time Mark ever spent the night at her apartment she caught him smelling the milk.
“Did you just smell the milk?” she’d asked. “It’s good. I’m responsible.”
Before Genevieve, Mark had lived with three male roommates. The milk wasn’t always good. He’d never lived with a woman before. But he knew what to do with a girl — how to put her on top of him and where to apply pressure. How to kiss her. What to do with his fingers and palms.
She once asked him what she tasted like, to which he responded “nothing.” She didn’t know if he was being polite, or unimaginative, or if she truly contained only nothingness.
Back then all talk of babies was hypothetical.
“Wouldn’t you want to?” he’d said.
“A baby? I mean, I like babies. Sure. Sometime. In the future. When the time’s right,” she’d said.
But then all their friends started sending birth announcements and Christmas cards with artfully composed shots of squirmy little red babies in knit caps grasping blankets with eyes sealed shut. “Everyone else is having one. It’s probably the right time,” Mark had said, and put up another postcard with a tiny footprint on the refrigerator. They were 31.
After that she got pregnant almost immediately. Every Tuesday and Thursday they’d have efficient sex right after Mark got off work and before she went to show her last house of the day. But still she was surprised when the first test came back positive. And the second.
“I guess we’ll be parents,” she said.
“I guess so,” Mark said. “It’s for the best.”
“So all our friends’ kids will be the same ages.”
“So all our kids will have friends.”
“So we can all be on the same track,” she said.
“It’s the right time,” he said, gently patting her on the back.
But did she really want to be a mother? She didn’t know. She’d only really thought about motherhood in the way that people see romantic movie posters and think about love. It seems nice. It seems like the right thing to want. Even if the plot is thin, you still know you should want the two main characters to get together. But she didn’t know about the actual mothering part — setting up rules, teaching the baby things, deciding what was right and wrong. How was she supposed to know those things?
Her own mother had been fairly hands-off. Not bad or neglectful or discouraging. She’d simply expected Genevieve to be resourceful enough to figure things out. Even now her parents hadn’t made plans to come visit. They told her she’d be fine; seal or not, a baby was a baby, and people had babies all the time.
At night Genevieve quietly snuck in to look at Herman while he slept in the baby pool. The fur on his small sleek body rose and fell with his breath. He looked peaceful. She dipped her fingers into the water and thought of going to the sea as a girl.
She remembered the grey sky and the frothy waves and the sand nesting beneath her toenails. Her family threw down a beach blanket and brought out tubs of homemade food. Her parents smeared sun tan oil on their arms and legs. They laid down to soak in the sun and let their eyes close. They didn’t issue any warnings or offer any oil; Genevieve would take care of herself.
The weather was warm and her cousins, all around her age, ran headlong into the water, their brown braids swinging. They left Genevieve to venture into the water on her own. She let the waves hit her shins and knees, and then her waist and rib cage. The cousins had darted out of sight. Genevieve was in deep before she knew it, pushed and pulled by the water, the sting of salt hitting her neck and face. Her arms flailed for a moment and water caught in her throat. She tried to gain control, spitting water out of her mouth, struggling to keep her footing. Her body was knocked backward. She felt the pull of the undertow and feared she’d be caught and unable to save herself, dragged out into the ocean for good. She thrust her body forward and plowed her arms into the water, swimming hard until her chest rolled up on the sand.
When she found her family on the beach, they were having a picnic. The cousins were sprawled on the blanket, soaking wet and eating macaroni salad. No one had noticed. She could have drowned silently, alone.
“Where’d you go?” the cousins asked.
“Nowhere,” Genevieve said.
“Should have come with us. It was fun, the waves are huge.”
Genevieve hadn’t been back in the water since.
“Whatcha doing?” Mark whispered.
Genevieve pulled her hand out of the baby pool and wiped it on her sweatshirt. She looked at Herman’s smooth grey flippers, his wet nose. His big black eyes stared up at her. He bobbed his head and splashed playfully, shaking his whiskers.
“What do you think this is all about?” Genevieve asked.
“I don’t know,” Mark said.
“For the rest of our lives?” Genevieve asked.
Mark shrugged, “I think so.”
“I thought we were going to be like everyone else.”
“Me too,” Mark said. He walked to her and rubbed her shoulders.
