Authors: Douglas Coupland
On graduation day in early June, Karen entered her third trimester, and was transferred into maternity. I was there for the move that afternoon, in my graduation outfit, a then-stylish baby-blue tux. I had just had my hair feathered in the style of the times and thought I cut quite a pretty picture as I entered the hospital room. Mr. McNeil wolf-whistled and said to Karen, "Karen, here's your prince, honey." The nurse allowed me to lift Karen onto the transfer gurney. How bony and light she felt! - as though I were picking up kindling wood. I hadn't held her since that night on the ski slopes. Her eyes were open at that moment; our retinas met, yet we didn't connect. I felt asif I were looking into the eyes of an aquarium fish - no, a
of an aquarium fish. Her tummy bulged out like a goiter on a crone's neck. A short while later, I pulled my Datsun up to a grad party on Chartwell Drive - rock walls, hedges, and dwarf shrubs. The sun shone brightly. It occurred to me I'd been asleep at the wheel since the hospital, yet I hadn't crashed the car. Turning off the car's ignition, it hit me that Karen would probably never wake up; her eyes had been
My hopes for her then switched from cheerleaderish bluster into loss and remorse. I sank in my car seat there on the roadside, sucking in the air, heaving my chest, hiding from arriving partygoers. I'd nearly run out of air; my stomach felt like two hundred sit-ups when there was a gentle tap on the door. It opened just a crack and there stood Wendy, in a strange yellow dress she'd made herself, her new hairstyle tangled like brassy telephone cords. She was crouched down so that people driving by wouldn't see her. My mouth fumbled; she looked at me calmly and said: "Karen was supposed to be here, Richard." I nodded and she and I looked up at the car's ceiling with its nicotine smudges and Hamilton's boot scrapes, umbrella punctures and cigarette burns.
She said, "Jared, too," and sat cross-legged on the roadside gravel, her gown crumpled on the stones, and with those stones she built sad little totems. "Jared was supposed to be here, too." Wendy took a breath and relaxed her shoulders, then I relaxed, too. "I was in love with him," she said.
"Yeah, I think everybody kind of knew you were hot for him, but I mean, really, Wen
- take a number and stand in line. He was humping half the girls in class." "I've never told anyone this - I mean about me loving Jared. Not even my mom. Funny. Now that the words are out of my mouth - outside my body - they feel different to me." She knocked over her small rock pile.
I said, "They would have been the center of everything tonight, wouldn't they? They would have been the
Muscle cars swooshed up and down the road. From the party house rose shrieks and patches of Bob Seger. I was calm. I reclaimed my normal breathing and sat up."You want to go in?" asked Wendy.
"Let's go for a walk instead. We'll catch up with everybody later at the hotel." We drove down to the Capilano River canyon, then entered its pathways and didn't say much, which was best. On the lower branches of a maple we found a robin's nest with a crop of three chicks inside. Their necks were weak, their heads scrawny. They were waiting for mom-bird to cough up some worms. Jesus-loves-you sunbeams pulsed through the trees, and the chicks were illuminated from the inside. They glowed like Christmas tree lights - their veins, their pinfeathers, their eyes, their tiny raptor beaks. And then the sun lit up Wendy's dress and I caught my breath. "Richard, there's something you're not telling me. Am I right, Richard?" "Yeah."
"Can I guess? If I guess right, you can confirm it - fair?"
I turned to her. "Yeah."
"How far along?"
right." She picked a maple leaf. She looked through it. "How are
I threw a stick. "I'm too young to be a father. I'm too young to be
I'm seventeen. I haven't even left home yet. It seems unreal. You won't tell anyone, right?"
"Sealed lips." She wiped a twig from her dress. "It'll be like having part of Karen back. I miss her. We never talk about these things. But I miss her. Do you?" "Yeah."
"But we don't ever say it out loud, do we?"
"I guess not," was all I could reply. "I don't like the silence, either." I didn't realize then that so much of being adult is reconciling ourselves with the awkwardness and strangeness of our ownfeelings. Youth is the time of life lived for some imaginary audience.
The forest colors smudged together. The sky was darkening into the color of a deep clean lake. I picked some late-blooming rhododendron flowers; the last magic light of the fallen sun cut through the petals in tropical purple brilliance.
