The baby flipped onto his belly on his descent down the purple water slide, the longest of the five slides in the children’s area of the water park. As his face smacked the plastic, his cries stopped. Although it was July, and the water park seemed to have reached maximum capacity, all Loni could hear as she waited for the baby to skid into her arms were the spastic chortles of the baby’s father, who grinned at her from the top of the slide.
She’d told Tobe it was a bad idea to send the baby down a water slide. She’d also told him it was a bad idea to smoke weed before going into a water park on a 100-degree day, his seven-month-old baby in tow.
Then, when he’d done it anyway, saying, “Don’t tell me what to fucking do, Loni,” she’d taken a few hits too. Wasn’t her baby.
A fat cumulous cloud, bulbous as a soggy diaper, smothered the sun just as the baby made his final descent. Loni caught the baby then, as she imagined a doctor had when the baby had emerged from its mother’s vagina.
Loni immediately flipped the baby onto his back against one of her palms and pressed against his sternum with two fingers and blew into his mouth, which was slightly parted, waiting for her breath. She’d taken a CPR-for-infants class with her older sister, Susan, because in her third trimester, Susan was suffering blurred vision and so much nausea that she could hardly walk from the sofa to the toilet, much less drive.
Three seconds, five seconds, maybe ten seconds later, Tobe pried the baby from Loni’s hands. The look on Tobe’s face was a mixture of determination to fix the problem and righteous indignation that he was victim of his good intentions to give the baby some fun. He pumped the baby’s chest with the whole meat of his hand, then turned the baby over and slapped its back.
“You’re doing it wrong,” Loni said.
“Fuck,” Tobe said. Then, almost as if to himself, he said, “Heath said you were toxic.”
Everything could be toxic if you had too much of it, was what Loni thought. Water, ibuprofen, Vitamin A, sex. Susan said Loni’s problem was she fucked the wrong men. But Susan’s man couldn’t be bothered to take her to CPR class even though her body was about to rupture. The miracle of childbirth. As far as Loni was concerned, pregnancy was cirrhosis of the uterus.
Still, Loni worried for Tobe’s baby.
Two pimple-faced teenage lifeguards were distracted by a pig-tailed girl crying out “Mama,” over and over again. A third lifeguard poked an older girl in a white bikini in the calf with his toes. A few swimmers seemed to watch Loni and Tobe from behind water-spotted sunglasses.
Later, Loni would wonder 1) why no one responded to their drama and 2) why she didn’t call out for help. She’d conclude that 2) she’d been too stoned and 1) only a dumb fuck would get involved with two stoned idiots and a baby.
She said to Tobe, “He needs air,” and Tobe was desperate enough to heed her advice. He blew between the baby’s parted lips.
A few nights earlier, Loni had watched the baby for Tobe while he went out with the guys, including Heath, her -ex. She’d danced with the baby to Al Green and Bill Withers, music Tobe and Heath both hated. Then, when the baby had rooted around her chest, she’d lifted her shirt and pulled down her bra, inviting him to suckle.
The baby had switched nipples again and again. Despite repeatedly finding both breasts empty, he’d still believed his circumstances would miraculously change. Loni had laughed at the baby.
Then, as if to punish her, the baby had bit one of her nipples. Chomped down so tight she’d had to pry his lips and then his teeth apart with her fingers. Her nipple had since scabbed and peeled.
She’d felt an impulse to fling the baby against the wall of Tobe’s apartment.
But, of course, the baby’s anger had been justified. She’d acted as though she had something to offer him.
“Good for you,” she’d said to the baby then. “Sticking up for yourself.”
She’d retrieved Tobe’s ex’s breastmilk from the fridge.
Now, as the sun emerged from behind the cloud, the baby finally responded to Tobe’s efforts. He cried out. His face reddened as blood delivered oxygen to his cells. Like he was being born all over again.
Watching him, Loni felt as though she was catching her breath too. She thought then about how even oxygen could be toxic. Oxygen caused cancer. Hence you were supposed to eat antioxidants to prevent cancer. Also, just a little too much oxygen in the air could kill you outright, within minutes. That the percentage of atmospheric oxygen held so steady was more miraculous than egg and sperm making a baby, Loni thought, yet you never heard anybody talk about the miracle of air offering the precise amount of oxygen.
Tobe grinned and said to the baby, “You’re okay, you’re okay.”
The sticky heat coiled around Loni’s torso and thighs. Her empty stomach, nothing in it but coffee, felt like a suctioning device. Like her stomach might draw her other organs down into it.
She waded toward the pool’s steps and climbed out onto the burning concrete.
Tobe called out to her, “Where are you going?”
She recalled how the pediatrician had treated her childhood peanut allergy by exposing her to minute amounts of peanuts, to help her develop a tolerance to the poison. Eliminating the poison wasn’t possible. Peanuts were everywhere.
Of course, tolerance could be toxic too.
She hoped Tobe was right, that the baby would be okay. Wasn’t her problem, though.
Michelle Ross’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cease Cows, Cleaver Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Paper Darts, SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, and other journals.
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