“What if I’m not supposed to be a mother?” Genevieve could feel her eyes welling up. “My parents still won’t visit,” Genevieve said. “They say we’ll be fine.”
“We get to be the parents now,” Mark said. He kissed the top of her head.
Herman rolled from his back to his belly, slapping his tail against the water. Genevieve reached into the water and grasped one of his flippers, rubbing its thick flesh between her thumb and fingertips.
“And he seems happy,” Mark said.
Some water trickled over the edge of the pool onto the carpet. Herman barked.
“We’ll buy more towels,” Mark said. He smiled. "Look on the bright side. He has your chin."
"He doesn't have a chin."
"Teasing," Mark said. "But he does kind of look like your Aunt Mildred."
"Does not," Genevieve laughed.
"A little," Mark said.
On Tuesday Genevieve and Herman went to the mothers’ playgroup. The mothers remarked on their babies’ progress.
“My baby already has his first tooth.”
“My baby babbles an hour a day.”
“My baby can roll over.”
“My baby has been using its whiskers to identify larger amounts of food,” Genevieve said, “And he’s very good-natured.”
The other moms stared at Genevieve. They still didn’t know what to say to her. Genevieve had nothing to say about onesies or diaper rash or mobile play apparatuses, but she did know that when Herman bobbed his soft grey head, twitched his heart-shaped nose, and whimpered, it meant he needed a nap.
Genevieve and Mark took their baby to the doctor for a checkup. “Your baby appears to be a seal,” the doctor said. She referred them to a veterinarian.
A few days later they went to the vet’s office.
“We’ve been keeping him in a baby pool,” Mark offered, “in our living room.”
“So we can keep an eye on him,” Genevieve said. “He likes to splash around.”
“The thing about seals,” the vet said slowly, “is that they’re not exactly land animals.”
“Right, we know,” Mark said.
“I strongly suggest that you take him out to the water,” the vet said.
“And do what?” Mark asked.
“Give him some air,” the vet said. “At least.”
On Sunday morning they drove out to the sea. Golden reeds bristled over the dunes leading to the isolated stretch of beach. It wasn’t the same sea Genevieve had seen as a girl, but it was close. Nothing is ever exactly the same.
The waves were gently rising and falling with a pleasant whoosh, followed by the sound of rocks and shells tumbling onto the sand. Genevieve and Mark went out to the water’s edge and Herman rocked behind. Genevieve picked up a shell and rubbed its smooth edges. She looked at Mark. He’d kicked off his shoes and sunk his toes into the sand. “Feels good,” he said. Herman wriggled his head around, nodded up and down, and Genevieve took a breath. Herman barked excitedly and bounded forward, smacking his flippers against the surf.
The seal dove into the ocean.
Genevieve and Mark ran to the water. Mark stopped to roll up his pant legs, but Genevieve plunged in fully clothed. Her baby was out there. She felt the water splash up her shins and knees, her feet traversing the rocky floor. She was waist deep, pants hanging heavy on her legs, when the first wave knocked her down. The white crest struck her back and swept away her footing, pushing her onto her knees.
Then Mark’s hand was under her arm, pulling her up.
“I’ve got you,” Mark said. “Right here.”
Genevieve grasped his shoulder, their wet clothes clinging to their bodies. They looked out into the water, the seal’s shiny head catching the sun along the sea’s surface. Mark kept his arm around Genevieve while she steadied her breath. They stood together, ankle-deep, wondering when their baby would come back.
Published May 20th, 2018
Nicole Beckley is a writer and performer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, 7x7, Tribeza, and The A.V. Club, as well as in many small theaters and on at least one public access channel. She’s at work on a linked story collection titled Perfect Miss. She holds a B.A. in Urban Studies and Communications from Stanford University and currently lives in Austin, TX. nicolebeckley.com
Originally from New York, Christine Garvey received her MFA from Concordia University Montreal. Her works on paper and installations have been exhibited internationally, including solo exhibitions with Galerie Circulaire (Montreal), Sur La Montagne Galerie (Berlin), Phra Nakorn Gallery (Bangkok), Jules Maidoff Gallery (Italy), and HERE Art Center (New York). She was the recipient of a 2016 Fulbright research grant from the Italian Commission. Garvey lives in Austin, Texas where she teaches at the University of Texas in the College of Fine Art. www.christine-garvey.com