We drove the Datsun to the hospital to see Karen. Wendy placed her ear to Karen's stomach; I placed the rhododendrons in the bud vase still beside the bed. After that we left the hospital to drive downtown for our grad party at the Hotel Vancouver. That summer I worked full-time at a Chevron station, barely conscious of the pumps or customers, most of whom must surely have taken me for an idiot. That summer remains a fuzzy dot of sunburned necks, beer bottles clinking in the Datsun's trunk, huckleberry picking with Wendy and Pam, and beachside bonfires.
End of an era.
At the hospital, anyone inquiring about Karen was to be told that she was stable. No visitors. Nobody questioned the switch. By summer, Karen's only daily visitors were me and George. Wendy, with her clean scientific voice, helped talk me through the willies. Hamilton, Linus, and Pam had trickled away. I wasn't mad at them for this diminuendo. Truth be told, Karen never
change from one week to the next; cruelly, there was only so much that could be seen or said.
I'd think of Karen often, too. Our first and only time together had been so wonderful. I replayed it over and over in my head, savoring each nuance, her skin like milk atop the snow, the smell of the snow, her underwear's frilled cotton, cold and dry. I never told her I loved her. Schmaltzy, but these things
they count. By summer's end, I'd finally decided that I didn't even
Karen too well - who
she on the inside? This only fueled her mystery. At night, when such moments tended to strike, I'd have a self-indulgent little cry, walk around the yard, then come inside where my parents would be cheerfully watching the national news. I'd go sit with them, putting a good face on everything.By late August, waiting for the birth, I felt as though I was breathing the air inside a capsized boat - steamy, biological and ominous - an activity that could only continue for a little while longer. George, as ever, visited his daughter each day. I showed up less frequently, often in midweek. George and I never talked much; when we did, we'd end up saying the same old vapid niceties that somehow made Karen's coma time seem even longer. He'd also lapse into a mist of maudlin boo-hoos. He'd remember Karen singing 'Oklahoma' in the school play. "She was a pretty girl, wasn't she, Richard?"
"Remember the time she played guitar for our anniversary party?"
"Such a pretty girl." Then he would sigh and sing a show tune from
- " "How's business?" I asked, moving away from this gooey patch.
Lois, on the other hand, while not having completely written Karen off as dead, was certainly the more pragmatic of the two. She had read the statistics on coma patients and the persistent vegetative state. She knew that with each succeeding day, chances for an awakening approached absolute zero.
At the pregnancy's start, Lois treated me about one notch friendlier than she might a sperm donor, but Lois realized that in order to build her custody case for the baby, she would have to try harder to be nice, which must have been torture for her. And as time went on I became increasingly angry at Lois for shanghaiing the baby. Not that there were many other alternatives, but still - she just barged right in and swiped my kid. It was only through discussions with my father, who painted some alltoo-clear pictures for me, that I understood that Lois keeping the baby was the best solution - for the time being.
We met in the hospital corridors. "Oh, hello, Richard. Well. Another day, isn't it? Another day older and another day wiser." Camel-hair coat, white gloves. Her small talk was rather limited; shewas not a particularly creative woman, new attitude or not. What chunks of creative fuel she possessed must have been expended on her hideous accumulation of owl knickknacks. Bumping into her in the hospital's hallways or down on Rabbit Lane, I would brace myself for her curious overtures at warmth. "Richard, you're certainly not looking sick at all. I'd heard you were fluey." (Awkward pause.) "Hmmm. That's a very handsome color on you, you should wear it more often." (Awkward pause.) "Well. She's in there. Everything looks fine." (Lois never again referred to Karen by her own name. Karen had been downgraded to
Lois removed her gloves. "And your parents?"
Lois was definitely changing for the better, though I didn't entirely trust her motives. Lois wanted the
- as though it were her own. I'm sure she wanted to be right there with the obstetrician, ripping the baby from the womb, herself cutting the cord with her dentures, then taxiing off with her loot, leaving Karen behind in her eternal repose, as though that daughter could be checked off her list, allowing Lois to start on her next project, a new child to raise occupying Karen's old slot.
I still felt as though the secret of the pregnancy was mine to bear alone. Aside from Wendy, there was no one that I could tell who really knew me, which only added to my own feeling of unreality. The two families were taking such pains to appear casually pragmatic:
My head felt like a watermelon the moment before being whacked with a baseball bat. Kids at seventeen? I could be a grandfather at thirty-four. What kind of role model could I possibly be for my kid? What help would I be with Lois efficiently covering the mother front and nobody expecting anything from me?
