I spot George at the airport bar in Chicago, waiting for his potato skins to arrive. Our planes on the way to Connecticut have been grounded and the place is packed. Bad weather has brought us together.
At first I don’t believe the story but George insists. Joanne is his sister after all, and why would he lie? Several times a day, he says, Joanne slips off into the back bedroom to use the breast pump. She unbuttons her shirt and unsnaps her bra and sits on a little black stool. Over each breast she places the plastic shields that look like translucent trumpet bells. Then she switches the pump on with her big toe. For some reason, George tells me the nail is yellow.
The soft whirring of the machine is pleasant enough for Joanne, but after a couple of minutes her nipples begin to ache. Over and over, she sees them pulled and let go by the suction of the machine. There is no milk yet. Joanne is not even pregnant. Sometimes she cries because, after her fifteen-minute session, she will remove the shields and see that her nipples are cracked and bleeding.
As she’s pumping, Joanne stares at a photograph of a newborn baby swaddled in the hospital blanket all babies seem to enter the world in — a kind of uniform, fitting as snugly as darkness inside an unused room. The baby belongs to a woman named Melissa. Melissa will be dead soon — a couple of weeks at most. That’s what the doctors say. That’s why Joanne is getting the baby.
Everyone says Joanne is crazy. They say this behind her back, of course, but she can tell. An unmarried 44-year-old woman who has never had kids tells her co-workers that she’ll have a new baby in two weeks, and that she intends to breastfeed, doesn’t sound level-headed. Especially because it will be the baby of a dead stranger.
Joanne doesn’t care. She goes into the back bedroom. She uses the lactation room at work. She takes vitamins and supplements and stares at the baby’s picture taped to the breast pump motor. The baby’s name is Alex, for the man who left Melissa when he found out how sick she was. That’s the kind of sob story this is. Melissa has entered the hospice. She is in a coma that, stubbornly, will not progress, and she has named her baby after a douche bag.
As George and I talk over our beers, he tells me that, at this moment, his mother is driving north from South Carolina with Alex in a car seat, crying. She is bringing back the baby for Joanne because Joanne can’t afford to take off from work. The money is just too tight, now that she’s been buying the baby stuff, now that she has paid off the sister of Melissa — a woman named Grace. Melissa had wanted Grace to take over, but Grace is full of bad habits. She knows she can’t care for the baby, and the adoption was arranged by church members who found a common, tenuous tie between Melissa and Joanne. Before she slipped into the coma, Melissa had two dying wishes. The first was that George’s mother take Alex back to Connecticut right now. They had already filled out the paperwork, and Melissa worried that Grace would have second thoughts, that Alex might end up in the care of strangers. The second wish was that her baby not fly in an airplane.
“George,” I say. “Isn’t she scared to take this on by herself, at her age?” I finish my beer and raise my fingers so the barkeep brings us more, even though George tries to say he’s good.
“The situation is not optimal,” he says. That’s George. He’s an engineer, and he sees everything in terms of the likelihood of failure, the chances of continuing from the present point in time.
“It’s funny,” he says. “A comatose woman in South Carolina knows somebody who knows somebody, who knows a childless woman in Connecticut desperate to adopt.” He goes to sip his beer but puts it back down, looking at me in the mirror behind the bar. “It’s right on the border of not even being a connection.”
I’m not sure what to say to that, but I clink my bottle into both of his because if nothing else is clear, at least George will become an uncle. George’s potato skins arrive, and we make some room in front of us on the bar. But the potato skins, it turns out, aren’t any good. They must have been forgotten and allowed to cool for too long in the busy kitchen.
Then George tells me how Joanne both fears and longs for the milk to come in. She longs for it for the obvious reasons, but also because she believes the earth will spin differently, more meaningfully after it happens. She fears it because the timeline her lactation consultant gave her is the same one Melissa’s doctor gave to her. Ten days. 14 at the most.
Joanne stares into the light-intolerant eyes of Alex. She clicks off the breast pump with her yellow toe and checks for milk. She feels the earth flattening out toward the horizon — like Columbus had never set sail, like he’d never even seen a fucking boat. It was a world in which Alex would make his way to her with ease.
And so he was — at 65 miles per hour, with regular stops for diaper changes and formula. Everyone is hoping Alex will miss the storm that has grounded his uncle. Everyone is hoping, despite the odds, that his new mother, who waits with bleeding breasts, will make things right in her corner of the pan-flat world.
That’s the way George tells it.