My parents seemed serene about the whole birth, digging through the garage for mildewed boxes of baby goodies for Lois. My parents visited Karen once a month. Mom also made effort-filled visits to Lois next door every week or so. Mom would gird herself the moment she rang Lois's doorbell, activating the McNeil's astoundingly nervous bichon frise into a frenzy of sterile yapping."Hello, Lois." "Oh, Carol, hello, please come in. My, you
look tired." Careful, I just bought that owl figurine, and it's fragile - here, let me move it out of your way. Well, what have you brought - more clothes for the baby? Stack them next to the other boxes. You're really outdoing yourself; you shouldn't go to so much trouble. Careful! That owl - I'll just move it into the other room. Don't move a muscle. My - the dog never barks like this. And what else - coffee? I suppose you'd probably like some. Why don't I go make some, stay right there. Oh, Carol, please - remove your shoes if you could. I have guests coming over tonight."
"Thank you, Lois."
The child was to be born via C-section, September
Karen's birthday. The night before, rain stomped the roof like hooves, yet the night air was warm and inviting. I stepped outside onto the rear patio underneath the eaves and sat on a lawn chair. I had been unable to sleep; in order to konk me out I had taken a plump, green chloral hydrate left over from my wisdom teeth extraction a few months earlier. There, under the drum of rain in a lawn chair, I experienced what was to be the only vision of my life. It was this: My head was the nucleus of a sparking,
steak-sizzling halo. I rose, I floated from under the eaves, up off the patio, being yanked up into space, toward the Moon. There I met Karen walking on the Moon's dark side, lit only by stars. Karen was so clean, wearing her ski jacket, brown cords, and red clogs, holding her purse. There was wind in her hair, even there on the Moon. She took a drag from her cigarette and said to me in a voice I'd lost for so long, "Hey, there, Richard. How ya doin', Beb? Just look at
One day we were all walking across the surface of the Moon, then we discovered a way home. Didn't we?"
I said yes.
She said, "I'm not
I said, "I know."
"Take care of Megan, Richard.""I will."
"It's lonely here."
"I'm lonely, too. I miss you."
"Good-bye, Richard. It's not forever."
She tossed her cigarette into a dusty gray crater the size of an aluminum ballbarbecue and said, as though I'd asked her the answer to a simple algebra equation, "Well,
Until we meet again, Beb." Then she leaped over a crater to disappear behind its edge.
There was a flash of aqua-colored sparks. I rubbed my head. My vision was over. I returned to the patio; rain still drummed.
Energized, still not sleepy from the pill, I put on boots and walked down to the McNeil's, making my way through the backyard trees. I came down to where I could see Karen's old room - her light still burning. I came up closer, hidden behind a laburnum tree. I saw baby clothing stacked up against Karen's wall mural of the Moon. Mrs. McNeil came into the room carrying a box, stopped, heaved down the box, sat on top, and sighed with all her body. I'd never seen her in a pose of exhaustion before.
She turned out the lights as she left. It was dark; the rain fell. A car purred through silent suburbia, past basements, stereos, and streetlights yellow over the rainy pavement. There I stood.
Then I returned to my house, undressed, and went to sleep. I was awakened by my mother at 6:30 to drive to Lions Gate Hospital with her and Dad.
8 EARTHLY SADNESS
From the moment our daughter emerged, around 8:20 P.M., seven pounds four ounces, there was no point trying to pretend she was Mrs. McNeil's "niece." She was a kinder, softer, feminized version almost entirely of me, as though I'd divided by mitosis. Good Lord, where were
genes in all this?
Karen went through the birth with nary an indicating flicker of higher brain function
- something we'd all secretly been praying for. How could a woman go through something as major as birth yet not know it? For Mrs. McNeil, Karen was forgotten almost altogether as she pressed her nose up against the glass wall of the nursery window, then cooed at the baby, her legs doing involuntary cha-cha's. "So big! So pink! And
at her thrashing away . . . hello, my little goo-goo ballerina. So perfect.
like a Cesarean for a perfectly shaped baby's head." Mom and I stood there, agog at seeing Lois fog-horning a blast of such sugary sentiment in the baby's direction. But then ours
an adorable baby, no doubt about it - adorable and
She might even live to see the year 2100. She might save the world. I tapped the window, said, " Goo." She looked at me and then I was hers. It was that fast.